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Where Culture Wars come from

24th February 2012



It’s clearly perfectly possible, having seen Richard Dawkins and Rowan Williams debate courteously, if somewhat circuitously in Oxford yesterday, for two people with opposite metaphysical commitments to have a reasonable conversation. 

This shouldn’t have come as a surprise - most of our everyday experience with real people backs it up. In the pub, in debating societies, within our own families, in academic colloquia, those who differ fundamentally can be quite good at engaging with each other.

Where the debate between those of religious faith and non-religious faith often appears polarised and fractious is on our airwaves and the pages of our newspapers and popular books - and of course, by the new ‘below the fold’ digital commentariat that anyone unfortunate to have written an online article or blog will have been attacked by.

Although the tone of the Oxford debate was polite (bordering, for my taste, on boring), with each participant proffering at least outwardly the utmost respect for their opponent’s position, there was a clear underlying disconnect which meant they were in the main talking past each other. Dawkins maintains that all questions are at base scientific questions, and said with no embarrassment “I’m not a philosopher”. Williams on the other hand clearly finds the details of atoms and epochs far less compelling than the ethical meanings and philosophical/theological implications of them.

What we saw then, was the distinction which Julian Baggini made in the latest of his excellent series Heathen’s Progress in the Guardian, between getting the right tone, and being tone deaf. This debate was tonally respectful and polite, but failed to take off because each was to some extent tone deaf to the other. In this case this was possibly the logical result of asking an evolutionary biologist to debate with a theologian, but it epitomises much of the current conversation around religion in society.

James Davidson Hunter, in his still-read 1991 book Culture Wars, defined these in the American context as “political and social hostility rooted in different systems of moral understanding”. This final phrase, “different systems of moral understanding” is the problem we are facing. It was revealed in one of the sparkier sections of the debate, in which Dawkins expressed disbelief that you would “clutter up” your understanding of the world with religion when you had 21st century science. Williams replied:

“If I want to answer 21st century scientific questions I use 21st century science, if I want to answer moral questions and understand my place in the universe I reserve the right to go back to Genesis.”

It seems like his fellow ‘Horseman of the Apocalypse’ Sam Harris, Dawkins believes all moral questions, and presumably all questions of meaning and purpose, can be answered by science. Williams doesn’t. They are working from two different systems of moral understanding, and despite the polite tone of their conversation yesterday, they’re poles apart. This is not to say that there are no areas of agreement, still less that it is impossible to live together. Rather, it is to say that we need to recognise this and abandon the modernist utopian idea that the right answers are obvious and all rational, enlightened people will agree.

Elizabeth Hunter

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