High noon in Oxford: Richard Dawkins vs Archbishop Rowan Williams

By Reuters Staff
February 23, 2012

(The Archbishop of Cantebury Rowan Williams (R) and atheist scholar Richard Dawkins pose for a photograph before their debate in the Sheldonian theatre in Oxford, central England, February 23, 2012. REUTERS/Andrew Winning)

In the blue corner, the leader of the Church of England. In the red corner, the world’s most prominent critic of religion.

It was the intellectual version of a world heavyweight title fight when Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams faced evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, author of “The God Delusion,” on Thursday in a debate on the nature and ultimate origins of human beings.

Genetic pre-determination and the nature of consciousness were just some of the issues touched upon during an hour and a half of erudite jousting in the university town of Oxford.

The scholarly showdown came at a time of fierce controversy on the role of religion in Britain. Christian leaders and government ministers have been denouncing “aggressive secularism” since a February 10 court ruling that formal prayers at council meetings in a small English town were unlawful.

So the time was ripe for champions of the religious and secular camps to step into the ring – or in this case, the Sheldonian Theatre, a distinctive 17th century building where Oxford’s venerable university holds graduation ceremonies.

Despite their differences, the debate was courteous and calm. Dawkins admitted to being a “cultural Anglican” and Williams praised the scientist’s writing and noted he had once quoted him in a Christmas sermon.

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