This is an edited version of the Munk Debate versus Tony Blair - 'Is religion a force for good in the world'. The full debate is on Speakola here.
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. I'll repeat that: created sick, and then ordered to be well. And over us, to supervise this, is installed a celestial dictatorship, a kind of divine North Korea. Greedy, exigent—exigent, I would say more than exigent—greedy for uncritical praise from dawn until dusk and swift to punish the original sins with which it so tenderly gifted us in the very first place. However, let no one say there's no cure: salvation is offered, redemption, indeed, is promised, at the low price of the surrender of your critical faculties. Religion, it might be said—it must be said, would have to admit, makes extraordinary claims but though I would maintain that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, rather daringly provides not even ordinary evidence for its extraordinary supernatural claims. Therefore, we might begin by asking, and I'm asking my opponent as well as you when you consider your voting, is it good for the world to appeal to our credulity and not to our skepticism? 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? To our terror, our terror of death, is it good to appeal? To preach guilt and shame about the sexual act and the sexual relationship, is this good for the world? And asking yourself all the while, are these really religious responsibilities, as I maintain they are? To terrify children with the image of hell and eternal punishment, not just of themselves, but of their parents and those they love. Perhaps worst of all, to consider women an inferior creation, is that good for the world, and can you name me a religion that has not done that? To insist that we are created and not evolved in the face of all the evidence. Religion forces nice people to do unkind things and also makes intelligent people say stupid things. Handed a small baby for the first time, is it your first reaction to think, "Beautiful, almost perfect, now please hand me the sharp stone for its genitalia that I may do the work of the Lord"?
... Well now, in fairness, no one was arguing that religion should or will die out of the world, and all I'm arguing is that it would be better if there was a great deal more by way of an outbreak of secularism. And I knew it would come up that we'd be told about charity, and I take this very seriously, because we know, ladies and gentlemen, as it happens, we're the first generation of people who do really, what the cure for poverty really is. It eluded people for a long, long time. The cure for poverty has a name, in fact: it's called the empowerment of women ... try it in Bangladesh, try it in Bolivia, it works—works all the time. Name me one religion that stands for that, or ever has. Wherever you look in the world and you try to remove the shackles of ignorance and disease stupidity from women, it is invariably the clericy that stands in the way, or in the case of—now, furthermore, if you are going to grant this to Catholic charities, say, which I would hope are doing a lot of work in Africa, if I was a member of a church that had preached that AIDS was not as bad as condoms, I'd be putting some conscience money into Africa too, I must say. But it won't bring—I'm sorry, I'm not trying to be funny. If I was trying to be funny, you mistook me. It won't bring back the millions of people who have died wretched deaths because of their teaching. That still goes on. I'd like to hear a word of apology from the religious about that, if it was on offer ..
... Do we grant to Hamas and to Hezbollah, both of whom will tell you, and incessantly do, "Look at our charitable work. Without us defending the poor of Gaza, the poor of Lebanon, where would they be? And they're right, they do a great deal of charitable work. It's nothing compared to the harm that they do, but it's a great deal of work all the same ...
...We don't require divine permission to know right from wrong. We don't need tablets administered to us ten at a time in tablet form on pain of death to be able to have a moral argument. No, we have the reasoning and the moral suasion of Socrates and of our own abilities. We don't need dictatorship to give us right from wrong, and that's my lot, thank you.
...I'm intrigued now, so religion could be a good thing after all, sometimes, we think, is now the proposition. What would a religion have to do to get that far? Well, I think it would have to give up all supernatural claims. It would have to say no, you are not to do this under the threat of reward, heaven, or the terror of punishment, hell. No, we can't offer you miracles. Find me the church that will say, "Forget all that. Faith healing, no." It would have to give that up. It would have to give up the idea of an eternal, unalterable authority figure who is judge, jury, and executioner, against whom there could be no appeal and who wasn't finished with you even when you died. That's quite a lot for religion to give up, don't you think? But who would not say we would be better off without it if it was, or what Tony Blair would like it to be like it to be, an aspect of humanism, an aspect of compassion, an aspect of the realizations of human solidarity, the knowledge we are all in fact bound up with one another, that we have responsibilities one to another, and as I do when I give blood, partly because I don't lose the pint forever, I can always get it back, but that there's a sense of pleasure to be had in helping your fellow creature. I think that should be enough, thank you.