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Can we have a civil debate between atheists and believers? Add to ...

"In the debate between atheists and people of faith, let's move beyond the stale polemics that insult everybody's intelligence," columnist Irshad Manji wrote Friday in her column Elevating the God Discussion.

She continued: "Two weeks ago, Toronto played host to a 'smackdown,' as one of my friends giddily called it, between the atheist Christopher Hitchens and the believer Tony Blair. 'When you assume a creator and a plan,' Mr. Hitchens declared in the debate, 'it makes us objects in a cruel experiment whereby we are created sick and commanded to be well.' And supervising this is a 'celestial dictatorship, a kind of divine North Korea.' The audience roared in approval.

"But wit doesn't always make for wisdom," Ms. Manji added. "It would have been more revelatory for Mr. Hitchens to follow up his punchline with this acknowledgment: The North Korean regime, according to its official website, 'embraces science and rationalism.' The point is, whether in the name of God or godlessness, dogmatists commit barking mad atrocities . . .

"The 'new' atheists are only rehashing what's already been said umpteen times. In the late 1700s, historian Edward Gibbons - a luminary of the British Enlightenment and a consummate skeptic - observed that the 'bigotry' of the anti-God squad mimics the fanaticism of churchmen . . .

"Beyond a more humane tone, the debate could use fresh substance, too. The arguments of the new atheists remind me of a passage from the Bible in which it's said that "there is nothing new under the sun." But thinking people are capable of presenting old ideas in new ways, and that's what the God discussion needs if it's going to generate novel insights.

"Here's my humble contribution . . . as a person of faith, I'm used to being challenged by atheists . . . At a lecture in Toronto some years ago, philosopher George Steiner announced that 'the way you honour a person is, you ask of him an effort.'

"Atheists, I thank you for honouring me. Now, in the spirit of the season, allow me to reciprocate. I look forward to a robust and respectful conversation."

That conversation started here today at globeandmail.com.

Ms. Manji was live with us earlier for a discussion about her column and about relations between atheists and people of faith. Please click on the discussion panel below to read the transcript.

Smart phone users can follow the transcript here.

Here's a quick example of the debate held earlier:

Question: What do atheists and people of faith have to learn from each other, anyway? If nothing, then why should there be a conversation at all?

Irshad Manji: My answer is that atheists and believers have something tremendously important to learn from each other as well as to teach each other, and that's the value of humility. I know that sounds laughable, given that people of faith often strut like they know it all. But they're not people of faith, in my view. They're people of dogma. People of faith (or, at least, monotheists) believe that only God knows fully the truth of anything. Moreover, we cannot be playing the role of God. Therefore, it's our duty here on earth to help create societies in which we can all disagree with each other in peace and with civility. Anything less undermines God's jurisdiction as the Ultimate judge and jury. Hence the need for humility on the part of believers. But what about atheists? Why should they have humility?

In his book, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, Timothy Keller itemizes the various arguments that atheists tend to make _ including the theory of evolution. Keller writes that atheists often point out: "Our religious, aesthetic, and moral intuitions are there only because they helped our ancestors survive." However, Keller goes on to say: "If we can't trust our belief-forming faculties in one area, we should not trust them in any area. If there is no God, we should not trust our cognitive faculties at all." That's an argument for humility on the part of non-believers. And humility, far from being a negative thing, teaches the value of pluralism _ the existence of multiple perspectives.



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