Saturday, 12 March 2011

Event report: Paul Sims - "Is there any point in talking to believers?

Time: 2 March 2011

Place: Bentham Seminar Room 3, Bentham House, UCL

UCLU ASHS hosted a talk by Paul Sims on the topic, "Is there any point in talking to believers?" Paul Sims is the News Editor of New Humanist Magazine, published by the Rationalist Association since 1885, and runs the New Humanist blog. His magazine features have explored topics ranging from Islamic extremism to creationist zoos.

Sims introduced the talk by expressing his personal opinions on the public reaction to the four-day Papal visit to England and Scotland in September 2010. Acknowledging that the Vatican does have much to answer for regarding the allegations of child abuse, he deemed the debate surrounding the visit "hysterical" and "over-the-top." In particular, he criticised Richard Dawkins' speech at the Protest the Pope rally, during which Dawkins considered the Pope "an enemy of humanity." Sims questioned what is actually achieved when an atheist spokesperson such as Dawkins publicly expresses aggressive atheism to this extent, fuelling anti-religious hostility amongst the public. Must secularism and religion be framed as a battle between two camps? On the contrary, Sims stressed that reasoned debate between individuals, and constructive criticism would be significantly more beneficial - for secularists and religious people alike.

Subsequent questions from the audience sparked interesting debate: can reasoned discussions achieve any more than aggressive atheism can, when people enter debates, not with the intention of changing their minds, but of forwarding their own views? It was argued that people rarely, if ever, are converted in either direction via debate alone; and that aggressive atheism may in fact raise awareness and shock people into critical thinking. To this, however, a remark was made about the interesting outcome of the Intelligence Squared debate, "Is the Catholic Church a force for good in the world?", whereby a substantial number of audience members changed their initial "for Catholic Church" or "undecided" views, to believing the Catholic Church not to be a force for good.

Furthermore, the issue was raised of whether a nuanced middle ground between secularism and religion is in actuality possible, or whether the existence of both in society necessitates polarisation. While balanced teaching of religion and critical thinking can be promoted in school, the role of the state in de facto discouraging religious devotion was questioned.

After the talk, speaker with audience members relocated to the pub for more informal discussion.

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