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Former British prime minister Tony Blair

Kevin Van Paassen

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.

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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.

Geiger: You write in your memoir that, and I quote, "I have always been more interested in religion than politics..." You don't really develop this thought in the book, however, and I suspect it will startle many people, given your success in politics. If this is the case, why did you not set out to become, say, the Archbishop of Canterbury, or the Cardinal-Archbishop of Westminster?

Blair: I know, it's slightly strange, isn't it.

Geiger: And I suspect it will startle many who will see you, and this is a compliment, but as very much a political animal and if this is indeed the case why didn't you set out to be the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Cardinal-Archbishop of Westminster? Why secular politics?

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Blair: I'm not a good enough person to assume that type of role. You know I often say to people about this, that I believe in the power of politics to change the world. And as you rightly say I'm very much a political animal. If you ask me what I read most about, I read most about religion. And It interests me enormously. On the other hand, I always used to say to people, that God doesn't tell you the policy answers. That's in the realm of politics. And so one sense, and people have said about my book, that there isn't much about religion in it. And that's because in the end your faith is part of what you are, it's part of what you carry, it's part of your belief system. It doesn't really, it can't, I'm afraid, write the white paper on education policy for you.

Geiger: Now you attended Roman Catholic mass while you were prime minister but you didn't take that final step, conversion, acceptance into or being received into the Roman Catholic church until after you had left office. And I wondered if, you know, this raises the inference that it would have been politically inexpedient for you to be a Roman Catholic prime minister which itself raises questions about the limits of religious tolerance, of religious affiliation, even today in a country like the United Kingdom which is obviously a highly secular country despite of the establishment of the church.

Blair: It wasn't that it would be deeply controversial at all. Look, I never made any secret of the fact I went to mass, and my wife's a Catholic, my kids were brought up Catholics and went to a Catholic school. I wasn't, for reasons of religious controversy, not doing it. It's just, to be absolutely blunt about it -- and I'm simply being honest with people about it -- I had so many things, issues I dealing with, I didn't really want to put that one on the table at the same time because I just knew I would have endless explanations to make and conspiracy theories about why I decided to do it and all sorts of stuff written about what I believed about the establishment of the church of England and so on. So really, I mean this may reflect to my discredit, I don't know, but I just literally decided it was something I didn't want to have as an additional issue alongside all the other issues I had. But, you know, I've been attending mass for 25 years and it was a completely logical step for me to be able to take communion in a Catholic church along with my family.

Geiger: Is there someone in politics, someone you've known who best exemplifies faith [in]public service, someone you've looked to as an example or inspiration?

Blair: I don't know really. Faith plays a far greater role in political leaders than you might think, actually. And it's interesting when I have talked to other leaders about faith, some of them, you wouldn't have thought were people with a religious conviction at all but turned out to have. I dont know that I would pull one figure out actually. I mean I was going to talk about Gandhi but then on the other hand, it's always unclear as to exactly what role religion played in his political life. No, I think there are lots of leaders I admire but I don't think there's someone I would pick out particularly for religious conviction.

Geiger: You mentioned you do a lot of reading of religious materials. Is there something that you would fall back on as being central to your thinking?

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Blair: There's nothing I would say that I've read that has kind of changed my entire perception but there's a lot that I have read that has been a fascination and education to me. So you know there a wonderful set of books about Islam, which have been very interesting to me. There's a book I've read recently that was written about the Prophet Mohammed but based on all the contemporary sources about him which is a very interesting book. There's a book I've just finished, I think it's called Faith actually, which is about the history of the Christian church. And Rowan Williams, who's Archbishop of Canterbury actually, wrote a biography of Arias. It's the Arian heresy that gave rise to all the controversies of the 4th Century. It's a fascinating book to read.

So I tend to read more because I'm interested in knowing, I'm interested in knowing about scripture. I read books that are lot about the history of the church and the history of religion. Karen Armstrong's written some wonderful books about religion.

Geiger: I'll just have one last question and that is, the concept of redemption is at the essence of Christianity. What is it that you seek redemption for, is it something in your own life that you believe that you...

Blair: There's no sort of particular thing that I would pick out but I think that one of the things that I think religious faiths does do, or should do for you, is to have some sense of humility about yourself, your own failings, your own shortcomings. Now it's perfectly possible to have that without religious faith, obviously, but I think it is the one of the disciplines religious faith imposes on you. So redemption, I don't think about something specific when I think of that, but I think about the degree of which I fall short from the best that I could be, which I guess is the same for most of us. And you know, to say what about the foundation, which is operating now, we have university program which McGill is a part of and then I've got this schools program -- there are many Canadian schools that are now joining up to this. You know, I think, as I say, this issue of religious ideology is the defining issue of the 21st century. And I would say that even if you're not the slightest bit religious you can't really understand the modern world unless you know something about the faith community. And the great prediction that was made when I was growing up and at university that as society developed, so religion would fall away, has proven to be one of the many wrong predictions that were made.

The truth is religious belief is still very much with us and very alive. And how we analyze its importance and how it we understand and are educated about it is a big challenge.

Geiger: Well, thank you very much for your time.

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Blair: My pleasure.

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