Debating with SUCU

31-01-2014 - Some expansion, changes to wording and punctuation

Today I was given the privilege of debating for Southampton Atheist Society against Southampton University Christian Union on the topic of “Is Christian Morality Relevant In Modern Society?”. I debated along Livia Stacey who opened and closed the debate for our side, while I handled rebuttals and took my share of the questions.

To maintain balance, we had two chairs, one from each side. We had initially hoped to have a completely impartial chair from the debating society, but there was a clash. In the end the two chairs did more for balance than an impartial judge could have. It was difficult for either side to claim that they had been treated unfairly, as the opinions of the chairs were well known.

It’s important to see this debate in a certain context. As a society we’ve not had this sort of debate in living memory. Opinions on both sides will always stand up better in echo chambers, or even in quiet discussion. If you don’t face public scrutiny, it is far too easy to simply assume your beliefs will hold up in the line of fire. Because of this I was especially excited about this debate. It was also the first time I’ve been put in a position of defending my views in front of an audience.

I ought to first acknowledge some points that made me think from my opposition.

First off, the initial point giving a definition of ‘Relevant’ was very well made. It followed onto a very clear and concise argument about why they felt Christianity lived up to this definition. I must admit on this point I am fairly persuaded. While obviously on stage I have to argue for a certain point of view, as a secularist I would personally argue that all moral view points have their relevance, so long as they are aired in the proper way.

They put a spirited defence for the good that Christianity has done in the world. I disagree with them on this point, but it was well illustrated. I admire their restraint in not taking the intellectually lazy, but often effective, route of claiming various dictators to have been atheists.

In hindsight, I wish I had spoken slower and made my points more calmly. I’m told it didn’t come across as such, but I was incredibly nervous as I spoke. My points were much more clearly and rigidly defined in my notes, and in my mind. By speaking quickly and allowing an adrenaline rush to confuse me I ended up not doing them the justice I feel they were due.

That said, I was gratified to hear from my friends within the society that they enjoyed my points. This is especially motivating when people can list the points they particularly enjoyed, as it is evidence that people actually understood! I also had a few Christian Union members say they were challenged by what I had to say. This is very valuable. I’m not out on a crusade to convert people, but I do think making people take a step back to reconsider their views from a different angle is very important. I don’t think everyone in the audience was made to feel like this, but next time I’ll aim to do better.

I particularly would have liked the CU side to pick up on my points about whether their faith is actually effective. Does it lead to a better world? I challenged this, and said that a morality which didn’t have a positive effect on peoples behaviour can hardly be considered relevant. However, this is one of the common causalities of being the last person to speak as length in a debate. It’s difficult to keep audience interest for two hours, but it would have been fun to have a cross examination phase where we could have directly addressed one another’s points.

From my conversations with CU and AtheistSoc members, people seem to have really enjoyed this debate. While I feel that it is not my turn to speak again for a while, I would love the chance to see a debate between other faith group pairings in the University. Especially the Islamic Society, given the political context. I hope that we managed to demonstrate to the CU the same calmness, civility, intellectual honesty and good humour that they showed towards us. I also hope that this example will encourage further debates in future.

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