Is Religion Good for the World?

Posted: December 6, 2010 by Amy Hall in Etcetera

A couple weeks ago, atheist Christopher Hitchens and former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair debated for and against the resolution, “Be it resolved, religion is a force for good in the world.” (See the interesting results of a worldwide poll taken before the debate on this same question here.)

A poll of the audience before and after the debate showed that Hitchens won over more of the undecideds than Blair, moving the percentage against the resolution from 55% to 68%. Blair was able to gain only seven points–from 25% to 32%. The final tally: At the end of the debate, 32% of the audience thought religion is a force for good and 68% did not.

Below are the first two videos of the debate (the debate proper doesn’t get going until the second video). What do you think? If you were in Blair’s position, what would you have done differently?

The rest of the videos: Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9.

  1. Sam Harper says:

    Thanks for posting this. I just watched it. I think what was missing from both sides was clarity. I really wish everybody would debate the way William Lane Craig does. He’s very careful and clear. There’s never any ambiguity about what he is arguing for and how he is arguing for it. The topic for this debate could’ve been answered in a number of ways, and I think that before each speaker got going, they should’ve first explained exactly what they were defending.

    The resolve is that religion is a force for good. As the debate got going, I came up with a few different ways this resolve could be interpreted, defended, and objected to, but I’ll just mention three.

    First, the resolve could be taken just to mean that some good has come about because of some religion. In that case, Tony Blaire could’ve easily won this debate simply by coming up with one example of a good that came about because of some religion. All it would take it one person being motivated by their religion to do one good thing, and it would’ve been true that “religion is a force for good.” I don’t think Hitchens could’ve disputed that. In fact, he conceded that point in the debate. The best he could’ve done is construe the resolve in some other way.

    Second, the resolve could’ve been construed to mean that on average, the world is a better place because of religion than it would be without religion. I think it would be very difficult to defend or refute that position because it would require a lot of speculation. In my view, it wouldn’t make much difference because the common denominator in all the world’s evil is people. It became clear to me by the time i was a senior in college majoring in history that perpetrators of the greatest evils were the people in power, regardless of what religion or lack of religion they subscribed to. Power doesn’t make people evil; it provides an opportunity for people to express the evil that is already in them. And they will justify it in any way possible, whether by religion, philosophy, politics, or whatever is at their disposal. People are fallen, and the world will suffer for it whether people subscribe to religions or not.

    Third, the resolve could’ve been construed to mean religion has done more good for the world than harm. I think that is the way both debaters were construing the resolve. Both debaters conceded that some good has come out of religion and that some bad has come out of religion, but Blaire needed to argue that there had been more good than bad from religion, and Hitchens needed to argue that there was more bad than good from religion. I don’t think either of them carried that burden, but I think Hitchens did a better job than Blaire just because he used good examples. He was specific and clear and gave many of them. Blaire spoke more in generalities and avoided specifics. I question whether either of their strategies really supports their positions, though. Hitchens, of course, would want to rattle off as many evils done in the name of religion as he could, and Blaire would want to rattle off as many goods done in the name of religion as he could. But the only way to really resolve the issue is to tally up the number of goods done in the name of religions and the number of bads done in the name of religions, and compare them. Cherry picking, as both debaters were pretty much forced to do just because of time constraints, doesn’t really solve the issue.

    As I watched the debate, I imagined what I would’ve said if I had been asked to debate this topic. I decided I wouldn’t because I would be asked to defend religion in general rather than some specific religion. I might actually agree with Hitchens that religion in general is bad even though Christianity in particular is good.

    I also would’ve been reluctant to debate the topic because of the lack of importance in the conclusion. I think that the only reason anybody should accept or reject a religion is if they have some reason to think the religion is true or false. So it doesn’t really matter if religion is a force for good or evil. Suppose it turns out that religion has caused more good than harm. Does it follow that some specific religion is therefore not true? What will we tell everybody? Should we tell them that they should give up religion in order to make the world a better place even though they think they have good reason to think their religion is true? I don’t think that would have any persuasive power. People aren’t going to give up their religions even if you convince them that religion is bad for the world as long as they still think their religion is true. And it would be wrong-headed of us to ask them to. Likewise, if religion turns out to be a force for good, that is no reason for why anybody should adopt a religion. Hitchens’ whole crusade against religion is wrong-headed, because he rarely ever gives any reason to think religions have false worldviews. He only argues that they are harmful. Blaire, at least, pointed out that you can’t make the world a better place by convincing everybody that religion is bad for the world because people are going to be religious anyway. You can’t get rid of religion. The best you can do is work with it, and try to turn it into a force for good rather than evil. Hitchens is trying to make the world a better place by getting rid of religion, which tactic is doomed to failure, especially because of how he is trying to do it.

    I also imagined how I would argue if I were persuaded to participate in the debate. I would argue that whether the world would be better off with or without religion depends entirely on what religion you’re talking about. In my imagined opening statement, I began talking about possible worlds in which different scenarios obtained. For example, I think a world containing nothing but secular humanists would be better off than a world containing 1/2 religious Aztecs who practiced human sacrifice and 1/2 other people who didn’t have the same strength and resources as the Aztecs. On the other hand, a world containing nothing but Mormons would be better off than a world containing nothing but Marxists. So whether the world is better off with or without religion depends entirely on the religions and whatever alternatives there are.

    After that, I would insist on arguing that the Christian religion, when lived consistently, is a force for good in the world. I would cite specific texts in the New Testament about Christian morality, such as loving your neighbor, doing good to those who harm you, looking after widows and orphans, forgiving, showing patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control. I would argue that when people live consistently with Christian morals, it produces more good than harm in the world. When Hitchens brought up atrocities that had been committed in the name of Christianity, I would press him to show from the Bible that those people were living consistently with Christian ethics. He would have to deal with the scriptures on an exegetical level, which I don’t think he could do. I would argue that the people were not behaving consistently with Christian ethics and were therefore not representing authentic Christianity. I would then say I was there to defend authentic Christianity, not any aberration of it. I would say that Hitchens had only demonstrated that an aberration of Christianity was bad for the world, which I would agree with, but he had not demonstrated that authentic Christianity was bad for the world. Hitchens would likely point out that other people disagree with my assessment of what authentic Christianity is, and who am I to say that my view is right and everybody else is wrong? I would point out that I had defended my view with the Scriptures, and he was free to dispute it, but he would have to deal with the Scriptures exegetically to do so.