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In 1860, William Wilberforce and Thomas Huxley met at the Natural History Museum in Oxford in what is often described as one of the most celebrated debates of all time. Although they contested various issues relating to Darwin, one report, popularised after the event, ensured that it was best-remembered for Wilberforce’s famous quip as to whether Huxley thought he was descended from a monkey on his Grandfather’s or Grandmother’s side. The debate may have moved on since then, but the relationship between religion and science continues to be a topic that is keenly discussed today.

Last summer, John Lennox embarked upon a series of public debates against a number of the world’s leading atheists:

  • 8 August, Edinburgh:
    The New Europe should adopt the New Atheism versus Christopher Hitchens
  • 19 August, Sydney, Australia:
    We’d be better off without religion (two teams consisting of three speakers each)
  • 23 August, Sydney, Australia:
    The Great Debate: Does God Exist
    versus Michael Shermer
  • 21 October, Oxford:
    Has Science Buried God? versus Richard Dawkins

The grand finale was undoubtedly the encounter with Richard Dawkins, which was made all the more poignant by the fact that it was held at Oxford’s Natural History Museum, the venue of the famous exchange almost 150 years ago.

Although the speakers covered a vast range of topics over the course of the many debates, three particular areas are summarised below:

Creation and Our Universe

Incredibly, in his opening statement at the Natural History Museum, Dawkins stated that there was a “reasonably respectable” case to be made for a deist God. Although he said that he did not believe there was such a creator, it was still quite an astonishing admission given the unequivocal tone of his book and the fact that he says belief in God is almost certainly a delusion. In fact, he had previously poured scorn on the well-known atheist philosopher, Antony Flew, who recently argued that there was a deist God behind creation. Flew’s change of mind was prompted by the fact that he could not see how purpose-carrying codes of information could give rise to self–reproduction in life-forms, when everything supposedly arose from purposeless matter.

Later on in the debate, the Spectator journalist, Melanie Phillips, asked Dawkins whether he believed that matter had merely popped into existence spontaneously from nothing. Dawkins admitted that this was a problematic position, but he maintained that this was more plausible than there being a God. He went on to elaborate that if there was a creator, it was more likely to be some form of extra terrestrial who had evolved to such a degree that it might seem “godlike” to us. Melanie Phillips was left to conclude that the great question about Dawkins is “whether his own theory is now in the process of further evolution – and whether it might even jump the species barrier into what is vulgarly known by lesser mortals as faith.”

Morality and Hope

One thing that united all of those who debated Lennox is that each of them considered religion to be bad for society. However, Lennox exposed the problem with this stance by pointing out that it is unclear from what basis they are making a moral pronouncement. Hitchens had to concede this fact when he agreed that he could not say that “the new Europe should adopt the new atheism” (the motion that was being discussed) because he realised the problem of trying to get an “ought” (a moral statement) from an “is” (an event). After all, Dawkins has written that DNA “neither knows nor cares” and we simply “dance to its music”. Therefore, things may feel bad because it may have been disadvantageous for the survival of our own genes, but there is no absolute right or wrong without there being an absolute law-giver (a God). On Premier Christian Radio, Dawkins was pressed on this matter (November 2008) and he was forced to concede that his reasons for saying rape, for example, is “wrong” were as arbitrary as the fact that we have evolved with five fingers rather than six.

Lennox pointed out that unlike the “hard atheists”, such as Sartre and Camus, the new atheists refuse to follow their arguments to their logical conclusions. He quoted the atheist philosopher John Gray who has criticised Dawkins and others for clinging to the ultimate concepts of human rights, justice, morality and truth, which their worldview does not support. These notions, he says, are merely remnants of our Christian heritage. But without them, Lennox pointed out, is there any real hope for our future?

The “Danger” of Faith

One of the most revealing aspects of the debates was the attempt by atheists to drive home a caricature of the Christian position using a number of simplistic dichotomies (e.g. science or religion). These are convenient ways of trying to propagate the idea that the two sides are mutually exclusive and that only one has intellectual credibility. This is certainly the case for faith, which new atheists portray as being something you only have in the absence of evidence (i.e. the opposite of reason). Unsurprisingly, many of them view this position as being inherently dangerous, as it can lead otherwise normal people to do abnormal things because they have not thought through their actions rationally. Lennox challenged this misconception in 2007 by getting Dawkins to admit that he had “faith” in his wife, which was obviously not the same as blind faith (although Dawkins did not like the use of the word). Lennox reminded the audience that Christianity is a rational belief and that many people have become followers of Christ because they have weighing up the evidence at hand.

But what about the danger of atheism? In the Edinburgh debate, Hitchens attempted to explain away the atrocities of atheistic regimes, by claiming they were actually religious systems. He argued that Stalin, for example, built upon the quasi-religious status of the Tsars and that he grew his power by using the faith-based culture that was already familiar to the masses (e.g. speaking of “miracles” such as the agricultural revolution). However, Lennox pointed out that the new atheists do not take history seriously and that Marxism, for example, was underpinned by atheism. Furthermore, Hitchens’ argument highlights the fact that the new atheists conveniently avoid defining what they mean by religion, perhaps because it is notoriously difficult to do so. The word covers so many different aspects of the human condition, including for example, beliefs, actions and morals, so you can easily suggest that almost any political system is in some sense religious (e.g. religious language used in campaigning, the desire to change people’s behaviour, the pledging of devotion to a leader/party, etc). By tarnishing all belief-systems with the same brush, it means that the new atheists do not adequately distinguish between the different belief-systems, as if all religions were essentially the same. Conversely, the argument also seems to suggest that atheism could at least be turned into a religion, or indeed, that perhaps it could already be considered one.

The DVDs of the debates against Hitchens and Dawkins can be purchased from Fixed Point Foundation, who organised both debates (the former in conjunction with the Trinity Forum):