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Former British prime minister Tony Blair and author Christopher Hitchens pose before their debate on religion in Toronto on Friday. ((Mark Blinch/Reuters))

Atheist Christopher Hitchens seemed to get the best of it in a debate over religion with former British prime minister and Roman Catholic convert Tony Blair.

The two men disputed religion in Toronto Friday night at the Munk Debates before a sold-out crowd of 2,600 — scalpers outside were asking as much as $500 a ticket — as thousands more watched online.

Blair argued for the proposition that religion is a force for good, while Hitchens was against it.

Preliminary results on the Munk website said 68 per cent of the votes backed Hitchens and 32 per cent Blair.

Both men gained about 10 percentage points from the pre-debate standings, when 21 per cent were undecided.

Hitchens argued that religion is divisive and causes conflicts or makes them worse. 

Blair conceded that "horrific acts of evil" have been committed in the name of religion, but said people like Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot, who opposed religion, had been evil, too. "I agree in a world without religion, that the religious fanatics may be gone, but I ask you: Would fanaticism be gone?"

Blair pointed to the Northern Ireland peace process as an example of different religions working for peace.

Hitchens replied that 400 years of religious warfare in Ireland entailed "people killing each other's children depending on what kind of Christian they were."

"To terrify children with the image of hell … to consider women an inferior creation. Is that good for the world?" Hitchens said.

Blair said bigotry and prejudice are not "wholly owned subsidiaries" of religion. But he said the hardest argument he faced was the assertion that evil done in the name of religion is based in scripture.

The ancient religious texts contain many ideas that now appear "very strange and outdated," he said, but religions must be seen as a whole.

Hitchens, a columnist for Vanity Fair, wrote a book in 2007 called God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, which sharply criticized organized religion.

Blair started the Tony Blair Faith Foundation two years ago to promote understanding between religions.

With files from The Canadian Press