Opinion

John Lloyd

God, Richard Dawkins, and the meaning of life

John Lloyd
Feb 28, 2012 20:35 UTC

Two clever men, long past the first flush of youth, took part in a debate on God’s place — or absence — in the meaning and origin of life last week in Oxford. They differed; and to no one’s surprise, each remained unconvinced by the other’s argument at its end. Oxford University has been hosting such encounters for centuries.

So why was the University’s Sheldonian Theatre packed, with two other theaters full of people watching the debate on closed-circuit screens? Why was it covered by the news media? Why had it been sold out within hours? Who still cared about this stuff in a society that — for all that the Church of England is an established religion and the queen is its head — is as secular as any in the democratic world?

Judging by the response of the audience, including this writer, that last question’s answer emerged in the Oxford debate. We realized, as we listened to the moderate, educated English cadences of the debaters, that we care because no matter how indifferent to religion we are, or even how certain that it is a purely human construct rather than a divine revelation, we are made uneasy by its claims and miss its promise of grace and eternity. More practically, we care because many can feel morally adrift without its guidance. In his just-published book, Religion for Atheists, the philosopher Alain de Botton argues that, as he put it in an interview, “religions are full of interesting, challenging, consoling ideas … they do community really well, they’re very good on ethics, they teach us to be good, to be kind.

And the fact that the Oxford debate was a clash, with the promise of a victor, added to the fascination of the event. One of the two debaters was Richard Dawkins, a fellow of Oxford’s New College, a famed biologist, yet more famed for being the world’s most prominent and aggressive atheist. The other was Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, head of the world Anglican communion, thought to number some 80 million. The stakes were high for both men –neither wanted to be seen as being bested. And for the audience, among whom were many priests and students of theology, to see a winner or loser was to offer reassurance that their faith, or lack of it, had support at the highest level available.

The title was “The Nature of Human Beings and the Question of Their Ultimate Origin” – as the chairman, the philosopher Anthony Kenny, remarked, more than enough to fill an evening. The evening was filled, to overflowing, intellectually and in attendance, but for much of the time it was even more replete with courtesies and agreement, a tone underscored by Kenny’s insistence that, first, both agree on three underpinning issues. These were: that they both believed there was such a thing as truth; that they believed in logic (as in, two contradictory statements cannot both be true); and that they believed in science’s claims to describe the observable world. Both agreed. And like well-tempered chess players, once agreed on the rules they then played the game with grace and humor.

What if the Israeli doves are wrong?

John Lloyd
Feb 16, 2012 17:58 UTC

Those who know Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, say he likes to test his opinions against robust argument, often at length. This column is an account of one such — imagined — conversation.

Netanyahu tends to see issues through the prism of the Holocaust, and the deep well of anti-Semitism it plumbed. On the part of the Nazis, of course, but also elsewhere in Europe — in Poland, Ukraine, the Baltic States, Hungary, Romania and France. After the war was over and the facts of the Holocaust became known, returning Jews were attacked and killed in the Polish countryside, and Stalin embarked on a murderous anti-Semitic program which — had it not been for his death in 1953 — seemed set to result in at least some major pogroms, if not another mass killing on the scale of the Nazis’. This realization, for anyone Decent, is at least sobering. For a Jew, it raises the specter of an eternal horror that can rarely be wholly dismissed.

Just as Anthony Eden, the British prime minister, viewed Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser as an Arab Hitler when Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal in 1956, so Netanyahu tends to see Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as the same reincarnation. That means that the Iranian president is, in the Israeli’s mind, not just a fanatical anti-Semite, but one who will pursue his fanaticism at all costs – including causing great damage to his own people.

Europe’s welfare rock has made it a hard, undemocratic place

John Lloyd
Feb 9, 2012 22:17 UTC

Speak now to an intelligent European politician (having assured him or her that the conversation is off the record) and you will discover a deeply worried representative — and one who leaves you in a similar state. Whether they are in the European parliament or a national legislature, European politicians are now constrained to contemplate their powerlessness. And ours.

Ordinary members of parliaments often feel like that. But ministers, even of small states, who have been elected to represent, propose, plan and legislate, now feel it too, and more acutely. Especially in the countries that remain devoted to the idea that the state should protect its people from the hardships and, in some cases, the vicissitudes of life, people have been accustomed to expect much more in the way of protection. But politicians must now offer less. For many citizens, that provision, coupled with security, was the point of government. But now, as each week brings little respite, ministers, prime ministers and presidents feel powerless.

In part this is because one state, Germany, emasculates all others. It acts — nominally — with France, but the latter’s weakened economy and politically weaker president, Nicolas Sarkozy, makes the duopoly at the apex of the European Union one of the weak providing political cover for the strong more than a true meeting of equals. On Angela Merkel’s decisions, and those of the German parliament, hangs the fate of nations. She has not wished it so: Those who make the parallel between the Nazi savagery of 70 years ago and Germany’s present power indulge in a facile radicalism that owes nothing to observable reality. Yet however reluctantly, she disposes for a continent.

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