The commentators are unusually united: yesteday’s debate between Archbishop Rowan and Richard Dawkins lacked a ‘knockout punch’. Among colleagues in Oxford, there was general agreement that no-one had a decisive victory. For all that, Dawkins was the only one who ever found himself on the ropes. Indeed, there were a few moments when Dawkins seemed more like an undergraduate being probed by a kindly but rigorous philosophy tutor. At one point, Dawkins was reduced to protesting that he was not, after all, a philosopher. That invites a question the Archbishop was far too kind to ask: Why, then, does Dawkins feel able to make dogmatic assertions about the philosophical implications of modern science?
A win on points for the Archbishop – indeed anything short of a knockout punch from his opponent – throws serious doubt on Dawkins’ position. Dawkins doesn’t just hold that atheism is, on balance, correct. His position is that religion is irrational nonsense. Rowan Williams has never made such dismissive noises about atheism. The Archbishop admits that there are also intellectual challenges for theism (especially around the problem of evil). Nothing less than a clear win for Dawkins would justify his claim that religion is obvious, demonstrable nonsense. For something to be demonstrable you have to be able to demonstrate it.
So last night represented a significant loss of ground for Dawkins’ polemical brand of atheism. It modelled a very different conversation between these incompatible worldviews – not based on woolly relativism but on rigorous and mutually respectful dialogue.
As I have argued before, Dawkins’ crusade against religion in public life, and his repeated claims that religious people ‘indoctrinate’ children only make sense if belief in God is palpably ludicrous. And whatever else one thinks of last night’s debate, Dawkins failed to justify that claim.
By Canon Dr Angus Ritchie, Director of the Contextual Theology Centre