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.