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Cardinal v. Atheist: Without God We Are Nothing

Last edited 18th October 2012

Cardinal v. Atheist: Without God We Are Nothing

Cardinal George Pell, Archbishop of Sydney, and atheist Dan Barker debated the topic: Without God We Are Nothing, at Macquarie University. A vigorous and lively debate was had, with over 300 people in attendance. The debate was structured so that each speaker received ten minutes to present their case, then had a chance at rebuttal, and finishing off with a few minutes to directly cross examine the other. There was then time for questions from the audience. Part 1 of this audio presents the main arguments and rebuttal, with part 2 presenting the (very lively) cross examination, and some hard hitting questions from the audience.

Keywords: Cardinal Pell, Cardinal George Pell, Pell, Archbishop, Barker, "Dan Barker", macquarie university, atheist, catholic, debate

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james atanasious
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james atanasious wrote at 11:18pm on March 22nd 2010
i like the debate
Father Marcus Nowotny
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Father Marcus Nowotny wrote at 3:50pm on March 23rd 2010
(working in Russia for over 10 years) I like the part about the Soviet Union and the Hospitals they builded here - a warm welcome to Mr. Barker when he will become ill to come across and have some traetment in one of 'they' hospitals
Helen Hunt
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Helen Hunt wrote at 6:07pm on March 23rd 2010
"If Dan thinks the laws of nature are just bad grammer I suggest he step out the window" Genius haha!!!
Tivoli Vaiotu
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Tivoli Vaiotu wrote at 4:31am on March 24th 2010
Dan is certainly is a gifted debater, and thinker. Good on Cardinal Pell for standing up for us. With regards to Dan, I get the impression that he lost his way in his discovery for truth. I'm sure he's a good person and a good father, but I'll pray for him anyway, and that he does find out what "spirit" really is one day.

There is obviously a lot more to be said on the topics presented than in the short dialogue shared in this debate, but it opens some very interesting questions.

Dan referred often to the notion of goodness in his deliberations - but I can't help but feel that his philosophy of life lends itself quite perilously for evil-doers to justify what they do. Humanity left to expain itself will kill itself off. Without God will will be nothing.
Tivoli Vaiotu
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Tivoli Vaiotu wrote at 4:34am on March 24th 2010
Erratum: Without God we will be nothing!

Grammar! Maybe Dan has a point! :)
Terry Fitzgerald
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Terry Fitzgerald wrote at 1:58am on March 25th 2010

The airing of this debate is very timely and interesting.This posting is to be applauded as an instance of the tentative steps the Church is taking to communicate with us in our 'instant' world. Last year we had the first National Communications Congress in 25 years ... Cardinal Pell is to be commended for his increasing use of modern media.
Peter Roberts
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Peter Roberts wrote at 3:10pm on March 28th 2010
I t was the last comment the Cardinal made which doubters and atheists should attend closely:

"The real assent to God, as opposed to the notional, revolutionises one's life. The God deniers never stop dodging the question raised by Aristotle and Aquinas (3rd Way). Intelligence and design are mostly red herrings. No wonder the God deniers want us on this territory alone. Focus day and night on existence.

That which cannot explain itself in its existence has to be explained by the Necessary One.

Particles in energy or matter, alone or collectively, finite or infinite, are forever without explanation without the immaterial (spiritual). The imagination and tendency to materialise often impede recognising this vital truth".

Father Bryan Storey, Tintagel, uk
Richard Baxter
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Richard Baxter wrote at 12:23pm on April 1st 2010
Although I did not think any of the atheist arguments bore any weight (most come from a protestant world view - I know this because I used to be one also and would have made the same arguments), I think some of his counter arguments did, and possibly we need to establish some solid grammar on our side.

1. a multiverse is a philosophical concept (another universe is by definition not observable and therefore not a scientific/empirical hypothesis). Multiverse theory therefore is no different than a religious theory involving a Baad that is intelligent enough to create a universe generation algorithm but not intelligent enough to work out which universe is going to be capable of supporting atoms let alone life before letting his software run. Alternatively, is it more reasonable to believe in a self existent multiverse or a self existent God? Formally however I would recommend avoiding the phrase 'self existent' altogether which assumes a construct of time, see 2
2. I believe Cardinal Pell's introductory and concluding statements regarding the definition of God are the best in the context of this debate - he is the reason for the physical laws of the universe and the construct itself (which since the 1930s has been scientifically known to have a beginning, theologically much earlier) - "that answer men call God".
3. although the probabilities on creating a single cell organism or precursor to this are as currently understood insanely low, this is still a "god of the gaps" argument - the only one I detected that was used in this debate for that matter. Maybe it would be better to focus more on the fine tuning required for the sustenance of life, of which no statistical analysis has yet been performed since we don't understand how it all works yet anyway; biological systems are a lot more complicated than lower level systems however complicated these are in themselves.
4. I think we should define spirit. A spirit could be defined as a subjective experience or an observer of some observed reality - in our case, physical reality. A spirit is therefore by definition not this reality since it cannot be observed - in our case, the brain, which it is mapped to, can be observed, but this is of no consequence to the definition as some reductionists might posit. A subjective experience by itself does not have to be able to think, see, touch, or smell anything at all, although at least when mapped to a brain, it can certainly think, see, touch, and smell many things. Forgiveness, honour, disgrace, love, free will/will power, etc are possible effects of a spirit.
5. Regarding Dan Barker's concluding statement; no, a spirit can indeed have physical effects without being a physical thing. Our universe is not physically deterministic (has been scientifically known since the 1920's, theologically much earlier), and therefore any physical event, probable or improbable, can be philosophically described as an action of a non physical thing on physical reality.
Joan Moore
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Joan Moore wrote at 11:31pm on April 4th 2010
Thank you Cardinal Pell for debating this issue.
I agree with Terry Fitzgerald's comment and appreciate the other respondents.
Joan Moore
Moussa Taouk
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Moussa Taouk wrote at 11:46pm on April 5th 2010
"Ofcourse atheists are good"- Dan Barker.
I had hoped that the Cardinal would have seized on this assumption by asking Dan to define "good" in the absense of God. Dan mentions minimising violence or harm during the debate, indicating that this is his definition of "good". But why should lack of violence be good? maybe lack of violence is bad. The interactions between stars and black holes, and between the animal kingdom, and between storms and typhoons... they don't seem to be concerned with minimising violence. It is dishonest to claim that we are merely like broccoli and that somehow there can be any notion of "good". The only honest conclusion for a purely materialist philosophy is chaos. Just random acts devoid of any reference to anything "good" or "peaceful" or whatever.

The fact is... atheists are living their lives on the foundations of Christianity. All the while picking at that foundation. God forbid that one day their foundation should crumble and fall (it would if they were truly honest with themselves). The only conclusion must necessarily be the ideals of chaos, destruction and death replacing the ideals of order, harmony and life.
Moussa Taouk
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Moussa Taouk wrote at 12:12am on April 6th 2010
One more comment. Dan asked the Cardinal if he could tell him what would need to be shown or proved before he would stop believing in God. Good question.

I've thought often about this question. I think I'd need a litre of love, a metre of dignity, a measure of hope, and a quantity of goodness. They would go a long way to helping disprove God.
Johnny Jiang
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Johnny Jiang wrote at 6:22am on April 6th 2010
good debate, though Dan's attack to sr Teresa was a horrible horrible thing to say!
jackie sikder
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jackie sikder wrote at 10:32am on April 7th 2010
I like the debate. Good on you Cardinal.
beata rawdanowicz
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beata rawdanowicz wrote at 2:51pm on April 28th 2010
This debate was brilliant in illustrating the fundamental difference between atheists and Christians. The style of the two debaters was a great proof to me, of which side I would prefer to be on. Cardinal Pell was always very organised, calm, polite, respectful, genuine, using reasonable, intelligent and considerate methods of arguing. This is opposed to the very silly and unorganised, often impolite, and at times aggressive, outrageous and ridiculous, as well as almost always chaotic style of Dan. There is no doubt in my mind to which side of this debate my instinct, my heart and my intelligence take me.
Shame on you Dan, for attacking so viciously a Saint - Mother Teresa, and in doing that, offending and showing no respect for the vast majority of people in this world, most of whom are not even Christians - they all continue to love her and many continue to benefit from her physical and spiritual achievements.
Congratulations to Cardinal Pell for showing all, exactly what Christians values mean in practice, including in style of debating.
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Guest wrote at 2:14pm on April 29th 2010
I also agree that Dan's insults regarding Mother Teresa were not only untrue, but not even relevant to the question that was asked him about her. I don't know what it is, but some athiests, such as Christopher Hitchens for example, seem to be running a smear campaign against Mother Teresa. They claim to be advancing the common good, but yet they seem to want to waste precious time and energy to actively discredit this precious treasure of the church who did so much good. It really is a shame and it just shows a hypocrisy on the part of the atheists who do this.

Atheism indeed is a very bleak and depressing way of life for those who choose it. What do they really have to look forward to? I think it is a great consolation to know that every person on this earth who has ever lived will bend their knee at the name of Jesus willingly or unwillingly, even those atheists who have tragically denied God's existence even while it was God who sustained their lives, while patiently waiting for them to repent and believe.
Jim ONeal
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Jim ONeal wrote at 3:54pm on May 19th 2010
I disagree with many comments about these debates. I think Dan Barker was very organized, and his arguments were strong, well thought out, and he was not rude at all. Cardinal Pell used the same old arguments that Christians typically use that are full of logical fallacies.

I do agee that both Barker and Pell are very good speakers, and skilled at debating, but I think Barker was the clear winner in this debate.
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Guest wrote at 3:29am on May 20th 2010
As long as the issue has been brought up, I would say the same thing about Dan Barker. In all honesty I would say that He used many tired old arguments that atheists use. In the end nobody can prove or disprove God's existence. I don't know who the 'winner' was, but even if it was not the Good Cardinal, it surely was not Barker either. At the end of the day it is ultimately a matter of faith for those who choose to believe in God and have that gift of faith. I don't know why atheists have such a problem with people believing in God.

I also still don't know why Barker chose to pick on Blessed Mother Teresa like he did. Seems like a very petty thing to do....He, and others should leave well enough alone, what good can trying to slander her in vain do anyways?
Jim ONeal
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Jim ONeal wrote at 6:47pm on May 20th 2010
Just because an argument is old, does not mean it is wrong. When I stated that Pell used “old arguments that are full of logical fallacies”, my objection to the arguments was the fact that they contain logical fallacies, not because they are old. I apologize for using the word “old” in my description, as it served no purpose in my statement.

I agree that the existence of god can neither be proven nor disproven. As you said, belief in a god is a matter of faith. Just as believing in leprechauns, ghosts, Santa Claus, Allah, Zeus, Thor, Osiris, Anubis, or any other mythological creature, is a matter of faith. As with any of these mythological entities, including a god, the burden of proof is the responsibility of the one making the claim that the entity (or a god) exists, not on the person disagreeing with that claim.

I think the objection that most atheists have about people believing in god is that: a) theists are constantly trying to convince the world that their belief in their own version of god is a fact, b) theists claim moral superiority, and moral right, based on belief in their version of god, and c) the spread of the belief in this god, and the belief in moral right, then affects the laws, decisions, and policies created by governments and politicians, that end up affecting all of us, regardless of belief. Belief in a god has started countless wars around the world, resulting in an amount of injustice and death unmatched by any other belief in the history of human existence.

I also disagree with the statements that Mr. Barker “chose to pick on” Mother Teresa, or was insulting to her. He did not just bring her up out of nowhere, he was asked a question about her. He was responding with his opinions, based on how he understood the facts, of her contribution to charity and goodness in the world. I wonder if Pell had been asked a question about the accomplishments of a secular charitable person or organization, and Pell had replied by stating that the efforts of this person or organization were exaggerated, would that have been considered insulting to that person / organization as well?
Richard Baxter
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Richard Baxter wrote at 3:55pm on May 24th 2010
Some philosophers believe that ones ability to purposely subject themselves to pain and discomfort for another without any benefit to their genetic code is something that requires conscious effort - something which no animal can do - and which makes a human good (as opposed to the acts themselves) - which is maybe why they found the comments on Mother Teresa particularly unhelpful.

A belief in a supernatural god is just an extension of belief in other things which cannot be proved by the scientific method (non-physical abstract objects - eg reason). It is also used synonymously with the cause of physical reality (the universe including the requirements for it's evolution) and observers of this reality. It might be worth noting that a belief in this distinction (non reduction) only presupposes the possibility of zombies to the extent that one is willing to admit the possibility that they themselves might be a zombie (see Dennett).

Unfortunately we don't have a test case for the number of wars started by humans over an x000 year period without a belief in something akin to a god, but if humans really are no different than animals (apart from having the ability to find more clever ways of ensuring their code's survival), then, just thinking about this now, maybe it would be worth us examining the animal kingdom first.
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Guest wrote at 7:58pm on May 30th 2010
God is real, and though He cannot be proven, I have no need to prove His existence to someone who doubts it. I don't believe that there is any proof that would suffice anyways, so even if the burden of proof were on those who believe in God, it is moot. For those who do not believe no proof is enough, and for those who believe, no proof is necessary.

I say that it requires faith to believe that there is no God. Okay, so you claim that the burden of proof is on those that make the assertion that there is a God...fine. However, why is it that atheists do not have to prove that there is no God? The blade cuts both ways Jim. If we at least agree that there is no definitive way to prove God's existence definitively, then we must say that it requires faith to believe there is no God, because you can't be 100% sure that there is no God.

If you can claim that I have the burden to prove that God exists, I can just as well say that you have the burden to prove that He doesn't exist and then we are right back at square one because we both know that we will not budge from our respective positions.
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Guest wrote at 8:15pm on May 30th 2010
Regarding what Barker said about Mother Teresa, what he said most certainly his opinions and were not the facts at all. She did not have a malicious bone in her body and I still am baffled at why some people waste so much time in discrediting her.

It is beyond my comprehension that a person can sit there and spread misinformation and lies about someone who so clearly only did what she did for the good of those she cared for. No matter though, this kind of thing has happened down through the ages and will continue on until the end of the world. The church has always and will always be persecuted.

One thing though is for sure Jim, at the end of our lives after we die, we will see who is ultimately right.

God Bless, Br. Alphonsus.
charly robert santiago geronimo
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charly robert santiago geronimo wrote at 9:54pm on June 12th 2010
good afternoon name is carlos of de mexico city
Laura Cain
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Laura Cain wrote at 3:57am on June 17th 2010
great work Xt3 for recording this!
Jim ONeal
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Jim ONeal wrote at 3:37pm on June 22nd 2010
Brother Alphonsus Mary,

My lack of belief in god has nothing to do with faith. Faith is the belief in something without sufficient evidence to support it. If I do not believe in something in which there is not evidence to support that thing, it is not faith. If there were sufficient evidence to support the existence of a god, then I would happily change my opinion, and I’m sure most atheists would also change their opinion, because then it would no longer be a matter of faith, it would be a matter of knowledge. However, I think you are right that no matter how much evidence there is that the stories in the bible are fiction, you will never agree that it is simply a book of stories.

Before I address your burden of proof comment, I want to make a comment about knowledge. You’re right, if you are talking about absolute certain knowledge, I can not be 100% sure that there is no god. But when you’re speaking in absolute knowledge, nobody can be 100% sure of anything. You can not even be absolutely certain whether you are actually reading these words on your computer screen, or if you are only imagining them. This level of absolute certainty is useless, because it eliminates the possibility of anything, ever being proven or disproven, including your own existence. What you have to work with is practical knowledge. For you to know something in any way that matters, in the practical sense, you only have to demonstrate evidence for it that can be observed by some means, since we have to rely on what we can observe for anything to have meaning.

Now, when it comes to burden of proof… contrary to the belief of most theists, atheism is NOT the claim that there is no god, it is only the disagreement with the claim that there IS a god. Atheism is often stated incorrectly (even by atheists) as a claim that there is no god, when really it should be stated as a disagreement with the claim that there is a god. This is a subtle, but very important, difference. That is why atheists do not have to prove that there is no god, because they are not making the positive claim, they are disagreeing with a positive claim.
Jim ONeal
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Jim ONeal wrote at 3:39pm on June 22nd 2010
.... Part 2...

Here is an example: I am assuming that you believe in the Catholic god, typically called “God”, and as commanded by Him, He is the only god that you are allowed to worship, and therefore I am assuming that you do not believe in any other gods. That being the case, then where is your proof against the existence of the Greek gods, Egyptian gods, or Hindu god? How do you know that these other gods do not exist? Or do you believe in Zeus, Osiris, and Shiva too? (all of which, by the way, were invented long before any of the three Abrahamic mythologies were invented).

You cannot claim that these other gods do not exist, because you can not possibly prove that they do not exist. All you can do is disagree with the claim that they do exist, and by doing that, the burden of proof falls upon the person who is making the claim that Zeus, Osiris, and Shiva exists… does that make sense?

As I said before, my lack of belief in a god does not take faith, just as your lack of belief in Zeus, Osiris, or Shiva does not take faith. If there were evidence that Zeus existed, and I still did not believe, that would be faith.

I do not claim that unicorns, leprechauns, or flying spaghetti monsters do not exist, but I disagree with any claim that they do exist. I do not have to offer proof to support my position, because my position is not the positive position, it is a disagreement with the positive position.

Moussa Taouk
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Moussa Taouk wrote at 2:39am on June 23rd 2010
Hi Jim,

It was a necessary comment you made about absolute knowledge.

I think that if we were to explore the possibility of God's existence without demanding to have an absolute knowledge of that claim, but if we were rather to explore the evidence and arrive at a reasonable conclusion, then (and this seems to be the point the Cardinal was making) we would arrive at a conclusion that there is some power or intelligence or being that is higher and beyond what we can encapsulate or understand with our finite capacity, and that incomprehensible reality we call God. This seems to me to be an obvious conclusion.

The alternative position is to say, "at the moment we can't explain the evidence that is presented in favour of God's existence, but I'm sure one day someone will give a good answer that does not involve God... therefore it seems that God doesn't exist". Well, I don't think that's an adequate response. It seems like a response that, through a reluctance to acknowledge the existence of God, is a last ditch effort at some kind of an excuse. It's like when Dawkins, in the God Delusion says something like if some statue of Mary was shown that it had moved its arm or its own accord He would be more willing to conclude that through the unpredictable nature of quantum mechanics the is that possibility that a statue would happen to move its arm rather than acknowledging that it was a miracle. Well, I don't know the reason for such eagerness for turning away from the possibility of God. It seems to me the more unreasonable position to take.

That there is some power beyond our grasp is obvious. I think the more facinating question is not whether or not God exists but rather "what is the nature of God"? For instance is He (or it if you deem Him to be not a person) some mathematical synthesis of all that exists? or is He the material that harmonises all the various forces of gravity and electromagnetism and quantum mechanics etc into the one ultimate explanation? Does He relate to His creation or not? Is He merely chaos? or is He chance? or is He Love? or is He the ultimate intelligence?

If I were an atheist, I would be seeking not so much whether God exists, for there is little doubt that God exists. My question would be rather about the nature of God, and how it is that we come to the conclusions we do about His nature.
Richard Baxter
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Richard Baxter wrote at 6:29pm on June 29th 2010
I thought that Jim's explanation of atheism was very well laid out and understandable.

There will always be a scientific explanation for human observation - if there was not then causality would not hold and the scientific method would be limited. It is difficult for any science to progress with this assumption, and it is known that there will invariably be times when we are searching for scientific explanations of newly observed phenomena (for example, dark matter, dark energy).

Only in a deterministic universe is philosophical explanation of individual physical events necessarily an application of overdetermination.

Faith and knowledge are, as mentioned previously, intrinsically linked - to have faith without reason is irrational, and knowledge is by definition reasonable. They both refer to belief with varying probability of assurance. Faith generally refers to an essentially unprovable hypothesis, such as a philosophical premise, yet may be required to progress and which may be validated by 1. non-contradiction (of it's predictions and/or assumed knowledge) and 2. simplicity. Knowledge generally refers to a logical conclusion based upon a philosophical or scientific premise.

The problem is that knowledge cannot exist without faith (in reason).

There is never going to be scientific evidence for a god - if there were, then this god would, by definition, be part of this universe. Apart from being used as a definition for the cause of physical reality and unobserved phenomena assumed to exist - such as the brain's non-physical conception of itself (mind) - see my previous comment - there may ever only be philosophical 'evidence' for a god. Some models suggest that non-physical existence (including our own) does not just result in overdetermination but may account for the observed probabilistic outcomes of physical events - see my previous comment.

In my mind a god hypothesis a more reasonable explanation than accepting overdetermination (see 2.). I also see no contradictions with the application of this model - it provides explanation for both individual and social distinction between humans and animals (if nothing else), and accounts for the importance of free will upon which (if nothing else) the education of children in our society is dependent (see 1.).
Richard Baxter
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Richard Baxter wrote at 8:57am on July 1st 2010
Note that it might be worth extracting from the above that scientific knowledge requires faith in both reason and causality (where causality itself may either be deterministic or indeterministic/probabilistic). I purposely did not emphasis this to avoid confusion, as it represents another argument - which I thought to be of less interest to contemporary atheism. See C.S. Lewis for greater coverage of the scenarios.
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Guest wrote at 3:12pm on July 2nd 2010
Dear ladies and gentlemen,

At the end of the day and after all the discussions have ended we are still at the same point. Those who believe in God and those who don't. I believe in God and that's that. I can do little to nothing about those who do not believe. This is God's domain. Only He can give the gift of faith that those who believe in God have.

Those with the gift of faith are open to it and receive it because God will not force His will on anyone. He wants us to believe in Him freely. He does not want robots. He respects our free will that much. There have been many atheists who have come to belief in God. Why? I don't know for sure, but that is because it is God's work.

Take Peter Hitchens for example.How can one brother be catholic and another (Christopher) be such a virulent hater of Catholicism? Since there is no definitive proof for or against the existence of God, then it must be a matter of faith for both of them. Christopher believes there is no God and Peter believes there is. Neither of them though, can say that faith has no part to play. I don't care how much Christopher rails against faith, and though he would never admit it of course, his assertion that there is no God is grounded in his 'faith', as it were, and not based in any way upon fact, just as the Christian's faith in God is based on faith and not upon a 100% verifiable fact.

I respect, though do not understand, the position of those who do not believe in God, much I suppose, like those who do not believe in God do not understand the position of those who do believe in God, but still must respect their position.

So here we are.

We will all see what happens after we die. That will be the moment of truth for all of us. Only one of us can be right.

God Bless, Br. Alphonsus.
charly robert santiago geronimo
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charly robert santiago geronimo wrote at 1:38am on July 31st 2010
Laura Cain
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Laura Cain wrote at 12:43am on August 5th 2010
please include Dan Barker in your prayers-what a great witness it would be if it was in God's will to have him convert back to Christianity!
Daniel Amos
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Daniel Amos wrote at 7:44am on August 7th 2010
If anyone is interested, here is the video footage of the debate!
Kwame Weekes
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Kwame Weekes wrote at 2:45am on August 10th 2010
Ahhh the search for Truth will always exist. I often wonder where this innate desire and search for it comes from and why.

Like Cardinal Pell I also believe in Truth. What is Truth?

I will use an example - If rain is falling and I say "rain is falling," according to Dan, I have just spoked truth. I agree with that. If I say "rain is not falling, the sun is shining" according to Dan, I have just spoken untruth. I would agree, provided we have the same definition of rain. Suppose where I come from the thing falling from the sky is called "sun" and the thing shining brightly in the sky is called "rain". What is the Truth in this circumstance? I do not believe that the Truth exists in any statement of fact because it requires a fact to make a statement about. The Truth in that circumstance would be the form of precipitation itself, not my statement about it.

Truth to me therefore is Reality, not one's statement of fact.