Friday, June 10, 2011

can there be good without God? some personal debate reflections

I have posted a few days ago my response in the Flinders debate – can there be good without God? I am still reflecting on some of the questions generated for me by the debate, which have kept me thinking and to which I want to pick up.

In the meantime, here are some general reflections.

1. The limitations of a debate. I find it difficult to simultaneously listen carefully and generate a response. So the temptation was to become flippant or search for a cheap soundbite to fill the air. Perhaps I’m a male (only do 1 thing at at time!) but it seems to me that the arguments of another deserve better and while a debate allows you to face the argument, I remain ambivalent about it’s potential to enable real dialogue.

2. It is hard to debate when you feel you are being caricatured. For example – when the multiple ways the church has understood atonement is reduced to “God kills his son”; when slavery in the Bible is equated to slavery in Africa; when the 39 books of the Old Testament, so diverse in genre and context, sacred to three religions, are reduced to “the angry God of the Old Testament.” But then perhaps I did the same to them – for example in my paragraph

“Do unto others alongside the “Darwinian” survival of the fittest of a Daniel Dennett. “Love your enemies” alongside Fran De Waal’s animal “empathy”. ”Greater love has no-one” alongside Sam Harris objective moral “wellbeing”

ie reducing three authors to a soundbite. Hence my 3rd point…

3. Are some ideas better engaged on paper than on a platform. For me, one of the most helpful resources in thinking through good and God was Miroslav Volf. His book Exclusion & Embrace is a reflection on justice, from a man who grew up in the Balkans, including the experience of torture. It is a close and critical read of leaders in modern and post-modern intellectual debate. Yet when I returned to it in preparation, I found it almost impossible to reduce to a few minutes. I might not be skilled enough. Or is that some discussion is simply better on paper than on a platform?

4. About 80 attended the debate. At the end, someone mentioned that their neighbour was one of 2000 attending a local pyschic fare that same weekend. An irony perhaps, a smallish crowd at a University arguing ideas, while many more in our culture are very comfortable with the idea that there is more to life than facts and intellectual debate?

Posted by steve at 10:55 AM


  1. I think the method of “dialogue” atheists tend to prefer privileges philosophic materialism, but (in my experience) very few of them are prepared to engage with Christianity from a charitable position allowing for the possibility that the material world might not be all there is.

    I think one of the biggest gulfs is around epistemology – if scientific method is the only way of knowing or the best way of knowing, then of course atheism is going to win.

    Comment by Paul — June 10, 2011 @ 11:57 am

  2. What fascinates me is the testimony of A. G. N. Flew, well know atheistic debater who later in life changed his mind and wrote the book (although some claim he didn’t write the book) There Is A God. In the 50s, as an atheist he wrote a paper that pretty much killed scientific positivism (the idea that the only way of knowing is through scientific method). I cannot remember the name of the major proponent of positivism, however, he conceded that Flew was essentially correct.

    The “New Atheists” have returned to this theory and yet there has been no new reasons to resurrect its use.

    I also find it interesting that some of these positivists postulate the existence of parallel universes–which contradicts their position. After all, what is the essential difference between a parallel universe and some place like Heaven?

    Comment by Darryl — June 10, 2011 @ 1:43 pm

  3. Oh, and Volf should be read very slowly preferably in a rocker with a nice cup of hot tea, a dictionary, a pen, and a large notebook!

    Comment by Darryl — June 10, 2011 @ 1:45 pm

  4. I feel a bit uneasy if the comments in this post were to become a bit of a bash how atheists think.

    Perhaps I am responsible for the trend by my post, but I was more hoping to focus on the place of debate and intellectual argument in general in advancing understanding. How does any point of view engage another in ways that are fair, that promote understanding, that help us be human?


    Comment by steve — June 10, 2011 @ 2:23 pm

  5. It reminds me of how the lunch pre- the debate brought to my attention that new atheists have a right to be loud at the moment – the Christian voice in America has functioned IMHO as a form of persecution of the place of a faith-less voice and the need for it to be heard respectively.

    If I have time, I will try and develop this further,


    Comment by steve — June 10, 2011 @ 2:26 pm

  6. I think intellectual debate can advance understanding, but if there are fundamental disagreements about what can and can’t be known, then it can only go so far.

    IMHO, part of the problem with debate is that it is too often too focussed on winning and not on understanding one another.

    Comment by Paul — June 10, 2011 @ 9:25 pm

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