We are finally entering territory where, I suspect, most of you feel some degree of familiarity. If you are reading this series, you have probably already seen the debate. Perhaps you were there, in Birmingham, Alabama’s Alys Stephens Center, the night of this epic clash between atheism’s champion, Professor Richard Dawkins, and the man who, at least for an evening, carried the torch of the Christian faith, Professor John Lennox. Or maybe you bought the DVD (a collector’s item?) or watched it on our YouTube channel.
But these are only the things that took place on stage. Now, I set about to tell you what took place off of it.
John and Sally Lennox arrived in Birmingham a week before the debate scheduled for October 3, 2007. John did this at my request to help me promote the event. To that end, I arranged a number of engagements and interviews for him. He spoke to various schools and colleges, churches, civic organizations, and on radio shows. That there was a buzz surrounding this event was clear.
Returning to the office each day, Hannah would tell me that the requests for tickets were endless. People she called “F.O.L.s” – that is, “Friends of Larry” – would call and say, “I’m a friend of Larry’s and I need a couple of tickets …” I didn’t know I had so many friends. It didn’t matter. The event was sold out and I couldn’t give away tickets I didn’t have.
While John was making the rounds in Birmingham to promote the event, Richard was touring the United States promoting the book that was the subject of our debate, The God Delusion. Here’s a sample of that screed; in fact, it is the opening line:
The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving, control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.
That’s typical fare. The purpose of our debate was to challenge the central thesis of that book – God does not exist – and a number of other assertions contained therein. But we weren’t out to mischaracterize him as atheists and their media allies had so dishonestly mischaracterized my book, The Faith of Christopher Hitchens. In that instance, people like BBC’s intolerably smug host James O’Brien, The Atlantic’s disingenuous David Frum, and the diminutive professional atheist Lawrence Krauss in an article for The New Yorker had simply lied about the contents of my book in order to discredit it. Where I would have been willing to have an open, honest discussion about it with any of them – indeed, I would relish it – they wanted nothing of the sort. Instead, they adopted smear tactics.
We weren’t going to do that to Richard Dawkins. We were going to give him what atheists – in my case, at least – did not give their ideological opponents: a fair hearing. Dawkins would not only have the opportunity to defend himself, he would have the opportunity to press his argument. He would get equal time to assert or rebut. Judge Pryor would see to that.
Some Christians have criticized me sharply for doing this. I was, they have said, giving atheists like Dawkins a platform to push their wicked agenda. Before the debate I received nasty notes from Christians telling me that they would never support an organization like Fixed Point because we “promoted blasphemy.” It will be no surprise to you that I strongly disagree with these comments for two reasons:
First, Richard Dawkins didn’t need me to provide him with a platform. He already had an enormous audience and his book was already a bestseller.
Second, I have more confidence in my faith and in my God than to feel that I had to stack the deck to help my guy or my side of the argument win.
But atheists and Leftist media types aren’t the only ones to do things like this. Unfortunately, Christians, no less immune to the weaknesses of human nature, occasionally employ these tactics, too.
Prior to the debate, the producers of the Intelligent Design (I.D.) film Expelled contacted us and asked me to help them promote their soon-to-be-released film. It featured host Ben Stein interviewing atheists like Dawkins and pro-I.D. scientists who had been “expelled” from the academy for their views. We had demonstrated a sympathy with I.D. in our Samford University debate the year before. I was happy to consider the request if they sent me a preview copy of the film. They refused to let me see it but nonetheless continued to insist that I promote Expelled at our upcoming debate. This struck me as unreasonable and not just a little presumptuous. Unless I was permitted to see what I was being asked to promote, I told them, they could count on no help from us.
Then there was Focus on the Family’s even more outrageous post-debate request. We had asked FOTF to help us promote the debate and the issues surrounding it in the months leading up to the event. They weren’t interested and let us know it in no uncertain terms. Once the debate was a massive success, however, they contacted us and essentially demanded use of certain segments of the debate film, royalty-free and in perpetuity, for a series they were now producing on ID titled “True U” featuring the Discovery Institute’s Stephen Meyer. The clips they wanted were of Dawkins and appeared to grossly mischaracterize him. Again, we refused unless his statements were taken in full. We were determined that all participants, Christian, atheist, or otherwise, would be treated fairly both in the debate and following it.
Misrepresenting your opponents’ views demonstrates a deep insecurity with your own beliefs. Besides, any ideology that must be propped up by such tactics doesn’t deserve to endure. To my Christian readers I ask you: is our God so weak, the evidence for his existence so scant, and his Word so abstruse that he needs us to help him in this manner? Certainly not. Allah needs that kind of help, so contradictory were his “prophets,” incomprehensible his utterances, and evil the religion he represents. But not the God of the Bible. However noble their intentions, the Lord has no need of Lady Hope-like efforts or, for that matter, those of a Focus on the Family.4
My bargain with Richard was simple: I would be, I told him, his portal to the evangelical audience I knew he wanted to reach with his message; he, in turn, would be my portal to the atheist audience I wanted to reach with mine. He accepted that challenge.
In between engagements, John devoted himself to debate preparation like the serious academic he is. He had been preparing since the debate was set some months before. By the time that he arrived in Birmingham, John told me that he had read The God Delusion no less than twelve times. In addition to this, he had compiled a mountain of notes and a binder for the debate itself.
This was not Richard’s approach, and it would be his undoing.
“Can you get me a copy of Lennox’s book?” Dawkins texted me the night before the debate.
He was in Chicago promoting his book and had not yet read Lennox’s. I was staggered. Lennox was armed to the teeth and Dawkins had not yet researched his opponent. Looking back, I don’t think Richard took John Lennox very seriously. As we have seen, he had never heard of Lennox – almost no one had at this time – and therefore he dismissed him as an irrelevance. I dutifully purchased a copy of Lennox’s book God’s Undertaker and left it on Dawkins’s bed in his Ross Bridge Resort room.
The next day, debate day, began with a jarring email. Unable to sleep, I got up, made some coffee, and opened my laptop. Ding! A Christian radio network was threatening a lawsuit. They were absurdly claiming the right to record and rebroadcast the debate at their discretion. They had played no role whatsoever in planning the event, had born no costs, and assumed no risks. The lawsuit, like so many, was intended to intimidate us into acquiescence.
I did not then have a very full stable of physician connections – though that has since changed with my accident – but I have no shortage of friends and family in the legal profession. I forwarded the email threat to our chief counsel, Will Hill Tankersley, an intellectual property attorney at Balch & Bingham.
It was 4 a.m.
My phone rang seconds later. “Good morning,” Will Hill said cheerily. “I have been waiting to hear from you this morning.”
“Did you see this?” I asked, my voice elevated in anger.
“I did.” He was calm, even chipper. “I’ve got this. You focus on the debate.”
“I said I’ve got this. Don’t even give it another thought.”
He was as good as his word. I never heard another word about the matter.
Later that morning, I went to Ross Bridge to pick up Dawkins and his assistant, Beth Kurtz, for a series of radio interviews. I had the front desk buzz him and moments later he appeared. He was walking slowly, reading glasses perched on the end of his nose and fully engrossed in Lennox’s book, careless of where he was going.
Richard got in the passenger seat of my Chevy Tahoe while Ms. Kurtz took the passenger seat behind me. Brief greetings were exchanged, but I didn’t want to interrupt his concentration. Ms. Kurtz, chatty, appeared anxious. It seemed to me that she had picked up on the fact that Richard was himself very serious. Looking for a bit of reassurance, she said to him: “Lennox is just another flea, isn’t he?” It was more of a statement than a question. Dawkins put the open book over his knee and wheeled to face her with some annoyance:
“This is no flea!”
For the uninitiated in atheist-speak, Dawkins likes to refer to his critics as “fleas,” much to the amusement of his fans. In a February 12, 2007 article in The Times (of London), some eight months before this particular moment, Richard said of Christian theologian Alister McGrath, “It is tempting to quote Yeats: ‘Was there ever a dog that praised his fleas?’” But he had said it on many other occasions. McGrath was, in other words, a minor annoyance but nothing more. A few chapters into Professor Lennox’s book, Dawkins was beginning to realize that the silver-tongued Irishman might be more than he had reckoned on.
Twelve hours later, the two Oxford professors stood backstage of a packed Aly Stephens Center as a radio audience of well over a million waited.
“I don’t usually do debates,” Richard Dawkins told John.
“What am I doing here?” Dawkins asked of no one in particular.
“I’ve asked myself the same question, Richard,” Lennox confided. “I think we’ve both been talked into it by that man,” he said, indicating the stage.
“That man” was, of course, me. After a few housekeeping remarks to the audience, I brought both men onto the stage along with Judge Pryor, moderator for the evening.
The tension was palpable. Both atheists and Christians were well represented. Radio hosts sat like play-by-play announcers and Spencer Cooper’s cameramen stood, cameras rolling, as had been arranged. Feeling the need to bring a bit of levity to the moment, I said:
“We have brought you here under false pretenses. There’s actually not a debate this evening. Richard Dawkins wanted to come to the Bible Belt to announce his conversion to Christianity.”
Richard flashed a winning smile and the audience roared.
After a deliberately awkward pause, I continued: “Perhaps I’m mistaken.”
The comment was made in good fun and Richard appeared to receive it as such. This seemed to break the tension and put everyone, if not at ease, in a somewhat less uneasy mood.
The debate program, handed out at the door by our army of students, outlined the evening this way:
“The God Delusion’ Debate”
Sponsored by Fixed Point Foundation
Executive Director, Fixed Point Foundation
Richard Dawkins and John Lennox
The following statements constitute themes discussed in The God Delusion. They will serve as the basis for tonight’s discussion:
- Faith is blind, science is evidence based
- Science supports atheism, not Christianity
- Design is dead, otherwise one must explain who designed the designer
- Christianity is dangerous
- No one needs God to be moral
- Christian claims about the person of Jesus are
- not true; his alleged miracles violate the laws of nature
I will not here recount the debate itself. The arguments rise or fall on the arguments made by the participants themselves. I leave it for you to watch it and draw your own conclusions. (You can do so here.) Instead, I wish to offer some observations regarding the debate.
I watched almost none of the debate live. This is because I was so busy attending to issues offstage. The Expelled promoters, having failed to receive our endorsement, decided to put their people outside of the auditorium distributing flyers promoting the film. This seemed a bit of an underhanded maneuver, all the more so because it gave debate attendees the impression that we had, in fact, endorsed the film. I instructed University of Alabama – Birmingham security to escort them off of the premises.
Then, Hannah came to tell me that Lauren Green of Fox News had requested an interview. She was in the anteroom Hannah had prepared for a post-debate press conference. I have done a number of interviews with Lauren over the years. She is a lovely, gracious woman. But I didn’t want to do an interview at this time.
“Don’t you want to watch the debate?” I asked her.
She rolled her eyes and exhaled in an exaggerated manner to suggest fatigue. “I’ve heard all the arguments before.”
“I don’t think you’ve heard anything like this, Lauren. I think you should step into the auditorium even if only for a minute.” She looked dubious.
“Trust me,” I added.
I gave a quick interview, but my mind was racing with thoughts of the debate. How is it going? I wondered. Once finished, Lauren dutifully took my advice and slipped into the auditorium.
My eldest son, Michael, then a student at Samford University, approached me to tell me that the Expelled people had been, well, expelled. But there was a new problem. A man was walking around in front of the stage taking unauthorized photographs and distracting the audience.
“Get rid of him.” Thus ordered, Michael scurried off to find a security guard for the task.
Hannah again. “Matthew Wells of BBC wants an interview.”
“Don’t these people want to watch the very thing they are here to report on?” I complained. I like Matt Wells. He’s sharp and he’s fair, but I wanted media to see the debate.
Next was Spencer Cooper, the man responsible for filming the entire event. “Come with me,” he said. “I want to show you something.”
Spencer led me backstage and from there we exited to the rear of the building where the CBS Sports guys we had hired for this event sat in their impressive 48-foot semi-trailer. Entering from a side door, I was amazed by what I saw: large computers blinked, cable groupings ran everywhere, and men sat with headphones in front of television monitors watching the debate as it was fed to them from the five different cameras positioned at various angles inside the auditorium. They then edited it live and fed it back into the auditorium and projected onto improvised Jumbotrons.
Guys chattered back and forth and laughed as if watching a football game.
“Boom! He’s roasted!” one bellowed.
Looking over the shoulder of the director, I saw a graphic featuring a goofy cartoon chicken peering out of a KFC-like bucket with “roasted” on its side. The bucket of chicken blinked repeatedly over the face of Dawkins as he spoke. I was alarmed.
“What’s that doing on there!” I asked, thinking I was alerting them to a glitch.
“No worries, man,” the director told me. “The people inside can’t see it. It’s just for us.”
He could see that I was confused.
“We usually do football games, and when a guy gets embarrassed on a play, we put that bucket of roasted chicken on the screen over the face of the beaten man. It’s what we do to amuse ourselves.”
This was my first indication of how the debate was unfolding. These guys, who had no theological or ideological commitments that I knew of, had deduced that Dawkins was losing. Badly.
The bucket of chicken continued to blink on the screen over an unknowing Dawkins.
“You’re the man who organized this, right?” another asked as he continued to look at his screen and type.
“That guy’s face is very red,” he said with a chuckle. “Who is he?”
“His name is Richard Dawkins. He’s an Oxford scientist.”
“And the other guy?”
“John Lennox. He’s also an Oxford scientist.”
“Well, judging by his face and audience reactions, the guy with the red face is getting his ass kicked.”
I left the trailer and went back inside. Peeking into the auditorium, I saw Judge Pryor questioning Dawkins. I had instructed him to physically hold Dawkins’s book when quoting from it to signal the audience that he was, in fact, quoting The God Delusion. I didn’t hear the entire exchange, but the CBS Sports guys were right. Dawkins’s red face betrayed his otherwise calm exterior.
I have already said that I do not believe that Richard took John Lennox seriously until he started reading his book that very morning. Then, and only then, did he begin to glimpse what he was up against.
There’s a scene in the original Rocky movie where the heavyweight champion of the world, Apollo Creed, surprised by the flurry of blows he has received from his unknown challenger, sits in his corner breathing heavily between rounds and his trainer says to him: “He doesn’t know it’s a damn show! He thinks it’s a damn fight!”
One imagines Richard thinking something very similar in the early rounds of this debate. As Lennox pounded away bare-fisted at copies of The God Delusion in a cold meat locker, did the scientific equivalent of one-handed push-ups on the face of Charles Darwin, and shadow boxed at the top of the British Museum steps, Dawkins busied himself with the business of being Richard Dawkins. Needless to say, he was ill-prepared for this prize fight: for the depth of Lennox’s knowledge, the disarming manner of his attack, and the scale of the debate itself.
This much, however, must be said in Richard’s defense: that John Lennox was, by his own design, an unknown, was a massive advantage. Let me explain.
Prior to my debate with Christopher Hitchens, I had taken careful measure of his strength while my own remained hidden. I moderated a number of his debates. I talked with him during lengthy car rides, over dinners, and late into the night. I listened, probed, and saw him trot out the same worn-out arguments, illustrations, and jokes – all while I revealed nothing of my own arguments that were then forming in my mind. Thus, I knew what to expect on stage with minor variation here and there. He had no idea what to expect from me and, I think, grossly underestimated the line of argument.
So it was here. Dawkins had never seen Lennox in debate or even in a lecture. You may recall how difficult it was for me to obtain a CD of one for my board. Furthermore, Lennox’s one and only book, God’s Undertaker, had only been very recently published. I am reminded of a line from John Milton’s Paradise Lost:
“… his strength concealed,
Which tempted our attempt, and wrought our fall.”
John Lennox’s concealed strength wrought Richard Dawkins’s fall in this, the first of their many encounters. But his strength now measured, Richard, to his credit, would not make this mistake again. (You might make a mental note of this as the story unfolds in future installments.)
A note was brought to me backstage that Judge Pryor wanted to give the debaters more time for their closing arguments. Unfortunately, this could not be done. We were broadcasting to a live audience and radio top-and-bottom-of-the-hour breaks are absolute. We would have to conclude the debate on time.
This was not, however, without a silver lining. It left the audience wanting more rather than wanting to leave. I walked onto the stage and invited the audience to join me in thanking these men. The audience members leapt to their feet and clapped wildly. John and Richard deserved it. It took courage for both of them to do it.
Imagine the pressure if you felt you were carrying the torch for the Christian faith, or, for that matter, for atheism. The weight, I can tell you, is considerable. Going up on stage or in front of TV cameras or on radio to do these things is difficult. The potential for misstep is enormous. It’s easy sitting in the audience or watching it at home on the couch. It’s like watching Jeopardy. You’re sure you know what you would say or what he or she should have said. But it’s very different being under the lights when the pressure is on, and very few possess the required knowledge or skill to do it well.
The mood of the two factions following a debate can often tell you much about the outcome even if you saw none of the debate itself. In this case, the atheists, so confident only a couple of hours before, were dejected, while Christians buzzed with excitement. Richard put a brave face on it, did the press conference with Lennox amicably enough, and signed hundreds of books for those who lined up to meet him. But it was easy to see that he was stung.
I greeted Richard warmly and bid him farewell as he took the limousine I had arranged back to Ross Bridge Resort and to his flight the following morning. He would continue his American book tour. Conservapedia, which is subject to all of the same ideological flaws as Wikipedia, says: “As far as the topic of Richard Dawkins and debate, the agnostic and evolutionist Richard Dawkins has developed a reputation for ducking debates with strong debate opponents.” This is sheer nonsense. First of all, Dawkins is an atheist. Secondly, he ventured into the Bible Belt to defend his views, and while he got more than he bargained for in Lennox – I think he was expecting a brilliant but otherwise benign debate opponent like McGrath – he would not duck future debates with Lennox. I admire that.
On the other side of the aisle, Lennox was suddenly an international star. John’s email inbox was now flooded with requests for interviews and speaking invitations. That had been one of our objectives, so it pleased me to see it. If I had to guess – I have never asked him – Richard regrets this debate not simply for its outcome, but for precisely for this reason: he had, I think he would say, let one of his “fleas” ride his coattails to fame. But Lennox was no flea, as Dawkins noted with some apprehension, and he was bound to be noticed sooner or later. As it turned out, it was later, at the age of 63. Some would say that’s a bit late in the day to start a new career. For my own part, however, I think it was at exactly the right time. Indeed, I cannot imagine it any other way. John and Sally returned to their Oxford home a few days later.
Lauri and I embraced. Hannah looked exhausted and relieved. She had done well, her inexperience notwithstanding. And my board was ecstatic. The gamble had worked. We had, as it were, pushed all of our poker chips into the center of the table and wagered it all on a single evening. It is unlikely that Fixed Point Foundation would have survived a disastrous outcome. The Christians lining up outside of our door to request complimentary tickets would have beaten that door down and demanded my head for giving the atheist Richard Dawkins such a platform to insult them and their God. Thankfully, that was not the outcome.
The date was Wednesday, October 3, 2007.
I had told Hannah that we would turn our little organization’s attention to radical Islam Thursday, October 4, 2007. Little did I know that it would be many years before Islam would receive anything like the focus I had intended to give it. I had not seen the last of John Lennox and Richard Dawkins – nor had they seen the last of each other.
The journey through the wardrobe that had begun almost two years before was far from over. On the contrary, the truly contentious and controversial territory still lay ahead as other players would begin entering the story.
1 The irony of the atheist lie that I claimed in my book that Christopher Hitchens converted to Christianity on his deathbed is that I denounced Elizabeth Cotton for claiming that Charles Darwin converted on his deathbed when there is no evidence to support her assertion. On page 176 of The Faith of Christopher Hitchens I write:
I make no Lady Hope-like claims regarding Christopher Hitchens. As we have seen, there were no reports of a deathbed conversion. The whole of my thesis is this: Christopher had doubts (that assertion alone is enough to cause great consternation among the God-haters), and those doubts led him to seek out Christians and contemplate, among other things, religious conversion. Whether he did make such a conversion or not is a separate question and one that we cannot answer—that no one can answer—with certainty.
This assertion alone did indeed cause panic among many of the God-haters, so fragile is their faith in unbelief. So they resorted to outright mischaracterizations and smear tactics.
2 In retrospect, this was a wise decision. I saw the film when it was released. It is worth watching and has a strong central argument. But that argument is undermined by the very tactics I criticize above and that they bemoan. In one scene, for example, Dawkins sits waiting for an interview with Ben Stein. The cameras are rolling, but Dawkins, who doesn’t know this, looks silly as any of us would were we being filmed unaware. It was a little like a Borat from the right.
3 Many years ago, some high school students quoted me in their yearbook as saying, “Let’s see who can roll the biggest doobie and smoke it.” The students meant it as an affectionate inside joke, but that quotation cause a bit of a stir, suggesting as it did that I was encouraging law-breaking and drug use. The full quotation, however, went like this:
Student: “Mr. Taunton, do you like rock and roll?”
Me: “Sure. But not all of it.”
Student: “What don’t you like?”
Me: “Well, I don’t like stuff with lyrics like, ‘let’s see who can roll the biggest doobie and smoke it.’”
Students loved that remark and partially quoted it. Context is everything
4 I have long admired the work of Focus on the Family and of Dr. James Dobson especially. This occurred after his stewardship and in no way minimizes their mission or work.
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