manicstreetpreacher relaxes with a cigar and a glass of brandy following a dashed fine battle of rhetoric between the godly and the infidels.
The rain it raineth on the just
And also on the unjust fella;
But chiefly on the just, because
The unjust steals the just’s umbrella.
- Lord Bowen
When you demand “respect”, you are demanding we lie to you. I have too much real respect for you as a human being to engage in that charade.
- Johann Hari, “Why should I respect these oppressive religions?”
On Sunday, 30 November 2009, I attended a debate hosted by Intelligence Squared at Wellington College, Berkshire entitled “Atheism is the new fundamentalism”.
Speaking for the motion were former bishop of Oxford Richard Harries and former editor of The Daily Telegraph and The Spectator, Charles Moore.
Speaking against the motion were prominent professor of philosopher from Birkbeck College, University of London, author and public commentator A C Grayling and evolutionary biologist, former Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University and “Britain’s Most Prominent Atheist”, Richard Dawkins.
The moderator of the debate was Dr Antony Seldon, master of Wellington College, who deserves an MSP blog profile to himself!
The event was streamed live over the Internet by the organisers and questions were taken over email and Twitter from viewers at the other end of the fibre optics. Within 24 hours, the full recording was posted on the Intelligence Squared website.
The YouTube playlist begins here:
You can download an MP3 audio of the debate here.
The pre-debate/ live-streaming page for the debate on RichardDawkins.net is here.
The post-debate page on RichardDawkins.net is here.
The motion was defeated in both audience and online polls before and after the event. The results were as follows:
Initial audience vote
Final online vote
Final audience vote
Since the debate was made available on the Internet so soon after the event, I will not give a blow-by-blow account, but will let the viewers judge for themselves and provide my thoughts from the frontline.
As I predicted before the event, this one was far more evenly matched than Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry’s massacre of the Catholic Church in London at the end of October. Against my predictions, however, was that the tone of the debate was far more hand-to-throat than the tea-and-cucumber-sandwiches-garden-party that I had envisaged. There was genuine anger between the parties, which surprised me because Richard Dawkins and Richard Harries have shared a platform on a number of occasions and have been united in the fight against the teaching of creationism in science school classes.
Harries especially appeared to have taken matters awfully personally that his friend and colleague, Dawkins, had been so forceful in his condemnation of religion. Charles Moore, I have say, even as a lifelong reader of The Daily Telegraph, let his side down badly. His opening speech was packed with ad hominems Richard Dawkins, accusing him of treating the debate on religion like a game of Cluedo: “It was Reverend Green, with the Bible, in the nursery”, and even called him “Kommandant Dawkins” at one point. Grayling drew a pretty large cheer later on in the evening for hauling Moore up on his below-the-belt tactics.
A commenter on RichardDawkins.net summed Moore up rather well:
After that loathsome Charles Moore used his entire time on a ranting, batshit crazy personal attack against Richard, calling him “Commandant Dawkins” and comparing him to Josef Mengele, I was at first astonished that Richard didn’t bother to respond to any of that garbage, but proceeded to issue a focused attack on the debate proposition which effectively ended the discussion; his points were unanswerable and Harries and Moore didn’t even bother to try. But then I realized that this is one of the reasons I admire Richard so much: he is perfectly capable of becoming enraged if someone lies about the theory of evolution, but the fact that an asshole slanders him at length is of no interest to him. Is there anybody around, atheist or otherwise, more passionate about fighting for the truth?
It was Dawkins and Grayling were the stars of the debate and were on tip-top form. Dawkins was cool and rational. Grayling – who I saw speak live for the first time on the night – said the least on the panel in terms of words, but spoke volumes more than any of them. I was very impressed. The cartoon to which he referred in his opening speech is below:
Grayling continually hammered home the point that it is simply not possible for an atheist to be fundamentalist about their non-belief. You either believe or you do not. The word “atheist” is an invention by believers to label those who do not share their views. Except we do not have words like “afairyist” or “non-stamp collector”. Grayling was understated and good humoured and drew a big “aaaaaaaah!” from the crowd when he said that the most religious experience he has had was meeting his wife. He also also a bitching impression of an old Irish woman greeting a leprechaun.
One member of the audience asked Dawkins why he refused to debate American Christian apologist William Lane Craig, as surely he was avoiding religion’s “best case” in so doing. Dawkins pithily dismissed Craig (without repeating his name) by saying that he debated with bishops, scientists and theologians who had a valid contribution to make and not just someone “whose only claim to fame is being a professional debater; I’m busy”.
There has been an Internet campaign to get Dawkins and Craig on the same platform and apologists have accused Dawkins of cowardice in refusing the invitation. Craig himself said that Peter May, Chair of the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship in the UK contacted Dawkins shortly after The God Delusion went on sale to invite him to debate as part of Craig’s upcoming “Reasonable Faith” tour in the UK in 2007, but Dawkins replied saying that “he had never heard of him” and “it wouldn’t look very good on my CV”.
I’m glad that Dawkins took the opportunity to put this matter to rest. I will certainly credit Craig with being an expert debater, but that is all he is. His five “arguments” have been refuted ad nauseum yet he still keeps on using them. American physicist and author of God, The Failed Hypothesis, Victor Stenger commented during a recent lecture (YouTube Part One) that he refuted Craig’s cosmological argument during their debate in at the University of Hawaii back in 2003 (video / audio) on the basis that Stephen Hawking in A Brief History of Time recanted his and Roger Penrose’s earlier thesis and now state that the universe did not begin in a singularity known as the “Big Bang”. According to Stenger, Craig is clearly “lying” to his scientifically ignorant audiences by continuing to use the Kalam Cosmological Argument.
Craig’s strongest weapon is to drop in several points of misinformation and scientific hokum during his time at the microphone and then ridicule and belittle (even by the standards of Christopher Hitchens!) his opponents and say that they have not answered his points. Pathetic. I’m sure Craig would mop the floor with Dawkins in a live debate, but it would be the result of multiple punches below the belt. Besides, Dawkins soundly refutes all five of Craig’s “arguments” in The God Delusion.
The same arguments keep coming up as well. Dawkins and Grayling had to refute the old “Hitler and Stalin were atheists…” canard for the umpteenth time. While Dawkins’ line that their atheism was as incidental to their evil acts as their moustaches goes so far, I am still frustrated that he has never really tackled the issue of Stalin’s brutal oppression of the Russian Orthodox Church. Grayling made up for this minor deficiency by arguing that the 20th century totalitarians were strikingly similar to the three monotheisms in that they set up a monolithic ideology with a leader that could not be questioned under pain of horrific punishment. It is unsurprising that despite Stalin being an atheist in respect of Yahweh, Christ and Zeus, was still educated to become a priest in a Georgian seminary. This would have immeasurably influenced his politics and his methods.
And I have to say that Dr Seldon was one of the best moderators I have ever seen! He was an absolute hoot and very nearly upstaged the speakers with sparklingly wit and camp demeanour which reminded me of John Hurt’s performance in The Naked Civil Servant!
My question to Moore and Harries about their subtle, scholarly, nuanced brand of religion –v- creationist ignorance of the kind I witnessed Ken Ham, head of Answers In Genesis, preach at Liverpool University in March 2008 is at the beginning of part seven. I’m the baldy headed toff in the cream shirt:
I was reasonably satisfied with their answers in that they did not attempt to evade the question, although of course I wasn’t convinced by them. Harries played that theist’s trick of saying that the New Atheists are ignoring the evidence. WELL WHAT IN THE NAME OF GOD AND ALL THAT’S HOLY IS THIS EVIDENCE?!?!?!?!?!
Earlier on the in the Q & A, Harries drew jeers and whistles (including from myself) when he objected to Dawkins and Grayling comparing the probability of the existence of God to the existence of leprechauns. If Harries thinks we are being shrill and strident in rejecting the Judeo-Christian God as a fairytale, he really ought to consider for a moment whether there is any more evidence to support his faith than belief in Zeus or Amon-Ra!
And I just love the way that both men consider that young-earth creationist beliefs are mad without giving a moment’s thought to the plausibility of a virgin conceiving, a corpse walking and a man defying all the laws of gravity and natural prohibitions with regard to flight without the aid of technology by descending from the sky trailing clouds of glory, surrounded by angels to commence his two thousand year overdue judgment of humanity (both living and dead) for its wrongdoings, before casting most of them into a pit of fire and taking a select few to live happily ever after in his “kingdom”.
Where is the evidence in support of that?
In conclusion – how dare you call us fundamentalists!
This was a truly electric debate. It was great to be in the audience. The video really doesn’t do it justice. While not quite as much fun as the cheap thrill of witnessing Hitch and Fry steamroller the Vatican, the more balanced spread of audience support and the stronger showing by the theist side of the house made for a tense experience. I had genuine doubts about whether the motion would be defeated in the audience vote.
And all credit to Dawkins and Grayling. They were polite yet forceful. They were passionate without being angry. There were no theatrical performances or cheap personal attacks. They focused on their opponents’ arguments and demolished them thoroughly. Moore and Harries were firmly on the back foot and as one questioner towards the end pointed out, they were getting defensive because their side is losing the argument.
More like this Intelligence Squared, please. And get Antony Seldon to moderate all your debates!