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.
Unsurprisingly, Williams did not see God as mental clutter. “Let’s call him a combination of love and mathematics,” he said.
“The writers of the Bible ... were not inspired to do 21st century physics. They were inspired to pass on to their readers what God wanted them to know,” he said.
Despite their differences, the debate was courteous and calm. Dawkins admitted to being a “cultural Anglican” and Williams praised the scientist’s writing and noted he had once quoted him in a Christmas sermon.
The audience had been instructed not to applaud during the debate to avoid a gladiatorial atmosphere. The two debaters were seated, both wearing suits but with Dawkins sporting a green tie while Williams wore a clergyman’s collar and a large crucifix.
“It was a points victory for Rowan Williams, but not a knock-out round,” said Andrew Wilkinson, a theology graduate.
His friend Judy Perkins said “Williams was better at engaging with the science than Dawkins was at engaging with the philosophy.”
Others seemed almost disappointed at the lack of aggression.
“The argument was a bit like afternoon tea and muffins,” said Jane Kennedy, a schoolteacher.
The contestants did not go into the current controversy on the role of faith in society at the Sheldonian, although both men have been involved in the public debate in recent weeks.
Dawkins has been promoting the results of a poll on the attitudes of Britons who identify themselves as Christians.
The survey found, among other things, that 64 percent of Christians could not identify the first book of the New Testament when given four options to choose from.
Dawkins seized on the findings to argue that religion was no longer important to most Britons, even self-declared Christians.
However, his credibility was undermined during a live interview on BBC radio last week when he was challenged by a Church of England clergyman to give the full title of Charles Darwin’s seminal work, “On the Origin of Species.”
Dawkins hesitated before giving a slightly garbled version of the full title — a humiliating moment for the man known as the “high priest of Darwinism.”
For his part, Williams was doing his bit for faith by hosting Queen Elizabeth, the Supreme Governor of the Church of England, to celebrate her 60 years on the throne.
“You have been able to show ... that being religious is not eccentric or abnormal in terms of the kind of society we claim to be,” Williams told the monarch during the event.
The queen responded with what, in her restrained style, amounted to a strong endorsement of “the significant position of the Church of England in our nation’s life.”
Her comments chimed with a speech two days earlier by Conservative minister Sayeeda Warsi, who said “aggressive secularism is being imposed by stealth.”
In Oxford, Camille Bonomelli, a doctoral student in biochemistry, emerged from the debate stimulated if not swayed.
“Nobody is going to win this battle anyway,” she said.
Reporting by Estelle Shirbon, editing by Tom Heneghan