This House Believes Religion Has No Place in the 21st Century

The title was the proposition debated yesterday at the Cambridge Union Society debate which included former archbishop Rowan Williams and current archatheist Richard Dawkins. The audience, perhaps contrary to expectations, overwhelming rejected the proposition (324-138). Most of the headlines in the aftermath have triumphantly declare that Williams beat Dawkins in the debate, with the not so subtle implication that Christianity has triumphed over atheism. There is a sense in which that is true, but before Christians become too jubilant over what would be a largely symbolic victory anyway, it is important to remember exactly what has won the approbation of the student audience:

Some students voiced that Dawkins was in fact “the least intriguing speaker” at the debate. One second year student told TCS: “He did not address the motion. His points focused only on debating whether religion is true, and ignored the question of whether it has a place in modern society.”

The student, in critiquing Dawkins, drove right to the heart of why this victory should be, if anything, disappointing for Christians. This was not a debate about the truth claims of any particular religion, least of all Christianity. Consigned to the too often unread body of the text are the humanist, the philosopher, the neo-con, and the Muslim who also weighed in on the proposition. The issue, as the profession of one of the objectors will demonstrate, was not whether or not Christianity is true or even more simply whether or not God exists but whether or not religion, in the abstract, can function for social cohesion. Christianity is no longer the subject of debate. Neither God in heaven nor Christ incarnate are propositions worth debating. Faith has been dissolved into social utility, and in that respect Christians who are delighted by the Cambridge verdict are rejoicing in their own obsolescence.

Williams won and Dawkins lost because the latter didn’t realize that the question he cared so deeply about was no longer a topic of any interest. Had the proposition been “This House Believes in a Deity,” statistics suggest the vote would have been very much the same, roughly three quarters voting against. In other words, Dawkins lost because he didn’t realize he had already won.

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