Support the Café

Search our Site

Williams and Dawkins debate belief in God.

Williams and Dawkins debate belief in God.

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams did what he does best when he met Richard Dawkins Clarendon House at Oxford University for a debate about the existence of God that turned into a discussion about the efficacy of belief in God.

No sparks flew and the discussion never got very heated but it was instructive, particularly to those who assume that Christians must take the Bible literally and will fight to the death over the idea that God created in the world in six 24 hour days. What may surprise some people–but not most Anglicans–is not how much they differed but how much the two men shared. In short, if you were looking for a science-verus-faith contest, you came to wrong debate because Williams find beauty–and from there God–in the science.

John Bingham at the Telegraph wrote:

For much of the discussion the Archbishop sat quietly listening to Prof Dawkins’s explanations of human evolution.

At one point he told the professor that he was “inspired” by “elegance” of the professor’s explanation for the origins of life – and agreed with much of it.

Prof Dawkins told him: “What I can’t understand is why you can’t see the extraordinary beauty of the idea that life started from nothing – that is such a staggering, elegant, beautiful thing, why would you want to clutter it up with something so messy as a God?”

Dr Williams replied that he “entirely agreed” with the “beauty” of Prof Dawkins’s argument but added: “I’m not talking about God as an extra who you shoehorn on to that.”

The other surprise, at least to Bingham and to those who assume that all atheists are as rigid, literalistic and fundementalist as any theist is that Dawkins could not, when questioned, rule out entirely the existence of God. If he can’t prove that God exists, he also cannot prove that God doesn’t exist.

There was surprise when Prof Dawkins acknowledged that he was less than 100 per cent certain of his conviction that there is no creator.

The philosopher Sir Anthony Kenny, who chaired the discussion, interjected: “Why don’t you call yourself an agnostic?” Prof Dawkins answered that he did.

An incredulous Sir Anthony replied: “You are described as the world’s most famous atheist.”

Prof Dawkins said that he was “6.9 out of seven” sure of his beliefs.

“I think the probability of a supernatural creator existing is very very low,” he added.

The consensus was Williams won the debate on points. As with his conversation with Giles Frasier last week, we find that Dawkins, while eloquent is strongest when it comes to the science and Williams on philosophy and theology.


Café Comments?

Our comment policy requires that you use your real first and last names and provide an email address (your email will not be published). Comments that use non-PG rated language, include personal attacks, that are not provable as fact or that we deem in any way to be counter to our mission of fostering respectful dialogue will not be posted.

Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Emma Pease

Given that Richard Dawkins wrote several years ago in The God Delusion that he put himself at 6.5 on a 7 point scale, I don’t think this is anything new.

Agnosticism is one description of _how_ you believe (one’s certainty); atheism is one description of _what_ you believe (or don’t believe). One can be an agnostic Christian (follows Jesus as the Christ despite lacking evidence) or an agnostic atheist though I would probably reserve the word for those who are less certain than Dawkins. Absolutely certain atheists are pretty rare and probably as terrifying as absolutely certain Christians. How many here would classify themselves as 1 on the scale?

Erik Campano

@JC Fischer: yeah, I thought that. Sometimes I wish it was the 8th day and these guys would just give it a rest.

Erik Campano


“something so messy as a God”

I wonder if there are really any atheists (I see that Dawkins came out that he’s really an agnostic). To believe that God is “so messy” is, obviously, to believe in *some* kind of god. I honestly believe the best term for Dawkins (among others) is “anti-theist”. They merely hate the god they believe in. [Similar to Tobias, I feel blessed to not believe in their god! ;-)]

JC Fisher

@ErikC: perhaps “6.9 out of 7” refers to Biblical 7 Days of Creation?

tobias haller

I’ve long said that Dawkins doesn’t believe in the same God I don’t believe in. Much of Christian theology, for example, doesn’t even speak in the category of “existence” applied to God. Hence the disconnect. Glad Rowan took on this challenge, and glad Dawkins may have gained some insights from it.

William F. Hammond

Recalling ++Rowan’s (while Bishop of Monmouth in 1998) reply to Spong’s “12 Theses”, I am wondering if anyone else would think it interesting to observe the three of them together in a panel discussion.

Support the Café
Past Posts

The Episcopal Café seeks to be an independent voice, reporting and reflecting on the Episcopal Church and the Anglican tradition.  The Café is not a platform of advocacy, but it does aim to tell the story of the church from the perspective of Progressive Christianity.  Our collective sympathy, as the Café, lies with the project of widening the circle of inclusion within the church and empowering all the baptized for the role to which they have been called as followers of Christ.

The opinions expressed at the Café are those of individual contributors, and, unless otherwise noted, should not be interpreted as official statements of a parish, diocese or other organization. The art and articles that appear here remain the property of their creators.

All Content  © 2017 Episcopal Café