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Global Atheist Convention 2018: who will speak?

I saw yesterday that the website for the Global Atheist Convention is announcing a brand new 2018 convention. The 2018 Global Atheist Convention: reason to hope. It will be held in Melbourne, Australia from February 9-11.

The title is intriguing: reason to hope. I’m not entirely sure what atheists have to share about hope, because ultimately atheism is a hopeless philosophy i.e. there is no individual, personal hope beyond my death. This is obviously a moot point because many atheists do claim to have hope (and this convention will obviously deal with that topic). So I am intrigued as to exactly what is the ‘hope’ spoken of here.

I thoroughly enjoyed the 2012 Global Atheist Convention. I am wondering who will speak at the 2018 convention?

Who would you like to see?

Personally I hope that the remaining three horsemen (Dawkins, Dennett and Harris) come. I wonder if Matt Dillahunty will get an invite? (Or others from the Unholy Trinity?) Personally I hope that he does.

Other well known atheists? Lawrence Krauss? PZ Myers? Dan Barker?

What about local speakers? Peter Singer, Jason Ball, Kylie Sturgess?

Which women will speak?

Will there be a comedy night like last time?

What issues will be addressed as the speakers provide reasons to hope?

I can’t wait for more details to be announced. It is sure to be a fascinating and stimulating convention.

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How Christopher Hitchens disagrees with Richard Carrier on the definition of a Christian

I listened to the recent Unbelievable? debate between Richard Carrier and Richard Weikart discussing the religious beliefs of Adolf Hitler in the episode, Was Hitler anti-Christian?

There is a lot of debate between Christians and atheists about what Hitler actually believed, so I enjoyed the discussion. It was a generally informative and well conducted.

Yet one serious point of disagreement between Weikart and Carrier was on the definition of what constituted a Christian. A lot of the Unbelievable? conversation revolved around this point because this is a crucial point in the debate. Its crucial because a definition of a Christian is necessary to determine if Hitler satisfied this and was indeed a true Christian.

Carrier described Hitler as being a follower of ‘positive Christianity’ a German nationalist form of Christianity. He rejects Weikart’s ‘narrow’ version of Christianity because it would exclude all sorts of other sects. Carrier acknowledges that ‘positive Christianity’ could be a perversion of the original teachings of Christianity, but because we could say that about many other Christian sects as well, means we should accept them as Christian!

Yet Carrier’s definition of Christian is so broad as Weikart rightly pointed out – even Muslims could be considered Christians, which becomes somewhat absurd (although I wasn’t entirely satisfied in Weikart’s definition of a Christian believer as accepting Jesus as divine and triune).

Hitchens to the rescue

As I listened to the debate, I wondered if Christopher Hitchens would have clarified the debate more accurately?

In an interview in 2009, Hitchens chided a more liberal ‘Christian’ Marilyn Sewell by stating:

I would say that if you don’t believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ and Messiah, and that he rose again from the dead and by his sacrifice our sins are forgiven, you’re really not in any meaningful sense a Christian.

I think Hitchens nails it.

His definition of a Christian is clear, succinct, and biblical. I think it’s clearer than Weikart’s because there is no necessary acceptance that he was divine. It’s also far more precise and less broad than than Carrier’s for a Muslim cannot accept this definition.

Given that Hitler did not believe Jesus rose again from the dead and by his sacrifice our sins are forgiven, according to Christopher Hitchens, Hitler – contrary to Carrier’s proposal – was not ‘in any meaningful sense a Christian’.

The Faith of Christopher Hitchens: unfortunately a sad spectacle

The Faith of Christopher Hitchens was launched earlier this year amid a storm of controversy. Author Larry Taunton had written what to some was “a beautifully written” book. Yet others decried the book, angry that the author suggest that Hitchens’ flirted with conversion – and others (seemingly misinformed) thought that Taunton proposed that Hitchens did convert.

I wasn’t quite sure what to make of all this. I know the author, Larry Taunton, and I quite like Larry. We agree on many things and I even helped promote and support a Fixed Point Foundation event. Before reading the book I trusted Larry and defended the book to some critics. But in order to defend the book with more credibility, I needed to read The Faith of Christopher Hitchens for myself. So I obtained a copy.

Unfortunately I was sorely disappointed. The book was not nearly as ‘beautifully written’ as I had anticipated or hoped. The book indeed could have been useful, beautiful and inspiring – Larry and Christopher did have some exchanges and a relationship worthy of further exploration and documentation. Yet unfortunately I found the book disappointing, irritating and even at times cringe-worthy. It was something of a sad spectacle when it could have been so much more.

A betrayal of a friendship

The most penetrating and accurate review of Taunton’s book was by David Frum, published in The Atlantic.

David neatly summed up many of my feelings about the book. His headline was apt: the betrayal of the faith of Christopher Hitchens.

Frum rightly points out Taunton’s persistent contempt of Hitchens, which at times felt cringe-worthy. I found the openness by which Taunton insulted his ‘friend’ (and Hitchens’ friends) surprising. He suggested that Hitchens celebrated, “misanthropy, vanity, and excesses of every kind”, he possessed “feelings of inflated self-importance”, his reading was “wide but not deep”, he was “an actor, a bluffer”, and he was an aspiring intellectual “snob”. One wonders what admirable qualities Taunton saw in his “friend” at all which made him worth befriending?

I felt embarrassed at times wondering how other friends and family closer to Hitchens would take these sweeping and savage character assessments from a man who spent relatively little time with Hitchens and knew him for only a comparatively fleeting moment. It seemed as though Taunton wrote with little consultation or consideration of the family of the now deceased Hitchens.

Another irritating feature of Taunton’s work (as Frum also points out) is, in stark contrast to how he characterises Hitchens, Taunton gives himself an ‘efflorescence of compliments’.

For example, Taunton shared where he and Hitchens usually met – in expensive restaurants. According to Taunton, Hitchens “disliked cheap restaurants and cheap liquor” (p.118). Taunton claims that he never ate so well when he was with Hitchens and adds a self compliment: “of course, I always paid for it, too”.

Amidst this Taunton ensures to share details about his own TV appearances, debates, books, and speaking engagements.

Taunton paints himself as a morally superior, caring, generous, brilliant Christian apologist and Hitchens as a rude, inconsistent, selfish, greedy, wavering drunk. There may be some truth to the differences in the characters of the two men, but it’s hard at times not to feel that Taunton’s work is bereft of the humility embodied by the leader Taunton follows. Perhaps some of the character aspersions directed at Hitchens could also be applied to the author himself?

It seems that Taunton was trying to write the book not so much about Hitchens, but as an apologetic for the Christian faith, using his relationship with Hitchens as a case study. This explains the constant attempts at diminishing Hitchens’ character and credibility, whilst Taunton incorporates a series of apologetic arguments and points to demonstrate his own credentials and to create a rounder intellectual defence against the edifice of Hitchens’ position.

Perhaps I have an overly idealised concept of friendship – but I do feel that in writing the book that he did and characterising Hitchens the way he did, Taunton has tragically betrayed the genuine and warm relationship he had.

Hitchens’ “Faith”: A good conspiracy theory, but was it genuine?

The heart of the book is about the so called ‘faith’ of Christopher Hitchens. It does seem strange to entitle a book about the ‘faith’ of a man the author makes clear never actually converted. What exactly Hitchens’ faith was is never really explained.

Taunton also sets up Hitchens’ ‘faith’ via a form of conspiracy theory by portraying Hitchens as an inconsistent hypocrite – one who presented a different persona in private and public – which renders counter argument almost impossible.

There is little doubt Taunton and Hitchens had fascinating conversations about religion and their Bible study on John 1 was intriguing and inspiring. Yet drawing the conclusions that Taunton did even with the evidence Taunton presented simply did not follow.

Taunton claims Hitchens had doubts, he was “weighing the cost of conversion” (p.164) and Christopher “was thinking deeply” on the Christian faith. (p.160) Yet even with what Taunton had written about their conversations, I didn’t get that impression that this was what Hitchens was doing at all. Indeed most of Taunton’s claims and conclusions are based on speculation ‘from a certain point of view’. As Frum acknowledges, Taunton “mistakes curiosity with assent”.

Furthermore, suggesting that the reason Hitchens’ failed to convert was lack of courage was somewhat insulting.

I was intrigued why Taunton never referred to Hitchens last book, Mortality. Taunton doesn’t engage with that it at all. Indeed, if Hitchens had doubts and was considering converting, then surely there would be at least some trace of these thoughts in that work? Yet instead Mortality is classic Hitchens – he maintains a persistent and passionate invective against religion. This book reveals no signs of wavering or ‘weighing the cost of conversion’ at all.

The ‘faith’ of Christopher Hitchens? He demonstrated no ‘faith’,

Hitchens said and did some surprising things

With this said, Hitchens did say and do some surprising things:  

He freely admitted to the evil of humanity (in contrast to some of his atheist friends).

His warm and friendly discussion of the Gospel of John with Larry. His admission that the offer of Jesus was ‘not without appeal to a dying man’ (p.169).

These are certainly somewhat surprising, but they do not indicate a wavering in his strident atheism. Indeed it appears that Taunton has misinterpreted Hitchens comment at the conclusion of their first Bible study that “God is not lacking for an able advocate in you, Larry” (p.132). Taunton appears to believe that Hitchens thought him genuinely persuasive and convincing. Yet it more likely appears that Hitchens’ comment was a playful dismissal of Taunton’s attempts at converting him. Wouldn’t this be more consistent with Hitchens’ character as an affable, friendly thoughtful well-read public intellectual?

A much better book: ‘The friendship of Christopher Hitchens’

These surprising actions and statements could have formed the basis of a better (albeit shorter) book. There is no question that Taunton and Hitchens had some kind of warm friendship. Yes, it’s an unlikely friendship in many ways and a better book would have explored this friendship and demonstrated that people of radically opposing viewpoints could still enjoy a civil discussion. It could have explored how one of the most famous atheists explored the Gospel of John and Bible study was not beneath or beyond anyone. Yet it tried to do more, claim more and unfortunately by doing so, actually says far less.

A sad spectacle

On page 148 Taunton recounts a story which I couldn’t help feeling was ironic. Taunton shares an episode after the two debated in Billings, Montana.

After a quick cigarette on the sidewalk near the backstage door, he went back inside to meet his fans and sign their books. There was something sad about it all. I had the unsettling feeling that these weren’t people who cared about him in the least. Instead, they seemed like a bunch of groupies who wanted to have their photo taken with a famous but dying man, so that one day they could show it to their buddies and say, ‘I knew him before he died’. It was a sad spectacle. (p.148)

It’s hard not to see Taunton’s own book in the same vein. Whilst they certainly had a genuine friendship, it’s hard not to think that Taunton has been an opportunist. He’s been given a genuine relationship with Hitchens. But it’s hard not to see how he’s exploited these trips for greatest gain to raise his own profile as a defender of the Christian faith and a publishing opportunity. An opportunity for Taunton to flaunt that ‘I knew him before he died’.

I like Larry, I have a lot of time for Larry, I’ve even watched a football game (Australian style) with Larry, but I really didn’t enjoy this book. It could have been so much better, so much more enjoyable, but unfortunately I felt in the end it was a slightly sad spectacle.

Unbelievable comments about philosophy

The recent Unbelievable? debate between Tim Keller and Jeremy Rodell contained an almost unbelievable comment on the place of philosophy in the modern world.

Unbelievable? is a weekly podcast and radio show hosted by Justin Brierley. Justin invites a Christian and a non-Christian to discuss various aspects of faith and life (I’ve interviewed Justin about the show on my own podcast here). A couple of weeks ago Justin hosted American Christian and ‘pastor to the skeptics’ Tim Keller and atheist Jeremy Rodell (dialogue officer for the British Humanist Association).

They were discussing the question: Do humans make sense without God?

The discussion covered topics such as the definition of ‘secular’, reflection on the extent to which  (if at all) atheism is a ‘faith’ position, discussion on the origin and type of values (the moral argument), and discussion on identity and hope.

An unbelievable comment

I tended to enjoy the debate and it provided much food for thought and further discussion. Yet the debate took a surprising turn right at the end (around the 1 hour 8 minute to 1 hour 10 minute). Jeremy Rodell made a surprising and almost unbelievable comment.

When it came to sharing final thoughts Rodell asserted that a person should base what you believe on evidence and ‘I don’t see any evidence for Tim’s worldview’.

However the problem with Rodell’s statement is that whilst it is intuitively appealing, it is actually philosophically flawed. The claim that you should base what you believe on evidence is self defeating, because this assertion itself is not based on evidence. Where is the evidence for that statement? That claim cannot be demonstrated through ‘evidence’, it must be assumed.

This claim is similar to the assertion that science is the only form of legitimate knowledge. This is also a self-defeating statement because that statement is itself not a scientific claim, demonstrating that a form of ‘truth’ can be determined outside of science.

After Keller and Brierley responded to Rodell correctly outlining the inconsistency of his position, Rodell made an unbelievable comment in response. He dismissed the philosophical challenge of his statement by saying,

That’s where philosophy doesn’t help us live our lives.

I echoed Keller’s response at this point which was:

Wow!

Did he really say that?

When the philosophy underlying his worldview was pointed out as flawed, his response is to propose that well, “that’s where philosophy doesn’t help us live our lives”.

The great philosopher (ironically) Socrates  states that the unexamined life isn’t worth living. Unfortunately for Rodell, it appears he hasn’t quite examined the livability nor philosophical robustness of his own philosophical assumptions.

I was genuinely surprised to hear that statement and attitude and it raises several questions:

What is the value of philosophy?

Philosophy is foundational to any attempt to gain knowledge, understand the world and discern truth. We all adopt a philosophical position (even if we’re unaware of it – or wish to ignore it). So what does Rodell think is the value of philosophy at all?

It would appear that Rodell thinks it’s value is low.

Is Rodell (and this type of atheist) truly rational? 

Surely robust philosophy is necessary to under-gird any attempt to be rational? It would hard to say one is ‘rational’ yet adopt a position which is philosophically confused. Surely a rationally consistent position would not incorporate a clear self-contradiction or self-defeating statement?

Indeed, it is hard to believe that Rodell’s position is rational and unfortunately Rodell’s dismissal of philosophy when it challenges his position, seems intellectually lazy and naive.

Is it really philosophy that has failed us? 

Rodell is certainly correct in asserting that something has failed us. Yet rather than asserting that this is philosophy doesn’t help us in our day to day lives, perhaps it’s Rodell’s naive evidentialism that fails us? Due to the inconsistencies and self-contradictions apparent in Rodell’s position, it would appear that his claim to live life only by evidence, is truly the thing that doesn’t help us.

In light of these thoughts and questions, it seems that Rodell’s comment about philosophy is truly unbelievable!

So…what is love?

So…what is Love?

Love is the ‘supreme emotion’ but what exactly is it? This is a surprisingly difficult question to answer. Is love chemicals in the brain – or something more? The Bible claims that God is love – but what does that even mean? Can atheism fully account for the power and of the supreme emotion of love or does God cohere better with our experience of the world?

I will be speaking about this fascinating, personal and enigmatic topic at an event in Melbourne (Australia) next week:

For Your Consideration

Friday 11th November

14A Milfay Ave, Moonee Ponds VIC 3039, Australia

Doors open at 6, Talks start at 7:30
Drinks Snacks Fire-Pit provided
This is For Your Consideration…

I would love your thoughts? What should I say? What should I not say?

Keen to hear what you think love is…

Debate: The biblical account of the Canaanite ‘genocide’ was justified

Recently I participated in a debate on the topic of Old Testament violence with atheist Matthew McArthur. The debate was stimulated over a Facebook conversation and the evening ended up being a friendly exchange.

Old Testament violence is an unpleasant topic, yet it is in the Bible. I am not one to ‘cherry pick’ and to pick and choose what topics to believe and what not to believe. So I defended the notion. You can watch the debate and let me know what you think. The debate is in two parts, the first part being our opening statements and then our rebuttals.

Then we sat down together and conversed with excellent moderating from James Fodor.

Was Jesus’ body reburied?

On Friday night I participated in a debate on the resurrection of Jesus with atheist James Fodor (President Melbourne University Secular Society). We were debating what best explains the historical facts surrounding Jesus’ resurrection. It was a well natured and thought-provoking event (and quite well attended as well – which was pleasing).

I argued that there were several historical facts surrounding Jesus’ resurrection which require explanation. Refreshingly (and perhaps somewhat controversially in some atheistic circles) James did not deny any of these facts a priori.

The first of these facts that require explanation was that on the Sunday morning after Jesus’ crucifixion women found Jesus’ tomb empty. Most intriguingly (and surprisingly) James agreed  with this fact – that on the Sunday morning women did indeed find the tomb empty.

Whilst we agreed on the fact, we disagreed on its interpretation. James asserted that the women found the tomb empty because the body had been reburied, whereas I asserted that the women found the tomb empty because Jesus had been raised from the dead.

So which interpretation is more plausible?

The reburial thesis in more detail

James argued that after sundown on the Sabbath, Joseph of Arimathea reburied the body in another tomb (or taken to a common grave) without the knowledge of the disciples or the women. Hence when the women arrived on the Sunday morning, the tomb was empty.

I suggest that reburial is completely implausible. I argue that the resurrection becomes the most reasonable because of the failure of any naturalistic theory to properly account for all the facts.

Assessing the reburial thesis

The reburial hypothesis utterly fails for the following reasons.

  • There is no evidence of any reburial. There is no positive evidence to suggest a reburial, e.g. archaeological or testimonial evidence from any source that Jesus’ body was reburied. No early counter-apologists or theorists have ever proposed reburial. The earliest alternative explanation for the empty tomb was that the disciples stole the body. There was no early attempt from opponents to suggest that Joseph reburied Jesus elsewhere. In John 20:2 Mary Magdalene assumes reburial because this would be the natural response to an empty tomb (this also shows how unexpected resurrection was). The key question remains why she and the early church didn’t continue to believe in reburial (or theft)?  Particularly given that in the same narrative, John records the disciples recognising the grave clothes that Jesus had been buried in (John 20:6-7).
  • Isn’t the empty tomb evidence of reburial? James suggested that the empty tomb was evidence for reburial, but this assumes the very thing you’re trying to prove. The empty tomb is the fact we’re trying to explain – we can’t automatically assume it’s evidence for reburial. An empty tomb is equally convincing evidence of a resurrection (unless your presuppositions drive you elsewhere).
  • The unlikely silence of Joseph of Arimathea. This proposal assumes that Joseph of Arimathea moved the body and told nobody. This is implausible for several reasons:
    • Joseph was a believer and would have been known to Jesus’ followers. If he had reburied the body and inadvertently forgotten to tell anyone, it seems inconceivable that the early community wouldn’t have gone to ask him where he had moved it.
    • It appears Joseph was known to the authors of the Gospels (and also likely Nicodemus as well who appears with Joseph in John’s account). The fact that Joseph is named in the narrative suggests that Joseph was known to the recipients of the Gospels (as was Nicodemus) as well as the authors i.e. the testimony would have been connected with Joseph. It appears likely that the authors of the Gospels would have consulted with Joseph and he would have been able to explain if he reburied the body.
    • Joseph would still have been a follower of Jesus when the Gospels were published. The Gospels were published some 30+ years after the events and Joseph would have still been a believer (given what the Gospels say about him). If Joseph knew that the body was elsewhere, it is unlikely that he would be a believer in the resurrection and still a Christian believer.
    • Jesus’ followers would have wanted to give Jesus a proper burial. It seems completely unlikely that the body would have moved and his friends and followers wouldn’t have been informed – so they could finish the burial processes (precisely what the women came to do on the Sunday morning).
  • It was the Sabbath (and a particularly holy one). Jesus was buried on the Friday afternoon because the Saturday was the Passover – a particularly holy Sabbath. Joseph was a member of the Council of the Sanhedrin and would have been particularly concerned for ritual cleanliness and hence he would not defile himself by carrying a dead body on the the Sabbath (explicitly forbidden under Jewish law). It defies belief that on one of the most important Jewish holidays a leading member of the Council will stagger around carrying a dead body with 30 kilos of spices. Now James recognised this weakness in his theory and hence he proposed that instead Joseph would have waited until after sundown – after the conclusion of the Sabbath – to perform the reburial. Yet this fails to account for the next point…
  • It would have been dark. Even if Joseph waited until after sundown to move the body to be ritually clean, it would have been dark. Ancient cities were dangerous places at night and there were no street lights. It is completely implausible that a respected Jew at the conclusion of particularly holy Sabbath would go out in the dark, stumbling around with a body and 30 kilos of spices searching for a new tomb when there was no pressing need to rebury the body. Even if he had to rebury the body in haste (which is still unlikely) he could have waited until Sunday morning at first light, and that’s precisely the reason that the women went to anoint the body on the Sunday morning at this time as this was the earliest opportunity they had. If Joseph needed to rebury the body there would have been no need to move the body until the Sunday morning – he would have expected the body to still be there!
  • There is no motivation for Joseph to move the body. Why would Joseph move the body and why the rush and why would he not tell anyone? No-one was anticipating a resurrection, so there would have been no reason to move the body quickly.
  • The Jews cared for their dead (even for dead criminals). The Jews would have wanted to properly care for their dead. Even criminals were allowed a proper burial (even those buried in common graves), it seems incredulous that the body would have been moved and no-one cared to find it and wanted to carry out the necessary period of mourning, especially given that Joseph was a friend of the disciples of Jesus!
  • There were guards at the tomb. Jesus was tried for crimes against the state and hence it is hardly plausible that they would have allowed someone to move the body in the middle of the night. Matthew records guards placed by the tomb to prevent precisely such actions. How Joseph overcame the guards in the middle of the night to simply rebury the body defies clear explanation.

Conclusion

In many respects it appears that James’ theory is a modified version of ‘the disciples stole the body’. He argues that ‘Joseph (a disciple) took the body and didn’t tell anyone’. Yet for the reasons outlined above, it seems implausible that Joseph (or anybody) reburied the body of Jesus.

Hence we are still left with the historical fact that James recognises of an empty tomb. Given the utter implausibility that the body was reburied, I wonder if James will accept the other alternative to explain the empty tomb?

A debate: Jesus’ resurrection best explains the historical facts

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Christianity stands or falls on the historical events surrounding that first Easter. If there was no resurrection then the Christian message is false. What best explains the happenings on that first Easter morning? Was there a resurrection? Hallucinations? A mistake?

Join us on the eve of Easter for a respectful debate between atheist James Fodor (President Melbourne University Secular Society) and Christian Robert Martin (Melbourne Director City Bible Forum) on this most important of topics.

7pm Friday 18th March

Coopers Inn (Level 1, 282 Exhibition St)

Cost: $10 per ticket

REGISTER HERE

All profits from the evening (after room hire and promotional costs are recovered) will go to help ‘Deworm the world‘ an initiative which will offer enormous benefits for children in the developing world.


About our speakers:

James Fodor is President of Melbourne University Secular Society. He regularly engages issues relating to Christianity, belief and atheism and he blogs at Godless Theist.

Robert Martin is Melbourne Director of City Bible Forum. He regularly speaks and writes about Christianity, culture and atheism and blogs at Atheist Forum.


This is a joint event between City Bible Forum and Melbourne University Secular Society.

The big surprise about an evening with Sam Harris

Last weekend I attended An Evening with Sam Harris hosted by Think Inc at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre. A packed room of at least 1000 people heard one of the ‘four horsemen of the non-apocalypse’. I have read a number of Harris’ works and engaged extensively with his works and I always enjoy hearing high profile speakers live, so I was quite looking forward to the evening.

I’ve collected some of my thoughts in this review and I must confess the evening was mixed. There were some excellent moments and other parts which were, slow or well, even boring.

1. A quality host makes for a quality night. I must confess I was a little surprised when the evening began and it became clear that Sam Harris wasn’t going to give a presentation. I was expecting a similar format to that of the Holy Trinity Down Under. Instead Harris was interviewed for an hour by comedian and former Project host, Charlie Pickering. Pickering was an excellent pick as host. He was knowledgeable, quick witted and provided real energy to the discussion (which was unfortunately needed at times).

I particularly appreciated his comment after playing a clip of former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott speaking about the massive problems in Islam which required a ‘reformation and an enlightenment’. Pickering quipped, ‘it’s ironic that a Jesuit-Catholic was calling for a Reformation’. Unfortunately the cleverness of Pickering’s observation was lost on the mostly atheist audience.

2. Sam needed a sleep. Throughout the evening Sam Harris seemed tired. He is naturally quietly spoken, but during the evening I felt this was accentuated. He was rarely animated and despite the best efforts of Pickering the conversation was at times technical and even boring. Harris speaks with great precision but the conversation lacked consistent energy and a solid hour dealing with philosophical topics can be a little wearying. Given the price for the evening (the cheapest tickets were $79) it might have been wise to let Harris have a couple more days resting up.

Moreover, this was perhaps where Pickering needed to engage more contemporary and personal issues in the conversation. This was the main weakness of Pickering’s approach. The great opportunity of an ‘evening with…’ is to get behind the scenes, to hear things that you couldn’t otherwise glean from a person’s writings. Yet I felt that Harris just shared what he had written in his books and hence for the most part I felt that Harris shared little that I hadn’t already read in his writings or knew. This made for a disappointing experience.

With that said, the most interesting, and engaging, part of the conversation was the opening discussion on gun ownership.

3. Gun ownership is like a religion. I was surprised when Pickering opened the conversation with questions on guns. The ethics of gun control is a fascinating source of division within the atheist community (often between North Americans and the rest of the world), and Harris himself has been at the heart of such division e.g. see this piece. Hence this was a great opportunity for genuine controversy and disagreement. Harris admitted that he got hate mail from both sides!

Harris made the fascinating admission that ‘gun ownership’ to some was like a religion, ‘gun ownership is their central identity’. Harris estimated that there might be around 1 million adherents to this ‘religion’. I agree with Harris’ perspective that gun ownership is like a religion. Interestingly this admission demonstrates that atheism and religion are not binary opposites (as I outline here). Perhaps it would be worthwhile to ask how dangerous the ‘gun ownership religion’ might be?

4. The irony and inconsistency of denying free will. The most technical aspect of the conversation surrounded the philosophy and science of free will. Pickering pushed and asked excellent questions to unpack some of Harris’ contention that we do not have free will. Harris maintained that all we have to explain human behaviour are our genes and environment. He contented that before making a “choice”, ‘we know neuro-physiologically your mind is made up’.

This naturally led to questions of the nature of fatalism and determinism. Harris rejected fatalism suggesting that we still have a choice, ‘there is no sense of inevitability, but mystery’. I wonder how many atheists are satisfied with the acceptance that our ‘choice’ is simply a ‘mystery’?

Despite Harris’ protestations, his conclusion that choice resides in some form of ‘mystery’ undermines his proposal to deny free will. If our decisions are simply the result of our genes and environment – then it’s hard to not see determinism sliding into fatalism. The slide to fatalism represents that we are just dancing to the tune of DNA in a giant system.

Harris’ proposal also fundamentally undermines the notion that there are such people as ‘freethinkers’. In Harris’ view there are no such thinkers – hence some of the language used in atheist gatherings should be modified. Perhaps to ‘gene and environment reactors’?

The assertion to deny free will had many and enormous implications for the later conversations about the ‘goodness’ and value of alternative cultural systems (notably Islam) – the irony of which seemed to be lost on all participants.

Why are we so critical of ‘bad’ people? Why are we critical of ‘sub-optimal’ decisions that affect human well-being? Why are we so critical of a man who kills his daughter out of shame because she’s raped?

Harris’ response to this particular scenario was, ‘what are the chances that represents a peak of human suffering?’. Harris suggested that this act should be ‘unthinkable, a ghastly misuse of human life’. Yet if you deny ‘free will’ then this man was just doing what his genes and environment told him. it plainly wasn’t unthinkable. It becomes hard to raise any objections against the man’s moral responsibility or utility. Once free will is denied, it seems impossible to avoid moral relativism.

Why does Harris think this doesn’t represents a ‘peak’ of human suffering (hence a morally correct decision)? Because his genes and environment told him.

Why does the the man who kills his daughter think this is the right thing to do (hence a morally correct decision)? Because his genes and environment told him.

Who is right?

Ultimately it’s the one with the most power to coerce the other (and that’s exactly what their genes and environment led them to do).

Without free will there can be no moral responsibility. Without moral responsibility the critiques on Islam and other ideologies lose force. Just as you can’t lock up hurricanes, how can we then critique or lock up any ‘false’ ideologies or valleys in the moral landscape. The moral landscape is reduced to a sea of DNA and we sail along wherever it takes us.

5. Be careful when criticising dogma. After a long period discussing guns, psychedelic drugs, free will, ethics and the power of ideas, we finally got to what I was anticipating – a forthright criticism of religion and theism.

Harris responded to the critique that some atheists are just as fundamentalist and dogmatic as religions. He thought this was a ‘cute move’ which ‘goes over smoothly’, but suggested that it was a totally false analogy.

It was false because ‘there is no principle in “not being convinced” as accepting claims religiously without evidence and argument.’ He proposed that there are ‘thousands’ of dead gods that ‘every’ Christians and Muslims reject without paying them any attention. Hence all the atheist needs to just reject them all.

Harris’ argument appears to be built on the assumption that religiously held beliefs are all held without evidence and argument – which is a dogmatic assertion of many atheists believe – ironically contrary to the evidence [the reasons and evidence for theistic belief may be bad, but they are still based on reason and evidence]. Similarly the idea that because Christians reject all other gods means that we can reject all gods appears to justify wholesale communal ignorance i.e. because a Christian rejects Thor with no justification, then an atheist can justify rejecting all gods. Where is the critical enquiry?

His ‘argument’ rests on ignorance, laziness, assertion and ironically dogma. So rather than demonstrating how the analogy was ‘totally false’, Harris seemingly demonstrated its truth.

Moreover, throughout the evening Harris was critical of ‘dogma’. yet when you deny free will and with it free thinking, how is impossible to avoid the conclusion that everyone believes their own ‘dogma’ simply based on their genes and environment?

6. The underdog steals the show. I confess I’d not heard much of Maajid Nawaz before the evening. Yet, the dynamic of the evening changed remarkably when he came onstage. He brought energy and rhetorical flourishes that I had expected from Harris. Nawaz really did steal the show. Harris’ comments seemed pedestrian and less incisive than Nawaz who engaged the questions with thought and intellect as he engaged a fascinating discussion on the nature of being liberal and the ‘regressive’ left.

If the ‘clap-o-meter’ (the somewhat annoying tendency for the audience to clap seemingly profound statements) was any barometer of audience engagement then the last half of the evening was far more engaging than the first (where Harris by himself rarely got an applause).

This was the big (and pleasant) surprise about an evening with Sam Harris.

7. Where were the women (again)? Like many other atheist ‘rallies’ that I’ve attended there was a certain irony in the critiques of Nawaz and Harris and other questioners about religious misogyny. With no female stage presence, and a predominantly male audience and only one female questioner amongst a whole line of men, the critique loses some force. I recognise the challenge in organising an event when your main speakers are male, but there seemed no self-awareness of the irony of this critique. Again, this event demonstrated that modern atheism is profoundly dominated by young white males.

Overall. The evening was mixed. It was nice to hear Sam Harris in the flesh, but unfortunately he didn’t really share much that I hadn’t already read or heard. The undoubted highlight was the conversation, dynamism and insights of Maajid Nawaz alongside the wit and humour of Charlie Pickering. Sam Harris himself was well, a bit disappointing.

 

Is Iceland the atheist paradise?

Iceland

I saw this meme shared by a couple of atheist Facebook pages today including Atheist Alliance International and Anti-Theist Propaganda.

As you can see it proposes Iceland as some kind of paradise. Iceland has no army, they clamp down on corruption, a strong economy and low crime – a paradise indeed, built on atheism.

Yet a little bit of research demonstrates that these claims seem to fall apart.

1. Iceland has no army. 

I’m a little unsure how this makes Iceland being a better place to live. Perhaps I’m missing something, but I’m not sure how having no army makes a country secure and safe from any foreign threats? If anything it would make a country more of a target for any potential rogue state.

2. Iceland’s economy is booming.

Iceland’s economy may be growing at the moment, but this growth has been somewhat precarious. This article from Fortune magazine shows that Iceland’s economy suffered a ‘spectacular collapse’ in 2008, which precipitated the European Debt Crisis. Before this collapse the Icelandic economy was in the grip of a property bubble of ‘unmitigated proportion’. The high growth of Iceland is somewhat artificial as it’s harder to buy imported goods which give an ‘artificial boost’ to the local economy and restricting what locals can buy.

More recently the Icelandic economy has recovered but the OECD describes its recovery as ‘solid’, not quite the optimistic ‘booming’ that the meme implies. Real GDP has only just recently passed the peak pre-GFC.

So I would suggest that it’s a bit misleading to say that the economy has been ‘booming’

3. Iceland has an atheist majority.

This is the most contentious of claims. The official statistics of Iceland indicate nearly 23,000 people or about 12.5% of the population identify as “Other and not specified” and “No religious organisation”. This contrasts with the number of people identifying with The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Iceland – 73.76% of the population.

It’s certainly possible that most of the people identifying with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Iceland are atheist, but that would seem to be a strange conclusion to draw.

There is no question that Iceland has a large convinced atheist population, but to suggest that it’s a majority seems to be misleading at best and without justification.

Conclusion

There is nothing wrong with creating memes which convey simple truths in pithy and memorable ways. But I think it’s more important to create memes which actually reflect truthful statements.