Debate reminder: Friday at 7:30 pm

Reminder: the debate between Michael Sherman and Alister McGrath will be live-streamed this Friday at 7:30 pm. The topic is “Is God a Figment of our Imagination?” You can pm me for details if this post disappears.

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Nothing wrong with this post. You can post a link if you have one.

Here is a link to the Friday September 15 Debate between Alister McGrath and Michael Shermer. It starts at 7:30 pm and you can set a reminder on YouTube.

The topic is “Is God a Figment of Our Imagination?” It is sponsored by Wycliffe College at the University of Toronto. and is part of their Religion and Society series.

Our dialogue brings together two leading thinkers who have thoughtfully wrestled with this question, each not only having embarked on a personal pilgrimage, but each bringing a lifetime of erudition, experience, and insights to bear on this theme. Alister McGrath, the athiest who would become a theist, and Michael Shermer, the theist who would become an atheist.

Will it not be a breath of fresh air listening to an intelligent debate? btw, I’ve been very tired lately performing my God-ordained task of digging irrigation ditches all day. Not easy at my age and small size. Good thing I’ve been granted a dispensation to take Friday night off!


The debate starts in 14 minutes. Grab a can of beer and enjoy!

Thx. Plan on watching if my flakey internet will allow!

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I’m sure it will be available on demand. Denis Lamoureux is watching.

I’m not usually a fan of these kinds of debates, but I thought this one was excellently orchestrated and that both parties represented their “constituencies” well. Of course there were those moments (for both sides) where we may wish they had pushed back a little harder or perhaps not conceded something quite so easily, etc. But overall, both Shermer and McGrath spoke of much that should be greatly productive fodder for further discussion.


A great line from McGrath (at about 34:10 toward the end of his initial talk)

Faith is not about running away from reality; it’s about recognizing the realistic limits placed upon us, which means we have to make those judgments which we call faith simply because these are such big questions that whatever position we take lies beyond totally demonstrative proof.


This debate did an excellent job bringing high-quality audience questions to the participants. This one (about 1 hr 40 min. in) and Shermer’s response to it was very interesting.

The questioner suggested (in effect) a notion that scientific thought might be just the latest manifestation of cultural imperialism or colonialism. The actual words were: “You wish for a world without religion. Isn’t that position a way to erase cultural identity whether it be Muslim, aboriginal, black, or Asian identity and colonializing it under the hood of enlightenment western thought?”

Initially during the friendly laughter about the potentially thorny issues in this quesion, Shermer quipped (laughing): “yeah … a couple of middle-aged white guys telling everybody what they should believe …”

But then he went on to give (I think) an excellent response, conceding that he’s rather “libertarian” about these things and is not out to take things away from people (whatever helps them “get through the night” as he said somewhere else in the debate). “I don’t want to take away anybody’s identity; [but] I care about what’s true.” It isn’t just about interesting cultural differences … If there are truth claims with consequences, we want to see evidence. (I think that is a fair summary of Shermer’s initial response here.)

What really caught my attention here though was in Shermer’s initial “toss-away” quip: “a couple of middle-aged white guys telling everybody what they should believe!” For a moment there I think Shermer (via a significant “Freudian slip” if I may) lumped the whole agenda of both parties present into a unified whole! [well, not unified in a very important respect of course, … but read on…] Does anybody else find that interesting? I know – I make much of a single line carelessly thrown out in the moment, and Shermer would not in that brief moment have packed into those words everything that I now pack into them here, but I think his “slip” might be more significant, not less for its lack of crafting .

Shermer and McGrath do represent different agendas: Shermer wanting to advance science as our best way to know anything and to live by that, and McGrath, while not opposed to any science, thinks there is something higher and beyond where our science can reach. So while Shermer sees significant differences between himself and believers, yet suddenly these two (very distinct) agendas got lumped together in his mind (peas in a pod, even if only as quarreling brothers) when confronted with an accusation over cultural imperialism. I think THAT makes for an excellent springboard to a conjecture I’ll make: I suggest that new atheism (far from being a sort of non-category default in a hypothetical non-religious world as Shermer seems to suggest) is rather a symbiotic (and very categorical) position that only derives its strength, and indeed its very existence to the theism it rejects. I.e. I’m not at all convinced that there would be such a thing as any recognizable “new-atheism” or “nones” identity if it had no monotheisms to provide all the necessary sustenance. Atheists can rightly respond that “of course there wouldn’t have to be any ‘anti-this or that’ movement if the silly ‘this-or-that’ hadn’t become such a thing in the first place.” Yes – true enough, but what I’m really poking at here is the implicit notion that if we could just press a button and give the world a magical “fresh start” free of traditional religious thought that then a libertarian skepticism or some sort of “free-thought” (and yet appropriately skeptical) utopia would then ensue just by default, with no theistic beliefs to come along and poison it. I think real history shows us well enough that robust atheism (or denial of anything/anyone objectively transcendent to the universe) is in short supply all through history and can only come into its own when it has a robust positive theism against which it can rail. If theism would die, so would atheism. I don’t mean it would disappear in the trivial tautological sense. No – as in … (and Lewis suggested this somewhere) … if you remove a transcendent belief system such as Christian theism, you won’t be left then with skeptics who believe things only in proportion to the supporting empirical evidence available. You’ll end up with populations that believe almost anything and everything. Science will not fare well, if indeed it could survive at all, much less get brought to maturity in such a world.

It is anecdotally revealing to me that most of the new atheists we hear about (like Shermer) seem to have emerged from an earlier season of theistic (often Christian) belief. Why is that? Could it be that they never really did fully “emerge”? Do they still have theistic fuels coursing through their intellectual veins energizing their very rebellion against it? Shermer’s quip, “a couple of us telling everybody else how to think…” I think reveals that he still identifies with a matrix that is animated by theistic belief and does not (never will?) enjoy any substantial existence independently of that matrix. Shermer rightly declares an allegiance to the truth – an allegiance that McGrath fully shares, and can in fact claim that his tradition aspires to tap into its very source. In that moment of the debate, that allegiance united them towards that very noble and good quest to acknowledge and pay respect to that objective, and yet thoroughly non-scientific transcendence.

[grammar edits and other re-wordings profligately added]


Interesting points. I think you are probably reading too much into his comment though. I’d say the common ground comes from having thought about such issues and formed definite opinions about them, as well as being intrigued enough by them to speak in public about their ideas. That’s something most people probably don’t do to this degree (that they’d be inclined or able to participate in such a debate about it, certainly.)

FWIW, these aren’t mutually exclusive circumstances to me, depending on if “can” means now and even probably never, or definitely never.

I’m not sure I don’t agree with you :slight_smile: Belief in religion seems to be, and have been, prevalent among our species. I don’t think it always has to be that way, but it certainly does seem to be the overall norm. Who knows what would ensue if you could press that button. Certainly something suitably human. I highly doubt that an overall paradigm of " libertarian skepticism or some sort of “free-thought”" would automatically ensue, to be sure. That may take some work :slight_smile:

I’ll argue against this point though. You may well end up with people that “believe almost anything and everything”–there are enough conflicting beliefs out there now that I’m not sure we don’t as it is. But you’d still have skeptics, and I’m pretty confident we have had them as long as such beliefs have existed. Science will always have a grounding in its ability to provide reliable and practical results.

It’s a pretty theistic world! I’d be fine never thinking about any of it–I was for quite a while truth be told–but people’s beliefs have concrete effects in the societies that we all have to live in, which may well provide ample reason to take a public stand.

To truth! :beers:

Edited Sat. night spelling error :slight_smile:

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Good morning, John! What a great way to spend a Saturday morning, right? Might be a bit too early for beers for some! :stew:

This reminds me of another interesting point in the debate – where Shermer said that beliefs in things like democracy or paper money are almost certainly (not his exact words here) great things; but he went on to compare those beliefs as being superior to religion because those beliefs (democracy, currency, and the like) are human generated beliefs.

I thought this to be inconsistent on his part since [on the atheist accounting] religions are human-generated in every bit the same way. So his distinction falls apart in that regard.

I thought McGrath did an excellent (without being obnoxious about it) job of pressing Shermer through the debate on what his ground was for having any objective moral constructs to press on for independently of current cultural fads.

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So many good chestnuts came up during this debate. Shermer mentioned this one: You’re all atheists with regard to so many of these things [gods and such] --we’re just atheistic about one more god than you are.

I know this insightful observation has been used to explain [compellingly to me] how science could thrive in the environment where it eventually did: that monotheism did the job it did in “clearing the ground” of animistic nature or whimsical pantheons of gods. Atheists go on to suggest, and why stop just before the last one?

Here I think would be a fair Christian response to that:

Christian: “So science has done well after we cleared our workshop floor of all the rubble that was in our way obscuring our sights of things.”

Atheist: “Let’s get rid of the floor too.”


Saturday night here and just got off work and fed. So not too early :slight_smile: Cranking up the Tube now for this little chat.


The debate is available on-demand now. Just follow the same link.

WHAT?! You mean it isn’t Saturday morning the world over?! And there are people outside of Central Standard Time who take interest in these things here?!

[speaking of cultural hegemony —maybe I’ve just had my temporal hegemony horizons expanded a notch.]

This was the same college that brought us the Krauss, Meyer, Lamoureux: debate last year.

Another point of interest for me was that at the beginning of Shermer’s initial talk he asked for an audience raise of hands on the question: “do you believe in God.” We Youtube watchers were not treated to a visual of the results and so we relied on his reaction to know what happened. I’m guessing that there must have been an overwhelming preponderance of raised hands based on his reaction, though he never explicitly said that. We only saw his apparent surprise and the quick comment “look at the time!”.

Assuming I’m correct on this (please correct if anybody knows differently), the possibility would be potentially fascinating to me if these kinds of events attract disproportionately many Christians. If the University of Toronto is a Christian university, then I guess the venue or sponsoring promoters would understandably drive the audience demographics. Still it would be interesting to know if there was any good reason to expect the audience could or should have looked different than it did.

He has explained in his column that he does this to show that atheists can have a sense of humor. It makes for better dialog.


You haven’t really experienced time until you’re living a bunch of hours ahead of everyone else. Everything else is just rehashing things. We’ve already lived it!

[quote=“Mervin_Bitikofer, post:17, topic:36642”]
Assuming I’m correct on this (please correct if anybody knows differently), the possibility would be potentially fascinating to me if these kinds of events attract disproportionately many Christians. If the University of Toronto is a Christian university, then I guess the venue or sponsoring promoters would understandably drive the audience demographics. Still it would be interesting to know if there was any good reason to expect the audience could or should have looked different than it did.[/quote]

“Wycliffe College is a graduate theological school federated with the University of Toronto. It is affiliated with the Anglican Church of Canada and is evangelical and Low church in orientation.”

It seems to me the crowds are pretty mixed at these things, with the venue being important as you note.

Nice talk. I like Shermer as a speaker. He’s got a plain spoken style. He reminds me of Bart Ehrman a lot in that way and in his overall delivery.

Interesting point. I’ll accept this as long as we can take full credit (and blame) for them :slight_smile:

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Again, thank you Beaglelady for bringing this to my attention. My take away is that one of the most difficult questions in Christianity is theodicy, and one of the biggest problems atheism has is the question of good and evil.