My debate notes, for the podcast with Jason Burns (that never was)

Some people who listened to the podcast, which was supposed to be a debate between myself and Jason Burns, but which he failed to attend, were kind enough to ask for the text of my opening remarks. So here they are.

To be fair to Jason, he was in another Google Hangout with DPR Jones when the time which was arranged for him to meet instead with us came and went. I don’t know if he plans on rectifying this any time soon, but he is certainly welcome to do so on a future podcast.

He has also responded on his YouTube channel to my opening statement, after watching a recording of it, which you can see by clicking this link. In his reply, he appeared to be genuinely receptive to what me, and my Fundamentally Flawed friends, have been trying to explain to him for some time — so, if that’s all that was achieved, I’m happy to have done my bit.

Thanks again. Jim.

Is Christianity True?

The subject of tonight’s debate sounds simple enough; is Christianity true? But to answer that question honestly, we need to define exactly what we mean by Christianity. This is a much more complicated question, because to some people Christianity is about what they believe to be true, and to others it’s about what they believe they can prove is true.

For instance, there are plenty of people who would describe themselves as Christian if they were asked to fill out some basic information about themselves on a national survey, or in a hospital admissions form, or if they wanted to get married in a church.

They were educated in a school where Christian prayers were held on a morning; the local vicar or priest presided over special ceremonies at different times of the year, or because they have attended church with their family every week since they were a young child, and believe that the shared moral values of that community are one and the same thing as Christianity itself.

They might also believe that you can’t be a part of a loving and socially binding community unless all the members of that community share the same Christian beliefs. But many of them also know that there is a difference between what someone might believe, and what someone can prove. They are under no illusions about the stories in the bible being metaphorical; that the story of Adam and Eve, for instance, when properly understood, is a first century attempt at explaining the meaning of life, and how we came to be here. They understand that to believe it is a story which literally happened to two actual living human beings in history, is to completely misunderstand what the story is trying to tell us. They understand, in other words, the meaning of the word ‘Faith’.

People who recognise themselves in this group are referred to broadly as ‘Social Christians’. From a young age, Social Christians memorise the words to certain prayers, and as adults they regurgitate these same words at weddings, funerals, and regular Sunday service — kneeling and standing at the allotted times during the service at the same time as everyone else.

Many well meaning, perfectly good people in the Social Christian group don’t concern themselves too much with the finer details behind the cultural traditions which underpin these rituals, ceremonies, incantations, and sacred rites of passage. Probing questions about God, the teachings of Jesus, and the historical accuracy of the bible itself, are often compartmentalised into “those parts of religion which require further reading” — reading and learning which, in their busy lives balancing work with bringing up children, or managing their professional careers, they simply don’t have the time to study themselves with any serious depth.

Despite this, Social Christians comfort themselves with the notion that, while they don’t have the time to look for the answers to the deep and meaningful questions about life the universe and everything, which they are told a belief in Christianity can provide, somewhere deep within the hierarchy of their church and its wider affiliations, there must be some serious theologians and bible scholars, who do in fact understand the answers to these questions. They place their faith in the learne’d bishops, cardinals, senior pastors, and theologians, who run their church, even when these people appear to give contradictory or unsatisfactory answers to some of the really big questions.

So, from a certain point of view, if we ask the question of tonight’s debate ‘Is Christianity True?’ according to the values and beliefs of this social group, the answer would have to be yes; Christianity is true. Why? Well firstly, these people have no reason to believe that they are being lied to when they are told Christianity provides a space for them which deals with spiritual matters, as opposed to material concerns.

Christianity of this kind, is also a ready made social group, with people who understand each other’s worries; when their car decides to break down on the same day their mortgage payments are due, or their kids need yet another pair of new shoes for school. This kind of Social Christianity gives ordinary people, all around the world, an unbreakable safety-net; ready to catch them when they stumble and fall from the high wire of life.

So why, we have to ask, would anybody not want to believe in that? Surely you’d have to be some kind of nihilist, who doesn’t believe in anything at all, to dismiss that kind of belief? A belief in the goodness of people.

But the truth of this kind of Christianity even goes one better than that, because it’s not just about the small things on a person to person basis, which makes the social cohesion of the church a force for general good. Catholic relief organisations alone raise hundreds of millions of pounds every year to aid the poorest of the poor in the world. They go into dangerous regions to feed the hungry and home the homeless. Indeed the very selflessness of the people who do this work — literally doing what they are told in the New Testament they must do in order to enter the kingdom of heaven, is an area which no atheist I know, and certainly not myself personally, would ever seek to criticise — even though we could have an entirely separate debate about what exactly is meant by “the kingdom of heaven”, and why you would want to spend an eternity in such a place to begin with.

And yet my opponent this evening, Jason Burns, has repeatedly stated that atheists (all of us mind you) stand against the very values I have just made abundantly clear represent the best of human nature. Indeed, Jason Burns represents a sadly growing breed of Christian fundamentalists today, whose fingers are planted so firmly in their ears, that they don’t even hear the harsh criticisms of their actions which come from other Christians, let alone from those of us who were raised religious, but who now hold ourselves to a far better standard of truth, than a belief in belief itself.

Christian fundamentalists have, in recent years, had this harsh light of truth shone onto their actions, beliefs, and teachings — many of which make a mockery of those very people in the church who dedicate their lives to believing in the works attributed to the alleged Christ in the New Testament.

They betray their own in some extremely disturbing, and in many cases very deliberately antagonistic ways.

For example, we now know, thanks to freedom of information requests filed with the authorities in the United States, that this dirty underbelly of Fundamentalist Christianity, have founded hundreds of extreme right wing political organisations, who enjoy tax exemption because of their pseudo-religious status.

These organisations have funded everything from the war on women’s reproductive rights, and the conservative led opposition to universal health care, to demands for pre-enlightenment notions about biology, chemistry and physics to be taught in state run schools, instead of science.

We fight against these attacks on our civil liberties, right alongside many of our Social Christian friends, who no more equate atheism with nihilism, than we on the non-religious side equate the Vatican sanctioned systematic rape of children, with the values of the vast majority of law abiding, right thinking Catholics, who are as appalled by these evil acts as the current Pope, who replaced a German theologian who actively protected those who carried out these atrocities, rather than obey the very creed he was sworn to uphold.

Not that crimes against children are the exclusive preserve of Catholic clerics. In Washington State, in November of this year, Larry and Carri Williams were given life imprisonment, for the beating and starving to death of their adopted daughter Hana. They were the fourth set of parents to be convicted of such crimes, in the United States alone, who cited the advice of a book called “To Train Up a Child” written by Michael and Debi Pearl, of the No Greater Joy Ministries, as a justification for their sick depravity.

This book, which claims to present biblical justification for its methods of raising a child to be a “good Christian” includes amongst its advice the use of whips on the bare skin of infants only a few months old, and insists that, quote, “Parents who don’t whip their babies into complete submission are indifferent, lazy, careless and neglectful”, and are guilty therefore of “creating a Nazi”.

The question here is, how fair would it be for me to insist that, if my opponent is serious about answering the question of tonight’s debate honestly, that he must justify the teachings of this perverted book, and the bible which inspired its writers to carry out such wicked acts on their own children?

Now, there are many who might argue that, since my opponent this evening recently described himself as being, “The UK’s foremost theologian”, that he should find it easy to justify the slow and painful torture of infants at the hands of people who believe as fervently in their heart of hearts as he does, that they have special permission from Yahweh, which gives them a get-out-of-jail-free card when it comes to questions such as this, and that it is therefore perfectly fair for me to ask him to explain such evil acts, using only his much claimed “vast scholarly knowledge of the bible” as a means of doing so.

But how many times do we atheists hear it said, that we are evil and morally bereft, simply because Stalin or Pol Pot were themselves anti-religious. And how often do we have to point out the ignorance of such statements, and remind those who continue nevertheless to churn them out, that for every psychopath who will use the first thing which springs into their twisted minds to justify their actions, there are millions of people around the world who spread peace, love, and understanding despite that they do not hold onto any religious notions about the origins of altruism, compassion, and morality?

How often do we have to explain that to use these kinds of false guilt by association tactics, is to stoop into using precisely the same kind of tricks we constantly find being used against us; and should therefore be above using ourselves?

And what of the values of Secular Humanism which we do uphold? We are often accused, after-all, of believing in nothing.

Well, as far as charitable works go, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, for example, is specifically set-up, using the vast fortune of the Microsoft billionaire, himself an atheist, to eradicate some of the most virulent and life threatening diseases known to man. It does this by a focused application of methods proven to be effective, not by wishful thinking, but by the rigorous and true methods of science, and the best which 21st century medicine can offer.

In some of the most war torn and dangerous places on Earth, secular charities are given unique access to those who need their services the most, precisely because they are not affiliated with any church or religious group.

Ask yourself, how many children with Muslim parents would be left to die of treatable diseases, if the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation, or Doctors Without Borders, only hired Christian missionaries — many of whom undoubtedly have humanitarian concerns at the forefront of their work, but who nevertheless side-load their efforts with the handing out of bibles and preaching about Jesus, when they do their work on behalf of religious charities?

So, I won’t be asking my opponent this evening to justify the evils which are carried out by Christians, in order to answer the topic of the debate, “Is Christianity True”? Neither will I ask him to explain, if as I expect him to assert that the answer to this question is “Yes”, how it is possible then for so many people around the world, who do not believe in any gods, let alone the specific God of the particular religion which Mr. Burns just so happens to belong to, nevertheless manage to live perfectly good and peaceful lives?

I won’t be asking this, primarily because we already know what the fundamentalist’s answer to this question is, and I’m sure that there are as many people watching this debate who are as tired as I am, of being told that this is because whether we atheists like it or not, we are just as incapable of escaping Yahweh’s iron grip as those who willingly grovel before the only book which claims He exists in the first place, despite that we can dismiss the bible as the bronze-age fiction it has been repeatedly proven to be.

No, the only thing which Jason has to do, in order to claim the sort of victory in this debate which he deserves, as opposed to the one he is already claiming to have won before it even took place, is accept that in the real world, the only things which matter have nothing to do with what you believe, but are to do with how you behave.

In the incestuous world of internet point scoring and petty squabbles, where professional liars like Tim, the self-styled Bible Thumping Wingnut, or Eric Hovind, Sye ten Bruggencate, and William Lane Craig — flourish in their efforts to distort and divide us into easy to attack stereotypes — all Jason Burns has to do, to be found in favour of the motion, and show that he is beyond using the sorts of tactics adopted by the lunatic fringe, is acknowledge the truth of the kind of Social Christianity which me, and many others like me were raised to believe in, because it is precisely this type of Christianity which will save the fundamentalists from themselves.

When I was a young man, sitting in the pews at church, at those family weddings, funerals and regular Sunday services — going through the motions because I believed it made me a good person — I did so because I saw what forgiveness and a peaceful understanding of one another can achieve, from people who learned their life lessons the hard way. My grandmother raised four children on the good will and community spirit of a once vibrant Catholic church, which today has fewer and fewer parishioners who regularly attend Sunday Mass, and which no longer has a priest in permanent residence.

But where the fundamentalists see declining church numbers in this country and elsewhere as a portent to the end times, we see it as a great victory for common sense — because it means that, finally, people are beginning to understand that caring for one another, and having a strong sense of social responsibility, are not values exclusive to Christianity, but are the best argument for Secular Humanism it is possible to make; that you don’t need to believe in things which aren’t true, in order to live a good and fulfilled life.

The problem for Jason, and his ilk, is that in acknowledging these shared values, they must also acknowledge that, continuing to call it Christianity at this point, merely highlights the futility of seeking to mislabel those aspects which define a good life well lived, simply in order to be seen, like a modern day Pharisee, to be holier than holy — to be seen by ones peers as being better than someone who believes in things which can be proven to be true, simply by saying you believe in things which cannot.

So I would like to invite my opponent to accept that, from our point of view, the tactics he employs of simply lying to himself and other people about who we are, as atheists, does nothing to preach the message of the gospel he believes in. If he can do this, he will easily claim the victory which only he thinks it is necessary for him to win in tonight’s debate.

Sadly, however, I rather suspect he will refuse to do this. I suggest that, instead, what we’re going to hear from Jason, and his all broadcast and no receive Cosa Nostra of sheep in wolves clothing, not just tonight but in the coming weeks, is a repeat of that same demand, which is made of those of us on the non-religious benches over and over again; to explain away a string of unrelated, out-of-context anecdotes, about personal experiences, and the second and third hand accounts of these experiences, by authors already-on-board the lucrative Christian publishing gravy train; and those writers of fan fiction which grease it’s wheels; who are as oblivious to the real world which science has revealed to all of us, as they are blind to the fact that their entire modus operandi is seen, by the lights of the modern communication age, for the blatant scam that is, was, and always will be.

We’re not going to hear anything from Jason, about how his twisted version of Christianity accounts for the mountain of scientific evidence which points to the universe being billions of years old, or the Earth itself being abundant with life, precisely because of the natural mechanisms described in astonishing detail by evolutionary biology, or indeed the complementary sciences of physics, cosmology, chemistry, and geology — all of which prove beyond any reasonable doubt that page one, chapter one, verse one of the bible itself simply isn’t true.

But in the world of Jason Burns, and other fundamentalists like him, none of these matters of fact are of any concern.

They are so focused on their complete mischaracterisation of what the word ‘atheist’ itself actually means, that when we shout from the rooftops about how amazing the universe is precisely because there are no gods — they simply assume our efforts to point out this basic fact must be a trick; designed to cheat them into abandoning their emotionally comforting yet logically fallacious, carefully annotated collection of call and response received opinions, which seldom bear any relationship to the facts.

In their world of internal dialogue, where the existence of devils and demons is accepted without question, but the intellectual honesty of the scientific method is fair game, to be torn apart until it is stripped of the facts which prevent it from fitting the narrative they wish to spin — by our simple honesty in admitting that we do not see any evidence for the existence of a supernatural aspect, we are admitting that we did not find the evidence planted for us in the places where they manufactured it.

Their cookie cutter production line process, of squinting in a dimly lit room at the very same sacred texts which we have had quoted at us, as if we haven’t heard them literally chapter and verse a thousand times before, is in it’s very failure to sway us towards their twisted goals, merely yet more proof of what they already believed about us, before they pretended to listen to what we have to say.

So, in closing, I simply say this to all the Jason Burns out there watching and listening to tonight’s debate; we know what you believe and why you believe it. But the childish games you’ve played in the past year alone haven’t even begun to convince us why we must believe it too. In fact all you’ve achieved is the exact opposite.

And yet persuade us of your claims you must — not simply to justify the uncountable number of times you have misquoted what we have actually said to you, and said about you, and about the shallow and ignorant non-arguments you make against our deliberate and unceasing campaign against the lies you teach to children; or in your endless YouTube diatribes about how “evil”, “nasty”, and “dirty” we are, simply because we pay attention to the details you would prefer went away.

No. You must explain why we should believe what you believe for no other reason, than if your version of Christianity really is true, it is your moral duty to convince us of it — not with your words, but with your actions.

But, as Spiderman once said, with great power comes great responsibility, so you must also recognise that, by definition, it must also be our moral responsibility to save you from becoming the very thing you fear the most, because we share this planet together whether you like it or not. None of us exist in a vacuum.

And so I invite my opponent tonight, to accept what far too many have refused to do before. Listen to us, when we tell you in all sincerity, Social Christian, Secular Humanist, Agnostic, Atheist, and all points in-between, together with one undivided voice of reason — your brand of Fundamentally Flawed religious extremism is not only completely untrue, it is dangerous; and if you had any real understanding of why we despise what religious fundamentalism does to retard human progress, in it’s total and complete ignorance of what Einstein, Turing, Dirac, Pauli, Newton, Darwin and Jesus wanted to teach all of us, you wouldn’t want it to be true either.

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