A Coda in a Student Bar

HomerSimpsonBeer

manicstreetpreachers’ conversations with student members of Liverpool University Christian Union following his live debate against Peter S Williams on 19 February 2009.

On 19 February 2009 I spoke in a live debate against Peter S Williams of Southampton-based Christian group, Damaris, opposing the motion “Does the Christian God Exist?”   The YouTube links to the debate will follow.

Following the formal debate in the University Guild, members of Liverpool City Christian Union very kindly invited me to the student bar.  After I had finished my discussions with audience members at the venue, I took the City CU up on their offer and proceeded to the bar for another glass or two of red and to see if there was anyone else to argue with.

My opponent was there, but he had his own audience.  I sat among the students, who were all Christians, and continued the debate.

I was genuinely moved by some of their stories.  One young lady said that she had been cured of an ongoing illness through faith in Christ.   I could write reams about miracles and the placebo effect, but I’m not going to take that experience away from her.

Heaven?  Sounds like Hell to me!

During the audience Q & A in the debate, I had quoted Mark Twain’s pithy response to the spending an eternity with God after you die: “Most people can’t bear to sit in church for an hour on Sundays.  How are they supposed to live somewhere very similar to it for eternity?”

One of the students admitted that church was a real drag, but heaven wouldn’t be like that because there was no longer any need to worry about your sins and repent – the reward was now yours.  I respect her opinion, but I’m not convinced by it.  When I’m gone I want to stay gone, but whilst I’m here I want make the most of everything so I won’t feel like I’ve missed out.

Not peace, but a sword

At one point I was grilled about my reference in the debate to Matthew 10:34, where Jesus assures his disciples that he came to bring “not peace, but a sword”.  The students had obviously never heard the line and couldn’t quite believe that it came from the mouth of Christ.   One of them accused me of taking the line “out of context”.

Where have we heard that one before, Andy Bannister?

I recounted the “context”, which is actually rather powerful and poetic, in which Jesus tells his disciples how to spread the word: “heal the sick, raise the dead…”  And then suddenly he comes out with that line about a sword.   I said that I do not pretend to know what the passage means.   The theologians have been keeping their children fed for the past 2,000 years trying to decipher the hidden meanings of the Bible and are still nowhere near reaching a consensus.   What chance does a heretic like me have?

At the end of the day, the line is there; it has survived thousands of years of transmission.   It exists in all our existing translations.  My own take on it is that Jesus knows that his new cult will cause divisions, disharmony, conflict.  You only have to glance at the following 2,000 years of Christian history to see how accurate a prediction it turned out to be.

An abusive relationship

I recently saw Jonathan Miller’s fascinating interview with Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Steven Weinberg, filmed as part of Miller’s television series, A Brief History of Disbelief.[i] “I don’t like God,” Weinberg explained, “He’s like a bad character in a novel, I really don’t like him at all.”   This is an extraordinary statement for a non-believer to make.  How can you hate something or someone you don’t believe exists?

Yet the more I think about, the more I agree with what Weinberg said.  God is a truly hateful character.  I tried explaining to a student at the bar that God was like an abusive partner.   He loves you and rewards you if you are good.  But when you anger him, he inflicts misery and pain upon you.   And just like a violent partner, he makes you feel as though you are the one to blame.

Why would anyone prostrate themselves at the feet of this sinister narrative?  As I said in the debate Q & A, the atheist’s view of evil is very straightforward: nature is the greatest abortionist.  Nature takes a million attempts to get things anywhere close to “right”.  Death, disease, pain, suffering; all part of the natural order.  It’s comforting for an atheist to know that it’s all random; that there’s no rhyme or reason to it.

I am amazed that Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection and the discovery of the true age of the Earth were not more readily accepted.  So some extent they still aren’t.   I would have thought that people would have said, “Great!  All the evil in the world is just part of the natural order!  There was death and suffering for millions of years before man arrived on the scene!   It has nothing to with Adam and Eve’s scrumping in the Garden of Eden 6,000 years ago.  Man never started in a perfect state and then rebelled against God.  It was just a sinister fairytale all along!  We are free!”

But, oh no, the solipsism of the theistic mind must go on.  The desire to be a slave is as strong as ever.  “We have to be responsible somehow!”

“God does not exist and I hate him!”

Finally, we discussed an event which took place some months before the debate, back in November 2008.  The City CU had held a Q & A session in the University Student Union entitled “Grill a Christian”.  As the name implies, it was an opportunity for atheists and believers alike to question a panel of Christians on the faith.

I attended with members of University of Liverpool Atheist Society and brought my “travelling” file of notes, which was filled with my own postings on blogs and debating forums.  I remember it was a day or two after I had recorded my debate against The Gods of War author, Meic Pearse, on religious conflict at Premier Christian Radio and I was still very much on a high following the clash.

In response one of the panel member’s assertion that hundreds of biblical prophesies have been fulfilled, I stood up and read aloud an extract from Victor Stenger’s God, The Failed Hypothesis which showed this claim to be spurious for want of corroborating evidence and the abject failure of numerous Old Testament prophesies.[ii] I have posted the extract once or twice on web forums and have not had a convincing response and that evening at Liverpool University was no exception.

I also issued Christopher Hitchens’ challenge on whether there can be a divine source to human morality:

Name a moral action committed or a moral statement uttered by a believer which could not possibly have been done or said by a non-believer.  Now name an immoral action done or a wicked statement uttered which could only have come from someone who thought they were on a mission from God.

Hitchens hasn’t had a satisfactory response to the first part of this challenge; nor have I for that matter and that particular evening proved to be no exception.  Tellingly, no-one ever hesitates over part two.

“You lot were angry that night!” one girl said to me, “What on Earth for?”  A very good question indeed: if it’s all just harmless nonsense, why bother opposing it so vehemently?

As I argue in my review of Williams’ A Sceptic’s Guide to Atheism, religion is not a benign superstition like astrology.  I find astrology rather irritating and intellectually vacuous.  It resembles faith-based religion in that it utterly solipsistic to imagine that the movements of celestial objects could ever impact on a human being.  Like religion, it is a result of homo sapiens’ natural tendency to believe that they are at the centre of the universe and there is an invisible agent dictating their lives in advance.

However, astrologers are not influential in our society at all.  True, the practice has unjustly enriched certain people I would rather were not on my television screen and in my newspapers such as Russell Grant and Mystic Meg, but as soon as someone seriously starts professing their belief in astrology, we tend to stop listening to them at best, or laugh directly in their faces at worst.

What happens to that doctor who says he won’t perform an operation that day because his Zodiac sign is in retrograde with the fifth moon of Saturn?  Either he or she does not get the job in the first place, or is discharged PDQ.   This is not the result of any government legislation; we have not passed laws preventing people from believing in astrology.  This is a result of what Sam Harris describes as the normal rules and restraints of human conversation.

On the other hand, when the president of the most powerful country in the World and the de facto leader of the free world declares that he invaded a foreign power on the advice of the creator of the universe, he automatically gains the legitimacy and approval from a majority of adults in his home country who are eligible to vote.

Does anyone else see a problem with this?

I replied to the girl in the bar, if religion was as benign an entity as astrology, I would leave it alone.  But this is simply not what religion is.  Religion intrudes on the daily lives of every person, whether they want it to or not, much less whether they like it to or not.

The same could be said for the ideology of any party in government that you did not vote for.   I take this caveat; however, political ideologies are constrained by original rules of evidence and reason.  Religion is, at present, not subject to these constraints.   We have all but extinguished bad political ideologies such as fascism and eugenics through scientific research, philosophical debate, and when all else has failed, through force of arms.

There have been countless wars fought either in the name of religion, or where religion has featured as a catalyst to hostility, countless books written denouncing it, countless debates held arguing against it.   Yet are we really anywhere close to extinguishing its harmful effects?  Not nearly as much as I’d like.

The glorious pursuit of failure

I hope that my debate against Peter S Williams will be the first of many.  I hope that meet tougher adversaries at the lectern.  I hope that I write many more papers such as this.  I hope that I provoke discussion, debate and controversy.  I hope that I have my own views scrutinised, challenged and reformed by my opponents.  I hope that my contribution to human conversation and the currency of ideas has some impact in moving religious faith further into the light of sceptical, honest and public discussion.  I hope that I inspire others to do the same.

I realise that this debate won’t be settled in anywhere like my own lifetime.  In a strange way, I’m quite happy with that.  I wouldn’t extinguish the belief even if I could.  If nothing else, it would be one less group of people with whom to argue.  (As for Muslim suicide bombers and fundamentalist Christians who murder abortion doctors and block stem-cell research, I don’t have any argument with them, in the same way that reasoning with a brick wall is a fruitless exercise.)

But as I closed my main address in the debate earlier that evening; this is a glorious struggle nonetheless and one that will last forever.

But it’ll be worth it.  And it’ll be a lot of fun.


Endnotes

[i]  The Atheism Tapes with Jonathan Miller (2004) 116 Films Ltd, Lorber HT Digital, 2008.

[ii] Stenger, V J. (2007). God, The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist. (New York: Prometheus Books, 2008). 182 – 183.

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9 Responses to “A Coda in a Student Bar”

  1. Steven Carr Says:

    Peter Williams has managed to find a non-Christian who praises his book!

    This non-Christian writes ‘Atheists are a few in number, but many of them have a sectarian and fundamentalist psychology and behaviour. It makes them potentially dangerous and hostile, so it seems wise to keep them in a reasonable distance from you and your loved ones. ‘

    subversivethinking.blogspot.com/2009/03/atheist-bigotry-in-amazoncom-due-to-ray.html

    Boy, Peter is desperate if he thinks that praise from people like that should be posted over his blog….

  2. magic phil Says:

    Religion is not the cause of all human strife.

    The CIA, Hitlerism, Stalinism, Maoism, genocidal racism, US and British imperialism, the wealthy, the powerful, world-threatening geo-political expansionism, neo-liberal economics, Leninist-state capitalism, patriarchy, undemocratic hierarchies and Thomas Midgley Jnr, the inventor of CFC’s and leaded petrol, would all leave religion in the starting blocks in a race to find a root cause of human ills. Religion may well be nothing more than a doctrinal Turin shroud on which the imprint of these evils can barely be detected.

    It is, nevertheless, no exaggeration to say that the world’s most fundamentalist religious state – certainly in terms of its popular culture – is also the world’s most criminally terrorist and the world’s most powerful and dangerous. (Clue: not Iran. Another Clue: Israel. Getting warmer.)

    There has been a recent vogue for popularist, knee-jerk secularists to blame religion for all of the world’s ills. Unfortunately, it has also become depressingly fashionable to believe that militant atheists are “losers” as well.

    I have been surprised by the recent Dawkins’ backlash in some unexpected quarters. As usual, I have completely disregarded the opinions of the religious – as is my inalienable right in a secular liberal
    democracy (sic), thank God. But among some humanists, agnostics, pagans, secular liberals, godless Marxist-Leninists, non-Muslim members of Respect and the SWP (the Jehovah’s Witnesses of the Trotskyite Left) the consensus is clear. Religious beliefs are so preposterous, challenging them is hardly worth bothering – only a petulant teenage mentality would engage in this. Worse still,
    you only end up on the same side as the anti-Islamic War on Terror propagandists.

    Wrong.

    As an extremely intolerant militant anarchist atheist, I lapped up Dawkins’ God Delusion when it came out barely 18 months ago. His book is like a DIY Mark Steel kit for the irreligious. (The less said about
    Christopher Hitchens is always the better.) Thanks to Dawkins’ popularising text, I was finally able to come out of my anti-theist closet. Resurrected with born-again confidence, armed with a brand new irreligious lexicon and a bagful of half-bricks to throw at the delusional, I set about my anti-religious task with none of the fervent zeal of a religious maniac, and all the life-affirming joyous, rational
    humanism of a Derren Brown. This is after all merely the de-mystification of magic. Child’s play. That’s the point.

    As you know Preacher this is the fun, not to mention the purpose of the exercise. This is NOT a utopian struggle for “worldwide conversion to secularism”. This is not just a battle of ideas; it’s a custard pie fight for our sanity, our humanity and our future. When The Mark Thomas Comedy Product produced its GEC Rapier missile, complete with banner
    “Killing foreigners for Profit and Jesus”, it was to reveal the underlying politico-economic base on which the religious superstructure is founded. This is a power problem DRESSED UP as religion. But it’s the religious themselves who buy into it, precisely because they are irrational, deluded supernaturalists who should be afforded all the respect reserved for believers in copper bracelets for rheumatism, Yogic
    flying or goblins!

    (Incidentally, the Church of England continues to drag its feet over individual investors profiting immorally from weapons of mass destruction, although it appears to have disinvested from the UK’s second biggest arms dealer at last – thanks largely to militant atheists
    and undogmatic anarchists like Mark Thomas.)

    As for appeals to reason the are like ta;king to brick walls. Moreover, neurosis seldom listens to reason”. But that is the point. We ARE wasting our time reasoning with people who have abandoned rational analysis for myth. (The two are not mutually exclusive, of course. As a
    rational atheist, I can still derive psychological and emotional truth from myth without becoming a fully-fledged believer in pixies and fairies.)

    The religious themselves are the first to tell atheists that appeals to reason are doomed. That’s why I don’t bother trying to “convert” the delusional. Why would I? Of course, for sheer entertainment value in a spirit of devil’s advocacy, I enjoy ridiculing the hell out of god-botherers. Who wouldn’t?

    As for defining human rights, that’s the easy bit. In a global economy that sanctifies the “right” for the hyper-rich to own obscenely immoral amounts of wealth, in a world where about 400 individuals own more than 50% of all property and capital assets, on a planet where human bondage has never been so prevalent, in a society where billions of ordinary people are powerless and disenfranchised, talk of human rights is little more than a neo-liberal flight of fantasy. Our rulers already know that. Thier class planned it and organised. It’s not a fashionable thing to say. But it’s called class war.

    Which begs the question: why bother asking the rich and important people who rule us to embrace ethics? Why attempt to “re-educate” Orwell’s Big Brother? Why preach to the unconvertible? Why try speaking truth to power? Even as an exercise in Quakerist consciousness-raising, it’s largely futile. Power doesn’t give a tinker’s cuss about truth. It cares only about shoring up its own power base.

    • manicstreetpreacher Says:

      Thank you, Magic Phil. I’ll take that as comment, but I’m not sure how I can reply to it, except that I disagree with your assessment of Hitchens. I rather like his cigarette and alcohol fuelled rantings and he has an extraordinary depth of knowledge of literary, history, philosophy, politics and the English language in general that belies his physic.

      The rest of your piece raises arguments that I don’t necessarily disagree with. However, you must factor in intentions as you appear to be engaging in the kind of sloppy moral equivalence of leftist idiots like Noam Chomsky. Global capitalism may well be costing lives and the environment, but its intentions are to make the 400 richest people in the world richer as opposed to those 19 pious men on 9/11 who really intended to kill those 3,000 people in those aeroplanes, the Twin Towers and the Pentagon.

      It’s a massive moral paradox, but the body count is of secondary importance. Which would you prefer; that your father was the bombardier on the Enola Gay that dropped the Bomb on Hiroshima which killed tens of thousand of women and children, or that he was in the My Lai massacre in the Vietnam War and killed 20 women and children at the point of a bayonet?

      Atb

      manic

    • manicstreetpreacher Says:

      Magic Phil – are you still there? I have a few weeks off 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 realised that I found a great assessment of your style of arguing a while back, which I never got round to posting.

      I think you should read this piece by Independent columnist, Johann Hari, as your objections essentially amount to the “Argument From Yeah, But What About…”

      MSP

  3. manicstreetpreacher Says:

    Peter S Williams has responded to my review of his book, A Sceptic’s Guide to Atheism on his own blog, the link to which is below:

    http://idpluspeterswilliams.blogspot.com/2009/03/response-to-edward-turners-review-of.html

    I really don’t have anything to say in reply to his piece, save for his accusation I read a different book to the one he wrote. For this, I will defer to one of my heroes of atheist rationalism, a man of far great intellect and turn of phrase, on this occasion replying to one of Mr Williams’ heroes of the Intelligent Design movement:

    Steve Fuller complains, as do all authors whose books are panned, that I did not read his book properly (or at all). Alas, I did.

    – A C Grayling

  4. manicstreetpreacher Says:

    Peter S Williams has posted a response my review of his book I Wish I Could Believe In Meaning on his own blog, the link to which is below.

    http://idpluspeterswilliams.blogspot.com/2009/03/response-to-edward-turners-review-of-i.html

    I have nothing to add or amend to my original essays, with the exception of the typo c. peer reviewed journal articles advocating ID in the piece on I Wish I Could Believe In Meaning. I must have read through all three essays about 50 times, but mistakes do creep through, so thanks to Peter for pointing it out.

    I must say as well, it’s a great feeling to see your own words quoted back at you by someone else.

  5. Rabbi Y Y Rubinstein Says:

    Dear Ed,

    Well I read your open letter. Honestly…you are so angry that I don’t see much point debating you.

    Your Blog fairly seethes and then the point about Genital mutilation just smells a little bit of anti Semitism.

    Your Biblical quotes, as I told you on the night, miss the point.

    Judaism is not the Pentateuch let alone the so called “Old Testament.” You cannot take a fraction of anything and claim that is the whole. You could teel someone who has never heard of this country that the UK state takes money from it’s citizens without pointing out that the tax money funds roads, police and the NHS and convince your listener that UK citizens are robbed by their government.

    Your understanding misses out the Talmud and Medrash all of which amplify and clarify the stories you quote. Through them, Judaism makes a statement, not through the simple text.

    I think that applies to all three religions although I do not claim to speak for them all. If you investigate these faiths in their own terms you will probably or may still reject at least three ( I have done and reject two) but at least let your rejection be based on what the religion actually says not what you think it does.

    There are two bits of Archaeology to investigate for the moment.

    One is the Shrine at El Arish. Now if you Google it you will find lots of engorgements about it endorsing the exodus both ways. Honestly, you will need a wee bit of Semitic language skill to take a view, but if you keep an open mind it can easily seen as pointing at the exodus.

    Then try the Ipuwer Papyrus in the Liden Museum. The same holds true for it.

    Consider that people of faith are not simpletons and some are extremely accomplished in areas that are assumed to preclude belief. Indeed a front page of Time magazine a few yeas go declared “Scientists prove existence of G-d.”
    They were not religious per say but felt that the evidence points to an act of creation, a “Big bang” and ergo a creator. Things like the universality of Pi etc forced some to that conclusion.

    You may like to go to the web site of a friend of mine Rabbi Dr David Gottlieb. He was professor of Philosophy at Johns Hopkins university specialising in the philosophy of science. You can download for free several lectures addressing the points you are convinced make your case. I have more friends who are professors of science than I care to count and not just ex students of mine who see no contradiction to Belief in G-d.

    You know, when religious people point to religious leader who committed terrible crimes and say “they were not real Christians, Muslim, Jews or whatever” I find that embarrassingly silly. Osama Bin Laden does massacre in the name and inspired by Islam wrongly or rightly.

    When I pointed out that more human beings were killed last century by atheists like Hitler (although he may indeed have believed in Norse gods) Stalin (who certainly did not) and that most wars were fought for secular reasons like China’s invasion of Vietnam your argument was just as silly.

    Do you recall saying that The North Korean Kim dynasty see themselves as gods and therefore there behaviour is not atheist based but really after all quasi religious based…. Wow!

    If you can stretch truth to that level of credulity… then maybe you too could consider Norse gods, druidism or Hogwarts.

    If you want to see what Judaism actually says then try “This is My G-d” by Herman Wouk. I will debate you on that.

    Only though, if you can let go of some of your fierce anger so that I can believe that you might listen to another view.

    That by the way is the only reason I did not e-mail you as you invited me to. When you are willing to consider other views I am happy to talk..

    Oh! And I promise to listen to you too.

  6. Steven Carr Says:

    ‘Now if you Google it you will find lots of engorgements about it endorsing the exodus both ways.’

    Nope. There is no evidence for the Exodus, let alone for Yahweh killing thousands and thousands of Jews because they had made a golden calf.

    And this shrine of el-arish certainly is not evidence for Yahweh.

    2500 years of myths and lies, based on silly books where the creator of the universe spends 11 chapters explaining how to make soft furnishings for a tent….

  7. Steven Carr Says:

    http://www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2006/09/debunking-the-exodus-decoded.aspx

    ‘Exhibit K: el Arish Inscription. The el-Arish Inscription is a text from the Ptolemaic period (305–31 BC) written on a shrine found at el-Arish on the Mediterranean coast in northern Sinai. It is a legendary text concerning the gods Shu, god of air and sunlight, and his son Geb, god of the earth, and has nothing to do with the Exodus. Immanuel Velikovsky related the inscription to the crossing of the sea in his books Worlds in Collision and Ages in Chaos. Jacobovici follows Velikovsky’s interpretations, claiming the text “tells the entire story of the Exodus from Pharaoh’s point of view,” even giving the precise location of the crossing. Velikovsky’s understanding of this text has been thoroughly refuted. Mewhinney writes, “His interpretations of the el-Arish inscription are so obviously, blatantly wrong in so many particulars that it is hard to see why there should have been any controversy over the facts of the case, excepting only minor details. We find names altered and combined, words mistranslated, characters confused with one another or split in two, and events set in the wrong time and place. To permit Velikovsky to make the associations he does, one would have to take a sledgehammer to the shrine, smash it to bits, and reassemble the pieces in a different order…the methoda sort of ‘free association’ in which a whole complex of ideas is summoned up by an isolated word or phrasemust be rejected as well” (2006).’

    The only people fooled by this shrine are people dumb enough to believe Noah built an ark where animals went in two by two, or possibly seven by seven…..

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