Taking John Dickson’s word for it

John Dickson

John Dickson

I quite like John Dickson.

I’ve met him a few times, through his work for Jesus’s PR firm, the Centre for Public Christianity. CPX euphemistically describes its job as offering ‘a Christian perspective on contemporary life by engaging mainstream media’, but more often than not it seems to exert itself to tell atheists how dreadfully wrong and arrogant we are for not claiming a personal relationship with the creator of the universe.

John sends lots of long tracts to old-media outlets like the Sydney Morning Herald and the ABC, and they invariably, uncritically and inexplicably publish them as opinion pieces. Although I am by no means fully abreast of John’s extensive writing and broadcasting, I would say almost every time I have heard or read him, he asserts something along the lines of:

In reality, the Jesus-never-lived hypothesis is about as marginal in historical scholarship as young-earth-creationism is in biological science.

He invariably clads this bald assertion with many paragraphs of Courtier’s Replies, informed (one presumes) by John’s many academic credentials. An enquiring skeptic might sit down, attempt to read a John Dickson blog post and set herself the task of noting down the evidence John Dickson offers that would make Christianity seem more than just another heap of wishes and myths. She might well end up, as I do, with an empty sheet of paper, a doodle of an elephant, a headache and the nagging suspicion that someone at the Esteemed Media Outlet had a long, boozy lunch the previous week.

So I felt last week when John’s post ‘Art of Persuasion not so Simple‘ appeared on the Herald’s website. John’s side-argument du jour (the main arguments are always the same) is that as human beings, we are not naturally good at assessing evidence. He quotes from the Actually Totally Awesome You Are Not So Smart (to which you really must subscribe). In the article the Backfire Effect, David McRaney convincingly argues:

Once something is added to your collection of beliefs, you protect it from harm. You do it instinctively and unconsciously when confronted with attitude-inconsistent information. Just as confirmation bias shields you when you actively seek information, the backfire effect defends you when the information seeks you, when it blindsides you. Coming or going, you stick to your beliefs instead of questioning them.

All good so far, John. Cue the atheist bashing:

What about liberals and secularists? There is a growing body of evidence suggesting that religious people contribute more to society than the non-religious.

Contribute more what? Well, John goes on to quote a Robert Putnam, professor of public policy at Harvard. According to a study, the title and journal of which John cites simply as ‘research, based on huge samples’, Professor Putnam has concluded:

“Religious Americans are better neighbours than secular Americans – more generous with their time and treasure, even for secular causes.”

They are John’s quote marks, not mine. That matters because when we try to dig up the journal article to find exactly what John is talking about, we get… John’s article. And John’s article. And a site called Surfwax, quoting John’s article. And now my blog post.

JPD goes on to make a further claim:

The 2004 report on Research and Philanthropy in Australia, by the Department of Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, found that people who say they are religious are far more likely to volunteer in the community and give money to charities than those who say they have no religion. Moreover, 19 of Australia’s largest 25 charities (by revenue) are Christian.

Again, no proper citation. And the online version of Dickson’s opinion piece does not contain a single hyperlink to this Important Evidence. Why doesn’t Jesus do new media? Back to the Googles, I guess.

And what do we find? John’s article. Another article by John Dickson. A repost of the same on a blog. And a comment on the ABC’s Drum blog by… John Dickson.

So far, my attempt to discover this evidence of my evil starts and ends in the mind of John Dickson. But here’s the thing: the studies may exist. They may entirely confirm what John claims. And I won’t change my mind about the value of christianity. Why? Because even if christians do do more for charity, that is a terrible reason to believe in a magic carpenter zombie who wants to stop gay people marrying.

Of course, John takes my refusal to accept his claims as evidence of my falling for the backfire effect. He takes another stab with his second favourite argument (I wish I had a buck for every time I’ve heard him try this one on, too):

I have spoken to too many atheists over the years who start out with a “proof” line of argument only to eventually admit that their reasons for rejecting religion have equally to do with some painful event in the past that called into question God’s existence or some ugly encounter with a religious hypocrite that caused them to distrust religious claims.

This is also quite true. Many of us who speak out against christianity specifically are former victims of christianity. We suffered at the hands of the cult and we hope we can speak freely about its evil. And while religious hypocrites may be capable of imposing ‘ugly encounters’ on others, I reckon they are far less numerous and wicked than the entirely honest professional purveyors of ugly encounters, whom John is paid to promote.

Once, when I saw John in person, he stated (I paraphrase from memory): ‘I’ve never met a sceptic of christianity who didn’t also have an emotional reason for opposing it’.

This is not an argument against atheism. This is an admission of the harm that christianity causes, harm that was almost certainly not factored into JPD’s interpretation of the mythical studies; the studies showing what a great bunch of generous folk these Jesus cultists are. Yes, some of us do have emotional reasons for challenging christianity, but the rational reasons are enough.

Read that again: the rational reasons are enough.

John is misattributing our failure to accept his claims. We do not reject his claims because we are predisposed to reject them. We reject his claims because they are not well supported by evidence or reason. And until John’s arguments change, our cognitive weakness won’t help him.

Because, after all, one of the things we self-described skeptics aspire to do is to recognise that we are susceptible to our own weaknesses in reasoning, our poor appreciation of probability and large numbers, our desire to see our beliefs confirmed. We Are Not So Smart, and we know it. We aspire to overcome it by using the tools of reason. Some of us fail more than others. All of us fail from time to time.

But to claim, as John does, that skeptics will generally not change our minds in the face of evidence is wrong. He argues on our behalf when he draws attention to the many, many ex-christians in our midst: people who changed their mind. I was one. I also opposed nuclear power and genetic engineering and I changed my mind, based on a thorough physiological examination of my knee and it’s disturbing tendency to jerk.

And I would conceivably change my mind back again about christianity. Just as soon as John stops appealing to the authority of ‘every serious Biblical scholar’, and actually uses their supposed evidence to explain the following:

  • How man a called Yeshua was born of a virgin and was resurrected after his death without his earliest biographer, Mark, mentioning either fact.
  • How he healed the sick, raised Lazarus from the dead, cast demons into swine, turned water into wine and nobody wrote a word about him while he was alive.
  • How there are no good extra-biblical accounts of Jesus, and none whatsoever corroborating the the miracle-man-messiah-zombie for decades after his death.
  • How evidence for a ‘little-j’ Jesus-Man would somehow corroborates fantasies of  ‘Big-J’ Jesus-God.
  • How neuroscience and philosophy can be overturned to support dualism. How memory, perception, behaviour, temperament and all the other aspects of our personality, dependent as they are on a working brain, somehow have an invisible backup file that preserve them after the brain rots.
  • How the living can know there is an afterlife. How the universe, vast and uncaring, generating life through undirected evolution was actually made with us in mind after all.
  • What a ‘god’ is. How a loving, powerful god can co-exist with evil.
  • How perfectly sane people deconvert from christianity in their multitudes, even after reporting exactly the same kinds of religious experiences the remaining believers report. How, even after millennia of endless chatter, religious believers can’t begin to even remotely agree on what is true and false among their various claims.
  • Why a diagnosis of terminal cancer is apparently not joyous news for a believer convinced of a paradise after death for the repentant faithful.

Then, John. If you do well. Maybe. We can start talking about your claims as if they are somehow different from the fantasies and wish-thinking of billions of other supernaturally minded people, some of whom may give more to charity than you or I.

John, mate. As long as your argument remains no more impressive than ‘most Biblical scholars believe in Jesus’, you’re going to get laughed at. Because the majority of Koranic scholars believe Muhammad is a prophet of god and we don’t care. Because the majority of homeopaths believe water has memory, and we don’t care. Because the majority of creationists believe in flood geology and we don’t care.

But mostly because your appeal to authority carries no weight at all, and your reliance on it suggests you don’t take our objections seriously, or you actually think we are idiots.

And because we have read You Are Not So Smart, too. And we really want to avoid mistaken conformity.

UPDATE: An admin on the CPX Facebook page has, at my request, coughed up a ‘citation’ to the Putnam research, disappointingly pointing me to a popular book. Its bibliography is here. I’m not wading through it to find the actual peer-reviewed evidence for the specific claim John reproduces in his article. Frankly, that’s John’s job. What is asserted without evidence should cheerfully be dismissed without evidence. John Dickson has a PhD. He knows how to cite his sources. He chooses not to.

27 Comments

  1. Ken West
    Posted July 18, 2011 at 22:38 | Permalink

    Dave,

    Thank you for the opportunity to respond to your post.

    Having read the article that you link to regarding the Backfire Effect, and your proclamation that no amount of evidence would shift your view of Jesus or his movement, it is with some sense of futility that I make these comments.

    I looked for the report to which John referred and found it on the website for the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs after less than 10 minutes of effort. The summary is at http://www.fahcsia.gov.au/sa/communities/pubs/Community/Giving_Aus_Finding/Pages/default.aspx and the full report is at http://www.fahcsia.gov.au/sa/communities/pubs/Community/ga_volunteering/Pages/default.aspx

    The report is dated 2005, and is based on data from 2004.

    The report suggests there is some correlation between ‘religion’ and philanthropy. Quoting from the summary report …
    * p41 “Those with religious beliefs are among the most generous of givers.”
    * p43 “Only 4.8% [of respondents] said they gave because of a sense of religious obligation, but they gave almost 13% of the total.”
    * p44 “Practising and holding a religious affiliation increases giving, including to non-religious causes. The results show that having a religion and attending religious services significantly affects the likelihood to give and the amounts given (those with a religion gave at a rate of 88.9% at an average value of $460 per year compared with 83.5% who don’t have a religion, at an average value of $223 per year). When giving by those with a religion to their own religion is not included, the overall rate and amounts given are about the same as for those who do not have a religion. For those who have a religion, the less often they attend a religious service, the more often they give to non-religious nonprofit organisations.”

    So the religious give more, but tend to give to religious causes.

    Ken

  2. Posted July 19, 2011 at 12:57 | Permalink

    Ah, Ken West, the dependable Kirk to every Ray that pops up.

    I quote from the report, section 4.1.13, “Religion and the giving of money and time”

    “… people who are religious are more likely to give and to give more than those who are not. However, this effect does not necessarily hold when giving to religion is excluded.”

    I do not consider giving money to a religion to be any kind of charitable donation. I consider it more of an expensive club subscription.

    Basically, any difference is an artifact of how “giving” is defined. You even mention this yourself.

  3. Posted July 19, 2011 at 13:45 | Permalink

    So to recap, John Dickson says:

    The 2004 report on Research and Philanthropy in Australia, by the Department of Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, found that people who say they are religious are far more likely to volunteer in the community and give money to charities than those who say they have no religion.

    The report actually says:

    … people who are religious are more likely to give and to give more than those who are not. However, this effect does not necessarily hold when giving to religion is excluded.

    Surprise, surprise. John Dickson’s argument is not just invalid, but his premises are outright lies. Still, at least there’s no prohibition against bearing false witness in the Bi… oh, wait.

    Not much to add for now except to reiterate the point Ken apparently overlooked in my original post:

    …even if christians do do more for charity, that is a terrible reason to believe in a magic carpenter zombie who wants to stop gay people marrying.

  4. John Dickson
    Posted July 19, 2011 at 17:32 | Permalink

    Hi, Dave and others,
    I hope you don’t mind my dropping in on this but I can’t resist.
    I think there is something fishy going on here. You don’t include religious giving as charitable, but I do, and here’s why. A significant proportion of religious giving goes to welfare programs within the church and, in the case of Anglicans, Catholics, the Uniting, etc, within the wider diocesan welfare programs (e.g., Anglicare is one of Australia’s largest aid agencies). That’s before you include the ‘missionary’ contributions. Modesty prevents me telling you the figures for my own little congregation (if you insist, I will acquiesce) but you would be delightfully surprised at the amount of money that goes to projects you would approve of – i.e., that don’t involve proselytizing. In my church (and most others) this is a key motivator for people’s giving. Yes, they want to support evangelism and the salaries of the ministers, but they are also trying to contribute to the welfare of the world, whether or not people are evangelized through it. So, I insist: ‘giving to religion’ must be considered at least partly philanthropic. Methodologically, this government study categorizes altruistic giving into giving to religion and giving to secular causes but please notice that it includes giving to religion in the first place, presumably because it considers such giving as potentially philanthropic. People may make up their own minds the degree to which religious giving should be added to non-religious giving to make up the general category ‘charitable giving’. You don’t want to include any of it, for obvious reasons. But that seems invalid. Here’s why I would stick by the statement that the religious give away more money to charitable causes than the non-religious do. It’s simple maths: (a) the religious give the same amount as the non-religious to completely non-religious causes; (b) they also give to their churches; (c) a proportion of their church-giving goes directly, publicly and self-consciously to external charitable / non-proselytizing causes (Anglicare, Caritas, Uniting Care, Salvation Army, etc). It therefore follows that the religious give more to charity than the non-religious. It seems a little unfair to say that I was offering outright lies. Secondly, why no mention of ‘volunteering’, the other aspect of this government study I mentioned? The report is clear here, wouldn’t you say: the religious volunteer more hours than the nonreligious? What I said in the article stands.
    I hope you keep pursuing the other stuff I cited. The Putnam research is widely published and easily found; I cannot explain why you have not been able to locate it. Perhaps others will try their own search. CPX will be offering a full review of Putnam’s published work soon. Also, if you want to know the list of the 25 largest charities in Australia (19 of which are Christian), I’ll be glad to send those through as well. Basically, if you want verification for anything else I said in the article, please let me know.
    It would be nice to meet up with you one day, Dave, as I would prefer to put this disagreement in the context of human contact.
    Yours in the pursuit of what’s true, beautiful and good,
    John

  5. Posted July 19, 2011 at 18:08 | Permalink

    Hi John,

    You are, of course, most welcome to join the discussion. This comment is to let you know that I do want to respond with a fuller comment than I can right now (perhaps as a separate blog post), and I beg your patience.

    As it happens, the offices of our respective day-jobs are but a few doors apart, so if you would like to have lunch some time, I’d be happy to. Perhaps if we have a good time, you’d like to be interviewed for my podcast?

    (Oh, and I’m doing Dry July, too, if you want to put your money where your mouth is…)

  6. John Dickson
    Posted July 19, 2011 at 20:22 | Permalink

    Dave,
    I’m not sure what sort of reply I deserve but, before you spend too much time demolishing me again, can I just flag that I only intruded on this conversation because you said that I had outright lied. I really don’t mind people disagreeing with my arguments, and I don’t usually feel much urge to respond to a point-by-point refutation of my articles. I would only like to know whether you still really think that I lied. That is of great interest to me, for obvious and not-so obvious reasons.
    Sure, catching up in North Sydney sounds good. You now have my email, right?
    Cheers,
    John

  7. Posted July 20, 2011 at 01:43 | Permalink

    Yes, John. Of course I still think you are a liar.

  8. Ken West
    Posted July 20, 2011 at 10:08 | Permalink

    Dave,

    On July 19 you tweeted …

    “Thanks to @kenwest and @drunkenmadman, for exposing @johnpauldickson’s lies about the religous and charity”

    … with a link pointing here. However, nothing on this page demonstrates that either Jason Brown or myself have done that. Perhaps this delusion of yours is a sign that #DryJuly is taking it’s toll? ;-)

    * I spent 10 minutes finding the research to which John referred. It’s disappointing that you accuse him of lying without taking the effort to back that up.
    * The research plainly found that religious people give more than the non-religious.
    * The caveat (which I quoted in the interests of being fair) is that when “giving … to their own religion” is removed, the levels of giving are “about the same”. But that doesn’t negate the fact that religious people give more.
    * The statistics for volunteering are illuminating. Even after “volunteering for religion” is removed, religious people are more likely to volunteer, and volunteer more hours on average. See Table 32 on p24 of the main report.

    It seems to me that this report makes you and Jason uncomfortable. I guess you could wish it away (not find it) or disparage the motives of religious givers (as Jason does at comment #2) but I find the report is quite balanced. I’m encouraged that it confirms a positive correlation between ‘religion’ and generosity, but I’m not surprised. But neither am I surprised that ‘non-religious’ people are generous.

    If it is true that “in vino veritas”, I suspect we might have a more profitable conversation in August,

    Ken

  9. Posted July 20, 2011 at 11:17 | Permalink

    The research John quoted (and failed to cite) supposedly ‘found that people who say they are religious are far more likely to volunteer in the community and give money to charities than those who say they have no religion’ (John’s words).

    You found the report and Jason read it. And Jason found, to no-one’s surprise, that the report did not say what John claimed. It explicitly stated that the religious do not give more money to charity, unless you include religious giving.

    That’s enough to establish the deliberate untruth of John’s article. I did, as you suggested, look at page 24 of the Australians Giving and Volunteering report, and (quelle surprise!), what do we find?

    those who are frequent worshippers are no more likely to volunteer for non-religious causes than those who have no religion

    Read that quote again. Now read what John Dickson thinks the very same report found:

    people who say they are religious are far more likely to volunteer in the community

    And you both wonder why I conclude you’re lying? Seriously?

    Those who attend services less frequently do volunteer a little bit more, but I’m not sure what the inverse correlation between religious devotion and volunteering is supposed to prove. That half-assed believers are nicer than those who take their faith seriously? Wasn’t this painfully obvious already?

    It is also worth pointing out that only 33.8% of religious believers do any volunteering at all! Hardly a ringing endorsement of christianity’s influence on its victims’ altruism, particularly given the fact that the figure for the non-religious is… 32.4%. 1.4 percentage points’ difference, in a report that has not been peer-reviewed.

    While this is all fun, I’m going to have to draw attention again to the point I made in my original post, and pointed out to you again in the comments:

    …even if christians do do more for charity, that is a terrible reason to believe in a magic carpenter zombie who wants to stop gay people marrying.

    In other words, even if christians did give more time or money to charity: so what?

    And while we’re on the subject of honesty, I should call you out for the claim in your first comment:

    no amount of evidence would shift your view of Jesus or his movement

    My post in fact clearly said:

    And I would conceivably change my mind back again about christianity. Just as soon as John stops appealing to the authority of ‘every serious Biblical scholar’, and actually uses their supposed evidence

    It was followed by a list of the issues I believe any christian apologist has to take seriously if they want to make the case for christ. But, of course, christian apologists don’t take objections seriously. Those that do invariably stop being christian apologists. The intellectually honest are weeded out and instead of an earnest attempt to persuade we get meaningless, but entertaining, circus acts like this thread.

  10. John Dickson
    Posted July 20, 2011 at 13:39 | Permalink

    Dear Dave,
    You had me worried for a moment. I thought I must have made a terrible mistake on the volunteering question. It has been two years since I read the report. Then I reread it. Phew! With every new post you are bearing out the central point of my SMH article: that facts sometimes entrench the opposite view. You and I are perhaps beyond redemption here. All I can do is urge those reading our exchange to go – pretty please – and read pages 23-24 of the report for yourselves (in the link offered above). In two clicks and a scroll people will know which of us provides the more accurate account. In particular, when readers view your quotation (“frequent worshippers are no more likely to volunteer …”) in the context of its actual sentence, I think even your fellow sceptics may feel awkward about your selection.
    As I said, all I am interested in at the moment is whether you, or at least your less invested friends and colleagues, can reasonably continue to believe that I am outright lying.
    Cheers,
    John

  11. Posted July 20, 2011 at 14:22 | Permalink

    John,

    Your claim that the religious give more money to (real) charities is apparently wrong.

    Your claim that the religious are more likely to volunteer their time to (real) charities is apparently wrong.

    Your implication that we reject your faith due to our cognitive weaknesses, rather than your failure to justify it, is wrong.

    Your argument that our real anger at christianity somehow invalidates the logical and scientific objections to it is wrong.

    I have kept asking, to the point of comedy: even if christians gave more to charity, so what? It wouldn’t remotely justify christianity, nor atone for the very real harm it causes.

    Your claim that ‘ardent secularists’ (a group that includes many christians; if you mean ‘antitheists’, just say it) are somehow predisposed to reject the notion that christians do more for real charities is at most a bald assertion.

    As far as I can tell, the only thing you got right in your SMH article was the part taken from the excellent You Are Not So Smart, and on that I have consistently agreed with you.

    So much for the factual basis to your claims. To reasonably believe you are lying, we only need determine whether these are honest mistakes, or whether you are deliberately evading the truth.

    I’m afraid your repeated assurances that you are not interested in dealing with the objections to your claims rather settles that, doesn’t it?

  12. Posted July 20, 2011 at 15:06 | Permalink

    Hi Dave,

    I read your post and thought I check how hard it was to find the supporting evidence mentioned by John in his article.

    When I searched for the 2004 report on the first page I found no articles by John but I did find references to the survey.

    http://www.google.com.au/#hl=en&source=hp&q=The+2004+report+on+Research+and+Philanthropy+in+Australia%2C+by+the+Department+of+Families%2C+Community+Services+and+Indigenous+Affairs&btnG=Google+Search&oq=The+2004+report+on+Research+and+Philanthropy+in+Australia%2C+by+the+Department+of+Families%2C+Community+Services+and+Indigenous+Affairs&aq=f&aqi=&aql=&gs_sm=s&gs_upl=796l796l0l3735l1l1l0l0l0l0l0l0ll0&bav=on.2,or.r_gc.r_pw.&fp=5612a864007e8a86&biw=1278&bih=728

    Sorry for the long link but as I work with John, am friends with him and am defending him I didn’t want to be accused of being a liar. Now the report John mentioned wasn’t easily found in those links but a quick search of the Departments web site and I found it in about 5 minutes. Not exactly hidden.

    Secondly you claim that the report doesn’t support John’s claim that religious people are more generous with their time and money than non-religious people. However if we look at the figures found in the tables on page 23 of the report (http://www.fahcsia.gov.au/sa/communities/progserv/Documents/ga_volunteering.pdf) it shows that the more religious someone is the more generous they are with their money. In fact those who are the most regular attenders at religious services give on average $90 more ($351 to $260) than those with no-religious affiliation to explicitly non-religious causes. So here it would seem that it would be better for charitable causes if more people were highly religious, which supports John’s point.

    With volunteering again the figures show that religious people volunteer on average 40 hours more than non-religious people and the most religious (again taking those as the most frequent service attenders) volunteer on average 60 hours more than non-religious people.

    So even if all religious giving is entirely taken away, which is not necessarily valid because as John pointed out many religious organisations do pass money onto charities, more religious people are more generous with their time and money than non-religious people. This doesn’t make them better but does suggest that the facile argument that the removal of religion from society would be beneficial for society doesn’t add up especially for those who are on the margins of society.

    Now for Robert Putnam who is a leading academic from Harvard and has been described by the London Sunday Times as “the most influential academic in the world today.” Searching just the quote might make it harder to find his survey. But searching ‘Robert Putnam’ and ‘survey’ didn’t lead to articles by John and by adding ‘religious Americans better neighbours’ lead to articles on Putnam and his survey.

    http://www.google.com.au/#hl=en&q=Robert+Putnam+survey+religious+americans+better+neighbours&oq=Robert+Putnam+survey+religious+americans+better+neighbours&aq=f&aqi=&aql=1&gs_sm=e&gs_upl=21944l30382l0l30669l38l38l0l37l0l0l189l189l0.1l1&bav=on.2,or.r_gc.r_pw.&fp=5612a864007e8a86&biw=1278&bih=728

    The top link is then an article by Putnam explaining in brief the results of his survey, which is a landmark study into American religious culture and is described in enormous detail in his book American Grace, http://americangrace.org/. Pages 443-492 provide detail on how religious people make better neighbours.

    None of this proves the truth of religious claims but does challenge the claim that society would be better off without religion.

    You don’t have to agree with John. You can believe he is completely wrong but calling him a liar isn’t supported by the evidence.

    Vaughan

  13. John Dickson
    Posted July 20, 2011 at 15:23 | Permalink

    Dave,
    I am only interested in testing your claim that I have outright lied. No one has taken that tack with me before and it is fascinating (and a little hurtful).
    I am hopeful that after reading the report itself and my explanation, your readers, if not you yourself, will concede that you were a little unfair branding me a liar.
    Cheers,
    John

  14. Posted July 20, 2011 at 16:06 | Permalink

    Hi John,

    I’m afraid to say that deliberately telling untruths (and that is all I mean by ‘lying’) is baked into the profession of apologist. As it happens I’m writing a further post on the topic. It’s not specifically aimed at you, but it was prompted by some thoughts I had lying around about honesty, lying and apologetics that were brought to the surface by this conversation.

    Please be assured that I do not mean to hurt you for hurting’s sake, and I stand by the first sentence of my original post. But I do have to be frank.

    I struggle to find another explanation for the behaviour of all apologists than that the truth plays second fiddle to defending christianity, and that this is conscious and deliberate.

    Without the privilege of an apologist’s insight into his own mind, I don’t have much else to go on but your reassurance that you’re trying to be honest and, of course, the way that it is reflected in your writing.

  15. Ken West
    Posted July 20, 2011 at 16:12 | Permalink

    Dave,

    I happily retract my “no amount of evidence” remark, which was unfair and inaccurate.

    Ken

  16. Vaughan Olliffe
    Posted July 20, 2011 at 16:12 | Permalink

    Hi Dave,

    Will this post against apologists include people such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens or do you believe that it is only religious apologists who are liars?

    Vaughan

  17. Posted July 20, 2011 at 17:31 | Permalink

    Hi, Vaughan. Thanks for stopping by. You don’t have to be a religious apologist to be a liar, but I will be arguing that you have to be a liar to be a christian apologist.

    You seem to be implying that Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens might be liars: I’d be interested to know if that was your intention, and why you would think that.

  18. Ken West
    Posted July 20, 2011 at 17:40 | Permalink

    Dave and Jason,

    Assuming that sauce works equally well for both geese and ganders, I want to respond to Jason’s comment: “I do not consider giving money to a religion to be any kind of charitable donation. I consider it more of an expensive club subscription.”

    Consider those who donated time and money to support your recent SkeptiCamp. I think we can agree that’s not a ‘charitable donation’. But were the donors and volunteers generous? Did their money and efforts contribute something positive to society?

    Or was it merely ‘an expensive club subscription’?

    Ken

  19. Vaughan Olliffe
    Posted July 20, 2011 at 18:02 | Permalink

    Hi Dave,

    I was just being a bit cheeky about Dawkins and Hitchens as they are apologists. I’ll wait for your full post to comment but your claim that it is necessary to be a liar in order to be a Christian apologist will take some serious evidence to support it. I expect lots of footnotes ;-)

    Vaughan

  20. Posted July 20, 2011 at 18:28 | Permalink

    It would save you some time if I just disappointed you now, Vaughan…

  21. Posted July 20, 2011 at 18:58 | Permalink

    @Ken

    With regard to Skepticamp donations, yes, attendees gave freely of their time and of cash, and in return, we had a great day. I am fully in agreement that Skepticamp donations, both tangible and non-tangible fail to qualify as charitable donations, though the event certainly contributed positively towards at least our segment of society.

    In fact, “expensive club subscription” is almost exactly what Skepticamp qualifies as. A short-lived one-day club, for sure, but a club that took all leftover cash and put it towards a) a second event and b) a big ol’ bar tab.

    Should Skepticamp Australia become fully incorporated as a non-profit entity, it would then be up to the ATO to decide whether contributions would then qualify as charitable.

    I think if a church qualifies, then so should an incorporated Skepticamp, but I also believe that churches shouldn’t automatically qualify merely for being churches. They should satisfy the same criteria as secular charities. Level playing field.

    I am not sure whether you expected me to bluster about Skepticamp being a charity or public benefit or something, but I think if you were, you were shooting well west of the target, old chap.

  22. Ken West
    Posted July 22, 2011 at 18:17 | Permalink

    Dave and Jason,

    I was unsure whether SkeptiCamp would be a good example, but it was the event for which I’d seen some evidence that the two of you were grateful for the donations and efforts of people who volunteered to make the day a success. I remember watching a video where you thanked them.

    I take Jason’s response to mean that you agree that even ‘expensive club subscriptions’ can be given with a generous spirit.

    Ken

  23. AndyD
    Posted July 23, 2011 at 01:52 | Permalink

    If I understand Dave’s oft-repeated question correctly, I’d paraphrase it this way…

    If kids who believe in Santa are more likely to do their chores and act nice, does this make Santa real? If not, does it at least vindicate “lying” to kids by telling them he is real?

    And, is it really charity if you’re giving because you think you’ll be rewarded in Heaven if you do, and burn in Hell if you don’t?

  24. Ken West
    Posted July 23, 2011 at 13:47 | Permalink

    Andy,

    I’m not really interested in answering Dave’s question about rational arguments Christianity: David has supplied an armada of knock-down arguments, and while they have answers, that’s not my intent in posting here. I was initially drawn to visit this blog by Dave’s tweet claiming John had lied. The above conversation demonstrates that’s an outrageous claim.

    You’re right that the possibility of Reward undermines a claim of Charity. If I’m giving to the Red Cross because that releases some nice brain chemicals, then I’m doing an objectively good thing but simply for internal rewards. If I buy Dave a Golden Ticket because I want to have a drink with him, then I’m not being charitable – I’m being a good friend. I could buy a raffle ticket because I like the sound of the prize. Of course, I’m framing these examples in an overly skeptical way, and I’m sure there are elements of charity in each of them.

    Your implied claim that Christians are motivated by rewards in Heaven etc to give charitably is not entirely accurate.

    Christians understand they are Failed Moralists, Forgiven Sinners, and Accountable Servants.

    As failed moralists, we recognise that we fall short of God’s standards whenever we make any claim about how good we are. That view is informed by Paul’s letters: check out Romans chapter 3, and particularly verses 10 to 12.

    As forgiven sinners, we recognise that though we deserve God’s condemnation, we are forgiven and will not “burn in Hell”. For an interesting discussion of the implications of “freedom from condemnation” on morality, I suggest reading Paul’s letter to the Galatians, and particularly chapter 5 verse 13. Paul recognises that, being free of condemnation, Christians could choose to engage in selfish sinful behaviour: but that’s not God’s intent in freeing us.

    As accountable servants, we recognise that we are accountable to Jesus for how we respond to his offer of freedom. Jesus tells a number of parables in this regard: see Luke’s account, in chapter 19, verses 11 to 27 for one example. In Jesus’ story, the unfaithful servant is not condemned (like the enemies) but suffers loss.

    I suggest to you that Charity becomes possible when a person becomes a Christian, because she can be generous without any thought of reward. Rather than seeking rewards in heaven, she will see that, as the beneficiary of God’s charity, her charity is an appropriate response.

    Ken

    (By the way, when my children were young, we never used Santa Claus as an inducement. We didn’t burst their bubble – that would have been churlish – but we didn’t encourage it either. All presents were marked as being from real people, not from Santa. That was standard practice among my Christian friends.

    We did that consciously since we were aware that “if you’re good you’ll be rewarded” is a popular misconception among both secularists and religious folk, and flies in the face of the gospel. We wanted them to understand the generosity of Jesus, and that Christmas, like Christianity, is a glad response to that generosity.)

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