Whatever our creed, sect, or personal conviction, most of us at least agree on the general futility of religious debate. As a debate topic, it is both bafflingly abstract and personally offensive; as a contemporary issue, both too fundamental to challenge and too influential to ignore. But this week, the Oxford Union set out to disprove all the historical precedent and common sense that tells us nothing can be gained from arguing about God. And somehow, against all the odds, this act of insane hubris planted the seeds of a quality discussion. Even if God was neither struck down nor securely reinstated by the end of the evening, the speakers each helped illuminate the core of the conflict.
The first speaker for the proposition, Oxford professor of Mathematics and Philosophy John Lennox, boldly argued for a belief in God based on rational evidence. His scientific case rested on the reality of Jesus’ resurrection; when asked if he demanded the same sort of proof for this phenomenon as he would for his own academic research or that of his students, he replied with a resounding affirmative and added, tantalisingly, “I wrote a book about that.” But when his speech moved on to moral concerns, he went from calling upon the power of science to stressing its limitations. In the face of the clear incompatibility between the love of God and the evil of the universe, he made a passionate appeal to the Christian belief in ultimate justice.
Then opposition speaker Dan Barker brought the debate from the abstract to the personal. He recounted his own particularly dramatic journey towards unbelief, from his nineteen years as a preacher to his current position as co-founder of the Freedom from Religion Foundation. Like John Lennox, he began his speech with reason and ended it with morality, affirming that atheists could lead productive, purposeful lives. Proposition speaker Joanna Collicut McGrath, deacon at Oxford and lecturer on the psychology of religion, then related her own experience with religion as a counterpoint to his. After what she called a brief adolescent flirtation with atheism, she had an experience that opened up her mind to the possibility of God. Although she never specified the nature of this experience, she used the Doubting Thomas parable to illustrate its impact. Thomas does not describe Christ’s living, wounded body as scientific evidence of the resurrection, but instinctively uses the language of God; the two sides do not even have a common ground of communication between them.
On the opposition side, Dr. Michael Shermer bolstered Dan Barker’s notion of religion as a social construct. Although he spared his audience the full list of all 986 Gods, he named enough to build up a veritable army of rivals to the omnipresent Christian deity. Pointing out that his audience were already atheists for all those other Gods, he exhorted them to go “one God further”. Peter Hitchens struck back for the proposition with a promise to give the atheists “a good Christian kicking”. He began by assuring his audience that he “hated this debate” and “loathed taking part in it”, his participation presumably having been secured against his will. He witheringly referred to the opposition speakers as reminders of his “adolescent self” and their arguments as “the stuff of sixth form”. As his speech proceeded, however, contempt turned to outright loathing; he accused the atheists of wanting an unjust, chaotic, godless universe.
In his concluding speech, Peter Mullican reinforced the arguments of the previous opposition speakers and partially reiterated the list of competing deities, at which point Peter Hitchens pretended to fall asleep in his chair. But Peter Mullican went further than all previous speakers to undermine the moral authority of religion, condemning it as a delusion that leads good people to do evil things. And it was this notion of a moral choice that finally provided the debate with a sense of closure. In the end, a debate of this scale is not about providing answers, but asking questions. In trying and failing to breach the gap in communication between them, the speakers on both sides came close to identifying its source. Each speaker explained the universe according to what they looked for in an explanation; their vast differences in perspective stem from a simple difference of priorities. The debate ended with the two sides irreconcilably divided, but with every hope that the audience might balance these priorities to reach a moral decision of their own.