Michael Shermer debates David Robertson on whether Christianity is good for us: Premier Christian Radio, “Unbelievable?”, 20 February 2010

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!

Download the full debate audio.

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16 Responses to “Michael Shermer debates David Robertson on whether Christianity is good for us: Premier Christian Radio, “Unbelievable?”, 20 February 2010”

  1. Fergus Gallagher Says:

    Nothing to say about Robertson’s “if you allow gay marriage then we’ll have to allow people to marry their pets”?

    Classic twittery.

  2. Fergus Gallagher Says:

    “I’m certainly not posting this to gloat at Robertson (who I consider a personal friend of sorts after our encounters)”

    Well after today’s Premier debate, I think you ought to think hard about that. You’re subhuman in his eyes after all.

  3. manicstreetpreacher Says:

    from: MSP
    cc: Justin Brierley
    date: 28 February 2010 21:17
    subject: Debate against David Robertson, “Unbelievable?”, Premier Christian Radio, 27 February 2010

    Dear Andrew

    I have just listened to the above debate and wanted to write to congratulate you on a superb display of the atheist/ secular/ humanist colours against Pastor David Robertson. I can’t believe that he thinks that atheists are less than human. Our good Pastor really scored an own goal with that one!

    I also find it hard to believe to that Robertson’s theological hero, John Calvin, was humanist as we today would understand the term. My historical research tells me that he ran a theocratic police state in Geneva that perpetrated the burning of Jews and witches and also put to death the physician Michael Servetus for disagreeing with the tenants of Christianity. Calvin certainly didn’t think that man was made in the image of God as the next passage makes abundantly clear:

    We are all made of mud, and this mud is not just on the hem of our gown, or on the sole of our boots, or in our shoes. We are full of it; we are nothing but mud and filth both inside and out.

    And let’s not forget that Calvin’s theory of predestination has us all damned from the outset if God so chooses:

    …the eternal principle, by which [God] has determined what He will do with each man. For He does not create equal, but appoints some to eternal life, and others to eternal damnation.

    Congratulations as well on your recent appointment to Chief Executive of the BHA. I enjoy reading your essays and will certainly seek out more of your debates and lectures. Keep up the good work.

    With best wishes


  4. manicstreetpreacher Says:

    Over at the Unbelievable? group page on Premier Christian Community, atheist James Croft has started a thread that is very critical of Shermer’s performance in his debate against Robertson:

    Shermer was Demolished!

    I just wanted to record my extraordinary disappointment regarding Michael Shermer’s performance on the “Unbelievable” of 20th February. He allowed Robertson to walk all over him and made very weak arguments. I was quite stunned.

    I would very much have liked Shermer to pursue Robertson on gay marriage, for example. Perhaps if you’re around, David, would you mind explaining to me why I can’t marry any consenting adult I wish?

    • manicstreetpreacher Says:

      I have posted the following reply on PCC:

      I’m sorry to read that some of the atheists on this forum don’t think that Shermer did very well against Pastor Robertson. I have done a review of their debate on my own blog and I handed the debate very much to Shermer.

      Shermer may not be as aggressive as Hitchens, but his cool-headed use of peer-reviewed journal papers on social trends, opinion polls and tried and trusted philosophical arguments were far more convincing that Robertson’s anecdotal silliness about people in “atheist utopia” Sweden being far less willing to sell out a drink than those mind-torched whack-job fundamentalist Christians in America.

      Perhaps Shermer could have hauled Robertson up more on his bigoted views on gay marriage, but BHA head Andrew Copson did a cracking job on Sat 27 Feb’s show taking him to task on atheists being “sub-human” due to their non-belief in God.

      Robertson well and truly scored an own-goal with that one!


    • manicstreetpreacher Says:

      My second reply on PCC:

      Robertson has some pretty indefensible views regarding gay marriage. From my pre-debate review of his book and public speaking.

      Robertson attempts justify the special privilege that religion is awarded in social conversation, claiming that matters of sexuality are also cordoned off in a similar manner by secularists in Britain and America. He recounts cases from 2006 where Christian Unions at several British universities were censured for potentially encouraging homophobia. Perhaps this next one is the “Humour? What humour?!” Robertson alludes to in the introduction, but it comes perilously close to pure bigotry:

      The 150-strong CU in Birmingham was suspended for refusing to alter its constitution to allow non-Christians to preach at meetings and to amend its literature to include references to gays, lesbians, bisexuals and those of a ‘transgender’ sexuality (one wonders what the logic was for leaving out polygamists, bestialists and paedophiles?).

      I’m not an easy person to offend, but lumping gays into the same category as paedophiles and bestialists crossed my boundary. It is also completely ignorant of the sociological record.

      On the contrary, it is thanks to those honest-speaking secularists that matters of sexuality have been brought fully into the public domain. Thanks to years of honest conversation and scientific research, we now know that a person has as much choice of being gay or straight as they do of being black or white. Thanks to the ever-shifting moral Zeitgeist, society has moved away from the view of Leviticus (let’s not forget, a book that also mandates the stoning to death of adulterers and insolent children), so that cases like Alan Turing, a brilliant mathematician and key figure in the World War II British code cracking centre of Bletchley Park, who committed suicide when faced with the choice of imprisonment or a course of compulsory hormone injections amounting to chemical castration which would have caused him to grow breasts, is now a shameful footnote in the history of humanity’s moral progress. Rather like slavery, which by the way, the “Good Book” also mandates.

  5. Pele Zico Says:

    Well im yet to hear a convincing argument to the Moral debate – Robertson was excellent in debunking the notion that humans inner sence of a common morality evolved – much like Expelled its so easy to explain that mans morality apart from God is “fantasy” – his morality exists only within his personal reality therefore he should never expect anyone else to agree to his

    The funny thing is we are seeing Western governments taking this philosphy to its natural end – the EU Humans Rights Act should be renamed The Privileges Act – since God gives Rights the State gives Priveleges – and should it wan to it will violate your right whenever it sees fit

    Interestingly your SECULAR world will come as the Bible predicts in Revelation 13 – SECUARISM will be mans worst nightmare

    Jesus all The WAY

  6. manicstreetpreacher Says:

    David Robertson replies to MSP on Premier Christian Community

    Hi Manic,

    It seems that you have a wee dispute with your fellow believers – they think Shermer was demolished. You don’t. As you guys don’t believe in objective reality I will leave you to vote on this by your feelings!

    And he did not cite one peer-reviewed journal!

    And finally I did not call atheists ‘sub-human’. Please when you debate make sure that you tell people what is said, rather than what you wish was said! For the record I stated that without God we are not fully human in that we are not living our lives to their full potential.

    For what it is worth I think that Andrew Copson was a much more difficult opponent than Michael. He was intelligent, articulate and avoided most of the obvious pitfalls. He actually avoided quite a lot, but he was really difficult to argue against. It was a challenging and taxing debate – and all the more worthwhile because of it.

  7. manicstreetpreacher Says:

    Fergus Gallagher replies to David Robertson

    And finally I did not call atheists ‘sub-human’

    I think he said (or agreed with) “not fully human”. Can someone explain the difference?

  8. manicstreetpreacher Says:

    Fergus Gallagher replies to David Robertson

    This is what was said:

    AC: You are calling some people less human than others, less fully human than others.

    DR: Absolutely. Yes.

    Disgusting bottom feeder.

  9. manicstreetpreacher Says:

    MSP’s first reply to David Robertson

    David R – What Fergus said (without the insults).

    While Shermer did not quote chapter and verse, he was referring to well-researched opinion poll data and analysis in sociological journals. Feel free to correct him here, if you like.

    But let’s not get into what people have actually said yet again. Stephen Hawking, Traudl Junge and Pope Benedict XVI on condom use in Africa anyone?

    I do believe in objective reality. Anyone here who doubts the relationship between our inner consciousness and external matter ought to pick up a hammer and start bashing their head with it.


  10. manicstreetpreacher Says:

    MSP’s second reply to David Robertson

    While I’ve got you, a couple of pieces of information that I have discovered since our last meeting, which you may wish to consider before your next debate / lecture.

    Firstly, Stalin actually rejected Darwinism in favour of Lamarckism and Lysenkoism, let alone ran up to his best friend on finishing Origins proclaiming his atheism and lack of care for humanity. That tale is straight off the Answers in Genesis website:

    Mendeleyev’s “periodic system of elements” clearly shows how very important in the history of nature is the emergence of qualitative changes out of quantitative changes. The same thing is shown in biology by the theory of neo-Lamarckism, to which neo-Darwinism is yielding place.

    (Stalin 1906, 304)

    Secondly, I have recently posted comments correcting William Lane Craig and Dinesh D’Souza’s wilful distortion of what Stephen Hawking actually says about the origins of the universe.

    Craig and D’Souza refer to an old thesis by Stephen Hawking and Roger Penrose from the 1970s when they believed that the universe began with the Big Bang singularity. However, in A Brief History of Time Hawking makes abundantly clear that he and Penrose have recanted their earlier thesis and do not believe in the Big Bang singularity.

    The line most commonly mined by religious apologists from BHOT is “nearly everyone assumes that the universe started with a Big Bang singularity.” However, the very next sentence Hawking writes, “It is perhaps ironic that, having changed my mind, I am now trying to convince other physicists that there was in fact no singularity at the beginning of the universe – as we shall see later, it can disappear once quantum effects are taken into account.” (p. 50)

    So if God exists, he didn’t create the universe with a bang at all and Christians need to go back to the drawing board and reinvent him yet again.


  11. manicstreetpreacher Says:

    Further reply by David Robertson on Premier Christian Community

    Guys and girls,

    Sorry that I have so much difficulty in replying. I actually find the way this MB runs quite awkward with posts appearing all over the place. And I am genuinely overwhelmed with work. I also have some difficulty with the level of abuse that occurs….however perhaps I can make this one reply and leave you to tear me apart as you like.

    James denies using venom – yet in his very first posts he states ‘perhaps Robertson is of the opinion that gay people are dogs’. This is an opinion which I do not share and yet he leaves it there for other people to pick up and start abusing me. I would be more than happy to discuss the issue of gay marriage but to be honest this issue is a kind of shibboleth for many people and they are unwilling to listen to any kind of argument. It is the ‘when did you stop beating your wife question’. I have always had gay people in my congregation and amongst my friends – most are mature enough to accept that we have different views of human sexuality. I make no distinction between homosexual and heterosexual – we are all sinners in need of the grace of God.

    It is also interesting how people picked up on the ‘less human’ remark. Interesting because in the selective quotation used it missed out the most important bit – when I said that all of us were not fully developed humans – and that to live life without Christ means that a big part of our humanity is missing. We were created for relationship with God and when we do not have that – we are missing out on something. It is actually quite amusing to have Fergus complaining about me calling people less human by then calling me a ‘bottom feeder’. I assume he thinks it is ok to call me a non-human!

    Manic – You stated that Shermer cleared up because he cited peer reviewed journals etc. He did not. He did not even refer to them. He was just wrong. Of course you wanted him to be right and so you just projected on to him what you wished he had done. Except he didn’t!

    I have also reflected a little on the Copson debate. He certainly did not clear up. It was probably a draw and it should not have been. The reason – he actually had little of substance to say and kept avoiding the question – and because he was so pleasant and it was my second debate that day – I let him get away with it. In actual fact when you listen to it, you realise that there was an awful lot of question dodging and nonsense – particularly when he could not give one example of something that was not either relative or absolute morality (when he had claimed there was). The NSS does advocate secular education only, it does offer a very optimistic view of human nature and it has no idea how to get an absolute morality. It was also very interesting that with only 10,000 members out of 65 million people (0.001% of the population) they insist that they have the right to tell the rest of us how to educate our children and run our society. The smugness and the arrogance is palpable.

    Anyway I am sure that you will not agree with this. But I leave you with my best wishes – and trust and pray that, like many of your fellow atheists, you will come to know Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour. (You do realise that this is happening more and more – yesterday and today I came across two more former atheists who have become Christians – it is wonderful to see this happening. I look forward to the day when Manic really is a preacher for the Truth!)…God bless.


  12. manicstreetpreacher Says:

    Fergus Gallagher replies to David Robertson

    He certainly did not clear up. It was probably a draw and it should not have been.

    OK, a draw then. Good that David is self-consistent – an “equal opportunities” delusional.

  13. manicstreetpreacher Says:

    MSP replies to Fergus Gallagher


    Hi Five!!

  14. manicstreetpreacher Says:

    Tommy replies to David Robertson


    Thanks for popping by. Next time would you please try and justify your apologetic assertions about the gospel writers from way back. You always come across as someone who is breezily confident that the facts are consistently on his side. That you seem so ill-informed about the authors of the gospels (and I’m referring to mainstream evangelical scholarship) seems a significant blip for someone in your position.

    Thanks too for the hugs and prayers wishing me into the Kingdom. Can’t speak for MSP but I used to preach on street corners in my holy days. Shouting in public to get the “lost” to believe the same things I did. I thought that I was engaged in one of the highest callings the creator of the universe had for his people. But it is wonderful to change one’s mind when you see how topsy-turvy the world according to Christendom is.

    From the other side,


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