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Pub talk with an atheist and an anglican

A former southern Baptist turned atheist with over 36,000 Twitter followers has sat down in a Melbourne pub for an open discussion with a Melbourne marxist turned Anglican Minister this week.

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Matt Dillahunty is from Austin, Texas, here in Australia touring as part of the “Unholy Trinity” — three guys from the US who used to believe in “gods and the supernatural” but are now prominent atheists.

On Friday (20 March), Matt shared his thoughts on morality, meaning, evolution and how his worldview satisfies him as part of a joint City Bible Forum and Atheist Foundation event. Next to him was Shane Rogerson, Anglican Minister at St Matthew’s Prahran, and former marxist.

Both began by sharing their stories of conversion either from or to Christianity. Matt shared about growing up in a southern Baptist household, the time he almost went to seminary, and the origins of his doubt — when he lost his job, became disillusioned and felt like God was punishing him, and the progression of doubt to disbelief.

“I started coming across arguments from secularists that were criticisms of the Bible … I had always been a skeptic but I hadn’t applied it to my religious beliefs before and it all just started falling away.”

From there he started writing online about his newfound worldview and that’s where he discovered his platform, which has grown into a TV show and a huge online following.

Shane on the other hand shared about growing up in a working class home with no father and no belief in God or contact with Christians until he took a liking to one in high school. The Christian friends he made challenged his lack of belief.

“I came to the point where I saw that there was an ultimate ground of reality in the supernatural … But I didn’t want anyone ruling me. I kind of liked being in charge of my own destiny and controlling my own life. But I’d opened up a Pandora’s box asking questions about what is logical and liveable.”

That’s when Shane started exploring socialism as an alternative worldview, which led him to atheism. His Christian friends wouldn’t go away though, and he developed another crush on a Christian. Her dad challenged him to really consider what his life was worth if in the end he was just going to end up decomposing.

“He said, ‘What right do you have to claim your life is worth more than [a bag of fertiliser]?’ and that made me think.”

A large part of the discussion was taken up by Matt explaining his version of morality — a “kind of objective morality” based on “wellbeing”. He says his worldview aims towards “things that benefit us” as opposed to the things that “harm us”. In this framework, “life is generally preferable to death, health to sickness and pleasure to pain”. Although, said Matt, “sometimes due to pain, death becomes preferable to life.”

Shane asked what happens when the value of “wellbeing” or “life” is challenged by another strongly held value like “freedom” (for example in the case of abortion), to which Matt said every worldview “needs a few basic assumptions and needs the ability to change those assumptions.”

On the question of satisfaction and meaning, Matt said he didn’t want to have his purpose given to him by someone/something external to himself. “People prefer this idea that God has some plan. I wouldn’t even want that to be true but I don’t see any rational reason for it to be true.”

He said since becoming an atheist he had become a better person and had great satisfaction in not knowing everything. “I’m more than willing to keep accepting that there are answers I don’t know and keep seeking those questions.”

He said not believing in an afterlife gives him motivation to make this one life as satisfying and as good as possible.

Shane put forward that if we are simply evolutionary beings motivated to pass on our genes then, “If I understand the world began with nothing and ended with nothing then there’s really nothing in between.”

He said knowing that God is fundamentally relational and that relationships are at the heart of reality makes sense of human longings, and gives meaning and satisfaction to his life.

Both claimed to be living satisfied lives, and continued that theme by having a beer after the discussion. It was a surprisingly genial conversation had before a room of mostly atheists.

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