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Atheists vs Dawkins

Douglas MurrayBy Douglas Murray, Spectator

My fellow atheists, it’s time we admitted that religion has some points in its favour

Sometimes a perfectly good argument can be stretched too far. I heard the resulting snapping noise last week in Cambridge during a debate with Richard Dawkins. We were meant to be on the same side at the Union. But over some months the motion hardened and eventually became ‘This House believes religion should have no place in the 21st century.’ While an atheist myself, it seems to me that claiming that religion should disappear is not just an overstatement but a seismic mistake. So I joined Rowan Williams and my close enemy Tariq Ramadan in trying to explain to Dawkins and co where they might have gone wrong.

The Union was packed, with screens relaying the debate live around the building. It was a reminder — a few days before Justin Welby, Williams’s successor as Archbishop of Canterbury, made the point — that the role of religion in our national discussion is by no means absent.

The more I listened to Dawkins and his colleagues, the more the nature of what has gone wrong with their argument seemed clear. Religion was portrayed as a force of unremitting awfulness, a poisoned root from which no good fruit could grow. It seems to me the work not of a thinker but of any balanced observer to notice that this is not the case. In their insistence to the contrary, a new — if mercifully non-violent — dogma has emerged. And the argument has stalled.

These new atheists remain incapable of getting beyond the question, ‘Is it true?’ They assume that by ‘true’ we agree them to mean ‘literally true’. They also assume that if the answer is ‘no’, then that closes everything. But it does not. Just because something is not literally true does not mean that there is no truth, or worth, in it.

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