Atheism has done little for women’s dignity

Tony Blair and Christopher Hitchens at the Munk debate last month (Photo courtesy of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation)

I happened to listen to the repeat of the Blair/Hitchens debate in Toronto on the theme “Religion is a force for good in the world” on Radio 4 at 8pm on Saturday. This subject has probably been done to death but I make no apologies for my own pennyworth.

Christopher Hitchens, despite his debility, was on form, proving that if the devil does not always have the best arguments, he often has the best tunes. It is always easier to attack than to defend and Hitchens made the most of this psychological advantage. Tony Blair, the “people’s ex-premier”, appeared a little hesitant, emotional and repetitive by comparison. It struck me that the two men have reversed roles: Hitchens began life as a serious journalist of the Left but over the years has become an entertainer; all those public platforms have tempted him to use his sharp intellect to roll out the witty rhetoric and play for applause (and he got a lot of it in Toronto). Our Tony, on the other hand, started life as a long-haired entertainer (remember those photos of him at Oxford with his pop group?) but has gradually become more serious as he has grown older.

I thought there was one point where Blair could have got underneath his opponent’s hard carapace: when Hitchens attacked religion for doing nothing for women’s dignity. The way to bring about “the empowerment of women” was to take them off “the animal cycle of reproduction”, he stated. He also mentioned “clerics” who stood in the way of women bettering themselves. Blair had a golden opportunity here to go on the attack: what had atheism to offer women but ever easier “reproductive rights” – ie ever easier access to contraception and abortion? What had the most atheistic society in the world, China, done for women’s dignity in enforcing their “one-child” policy?

In thinking of the arguments that Blair didn’t make here, I was reminded of the testimony of Steven Mosher, one-time student of social anthropology at Stanford University and an unthinking atheist and supporter of “women’s liberation” like everyone else around him. As part of his research he went to China in the 1980s where he got on well with the local Communist committee and was invited to witness a forced late-term abortion. I won’t describe what he saw, merely the electric effect it had on him: in the space of a few minutes he went from an insouciant attitude of “abortion is a women’s right” to being profoundly and unhesitatingly pro-life. (His atheism began to fall apart later, when he got to know pro-life workers in the US who were almost all Christians; now a devout Catholic and father of eight, he works full time for Human Life International.)

If Blair had engaged passionately at this juncture in the debate, showing how Christianity has always defended women’s dignity, no more so than in this atheistic era, he might, as I have said, have knocked Hitchens off his contemptuous perch, at least for a short while. But he didn’t and he couldn’t. Why? Because throughout his parliamentary career and after, he has always taken the line that “I don’t personally like the idea of abortion but women must have the right to choose”. His voting record on pro-life issues is clear. He is a compromised man – and the opportunity was lost.