A contest of ideas

Quote from Rowan Atkinson

Quote from Rowan Atkinson

What I love so much about democracy and Freedom of Speech is that we can have an open and honest exchange of ideas. We can debate issues, we can question. We do not have to follow any doctrine blindly and unquestioningly.

Today we do not have to buy anything off the rack, we can customise it to suit us and the same goes with our belief systems.

One size does not fit all and so as we grow we listen and observe, we debate and we reason, constantly re evaluating the beliefs we hold dear. At least that is how it is for the women in my family. My mother was brought up a Catholic and now considers herself a Humanist.

Humanism is a philosophical and ethical stance that emphasizes the value and agency of human beings, individually and collectively, and generally prefers critical thinking and evidence (rationalism, empiricism) over established doctrine or faith (fideism).


I was brought up Catholic and now consider myself to be someone without a label. I really don’t care one way or the other if God exists as it makes no difference whatsoever to how I live my life. I value all the loving, caring, tolerant Christian principles and have made them mine. My choices in life have nothing to do with fear of Hell or hope of heaven.

My daughter who had Christian schooling for a couple of years is now an Atheist at the tender age of 16. We respect the decision that she has come to as she did not come to this decision lightly. She has a love of history and does not like what she has learned about religions part in wars or how God has been used as an excuse to persecute and kill others. She did not like her school’s teaching about homosexuals and neither did I. The biggest factor in influencing her thinking I think has been science. She is very good at science and could see that some of what she was being taught had a religious and not a logical basis and lacked evidence. She was not free to debate this lack of logic at the school and this unwillingness to defend their position on both religion and science lost them her respect. We respect debate in our home and think that it is healthy.

Atheism is usually defined incorrectly as a belief system. Atheism is not a disbelief in gods or a denial of gods; it is a lack of belief in gods. Older dictionaries define atheism as “a belief that there is no God.”


Any belief system that does not want to debate issues, that tells me that I must think a certain way without a compelling argument as to why their way is correct has no attraction to me or to my mother or daughter.

I do not have to agree with you in order to be able to see that you gain value and happiness from your belief system. I do not need to convert you to thinking like me because I know that my way is not the only way and nor should it be.

We should cherish the contest of ideas that we still have in most western countries and we should fight for our right to think differently and to question and to make our own decisions.

As Rowan Atkinson said, a law which says you can only debate ideas if they are not religious ideas, is a very strange law indeed.

It is certainly not the kind of law I would expect to see in a democracy.



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  • johcar

    So if I am to be labelled, can I be an Atheo-humanist?

    • Rocket

      Sceptical gnostic

      • johcar

        Sounds a bit more “fence-sittee” than “Atheo-humanist”.

        An agnostic is a person who believes that the existence of a greater power, such as a god, cannot be proven or disproved, whereas atheists have a belief that there is no God.

        I put myself in the atheist/humanist camp rather than the agnostic one.

        • MichaelW

          he said gnostic without the a. Gnostic’s are the opposite and belive the existence is knowable and provable. So I’m guessing a sceptical gnostic thinks we should wait for evidence before believing things like gods but also that eventually we will be able to prove their is no god. However shouldn’t they also be skeptical of this as well? This might make their head explode if they think about it too hard.

          • noble kiwi

            I simply accept that there is no God of the sort that religions describe, but that there is certainly something to look up to. I consider God as nothing more nor less than “good”, i.e. the essence of goodness. Think on it. No good religion, can argue against this as this scenario fits exactly with all of their teachings. :-) No bull.

        • Rocket

          You mis-read. I did mean gnostic. No barbed-wire rash for me.
          gnostic |ˈnɒstɪk|
          relating to knowledge, especially esoteric mystical knowledge.
          • (Gnostic)relating to Gnosticism.

        • stanace

          I’m an agnostic, but it is more simplistic. I don’t know if the existence of a greater power, such as a god, can be proven or disproved, it may yet happen. I just don’t know. I’m not sitting on the fence because I don’t know, I’m sure you don’t know lots of things, and know you don’t know, that does not make you a fence sitter.
          But I certainly agree with your definition of an atheist. They believe!
          What always bothers me is the simple concept that time goes on to infinity, most agree on that concept, but neither scientists or religions can accept that it has always been there. They all need a beginning, Why?

  • rua kenana

    To criticize a person for their race is something that no human should ever do to another.

    However, the richness, variety and diversity of human races is something that can, if allowed, be appreciated, enjoyed and celebrated rather than being, as all too often, hidden away from public discussion like some dirty little secret.

    • Andrew Gibson

      So, debate ideas so long as they are not about race? Celebrate our diversity for sure, but why not identify our problems as well so we can all learn from each other.

  • Doc45

    The debate over whether atheism is a religion is interesting. It is easy to be dismissive and claim that a religion needs a positive belief system but the Ninian Smart approach known as the Seven Dimensions of Religion, is widely accepted by anthropologists and researchers of religion as broadly covering the various aspects of religion, without focusing on things unique to specific religions.

    The seven dimensions proposed by Smart are narrative, experiential, social, ethical, doctrinal, ritual and material. Not every religion has every dimension, nor are they all equally important within an individual religion. Smart even argues that the ‘secularisation’ of western society is actually a shift of focus from the doctrinal and ritual to the experiential.
    Contemporary Western Atheism unquestionably has six of the seven dimensions of religion set forth by Smart and may be developing the seventh. Interesting. Maybe Wiki is too abrupt.

    • mike

      Atheism is a belief system, but not a religion. Much akin to Buddhism which is not really a religion but a belief system… small but major difference.

  • Isherman

    Nicely composed piece SB, and the challenging of ideas goes to the heart of the problem that is both posed by and also faced by Islam. Thanks to the efforts of Islamic theorists who feared that Islamic values would be diminished by a system of government not based exclusively on those principles, we have seen political Islam become a ideology of suppression as well as repression, where challenging the theistic belief system of a faith equates to a ‘crime’ against the State. We can see this clearly in places such as Iran, Saudi and other Islamic theocracies. Of course, some leaders saw past all of this, the notable example being Attaturk, who saw no conflict in a modern secular run state that was able to easily and happily accommodate the faith of most of its citizens whilst keeping the ‘separation of Church and State’ principle that western governments, along with a number of Middle Eastern countries practice. Unfortunately, Turkey is now also a good example of how Islamism as a political state structure can take a country back to the medieval past and undo a century worth of social and political advancement in the space of a mere decade or so.

  • Eiselmann

    My father is the son of a Catholic father and Anglican mother the contest of wills over what faith my dad should follow caused my father to become agnostic.
    When I was a child I went to Sunday school and my father also took the time to explain evolution to me (at least at a level I could understand) he was upfront about the experience of having parents who never agreed on the faith their child should be baptised in and how that shaped his view of religions.
    He allowed me to make my own choice and supported it….the last time I went to church was when I was sixteen…saying that I do regard myself as a Christian , I do believe in God and I have accepted Jesus as my saviour , whilst I regard myself as an Anglican I don’t need a church to tell me that I’m Christian…for me that comes from within.
    Saying all that I love listening to Bill Mayer, Richard Dawkins and Chris Hitchens I don’t agree with everything they say but I won’t cotton wool my faith either.
    I’m glad we live in a society where we can have friends who believe differing things …we should oppose anyone who tries to take that away from us. .

  • Radvad

    It is easy to deny the existence of God because of all the evil in the world, much of it because of the freedom of choice God gives us. We would be nothing more than automatons if we did not have the choice to behave badly.
    However, this argument does not pass go in my opinion. To say there is no God because of evil means that the multitude of wonderful things we enjoy, by the same logic, that there is a God. Therefore neither argument can really be logically used to base a belief system on.

    • MichaelW

      Very few people would honestly base their lack of belief in god on the evil in the world. I do think for some people who were brought up in religion it can be a trigger to make them think more critically about gods existence and to re-evaluate their lives/beliefs. Most peoples lack of belief is because they see no compelling evidence and it just doesn’t make sense to them. Also most people do not deny the existence of god. They just don’t know if he/she/it exists and do not have a strong belief in gods existence.

    • mike

      Actually IMHO it’s easier to believe in a deity who has a plan rather than the cold hard reality that this life is all we have.

      It is harder to believe that life is a miracle that occurred because of an extremely unlikely coincidence of the right temperature, water and chemicals rather than the religious belief that your God created it.

      It takes a lot of will to put aside faith in an omnipotent, omnipresent being and believe that everything we have is unique and therefore something to be treasured, and that there is nothing more after this.

      • rain33

        I completely disagree. It is impossible for me to believe in a ‘deity’ whereby scientific explanations and ‘chance’ as you put it, seem extraordinarily logical. The idea that life ends when it ends, also poses no problem for me. The finality of death is so unpalatable for people that it is hardly surprising the alternative of a ‘deity’ offering an ‘extended plan’ is accepted by so many. The universe is abundant with life, it is not as much an unlikely coincidence as you would suggest.

        • mike

          To you and me they seem logical, hence why I am an Atheist (well logic and a multitude of other reasons). We are willing to accept that we don’t have all the answers and embrace the fact that our life is finite.

          And while I believe that there is other life out there I also accept the very real possibility that we will never meet anyone else… space is bloody big after all. For all intents and purposes we may as well be alone in the universe.

  • Justsayn

    The race issue may be a temporary thing. Time may solve those issues.

    We were once all of the same “race”, and we are likely to be indistinguishably so again.

    The fact we have identifiable ethnic groups is a function of our historical isolation from each other. We started off as one, but as we spread we did not mix widely because that was physical impossibile. That isolation is evaporating, and the speed of evaporation has increased dramatically in the last 200 years.

    Losing focus on the past may help us see the future.

    Religion is going to be a continued problem. Today we point to extremist muslims, in 500 years time it might be extremist buddhists, or christians. How hope for peace may hinge on a greater acceptance of rationalism, or at least that it should overlay religious beliefs.

  • JoJo

    More wise words from Rowan Atkins…

  • oldmanNZ

    The census had many people putting down their religion as “Jedi”

    one may question that religion as it is based on a movie, quite far fetched with the force being the powerful entity, has a good and dark side.

    what difference is this to a religion based on a book about a man who can walk on water and turn water into wine and fish. Not even a Jedi can come back from the dead.

    Religion is just ideas man had created, just like politics, and should be able to be debated.

    • mike

      The Force has a light side (Jedi) and a dark side (Sith)

      If you’re going to use Star Wars as an example you need to get it right :-)

  • Isherman

    Exactly, and that’s why its so engaging and often both challenging and confronting as well. The comments section does actually add to the debate of ideas, or the merits of a particular argument, its not just a roll of “me too-ism” that the comments of leftist blogs have a tendency to be,..with only very occasional exceptions.

  • Jaffa

    Freedom of Speech is limited.
    You are not free to shout “Fire”, in a crowded theatre, or “Bomb” on a plane.
    You are not free to spread rumours, lies, and slander.
    There are consequences.
    You can call someone a bastard, even if he is not, but you can’t call someone a black bastard, even if he is!
    It’s complicated.

    • JustanObserver

      I disagree.
      Freedom of Speech is not Limited …
      It has consequences.
      You are free to yell ‘Bomb’ on a plane, it is just that there are consequences if you do.
      You may choose to weigh up the consequences against your ‘need’ for your freedoms.
      Your decision will ultimately determine what, if any consequences you are faced with …
      But you do have Freedom of Speech.
      John Key is trying to balance his Political Freedom of Speech and eloquently trying to portray himself having his eyes closed in a dark theatre playing a R18 Movie, and saying he saw nothing seedy.
      Say what needs to be said, and deal with the consequences, as the consequences will come here regardless if we do nothing.

      • Jaffa

        And you are Free to draw cartoons of mohammed.

        And there are consequences……………….

        • JustanObserver

          But we are still free to do it.
          And that’s the way it should stay.

    • James

      Wrong…you ARE allowed to shout fire in a crowded theater…IF you have the permission of the owner to do so. That example is used as a free speech limiter when in fact the crux is private property rights. You have the absolute right to say anything you like on your property …with your owned property ( computer,writing paper,orher owned medium etc)…or that of a consenting other.

      The limit is where the next persons property rights begin. No one owes you a medium to express yourself…they just have to unimpede you using your own or that which has been made freely available to you.

  • One_step_beyond

    Existential nihilism is my belief of choice:
    “Existential nihilism is the belief that life has no intrinsic meaning or value. With respect to the universe, existential nihilism posits that a single human or even the entire human species is insignificant, without purpose and unlikely to change in the totality of existence.” (Wikipedia)

    • I_See_Crazy_People

      Unfortunately the majority of sponging lefties agree with you.

  • Cadwallader

    Well your love of the shiney is shared by Laila Harre given her penchant to chase after glistening dreams catered for by German $$$$. Why on earth would another blog seek your postal address? Anyway we here all know it is in suburban Damascus.

  • Dave

    I heard you had first dibs
    on a mansion in the Coatesville area after a Fat overseas national moves out,
    perhaps those people might like to check out the removal vans heading there
    after the current tenant moves out!

  • luke

    Just been to that little known blog and it’s left me speechless. Why do they hate so much? The vitriol aimed at National and John Key is mystifying. A commentator said they’d like to see Cam hung! In all honesty these people are extremists and their barely suppressed malice frighten me. Makes me think: Socialism, the movement of peace.

  • Huia

    I agree with you Cadwallader, I have learned so much from coming to this site. It is interesting to read all the views on one subject and I applaud the Whaleoil crew for their open mindedness, for fighting so hard to keep this site open to all and sundry and keeping it well moderated.
    The minority opposition to this site have yet to wake up to the fact that they are actually no better than some of the extremists, they encourage hate attacks (which shows stupidity and envy), something like that ends up with a gang mentality instead of healthy, open discussion. Hate campaign’s usually come back to haunt, attacking the owners and the readers of this site with negative, nasty, vindictive and down right vitriolic regularity need to be questioned, especially by those taking part.
    Of course its all because their view differs from someone else’s or someone has done better than someone else.
    What on earth ever happened to freedom of speech and respect for another’s view.
    Rowan Atkinson was very right in what he said.
    The vocal minority can ruin things for everyone else if we let them.

  • GMAK

    Did anyone else find themselves reading the quote with blackadders voice?

  • dgrogan

    Why is it that people feel the need to force/coerce/convert others into sharing their belief systems? Is it a way to combat buyer remorse?

  • I.M Bach

    I once knew an dyslexic, agnostic insomniac who used to lie awake at night wondering if there was a dog.