Unholy Trinity Down Under: Seth Andrews’ bizarre presentation
On Saturday night I attended the Unholy Trinity Down Under event in Melbourne. It was a three house 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. I reviewed the rest of the evening here. But I needed more time to review the third of the presentations, given by Seth Andrews. So the review is here:
Seth admitted he’d changed his presentation – I kind of felt like I wanted the original one, because the presentation he gave was confusing and somewhat bizarre.
He started by asking some very profound and important questions about what is wrong with the world. He used a powerful story about Charles Whitman, the Texas Sniper, among others involving terrorists, Islamic State and Adam Lanza. It was interesting that Andrews identified no specific religious theme at this point, indeed for the characters he had used were not all religiously motivated. He seemed to use this as a general observation that the world is a bad place. He then posed the question, how can we live in a world that is so awful?
Then he made a series of fairly irrelevant points asking if these constituted ‘the end of days’ by combining various religious themes and characters including the Mayan Apocalypse, Howard Camping and Y2K. It was irrelevant because I wasn’t quite sure what he was trying to achieve with this. Was he saying that Howard Camping accurately represented Christian views? Because Camping didn’t and many Christians were saying (along with Jesus) that ‘no-one knows the day or hour’. Proposing that the tragedies in the world were because of the ‘end times’ fails to accurately represent Christian belief. So what did he mean by talking about ‘the end of days’? It was unclear.
Andrews then said, should we go back to the ‘Good Old Days?’ And there was a reference to Old Testament morality (stoning a disobedient child) and then a collection of ancient practices from the ‘Good Old Days’ with a quasi religious theme e.g. the Inquisition, Witch Burnings and Lord Timor. But he also mentioned Roman crucifixion, and the violence of Alexander the Great, which have no real religious significance at all. I was confused at that point – what is the relevance of Roman crucifixion to criticising ‘religion’ or even Christianity? It was a bizarre point. Andrews effectively demonstrated the violence of human history, but that should be a fairly uncontroversial point? And it could have been done more effectively in other ways (mentioning the Gulags, the Gas Chambers, Pol Pot and the Crusades would have made that point).
He then pointed out through the work of Steven Pinker that the world is getting better. Violence and disease is being reduced and the world is a more civilized, reasonable and peaceful place than ever before. Yet there was no analysis of why this is the case. What is the great civilizing influence on our culture? Andrews offered no explanation. He alluded to ‘reason’, but never expanded nor justified it.
Ironically for Andrews and the Unholy Trinity, Christianity has been a significant and influential force in shaping and civilizing our culture. Consider what the leading atheist philosopher Jurgen Habermas says,
Christianity has functioned for the normative self-understanding of modernity as more than a mere precursor or a catalyst. Egalitarian universalism, from which sprang the ideas of freedom and social solidarity, of an autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, of the individual morality of conscience, human rights, and democracy, is the direct heir to the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love. This legacy, substantially unchanged, has been the object of continual critical appropriation and reinterpretation. To this day, there is no alternative to it. And in the light of the current challenges of a postnational constellation, we continue to draw on the substance of this heritage. Everything else is just idle postmodern talk
There is more to say of course, but for Andrews to offer no real explanation for why the world is becoming better, was deeply unsatisfying.
Andrews then concluded with the people we should celebrate and he asserted that we should celebrate with the servants of the world. Not the Texas Sniper, the day didn’t belong to him, but instead the people who carry the dead and injured. Perhaps this was the ‘moral vision’ part of the evening, yet I was unconvinced. There was no justification, no basis, it was just, “be good”, “sacrifice yourself for others”, “help those who are in need.” Heaping up moral imperatives without any basis.
I couldn’t help feeling that atheism undermined this sentiment. There is no question that atheists do sacrifice themselves for others – but it seems irrational to do so. If the atheist life is maximising everything here and now, why should I sacrifice my utility for others? Why should a humanist sacrifice his life for another? There was no analysis of this apparent paradox, although I would have felt this would have made for a much more interesting presentation and discussion.
It is asserted that humanism offers a foundation for self-sacrifice, but what is the ethical foundation for humanism? It seems baseless and arbitrary. Indeed, self-sacrifice seems more resonant with Christianity – for indeed Christianity offers a more coherent framework to justify and motivate acts of self-sacrifice (even the ultimate sacrifice) with the inspiration and model of Jesus and the knowledge that this world is not all there is!
Finally, Andrews’ offered a grossly simplistic and naive understanding of human nature. After cataloging the evil of humanity, he then ignored all this and said, ‘well, we have a better world, we have each other, “we have the goodness”‘. In the face of the history of human evil he had outlined including crucifixions and mass murderers, it seemed like he put his fingers in his ears and asserted, ‘the world is bad, but we’re still basically good’.
Christopher Hitchens had a far more realistic understanding of the nature of humanity. He was once asked, ‘Is man intrinsically good or bad?’ He responded emphatically, ‘Man is unquestionably evil’.
Overlooking and ignoring the potential evil of humanity and just assert that we have each other – reeks of special pleading and ignorance. Andrews offered no method of seeking to overcome this unquestionable evil of humanity.
The very illustration of Charles Whitman shows how bizarre and unfounded this assertion was. Whitman was just an ordinary guy, he had no obvious connection with ‘religion’. His story was the outworking of terrible abuse at the hands of his father. Indeed Whitman illustrates the terrible depravity that humanity is capable of given the right opportunity and the right weapons.
Andrews’ presentation offered nice sentiments and nice ideas, but failed to offer a coherent explanation for why the world is the way it is i.e. the human condition, nor to offer a coherent explanation for why the world is getting better. To simply and blithely assert, ‘We have the goodness!!’ contrary to the witness of human history and human experience, is utterly bizarre and naively optimistic.