High noon in Oxford: Dawkins vs the archbishop

Thu Feb 23, 2012 3:56pm EST
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By Estelle Shirbon

OXFORD, England (Reuters) - In the blue corner, the leader of the Church of England. In the red corner, the world's most prominent critic of religion.

It was the intellectual version of a world heavyweight title fight when Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams faced evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, author of "The God Delusion," on Thursday in a debate on the nature and ultimate origins of human beings.

Genetic pre-determination and the nature of consciousness were just some of the issues touched upon during an hour and a half of erudite jousting in the university town of Oxford.

The scholarly showdown came at a time of fierce controversy on the role of religion in Britain. Christian leaders and government ministers have been denouncing "aggressive secularism" since a February 10 court ruling that formal prayers at council meetings in a small English town were unlawful.

So the time was ripe for champions of the religious and secular camps to step into the ring - or in this case, the Sheldonian Theatre, a distinctive 17th century building where Oxford's venerable university holds graduation ceremonies.

"Why do you want to waste your time trying to reinterpret Genesis to make it fit 21st century science?" Dawkins asked the archbishop on a stage under the Sheldonian's allegorical painted ceiling showing Truth descending on the Arts and Sciences.

"Why would you want to clutter up your world view with something as messy as a God?" he asked, arguing that science had answered many of the big questions about the universe and would one day explain what was still unfathomable to our generation.


The Archbishop of Cantebury Rowan Williams (R) and atheist scholar Richard Dawkins pose for a photograph outside Clarendon House at Oxford University, before their debate in the Sheldonian theatre in Oxford, central England, February 23, 2012. The name of the debate is “The Nature of Human Beings and the Question of their Ultimate Origin”.  REUTERS/Andrew Winning