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Intelligence Squared debate: Catholics humiliated by Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry

Posted in News by Skepdude on October 20, 2009


I have just witnessed a rout – tonight’s Intelligence Squared debate. It considered the motion “The Catholic Church is a force for good in the world”. Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry, opposing the motion, comprehensively trounced Archbishop Onaiyekan (of Abuja, Nigeria) and Ann Widdecombe, who spoke for it. The archbishop in particular was hopeless.

The voting gives a good idea of how it went. Before the debate, for the motion: 678. Against: 1102. Don’t know: 346. This is how it changed after the debate. For: 268. Against: 1876. Don’t know: 34. In other words, after hearing the speakers, the number of people in the audience who opposed the motion increased by 774. My friend Simon, who’s a season ticket holder, said it was the most decisive swing against a motion that he could remember.

The problem (from the Catholic point of view) was that the speakers arguing for the Church as a force for good were hopelessly outclassed by two hugely popular, professional performers. The archbishop had obviously decided that it would work best if he stuck to facts and figures and presented the Church as a sort of vast charitable or “social welfare” organisation. He emphasised how many Catholics there were in the world, and that even included “heads of state”, he said, as if that was a clincher. But he said virtually nothing of a religious or spiritual nature as far as I could tell, and non-Catholics would have been none the wiser about what you might call the transcendent aspects of the Church. Then later when challenged he became painfully hesitant. In the end he mumbled and spluttered and retreated into embarrassing excuses and evasions. He repeatedly got Ann Widdecombe’s name wrong. The hostility of both the audience and his opponents seemed to have discomfited him.


5 Responses

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  1. seborgarsen said, on October 20, 2009 at 2:27 PM

    Any audio or videos of this? I’ve googled around to no avail.

    • Skepdude said, on October 20, 2009 at 2:56 PM

      I wish; if you find it please let me know! A video will do; the audio can be easily extracted for on the go listening!

  2. edthemanicstreetpreacher said, on October 21, 2009 at 1:08 AM

    I was there myself. It was an embarrassment for the parties of God.

    Here’s my write-up:

  3. smayne raddisbone said, on November 7, 2009 at 12:10 PM

    I too witnessed this debate, and am wondering whether we saw the same thing.

    the one shred of truth in the hopelessly skewed and transparently populist write-up was the admission that hitchins and fry are popular .. perhaps not as hugely so as you imagine, but nevertheless popular.

    as for calling in the numbers – 678 for before, 268 for after – all this does id cofirm for me how hopelessly, ridiculously and predictably swayable the good people of london seem to be in the face of plummy accents, fashionable leanings and a good dose of emotionalism.

    that you have the temerity to allude to the archbishop’s mishandling of widdecombe’s name at all is laughable; the debate wasn’t, well, about that, exactly, and not all of the citizens of the world are anglosaxon.

    zeinab budawi’s incredibly unprofessional ‘chairing’ of the debate, characterised as it was by obvious glee at the apparent hostility of the audience to the pro side and frequent one-sided choice of words (eg ‘point taken’ rather than the more correct ‘point made’; there were many other such slips but I won’t push the point) didn’t help matters.

    if anyone doubts that the catholic church is a force for good in the world, let him/her consider the millions of spiritual and corporal works of mercy performed uncomplainingly and without reward every single day, the lives touched for good, the unjust persons, institutions and practices challenged, the orphans, drug addicts, sick, uneducated and poor helped, the affluent uncertain counselled, the lonely and unheard listened to, the soul-sick led to meaning and – not least! – the zealots of all shades (without naming the obvious names in this context) tolerated and dealt with compassionately.

  4. Johan jonson said, on November 8, 2009 at 11:22 AM

    I am not a Catholic – but I saw the audience being humiliated in that show. I was surprised by the populism shown by Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry – and that they made so many “Factually Questionable” statements as they did – and was shocked that the audience reacted so willingly to this populism.

    I am not British and not that knowledgeable about Britten, but I was surprised that the audience rewarded Hitchens and Fry. Much of what they said was distortions and some of it was childishness as denying to call the Pope by his right name.

    Even though the show did not make me convert to catholicism, the catholic church showed best figure of all in that show – and the audience was humiliated – by showing it self as a mob buying unbalanced arguments and distortions.

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