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Our recent RSA event: After New Atheism: Where now for the God debate? was previewed in the Guardian, and no less than Mr New Atheism, Richard Dawkins, commented on it:

Our recent RSA event: After New Atheism: Where now for the God debate? was previewed in the Guardian, and no less than Mr New Atheism, Richard Dawkins, commented on it:

"What is encouraging about this article is the dusty response it is getting from commenters on the Guardian website. Great numbers of them, it seems, are as bored with "I'm an atheist buttery" as I am. I think we are starting to see a genuine change. A year ago, a piece like Caspar's would have been followed by a baying chorus of but-heads in full cry. I think a tide is turning and significant numbers of people are seeing through the ill-informed "New atheists are shrill meanies" mantra. Richard"

The event was an attempt to move the terms of the debate away from the black and white of emancipating scientists versus deluded monotheists, and recognising the abundant and far more interesting shades of grey in between. Did it succeed?

Mark Vernon, who is invariably trenchant on such matters, and should perhaps have been on the panel, gave a typcally lucid overview of the content of the event, but felt that it failed to move the debate on significantly.

Caspar Melville wrote an extended piece on the event at The New Humanist where he distances himself from Richard Dawkins, and pens the beautiful line:

"The task of thinking is to live with doubt in the service of understanding, rather than living with certainty in the preservation of ignorance."


I hope to come back to the issue of finding the 'transcendent moment' in the debate, where both sides (part of the problem might be that there are not really two sides at all, but several, and some sort of variegated spectrum of degrees and kinds of belief and disbelief, experience and inexperience) agree about what they disagree about. In this case, it is fairly clear to me that there are disagreements at the level of ontology(what kinds of things there can be) and epistemology(what it means to know something) but that is for another day.

For now, my favourite quotes from live scribbles at the event, which means they should not be taken as verbatim!

Marilynn Robinson:

(What we need is...)"A democracy of ontology in which we concede the mystery of everything we encounter."

"New Atheism does not acknowledge the centrality of human consciousness"

"Nothing is more sacred than the fact that these kinds of conversations continue to be meaningful"

Jonathan Ree:

'Parascience'(quoting from Marilynn Lee): "Stories that scientists tell themselves to keep morale high"

(Dislikes) "Implicit dualism- there is science and there is ignorance and no third option"

"New atheism is not a new phrase- goes back to 1690s!" (makes reference to Spinoza)

"There is irreligious experience and religious inexperience!"

R Scruton:

Dawkins as Liberator? (with reference to The God Delusion)

"The only message that sells books in millions: 'We are setting you free'"

"Sex used to be the primary revalation of the sacred in people's lives."

"We are not just objects, but subjects in relation to each other- a revalation we experience in communities."

(Reference to Wittgenstein) "The limits of reason are not the limits of the world."

From Questions:


"Controversy is good if bound by rigour on both sides of the debate."

RS: As Tocqueville argued: "Revolutions liberate. But you can only liberate people from something that is dying."

MR: "The word rationality bothers me because it is often used by people who think they are more reasonable than they are."

JR: "Believe what you believe, but recognise that you won't believe it forever."

RS:   "Yes reason is all we have, but the fetishisation of science is not rationale...Take Marxism... 70 million people had to die before this was acknowledged."

RS: "Humanism discredits itself if it doesn't recognise the deep need for transcendence."

JR: " It's important not to be frightened on either side of the debate...How can we avoid winning arguments in advance by insisting on only one language form?" e.g. "God is being itself"

RS: "People need a sense of foundation..." (it occurred to me that many strains of Buddhism think differently, that the grasping after foundations may be why/how we perpetuate craving)

JR: "The problem is absolutism- when certain things are non-negotiable..."not because there is no such thing as absolute truth, but because you don't know it until you've found it."

JR: "The main danger is getting defensive, both sides get worse."

RS: "Science proposes something and then does everything it can to disprove it. Religion is not like that. It proposes something and does everything it can to keep it from being disproved."

RS: "Religion is vulnerable because collapse of belief threatens to fracture community."


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