An open letter to Richard Dawkins: What have you got to lose by debating God's existence with me this weekend?
Dear Professor Dawkins,
Apologies for writing you another letter (remember The Dawkins Letters?) but you just don't seem to be responding. It's so funny how we don't talk any more. Anyway, I hope you are well and fully recovered from your recent bout of illness (I would tell you that I prayed for you but I realise what a triggering effect that can have so I will just keep that one silent). But it's good to hear that you have recovered well enough to be able to travel and speak in Australia.
I have just discovered that you are due to be in Sydney this coming weekend, on a kind of antipodean tour – after playing to packed out theatres in New Zealand and elsewhere in Australia. I guess you undertook this after the cancellation of the third global atheist convention in Melbourne that was due to take place in February. Apparently it was cancelled because of 'lack of interest'.
This is hardly a surprise. Given that you and your fellow atheists keep telling us that atheism is not a 'thing', a 'philosophy', or indeed anything but 'the lack of belief in gods or God', it always struck me as kind of weird to have a conference focusing on what you don't believe in. After all, you don't believe in fairies and yet you don't have an a-fairiest conference? You don't collect stamps (do you recognise all the memes your followers keep repeating on the internet?) and yet you don't have a 'non-stamp collectors conference'.
Of course you and I know that the simple mantra 'atheism is not a belief, its just a simple lack of belief' is nonsense. That's why you can go on your tours and play to packed out theatres telling audiences what they want to hear from their prophet – 'there is no God!'
Remember when we met up in Stornoway on that 'last stronghold of the gospel in the UK', the island of Lewis? I listened to your talk the following night, and what struck me was the revivalist tone. Your announcement that 'there is no God' was greeted with rapturous applause by those who get really excited about what they don't believe in. In many of your talks in the US the emotive reading of the opening paragraph of the chapter in The God Delusion which mocks and caricatures the God of the Bible, is greeted in the same ecstatic way. I swear I can hear a few 'Amens' and 'Hallelujahs'.
In some ways this is reflective of the televangelists you profess to despise. People in Sydney are being asked to pay anything from $57 to $160 to hear you say what they want to believe. It's a nice gig if you can get it! It seems that there is money in atheism as well as religion. I recall the late, great Christopher Hitchens agreeing to debate with me in London. It eventually didn't go ahead. Why? Because of money. The church that asked us wanted to know our price – mine was a return train ticket from Scotland. His? Two first class plane tickets from New York and $50,000 (later reduced to $25,000 when his agent discovered that the church was 'a charity'). It seems that 'the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil' – including atheism.
However, I see that there are still tickets available in Sydney, so let me make you an offer that will help you sell out (the venue). Let's have that debate you keep refusing. Remember how you said that you would debate the archbishop of Canterbury (I believe he has a wedding on), the pope or the Chief Rabbi, but never someone like me – a mere Scottish Presbyterian pleb? Well things have moved on a wee bit...I became moderator of the Free Church – would that be enough status for you? Or perhaps you should consider that your own reviewer wrote on your own website that The Dawkins Letters was the 'best of the flea books'. So why not debate with me? I'm free in Sydney next Sunday and Monday evenings – and I won't cost a penny: I'm happy to speak about my beliefs for free. What do you have to lose?
The principal of Oak Hill College, Mike Ovey, was a rather brilliant man, who sadly passed away last year. In my eyes he went to glory; in yours he went to nothing. But he left behind him some rather good writings and insights. One of these was his analysis of what he called 'colonial atheism'. I thought of this when I heard you were coming to the 'colonies' to spread the 'good news' that there is no God. I wonder if you are that kind of imperialist thinker who believes that they alone have the truth and have a solemn responsibility to pass it on to the unenlightened natives? Or are you prepared to discuss, engage with and defend your beliefs?
The advert for your show says that you are 'revered for unapologetic appraisals of critical thinking and equally unapologetic takedowns of religion'. Your followers may revere you but it is somewhat easy to take down a straw man caricature that you yourself have set up. This is a bit like people paying to watch a football match with only one team – its not difficult for that team to win. If you want to be, as your advert says, 'a staunch ongoing opponent to the waves of irrationality that continually plague the public sphere', then why not allow some rational opposition? Is it not a bit irrational to refuse to engage in rational discussion with those who don't share your views? And boring?
Anyway, glad you have recovered. The Lord has given you more time. I'll keep the diary free...and look forward to getting your agent's call.
David Robertson is associate director of Solas CPC in Dundee and minister at St Peter's Free Church. Follow him on Twitter @TheWeeFlea