Dialogue Without Diatribe

How can we learn to disagree without being disagreeable?

I was recently speaking at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, where I’d been asked to address the topic “Does Religion Poison Everything?” During the lecture, one student at the back of the lecture room gesticulated wildly every time I made a point with which he disagreed. At the end of the talk, there was a time of Q&A and this student was among the first to raise his hand. He began by self-identifying as an atheist and then proceeded to ask a series of increasingly complex questions about moral philosophy. After the event was over, the student found his way to the front and continued his questions and we went to and fro for about half an hour across a range of issues: Can you be good without God? Do you need God for moral values? What does the good life look like? Finally the student shook my hand and said, “I’ve disagreed with almost everything you’ve said in the last 90 minutes. But this has been the most fascinating conversation I can remember and you’ve given me much to think about. Thank you.”

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Can We Be Good Without God?


Some of what follows is drawn from chapter 8 of my book, The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist. If you enjoyed it, please do consider buying the full book, which is available both as a paperback and an ebook. It’s available online, or from all good bookstores.


A few years ago, I was having lunch with an old friend in a vegetarian pizza restaurant in London. Now I’m no fan of vegetarian food—I think I’m persuaded by the argument that the word “vegetarian” is derived from an old German word that means “bad hunter”. However, my friend, Garth, had just started dating a devout Buddhist, so he was not merely eating vegetarian, but vegan.

Halfway through the meal, I looked up from my lentil and sawdust pizza to see Garth surreptitiously produce a small plastic container from his pocket: he opened it and shook out the contents over his pizza.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Tuna,” he hissed in a whisper.

“Tuna?” I said.

“Shhhh!” Garth hissed. “Not every vegan takes the liberal approach that I do. Besides,” he added, “I don’t know what all the fuss is. So I eat fish. Big deal. Fish doesn’t count as meat, does it? It can’t be meat if it lives in water.”

“You claim to be a vegan and you eat fish?” I asked.

“Yes. And prawns, crab, shellfish, lobster, that kind of thing.”

“Strangest vegan I’ve ever met,” I said.

“Duck, too,” he added.

“Duck?!?”

“Well, they live in water don’t they.”

“Let me get this straight,” I said, “ you’re claiming to be a vegan—telling your girlfriend, your colleagues, and your family that you’re a vegan, subjecting your friends to vegan restaurants—all the while chowing down on anything that moves. Why not just come clean and admit you’re an omnivore like the rest of us: it’s the hypocrisy that galls me.”

Hypocrisy?” Garth said, looking genuinely offended. “I thought you’d be more, well, progressive. And besides, who says that you get to define what the word ‘vegan’ means? Who died and pronounced you King of the Dictionary? I say ‘vegan’ to me means ‘occasionally eats meat when there is a vowel in the month’. How dare you tell me your meaning of the word trumps mine.”

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God and Father Christmas

In recent years, atheism has enjoyed something of a resurgence, especially with the rise of the so called “New Atheism”. That term was first coined back in 2006 to describe the group of media-savvy atheists—men like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and the late Christopher Hitchens—whose books attacking religion in general and Christianity in particular have sold by the truckload. Yet despite its popularity, much of contemporary atheism thrives on poor arguments and cheap soundbites, making claims that simply don’t stand up to the slightest scrutiny. Like a cheaply made cardigan, they’re full of loose threads that quickly unravel if you tug them.

Let me illustrate with an example from New Atheism’s founding father, Richard Dawkins, whose books have sold millions of copies. Dawkins thinks religion isn’t merely wrong, but insane, that those who believe in God are quite literally deluded. Faith in God is as crazy as belief in—well, let’s allow Dawkins to speak for himself:

Holy Proof

Today I’m giving space to Sheridan Voysey, whose new book Resilient: Your Invitation to a Jesus-Shaped Life launches on Wednesday (don’t miss the free giveaways here). Resilient is a book of 90 readings tracing the theme of resilience through the Sermon on the Mount and beyond. Here’s an excerpt.


“But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:44–45)

In his book The Evidence for God, Loyola University philosopher Paul Moser offers a fascinating case for the existence of God. His basic argument goes like this:

If there is a God, this God would need to be worthy of worship. (We may worship lesser gods like Thor or money, but that doesn’t make them worthy of worship.) To be worthy of worship, a God would need to be loving—even to the point of loving his enemies. And if there was such a God, this God would want his creatures to love each other too, as love always wants love shared.

Moser then asks if there’s evidence for such a God in human experience. As humans clearly have a selfish bent, what accounts for their loving acts toward others? Why does our conscience often feel pricked when we’re selfish? How can people like Wade Watts or Martin Luther King Jr. radically love their enemies? Moser suggests these experiences are evidence for the God of Christian belief. And, Moser adds, as we respond to his invitation of relationship, God transforms us into his loving character, proving his existence even more.

The Loch Ness Monster’s Moustache

(or: The Terrible Consequences of Really Bad Arguments)


What follows is a sample first chapter of my book, The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist. If you enjoyed it, please do consider buying the full book, which is available both as a paperback and an ebook. It’s available online, or from all good bookstores. (You can also download a PDF of this sample chapter).


I remember the first time that I saw the bus. An old friend of mine had telephoned me out of the blue a few days before, and in a conspiratorial whisper had hissed: “You need to get down to London. There are atheist buses here”.

“Atheist buses?” I replied, bleary eyed. It was long past midnight. “How much have you drunk, Tom?”

“Only four pints,” Tom indignantly replied.

“Well, I’ve always personally thought that the slightly devil-may-care attitude to road safety of many London bus drivers tends to bring people closer to God, rather than drive them away.”

“This bus didn’t try to drive me away, it tried to drive over me. Admittedly I was lying semi-comatose in the road at the time—”

“I knew it!”

“—at Hammersmith and the atheist bus almost ran me over.”

“You do realise,” I explained, in the patient tone I reserve for small children and airline check in agents, “that just because a London bus almost flattens a liberal Anglican lying on a zebra crossing, that doesn’t necessarily mean that Richard Dawkins is resorting to hit-and-run attempts to keep the religious affiliation statistics favourable.”

“I’m used to being nearly run over, I’ve holidayed in France many times,”[1] snapped Tom. “But this was an atheist bus I tell you.”

“You’re sure about this?”

“Yes! Now come down to London and see. Besides, you owe me a beer from that time when you lost the bet about the Archbishop’s beard.”[2]

And so it was that I found myself, a few weeks later on a rainy July afternoon, standing among a crowd of damp tourists outside Oxford Circus tube station. We watched the traffic as cars, taxis, lorries, and the occasional sodden cyclist trundled past. And, then, at last, a bus rounded the corner. A big, red London bus sporting a huge advertisement on the side which announced in large, friendly letters: “There’s Probably No God. Now Stop Worrying and Enjoy Your Life”.

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A Little Summer Reading

One of the things I love about summer is the opportunity afforded by the slightly quieter pace to tackle the pile of reading that’s been growing on my desk over the last year. Having a seven-week old baby puts a cramp on the quiet reading time, but here are a few of the things I’ve managed to get my teeth into in the past few weeks. There are some great books here: do check a few of them out.

The Smuggled Value Judgement

The English village of Hayle is typically picturesque, a small cluster of cottages set around a harbour, looking out to the tranquil waters of St. Ive’s bay. But like so much of England, layers of darker history lie beneath the pretty-as-a-postcard facade. Hidden behind the undergrowth in the garden of what was once the local youth hostel, yawns the mouth of a tunnel. Stoop to step inside its cool darkness and one can walk for hundreds of yards, eventually emerging beneath the cliffs on a nearby cove. Although dank and musty now, local legend identifies this as an ancient “Smuggler’s Tunnel”, once used for bringing illegal contraband ashore under cover of darkness.

The coastal towns and villages of England are full of tales of such tunnels, many dating back centuries to when smuggling was at its height. On moonless nights, sailing ships would pull quietly into bays like that at Hayle, offload their illicit cargo into smaller boats and bring it ashore. There the contraband would be hauled across the sands, carried through tunnels, or even manhandled up sheer cliff faces to a waiting line of locals who would spirit it away. Whole communities benefited from the smuggling trade and the customs men, whose job it was to thwart the black market trade, were often foiled by a stone wall of silence. As Rudyard Kipling, who grew up on the English coast and knew these stories well, wrote in his poem “A Smuggler’s Song”:

If you wake at midnight, and hear a horse’s feet,
Don’t go drawing back the blind, or looking in the street.
Them that ask no questions isn’t told a lie.
Watch the wall, my darling, while the Gentlemen go by!
Five and twenty ponies,
Trotting through the dark—
Brandy for the Parson,
‘Baccy for the Clerk;
Laces for a lady, letters for a spy,
And watch the wall, my darling, while the Gentlemen go by![1]

When you heard the sound of horses, or the whispers of voices late at night, you were supposed to look the other way, ask no questions, ‘watch the wall’, as the contraband was smuggled past.

horseToday, the smuggling business is alive and well, only it is not tobacco or brandy that are secreted past, but value judgements. You see, whenever a writer tells you that something is good and laudable, or that something is bad and condemnable, there is an important question you must ask before you consider whether or not to believe them. What worldview do they subscribe to and does that worldview support the value judgement they are making, or are they having to smuggle it in from outside, hoping that everybody will look the other way?

The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist: Now Available for Pre-Order

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“A breath, a gust, a positive whoosh of fresh air. Made me laugh, made me think, made me cry.” — Adrian Plass

In the last decade, atheism has leapt from obscurity to the front pages: producing best- selling books, making movies, and plastering adverts on the side of buses. There’s an energy and a confidence to contemporary atheism: many people now assume that a godless scepticism is the default position, indeed the only position for anybody wishing to appear educated, contemporary, and urbane. Atheism is hip, religion is boring.

Shining Like Stars

I recall with clarity a night a few years ago when my wife and  I were on vacation in southern California. We’d spent the day hiking in the mountains and, in the afternoon, had descended to explore the mysterious and ancient landscape of Mono Lake—one of the oldest lakes in North America. Pinned to the information board by the parking lot was a sign advertising a talk by a Park Ranger that evening: “Stars over Mono Lake”. And so it was, at 9pm, we found ourselves lying on the ancient sands, looking up a night sky in which a million points of light glowed with an intensity I’d never seen before. The air was cold and clear, the hauntingly beautiful desert silence broken only by the occasional howl of a lonely coyote, cry of an insomniac gull, or scream for help of a distant and woefully lost tourist.

The Measure of Mankind

One bright spring morning in the early 1630s, a wealthy Dutch merchant was delighted to receive a visit from a sailor bringing a tip-off that a very valuable cargo had just arrived at the docks. As a reward for the information, the merchant presented the sailor with a fine red herring. Whilst the merchant was distracted for a moment, the sailor saw, lying among the debris on the shop counter, what he thought was an onion. Thinking it would go nicely with his fish breakfast, the sailor surreptitiously slipped it into his pocket. That, however, was no onion — it was a Semper Augustus tulip bulb and this was the height of the “Dutch Tulip Craze”, which saw bulbs valued higher than gold and sold for extraordinary sums of money. That one bulb alone was worth three thousand florins (over $1,000)! As soon as he spotted it missing, the furious merchant launched a search of the docks. Finally the sailor was found, sitting happily on a coil of ropes, chewing the last mouthful of his herring and “onion”.[1]