Friday, November 20, 2015

Is Christianity holding Northern Ireland back? Listen back to #thebigdebateni

Around 400 people filled the Stormont Hotel’s ballroom tonight to hear Michael Nugent and David Robertson debate the question “Is Christianity holding Northern Ireland back?

The event was organised by local churches. 150 tickets were distributed by atheist and humanist groups, 150 by the local churches and the remaining 150 were available online on a first come first served basis. You can now listen back to the full evening.

The format gave the two speakers ten minutes each to make their case before they spent twenty minutes interrogating each other. Then the audience got to have their say and pose questions and respond to what they had heard.

Michael Nugent (@MickNugent) chairs the advocacy group Atheist Ireland and was first to speak.

Does religion hold NI back? Yes. Because religion holds everything back. And particularly when it’s entangled with politics. He suggested that sectarian was institutionalised in the Good Friday Agreement/Belfast Agreement and later quoted Caleb Foundation’s Wallace Thompson who said “All legislation should reflect Biblical reality”.

Nugent argued that “religion corrupts our sense of reality”. The more implausible the claim, the higher the barrier to believe it. Yet with religion it is the reverse. In fact, religion wants us to believe implausible and untestable claims.

Faith can be a problem in the secular world too, in communism and the free market. Eventually with secular faith it bumps into reality – the free market proves not to work – but religious faith and claims about the afterlife remain untestable.

Religion also corrupts our sense of morality.

David Robertson (@TheWeeFlea) is director of Solas Centre for Public Christianity and is Moderator of the Free Church of Scotland. started by admitting that he didn’t recognise his religion in Michael’s introductory speech.

The state tells us how to educate our children what we should believe. Christianity can prevent the state becoming a form of fascism, of corporate control.

He argued that Christianity plays a large role in social action. Where were the atheist food banks? If you remove religion from society, would atheists move in to fill the gap? He suggested that atheists take over Christian schools ‘cuckoo like’ and impose their atheist views. He didn’t want Christianity removed from society … it changes society.

Robert admitted that not all religion is good. And not all Christians are good. Some were stupid. But how can you be for tolerance but also want to remove or eradicate religion from society.

The interrogation was good natured, though full of unpicking questions as well as much arguing with alleged false assumptions behind questions.

While the section taking questions from the audience attempted to wrestle the debate back towards the topic of Northern Ireland, most of the interaction was David Robertson (who defended himself against allegations of being smug and lacking grace).

During the questions, the chair of Atheist NI mentioned that they have a food drop (in conjunction with FareShare) at their meeting this Sunday morning at 11am in The MAC.

David Robertson saw merit in some of the writings of Pope Benedict XVI (though he’d got Mary “wrong”) and described him as a “Christian brother”. At one point there was agreement on stage with a shared view that people who don’t want to bake cakes should not be prosecuted.

By the end of the evening there had been more heat (and hot air) than light. Views from outside Northern Ireland bring welcome fresh insight and less predictable responses to familiar questions. Yet trying to play Top Trumps with atheism and Christianity overall reinforces beliefs and prejudices rather than builds bridges. The kind of sentiment monitoring that accompanies national political leader debates might have usefully shown how the sections of the audience reacted to the arguments being proffered on stage.

Michael Nugent and David Robertson will be reunited with William Crawley and taking calls on BBC Radio Ulster’s Talkback this afternoon.

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