manicstreetpreacher to Michael Shermer:
I have of course had multiple encounters with Pastor David Robertson of St Peter’s Free Church, Dundee, Scotland, author of The Dawkins Letters. For the Saturday, 20 February 2010 edition of Premier Christian Radio’s Unbelievable? Robertson debated Michael Shermer, head of the American Skeptics Society and author of numerous books debunking all things paranormal and pseudo-scientific, such as Why People Believe Weird Things and Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design.
The debate focuses on the comparative levels of charitable giving, happiness, well-being, mutual respect and trust and attitudes towards slavery and gay rights between believers and non-believers.
I’m not going to give a blow-by-blow account of the debate, and I’m certainly not posting this to gloat at Robertson (who I consider a personal friend of sorts after our encounters), but he is an extremely tough debating opponent. While I was satisfied with how I came off in my debates against him, I took as many hits as I scored and tripped over my own arguments on a couple of occasions, particularly on evidence an atheist would accept as evidence for God in Show One and the moral argument in Show Two.
Shermer on the other hand is a seasoned pro and has heard it all before and will do so a thousand times again. While I in my reckless youth tend to take more of an all-guns-blazing approach at the microphone, Shermer is far more laid back in his citing of peer-reviewed journal papers, opinion polls and tried-and-trusted philosophical arguments.
These were especially effective against Robertson’s arguments which seemed to be based largely on personal experience of visits to “Sweden’s atheist utopia” where apparently people are much less willing to sell you a drink than the Americans. Shermer is going to withhold judgement until he runs the experiment for himself.
I particularly admired the way Shermer put paid to the popular notion that Christians lead the fight against slavery by pointing out that William Wilberforce and John Newton were in the minority of Christians who opposed the practice when the established Anglican and Catholic Churches were defending it.
In a similar vein to how Christianity has a posteriori claimed the moral high ground in respect of abolition, Shermer predicts that the current firestorm over gay marriage in the USA will be resolved in the next 20 years or so to the benefit of homosexuals. While today the most vehement opponents of gay marriage are Christians, as with slavery, Christians will surely single out the few of their number who supported gay marriage and hold them out as leading the fight for equal rights!
I will credit Robertson for contributing to a high-brow discussion and for once not playing the “Hitler and Stalin were atheists” card while giving a nod to the crimes committed by the Christian Conquistadors against the indigenous people of the Americas; a Holocaust in its own right. Perhaps MSP’s email to him in response his comments following Brierley’s coverage of the Dawkins/ Grayling I2 debate on atheist fundamentalism had a small part to play in that.
The two places where I thought Robertson really fell down was in his closing remarks where he accused the secularists as “living in a fantasyland” before going on to say in the same breath that Christians know that they will not live in a utopia until they get to heaven. Right.
In addition, Marx and Engels never said that “religion is the opiate of the people”. This is in fact one of the most common out-of-context quotes of all time. The full quote from Marx’s introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right is:
Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.
The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.
Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower. The criticism of religion disillusions man, so that he will think, act, and fashion his reality like a man who has discarded his illusions and regained his senses, so that he will move around himself as his own true Sun. Religion is only the illusory Sun which revolves around man as long as he does not revolve around himself.
Don’t let Christopher Hitchens hear you say that one, David!
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