Sunday, November 7, 2010

Maggie 2010: An Evening of Atheism and Faith

#117. The God Delusion Debate

I'm a secular humanist--an atheist, that is, who much prefers self-identifying by what I do believe in, and not by what I don't. I also use the term "secular humanist" to emphasize a broader community--of Christian humanists, Jewish humanists, Muslim humanists, etc--with which I ally myself over nihilists of any stripe, even atheistic ones. For this reason, despite thoroughly enjoying Dawkins' works on science and nature, I steered clear of The God Delusion, a work that explicitly argues (among other things) that even modest, personal theism is complicit in the atrocities of extremism. And yet I pounced on The God Delusion Debate the first chance I got.

The reason for this difference in reaction was that last word in the title: "debate." As it turned out, I was thoroughly looking forward to a fair discussion of The God Delusion, and the Fixed-Point Foundation, a Bible Belt organization committed to defending Christianity, seemed an especially intriguing choice to sponsor such an event. That said, I didn't know what to expect when Prof. Richard Dawkins and his opponent, John Lennox, a professor of mathematics at Oxford (and the philosophy of science at Green Templeton College) sat down with US Federal Judge William H. Pryor (moderator) to respond to each of the six theses of The God Delusion. Nonetheless, while the very existence of this civil public debate in its part of the world was impressive, I was rather immediately disappointed by limitations in structure that stripped the whole affair of any status of true debate.

Though the host of the event alluded to "Christian charity" in giving Dawkins the first and the final word of the night, the actual "debate" involved Pryor reading an excerpt from The God Delusion, then Dawkins being given five minutes to expand upon that quotation, and finally Lennox responding to the topic for five minutes, before all parties were expected to move on to the next thesis. Very quickly, this became a very unsatisfactory structure for thoughtful discourse, as Lennox's counters would invariably leave tremendous points of contention that Dawkins then struggled to answer in the five minutes allocated to his explication of the next thesis topic. Later in the "debate," the awkward format of the affair also left Lennox attempting to juggle response with thoughtful comment on the next thesis--to the extent, even, that his closing remarks were abbreviated to a mere two minutes, out of deference to the live TV audience also tuning in.

Pryor himself observed, late in the evening, that their time "has been used a lot by free exchange," but while this comment was made as gentle reprimand toward both debating parties for regular breeches of the event's bizarre debating structure, it was precisely the lack of free exchange that so weakened the experience as a whole.

However, the structure of the event was not its only weakness. Despite being an advocate of Dawkins, and never having encountered Lennox before, I must say that Lennox was easily the more composed of the two, while Dawkins, clearly uncomfortable with the format of the night's events, spoke with a startling vagueness for which he can only hold himself accountable. More puzzling yet, Dawkins even permitted, as the event progressed, an unfathomable slip regarding Hitler, such as perpetuates (by association with Stalin and Mao) a gross misunderstanding among many Bible Belt theists about the religious beliefs Nazism took to such monstrous extremes. Certainly, Dawkins grew more confident and coherent as the debate progressed (and indeed, as he and Lennox pushed the event's format to its limits), but Lennox scored more clear wins (by applause alone) in the audience, and for me, at least, Dawkin's explanations for his more steadfast and extreme statements in The God Delusion went weakly answered in the course of the actual event.

Would I recommend this film to others? Absolutely--but more as a teaching tool, a clear demonstration of why true debate is so important, and why no cult of ideology should ever blind any of us to the importance of good, strong argument. As Winston Churchill once said, "There's nothing I like less than bad arguments for a view that I hold dear." The God Delusion Debate is rife with these--but also, I hope, the seed of more thoughtful and truly engaged debates to come.

No comments: