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4:25pm on Saturday, 15th October, 2016:

Weigh Aye


The reason I hired a dinner suit was because yesterday I took part in a debate at the Durham Union — an old and very prestigious debating society at Durham University. So old and prestigious is it, that it's a black tie event (at least for the participants on the panels).

The motion for debate was "This House has Faith in the Existence of God". I was on the opponent side. Both we and the proponents concurred at the dinner beforehand that the result was likely to be determined mainly by how many members of Durham's substantial community of Theology students could be persuaded to attend by the three-line whip of their lecturers (two of whom who were on the proponent panel), so whatever the result would be was in a sense already predetermined and we could therefore be relaxed about it.

As it was, the result was a little shaky anyway. First it was decided by assent, in which members of the audience shout either AYE or NO and the loudest wins. It seemed to me that the NO side had noticeably more support, but the contingent of theologians were mainly sitting together on the side of the hall way from me, so that may just have been my perception. It did seem clear-cut, though, especially given how many theologians are men and thus in general endowed with louder-sounding voices than women.

However, as this was an early debate in the academic year and there were some first-timers present, a division was called (basically to show them how it worked). In this, the AYE side exit through one door and the NO side through another. The result was something like 60 AYE and 50 NO. Unfortunately, another 20 or so people remained in the hall for a meeting of the society's council or something afterwards, having been asked explicitly not to leave. They weren't sitting in the block of theologists, so would probably in the main have voted NO rather than AYE. Still, the result will be recorded in the records as an AYE, which is fair enough; you have to do these things by the rules. I'm not too upset by it; at least our side came second.

The format of the debate was that members of the proponent and the opponent panels took turns (proponents first) to make their cases in ten-minute speeches. Then, members of the audience could make points, often addressed as questions to the panels, but to which we weren't to respond. Each person who asked a question was given an invitation to a post-debate event at which the panelists would be in attendance. After the questions (or in this case, time) ran out, one member of each panel got to do a five-minute response (opponents first), then the vote was taken.

I was a little frustrated that I couldn't address some of the questions directly, as they were based on misunderstandings. I didn't, for example, say that a dog mauling a baby (which happened yesterday in Colchester) was evil; I did say that if the were a god, then that god could have stopped it but didn't. Nevertheless, the opportunity to explain matters did arise in the event afterwards, which was actually very good. I had some interesting and at times quite stimulating conversations with people there. On the whole, I therefore accept that this is a reasonable way of doing things for developing understanding and testing new positions, although I wouldn't recommend it for the House of Commons.

Weirdly, on the train to Durham I found myself sitting next to one of the other participants on our panel, with the third sitting behind him. What are the odds, eh? Also, on the way back I shared a taxi with one of the proponents. It's good that you can have meaningful conversations with people who have contradictory views to your own, as a consequence of which both of you can advance your understanding of your own position, and without coming to blows. For example, I'd certainly be happy to talk to Theology students about what they need to consider as we approach the time when their subject becomes experimental, because none of that is contingent on having a faith in the existence of a god of Reality.

Talking of Reality, I'm typing this in the waiting room at Peterborough Station, where I'm waiting for an hour for a train to Ipswich via Stowmarket on account of how, because of railworks, the train from London to Colchester today is a bus.

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Copyright © 2016 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).