Is Religion A Force for Good in the World? Hitchens vs Blair

Below I will post videos of a recent debate between Tony Blair (pro) and Christopher Hitchens (con) on the question of whether religion is a force for good in the world.

Friday, November 26, 2010. Roy Thomson Hall, Toronto, Canada.
The official resolution, "Be it resolved, religion is a force of good for the world".

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Thanks for the link, Edward. I look forward to reading the debate in full. Just skimming through it, I came across the following remark --

Hitchens: Well now, in fairness, no one was arguing that religion should or will die out of the world, and all I'm arguing is it would be better if there was a great deal more by way of an outbreak of secularism. Logically if Tony is right, I would be slightly better off, not much, but slightly, being a Wahabi Muslims or a Jehovah's witness than I am wallowing as I do in mere secularism. What I am arguing is what we need is a great deal more of one and a great deal less of the second.

-- and was reminded of (and found myself wishing Hitchens had been able to debate someone as bright as) Raimon Panikkar.

You may recall a thread I posted awhile back on the old IPS forum, Rethinking Secularism with Raimon Panikkar. I think his comments are relevant -- and, in my opinion, suggest that Hitchens, in fact, should win this debate, especially if he is arguing against someone who believes that "secularism" itself is somehow immoral or inferior when it comes to making positive contributions to the world. Panikkar regards the emergence of secularism largely as a moral development, a "force for good" in itself and, in many respects, a needed correction to many of the metaphysical/religious excesses and missteps in the past.

Here's a brief description of Panikkar's position on atheism and "God" and then a quote from Panikkar himself:

”He regards atheism, at least as it has found expression among some thinkers, as an evolutionary step beyond monotheism, and has said he'd like to put a moratorium on the word, 'God.' For Panikkar, the divine is not some entity or being 'out there,' or even a reified entity 'within,' but rather the depth dimension or openness of things, the inexhaustibility and infinity of being that can be intuited in and through and 'as' all particular things.”

Panikkar: God is sublimated, as I have said, but the sublimation must now be condensed somewhere, and it is the human interior that will supply the walls on which God will crystalize in humanity – not, however, as a distinct being, come to take refuge in our interior, but as something that is ours by right, and that had only been momentarily removed. But all metaphor is dangerous here, especially if it be interpreted in a substantialistic key. Perhaps God did die; but in that case what is happening now is that God is risen, albeit not as “God” but as humankind. But something similar should be said about humankind. Human beings are not God, not the center either. There is no center.
And thank you for these excerpts. They are making my point nicely about a secular compassion, dare I say spirituality, beyond the limitations of the metaphysical, either of supernatural origin or as the foundational "center." Which, by the way, I do find in Buddhism generally, which is why it is still dear to my heart despite my criticisms. (Or perhaps their motivation?)
And recall this thread wherein Ferrer allows for a secular, humanistic spirituality. Also consider the Unitarian Universalist church, which also allows this and is the only spiritual community I will attend. Although it is too whitebread and intellectual, but so am I.
Also see this short video by Daniel Dennett on secular spirituality. At the end (wait for it) there's also a brief comment on meditation.

I just watched the following videos this morning, from the Intelligence Squared debate, the whole of which might be worth checking out.



Bravo! Very well done.

"I just watched the following videos this morning, from the Intelligence Squared debate, the whole of which might be worth checking out."


Yeah, this is a really good debate which I also highly recommend.


Stephen Fry is downright excellent in this one, and pair him with Mr Hitchens and it amounts to an inescapable hail of anti-theist anglo-shotgun fire! (This also showed in the audience polls afterwards, where people were asked who they thought lead or won the debate.)

I think the atheists came out on top in this debate, as they did in the "Future of God" one.  I agree that Stephen Fry was excellent.  (And, if you watched the first half of this debate, Hitchins delivered some pretty devastating blows as well).  In both cases, though, the easy victory of the atheists may have been due in part to the sorts of people selected to represent the pro-God or pro-Church positions.  In both sets of debates, I thought the pairings were a little uneven (or, at least, unsatisfying for someone like me).  In the case of the Future of God debate, Jean Houston is certainly bright and knowledgeable enough, and I have appreciated her writings in the past, but she inhabits a different sort of rhetorical universe and simply couldn't connect with the other debaters, it seemed to me.  Deepak Chopra, on the other hand .... well, no comment.  In the case of this debate, the Catholic church was sadly (meaning, poorly) represented by a naive-seeming foreign Archbishop (perhaps not really grasping what he was getting into or just about to face) and a rather shrill and unpersonable woman.  I think the Catholic Church that Hitchins and Fry targeted is indeed one that needs and deserves to be targeted (and chastised) -- and it is, indeed, the Catholic Church that is perhaps most present and active in the public domain -- but I do think there are elements of "The Church" (actors and movements within it) that are truly beautiful and truly forces for good.  If the "spirit of Christ" is still working in the church in any way, speaking more metaphorically than metaphysically, I'd say it is in these more hidden corners and in these quieter ways. 

I find myself wishing some of the prominent "Integral" or "postmetaphysical spiritual" voices would enter more fully into the public debate.  Wilber seems to have avoided or hid out from such direct encounters, for whatever reason.

Bruce: "Wilber seems to have avoided or hid out from such direct encounters, for whatever reason."


Yes, this is a shame. I guess one of the reasons is simply that the coziest place to be is in a room full of unquestioning believers. No one will criticize you! Very convenient.


This is especially awkward given Wilber's fierce critique of Adi Da's seclusionism.




Elective Segregation: Failure to Engage the Mainstream. One of the gifts of our mobile technological culture is the ability to be and communicate with like-minded people. It is also one of the contemporary cultural traps. The danger is that in being able to find like-minded people, we can fall into a kind of elective segregation, in which we communicate almost exclusively with those who share our views. What sociologists find is that this selective communication tends to reinforce people’s more extreme viewpoints, whereas mixing and communicating with more diverse populations tends to moderate extreme views.

Talking with fellow believers is fun, stimulating, and easy. And, of course, it can be valuable. But to the extent we only talk with fellow believers—in this case, with fellow integral practitioners—then we are at risk. We are less likely to connect with divergent viewpoints and mainstream disciplines. Without extensive communication with the mainstream, integral ideas will not be challenged and honed by criticism (and neither will we) and will not permeate the mainstream culture nor produce the changes that are so desperately needed.

I think part of the problem is that for Wilber's first 20+ years of publishing with Shambhala not even his editors dared change even one word, since he was their cash cow. So it seems he never even went through the usual editorial battle with publishers. I know when I got the initial, pre-pub draft of Integral Spirituality I later discovered it was published verbatim. I also know from personal experience that many of the early folks involved with I-I were excommunicated for even the slightest disagreement with him. That lack of academic, editorial and personal challenge, plus some modicum of publishing success, led to this syndrome. Or rather likely exacerbated a personal tendency to an extreme.

Besides, what I find most interesting about integral these days no longer comes from him but can be found right here, Integral Review, Integral World, Integral Leadership Review, Institute for Integral Studies, etc.

Theurj: "Besides, what I find most interesting about integral these days no longer comes from him but can be found right here, Integral Review, Integral World, Integral Leadership Review, Institute for Integral Studies, etc."




In all fairness though Ken does say that Integral is not confined to his writings, but is its own stage of consciousness. And stages of consciousness of course aren't themselves content (the AQAL-framework being an example of content) but interpreters-of-content. He says that you, if you want, can choose to be a Wilberian and follow his particular integral content, but in no way does choosing not to hinder you from manifesting integral cognition. At least I think I remember him saying something much along these lines in the Sounds True interviews.

Balder noted: "the easy victory of the atheists may have been due in part to the sorts of people selected to represent the pro-God or pro-Church positions."

Generally I find these debates [the polarized, point-counterpoint ones] frustrating. Invariably the people chosen to represent pro-church opinions are conservative,  narrowminded, or uninformed. (When I read who was representing the Catholic church in the above debates, I lost interest in listening, knowing that the spectrum of Catholic opinion would not be presented).

Beyond Panikkar, there are scads of (still-living) folks who would be better voices for religion: Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong, Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Jesuit columnist James Martin, Benedictine nun Joan Chittister, Arthur Simon, founder of Bread for the World . . . Of course, my own bias is showing, here. :)

And -- though debate certainly has its place in our world -- it seems that all too often it keeps people entrenched and self-satisfied in their opinions, rather than opened up to what might valuable in the "opponent's" view. And I wonder what might happen if we diverted some of the energy exerted in apologetics and defending cherished views to working on issues of common concern, irrespective of belief. I think of the atheist whose funeral was held at my church a couple of months ago. He was married to a practicing Catholic, a woman on our church's pastoral council. Never hiding the fact that he was an atheist, he attended church most Sundays, in part to support his wife, but also because he enjoyed the intelligent, broad-minded homilies of our parish priest and because he appreciated the church's social justice advocacy . . .

I would love to see more panel-like discussions across "religious/Godless" boundaries -- discussions that could include rigorous debate but also recognitions of overlapping areas in thinking. A spectrum of opinion rather than polarized opposition. And ... more eating. More dancing.

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What paths lie ahead for religion and spirituality in the 21st Century? How might the insights of modernity and post-modernity impact and inform humanity's ancient wisdom traditions? How are we to enact, together, new spiritual visions – independently, or within our respective traditions – that can respond adequately to the challenges of our times?

This group is for anyone interested in exploring these questions and tracing out the horizons of an integral post-metaphysical spirituality.

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