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.
[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.