Monday, October 01, 2007

Dawkins Talk Recap

For the sake of at least one inquirer and anyone else who's interested, I thought I'd give a brief report on how things went with the discussion of Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion at our local public library almost two weeks ago. My friend and coworker, Tim Hunter, and I got the idea for the event while browsing a catalog from the library announcing various classes and lectures that would be offered as part of their adult programming. Seeing the variety of perspectives represented (a class on numerology especially caught our attention) prompted us to consider how we could utilize that forum to engage people in the community with a thoughtful Christian perspective. I frequently consider what the contemporary analogues to the first century marketplace are. In what public venues are people willing to hear and discuss ideas of great consequence? I think bookstores and libraries are natural answers because, for the most part, those who frequent them care about ideas.

Since Dawkins' book has proved to be of such great national interest (falling short of a year on the New York Times' bestseller list by only a week), it seemed a reasonable choice for a library event.
Our intent was not to give a gospel presentation but rather to chip away at the plausibility of Dawkins' argument in hope of getting people to think critically about his position and, perhaps, to open lines of communication with people willing to discuss the issues further beyond the scheduled event.

Fifty-three people registered for the program though only about 50 showed up with 15 of that number being from our church. Prior to our getting started the library's coordinator of adult programming informed us that someone had called earlier that day complaining that the library was hosting such an event because "only one side would be presented." I was hoping that the caller would be there to offer an opposing viewpoint but if he or she did attend, they didn't offer any rebuttal to anything we offered by way of critique of Dawkins' position. Admittedly, we were slightly nervous about the potential of having hostile audience members but that wasn't the case. The conversation that did take place after our presentation, even with those who seemed sympathetic to Dawkins, was mutually respectful and enjoyable.

Making efficient use of the 90 minutes we were allotted was challenging. We wanted to allow adequate time for Q & A but we also had a lot of material to cover. We assumed that most of the people in attendance would not have read the book and that assumption proved correct. In our introductory remarks we noted that we were the kind of people that Richard Dawkins hopes would be converted to atheism upon completion of his book. We went on to explain that neither of us had such an epiphany as a result of reading The God Delusion but not for the reason Dawkins offers. According to him, "dyed-in-the-wool-faith-heads" are immune to reasoning on account of years of religious indoctrination including dire warnings to avoid "Satanic" books like his. Tim and I said that while we have arrived at a different conclusion than has Dawkins, we nevertheless are in agreement with him that the discussion of whether God exists is worthy of discussion in the public arena and are therefore grateful to him and the spate of atheist authors such as Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris who have helped bring the topic to the forefront of public discourse.

We went on to point out another area of agreement with Dawkins, namely that religious beliefs should not be afforded such a privileged status that their being questioned or critiqued is regarded as inherently offensive. We said that while we think that people should be treated respectfully, we think it's misguided to insist in the name of respect that we take a position that counts all religious beliefs as equally valid or true. We added that we think we should be able to argue the merits of various religious systems while being respectful of those with whom we disagree. As Christian theists, we are persuaded that Christianity is true just as adherents to other religious and/or philosophical beliefs regard their beliefs as true which means that regardless of our position, we consider beliefs that contradict those we hold to be true, to be false.

We spent a little over an hour giving a chapter by chapter overview of the book followed by our critique which concentrated on Dawkins' pre-scientific materialistic philosophy, his failure to distinguish between science and scientism, the inconsistency between his Darwinian account of morality and his repeatedly speaking like a moral realist or absolutist, and his failure to even acknowledge the theistic argument from rationality as presented by C. S. Lewis in Miracles and more recently by philosophers such as Victor Reppert in his C. S. Lewis's Dangerous Idea: In Defense of the Argument from Reason and Alvin Plantinga in numerous writings including his review of The God Delusion for Books & Culture.

By the time we got through our presentation we had about 25 minutes left for discussion during which time someone said that though Dawkins might overstate the case, he does have a valid point about the atrocities committed on account of religious beliefs. We responded that it is not religious belief per se that causes violence but rather what is believed that is the crucial issue. Another participant voiced frustration with every religion trying to prove that it's better than the others and made an appeal for tolerance. To this we reiterated that if we are to take religious claims seriously, we can't say that they're all accurate descriptions of God and the world regardless of the fact that they are, in many cases, mutually exclusive.

Following our presentation we had some opportunities to talk with a few folks who thanked us for our efforts. The library's program coordinator sent us a very encouraging letter of appreciation in which she reported that numerous patrons told her how much they enjoyed the event. This, along with the number of people who showed up, makes us optimistic about the potential for offering related talks in the near future. We've already started thinking about what other books we might use.


Steve Bishop said...

An excellent idea - I'm pleased to see it went well.

Educator-To-Be said...

A wonderful report. I am so glad everything went well.



Great post. We need more thinking Christians.