The Oxford Union God Debate – coming soon!

I recently had fun with a debate from The Oxford Union on a motion concerned with Occupy Wall Street. If you missed it my coverage of that begins here.

YouTube knows what it’s doing when it comes to advertising, so inevitably every time I went there to look at the speeches my eye was caught by offerings from another Oxford Union event whose shorthand title was The God Debate. I resolved to take a closer look.

The motion was This House Believes in God. I was interested in how the matter would be argued. In my experience it is a subject whose reasoning seems to attract not only profundity – which you might expect – but also too often a level of jaw-droppingly puerile shallowness. Surely we should expect the best from the Oxford Union. We shall see.

If you are – like me – a sad git that studies rhetoric, then a debate gets really interesting as it returns the art to its roots. The teachings of the classical masters, from Corax to Cicero, were all concerned with adversarial speaking – whether legal or political. That is not to say that we should expect these adversarial speakers to orate as if standing on the Pnyx (look it up); but there are classical structural techniques that we might see.

We may also see logical fallacies being deployed. There are several such, but these days there are a few favourites –

  • Argumentum ad populum – the headcount argument: “Everyone else believes this, so there”.
  • Argumentum ad verecundiam – the authority argument: “I was told this by someone who knows stuff.”

I sincerely hope the speakers will not descend to –

  • Argumentum ad baculum – the threat argument: “If you don’t say you agree with me I’ll smash your face in.”
  • Argumentum ad hominem – the personal argument: “He was once seen in a strip club, so you can’t believe him.”

If I seem to have dealt rather flippantly with these it is for clarity. Their usual deployment is somewhat more subtle. For instance baculum could concern the withholding of research funding. I shall add these to the glossary page if and when they occur.

I want to cover all six speeches in the order they were delivered. I am indebted to one of the speakers, Peter Hitchens, for publishing his recollection of the order because I could not find the information anywhere else. 

Professor John Lennox – for the motion

Dan Barker – against

Dr Joanna Collicutt McGrath – for

Dr Michael Shermer – against

Peter Hitchens – for

Professor Peter Millican – against.

That race card is packing some serious authority. My expectations are high and I am hugely looking forward to covering this. The first posting should appear in a couple of days.

[N.B. I have hitherto carefully ignored the spelling mistake of ‘arguement’ that consistently appears in the posting notice on YouTube for bits of Oxford Union video –  it was always there for the previous debate I covered. I can contain myself no longer because for this debate it has been joined by the word ‘existance’. I fervently hope this is not the work of an Oxford student.]

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