Posts Tagged ‘Root of All Evil’

Dawkins and Grayling Defend Atheism: Afterthoughts

03/12/2009

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

For: 333
Against: 675
Undecided: 389

Final online vote

For: 37
Against: 889
Undecided: 12

Final audience vote

For: 363
Against: 1,070
Undecided: 85

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!

manicstreetpreacher relaxes with a cigar and a glass of brandy following a dashed fine battle of rhetoric between the godly and the infidels.

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Richard Dawkins and A C Grayling Debate Atheist Fundamentalism Against the Sweet Mediocrity of Our Native Church

22/11/2009

manicstreetpreacher wets the appetite for his next live debate on religion.

UPDATE 03/12/2009: My afterthought piece of the debate, with video and audio links is here.

Having just about recovered from the other-worldly experience of witnessing Hitchens and Fry exact retribution on a biblical scale against the Catholic Church in London at the end of last month, I am geared up to attend my next live debate.

This time, two of Britain’s finest atheist writers, zoologist Richard Dawkins of Oxford University and philosopher A C Grayling of Birkbeck College, University of London go head-to-head against former Anglican Bishop of Oxford, Richard Harries, and former editor of The Daily Telegraph and The Spectator Charles Moore to debate the topic “Is Atheism the New Fundamentalism?” The moderator is Dr Antony Seldon, Master of Wellington College.

The debate is being held at on Sunday, 29 November 2009.   The doors open 6pm and the debate starts at 7pm.

Once again, Intelligence Squared is hosting the debate.

The venue is Wellington College, Berkshire:

Wellington College
Duke’s Ride
Crowthorne
Berkshire
RG45 7PU

Tel: 01344 444 000
Fax: 01344 444 002

Email: info@wellingtoncollege.org.uk
Web: www.wellingtoncollege.org.uk
Event page: http://www.wellingtoncollege.org.uk/page.aspx?id=8686

Previous form

Richard Dawkins needs no introduction!  However, this is a rare public debate for him.  Dawkins writes in The God Delusion that he rarely takes part in formal debates because he is not a confrontational person and feels that the adversary format is ill-suited to discover the truth.  Dawkins also refuses to debate creationists because if one of them shared a platform with a prominent evolutionary biologist, it would give the lay pubic the impression that there was a serious issue worth debating!  For the creationists, winning or losing the debate is irrelevant: the victory is that the debate has gone ahead at all.  Dawkins has no desire to provide them with the oxygen of publicity.

However, there are still plenty of debates Dawkins has participated in that are worth investigating.

Dawkins and Grayling teamed up with the Hitch to debate against – as Dawkins later put it – three “rather half-hearted religious apologists (‘Of course I don’t believe in a God with a long white beard, but…’)” on whether “We would all be better off without religion”, the audio of which can be accessed here, or on YouTube:

You can read a review of the event by a pleasantly-surprised believing journalist, Ruth Gledhill, The Times’ religious affairs correspondent here.

Incidentally, Charles Moore, who is standing up for God on this occasion, wrote of that debate:

Although I voted against the motion both times, I think the shift of votes was justified, on the basis of the speeches.  All six spoke well, but the opponents of religion were more eloquent, more passionate, more – odd though it sounds to say it – believing.

The last big debate Dawkins took part in was on 21 October 2008 at the Oxford University Museum of natural history against Oxford University mathematician and Christian John Lennox.  The audio of the debate can be accessed at RichardDawkins.net here.

Dawkins and Lennox also had a closed-door conversation on religion and science earlier in the year with only a tape recorder present, the audio for which can be accessed here.  As American biologist and blogwit, P Z Myers concluded:

Dawkins just probes with a few pointed questions, and Lennox, a theologian, babbles on and on and on, asserting the most amazing things.  All those miracles in the bible?  They literally happened – he doesn’t hide behind metaphor and poetry.  Water into wine, resurrections, walking on water… it all actually happened, exactly as written, and further, he claims that all of these accounts represent historically valid evidence.  This is the sophisticated theology we godless atheists are always skipping over, I guess.

Dawkins’ debate with then head of the Human Genome Project and evangelical Christian for the pages of Time magazine in 2006 is worth a read:

DAWKINS: I accept that there may be things far grander and more incomprehensible than we can possibly imagine.  What I can’t understand is why you invoke improbability and yet you will not admit that you’re shooting yourself in the foot by postulating something just as improbable, magicking into existence the word God.

COLLINS: My God is not improbable to me.  He has no need of a creation story for himself or to be fine-tuned by something else. God is the answer to all of those “How must it have come to be” questions.

DAWKINS: I think that’s the mother and father of all cop-outs.  It’s an honest scientific quest to discover where this apparent improbability comes from.  Now Dr Collins says, “Well, God did it. And God needs no explanation because God is outside all this.”  Well, what an incredible evasion of the responsibility to explain. Scientists don’t do that.  Scientists say, “We’re working on it. We’re struggling to understand.”

Dawkins and Richard Harries had a very civilised discussion for Dawkins’ 2006 Channel 4 documentary, Root of All Evil? (Part 1 / Part 2).  The full uncut interview can be viewed below:

They also debated Darwin and Christianity at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History on Darwin Day 2009:

And let’s not forget that Dawkins and Harries both signed an open letter to the then Prime Minister Tony Blair to protest against the head of new-fangled city academy Emmanuel College, Gateshead, after the head of the science department (!), Stephen Layfield delivered a lecture proposing that young earth creationism and flood geology be taught in science classes:

Dear Prime Minister

We write as a group of scientists and Bishops to express our concern about the teaching of science in the Emmanuel City Technology College in Gateshead.  Evolution is a scientific theory of great explanatory power, able to account for a wide range of phenomena in a number of disciplines.  It can be refined, confirmed and even radically altered by attention to evidence.  It is not, as spokesmen for the college maintain, a ‘faith position’ in the same category as the biblical account of creation which has a different function and purpose.

The issue goes wider than what is currently being taught in one college.  There is a growing anxiety about what will be taught and how it will be taught in the new generation of proposed faith schools.  We believe that the curricula in such schools, as well as that of Emmanuel City Technical College, need to be strictly monitored in order that the respective disciplines of science and religious studies are properly respected.

Yours sincerely

The Right Reverend Richard Harries, Bishop of Oxford
Sir David Attenborough, FRS
The Right Reverend Christopher Herbert, Bishop of St Albans
Lord May of Oxford, President of the Royal Society
Professor John Enderby, FRS, Physical Secretary, Royal Society
The Right Reverend John Oliver, Bishop of Hereford
The Right Reverend Mark Santer, Bishop of Birmingham
Sir Neil Chalmers, Director, Natural History Museum
The Right Reverend Thomas Butler, Bishop of Southwark
Sir Martin Rees, FRS, Astronomer Royal
The Right Reverend Kenneth Stevenson, Bishop of Portsmouth
Professor Patrick Bateson, FRS, Biological Secretary, Royal Society
The Right Reverend Crispian Hollis, Roman Catholic Bishop of Portsmouth
Sir Richard Southwood, FRS, Past Biological Secretary, Royal Society
Sir Francis Graham-Smith, FRS, Past Physical Secretary, Royal Society
Professor Richard Dawkins, FRS

Aside from that, Dawkins had a public discussion at The Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival in 2007 with Anglican theologian Alistair McGrath following the publication of The God Delusion and McGrath’s reply (if that’s the right word for it), The Dawkins Delusion? (McGrath’s effort is terrible, even by the low standards of the “fleas”.  Paula Kirby does the book justice in her “Fleabytes” review of four Christian responses to The God Delusion.)

However, the real treat is Dawkins’ full uncut interview with McGrath for Root of All Evil?

None of the footage was used in the final version of the programme.  McGrath claimed it was because he had landed several blows on Dawkins and made him “appear uncomfortable”.  My theory is that the producers were concerned for the well-being of viewers who might be operating heavy machinery while watching it.  McGrath is horrendously boring and babbles incomprehensibly.  One blogger at RD.net summed up his style thus:

A fly on the wall in the McGrath household:

MRS McGRATH: What would you like for dinner, dear?

MR McGRATH: Well, if I can just come back on that actually, I think you’ve raised a very interesting point, pivotal to the way this discussion should continue.  This is certainly something that needs to be engaged with and explored further.  It seems to me that there are areas we can push into here that can challenge us and I welcome that.  When I was an atheist, these on-going philosophical subjects were subject to different interpretations and perspectives so, suffice to say, the Christian faith has fortified me and others to take all of these very very very interesting points into account and offer an explanation such as this: Egg and chips will be fine, love.

MRS McGRATH: I’m leaving you.

Nevertheless, try and stay awake because Dawkins uses his wonderful brand of pithy sarcasm, to which McGrath is seemingly oblivious.  And the knock-out punch comes at 45 minutes when Dawkins nails him whether God intervened to save one child in a tsunami that claimed the lives of thousands.  As one blogger commenting on the interview’s entry on RD.net put it:

For 45 minutes it’s a gentle game of ping pong and then when it comes to the issue god and suffering McGrath’s arms get tired and Dawkins switches to a tennis racket.  At 50 minutes McGrath is undone.

Magic!

A C Grayling is a slightly less-known quantity to me.  I have read a few of his books and seen some of his debates and lectures and can recommend the following to whet your appetites.

Against All Gods is Grayling’s contribution to the New Atheism.  It is brief – more of a pamphlet than a book – but there are some real gems in it.  Of particular interest to the topic at hand is Grayling’s rubbishing the concept of “atheist fundamentalism” by asking what a non-fundamentalist atheist is: someone who sort of doesn’t, but not quite not believes in God?!  Grayling also predicts that far from seeing a resurgence of religion, we are actually witnessing its death-throes; a violent convulsion before it’s gone for good.

Grayling is a champion of the enlightenment and wrote Towards the Light in celebration of rationalism’s conquest over dogma.  Be sure to read his hilarious exchanges with wedge-driving ID hack from the ironically-named Discovery Institute, Steve Fuller over Grayling’s damning review of Fuller’s Dissent Over DescentGrayling’s reply to Fuller’s indignant response to his review contained this all-time classic which I have quoted myself on at least one occasion:

Steve Fuller complains, as do all authors whose books are panned, that I did not read his book properly (or at all).  Alas, I did.

Grayling’s appearance at Beyond Belief 2008 on Human Flourishing and Eudaimonics is also worth watching:

Although it has nothing to do with religion, Grayling’s discussion with Christopher Hitchens on the moral implication of the Allies’ devastating bombing campaign against civilians of the Axis powers during World War II at the Goethe-Institut, Washington in 2006 following the publication of Grayling’s Among The Dead Cities is a real treat.   It’s on YouTube in 11 parts or you can watch it on FORA.tv and C-Span.

Predictions for this one

Unlike the rhetorical slaughter by Hitchens and Fry of the Vatican, which I predicted in advance of the actual event, I feel that this one will be too close to call.  Probably both sides will come away claiming victory.  Dawkins and Grayling are far more cordial and polite in comparison to Hitchens’ bull-in-a-china-shop/ take-no-prisoners approach at the lectern.

However, I hope that the two heretics will push the point that atheists are offended by what they read in the holy books of the world’s religions and how this is put into practice all too literally by millions of believers the world over, whether it be  indoctrinating their children into thinking that their non-Catholic/Protestant/Muslim/Jewish [delete as applicable] friends will suffer an eternity in hellfire, to ploughing millions dollars every year into spreading creationism – money that would be far better spent on potentially life-saving scientific research – or flying aeroplanes into skyscrapers.

I know what these books say because I’ve read them.  Why should we respect the utterly ridiculous claim that they could only have been authored by an omnipotent deity?  Why shouldn’t we get angry when such ideas are granted special privilege in public discourse?

The idea that we must automatically “respect” other people’s ideas is complete nonsense.  It is a special favour granted only to religious faith.  In every other area of conversation we most certainly do not respect people’s views and opinions.  If one member of the panel wanted to promulgate their honest, sincere, faith-based claim that the Holocaust never happened, that National Socialism was the only proper form of government, or even something less sinister such as Elvis was still alive, is that a view that the audience would “respect”?  Of course not!

In every other conversational topic we demand good reasons.  We demand evidence.  Reason and evidence really are contagious.  If you give good reasons, people will accept your claims as they accept the colour of your hair.  Religious faith is a reason not to give reasons.  It is a conversation stopper.  Even if the New Atheists are completely wrong about the existence of God and the negative effects of religion upon society, they have at the very least helped moved religious faith into the same sphere.

Perhaps into ten years time whenever someone opens their mouth or puts pen to paper in criticism of religion, this will be accepted as if they had criticised a political ideology as opposed the hysterical responses of the present day where theists and atheists alike rush to publish books and articles denouncing the “shrillness” and “stridency” of those brave few who dare speak out.

At the very least, I hope I get the chance to thank Dawkins for his very kind comment that I was “most certainly not boring” during my appearance on Premier’s Christian Radio’s religious sceptics’ debate show Unbelievable? with author of The Dawkins Letters (another “flea” response to The God Delusion), Pastor David Robertson and former-atheist-converted-to-Christianity, Richard Morgan.

It’s on YouTube in 11 parts or you can watch it on FORA.tv and C-Span.