General daily internet procrastination led me, via a random youtube walk, from "The Big Fat Quiz of the 80s" to "What's Stephen Fry doing now..?" and I was surprised to find the wonderful Mr. Fry, alongside Christopher Hitchens, involved in a debate on whether religion is a force for good in the world. Fry's statements, more from the heart at times perhaps, than the head, moved me the most - despite the other three contenders being more... polished if you like, more confident, practiced, sure of effect - more focussed on well, winning. Here's the vid. Long, but not a bad way to kill an hour or so.
Some more procrastination later... I slogged through another rendition of the same debate - again with a now unfortunately ill Hitchens - this time contending the topic against ex-British Prime Minister Tony Blaire. I watched with much the same expectations as you would hold when clicking on a funny gif on Pintrest, to see someone take a pratfall, or at least get a bunch of snow shoved down their pants.
However, those expectations were not met.
Of course, strictly in terms of debating - Blaire loses. He's woolly, overly accommodating of his opponent and flatly unaggressive. All fairly fatal in academic debate. But unlike most of the commentators below the video on the site I don't think Blaire made a fool of himself. Or even lost from a wider perspective. I don't really think it was ever his prime intention to argue with the same agenda as Hitchens. Maybe it was, maybe he staggered accidently to heroism in my eyes. I dunno, it's Tony Blaire afterall.
Hitchens, like Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the other famous theist bashers, seem content to "win" - to show up their resident theist as a either a self-deluded and self-contradictory (though possibly well intentioned) fool at best or an actively self-congratulatory and willfully evil force in extremis. And sure, acting on the world's stages great and small to run damage control on Religion is something still to be applauded.
As a veteran of many theist vs. agnostic/atheist debates on the world's smallest and most useless stage - internet philosophy sites - I can appreciate the professionalism of discussion on the part of the Atheists. But it is just shooting fish in a barrel given the arena. If the same debate had taken place in a revialist tent somewhere in the sticks, the thiests would have simply eaten the atheists for lunch. Audience-vote-wise. I think Tony was smart enough to realise this, and instead simply used the platform presented to speak to the people not there. Procrastinators and random stumblers like me.
The thing that drove me away from philosophic discussions is the futility of them in the real world. The days when reason and rhetoric could sway the opinions of everyday poeple concernning anything meaningful to them are over, if indeed they ever existed. Reason and rhetoric only appeal to those open to reason and rhetoric. To those educated to be open to reason and rhetoric.
One of the few philosophic ideas I ever bought wholly into is Hume's
(from a famous passage discussing the "motivating influence of the will" in his Treatise on Human Nature) reads in full:I take it more generally to mean that reason alone, lacks enough oomph to motivate us, and by "us" here I really mean the rest of the brain's systems, and eventually the body itself, into action. It only succeeds if it recruits - resonates with - enough emotional drive - the baser drives - sex, hunger, fear, love - you name it. And this is where secularism has always failed, because it speaks almost wholly to reason, indeed, demands the listener to have already either been exposed to counter-dogmatic arguments, or to have thought and questioned for themselves, and religion has always succeeded, because it asks nothing of the listener, expects nothing of the listener, except obedience.
Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them. (T 2.3.3 p. 415)The context is his discussion of what is sometimes called "moral psychology", the study of how we are motivated to act morally.
Part way through the Blaire vs. Hitchens debate, they do agree on one crucial point, that religion will never be erradicated. To me, this was where Tony won the war, if not the debate. This makes religion a given, part of the enviroment. Dawkins, Hitchens, et al, including me if you like, may as well try to prove that the rain is wrong for all the good it will do. Doesn't mean the rain will stop.
For all Tony Blaire's faults, he was the prime-minister of Great Britain and as such wielded great power during troubled times. I think that taught him that it is not simply enough to point out the emperor's lack of clothes, but that to effect change one must really become the emperor, and not only that but whilst doing so, somehow preserve the initial innocence, that need to effect change, that set them on the path. No easy task, especially considering that the path to power within however lesser or greater corrupt a system demands a certain degree of corruption, or at the very least a degree of compromise with corruption, from the applicant themselves.
Most people, politician or priest, at the outset of their careers are well intentioned, I think. It is the process of reaching the position they desire, the position from which they would be able to enact the changes they aspired to, that emeshes them, and the well-being of those they love, so wholly within its fabric that when they reach the point where they finally have the power to weaken, reform, make fair, right the wrongs that once seemed so clear and necessary... Doing so seems somehow foolish, selfish, absurd. No easy thing to fight so hard to become king, only to tear down your kingdom and return to poverty.
The heroism of a good politician, or a priest I guess, is the retention of their initial naivety.
In the first debate, Stephen Fry came across to me as the most human of the four speakers. Hitchens was obviously just doing his job, going through the motions, shooting those fish. The two theists were equally professional. Detached to a point from the actualites in the world of the church's dictates. Only Fry seemed to put his heart into it. To care personally about the situation. Again I think, a symptom of his inexperience, his brave naivety. And this is what sways audiences, sways public opinion, this resonance of emotion, this overt signal of deep belief, deep investment in the words being said, alongside the eloquence and authority necessary to be in a position to say them at all.
Religions will only ever change when that change arises from within, sponsored by one of their own - someone like Tony Blaire - in reaction to mass public opinion. Everyone's opinon, from the least educated to the most, swayed by people like Stephen Fry, who not only have the power to speak well, but retain enough emotional connection to give the words an instinctive veracity.