David Robertson has responded to my last blog (which was a response to his). We disagree on much but we are being thoughtful and considered and given that this type of debate can easily descend into a much less civilised approach I will respond in kind to him as he as to me. David has listed a number of points he wants to make and there are some I agree with and others I don’t so to be fair I will answer each of his points:
1) NFAs [New Fundamentalist Atheists – still a snarl term] are not interested in asking questions in order to find out information, they ask only to accuse.
Asking a question when you know the answer (or at least think you know the answer) is a standard debating tactic but it has to be relevant to the debate. If it is not then it looks silly. Furthermore, actual enquiries to elicit new information should be made but one can only hope that the answer is given genuinely and not used to demonstrate weakness.
2) NFAs believe that their position is the only intelligent and rational position and that anyone who disagrees therefore cannot be intelligent and rational.
Of course this is wrong. Mind you, Evangelical Christians also believe that their position is the only rational one (belief in Bible, Jesus, God, etc.). Of course, evangelicals go further and often have things like a statements of faith and woe betide anyone who deviates from that. Look at how Wheaton College is treating their own Professor Hawkins. There is no statement of faith to be an NFA. How rational is something when it needs the level of protecting that Evangelicals give it? Especially since it need reaffirmed on a regular basis.
3) NFAs think that they are the only tolerant ones and anyone who does not see this should not be tolerated.
See Prof Hawkins above. And the desire of evangelicals to extend their beliefs to the lives of people who do not share that belief is not a tolerant act.
4) NFAs use the same Internet memes and post them as though they were original brilliant thought out rational points.
Yes that is not a strong way of debating. But then so do people who say they are evangelical. Neither side wins here.
5) NFAs don’t believe there is no God. They just don’t believe there is a God (I’ll leave you to work out the difference!)…. It seems that modern day atheists not only want to rewrite the dictionary for Christians, they also want to rewrite it for themselves. If you don’t know there is a God, you are an agnostic. If you believe there is no God, you are an atheist. Most children manage to grasp that concept. I suspect that most adult atheists instinctively realise the logical weakness of their position and so resort to this kind of sophistry.
Epistemologically I am agnostic as there is, to me, no evidence of any god. I live my life as an atheist as a result of that. I am also a humanist and this also then plays a part in how I live my life. David is not just a Christian but an Evangelical Christian. We all give labels to ourselves to differentiate from others and it can often be the case that some people don’t like or understand the labels that we use for ourselves. Pretty sure a child understands that as well.
6) NFAs say there is no evidence for God, but seem unable to say what evidence they would accept.
I covered this in my reply from my own perspective. It would need to be something that is manifestly real, observable and, frankly, impressive but what that would be in a way that I would not have doubts I don’t know. Of course, not knowing what evidence one would accept for something doesn’t in some way mean the thing exists. David could point to a lot of evidence he accepts for the existence of God but for me it would be a pitifully low bar to set because I perceive it differently. For example, to me the existence and content of the Bible is evidence of nothing but for David and most other Christians is a profound source of so much of his belief. What evidence, that David or any evangelical Christian, could be used to enhance their belief? If all current evidence available to NFAs and people like me is not sufficient, what does David think would be?
7) NFAs know nothing about Christian theology so they just make up what Christians believe and then spend time arguing against themselves.
This can be true. But Christian theology is a vast wide area of study. Evangelicals are only really keen on their own theology. See Prof Hawkins again.
8) NFAs repeat the same doctrines over and over again.
So do evangelicals. That’s the point of a doctrine isn’t it?
9) The New Atheist Fundamentalism is not primarily about intellect and reason, but rather about emotion and an irrational hatred of anything religious.
The evangelical fixation of what people, who do not share their beliefs remember, do in their own bedrooms also lacks intellect and reason and is also very much about emotion and irrationality.
10) NFAs don’t like it when you critique their faith and get very upset if you dare to challenge them. This is apparently not very nice nor ‘Christian’.
Well it’s not what some have come to expect from liberal Christianity I suppose. David, as an evangelical, gets challenged by other Christians about his challenges and critiques. It is a human condition I think to believe in the superiority of one’s own position and to react negatively to when that is challenged.
David then gave a much more considered response to my blog and I respond in kind here:
No Positive Beliefs – “I am grateful to Douglas for proving my point that atheists think they don’t have any positive beliefs”.
Ah now. I have mentioned before David’s love of word play. Here we see the lack of a belief in God has been presented as a lack of positive belief. I have my own positive beliefs but they are not based on religion.
Anger – “Whilst Douglas attempts to deny that he also attributes to me a motive in using the term that is not true. Apparently it’s because I am ‘angry’ and want to introduce emotion into the debate……..I feel no anger at all…just sorrow.”
I think we do use the term differently. There are angry atheist’s whose debate style leaves no room for exchange of ideas. But I honestly feel David is the evangelical side of the same coin. My first introduction to David was a journalist asking me about his quotes about the Church of Scotland stabbing Christianity in the back. That’s not an expression that comes from a place of happiness. He was angry then and because that first impression has not changed much since I still think he is angry. Sorrow is not an emotion that is remote from anger. How many times have we seen the angry actions of people stem from a feeling of deep distress? (David is obviously not angry in his physical actions – just to be clear.)
Atheist States – Douglas then goes on to say that I am using a debating trick by pointing out that the only atheistic states in the world have been oppressive ones. Usually atheists say you are using a trick when they can’t answer you (because again they want to discredit your case by questioning your morality!). But it’s not a trick…it’s the truth.
Ah now again. Here, we go from my noting his debating/arguing techniques to questions about morality. I said nothing of his morality. Given that I gave the list of countries of morally reprehensible states that enforced a state atheism as a form of political control its clear I don’t shy from the truth.
Secular States – Douglas then tries to cite ‘secular’ states such as the USA, Australia and France. Yet he conveniently forgets that the only secular states that have existed like that, are those that have been founded on Christian principles. It is Christianity that teaches the separation of Church and State. Fundamentalist religion like Islam sees them as being the same. As does fundamentalist atheism – which seeks to replace the role of God with the Almighty, all-powerful State.
Countries can be founded on one thing and move onto others. Spain, a Catholic monarchy enriched by slavery and conquest and then a facist state is now a democracy. Which part of its history informs what it is now? All of it I would say. Doesn’t mean it needs to kowtow to the ideas of what it used to be. Many other countries are like that. Christianity may teach that but evangelicals are not impressed by it. And I wonder how many “fundamentalist” atheists – even those like Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens – advocate a state free of religious choice. Look at the cry of Evangelical Christians in the US demanding that it become a Christian nation and exclude Muslims from the presidency.
Tolerance – “Christianity did bring the West out of pagan darkness, and it would be a threat to our Christian values if we were to return to that. It is difficult to see why Douglas cannot see the obvious logical truth in that. But then the pagans were never great on logic either, so perhaps a return to our pagan past would suit atheists and pagans!”
Actually Christianity appropriated Pagan festivals as a way of marketing Christianity. Christmas and Easter were the winter solstice and eostre festival. Methinks it was paganism that helped Christianity out there. Darkness is an interesting term. Christianity has had a number of dark periods that would be far more unwelcome than any group of pagans.
Abuse – Then to my point about the NFAs being abusive online, Douglas plays the tit of tat card, or what I call the ‘na, na, na, na, na….you do it too”.
David plays it as well. (that statement was both truthful and ironic).
It is an obvious truism that there will always be people on the Internet of whatever persuasion who behave in an intolerant and abusive manner. But the point that Douglas is missing is that this seems to be a particular problem for the NFA’s – which is why so many atheists are desperately trying to distance themselves from Richard Dawkins advice to mock and ridicule the religious whenever you can.
We all have people that are less helpful that others to our respective causes. David is the target of atheists so he sees the worst in them. People like Dawkins are a target for fundamentalists of all faiths and thus sees the worst in them.
Planned Parenthood – He talks about the ‘delight of Christians who were happy at the recent Planned Parenthood attack”. This is a strange example. I know of no Christian who would be happy at that insane attack.
For his definition of Christian to be sure. But Christian is such as wide label and, like atheist, is one that a person can claim themselves. There are no entry requirements.
Have you seen the sickening t-shirts proudly proclaiming ‘I had an abortion?’
Yes. We have different positions on this. I am not against abortion. Nor am I against the use of aborted foetuses in scientific research. Chicken Pox and Rubella vaccines were derived from aborted foetuses and you can buy stem cells derived from these foetuses over the internet.
Incidentally I have noticed that for people who have no ‘doctrine’ they all seem to think the same thing about many issues, including abortion. Is that a) because it is the obvious truth or b) because the groupthink is in so deep that they just believe it is the obvious truth? (Except of course they don’t believe it is the obvious truth because they don’t have any beliefs…its just the truth!).
There are atheists (and humanists) who are against abortion. They are not as visible because it is less of an ‘hot’ issue for them. Lots of people can be doctrine free and agree on topics though.
Somanygods – And then we come on to the point about somanygods. “Some religions are monotheistic and others polytheistic. The issue is that each religion claims to be the correct one and they cant all be correct.” That’s not the issue. I agree with that statement. The issue is the NFA which says because there are different religions, none of them can be right. This is not a logical or reasonable position, and yet is continually presented as some kind of fact! The only religious position that is correct is the NFA one!
I wouldn’t present it as a fact but I think that the sheer quantity of different religions and wide ranging theologies attached each then undermines each one that claims to be the single truth, the single route to an afterlife. For a non believer it is not logical or reasonable for each religion to claim a direct route to a god based on flimsy evidence – special truths given to special people and written down in ancient and venerable texts.
What is an Atheist? An atheist is someone who believes that there is no God. There are plenty people who say they believe in God or who are not sure, but are not Christians…. I spend a great deal of time reading books by atheists, not books about them. I would suggest that NFAs should do the same for Christians.
I have read some of David’s books but I don’t know if that’s what he means. Certainly they didn’t move me to change my positions.
Defining Faith – “David then argues that the definition of faith has been shorn of its association with religion towards the end of the 20th century again this is just simply false.” In fact it is the very opposite of what I said. Faith at the beginning of the 20th Century has become entirely associated with religion. My position is the old one, that everyone has faith. I can’t believe that Douglas managed to miss the point that was being made – that the NFA definition of faith has now become ‘belief in spite of, or contrary to the evidence’, whereas the old definition was as he point out, ‘trust’. `So rather than my Alice-in-Wonderland treatment, I was just sticking with the historical use.
That is not how I read what David had written but am happy to be corrected. I would note that words and their meanings change as people use them. And different people use the same words in different ways which is a barrier to debates between Atheists and Evangelical Christians.
Naturalism – Douglas then goes on to say that my saying atheists are naturalists is a ‘strawman’ argument before going on to admit that he is a naturalist, ironically undermining his own case. I have yet to come across an atheist who is not a naturalist. Perhaps Douglas can provide examples?
I said “He then makes the point that atheists are naturalists and then makes a case against materialism. Of course, the two are not the same thing so it’s a straw man argument he makes. It is also interesting that be conflates a preference for a certain philosophy (materialism) with an actual belief. I am a naturalist and am interested in seeing where Physicalism is taking us, especially given quantum physics.”
My point was his stawman of materialism not naturalism. I can’t believe that David managed to miss the point that was being made……
Free Will – Douglas then goes on to admit my point that atheists in general find it difficult to believe in free will. He admits that he does not, which immediately begs the question, if free will does not exist, then Douglas is not an atheist because it is a rationally chosen position of his own free will, but rather is just a result of his own brain processes and chemical reactions. Which then immediately calls into question everything he says. Why should his random chemical reactions lead us into truth? Indeed can there be truth?
Interesting philosophical questions. The brain processes on each action that I perform are the culmination of everything that has happened to me and what has happened in the universe before me. How much of all that results in automatic actions over wilful actions I would be interested to know. Evolution has given us complicated brains that often can react before conscious thought. How many of our basic functions are automatic. We evolved from single cell creatures that were (and still are) basic biological functions only. Everything that I am right now is the culmination of all the processes of the universe over the last 14bn years (its the same for everyone else, it case I am accused of a delusion of grandeur). Free will is interesting as well when we start to look at the consequences of parasites like Toxoplasma gondii. Infected humans can display various mental illnesses and given up to half the global population is infected how many people are making decisions based on the impact the parasite is having – is that free will? Scientists have been looking at bacteria in our guts and have found some interesting interactions as the gut is linked to the immune system, the endocrine system and the nervous system, the signals from those bacteria could influence our physiologic and behavioural responses. There are more bacteria than cells in the human body – if they can influence how we act where is the free will there?
Also, given that there is church theology about predestination and double predestination and how that affects free will, there is still lot to debate about this. Free will is an interest debate in theological circles as well. Luther himself, in his Bondage of the Will, wrote people are by nature endowed with free-will/free choice in regard to “goods and possessions” with which a person “has the right of using, acting, and omitting according to his Free-will.” However, in “God-ward” things pertaining to “salvation or damnation” people are in bondage “either to the will of God, or to the will of Satan. So free will to support Dundee or Dundee United but not between God or the Devil?
Is truth the same as fact? Facts are measurable for a start.
Evidence – And again I am grateful for Douglas confirming what I wrote – that NFAs who demand evidence actually would not accept any evidence. “I have seen and read enough science fiction and seen how we have developed as a species over the last 200 years to know that mere “miracles” of those described in the Bible and the miracles claimed in the name of God since will not persuade me. I would think that instead there were some kind of alien with ulterior motives rather than a god.”
Well what evidence would David give those who do not believe? Given that what is already out there what would David think would convert someone like me?
Jesus’s Return – “I also wonder how religious people would react if Jesus returned. For me, (notwithstanding my high levels of evidence required) this would be both a slight problem (in that I now have an after life to worry about) but I would also sit back and get some popcorn ready.” This shows a crass misunderstanding and a dreadful arrogance. It’s the daftest remark in what otherwise was a more or less sensible response. Christ’s return on judgement day won’t be about popcorn. It will be about repentance, remorse, sorrow and anger. As for me – I expect there to be many surprises and for Jesus to let me see that I have got many things wrong….but thankfully my trust is not in myself, but in Him.
Arrogant? Perhaps. But important. Religious types place great store in the judgement that is inevitable for everyone with consequences for those who don’t measure up to whatever set of rules are in place. To force this on people who don’t share those beliefs is the embodiment of dreadful arrogance.
Morality – Once again Douglas agrees with me about morality. At least to a point. I think that human beings need to be changed. And ultimately only Christ can do that.
And yet Christ is the inspiration and justification for many moral failures. At least my trust in humans to eventually get things right is not based on a claim to a higher moral authority.
Who does the Checking? My argument is God and his Word, working through human agencies. Douglas argues that there is no check upon humanity. We just make up our own rules as we go along.
I think humans grow and learn. Human rights is a development that looks like humanity checking on humanity. We are in a better place than we used to be. We may fall back on occasion but the direction is generally positive. And so many times those who argue using God and his Word fail to demonstrate any morals. They are no more effective than humans acting for humanity. Which is my point.
Authority for Morality? Douglas avoids answering where the morality comes from – and because he can’t answer he lumps together all religions as being the same.
All religions, and by that I mean those who are the focus of religions, those who have acted in leadership positions, theological positions and acting on behalf of religions, have had real and devastating moral failures. There is not a cigarette paper between these various failures.
My morality comes from human learning and understanding. We have evolved as social and moral creatures. Look at the work of Frans de Waal to demonstrate this. I also like the classical thinking of Epicurus. Humanity, since before the time of Christ, has developed different ideas about morality and ethics in the absence of any god. No-one has gone to war over them yet. Morality is changing and will continue to change. This is both a good thing and potentially a bad. I accept that. It is human. And no matter how strong the theory behind religious morality, until no human twists it to their own end, no human is harmed by it, I will argue that religious morality is just as weak as human morality.
I disagree that the bible gives authority for slavery, the crusades, the inquisition, and burning people at the stake. I go with the morality of Jesus Christ.
Mmmm. Many Christians before you would disagree as that is exactly where they got their authority for all of that from.
Where do the NFAs get their authority for morality from?
I think that the answer to this is a multitude of sources that offer a range of opinions. I, for example, like the authority of science in certain things – showing the detrimental mental affects of causing harm for example. If we can argue that a positive mental wellbeing is key to being a free and independent human being, the reduction and negation of harm is important.
Privatisation of Faith – NFAs…. don’t have a problem with any faith or denomination – as long as you keep it private, don’t let it interfere with any one else, and that is has nothing to do with any aspect of public life. They don’t of course say this about their atheistic secular faith – where they demand that all society must be governed by their principles alone. And because they don’t believe in an authority outside the State (unlike Christianity which does have a secular/church divide), there is a far more absolutist totalitarian faith than biblical Christianity.
What on earth is an atheistic secular faith? And yes, I don’t want an evangelical’s faith interfering with me and mine. Why is that such a bad thing?
Public life is a shared space for all people in Scotland I would argue. So the question then is whose rules get to govern that shared space, what rules govern public life. I start from two positions. The first is that no one group or more should have a privileged position over others and no one group or more should be disadvantaged by others. Of course, it is only religion that claims to be disadvantaged when treated equally with others because they extend their beliefs over others.
SSM [stemming from a larger point about the desire of evangelicals to have an impact on those on don’t believe] – Does Douglas and the SSS believe that polygamy should be allowed? Do they believe that two brothers should be allowed to marry? If they don’t then exactly the same argument applies. They are telling some people they cannot have something that other people have, they are seeking to deny it those who want it. They don’t have to marry their brothers, so why deny it to others? I have yet to hear any satisfactory answer to this. Douglas, over to you!
I am not speaking on behalf of anyone here but I have no problem with the idea of polyamorous relationships and marriage. The legal structure around them would be complicated of course but morally and intellectually I am not against them.
I always wonder about the logic behind the incestuous marriages question. David was free to choose his spouse from a very wide range of people (for arguments sake, 50% of the population less all of those who would not want to marry him or he would not want to marry) and a ban on SSM prevents another human being from making the same choice from, again, a very wide range of people. Incest is precisely not choosing from a wide range of people but choosing from an exceptionally small range of people. David’s marriage is no different to those of SSM couples. The concept of incestuous marriage is measurably different.
Many countries do not have a ban on incest (whilst maintaining the ban on incestuous marriage). Incest itself is problematic as it can affect the family relationship even while the child is underage. Therefore making incest legal could legalise grooming which causes harm which makes it immoral. However banning incest because it involves a heightened risk of birth defects is a view I’m sceptical about, given that we don’t criminalize sex by carriers of genes that make serious hereditary disease much more likely than incest does. From an evolutionary perspective the Westermarck Effect is an interesting examination of where the taboo against incest has come from. However, since marriages developed around the transaction of women to build alliances between men, the taboo against incest could also have a sociological function. I also find incest icky but that is no basis for an ethical discussion. However, harm is.
A Challenge to Debate – It would be wonderful if Douglas and his SS colleagues would be prepared to debate. I have offered them many times. But they don’t. They just ridicule and name call. I hope that Douglas, as the new chairperson, will change this and will take up the challenge.
And I have on twitter. I have proposed a debate – not on areas where we will always have a policy difference – such as education. Instead I think we should debate the thing that underpins a lot of those policy differences. What is the role of religion in public spaces, where do we think religion should start and end in people’s lives in Scotland? I think it would be interesting to debate exactly why religion should extend over the lives of those who do not believe it, why religion should be given a privileged position in society – if at all.
Instead of demonising Christians why not debate us? My suspicion is that they won’t or can’t because immediately the narrative they use to demonise us would be proved false.
I am happy to debate. We can do a series – each building on the last as it were.
Atheist Intolerance – One thing we will of course immediately point out is that they actually are the ones who demand that people who do not share their beliefs must live by them.
No. Christians, especially evangelicals, are the ones who make those demands. I make no demand on David and his daily life. He makes demands on others that do not share his beliefs on a regular basis.
After all it is not the Christians who demand that atheists must all go to Christian schools – it is the atheistic secularists who demand that everyone must be educated in schools that reflect their views. It is not the Christians who are demanding that atheists must bake cakes with messages on them that they disagree with.
Depends on a point of view I suppose. It is true that Christians do not demand that atheists go to Christian schools. However, given that non-denominational schools in Scotland all have to have six Christian themed acts of religious observance each year. Non-denominational schools have head teachers who, thanks to their strong Christian beliefs, bring in school chaplains to aid their running of schools. At what point does a non-denominational school become denominational?
I am not sure what is positive about schools with a religious ethos anyway. Speak to young people who are LGBT for example about what their schools offered them. They were offered self-loathing, fear, self-harm, mental health problems, bullying and isolation.
Atheist Faith- You will note here the ‘faith’ that Douglas has. All humans can live happy, moral lives together where we follow different faiths and ideologies? It’s such a Disneyesque statement that ignores questions such as what is happiness? And who decides what is moral?
How does that ignore questions about what is happiness? We haven’t even touched on that. David says atheists lack an understanding of Christians but wide sweeping statements like that, especially at the start of a dialogue, also show a lack of understanding. Happiness is an interesting topic and a variety of biological, psychological, religious and philosophical approaches have striven to define happiness and identify its sources. I like a subset of this that looks at Terror Management Theory when it looks at belief and happiness. Belief in a benevolent God is associated with lower incidence of general anxiety, social anxiety, paranoia, obsession, and compulsion whereas belief in a punitive God is associated with greater symptoms. An alternative explanation of happiness/religions is that people seek out beliefs that fit their psychological and emotional states.
Happiness can be one of the debate series – David can posit the idea that happiness without God is achievable perhaps? I would disagree.
Equal in the Eyes of the Law – I agree that we should all be equal in the eyes of the law. But in the atheistic secularist version, where the state is God, this means that some will be more equal than others.
Again, no. The cake message point from above is interesting. I can see why Evangelical Christians believe that they should be able to decline to deliver a cake with a message that they disagree with. After all, why should anyone have to do something they don’t like in their job? The problem does stem from this issue about what is public, what is private, who is protected from harm, when does that harm arise etc.? I would like to see a case of religious message being denied tested in court to help provide case law on this. Where is the line between personal beliefs and service provision that has to be available to all? A debate could be held about should this line exist? If there is not a line then what protects people from abuse? What is abuse even?
On many issues of policy atheists and evangelicals will always disagree. That is inevitable. There is scope to debate what type of Scotland we live in and the position/role of belief and non-belief in it.