Last night I took part in a debate on the admission of humanist contributors to BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day. Organised by the Churches Media Council, it was enjoyable, but also a little odd. I have to admit to having gone into the debate batting firmly on one side, but willing to be persuaded to the other. It was on the basis of sheer free-thinking rationality that I became more convinced of the wisdom and importance of opposing the motion.
Jonathan Wynne-Jones of the Telegraph was there and has reported on his blog.
Dr Andrew Copson, Director of Education and Public Affairs at the British Humanist Association, proposed the motion in a generous, persuasive and articulate speech, but one that was based strongly on an appeal for ‘fairness and balance’. Ariane Sherine, comedienne and journalist (and the inspiration behind the brilliant agnostibus adverts), seconded the motion, but made the mistake of reading the humanist Thought for the Day she presented on Radio 4’s ipm some months ago.
Giles Fraser and I opposed the motion – Giles in his usual forceful style, distinguishing between the argument for ‘inclusion’ and that for ‘distinctiveness’ in respect of the TFTD slot. I just got heckled from the irrationalists at the back who didn’t help the proposers’ cause.
It was an interesting debate, but frustrating for two reasons. First, we couldn’t really engage in a proper discussion with each other about the arguments put (leaving either side open to misunderstanding). Secondly, the degree of sentimentality behind the proposers’ presentations made me (and, I think, Giles) feel that we couldn’t be too hard or robust in our engagement with them. Then, one contributor from the floor even cited Erasmus as a giant in the great tradition of European humanism without seeming to realise that he was a Christian – or that the original humanists were theists.
The point that I feel really lost it, however, was the language that assumed (a) that humanists are free thinkers (and, therefore, theists are not), (b) that Christians believe themselves to be more moral than atheists (a caricature based on a prejudice that does not stand up to scrutiny), and (c) that statistics can be used when convenient but are being misinterpreted when inconvenient.
My regret following last night was only that the four of us couldn’t have had an intelligent conversation together about the matters raised. But it was a useful reminder that rationalists must be prepared for more rational debate on the basis of rational argument (and not sentiment) and Christians must check their own assumptions about where atheists/humanists are coming from.