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Why I won't take part in debate with fundamentalists

I was invited several months ago to speak at the Faclan Book Festival in Stornoway and I was delighted to accept, as I have a great affection for the Highlands and Islands but have never visited Lewis and have heard such good things about its beauty and about the friendliness of the islanders.

Imagine, then, my astonishment when I heard that a boycott of my talk was being called for. A boycott! And I was even more astonished when I read the reasons.

“The Lord’s Day Observance Society said it was amazed by the invitation.

President of the group, John Roberts, said: “He has got a name for himself and being invited to a place like the Western Isles, which is a stronghold Presbyterian area, I just find it amazing he should be invited to a place like that.”

What? Did I read that aright? The President of the Lord’s Day Observance Society is amazed that somebody should even be INVITED to speak, simply because it is an area where the majority of people hold a different opinion? I could understand that he might not wish to come and hear me himself. That is, of course, his privilege and I hope somebody else will come and occupy the seat that he would otherwise have taken. But what an extraordinary idea that a book festival, of all places, should never invite anybody to speak unless they can be relied upon to repeat what the audience already knows and already agrees with!

As for calling for a boycott, it is one thing to decide to stay away yourself. But to call for other people to stay away just because you want to stay away yourself: that sounds perilously close to bigotry. Or is it desperation? Not content with stopping up his own ears like the proverbial monkey, Mr Roberts seems to want to stop up everybody else’s ears too.

How amusing, then, to find just a few days after this that I am now being urged to take part in a debate while I am there. You will no doubt notice that this new-found dedication to "fairness and balance" and to "both sides of the theistic debate being heard" (Plan B) has only emerged now that their Plan A, to prevent my side of the theistic debate being heard at all, has failed.

Well, in their shoes, perhaps I would be clamouring for debates as well. If your case depends on pulpit-style oratory, manipulating the emotions of your audience and playing with words, debates will probably work for you very well. They do not, however, work well for explaining science. Debates play to the emotions, to soundbites, to oratorical flourishes and, all too often, to sheer volume. They may make for good drama, but they do not make for good understanding. Fine if your goal is to grandstand; no good at all if it is to educate. So no, I shall not be taking part in any debate while I am on Lewis.

But the fundamentalists need not fear: I plan to leave plenty of time for questions after my talk and, indeed, if the festival organisers were in favour of the idea, I would be happy to scrap the talk altogether and simply devote my entire session to answering questions from the audience. Earlier this week John Roberts said of me, "I wouldn't cross the road to hear what he has to say" – which seems like a wasted opportunity for him, since he also said "so much of what he says can be torn to pieces". Well, if John Roberts or Iver Martin or the entire Free Church clergy, come to that, can, after all, bring themselves to cross the road in the interests of tearing me to pieces, they are very welcome to come and have a go. The more the merrier.

However, a quick look at the Faclan programme should be enough to reassure even Mr Roberts and Mr Martin that the festival as a whole is overwhelmingly uncritical of religion. Indeed, they will find not one but two events (The Dawkins Letters with David Robertson and Why There Almost Certainly Is A God with Keith Ward) which are clearly intended to oppose my own talk head-on. So if it really is balance and fairness they are suddenly so concerned about, they appear to have weighed in on the wrong side.

I always marvel when I come up to the Highlands and encounter this kind of sheer, blind panic at the mere thought of my giving a talk. The region has a reputation for solid faith, but if that were really so, you might think it would be able to take a simple talk by an evolutionary scientist in its stride. I am left wondering how confident Mr Roberts and others really are, either in their own faith or their fellow islanders', if a mere talk at a book festival is enough to provoke so much of their sound and fury.

This article was written for the Press and Journal and is reposted here


Dlaczego nie wezmę udziału w debacie z fundamentalistami

Autor tekstu: Richard Dawkins

Tłumaczenie: Małgorzata Koraszewska 

Kilka miesięcy temu zaproszono mnie na Festiwal Książki Faclan w Stornoway i z przyjemnością przyjąłem zaproszenie, ponieważ mam bardzo ciepłe uczucia wobec Highlands i Wysp, ale nigdy nie byłem na wyspie Lewis, a tyle dobrych rzeczy słyszałem o jej urodzie i o życzliwości jej mieszkańców.

Wyobraźcie sobie moje zdumienie, kiedy usłyszałem, że wzywa się tam do bojkotu mojego wystąpienia. Bojkotu! A jeszcze bardziej zdumiałem się, kiedy przeczytałem o przyczynach tego wezwania.

„Towarzystwo Przestrzegania Dnia Pańskiego powiedziało, że zdumiało ich to zaproszenie. Prezydent grupy, John Roberts, powiedział: "Wrobił sobie nazwisko i jest zapraszany do takiego miejsca jak Wyspy Zachodnie, które są bastionem obszaru prezbiteriańskiego. Dla mnie jest po prostu zdumiewające, że zaproszono go do takiego miejsca".

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TAGGED: RELIGION, RICHARD DAWKINS, SPEECHES


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