Pop atheists predictably erect a straw man of religion based on the worst and least knowledgeable of the faithful, whereas many religious fundamentalists, with negligible education crib together a world view that barely disguises its fairy tale, mythic in the worst sense of the word, substructure. After that first hour I was left with a desperate question, "Where on God’s green earth did reasonable dialogue disappear to? Has our species not evolved from survival of the loudest and most aggressive to the truly fittest, those who listen and cooperate?"
Sadly, reviewing my first paragraph, I detect the same savagery. Chris kept his eloquent rant going for around five hours in audiobook form. In addition to the book are the interview versions of the message, full of the same steam and silver-tongued expression. It seems that the most articulate of believers and unbelievers preach at one another rather than sharpen and refine their views from the steel of their opponents convictions. If religion or philosophy, evolutionary or otherwise are to metamorphose, mutual understanding and appreciation must be mixed with conviction and desire to deepen. The rhetorical thermostat must be turned down. Not of course into the frigid zone; you do need enough heat to keep things moving, otherwise dialogue descends to icy lecturing.
To keep the rationality and momentum alive in our discussions, I suggest as a prologue to our world-view debates, an adult compact to learn from one another, a selection of the most sterling examples of our opposition’s proponents and, after a thorough engagement of the issues, an openness to change our minds even if incrementally.
The question of the effect of religion or ideology on human flourishing is undoubtedly crucial. Asking the foundational questions of approach will include an understanding of culture, psychology, and the precarious relation between ideation and the physical world. I wonder who would be the best participants in this debate. Certainly not Robert Dawkins and Pat Robertson! My nominees could include on the religious side Huston Smith and Jurgen Moltmann, the opposition might be well served by well selected convictional and knowledgeable, but friendly or at least humanistic atheists or agnostics in the Stephen Jay Gould tradition. In addition to the professional academes, a panel of regular believers from both camps could be well moderated referees to keep the sides honest and accessible.
As for the focus of content, emphasis on the tautologies of the belief systems could be left aside for issues of practical relevance. I would wonder if the participants should reopen the revelation and reason debate or, if we as apparent post-moderns consider ourselves beyond that, perhaps we could discuss the possibility and feasibility of meaningful dialogue. The place of ideas in the causation of war would unquestionably be high on the agenda as would be ecology.
My imaginary symposium might end with expression of where we were genuinely enlightened or challenged by one another and where we can’t understand or accept our opponents' viewpoint. This imaginary exercise has lowered the temperature of the debate, perhaps my blood pressure too, and at least suggested an exciting and courageous approach toward those whom I disagree. Very few of the modern dialogue partners in the press hold out much along this line and many of us on all sides await such a context beyond tabloid academics.