March 2007

As you might be aware, I enjoy listening to, and occasionally taking part in debate and discussion on religion. This post is mostly links to and commentary about a few such debates I’ve come across recently.

robhu has been posting about William Lane Craig. I don’t like watching Craig, partly because he usually cows his atheist opponents, but also because of how he does it. After you’ve watched or heard him in action more than once, you realise that Craig has a script which he rattles off, and some debating tricks which he uses to great effect (for instance, because debates are time-limited, you can always use your opponent’s lack of time to claim that your opponent cannot refute your argument because they have not had time to do so). Craig often seems to omit the basic courtesy of listening to your opponent. I don’t find his arguments that persuasive either (see gjm11‘s recent blog posting on the evidence for the Resurrection, for example).

Richard Dawkins and Alister McGrath’s discussion at the Oxford Literary Festival was a gentler affair than one of Craig’s debates. McGrath seems a little unwilling to spell out what he does believe, which I found odd for a Christian, and which allowed Dawkins to land some easy blows merely by asking him to spell it out:

Dawkins: Well I mean, do you believe in the virgin birth?

McGrath: Well I do, but the issue I think really is not simply how one makes sense of these things but actually what they point to.

Dawkins: No, no. Look, you are a scientist, you are a biologist and you believe in the virgin birth, on scriptural grounds. You actually elevate scripture above science in this case.

McGrath: Well in this case, here is something which seems to me to be an integral part of the Christian tradition, which may well be in conflict with part of our present day scientific understanding, that’s certainly an area of tension.


Dawkins also turns up alongside a host of other public intellectuals (A.C. Grayling, Christopher Hitchens, Julia Neuberger, Roger Scruton and Nigel Spivey) in a debate on the motion “We’d be better off without religion”. The two sides sometimes seemed to be speaking past each other, in that the proponents were mostly thinking of the religious as people who believe something, and the opponents talked in terms of community and feelings of transcendence. Some commenters on the Dawkins forum took this is a sign of victory, in that so much ground has been yielded to atheism that the proponents of religion are not even prepared to argue that it is true.

Not being a huge follower of politics, I wasn’t aware that these Drinked Soaked Trots took their name from George Galloway’s insult to Christopher Hitchens. I’m not sure about the war, but I’m more in agreement with Hitchens’s views on the moral necessity of atheism.

In the pub, it turned out that some LiveJournalists and Facebookers hadn’t seen these. So here are some links to some fun things on YouTube:

The Facebook Skit, a reworking of that well-known rumba Hero to explain what sammagain does on Facebook.

Baby Got Back – Gilbert and Sullivan Style. So wrong, yet so right.

The Mr Deity videos. George Lucas is God, apparently. The earlier ones are good, there’s a dip in the middle, but the Ten Commandments one is a return to form.

Roy Zimmerman has some funny songs, my favourites being Defenders of Marriage and Jerry Falwell’s God.

I can never quite work out whether the Grauniad is trolling for advertising clicks, a bit like those people who publish those “Linux sux, Microsoft rulez” articles in the hope of being picked up by Slashdot. The Dawkins blog linked to this piece on religion and secularism recently. One particularly choice quote:

“We are witnessing a social phenomenon that is about fundamentalism,” says Colin Slee, the Dean of Southwark. “Atheists like the Richard Dawkins of this world are just as fundamentalist as the people setting off bombs on the tube, the hardline settlers on the West Bank and the anti-gay bigots of the Church of England.”

I mean, what? Writing a book or being rude about religion is apparently in some way equivalent to blowing up commuters. One of the Drink-soaked Trots has already delivered an excellent rebuttal (don’t miss the discussion of what HL Mencken really said about religion). Dawkins also addresses the question of whether he deserves to be called a fundamentalist in The God Delusion. Unsurprisingly, he concludes that he doesn’t, but his reasoning is that a fundamentalist is not merely someone who’s a passionate advocate of a particular idea, but rather, someone who clings to that idea come what may. I’m not a fundamentalist, says Dawkins, because I’m very clear about what would change my mind (fossil rabbits in the precambrian, presumably). A fundamentalist is someone who will not change their mind and cannot change the subject.

But wait, there’s more, this time from Richard Chartres, the Bishop of London:

“If you exile religious communities to the margins, then they will start to speak the words of fire among consenting adults, and the threat to public order and the public arena, I think, will grow and grow.”

Stuart Jeffries’s article says that the goal of secularists is the exclusion of religion and religious people from the public sphere. That’s not the feeling I get from reading the latest slew of books cheering for atheism. Rather, I think secularists are tired of seeing the statements of the religious taken with more weight simply because they are religious. Or, as Bishop Chartres (and Azzim Tamimi, also quoted) remind us, because of what the religious might do if they don’t get their way.

Another way of spotting the true fundamentalists is that they really don’t like humour, as one particular privilege that fundamentalist religion likes to claim for itself is the right never to be offended. If any of you happen to be alumni of Clare College, and, having had a nice phone call from a current student, you are donating to the college via a standing order or similar, I urge you to cancel the order, and tell them why.

Edited: added the link to the rebuttal.