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Believers versus non-believers

Secularization does not mean the end of religion. It means better conversations about faith.

By David Wilson

The hottest ticket in Toronto last year was not for a stage show, concert or sporting event. It was for a debate on religion. The debate pitted former British prime minister Tony Blair against author and atheist provocateur Christopher Hitchens over the proposition “Religion is a force for good in the world.” Advance tickets ranging from $25 to $80 were snapped up instantly; closer to showtime, ticket scalpers were selling balcony seats at $500 a pop. Thousands of online viewers gave up their Friday nights and $4.99 to watch the contest live on their laptops.

No doubt star power helped create some of the buzz. Blair has continued to make headlines since quitting politics in 2007, converting to Roman Catholicism, setting up a foundation to foster religious understanding and spearheading peace efforts in the Middle East and Africa. Hitchens, author of the 2007 bestseller God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, is brilliant, searing and unrepentant, even in the face of a losing battle with cancer.

But star power was only half the draw. The subject itself clearly hit the right note. Officially, the issue may have been whether religion is a force for good, but in reality the debate promised to put religion itself on trial, with Blair in the role of the defence and Hitchens as the prosecution. Notice I say “trial,” not public flogging or coronation. The 2,500 people in the auditorium remained respectful, dignified and thoroughly engaged throughout. They took the issue as seriously as the debaters.

These are secular times. Yet the debate showed that secularization does not mean the end of interest in religion. In fact, we may be witnessing the emergence of one of the great ironies of our age: secularization prompting more and better conversations about religion. It stands to reason. Secularization is creating a vacuum where institutional religion used to be. Believers and non-believers alike are wondering what will fill it.    

People of faith have nothing to fear from any of this. Indeed, more and better religious discussions offer a golden opportunity for moderates of Tony Blair’s ilk to distance themselves from the religious extremists who give all believers a bad name.

Post-debate polls showed Blair losing to Hitchens, but that was pretty much inevitable because the resolution put Blair on the defensive from the start; he seemed content to remain so to the finish. In the wider scheme of things, though, he may have won simply by defending as ably as he did — showing that believers can be thinkers too, that religion has a place in the conversation about post-religious society.

Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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