This interview caught my attention on the radio this morning: Richard Dawkins was pitted against David Quinn, a leading Irish Catholic writer. Dawkins has just written a new book called the “God Delusion” (definitely on my reading list).

It didn’t seem however as if Dawkins was terribly prepared for Quinn’s onslaught.

The main arguments coming from Quinn were that physical matter was evidence of God; that atheists could not explain free will (which was also evidence of God); and that atheists were just as responsible for fundamentalism and violence as religious people.

On the question of the existence of matter, just because scientists don’t know everything about the world, it doesn’t mean that “God” is immediately the answer. Quinn, quite unashamedly, invoked a false dilemma, and Dawkins didn’t pick him up on it.

Dawkins completely avoided the question of free will – which was curious because Quinn’s argument seems to be that atheists believe that we humans are completely controlled by our genes, and that we are therefore somehow mechanical in nature. I think he needs to read up on quantum theory, complexity theory, and the unpredictability and emergent effects that arise out of systems as complex as the human brain. It’s not necessary, in my mind, to invoke outside agencies to bring about decisions of free will – the billions of neurons in our brain are well able to yield complex and unpredictable effects when working in concert with each other. Another point about free will is that it appears to me to be a theological concept mainly – it’s never discussed by scientists terribly much. Maybe talking about free will is the equivalent to talking about the colour of the Angel Gabriel’s wings – i.e. a rather meaningless discussion in the first place. In any case, I was a bit surprised that Dawkins steered completely around the question, saying he wasn’t interested in talking about it. In doing so he dug a hole for himself that Quinn was quite happy to shove him in during the final seconds of the interview.

The last piece, on the subject of atheistic morality, Quinn made some good points – particularly regarding atheists who cherry-pick the worst that religion has to offer without balancing this against it’s more benign effects. However, Quinn tried to lump atheists in with some of the worst 20th Century dictators and their followers. He implied that, because atheists do not believe in God, that they often believe in some other weird or cruel world theory that is even more invalid. Shouldn’t a true atheist should be skeptical of everything unless there is proper evidence for it? So, just as an atheist would have problems with Islam or Christiantity, so too should he have problems with eugenics or extreme nationalism or Communist utopianism.

Maybe Dawkins was somewhat unprepared for Quinn’s rather aggressive stance, but he didn’t manage to get his point across very well in the short time allotted. I would have loved to have heard a longer debate on the subject.

It starts from about 8 minutes into the program, and you need Real Player to listen to it.