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Science in the Soul: stimulating in spite of Safran

Last night I attended the event in Melbourne organised by Think Inc,  Science in the Soul: Richard Dawkins. It was a stimulating and enjoyable night as John Safran was in conversation with Professor Richard Dawkins in front of a packed house in Melbourne. I thought I’d type up some of my thoughts and review the night.

Great speaker + big crowd = good night out. I really enjoyed the night. It’s great to attend a well organised event with a very high profile international speaker. There was a big crowd who were eager to hear from Dawkins and he got a rousing reception. It was great to hear the man ‘in the flesh’ and see him live. Dawkins certainly offered some provocative opinions at times and it made for a stimulating night.

Dawkins is a brilliant rhetorician. I felt that the highlights of the evening were when Dawkins read excerpts from his new book, Science in the Soul. These excerpts were classic Dawkins, full of colour, vivid images and razor sharp insights into science, religion and atheism. He read several including a viciously insightful piece on ‘Thoriology’ and ‘a-Thoriology’ – commenting on what he would argue are meaningless discussions on different versions of theology, based on the same baseless myths. He also shared a letter he wrote to Prince Charles and also a dedication to Christopher Hitchens. These were all very engaging and were a great advertorial for his new book.

The evening was more interesting when not talking about science. I felt the evening got off to a very slow start. The conversation with Safran started with discussion of Dawkins tie and the mating habits of peacocks. Then we talked about the origin of natural selection theory and some rather dry discussion on Pterodactyls and a marsupial glider based on a couple of photos from the natural history museum. Perhaps it’s because Dawkins is a bit of a scientific generalist, but this discussion felt a little dry, technical and boring. Dawkins seemed to lack depth of insight or fluency in conversation on theses topics. It was once we left discussion of ‘science’ and moved into topics like religion and atheism that the energy in the conversation picked up. By the end and the audience Q&A the event was humming and I didn’t want it to stop.

Safran kept it superficial and disjointed. Unfortunately I felt that John Safran was a very poor choice as conversation partner. Safran didn’t add much from a technical side – his knowledge of science was pretty ordinary. He missed opportunities to go into any depth and often asked questions which didn’t flow at all from the previous topic of conversation. E.g. we got into an interesting discussion about religion and culture – i.e. how many people actually do believe the tenets of the Christian faith. Then Safran followed this up with a question asking Dawkins how old he was when he was agitated about religion? Which was followed by a question about exorcisms!

Safran played a video by Ray Comfort on bananas which added very little, other than fodder for a quick moments ridicule. It also unfortunately reinforced the idea that Dawkins actually does only attack ‘low hanging fruit’ so to speak.

I wanted to like Safran, and he had an easy style, but in the end, unfortunately I felt he detracted from the night.

Education is the key, but we’ll avoid the really hard questions. Dawkins repeatedly emphasised how important education and critical thinking were to the improvement of society and the eradication of religion. Yet I found it intriguing that despite extolling these things, Dawkins failed to answer (nor perhaps even understand) some of the hardest questions given to him. His answer to an audience question on free will and determinism was: ‘I hate the free will question and I won’t answer it’. I was surprised and disappointed. He never articulated why he wouldn’t answer it. Does he not actually have an opinion on it? Surely one must have an opinion on this, because it’s such an important and significant question (particularly for a naturalist).

I was similarly disappointed that he failed to really answer (or perhaps understand) what I thought was the best audience question of the night. The question referred to a debate between Sam Harris and Sean Carroll on morality and asked Dawkins if an evolutionary case could be made for moral realism or anti-realism. This was a very sharp question and I was literally on the edge of my seat – how would Dawkins combine moral theory with evolutionary biology? Yet again, I was sorely disappointed, Dawkins seemed to not really understand the question and seemed to try to evade the question as quickly as possible.

I felt it a shame that the most stimulating and thoughtful ‘intellectual’ questions were not even attempted at being answered by an intellectual extolling the value of education.

Nothing really new from Dawkins – except one really interesting thing. Much of Dawkins’ comments on religion and atheism were not new. I’d heard many of his arguments and ideas (though some seemed new to the audience). He spoke about the value of understanding reality, was critical of avoiding explanation by saying ‘God did it’ and continued his vindictiveness against Abrahamic religions – accusing them of being ‘petty’ (although precisely why they’re petty is unclear). Yet Dawkins did say something quite interesting at this point, in that if he were to pick a religion, he would go with a native North American religion. He thought it had a more majestic sense of wonder at the universe – which was intriguing, particularly as the Psalmist extols the wonder of the starry host by claiming that the ‘heavens declare the glory of God’ (Psalm 19:1) – which seemed to be what Dawkins claimed to do when looking up at the Milky Way. I was still intrigued that Dawkins was attracted to native North American religion.

Did Dawkins also undermine naturalism? I was intrigued by several statements that Dawkins made which seemed to undermine his naturalism – i.e. where everything is explicable by purely natural processes. He seemed to imply that everything ‘wasn’t’ completely explained by naturalism (this is related to the arguments from consciousness – i.e. of how consciousness can arise from non-consciousness). Here are the inconsistencies:

a) Look to the future. Dawkins claimed that one of the unique elements of humans is that they had the ability to look to the future i.e. take steps to stop being extinct. Then he admitted that natural selection had no foresight. So – if humans have evolved simply as the result of natural selection – how can this be? How can we have something that natural selection can’t do?

b) Darwinian society. Dawkins admitted that Darwinianism was red in tooth and claw and that a Darwinian society is not a society we would like to live – natural selection is brutal. But haven’t humans evolved simply as the result of Darwinian natural selection? If we don’t like it, why is that? It seems to be biting the very hand that feeds us and undermining the very same idea that Dawkins called perhaps ‘the greatest idea ever’.

c) SETI. Dawkins commented on the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence (SETI) and said that one of the ways to find intelligence is through prime numbers. The reason for this is that we could identify intelligence through a ‘non-biological source’. However if humanity is the result of natural biological processes, then surely things like prime numbers do come from a biological source i.e. us. Which means that Dawkins has undermined biology as the sole explanation of humanity (and intelligence).

d) Meaning of life. Dawkins was asked a question about the meaning of life. He said that the biological meaning of life was ‘reproduction’. Then he said that we can now go beyond this to other meanings, e.g. musical, literary, scientific etc, but again, if we are created by biological processes, how can we transcend a purely biological meaning? It would seem that pure naturalism fails again.

e) Progress. Dawkins also made a point about we have made ‘progress’ in a variety of areas, despite people like Donald Trump, Dawkins suggests that things are moving in the right direction. But the very concept of progress is antithetical to naturalism. We can speak of change, but never ‘progress’ as this smuggles in a telos. Under naturalism, there is never a telos – the watchmaker is blind – so why speak of ‘progress’? This sounds more like a Christian idea of time moving towards a certain end point! Again – Dawkins unwittingly undermines his naturalism.

These arguments in many ways are predicated on biological determinism (which Sam Harris articulates) – perhaps this is the reason Dawkins didn’t want to answer the question on free will.

In the end – let’s talk about reality. Dawkins closed in a fitting way by answering a question about the literary nature of religion – could religion provide meaning ‘just as a story’? Dawkins concluded, that you ‘can’t get away with it’. Religion makes claims about the universe and reality and he disagrees. Here we are vintage Dawkins – as a scientist he is interested in claims that are either scientifically true or not.

The evening stimulated us all to think about these questions – science, the universe, God, religion and reality – hence it was a fitting way to end a fascinating evening.

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John Safran ≠ Lawrence Krauss

I registered for the upcoming Think Inc. event Science in the Soul, which will be in Melbourne this coming Saturday night. It was to be a conversation between Lawrence Krauss and Richard Dawkins. I was really looking forward to the event.

However, recently I received an email about this event from the organisers Think Inc:

Important Announcement: Science in the Soul Melbourne

This is a reminder that Lawrence Krauss will no longer be joining the Richard Dawkins: Science in the Soul and John Safran will continue the tour with Richard in his place.

I read the opening paragraph and was quite shocked. A reminder? I was unaware that Lawrence Krauss was no longer a part of the tour. This was the first I’d heard of it (and I’d had my ticket booked for some time).

I know that Lawrence Krauss had been under public pressure in recent months following allegations of sexual misbehaviour. So I was wondering what Krauss would do with this very public tour with Richard Dawkins given the shadow cast by these allegations. I’m not going to comment much on whether or not Krauss should have gone ahead with the tour (I don’t know enough about the allegations, but given the nature of the allegations, it was probably wise to stay out of the public space for a while). Yet I was not told anything by the event organisers until this email – which was apparently a reminder, but I don’t recall any previous direct communication.

I searched on Think Inc’s Facebook page and discovered a post on March 8th which announced:

Think Inc. wish to advise that Lawrence Krauss has stepped down from the Science In The Soul shows in Australia and New Zealand this May. The ‘Science In The Soul’ shows will continue with Richard Dawkins with a special guest co-host announcement forthcoming.

That is fair enough, but even though I follow Think Inc. on Facebook (and am a reasonably frequent user), I missed this announcement. I would have thought that an email to all people who had bought tickets (and spent quite a lot of money on them) would have been a proper courtesy to inform of the significant change to the advertised event. Perhaps Think could have offered a refund or revision of the terms of the original event?

I can appreciate that it would be difficult for Krauss to appear, but a clear and quick email notification of the change to ticket holders would have been much appreciated (and sufficient).

So when the email announcing John Safran as the host with Dawkins I must confess I felt quite disappointed. I was disappointed, not just about the manner of the way it was announced, but in the choice of Safran himself. Safran has his strengths and some interesting things to add. But Krauss is a world leading scientist and author of popular books on science and public engagement of science, whereas, a friend of mine described Safran as ‘a clown’ after his appearance on Q&A in 2011.

Safran is not anywhere in the same league as Lawrence Krauss. So it really has diminished the attractiveness of the event.

I can appreciate that it is difficult to get a replacement for someone like Krauss, but perhaps choosing an eminent scientist to converse with Dawkins, perhaps a local scientist, or a science educator?

I am willing to change my mind, but I must confess, I’m not overly enthusiastic about Safran on stage. I can see why he has been chosen, he has some public profile, done a couple of documentaries in the ‘religion and God’ space. But he hasn’t really done much in the way of science and I’m not sure how the chemistry will go with him and Dawkins. Dawkins is passionate about science and doesn’t suffer fools lightly, I’m not sure how he’l enjoy a conversation with Safran. Perhaps I have missed something about Safran that makes him a good choice? I’d be happy to be persuaded otherwise, I suppose I’ll find out on Saturday night.

I probably would still have gone to the event even if they had offered a full refund. I will probably still be stimulated by the event on Saturday night.

I don’t want to be too much of a whinger (though this post has a bit of a ‘rant’ feel about it) – I am still looking forward to seeing Dawkins (though I’m not overly excited about hearing John Safran – but I am willing to change my mind).  But this whole experience has left me with a slightly sour taste given the expense of this event and the way in which this significant change in line-up has been handled.

 

No hope for the Global Atheist Convention: what went wrong?

The 2018 Global Atheist Convention, Reason to Hope, has been cancelled due to lack of interest. This is obviously a major blow and disappointment to the organisers, the Atheist Foundation of Australia, particularly after such successful conventions in 2010 and 2012.

Whilst disappointing, I am not surprised by this decision. I think that several things went wrong in the planning of this convention.

1. Cost

I received an email just before it was cancelled saying that unless 700 tickets were sold in the next couple of days the convention would be cancelled. Given the average ticket price, this amounted to an estimated $200,000 of income that was required in a short space of time. This would indicate a serious miscalculation in the budgeting process for this event.

The 2012 Global Atheist Convention was priced at a premium, but that event included many of the top popular atheist speakers in the world including the “four horsemen” of the anti-religious apocalypse: Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens (he was still alive when he was announced as a speaker, but died before the convention).

That event was priced at a premium but this was justified given the calibre and appeal of the speakers. Yet unfortunately the speakers chosen for the 2018 convention did not have the same appeal and hence did not justify similar premium pricing. The 2018 prices were based on the 2012 Convention, but given the large difference in quality of the ‘product’, the high prices were unjustified. Many people cited cost as a key reason to not attend the convention.

2. Speaker choice

Related to this was probably the key reason the convention failed was the choice of speakers.

The 2012 convention was a success because it gathered the most popular atheist speakers in the world at that time together. It was an almost unprecedented line-up. which included Sam Harris, Lawrence Krauss, Peter Singer, Daniel Dennett, AC Grayling and PZ Myers – all of whom were not included in the 2018 event. Another potential drawcard and star of the more recent AFA Unholy Trinity DownUnder tour of 2015, Matt Dillahunty, was absent. Curiously Aron Ra also from that Unholy Trinity tour and not Dillahunty was invited to speak even though Dillahunty has a much bigger profile and following (and in my view is a better and more appealing speaker).

Whilst the 2018 speakers were no doubt very good, very few had anywhere near the profile as public atheists compared with the 2012 lineup. It seemed like a miscalculation to not invite these ‘celebrity’ atheists.

Moreover the speakers chosen for 2018 were not known especially for their atheism and had not published works in the ‘new’ atheist canon! Furthermore, it was also curious at how within a movement which prides itself on being rational and ‘scientific’ at how few scientists or science educators were invited to speak, certainly far fewer than 2018.

Indeed at the same time the GAC were promoting their convention, Think Inc were promoting an (affordable) event with Lawrence Krauss and Richard Dawkins later in 2018 – which I anticipate to be a sold-out success! It will sell out because the speakers appeal to the core of the AFA constituents: celebrity scientists who oppose and ridicule religion.

Perhaps these ‘celebrity’ atheist speakers were not invited because they were all white anglo males, and the AFA wanted a more diverse line-up. But this misunderstands to whom the ‘new’ atheism predominantly appeals.

3. Misunderstanding their own constituents

The AFA has built a substantial following on the ‘rise of atheism’ stimulated by the writings of the ‘new’ atheists between 2004-2011, and the timing and speaker lineup of the 2012 convention reflected and capitalised on this. This was a substantial factor contributing to the success of the 2010 and 2012 conventions.

But the leaders (and followers) of this movement were predominantly wealthy white males. This is reflected in the main speakers (e.g. Harris, Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, Grayling, Singer, Dillahunty, Krauss and Myers) and those who regularly attend AFA events.

Hence the decision to attempt a more ‘diverse’ speaker line-up whilst ignoring the demographics of they key constituents was a risky decision.

Most notably the decision to invite Clementine Ford was one clearly aimed at redressing the perceived male-oriented nature of modern atheism and to promote a more feminist friendly atheism. Yet this overlooked the fact that there are clear strands of misogyny running through ‘new’ atheism. For example, I recall at the 2012 convention, one of the comedians Jim Jefferies made an appallingly misogynistic joke (which also challenges the objection that it is just religion which is bad news for women!).

Yet Ford was hardly the best person to address the issue of feminism and atheism. She is an aggressive speaker who hardly appeals to this demographic. Indeed her presence in the line-up merely served to alienate core constituents from the convention – which was clear from the outrage on the Facebook page when she was announced.

Hence the decision to invite feminists like Ford, and the failure to invite the ‘celebrity’ speakers (who were white males), demonstrates that the AFA had seriously misunderstood their own constituents and of why atheists would want to attend a convention in the first place.

Ironically, whilst the 2018 the convention was meant to demonstrate diversity and equality, but it would appear that the modern ‘new’ atheist movement is not so interested in diversity or equality.

4. The changing face of atheism

I also wonder if this failure reveals a loss of momentum for the new atheism?

This cancellation reflects the fact that the surge of interest in atheism which accompanied the writings of Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens etc has slowed.

The new atheism was somewhat a celebrity protest movement built on built on emotion, passion and aggression- ie celebrity figures (e.g. the four horsemen) leading a passionate protest against the excesses of religion and religious influence. The catalyst for this movement being the September 11 terrorist attacks.

The successes of the 2010 and 2012 conventions was partly based on a first-time opportunity for people to hear these new celebrity anti-religious heroes in action.

Yet protest movements always die out and lose momentum as the anger subsides.

Part of the loss of momentum is that the memory of September 11 is receding and the perceived urgency of their task of opposing religion has waned.

Part of the loss of momentum has perhaps been that for many, the new atheism embodies many of the same dogmatic and aggressive features of religion they so vehemently criticise?

Part of the loss of momentum is the death of Christopher Hitchens.

Part of the loss of momentum is that these new atheist speakers aren’t saying much new (and once you’ve heard them, why listen to them again?).

Part of the loss of momentum is that divisions and challenges have emerged within atheist movement e.g. elevatorgate!

Hence once the initial anger and unity that the new atheism expressed between 2004-2012 subsided, it is unclear of where the new atheism heads next. What does ‘organised’ atheism stand for?

The 2018 Atheist convention offered a potential pathway to transition the new atheists to a movement of substantial social change – a reason to hope!

But unfortunately a movement which has its roots on protest (and celebrity) becomes difficult to transition to something more lasting, substantial and meaningful. And this is a key factor explaining the failure of the 2018 Global Atheist Convention.

This perhaps reveals that atheists can’t agree on what to stand for (apart from criticising religion), or does it reveal that modern atheism doesn’t stand for anything much? Perhaps this means that there is indeed a lack of hope for organised atheism in Australia?

Why are atheists supportive of the Uluru climb ban?

This past week the traditional owners of Uluru (Ayers Rock) in central Australia voted to ban people climbing upon the rock.

Many have been very positive about this move, including many atheists. For example, Clementine Ford, a speaker at the upcoming Global Atheist Convention, tweeted:

It appears many atheists (and those on the ‘left’ of politics) are enthusiastic about this move.

Personally I was quite happy with the decision and I support it. I love a good climb and when my wife and I visited Uluru a number of years ago we refrained from joining the hordes of tourists clambering to climb the rock and instead elected to walk around this fascinating monolith. The walk around the base of Uluru was enjoyable and rewarding. And I was satisfied to respect the wishes and spiritual concerns of the traditional owners.

Atheist Counter arguments to the ban

However I was intrigued when I saw some of the the responses of other atheists to this decision. I felt that they raised valid and interesting counter points. For example to Clementine Ford’s tweet, one responded with:

He went on…

and more…

@Neutron2261 raises some interesting thoughts..

Uluru is a natural feature

Indeed, as Neutron2261 and others pointed out, Uluru is a natural feature in the ‘outback’. It doesn’t actually ‘belong’ to anyone in quite the same way as other religious or spiritual spaces. Moreover, unlike cathedrals, mosques or temples it is not a site constructed especially for ‘spiritual’ reflection or worship (ironically one can climb famous cathedrals and mosques!)

Hence it is intriguing that an atheist is satisfied with a group banning people from climbing a rock – a natural feature – to respect ‘super’ natural beliefs.

On the homepage of the Atheist Foundation of Australia (AFA) it claims:

We can understand why primitive cultures believed that invisible beings controlled what we now call the elements and natural phenomena. With access to factual knowledge, there is now no excuse for believing in gods, fairies or any supernatural concept.

The AFA believes that is ‘no excuse’ for believing in ‘any supernatural concept’, presumably like sacred sites – will they oppose this decision? Encourage the owners to consider the rights and desires of those who visit this national icon? Surely someone should have the ‘right’ to climb a natural feature in Australia – a secular nation?

Yet the fact that atheists are supportive of climbing a natural feature seems puzzlingly inconsistent.

Freedom, Equality and discrimination

This raises the tricky dilemma of competing worldviews. One worldview – the atheist one – suggests that ‘it’s just a rock, a natural feature’, yet the alternative – the one of the traditional owners – believe that it is a ‘sacred’ site with spiritual significance. The atheist view would suggest that it’s fine to climb whereas the traditional indigenous view says it shouldn’t be climbed.

So which worldview wins?

There is no easy answer. And this challenges the maxim that you can believe what you want as long as it doesn’t harm or impinge others. The decision of the traditional owners clearly does impact on the freedoms of the many thousands of tourists who visit Uluru each year.

One commenter from The Age nailed this challenge:

If you choose not to climb Uluru because of your own beliefs, that is your decision.

Telling other people not to climb is religious overreach.

I don’t like the idea of religious groups not allowing certain people to get married, and a climbing ban is an imposition of one persons belief system on others.

Exactly. This decision could be seen as discriminatory as it imposes certain restrictions on many (the many tourists) based on the spiritual convictions of some.

As Neutron2261 raises, could a similar argument be mounted against abortion? That based on the spiritual conviction of some that a fetus is human, prevents some exercising their ‘rights’? Or similarly against Same Sex Marriage – that the spiritual conviction of a few should impact the many who don’t share that conviction and are denied an experience that they would like?

In a land which prizes itself on being young and ‘free’, this decision is one which inhibits freedom to access a natural feature. Hence my question: why are atheists supportive of this decision?

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.

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.