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Debate: Is God really there? Robert Martin vs Raphael Lataster (part 2)

In November last year I participated in a debate on the topic, ‘Is God really there?’ It was hosted by the Sydney Atheists.

The first part of the debate is here. The Q&A time and closing statements are now uploaded. I tried my best to put the questions on the screen (as sound is a little difficult at times). Would love your thoughts.


Freedom of speech: some questions for Russell Blackford

I have just been reading some of Russell Blackford’s book, Freedom of Religion and the Secular State. This is a challenging issue in our current society and Blackford’s book deals with many controversial issues of our society.

I was most interested in his chapter on freedom of speech and what I read was generally excellent. I broadly agreed with and accepted Blackford’s thesis and the framework he drew, but any ethical theory is only as good as it’s application. Hence I wanted to ask Russell some questions to ‘test’ the application of his theory and help make some judgements on a number of contemporary ethical situations.

Blackford on Freedom of Speech

Blackford’s basic thesis is no single framework or worldview should be imposed by state coercion. The state should not silence opposing views unless ‘they lead to violence or impossibly hostile conditions for citizens to live their lives’ (p.169).

Blackford’s proposal, if applied, would allow society very free and open speech with the state offering very little control or suppression of competing voices. Blackford argues for minimal interference by the state with it’s citizens speech (p.170).

“Citizens may influence the social environment through their speech and expression, but forego the power to suppress the speech and expression of others” (p.169)

The rationale for this freedom Blackford argues is that ‘there is public interest in permitting debate that is not so restrictive of the parties involved. This allows them to express themselves passionately, emotively, and loyally’ (p.173)

However Blackford does not envisage complete freedom of speech as he does draw some limits. He suggests we need to have provisions for ‘threats, defamation and fraudulent representations’ (p.170). Yet Blackford is critical of suppressing speech simply because if causes offense. He proposes that ‘most forms of speech are not directly harmful’ (p.171). Curiously he separates harm from offense, where he seems to understand harm in a ‘direct’ physical sense, where it incites violence or causes an intense emotional reaction. Blackford warns against prohibiting speech that is merely offensive: ‘what may be offensive to one person, may be of value to another’ (p.174) and ‘care must be taken to avoid a tyranny of the sensitive’ (p.185).

Blackford’s vision for freedom of speech is a very libertarian and free. Competing voices should be allowed and not suppressed, even if we disagree vehemently. This is a potentially exciting vision for society, where all people get to participate and say what they want. This will be as Blackford acknowledges, ‘inherently messy’ but it would be free.



There is much to commend in Blackford’s thesis, however the real test of any ethic is its application. Does it work? How will it work?

So I have five questions to ask Russell in how his ethic (and a secular ethic) might be applied to a modern context with modern (real-life) examples and situations.

Questions in application

  1. How and where do we ‘draw the line’? It’s fine to allow freedom of speech but as soon as we allow exceptions, or require ambiguous tests of emotional reaction, the line becomes quite blurry as to what merely causes offense and what causes a ‘high emotional reaction’.
  2. Should foreign anti-vaccination and anti-abortion activists be allowed to enter Australia?
  3. Should a news reporter be allowed to criticise the Anzacs on Anzac Day?
  4. Within this framework and given that we should suppress speech simply because if causes harm, is there such a thing as ‘hate speech’? If so, what would constitute ‘hate speech’? Opposing gay marriage?
  5. Would it be possible in this society for Christian believers to say things which are consistent with their passionately held beliefs, e.g. that people are ‘sinful’ and that ‘homosexuality is wrong’?

I’m really keen to hear how Russell answers these and applies the ethic, because this has enormous implications on how we conduct public debate in our society.

Richard Dawkins nails it: the universe doesn’t give a damn

I just saw this tweet from Richard Dawkins:

It seemed as though he was writing a series of tweets responding to and critiquing an anti-intellectual stance which suggests that, ‘if it feels right, or it comforts me, it must be true’. Hence this message that Dawkins tweeted moments before.

I completely agree with the sentiment expressed in these tweets. Comfort without truth is empty!

Yet what really intrigued me was what he said about the universe. The universe doesn’t care about your feelings.

Do you think the universe gives a damn how you feel?

Dawkins has nailed it. In an atheistic universe the universe doesn’t care about us. It doesn’t care if you’re right. It doesn’t care if you’re wrong. It doesn’t care if you suffer. It doesn’t care if you succeed. It just is and that’s it.

This is precisely what Dawkins himself wrote in one of his most famous quotes from River out of Eden,

“In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.”

This describes atheism. In an atheistic universe there is ultimately nothing but blind pitiless indifference. The desire and quest for a better world, for justice, for the ‘good’, for meaning, for hope in the end is doomed.

This doesn’t mean that people don’t seek after them, but that does raise the question of how ‘rational’ their pursuit becomes? Is it rational and reasonable to pursue justice when there ultimately isn’t any? Is it rational and reasonable to promote the ‘good’ when there ultimately isn’t any?

In the end, if Dawkins is right and there is no god, no hope, no meaning and no future, then whether we succeed at life or fail, it doesn’t matter – the universe just doesn’t give a damn.


A Doubter’s Guide to the Bible Review: The significance of a flawed king?

A Doubter’s Guide to the Bible Review: Chapter 6 – The promise and failure of King David

The sixth chapter of John Dickson’s A Doubter’s Guide to the Bible concludes Dickson’s treatment of the Old Testament. There is a lot of material to cover in the Old Testament and Dickson covers some major themes in a generally helpful way. Though ironically in this chapter as he describes flawed characters, his treatment is also somewhat flawed.

King David – a flawed king

The Old Testament is a large and complex series of writings and may be potentially daunting to the doubter. Yet Dickson rightly and helpfully focuses on a major theme of the Old Testament: the ‘anointed one’ or Messiah.

He helpfully explains what a Messiah is (p.104), what his role was to be (i.e. save God’s people (p.105)), who some of these Messiah figures were (e.g. David) and how these Messiahs saved their people in unexpected ways – notably in David defeating Goliath (p.106-108).

Most interesting in Dickson’s treatment was highlighting the ‘paradox of the Messiahs’. This paradox is whilst these ‘Messiah’ kings are ‘chosen by God and anointed with his power, but they are spectacularly sinful’. Dickson makes the fascinating admission that after reading literature from Egypt, Babylon, Greece or Rome, ‘I have never seen this approach [reporting the sinfulness of heroes] to historical writing in anything I’ve come across’. This obviously doesn’t ‘prove’ that the Old Testament is true, but it may allay the concern that the Old Testament is simply apologetic encomium. Dickson rightly suggests that this reflects the main themes of the Old Testament, the failure of Israel and the patient love of God (p.113).

Allaying the concerns of the more skeptical ‘doubter’ who may question the historical existence of King David, Dickson highlights some of the archaeological evidence for David. Dickson references Tel Dan inscription which makes a clear reference to the House of David which convinces many scholars that David was not a mythical character (p.109).

Dickson rightly concludes his chapter outlining the Old Testament promises of a perfect anointed one and Messiah. Thus leading us to the New Testament.

So what do atheists make of this theme – the anointed one/Messiah? Were you familiar/aware of the concept of the ‘Messiah’? What do you make of the way Messiahs were portrayed? And what of the Tel Dan inscription, were you aware of that?

I’d be keen to hear thoughts.


As I mentioned in my introduction, there is a certain degree of irony in a chapter which speaks about the weaknesses of the leaders of Israel. For the chapter itself contains three main frustrations and weaknesses which I felt considerably weakened it.

  1. The chapter lacked a clear unifying thread. Unlike some of the earlier chapters which were much clearer, this one seemed a little haphazard. Was it about leadership? Failure? Humility? Servant leadership? It seemed as though the main point was about the ‘anointed Messiah’, but then why open the chapter with a discussion on Dickson’s own book on humility (pp.101-102)? It seemed unrelated to the main point and hence somewhat obscured later points (which as I’ve re-read are actually clearer). The opening story makes the theme of the chapter confusing and the value of this story also leads me to the second weakness.
  2. The value of personal anecdotes? Dickson included three personal stories in this chapter which were of dubious value. One about his book on humility (pp.101-102), one where he stood in the valley of Elah (p.108) and another about sharing a Psalm with a NFL team (p.112). It was unclear on each occasion how the personal anecdote added much to the main point and indeed felt a little like a bragging travelogue. Dickson uses first person stories to great effect, e.g. in sharing about the different types of literature he’s read (p.113), but these just didn’t seem to fit and distracted, rather than supported the point of the chapter.
  3. The Tel Dan inscription. Whist the Tel Dan inscription is important in giving us greater confidence in the existence of an historical David, care must be taken about how much can be extrapolated from it. Dickson claims that the Tel Dan inscription shows that King David was ‘as flesh and blood as Bar Hadad II’ (p. 109). Yet I’m confident that the scholar he quotes, George Athas, would disagree (and I was pulled up by Athas himself in an essay I wrote when I claimed so much). The Tel Dan description speaks only of the house of David, not of the individual person. I don’t think it’s illegitimate to connect the House of David with the real historical character and it is reasonable to suppose that David isn’t simply a mythical figure. But the Tel Dan inscription alone doesn’t allow us to say with complete confidence that Kind David was a ‘flesh and blood person’. Care must be taken when assessing archaeological evidence like this and ensuring we don’t press the evidence beyond what it tells us.



Unfortunately I found the weaknesses a little distracting (most notably the introduction) and made it harder to draw out the main themes. Nonetheless, Dickson has introduced this important topic and explained, with some of the concerns of doubters in mind, the Old Testament theme of the anointed one and how the Old Testament closes awaiting a perfect Messiah.

How Bart Ehrman thinks atheists make themselves look foolish

I saw this video by Bart Ehrman speaking at an atheist convention responding to the question, “I can’t see any evidence in archaeology or history for an historical Jesus”:

It is devastating critique of the Jesus mythicist position.

Ehrman says,

“There is so much evidence that….this is not even an issue for scholars of antiquity”

“There is no scholar in any college or university in the western world who teaches Classics, Ancient History, New Testament, early Christianity, any related field who doubts that Jesus existed”

Ehrman recocognises that “that is not evidence…but if you want to know about the theory of evolution vs the theory of creationism and every scholar in every reputable institution in the world believes in evolution. It may not be evidence, but if you have a different opinion you’d better have a pretty good piece of evidence yourself.”

This is very similar to the position Matt Dillahunty takes – which I’ve outlined here.

The key piece of evidence for Jesus’ existence?

“The reason for thinking Jesus existed is because he is abundantly attested in early sources”

“Early and independent sources certainly indicate that Jesus existed”

“One author we know about knew Jesus’ brother”

“I’m sorry, I respect your disbelief, but if you want to go where the evidence goes…I think that atheists have done themselves a disservice by jumping on the bandwagon of mythicism, because frankly, it makes you look foolish to the outside world”

Why Ricky Gervais wants to drown everyone

Just before Christmas I saw a couple of comments by Ricky Gervais on Facebook concerning animal welfare. They really piqued my interest as they raised deep questions about the value of human life and judgement on evil human behaviour.

Something to make you angry?

The first post was why the death of a man should cheer you up. The second post came a couple of days later about another animal welfare story.

Judgement of wickedness?

What caught my eye was a comment made by Gervais himself commenting on the morality of such an act:

I’m so ashamed of my species. I wish God really did exist so he drown us all like it says in that mental book. I fucking would. [18.551 likes]

It was fascinating that Gervais, a convinced and celebrated atheist, wanted an ultimate judgement! This is something that atheism can never achieve, but it does resonate deeply within us and was precisely the purpose of the great flood of Noah.

Gervais has spoken about Noah in his stand up comedy. In his routine he was critical of the God wanting to wipe out humanity, accusing him of ‘going straight to genocide’. He was critical of what he thought were petty crimes instead warning God of ‘anger management’.

Yet his recent Facebook comment suggests that maybe God does have a case after all?

Gervais seems to have understood and empathised with God who looked out and ‘saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time. The Lord was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was full of pain’ (Genesis 6:6-7).

Gervais looked out and saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, he was grieved and ashamed.

Perhaps if Gervais’ children’s book on Noah had a picture of a hunter next to a dead animal and a man playing with a dying wolf he’s about to kill, then maybe Gervais might not be so quick at making jokes about the ‘petty’ nature of God’s anger on human wickedness.

Many atheists, including Gervais, criticise the flood of Noah as being an awful, unnecessary,  genocide. Yet deep down it appears that when faced with dreadful human behaviour Gervais has acknowledged that we really do want judgement – and 18,551 people agree.


Why Ricky Gervais delights in the death of a man

Just before Christmas I saw a couple of comments by Ricky Gervais on Facebook concerning animal welfare. They really piqued my interest as they raised deep questions about the value of human life and judgement on evil human behaviour.

Something to cheer you up?

The first came on December 19th when Gervais posted about a hunter who was trampled to death by an elephant:

The value of a human?

Gervais’ lack of empathy or concern for the dead man (and his family) shocked me. How could the death of any man ‘cheer me up’?

Perhaps I could consider the ironic, poetic justice in a killer with a high powered weapon being killed by his defenceless prey? Yet this would seem more tragic than cheery.

The comments also shocked me. A human being was killed and people said that it did cheer them up, saying he deserved it, good riddance. Some comments included,

Also to everyone crying about how people should be sad that a ‘fellow human’ had died. To what degree to you associate yourself to be ‘fellow’ with this man? I certainly don’t feel that me and this man are in the same degree of humanity. I am more than content with myself, and I don’t feel the need to pay money to cause harm and death to exotic animals in order to fuel my ego. He was crushed by a baby elephant, I’m not a religious guy of any sort, but I can’t help but feel a little smug that this man got what he deserved. [295 likes]

poor elephant did he hurt his foot? [169 likes]

Can’t read it, just thinking about how many animals have died at his hands, makes me wanna kill him………………….Oh, that’s right, he’s dead, killed by a beautiful, innocent, majestic baby elephant, well done sweetheart [91 likes]


Now I am firmly against animal hunting and animal cruelty, but what is the value of a human life? Surely at least at some level the death of every human should be mourned?

I do wonder if Gervais’ attitude and the responses challenges the dignity of human life. One commenter said it well,

Why would death cheer me up? Are you placing the life of animals over human? It’s one thing to want to protect animals. That is noble. But to celebrate the death of a human for any reason is perverted.

One person replied to this particular comment with,

“In this case yes.fuck this piece of shit.”

Wow again!

This whole story is one of modern tragedy.

  • Tragic that people kill endangered animals, for sport, money or whatever reason.
  • Tragic that people commission hunters like Gibson to kill endangered animals.
  • Tragic that this man was killed.
  • Tragic that so many people think his death is something to cheer you up

I thought that modern atheists claim that the rejection of religion and adoption of atheism leads to moral improvement (even enlightenment) and justice and equality for all. Yet reading this thread and Ricky’s delight in the death of a human made me seriously question this. It appears that there are some more equal than others. I agreed with one commenter who said this:

This thread makes me very sad. You’re all about not harming animals yet spout the most vile things about a man dying. I COMPLETELY disagree with his hunting ideology and think trophy hunting is abominable, but some of these comments make you no better a human being than this man was, cretins

2015 in review

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 23,000 times in 2015. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 9 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Debate: Is God really there? Robert Martin vs Raphael Lataster (part 1)

In November last year I participated in a debate on the topic, ‘Is God really there?’ It was hosted by the Sydney Atheists.

The first part of the debate is now on YouTube. Would love your thoughts.

Christmas for atheists: is there joy?

I am frustrated that things have been a little quiet on this blog the past couple of months. I have plenty of things to share and to think about, but I’ll have to save that up until the new year. I’m also going to share some thoughts about a debate I was a part of in November (preparing for that was another reason for the relative lack of activity on this blog).

In the meantime I did want to wish the readers of this blog a Happy Christmas.

I look forward to even more discussion and engagement on this blog next year. I do appreciate all the comments and responses (and I do mean to respond to them all in time).

Joy to the World?

Anyway, as I was just finishing off my Christmas shopping this morning I heard the song ‘Joy to the World’ being played in one of the shops. It struck me as somewhat odd that a non-religious shop would be playing a song about the joy that the coming of Jesus brings.

The Christian certainly has reason to celebrate (or commemorate) joy at Christmas. This is because despite our personal circumstances, failures or situation, a savior has been born. One to bring hope, forgiveness and a fresh start. The joy associated with the coming of this savior moved Isaac Watts to write one of the most popular hymns of Christmas – Joy to the World. 

What about atheists?

So I was wondering, what do atheists have to celebrate at Christmas? Do atheists even celebrate Christmas?

I appreciate that there are other things to be thankful for and be joyful for apart from the coming of a savior. But what if the circumstances of my life are not positive, then what is there to celebrate? If life has been tough or painful, can there be joy? In what way?

I’m not suggesting that atheists can’t have joy at Christmas, but I’m interested to see what there is to celebrate. I’d be keen to hear some thoughts from atheists who celebrate or don’t celebrate Christmas. Is there joy?

Image courtesy of Teerapun at