Reflections on Follow My Way
The manicstreetpreacher licks his wounds after a gruelling public encounter with a bunch of religious fundamentalists. The other panel members weren’t all that rational either…
Right now I don’t want to go out; I don’t want to make any friends. All I want to do is make enemies. I’ve never felt this much contempt for everyone and everything in my entire fucking life. I don’t feel the need for anyone to like me anymore. Jesus, it’s hard enough to like myself.
– Nicky Wire (1994)
On Thursday, 12 March 2009 at 7:00pm I attended Science Lecture Theatre A, Lecture Theatre Building at Liverpool University and debated a panel of what sounded like the beginnings of an exceptionally poor barroom joke:
Hamza Tzortzis, a Muslim[i]
Rabbi Y Y Rubinstein, a Jew[ii]
James Harding, a Christian and Anglican Chaplain of Liverpool’s three main universities[iii]
Without giving a blow-by-blow account, by the end of what had been an utterly gruelling evening I had felt as if my friends, work colleagues and fellow members of Liverpool Humanist Group would never speak to me again.
What’s more I felt as if I was the extremist, I was the ranter, I was the one trying to indoctrinate members of the audience and far more shrill, far more strident and far more intolerant than those believers against whom I lay the same charge.
It was the first time I had debated a Muslim and the first time I had debated in front of a predominantly Muslim audience. A few quick points that atheist speakers in the same novel situation ought to be aware:
- If the event is organised by an Islamic society, expect arcane absurdities which do the religion no favours in the inclusiveness stakes, such as demanding that unmarried, unrelated men and women sit apart in the audience;
- The Muslim apologist will be given special treatment to cut off the other speakers whilst they are at the lectern trying to respond during their two precious minutes;
- If you intend to raise the issue of Wahhabi extremists brainwashing their children to become suicide bombers, don’t expect a positive reaction from the crowd.
After a very good reaction to my 10 minute opening address, which gave a whistle stop tour of atheism, anti-theism, secularism and the ills of religion on the world and humanist morality, throwing in a lambasting of the University Vice Chancellor, Sir Howard Newby, for his recent move to shut the philosophy, politics, statistics and communication studies departments, the crowd was firmly against me.
I found myself decrying miracles, the morality of the Holy Scriptures and Mother Teresa. And then there was the small matter as set out in point three above, which nearly had me booed, jeered and hissed out of the hall. My Christian opponent subsequently provoked the biggest cheer of the night, condemning me for saying “some really offensive things”. Cheers and whistles which I myself added to.
It was actually Christopher Hitchens’ question on the usefulness of religion about whether you would prefer a child born tonight in Pakistan to grow up either as an atheist or a Wahhabi Muslim brainwashed into becoming a suicide bomber.[iv]
In retrospect, perhaps I ought to have pointed to the moral beacons of secular Scandinavia in front of a hijab-wearing audience, but I don’t regret it and I certainly don’t withdraw it, particularly, since the question was never actually answered and the topic was speedily moved to Blair and Bush’s adventures in Iraq.
The audience reaction was not so much indicative of any deliberate attempt to upset and provoke on my part (there was none) but the automatic respect accorded to religious faith in conversation. Were the debate about Marxism, I very much doubt whether I would have received a similar response had I brought up the awkward fact of Joseph Stalin.
I certainly had my wish after my debate three weeks prior against Christian apologist Peter S Williams to come up against tougher opponents. It wasn’t that my three antagonists had better arguments; it was that they were able to marshal an audience which was clearly on their side from the beginning.
Thus, when I raised the issue of lack of archaeological evidence for the Exodus and the conquest of Canaan, all Rabbi Rubinstein had to do was butt in from his chair by the main microphone and raise laughter and applause with an ad hominem against my bibliography.
“Oh, he reads the serious Jewish school now, does he?” The flock loved it.
I tried to fight back with the doubtful location of Mount Sinai and the absence of any tombs for Moses, Solomon and David. It didn’t matter; I had lost both the point and the crowd. I have to resort to setting the record straight after the event when it’s too late with an open letter to the Rabbi.[v]
The audience were behind Hamza in particular. He was given a roving microphone and cut me off several times during my precious two-minute slots at the lectern following questions from the audience. He places a great of emphasis on the Argument from First Cause aka “Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing?” He will not accept any rebuttals which impinge on other arguments, such as design or fine-tuning. He also thinks that the Qu’ran is a book of such extraordinary power that it could only have been the product of a divine miracle.
I hope we have another live debate soon so I can expose these vacuous claims for what they are and in a more decisive manner than I was able to on this occasion.
Before the night, I had rather hoped that if it was going to turn nasty, it would be a squabble between the three apologists over who has the best imaginary friend, with me being the cool and reasonable one. Alas, it was not be and I was reduced to fire fighting from all quarters.
The problem with Islam
A full castigation of the Qu’ran will have to wait for another paper, but having read the text myself,[vi] together the excellent executive summaries of Sam Harris[vii] and also my new best friend, Edmund Standing,[viii] I can safely conclude that anyone who says that this book is of such mind-blowing brilliance and so prescient of society’s universal and timeless needs is either deluded, dishonest, demagogic or a combination of all three.
The assertion that “Islam is a religion of peace which has been hijacked by extremists” is a claim utterly falsified by reading the Qu’ran. Anyone who says that there could be nothing in the book that could possibly have mandated the atrocities of 9/11 or 7/7 doesn’t know what they’re talking about:
And fight in the way of Allah with those who fight with you, and do not exceed the limits, surely Allah does not love those who exceed the limits.
And kill them wherever you find them, and drive them out from whence they drove you out, and persecution is severer than slaughter, and do not fight with them at the Sacred Mosque until they fight with you in it, but if they do fight you, then slay them; such is the recompense of the unbelievers.
But if they desist, then surely Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.
And fight with them until there is no persecution, and religion should be only for Allah, but if they desist, then there should be no hostility except against the oppressors.
The Sacred month for the sacred month and all sacred things are (under the law of) retaliation; whoever then acts aggressively against you, inflict injury on him according to the injury he has inflicted on you and be careful (of your duty) to Allah and know that Allah is with those who guard (against evil) (2.190-4).
Ditto anyone who swallows the line that Islam says “there shall be no compulsion in religion”:
Allah will bring disgrace to the unbelievers (9.2).
O Prophet! strive hard against the unbelievers and the hypocrites and be unyielding to them; and their abode is hell, and evil is the destination (9.73).
Meanwhile, the applicability of the Prophet’s family values in today’s ever-shifting moral Zeitgeist are questionable to say the least:
The Prophet wrote the (marriage contract) with ‘Aisha while she was six years old and consummated his marriage with her while she was nine years old and she remained with him for nine years (i.e. till his death).
– Hadith collection of Imam al-Bukhari
While it is always a relief to hear religious people do not take their texts literally and read the Holy Scriptures as authorising genocide and jihad, there can be little doubt that many people do take such passages literally. If you’re still not convinced, perhaps they would care to read Osama Bin Laden’s Letter to America:
In the Name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful,
“Permission to fight (against disbelievers) is given to those (believers) who are fought against, because they have been wronged and surely, Allah is Able to give them (believers) victory.” [Qu’ran 22:39]
“Those who believe, fight in the Cause of Allah, and those who disbelieve, fight in the cause of Taghut (anything worshipped other than Allah e.g. Satan). So fight you against the friends of Satan; ever feeble is indeed the plot of Satan.” [Qu’ran 4:76][ix]
The latest polling data should alarming levels of fundamentalism among British Muslims. The Centre for Social Cohesion produced a report in 2008 entitled Islam on Campus: A survey of UK student opinion.[x] The study, based on a poll of 1,400 students as well as field work and interviews, revealed of British Muslim students that:
- 32% said killing in the name of religion can be justified;
- 60% of active members of campus Islamic societies said killing in the name of religion can be justified;
- 50% would be unsupportive of a friend’s decision to leave Islam;
- 24% do not feel that men and women are fully equal in the eyes of Allah;
- 28% said Islam was incompatible with secularism;
- 40% said that they thought that it was unacceptable for Muslim men and women to mix freely;
- 25% said they had not very much or no respect at all for homosexuals, as opposed to 4% of non-Muslim students.
A 2007 poll of 1,000 of the wider Muslim population in Britain conducted by the think tank Policy Exchange found that:
- 86% of Muslims feel that religion is the most important thing in their life;
- 36% of 16 to 24-year-olds believe if a Muslim converts to another religion they should be punished by death;
- 74% of 16 to 24-year-olds would prefer Muslim women to choose to wear the veil;
- 58% believe that “many of the problems in the world today are a result of arrogant Western attitudes”;
- Only 37% accept that ‘one of the benefits of modern society is the freedom to criticise other people’s religious or political views, even when it causes offence’.[xi]
A 2006 Populus poll for The Times found that 37% of British Muslims believe that “the Jewish community in Britain is a legitimate target as part of the ongoing struggle for justice in the Middle East”.[xii]A 2005 Daily Telegraph poll found that 32% of British Muslims agreed with the notion that “Western society is decadent and immoral and that Muslims should seek to bring it to an end”. [xiii]
During a coda in a Muslim restaurant after the debate with my two remaining antagonists (Rabbi Rubinstein had to leave at 9pm while the debate was still ongoing) and members of the Islamic Society, I spoke further with Hamza and Muslim students.
The question of 1.3 million deaths in Iraq/ 3 million deaths in Vietnam/ 150,000 deaths at Hiroshima –v- 3,000 deaths on 9/11 arose as it had done so earlier that evening.
I am not going to write one word in defence of US foreign policy since World War II. America has much to answer for and the body count arising from its activities abroad doesn’t even bear thinking about.
However, unlike the sloppy moral equivalence of Noam Chomsky in comparing Bill Clinton’s 1998 rocketing of the Sudanese Al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant, which purportedly lead to the deaths of thousands of innocent Sudanese from preventable diseases with 9/11, the body count is, bizarrely of secondly importance.
It can be demonstrated with this rather morbid thought experiment. Which would you prefer; that your father was the bombardier on the Enola Gay that dropped Little Boy on Hiroshima which killed tens of thousands 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?
It’s a massive moral paradox, but I think most people would go for option 1!
One of the few statements of Henry Kissinger I have agreed with is that statesmen very often have to choose between evils. (For the record, I don’t agree with the second part of that statement, that normal rules of morality cannot apply to them. I think certain liberals have mounted a very convincing case to bring Kissinger to an International Criminal Court on charges of war crimes along with the like of Milosevic and Karadzic.[xiv])
But the question remains, would we like it if the situation is reversed? Would we like America to switch military support from Israel to Hamas? Would we trust the governments of Saudi Arabia and Iran by selling them nuclear weapons? If the Iraqi National guard had invaded Washington, would they take any notice of the US employing human shields? Would the US even use human shields?
Again, I don’t support the Iraq War, but I don’t point-blank reject its motives and its results either. It is still possible to establish a first principle; there is still an argument for self-preservation, as there was for the fire-bombing of Dresden and the destruction of Hiroshima. We wouldn’t be in Iraq if it wasn’t for 9/11. The World changed beyond recognition for all time that day.
Also, anyone who says “Well ok, Saddam Hussein was a bad guy, but…” should educate themselves as to the extent of the man’s atrocities against the Kuwaitis, the Kurds and his own people. Whatever happens to Iraq now, it has been an enormously costly exercise; that I cannot deny. But I just have a hunch that in 10 years time it won’t be looked upon quite the same negative light as Vietnam.
The comparative sense of tribalism between me and Hamza and the Muslim students was astonishing. Whilst I do not support America’s misadventures abroad, I do not feel the desire to take up arms and avenge the suffering visited upon them by innocent citizens of the perpetrators’ countries, or sympathise with those who do. I hope I stand to be corrected in this, but I had the impression that Hamza and some of the other students do.
They repeatedly attempted to justify suicide attacks, play down religion’s role and play up that of secular politics. The moderator of the debate, kindly gave me a lift home after the meal and pointed out that suicide bombing had only arisen in the last 20 years or so and was devised by the Tamil Tigers, whose motives are political, even if their religious views are Hindu, (as opposed to the common misperception that they are atheists).
I said to him that Jains and Tibetan Buddhists do not practice suicide bombing. Tibetan Buddhists in particular are extremely oppressed. If mistreatment by a foreign army occupying your country is sufficient to cause the requisite level of despair, Tibetan Buddhists ought to be blowing themselves up on Chinese public transportation. But they do not do this, because their religion does not mandate in any way, shape or form. This is a problem with Islam.
The problem with atheism
My opponents had a big advantage to me on the night. They were advocating something positive, something inspiring, something that can provide hope. Whether any of it was true or not was apparently of no concern whatsoever to the flock before them.
All I can say in reply to that is those who provide false consolation are false friends. However, this still left me as the underdog. I was essentially advancing a negative position. I was speaking against their offers of hope and salvation. I was the nasty teenager going around telling all the toddlers that there’s no such thing as Santa Claus.
The Christian chaplain had a wonderfully inspiring story of how he was seriously injured in a car accident as a child. He spent months in hospital in intensive care whilst everyday his parents were told by the doctors to expect him to die. However, the power of prayer apparently saved him. In response to that, I said that we should consider all the children who didn’t make it, who died every single day the chaplain was in hospital, who were seemingly less ill than he was and the prayers of whose parents were not answered by the Almighty.
When people talk about miracles they mean when a baby falls out of a top storey window and bounces harmlessly on a pile of grass cuttings. People to hold their hands aloft and thanks heaven for this wonderful salvation. They have nothing to say when in the Congo and Cambodia and Rwanda there were ditches filled with dead babies and no one did a thing.
The truth may set you free, but it sure can leave a bitter aftertaste.
At the Atheist Alliance International Conference 2007, Sam Harris argued controversially that actually the “atheist” brand was doing the anti-religious cause few favours.[xv] Atheism is a term that we do need, in very much the same way that we do not have terms like “non-astrologer” or “non-racist”. People, whether they believe in God or, what Dan Dennett describes as, “believe in belief in God” see atheists speaking out against religion as a cranky, intolerant, sub-cult.
Atheists seemingly never have to stop answering the bogus “Hitler/ Stalin/ Mao = the endgame of atheism” card. “This meme is not going away,” commented Harris. I felt that my knowledge of history and philosophy far outstripped any of my opponents. Nevertheless, all Rabbi Rubinstein had to do was mention the crimes of Hitler and Stalin being caused by them allegedly being atheists to gain a murmur of approval from the crowd and was then up to me to cut into my own time at the next visit to the microphone to refute it.
That night I had first-hand experience of Harris’ dilemma. My three opponents appeared so happy, so content living their lies. They had something to offer the crowd which I simply could not. On the other hand, I must have come across as miserable, angry, intolerant and trying desperately to indoctrinate people into my way of thinking.
Faith seems to trump evidence at every turn. I could have lectured to them extensively on the historical unreliability of the Gospels, but they wouldn’t have taken any notice. The idea that someone died to wash away their sins obviously appeals to their deepest hopes and fears and no amount of evidence would dissuade them of it. Any claim, no matter how ridiculous, is irrefutable as long as it is dressed in faith. The onus suddenly switches to the non-believer to disprove it, which is often an impossible task. Apparently, no qualifications whatsoever are required in order to believe, but conversely no qualifications are sufficient in order to criticise.
Right now, my head is filled with visions of celestial teapots and self-propelled spaghetti monsters…
How to re-brand the atheist mark? Can it ever be a positive? I contend that atheism is a by-product of an enquiring mind that is forever asking questions and will not accept easy answers. There is some empirical data which suggests that religious people are happy and healthier than non-believers and I can easily accept this. Who would have wanted to be me that night?
When faced with such terrible ideas, what can I do – attempt to refute them or let them go unanswered and keep on plugging the “use what’s up here” card? It’s frustrating, but I simply cannot provide an alternative manifesto at this time. The best I can do is to refute the idea that an atheist has no reason to save someone else’s life as I did in my opening statement:
Quite simply an atheist does not need to refer his or her problems upwards. We view them for what they are, on their own terms. There is fulfilment in performing a good deed for its own sake, as opposed to doing it because invisible Big Brother in sky wants you to do it. If we were endangered we would hope someone else would do the same thing for us.
Similarly, an atheist can easily abhor pain and suffering for its own sake. We object to the Holocaust because we would not like the same thing to happen to us. If we saw it happening in front of our eyes we would act to stop it. Or if we witnessed the aftermath, we would try to alleviate its effects.
When the Asian tsunami struck on Boxing Day 2004, it was exactly these kinds of sentiments that took people of all faiths and none at all to the other side of the world to help ease the suffering of perfect strangers.
It’s amazing how far a little human solidity will get you and equally amazing how permission from the divine is unnecessary.
A humanist is, after all, someone who can be good when no-one is watching.
I am a straight-talker and I always have been. If it looks like a spade, and it feels like a spade, and it digs like a spade, then I will frame it in explicitly shovel-esque language. I have been loathed for it at every stage of my life, but then again I have always garnered a certain level of respect from what I term a “sincere minority”.
In conclusion – this glorious struggle continues
When the debate itself was all over, at about 9:45pm, I felt absolutely awful! I was sure that I would be banned from speaking again at the University for good. One or two of my friends who had come along congratulated me, but others left for their cars and their beds straightaway without a word.
Members of the University of Liverpool Atheist Society were incredulous to put it mildly. The chair said I was welcome to come to Tuesday night drinks at the society as usual. I detected more than a hint of polite insincerity in her tone.
However, one gentleman came up to me, smiled and shook my hand and said, “Brilliant. Your arguing was just brilliant”. A member of the City Christian Union gave me his phone number and asked to meet up some time as there were “a few things he wanted to talk about”. At the restaurant afterwards, James Harding said I deserve respect for going into the lion’s den like Daniel.
Members of Liverpool Humanist Group emailed the next day saying how well I had stood up to it all and promoted the cause of humanism. I had a few positive comments posted on my blog from audience members who wanted me to elaborate on certain issues.
In work the next day, colleagues who had been present said how well I had done and I ought to re-train as a barrister. One solicitor who had missed the event due to a personal commitment said after the reports from the other she was definitely coming for the next one.
And then there was the small matter of receiving a Facebook message the Sunday after the event from the Islamic Society… inviting me back to Follow My Way Part II scheduled to be held at the University after Easter.
This news could almost make me believe in God. Surely it must fulfil David Hume’s criteria for a miracle? I have asked myself whether I am under a misapprehension, or I am deluded, or hallucinating, but apparently not.
However, the more naturalistic explanation for my invitation is, I postulate, that no matter how much your views are disagreed with, a substantial number of people always respect you for having the courage to speak your mind without consideration for what the reaction will be.
Is the heading quote from Manic Street Preachers’ skinny bassist an accurate summation of how I’m feeling right now? Only in so far as I’m not doing this to make any new friends. Indeed, I am filled with a wonderful sensation of “me against the world”. Very Manic-esque.
Is the title to this essay an accurate description of what happened to me on the night? Well, I was certainly left feeling rather full and had a few crumbs round my mouth and down my front.
But it wasn’t about overfilling my tummy. It was about finally getting my trousers off.
Thanks to friends, workmates and Liverpool Humanist Group members who came along for all their support before, during and after. I won’t incriminate you here; you know who you are.
Special thanks to Edmund Standing (a qualified theologian with a first class honours in the subject and several other very impressive letters after his name), for giving some helpful advice to a fellow atheist crusader he has never met before in his life:
Extra special thanks to Liverpool University Islamic Society for having me to speak, for a wonderful meal afterwards and risking the University’s buildings and contents insurance by inviting me back for a second time.
[iv] Among other occasions, the question was posed in by Hitchens in his debate against Dinesh D’Souza, “What’s So Great About God? Atheism –v- Religion” at Macky Auditorium, CU Boulder, January 26, 2009 and can be viewed at: http://richarddawkins.net/article,3623,Debate-Christopher-Hitchens-and-Dinesh-DSouza,Thomas-Center.
[vi] For what it’s worth, my version of the sacred text is translated and with an introduction by Arthur J Arberry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), but I’m sure it’s full of mistranslations and passages taken out of context.
[vii] The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason (London: Simon & Schuster, 2006).
[viii] Edmund Standing, “A Critical Examination of the Qu’ran”, Butterflies and Wheels, 6 February 2009,
[ix] “Full text: bin Laden’s ‘letter to America’”, The Guardian, 24 November 2002: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2002/nov/24/theobserver.
[x] Full report: http://www.socialcohesion.co.uk/files/1231525079_1.pdf. Executive summary: http://www.socialcohesion.co.uk/files/1231525079_2.pdf.
[xii] Peter Riddell, “Poll shows voters believe press is right not to publish cartoons”, The Times, 7 February 2006: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/politics/article727952.ece.
[xiii] Anthony King, “One in four Muslims sympathises with motives of terrorists”, The Daily Telegraph, 23 July 2005: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1494648/One-in-four-Muslims-sympathises-with-motives-of-terrorists.html.
[xiv] For a superb exposition of Kissinger’s war crimes, see Christopher Hitchens, The Trial of Henry Kissinger (London: Verso, 2002) and its accompanying documentary, The Trials of Henry Kissinger (2002) which contains Kissinger’s statement about statesmen having to choose between evils and can be viewed at: http://video.google.co.uk/videoplay?docid=-2411718527195635002&ei=bEO9Se-IBoiGqwL3zcA-&q=trials+of+henry+kissinger+hitchens&hl=en.
[xv] The video of Harris’ speech on 28 September 2007 can be viewed at:
All web-based resources retrieved 15 March 2009.
Tags: atheism, christianity, debate, dialogue, ed turner, god, gospel, Hamza Tzortzis, inter faith, islam, James Harding, jesus, jews, judaism, liverpool university, morality, muslim, Rabbi, Religion, YY Rubinstein