Journalist Heather Tomlinson reflects on a recent Big Conversation between Alex O’Connor and Ben Shapiro and ponders if the question of whether religion is beneficial leads to whether it is true

A topical talking point among thinking Westerners is the contribution of religion to the world. As societies have become more secular, they seem to have declined. Atheists such as conservative journalist Douglas Murray have questioned whether losing Christianity is a cause; some have recently converted to the faith citing this reason, like Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

These developments were reflected in a recent Big Conversation on “Is religion good or bad for society?” between atheist debater Alex O’Connor (also known as ‘Cosmic Skeptic’) and American orthodox Jewish conservative Ben Shapiro.  

It might be expected they would be in one camp or the other. But Alex has softened in recent years from “new atheism”, a movement he acknowledged to be in decline during a recent conversation with Professor Alister McGrath. He acknowledges Christianity has stronger arguments to support it than he realised as a younger man; and the question of religion’s benefits is nuanced. 

Perhaps this is why this episode of The Big Conversation is more friendly than might be expected. Thousands of comments on the YouTube video express surprise and appreciation for the cordial and respectful discussion. “This was shockingly good,” commented one user, @gregoryk.173. “It’s rare to see a debate where people actually discuss meaningful questions and try to get to the essence of the other’s argument.”


Important concepts humans need aren’t possible on atheism

They also dodge many of the usual religion vs atheism talking points as Ben begins by saying he won’t argue whether or not belief in God is true, because good arguments can be made for both sides. So they turn to Ben’s claim that religion gives principles that atheism cannot, which are essential for society to work. For example, moral truths of right and wrong; free will and the belief we can choose; and truth and reason themselves. 

They consider free will more deeply. Again, Ben says he is not arguing whether or not free will exists, just that it is important to believe in it. For example, social science research has shown that decision-making improves if a person believes they have free choices. “Not everybody is capable of waking up in the morning putting one half of their brain on hold, the side that says: ‘What I’m doing today doesn’t matter and we are all going to wind up in the cosmic nothingness of space anyway and the sun’s going to explode,’” he argues. “Most people don’t function that way and so… a society that works relies on people actually believing that their fate is in their hands.”

Alex agrees there are benefits, but that they are just a “helpful fiction”, which was selected by evolution. “It is the case that free will doesn’t exist,” he says. “We may feel very nihilistic towards that, but as a wise man once said: ‘Facts don’t care about your feelings’ [the title of a book written by Ben].”

Alex bases his disbelief not on scientific or empirical research, but logic: either mental activity is determined or it is random. If it is determined, then it must be caused by something – and the ultimate cause must either be something outside of yourself. Alternatively, it is random, and we can’t choose it. There can’t be an “uncaused decision”.  

Ben says this reasoning depends on deconstructing the idea of the self or a soul into a divisible computing mechanism, which is quite an assumption. Instead, the correct notion of a self is of a “deciding being” that is incompatible with an atheistic worldview. 

One commenter on YouTube, @evangelium5376, believes that the understanding of the principles themselves is flawed. “Alex’s argument against free will is just an equivocation – a language trick, if you will – on the term ‘determine’,” writes evangelium. “He’s conflating subjectivity being constituted of distinct things, thereby those things ‘determining’ subjectivity in some way, with determinism as opposed to freedom. Any learned phenomenologist or philosopher of mind could easily tear his sophomoric argument to shreds.”


Read more:

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The moral path? 

Unsurprisingly, they don’t solve this philosophical problem in 80 minutes. So they turn to the question of whether religion gives us morals and tells us what is good in a way that atheism cannot. Alex thinks the idea of “good” might be “another one of these unfortunately quite nihilistic, evolutionary sort of illusions”.

He says grounding morality in God means that it is harder to reason with. For example, if religion inspires someone to kill you, they would be less inclined to be talked out of it. Ben counters that it’s more likely that someone would kill you for pure self-interest, and the best restraint for such selfish motives is religion. 

“Your suggestion is that God makes a person impervious to countervailing responses,” says Ben. “My answer is yes God does make a person impervious to countervailing responses – including the evils of one’s own heart.”

The conversation turns to Tom Holland (historian not actor) whose book ‘Dominion: The making of the Western Mind’ is credited as a reason we are having these kind of conversations. The author says many good things in Western societies we take for granted, such as concern for the weak and suffering, ultimately came from Christianity. 

Alex isn’t convinced, as saying abolitionist, social justice and scientific advances were due to Judeo-Christian beliefs is “offensive” when the Bible also gives instructions for slavery, St Paul says women shouldn’t teach, and Galileo was persecuted by the Church. “This goes both ways,” counters Alex. “Thanks be to God when he is able to provide us with the grounding for resisting oppression and throwing off tyranny – but what about when the same God is used to justify the exact opposite?”


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The pair home in on slavery. “The Bible is in an inherently problematic position…on the one hand it’s trying to divulge important truths for all time, at the same time it’s talking to a people of a particular time [who universally accepted slavery until the 18th Century],” says Ben. In his words, God was “wooing people away from a particular type of sin” through scripture.

This prompts a response from Alex that pleased his fans: “Who’s the moral relativist now?” But Ben believes slavery has always been morally wrong. God gave the Old Testament commands to improve treatment of slaves by a stubborn people, compared to worse horrors in the surrounding culture of the time. Perhaps this is easier for a Christian to argue using the New Testament, where Jesus refines and expands a number of Old Testament laws with “you have heard it said…but I say”.

Alex seems to be in agreement with Ben that some forms of religion provide some positive social functions. But does it matter if it is helpful, if not true? Alex seems to dislike the dissonance this position requires. “I happen to be in the happy position of being able to argue that what I think is socially useful also happens to be true,” says Ben. So discussing the utility of religious belief leads to considering its veracity. 

“This was a great conversation,” summarises @mcmillion3. “I wish it was longer. I am definitely more on the atheistic side but as I have grown and seen the way people are behaving in society right now, I can’t help but think to myself: ‘These people need Jesus!’”


Heather Tomlinson is a freelance journalist. You can find her on X @HeatherTomli or through her blog