Dawkins and Holloway

Last night some of us at the Humanist Society went to an event at the Edinburgh Science Festival, where Richard Dawkins and Richard Holloway sat and had a conversation with each other about God, Religion and Spirituality, at George Square Lecture Theatre here at Edinburgh University. It was a great event, and afterwards Richard Dawkins signed my copy of Unweaving the Rainbow.

Anyway it was really interesting because they didn’t really disagree on anything. The event was all filmed, so I’m sure you’ll be able to see it soon enough, either on YouTube, RichardDawkins.net, or at the Edinburgh Science Festival website.

What I want to discuss mostly here is Richard Holloway’s views about God and religion. If you don’t know much about him, he was formerly the Bishop of Edinburgh in the Scottish Episcopal Church, but he must be the most liberal Christian you’ll ever meet. The funny thing is, he doesn’t actually believe what the Bible says, he doesn’t believe God exists, or in the virgin birth, or that Jesus of Nazareth was Christ, the Son of God. What he does believe is that Jesus was “an extraordinary man”, by which I assume he means a great teacher, with huge moral authority, and that the Church does a lot of good. Indeed Richard Dawkins then compared Jesus with other moral figures of our day such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, and Mahatma Gandhi, but we don’t claim there is anything supernatural about these people. In short, as much as I don’t like labelling people, in this case it is useful, and I would describe Richard Holloway as an agnostic/pantheist.

The two men spent some time discussing the Bible stories as “beautiful myths” that can teach us a lot, whether or not they are true. Dawkins correctly noted that you could say exactly the same about the aboriginal myths about the Dreamtime, or Polynesian myths, or any other set of myths in the world, and yet Holloway specifically chooses the Christian myths, what’s that about? And furthermore, he picks and chooses which parts of the myth are useful for teaching morals, it’s not the myth itself which tells us what is moral, we put our own subjective judgement on it and decide for ourselves. So why bother with the myth?! Why not just jump straight to the morals?

So in what sense is Richard Holloway a Christian? I would say he’s not at all because he doesn’t believe in God or what I call “the mythical Jesus” (as opposed to the historical Jesus), but he defends his position saying that he still calls himself a Christian because he still associates himself with the community that has had such an influence on his life, and because he still sees the good work that the church does and the good moral teachings of the church. But then if I was living at home, I could say that as well, and it doesn’t make me a Christian. A question I wanted to ask would have gone like this: Just as there are good points about the Christian religion, so there are also very negative points. How can you justify to yourself continuing to associate yourself with a religion which is misgynistic, homophobic, and continues to condemn people to death in AIDS-ridden Africa through its condemnation of contraceptive use? Admittedly most of that is the work of the Catholics, but it gives Christianity as a whole a bad name.

I suspect the answer would have incorporated the facts that he thinks religion does more good than it does bad, and that the church is gradually changing. But I can’t help thinking that there is no good act that a Christian can do that an atheist cannot also do, but someone’s religious beliefs can make them cause a lot of damage, which an atheist would not do.

Anyway, a great event, look out for the video.


7 Responses to Dawkins and Holloway

  1. Tim Mills says:

    It just figures that all the cool stuff happens while I’m away. Thanks for the report – I’ll keep an eye open for the video.

    I’d like to suggest an analogy that I think might apply to the Holloways of the world. Think of Christianity like a town. Lots of people live there. Some of them are nice, upstanding citizens; some are not. If it came to pass that there were more bad people than good people, what options are open to the good people? They could leave, but that just shifts the balance so an even higher proportion of the town is bad people. Why not stay (choose to remain part of the community) and exert one’s influence to try to improve things?

    If you like the town, surely you’d rather stay and fix things than leave it to the hoodlums to do what they like with it. (If you don’t like the town, then by all means leave – as many humanists who were formerly-religious have done.)

    It seems to me that people like Richard Holloway (and Bishop Spong in the US, and many others worldwide) are choosing the appropriate path given their appreciation of the value of (some parts of) the Christian message: they are choosing to stay in the community and try to salvage the good things, rather than abandon the whole lot (baby & bathwater) to the fundamentalist hoodlums.

    And frankly, I think that’s the only viable way out of fundamentalism. When was the last time a religion disappeared? Without genocidal violence being exerted against it? (I’m pretty sure the answer is “never”, but correct me if I’m wrong here.)

    So since we’re not prepared to exterminate every Christian (nuke the town), then the only alternative is for the Christian community to be renovated from within. And for that, we need people like Holloway and Spong to stay, to set an excellent example for their fellow townsfolk, and to work for positive change.

    I’ll close with a (perhaps over-stretched) extension of the analogy. As members of a neighbouring town, how can we act to best ensure that the town of Christianity gets its act together?

    We could just yell at them “Your town sucks, and here’s why! Anyone who doesn’t live here is an idiot!”

    Or we could engage with the positive role models in their community, and share what we know about running an effective town. We might learn from them, they might learn from us, and we’ll certainly all realize we have more in common than we thought (as you note with Dawkins and Holloway).

  2. grammarking says:

    Speak for yourself, I’m perfectly willing to nuke the town… 😛

    Seriously, that’s an excellent analogy Tim (you’re getting good at them). But there’s a big difference (although it doesn’t affect your analogy too much) in that Christianity is not just a community, it is also a set of beliefs. So people don’t just leave Christianity because it’s full of bad people, they leave because they don’t believe in it anymore. IMO people who stay in the town despite not believing in it anymore aren’t really part of the town, they’re just really really really close neighbours.

    I’m sure that in the future religion will become the exception to the rule rather than the norm, but until then, you’re absolutely right, we need to encourage some religious people to be less misogynistic, homophobic and… what was the other thing… oh yeah, death-condemning.

  3. Stuart Ritchie says:

    I just think it’s great that a public figure famous (whether he likes it or not) for being ‘religious’ is willing to criticise the fundamentalist end of religion. This is the thing that might encourage more religious people to look at the fact that in their town (to continue Tim’s analogy) there’s a fenced-off area where mad, mad people live – and that area happens to be the only area most people see. Or something.

    Moderates speaking out is certainly one of the many, many things we need to encourage to reduce the frightening level of religious fundamentalism in this country.

  4. Ian says:


    I don’t BELIEVE that I missed these two again…

  5. DEREK says:

    Holloway will have a whacking great pension from his time as Bishop. No point in thumbing his nose at them now.

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