When you have an argument that is both unverifiable and unfalsifiable, existing only as a matter of faith, and when that argument has been joined countless times over the ages by a large number of very clever people, then holding yet another debate on the same subject is itself an act of faith. You are hoping that either someone will say something completely new or that a previously promoted facet to the argument will be put in a new way or that someone will express themselves with such potent charisma that even a weary commonplace will suddenly seem fresh. It was this last hope that attracted me as a student of speaking to the Oxford Union God Debate. John Lennox, opening the batting for the motion, came very close to fulfilling that, How would Dan Barker follow?
Oh dear! That still picture that YouTube has caused to represent this video has Barker looking mighty fierce. Be reassured: he isn’t.
He opens with a very strong introduction. Before becoming an atheist he had been an ordained minister for a great many years, preaching the gospel of Jesus. That’s about as good an ethos as you could want under the circumstances. He has another detail up his sleeve though – a joke. In describing how evangelical he was, he quotes Richard Dawkins as having written that he was the sort of preacher you wouldn’t want to sit next to on a bus. It gets a good laugh, and deserves to because of the way he delivers it. There’s a problem though: it instantly triggered in my mind the realisation that the gospels have his case covered in the parable of the sower.
I find myself torn! On the one hand he graphically stokes up his ethos and gets an excellent laugh, on the other he slightly over-eggs it in the process and (for me personally) actually weakens the ethos. I am a very long way from being a theologian, but I did pass Scripture O-level (half a century ago). If I, then who else would suddenly think of the seed that fell on stony ground? I really don’t know how I would advise him.
Barker has obviously said much of this before. He has been in essence a professional atheist for many years; and he is able to stand, paperless, and let the arguments pour out of him. As a fierce advocate of paperless speaking, I am delighted at how powerful that makes him.
He needs that power. Even though the intellectually lazy might regard his stance as self-evident, it’s all much more complex than that. His case is not easy: you cannot prove a negative. The best you can do is break down the arguments of those trying to prove the positive. Meanwhile they do not have to prove anything: they merely have to affirm their faith. I am impressed that, rather than merely revisiting his normal schtick, he is tailoring his case to address the specific arguments promoted just a few minutes before by Lennox. He even eyeballs Lennox sometimes while doing it.
Nevertheless there is one idiotically trivial detail that bothers me. I am not exaggerating when I call it trivial. Have you ever sat in the open-air sunshine intending to read a book, and had a fly constantly buzzing around your head till, maddened, you retreat indoors? For me, Barker’s braces are that fly! He is a musician. His braces are patterned like a piano keyboard. I spotted them when he did a high hand-gesture and the jacket opened just enough to reveal them. Thereafter they are a perpetual distraction. There I am, trying to concentrate on what he is saying, and I’m thinking about those bloody braces.
Suddenly I am reminded of a television interview I saw with the great Vladimir Horowitz. The legendary pianist was wearing a keyboard-pattern bow-tie, and at the end of the interview I couldn’t remember a word he’d said. Now, decades later, I still can’t remember what he said; but I remember the tie. Am I seriously saying that it is tiny things like this that can sabotage a speech? Yes, I am afraid I might be.