The writer believes Professor Richard Dawkins, an English ethologist, evolutionary biologist and writer, gets excessive flak for his perceived arrogance. Picture: AP

Too many religious believers think that debating their beliefs is intrinsically offensive, writes Eusebius McKaiser.

I’m looking forward to debating Oxford Professor John Lennox publicly on Thursday. We’re engaging the framing question: morality and God – is there a connection?

John is a great thinker and popular international speaker, and an academic who specialises in, and teaches, mathematics, philosophy of science and Christian Apologetics at Oxford University.

Being agnostic, I obviously think he is dead wrong. He believes morality doesn’t make sense without God. God is the necessary source of moral right and wrong as far as Lennox is concerned.

I hold an incompatible view that I’ve held for years as a moral philosophy student and lecturer. My view is that we can justify moral principles and various moral values without reference to a god – any god or gods or deities.

Not only do I think God is not needed in moral reasoning, I actually think that outsourcing justification for why you should or should not do something to an authority like God is, in a very real sense, cowardly and pathetic.

What I’m not going do in this column is provide full argument for my view. Or an exposition of the argument underpinning John’s Christian view. That I will do on Thursday first, but promise to write the full argument in my next column.

What I do want to reflect on, however, is the general status of religious beliefs in public debate. I heard that Lennox got a good grilling from a talk-show host in Cape Town last week, which apparently resulted in many callers being rather upset.

Why do many people who believe in some sort of higher power think that religious convictions are beyond lampooning, ridiculing, criticism or close intellectual scrutiny?

I’ll be damned – yes, pardon my ungodly pun – if I’m to treat God with kid gloves. All convictions can and should be up for grabs in the marketplace of ideas.

If you’re genuinely interested in debate, then you should have a commitment to concepts such as “truth” and “justified”.

Without needing to go into complex academic philosophy on epistemology, there is an intuitive point here worth unpacking. While many false or unjustified beliefs could be useful to you practically, that is the exception rather than the rule.

It may be good for your immune system, for example, not to be shocked by news of a non-surviving family member who was in an accident with you. It’s prudent – maybe even compulsory some might say – for family and doctors to make you believe falsely that everyone else is okay until you’re out of medical danger yourself and strong enough to handle the tragic truth.

But over the course of an entire life you mostly want to believe that which is true or justified.

Making millions of decisions based on falsehoods or unjustified beliefs will very likely lead to a rather miserable life or probably one filled with more failures than successes.

This brings us back to the value of examining all beliefs you have. A critical life is practically good for you.

And I’d argue, on another day, that a critical life is an important part of a worthwhile life.

So if you’re a believer with an appreciation for critical self-examination, then questions like the following shouldn’t offend you. The opposite: these questions should turn you on.

Does God exist? What is the evidence for this belief if you answered that question in the affirmative? What justifies such a belief?

On morality: is something right because God says so or does God command you to do something because it is morally right independent of God?

On meaning: can you make sense of a life having meaning without God in it? Why or why not? Why is God necessary to confer meaning on my life?

These are questions that all believers who value truth and justification must engage. They must engage these questions privately and be prepared to be engaged on these questions publicly.

The fact that the questions expose beliefs that are deeply embedded in your belief structure to public debate is tough cookies, I’m afraid.

Just because your belief that God exists matters to you insofar as it is an incredibly important part of your sense of self, doesn’t mean it can’t be critically engaged. So quit getting upset when religion is debated.

This doesn’t mean being offensive is acceptable. Many atheists are embarrassed by Richard Dawkins, for example, because he often exhibits a condescending attitude towards religious communities. They share his conclusions, many of his arguments even, but sometimes bemoan his tone and arrogance.

I personally think Dawkins gets excessive flak, even from many atheists. Some examples of his condescension are compelling. But frankly some of the criticism – even from atheists – rests on the assumption that one mustn’t play rough with religious communities.

But when we lampoon Aids denialists, for example, with a mix of evidence-based reasoning and ridicule, few would say be nice to an Anthony Brink or Peter Duesberg. The reason is itself up for debate, of course in literature about debate – some views are so ridiculous and dangerous for society that ridicule is surely permitted.

I’m not here implying religious beliefs are dangerous. But if Dawkins holds such a view sincerely and wants to make the argument, then from his perspective such views must be engaged with a mix of reasoning and ridicule.

His motivation is precisely to role model what it means to not treat religion with kid gloves. And he’s right. The way to respond to Dawkins is to obsess less about his arrogance – how many of us are never arrogant on topics we have strong views on? – but instead to show where his views are false or unjustified!

Even so I concede that many opponents of religious views are unhelpfully offensive sometimes.

But two final caveats to this concession are crucial. First, atheists do not have a monopoly on being offensive or obnoxious or arrogant. Many religious believers are, too.

Second, too many religious believers think that debating their beliefs is intrinsically offensive. This category of believers does not even care for polite debate. Like a first-year student who walked out of my first lecture at Wits a few years ago when I taught introduction to philosophy of religion.

I explained the course content and said the first question we’d explore was “Does God exist?”. The student deregistered after confessing to the philosophy administrator she could not believe I could think it was acceptable to ask whether or not God existed.

I think she sadly missed the point of university, for one thing. Or rather we failed her by not ensuring she came to university understanding the point of a liberal arts education.

More importantly, she’s an example of the absurd belief of some religious folks that religion is special and beyond debate. God is not special.

* Eusebius McKaiser hosts “Power Talk With Eusebius McKaiser” on Power 98.7 on weekdays from 9am until noon.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

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