Unbelievable Project: Does Christianity enslave? – Are we better off without belief in God?

As part of the Unbelievable Project, I am taking notes and “arm-chair” responding to each of the Unbelievable podcast episodes satisfying a set of simple rules.

For a full RSS Feed of the podcasts see here.

Description of Episode

  • Full Title: Unbelievable? 2 Jun 2007 – Does Christianity enslave? – 02 June 2007 — Are we better off without belief in God?

Duncan Rossiter runs an atheist website. He says that Christinaity enslaves people. Find out why he has a problem with the idea of God and whether Christian evangelist Paul Clarke can persuade him that faith in Christ sets people free.

Download mp3.

  • Justin Brierley – Christian Moderator
  • Paul Clarke – Christian
  • Duncan Rossiter – Atheist


  • My responses in bold, quotes in italic, and the rest is a paraphrase. I may change this formatting convention as I go through the project in the future.

Duncan – “hard to be an atheist – people are shocked when they hear”. “Primarily belief based on indoctrination at an early age rather than at an age when you can make decisions for yourself.”

Paul – “saying you’re a Christian, as opposed to Muslim or Hindu, you get the same sort of reaction.”

Question to Duncan – “why would we be better off without belief in God?”

Justin – “Do you feel that you’ve lost something? Does it make one sad that this is all we have?”

Duncan – As a race, why are we better off? Middle East, Ireland, obvious issues. Asking people to pray when they could be doing something themselves. You can, as an atheist, investigate any other truth claims.

Paul – the Christian is allowed to investigate anything. “atheism is an absolute truth claim just as the faith claims.” Stalin and Mao connected to their atheism?

Me – What is clear is that dogmatic thinking, whether religious or atheistic, leads to suffering. however, religion by its very structure celebrates dogmatism, whereas modern scientific (i.e. skeptical) thinking abhors it wherever it is seen.

Paul – “what hitler did was not in accord of Christian beliefs”

Me – The bible is a multiple-choice text. You can find anything in it, so it can be used to justify the worst behavior and the best behavior.

Paul – “the 20th century was an experiment in secularism, and the result was secular evil more virulent than what came before.”

Paul – people take belief systems and use them for evil. Christianity is not inherently evil. there is evil in the human heart. the problem is with selfish people who might come along and use christianity or any other belief systems for there end.

Duncan – human beings will do evil.

Paul – why haven’t we evolved out of that?

Me – even asking this question shows a remarkable ignorance about how evolution works. first, we are effectively the same humans now (from an evolution standpoint) as we were when we left africa. so why would we expect to have “evolved out of that?” second, it is clear that a balance of selfish tendencies and societal, non-selfish, tendencies leads to success in social creatures like us. therefore, we are still stuck with those selfish tendencies. I am not convinced that if we were able to eliminate this, that this would necessarily be a good thing overall. it could be that this selfish, competitive, aspect gives us the motivation to find creative solutions to problems about which we might otherwise be complacent.

Paul – second hand belief and disbelief, from parents, community, needs to be scrutinized and figured out yourself.

Paul – atheism has no objective way of determining right from wrong.

Duncan – God supposedly created everything, absolutely everything, knows us, and what we are going to do and yet there are people starving that he could have saved. He must be in control of these things but I have not seen any answers out there from Christianity for “why the evil, why at all?”

Paul – agrees that God knows these things, and that the evil is allowed to happen for a reason. In man-made evil, is not directly caused by God (because of free will). on natural evil, he asks “do you think there is enough food in the world to feed everyone in the world?”

Me – absolutely yes. it’s just not distributed properly. and that doesn’t get God off the hook, because he could easily make the soil more fertile, etc… in the places without enough food currently.

Duncan – if people prayed a little less and do a little more, then things would be improved.

Paul – you can pray and do, as well.

Duncan – prayer is a waste of time.

Paul – prayer is the sort of activity that makes yourself more into the type of person that could help. if prayer is a waste of time, do you do anything that wastes time? Certainly you could do more.

Paul – is there ever a justification for allowing suffering? yes, like a nurse giving a shot, to allow for a higher goal. so, is there a higher goal, to justify the suffering? if there were one, then it would have to be pretty big and pretty important. the christian answer to it is the higher goal in question is the glory of god. somehow, all of these things work together for the glory of god.

Duncan – maybe my brain is not wired right, but I don’t see how people dying people for the glory of god, even if they do not believe or ever heard of “your god”.

Paul – we are seeing the back of the tapestry, not the front. the messy side.

Paul – to strictly be an atheist and to make the absolute truth claim that there is nowhere anywhere in the universe a god you need complete knowledge and ethical perfection.

Me – what a ridiculous straw man. replace “God” in this sentence with “Fairy” or “Unicorn” or “Zeus” and you’ll immediately see why.

Justin – what about the positive impact, when they found christ.

Duncan – what about the positive impact of atheism?

Me – is there anything that you believe in, strongly, for which the only evidence you have are stories in ancient texts?


About brianblais

I am a professor of Science and Technology at Bryant University in Smithfield, RI, and a research professor in the Institute for Brain and Neural Systems, Brown University. My research is in computational neuroscience and statistics. I teach physics, meteorology, astonomy, theoretical neuroscience, systems dynamics, artificial intelligence and robotics. My book, "Theory of Cortical Plasticity" (World Scientific, 2004), details a theory of learning and memory in the cortex, and presents the consequences and predictions of the theory. I am an avid python enthusiast, and a Bayesian (a la E. T. Jaynes), and love music.
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8 Responses to Unbelievable Project: Does Christianity enslave? – Are we better off without belief in God?

  1. Steven Winsor says:

    Very interesting…will look at it more in-depth later, Brian.
    Love this line : ‘Paul – atheism has no objective way of determining right from wrong.’ Bingo…even though I am not religious (agnostic actually), I believe Paul nailed it with this comment. Atheism has nothing in tis bag to address ‘what is good behaviour and what is bad/evil behaviour’. And without that, atheism has little to offer…except to save people like myself from spending a Sunday morning in church (which I unfortuantely find excrutiatingly boring). 🙂

    • brianblais says:

      I would agree that atheism, by itself, does not determine morality. Atheism is *not* a worldview. It’s the same as saying that non-astrology does not determine, contribute to, or even point to, a system of morality. However, I would say that the positive ideals of science do point to a system of right and wrong. Our scientific understanding of these concepts leads to the knowledge that right and wrong relates to the well-being of conscious creatures. We can scientifically evaluate any claims with regards to how it contributes to this well-being, even the definition of well-being itself. Much like the science of health can evaluate claims with respect to improved health, and can even evaluate what it means by the word health.

      Let’s take a very specific moral question, which I would say is not an extreme question. Is it moral, Steve, to unquestioningly follow an authority? I would say no. What do you say?

  2. Victor Soto says:

    I would say that I’m more in the Nassim Taleb camp where he agrees that the aesthetics of the Church and the stories of various religions serve a purpose — aesthetics being the operative word. Humans need narratives because we are suckers for causal explanations and do not inherently understand the randomness of the universe. We also have terrible memories for technical things (the letter of the law) and more of a penchant for heuristics and subconscious recollection through story-telling. Hence, to the degree that religion serves as an easily told method for making humanity do the right thing, even if there is no god, maybe there is a net benefit to religion. I say net benefit because there are obvious drawbacks — the waste of time argument, the using-religion-as-a-cause-for-war argument, etc. In the aggregate, I view this as an economic discussion — if the benefits of having religion outweigh the costs, i.e., there is a net societal benefit, we can tolerate the B.S. components we see more frustratingly as the zealots and nonthinkers. Granted, it is these outliers and evangelical wingnuts that frustrate rational persons the most and so generate the most passion among the atheists, but surely, neither camp can possibly hope to convince, en masse, the other camp. For the atheists, understand that religion is like a free drug that is difficult to take away, particularly for a person with a low opportunity cost of time and not much else going on. Of course, as much as I reasonably like to approach this matter agnostically, not atheistically, I still find my faith function surging while sitting in a plane hitting terrible turbulence. Does this make me the dice-throwing dirtbag figure from Pascal’s Wager in the eyes of god, if he is really there? It used to bother me when I was younger but then I convinced myself that if anyone is “up there,” surely he would not have made my mind seek the true answers down any and all avenues. He should not punish me for exploiting my rational brain, right?

    • brianblais says:

      “I view this as an economic discussion — if the benefits of having religion outweigh the costs, i.e., there is a net societal benefit, we can tolerate the B.S. components” So says the economist, eh? 🙂

      I agree partly, but the question is, are the B.S. components actually necessary for the benefits? When pharmaceutical companies make medicines, they often start with an herbal remedy and then they figure out what the active ingredient is, isolate it, and chuck the rest. Even in those cases, before we know better, the benefits of taking the herbs outweigh the costs. However, once we know better, we can change this economic balance. I can’t help but feel that that can be done with religion. The Scandinavian countries, for example, are nearly secular – clearly they can get the benefits with a minimum of superstitious nonsense. It is possible that much of these benefits can be derived from a vague deism, which I don’t have a huge problem with.

      I think what has been clearly demonstrated in history, and makes complete sense, is that *banning* religion is a very very bad way to achieve this – and leads to needless suffering overall.

      “I still find my faith function surging while sitting in a plane hitting terrible turbulence.” I think this is a product of upbringing. Sometimes I catch myself talking to “someone” outside of myself, when I am alone. It’s a vestige, perhaps, of my Catholic upbringing and it provides an outlet for my thoughts sometimes. In a similar way, I might say “knock on wood”, even though I don’t even in the slightest believe that has any effect. It’s a tradition, and I think people need traditions. We need stories, think in stories, so perhaps what we need are better atheistic stories. That’s why, I think, Carl Sagan’s series “Cosmos” was (is!) such a hit – he speaks in terms of stories.

  3. Victor Soto says:

    This is clearly an interesting discussion that never really gets resolution since nobody can (for now) “prove” anything. For the record, I would not consider myself atheistic, but agnostic, in the sense that I have the bodily feeling of acute tissue rejection when I am listening to someone who has never, ever truly seen god in person (but thinks that somehow he knows the answers as he lectures me on how belief is the path to salvation — i.e., “men of faith,” particularly if they have never demonstrated a penchant for intellectual activities in their lives); at the same time, I almost feel this frustration in reverse when listening to a pure atheist insisting that there is no god, as if he knows for a fact that there can’t be a god. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. I prefer to be an intellectual free agent, allowed to change my mind at a moment’s notice depending on how my exposures change in my intellectual journeys. Also, I can allow myself to think that there may be a “higher being” (or whatever), without having to subscribe to the man-made traditions and processes of the Church. I can appreciate the aesthetics and the history of these things without having to be imprisoned by them. Perhaps some zealots would call this “Cafeteria Catholicism,” but then again I have never really given much consideration to opinions from dilettantes.

    I haven’t read Sagan’s “Cosmos” but it sounds like an interesting read when I have some free time.

    Your point about extracting the vital elements of an herb and chucking the rest work well as an analogy, but in reality, sometimes I suspect scientists (and when I say “scientists,” keep in mind that you are off the hook because the repeatability of A causing B in your field is much more stable than in other fields, including economics :-)), put too much emphasis on “isolating” and not enough emphasis on “interactions,” i.e., bottling that single Ingredient A up in capsule form may miss the subtle interaction effects with Ingredients B and C because they were not “statistically significant” (but the tests completely did not consider the accumulation of the errors regarding multiple interaction effects), causing the user of the herb extraction concentrate to be worse off than if he just consumed the whole herb itself.

    As a side note, I must say I do miss our discussions on topics like this at Bryant. I’m not sure I’m getting enough of that nowadays.

    • brianblais says:

      When dealing with terms like “atheist” and “agnostic”, we quickly devolve into a semantics argument. I prefer to address directly what people believe to be true, what they believe to be false, and how strongly they believe in it. For example, I’d imagine you’d be confident that Zeus doesn’t exist, even though you’d have to admit you couldn’t prove it. I tell my students, “proof does not exist in science – you only have evidence. proof is for mathematics and philosophy”. There is terrible evidence for Zeus, and as a result you probably do not believe he exists. In fact, I would say, you would wager a fair amount of money on the proposition that Zeus does not in fact exist. This is a rough measure of your probability assessment of a proposition. I use the term atheist to apply to that – simply a rejection of the claim that any particular god exists. We say that we know something to be true when its probability is high enough, because it can almost certainly never be equal to 1. As you say it, “a pure atheist insisting that there is no god”, would not be a reasonable person – I agree, because you cannot prove a negative, nor can you “prove” any scientific claim. However, I have never met any such person. Even as staunch of an atheist as Richard Dawkins admits that he is not certain God doesn’t exist, he’s just quite confident.

      “I can allow myself to think that there may be a “higher being” (or whatever), without having to subscribe to the man-made traditions and processes of the Church”. Yes, of course. That would be, in my view, a vague deism. Pretty much content free as I can see it, but possibly psychologically helpful at times. I say possibly, because I am not convinced that it is necessary.

      “too much emphasis on “isolating” and not enough emphasis on “interactions,””. True, but this too is amenable to the scientific process. I don’t see that as a problem. Yes, scientists are imperfect, and at best we always have an incomplete and imperfect knowledge of the world. This does not imply that we can never exclude some things are being wrong or damaging.

      As for Cosmos, there is the book, but also the long-running television show. Which you can get to here: http://www.hulu.com/cosmos

  4. Victor Soto says:

    If I were to add anything more to this particular conversation, then it would appear that I support belief in god and strongly condemn those who don’t, which is certainly not my position. “I prefer to address directly what people believe to be true, what they believe to be false, and how strongly they believe in it.” This sounds like Popper, and I concur with that general approach. Here is what I can say: my beliefs (or more specifically, interest) in pushing people into falsification corners on THIS particular topic, in either direction, are not strong. My passion immediately increases, however, if confronted with crazy religious types who speak without knowing, similar to a pit bull who has been domesticated and no longer wants to fight every single other dog, generally preferring to lounge around the house, eat, and sniff around at the occasional odd object but will suddenly snap and viciously attack an intruder without thinking twice about it.

  5. Steven Winsor says:

    An exerpt from an article (2011) written by Alain de Botton entitled: ‘An Atheist at Christmas: Oh Come All Ye Faithless’:

    “The secular world often sees in rituals such as communal singing or eating a loss of diversity, quality and spontaneity. Religion seems bossy. But at its finest this ritual-based bossiness enables fragile but important aspects of life to be identified and shared. Those of us who hold no religious or supernatural beliefs still require regular, ritualised encounters with concepts such as friendship, community, gratitude and transcendence. We need institutions that can mine, harvest and mould precious ideas for us, remind us that we need them and present them to us in beautiful wrappings –thus ensuring the nourishment of the most forgetful sides of ourselves.”

    “The wisdom of the faiths belongs to all of mankind, even the most rational among us, and, throughout the liturgical year, deserves to be selectively reabsorbed. Religions are intermittently too useful, effective and intelligent to be abandoned to the religious alone.”

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