Two of the most divisive figures in public life, one a statesman, one a polemicist, are debating on Friday night one of the most vexing questions of this time or indeed any time: Is religion good or evil? The sixth semi-annual Munk debate, held in Toronto, will be between Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, and Christopher Hitchens, author of the best-selling God is Not Great. Before their confrontation, Mr. Blair sat down with The Globe's editorial board editor, John Geiger, to reflect on faith, or the absence thereof.
John Geiger: Thank you so much for speaking with The Globe and Mail. I really appreciate your time. I'm going to begin by asking you if there was any conversion moment, when you first sort of became aware that you have a strong faith, a spiritual [dimension]
Tony Blair: Well, I had a curious upbringing. My dad was a militant atheist, or is a militant atheist. My mum was sort of bought up in a religious family because she was a Protestant from Ireland but wasn't especially religious. I mean, I went to a church school when I was younger and imbibed a certain amount of religion then but it was really in university that I got interested in religion and politics at the same time. I don't think as if it were one moment of conversion but my spiritual journey really began then.
Geiger: Doesn't moral hierarchy exist among religions to this day? Are some a greater force for good than others or are they essentially moral equivalents?
Blair: My faith foundation works to bring about a greater respect and understanding between different faiths. We basically work with six popular religions in the world which are the three Abrahamic religions, Hinduism and Buddhism and Sikhism. And the question I'm often asked is, "well you're a Christian, you believe in salvation through Jesus Christ, so how can you really respect someone of a different faith, who believes in a different path to salvation?" And the answer is that even if I have my own belief, I can still respect the not just right of the person to hold that different belief but also respect that belief. And one of the things that's been really exciting to me in the work I've done with my foundation is to explore and study different religious faiths, study not just their history and tradition but their belief systems. I've not in any way diminished my own sense of my own faith but, yes of course, I believe it is possible for people to find a different path, to have a different belief system and for me to respect that completely.
Geiger: In a highly globalized world where diversity of belief systems are very much a mix. How can religion provide a common value, a life of common values and an ethical foundations, or can it?
Blair: I believe it can. I mean, first of all, I think the place of faith in the era of globalization is the single biggest issue of the 21st century. I mean, it's not an issue like climate change is an issue, for example, or the global economy in its present crisis. But in terms of how people live together, how we minimize the prospects of conflict and maximize the prospects of peace, the place of religion in our society today is essential. And basically what is happening, is that in the process of globalization people are being pushed closer together, so are people of different faiths. Canada is a classic example, it's a melting pot of people of different faiths, and races and nationalities and we're all pushed together. The question in those circumstances: does religion become a force for bad, pulling people apart because religion is seen as a badge of identity and opposition to others. Or is religion essentially seen as being about certain values that guide your life and what is common to all the major religions is a belief in love of neighbour as yourself and actually in human solidarity and human compassion. So in that sense, I think religion could be, in an era of globalization, a civilizing force.