Lethally polite bafflement

Charles Darwin once said that the origin of human life was a question too "surrounded with prejudices" for him to consider ever discussing it in public. He was confirmed in that view by the notorious debate that took place in Oxford on 30 June 1860 between Samuel Wilberforce, bishop of Oxford, and the biologist T H Huxley, known as "Darwin's Bulldog" on account of his energetic defence of the theory of natural selection. One of Huxley's supporters later wrote with feeling of the "looks of bitter hatred" directed at him and his colleagues by their opponents.

Bitter hatred was notable by its absence in Oxford on 23 February, when a large audience gathered in the Sheldonian Theatre to listen to a "dialogue" (not "debate") on "the nature of human beings and the question of their ultimate origin" between two former NS guest editors - Archbishop Rowan Williams and Richard Dawkins. Acrimony may have been absent but there was quite a bit of lethally polite bafflement on both sides.

When discussing the "nature of individual human beings", the archbishop confessed to being "baffled" by Dawkins's claim that consciousness is an "illusion". The moderator, the philosopher Anthony Kenny, wondered whether Dawkins wasn't dismissing a particular account of the mind or consciousness (that of Descartes) that most philosophers no longer took seriously. "I am not a philosopher and that should be obvious," Dawkins replied, to laughter.

Later, Dawkins wondered why anyone would want to "clutter up [his] world view with something so messy as a god". Williams responded that he doesn't see God as "something extra that has to be shoehorned into the picture". "But," said Dawkins, "that is exactly how I see it." From there, one sensed, there wasn't anywhere else for them to go.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The last Tsar