Wednesday, January 04, 2012

“Hitchens vs. Blair” – Book Review



During my recent vacation, I had a chance to read “Hitchens vs. Blair:  The  Munk Debate On Religion”. 

On November 26, 2010, an edition of The Munk Debates was held in Toronto, Canada between author, journalist and staunch atheist Christopher Hitchens and the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair; the debate was televised live throughout Canada.  The topic of the debate was “Be It Resolved Religion Is A Force For Good In The World”; Blair took the Pro side of the debate, Hitchens the Con side.  For those of you unfamiliar with it (as I was at the outset of the book), The Munk Debates were started in Canada in 2008 by philanthropists Peter and Melanie Munk; they exist as an ongoing series of international debates on wide-ranging topics of political importance.  The debate is considered one of the nation’s major cultural events, in part because the participants tend to include the world’s brightest minds. 

A transcript of the debate, I found this book to be a fascinating discussion between two erudite and articulate individuals, both of whom came well-prepared for their confrontation with extensive research to support their individual positions.  As a long-time fan of the recently deceased Hitchens, I must admit that I was considerably inclined to favor his side of the debate.  That said, however, I found flaws in some of Hitchens’ points and must admit that I admired Blair’s passion, sincerity and conviction, despite the fact that I disagreed with him. 

Among my disappointments in Hitchens’ side of the discussion is that I did not find that he sufficiently answered matters regarding George W. Bush’s faith terribly well; I suspect that this may be attributed to the fact that he became a fan of Bush and supported his invasion of Iraq – presumably because of his admitted distaste for the Muslim religion and the terrorists it has bred.  Even more specifically, I was also left to wonder about the absence of questions to Hitchens about W’s lack of support of stem cell research based on his religious beliefs. 

Perhaps the best advantage of reading the transcripts versus seeing/hearing the actual debate on television is the fact that the book contains extensive footnotes to some rather obscure (to me, at least) references made by both parties.  Thanks to the footnotes, we are better able to understand the context of their statements.  Conversely, the disadvantage of not having seen the televised debate is that it is impossible to read someone’s body language or hear the vocal inflections of either debater.

I particularly liked the format of the debate – questions from the live audience were taken by the participants, as well as questions that were submitted through the Munk Debate’s Web site.  Although each conceded an occasional point to the other, they were ultimately intractable in their belief (or non-belief, as the case may be).  While reading one person’s response to a particular question, I found myself anticipating how the other person would respond – and as such, it made for quite the compelling read. 

An interesting component of the debate was the results of a poll taken both before and after.  Viewers were asked which side of the issue they supported; the purpose of doing this was to determine whether or not the audience was swayed in their opinion by either participant as a result of hearing both sides of the debate.  If you didn’t see the debate on television but want to know the results of both polls, well, you’ll just have to read the book. 

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