The Sad Tale of Tim on the Train


manicstreetpreacher tells a parable for atheists

This is a true story.

I am returning home on the train on a Monday night in February 2009 having finished work, recorded an interview at Radio CityTalk about my live debate against a Christian apologist at Liverpool University the 19th of the month and a perfect stranger spots me reading my copy of Atheism: A Very Short Introduction by Julian Baggini.

It’s not that I need an introduction to atheism, long or short, but my opponent has reviewed the book in one of his online articles and I want check that he has not quote-mined it as he has done with Richard Dawkins and Charles Darwin in his book on religious meaning.

Anyway, this man on the train asks me why I am reading about atheism.  Am I thinking of becoming one?  I tell him that I already am one and indeed am representing the side in a debate with a religious apologist a week on Thursday at Liverpool University.

We begin a very interesting discussion that goes something like this.

He asked me if I am certain that there is no God.  I reply I am certain to a factor of about 99%.  The remaining 1% means that I am open to new evidence in the unlikely event that it ever arises, but otherwise I put God in the same category as I put fairies.

He then asks me if I know everything.  I reply that I do not.  Quite the opposite; I realise how much I know about how little I know.

The man goes on to explain that he is Christian preacher. That God speaks to him. That he has witnessed many miracles and knows of others that have done so as well. That Jesus Christ is his personal saviour and died for his sins and mine.  That we are all miserable sinners and many of us will be cast into a pit of fire when he returns trailing clouds of glory.

To these points I reply respectively. I think he is a good man and would still be a good man whether he was an atheist. That people have claimed that other gods such as Allah and Zeus speak to them as well and this can in no validate the truth of the Christian doctrine. That healing miracles can occur by people chanting “Allah Akbar” equally as by chanting “Jesus is Lord”. That I never asked for the torture and execution of another person 2,000 years ago in another part of the World and I don’t believe that this will improve anything. That Jesus promised his disciples at Matthew 16:24 that his second coming would happen within their lifetimes and if it does ever happen, the fact that most of us are to be cast into everlasting fire makes it hardly an event to look forward to.

I asked him whether he had actually read all of the Bible and hauled him up on the barbarism of the Old Testament. Was God right to order his chosen people not leave alive a single child of the Amalakites in their conquest of the Promised Land?  He says that the peoples of Canaan were wicked and the Jews were right to exterminate them. I ask him if genocide is moral as long as God permits it.  He starts talking about something else.

It turns into such an interesting discussion that I decide to stay on the train passed my normal stop.

He gets off at a few stations further along and tries to end the conversation. I say that I have gone passed my stop and that this is such an interesting discussion that we should find a pub to continue it.

We end up talking for a good while in the foyer of the station.  We argue about the evidence outside the Bible (lack of in my view) for prophesies. The evidence (again, lack of in my view) for many of the events and characters in the Old Testament and the Gospel narrative. Why wasn’t the Roman census in Luke recorded by any other contemporary sources?  Why would the Romans perform just this one census requiring people to return to the home town of an ancestor who would have lived (which is doubtful in David’s case) over a thousand years ago. The morality (lack of in my view) of vicarious redemption by human sacrifice, which I feel is more like an updated form of scapegoating.

He makes the extraordinary claim that he’s not religious. He said that his relationship with God is different to organised religion.

Towards the end of exchange I give him a flyer of my debate and invite him to come along. He gives me a postcard for his church and offers likewise.

I finally discover that his name is Tim.  He finds out that my name is Ed.

He then abruptly ends the conversation, saying that he has to get home to wife and children, but not before looking at me in the eye with a glint of terror saying that we are all destined for hell.

There in a nutshell is why I am not a Christian.

Compulsory love of an invisible celestial dictator, having to love someone and be afraid of them at the same time, is a grotesque concept that utterly negates both altruism and freedom.

It is a cancer on this species and we can no more emancipate ourselves if we shed its shackles altogether.

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17 Responses to “The Sad Tale of Tim on the Train”

  1. Steven Carr Says:

    ‘He says that the peoples of Canaan were wicked and the Jews were right to exterminate them.’

    Man, woman and child? Somebody reads a book and because of that book he thinks whole groups of people should be killed , man, woman and child? Had the guy been reading ‘Mein Kampf’?

    Hitler thought the Jews were wicked, being behind the Bolsheviks and Communists and it was right to exterminate them.

  2. manicstreetpreacher Says:

    Sam Harris believes no such things. That is distortion and propaganda peddled by leftist idiots like Chris Hedges who are sore that Harris spanked them in public.

    I suggest you read Harris’ response for yourself:

  3. manicstreetpreacher Says:

    I have better things to do with time than rebut all the petty ad homs made against other writers. Like preparing for this week’s speaking engagement on religion at Liverpool Uni:

    The great thing about being an atheist is that I don’t have to tie myself to one man and one book. I am free to criticise who I like. There is stuff by the Four Horseman that I don’t agree with, y’ know.

    For the record, I don’t believe in reincarnation, same as I don’t believe in God. But that doesn’t mean we should not conduct research into both propositions an attempt to find answers.

    I don’t agree with torture either and neither does SH, if you actually READ the relevant section from The End of Faith as opposed to quote-mining it.

    If you want to win the arguments, why don’t you focus on the actual arguments instead of attacking straw men versions or the writers’ personalities or arguing from authorities. “Ooooh, John Gray and Michael Ruse don’t like Dawkins and Harris and they’re atheists! Wotta ya gotta say about that?!”

    Sorry, dude. That’s not an argument. That’s not even close to argument.

    For my views on how human rights can be grounded in atheism, see my review of Peter S Williams’ book, I Wish I Could Believe In Meaning, particularly the section on objective morality.

    I noticed that you haven’t made any attempt to demonstrate how human rights can be grounded in theism. The Crusades, anti-Semitism, ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, where to begin? This idea that only God can provide an objective moral standard is so smugly asserted by theists, that without any arguments or evidence in support. The whole thing falls apart when you inject a little reality. Rather like all theistic thinking.

  4. Ex Liverpool Humanist Says:

    Of course Sam Harris, Zeus bless him, believes torture ought to be brought back forthwith…. hey ho … (oh, and he believes reincarnation, too, according to a footnote). Weeeeeee!

  5. Ex Liverpool Humanist Says:

    Read it … emailed Sam, had a bizarre neo-Buddhist piece of drivel in response. Many on Richard Dawkins.Net think RD should stop hitching his cart to the Harris cart, since Sam looks increasingly unhinged. (In fact RD, in a recent Oxford lecture, looked very embarrassed when somebody brought up Sam’s buddhism.

    Have a look at James Randi’s site — he also lays into Harris. “The End of Sam Harris” as some wags are calling it 😀

  6. Ex Liverpool Humanist Says:

    Even in his “rebuttal”, Sam writes …

    “And if it is true that toddlers occasionally start speaking in ancient languages (as Ian Stevenson alleges), I would like to know about it. ”

    Come on, do you think it’s EVEN POSSIBLE that toddlers can start speaking ancient languages? Please tell me no …

  7. Ex Liverpool Humanist Says:

    Oh, and Sam has also said that he thinks consciousness can exist separate to brain function … which would follow, because if you DIDN’T believe that, you wouldn’t even ENTERTAIN reincarnation. I quote Sam’s “rebuttal” again …

    “However, I have not spent any time attempting to authenticate the data put forward in books like Dean Radin’s The Conscious Universe or Ian Stevenson’s 20 Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation. ”

    See Randi on Radin (ironic anagrams). So, tell us all, Ed, do you think reincarnation is POSSIBLE? If you answer “yes”, you’ve plunged into metaphysical views of consciousness, which are not a play a Promising Young Humanist wants to play.

  8. Ex Liverpool Humanist Says:

    On torture, Sam again says:

    “I am not alone in thinking that there are potential circumstances in which the use of torture would be ethically justifiable”

    Do you agree?

    (Sam, bless him, then goes on to say “While I am strongly opposed to capital punishment …” So killing a mass murdering psychopath painlessly is wrong, but reaching for the red hot poker is ok …)

    To be fair, this is the same Sam Harris who can’t add up basic statistics, but still …

  9. Ex Liverpool Humanist Says:

    Oh, and there’s more …

    “I have invited readers, both publicly and privately, to produce an ethical argument that takes into account the realities of our world—our daily acceptance of collateral damage, the real possibility of nuclear terrorism, etc.—and yet rules out a practice like “water-boarding” in all conceivable circumstances. No one, to my knowledge, has done this. ”

    Indeed. But then nobody has yet provided a non-theist, non-specieist grounding for human rights (see e.g. Gray and dozens of others), but that doesn’t stop Sam assuming them. Has he even HEARD of the law of non-contradiction?

  10. Ex Liverpool Humanist Says:

    Let me return to the question. Do you believe reincarnation is possible? I’d like a simple “yes” or “no”. It was you who tried to defend Sam, despite him being holed below the waterline. Since you repeatedly bang The Harris Drum (citing him, at least where I’ve heard you in debates, on Premier, in your email signature etc. etc. I think we’d all like to know whether you plan on coming back after the grave like Sam does. Stop wriggling and answer the question 😀

  11. Ex Liverpool Humanist Says:

    Oh, apologies, you said you denied reincarnation. Teach me to read more slower 😀

  12. Ex Liverpool Humanist Says:

    On ethics, I don’t think they can be grounded — I’m not a theist, just an ex-humanist (Gray deconverted me, with some help from Singer and now Nietzsche, who I’ve just started reading). There are NO human rights: anybody who says so is a fascist in sheep’s clothing. Given the current population crisis, we could do with a bit of thinning …

  13. Ex Liverpool Humanist Says:

    (People might think atheists were less reliant on each other if we didn’t quote each other so: Dawkins backslaps Harris, who kisses Hitch, who cites Dawkins, who etc etc.) Dang we can be insular (which is why half the arguments are so bad: such as Dawkins’ idea that Martin Rees is more complex than the entire universe, which was news to me).

  14. Ex Liverpool Humanist Says:

    (Oh, to return to torture, you said Sam is against it. Nope, that’s wrong: he thinks it is permissible under certain circumstances (‘the ticking bomb’) example. His rebuttal made this clear. On the contrary, I think it’s your good self who has not read Harris properly. I emailed him on this and asked about waterboarding — and again his view was, given the world we live in, that there are circumstances where it’s admissible. He hasn’t yet replied on his foolish (and trumpeted by theists with much glees, since RD repeated it without checking) errors when it comes to statistics …

  15. manicstreetpreacher Says:

    On morals

    I’ll have to disagree with you then. Read my section on morals the Williams review. I realise that I am indulging in a meta-fiction asserting the objectively of moral values, but it’s the only way to defeat the specious assertion by theists that the objectivity of moral rights can come from God.

    Can you please send me a few articles on John Gray’s analysis of humanism or recommend a some books? I haven’t read much of his work, but in my exchanges with Andy Bannister a few weeks ago, he expressed surprise that I was a humanist in light of Gray’s comments. I replied saying that I don’t have to follow EVERYTHING an atheist writer says, unlike his relationship with JC, but I’d actually like to know more since I think I’ve wound up Bannister enough with my nasty comments about theology not being an actual subject that he is very eager to have another debate. I’d better do my homework before we meet again.

    I’m quite disturbed by your comments regarding controlling population explosion. Surely you cannot mean that?! You are skirting dangerously close to sounding like a certain mad little Bohemian corporal…

    Quoting my sources

    After my first two debates against Andy Bannister I learnt to keep my sources hidden as much as possible! I thought I was doing him a favour dropping in verbal footnotes to engage more in the arguments of the atheist writers. In hindsight, I left the door wide open for him to make petty ad homs against the authors without actually tackling the arguments. Seriously, I think they must teach Ad Hominem on the world’s theology courses as a core module. I also think there’s a sweatshop full of Eastern European orphans in the basement of London School of Theology searching the published literature for all comments made by and about Richard Dawkins and another sweatshop full of children devising ways to distort and misrepresent them.

    It was a debater’s trick by Bannister who took advantage of my inexperience back then. The result was that for my subsequent Premier debate with The Gods of War author, Meic Pearse, I deliberately kept the names under my hat. I think I mentioned Harris in relation to where I had first heard Matthew 10:34 (not peace but a sword) but that was it. I used the ideas, I just didn’t credit them to their source and the result was we had a much better debate because I didn’t have to get sidetracked defending the reputations of others. In the circumstances, I don’t think Harris and Hitchens would begrudge me TOO much.

    Flattered that you’ve listened to my debates! :o) The fan base/ notoriety is growing! Do we know each other? How do you get my publicity emails? You still on LHG’s mailing list? You must come along to another meeting. We’re showing The God Who Wasn’t There this Wednesday at The Vines, aka The Big House on Lime Street, 7:30pm with PIPs enquiry afterwards.

    Harris on torture

    For the last time, Harris does not support routine torture of suspects or rendition or any of that nonsense. The passage is a thought experiment, not to be construed as having any relevance in the real world. If you are 100% certain know you have Osama Bin Laden in your prison cell and you are 100% certain he has the code to defuse a bomb which you are 100% certain that he planted which you are 100% will blow up in the next 60 minutes and destroy 100% of New York or Washington, then yes, may be a mild form of torture like water-boarding would be permissible to get him talking.

    Dinesh D’Souza has endorsed torture far more explicitly:

  16. Ex Liverpool Humanist Says:

    > I’ll have to disagree with you then. Read my section on morals the Williams review.
    > I realise that I am indulging in a meta-fiction asserting the objectively of moral values,
    > but it’s the only way to defeat the specious assertion by theists that the objectivity
    > of moral rights can come from God.

    Then it’s a fiction. Stop it 🙂 You can’t ground morals. (Theists, btw, would say that the key grounding is transcending human value). I, on the other hand, helpfully realised that atheism meant not intrinsic human worth. I left not only the church, but Amnesty International. Good to be consistent. Nietzsche is such a blast of fresh air.

    > Can you please send me a few articles on John Gray’s analysis of humanism
    > or recommend a some books? I haven’t read much of his work,

    Try “Heresies” and esp. his essay “Sex, Atheism and Piano Legs”. He makes a wonderful case that humanism has just ripped off Christian ethics.

    > but in my exchanges with Andy Bannister a few weeks ago, he expressed surprise
    > that I was a humanist in light of Gray’s comments.

    One of the few things I’d agree with Bannister on. Humanism is a camping ground for those too afraid to follow where the evidence leads. Kai Nelson: “pure, practical reason, even with a good knowledge of the facts, will not take you to morality”.

    > I replied saying that I don’t have to follow EVERYTHING an atheist writer says,

    Your email signature makes you look like a dribbling fanboy. Clearly you’re not, but your signature looks that way. I’d start there.

    > nasty comments about theology not being an actual subject

    Just don’t make RD’s mistake and then ask for a theological response to your arguments. It’s why I like the old school atheists — they’re far more consistent.

    > I’m quite disturbed by your comments regarding controlling population explosion.

    Humans don’t have any intrinsic value. Evolution requires the fittest survive. We spend too much time propping up the weak etc. And the planet can’t cope with our numbers. I’m probably more for sterilising the stupid than actually pest control.

    > You are skirting dangerously close to sounding like a certain mad little Bohemian corporal…

    Whom we can’t actually say was wrong, alas. I don’t LIKE him but as Freddie Ayer said, claims about morals are merely claims about what I like and don’t like. Philosophy 101.

    > Flattered that you’ve listened to my debates! ) The fan base/ notoriety is growing!
    > Do we know each other? How do you get my publicity emails? You still on LHG’s mailing list?

    Yes. And yes. To be fair “Ex” is a slight exaggeration: I come every so often and we’ve met. I keep quite a low profile as I think most LHGs are woolly idiots who wouldn’t know a logical fallacy if it bit them on the nose. And I increasingly struggle with the “Humanist” part.

    • manicstreetpreacher Says:

      Ex-Liverpool Humanist – are you still there? I have a few weeks at home in between jobs, so I was going through my blog, correcting typos and tidying up links etc. (I figured out how to embed YouTube videos and merge URLs with text!) and I realised that there is some unfinished business between you and me.

      I recently read two of John Gray’s books, Straw Dogs and Black Mass, in preparation for my recent Premier Christian Radio debates against David Robertson, Christian author of “flea” response to Richard Dawkins, The Dawkins Letters (Robertson is another apologist who thinks that quoting all the atheists who disagree with the Four Horsemen constitutes an argument in favour for the truth or usefulness of Christianity) and was decidedly under-whelmed!

      Gray clearly thinks that he has a devastating short-sharp-shock literary style, when in reality his words have about as much force as a wet lettuce.

      Give me Harris, Dennett or Hume any day.

      Even Dawkins’ philosophy in The God Delusion is more persuasive. Ouch!

      Gray attacks a straw man version of humanism that I don’t recognise as my own. He doesn’t even quote any secular humanist writers. He just says what he thinks we think and attacks that!

      As a humanist, I most certainly do not have a pseudo-religious faith-based claim that humanity is progressing all the time and will one day attain some state of utopia.

      It is a hope. It is a belief based on my preference to living in 21st century Britain as opposed to 14th century Spain.

      But is certainly not a faith claim like believing that Jesus will one day come flying down out of the clouds to establish God’s Holy Kingdom on Earth for the benefit of a lucky few while casting most of the world’s population into a pit of fire.

      Who knows? May be tomorrow America will commence World War III and send us back to the Stone Age with their nukes…

      Gray’s views that the New Atheists are just “Christian atheists” do hold some water. Clearly, we owe a great deal of our language, culture and even our morals to Christianity. Rather like we owe a great deal of our culture and heritage to the monarchy.

      Doesn’t mean that all of it is beneficial though…

      Dawkins recognises that in TGD and recommends that religion still be taught like history and literature.

      However, I could just as easily accuse 21st century British Christians of being “atheist/ secular/ humanist Christians”. They have jettisoned the worst tenants of their religion in favour of views that are more suited to today’s moral Zeitgeist.

      How else do they forego the advice of Augustine and Thomas Aquinas by not torturing and/ or burning heretics?

      Was thinking of re-reading Gray’s books for a proper review on my blog. Might even read Heresies as you suggested.

      Although going by present experience, I doubt whether I’ll be terribly impressed.

      Hope you’re still around to reply.


      P.S. Your true identity is driving me mad! Do you wear spectacles and sport a brunette pony-tail (or did you in or around March and July 2008)?

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