Last Thursday I did a debate at Goldsmiths College, organised jointly by the fledgling University Humanist Society and the Islamic society, entitled “Can We Live Better Lives Without Religion?” I appeared for the humanists, alongside philosopher Stephen Law; for the Muslims it was Haroon Qureshi and Subboor Ahmad, both from something called the Islamic Education and Research Academy.

Each of us got 15 minutes to make our case, followed by a “cross examination” segment, then questions from the audience. It’s a fairly standard format, based on the kind of thing you get at the Oxford Union. There were about 60 people in the audience, roughly split between non-believers and believers – of whom the vast majority were Muslims. (I found out later that this event was part of an Islamic week taking place at the university). I’ve done lots of these kinds of ‘inter-faith’ events. Contrary to many of my fellow non-believers – and despite the many dangers of such events which can include asininities, over-cosy attempts to find common ground or mere re-statements of the bleeding obvious – I think that such debates can be stimulating. It can be interesting, even fun, to debate with the religious. In fact, just a few days previously, I'd had an instructive conversation with the Muslim journalist and educator Fuad Nahdi, which I found fascinating and helped to move my thinking on about aspects of Islamic practice and the political situation in the Muslim world (the failed promise of what he called the “Obama revolutions” in North Africa and the Middle East).

Yet I found this Goldsmiths event utterly dispiriting and depressing, and I want to try and explain why. First the trivial stuff. Clearly these humanist and Islamic groups are run by students who are somewhat new to the game of staging a public debate. The event started more than 15 minutes late, the speakers overran and the joint ‘chairs’ were insufficiently strict in the “cross examination” session, acquiescing to all requests to respond to response, leading to a kind of infinite regress of posturing. By the time we got to audience questions we were already at the end of the allotted two hours, but the event still ran for another 40 minutes. And the microphones were intermittent. Public events rarely go completely smoothly, and none of this would have mattered were it not for the poor quality of the debate itself. As it was they conspired to drag out a dismal evening even further. That only a handful of people left before the end counts, I suppose, as a minor miracle.

Which would please, Haroon Qureshi, who is especially fond of miracles. Let me try and give you a flavour of how it went – I’ll go chronologically so we’ll get to Qureshi in a second.

First up was Subboor Ahmad. He is a young man with an easy manner and Lincoln beard. He spoke quite well, not over-reliant on notes, looking at the audience and articulating clearly – bespeaking his experience on a Speaker’s Corner soapbox. His argument was folksy, commonsensical and rhetorically innovative. He started by agreeing with the proposition that life could be better without religion! Ho ho. Using a trick I’ve heard employed by other religious speakers, he did not defend religion per se and acknowledged the damage it can do. Yes, life could be better without religion, but then it could also be better without secularism or humanism: every thought system or dogma can cause harm. Then he moved on to the issue of “better”, which raises the question of good. What is good? How can we know what is good? He did not provide a definition of good at this stage, or (perhaps mercifully) quote from the Qur’an. Instead he challenged humanists to provide an objective definition of good. Because, he said, how can we even have this argument without a clear objective measure of right and wrong? Humanists cannot even enter the debate, he claimed, without providing such a definition from the start. He did not trouble himself with providing one himself, however, but he did say that whatever it is comes from God. Therefore – this was his conclusion – we may be able to live better lives without religion, but we can’t lead better lives without God.

Then it was Stephen Law’s turn. He took the approach of arguing that the God hypothesis is disproved by the problem of evil. The Qur’an, the Bible and other holy texts propose a God who is merciful and good. But, he argued, the terrible things happening in the world on a daily basis disprove the existence of such a benign divinity. Therefore the Qur’an and the Bible are wrong. Since there is no reason to believe that God exists, to follow a religion is to follow an untruth which though it may be comforting is bad for us. The truth, that there is no God, offers us a ‘better’ life. He finished with some counter-challenges to the Muslim speakers – did they believe, as the Qur’an says, that the appropriate punishment for apostasy was death? Did they think that children should be encouraged to critically engage with all religions including that of their parents?

Now we got to Haroon Qureshi and his miracles. The argument is really very simple (in fact, simplistic). Islam is true, he said. His proof went like this: the Qur’an is a unique book. So unique in fact that it could not have been written by humans - here he quoted a Divinity Professor, Bruce Lawrence, who wrote a biography of the Qur’an, and apparently confirmed that it was supernatural (I can’t confirm this, though he does say some pretty far-fetched things in this extract published by the Guardian in 2006). Some of it was to do with the Arabic it was written in – apparently beyond the skill of even the most educated at the time it was written – and partly because it is in essence an oral text, which has been remembered because it is somehow divine. And part of it was to do with numbers: the fact that the Qur’an mentions “man” 77 times and “woman” exactly the same number of times proves God wrote it (I’m not sure how), as does the fact that the Qur’an contains a chapter, the longest chapter, at the dead centre of which lies the word “middle”.

This, for Qureshi, amounts to definitive proof that the Qur’an is “supernatural”. He stopped there. One can, I suppose, fill in the gaps from here – if the Qur’an is supernatural then it is the word of God. If it is the word of God then there are objective standards by which to judge what is good: it’s what the Qur’an says. So we can’t live better lives without religion (he never took up the issue of whether its only one particular religion that is right and all the others wrong, but I think this is implicit). So his answer could be summarised as: we can’t live good lives without religion, as long as that religion is Islam (for a flavour of Qureshi’s rhetorical style see this video).

Then it was my turn. I won’t bore you with the details of what I said, but suffice to say I had foolishly prepared something designed to throw light on the question, rather than, say, a summary of the deficits of Islamic theology, or 10 reasons why atheism and humanism are definitely better than religion. I regretted my clever-cleverness, but soldiered on with an argument that went like this: I can’t say, and don’t know how I would establish that my atheist life was “better” than another’s religious one, and I don’t want to get into making those kinds of judgements about other people. But, in one particular case I think I can prove that living without religion is better than living with religion: that is the case of those who have left religion. I quoted from several testimonies written by “apostates” from different faiths, including Islam, (which we’ll be publishing soon), and ended with Vicky Simister’s powerful testimony about leaving the Jehovah’s Witness. The basic case was that those who don’t believe or have been damaged by religion can definitely live a better life without it.

If we had cut to audience questions then maybe we could still have salvaged the debate. But then we reverted to this ‘cross examination’ section where we were supposed to press each other on what was said. It became a depressing back and forth – with the Muslims demurring to answer Stephen Law’s questions, and repeating the assertion that we couldn’t possibly even begin a moral debate without definitively defining ahead of time the objective basis for all moral judgements. This could be an interesting question – how those of us who don’t subscribe to supernaturalism establish our moral values is a vexed and difficult question. I had made the point in my introduction that there were no moral absolutes and human morality is negotiated, contextual and evolves over time. This of course does mean that it’s hard to define why we think that murder or rape is more than subjectively wrong – and there is a whole tradition of ethical philosophy to draw on here. Stephen disagreed with me, or at least said he did think that there were moral absolutes but was persuadable that there were not given a good argument. Subboor Ahmad said that since I had said there are no moral absolutes then I was an absolute relativist, anything goes, which was precisely what was wrong with secular culture.

Again, a potentially rich area for discussion. One of the things Subboor kept saying was that we shouldn’t discuss the existence of God – that was for another debate and off topic – but without some mention of God their claim that humanism is inferior to Islam because it has no objective moral standards makes no sense. It is only the belief that God exists and that the Qur’an is his word that is the supposed difference, and since I am unconvinced by either, I wanted to say, the Islamic moral position looks no more objective than any other.

It was at this point that I realised we were going to get nowhere in the discussion. The form of Islam that is propagated by Qureshi and Ahmad – and presumably at the Islamic Education and Research Academy – is one that disallows any idea that, for example, there is a lively debate within Islam about moral behaviour and the degree to which the Qu’ran should be treated contextually or interpreted according to a changing society.

Instead it employs an arsenal of pretty cheap rhetorical tricks to squeeze from the discussion of any topic the desired outcome which is to show that Islam has it right. At one point Subboor said something like, even a pig knows why he’s here, he knows his purpose is to root around in the mud. Yet a humanist doesn’t know what his purpose is and thinks you have to decide that for yourself. So a humanist thinks that man is not even as good as a pig. At another time one of the Muslims in the audience made this point: a pencil is for writing, a chair is for sitting on. The humanist doesn’t know what a man is for. Therefore they think he is less than a pencil or a chair.

I guess I always knew this about religions, and perhaps I have been misled by the interesting conversations and subtle reasoning of religious sophisticates like Fuad Nahdi, Richard Holloway and Giles Fraser. Did it really take me by surprise that religion like this is simply unyielding and self-reinforcing dogma – the very opposite of thought (even more so of interesting thought)? Maybe it was the fact that I was back at my old university, where I learnt so much about subtly of thought, that I felt so outraged at the low level of the debate. But also it was because I could see the potential power these ideologues could have over those students who had a sincerely held belief in Islam and a desire to defend it in the modern world.

It seems worth saying that I liked Haroon and Subboor. They were both friendly, pleasant young guys, they had gone to the trouble to read things Stephen and I had written online and were in no way aggressive. At one point, when Haroon misquoted me, as saying that we couldn’t make any moral judgments, Subboor passed me a note apologising, and saying he knew that is not what I had said. They were also intelligent and articulate.

Which makes it, for me, all the worse that their arguments were so… how can I put it?… crude, circular, unconvincing… wrong? There really is no arguing with dogma, and therefore there no point in debating those who are dogmatic. The whole thing was a time-wasting bore and I won’t do it again.

I continue to believe that debate and dialogue between people of different beliefs can be interesting and useful. I don’t only want to spend time in debate with those I agree with: it’s vital that we engage with people we don’t share a worldview with, but there are limits. I’m also dedicated to free speech and the right to believe – and say – pretty much what you want. But I came away thinking that the kind of work that these guys are doing – and they are clearly finding traction at universities up and down the country – is a very bad thing. Not only is it uninteresting but, despite its patina of logic, it’s bad thinking. Which, after years of trying to think and argue my way beyond The God Delusion, puts me right back shoulder to shoulder with Richard Dawkins.

Now that is itself some kind of miracle.