I managed to watch the excellent debate between Richard Dawkins, Rowan Williams and Anthony Kenny from Oxford on Thursday afternoon. The topic was 'The nature of human beings and the question of their ultimate origin.' I also followed the Twitter stream on the debate for a few moments before giving up because it was just so tiresome and predictable. The debate is available to view on the Archbishop’s website.
A few brief reflections. I was really impressed with the tone of the debate. There was no grandstanding, chest thumping or brow beating which has sadly marred many of these debates. (I think for example of the Stephen Fry & Christopher Hitchens verses Ann Widdicombe & Archbishop Onaiyekan bout in the Intelligence Squared debate on the Catholic Church.) This may have been for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the audience was asked not to applaud and so the debaters didn’t play to the crowd in a Question Time way where each contributor raises their voice to a frenzied crescendo on every point to elicit clapping. Secondly, we had some real experts in their fields who had the intelligence to engage in rational debate and interact with each other’s arguments. There were also a few moments of genuine wit as well as wisdom. Those of us engaged in apologetics would do well to learn from the gracious manner in which the debaters engaged in the process.
However, I was genuinely surprised at how out of depth Richard Dawkins seemed once the debate turned to philosophical matters. At one point he said ‘I am not a philosopher’ and virtually excused himself from the discussion on the rest of that point. The problem for Dawkins is that he is continually trying to make philosophical points or at least engage with matters of philosophy and theology in his statements and writings. If you are going to comment on the discipline of others then you need at least to be able to engage with the language and concepts. By contrast, although both Kenny and Williams stressed they weren’t scientists it was clear that they had read Dawkins’ work and were familiar with some of his evidence. Kenny at one point challenged the research Dawkins appealed to regarding choice and free will (the processes involved in picking up a glass of water) and I thought convincingly exposed it weakness.
My second reflection leads on to my third. It seemed to me that both Kenny and Williams were comfortable engaging with Dawkins on matters of science and acknowledging his expertise. Williams went out of his way to praise Dawkins’ writing on the beauty of the universe. They not only accepted but celebrated science and displayed a humility about the subject. It was clear they had both thought long and hard about Dawkins’ evidence base and its strengths and weaknesses. By contrast Dawkins wanted to reduce everything to the purely scientific. Everything, he said, could or would be explained within the discipline of science. Therefore Dawkins sees no need to go outside his discipline in order to understand the subject of the debate. This perhaps explains why Dawkins doesn’t give the disciplines he doesn’t respect the courtesy of studying them in any depth.
Some may have found it frustrating that Williams was prepared to live with questions and uncertainty, for example on the problem of suffering. Anyone who knows the Archbishop’s writings and theology will understand that this is characteristic of his approach. His faith in God means he doesn’t feel he needs to have all the answers neatly tied down, that’s God’s problem not his. This for me is the heart of the matter; the contrast between someone who wants to have everything understood and explained and someone who is content to live with ambiguity and uncertainty within faith in One who doesn’t explain the gaps but encompasses everything. Or as Williams put it, a God who is ‘Love plus Mathematics’.