Controversial atheist and geneticist Richard Dawkins debated Jesuit academic and author Gerardo Remolina in front of an audience of scientists, students and clergy at the University of Medellin.The debate was the second of three sold-out events in the country; the other two being staged in Bogota and the coastal city of Cartegena.
Tackling the topic of “Is God an Illusion?”, Dawkins faced off against Remolina on a theme that both thinkers have written extensively on. Dawkins is perhaps best known for his book The Selfish Gene, published in 1976, which recast the theory of evolution in light of our emerging understanding of science.
Hundreds turned out early Tuesday morning for the event, despite the cheapest tickets ($200,000 COP) being about a third of the average Colombian’s monthly minimum wage.
In addition to financial obstacles, Dawkins also faced the challenge of touring a country with entrenched Catholic roots and where atheists comprise but a fraction of the country-at-large.
However, there has been significant societal change in Dawkins’ favour. 84% of Colombians identified as being raised Catholic but, presently, less than 70% of the population identify as such, with irreligious (agnostic, atheist or secular) making up less than 10% of the society. The increase among the irreligious community was probably one of the reasons his arrival in Colombia went off without much protest and why the crowd reacted with applause to many of his funnier quips.
“If God exists, he’s a lazy, capricious and cruel god,” Dawkins said at one point to the crowd, “With natural selection and physics, the lazy god would need to do nothing at all for the universe to come into existence.”
It was also standard-fare for Dawkins fans for him to use one of his more well-known arguments against believers like Remolina, arguing that Remolina too is an atheist as the Colombian theologian doesn’t believe in the gods of other faiths (Zarathustra, Thor or Krishna for example). Dawkins stated he just goes that one step further by doing away with God as believed by the Abrahamic religions as well.
Perhaps, the only controversy that occurred during the Medellin event was how uncontroversial the entire affair was. Fans used to Dawkins’ combative approach (or militant atheism as he calls it) were treated to a genial and cordial morning where few rhetorical fireworks were set off; the only real jab from Dawkins coming in as a rehearsed one-liner on the Catholic church’s hardline view on contraception – “I won’t talk about condoms. That would be a bit below the belt”