Tony Blair debates atheist Christopher Hitchens over Religion

A former British prime minister will pit his faith against the atheism of a prominent journalist as both try to sway the passions of a Toronto crowd on whether religion is a force for good in the world.

The Friday evening debate between Tony Blair, a Catholic convert, and Christopher Hitchens, who has refused to “repent” and embrace religion despite being stricken with late-stage esophageal cancer, is sold out.

The question to be argued before some 2,600 audience members is a chance to hear two important voices debate religion’s impact in an era of globalization, said moderator Rudyard Griffiths.

“With Tony Blair we’ve got someone who has wielded power at the highest levels but also has an enduring belief that faith can make the world a better place,” said Griffiths.

“In Christopher Hitchens, arguably the world’s most prominent atheist and someone who in many ways has dedicated his intellectual life, his writing, to making the case for why he thinks religion poisons everything.”

When the event, part of the Munk Debates, was announced last month, Blair said he had a “formidable opponent” in the British-born turned American journalist, author and Vanity Fair columnist.

“Understanding religion and people of faith is an essential part of understanding our increasingly globalized world,” said Blair, who released his memoirs in September.

“Challenging the myths that are born out of the actions and words of a controversial few is incredibly important.”

Blair’s Faith Foundation, created in 2008, promotes understanding between religions. His speaking fee — which Griffiths wouldn’t divulge — will be donated to his foundation.

Votes will be taken at the beginning and end of the debate Friday at Roy Thomson Hall to determine who had the more convincing argument. Results will be posted on the Munk Debates website.

But even before the pair take to their podiums, their debate is causing a stir online among atheists.

“We really haven’t had any criticism emerging from religious groups. But the atheists have been very vocal in their support for Christopher Hitchens and their kind of condemnation of Tony Blair,” said Griffiths.

Hitchens’s cancer diagnosis in June — which forced him to cancel a tour to promote his new book “Hitch-22: A Memoir” — has fuelled interest from atheists in hearing his perspective, said Griffiths.

Carleton University professor Jonathan Malloy, who teaches political science and religion, called both men a good choice for the debate, especially with Hitchens facing his own mortality.

But he’s skeptical anyone’s opinion will be changed by the discourse.

“I think people that hear this debate… will still probably have fairly firm ideas of what they mean by religion and whether it’s a force for good or evil in the world,” said Malloy.

The $20 to $80 tickets for the event were snapped up in hours. Some tickets can be found on Craigslist for $500.

Thousands of people from around the world, including those from the United Kingdom, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia, have paid $4.99 to view the event, which will be streamed live onwww.munkdebates.com.

Previous Munk Debates have focused on foreign aid, climate change and health care. Previous participants include Stephen Lewis and actress Mia Farrow.

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