I have always paid lip service to the value of intellectual debate, cornerstone of the great Enlightenment tradition of freedom of enquiry and expression. The dirty little secret is that I don’t really believe debate changes people’s minds. Certainly not mine when it comes to the big propositions. I can be convinced on smaller issues, but my worldview takes a deal of shifting, much like a sumo wrester.
So I was gobsmacked by an Intelligence Squared debate in October, 2009. The proposition is that The Catholic Church is a force for good in the world. Speaking for the proposition were Archbishop John Onaiyekan, a soft-spoken African cleric not well known in the UK, and Ann Widdecombe MP, extremely well known for her fundamentalist religious views. Against were Stephen Fry and and the late, great, Christopher Hitchens, two of the biggest beasts in the atheist jungle. This fact alone might explain the the results of the audience poll taken before and after the debate.
Before After Difference
Pro 678 286 -392
Con 1102 1876 +774
Undecided 346 34 -312
Here is the full debate. Judge for yourselves what made such a huge difference between the before and after votes.