Skip to content

Unholy Trinity Down Under: atheist evangelical preaching at its finest!

March 23, 2015

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.

Advertisements
30 Comments
  1. Peter permalink

    In reference to point 6 in your review, there is some work by Richard Carrier which petty much debunks the arguments for the historical accounts where other scholars attempt prove the existence of Jesus Christ. I’m glad they didn’t dwell on this because I’m sure most of the people attending the event would have been quite familiar with this. Also I found Seth Andrews’ presentation quite inspirational target than bizarre.

    • Peter, Thanks for your comments. At least reference to Carrier would have been some form of argument and reference to Jesus. Unfortunately Carrier is to historical Jesus studies what young earth Creationsists are to science – as Matt Dillahunty explained, Carrier may represent one finger, compared to all the other scholars which would stretch to the other side of the street. It’s not to say that Carrier’s arguments are irrelevant, but virtually all scholars disagree with him on this. As I said, if you want to go with Carrier, then you stand with the same degree of academic respect as the young earth creationists!

      Did you read my review of Andrews’ presentation? Thanks for commenting.

  2. Peter permalink

    Target should have read rather…auto correct chucked a wobbly.

  3. Hi there!

    Re: “where are the women” – not an uncommon comment and one that many atheist women like myself have worked on challenging – you may have noticed all the podcast hosts who did introductions were men too.

    I’ve found even as the only female solo atheist podcast host in Australia & former co-MC of both Global Atheist Conventions (2010 & 2012) and supporter of local atheist women (you may have missed Shelley Segal, Catherine Deveney – both presenters at the Global Atheist Conventions – and the predominantly female members of the AFA in the front row of that Melbourne gig)…

    …it’s still tough to be noticed.

    Women even protested the Islsmic protestors who were insulting Ayaan Hirsi Ali (another key female presenter!) at the last Global Atheist Convention (video and photos exist of these women, front and centre of the action) – and yet even some atheists think they weren’t there.

    This weekend, I had two people post-show ask me if there were ever any atheist conventions in Australia, and it’s difficult not to yell “YES! And I hosted both! Did you miss Leslie Cannold hosting all three AFA organised Richard Dawkins tours last year too??” because it just seems an inadvertent and completely random blindspot for everyone. No matter what faith or non-faith.

    So, comment not unsurprising. Criticism well pointed out. But sometimes I think there’s a need for all of us to step up in the gender and diversity stakes – and maybe if you’d like to help support a future event with women on stage, as I think it’d be ace not to have “Father Bob” come to mind as pop culture’s immediate response to “religious representatives in Australia” too. Let’s have a panel of women and other minorities of many faith and no-faith talk it out as a common issue.

    BTW I was one of two AFA women who were at your hosted event at the pub and it was three guys on stage there too, not including Matt Dilahunty – let’s make it a common goal! That was a great afternoon of discussion, hope we can work together in the future!

    My review of the event:
    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/tokenskeptic/2015/03/unholy-trinity-melbourne-review-aka-from-up-the-gods-without-god/

    • Kylie,

      Thanks so much for your comments. I did notice that all the podcast hosts were also men. I’m sorry that it’s so tough to be noticed. I was aware of Leslie Cannold hosting the events with Richard Dawkins last year (and unfortunately I couldn’t get there). My issue was more about the constitution of the audience (although I did think it significant that it was only male presenters). It is also the reflection of the atheist census (in my mind a bit of a failed experiment) which reveals that atheism is overwhelmingly a male phenomenon.

      I agree that we have to work harder in the gender and diversity stakes and I have been working at training more women to take an ‘up front’ role in the public debate concerning religion.

      I’d love to work together in the future and your idea of a panel is an excellent one. I’ll try to be in contact in person. Thanks for coming to the event on Friday (and I was conscious it was male only, but it was a little tricky given I’m a male, Matt is male and the best person to put Matt against was Shane).

      Thanks for your great comments. Appreciate that.

      • “…which reveals that atheism is overwhelmingly a male phenomenon.”
        I strongly suspect that isn’t true. Rather, the visible, public profile of atheist speakers may be predominantly male, but that doesn’t mean that atheists are ‘overwhelmingly’ male, as your comment implies.
        I reckon I can rattle off the names of about half a dozen Australian males who have a high profile because of their Christianity. I can think of one one woman only in the CPC, and I’d have to look it up because I can’t remember her name off the top of my head.

      • Hey Paul.

        I’m sure that there are many female atheists, that’s not the point I Was making. I wasn’t just looking at the make-up of the speakers, but the audience. It was 75-80% male. There are very few Christian gathering with such a strong weighting towards men. The atheist census reveals the same thing.

        Thanks,

        Rob

  4. Regarding Jesus and the gospels – the bulk of scholarship acknowledges that we have no autographs and that the names were attributed by the early church. If, though, they were written by eye-witnesses, it wouldn’t change a thing.

    We’re not certain that he existed, but let’s concede that point. The questions that follow are:
    Do we have good reason to think that his words and deeds were accurately recorded?
    Do we have good reason to think that his words were true?
    Do we have good reason to think he performed miraculous works?

    I’d answer “no” to all – but even if I answered yes, you have the remaining problem of:

    How can we reasonably confirm that miracles were accomplished BECAUSE Jesus was divine?

    It’s the seemingly eternal problem of confirming supernatural existence and causation. There is no solution.

    If Jesus were God, he should KNOW this. He should know that no one should be convinced of miracles merely based on unverifiable reports in ancient texts. That’s a fatal problem for Christianity (and similar religious claims).

    There are people running around claiming to be little God detectors and asserting that it’s more probable (and virtually certain) that Jesus was a divine being who did miracles, passed on an important message and then seemingly vanished, never to offer an update or correction (while also not correcting previous misinformation)….than it is that this isn’t the case. How did they determine that? What criteria did they use?

    In more than a decade of debating this, no Christian has ever offered a remotely satisfactory answer to this problem – and, I suspect, they cannot. There’s a reason that science relies on methodological naturalism: no one has ever demonstrated a mechanism by which we can confirm the existence of the supernatural.

    Until that happens, you can’t confirm supernatural causation. Which means you can’t begin to determine how likely it is that any single event has a supernatural cause. Which means you cannot possibly determine that a supernatural explanation is MORE probable than a natural one.

    If we understand this, one would presume God does. That he hasn’t addressed this is confirmation that either he doesn’t exist or doesn’t want to confirm his existence. Either way – it’s not my problem. Either way – we cannot have a rationally justified belief in a god.

    • Matt:

      If Jesus were God, he should KNOW this. He should know that no one should be convinced of miracles merely based on unverifiable reports in ancient texts.

      What do you mean by “unverifiable reports”?

    • Matt D says: If Jesus were God… He should know that no one should be convinced of miracles merely based on unverifiable reports in ancient texts.

      Matt, this seems similar to the argument, “There isn’t enough evidence for belief in God”. Would that be correct?

      What I find interesting about these statements is that for many, many people, there IS enough evidence. Many Christians have come to the faith because they were convinced by the evidence. So clearly we have different thresholds for deciding what is “enough” evidence, or what testimony is convincing “enough”.

      Or possibly we just have differing preconceptions and different levels of devotion to the alternative viewpoint.

      • “…Or possibly we just have differing preconceptions and different levels of devotion to the alternative viewpoint.”
        Or different pre-suppositions and other cognitive biases that make us more inclined to believe something in the absence of anything more objectively compelling.

    • Matt,

      I find your concession about the eye-witnesses curious. If they were written by eye-witnesses, why wouldn’t that change a thing? If it wouldn’t change a thing, why do you keep raising it as a potential objection i.e. they were anonymous not written by eye-witnesses? I’m keen to hear your thoughts.

      I think we are certain that Jesus existed. As you pointed out in your presentation, the number of Professors of NT and Ancient History who reject Jesus existence could be put into one little finger. The rest of the scholars who think he did exist would stretch over the road. Sure, you may entertain the suggestion that Jesus never existed, but you do so against the weight of so much of the academic community. Hence if you want to entertain that Jesus didn’t exist, you also have to entertain the suggestion that Young Earth Creation scientists who have PhD’s might also be right!!!

      I think we can answer Yes to all your questions – for a variety of reasons and I can go into that if you like, but this is why the question of eye-witnesses is important (which you curiously swept aside in your first comment).

      I think Jesus was fully aware he was God, I assume you’ve read CS Lewis’ ‘Mere Christianity’ where he outlines the trilemma of ‘Liar, Lunatic, and Lord’? Jesus knew he was God.

      I’m also not quite sure what point you make about the little God detectors – I think there were people who passed on information, they didn’t vanish, they were the eyewitnesses. Again, I assume you’re familiar with Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses?

      I’m puzzled why you say that no Christian has ever offered a satisfactory answer to this. How could a person in the first century communicate this in a way satisfactorily to you? I’m keen to hear your thoughts.

      I think that we can have a rationally justified belief in a god, if Jesus is trustwothy.

      Lots to talk about, and I’m keen to hear your responses.

      Rob

      • Chris F permalink

        Hi Rob,

        Thankyou for taking the time to come to this event, and to the City Bible Forum for being open to such discussions as the ‘does it satisfy’ discussion with Matt. Also went to and enjoyed the debate between William Lane Craig and Lawrence Krauss a couple of years ago. You and the CBF seem to be a lot more open to allow people who don’t share the Christian worldview

        I Need to bring up the eyewitness thing you brought up, I need to mention that eyewitness accounts doesn’t necessarily prove that something is true. Just curious what your thoughts are on people who give eyewitness accounts of alien abduction stories/ghosts/the Loch Ness monster/Bigfoot for instance

        Not all claims are equally believable. Saying you have a pet dog, is something I would be likely to accept on your word alone, however if you said you had a pet phoenix for example- I would require a lot more than just you saying so for me believe that.

        The same can be said about historical claims. Christianity is far more than just the claim that Jesus was an historical figure. When we have such an extraordinary claim such as the claims made about Jesus, like his resurrection the burden of proof is very heavy and it would require a tonne of a lot more than just eye witness to rationally justify accepting it as truth.

        As to what exactly would prove it, Matt actually said something on his show that I agree with 100%, and that is (sorry if I get this slightly wrong, paraphrasing): “I don’t know what it would take, but God definitely does know what it would take and he should be capable of doing whatever that is. The fact that it hasn’t happened yet means that either that god doesn’t exist or he doesn’t care enough to make his existence known to me”

        There was a 2012 film called ‘Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter’ not sure if you’ve seen it, I don’t think there’s any doubt that Abraham Lincoln was a real historical figure- does that mean we can now assume that film is now a documentary which accurately depicted who he actually was?

        Also, of the points you made in your above article. I took issue with a few of them but number 7 stood out to me. Christianity doesn’t have a monopoly on being charitable or being kind and compassionate to others. I don’t see Christianity as a ‘civilizing influence’, quite the opposite. Take a look at Matthew 10:34-37 or Luke 14:25-33

        A good case in point is the ‘Golden Rule’, which is seen by many people in the western world as a ‘Christian value’. The truth is, it neither originated in the Christian religion as it was found in various ancient cultures prior to Christianity, nor is it unique to your religion (a variation is found in Buddhism for example)

        I challenge you to provide me with example of these ‘fruits’ that Christianity provides that cannot be gained by purely secular/non-religious means

        I think a lot of homosexuals and transgender individuals may actually have a different view on Christianity’s ‘positive influence’ on the world. In the case of advancements in LGBT rights, it isn’t because of people being transformed by Christianity- it’s because of the secular world view around it that has dragged the Christian religion kicking and screaming into the 21st century. Where groups like the Australian Christian Lobby are actively seeking to stop gay marriage from being recognised in the same way as heterosexual marriage Australia, and parties like Family First, DLP and the Rise-Up Australia are providing a platform for them. We are even seeing backwards movements in LGBT rights today because of the religion, if you take a look at the laws that have passed in Indiana in the US in the last week

        As a former fundamentalist Christian, and was on the committee at my university’s Christian Union. I was one of those ‘transformed’ people myself up for the majority of the first 21 years of my life, until 5 years ago when I like Matt, could no longer meet my requirements under 1 Peter 3:15, and that I could not reasonably justify the hope that I had in Jesus

        Thankyou for taking the time to look at the arguments from an atheist’s point of view

      • Chris. Thanks so much for your thoughtful reflections. You say a lot. Could we perhaps meet some time to adequately talk them through? Coffee is on me. Let me know. Thanks

      • Chris F permalink

        Rob, sounds like a great idea. Even just as a once-off just to discuss things/get another perspective. I live in Geelong, but come up to Melbourne a lot for sporting events (Melbourne being a ‘mecca’ for sport). So yeah would be keen for that, I just hope I can provide answers to questions you might have 🙂

      • Excellent. That sounds great. Let me know when you are in Melbourne next. My email is Robert [dot] Martin at citybibleforum [dot] org. Would love to continue the conversation.

  5. So your hypothetical god came down from his heaven to tell people to put oil on their face when they fast, to not wash their hands before eating and not to divorce each other , except for adultery , and that the world was going to end in one generation?

    What a waste of 3 years preaching.

  6. Dragan A permalink

    Do we have enough evidence to believe in God? Well do we have enough evidence to believe in atheism? I have not seen God or had God speak to me (if you assume God speaks to us through language). But I have not seen a sea cucumber evolve into a bird? I think we can agree that theists believe in something existing outside the material world where as the atheist believes matter and energy is all there is and life can be explained chemically. Well I would not argue that an atheist cannot have strong morals, but the hard thing for this moralistic atheist to accept is, ‘so what that you have moral values?’, ‘so what there is suffering?’ You may not like it but, so what? As a Christian I am in the same head space as my athiests friends – I see the suffering but at least with God I can legitimately ask why? And that alone is empowering. A really important question in every one’s quest to find meaning or question suffering and morality is to ask, “who is asking, who are you?” Well as an athiest and materialist, you are a chemical, your physical body is all there is. Yet no organ that I am aware of in my body gives a dam about morality, suffering or pain, when the message comes from the heart, as far as I am aware the heart doesn’t send messages, it pumps blood. Even the athiest has to admit if there is a God, good or bad, the message is coming from somewhere other than your organs, maybe a soul. The famous athiest Antony Flew also lived by the premise of going where the evidence leads, and it led him to believe in a God. I can never understand what it is to celebrate being an athiest (or who is celebrating?) Living a Christian life is not weird, and even if the athiest thinks it is, so what, matter and energy is all that matters.

  7. dargndorp permalink

    Ask, and you shall receive – Matt’s shirt can be purchased at http://compass120.com/Independent-Collections/Signature-Series/Dillahunty-Men

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Unholy Trinity Down Under: Seth Andrews’ bizarre presentation | Atheist Forum
  2. Does ‘atheism’ have race and gender problems? | Atheist Forum
  3. How Matt Dillahunty makes a brilliant argument against Jesus myth scholarship | Atheist Forum
  4. The utilitarian argument for slavery | Atheist Forum
  5. Why is slavery immoral? | Atheist Forum
  6. The big surprise about an evening with Sam Harris | Atheist Forum

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: