Setting polemics aside for a moment

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.


  1. If we put bits into the mouths of horses that they may obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Look at the ships also; though they are so great and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs.

    So the tongue is a little member and boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is an unrighteous world among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the cycle of nature, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by humankind, but no human being can tame the tongue — a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

    With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brethren, this ought not to be so.

    James 3:3-10

  2. Did one ever wish that Lent was LONGER? JP’s comment about perhaps the most ungovernable of our members makes one wish that, yes, more holy time could be put to profitable use: so many sins, so little time. It, also, reminds me of one of my favourite prayers, of which I am in constant need. It is by the great Anonymous and goes thusly:
    Put, O Lord, a stop upon our tongue:
    that we may not speak that which is untrue;
    or that which, being true, is only half true;
    or that which, being wholly true, is merciless

  3. Rowan Williams set a magnificent headline for Christian dialogue with the world. It’s a pity his tenure was blighted by the ill-conceived Covenant procedure. After Tanzania it seems that his Praetorian Guard stepped back, leaving him exposed to the slings and arrows of outraged opinion. His successor may decide to ruthlessly delegate all such issues of governance to those under him, and it is a pity that RW does not do the same and continue with his function as a persuasive Christian voice for his nation and the world.

  4. About fifteen years ago I stopped watching television save for passive viewing in places where the electronic eye is always on. I left home for the first time, threw out the boob tube, and found that TV was not only uninteresting but also socially corrosive. After all these years, people still wonder if I’m lonely because I don’t have a TV! Quite the opposite is true. Over these last fifteen years I have been learning how to relate to others with civility. An often aggressive and uncharitable medium cannot foster interpersonal respect.

    One phrase infrequently heard on TV is “thank you”. The “roundtable” pundit shows encourage constant interruptions and shouts. Aggression and intimidation often displace reasoned and respectful argument. “Thank you”, “that’s a good point”, and the like, even when one does not agree with the other person’s statements, facilitate charitable and civil discussion. These phrases also recognize the dignity of another person and her participation regardless of the eloquence, plausibility, or veracity of her argument.

    Here on PTB I have attempted to thank those who critique or comment on my writing. Do know that these are not merely platitudes. The recognition of another’s critiques or comments is integral to my own argument. Indeed, these admissions highlight the truth that all my statements require constant re-examination and revision in the light of others’ contributions. I often fail, but I have found that each attempt to recognize the other contributes to my growth as an interlocutor.

    1. re: Jordan Zarembo on March 27, 2012 – 3:05 am

      A correction and apology. In older American slang, televisions were deprecatingly referred to as “boob tubes”. One slang word for a foolish person in mid 20th-century America was “boob”, and until recently televisions had picture tubes. The OED revealed a double entendre which might be offensive. I should remember that the meaning of phrases change over time and between the various dialects of English. Thank you for your understanding.

      Regardless, I am still convinced that the device turns minds to pablum in short order.

      1. Jordan,

        I understand your point, but don’t entirely agree. The television as such doesn’t necessarily turn minds to mush, any more than did the radio before it. Or the telephone, for that matter. Or even the book [trashy romances, anyone?]. It is but another medium of communication. I think the real problem is mindless consumption of mindless content more than the medium by which it’s delivered. That said, there’s a LOT, oh boy a WHOLE LOT, of mindless content very readily available via television, and no shortage of people happy to drink deeply of it. But there’s useful stuff there, though it takes some deliberate effort to find it. To all things their proper scope and place, no?

        And I do entirely agree with you on the matter of civility.

      2. re: Lynn Thomas on March 27, 2012 – 8:55 am

        You’re right Lynn. I shouldn’t broadcast (no pun) my opinion about TV in that manner. As you note, any medium, including the Internet I should add, is potentially beneficial or destructive depending on how it is used. All media can be enriching with user discretion.

      3. The explosion of mass media in the late 20th Century and the ascendency of visual media over print has definitely had a deleterious effect on journalism. That’s not to say that individual print products are not inferior to the best video products, but the effect upon news journalism in general of having to reduce important stories to sound bites and images — and the fact that increasingly the only source of information the public gets is on this mimimal level — has indubitably lowered the level of public discourse. The art of making visual images that stun, entrance, and bedazzle viewers has increased greatly. But the boob-factor comes into play when it’s a matter of piecing together facts and interpretations of any complexity. Many people today crow about the ability to get billions of facts from the internet, and if you can read and want to read, your access to information is far better than it ever was before. However, this ignores the problem that access is not the only factor. As a society America at least has become habituated to being visually entertained and following only the most simple story-lines with predictable emotional triggers, and not to reading.

      4. The BBC World Service says thank you all the time to reporters and interviewees — this oldworld courtesy probably strains many viewers’ patience.

      5. Don’t feel too bad about “boob tube,” Jordan. I once made the mistake of saying “booby prize” in front of a group of seventh graders. It was hard explaining the meaning of the term to them since they desperately wanted it to be dirty.

      6. What’s dirty about sex and sexuality?

        Using dirty, as a synonym for sexual is a benighted and obsolete practice.

        If you mean sexual, why not say so?

      7. Gerard

        Please, the next time you get a chance, earnestly explain at length that to a group of seventh graders. And do take questions.

      8. Rita [at 4:10 PM March 27],

        No dispute about the decline in overall quality, but the burden is on us, individually and as a society, to demand better. The medium is still just the medium. The content makers are ultimately in business to make money, of course, so they will make what they can sell the most of. It’s on us as consumers to seek and expect more of the deeper, thoughtful and thought-provoking material. Unfortunately, the collective ‘we’ tends to be really lazy in this regard. Dang! Back to that personal responsibility thing. . .

      9. Children have a tendency to live up to the expectations their teachers implicitly set them.

        If you find, the next time that you are speaking to them, that they cannot distinguish between sexual and dirty it may very well be that, at the very least, the confusion is being reinforced for their perception of what you think.

      10. Gerard: unless you mean something strange by the word, breasts are not any more “sexual” than lips or earlobes, sorry. If you can truly only conceptualize them in sexual terms, I’m afraid that says more about you (and your view of women) than it does about anybody else.

      11. I used dirty because it described their reaction, not because I think sex or sexuality is automatically dirty. Some used the opportunity to try and derail the classroom by screaming innapropriate things (not unusual at that level, expecially if you aren’t dealing with overly sheltered kids). It wasn’t some calm misunderstanding that I freaked out over and called dirty because I’m some sort of prude.

      12. Ms Kloter, the most charitable interpretation of your rant is to presume that you haven’t read the preceding contributions. Your offering must rank as the most fantastic non sequitur since the beginning of PT.

  5. I grew up in a home where the TV was always on. When you walked into the room, you flipped on the TV just as you flipped on the lights. After leaving home, I learned to watch TV intentionally–rarely do I just “see what’s on.” DVRs have helped a lot in this regard.

  6. Emily,

    At 8:58 am this morning I think you addressed (perhaps a bit polemically?) the wrong person.

    1. Oh, not at all. I was referring to Gerard’s strange and unconstructive comment, “Using dirty, as a synonym for sexual is a benighted and obsolete practice. If you mean sexual, why not say so?” It seems that Gerard felt the need for some reason to attempt to derail the thread by painting Jack Wayne as a “benighted” prude who ought to just get with the times, dude. The reality of it, though, is that there’s no reason at all to suppose that Mr. Wayne actually meant “sexual” in the first place, since breasts are not, in any sort of fundamental way, sexual. Trust me, I would know.

      1. Emily
        I hope that most of us can be amused by an unintentional double entendre. Gerard made a fair point. Only you were upset.
        We need some amusement in the heated debates. The differing way that English is used gives lots of scope for choosing the wrong turn of phrase.
        I believe that in the Manx (Isle of Man) assembly it is forbidden to call your opponent a ‘kipper’ as it implies that he is two faced and gutless.
        Just think how dull it would be if we never had these things to amuse us.

      2. On the contrary, to consider sex and sexuality as synonyms for dirt and dirty isn’t prudery. Unhealthy, dualistic, Manichean, anti-incarnational and hostile to personal integration, yes indeed, but prudish, no.

      3. It’s odd that my initial lighthearted comment created such a diversion. In her defense, I interpreted Gerard’s comment the way Emily did (it seems rather obvious he was trying to act superior), but decided to not let it bother me. That sort of thing is par for the course here.

        Jordan worrying that some would take offense to “boob tube” just reminded me of a funny anecdote. Any meaning beyond that is overanalyzing it way too much.

  7. No argument here except with the title. I think you meant:

    “Setting polemics aside for a lifetime.”

    Discussion and debate are great, but I see no need to resume polemics after Lent! Thanks for the reminder, Jonathan.

  8. I wonder if certain erudite habitues of the PTB comboxes have finally and ultimately proved that folks such as the late lovely Mr. Hitchens and Dr. Dawkins can engage their opponent fellowes with true Christian charity in a manner that is right and fitting, as well as suspect upon self-presumed Christians who cannot comport themselves with that same integrity and manners?

  9. For a recent example of ‘how not to do it’, see this debate between Richard Dawkins and Cardinal George Pell. You can view the video at that link and also read a transcript.

    Cardinal Pell did no favours for the Christian cause. He was arrogant without being provocative and he made pronouncements on areas where he has no competence at all (physics, evolutionary biology). He resorted to crude taunts at Dawkins. When given a golden chance to make some sense of the doctrine of the Eucharist, he stumbled. His response to a question about gay marriage was even worse. Excerpt:

    TONY JONES [debate moderator]: … do you believe that homosexuality, since it’s not a question of choice, is part of God’s natural order?

    GEORGE PELL: Creation is messy. I think it’s the oriental carpet makers always leave a little flaw in their carpet because only God is perfect.

    Prof Dawkins was calmer, but Pell’s thuggish style pushed Dawkins into his more typical closed position.

    I am more and more convinced that the legacy of Lewis, Chesterton, Belloc and other “warriors” is a toxic one, and that their modern and less talented followers – I think of Peter Kreeft, Michael Voris and Cardinal Pell – do more harm than good. We need apologists who will follow St Ignatius Loyola’s counsel in the Presupposition to the Spiritual Exercises:

    ….let it be presupposed that every good Christian is to be more ready to save his neighbor’s proposition than to condemn it. If he cannot save it, let him inquire how he means it; and if he means it badly, let him correct him with charity. If that is not enough, let him seek all the suitable means to bring him to mean it well, and save himself.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *