I was recently invited to a meeting of King’s Church, Horsham (KCH) entitled “What would Jesus say to Richard Dawkins?” [Video] “It’s not what you think”, the invitation card promised. The talk was to take place after their regular Sunday service in a sports hall at a school in Horsham. My 12 year old daughter was with me for that weekend and I was told by email that she was welcome to either listen to the talk or join the “L-Attitude” session which was aimed at 11-14 year-olds. She said she’d rather stay with me for this one.
We arrived at the school and followed the stream of people to the basketball hall. As we walked we were greeted in turn by several stewards, who made a point of saying hello to everybody. We entered the hall and took seats high up on the bleachers at the back. There were already around 200 people in the hall and by the time the service began there were over 250 of them. The stage consisted of large projector screens on each side of a live band setup; drum kit behind a shield, guitar amps, microphones.
Within one minute of sitting down, we were approached by a friendly woman who welcomed us and asked if it was our first time there. We said it was and she went to get us a welcome pack.
The welcome pack came in a plastic wallet and included a KCH branded notepad and pen and I used these to take notes on the talk. The rest of the pack consists of information about KCH and details of all of their activities. [I might pinch this idea for the Horsham Skeptics in the Pub group] There are specific weekly events for children of various age groups; 0-2 years, 3-5 years, 5-10 and 11-14. They also host an Alpha course, relationship courses and a few other things that I will describe more in a later blog post. Looking at some of the forthcoming events on their website, I have a feeling I will be writing about KCH a fair bit. Especially now I have returned to live in Horsham.
After about 25 minutes of worship, which consisted mostly of modern Christian songs and some brief prayers, we were told that before the main talk we would hear a “God Story”. A lady told us about her step father who had contracted a severe bout of pneumonia and had subsequently gone into cardiac arrest. It was a moving story and many tears were shed in the audience as her step-dad took the stage to complete his story. The account was given as evidence that prayers work but as is so often sadly the case their definition of evidence was rather different to mine. Heartless as it may seem, I attribute this man’s amazing recovery to modern medicine and not to their preferred deity.
The Sermon Begins
Phil Playfoot then took the stage and after a brief introduction and a general invitation to chat with him afterwards he began his talk with these words:
“Militant atheism is on the march in the Western world and there is a concerted effort by some individuals to galvanise this belief system with others and actively fight any expression of belief in God especially in the public realm and at the forefront is Richard Dawkins, the former professor of the public understanding of science”
This set the tone for his portrayal of the Dawkins version of atheism. It was a disappointingly inaccurate, straw-man version of Dawkins’ views and I did a great deal of head-shaking throughout his talk, much to the amusement of my daughter. I am not going to spend too much time responding to all his misrepresentations as there were far too many. These boring arguments have been repeated several billion times already and they boil down to the fact that he believes some things that I do not. You can look online for Christian criticism of Dawkins and you will see every single one of the angles explored in this talk. Nothing new here, at all.
Playfoot presented the talk as if it was going to be a genuinely fair account of what Jesus might say to Dawkins, but this promise did not translate into reality. What we heard was a rather clumsy regurgitation of the standard, glib straw men, along with his own speculation about what Jesus might say.
The disappointing lack of honesty is the thing I want to focus on here.
There were over 250 people in that room and Phil Playfoot is clearly a prominent, senior member of their community. Indeed, the New Frontiers Church (of which KCH is part) uses the quaint name “Elders” for their clergy. I assume that the members of that audience trust Mr. Playfoot, so that if he were to claim that he is giving a fair account, they will believe him. For me, the fact that someone in Mr. Playfoot’s position would so readily resort to such gross misrepresentation was troubling. He may not deliberately have mislead the congregation; he might genuinely think he portrayed the views of atheists accurately. If this is the case then he didn’t pay much attention when he read the God Delusion and has neglected to make himself aware of the variety of atheist views that exist. In the same way that Christians each have their own unique views about their faith, atheists have their own unique views on their lack of it. I had hoped that the debate had moved on from such pointless generalisation. Many atheists and Christians have indeed moved on from this position. I wonder why this charismatic evangelical church would wish to perpetuate such myths.
In my previous dealings with Christians I have found the vast majority of them to be honourable, honest people, motivated by a genuine desire to do good and to be good people as far as they possibly can be. Only in a very few instances have I encountered deliberately dishonest or manipulative Christians. It saddens me to see such a potentially joyful group torturing themselves about how atheists are out to get them.
At one point, in a relatively mild example of presenting a skewed version of reality as fact, he says that atheists call themselves “The Brights” as if it is a widely accepted term that atheists use. It is not. It was a bad idea that has pretty much died a well-deserved death. There have always been atheists who winced in pain each time one of their number used the term. It has been rejected on the whole for various obvious reasons; atheists know we do not have a monopoly on intelligence and the fact is that many atheists aren’t bright at all. Not to mention that calling oneself a Bright is somewhat arrogant. Yes, there are arrogant atheists out there and you know what? I don’t like them either. You don’t have to be Christian to see how awful this name is.
In addition to the reporting of old news as if it were new, Mr Playfoot went over all the standard Alpha-course level theological arguments in support of his faith. The last fifteen minutes was a refresher course in what Christians are supposed to believe and as usual the bible was cited as a solid historical source:
“hundreds of people saw Jesus after his resurrection. The disciples and over 500 others subsequently met with Christ in different places and at different times. And they were able to give a first hand, consistent report of this. This was not mass hallucination. The legal expert professor Sir Norman Anderson wrote this: “The empty tomb then forms a veritable rock on which all rationalistic theories of the resurrection dash themselves in vain.” And I think the silence of Richard Dawkins and the other new atheists on this matter tells its own story. They’ve dismissed it, but actually it’s changed history.”
This is a great example of how to sound like you are presenting a solid case when in fact you are not. Reference to the “first hand, consistent report” is deceptive. It is widely acknowledged that the Gospels and the Acts were not first hand accounts. To be charitable, one could say they are accounts of first hand accounts, but what that actually makes them is second hand accounts. There is a clear and important difference. An account of an account does not qualify as a first hand account, by definition.
Another rhetorical stroke is to say that the silence of the new atheists tells its own story. I was not aware of any silence on this subject. In fact a quick google search will bring up these instances of atheists being decidedly non-silent about this exact subject.
These are in addition to many many references to the resurrection in talks and written works by people such as Hitchens, Dawkins and the rest of them. I assure Mr Playfoot, we atheists talk about the resurrection a lot. If you think we’re being deliberately silent then I can only apologise and we’ll try harder so you might hear us.
Mr Playfoot’s cherry-picking of quotations ranges from the boring and predictable to the downright outrageous. He used Sam Harris as an example of how atheists are potentially murderous in their quest to stamp out religion. It sounds like I am exaggerating or caricaturing him but here is what Mr Playfoot said:
“Rather chillingly, another new atheist, a man called Sam Harris, a personal friend of Richard Dawkins said this. He said “Some propositions are so dangerous that it may be even ethical to kill people for believing them.” And who will be those who decide what a dangerous position is? Why, the new atheists. And who do they think is dangerous? People like me and other followers of Christ. Has chilling echoes, doesn’t it, of the 20th century.”
Closely followed by Dostoyevsky’s “If God does not exist, everything is permissible”
Restraining myself from responding angrily, I will make only a couple of short points.
One does not have to be a professor of philosophy to see the logical leaps Mr Playfoot makes in his effort to portray atheists as essentially evil. I can barely bring myself to say it as it’s so banal, but honestly, you do not have to believe in God to find reasons to avoid murder. Seriously. This is why I always come away form these exchanges feeling grubby; I am compelled to engage in this kind of tedious tit-for-tat argument. Here’s another tedious argument: if you are only preventing yourself from murdering people because God says so, does that make you a good person really? I don’t believe in God yet I choose not to kill people mainly out of my own sense of empathy. Do Christians not need empathy then? Or do they have it but not need to use it?
You can read Sam Harris’ own detailed refutation of these gross misrepresentations here
I have met more deceitful Christians (about two) than I have met atheists who take the Dostoyevsky quote seriously (about zero). Please for the love of all the gods stop pretending that atheists follow this line as if it is some kind of moral compass for us!
More of the same from Mr Playfoot here:
“You simply cannot get around the link between atheism and historical atrocities and the evidence of where the human heart can go when there is no belief in God”
I’ll let you think of your own response to that as I have had enough of this for now. I no longer take pleasure in engaging in these arguments. All they achieve is the mutual reinforcement of each side’s initial premise. I only engage in them in response to the gratuitous liberties that people such as Mr Playfoot take when they speak to their trusting flocks on behalf atheists.
I am genuinely surprised that he didn’t accuse atheists of eating babies.
These old intractable arguments have been done to death now and it’s time to focus on our shared humanity if we really want to make progress. I believe good Christians are employing common human empathy, just like me. I think they deserve the credit for not constantly killing people, not God. If they wish to give God the credit then that’s fine. I graciously concede that they are free to believe whatever they like. I would ask only that they graciously accept that those of us that do not believe in God are quite capable of being good people too. Thanks.
Here’s a recent conversation between Dawkins and Ricky Gervais. Have a listen and see if what they say matches Mr Playfoot’s description of atheism.
It may be the case that I have sampled a particularly bad example of a KCH sermon. I did only speak to a couple of people afterwards and I don’t know if other people felt the same as I did about it. I don’t know if the sermons are usually of a higher quality. There’s only one way to find out.
[EDIT - here is a link to a more comprehensive response from the West Sussex Humanists]