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Archbishop to renew his evolution battle with Dawkins

The Archbishop of Canterbury and atheist Professor Richard Dawkins are set to go head to head to discuss the biggest unanswered question of them all.

The leader of the Church of England, Dr Rowan Williams, will meet Britain's most outspoken non-believer to take on the complex subject of "The nature of human beings and the question of their ultimate origin".

The pair, who are unlikely to find much common ground, will be joined by philosopher Sir Anthony Kenny for the 90-minute event at Oxford University. The discussion, which organisers expect to be "invigorating and enlivening", is sold out but will be streamed live online on 23 February.

The two men have exchanged views on evolution and the existence of God before. In a programme broadcast on Channel 4 in 2010, Prof Dawkins asked Dr Williams if he would see God as having any role in the evolutionary process.

Dr Williams said: "For me, God is the power or the intelligence that shapes the whole of that process. As creator, God's act is the beginning of all creation." At which point Prof Dawkins intervened and asked: "So by setting up the laws of physics in the first place in which context evolution takes place?" Dr Williams replied: "Things unfold within that."

In the programme Prof Dawkins said that Dr Williams uses "poetic language", adding: "There does come a time when you worry that people are going to misunderstand it."

And in an article on his website, published earlier this month, Prof Dawkins said of Dr Williams: "My suggestion is that the best way to understand Rowan Williams is to remember that he is a poet. And maybe this is the best way to understand other theologians."

He suggests that theologians, such as the Archbishop of Canterbury, don't really "understand the difference between literal truth and poetry; or literal truth and metaphor".

He goes on: "And this is where I would take issue with them, because for me a question like "Does God exist?" is not just a matter of poetry or metaphor. It has an answer, true or false (which is not to say the answer is easy to discover: it may even be impossible)."

Speaking at Canterbury Cathedral in a public conversation with comedian Frank Skinner in September last year, Dr Williams admitted his last book sold "not quite as many" as The God Delusion by Prof Dawkins, and suggested that atheism is "cool" at the moment.