Atheist campaigner Christopher Hitchens and former British prime minister Tony Blair went head to head Friday in an anticipated debate about whether religion is a force for good in the world.
Blair, a convert to Catholicism, argued that while religion can be destructive, "it can also create a deep well of compassion, and frequently does."
"It is undoubtedly true that people commit horrific acts of evil in the name of religion," he said. "It is also undoubtedly true that people do acts of extraordinary common good inspired by religion."
Blair pointed to all the good works of faith-based charities and the teachings of various religions to illustrate how people are inspired by their faith to do good.
Jesus teaches loves, selflessness and sacrifice; the prophet Mohammad said saving one life is as if you're saving the whole of humanity; Buddhists subjugate selfish desires to care for others; and Sikhs insist on respect for others of another faith, he argued.
The debate took place before an audience of 2,600 in Toronto, Canada.
Hitchens, author of God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, had just come out of a debate with intelligent design proponent William Dembski in Plano, Texas, last week.
On Friday, the staunch atheist was back on stage, making the case for skepticism and rejecting the notion that religion or a God is needed to discern morality. Hitchens, who has final stage esophageal cancer, told the Globe and Mail newspaper that he had arranged his chemotherapy around the debate so that he would not be "demoralized."
He said he knew the topic of charity would come up during the debate.
In response, he pointed out that millions of people have died in Africa because of the Catholic Church's stance that "AIDS was not as bad as condoms."
And the destruction carried out in the name of religion outweighs the good that people of faith have done, he indicated.
"Do we grant to Hamas and Hezbollah, both of whom will tell you, and incessantly do, without us, where would the poor of Gaza and Lebanon be, ... it's nothing compared to the harm that they do, but it's a great deal of work all the same," Hitchens said.
Blair agreed that not everything the church or religious communities have done around the world is right.
But he added, "[A]t least accept that there are people doing great work, day in, day out, who genuinely are not prejudiced or bigoted, but are working with people who are afflicted by famine and disease and poverty and they are doing it inspired by their faith."
While making his argument, he noted that he was not claiming that one has to be a person of faith in order to do good work. But, nevertheless, there are people who are inspired by their faith to do good and that should be recognized and celebrated.
Other notable arguments made during the debate:
Hitchens: Once you assume a creator and a plan, it makes us objects, in a cruel experiment, whereby we are created sick, and commanded to be well.
Blair: Imagine indeed a world without religious faith, not just no place of worship, no prayer or scripture but no men or women who because of their faith dedicating their lives to others, showing forgiveness where otherwise they wouldn't, believing through their faith that even the weakest and most powerless have rights, and they have a duty to defend them. And yes, I agree, in a world without religion, the religious fanatics may be gone. But I ask you: Would fanaticism be gone?