Tuesday, April 30, 2013

An Interview with Author David Fergusson

The Gifford Lectures with Author David Fergusson
Story by Raul Barriga; photo by Greg Snyder

On April 11th the students and the instructor of the Gifford Lectures class, Dr. Andrew Cummings, had a Skype interview with author David Fergusson of the book Faith and its Critics: A Conversation, which the class has finished reading.  David Fergusson is Professor of Divinity and Principal of New College at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.  According to Dr. Cummings, the purpose of the Skype interview with Fergusson was to get his perspective on the class book and to shed additional light on what Ferguson was saying.

Dr. Cummings explained to the class what the Gifford Lectures are.  He said they "are dedicated to continuing the project of natural theology, that is, thinking about God and religions without appealing to any form of divine revelation, such as is found in Scripture or Tradition.  Each year a number of intellectuals are invited to give talks, and these are eventually published."

Dr. Cummings (center) and his students in the Gifford Lectures.

I asked Dr. Cummings why he chose Fergusson for the interview.  He said, "[Fergusson] is writing about a hot topic in philosophy, as well as in today's culture - the new atheism . . . Also, as Catholics, we are hearing a lot about the new evangelization - I think you need to know your audience if you hope to evangelize - and for better or worse the new atheism represents a strong current of opinion in the world today, at least among intellectuals.  Secondly, Fergusson has a balanced approach - he is willing to listen to the other side and to concede a point where appropriate.  He doesn't treat the discussion as a debate competition or even a shouting match."

Fergusson mentioned some names from the new atheism: Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens.  One chapter of Fergusson's book is titled, "Is Religion Bad for Our Health? Saints, Martyrs, and Terrorists."  An inside scoop into this chapter reveals that new atheists blame religion, primarily Islam, for "predatory martyrdom" or "the suicide of the martyr as a military action in which enemy lives are also taken" (132).  However, Fergusson does not easily consent to the accusations but analyses the situation.  He finds that in some cases, religion and its interpretation may be used for military purpose, but religion is just one facet of terrorist movements that may mainly be out for political ends or other conflicts.

Fergusson turns the tables and looks at atheists and the harm they have inflicted on society in the examples of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin.  New atheists would say these cases would be regarded "merely as incidental - an inconsequential feature of political violence that requires to be explained in other ways" (126) and not because of their atheism.  Fergusson then goes on to talk about the violent effects of communism toward its dissidents as a refutation of new atheistic claims.

For the Skype interview, Dr. Cummings said that "we needed a room with good technology and enough space.  Professor Fergusson was speaking to us from Scotland, with 8 hours time difference.  Skype was simply the easiest and most efficient way to do things."  The class used a room in Annunciation called the Preaching Room.

Andy Lally, an employee from the Information Technology department, shared some insights on the Preaching Room.  He said, "The Preaching Room was reconfigured last year to provide an in-place projector and sound system to enhance the learning and teaching experience.  The system that was installed was designed so it could be upgraded to add more features in the future such as video/audio recording.  The room also has a wireless connection point for internet access, a DVD player, and the ability to connect to the instructor's laptop."  According to Lally, the two large classrooms in Anselm have audio and video systems similar to the Preaching Room.

When asked what he found interesting about the interview with Fergusson, Lally replied, "To be able to have that one-on-one contact with somebody so far away was amazing.  To me it took the classrooms of the hilltop worldwide; I could visualize many more uses for using Skype in this manner."

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