Unholy Trinity Down Under: atheist evangelical preaching at its finest!
On Saturday night I attended the Unholy Trinity Down Under event in Melbourne. It was a three hour show hosted by the Atheist Foundation of Australia featuring three notable ex-believers now turned atheists: Matt Dillahunty, AronRa, and Seth Andrews. It was held in Storey Hall at RMIT before a capacity house of almost 500 people. It was a real privilege to be there and to hear these speakers first hand and to experience an event like this.
In a three hour show masses of material was covered, so a quick review (as this is intended to be) is going to be inadequate. But here are a number of my thoughts on this particular ‘atheist experience’.
1. Great speakers make for a great night. There was no doubt that the three speakers (preachers?) were all articulate, intelligent, accomplished, and great orators. This was bound to make for an enjoyable and stimulating evening. The stand-out was undoubtedly Matt Dillahunty who seemed to take on some kind of leadership role among the three ‘preachers’. The event was well organised, well timed (there was enough time for Q&A), the evening never felt rushed and was well priced. It was certainly value for money for those who attended.
2. The Socratic method is a winner. I was impressed (and agreed with) at the epistemological method and philosophy adopted by the speakers. Matt Dillahunty encouraged the attenders to adhere to the Socratic method i.e. asking questions to seek the truth. There was a genuine desire to ask good questions and seek the truth. This feeling was captured by a t-shirt Matt wore, “I want to believe as many true things and as few false things as possible”. I want to get one of those t-shirts! The speakers all asked very good and very valid questions to Christianity and to God – e.g. why doesn’t God speak directly to everyone? What do biblical prophecies actually say? Why don’t we feel happier today if the world is safer than ever? These are valid and important questions and we should keep asking and encourage questioning. I was impressed that the speakers attempted to engage the audience with as much Q&A as possible (there was about an hour dedicated to that).
3. Three “preachers” who missed their calling, or did they? The evening felt a little like a Christian evangelical rally – the three speakers would have made fine Christian evangelists! They offered persuasive, inspirational messages. There was training (e.g. what are the best ways of changing minds?), advice on how to engage believers (Dillahunty answered that slavery was the thing he always went to), and a real encouragement to get out there and ‘ask questions’ and challenge believers and change the world. This was atheist evangelical preaching was at it’s finest and understandably received a standing ovation at the end.
4. Where were the women? Atheists often accuse religion (particularly Christianity) of misogyny. Yet observing the make-up of the speakers (all were white, Anglo males) and the audience – it was startling to see how few women were present. Indeed the audience was about 75-80% male, and generally young and Anglo. Of the 20 questions which were asked during Q&A, 16 were asked by men and only 4 by women. One fellow attender noticed that during the intermission there was a queue to the men’s toilets, but not to the women’s. When I left the venue and walked onto Swanston St I was immediately struck by the number of people of Asian background and the number of women in Melbourne on a Saturday night. Unholy Trinity Down Under had certainly not attracted a representative sample of the population. Why is atheism particularly appealing to men and not women? I would suggest that atheists ease the misogyny accusation against religion until their speaker profiles and audiences have more gender balance.
5. Easier to destroy than create. A lot of the evening focused on demolishing Christianity – well, mainly demolishing the Old Testament. AronRa spoke about the origins of God in the Old Testament as a conglomeration of and accretion of myths gathered from other cultures which observed things like whirlwinds and attributed spiritual significance to them. He also attacked the veracity of biblical prophecies and demonstrated the obviously moral deficiencies of the Old Testament and in characters like Lot. Matt Dillahunty ridiculed the Old Testament biblical narrative calling it a ‘sad, dark comedy’ with a God who couldn’t seem to do anything right. Now they asked very good questions (as I mentioned before), yet I felt that ironically the force of their presentations were undermined somewhat by a comment made by Seth Andrews in the third presentation. After analysing the world’s problems Seth said, ‘It’s always easier to destroy than create’. I felt this was exactly what the previous two presentations had done – destroyed the alternative, but offered very little in terms of creating a liveable appealing alternative. There was no real vision offered for a better world. Dillahunty briefly entertained some ideas near the conclusion of his presentation when asserting that the values of humanism are consistent with the values of those building the Tower of Babel. But this was never really explained nor justified. Aside from asking questions of believers and showing the deficiencies in their beliefs, there was no real sense in which the ‘sermons’ impacted the practical day to day lives of the attendees. How do I do my work better? How do I care for my family? How much alcohol should I drink? Is gambling useful? How do I make sense of the world? How do I live in this brave new world without religion? I found very few answers to these questions. Perhaps this was the purpose of Seth Andrews’ presentation? Yet I found his “vision” confusing, illogical and somewhat bizarre. I’ve reviewed his presentation separately here.
6. Ok, we’ve attacked Judaism, when are we going to get to Christianity? I mentioned earlier that a lot of the evening was spent on demolishing the Old Testament. Yet Jesus remained fairly anonymous. There was virtually no reference to Jesus in the entire evening. No real scholarship was quoted and no mention nor analysis of the resurrection. The only scholarship relating to the historical Jesus mentioned was when Dillahunty asserted that the Gospels were all anonymous documents not written by eyewitnesses (how he’s certain of this is unclear), yet he quoted no sources and made no substance to his claim. Despite the fact that modern scholars do assert that the Gospels were based on eyewitness testimony e.g. Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, and were not anonymous, consider the work of the late Martin Hengel. It was disappointingly ironic that three speakers who speak highly of evidence and reason failed to engage in any scholarly discussion on the historical Jesus, nor any discussion on the resurrection of Jesus. The resurrection of Jesus forms the heart of the Christian belief – so why was it ignored? The strongest arguments for Christianity were not engaged with at all. This might have been a popular rhetorical strategy, but in terms of engaging opponents at their strongest – it was very disappointing.
7. We want the fruit but kill the tree. It seemed as though the three presenters were content to accept the fruit of the Christian worldview, but wanted to kill the source. This effectively formed the substance of Seth Andrew’s presentation (reviewed separately) where he wanted the civilizing influence of Christianity and motivations given by Christianity, without Christianity itself. Similar comments were made as the speakers denied the power of Christian transformation. People who’s lives have have been transformed by Jesus were dismissed. Seth Andrews said in question time that many believers want to make the world a better place but they do it under the ‘guise’ of religion. They were critical of the charitable actions of believers who were cheated because they gave glory to an invisible entity. Yet this unfortunately overlooks the fact that the motivation for the charitable acts were fundamentally and clearly ‘religious’. It is unclear and dubious whether those acts of charity would have ever occurred if it wasn’t for religious transformation.
8. Walking with a giant through the forest. It seemed that the big theme from the evening was about the self-disclosure of God. If he’s there why isn’t God clearer? Why can’t he speak directly to me? Matt Dillahunty used an excellent and powerful story to illustrate, that of walking hand in hand with a giant through a forest’. Like God, I can’t see him, but he leads me through all these trees and bushes. I get scratches and problems and I cry out ‘Giant, why can’t I see you?’ Dillahunty screamed in incredulity and frustration at this giant “pick me up to your level or piss off”.
This to me was the fundamental issue of the evening – why isn’t God clearer? Why doesn’t he just speak to me plainly?
I resonated entirely with this story. Yet I would also say that the Christian message is fully aware of this problem and this difficulty – how can I know the giant? Yet rather than picking us up, the giant has actually come down to be with us. To walk through the forest and scratch himself on the bushes like us. He has made himself known to us, so that he can then take us up to him. The opening of the Gospel of John speak of this incredible self-revelation, that Jesus ‘became flesh and made his dwelling among us’ in order to make the Giant known. Jesus is the ultimate self-revelation of God. So when we read the words of Jesus – we hear God speaking to us here today! This is a crucial part of the Christian message.
Now whether that is enough evidence? or convincing enough evidence? That is a matter for (a very interesting) debate. But this is the revelation of God according to Christianity. The Giant has made himself known in and through Jesus. It’s a shame that Jesus was so overlooked on the evening because if we had three hours examining the opening chapters of John, we might possibly have seen something of the Giant holding our hand in the forest.