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Former British prime minister Tony Blair and British writer Christopher Hitchens. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
Former British prime minister Tony Blair and British writer Christopher Hitchens. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

Preliminary poll results show Hitchens winner of religion debate with Tony Blair Add to ...

There is no doubt that "horrific acts of evil" have been committed in the name of religion, but even in a world without religion fanatics would remain, former British prime minister Tony Blair told a sold-out debate.

The Catholic convert relied heavily on that oft-repeated mantra during a two-hour debate with prominent atheist author Christopher Hitchens as they set out to answer the question: is religion a force for good in the world?

Preliminary results posted on the Munk Debates website from an audience poll suggest Mr. Hitchens won the debate, with 68 per cent of those who handed in a ballot at the end of the night saying they favoured the con side and 32 per cent agreeing with Mr. Blair.

Both, however, seemed to sway many people to their way of thinking, as ballots submitted before the debate put the audience of 2,700 at 57 per cent con, 22 per cent pro and 21 per cent undecided.

Mr. Hitchens, a fervent atheist who has written about his belief that religion is "poison," argued religion exacerbates, if not ignites, many world conflicts and that it is divisive, rather than inclusive, as Mr. Blair argued.

"Is it good for the world to worship a deity that takes sides in wars and human affairs, to appeal to our fear and to our guilt - is it good for the world?" Mr. Hitchens said in his opening remarks.

"To terrify children with the image of hell...to consider women an inferior creation. Is that good for the world?"

But Mr. Blair, who started a foundation two years ago to promote understanding between religions, replied that removing religion would not eliminate war and inhumanity.

"I agree in a world without religion, that the religious fanatics may be gone, but I ask you: Would fanaticism be gone?" Mr. Blair said.

"The 20th century is a century scarred by visions that had precisely that imagining in their vision and at their heart and gave us Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot," he added.

Bigotry and prejudice are not "wholly owned subsidiaries" of religion, Mr. Blair said. But he added the most difficult argument for him to counter was that evil done in the name of religion is intrinsically grounded in scripture.

Looking at ancient religious texts one can point to many ideas that now seem "very strange and outdated," but religions must be taken as a whole - at their essence, Mr. Blair said.

Mr. Hitchens, a columnist for Vanity Fair and author of "God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything," said for religion to be a force for good it would have to first give up all supernatural claims. He proposed a "pact with the faithful."

"As long as you don't want your religion taught to my children in school, given a government subsidy, imposed on me by violence, any of these things - you are fine by me," he said.

But he added that pact has never been honoured by "the other side."

Mr. Blair drew a good-natured sarcastic response from Mr. Hitchens when he held up the Northern Ireland peace process as an example of how people of different faiths can bridge their differences.

"It's very touching for Tony to say that he recently went to a meeting to bridge the religious divide in Northern Ireland, but where does the religious divide come from?" Mr. Hitchens asked. "Four-hundred years and more in my own country of birth of people killing each other's children depending on what kind of Christian they were," he added.

Although a lot of conflicts have religious roots, it's futile to try to drive religion out, Blair said.

"In the end, it's for politics and religion to try and work out a way in which religion in a world of globalization that is pushing people together can play a positive rather than negative role," he added.

A question about the role faith played in Mr. Blair's decision to invade Iraq drew a chorus of nervous, sitcom studio audience-like "oohs" from the crowd, but Mr. Blair replied unequivocally.

"It was not about religious faith," he said. Decisions he made as prime minister were "based on policy and so they should be, and you may disagree with those decisions but they were made because I genuinely believed them to be right."

Mr. Hitchens, who is fighting cancer, said earlier Friday that he scheduled his chemotherapy treatments around the debate so he "wouldn't have to let anyone down."

"I arranged my chemotherapy around this so that I wouldn't be demoralized. I'm tired, but I'm not fogged as one can be, so that was the main consideration," he told The Canadian Press in an interview.

"This is what I do whether I'm sick or not. (Religion) is still the main argument."

An Ipsos Reid online poll released Friday said 52 per cent of 18,192 global respondents believe deeply held religious beliefs promote intolerance and division in the world.

On the other hand, 48 per cent of the respondents from 23 countries said religion provides the common values and ethical foundations that diverse societies need to thrive.

Of the 1,000 Canadians who took part, 36 per cent said religion was a positive influence while 64 per cent - almost two-thirds - said religious beliefs promote intolerance.

Ipsos Reid said the online panel included respondents aged 18-64 in Canada and the United States and 16-64 in all other countries. The respondents were polled between Sept. 7 and 23.

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