Unbelievable Project: A “proxy” atheist explains why he can’t believe

Unbelievable? 10 Nov 2007 – A “proxy” atheist explains why he can’t believe – 10 November 2007 — Radio Host Nick Pandolfi on being a ‘proxy atheist’

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? 10 Nov 2007 – A “proxy” atheist explains why he can’t believe – 10 November 2007 — Radio Host Nick Pandolfi on being a ‘proxy atheist’

    Nick Pandolfi is a radio presenter and newspaper columnist.  He says Religion has been the cause of war and conflict, and Christians can’t agree on what they believe.  Peter Williams of the Damaris Trust speaks on behalf of faith in Jesus.

Download mp3.

  • Justin Brierley – Christian Moderator
  • Peter Williams – Christian
  • Nick Pandolfi – Atheist


Nick – (from his article, quote read by Justin) “Religion can be what you want it to be. A pick-and-mix victorious sponge God, or a full blown hate-making factory. These religious folk don’t exactly get on, do they? How does religion explain its catastrophic failing to get on with itself? No wonder people like me feel let down.”

Me – I’ve heard it as “The Big Book of Multiple Choice”. An analogy would be with simple proverbs (not the Biblical ones, although it might work there). For any proverb, you can almost always find an opposite. Consider the following two pairs:

  • “Haste makes waste”, “A stitch in time saves nine”
  • “Too many cooks spoil the broth”, “Many hands make light work”

Me – Each of these is correct, in some context, but we are are responsible for following the correct edict in the correct context. We do this naturally, and people who read the Bible do this too – they just don’t realize that it is they who are making the moral choices, not simply following the moral edicts of the Bible.

Nick – I find some atheists as ranting as some religious folks, and I don’t want to join that band. Hitting themselves all the time, moaning about “Christmas being stolen”, or “Christmas doesn’t exist”, “I don’t believe in this”, and “I don’t believe in that”.

Me – I’m with him there. Sometimes I think it goes a bit overboard. However, when it comes to public funds being spent on religious iconography, I have a problem. Things like the ten commandments in judicial halls, or official school prayers in public schools.

Nick – There is a lot of anger there, with Dawkins and Hitchens, etc… and that’s just not where he is. He feels it is unlikely for there to be a God but that he doesn’t know, that he can’t know, but he also doesn’t want to go the other way to claim that there is a God.

Me – this, to me, is atheism pure and simple, and I think that he is really missing the definitions. even Dawkins would never say he knows there is no God.

Nick – I do believe that many people perhaps misrepresent faith or perhaps misrepresent their God, but to me behave in a way that does not seem particularly religious.

Peter – The fact that people do a lot of evil highlights one of the truths that religion claims about the world that people are sinful and that they need some kind of help to deal with that.

Nick – Religious people should know better, shouldn’t they?

Peter – One should distinguish between people who do bad things against the grain of what their theology teaches them vs people who do bad things along the line of the ideology they follow. What would happen if people followed Jesus’ word seriously? Killing people is clearly against the grain of what Jesus had in mind.

Peter – If you really follow Jesus, turn the other cheek, love your enemy then the evil things shouldn’t happen.

Nick – that’s a great “Get out of jail free” card – if you follow the rule book, then it won’t happen. But it happens, has happened for far too long, and will continue to happen.

Me- On the “Get out of jail free”, I am in full agreement. This is the “no true Christian” fallacy. If you claim to be a Christian, and are good, then you’re a real Christian. If you’re not, you’re not really a Christian.

Peter – this is not particular to religion, people who are irreligious have done it, etc…

Nick – But you’re bigger than politics, you’re religion, you’re supposed to be better, you’re supposed to be the shining light example.

Me – I think Nick might be using the word “religious” in a way that his host, and discussion partner, is not seeing. I think, if I can speak for him, he means that religion claims the moral high ground. As such, we should perhaps hold religious people to a higher standard. For example, the pedophilia in the Catholic Church is a horrible thing. It is that much worse given that the people involved claim to be morally superior to others. When Nick says that religion should “know better”, I think this is referring to the self-proclaimed moral superiority of their religion over others in contract to the actions of those making that claim.

Nick – if you join a club, you pay your dues, and there are a certain set of rules for that club to remain in the club. there are certain definite rules for religious life, but the church will gladly take your money so you can have your wedding there. they’ll take your cash, regardless of whether you will ever go back to that church again.

Nick – to respect an organization, you need to believe that they believe in what they are selling. If you are going to have anyone through your doors, whether they know anything about Jesus for example, but take their money for weddings this is hypocritical. I would respect a church a lot more if they would test people.

Me – Yes, I agree. There is a hypocrisy in the churches, and in the people, who want the benefits of calling themselves Christian when it comes to baptism, weddings, and funerals (Hatched, Matched, and Dispatched), but do not believe in the tennets of the church.

Back to Peter’s comment – What would happen if people followed Jesus’ word seriously?

Me – I doubt that Peter really takes Jesus’ words seriously. For example, Matt 19:20 “Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” “ and Matt 5:18 “For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” which pulls in all of those crazy Old Testament “kill you for this and that” commands. Surely Peter will have some rationalization for not following these, and also not recognize the process by which he came by these rationalizations. He probably would not admit that he is the arbiter of these choices, not the Bible.


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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