The Rowan Williams vs Richard Dawkins Debate

After coming down with a flu last week I enjoyed using my convalescent status as an excuse to catch up on some viewing. First on my list was This is Spinal Tap (yes, I confess, this is the first time I’ve watched the now classic piece of rock-mockumentary. It deserves its place among the greats!). My second choice was the Rowan Williams vs Richard Dawkins debate on Human Origins held in Oxford on 23rd February. Tickets to the event had sold out in hours so I was glad that a kind soul had uploaded the interchange to YouTube.

Dawkins and Williams (Reuters/Andrew Winning)

As has been noted elsewhere, this was a decidedly genteel affair. You’d hardly expect ranting and raving from the mild-mannered Archbishop of Canterbury, and Richard Dawkins restrained his signature wrath on believers. The debate was moderated by former Catholic priest and now agnostic philosopher Anthony Kenny.

The full video is posted above. Here are some reflections I had as I watched. I’ve included time-references if you’d like to skip ahead.

Introductory Remarks

  1. 00:15 The ‘common ground’ for the debate was that all three participants believed a) that there is such a thing as objective truth b) in logic c) in science. This was a good reminder for me that the postmodern mantra of all truth being relative or some kind of social construct for exerting power is only one part of the ‘modern’ story today.

The Nature of Human Beings

  1. 00:17 Williams looks at human consciousness, questioning the Darwinian account of origins as a complete answer to it. Dawkins’ admits the mystery surrounding consciousness but his false accusation that Williams is using a God-of-the-gaps -type argument to answer it is interesting given his own belief that science will one day solve the mystery.
  2. 00:20 Williams’ focus on self-consciousness (or meta-cognition) was valuable: we can think, tell stories, ask questions and joke about ourselves – all self-reflexive exercises which can’t be said of the animal kingdom, making us unique.
  3. 00:25 Williams rightly questions Dawkins’ belief that consciousness is an illusion. If consciousness is an illusion, what isn’t an illusion? Following this logically, all we see and experience is therefore untrustworthy. To call consciousness a ‘mistake’ is similarly problematic, requiring a standard outside of us to determine what is a mistake versus something being ‘correct’.
  4. 00:26 Kenny questions Dawkins’ likening the mind to a computer. ‘Computers are human tools. They can’t even add two and two together [without us programming them]’. A dense discussion on free will versus determinism follows but is significant. Dawkins likens humans to computers, but do computers have free will? Both Williams and Kenny push Dawkins on this and he admits, in effect, that his illustrations are too simplistic to account for life’s more complex decisions, like deciding who to marry (00:32).
  5. 00:36 Is the survival of the ‘soul’ after death a matter of faith? Williams suggests so, breaking with the classical philosophers who believed in the soul’s innate immortality.
  6. 00:37 An audience question: Can human scientific knowledge be wholly explained by biological evolution? After some clarification, Dawkins answers yes. Williams notes that Dawkins’ answer assumes the brain has greater qualities than just the material.

Origins of Humanity

  1. 00:40 A question to Williams: assuming the first humans had non-human ancestors (which Williams assumes) did God intervene in the transition? Williams has a problem with God ‘tinkering with the machine’, suggesting that from the beginning humans would come to a point of recognising God’s ‘call’ to them. The follow up questions from Dawkins highlight the challenges of theistic evolutionary understanding: namely, when was there a ‘first human’ if there were incremental changes between the species?
  2. 00:49 Audience question: humans are immensely imperfect with many of their potentialities left unrealised. Are these failures of evolution or design? Dawkins says that death, distress and ‘design’ faults are part of the evolutionary process and just part of our lot. Williams answers that the universe being intelligible, its successfully hanging together and that its processes converge to certain ends all suggest to him that an intelligent God is involved, but he’s cautious about seeing God involved at the micro-level of creation as why would God create individual abnormalities?

Origins of Life

  1. 00:58 Dawkins: Life came into being by sheer luck. Kenny challenges Dawkins’ reliance on the origin of life being a highly ‘improbable’ event.
  2. 01:08 Audience question for Williams: given that the universe is now understood to be billions of years old, wouldn’t it have been better for the Biblical writers to have said nothing about the origins of life? Williams: the Biblical writers were inspired not to do 20th century physics, but to tell people what God wanted them to know. Genesis therefore says that the universe depends on God, humanity has a distinctive role in the world, and humanity has made a mess of it. To Dawkins’s question of why he tries to reinterpret the story of a ‘non-existent’ Adam and Eve rather than stick with 21st century science Williams replies, ‘If I want to answer 21st century scientific questions I use 21st century science. If I want to understand my moral and spiritual place in the world, I reserve the right to read Genesis.’
  3. 01:11 Kenny asks Dawkins about his disproof of God. Dawkins denies that he’s disproved the existence of God, but says that on a scale of 1 to 7 (7 being that there is no God) he’s a 6.9 and briefly explains why.
  4. 01:20 Kenny raises a good question to Dawkins about his belief in the Multiverse theory (that our universe is one of many, ours being the one that just happened to become amenable to human life): that’s just as much a metaphysical theory as Intelligent Design. If ID can’t be taught in schools, why should the Multiverse theory? Dawkins’ answer doesn’t strike me as very convincing.

It was nice to watch a debate where respect for the opponent was practiced. From a Christian viewpoint, what you make of the debate will depend on your position on creation, evolution and intelligent design theories; from an atheistic viewpoint, I’d imagine to the degree you consider Richard Dawkins a representative of atheism.

For Further Reflection


[amazon_link id=”0664233104″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Alister McGrath: A Fine-Tuned Universe[/amazon_link]

[amazon_link id=”0745953719″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]John Lennox: God’s Undertaker[/amazon_link]

[amazon_link id=”0801031745″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Thomas Fowler and Daniel Kuebler: The Evolution Controversy[/amazon_link] 


Alister McGrath: Overcoming the Faith and Science Divide

NT Wright: Adam and Eve and the Culture Wars

John Piper: Old or Young Earth in Genesis

Tom Frame: Theistic Evolution (Part 1 of a series on Darwin’s legacy)

Carl Wieland: Creationism (Part 2 of a series on Darwin’s legacy)

Alvin Plantiga: an Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism

Michael Behe: Irreducible Complexity


Question: What did you make of the debate? What other science/faith resources can you recommend? Share your comment now.

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