Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Crashing David Quinn's Theology Tea Party

Before I begin, I’d like to assure you that 101 Things Removed from the Human Body - Sully Edition will be completed, but I’ve decided to document a more recent experience before it fades from memory. It's long, and a departure from my usual blog fodder, so you are under no obligation to read it, but if you want your say - I implore you to comment.

As I’ve mentioned before on this very blog, my college thesis is based on the interplay between religion and ‘new atheism’, which involved a great deal of research into the arguments and rhetoric of each group. I handed in my thesis almost a fortnight ago, but yesterday morning I got an e-mail from my thesis supervisor, informing me that there was an event taking place in Limerick called ‘Café Theology’, chaired by Irish Independent journalist David Quinn. According to the press release, the topic would be:
Is religion on its way out? Is it just for non-thinkers? Should it be confined to private life only? Does the dogmatism of a new atheism try to convince society that religion is only for the weak, the stupid, the deluded or the evil? Is Dawkins right?

The topic certainly piqued my interest, so I read on, and found this gem at the bottom of the announcment:
Listen here to Quinn debating with Dawkins.

Surprisingly while Dawkins starts articulately, he seems to end up in a stutter trying to answer Quinn [sic] objections & arguments.

I’ve yet to witness Richard Dawkins being stumped by a theistic discussion, so I listened to the file, and I was quite appalled by the misrepresentation that he ends up “in a stutter” over the childish arguments that Quinn put forward.

Given that the announcement indicated that the talk was very much about Dawkins’ brand of atheistic purveyance, yet he would not be present, I decided I couldn’t miss such an event! If nothing else, it would be hilarious to hear how Dawkins words could be manipulated to make him seem like a lunatic.

I arrived on time with my friend Jason, and we seemed to be the first ones there. We were approached by a friendly sort who said “how’r’ya lads?’” as he shook Jason’s hand. He then stared at Jason as he held his hand, post shake. I began to grow uncomfortable. What did he want from us? Jason didn’t seem to know either. A second crawled by. Eventually Jason quietly stated his name and the suited geezer turned towards me, shook my hand, and waited for me to utter my name. He didn’t introduce himself, curiously enough, but he warmly told us to go and get a cup of coffee (which wasn’t free, I hasten to add).

I was a little confused by this very personal greeting, as any serious intellectual academic seminars I’ve attended didn’t begin with physical contact and name-giving. Of course at this stage, I realised that this was an ostensibly Catholic undertaking to reinforce existing beliefs, rather than an engaging exercise for the gray matter.

Quinn introduced his seminar as “Challenging the New Atheism”, and proudly mentioned that he had debated with Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, sarcastically commenting that he received “the usual fairness” when his panel discussion with Hitchens consisted of fewer theists than agnostics or atheists.

Quinn proffered that the arguments of ‘new atheism’ are nothing new, as they have been around as long as religion itself. He maintains that atheism has resurfaced and gained ground because of George Bush and 9/11. Also interesting is his notion of ‘historical contingency’, which asserts that in certain periods, some philosophies will be more popular than others, ie: in a time of religious war, there will be plenty of anti-religious sentiment around. All of this seems quite reasonable, but he eventually introduces the arguments against religion from the perspective of atheists, which he considers as (1). Science and Religion are in conflict (2) Religion does more harm than good, and (3) Religion is unreasonable.

The rest of his talk consisted of misrepresenting secularism, and putting words in Dawkins' mouth to make his beliefs seem absurd. I’ll give you the notes as they appear in my notepad: “Scientific Materialism is a philosophy”, “Dawkins is speaking as a philosopher, not a scientist when he speaks about God, therefore his qualifications are of no merit – he is therefore a lay man”, “Dawkins does not believe in free will, but he believes in moral accountability”, “Dawkins considers stem cell research ethical, but he considers research on his body unethical – where does he draw the line?” – “he is too blinded by hostility for religion to realise that the Animal Rights movement are the major obstruction to science”.

Quinn believes that history has “demonised” religious undertakings, and “sanitized” secular ones, highlighting that the “Committee for Public Safety”, which killed thousands more than the Inquisition, is not regarded as one of the greatest crimes against humanity, whereas the Inquisition was. He believes that this is because the former was a secular organisation. He says that a “fanatical” adherence to “reason” is “unreasonable”, and every bit as dangerous as religious fundamentalism. He then bemoaned the moral relativism of secularists, who cannot rely on a higher power for guidance, and therefore, “anything seems reasonable”, resulting in the “blood soaked history of secularism”.

He says that atheism “as a belief” (I believe he was unaware of the irony of the statement) is “weak”, because it doesn’t explain the “origin of matter”, and Dawkins admits to having no answer. He then claims that the big bang theory was initially kept schtum by scientists who didn’t want to cede that there was a “moment of creation”.

He closed by stating that militant atheism is a major problem, as is any form of fanaticism, and we must strive for a more realistic appraisal of history. I may well have glossed over his talk here in too general a manner, but I assure you that every second sentence of his mouth was so utterly dishonest that I found it difficult to suppress the audible scoffs that yearned to be freed.

Now that it was question time, I was only too happy to enter the fray, but I drew a major blank – there was so much wrong with what he said! Where should I begin? As I flicked through my notes, somebody asked about the worship of Dawkins by atheists. Quinn laughed at the reaction to his “debate” with Dawkins when discussed on, as Richard had been “placed on a pedestal”. According to Quinn, atheists think that “Dawkins is infallible, and anybody who disagrees is irrational – that is a very unreasonable way to conduct yourself”.

Great! Now I can tear into him. I told him that he grossly misrepresented atheists – that I am an atheist, and I do not consider Richard Dawkins to be “infallible”. I also pointed out that he spent considerable amount of time doing what Dawkins was criticised for by theists– establishing a “straw man” (a ridiculous summation that misrepresents a person’s beliefs to facilitate making their argument easier to rebut). I told him that atheism is not an active belief in something, but rather a lack of something, and his assertion that atheists want to wipe all religious people off the earth in a violent fashion is as ridiculous as a person claiming that my teetotalling disposition would result in me rounding up and killing every publican and brewer of alcohol once I get into a position of power. The audience laughed at my analogy (laughed with me, I believe) as I elaborated that atheism has no central authority that determines how to behave, as it is not a creed or philosophy, but an absence of belief.

His sneering style of delivery evaporated once it became clear that he wasn’t entirely among friends, and he maintained eye contact with me for a nanosecond, before morosely turning to the other side of the room and saying “I was talking about militant atheism”, and then claiming “I never said that everyone on considered Richard Dawkins infallible”.

A few more questions were asked and I thought I’d enter the fray again. I referred to his point that new atheism is recycling the atheism that has been around for centuries, but asked him to consider that whereas once it was just an existential, materialist philosophy that rivalled other theories, the development and growth of science in the 19th century now means that atheism is based on knowledge, and not theories, as a great deal of the Bible has been disproved. As I was saying this, the woman directly opposite me (I was to the left of Quinn – she was to the right) began to shake her head vigorously and say “no no no no no”, but I continued with my point, finishing with “now that we know more about the nature of the world, science has proven itself more useful than religiosity.”

Quinn mumbled something before deferring the question to the woman he knew by name whose head was spasming during my point. Her opening salvo was “you obviously know nothing about philosophy”, and she proclaimed that the Bible hasn’t been “debunked by science – it was never meant to be taken literally, it is purely allegorical. Biblical literacy is a modern phenomenon.” She then listed off a number of philosophers who backed up her belief – she was certainly better read more than I, but that had no bearing on the conversation. I gestured that I had something to say as she continued to berate my ignorance. I asked politely “to address the argument”, but she didn’t relent. Eventually the chap controlling the microphone convinced her to stop, so I could offer a rebuttal.

“You’re happy to admit that the Bible is allegorical. If you’re going to derive morality from a work of fiction, why not any book? Why not, say, Aesop’s Fables?” She cut across me again, berating my ignorance, before going off on an unrelated tangent about the etymology of the word ‘atom’ (the philosopher Democritus, apparently), before I interjected and asked her how she can justify belief in Jesus Christ, a supernatural messiah who will bring about the end of the world, based on a book that she admits to being allegorical.

She then ranted about how parts of the New Testament are considered historical (I’ve read some interesting things that seriously undermine the validity of her assertion, but I thought I’d let her be the academic snob, whereas I’d be the practical guy who can call a turd a turd), but utterly failed to address my point. I chided her for “moving the goalposts” at one stage, but she didn’t see that as relevant.

The questions that followed were from people asking for elaborations on parts of Quinn’s speech, which consisted of more empty rhetoric, but he was much more judicious of his treatment of atheists. When the mic came my way again, I asked him to address my assertion that religion sabotages intellectual appetites in young people. I told him that as a person curious about the world, I used to find my queries shot down with “God put it there”, or “God did it”, which is counter-intuitive to learning about the nature of things. I asked him what he thought of my viewpoint that religion is a kind of road-block for free-enquiry in that regard, which ultimately answers nothing. I restated my utterance to focus it in a bit, but when Quinn hesitated to address the point, I felt compelled to fill the silence with a rather unsophisticated linguistic capstone that caused much mirth on the busride home:
Ultimately, the response – “God put it there”, is the end of the conversation for the religious mind, whereas it is only beginning for the intellectually curious. Do you have an objection to this ideological road block? This willingness to say “God put it there?” [He hesitated] You're an idiot.”

The addendum of “you're an idiot” was so ambiguous at the time, that even now in retrospect I can’t say if it came across as me elaborating on my ‘quote’ from the theist, or the level of respect I had for Quinn’s intellectual integrity manifesting itself in a hilarious Freudian fashion.

Quinn’s answer, which was disappointing in its flimsiness, consisted of him saying that religion has made him “more curious”, but he failed to elaborate on this point in a coherent fashion. I hoped that the audience considered his meandering doublespeak as the failure that I did, but they were quite sympathetic towards him up to that point.

There was a great deal that I wanted to say but didn’t get the chance to, as I had already claimed far more microphone time than anyone else, and the organisers were looking at their watches with increasing frequency. Regardless, I asked Quinn for a simple “one syllable” answer to the question “Do you claim to derive your morality from the Bible”, but when he took forever to say “yes”, the microphone was plucked from my hands before I could probe whether he had ever killed one of his children for talking back to him (Exodus 21:15, Leviticus 20:9, Deuteronomy 21:18-21, Mark 7:9-13, and Matthew 15:4-7), or how he felt about slavery – which the Bible does not have any problems with (so long as you don’t beat your slave to death, knock out his teeth, or pluck out his eyeballs).

After two stuffy hours, the talk finally ended. As I stood up to go to the bathroom, I was under the impression that I was wearing a sizable bullseye on my head. I joked to Jason that I’d get “jumped in the jacks”. No sooner had the words been uttered that a woman had approached me. “Thanks for your comments” she said. “Made this worthwhile”. I was quite taken aback, considering that I was inundated with dirty looks during my time with the microphone, and had come to terms with the fact that I was behind enemy lines. As I queued for the bathroom, a man approached me, who was quite flustered, and confused me with the few fragments of sentences that he spat out. He eventually thanked me for my input, and apologised for not matching my “eloquence”, at which point I had a flashback of “You're an idiot” and chuckled that I somehow came across well in spite of that blunder.

One toilet-break later and I was back in the room with Quinn, the organisers, and the stragglers – I had to walk past Quinn to exit, but I planned on stopping to chat to him for a few moments and ask about his column and whatnot. As I approached him I heard some guy asking him about “this guy - Daukens”, who “just makes it up as he goes along?” Quinn nodded in approval of this interpretation. I decided not to bother talking to him and made my way for the door.

A priest was standing at the stairs that led out of the building. We both walked past him as he called out “Good luck lads”. I looked over my shoulder to see him giving us a half-hearted thumbs up.

He cried out after us:

“God Bless”.

My laughter reverberated through the building and out into the street.


Sully said...

Unfortunately, I didn't take notes of the Q&A session, so I may have glossed over some of my own quotations. I've also resisted the urge to 'tweak' the wording of my sentiments from their rough verbalisations, so they are recreated as verbatim as memory will allow.

I would enjoy a complete deconstruction of Quinn's arguments, but that would only serve to give him credence that he doesn't deserve. I am eager to point out that he took everything in his stride - despite looking like he was under pressure a few times, he never lost his cool when spouting out his empty rhetoric.

I've also resisted the urge to pounce on his essential admission of agnosticism, as he defined himself in such a manner at one stage, but I'll assume he misspoke whilst trying to navigate the minefield that was created by the battering that the Bible received, both intentionally and unintentionally.

Nancy said...

High five, Sul!

strange-young-man said...

Its an interesting one.I'll give you that.

Anonymous said...

Good blog, and at least 95% accurate according to my memory. (Jason here, I was there.) As you've pointed out already, you did not say "you idiot" to the poor fuzzy-brained apologist, but "You're an idiot".

The rest is spot on - including the bit about the priest at the end. The cheeky bastard. If I hadn't have been there, I would have thought you made it up. The timing was perfect. "God bless you, lads!". And the laugh did actually reverberate.

Vinnie said...

here's an amusing story related to creationist propaganda

Sully said...

EDIT: 27/04/08 - Finally fixed the bit where I misquoted myself (thanks Jason), and replaced "you idiot" with "you're an idiot".

Thanks for sharing the link, Vinnie! Glad to see someone else enjoys laughing at the ineptitude of intellectual terrorists (I may be over-stating that somewhat).