My dinner with Richard Swinburne

Oct 20, 2011 Comments Off by

Richard Swinburne is one of the world’s most famous theologians and, amongst those who find any theology at all convincing, one of the world’s most respected to boot, right up there with Alvin Plantinga. The University of Oxford has a student society for atheists, secularists and humanists that has had many atheist and theist speakers, and one of our theist speakers was Richard Swinburne. As a committee member I regularly dined in one of several local restaurants with my fellow committee members and our speakers of the week prior to their talks. Swinburne being our highest–profile theist guest so far, we had plenty to discuss with him over dinner. When I call it “my” dinner with him I am perhaps a little disingenuous, as the most interesting dialogue was between our president at the time and Swinburne.

Swinburne was there to talk about the implications of the existence of a god for morality. This is a fact that, you realise, is steeped in irony provided he has taken horrific religious views on morality at any point in his past. At least one is known from his written work. Although Voltaire’s Candide should have brought the “God having made this world, it should be the best of all possible worlds” logic to an end, it survived past the middle ages. As if to prove theology never really changes (if it ever did it had better be due to provable divine revelation, in any case!), Swinburne is a present advocate. He explicitly deals with the counterargument that the nuclear explosions in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 could not surely be optimal. Swinburne insists that, for whatever reasons we may not know while God does, the world would be worse if even one of the deaths due to the attack had instead survived. While this may already be turning you against him, the exchange he had with our president is illuminating too.

Our president asked why we should be obedient to God. Swinburne argued it was because he had given us the gift of life and we should show gratitude for it. My friend retorted with the observation that, by definition, none of us were consulted on whether we would live, so it is a gift none of us ever asked for, and nor did we agree to any terms on which it may be conditional. Swinburne said in response that, if my friend was not grateful for his gift, he should give it back. In other words, his view is anyone unwilling to be obedient to God in life should commit suicide.

For completeness I should share what his argument was in his talk. Swinburne argued that some things would be neither ethically compulsory nor ethically forbidden if no–one who loved you and whom you loved asked of you, but which would become ethically compulsory if such a request was made. In particular, our earthly fathers were his favoured example. God being our “other” father, the rest writes itself.

I’ve noticed something interesting in my dinners with our speakers. While the speaker’s dinner being free to them and on the society, whose treasury can cover it, is a standing condition whenever we invite a speaker, every atheist speaker we have ever had has paid for themselves anyway, whereas every theist speaker we have ever had has let us pay for them. Furthermore, the only speaker whom ever had a dessert (outside of “Think Week”, which in any case is organised by several groups, not just us) was Richard Swinburne. I don’t know what, if anything, this says about the relation between religion and morality. However, I’ve yet to see any reason in my dealings with the many atheists and theists I have anecdotally known to think atheists are even morally inferior, let alone immoral or amoral, and non–anecdotal (i.e. statistical) studies on the matter have pretty much invariably shown atheists to be the equal or superior of theists in this regard.

Christianity, People, Religions and other Belief Systems

About the author

For most of my time as an undergraduate there was an atheist society in my university, which was founded late in my first year there. I was a committee member from then until my degree ended, by which time the society was atheist, secularist and humanist (you needn't be all three!). This gives me many experiences to relate. I have long critiqued pro-religious arguments, including in hundreds of posts - many of them thorough rebuttals to articles - on under my name. My degree was in physics, and I know a lot of the science - physics and otherwise - relevant to the debate on religion.
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