Dawkins vs. Williams: A View from Inside the Sheldonian by Sara Jude Berry

The Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford

On 23 February 2012, I attended the debate at Oxford University’s Sheldonian Theatre between Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, and the Arch-New Atheist, Richard Dawkins. The topic up for discussion was the “The Nature of Human Beings and the Question of their Ultimate Origin.” Fifty tickets were made available to non-Oxford students and I made it up at 3am in Texas on the only day of online sale to get mine.

The rise and rise of atheist public commentary, spearheaded by Dawkins and the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, marks a sea change in British cultural and intellectual thought. Dawkins is giving name and form to decades of British religious apathy and disinterest, discretely veiled all the while in positively British good manners, and a broad appreciation for religion’s role in providing social order and its work for charitable causes. The elephant in the room for so many for so long, however, has been quiet discomfort with the notion of a creator god. Dawkins is fed up what he sees as this distracting and irrational notion, along with the obfuscations he thinks creationists bring into education, and is resoundingly prepared to say so. Ever since reading a hatchet job by Martin Seymour-Smith on “the archdunce Dawkins,” I’ve been intrigued by the level of animosity engendered by this apparently reasonable, and obviously intelligent man (1).

Much has been said in the press since the debate about Dawkins’ apparent concession to agnosticism in his statement that he is “6.9 out of seven” certain of the absence of God but that “the probability of a supernatural creator existing is very, very low.” This statement has gained remarkable traction, and most especially in the copy of media hacks who were not present to hear it. I hazard that few in the Sheldonian audience were in any doubt that Dawkins’ concession of 0.1 point out of seven to the possible existence of a god was anything other than a logical acknowledgement of that which cannot be proved. What is surprising, however, about this commentary by these absent parties is the puerility of the reaction. One of the reasons Tim Stanley (a historian) of the Daily Telegraph goes to church, apparently, is that is that he doesn’t want “to run the risk of spending eternity in Hell with Richard Dawkins” (2). Funny but, basically, cheap schtick at the cost of any useful insight, historical or otherwise – and good luck to his fellow parishioners, by the way. Al Webb, in The Huffington Post, describes Dawkins as “the controversial Oxford University professor billed by many as the world’s ‘most famous atheist’ [who] now says he is not 100 percent sure that God doesn’t exist — but just barely.” Barely stifling a laugh himself, Webb then goes on to recount “the amusement of the Archbishop and others” at Dawkins’ dialectical naïveté (3).

The feeling that Dawkins is not taken seriously was so palpable in the Sheldonian that it skewed from the outset a potentially fruitful discussion. The audience’s reactions during the debate, clearly audible and visible to those present, are unfortunately pretty much impossible to discern in the official event webcast (4). It may be that one source of cognitive dissonance for the audience, and the reason for the divergent rhetorical approaches of the speakers, was the shifting contextual basis for this meeting. The meeting was publicized and ticketed as a “conversation” or “dialogue” between Dawkins and Williams; however, almost all the subsequent publicity promoted the meeting as a debate. There certainly was a good deal of snickering going on, usually garnered by a comment by Dawkins, both on the part of those with whom he shared the stage–the moderator, the philosopher, Sir Antony Kenny, and the Archbishop, who referred to the former as “Tony”—and on the part of the audience. Sometimes the audience seemed to be genuinely uncomfortable when Dawkins appeared to be thinking aloud, rather than offering a formal strategic response to a question. At other times, the same audience could be heard to shuffle and snicker when Dawkins claimed openly to misunderstand the term “epistemic;” very certain ground for the philosopher Kenny and, doubtless, for Williams, but not usually part of Dawkin’s working register as a scientist.

Dawkins held closely to a conversational style throughout, but it seems clear that his approach wrong-footed his audience, who were expecting the more familiar cut-and-thrust of formal debate. Rowan Williams, however, was to play it both ways. He joined in with the advertised conversational character of the event, but also employed rhetorical strategies associated with the debate form including his frequent questioning of Dawkins, which came across both as a strategic deflection of attention onto his opposition and as a play for time. His use of self-deprecating wit was a crowd-pleaser, as was his cloaking of a critical retorts with the phrase “I find this very interesting.”

Indeed, Williams was the more engaging speaker and, I suspect, the better-prepared debater. Could it be that Richard Dawkins was himself wrong-footed by the Archbishop on contextual grounds? Or did he just not fully appreciate his rhetorical situation? He was certainly too busy trying to deal with Williams’s many questions to be able to mount anything that resembled a considered offensive. The terms offense, defense, antagonist, opposition—all seemed to have fallen away from Dawkins’s rules of engagement manual for the duration of the meeting.

Also, and I leave this as an aside because I know nothing of the relationship between Kenny and Williams, it was clear from the benches that the moderator’s allegiance was to Williams. I say this for a number of reasons, but primarily for the time Kenny allocated to personally questioning Dawkins, where at once, unfitting for one supposed to be moderate, he seemed to be doing much of the Archbishop’s work for him.

None of this is to say that Dawkins needs an apologist in the realm of public debate; he has amply demonstrated his abilities as a speaker, writer, and thinker. The overriding impression I came away with, however, was that Kenny and the Archbishop had been let in on the joke, whatever it was, and that Dawkins had not. It was also disappointing that, while Kenny and Williams stood shoulder to shoulder as philosophers during the first three sections of the debate, the Archbishop only truly emerged as a theologian in the last component, “On the Origin of the Universe.”

I listened closely for areas of common ground between Williams and Dawkins, and found some, such as a general acceptance of evolutionary theory (just a difference as to who’s in charge of it), and a general appreciation for the remarkable complexities of nature revealed by science. It would have been fruitful to explore more of these points of convergence. Although it would be naïve to suggest that either side of the debate would necessarily want to find common ground as such, it may be that somewhere between the Faith/Reason polarities is the next step in our intellectual evolution.

The Christian humanist position (sometimes called Yeshuan Humanism)–where a rational humanist position is allied with a Christian moral framework shorn of the supernatural—seems a feasible confluence of the Dawkins/Williams strands, and pertinent to the rational progress of religious form. There is already a quiet coexistence of Christian believers with atheists in British and American Christian circles, amongst both clerical and lay communities (5). It may be time to acknowledge these differences, express them, and find ways to move forward, together. The practice of “interfaith dialogue” is could assist here: both positions, one of faith and one of no faith, require a leap beyond what is known, and are positions founded on belief.

Back we come to the 0.1 point out of seven. Identifying a comparable convergence point in his book, Between the Monster and the Saint, Richard Holloway describes the After-Religionist, one who views God as a mythological construct and religion as possibly the greatest human work of art we have (6). Respect and appreciation for religious forms combine here with science, reason, and the acknowledgement of the importance of the teachings of the man, Jesus Christ.

Dawkins, then, far from being a dunce or a joke, is not alone in thinking that somewhere in the confluence of humanism and faith, lies the beginning of the rise of our species to its full, autonomous height, encouraged so assiduously by his fellow Horseman, Christopher Hitchens (7). This would presumably take the form of a utopic point in human history when we could finally utter a resounding “yes!” to the unmiraged view of humanity and its place within the natural order.

Let’s just hope that we’ll be able to get enough of a move on for this to happen some time before we are all dusted by Andromeda (8). I leave you with one last foray by Dawkins into this convergence point in potentia which reads thus: “perhaps the oxymoronic impact of ‘Atheists for Jesus’ might just be what is needed to kick start the meme of super niceness in a post-Christian society. If we play our cards right, could we lead society away from the nether regions of its Darwinian origins into kinder and more compassionate uplands of post-singularity enlightenment?” (9). To borrow from the language of evolution, I think this one has legs.


(1) M Seymour-Smith. The 100 Most Influential Books Ever Written. (Barnes and Noble, New York, 1997) xx.
(2) T. Stanley. http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/timstanley/100139859/id-go-to-church-just-to-reduce-the-probability-of-spending-eternity-in-hell-with-richard-dawkins/#.T0vcYybg_VU.mailto
(3) A. Webb. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/24/richard-dawkins-famous-atheist-god_n_1299752.html
(4) Oxford University Webcast: On the Nature of Human Beings and the question of their Ultimate Origin. 23 Feb 2012. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HfQk4NfW7g0&feature=email
(5) See On Faith, the Newsweek/Washington Post website on religion, http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith//2010/03/disbelief_in_the_pulpit/all.html
(6) R. Holloway. Between the Monster and the Saint. (Canongate Books, 2009) 113.
(7) C. Hitchens. See Intelligence2 Catholic Church Debate: http://www.amindatplay.eu/2009/12/02/intelligence%C2%B2-catholic-church-debate-transcript/
(8) C.  Hitchens. See debate: Harris, Hitchens, & Dennett vs. Boteach, D’Souza, Wright, & Taleb. Ciudad de las Ideas (Puebla, Mexico, 11/8/2009)
(9) R. Dawkins. “Atheists for Jesus,” 2004. In The Portable Atheist, ed. Hitchens (Da Capo Press, 2007) 310.

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10 thoughts on “Dawkins vs. Williams: A View from Inside the Sheldonian by Sara Jude Berry

  1. Hi,

    I founded “Atheists for Jesus” in 1989. I enjoyed your article and would be most interested in your opinion about my work. If you ever have the time (and the interest), information can be found at:
    Websites: http://www.atheists-for-jesus.com and http://www.rescuingjesus.org
    Podcasts: “Atheists for Jesus: Rescuing Jesus from the Bible” and “Rescuing Jesus (and America) from the Religious Right” (Available free on iTunes or my website)

    Ken Schei

    1. Hi Ken, thanks very much for getting in touch. Actually, your work on Pauline Christianity has already got my attention: I came across it when I was getting my head around the concept of Yeshuan Humanism. I very much look forward to taking a closer look and to our further correspondence!

  2. Hi Sara,

    Followed your comment on my blog back here.

    I hope you weren’t too disappointed with your long travel to Oxford to see the debate, after it turned out to be so wet. I saw the bish with AC Grayling last summer and found it all too conciliatory for my tastes! I know Dr Williams doesn’t like bust ups on stage, but does tend to write polemical articles from time to time (such as the New Statesman July 2011 political piece).

    In the Grayling discussion, the first question in the Q&A was from a man who was rather angry about the Bishops in the House of Lords. And Rowan was surprisingly angry right back at him!

    I was much more glad for that sort of discussion. I think there too much about morality and politics to talk about for us to start blindly speculating about philosophy!

    Saying that, I do find it difficult to listen to Dawkins speak about the probability of God. Firstly, I don’t know what subjective belief has to do with truth. And I also have no idea how he calculates his probability (and suspect neither does he). It’s just an inflated version of when people say “i’m 99% sure” in common conversation, I think.

    Also, I’m glad you mentioned Richard Holloway. I have his ‘Godless Morality’, and I think it is an excellent book. Refreshing to see such sensible ideas from a frocked person such as Holloway. Although it is sobering to see how much time he thinks he needs to dedicate to telling us that being gay is okay. A church still obsessed with sex, it would seem.

    Anway, hope to discuss more in future with you.


    1. James,

      Thanks for your swift response! Fortunately, the UK trip from Texas was not just for the debate as I still have family living in Wiltshire.

      Got to admit to some disappointment, though, with the discussion: it seemed that too many good opportunities for, even old, sound science were let go by Richard Dawkins: consciousness (not potentially a product of evolution, really??); animals without language (what???). And the debate chair was much too solicitous of his reverend colleague.

      I would dearly love to know more about the terms of engagement that got Rowan Williams into debate space with Dawkins: I suspect they had much to do with his generous behavior.

      Definitely more to discuss with you!

      1. Didn’t Dawkins say that he supposed that, eventually, the ‘hard problem of consciousness’ – the conscious perceptions – will be explained by scientific inquiry as well? I disagree with him on this. I don’t know how physics, which guesses patterns between perceptions, can account for how we get these perceptions. It seems that the materialists are arguing outside-in when physics has always seemed to me to be inside-out. I don’t know.

        As for language, I think he, and the rest of the panel, were in agreement that we are the only species who goes beyond imperatives and declarations in our language. Sure, ants communicate instructions, and dolphins say hello, but there’s nothing like, “I wonder what happens if…?’

        1. Right on both counts, James, to a point.

          I think neuroscience will be the site of future discoveries about both the nature of consciousness and linguistic development; the work of Giedrius Buracas at UC San Diego is a case in point, but there are many more. He proposes “the conscious experience is an outcome of the process that compares predictions of the forward model with the actual outcomes produced by intentions or motor commands” (Science of Consciousness Conference Program Abstracts 2012, 91).

          I should stay out of the science of this, as I am decidedly unqualified to speak. However, I do think, just as Dawkins said of the natural world in the debate, that the workings of the human brain, much yet unknown, are incredible, requiring no supernatural explanation. I strongly suspect the work of neuroscience will eventually map human consciousness, along with those of the ant and the dolphin.

        2. ‘dolphins say hello, but there’s nothing like, “I wonder what happens if…?’’

          Except that predators, who, unlike prey, must think ahead and visualize, are wondering all the time “what happens if….”

          So, per Williams’ understanding, sharks know God.

          1. I think it’s a different question to speculate whether there are conscious experiences for other animals. I know some philosophers who even doubt that about other people!

            What we do know is that language is used by animals for imperatives and declarations, but there is no indication of questions or more complex conditional statements.

  3. Hi,
    Thanks for your comments on my blog. I think you are right that the event wasn’t billed correctly and it seemed to me that Dawkins spent most of the time educating the other people on the stage in his professorial manner. I think that is what has caused the confusion in the press is that Dawkins wasn’t speaking to a normal audience and was expecting the niceties of scientific language to be observed. Which of course was grabbed and run with in strange ways.


  4. Thank you for your astute observations of the debate from the perspective of a member of the audience. I must admit that my enjoyment of listening to the MP3 has been somewhat dampened as a result.

    As a long-time, ardent fan of Dawkins, I am often disappointed when he lets debating opponents off the hook because he has galloped off on his self-admitted nemesis, “that wild horse, Tangent.”

    The Archbishop got a pass when he said he was looking for the evolutionary moment when Man first became self-aware and also (his criterion) god-aware. Dawkins’ rambling spiel about a spaceship and generations interbreeding was meant to illustrate the seamlessness of evolution, but was probably unintelligible to most listeners. Williams should have been challenged to describe, with specificity and in biological terms, that magical moment he envisions.

    When Dawkins acknowledged — as any good scientist should — a sliver of agnosticism, he should have immediately challenged Williams to concede at least a ‘0.1 of 7’ agnosticism towards the existence of a god. As open-minded as he may be about things like evolution, I doubt the Archbishop would have conceded even the slightest doubt.

    The question from the audience member, regarding suffering in the world, and whether evolution would eventually eradicate it, deserved more attention than it got. Dawkins first succumbed to the allure of a cheap joke, but mostly it was the fault of the moderator. Unexplained suffering is both: 1) the primary motivator of religious faith; and 2) the best argument against an all-powerful, all-loving deity. Dawkins recovered and mentioned Darwin’s parasitic wasp-induced apostasy, but this central question deserved more time.

    I had to sympathize with Dawkins when he received scoffing chuckles (clearly audible on the recording) for admitting his ignorance of the term “epistemic”. Philosophers are an exceedingly arrogant lot, especially considering their field is of no discernible use to society. (Ouch! Sorry.) This condescension parallels that of the theologians, like Denys Turner, who insist that one cannot criticize their beliefs unless one is fully versed in their constructs. Grayling’s response re. astrology is devastating, and should always be ready at hand.

    On the whole, I still believe Dawkins came out slightly ahead in this debate, and hopefully advanced a tiny bit to the laudable goal of “lead[ing] society away from the nether regions of its Darwinian origins into kinder and more compassionate uplands of post-singularity enlightenment.”

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