Theological debates go back to the origins of the Church. But recent years have seen a number of debates receiving high profiles in the media; these have typically involved militant atheists such as Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens. Most have been marginally interesting at best, and most fell quickly into stale tropes, both on the ‘God’ and ‘anti-God’ sides of the house.
Therefore, when Dawkins engaged in a recent debate with the Archbishop of Canterbury, I expected more of the same, and I turned on the video feed expecting to switch it off within a few minutes.
To my surprise, this turned out to be a very different debate. It was unusual in substance, and I will focus on that in another post. But in this one, I want to speak to an astonishing difference in style.
Let me back up, though. The event was framed as a discussion, not a debate, and the main participants were the Archbishop and Prof Dawkins. Sir Anthony Kenny, the philosopher, was the moderator. The title was ‘The nature of human beings and the question of their ultimate origin’ and it was held at Oxford, in February of this year.
A video of the entire debate can be found here.
What I found astonishing about the discussion was that it took on a civil and constructive tone from the start. There was no name-calling and no satire. The humour was gentle. The Archbishop didn’t tear into Prof Dawkins but spoke calmly. And Dawkins responded in kind; the hectoring tone has sometimes emerged in these debates simply vanished. He opened himself to the possibility that there might be more to it all than ‘the laws of physics’.
I ended up listening to all 90 minutes of the discussion, rather than the 5 or 10 I had originally planned. And I wondered whether the many Catholic and Christian apologists out there – on the lecture circuit, in blogs, in books – wouldn’t benefit from adopting a more irenic style.
Most public apologists for the faith or some aspect of it (this or that type of liturgy, for instance) see themselves as polemicists. Far too many adopt Chesterton or, even worse, Belloc, as their models; or C.S. Lewis, who eventually took on a rotund BBC accent but never got rid of the brawling Ulsterman inside him. Evelyn Waugh could match any of them in making belittling and disparaging remarks. Too many of today’s apologists imitate their tone. And none of today’s apologists can match their literary skill.
To be sure, the topic for this debate / discussion did not lend itself to a polemical style. The Intelligence Squared debates titled ‘The Catholic Church is a force for good in the world’ or ‘Pope John Paul II did more harm than good’ or ‘Atheism is the new fundamentalism’ were, from the start, more likely to go down this road. But those debates did little to advance one side’s understanding of the other’s. The one between Abp Williams and Prof Dawkins did.
In our discussions of liturgy and worship, here on Pray Tell or elsewhere, we might do well to follow their example.