Uh Oh, a liberal Atheist writes about liberal Christians, this can’t end well

this weekend I attended the Greenbelt festival and various thoughts came uninvited into my head about the presumed battle between the faithful and the faithless. here are some of them. This is a reflection of this conversation in the UK, i realise that readers outside the UK might have a very different experience of the religion versus atheism discussion/feud/fist fight (note – as usual please remember this is not journalism so no editorial process has taken place – expect poor spelling, ugly punctuation or peculiar phrasing, my brain has an erratic toolbar) 


Does it matter to me if someone is religious?


Does it matter to me if someone justifies their cruelty or oppression to others because of their religion?


Does it matter to me if someone is a creationist?


Does it matter to me if a creationist insists it should be taught with science at school?



I have just been at the Greenbelt Festival in Cheltenham, a liberal Christian festival that celebrates music and the arts and hosts many discussions on human rights and the environment. Some people are surprised that I perform at the festival as I am an atheist. Just because I am an atheist does not mean that I have no desire or interest in speaking to Christians or that I immediately look down on them as they hold a faith position. When I tour I rarely go on stage and say “all the Christians, Jews and Muslims in the house say ‘yeah!’…ha ha, now I’ve found you, get out, my words are not for you”.


I think it is very important that there is a dialogue between those of religious faith and those without faith. Despite belief in a deity, you may find that many Christians haven’t shot at the wall of one abortion clinic and quite a few even believe in the theory of evolution by natural selection. On my way to Greenbelt someone tweeted a warning, “I wouldn’t mention Darwin”. I replied that this wasn’t that sort of gathering. As luck would have it (NOTE: I do not believe in luck, so perhaps as chance would have it would be better) I met one creationist and one intelligent design proponent within the first half hour, but many I spoke to had no problem with Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. The problem with many debates and discussions that occur between atheists and the religious is they are often designed to create drama through conflict rather than any form of enlightenment through discussion. While at Greenbelt I was asked why I was debating Stephen Jay Gould’s idea of non-overlapping magisteria with Reverend Richard Coles and I had to explain that we weren’t debating it, merely discussing it. Certainly we would find areas of disagreement but neither of us was hoping to win some furious battle of cage rattling and spittle so it would have been no good for radio or TV.


When someone tells me that they are a Christian, it doesn’t tell me that much about them. Some Christians are Stephen Green or Ann Widdecombe and some Christians are Simon Mayo or Frank Skinner, there are huge chasms between what they believe on many issues though they all can be defined as Christians. Sometimes we work backwards on our beliefs – I don’t think Stephen Green is a bigot because he’s a Christian, I think he can use his specific interpretation to justify their bigotry.


I know some atheists who think religious belief is the recourse of the stupid, that to believe in a god is an act that comes from ignorance, but I think that is shortsighted. I find it hard to believe why, in these times where there is so much in the natural world that has been explained, people require a god for explanation, but some people do.  I also think that good scientific education and the creation of enquiring minds does make belief in the requirement of a mystical hand to create a universe less likely. When talking to the creationist at Greenbelt he seemed surprised when I mentioned that biblical literalism rose in the nineteenth century and many scholars and clerics had not believed in Genesis as history. Had we talked for longer and started to get into the science of evolutionary theory I don’t believe that he would have been shaken from his position of creationism because he has the truth he wants. I wonder what his science education was like at school. If pupils are armed with a strong grounding in evolutionary theory at school and minds that ponder on why the forms of bugs and butterflies they see represent the best shapes, colours and behaviour for survival, then I think we would have fewer creationists. This is why it is so important that unintelligently compiled theory of intelligent design is not allowed in the back door of the education system because, scientifically it is a fraud and the more fraudulent theories that are allowed into the science curriculum, the more turtles that return to support the earth.


I might believe that creationist’s position came from being educationally misled and youthful ignorance that has now become immoveable, most Christians I know are well-read and not just the Hamlyn Colour Bible and Cliff Richard autobiographies. They have read about Darwin, Bohr, Mendeleev and wide ranging philosophy from Spinoza to Sartre, yet they still have their Christian faith. To declare that religion is a position held due to stupidity does the argument of faith versus reason a disservice. Some Christians have found a method of living in a world which is scientific but still finding room for a god.  I know idiot atheists and smart vicars (and idiot vicars and smart atheists too, oh and a very unpleasant Catholic leader of Scotland)


My main argument is not against faith, but against dogma and ultimate, unalterable truths. That’s why I don’t care when someone drags ups the old “oh look what happens when you have no religion, you get Stalin/Mao/Pol Pot blah blah blah”, the battle seems to be making human beings more comfortable living in a world of doubt and uncertainty. Some atheists tell me that religious people turn to religion so they can live in a certain world


We live in a world built on evidence based thinking, and where evidence and testable hypothesis can be used to get to the least wrong conclusion for policy and law, then it must be used. As I believe that our existence is unfortunately finite then society and individuals should attempt to create as happy a physical existence for as many as possible, as for what happens after we’re dead, then someone else can deal with those possibilities. 


It is blind faith that I protest against – if you hold your position solely because your ancient book can be interpreted to tell you so, or your purple bishop has declared it true and you haven’t stopped to use your own reason to think it through – then your opinion is worth little. The majority of Greenbelt Christians I met didn’t hold blind faith and the majority of atheists I come across are not the blindly faithless.


Atheists, I think we should be careful in how we view someone merely because they are a Christian (or other deity praising faith), diversity lies within. Equally, religious people should be wary of being persuaded that atheists wish to ban them from their right to worship and their necklaces. We have seen faith groups outside theatres waving placards and attempting to prevent art events that criticize or lampoon religion, I have never seen groups of atheists outside churches handing out leaflets and chanting that there is no god and the churches must be closed down as their mysticism is a criticism of rationalism.

Why not



Next time someone like Stephen Green is invited on to TV and radio to air his ‘Christian voice’ and represent the faithful, why not complain that he is not representative of most Christians (if it turns out that he really is please ignore everything I’ve said in the above blog)




“…I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without having any purpose, which is the way it really is so far as I can tell. It doesn’t frighten me”


“one of the things my father taught me besides physics, whether it’s correct or not, was a disrespect for respectable…there was picture of the pope and everybody bowing in front of him. And he’d say, “now look at these humans. Here is one human standing here, and all these others are bowing. Now what is the difference? This one is the pope…why are they all bowing to him? Only because of his name and position” 

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121 Responses to Uh Oh, a liberal Atheist writes about liberal Christians, this can’t end well

  1. Dave says:

    Cery nicely written piece, and that’s from a liberal Christian. You hit the nail on the head where you speak about the discussion vs debate aspect. Liberal christains have no issue resolving God with science, we agree with a lot of what has become secular /humanist views, but when the DEBATE rages, we’re often thrown in with the Michelle Bachmans and those awful people you picket funerals in the US. On the flip side the same is applied to atheists who immediately cast as want-to-be Stalins. We need to raise the level of discussion and then we can have a more reasoned debate, oh and banish the fundamentalists on both sides!

    • Dave Watts says:

      Heartily agree except about “banish the fundamentalists”. I prefer ridicule.
      If you ridicule yours and we ridicule ours, maybe they will get the message (probably not) and we both have a bit of a laugh!

    • robinince says:

      indeed, adam ant was wrong when he said ridicule was nothing to be scared of

      • ds says:

        Then again, he also told us”don’t tread on an ant, you’ll end up black and blue. Cut off his head, legs come looking for you” so perhaps he’s not the the most reliable of commentators really

  2. Brilliant article! We could do with more of this type of reasoning and consideration, and less of the Dawkins/Green types hijacking science/arts/philosophy/faith etc for, as you so rightly put it, to create drama. But who also do so to bolster – what you haven’t mentioned yet – their egos and bank balances every time a new book comes out from one decrying the other.

    I am a Christian and will happily die one but also I take great joy in humanity, science and exploration as well. I do believe that the universe in what ever we are discovering it to be, does have a ‘metaphysical being’ behind it (Please don’t use the term ‘Sky Fairy’ it’s offensive and innacurate), that scientific discovery and exploration to me is part of learning the processes of how that has happened, is happening and will continue to happen. Plus the Arts and Philosophy have an equal part to play in that as well with the expression and ideas of what the above means in those terms.

    We’re all ‘boldly going where no one’ is going before. Let’s do so with a sense of common purpose, wonder, equity, and be prepared to leave the knives and bearskins of contention at home and in the past.

    • Hi there. I’m sorry, but I love “”your” term “Sky Fairy”. In my teens (as with many others during that hormonally swamped period) I regularly rebelled against my father’s views. I’m quite sure that referring to his God as The Sky Fairy would have sent him through the roof! We’d have had a right laugh about it by now though 🙂

    • Keith Davies says:

      How do you know there’s a ‘metaphysical being’?

      • Squippie says:

        I didn’t think it was about “knowing” in that respect, but rather believing.

        I feel like you are trying to troll. Does the answer directly affect you?

        – Squippie

  3. Andrew says:

    It was a very interesting and mutually respectful discussion between you and Richard Coles. I hope you’ll do more sessions together.

    Thanks for doing the show of hands on peoples’ comfort with the theory of evolution by natural selection – seemed like the majority from where I was sitting and contrary the popular perception that all christians are creationists or intelligent design advocates.

  4. I’d never seen that Feynman quote. It explains a lot, both for me internally about how I don’t feel the need for religion, and also conversely, why others might do so, which til this point I had been struggling with. I’ve always been aware christianity was a framework, a way to put clear edges at the ends of the sandpit you play in, if you like, but never that fear might be.

    I’d be curious to see if there any correlation between this ‘adrenaline gene’ people keep banging on about an atheism. Which might seem a leap but if you’re the kind of person who’s comfortable with uncertainty, I wonder if that comes out in other ways too. I don’t think I know too many christian mountain bikers….

    • Lee says:

      Dude…I know loads of christian mountain bikers, climbers, surfers etc…so not sure that point’s valid.. I do. Like the cut of everyone’s jib on this topic though… I’ve climbed and caved with people of all (well a good selection of) faiths and none, and my empirical judgement as to who I would trust my life with is based on objective observation of competence and a certain amount of ‘blind faith’ that comes from what others say about them and my own gut feeling… Would that be analagous? …Love all x

  5. This is that horrible “yes & no” situation! First of all Atheists are not a group in the sense that Christians are i.e. we are not bound together by one straightforward unbelief in an unprovable God or Gods. Conversely, Christians are bound together by their belief and, by and large, crave the structure and security that this provides.

    Science and Faith are at opposite ends of the logical spectrum, in my view. Science requires evidence or provable logic. Faith is destroyed by evidence whether proved wrong or right. If, for example, God descended to Earth and proclaimed/demonstrated that he/she/it really existed then there would be no need for Faith, just the understanding of an indisputable fact.

    The ability to maintain Faith against all odds is proclaimed as a strength: you are showing God that your belief is so strong that you need no proof as that would require doubt. I was brought up in the Protestant Christian religion and “doubt” was what sent you to Hell. Doubt is also the vital component in Scientific investigation.

    Thus, Science and Faith are ultimately incompatible.

    So how do minds of a scientific bent who also have Faith cope? My father wasn’t a scientist but this is how he dealt with the dichotomy: in the days before his Faith exerted full dominance over his life, he enjoyed a beer and his was frowned upon by our religious community. On his trips in to town he would buy a good (holy) book & at some point would pop into a bar for a beer. The money for the “good” book was kept in one pocket & never mingled with the change for the beer. Thus he compartmentalised the issue and avoided the conflict.

    I don’t go to Atheist meetings or only have Atheist friends. That idea seems ridiculous to me. But by my very nature I will question someone’s belief if I know them well enough.

    You have to be careful, though: if you say nothing and their Faith stays intact, they go to Heaven; if you plant a seed of doubt, they go to Hell but if that seed of doubt germinates they don’t go to Heaven or Hell. The second scenario is not good.

    In any case, in my view Heaven is overrated: mine is full of moaning and groaning protestants who all have the same belief. What a boring place!

    • somnolentsurfer says:

      You seem to be assuming that whoever taught you that doubt sends people to hell spoke for all Christians. My faith is entirely defined by doubt, and, I believe, the better for it.

      I don’t believe because I need an explanation for the mysteries of the world. When they’re solved they’ll continue to be not magic. But fox Mulder-like, I want to believe because the myths that we tell one another teach us to hunt for a world without injustice.

      • robinince says:

        you have managed to find meaning in this blog that is clearly not there or is this about the comments?

      • @robinince It’s about my comment.
        @somnolentsurfer The “doubt” I was referring to was specifically about the belief that Christ died & rose again in order that Humankind could be saved. That was (and still is) the linchpin for salvation of the Free Church of Scotland and a few other churches besides. I was not so much taught this as brought up in it. I am aware that this is not what all Christians believe but I was only using this as an example of the incompatibility of doubt (and thus the Scientific method) and Faith as this was from my own experience.

        I realise also that we all, religious & non-religious, are filled with doubts & as you say, this is what makes life enjoyable and wonderful.

        But in the crucial area of whether a supernatural being sits at the centre of our universe, for the person of Faith, doubt has to be excluded. If not, then one is an agnostic; and if so then that element is compartmentalised.

        On the other hand, if we say that God has no bearing on the way the universe works or the way science understands or explores it then what purpose does it serve? As someone once said: a difference that makes no difference is no difference.

        Faith in God is a very personal thing and supports a personal universe but I cannot see how or why it can be, or should be, more than that 🙂

      • somnolentsurfer says:

        The second paragraph was kinda what I thought more generally when reading’s Robin’s post. But yes, the first was directed specifically at Kenny.

        Anyway, I disagree. I used to think of my faith as something over which I had no choice. I was compelled to believe because of personal empirical observation of certain religious experiences. These days I regard it much more as a course I have chosen. I choose to act as though certain things are true even though I know they will never be provable or verifiable because I believe the mythic and poetic power of the stories contribute something beautiful and transformative to my life and to society as a whole.

        I find it easier some days than others to hold resolutely to a knowledge of a personal divine entity with interventionary powers. Maybe objectively that makes me agnostic, but I choose to identify as Christian in faith because it gives me hope. Maybe there is no power in prayer beyond the placebo effect, but if that in itself is a net positive, then I’ll take it over nothing at all.

      • Fair enough, somnolentsurfer. That is an agnostic position, or hedging your bets. Unfortunately, after the final “grilling” my lot are expecting, you’d fry along with me 🙂

      • Fortunately I’d subscribe to a broadly annihilationist viewpoint, so I’ve no problem with seeing death as the end. 🙂 And if I’m to be judged, then it’ll be on the terms Jesus lays out in Matthew 25. I can’t see much biblical evidence to suggest Christians get a free pass.

        But my prayer is the one that Jesus taught – for heaven to come on this Earth now. I don’t have much time for religion that’s more interested in afterlife than life.

      • Whoops! That’ll be a tricky one, if you’re to dictate the terms on which you are to be judged 🙂 That’s part of the trouble with taking guidance from the Bible – it’s a pick ‘n mix.

      • Ah, but the fun’s just as much in arguing over which bits to pick as it is in following it. 🙂

      • I think it would be helpful for us to distinguish belief from faith. Belief is simply our view about the truth of a proposition. Faith is a philosophical orientation that says belief does not require evidence. In this sense, it is opposed to science, which is simply a method for understanding and gaining insight into things.

        Etymologically, the word faith traces its roots to the Latin fides, implying trust, confidence, reliance. In the context of religion, the source of this trust derives from religious people’s acceptance of the sacredness/divinity of the texts/people who introduced them to the idea of god/the supernatural. Faith by no means implies a lack of intelligence, but it is by its very nature unthinking and uncritical.

        Faith also does not imply the absence of doubt; there is room for doubt. Should it arise, all the faithful require is reassurance – a rebuilding of confidence in the authority of the source of their faith – and all will be alright. Doubt will ebb and flow like the tides, without threatening those on the shore.

        Finally, @somnolentsurfer, I wanted to point out that effectively what you’re saying is that your faith is the basis of your morality? And that without it, you wouldn’t feel compelled to act justly or play your part in creating a just world. In other words, something is good not because through a process of reasoning and evaluation you have come to think of it as good; but because someone else said it was good and therefore must be. As a conscious being, are you really comfortable with that position?

      • That’s not what I’m saying. Or, at least, I don’t think it is. Certainly I applauded Robin during the Greenbelt debate when he criticised Peter Hitchens for saying exactly that.

        Without religion, I wouldn’t be a psychopath (though I might well be something more of a hedonist). If we are all there is, then a moral framework must be defined from something egalitarian and democratic, and the need for a just society is every bit as important. But there’s also a danger of defining life in purely economic terms. To me, there’s something in the poetic sanctity of life that makes millennia of ethical thought more powerful than simple maths. The two weave together to form the basis for my morality, such that I’d be broken without either.

        The New Testament portrays a group of people who challenge Empire because they answer to a higher authority, personified in God, but representative of the good of all humankind.

      • @darwinfranks “Faith also does not imply the absence of doubt; there is room for doubt. Should it arise, all the faithful require is reassurance”…
        And the doubt is removed. This is a temporary faltering of Faith until doubt is expunged (in regard to Faith, that is).

        @ somnolentsurfer “Without religion, I wouldn’t be a psychopath (though I might well be something more of a hedonist). If we are all there is, then a moral framework must be defined from something egalitarian and democratic, and the need for a just society is every bit as important.”
        Hi again 🙂 The implication being that Christianity gives you your moral framework. Well, considering that Christianity is based on the Bible (for those of us who weren’t around circa AD0), and you can pick and choose which elements you believe in/live by (a lot of contradictory & distinctly non-pc views are on show), and that said text has been held up as an excuse at various times for some unsavoury behaviour, I would suggest that your moral being is exclusive of Christianity – that you brought your morality TO your Christianity and not that you derived it FROM Christianity.

        In my view, science has a rational explanation as to the derivation of our morality. It is an evolutionary trait (or traits) that developed due to our social nature. Initially their development would have been driven by survival & evolutionary advantage and then by societal advantage as co-operation and the ability to place oneself in someone else’s shoes improved the position of the species as a whole.

        This doesn’t make it any less valuable, wonderful or intriguing a feature of our being. Just that the moral kernel is within us and cannot be imposed on us nor derived from somewhere else.

      • Well, no. I’m dependent on Newton for a lot of my understanding of the world, but I won’t float of into space without him. Same with Jesus. But morality is obviously rather less objective than physics.

    • Luci says:

      “Science and Faith are at opposite ends of the logical spectrum, in my view. Science requires evidence or provable logic. Faith is destroyed by evidence whether proved wrong or right. ”

      Hm. I’m not sure it’s that simple…People can have *elements* of both rather than subscribing to an entire belief system…it could be on more of a case-by-case basis – i.e not being entirely a rationalist or entirely…um…faithy. Personalities are full of contradictions!

      Take my fiance, for example. He’s a rational, logical, problem-solving beastie who works in IT and puts great stock in science and the scientific method – he’s also a big romantic. Which granted, is not the same as ‘faith’ (he’s not at all religious!) but can show that personalities are made up of things you might not think would go together.

      I was watching Supernatural the other day (a kind of naff american show) and it was about ‘faith healing’ (well, actually it was about someone binding a reaper in a death spell, but I digress) and a woman with a brain tumour had witnessed other people being successfully healed and was waiting for her turn. Due to the actions of the central characters, the ‘healer’ lost his ‘powers’ and she was not healed. When asked how this affected her faith, she responded something like:

      “I’m Ok. Really. I guess if you’re gonna have faith…you can’t just have it when the miracles happen. You have to have it when they don’t.”

      So maybe evidence isn’t always such a big deal in terms of faith.

      • ““I’m Ok. Really. I guess if you’re gonna have faith…you can’t just have it when the miracles happen. You have to have it when they don’t.””

        This was my point. Evidence gets in the way of Faith – not only is not required it would make Faith unnecessary,

    • Matt Fry says:

      Still waiting for some kind of presentation of what ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’ are according to a modern ‘rational’ christioan. I just don’t find either remotely helpful.

  6. Dave Cadwallader says:

    if only jim jeffries were as eloquent…

  7. James says:

    I was at Greenbelt festival last year when you did a gig and found that without exception everyone in the marquee was laughing and having a good time enjoying the jokes which acknowledged the void between atheism and christianity but wasn’t an attack on anyone’s’ beliefs. What i found there was that the christian crowd weren’t the uptight old fashioned group that i’d gone there with the preconceived notion of and that everyone was there to have a good time and not push their beliefs on other people.

  8. plumsden says:

    Robin – wow, now THAT’S impressive – leaving Greenbelt, then rolling that summary off after a nightmare journey though B’ham (or maybe the journeyallowed you to do it??). You’re nicely showing that really it’s not what you believe that’s ultimately important, but how you behave – and you and Rev RC were both great examples of showing respect whilst putting a strong argumetn for your own views. You both also I believe had a shared sense of wonder and excitement about life.

    I would suggest that in this ‘arena’ a bit more thought is given to what we mean by ‘evidence’ – I think that often it is restricted to quantitative, ‘experiementally testable – whereas qualitative evidence – in the shape of personal experience, is also valid. RC talked about ‘scripture / tradition / reason’ as the intellectual pillars of the anglican tradition – as a Methodist, we would add ‘exprience’ to make a four-way structure.

  9. Stacey says:

    A thought occurred to me while reading your blog – there were many thoughts on many issues which occurred to me, but I thought I would share this particular one.

    My thought is that even though religion is thought to be connected with peoples fear of death, maybe it’s not that at all. Maybe it’s more to do with peoples fear of responsibility.
    There is no argument that there is a Bible and with the use of this Bible you can get away with almost anything that you ever wanted to do to someone. So lets say millions of people have been doing horrific things in the name of God for hundreds of years and then one day this God is taken away and the Bible is proven to be a best-selling work of fiction, what are people left with?

    They are left with personal responsibility for their actions.

    An example: Let’s say God tells people to hate pandas, so those who believe in that God hate pandas with no question, they persecute them and maybe even kill them. Then one day there is no God and pandas are no longer dirty creatures and liking them is no longer a sin, would anyone continue to persecute pandas?

    No, because they have not been told to do so.

    But, how would they feel about the hundreds of pandas they had already persecuted and maybe even killed?

    They would feel responsible for their actions.

    Maybe people just need to grow up, make their own decisions based on fact and start being responsible for their actions rather than blaming something else for the things they do.

    • I have been told I went a bit monty python after excuting my point really well…the reason for this is because at first I wrote ‘homosexuals’ instead of ‘pandas’ and I realised nobody would read it with an open mind if i didn’t change the point of religious intolerance.

  10. I am a scientist and absolutely not a creationist, but I don’t agree: I think it would be remiss of science education to black out any mention of creationism. Indeed, to my mind, creationism should be taught alongside, as part of a healthy science curriculum.

    The Big Bang Theory would not exist if scientists hadn’t been able to think philosophically about the origins of the universe – which has to include a discussion of the merits of creationism.

    Our scientific theories are empirical, not absolute, and it’s extremely important for scientists to appreciate this properly, e.g. Darwin’s theory of evolution is still evolving – how meta. You cannot hope to understand how to make scientific progress, unless you understand how science has progressed from earlier beliefs.

    Scientific method is not without flaw and should be discussed in the context of alternative and historical beliefs – i.e. without dogma.

    • robinince says:

      I think science is for the science class and, if creationism or other myths are taught within the science class, it is very important that they are not taught as current alternatives. the problem is that intelligent design proponents are looking for any back door ways of getting ID taught in science and so we must be careful where and how it is approached.

      • johneales says:

        My instinct is to promote the proper teaching and open discussion of modern theory before exploring origins in any great depth. We can all imagine an ideal, ultra-thorough syllabus where students are taught about and asked to consider the contributions of everything from Plato’s ideal forms to Paley’s designer, Lamarckism, Richard Owen, Darwin and Wallace, the geological breakthroughs of Hutton et al, Watson, Crick, Bill Hamilton and the neo-Darwinian synthesis, SJG’s punctuated equilibrium etc etc. However, in my view such a curriculum could not possibly be covered by one biology teacher in the classroom time they have allotted. That being the case, the current state of the science should be taught as a priority.

      • Amy says:

        I fully agree with this. In high school where science education and religious education are both compulsory there should be no issue with keeping creationism to RE lessons. I left high school 10 years ago and while I was there RE lessons were used for philosophy and teaching about cultures. Creationism was taught during this lesson. As both lessons are compulsory under the national curriculum at some point in high school there shouldn’t be an issue of it encroaching on science lessons.

    • AndrewF says:

      The problem with teaching Creationism alongside real science (except possibly as an _example_ of non-science), is that it indicates that we think of both options as equally likely.

      Saying “make up your own mind” is vastly dishonest when there are mountains of evidence for one, and the other is a crackpot theory mostly only believed by a special-interest group (the more literally-mindedly religious) because it is comforting to them.

      We don’t ask children to ‘make up their own minds’ about the structure of the atom, or spelling, or what 2+2 equals. So to teach Creationism as just another possibility would be dishonestly caving to an ignorant pressure group. A bit like if the Department of Health were to say that everyone should make up their own minds about whether vaccines cause autism…

    • AndrewF says:

      Also, when you talk about the Big Bang, it seems to me that you’re confusing Creationism in the sense of “someone/God created all the species” (and therefore “evolution is wrong”)—with Creationism in the sense of “someone/God started everything off” (but evolution occurred after God created, say, the first bacterium).

      We don’t need ‘Species’ Creationism to think about the Big Bang!

      On the other hand, I agree that it would be good to teach History & Philosophy of Science, at least a smattering of it, in schools.

    • Richard Dawkins’ book The Magic of Reality does this brilliantly – for various phenomena, from rainbows to human evolution, it lays out the myths and the early attempts at scientific explanations, what people thought and why, and then explains how we know that the modern science is true (or is close to the truth). THAT should be in every classroom.

    • “Scientific method is not without flaw and should be discussed in the context of alternative and historical beliefs – i.e. without dogma.”

      In an ideal world I would agree with you.

      However, there is limited time in your average science class, and a huge multitude of ideas to get through (It’s not just about Darwin).
      The commonly accepted scientific wisdom should be taught as key, before exploring some of the other beliefs and the history..

      The problem with ID is it’s a flawed and minority viewpoint within the scientific world, at best (with a large lobby group outside scientists), so teaching it as part of a science lesson seems inconsistent, and wasteful of their time.

  11. Vienna says:

    I was at your discussion with Rev Richard Coles at Greenbelt, and heartily enjoyed it. It’s tempting to say that it’s refreshing to hear an atheist voice like yours, but I won’t, as I find it a bit annoying when people say that it’s refreshing to hear a (liberal) Christian voice like mine. I don’t think you or I are particularly unrepresentative of the majority of atheists and Christians in the UK – unfortunately, it’s just those who shout loudest who get heard. But thanks for such an thought-provoking and entertaining conversation, anyway.

    There was one thing I wanted to say, though – I was in the queue to make a comment at the microphone – and it’s something I really would want to stress. You asked at one point whether religious people saw themselves as having retreated after finding that our attempts to explain the world were rendered unnecessary by scientific pursuit, but I think that that perspective rests on a misunderstanding. Having studied some theology, I would argue fairly strongly that the purpose of Genesis 1-2 was never primarily to explain the way in which the world or humanity was created (although it may have been read that way too before Darwin). Two reasons for this: firstly, because the accounts in chapters 1 and 2 are themselves contradictory if read like a science textbook (in Gen 1 humans are created after the animals, whereas in Gen 2 it goes man -> animals -> woman), and secondly because the main message conveyed is not “this is the method by which God brought everything into existence” but “creation is good” (Gen 1) and “this is the nature of human beings’ relation to one another and to God” (Gen 2). You see these aetiological narratives throughout Gen 1-11, and indeed more spread out throughout a lot of the Old Testament – and I don’t think this is just a reinterpretation of those texts now that science tells us they can’t be literally true. That would be like saying a non-literalistic interpretation of historical fiction is enforced upon us when we realise it didn’t actually happen.

    Terry Eagleton has a fantastic quote in “Reason, Faith and Revolution” that sums up the point I’m getting at, which is this: “Believing that religion is a botched attempt to explain the world … is like seeing ballet as a botched attempt to run for a bus.”

    …perhaps it’s a good thing I didn’t get to the mic in time, because that would have all been a bit rambly in that setting. But anyway, I hope it contributes to the discussion. Thanks again for your great talks at Greenbelt!

  12. Pingback: An Atheist and a Muslim walk into a Christian festival . . « Catriona Robertson

  13. proxiginus4 says:

    This is so true. The problem is everyone has their own definition of things and the no true Scotsman fallacy involves that. My definition of Christ like is like Christ. Christ wouldn’t protest funerals and say God hates fags. He wouldn’t reject knowledge our be ignorant.

  14. DavidWebster says:

    Reblogged this on Dispirited and commented:
    Blog readers may enjoy this..

  15. wayward says:

    Very well said Robin. I’m an atheist, and I find a lot of religion distasteful. It’s not the belief in God that upsets me though, but the arrogance and the us-and-them attitude, things that all too many Capital-A Atheists have in spades. I’d prefer to spend time with a humble Christian over a ranting Atheist any day of the week.

  16. This is one of the most amazing comments threads I have EVER read. People either agreeing or disagreeing or taking one point and the people talking respectfully in a tangent thread, no yelling, no demands to read a particular Bible verse, or name calling. The few misunderstanding were immediately cleared up – this doesn’t feel right – where did all the trolls go LOL?

    Really nice article, btw!

  17. architectonica says:

    Thank you, Rob, for all your efforts to explain a position that to me is self evident. It cannot be easy having to constantly account for your views to those who have faith in a belief system.

  18. Oleta says:

    Just wanted to thank you for this very reasonable blog post. So often the discussions become polarised and there is intolerance on both sides.
    I am a bit of a floating voter religiously these days, I am often just as repelled by the dismissively intolerant comments and attitudes of some Atheist writers and broadcasters as from those of the evangelical church I left due to some very damaging attitudes and reactions when I developed a severe mental illness. Since then I’ve rejected any ‘magical thinking’ answers, (being labelled possessed rather than mentally ill does tend to make one doubt!), but I still have many dear Christian friends, supportive, understanding, non-judgemental Christians. We often have deep discussions about belief and doubt without the riot police needing to be called. It’s nice to see that openness and lack of rancour on display here,

  19. bruce says:

    Interesting article. Having been speaking to some of the organisers of Greenbelt on the Saturday I know that they are keen to included a bigger circle of “friends” such as greenpeacers etc so as an atheist you won’t be feeling a part of the persecuted minority when you come to Greenbelt again ! I must admit I was amazed that you did meet a creationist but the great thing about Greenbelt its a “new kind of Christianity” where the theology is inclusive and generous

  20. SweynTUV says:

    Wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment expressed here and all efforts to engage positively with the faithful.

    It’s understandable why some atheists have their outrage dial turned up to eleven, there is so much to be outraged about, but no one is going to be persuaded by being shouted at or being called an idiot. Yes there are plenty of fundamentalists who are too far gone to be worth talking to but I think that most believers know that the weight of evidence is going against them, they just think that a materialist/physicalist universe is too horrible to contemplate and in the end just have to choose a side.

    There are very good reasons for trying to persuade people to abandon magical thinking and If we can explain how a universe purged of the supernatural does not automatically lose all of its joy, meaning, morality etc. then more would come to see what a bad deal the supernatural is. But while we just bang on about logical fallacies and keep insisting that the universe does not owe them hope we will continue to talk past each other.

    • Sometimes when I just want to have a conversation with atheists or people of other faiths about what we each think, I worry that there’s a stigma around Christianity making it inevitable that my words will be misconstrued as an attempt to evangelise.

      • Sarah says:

        I know how you feel! My current approach to this dilemma (not saying it’s the best approach necessarily but it’s where I’m at) is not to be the one to start those conversations, at least in person. The Internet seems to be a much safer place to START a dialogue like that, because a) people can take it or leave it depending on their level of comfort with the issue, and b) communicating one’s ideas and questions in writing leaves more room to make clear where one is coming from first without triggering emotional reactions that one might not have a chance to correct face to face.
        On the other hand, I have found myself in many many “real life” situations where someone else, coming from a different perspective with respect to faith, led a conversation in that direction and was very open to comparing notes on the topic.

  21. Tunnza says:

    I am a Christian who feels offended when some Christians think God was too stupid to have invented evolution. Thanks for your cogent blog.

    • Why did anyone need to invent it?

      • Lieutenant Intuition says:

        I’m not sure that’s a relevant question, Kenny. Nobody needed to invent evolution, but then evolution technically did not ‘need’ to happen. Neither did the Big Bang. Or humans. None of those things have any objective benefit. But people seem pretty okay with the idea that, needed or not, they happened.

        I’m not saying that God did or did not invent evolution – I’m agnostic and evolution for me works just fine by itself – but why does the question of whether or not there is a God who invented evolution have to be one of need? Maybe, needed or not, that is in fact what happened. We don’t know.

  22. bruce says:

    I’m sure you could find a friendly atheist to talk to . A friend of mind became an atheist about one and half years ago and now we have an interesting dialogue by emails interspersed with a drink at the local pubs

  23. Heather says:

    I reached your blog via twitter, and I’ve spent more than an hour reading various entries. Because of that, the chores of the day were postponed – the dishes are still dirty, the floors unswept, the vacuuming undone. It’s been a good day. Thanks.

  24. D. Taylor says:

    Why not teach Creationism and Intellegent design along side science in schools? Have students the students apply the same scientific method to it as the other theories. Hypothisis, testing, proof, questioning, etc.

    • robinince says:

      science is the teaching of science – Intelligent design is not science and nor is creationism, therefore they do not belong in the science class. should we teach every version of every historical event, even those considered to have no evidence whatsoever, then let the students decide?

  25. Steve Davis says:

    I belive that everone has the right to believe what they like, this will lead the way to interesting discussion. I prefer to believe things based on fact or in the absence of fact, probability. I don’t claim to have the answers to everything and where I don’t have an answer I tend to have a few theories, possibly a favoured one. All this beliveing in things, no matter what the basis is all reletively harmeless and to some extent fun. However, this is a lighthearted look at the acceptable face of organisations which are based on misogyny, homophobia, tyranny, fear, hatred and loathing which has and will result in mass murder. Painting a smiley face on a nuclear missile may make it appear amusing but it’s ultimate purpose is just as unacceptable.

  26. DSCH says:

    Unlike you, I do view people of faith with some suspicion.

    When people subscribe to one religion over another based on geography or culture or genealogy AND still claim that their religion is the only true one, it doesn’t bode well for whatever else they may think.

    I was brought up a Christian. By age 12 I’d seen enough and heard enough to be very sceptical indeed. My mother was a practising Catholic, my father an agnostic, but I was allowed to lapse and get on with studying other, more interesting, stuff on Sundays.

    But here’s the thing. Even now, thirty years later. At a time when I categorically know how absurd Christianity is in its origins, in its development, in the whys and ways it spread – I still haven’t shrugged it off. I still go into churches and light candles (as an act of cognisant superstition), I still sing at weddings and funerals – and love singing carols at Christmas. (Yes, I still celebrate Christmas.) Yet I know this is all as a result of conditioning. Brain-washing, if you will.

    I know the Bible is nothing more than a collection of texts little different from the Greek Myths or Eddas or the Book of Mormon – save for early Christian politics – but I still can’t give up singing carols.

    In a sense it’s like growing up in North Korea – making a dash for it – and, after thirty years of living south of the border, I end up unable to not think fondly of Kim Il Sung.

    The point is that the world looks and behaves EXACTLY as one would expect it to if there were no Christian god. And no amount of mindless ranting is going to change that observation.

    • I tend to think it’s simplistic to see it only as a result of conditioning from a Christian past. In my (obviously purely anecdotal) experience, everyone has their own little quirks, whether it’s my belief in prayer, my otherwise scientifically minded friend who believes in homeopathy, or the guy I knew at university who had a phobia of floury baps. We are an irrational species, and while I realise posting this on the Internet is asking for trouble, I’ve never met any exceptions to that rule.

  27. ejoftheweb says:

    There’s a lot of semantic and philosophical trouble in this discussion. What do you mean by faith, by the metaphysical being, truth? I’m working towards an answer for myself, and for myself, I think that answer has to do with treating God as a metaphor; and religious discourse as a model for explaining things (such as, and in particular, love) that rational empiricism can only explain in an unsatisfactorily dry way. Different forms of thought and language for different purposes. It’s poetic abstraction, and true at that level; it doesn’t work if you apply the same standards to it as to science. And faith? well, it seems to me that if God could be proved to exist by rational empirical methods, you’d have something other than God, a new physical force or particle, but not God. God must be beyond existence. Faith for me, which I’m coming back to after most of my life as an atheist, is simply this: that the universally-loving, universally-forgiving ethic, for which “God” is a metaphor, is the single, most important one; and that’s what I think I mean when I say – if I say – “I believe in God”.

  28. markjberry says:

    Many Christians do complain when the likes of Green and his anger and bigotry are held up as THE Christian view (myself included) part of the problem is that the media likes to stereotype, it makes good copy… Likewise I would encourage liberal Atheists to complain when Dawkins sets up his false dichotomies in the media… Believe me though, you are likely to be ignored just as we are for the sake of paper sales and viewing figures!

  29. lovely piece, thanks. I’m a Christian (not sure how liberal etc – sometimes those labels seem a bit odd) and would be ok with atheism if it wasn’t for the enormous sense of grief it would cause me. To me, God is a bit like a life-partner: i can no more deny his/her existence than decide i am no longer married and my wife never existed. It just wouldn’t be a ‘rational’ option for me. So, basically, it’s not essentially about any dogma or ‘truth’, but about a relationship with God. i hope that makes sense! Laul

  30. The problem is that I don’t think people are really all that honest about what they really, actually believe. Those with the most liberal interpretations of “holy” books scarcely believe in anything, or you move towards some kind of vague deist belief, in which case, why bother labelling oneself as a christian (or other faith) at all?

    Given that there is no way of knowing what parts of scripture to take as literal and what to take as metaphor, but it really matters if something is true or not, the rest is just obfuscation.

    • Pete Sansom says:

      Good point, well made.

    • AndrewF says:

      Well, no, I’m not sure that’s right. You could be a ‘Christian’ in the sense of adhering to (what you interpret as) Christ’s philosophy, without necessarily acknowledging any of the supernatural aspects of Christianity. That label might still usefully distinguish your philosophical outlook from someone who calls themselves Jewish, say.

      There is a vast difference in personal beliefs within some religions. (Less so within others. For example the Catholic Church is very prescriptive about what its beliefs are.)

      But the Bible (say) is a big, complicated, in places contradictory book. You could certainly take from it many possible personal philosophies, and there are many miraculous—and down-to-earth—stories in it which one could opt to believe or not, or to take a ‘meaning’ from or not. The Bible contains billions of possible religions. And that’s not even starting on The Koran, or the other holy books.

      What I’m trying to say is that really is no such thing as a True Scotsman.

      • Woppa says:

        “You could be a ‘Christian’ in the sense of adhering to (what you interpret as) Christ’s philosophy, without necessarily acknowledging any of the supernatural aspects of Christianity. That label might still usefully distinguish your philosophical outlook from someone who calls themselves Jewish, say.”

        I’m no expert on Jewishness. But remove Easter, Christmas, the ten commandments, life after death, hell, satan and miracles from Christianity and compare that to a similarly pared down version of “Jewishness”, and I suspect you’d have pretty much the same thing. The human spirit. The values that all humans should have, of compassion, friendliness, helping people in need, shouldn’t be automatically linked with a religion of any sort. This is dangerous thinking, the sort of which the churches have been getting away with for years.

  31. Good tippy tapping there Mr Ince.

  32. Seinneann says:

    All I have to say is…..UNITARIANS FTW!

    I appreciate faith based dialogues that don’t consider atheism mutually exclusive from spirituality.

  33. John Davison says:

    Very interesting reflections to which I can relate.
    (NOTE: I do not believe in luck, so perhaps as chance would have it would be better) Robin I know from your Dorset humanist meeting 11 February this year that you know that its unlucky to be superstitious!

  34. Much in this article seems sensible to me; speaking as one of the faithful. What could I add? My faith adds an extra dimension to my life; I am also fascinated by science, but to me the two speak of different things. Taking fundamental viewpoints in opposition to science appears wrongheaded: science speaks of the external observable and measureable world, thw world of ‘it’ and ‘its’; faith is more concerned with the internal and interpersonal world of ‘me’ and ‘us’. In this internal world, largely rooted in the unconcious myth and symbols have potency and make sense. Science tells me how but does not help with the ‘why’: that is where my faith comes in.

    • SweynTUV says:

      I admit thats an intuitively appealling point of view but the trouble with dividing the world into the external/objective and the internal/subjective is that you end up with a dualism that just doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Everything we are learning from neuroscience points to consciousness being what brains do rather than being some other kind of immaterial “stuff”. We need to really start exploring what that means and I dont think it is going to prove to be as scary or dimishing as some fear. My hunch is that a lot of our problems stem from old habits of thought and language before there was another way of looking at things.

      Your last point about “how” vs “why” is a good example. Asking “why X” makes an implicit assumptiion that there is someone or something with ends that are being advanced by “X”. Asking “how did it come to be that X happened” doesn’t do that. So “why” is a great question when we are asking about animate things with ends and purposes but if we allow the possibility that animate things evolved from an inanimate universe, then there are contexts in which it is just a bad question to which there is no answer. To me drawing conclusions about the nature of reality just because of our linguistic habits seems like having the tail wag the dog. When we find that reality doesn’t fit our preconceptions, it’s us that has to change.

      • Indeed, SweynTUV. Asking “why” something happens makes a huge assumption that the occurrence had some purposeful being behind it or that it had a will of its own. For example, if I ask why the carbon reacted with the oxygen when I lit the coal, rather than how, then I am proposing that the elements had a choice in the matter or that some overriding being gave the reaction a purpose.

  35. Very interesting viewpoint, thanks. I’m a long way from fully settling on what I think about religion in its various different forms, but there’s definitely a good argument for even atheists being supportive of it in certain progressive, liberal and ethical forms, even if that’s a pragmatic decision to tip the balance within religion towards “good” religious beliefs.

    What I find odd is that I think I’d be quite interested in going to Greenbelt now, even though I never really considered it when I was still in the church. Maybe I’m just strange.

  36. Tim J says:

    This xckd cartoon (“Eyelash Wish Log”) illustrates brilliantly why, although I wholeheartedly accept the findings and methods of science, I’ve never succeeded in being an atheist. The first wish is “that wishing on eyelashes worked”, and then the entire structure is built on that. But we know that wishing on eyelashes does not work, and that the structure doesn’t represent any physical reality.
    Now, it seems entirely plausible, even probable, that the universe came into being through some quantum fluctuation out of which spacetime and matter and energy emerged. Eventually we may come up with an explanation of how that happened. It may well be that the entire universe is based on one simple, elegant, beautiful physical law. The entire structure.
    However, plenty of elegant descriptions can describe something entirely fictitious. Why should this particular description of a universe emerging out of nothing via a quantum fluctuation correspond to a real, actual universe and not just to an abstract theory or a story about a fictitious universe? Why a real one?
    To me, the atheist position does exactly the same with the laws of physics that the wish “that wishing on eyelashes worked” in the XKCD cartoon does. It begins with a law “that there are physical laws and that having them causes there to be a universe”. The laws have to wish into existence the basis of their own existence. But we know that things like “that wishing on eyelashes worked” can’t do that. So why should “that having physical laws worked” be able to do it? The evidence seems to point the other way.
    The best I’ve seen any atheist do with that question is to dismiss it as a meaningless or illusory. I suppose that’s plausible. But to me, not very plausible. Certainly not plausible enough to enable me to be an atheist. Some people find it more plausible than I do. That’s fine.

    • JD says:

      The question of “why is there something rather than nothing” is certainly a very tricky one, and it is a problem for everyone to get their heads around, but it is not one that can be answered by saying “God did it”, because you’ve only kicked the question further out of sight. In fact, you’ve made the question *harder* because you’ve now added something extra that needs an explanation, your proposed God, that doesn’t even have any objective evidence for existing at all.

      And the standard theistic standby, that God is eternal and uncreated, is of no use because, if that explanation is considered sufficient explanation, it has to be accepted for a Godless universe also. Otherwise, you’re just indulging in special pleading.

      So, while there could be a creator-God, such a being is of no use whatsoever in answering the biggest question of why things exist.

    • “To me, the atheist position does exactly the same with the laws of physics that the wish “that wishing on eyelashes worked” in the XKCD cartoon does. It begins with a law “that there are physical laws and that having them causes there to be a universe”. The laws have to wish into existence the basis of their own existence. But we know that things like “that wishing on eyelashes worked” can’t do that. So why should “that having physical laws worked” be able to do it? The evidence seems to point the other way.”

      It doesn’t begin with a law “that there are physical laws and that having them causes there to be a universe”, it begins with observations that things behave in certain ways, and leads to curiosity about why. These behaviours are observable, measurable, testable and ultimately predictable, and if something should ever deviate from this you can rest assured we’ll stop calling them laws. It hasn’t yet though…
      You’ve based your argument on a cartoon on the internet and your beliefs on an ancient book and that’s more plausible to you than believing what you can see and test?

      • Tim J says:

        No, of course I don’t base my beliefs on a book or my argument on a cartoon. Why would I believe things just because someone else says them? The book tells me how people in past centuries interpreted their religious experience, that’s all. And most of the writings in the book are pre-Christian ones, too.

        What I’m saying is that physical laws—which we can see from the evidence around us are very real and form a coherent structure—are ultimately just that: a coherent structure. Yet we can imagine other equally coherent structures which nevertheless do not correspond to any physical reality. Thus understanding the laws still leaves a glaring hole: what is the basis for (i) the possibility of laws and (ii) their correspondence with an actual physical reality? The problem is that we can imagine them being other than they actually are; they don’t seem like the kind of thing that is capable of self-existence. Our experience is that they’re just there. The questions are ones like “Why is there physical law”, “why can the concept of physical law be meaningful”, “why is reality real”.

        “God did it” is a rather naive way of looking at the concept of creation, by the way; creation isn’t a point in time. It’s more the concept that the physical reality around us—spacetime, energy, the laws of physics, and its “existability”—depends for its existence on something external.

        I used the XCCD post because it illustrates rather nicely the circularity of having the laws arbitrarily create their own reality. Much as I like XCKD, I wouldn’t regard it as an authoritative source to argue from. 😉

        A lot of modern theology sees God as the “ground of being”, namely as that which makes reality real: not as a being, but as that which allows beings to be. That which makes the concept of existing meaningful. When Eckhart tried to put this into words centuries ago, he ended up saying things like “If we exist then God does not exist, and if God exists then we do not exist”, meaning that “God exists” and “the physical world exists” are fundamentally different things, because enabling existence is a fundamentally different “activity” from existing.

        What I can see and test tells me how what I can see and test behaves, and what the laws structuring its behaviour are. It tells me nothing about why there can be laws and behaviour and descriptions; merely what they are. And that’s as far as it can ever get.

        I’m puzzled why you think I reject the idea of deriving laws from evidence. As I indicated, accept science in full (in so far as its findings are established). My degree involved large amounts of quantum mechanics, for goodness’ sake.

        Another fundamental limitation (pointed out by Schrödinger) is that in order to study the world objectively, science has to operate as though subjective experience didn’t exist or were unreal; and yet subjective experience is ultimately the only direct experience we have. Science couldn’t work if it didn’t operate this way; yet by doing so, it puts our most immediate reality beyond its reach.

        If you’re going to believe ONLY that which can be objectively tested, you’re going to have problems. The point is to avoid believing anything which contradicts observation. But as to why observation is possible at all, we have to resort to instinct or metaphysics or just run away from the question: it’s in principle untestable.

        I’m not writing this to debate, but to explain my position. For me the fundamental problems are the subjectivity of subjective experience, and the realness of reality. I believe that both of these are in principle beyond the reach of science: one asks science to explain its own existence and he other asks it to observe objectively that which can only be observed subjectively. (Even brain imaging only observes the objective aspects of mental processes, not the subjective experience of having them.)

      • Tim J says:

        Small addemdum—sorry. Re physical laws. We know from obvservation that there are physical laws and that physical entities follow them. It may be that we eventually describe the emergence of spacetime from nothing in terms of a physical law. That would be brilliant. But that law, and its ability to create all we see around us, would entail a deeper law “that there are physical laws and that having them causes there to be a universe”. It has to be there for the structure to work. That’s what I’m saying. It’s not the starting point of our search, but a statement on which the whole physical system depends.

    • SweynTUV says:

      What it seems to come down to is that some people feel that any question they ask should have a meaningful answer while others accept that reality sets the agenda and it is up to us to seek out good questions, ones that don’t come burdened with implicit assumptions. You can ask whether a photon is a particle or a wave for as long as you like, its just a bad question. As long as we judge what is plausible based on our very limited human point of view we will keep on asking questions with no sensible answer.

      I suspect that the idea of the laws of nature hanging about in some platonic limbo waiting to impose themselves on the newborn universe is not how things are. I think that the universe has the properties it has and the laws of nature are our mental description of those properties. A universe of matter and energy unfolding according to its inherent properties rather than some grand plan, described in exquisite detail by brains also made of matter and energy, one evolving from the other. I like the sound or that reality much better than the alternatives I can imagine. Luckily as far as I can tell, the alternatives seem to be entirely fictional.

  37. glo says:

    Great article! Sorry I missed your discussion with Richard Coles, but heard you talk on BBC radio with Simon Mayo about it.
    This was my first Greenbelt and I will definitely be back. (Perhaps I can see you next year?)

  38. Interesting article and interesting discussion on comments.

    I suggest that ALL of us need to understand the difference between science and philosophy and stop mistaking each for the other.

  39. Ste says:

    To Mr Robin Ince:
    Atheism is a belief system. In order to say that I do not believe in a god or diety then you have to acknowledge they exist in the first place. In order to be a true athiest you wouldn’t get into a discussion on god as there isn’t one.
    It’s like me saying I don’t believe in gravity but god will keep me on the earth, instead of the lack of centripetal force, some call that gravity.
    By all means continue to provoke the perpetual arguement between religion and science, but unfortunately the examples you are using are neither belief or science based and they are certianly not comparable.
    Where do you stand on the higgs boson particle?

    • AndrewF says:

      That’s complete nonsense!

      I do not believe in faeries. I am an a-faeriest. Does that mean that faeries must exist in order for me not to believe in them?

      Also, gravity is different from centripetal force. The Earth’s rotation does mean a certain amount of centripetal force which tends to throw us off into space, but this is more than balanced by the gravity of the Earth, which keeps us all here.

      • I’m with AndrewF on that one! Atheism is non-belief in a deity i.e. I/we/they do not belive he/she/it exists as there is no evidence. Atheists do not do Faith as it requires no evidence – to the contrary, in fact, as I have argued before.

        And no one can stand on the higgs boson as it’s too blasted small!

    • SweynTUV says:

      Doh! And it was all going so well 🙂

  40. Verity Lewis says:

    “Does it matter to me if someone justifies their cruelty or oppression to others because of their religion?

    I would like to know – how much does this matter to you, really? How many countries have you been to where religion truly causes significant oppression or cruelty, to evangelise on atheism? It occurs to me that speaking to enlightened and non-fundamental christians at the Greenbelt Festival is a rather toothless way to tackle this problem if it really matters to you. I can’t imagine there were any potential warlords in the audience.

    “Does it matter to me if a creationist insists it should be taught with science at school?

    Perhaps I’m missing something here, but which schools actually do this? I left school 18 years ago so maybe this is a relatively new thing. I attended a typical C of E school and studied Biology and Chemistry up to A-Level, including a syllabus that covered evolution and natural selection, and in purely scientific terms. The only “mythical” element was where there were gaps where there just wasn’t the science to explain something – eg, some of the forces behind cell mutuation.

  41. Nyerie says:

    I live in New Orleans, Louisiana, US of good-ol’-boy A – Thanks for all the laughs and the pondering of deep thoughts that ensue in your wake. The only thing deep here is the oily, muddy water that covers the city.

    Returning the favor:

    I was going to do a photographic installation, taking pictures of every house in any given neighborhood because they all have a statue of Mary in the front yard. Now I shall have to wait until they’ve all been replaced, which will take some time. I’m confident the Mary statue store will run out of inventory quickly.

  42. Alex Brown says:

    THANK YOU. Whenever I meet someone who sponanesouly self-identifies as a Christian (or any other religion/lack thereof), my first reaction is to ask “What flavour?” The vast majority of arguments I see between “the religious” and “the atheists” consist of people arguing past each other, making assumptions about what the other does or doesn’t believe, and no progress is ever made. It’s important in any conversation for people to use the same terms, in the same way.

  43. John Walker says:

    I wanted to add that it’s possible to be an evangelical Christian and still advocate rational science and rigour in education, and to recognise evolution as the most probable and demonstrable theory. It’s not just the liberals. No, science doesn’t correlate with parodic versions of what Christians are supposed to believe, but it can for those who apply similar rigour to their theology.

    Unfortunately, those who are stupid about their faith (ie. the loud ones) are equally stupid about their science, and as a result you get the grotesquely ignorant nonsense of creationism/intelligent design, that understands God to be a child playing with clay. My measure is to see if people’s understanding of God is of one more stupid than they are – they tend to be the ones to worry about.

  44. hizbitz says:

    Great article Robin and a well reasoned debate. Science cannot overcome belief, evidence cannot overcome belief – so there is little point with trying to debate Atheism v’s Christianity. As a scientist, atheist and devout non-believer I have regularly attended many religious ceremonies recently and found some comfort in them. This surprised me! It was not the superstition (plain silly), the icons and art (brought up a Protestant I find much of the Catholic imagery appauling and idolatrous – if that’s possible for an atheist), nor the words of comfort from the pulpit (often hypocritical or condesending). The greatest thing organised religion has to offer is the community, the mutual support and the “belonging”. There is no equivalent in the secular world, or even scientific world. Most of the greatest charities are Christian based (Salvation Army, Oxfam etc). How do atheists become a beneficial community? We seem to be all individuals, I don’t see humanist societies putting up buildings in every town.
    However most of the most intolerant people I have ever met have been “Christians” or “Muslims”, not even fundamentalists, just plain everyday people who were welcomingand normally mild mannered, but who could quickly turn against anyone outside their “club”; against gays, Catholics, Protestants, Shiites, Sunnis, Hindus, woman bishops, abortion and of course atheists. I once heard Protestantism defined as “people who stop others believing in their true religion,” as if the Catholic Church never persecuted anyone. “Holier than thou” is an all too familiar thought when debating with common religious people.

    So can we please have atheist/secular holidays, festivals, charities and support groups – I’m sure it has been attempted many times, but how do you hold non-believers together for a common aim longterm?

    • The thing here is that Atheists are/is not a group. Theists become groups by their very nature. Being a non-theist just means you don’t belong to any of the afore-implied groups. Atheists are members of many groups, societies & go to festivals & have holidays but none of them will be defined by their Atheism, other than, of course, their lack of membership of religious societies.

      It’s difficult to define a society by the one thing in common they don’t do and many of the clubs & societies they do belong to are open to all – Atheists & non-Atheists 🙂

      Imagine it: The Atheist Society get-together – first thing on the agenda: anyone believe in God? Nope? OK, next! Um… ok… who’s for Astronomy, ah good; Discussion on Darwin, yes; Philosophy, indeed; Religion in today’s Society, ok…… and so on through crochet, reading, chess da-di-da-di-dah…

      It would be nice to have a specific non-religious holiday, though. How about a “Dawkins Day”?
      Oops! 🙂

      • The thing is, there *are* atheist societies that do exactly that. There are also many theists who are not members of any theist society. Even narrowly defined theists, like Christians who are not members of a church. And theist societies for the discussion of darwin, philosophy, crochet etc…

      • Sorry somnolentsurfer, do exactly what?
        You cannot have a group about a non-belief.
        Because I’m an atheist doesn’t make me part of a “religious” group that doesn’t believe. When I stopped believing I didn’t stop going to a Christian Church and start going to an Atheist one!

        If I may quote myself: “It’s difficult to define a society by the one thing in common they don’t do and many of the clubs & societies they do belong to are open to all – Atheists & non-Atheists”. These are the Darwin/Astronomy/Crochet clubs I mentioned in the following paragraph.

        If I believe in Christ I am a Christian, surely, whether I go to church or not. If I am an atheist it doesn’t make me a member of The Secular Society or The Humanist Association (although I have no objection to either).

        Any Theist will be part of a group if they have a common set of beliefs & doctrines even if they don’t exactly agree on the meanings contained within these. The only way I can see that a religious person isn’t automatically part of a group is if they believe in a creator but don’t subscribe to doctrines or written testaments such as the Bible… but then I don’t know if that qualifies as religion.

      • Do define themselves by their non-belief. What are university Atheist Societies and the like, if not groups defined by their non-belief? It’s kinda in the name…

        There are so many different definitions of what it means to be Christian that in many ways it’s easier to put atheists in a group than it is Christians! “Here are all the people who believe solely on the basis of empirical evidence. Here are all the people who don’t.” The definition of an atheist is pretty clear cut, whereas who’s in and who’s out of various religious groups is something that’s provoked squabbling for millennia. And, of course, one doesn’t have to be religious to be a theist…

        Ultimately, I tend to think trying to put people in nice little boxes we can make generalisations about is a fairly foolish endeavour.

      • Well, one can put anything one likes in a title and call it a society, and students often do. And you can define sections of society in any way you like (or try to).
        What I’m trying to say is that atheists by fact of their atheism don’t on their own a community make – that was what I was responding to in another commenter’s comment. That atheists don’t appear to have a set of festivals, celebrations, traditions etc… The fact is that we do, but not as a group called “Atheists”.

        BTW, I agree with your last paragraph: “Ultimately, I tend to think trying to put people in nice little boxes we can make generalisations about is a fairly foolish endeavour.”
        It’s just a little bit at odds with your first… 🙂

        And I have already agreed with your comment: “And, of course, one doesn’t have to be religious to be a theist…” But only if you take the definition of “Theism” in its very broadest sense.

      • Oh, I just can’t help being at least a little bit the devils advocate. 🙂 My point, if I had one, was that we can try and group people however we like, but never really works. Communities have to be defined be actual social bonds, and most Christians have no more relation with Fred Phelps than you do.

        So, yes, I agree that atheists aren’t a homogenous group. Intelligent, well reasoned atheists will make the point that it wasn’t Stalin’s atheism that made him a killer. We could sit here all day pointing out the most evil members of each groups, but it wouldn’t help anyone, because neither group really exists. If we try to figure out how we can make the world a better place for all of us, rather than smearing each other with the worst associations we can think of, maybe we’d get somewhere.

      • It’s always difficult playing Devil’s Advocate when you don’t believe in the Devil! 🙂
        And we’ve moved a long way from Morris Dancing, Christmas & Catechism when we delve into Stalin & his murderous ways!
        We don’t need to be religious or atheist to be very very bad – just human.

      • This is when I miss the ‘like’ button – when you want to indicate agreement, but basically have nothing else to add.

        I guess I’m just overly sensitive. I’m used to hearing atheists talking about all the worst so-called ‘Christians’ they can find, so when I hear someone trying to treat us all as one group, I assume a slur.

  45. Emma says:

    Hi lovely piece well written and I have to say I agree with most of it. I am a christian and coming from a more conservative branch than most attendees of Greenbelt (although I have been). I had to google Steven Green so I can categorically say he doesn’t speak for me, and I do believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God but I also believe Darwin’s theory to be correct-I see no contradiction. Conor Cunningham did a good programme on this very point a couple of years ago. I mostly wanted to say that I keen to help people to learn how to think critically about ideas etc and I get frustrated by Christian tat too. Thank you

  46. frpip says:

    Thanks for that, a very thoughtful piece. I must confess to being a bit shocked that you found a Creationist at Greenbelt so easily. I don’t know anyone who would at least admit to being a creationist, and in church circles, I do get about a bit.
    I never get the evolution thing – interestingly Wilberforce, who debated Huxley in the famous debate, did believe in evolution – it was only the “by means of natural selection” bit he didn’t like.

    You might be reassured to hear something said at one of our church talks about cosmology, by a priest: “one thing that science has taught us in the last hundred years, is that we can adopt models which we can test; and modify or abandon them when they cease to tell us anything useful. We can do that with models of physics, with models of quanta with models of the big bang, and with models of God. There is no need for dogma – it only gets in the way of truth.”

  47. At the BCSE we campaign against creationism in UK education and we are religiously neutral, enjoying support and contribution from faithful and faithless alike. It’s free to join.


  48. Verity Lewis says:

    Even if creationism was taught alongside the small part of the science curriculum that covers evolution, big bang etc, I think you’re underestimating the average kid to assume they’ll blindly follow it. I agree that there’s no need to mix science with religion / philosophy when they’re already taught separately, but I really don’t think it warrants this amount of discussion. Kids will make up their own minds regardless. Like many children of my generation, from primary school onwards, I was taught about the nativity, crucifixion, sang hymns in assembly and recited the Lord’s prayer. I learnt about the koran, sikhism and judaism. I learnt about dinosaurs, cavemen and the solar system. Rather than confuse me, it made me ask questions from an early age, to try and reconcile all this information that was out there – and I think that can only be a good thing. As an older pupil in my teens I would go from a one hour chemistry lesson about molecular bonds to an RE lesson about islam. was I confused? no more than the average teenager. As I said above, the only “mythical” aspect of my science lessons was where there was no science to explain some of the phenomena described in my textbook. To assume that a child or teenager will latch onto creationism as a replacement for science on the back of a couple of lessons seems a little naive and patronising. I, for one, don’t know anyone who went to a school where it was cool to believe in a god and/or overtly practice a religion. Or where all the cool kids belonged to the Christian Union. If anyone else on here did, please feel free to set me straight!

    • You are perhaps unaware of the new wave of de-religionised creationist material freshly evolved in the US and now presented as simply science here in the UK. The “textbook” Explore Evolution is a great example of crypto creationism. I’m not underestimating kids by thinking they won’t spot it is a ringer, most science graduates can’t pick it out.

      Check it out here;


      This is what UK science teachers are up against – not Noah’s Ark.

  49. Kieran says:

    Wonderful article. You’ve said a lot of what I, as a Christian with a love of science, have often silently screamed while listening to Monkey Cage and watching other popular science shows.

    One comment I would make is that you assumed at one point that we belive in a God to explain creation:

    ” I find it hard to believe why, in these times where there is so much in the natural world that has been explained, people require a god for explanation, but some people do. ”

    Some may – however, for me, God is not there as an explanation. God is something experienced in my life, and the understanding of God as the source of our universe is an extension of that experience.

    That’s my view anyway. Thanks for sharing this piece. I beleive you’ve hit many nails on the head here.

  50. I can assure you that Stephen Green does not speak for most Christians. Some of us think people like him are the worst thing to happen to Christianity in the last century.

  51. Amanda says:

    As a Christian who’s never really considered whether I’m liberal or fundamental or whatever (not greatly into politics) I find it amazing that there is a perception out there that Christians are creationists by default. I also find it surprising when I meet a creationist Christian but I know that when I was at Uni – studying Biological Anthropology – I was the only one in my year, probably my department, who professed faith in Jesus and didn’t consider that an almighty clash with my considered agreement with the theory of evolution. Having said that the theory still has some gaps where huge strides have occurred where it’s difficult to explain exactly how that has taken place and I guess that’s where the evolution by design argument comes in. Not that I’m a major expounder of this idea either but it does help people whose minds are closed in a binary view of Creation vs Evolution to understand that as yet we don’t have all the answers so perhaps there is room for God. In my own opinion we could have every step mapped out and it still wouldn’t disprove God’s existence. It wouldn’t prove it either of course, and that’s ok. God’s awesomeness and behaviour in the universe is not bound by his creation. I don’t believe in God because I need an explanation for why we’re here or how it all began, but because I have seen him at work and experienced his power. Sceptics of course would argue that is just my own susceptibility as a human to social hysteria and that unexplained healings etc., will, in time, be shown to have a perfectly logical scientific reason. I can’t 100% deny these claims, only continue to weigh all these experiences and my logical thought processes together to regularly assess and test and, so far, reassert my faith. A great article to get you thinking. Thanks

  52. Matt G says:

    Robin I totally agree that the issue is with dogmatic approaches. Whilst this is certainly true sometimes in religion. Isn’t it also true amongst atheist evolutionists? Isn’t evolution still an unproven theory presented as fact and yet to deviate from this ‘truth’ is to invite turtle rule (paraphrasing your eloquence). To me it seems dogmatic to prohibit creationist teaching. I am not a literal creationist, but equally I find it hard to believe humanity evolved from fish and monkeys. Despite learning this at school, as I get older I become more sceptical and learn that there is not the categorical evidence to prove evolution. You need to be as robust in your criticism of evolution as creationism to be truly non dogmatic.

    • robinince says:

      the important thing to be aware of is evolutionary theory has been far from static since Darwin published. as Peter Atkins wrote “evolution is fact, natural selection is a theory” but a scientific theory, not a theory from around the table in a pub. so no, evolution is not some unproven theory – I recommend reading someone like Steve Jones (Almost Like a Whale is very good) as a starting point.

    • robinince says:

      as you mentioned fish, I wold also recommend the book, Your Inner Fish. You may find something hard to believe, it does not mean it is not true.

  53. I’ll argue with you on this one point:

    “where evidence and testable hypothesis can be used to get to the least wrong conclusion for policy and law, then it must be used.”

    Political and legal process (not to mention economics) are highly chaotic systems, and rigorously sticking to a mathematically defined solution can lead to feedback loops and highly unpredictable results. In fact, we’d probably find that adding random elements to parts of the system would provide greater stability, which is possibly the role religious influence currently plays.

    Agreed though, we certainly need a shift towards evidence based decisions, even if it’s simply a matter of forcing the person in question to publicly declare that they’re going against the best scientific evidence, and why.

    As for “idiots and smart people, good and bad, on all sides”, yes, totally with you.

  54. speedodoyle says:

    That was enjoyable, but I didn’t understand what “the more turtles that return to support the earth.” was in reference to.

    • robinince says:

      hello, it is reference to an old theory that the earth balanced on a turtle. when someone (perhaps Bertrand Russell) asked what was the turtle standing on, the answer was “obviously it’s turtles all the way down”

  55. Just Me says:

    I know this is an older post but came here from your new one about militant atheism.

    I note you mention about science education and being less likely to believe in a deity. I have always struggled to see how to rationalize an incorporeal being with extended science education, and yet that’s exactly what my sister has done, finding her belief in her god only after extensive science education at university. I still find it hard, frustrating even, when people who I know are very intelligent can hold onto beliefs that contradict evidence but I’m trying to understand and accept.That’s where I need to work on myself, I suppose.

  56. Chandra says:

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