Defeat at the Cambridge Union

Visible below is the video of the debate at Cambridge last week lost by me, Richard Dawkins and Arif Ahmed.

Obviously there were a few different reasons for our defeat, not least the very badly worded and ambiguous motion (I actually turned down the offer to debate this motion but then found they had put me on the programme anyway!) but there weren’t any particular points in Rowan Williams’ or Tariq Ramadan’s speeches that I think need response. The opposition speech of Douglas Murray, however, did have three points worth responding to:

His claim a loss of religion deprives you of the resources to deal with death

If this is so why are non-religious and humanist funerals the fastest growing funerals in Europe and why do they get a 97% feedback if 5/5 in England and Wales as being meaningful, dignified opportunities to deal with death and celebrate a life? And what about the millennia old philosophical and humanist traditions in both East and West of non-religious responses to death?

His claim a loss of religion deprives life of meaning

Then what about the millions of people who get by without it just fine and the billions throughout the millennia who have done the same? What about studies like those of ‘Generation Y’ which show that the very non-religious demographic of those aged 30 and under have great meaningfulness in their lives which they derive from family, friends, their own worthwhile goals, popular culture and the world around them?

His claim that there is no distinction to be made between organised religion and religion generally

71% of those calling themselves Protestants support assisted dying for the terminally ill but 100% of Bishops in the House of Lords voted against it. If we had a referendum on the subject, people’s individual religions wouldn’t cause harm but the lobbying and political power of an organised religion has caused demonstrable harm. That’s just one microcosmic example.

Tariq’s speech was really just bombast so apart from the points above, the only other thing I wish I’d been able to pick up on was Rowan Williams’ claim that organised religion is ‘unique’ in its helping of the helpless and its constancy in sticking by the marginalized when everyone else ignores them.

He used an example from Congo. I could have given him examples of humanist organisations that are just as notable for taking care of and standing by people otherwise neglected, left behind and marginalised (for example the Ugandan Humanists’ work rescuing and retraining sex workers) and also secular organisations containing both religious and non-religious doing the same. He was surely wrong to claim this aspect of the work of some religious organisations is unique.

Anyway… enjoy!

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