The Deacon's Bench

The answer to that may depend on whom you ask — though an informal poll afterward evidently found Hitchens to be more persuasive. 

The BBC was there and offers some highlights:

It felt like the event of the season.

Organisers said tickets were selling for inflated prices, and the 2,700 seat Roy Thomson Hall in downtown Toronto was packed.

The subject could not have been more weighty. “Be it resolved”, read the motion, “that religion is a force for good in the world.”

In the blue corner (actually green, on the organiser’s website), the former prime minister and famous Catholic convert, whose foundation promotes “faith as a powerful force for good in the modern world.”

In the red corner (yes, red), one of the intellectual world’s best known and frequently controversial atheists. This is the man who once called Mother Theresa a “bitch”. He’s also criticised Blair’s “sickly piety.”

But anyone expecting verbal pugilism, or a blood-soaked gladitorial contest, with Tony Blair as the Christian thrown to the hungry atheist lion, might have walked out into Toronto’s chilly night a little disappointed.

It’s not that the two men didn’t debate with conviction, but the format, with statements, rebuttals and carefully moderated questions, engendered politeness (this is Canada, after all) and somewhat stifled argument.

And perhaps the lion is wounded. Christopher Hitchens is starting to look frail, in the throes of a cancer that he acknowledges will probably kill him.

Tony Blair, by contrast, looks a picture of well-dressed health.

But Mr Hitchens made his views on religion plain, with his familiar blend of learning and mordant wit.

“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,” he said.

“And over us to supervise this is installed a celestial dictatorship. A kind of divine North Korea.”

But he never rounded on Tony Blair, adopting a respectful tone even as he displayed his disdain for much of what he said.

Mr Blair took it all in good humour, even if he looked and sounded a little exasperated at times.

“Bigotry is not a wholly-owned subsidiary of religion,” he complained, striking a defensive note on several occasions.

“I do not deny for a moment that religion can be a force for evil,” he said. “But I claim that where it is it is based essentially on a perversion of faith.”

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