I had the pleasure of being in the audience of a discussion event featuring the philosopher Anthony Grayling and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams yesterday evening. It was at London’s Southbank Centre.
It was an excellent discussion. I have to be honest and say, probably not one where I really learned any new facts, but certainly one which was interesting and thought provoking.
To hear two polite, highly intelligent and articulate individuals, whose core outlooks are polar opposites when it comes to religion, engaged in polite, respectful discussion and debate was a good experience.
A common criticism levelled at the horsemen of the ‘new atheism’ (Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens etc) is that they argue without due respect, or are “shrill”. I don’t generally agree with that point of view, but it is commonly held, by believers and rationalists alike.
Nobody could possibly have levelled that criticism at last night’s conversation. It felt like the best sort of very British conversation. Think of Family Guy’s “drive by argument” joke.
I arrived at the venue with a generous measure of pre-existing respect for Grayling, but possibly through ignorance, or just bias on my part, not so much for Williams. Having now heard him speak, listened to his (at times, frankly, brilliant) wit, and the depth of his knowledge and uncompromisingly academic approach, I would say I have a similar level of respect for him as that which I reserve for Grayling and the other rationalist/scientist speakers I’ve seen. Obviously I’m not about to become religious as a result, but I was very impressed by his points, how he explained them or argued them and (most surprising of all) by his sense of humour.
The best quote of the evening came in response to an audience question which talked about god, but didn’t actually use the word :
Grayling : “Well it’s clear you didn’t mention the obvious elephant in the room….”
Williams : “I’m pleased to hear you think he’s in the room.”
(audience laughter and applause)
Always nice to have your preconceptions challenged, and although this wasn’t a watershed realisation moment, I would certainly go out of my way to hear Williams in discussion with Grayling or another similar rationalist in future.