Debating Atheists at St Andrews University: a fascinating exchange of views

By David Robertson

Last month I had the privilege of speaking at a debate in St Andrews – I believe it was the first of this kind that the Christian Union have organised. I loved it. The place was relatively full, the chairman was excellent and my opponent, Dr Manfredi La Manna, reader of Economics at University of St Andrews, was pleasant, affable and spoke well.

Dr La Manna

However, I found his arguments quite astonishing. He wanted to go further than Christianity being a delusion – he wanted to call it the greatest fraud. He argued that there were seven problems with Christianity which made it false.

  1. Christianity had come in credulous times
  2. Christianity had occurred just in the one place
  3. Christianity used a book in an age of illiterate people
  4. Christianity created a caste of priests
  5. In order to be true, Christianity had to be permanent (he later qualified this to mean that the evidence had to be permanent)
  6. The Bible would have to be perfect
  7. Christianity would have to be beneficial to society.

As you can imagine, these were all a gift! I enjoyed responding to them after giving my own initial presentation. I wonder how you would have responded? Here is a brief summary of my counter-points.

1. We live in credulous times – therefore Christianity must be flourishing! There is no evidence that the 1st century was any more credulous than the 21st.

2. There is no reason logically why this should make Christianity untrue. By definition, the historical Christ could only come in one place. Christians are now all over the world.

3. We taught them to read because Christianity is about education. Without the Book then we are at the mercy of various religious gurus.

4. We created a priesthood of all believers.

5. Christianity is permanent. We are still here. And so is the evidence.

6. It is.

7. It is….the University of St Andrews would not have existed without Christianity.

There was of course much more than that. I thought the questions were excellent and in some cases very difficult (the usual ones on feminism, homosexuality and science). I loved being faced with these challenges and thought that the participation of the students was excellent.

Some arguments from Dr La Manna stuck out. He claimed that he would not believe something unless it was 99.99999% certain – which I pointed out meant that his own discipline, (economics), was redundant!

He also encouraged students to get an online Bible and google it for words and quotes. I suggested that St Andrews students, as intelligent human beings, would be far better off actually reading books rather than just googling for quotes!

screenshot-2018-11-07-at-17-52-29He tried to use mockery, putting up a couple of Bible verses as if they were self-evidently ridiculous. It’s hard to deal with those in a short space of time – but it can be done! (although I am not sure I did it well).

He also claimed that the Bible was written by seven-year-olds – although he apologised for that to me afterwards – not least because it did not help his case!

The final lesson for me was the amount of harm that liberal theologians do. I think Dr La Manna struggled a bit because he was surprised to find that I actually believed the Bible. He suggested that ‘scholars’ thought otherwise – but did not cite any (although there are plenty).

Overall, I loved the evening and thought it was very useful in terms of the gospel. Several students spoke to me afterwards, asking about Bible study, or my Magnificent Obsession book or asking more questions. Years after the event, the debates I did with Matt Dilahunty continue to produce fruit – one student told me that he had been an atheist but partly because of those debates (which he had listened to six times!) was now an agnostic.

Rev David Robertson (Co-founder and Speaker for Solas) is the minister of St Peter’s Free Church, Dundee. He blogs at www.theweeflea.com, where this article was first published.