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munk debates

Former British prime minister Tony Blair and British writer Christopher Hitchens

One is a devout Catholic and former prime minister who sees religion as a civilizing force. The other is a prominent atheist, author and journalist who believes that surrendering reason to faith is dangerous.

Together, Tony Blair and Christopher Hitchens are two of the great British thinkers on religion.

The statesman and the polemicist are in Toronto for the semi-annual Munk Debate on Friday evening. They will square off on the contentious topic of whether religion is a force for good in the world.

In advance of the debate, the two men sat down with The Globe and Mail to discuss their views.

The surprises? Mr. Hitchens, who lives in Washington, D.C. has had a Christmas tree as long as he's been a father and observes Passover. He discovered his family's Jewish roots late in life; his wife, Carol Blue, is also Jewish.

And Mr. Blair's father, Leo, a retired law professor, is a "militant atheist." The long-time politician also revealed in his recently released memoir, A Journey: My Political Life, that he has always been more interested in religion than politics.

For Mr. Blair, who converted to Catholicism after leaving office in 2007, religion plays the most central of roles, both personally and in his worldview.

"I think the place of faith in the era of globalization is the single biggest issue of the 21st century," he said in a hotel suite populated by several aides and security guards.

"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. … I think religion could be, in an era of globalization, a civilizing force."

For Mr. Hitchens, author of the best-selling God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, religion has to be opposed for myriad reasons, including its "radical frontal attack on human dignity" in presuming that humans wouldn't otherwise know right from wrong. He also calls proselytizing "a sign of intellectual and moral weakness."

Perhaps curiously, Mr. Hitchens's ill health - he has stage 4 esophageal cancer - has prompted countless offers of prayers. There are, he says, three kinds: people who pray for him to die and be reborn; those who pray for him to get better; and those who pray for him to get better and/or to convert.

"Any gesture of solidarity, sympathy is welcome and, if you like, has my blessing. But I don't believe in it, couldn't be brought to believe in it and for those who wish that I'd see the light, they could ask that at any time. Why now?" he said, tossing down a drink in a room in a hotel lobby as a publicist for the Munk Debates waited outside.

Tickets for the much-anticipated Hitchens-Blair face-off to be held at Roy Thomson Hall sold out in less than three hours, a record for the venue. But the debate, which starts at 7 p.m. ET, can be watched through a live video stream at at a cost of $4.99.