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Unholy Trinity Down Under: Seth Andrews’ bizarre presentation

March 23, 2015

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.

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From → Comment, History

21 Comments
  1. If the world is getting better and Christianity is on the decline, you really can’t give Christianity credit for the improvement. You’d have a better case crediting the DECLINE of Christianity as contributing to the improvement.

    Meanwhile, Seth gives a talk about humanism, embracing the good and you fault him for not providing some philosophical justification for good? Even if he had none, Christianity isn’t one.

    • Matt,

      Thanks so much for commenting – great to hear from you again. I think you misunderstand my point. Ideas have origins. The ideas that we accept today as being successful in bringing about the world we have, things like equality, freedom, democracy etc must have an origin as these ideas were foreign to the ancient world. Hence something must have led to these ideas being accepted. The best explanation for the origin of these ideas is Christianity – as the Jurgen Habermas stated. I can provide more atheist thinkers who agree with this assessment if you like? Hence any analysis of why the world is getting better would need to explain that, and if you want to reject the source of those ideas, you will have to work out how you can ‘keep the fruit but still kill the tree’, so to speak. I hope that makes sense? Keen to hear your response to that.

      Also – Christianity is actually on the ‘rise’ globally – there are more Christians in the world today than ever before. How exactly is Christianity declining?

      I didn’t quite fault Seth for failing to provide philosophical justification for the good. I faulted him for not providing a clear rationale for why the world is getting better, and being a little naive about proposing that we’re all basically good in spite of the evidence of human wickedness. Why is the world getting better? And why isn’t Christianity a philosophical justification for it? Jurgen Habermas seemed to think it had a bit to do with it!

      Look forward to your response.

      Rob

      • Matt Dillahunty permalink

        I don’t understand how you can credit Christianity with improvements in the world in the light of the sort of enlightenment thinking that fought against that religion to encourage equality and rationality. Did Christianity give women the vote? Did it free the slaves? (Yes, those are US-centric…) Did it take us to the moon? Did it teach us how to hybridize crops to feed billions more people than previously possible? Did it encourage equality? Freedom of religion or speech?

        I also don’t understand how you can not be aware that it’s on the decline. The world, generally, is increasingly secular. In modern, western countries, church attendance is dramatically on decline. While there are more Christians than ever, that’s because there are more people than ever – not because it’s actually more popular than ever. Meanwhile, the many people who identify as Christian aren’t taking good actions on behalf of Christianity even if they credit that as the source. When Christianity ruled the world it was known as the dark ages. The Bible hasn’t enlightened us on medicine, technology, equality, social justice or nearly any other issue.

        While Christians may have done great things and various religious organizations are responsible for many schools and hospitals, those actions represent people doing good and then crediting their religion. It’s not like the Bible or the early Church were keen on people learning science (you’d never convince Galileo of that, anyway).

        I’d start with this study: http://ffrf.org/uploads/timely/Religion&Society.pdf …and keep going.

        Christianity was dragged out of the dark ages by enlightenment thinkers encouraging scientific inquiry and equality.

        I’m aware of no positive, real benefit that can ONLY be achieved by religion (any religion) and I find it bizarre to credit Christianity with the list of improvements that Seth listed.

        (I’m happy to dig in on this later, but I’m swamped with travel and lectures through May 1st…feel free to e-mail me: sans.deity – at – gmail.com)

      • Matt, I’m happy to discuss this further because I think it’s really important. I would argue that an explicitly Christian worldview did free the slaves (Wilberforce was motivated by explicitly Christian values). It is also unclear that the ‘Enlightenment’ brought liberation for slaves – many leading enlightenment thinkers were keen slave advocates: https://atheistforum.wordpress.com/2014/11/11/the-enlightenment-and-slavery/

        To suggest that Christianity ruling the world was the dark ages is a nice sound bite, but is a gross caricature and unfortunately incorrect: https://atheistforum.wordpress.com/2014/11/18/when-religion-ruled-the-world-it-was-called-the-dark-ages-or-was-it/

        Christianity is booming in China, Africa and South America – there are now over 100 million Christian believers in China (once a firmly atheist country): (as pointed out in a recent Economist article). Don’t these people count?

        You have also failed to explain how the enlightenment got to where we are and not engaged at all in Habermas’ quote. Habermas is not a Christian yet he credits so much of modern western thought to Christianity.

        And to suggest that Christians have done great things yet not credit their religion is to do exactly as I pointed out in my critique – to take the fruit without killing the tree. You can’t say that Christians have done great things and then to say that Christianity had ‘nothing’ to do with it. That is an extraordinary claim and would require fairly extraordinary evidence to back it up.

        Thanks so much for commenting here and providing some really stimulating thought.

        Looking forward to talking again.

        Rob

      • “I don’t understand how you can credit Christianity with improvements in the world in the light of the sort of enlightenment thinking that fought against that religion to encourage equality and rationality. ”

        Matt let’s get real here

        If Theism is false, then the universe doesn’t care about ‘improvements’ because the universe doesn’t think.

        “better’ doesn’t exist if humans weren’t intended to be here, and are ultimately cosmic accidents that come from a mindless universe. Humans were not given a moral obligation by a mindless universe, and therefore there are no objective goals in which humans ‘ought’ to fulfill.

        You might say that humans create their own purpose, and therefore if people like Matt D thinks humans are special, to him humans are therefore special based on his opinion, but even this arbitrary use of ‘purpose’ falls short.

        For one, terrorists can say that their purpose is to rule the Earth, and only might makes right, so why is their purpose any less significant than yours?

        Atheism entails moral nihilism, and this is because humans have no purpose in being here and amount to nothing more than conglomerates of matter shifting one way rather than another way. There are no objective moral truths, because humans construct their own standards of morality due to a mindless evolutionary process which has the function of propagating DNA and nothing else. HUmans are genetically determined to THINK that they are ‘special’ in this speck of dust called Earth, only because an evolutionary process forces them to think this way, and therefore even a subjective preference of ‘purpose’ is not genuine.

        Oh and this argument that I’m using comes from atheists who are honest enough to admit the ramifications of a godless universe and don’t try and sugarcoat the absurdity of human existence.

        “The position of the modern evolutionist is that humans have an awareness of morality because such an awareness of biological worth. Morality is a biological adaptation no less than are hands and feet and teeth. Considered as a rationally justifiable set of claims about an objective something, ethics is illusory. I appreciate when someone says, ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself,’ they think they are referring above and beyond themselves. Nevertheless, such reference is truly without foundation. Morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction, . . . and any deeper meaning is illusory.”

        – Michael Ruse, “Evolutionary Theory and Christian Ethics,” in The Darwinian Paradigm

        Oh and the Enlightenment had absolutely NO atheists involved, because atheism was an embarrassing position to take (and still is) and yet it Deists, Theists such as Francis Bacon and Immanuel Kant and Christians such as Rene’ Descartes, John Locke, Pierre Bayle and Isaac Newton actually spearheaded the Enlightenment.

        David Hume is probably the only one you can argue for, however he never called himself an atheist and the humesociety refers to him as a Deist.

        So we look at it two ways

        If God doesn’t exist, then atheism is still the weakest link on the evolutionary chain, and didn’t do much at all for virtually all of humanities existence.

        If God does exist then atheism fails anyways.

        all and all atheism is not a rational position by any means.

    • I left Christianity and.rejected the gospel of Jesus Christ and became an agnostic atheist. I used to have thoughts when I was young as 10 repeatedly saying fuck the Holy Spirit over and over again. I went crying to my dad and told him about it and he told.me that is Satan and you need rebuke him in Jesus name. You know it was my oldest sister and dad who brought up the Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit or.speaking against the Holy Spirit was unforgivable and people who did would be doomed to burn in a lake of fire for all eternity. Strange how if I would have never been taught about this or read it or heard it never would have been an issue. Derek Mathias, an atheist, said of course your going to have these thoughts about this Holy Spirit because it would be basically telling someone not to.think about the pink elephant. It was all based on one big lie.

      • Thanks for sharing your story Shane. Appreciate the comments. Just not quite sure how they relate to the blog post. Hope you are having a great day. Rob

    • ARM permalink

      This presentation was actually one of my favorites. It was a stance against the faith we place in the everyday naysayers and doom peddlers that arrest our psyches. I thought that, perhaps, Andrew’s point was that the regional rites and social rituals of early human history cohered into the monotheistic mania we know because people listened to the fanatics out of desperation. Long ago, it made sense for people to grab the most powerful-looking and successful religions that promised blessings and blunted the pain of losing one’s child to miserable illness at least a little. It wasn’t a bad harvest that made the neighbors you loved starve. It was God punishing something about them. It wasn’t a tragedy that your firstborn died. It was God taking His offering up to heaven, and maybe blessings will come from that.

      But we don’t need these anymore. If any religion is on the rise, it ain’t Christianity. It’s Islam. And even with that threat, we are objectively safer. That means we don’t need doom-and-gloom experts anymore. We just need to arm ourselves with the notion that we are learning something new every day, and that takes us ever further away from the fearful darkness of our ancestors.

  2. Ed Atkinson permalink

    It sounds like you don’t know Seth Andrews. He is not a philosopher and to expect him to do a talk giving a philosophical foundation for humanism is unrealistic. He leaves that to others. He is great with stories and it sounds like he may have attempted some kind of story of mankind. I’ll hope to hear it on his podcast feed in due course.

    • Ed,

      I’m sure that Seth isn’t a philosopher. I wasn’t expecting a philosophical explanation, it’s more sociological. But my criticism was that without understanding ‘why’ using the fruit of that becomes less useful. It’s like saying, ‘I don’t know how my plant grew, but I want to keep eating the fruit from it’.

      Great to hear from you as always Ed. Hope you’re keeping well.

      Rob

      • Ed Atkinson permalink

        Thanks Rob. If I do manage to hear Seth’s talk I might have something to add here. It could be he did the same talk at each venue so I might get a slightly different one. Either way, I guess it will be a while.

        I am doing great. We have a skeptics and believers discussion group that I run in my town. We have some great discussions and it stays friendly and informative.

        Cheers Ed

  3. I find it very odd that Seth’s presentation would be labelled “bizarre”. He stated the world is getting better. On the whole, and in most places, modern living is vastly superior to the remainder of human history. Yet some religious people have claimed that things are worse than ever and this surely constitutes “the end of days”.

    • Nice to hear from you Andrew. Maybe ‘bizarre’ is a strong word, but I did find it intensely frustrating for the reasons outlined in the post above. I agree he stated the world is getting better, but he never explained why. I would have felt an in depth analysis into the ‘end of days’ might have been more fruitful, but I think that the biblical picture is a little more complex and nuanced than what Seth presented.

  4. Ed Atkinson permalink

    Rob, I have now heard Seth’s talk on the podcast feed. I think you got the wrong end of the stick. His purposes were not yours. You critisise him for what he did not say, not what he said, because you were wanting something different. I take the key difference as this: you were wanting material to contribute to the theist-atheist debate, Seth was assuming that the debate was 100% settled in his listeners’ minds. Seth was addressing the fear and meaning we get caught up in when we see violence and cruelty, eg by putting it in historical context. References to Howard Camping or stoning children in the torah were to show the historical context (and have some fun along the way) rather than to make new arguments against Christianity. All the best Ed

    • Ed. Glad you listened to the talk and thanks for dropping by here to share your thoughts. It’s true I criticised him for what he didn’t say, but I was seeking an overarching explanation for the data he presented. Why is the world getting better? Why aren’t we mired in savagery? I was disappointed that he didn’t really supply any meaningful explanation.

      I wasn’t particularly looking for something in the ‘atheist-theist debate’, I wanted him to explain the data (which I felt he did quite poorly). Then I found frustrating his expression and concept that ‘we are the goodness’, which contradicted the story he shared!

      I also thought that the one of the goals of the Unholy Trinity tour was to reach out to theists – they made it clear that they wanted theists to attend.

      I do appreciate you commenting back here again. Hope you’re going well and talk again soon. Rob

      • Ed Atkinson permalink

        Thanks Rob. OK, I did not know the stated goals of the tour. Regarding the reasons, I guess that he would say it’s all in Pinker’s book. I have heard Pinker on BBC Radio 4 and in my understanding the reason is the development of society as we have got richer and better organised.

        Agencies like the police, the courts, welfare, etc all mean that we do not need to take justice into our own hands. Economic development make co-operation more beneficial than plunder etc. This allows our better side to flourish.

        I really don’t think that ‘we are the goodness’ did contradict the story he shared. Seth says that the violent few get the headlines but the majority are good and always have been.

        Cheers as ever, Ed

      • Yes, thanks for your comments. It sounds like I would have much preferred to have heard Pinker!! He never really said that (which I felt was disappointing), even if he had just mentioned Pinker’s conclusions, that would have made a more satisfying lecture (sermon?).

        I disagree with your point about ‘we are the goodness’. I disagree with the claim that the majority are good and always have been. There are many many awful stories of the depravity of human nature (given the opportunity). I outline some in this presentation I gave a number of years ago: https://youtu.be/g5aqppBpNXE

        I think the power of the situation can influence our behaviour. Why is there looting when the lights go out in supermarkets? I think to assert ‘we are the goodness’ tragically miscalculates the evil the human heart is capable of.

        Thanks again for the comments and hope you have a great weekend.

      • Ed Atkinson permalink

        Thanks Rob. We’ll just have to agree to disagree on Seth’s claim that the majority are good and always have been. To me it is demonstrably true. Of course we all have a large selfish element too, but it is not ‘depravity’ and we generally know how to control it. Cheers, Ed

      • Yes, it seems as if we do have to agree to disagree. Yet I would add that this is one reason I hold for the truth of Christianity, because it better diagnoses the human condition. Even Christopher Hitchens maintained that humanity was ‘evil’. I’d be content to be convinced otherwise, but my experience and observation of humanity is that given the right opportunity and situation, we are capable of unimaginable acts of cruelty. Thanks again for your comment, always a pleasure. Will get to your longer comment in time.

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