"We come from a culture which values critical thinking," said biologist PZ Myers last night. In conversation with Richard Dawkins at the Institute of Education, the pair of New Atheists attempted to show that they could demonstrate that quality.
Dawkins and Myers are both biologists, and both share the same strong ideas on evolution (fact) and religion (fiction). Myers believes it's OK to practise religion, but that it should never be taken seriously. "I compared religion to knitting - a hobby," he said. Both claim they would remain skeptical about the existence of God even if a 15ft Jesus stood in front of them and boomed "I exist!"
The discussion sparked some interesting questions: "Can we already predict what is outside of life?" and "What is the supernatural?" Of the former, Myers said that "carbon seems to be the tool" and Dawkins added "to believe the supernatural would be to give up".
The pair came across as intelligent, if occasionally self-righteous. Dawkins claimed: "If you teach a child that it's a good thing to believe that just because he has faith you don't have to justify it, then those children are going to grow up in a minority. They're going to say, well, my faith tells me to go and bomb skyscrapers."
They also tackled the question of whether believers should be respected. "I will not tolerate this excuse of faith, of wallowing in faith," said Myers. Dawkins agreed, complaining that "they teach children that faith is a virtue".
You might expect a discussion between two such strident atheists to attract the ire of religious groups, but in fact it was another group which took exception to the event - students. Protesters angered by Richard Dawkins' involvement with AC Grayling's private university, the New College of the Humanities, disrupted the evening by popping up periodically to shout at the speakers. The audience didn't seem to have much sympathy for the students, though, so perhaps they had picked the wrong crowd.
Towards the end of the question time, one protester asked why Dawkins felt that the university was acceptable at a time when students were fighting hard for their right to education.
Dawkins made it clear from the beginning of his response that his answer was, basically, that life is not fair: "like it or not we do live in a political system where some people are richer than others". He added: "If you want to picket Anthony Grayling, you might as well picket anybody who owns a car that is above average price."
Dawkins told the audience that he would like it if "the government, through taxation, paid for free education for everyone" and his supporters appeared satisfied. The discussion on the university was closed and there were a few more questions about faith. The biologist predicted that soon there would be no need for the word "atheist", as "you don't need to say what you don't believe in, because there's no reason to believe it in the first place".
Henrietta also blogs here.