The Big Debate – Who Were the Sneerers?

On Thursday 19th Nov 2015 the Stormont Hotel hosted a discussion on the question ‘Is Christianity holding Northern Ireland back?’ To ensure a fair debate a third of the tickets were allocated to local churches, a third to the group Atheist Ireland and the final third to the general public. I attended the debate alongside a number of my friends from Atheist NI.

Whilst I appreciated the event I feel that it suffered from several flaws. The topic of the debate, Christianity’s influence on Northern Ireland, was rarely addressed and the discussion continually occupied ground already churned into sucking slough by past debaters. I feel that the vast majority of spectators will have thought their way through the obvious early stages of issues such as if morality exists without divine authority and whether or not the story of Noah’s Ark is absurd by now, so the discourse has to get to a higher level for it to be worth a trip out.

There was also a needless degree of rancour. Some of this came from the audience, but much of it began with, and was exacerbated by, comments from the stage.

As an atheist and a fan of Michael Nugent’s blog for some years now I do hold bias in his favour. Trying my hardest to ignore my own partisan leanings I still feel that it was he who made sincere and informed attempts to grapple with the advertised topic, and that it was he who admitted to the difficulties of his own position (that morality was a human project and work in progress, that the fate of humanity would be the same as that of other species, and that an officially atheist state wasn’t desirable).

He is also civil. Michael Nugent has the skill and charisma to hotly pin someone down on a point of extreme pedantry without getting unpleasant about it.

The Big Debate

The same cannot be said for his opponent, the Reverend David Robertson. Recently Rev Robertson has published a blog post about the event, and whilst he accepts his own frustrations may have led him to speak poorly a degree of denial and inaccurate placing of blame mars his apparent attempt to learn from the experience.

Rev Robertson says that on his way to Northern Ireland he contemplated Psalm 89, in which God promises the biblical David the strength to “crush his foes and strike down his enemies”. He goes on to say that he took this scripture as a promise from the Lord, and that he was surely going to need it. He may have had the upcoming Thursday evening in mind, as he later describes it as “a lively one, with a clear majority of the audience coming from an atheistic/secularist perspective”.

Does this shed light on his combative attitude? I’m not one to shy away from the joys of violent hyperbolic metaphor, but to put things back into perspective – he was there to make the case that Christianity had not held Northern Ireland back. This would require no vanquishing of enemies and oppressors. No one had to be struck down and crushed. He had to speak to 400 peaceful human beings, many of whom were broadly sympathetic to his position … or at least they were at the beginning.

The Good Samaritan
“Wait! Are you a Protestant Samaritan or a Catholic Samaritan?” Photo by Bennylin.

Good God! Even I, an atheist since the age of nine, could start to make a case: narratives of forgiveness and reconciliation exist in Christianity, parables such as the Good Samaritan are explicitly about seeing the humanity in those we might subject to sectarian hatred, and the prominence of Christians who can be seen to have exacerbated tensions in Northern Ireland (such as Rev Doc Paisley) can be put down more to the media’s habit of publicising news of dramatic extremists rather than typical representatives. It’s not hard to find stories about professional Christians who led by example when it came to reaching across the barricades.

That would make the genesis of a reasonable rhetorical defence in my eyes. It wouldn’t escape objections; I would raise many to it myself. But a serious and pertinent conversation on the topic could result from such an approach.

So why did it have to get so acrimonious? Why, by the end of the debate, was Rev Robertson coming under fire not only from those who he feels were scoffing at him and his Lord, but from those few members of the audience who spoke as Christians?

Early into his talk Rev Robertson stressed the desirability of debate with someone who argues with the position of their opponents, rather than the position they would like their opponents to hold. I agree. But then why did he jump to so many false assumptions regarding what he thought it meant to be an atheist? I’m one, and I can’t say I’ve ever thought that a utopian society could be achieved through eradication of religion, but to hear Rev Robertson speak it must be my cherished belief.

No. To make clear to Rev Robertson – we are not all aspiring Marxists or Jacobins-in-waiting.

In fact, he must have known this himself because he cited John Gray as an atheist philosopher worth contemplating. He probably did this as John Gray talks about the pitfalls of faith in utopias, even in progress as a general concept. He thinks that no teleology exists outside of science, and he argues the case with vigour.

Not only is John Gray an atheist philosopher, he is a popular one and his warnings about overstating progress were echoed in the arguments made from the other side of the stage. As previously mentioned Michael was no fan of atheistic states, and tied the fate of humans to that of animals (the central argument of books such as Straw Dogs, by non-other than John Gray).

So, being told that we should argue in good faith by someone who subsequently fails to demonstrate the ability to listen to the positions of his own opponents – that’s something that will irritate an honest spectator.

And being told we naively believe in the attainment of post-religious utopias is also irritating.

And worse was to come. Rev Robertson, apparently under the belief that charity begins and ends with the pious, challenged people to provide him of an example of an atheist run food drive. On being informed that exactly such a thing would be occurring at the next Atheist NI meet he made a snarky aside about the secular “copying” of Christianity.

Now in Rev Robertson’s eyes it may be that as atheists we all face eternal perdition, but it isn’t his place to damn us if we do and damn us if we don’t.

Besides which – please show us the patent!

Rudston Monolith
The Rudston Monolith predates the surrounding churchyard by over 2500 years. Photo by Tony Grist.

Just because one paradigm edges into the territory of an older one it does not follow that it must reinvent the wheel. Dozens of churches incorporate the standing stones, green men and Sheela-na-gigs of the pagan temples that stood before them, and Christianity owes much of its trappings and tradition to Greek and Roman notions of religion, as well as Judaism and Zoroastrianism. Christianity built its structures on top of the foundations of religions it ousted, and those seeking to fill the vacuum of a faith which increasingly fails to find favour will be able to do the same.

Another double standard was in Rev Robertson’s inconsistent playing of the offence card. One minute he was admonishing Michael for his putative “racism” regarding different attitudes in different parts of the USA, but when under fire for sweeping generalisations of his own Rev Robertson warned the audience from taking offence “like people from the south east of England” (given my own Berkshire origins I found this particularly wounding – fetch me my fainting couch!).

I did feel for Rev Robertson when one of the few Christians willing to speak did so in order to condemn his lack of grace. It was fair, but it was harsh. However, I am somewhat bemused to notice on his blog that he wishes she had saved her criticism for a private moment rather than making a public “attack”, and that he deems her as lacking in grace herself as a result of this. So what sympathy I had for him has vanished.

Wouldn’t it be lovely if no one from our own side ever embarrassed us? I mean, as an atheist at the debate I didn’t particularly wish to be associated with those few people who made a public fumble of points I could have expressed better, or who voiced complaints I didn’t think worth raising, but that’s just my tough luck is it not?

As for the young lady in question, she claimed to have attended alongside her non-believing friend, she probably felt that many of Rev Robertson’s sweeping remarks about atheists didn’t apply to her experience or her friendship, and therefore felt that he did a bad job. This may have been doubly felt if she expected the Christian participant to speak for her position in a respectable and convincing manner.

In that circumstance I might also feel moved to berate someone who I wanted to see defend our shared perspective with aplomb, rather than put on a self-contradictory, ignorant and frankly uncivil show in comparison to the atheist debater.

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