Posts Tagged ‘david robertson’

Against Theology

20/12/2013

This draft has been sitting in My Documents folder for quite a while.  Since I have recently been chided for my lack of serious “scholarship” (note the scare quotes) while debating on David Robertson’s blog on the question of whether Stalin was influenced by Darwin and evolution and my reply involved delving into this draft and copying any pasting the links and quotes, I thought that now would be as good a time as any to complete and publish the draft.

Some of most entertaining articles I have ever read have been those debunking theology.  There’s something so pompous and self-important about all theologians I have encountered.  When I first started reading the reactions to Richard DawkinsThe God Delusion, one of the more stinging comments was that he has not engaged in any serious Christian or Jewish theology.  No discussion of the finer details of the Trinity.  No dissection of the Transubstantiation.  As US evolutionary biologist, H Allen Orr, put it in his lengthy review:

[T]he result is that The God Delusion, a book that never squarely faces its opponents.  You will find no serious examination of Christian or Jewish theology in Dawkins’s book (does he know Augustine rejected biblical literalism in the early fifth century?), no attempt to follow philosophical debates about the nature of religious propositions (are they like ordinary claims about everyday matters?)…  Instead, Dawkins has written a book that’s distinctly, even defiantly, middlebrow.  Dawkins’s intellectual universe appears populated by the likes of Douglas Adams, the author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and Carl Sagan, the science populariser.

Richard, what were you thinking committing such a gapping hole in your research?

Nevertheless, Dawkins has hit back at this criticism both before and after the publication of his book.   Dawkins’ response to Oxford University’s Christian theologian Alister McGrath’s criticisms that he has a poor grasp of theology in his 2004 book, Dawkins’ God: Genes, Memes And The Meaning of Life:

Yes, I have, of course, met this point before.  It sounds superficially fair.  But it presupposes that there is something in Christian theology to be ignorant about.  The entire thrust of my position is that Christian theology is a non-subject.  It is empty.  Vacuous.  Devoid of coherence or content.  I imagine that McGrath would join me in expressing disbelief in fairies, astrology and Thor’s hammer.  How would he respond if a fairyologist, astrologer or Viking accused him of ignorance of their respective subjects?

The only part of theology that could possibly demand my attention is the part that purports to demonstrate that God does exist.  This part of theology I have, indeed, studied with considerable attention.  And found it utterly wanting.

Spot on.  Ninety-nine percent of all theology simply assumes that God exists; the content of the Bible is literally or metaphorically “true” and proceeds from there.  For an atheist to start arguing against the Trinity and assert that God is not one in three, but one in five would be to accept God’s existence implicitly and therefore contradict their core position!  Learned theological treatises among Christian theologians (and those of any other religion for that matter) have no more scientific or intellectual content than the discussion of Norse-like gods between Conan and his companion, Subotai, in Conan The Barbarian at the beginning of this post.  The cue to Basil Poledouris’ (wonderful) score is even called “Theology”!

Science blogger Jason Rosenhouse’s reply to Orr’s review, “Orr On Dawkins”, elaborates further:

Dawkins provides no serious discussion of Jewish or Christian theology?  Of course not, because such theology is mostly irrelevant to how religion is actually practiced.  Theology is an academic pursuit, and like many such pursuits it concerns itself primarily with esoterica far removed from people’s actual lives. Much Christian theology in particular tends to take the form of viewing the Bible as a complex cipher, one that requires years of training to understand properly.

And since Orr is criticizing Dawkins’ superficiality, it is a bit rich for him to reduce Augustine’s views to the slogan that he rejected biblical literalism.  Augustine did take the view that the Bible should be interpreted in as literal a way as possible, and in some of his writing he even endorsed a young-Earth position.  He was willing to countenance a somewhat allegorical interpretation of Genesis, but that was only because he felt the Bible should not be read in a way that contradicts what clear scientific evidence is telling us.  A worthy sentiment, certainly, but not one that finds much theological justification.

At any rate, Dawkins is perfectly aware that many serious Christians do not accept Biblical literalism.  So what?  Dawkins’ book is primarily about the reasonableness of believing in a creator God, and on the social impact of widespread religious belief.  The minutiae of different schools of Christian thought just isn’t the concern of this book.

The rest of this post will provide further resources and pithy sound bites giving this pseudo-intellectual non-subject that is needless contributing to the destruction of the rainforests and the worsening of climate change the respect it deserves.

Thomas Jefferson (quoted in The God Delusion [London: Transworld Publishers, 2007, p. 55]):

Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions. Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them; and no man ever had a distinct idea of the trinity.  It is the mere Abracadabra of the mountebanks calling themselves the priests of Jesus.

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Anti-Christ:

Anyone with theologian blood in his veins will approach things with a warped and deceitful attitude.  This gives rise to a pathos that calls itself faith: turning a blind eye to yourself for once and for all, so you do not have to stomach the sight of incurable mendacity.  This universally faulty optic is made into a morality, a virtue, a holiness, seeing-wrong is given a good conscience, – other types of optic are not allowed to have value any more now that this one has been sanctified with names like “God”, “redemption”, and “eternity”.  I have unearthed the theologian instinct everywhere: it is the most widespread and genuinely subterranean form of deceit on earth.  Anything a theologian thinks is true must be false: this is practically a criterion of truth.

Sam Harris defines the God of the religious community at large:

We can talk about religion as it is for most people most of the time, or we can talk about what religion could be, or should be.  Or perhaps what it is for the tiniest minority of people…

If we talk about consciousness and the laws of nature, we won’t be talking about the God that most of our neighbours believe in, which is a personal god, who hears our prayers and occasionally answers them…

The God that our neighbours believe in is essentially an invisible person.  It’s a creator deity, who created the universe to have a relationship with once species of primate.  Lucky us!

He’s got galaxy upon galaxy to attend to but he’s especially concerned with what we do, and he’s especially concerned with what we do while naked.  He most certainly does not approve of homosexuality.  And he has created this cosmos as a vast laboratory in which to test our powers of credulity.  And the test is this: Can you believe in this God on bad evidence, which is to say on faith.  And if you can you will win an eternity of happiness after you die.

And it’s precisely this sort of god or this sort of scheme that you must believe in if you are to have any kind of future in politics in this country, no matter what your gifts.  You could be an unprecedented genius, you could look like George Clooney, you could have a billion dollars and you could have the social skills of Oprah, and you are going nowhere in politics in this country unless you believe in that sort of God.

So we can talk about anything we want – I’m happy to talk about consciousness – but please notice that when we migrate away from the God that is really shaping human events or the God-talk that is really shaping human events in our world at this moment.

Harris damns all theological discourse in Letter To A Christian Nation: A Challenge To Faith [London: Transworld Publishers, 2007, pp. 65 - 66]:

Consider the recent deliberations of the Roman Catholic Church on the doctrine of limbo.  Thirty top theologians from around the world recently met at the Vatican to discuss the question of what happens to babies who die without having undergone the sacred rite of baptism.  Since the Middles Ages, Catholics have believed that such babies go to a state of limbo, where they enjoy what St. Thomas Aquinas termed “natural happiness” forever.  This was in contrast to the opinion of St. Augustine, who believed that these unlucky infant souls would spend an eternity in hell.

Though limbo had no real foundation in scripture, and was never official Church doctrine, it has been a major part of the Catholic tradition for centuries.  In 1905, Pope Pius X appeared to fully endorse it: “Children who die without baptism go into limbo, where they do not enjoy God, but they do not suffer either.”

Can we even conceive of a project more intellectually forlorn than this?  Just imagine what these deliberations must be like.  Is there the slightest possibility that someone will present evidence indicating the eternal fate of unbaptized children after death?  How can any educated person think this anything but a hilarious, terrifying, and unconscionable waste of time?  When one considers the fact that this is the very institution that has produced and sheltered an elite army of child molesters, the whole enterprise begins to exude a truly diabolical aura of misspent human energy.

To finish with Sam Harris, here’s his summary of religious scientist Francis Collins’ true beliefs:

1.  Jesus Christ, a carpenter by trade, was born of a virgin, ritually murdered as a scapegoat for the collective sins of his species, and then resurrected from death after an interval of three days.

2.  He promptly ascended, bodily, to “heaven”—where, for two millennia, he has eavesdropped upon (and, on occasion, even answered) the simultaneous prayers of billions of beleaguered human beings.

3.  Not content to maintain this numinous arrangement indefinitely, this invisible carpenter will one day return to earth to judge humanity for its sexual indiscretions and skeptical doubts, at which time he will grant immortality to anyone who has had the good fortune to be convinced, on mother’s knee, that this baffling litany of miracles is the most important series of truth-claims ever revealed about the cosmos.

4.  Every other member of our species, past and present, from Cleopatra to Einstein, no matter what his or her terrestrial accomplishments, will be consigned to a far less desirable fate, best left unspecified.

5.  In the meantime, God/Jesus may or may not intervene in our world, as He pleases, curing the occasional end-stage cancer (or not), answering an especially earnest prayer for guidance (or not), consoling the bereaved (or not), through His perfectly wise and loving agency.

How many scientific laws would be violated by such a scheme?  One is tempted to say “all of them.”

Richard Dawkins, “Let’s Hope It’s A Lasting Vogue”:

Athorism is enjoying a certain vogue right now.  Can there be a productive conversation between Valhallans and athorists?  Naïve literalists apart, sophisticated thoreologians long ago ceased believing in the material substance of Thor’s mighty hammer.  But the spiritual essence of hammeriness remains a thunderingly enlightened revelation, and hammerological faith retains its special place in the eschatology of neo-Valhallism, while enjoying a productive conversation with the scientific theory of thunder in its non-overlapping magisterium.  Militant athorists are their own worst enemy.  Ignorant of the finer points of thoreology, they really should desist from their strident and intolerant strawmandering, and treat Thor-faith with the uniquely protected respect it has always received in the past.  In any case, they are doomed to failure.  People need Thor, and nothing will ever remove him from the culture.  What are you going to put in his place?

Richard Dawkins, “The Emptiness of Theology”:

What has theology ever said that is of the smallest use to anybody?  When has theology ever said anything that is demonstrably true and is not obvious?  I have listened to theologians, read them, debated against them.  I have never heard any of them ever say anything of the smallest use, anything that was not either platitudinously obvious or downright false.  If all the achievements of scientists were wiped out tomorrow, there would be no doctors but witch doctors, no transport faster than horses, no computers, no printed books, no agriculture beyond subsistence peasant farming.  If all the achievements of theologians were wiped out tomorrow, would anyone notice the smallest difference?  Even the bad achievements of scientists, the bombs, and sonar-guided whaling vessels work!  The achievements of theologians don’t do anything, don’t affect anything, don’t mean anything.  What makes anyone think that “theology” is a subject at all?

P Z Myer’s, “The Courtier’s Reply”:

I have considered the impudent accusations of Mr Dawkins with exasperation at his lack of serious scholarship.  He has apparently not read the detailed discourses of Count Roderigo of Seville on the exquisite and exotic leathers of the Emperor’s boots, nor does he give a moment’s consideration to Bellini’s masterwork, On the Luminescence of the Emperor’s Feathered Hat.  We have entire schools dedicated to writing learned treatises on the beauty of the Emperor’s raiment, and every major newspaper runs a section dedicated to imperial fashion; Dawkins cavalierly dismisses them all.  He even laughs at the highly popular and most persuasive arguments of his fellow countryman, Lord D T Mawkscribbler, who famously pointed out that the Emperor would not wear common cotton, nor uncomfortable polyester, but must, I say must, wear undergarments of the finest silk.

Dawkins arrogantly ignores all these deep philosophical ponderings to crudely accuse the Emperor of nudity.

Personally, I suspect that perhaps the Emperor might not be fully clothed – how else to explain the apparent sloth of the staff at the palace laundry – but, well, everyone else does seem to go on about his clothes, and this Dawkins fellow is such a rude upstart who lacks the wit of my elegant circumlocutions, that, while unable to deal with the substance of his accusations, I should at least chide him for his very bad form.

Until Dawkins has trained in the shops of Paris and Milan, until he has learned to tell the difference between a ruffled flounce and a puffy pantaloon, we should all pretend he has not spoken out against the Emperor’s taste.  His training in biology may give him the ability to recognize dangling genitalia when he sees it, but it has not taught him the proper appreciation of Imaginary Fabrics.

Paula Kirby, “Fleabytes”, (Special Topic: The Bible):

We are all familiar with PZ Myers’ inspired “Courtier’s Reply” to allegations of inadequate understanding of the Bible and theology, but there’s another angle to this issue, too, it seems to me, and that is that Dawkins and other atheists are deliberately refusing to take the Bible at anything more than face value.  At first glance this may seem deliberately obtuse but actually it is all part of stripping away the special treatment that has been accorded to faith in our societies.  We are just no longer prepared to read “Show him no pity.  Do not spare him or shield him.  You must certainly put him to death.  Your hand must be the first in putting him to death, and then the hands of all the people.  Stone him to death because he tried to turn you away from the LORD your God” (Deuteronomy 13: 8-10, NIV) and pretend it means “God is love, God is good, God is moral.”

Likewise, when Dawkins argues that omniscience and omnipotence are mutually exclusive (thus provoking shrieks of indignation and scorn from Robertson in this letter), he is simply refusing to engage in the sort of wordplay and casuistry that allow theologians to twist and turn and claim “Ah yes, well, that’s not really what omnipotence means in this context.”  How many theologians have been kept gainlessly employed, how many trees have been felled, to produce and disseminate such sophistry?  And why should a book that requires such reams of debate, disagreement and interpretation before it can be held to make any sense be considered to be the Word of God, for goodness’ sake?

As a result, you don’t need your words to be interpreted, translated, or otherwise made comprehensible by even one go-between, let alone whole university faculties of them.  You are God, for God’s sake – you are perfect and omniscient and omnipotent.  You have the ability to create a book that will light up the world with its goodness and truth and unmistakably divine insight.  A book that will speak directly to any human being in whatever age they live.  A book that speaks incontrovertibly to the heart and mind of any being that opens it – and here’s the thing: EVEN IF THEIR THEOLOGY IS SHOCKINGLY BAD.

If it is necessary to read the Bible in a certain way, through a certain kind of lens, with a willingness to allow words to mean what they do not mean, and not to mean what they do mean; if it can only be made to be not offensive, not repellent, not meaningless after years of in-depth theological study, then your benevolent, all-powerful and all-knowing God cannot have viewed it as a particularly important way of getting his message across.  In which case, it’s hard to see why “evidence” based on it should be taken very seriously.

To conclude with my own contribution to this issue;reviewing Peter S Williams’ reply to Dawkins & Co., A Sceptic’s Guide To Atheism:

Avoiding the real issues

Williams’ contribution is fatally flawed along with the other “flea” books by self-proclaimed “scholars”, because it only addresses barely a quarter of the arguments of the Four Horsemen, namely whether or not God exists, without saying a word in defence of the effects of organised religion on the world.

Unfortunately, religion is not just about the sophisticated ponderings of scholars in ivory towers debating the finer points of the Trinity.  It has an effect on every single one of us, whether we like it or not.

I could concede every single word of Alvin Plantinga and say that there are good reasons to believe in God and Christianity and Christians are perfectly justified in doing so.  Hell, I could even go the whole nine yards and say that I actually do believe in God!  That I think that the virgin birth and the resurrection are as true as Caesar crossing the Rubicon, Hitler carrying out the Holocaust and Armstrong landing on the moon!

That still does not in any sense allow Christians to force their beliefs on others.  I cannot deny the existence of Joseph Stalin and Kim Jung Il, but at least I am not forced to obey them.  Even if the Christian doctrine was true, even if the evidence for it was much better, what right would that give Christians to force their beliefs on others?  Exactly the same right as liberals, conservatives and fascists: none whatsoever.

Although the theologians are called to defend religion at the debater’s lectern, ironically, they are not the people with whom I have my main quarrel.  If the theologians ran religion, it would be a far more benign entity and one that perhaps I could live with happily.  It’s not so much belief in ancient myths and fairy tales that angers me; it is the severely negative consequences that these unfounded beliefs have on the world.

If someone wants to believe in the Bible and live according to the teaching of Christianity I can’t stop that.  If they want to encourage other people to share in these beliefs, then I suppose I can’t stop that either.   What I do resent is the effects such unfounded beliefs have and their utter lack of negotiability.  If stopping the effects of religion means cutting it off at the roots and spoiling believers’ blissful ignorance and indulgence in ancient fairytales, then so be it.

Like all theology and religious philosophising, Williams’ new book is all theory and precious little practice.  Accordingly, there is nothing about the foul rantings of Falwell and Robertson, the teaching of junk-science in schools classrooms, the destruction of the Twin Towers, the abuse of children by hell-fire preaching clergymen and the discouraging of condom use by the Catholic Church in sub-Saharan African where c. 3 million people die of HIV/AIDS each year.

The simple fact is that Williams’ subtle brand of nuanced religion has very little impact on the way that religion is actually practised.  Alistair McGrath got his feathers all ruffled in response to Dawkins and bleated on (at probably more speaking engagements than he was invited to in his career preceding publication of The God Delusion) about the importance of challenging those who take an overly literalist approach to the scriptures.

Yet when, in July 2007, the Bishop of Carlisle informed us all that the floods in Northern Yorkshire were divine retribution for laws permitting homosexual marriage did McGrath say a word in public to admonish the Right Reverend Graham Dow for his unsophisticated take on matters?  Like hell he did!

That is all.

David Robertson on modern day Christian martyrs

18/11/2013

“Dead Martyrs” by Manic Street Preachers

Pastor David Robertson of St Peter’s Free Church in Dundee and founding member of SOLAS – The Centre For Public Christianity, my old rival from my days debating on Premier Christian Radio’s Unbelievable? and their now alas deleted online forum has set up a new blog: theweeflea.  Robertson recently decried the lack of mainstream media coverage over the deaths of 81 Christians in Pakistan at the hands of Islamist suicide bombers in September of this year.

I’ll begin by conceding one of Robertson’s points.  The Pakistan bombing could have and maybe should have received the same level of attention from this country’s media and government that the Kenya shopping mall bombing did.  Perhaps the latter was considered more “televisual” by media editors.  I’m sure there are many parents of missing and murdered children who are aggrieved that the media coverage of their torments is dwarfed by the attention piled on Madeline McCann.  In this respect, we can more or less swallow Robertson’s post whole.

However, Robertson’s piece unwittingly reveals a deeper motive of his apologetic.  One of the categories it is filed under on his blog is called “The Persecuted Church” and during our debates on Unbelievable? in 2009, Robertson made out the Christian beliefs were coming under disproportionately harsh attack by “militant atheists” and “atheist fundamentalists”.  I am reminded of Paula Kirby’s excellent review of four of the “flea” responses to Richard Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion (which includes Robertson’s The Dawkins Letters), “Fleabytes”.  Kirby addresses the topic of Christian paranoia in detail:

It is simply impossible to read these four books back-to-back and not be struck by the extraordinary degree of paranoia that is apparent in them.  Their authors seem determined to see themselves as persecuted and to predict worse persecutions in the future.  And this characteristic is not limited to the “fleas”: only recently one of the more evangelical Christians on this site declared his conviction that he would face imprisonment for his Christian beliefs in his lifetime.  Since, whatever these fears are based on, it’s not the actual content of TGD or the intentions of any atheist I know of, where do they come from and why have they taken such a hold of believers’ brains?

I would argue that it is pure wishful thinking.  This may sound unlikely: why should anyone wish to be persecuted?  But when we recall the persecution that the early Christians did suffer — incarceration, public floggings, other forms of torture, being ripped apart by lions or slowly roasted over hot coals (and bearing in mind that history teems with examples of Christians inflicting similar torments on others whose beliefs did not take precisely the approved form) — it becomes apparent that the mockery and candid scepticism that is the worst they face in Western societies today are a feeble trial indeed.  Would-be disciples in the 21st century can be forgiven for feeling slightly inadequate when compared with their more heroic predecessors.

It is not just the Koran that welcomes martyrs: the Bible, too, makes it clear that being persecuted is part of the job description for any serious Christian.  Consider these quotes:

“Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.  Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5: 10-12)

(…)

A Christian’s instructions are clear.  Suffer for your faith!  Be persecuted!  If you’re not being persecuted, you’re just not trying hard enough!  But oh dear: how hard that is when they are surrounded by people who tolerate their belief, even if they don’t actually approve of it.  There is only one solution, and that is to make the very moderate criticism that they’re subjected to sound like the most vicious of persecution.  Write of the desire to ban religion, to wipe it out, annihilate it, exterminate it.  Claim that those who practise it will be imprisoned, disenfranchised, physically assaulted.  That their children will be forcibly removed from them.  Recreate the horrors of the Holocaust and the gulags in believers’ imaginations.

How else, in a liberal democracy, are they to stand any chance of claiming the rewards of the persecuted?

Kirby’s analysis strikes at the heart of the religious persecution dilemma.  On the one hand, Christians are being persecuted for their beliefs ranging from moderate criticism via the written and spoken word to the extreme religious conflict like that seen in Pakistan.  But on the other hand, persecution is very much part of their agenda.  Their founder was allegedly publicly executed for his beliefs and the Church has always taught that many of his followers died for their faith in the following years (even though the Bible doesn’t mention what happened to the 12 apostles!).  At the end of the 20th Century, the Church of England positively celebrated the sacrifice made by martyrs to the cause with the unveiling of ten statues in the stones of Westminster Abbey.

Therefore, persecution and martyrdom is very much part of the Christian religion and makes it all the more sickeningly masochistic for it, as both Kirby’s analysis and the Manic Street Preachers’ song I posted at the head of this piece demonstrates.

Robertson has argued elsewhere on his blog that the existence of evil and suffering in the World is all part of God’s plan.  If we take this appalling “theodicy” to its natural conclusion then in a similar way to theists arguing that atheists have no basis to judge any action as “right” or “wrong” because there is no cosmic outcome beyond the grave; equally the atheist could argue that the theist has no basis for saying that an action is morally right or wrong since those murderous religious persecutors were ultimately instruments for God’s will in testing their Christian victims’ faith, conducting Job-like trials and sending them to a martyrs death where they will experience everlasting bliss beyond the grave!

I have not seen Robertson reproduce this claim directly on his newest blog, but all over the Internet you will read the “statistic” that 100,000 Christians die for their faith ever year.  However, as this article by the BBC’s Ruth Alexander neatly demonstrates, this figure is at best a massaging of the figures and at worst an exaggeration.  Many of the Christians dying in the World every year are actually victims of other Christians in the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DCR), which has claimed the lives of in excess of four million from 2000 to 2010:

This means we can say right away that the internet rumours of Muslims being behind the killing of 100,000 Christian martyrs are nonsense.  The DRC is a Christian country.  In the civil war, Christians were killing Christians.

For the record, I disagree with the following paragraphs in Alexander’s article that religion had no part to play in the Rwandan genocide.  Religion was an essential factor in the mass murder of civilian non-combatants as the post-war genocide trials featuring the prosecution of priests and nuns amply demonstrates.

The remainder of the issue actually speaks to the atheist’s side of the argument.  Conflict, persecution and balkanisation of communities along religious lines are very much part of our case against God.  Who is carrying out the persecutions?  Secular humanists?  Godless Marxists?  No, they are Islamic fundamentalists!  This is not so much a case of Christian persecution as it is religious conflict.

Robertson continually barks on about “militant atheism” and “atheist fundamentalism”.  Yet if this charge is to stick, I challenge him to name a war that is currently being fought by atheists/secularists/humanists in the name of their non-belief in his invisible deity and/or their love of reason, honest debate and scientific scepticism or a non-believing terrorist movement whose adherents are blowing themselves and innocent members of the public to smithereens for the promise of an eternal reward.  In his post, he admits that the Islamist suicide bombers belief that they are acting under God’s instructions.  Yet as Sam Harris stated in his debate on morality against Christian apologist William Lane Craig (who Robertson clearly thinks very highly of):

Just think about the Muslims at this moment who are blowing themselves up, convinced that they are agents of God’s will.  There is absolutely nothing that Dr Craig can say against their behaviour, in moral terms, apart from his own faith-based claim that they’re praying to the wrong God.  If they had the right God, what they were doing would be good, on Divine Command theory.

This is a system of morality that is nothing short of psychotic and not for the first time, Robertson’s apologetics has fallen down like a house of cards once a step is taken outside his own personal echo chamber.

David Robertson’s Fleabytes: On Science and Faith

13/11/2010

manicstreetpreacher is back.  Yeah, baby!

Hello again the blogosphere!  It has been a good few months since my last post ruminating on my blogging burnout, but the manicstreetpreacher has psychologically recovered more or less and the iconoclastic fire is beginning to burn again in his soul.

I have been tempted to blog on a number of topics in my time away, but after 119 posts and innumerable hours on other blogs and debate forums, I was beginning run out of topics to write about and nothing was exciting me anymore.  However, one area that has escaped my net thus far is the question of religious education of children.  With this post, I kill two birds with one stone by blogging on a previously untouched topic and taking a pop at an old adversary.

Pastor David Robertson of St Peter’s Free Church of Scotland, Dundee is an ardent opponent of the New Atheism and author of The Dawkins Letters: Challenging Atheist Myths, a Christian response to Richard Dawkins’ 2006 anti-religious polemic, The God Delusion.

After hearing his first two appearances on Premier Christian Radio’s sceptics’ debate show, Unbelievable? I penned a vitriolic open letter and had an exchange of emails that turned from rather angry to really quite civilised before finally debating him in September 2009 on the show on religious debate online and whether Europe should be atheist or Christian along with Christian convert, Richard Morgan.

During my sabbatical I have been following Robertson’s own blog and in particular his “Fleabytes” series of YouTube videos in reply to Dawkins’ Channel 4 series, Root of All Evil? (Google Video links: Part I / Part II).

I registered for a user account with the St Peter’s Church website under my usual Internet moniker so that I could post replies to these videos, but my application was not approved.  I was not provided with an explanation, despite emailing the site’s administrator, copying in Robertson himself to that email.

Since I have not been allowed to post on Robertson’s website directly, below is a copy of the reply I had intended to post:

Dear David

I have been watching these instalments with fascination.  If you really believe that Christian faith is based on evidence and – as you state quite categorically in your book – the moment that evidence is disproved you will cease to believe, then I take it you must teach the young members of your congregation to think about the things that ought to make them stop believing in Christianity.

Some religious people claim that trust in science and particular Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is as much a faith claim as belief in a personal creator God.  I must point out to you that science is self-validating and scientists are constantly striving to prove each other wrong, and even themselves wrong.  Stephen Hawking jokes that he became famous for proving that the universe and space time began with a singularity known as the “Big Bang” and then he became famous again for proving that the universe and space time didn’t begin with the Big Bang.

While I appreciate that you “don’t know and don’t care” about the scientific truth of evolution (while still ridiculing Richard Dawkins’ main argument in The God Delusion as amounting to nothing more than “evolution is true, therefore God does not exist” and asserting that Darwin’s idea of “favoured races” inspired Hitler’s eugenics and Stalin’s atrocities with the other side of your face), Darwin in fact dedicated an entire chapter in The Origins of Species discussing the potential problems with his theory and stated in no uncertain terms what would be required to disprove it:

If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed, which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down. But I can find out no such case.

As you can see, Darwin is explicating laying down the gauntlet to his opponents and saying “Come and have a go if you think you’re smart enough”, and even providing them with the weapons to defeat him.  Over 150 years later, no one has managed to do so.

Continuing is this vein of self-scrutiny and the constant quest for falsification, I expect you provide the children in your congregation with the tools to examine critically their Christian faith.  For example, they ought to consider whether:

  1. an all-good, all-loving God would be so intent on remaining hidden from his treasured creations.  After all, it has been said that the invisible and the non-existent look very similar.
  2. there is any more evidence to support the Gospels’ account of Christ’s resurrection than Almighty Zeus sending his only begotten son Perseus to Earth to wield his big, strong weapon to slay Medusa and rid humanity of the Kraken.  If you can’t believe what you saw this morning on a bastion of daily journalism such as Sky News, how can you accept something that was written two-three thousand years ago by people who were primitive by our standards, decades after the events they purport to describe and copied and recopied by scribes who were careless or grinding their own theological axes?
  3. all New Testament scholars see the basic Gospel narratives as an accurate depiction of history.  For example, Robin Lane Fox’s The Unauthorized Version describes Luke’s nativity as “historically impossible and internally incoherent”, particularly in relation to the apparent fabrication of a Roman census that had the onerous requirement for the population to return to their town of origin.
  4. the miracles of Jesus reported in a two thousand year old text are any more believable than those allegedly performed by today’s charlatan gurus and mystics that are testified as authentic by thousands upon thousands of devoted followers – including many Western educated people – and available to view on the modern miracle of YouTube.
  5. there is any evidence outside the text to confirm the events of the Old Testament, in particular the Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt.  Biblical “maximalists” such as James Hoffmeier and Kenneth Kitchen are satisfied that the  stories of Moses and Joshua are historically accurate, however, “minimalists” such Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman have declared that there is no corroborating evidence whatsoever for these stories and have consigned them to the same mythical status as Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.  How come we do not see such disagreements in relation to other historical characters such as Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan?
  6. double-blind controlled experiments on the effectiveness of intercessory prayer show that Christian prayers have an objectively higher success rate than those of other religions.
  7. one child being plucked from the sea following a plane crash that killed 153 really constitutes a divine miracle as the girl’s family claimed.
  8. if there is a divine link between morality and metrology, as the then Bishop of Carlisle pronounced in July 2007 blaming the recent floods in Northern Yorkshire on gay marriage, then why don’t we see a few more tidal waves crashing down the centre of Manchester’s Canal Street during Pride?
  9. regardless of whether the resurrection is an historical fact, the Pope is morally right to go to sub-Saharan Africa, where 2 – 3 million people die of HIV/AIDS in any one year and actually say words to the effect, “AIDS might be bad, but condoms might be worse”.
  10. they ought to view programmes like Root of All Evil? and read books like The God Delusion for themselves without any prior input from your good self, their religious parents or school teachers.

Please understand that I am not claiming that I hold the correct view on any of these issues; I am merely advocating them as food for thought for you and your flock.  I therefore look forward to the fly-on-wall episode showing one of your Sunday school classes discussing these very points.

With best wishes for Christmas and 2011 to you, your family and your congregation

manicstreetpreacher

Jihadist walks free after ‘Islam will dominate…’ and ‘Kill Gordon Brown’ graffiti on war memorial ruled not hate speech

02/05/2010

Now this is religion getting a “free lunch”, David Robertson.

Further to my recent post on 59-year-old Harry Taylor receiving a 6 month suspended jail sentence, 100 hours unpaid work and ordered to pay £250 in legal costs for leaving “offensive” and “obscene” religious images in the multi-faith room at Liverpool John Lennon Airport, I am appalled to read this story in The Daily Mail:

A Muslim protester who daubed a war memorial with graffiti glorifying Osama Bin Laden and proclaiming ‘Islam will dominate the world’ walked free from court after prosecutors ruled his actions were not motivated by religion.

Tohseef Shah, 21, could have faced a tougher sentence if the court had accepted that the insults – which included a threat to kill the Prime Minister – were inspired by religious hatred.

But – citing a loophole in the law – the Crown Prosecution Service chose not to charge him with that offence and he escaped with only a two-year conditional discharge and an order to pay the council £500 compensation after admitting causing criminal damage.

Yesterday the decision was attacked by politicians and veterans who were shocked by the desecration of the memorial in Burton-upon-Trent, Staffordshire…

Shah sprayed the words ‘Islam will dominate the world – Osama is on his way’ and ‘Kill Gordon Brown’ on the plinth of the memorial in December.

He was arrested after his DNA was found on the discarded spray-can but refused to give an explanation for his actions or show any remorse, a court heard.

The story has also been posted on website of The Freethinker.

What really beggars belief is that the Counter Terrorism Division of the Crown Prosecution Service in London decided that the incident was not racially or religiously motivated saying, “While it was appreciated that what was sprayed on the memorial may have been perceived by some to be part of a racial or religious incident, no racial or religious group can be shown to have been targeted.”

Does not all 4.5 billion non-Muslims in the world today not count as a racial and / or religiously defined group?

Shah, who reportedly lives with his parents in a £200,000 detached house, has a picture of a flaming lion’s head superimposed on crossed Kalashnikov rifles on his Facebook profile.

This latest legal debacle angers me in particular since during my first debate Premier Christian Radio’s Unbelievable?, against Scottish Presbyterian Pastor David Robertson, author of The Dawkins Letters, a “flea” response to The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, scoffed that I was “living in a fantasy world” for claiming that the New Atheists were attempting to break the taboo of criticising religion our in social discourse, which I remarked had been receiving “a free lunch”.

Following his most recent appearance on Unbelievable?, Robertson is now pushing the myth on Premier Christian Community’s online debate forum that Joseph Stalin was converted to atheism after reading Charles Darwin’s On The Origin of The Species and it influenced his brutal politics, despite being corrected on an earlier occasion by yours truly that the Russian dictator rejected Darwinism in favour of Lamarckism that lead to Lysenko’s insane “miraculous” agricultural programme which was responsible for the starvation of millions.

Robertson is also insisting that evolution leads to immorality, refusing to accept that the human species’ survival depends on co-operation and altruism even though his answer was “I don’t know and I don’t care” when I asked him whether he actually believed in the scientific truth of evolution during our second debate.

After comparing my report on the heavy-handed treatment of atheist Harry Taylor – who never threatened anyone with violence – with this latest episode of religious beliefs receiving special treatment, I hope Robertson will revise his views.  But then again, I think that our good Pastor has a preconceived notion of the World and picks and chooses arguments, facts and authorities to back that up while ignoring a wealth of contradictory evidence and even contradicting his own reasoning.

As with his preconception of Darwinism being inherently immoral, it is part of Robertson’s worldview that Christians are persecuted for their faith.  In a similar way that the pseudo-fact of Jesus’ disciples dying for their faith, this is held out as evidence for the truth of doctrine.  And no evidence or argument is going to change his mind any time soon.

Bishop John Shelby Spong debates William Lane Craig on the resurrection

27/03/2010

manicstreetpreacher applauds the world’s greatest atheist Christian.

This will be a quickie, I promise.  I first listened to Bishop John Shelby “Jack” Spong on Premier Christian Radio’s Unbelievable? at the end of last year.  He was a breath of fresh air, a joy to hear.  If only all believers were like him.  And since he upset Scottish Presbyterian Calvinist (!) pastor and author of The Dawkins Letters, David Robertson, when DJ Justin Brierley read out the listeners’ reactions on a subsequent show, he must be doing something right.

Spong’s Palm Sunday 2005 debate on the resurrection of Jesus against Christian apologist, William Lane Craig, is well worth watching or hearing.  Not in the sense that Spong “wins” the debate against Craig.  But because he rises above Craig’s petty attempts to rationalise his fairy tale and explains the philosophy of being an atheist Christian.

Although credit is very much due for exposing Craig’s dishonest reliance on authorities who are in fact at opposite ends of New Testament scholarship spectrum, the real treat is Spong recounting a story from his friend, the late, great astronomer, Carl Sagan, who pointed out that if Jesus left the Earth at the speed of light on his ascension to heaven, 2,000 years later he still would not have left our Milky Way galaxy!

I’ll leave it there.  Just download and enjoy.

Audio / Video

Richard Dawkins and A C Grayling Debate Atheist Fundamentalism Against the Sweet Mediocrity of Our Native Church

22/11/2009

manicstreetpreacher wets the appetite for his next live debate on religion.

UPDATE 03/12/2009: My afterthought piece of the debate, with video and audio links is here.

Having just about recovered from the other-worldly experience of witnessing Hitchens and Fry exact retribution on a biblical scale against the Catholic Church in London at the end of last month, I am geared up to attend my next live debate.

This time, two of Britain’s finest atheist writers, zoologist Richard Dawkins of Oxford University and philosopher A C Grayling of Birkbeck College, University of London go head-to-head against former Anglican Bishop of Oxford, Richard Harries, and former editor of The Daily Telegraph and The Spectator Charles Moore to debate the topic “Is Atheism the New Fundamentalism?” The moderator is Dr Antony Seldon, Master of Wellington College.

The debate is being held at on Sunday, 29 November 2009.   The doors open 6pm and the debate starts at 7pm.

Once again, Intelligence Squared is hosting the debate.

The venue is Wellington College, Berkshire:

Wellington College
Duke’s Ride
Crowthorne
Berkshire
RG45 7PU

Tel: 01344 444 000
Fax: 01344 444 002

Email: info@wellingtoncollege.org.uk
Web: www.wellingtoncollege.org.uk
Event page: http://www.wellingtoncollege.org.uk/page.aspx?id=8686

Previous form

Richard Dawkins needs no introduction!  However, this is a rare public debate for him.  Dawkins writes in The God Delusion that he rarely takes part in formal debates because he is not a confrontational person and feels that the adversary format is ill-suited to discover the truth.  Dawkins also refuses to debate creationists because if one of them shared a platform with a prominent evolutionary biologist, it would give the lay pubic the impression that there was a serious issue worth debating!  For the creationists, winning or losing the debate is irrelevant: the victory is that the debate has gone ahead at all.  Dawkins has no desire to provide them with the oxygen of publicity.

However, there are still plenty of debates Dawkins has participated in that are worth investigating.

Dawkins and Grayling teamed up with the Hitch to debate against – as Dawkins later put it – three “rather half-hearted religious apologists (‘Of course I don’t believe in a God with a long white beard, but…’)” on whether “We would all be better off without religion”, the audio of which can be accessed here, or on YouTube:

You can read a review of the event by a pleasantly-surprised believing journalist, Ruth Gledhill, The Times’ religious affairs correspondent here.

Incidentally, Charles Moore, who is standing up for God on this occasion, wrote of that debate:

Although I voted against the motion both times, I think the shift of votes was justified, on the basis of the speeches.  All six spoke well, but the opponents of religion were more eloquent, more passionate, more – odd though it sounds to say it – believing.

The last big debate Dawkins took part in was on 21 October 2008 at the Oxford University Museum of natural history against Oxford University mathematician and Christian John Lennox.  The audio of the debate can be accessed at RichardDawkins.net here.

Dawkins and Lennox also had a closed-door conversation on religion and science earlier in the year with only a tape recorder present, the audio for which can be accessed here.  As American biologist and blogwit, P Z Myers concluded:

Dawkins just probes with a few pointed questions, and Lennox, a theologian, babbles on and on and on, asserting the most amazing things.  All those miracles in the bible?  They literally happened – he doesn’t hide behind metaphor and poetry.  Water into wine, resurrections, walking on water… it all actually happened, exactly as written, and further, he claims that all of these accounts represent historically valid evidence.  This is the sophisticated theology we godless atheists are always skipping over, I guess.

Dawkins’ debate with then head of the Human Genome Project and evangelical Christian for the pages of Time magazine in 2006 is worth a read:

DAWKINS: I accept that there may be things far grander and more incomprehensible than we can possibly imagine.  What I can’t understand is why you invoke improbability and yet you will not admit that you’re shooting yourself in the foot by postulating something just as improbable, magicking into existence the word God.

COLLINS: My God is not improbable to me.  He has no need of a creation story for himself or to be fine-tuned by something else. God is the answer to all of those “How must it have come to be” questions.

DAWKINS: I think that’s the mother and father of all cop-outs.  It’s an honest scientific quest to discover where this apparent improbability comes from.  Now Dr Collins says, “Well, God did it. And God needs no explanation because God is outside all this.”  Well, what an incredible evasion of the responsibility to explain. Scientists don’t do that.  Scientists say, “We’re working on it. We’re struggling to understand.”

Dawkins and Richard Harries had a very civilised discussion for Dawkins’ 2006 Channel 4 documentary, Root of All Evil? (Part 1 / Part 2).  The full uncut interview can be viewed below:

They also debated Darwin and Christianity at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History on Darwin Day 2009:

And let’s not forget that Dawkins and Harries both signed an open letter to the then Prime Minister Tony Blair to protest against the head of new-fangled city academy Emmanuel College, Gateshead, after the head of the science department (!), Stephen Layfield delivered a lecture proposing that young earth creationism and flood geology be taught in science classes:

Dear Prime Minister

We write as a group of scientists and Bishops to express our concern about the teaching of science in the Emmanuel City Technology College in Gateshead.  Evolution is a scientific theory of great explanatory power, able to account for a wide range of phenomena in a number of disciplines.  It can be refined, confirmed and even radically altered by attention to evidence.  It is not, as spokesmen for the college maintain, a ‘faith position’ in the same category as the biblical account of creation which has a different function and purpose.

The issue goes wider than what is currently being taught in one college.  There is a growing anxiety about what will be taught and how it will be taught in the new generation of proposed faith schools.  We believe that the curricula in such schools, as well as that of Emmanuel City Technical College, need to be strictly monitored in order that the respective disciplines of science and religious studies are properly respected.

Yours sincerely

The Right Reverend Richard Harries, Bishop of Oxford
Sir David Attenborough, FRS
The Right Reverend Christopher Herbert, Bishop of St Albans
Lord May of Oxford, President of the Royal Society
Professor John Enderby, FRS, Physical Secretary, Royal Society
The Right Reverend John Oliver, Bishop of Hereford
The Right Reverend Mark Santer, Bishop of Birmingham
Sir Neil Chalmers, Director, Natural History Museum
The Right Reverend Thomas Butler, Bishop of Southwark
Sir Martin Rees, FRS, Astronomer Royal
The Right Reverend Kenneth Stevenson, Bishop of Portsmouth
Professor Patrick Bateson, FRS, Biological Secretary, Royal Society
The Right Reverend Crispian Hollis, Roman Catholic Bishop of Portsmouth
Sir Richard Southwood, FRS, Past Biological Secretary, Royal Society
Sir Francis Graham-Smith, FRS, Past Physical Secretary, Royal Society
Professor Richard Dawkins, FRS

Aside from that, Dawkins had a public discussion at The Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival in 2007 with Anglican theologian Alistair McGrath following the publication of The God Delusion and McGrath’s reply (if that’s the right word for it), The Dawkins Delusion? (McGrath’s effort is terrible, even by the low standards of the “fleas”.  Paula Kirby does the book justice in her “Fleabytes” review of four Christian responses to The God Delusion.)

However, the real treat is Dawkins’ full uncut interview with McGrath for Root of All Evil?

None of the footage was used in the final version of the programme.  McGrath claimed it was because he had landed several blows on Dawkins and made him “appear uncomfortable”.  My theory is that the producers were concerned for the well-being of viewers who might be operating heavy machinery while watching it.  McGrath is horrendously boring and babbles incomprehensibly.  One blogger at RD.net summed up his style thus:

A fly on the wall in the McGrath household:

MRS McGRATH: What would you like for dinner, dear?

MR McGRATH: Well, if I can just come back on that actually, I think you’ve raised a very interesting point, pivotal to the way this discussion should continue.  This is certainly something that needs to be engaged with and explored further.  It seems to me that there are areas we can push into here that can challenge us and I welcome that.  When I was an atheist, these on-going philosophical subjects were subject to different interpretations and perspectives so, suffice to say, the Christian faith has fortified me and others to take all of these very very very interesting points into account and offer an explanation such as this: Egg and chips will be fine, love.

MRS McGRATH: I’m leaving you.

Nevertheless, try and stay awake because Dawkins uses his wonderful brand of pithy sarcasm, to which McGrath is seemingly oblivious.  And the knock-out punch comes at 45 minutes when Dawkins nails him whether God intervened to save one child in a tsunami that claimed the lives of thousands.  As one blogger commenting on the interview’s entry on RD.net put it:

For 45 minutes it’s a gentle game of ping pong and then when it comes to the issue god and suffering McGrath’s arms get tired and Dawkins switches to a tennis racket.  At 50 minutes McGrath is undone.

Magic!

A C Grayling is a slightly less-known quantity to me.  I have read a few of his books and seen some of his debates and lectures and can recommend the following to whet your appetites.

Against All Gods is Grayling’s contribution to the New Atheism.  It is brief – more of a pamphlet than a book – but there are some real gems in it.  Of particular interest to the topic at hand is Grayling’s rubbishing the concept of “atheist fundamentalism” by asking what a non-fundamentalist atheist is: someone who sort of doesn’t, but not quite not believes in God?!  Grayling also predicts that far from seeing a resurgence of religion, we are actually witnessing its death-throes; a violent convulsion before it’s gone for good.

Grayling is a champion of the enlightenment and wrote Towards the Light in celebration of rationalism’s conquest over dogma.  Be sure to read his hilarious exchanges with wedge-driving ID hack from the ironically-named Discovery Institute, Steve Fuller over Grayling’s damning review of Fuller’s Dissent Over DescentGrayling’s reply to Fuller’s indignant response to his review contained this all-time classic which I have quoted myself on at least one occasion:

Steve Fuller complains, as do all authors whose books are panned, that I did not read his book properly (or at all).  Alas, I did.

Grayling’s appearance at Beyond Belief 2008 on Human Flourishing and Eudaimonics is also worth watching:

Although it has nothing to do with religion, Grayling’s discussion with Christopher Hitchens on the moral implication of the Allies’ devastating bombing campaign against civilians of the Axis powers during World War II at the Goethe-Institut, Washington in 2006 following the publication of Grayling’s Among The Dead Cities is a real treat.   It’s on YouTube in 11 parts or you can watch it on FORA.tv and C-Span.

Predictions for this one

Unlike the rhetorical slaughter by Hitchens and Fry of the Vatican, which I predicted in advance of the actual event, I feel that this one will be too close to call.  Probably both sides will come away claiming victory.  Dawkins and Grayling are far more cordial and polite in comparison to Hitchens’ bull-in-a-china-shop/ take-no-prisoners approach at the lectern.

However, I hope that the two heretics will push the point that atheists are offended by what they read in the holy books of the world’s religions and how this is put into practice all too literally by millions of believers the world over, whether it be  indoctrinating their children into thinking that their non-Catholic/Protestant/Muslim/Jewish [delete as applicable] friends will suffer an eternity in hellfire, to ploughing millions dollars every year into spreading creationism – money that would be far better spent on potentially life-saving scientific research – or flying aeroplanes into skyscrapers.

I know what these books say because I’ve read them.  Why should we respect the utterly ridiculous claim that they could only have been authored by an omnipotent deity?  Why shouldn’t we get angry when such ideas are granted special privilege in public discourse?

The idea that we must automatically “respect” other people’s ideas is complete nonsense.  It is a special favour granted only to religious faith.  In every other area of conversation we most certainly do not respect people’s views and opinions.  If one member of the panel wanted to promulgate their honest, sincere, faith-based claim that the Holocaust never happened, that National Socialism was the only proper form of government, or even something less sinister such as Elvis was still alive, is that a view that the audience would “respect”?  Of course not!

In every other conversational topic we demand good reasons.  We demand evidence.  Reason and evidence really are contagious.  If you give good reasons, people will accept your claims as they accept the colour of your hair.  Religious faith is a reason not to give reasons.  It is a conversation stopper.  Even if the New Atheists are completely wrong about the existence of God and the negative effects of religion upon society, they have at the very least helped moved religious faith into the same sphere.

Perhaps into ten years time whenever someone opens their mouth or puts pen to paper in criticism of religion, this will be accepted as if they had criticised a political ideology as opposed the hysterical responses of the present day where theists and atheists alike rush to publish books and articles denouncing the “shrillness” and “stridency” of those brave few who dare speak out.

At the very least, I hope I get the chance to thank Dawkins for his very kind comment that I was “most certainly not boring” during my appearance on Premier’s Christian Radio’s religious sceptics’ debate show Unbelievable? with author of The Dawkins Letters (another “flea” response to The God Delusion), Pastor David Robertson and former-atheist-converted-to-Christianity, Richard Morgan.

It’s on YouTube in 11 parts or you can watch it on FORA.tv and C-Span.

Podcast Interview for Skepticule

22/10/2009

by

manicstreetpreacher

Skepticule

The clue is in the title.

Just a quickie this time to post the podcast of an interview I did for the blog, Skepticule.

I recorded it over Skype with Paul S Jenkins, who runs the blog, Notes from an Evil Burnee (because he’ll surely roast in hell), and who has posted some superb comments on my blog in recent weeks.

It lasts for about 20 minutes and we discuss my journey from passive agnostic to passionate atheist debating on Premier Christian Radio’s Unbelievable?, my live debates at Liverpool University and my online blogging and debating.

PaulSJenkins

Further reading

Hitchens and Fry versus the Catholic Church: Post Mortem – manicstreetpreacher witnesses first-hand a rhetorical massacre of Vatican hench(wo)men by the cream of British intellectualism.

Merseyside Skeptics Society Lecture on Paranormal Experiences – 17/09/2009 – manicstreetpreacher learns about how the truth is not out there…  it’s up here.

Debates with David Robertson and Richard Morgan on Unbelievable? – manicstreetpreacher goes head-to-head with one of the most determined Christian opponents to the New Atheists.

More Than I Could Chew? – manicstreetpreacher licks his wounds after his encounter with a bunch of fundamentalists at Follow My Way, Liverpool University 12 March 2009.  The rest of the panel weren’t too rational either…

An Open Letter to Rabbi Y Y Rubinstein manicstreetpreacher enquires of a former recent debating opponent on a few points.  Such as whether there is any evidence outside the texts themselves for a group of half a million people being dragged around the desert for decades to the only place in the Middle East that has no oil.  And how could the scribes of the King James Version have botched up so badly that Yahweh has been transformed into a moral abomination…

Peter S Williams: Up Close – Part I – manicstreetpreacher’s review of I Wish I Could Believe In Meaning following his live debate with the author at Liverpool University, 19 February 2009.

Peter S Williams: Up Close – Part II – manicstreetpreacher’s review of A Sceptic’s Guide to Atheism following his live debate with the author at Liverpool University, 19 February 2009.

My Debates on Premier Christian Radio Against Theologian Andy Bannister – manicstreetpreacher’s afterthought piece on his first two formal debates on religion in the light of further research and online debate.  Make sure you check out the comments section at the end.  There are some very interesting responses, not least from my “scholarly” opponent himself…

Afterthoughts: David Robertson

19/09/2009

David Robertson

Untitled-3

http://www.stpeters-dundee.org.uk/

manicstreetpreacher reflects on his Premier Christian Radio debates with David Robertson with a few things he wishes he had phrased better or got round to saying at the time.

On 20 July 2009 I recorded two debates with Scottish Presbyterian minister and author of The Dawkins Letters: Challenging Atheist Myths, David Robertson and former-atheist-blogger-now-converted, Richard Morgan, on Premier Christian Radio’s Unbelievable? This should be read in conjunction with my earlier pre-debate piece on Robertson’s book and public speaking, along with our pre-debate correspondence.

The podcast to Show One: Richard Morgan, David Robertson and MSP discuss religious debating online, Unbelievable? Premier Christian Radio, 12 September 2009 can be downloaded here.

The podcast to Show Two: Richard Morgan, David Robertson and MSP discuss the rights and wrongs of Christian and atheist influences on Europe, Unbelievable?, Premier Christian Radio, 19 September 2009 can be downloaded here.

The moderator is Justin Brierley.

David and I have certainly come a long way since my first vitriolic letter to him back in April 2009 after I heard his first two appearances on Unbelievable? Despite a range of debater’s tricks up his sleeve and a few distortions and rather suspect assertions, it was a pleasure debating him.  David is one of the toughest opponents I have come across while being fair and polite.  He is also an unparalleled incentive for improving my debating knowledge and acumen.  So here goes another six thousand words…

Lying for Jesus?

This is the title to an article by Richard Dawkins following the release of the 2008 documentary-film, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, a creationist hatchet-job which attempted to discredit the mainstream scientific community and its rejection of “Intelligent Design Theory” (see ExpelledExposed).   Dawkins, along with several other evolutionary scientists, including Michael Shermer and P Z Myers (who was rather amusingly “expelled” from the film’s premier by the producer!) were conned into giving interviews for what they thought was a film called Crossroads which examined the intersection between science and religion.

Having seen Expelled for myself, I can guarantee that the anger and derision the film has attracted from online atheists is more than justified.  Indeed, it is illustrative of the bogus and disingenuous tactics that apologists routinely employ, of which I have had ample personal experience.

My first two appearances on Unbelievable? in September 2008 were against a supposed “qualified” theologian from one of the country leading theological institutes (which mow seems to me a gross contradiction in terms!).  Partway through our first debate on the historicity of the Gospels, I raised Dawkins’ objections to the historicity of the Roman census in Luke which required the population to travel to the towns of their ancestors to register.  My opponent retorted that Dawkins had “been machine-gunned to wall by scholars of all stripes” since populations were less mobile in those days and they would not have to travel too far to their towns of origin and even that records for such arrangements exist.

One of my friends emailed me after hearing the debate saying that this was complete nonsense, so I checked the relevant passage in The God Delusion which cites historians Robin Lane Fox and A N Wilson in support.  Dawkins didn’t make it up as my antagonist implied.  Here is the passage from Fox’s The Unauthorized Version:

Roman censuses cared little for remote genealogies, let alone false ones: they were based on ownership of property of the living, not the dead.  As the Gospel has already stated at the time of the Annunciation (Luke 1:26), Joseph and Mary were people from Nazareth in Galilee, the home town which later rejected its prophet, Jesus.  A Roman census would not have taken Joseph to Bethlehem where he and Mary owned nothing and were therefore assumed to have needed to lodge as visitors in an inn…

The scale of the Gospel’s error is now clear.  The first census did occur under Quirinius, but it belonged in AD 6 when Herod the Great was long dead; it was a local census in Roman Judea and there was no decree for Caesar Augustus to all the world; in AD 6 Joseph of Nazareth would not have registered in Bethlehem and was exempt from Judea’s registration; his wife had no legal need to leave home.  Luke’s story is historically impossible and internally incoherent.  It clashes with his own date for the Annunciation (which he places under Herod) and with Matthew’s long story of the Nativity which also presupposes Herod the Great as king.  It is, therefore, false.

My only mistake was to drop in the verbal footnote of Dawkins, since clearly this fine theological institution has a team of “scholars” working night and day devising ways of discrediting the Oxford zoologist by whatever underhand methods they like.  Needless to say, the response of the “scholar” in question completely evaded the question when I addressed it on my blog some months later.

I also debated one of the country’s foremost Jewish apologists (allegedly) at Liverpool University in March 2009 who made the completely disingenuous assertion that all references to slavery in the Torah were due to mistranslations in my King James Version (!) and that “slavery has never been part of the Jewish faith.”  Again, I chased him up on my blog after the debate asking whether the warrant to do away with Amalekites was a mistranslation as well, and if so, the rabbis in the Israeli Army, who are to this day solemnly debate whether this commandment is still extant and applicable to the Palestinians, really ought to be informed of such poor scholarship.  The responses were, of course, evasive and unconvincing.

And please don’t get me started on that double-standard touting, hypocrite of a ”scholar” and Unbelievable? stalwart, Jay Smith

So perhaps now the reader can understand why atheists are so exasperated at apologists’ tactics.  I did call David a “liar for Jesus” after hearing him debate The Atheist Blogger, Adrian Hayter, and reading The Dawkins Letters.  I had read Paula Kirby’s “Fleabytes” review of his book before then, but hearing him live seemed to confirm others’ opinions.  I think when someone differs from your own opinion as radically as has – from your perception – neglected a wealth of contradictory evidence and argument, your natural reflex response is to brand them as a liar.   However, David kept coming back at me and countering my charges.  I’m not saying that I am totally convinced by his explanations, particular in regard to his quote from Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, but I have withdrawn all charges of deliberate dishonesty.

David has therefore exonerated himself of charges of lying.  I’m still waiting for proper explanations from the others.

However, I do think it is somewhat hypocritical of David to chastise atheists for prejudging him on Paula Kirby’s review of The Dawkins Letters, when he himself tries to dissuade his readers from actually reading The God Delusion for themselves at the end of his book since “really is as bad as I’ve tried to make out”!

Sex and the Holy City

“I read what the Pope actually said in full and y’ know what…” had a suspicious ring to it (particularly as David didn’t say what Pope Benedict XVI did actually say with regard to condom use in Africa in March 2009), so I scanned the web for a full transcript of the Pope’s comments for myself.

The Pope made his comments on board his official flight to Cameroon on or around 17 March 2009. The Guardian reported His Holiness as saying, “The traditional teaching of the church has proven to be the only failsafe way to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS.”  The Daily Telegraph reported him saying “a tragedy that cannot be overcome by money alone, that cannot be overcome through the distribution of condoms, which even aggravates the problems.”  Even the coverage on The Catholic News Service concurred.

So in other words, Christ’s Vicar on Earth said that “AIDS might be bad, but condoms might be worse.”

The closest I’ve been able to get to a Vatican-approved English transcript was on The Catholic News Agency’s report which replaces “condoms” with “advertising slogans”.  The Daily Telegraph blogger, Damian Thompson (who co-incidentally is also the editor-in-chief of The Catholic Herald), in his piece attempted to defend the pontiff on the grounds that he had been misquoted, although an update to Thompson’s post admitted that the Vatican had “cleaned up” the transcript.   Reuters’ report agrees that the transcript was altered.

If I was in a forgiving mood, I might be tempted to quote George Bernard Shaw’s pithy remark on the subject (“Why should we take advice on sex from the pope?  If he knows anything about it, he shouldn’t!”) and leave matters there.

However, this is no laughing matter when you consider:

1.  More than two-thirds – 67% – of the global total of 32.9 million people with HIV live in sub-Saharan Africa.

2.  Three-quarters of all AIDS deaths in 2007 happened there.

In addition to:

1.  AIDS is now killing 2.7 million people a year, nearly half of them in sub-Saharan Africa, where 1.9 million people contracted the disease in 2007 alone.

2.  No health professionals claim that the distribution of condoms alone is the answer to AIDS.  Education is equally important, and retroviral drugs help where they are available.  But condoms are, of course, a proven and reliable barrier to the virus.

3.  The Roman Catholic Church opposes all forms of contraception (unless you count the rhythm method) on the grounds that sex is only allowed for procreation.

Disinformation

4.  Numerous Catholic authorities have broadcast disinformation about condoms causing AIDS.  Cardinal Trujillo of the Pontifical Council for the Family said the virus is small enough to pass through a condom.

Surely – though some might argue the Pope is a better judge of this than me – this principle could be extended to allow condoms to prevent AIDS.

Brazilian and Croatian bishops have said the same, the former doing so in a mass-produced leaflet.  Archbishop Chimoio of Mozambique has claimed condoms are actually infected with Aids.  The Vatican has never corrected these falsehoods.

It’s never a good sign for the moral or logical rightness of your position that you have to lie to justify it.

One can understand that the Church’s wants to promote chastity while contraceptives allow promiscuity, perhaps even understand its desire to restrict sex within marriage.  But when this means that the wife of a man with Aids is forbidden to use a condom merely to save her life, and when this is multiplied across the worst pandemic in world history, something has gone horribly wrong.

The bishops argue that chastity is more effective than condoms in protecting against AIDS.  Apart from the fact that this ignores all those who have caught AIDS from their spouses, what it amounts to is the argument that if people didn’t have sex they wouldn’t catch AIDS.  Since they are doing, and will continue to do so, that doesn’t help very much.

Principles

One would have more respect for the Vatican’s position is they admitted that they were asking Catholics to sacrifice their lives for their principles. Instead the claim that condoms are useless or worse is winning obedience unto death through deception.

And now the Pope has added his own weight to this campaign of elective ignorance and misinformation.  A bad conscience over this is suggested by the fact that the Vatican’s published transcript changed his words to “risks aggravating the problems”.

The most frustrating thing is that Catholic teaching on contraception is based on the encyclical Humanae Vitae, which, while banning contraception, allows “therapeutic means necessary to cure bodily diseases” which also happen to prevent conception, as long as that isn’t the motive for using them.

This is faith-based stupidity that carries with it potentially genocidal consequences.  It is only due to the automatic respect that is accorded to religion and its institutions – in effect a “free lunch” – means the Vatican can get away with it.

Imagine if the US president, the chief executive officer of a multi-national corporation or a leading celebrity made similar remarks.  Would their career survive?  Of course not.  So why do we make an exception for clergymen?

The God-Shaped Hole

I said it was the French existential philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre who coined this term.  Richard and David said it was Blaise Pascal.  I have to admit that I only heard it was Sartre second-hand from a previous opponent.  After the show I conducted some online research and the matter is far from clear-cut.  The phrase is often attributed to Pascal, who certainly wrote something very similar, but it appears that Sartre coined the term itself.

Consider:

Some religious theists cite Pascal as a philosophical and religious authority who also claimed that there is a “God-shaped vacuum in all of us,” but Pascal never said this.  What Pascal really said was that we all have an innate desire to seek happiness: “All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end.”

See also:

The existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre described modern culture as possessing “a God-shaped hole.” (1)  From what I know of Sartre, I do not think he was speaking spiritually, but rather was describing the setting aside of religious belief by modern society – something he thought of as necessary and ultimately beneficial to humanity.  A few centuries earlier, the French mathematician Blaise Pascal wrote of the God-shaped hole in each of us that we seek to fill with all of the wrong things. (2)

Footnotes

(1) I believe it comes from Sartre’s Being and Nothingness.  I picked it up from Karen Armstrong’s book, A History of God: The 4,000 Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, (New York: Balantine, 1993), 378.

(2) I’ve found many references to Pascal using this phrase, including several collections of quotations.  Usually it goes something like “There is a God-shaped hole in the life of every man…”   I have yet to find it in this exact form in Pensees or other writings by Pascal.  The closest I’ve come across occurs in Pensees X 148: “What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man [sic] a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace?  This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself [sic].”  Blaise Pascal, Pensees, trans A J Krailsheimer (London: Penguin, 1993), 45.

I don’t know about Richard and David, but I’ll stick with Sartre.

Dawkins –v- other atheists

It appears to form a main staple of apologists’ arguments against The God Delusion that the book has come in for so much criticism by other atheist philosophers, not least of whom is Michael Ruse who commented that if Dawkins’ book would fail a beginner’s course in philosophy.  This is was Dawkins would call a classic case of “I’m an atheist BUT…”

Personally, I do not care what anyone else, lay or professional, has said about The God Delusion.  I don’t have a great deal of time for book critics.  Most of the reviews that I am aware of are the result of believers saying, “Look at all the terrible reviews!”  I think it’s a great book, I think it’s brilliantly well-written and argued; more so in fact than the work of David’s atheist hero, John Gray.

What is this: a head-count of opinions?  If The God Delusion is so terrible, why have so many books and articles been written attempting to persuade people of this view?  Albert Einstein’s opponents once complied a pamphlet opposing his theories called 100 Authors Against Einstein.  Upon hearing of this, Einstein memorably replied, “Why 100 authors?  If I were wrong, then one would have been enough!”

Incidentally, the damning review in Prospect magazine of The God Delusion (who had previously voted Dawkins as one of the world’s top three intellectuals) that David cited in the first debate and in his book was penned by one Andrew Brown, a notorious “goddycoddler” who has had the dubious honour of being awarded a Templeton Prize for religious journalism.  For anyone who is vaguely aware of Dawkins, Dennett and Grayling’s opinions on Templeton, this is a dismal endorsement indeed.

Absolute morals

In the second show, I have to come clean and say I stumbled over my words and engaged in the kind of casuistry and evasion that would embarrass a theologian by saying that “I believe in ‘objective morals’ but [did] not like using the term ‘absolute morals’.”  This may seem to be splitting hairs, but I believe there is an important distinction to be made.

David is right that Dawkins writes in The God Delusion that it is difficult to justify absolute morals on anything other than religious grounds, and I agree with Dawkins’ view.  However, Dawkins and I are not moral relativists.  The term I was looking for is consequentialism.

Absolutism means that actions are morally wrong for their own sake without regard to their intended or predicted consequences.  Objectivism has regard to the content of the act itself but also the likely consequences of the act.  In 99.9 per cent of cases we can safely say that acts such as killing, racism and torture are wrong on their own terms.  However, there are some interesting cases where they might be justified and therefore moral.

Sam Harris controversially argues in The End of Faith that torture might be justified in the most exceptional cases.  In a thought experiment that has no bearing whatsoever on the real world, Harris argues that if you know there is a ticking bomb somewhere in a large city that you know is going to kill thousands of people when it goes off and you know you have Osama bin Laden in your custody, it might be justified to use a relatively “mild” form of torture such water-boarding to get him talking.

My views on abortion are typical of my consequentialist views on morality.  I am a supporter of abortion, not because I think abortion is a wonderful thing that we need to encourage more of, but quite simply because the alternative, i.e. no access to abortion, is worse.  While I do not believe that human foetuses can experience pain (at least not until the final stages of pregnancy) or have emotions or memories, I do believe in the concept of the “unborn child”, and that every foetus deserves to have a shot at life.  If I personally was ever landed with an unplanned, I would think very carefully before deciding with my partner to go ahead and have an abortion.

However, denying women access to abortion is a far worse option.  Women are still going to want this procedure and it is better to make it legal safe as opposed to women going to a backstreet abortionist who might harm mother and child without actually carrying out the procedure successfully.  Anyone who has seen the original Michael Caine version of Alfie will know what I’m talking about.

Christopher Hitchens’ gleefully nasty exposé of Mother Teresa, The Missionary Position, puts the abortion question in its proper context:

When Mother Teresa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, few people had the poor taste to ask what she had ever done, or even claimed to do, for the cause of peace.  Her address to the ceremony of investiture did little to resolve any doubt on this score and much to increase it…

“We speak of peace.  These are things that threaten peace.  I think that today is threatened by abortion too, which is a true war, the direct killing of a child by its own mother…  Today, abortion is the worse evil, and the greatest enemy of peace…  We want children, and we love them.  But what about the other millions?  Many are concerned about the children, like those in Africa, who die in great numbers either from hunger or for other reasons.  But millions of children die intentionally, by the will of their mothers.  Because if a mother can kill her own child, what will prevent us from killing ourselves, or one another?  Nothing.”

There is not much necessity to identify the fallacies and distortions which are piled upon one another here.  Few women who have had abortions, even those who feel remorse or regret, will recognise themselves as having committed actual infanticide.  If there are ‘millions’ of children being slain this way, so that they compare to the millions of children dying from malnutrition and pestilence, then there is clearly no hope for Mother Teresa’s adoption solution.  (She claims to have rescued only three or four dozen orphans from entire Bangladesh calamity, for example).  Moreover, these impressive figures should be enough at least to impel reconsideration in those who proclaim that all pregnancies are ‘wanted’ by definition and that there can be no excess population.

Abortion is an ugly reality but rejecting it on the basis of an absolutist view of the sanctity of human life is far worse.  Human morality ultimately comes down to the prevention of human suffering and the promotion of human happiness.  While we still debate whether human foetuses suffer during their own destruction, the misery experienced by women in countries such as El Salvador where abortion is denied even to rape victims, is undeniable.

Hitler’s Pope by John Cornwell

Eugenio Pacelli, Pius XII, who was pope during the Second World War and infamously remained silent in the face of the plight of Europe’s Jews, despite knowing full-well that they were being systematically exterminated by the Nazis practically under the balcony of the Vatican, is of course a highly polarising figure with as many supporters as detractors.

In the first show I described John Cornwell has having produced “some of the best critical work on the Catholic Church with Hitler’s Pope on Pius XII and The Pope in Winter on John Paul II.  In the second show I said that the author of “flea” response, Darwin’s Angel, had written a “damning biography on Eugenio Pacelli with Hitler’s Pope.”

While I do think Hitler’s Pope is a gripping read and raises many serious allegations against the wartime pontiff, I do have a few caveats to place upon it.  Cornwell has been criticised by other historians for being unbalanced.  Catholic defender Ronald Rycklak alleged Cornwell made many errors of fact and context in Hitler, The War and The Pope.  (See Rycklak’s review of Hitler’s Pope here and Kenneth Woodward’s review here.)  The Vatican has denied Cornwell’s claim to have received special access to the Vatican’s wartime archives in researching the book while supporting Rycklak’s.

Cornwell backtracked slightly from his allegations against Pacelli in The Pope in Winter:

I would now argue, in the light of the debates and evidence following Hitler’s Pope that Pius XII had so little scope of action that it is impossible to judge the motives for his silence during the war, while Rome was under the heel of Mussolini and later occupied by the Germans.

Wikipedia’s entry for Hitler’s Pope reports that in a recent interview, Cornwell stated:

While I believe with many commentators that the pope might have done more to help the plight of the Jews, I now feel, 10 years after the publication of my book, that his scope for action was severely limited and I am prepared to state this.  Nevertheless, due to his ineffectual and diplomatic language in respect of the Nazis and the Jews, I still believe that it was incumbent on him to explain his failure to speak out after the war.  This he never did.

- The Bulletin, Philadelphia, 27 September 2008

Cornwell has been criticised for not being a balanced writer.  Indeed, I was angered by the gross distortions and ad hominems against Richard Dawkins that pervaded Darwin’s Angel. I do therefore handle Hitler’s Pope with caution.  It is certainly a gripping read and many of its allegations have not been satisfactorily refuted by its detractors, who have simply attempted to play up Pacelli’s unfortunate predicament as a good excuse for his (in)actions during World War II as opposed to outlining a clear case for his defence.

J R R Tolkien wrote The Lord of The Rings as a warning against totalitarianism.  While of course I cannot be sure of the author’s true motives, I see the character of Saruman, the fallen white wizard, (played by Christopher Lee in Peter Jackson’s superb film adaptations) as an allegory for Pius XII.  He may not have been a true supporter of the despotism he was confronted with, but he acted in the name of self-preservation in such a way as to provide support for evil as opposed to fighting it at all costs.

I therefore feel that Pacelli has not shaken the mantra “Hitler’s Pope” and indeed in many respects he has earned it.  Once the worst of the mud has been thrown at him, and irrespective of whether or not he was anti-Semitic, he still acted like a politician, a man as mortal and as fallible as any of the rest of us; hardly the actions of a man who could really claim to hold the keys of St Peter.

One also has to wonder if the Vatican truly has nothing to hide, why it doesn’t open its wartime archives fully to the general public and settle the matter once and for all…

Christianity’s role in the Holocaust

In the second show, David contended that if Hitler had been a Christian the Holocaust would not have happened.  Having recently read Ian Kershaw’s definitive account of Hitler and seeing what an empty, soulless, nasty rat of a man that he was, I was charitable in not wanting to tar Christianity with Hitler’s brush, even if I could prove that he was as devote a Christian as Dubya.

However, Christian or atheist, there is no avoiding the historical fact that the anti-Semitism of Nazi Germany was set against a backdrop of centuries of Christian persecution of Jews.  Martin Luther, the founder of the Protestant sect penned a screed entitled On the Jews and Their Lies (text) which called for Jews to be driven out from Christian countries, and I wonder who put that idea into practice?

In addition, Hitler was greatly impressed with the notorious anti-Semitic forgery, The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion (Download PDF), which was first published in 1902 by the Tsarist secret police and describes the plans of international Jewry to take over the World, and is still believed by many radical Muslims, not least of whom is the current Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf:

[The Protocols] are based on a forgery, the Frankfurter Zeitung moans and screams once a week: the best proof that they are authentic.  What many Jews may do unconsciously is here consciously exposed.  And that is what matters.  It is completely indifferent from what Jewish brain these disclosure originate: the important thing is that with positively terrifying certainty they reveal the nature and activity of the Jewish people and expose their inner contexts as well and their final aims…  Anyone who examines the historical development of the last hundred years from the standpoint of this book will at once understand the screaming of the Jewish press.

So whether or not Hitler was actually a religious believer, he clearly knew how to pander to religious prejudices for his own ends and Christianity must bear some of the blame for this.

Many of Hitler’s commanders and soldiers most certainly were Christians.  According to Catholic historian Paul Johnson’s A History of Christianity, something in the region of 25 per cent of the Waffen SS were confessing Catholics; not a single one of them was excommunicated for taking part in the Final Solution.  Joseph Goebbels was the only Nazi to be denied the sacraments, but that was much earlier on and he was the author of his own misfortune in that he committed the sin of marrying a divorcée Protestant.   Never let it be said that the Church does not have some standards.

Daniel Jonah Goldhagen (an historian respected and vilified in equal quantities as much as John Cornwell) has produced damning assessments of the Catholic Church’s conduct in Hitler’s Willing Executioners – which David cites in The Dawkins Letters and indeed had with him in the studio at the time of recording our debates – and A Moral Reckoning.  One of the shameful episodes cited by Goldhagen and corroborated by Cornwell and Guenter Lewy was the Church allowing the Nazis access to their records of births, marriages and deaths in order to implement the racial purity laws.  This not only made the Church complicit in Hitler’s euthanasia programme, it took them to the gas chambers of Auschwitz.

To finish this section on a personal note, I can relate to how Christianity is so implicitly anti-Semitic.  When I was about 11 or 12, well before discovering Dawkins and Hitchens, I remember reading about the Holocaust in my school history text book.  Following the description of the Nazi’s atrocities was a paragraph at the bottom of the page explaining that the Jews were an obvious target for sectarian hatred since they had been seen in Europe for centuries as “the Christ killers”.

While the religious teaching I received was not blatantly anti-Semitic or racist, I had figured out the answer long before I read that paragraph.  It was so obvious to me after hearing for years in scripture class and morning assembly how “the Jews rejected Christ’s message”, “the Jews demanded his execution over that of a known rebel and a traitor”, “the Jews are still waiting for their Messiah to arrive; they’ve missed the boat.”  Why wouldn’t the Jews be a target of such scapegoating?

With this in mind, together with the fact that the Vatican only rescinded the charge of deicide against the Jewish people as late as 1965, there is convincing case that – far from being a perversion of Christianity – the Holocaust was the natural conclusion for the Passion of Christ.

Evidence that an atheist would accept for God’s existence

It is a debater’s trick in which William Lane Craig is well versed to say that your opponent failed to answer a challenge.   Perhaps I argued against the apologists’ existing arguments for God too much in the first show, but to clarify here is a list of evidence that an atheist would accept for God:

  • A truly spectacular miracle, not just one child surviving a plane crash that has claimed the lives of 153 less fortunate passengers.  May be if the Almighty had guided the plane to a safe landing when all its engines had failed, thus saving everyone on board.  The title of this website is the first and last word for whether there can be a truly loving, intervening, miracle-working God:

www.whywontgodhealamputees.com

  • If one type of prayer were convincingly demonstrated to work better than another type.  For instance, if the efficacy of prayers said by Christians were consistently significantly greater than that of prayers said by Muslims or pagans, or people who just keep their fingers crossed.  Or if any kind of prayer were shown to have a consistent, significant effect.  Or if a single prayer achieved something truly extraordinary, something which simply could not be otherwise explained: see re-growth of errant limbs referred to above.
  • If a new planet were to appear (as opposed to just being seen for the first time thanks to better instruments, for instance) in the solar system. This would violate the law of energy conservation and could only have a non-natural cause.
  • If evidence were to emerge that the universe must have begun in a high state of order, necessarily imposed from outside.
  • If the Bible had contained some specific information about the world which was unknown to science at the time of the “revelation” but which was later confirmed by observation. If it contained successful predictions of specific events in our own time that could have no plausible alternate explanation (not just vague allusions to suffering/ evil/ upheaval).
  • If someone undergoing a religious experience subsequently had new, verifiable knowledge that could not have been gained by other means. Not the usual stuff about how we should all love one another and watch our cholesterol, but something specific such as someone in the 20th century specifically knowing that on 26 December 2004 a tsunami in the Indian Ocean would kill hundreds of thousands of people. We just couldn’t account for such prescience other than by the existence of something outside the material world.
  • If Jesus has returned to Earth trailing clouds of glory to judge the living and the dead and generally bring about God’s Holy Kingdom when he said he would – Matthew 16 and 24.
  • If some of the massive events of the Old Testament and the surrounding characters where confirmed by modern archaeological research.  However, “minimalist” scholars such as William Dever and Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman have written off the patriarchs, the Egyptian captivity, the exodus, the wandering and the conquest of Canaan as myths on a par with King Arthur plucking Excalibur from the grasp of The Lady of the Lake for want of archaeological evidence despite concerted efforts.  Geographers can’t even figure which peak is Mount Sinai!

Having said that, I don’t think the burden should be on me to prove or disprove anything.  I can’t disprove the existence of the Judeo-Christian God any more than I can disprove the existence of Zeus, Thor, Mithras, Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny or the Flying Spaghetti Monster.  The cosmologist Carl Sagan once said that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”  As the Hitch would say, “what can be asserted without proof can be dismissed without proof.” Apologists present no evidence for God, only “inferences to the ‘best’ explanation”.

So let’s just a hold on what apologists are claiming:

Think about it, religion has actually convinced people that there’s an invisible man living in the sky who watches every thing you do, every minute of every day.  And the invisible man has a list of ten special things that he does not want you to do.  And if you do any of these ten things, he has a special place full of fire and smoke and burning and torture and anguish where he will send to live and suffer and burn and choke and scream and cry for ever and ever till the end of time…  But he loves you!

- George Carlin

But what kinds of explanations that religious types do offer?  They are usually along the lines of:

“Well, there has to be a reason why there’s ‘something’ rather ‘nothing’.”

“There has to be something more than just this miserable little life.”

“Otherwise humans would go about raping and killing each other.”

“This guy who lived 2,000 years ago on the other side of the world, he said some really profound things about the need to be nice to each other.  I mean, come on, he has to be right about everything: it says here that his mum never went to bed with anyone!”

“Without eternal reward after death there would be no purpose in life.”

“’Why?’ I hear you ask.  Well, there just has to be, ok?!”

Reasonable faith based on evidence?  I think not.

And finally: purpose in life without God

I’ll give the last point to David.  He’s right; my glass is completely empty:

Well, I can only answer for myself.  What cheers me up?  I suppose mainly gloating over the misfortunes of other people.  I guess that has to be it, yeah, mainly crowing over the miseries of others.  It doesn’t always work, but it never completely fails.  And then there’s irony.  There’s irony, which is the gin in the Campari; the cream in the coffee.  Sex can have diminishing returns, but it’s amaaaazing.  No, that’s pretty much it and then it’s a clear run to the grave.

- Christopher Hitchens

Books cited or recommended

Cornwell, J. (2008). Darwin’s Angel: An Angelic Riposte to The God Delusion. London: Profile Books.

Cornwell, J. (2000). Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII. London: Penguin.

Cornwell, J. (2005). The Pope in Winter: The Dark Face of John Paul II’s Papacy. London: Penguin.

Dawkins, R. (2007). The God Delusion. London: Transworld Publishers.

Dever, W G. (1993). Recent Archaeological Discoveries and Biblical Research. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press.

Finkelstein, I and Asher Silberman, N. (2002). The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts. New York: Touchstone.

Goldhagen, D J. (1996). Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. New York: Alfred A Knopf.

Goldhagen, D J. (2002). A Moral Reckoning: The Role of the Catholic Church in the Holocaust and Its Unfulfilled Duty of Repair. New York: Alfred A Knopf.

Harris, S. (2006). The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason. London: Simon & Schuster.

Hitchens, C.  (2007). God Is Not Great: The Case Against Religion. London: Atlantic Books.

Hitchens, C. (1995). The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice. London: Verso.

Hitler, A. (2005). Mein Kampf. Translated by Ralph Manheim.  London: Pimlico.

Johnson, P. (1990). A History of Christianity. London: Penguin.

Kershaw, I. (1998). Hitler, 1889 – 1936: Hubris. London: Penguin.

Kershaw, I. (2000). Hitler, 1936 – 1945: Nemesis. London: Penguin.

Lane Fox, R. (2006). The Unauthorised Version: Truth and Fiction in The Bible. London: Penguin.

Lewy, G. (1964). The Catholic Church and Nazi Germany. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Robertson, D A. (2008). The Dawkins Letters: Challenging Atheists Myths. Fearn, Ross-shire: Christian Focus Publications.

Rychlak, R J. (2000). Hitler, the War, and the Pope. Columbus, MS: Genesis Press.

Stenger, V J. (2008). God, The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist. New York: Prometheus Books.

Debates with David Robertson and Richard Morgan on Unbelievable?

11/09/2009

David Robertson

http://www.stpeters-dundee.org.uk/

-v-

Richey

http://edthemanicstreetpreacher.wordpress.com/

manicstreetpreacher goes head-to-head with one of the most determined Christian opponents to the New Atheists.

I recorded two debates with David Robertson, pastor of St Peter’s Free Church in Dundee and author of Christian response to The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, The Dawkins Letters and Richard Morgan, a former atheist Internet debater now converted to Christianity through the words of Robertson.

The first is to be broadcast on Saturday, 12 September 2009, 2:30pm BST.

It’s a general chat about religious debating online, although we do touch on a few other issues.

The second is to be broadcast on Saturday, 19 September 2009, 2:30pm BST.

This one is whether Europe should be atheist or Christian, although from memory, that topic went out the window pretty quickly!

Untitled-3

You can listen live online at the Unbelievable? homepage.

Or more conventionally on one of the following:

1305, 1332, 1413 MW
Sky Digital 0123
Freeview 725
DAB

Podcasts of the debates should go up on the site shortly after they are broadcast and can be downloaded here.

The podcast to Show One: Richard Morgan, David Robertson and MSP discuss religious debating online, Unbelievable?, Premier Christian Radio, 12 September 2009 can be downloaded here.

The podcast to Show Two: Richard Morgan, David Robertson and MSP discuss the rights and wrongs of Christian and atheist influences on Europe, Unbelievable? Premier Christian Radio, 19 September 2009 can be downloaded here.

I have also put a discussion topic on the Unbelievable? group page on Premier Christian Community here.

Richard Morgan has posted a discussion thread on the Unbelievable?, forum page on Premier Christian Community here (which he subsequently deleted because the posts against him and David Robertson were too angry accusatory!?!?!?!)

For the second show, David Robertson has posted a discussion thread on the Unbelievable? group page on Premier Christian Community here.

Pre-debate email correspondence between me and David Robertson is on my blog here.

My pre-debate review of Robertson’s book and public speaking is here.

See also my afterthought piece on the debates here.

!!!STOP PRESS!!!

15 September 2009

The first show has been posted on RichardDawkins.net here and Atheist Media Blog here.

I’ve had some very positive comments made from other bloggers:

48. Comment #415404 by Sp!tfire on September 15, 2009 at 6:05 pm

Ed Turner:

“We don’t live in a fine tunned universe at all… God could design us to survive in the cold hard vacuum”

Perfect. This empties the fine tunning argument very well…

And not least of which is from Dawkins himself:

162. Comment #415683 by Richard Dawkins on September 16, 2009 at 9:47 am

By the way, now that I am here, when I said the broadcast was stupefyingly boring I should have excepted Ed Turner, who was certainly not boring. The trouble is, you have to sit through a lot of other stuff before you get to him and I suspect that most people wouldn’t have the patience.

Richard

!!!STOP PRESS AGAIN!!!

29 September 2009

Some troll called Todd Pitner from Ashville, North Carolina, United States, has posted a self-confessed ad hominem attack about me on the Premier Christian forum Enough already! in response to my last two shows.  I quote it in full:

I know that it’s important to have a dissenting voice within ‘Unbelievable’, but I pray that you stop giving airtime to Ed Turner. His lack of originality in ‘all matters atheism’ is exhausting. I noticed during his first guest appearance that he was ‘clunky’ with his arguments and that they were all borrowed from others whom recycled arguments too, but at least they did it with some sense of originality. He talks about “fleas”…my goodness! His self-ordained “subject matter expertise” on atheism is painfully transparent. Why continue to provide a platform for him to continue with his Milli Vanilli act?

Honestly, I can take the arrogant dismissal of God’s truth (with ignorant contempt) from the Four Horsemen, but stop already with Ed Turner. Please! Surely there are other qualified unregenerate representatives of the Godless whom can spread the Gospel According to ‘Much-Ado-About-Narcissism’ in a less nauseating fashion.

If this seems like an ad hominem attack, guilty. “Forgive me Father, for I am not doing 1 Peter 3:15 proud. But you know my heart – I just can’t take this poser anymore. Hit Ctrl-Alt-Del already!”

See, on one hand there is truth – on the other, atheism. Attempting to suck off the teat of both resides Ed Turner, excelling in self-satisfied self-deception.

So then Ed asked the Christian, “May I please borrow your worldview to argue against it?”

Fleas be with you.

Todd

I was in two minds as to whether to respond to this.  The Villi Minnilli comment was a bit below the belt.  I admit that I pinched a line from Hitchens’ debate with William Lane Craig that heaven was essentially a “theme park in the sky” and I based my view that North Korea under Kim Jung Il was essentially a political religion on Hitchens’, but at least I credited him with the latter.

I have never made any secret of the fact that I have been inspired by the Four Horseman.  I dare say that I need another ten years’ reading and writing to come up with something truly original, but then again, none of the arguments for God’s existence are new, so the arguments against aren’t exactly fresh either.  I can’t remember the last time that I read a response to Dawkins’ that didn’t refer to C S Lewis or cite Francis Collins as proof that there is no conflict between science and religion…

What matters in the fight against religion is not whether the arguments are new or old, but that they are repeated often enough by enough people until we eliminate its poisonous influence upon the world.

If the Four Horsemen’s arguments are so tired and stale, believers should have no problem refuting them at a stroke, as opposed to resorting to name calling and accusations of plagiarism.

Besides, if you read all the replies, Mr Pitner exposes himself to be an obnoxious little twerp who (like most Christian apologists) has no actually arguments and has to resort to name calling!  As mysterious atheist blogger Tommy rather sensibly states, Todd resembles:

a drunken boxer flailing in the ring, hurling abuse and trying to get the crowd on his side, but ultimately fighting imaginary opponents.

Since you arrived here you seem to have been so volatile with everyone. We might not all agree but we are all human beings. Accusing others of mental disease and threatening them with an eternity by an open fire is pretty bombastic behavior.

Now, to draft a response of my own to this ignorant little upstart from the Colonies…

Show One on Skepticule

29 September 2009

Paul S Jenkins has posted a podcast of his musings on his Skepitcule blog here.

The comments about me are very positive, but they would be, wouldn’t they?  Paul is a very interesting sceptical character and has made some superb contributions to my blog recently, particularly with his comments on my latest attack on William Lane Craig here, if you scroll down and read the his replies to Richard Morgan.

The words “mouth”, “out” and “took” spring to mind!

Replies to Todd Pitner on Premier Christian Community

30 September 2009

I have posted a series of replies to Todd Pitner’s attack on me on the Unbelievable? group page in response to my latest shows with David Robertson and Richard Morgan.

The links to my replies on the forum and the text are reproduced below:

Comment:258159

Wow!  My first ad hominem attack.  As Oscar Wilde would have it, “The only thing worse that being talked about is not being talked about”!

I was in two minds as to whether to respond to Todd’s trolling, but since he has revealed himself to be a silly little boy who has no arguments whatsoever (original or plagiarised) I thought I would wade in and have some fun.

Long live the Four Horsemen!

Comment:258165

From Day One, I have made no secret of the fact that the Four Horsemen aka New Atheists are my main source of inspiration.  If anyone wants to call me a human quote-machine or a walking bibliography, I take no offence.

The Villi Minnilli comment was a bit below the belt.  I admit that in the last show with Robertson and Morgan, I pinched a line from Hitchens’ debate with William Lane Craig that heaven was essentially a “theme park in the sky” and I based my view that North Korea under Kim Jung Il was a political religion on Hitchens’ arguments, but at least I credited him with the latter.

I think Todd better get his definitions straight though.  Quote-mining is taking a quote out of context in order to misrepresent the true views of their author.  I feel that I have been pretty faithful to Dawkins & Co.

Besides, I can’t remember a theistic debater or apologetics piece that didn’t name-drop C S Lewis…

Long live The Hitch!

Comment:258167

I’m such a fan of Hitchens’ verbal style that I have even complied a collections of his sayings from books, articles, lectures and debates which you can read on my own blog here, and have even typed out the full transcript of his freedom of speech lecture at the University of Toronto in 2006 here and have posted the YouTube videos of a 1988 appearance on C-Span here.

Please also see this piece here, which I have recently published on my blog that attacks William Lane Craig’s take on the God-ordered atrocities of the Old Testament and references an article by Hitchens!

“Same tired old atheism…”

Comment:258172

There is nothing “new” about the New Atheists, they are just recent.  I see myself as taking up the baton and spreading their ideas, because they are not the only ones who are fed up to the back teeth of being pushed around by others who claim that they have divine permission to force their unproven, ridiculous faith-based dogmas down other people’s throats.

However, simply attacking the credibility of my sources is no substitute for attacking the arguments themselves.  David Robertson spends a vast proportion of his book and public speaking denouncing Dawkins’ “shrillness” but actually neglects to deal with the substance of his arguments.

For further elaboration, please see my pre-debate review of Robertson’s book and public speaking here in which I haul him up for this lazy tactic.

Todd, I’m afraid that you are guilty of exactly the same tactic.  Tell me, do they teach ad hominem as a core subject in Bible class around the world?

None of the arguments for God’s existence are actually new and therefore the arguments against aren’t exactly fresh either.  But the latter do require enough people to keep repeating them and then one day we might crack the straggle-hold of religion upon society.

A foot soldier of the Four Horsemen –v- A Flea

Comment:258173

I actually debated one of the “fleas”, Peter S Williams, at Liverpool University at the start of this year.  And trounced him thoroughly.

Williams’ response to Dawkins, A Sceptic’s Guide to Atheism harped on about how terrible everyone else thought Dawkins’ philosophical arguments were, but failed to counter them effectively.

I used some of the Four Horsemen’s arguments in our debate and he simply had no reply to them.

You can read my reviews of two of Williams’ God books in the aftermath of our debate here and here.  Williams’ responses on his blog are linked in the comments section at the bottom.

Unbelievable? debut – September 2008

Comment:258179

I am extremely grateful to Tommy for trashing my performance in my first Unbelievable? debates against theologian Andy Bannister in September last year.  As I said in the first Morgan/ Robertson show, he was the motivation for me to sign up to a few online religious debate forums and start up my own blog which helped me engage more with the arguments and come up with a few of my own.

I drafted an afterthought piece on the Bannister encounters, which you can read here.

I MUST draw your attention to the point about the Roman Census in Show 1.  Bannister said that Dawkins had “been machine-gunned to the wall by scholars of all stripes” for stating in The God Delusion that Luke’s census that required the population to return to the home town of their ancestors to register was historical nonsense.

One of my friends who heard the show when it first went out emailed me at the time saying Bannister was talking nonsense.  I forwarded the comment to him but he ignored it.  I addressed it in the piece on my blog, pointing out that Dawkins actually cites historians A N Wilson and Robin Lane Fox in support and he still ignored it.  I emailed him the full quote from Fox’s book The Unauthorised Version in a later post of mine and he had nothing to say to that either!

Indeed, make sure you scroll down to the comments section of my piece and read his furious reaction of me trashing his specious assertions over “context” here.  Read also Steven Carr’s schooling of Bannister over Richard Bauckham’s book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses here.

See also my polemic against American Christian apologist of the Hyde Park Christian Fellowship and Unbelievable? stalwart, Jay Smith here, which exposes Bannister further.

Any great loss?

Comment:258181

Todd’s not going to listen to Unbelievable? any more if I’m on again?

Justin, we really need to get round to those debates on whether theology is not a complete waste of the world’s rainforests and whether God wants us to keep slaves…

Replies to Premier Christian Community Discussion Thread on Show Two

2 October 2009

David Robertson posted a discussion thread on the Unbelievable? group page on Premier Christian Community here.

Would Europe be better off atheist than Christian?

Posted by David Robertson on September 21, 2009 at 7:55pm in Unbelievable

Discuss!

I’ll kick things off by saying that I thought Ed was amiable, intelligent, articulate and put his case well. It is such a shame for him that it is such a poor case! A renewal and revival of real Christianity in Europe is the only thing that can save us from social chaos, economic collapse and moral disintegration.

Can I make a small request? When we discuss these things can we refrain from the personal insults?  Much appreciated….

David

The following was by far the most interesting and meaty reply:

Reply by David on September 21, 2009 at 9:57pm

I thought it was a great show and all of you made interesting points. Most of my disagreements, however, are with Ed (although seeing as my biases are obviously towards Christianity, I wouldn’t take it personally: p) I’ll apologise now that my thoughts on the show ended up longer than I expected when I began this post!

I noticed that Ed kept pointing out that Stalin etc weren’t rational however I can’t see why that matters. The discussion wasn’t over whether Europe should be based on reason and logic (with David Robertson, presumably, arguing that politicians should come up with illogical arguments for their policies) If you want a rational Europe then will atheism provide that? Clearly Britain is becoming more secular yet are we becoming more scientific and rational? Where are the TV schedules brimming with science programmes (all of which get high viewing figures)? Why do universities find it harder to fill science courses than other subjects? Why do most newspapers have horoscopes? An atheist Europe does not mean a rational Europe.

Another thing I found curious is the way atheists will claim Hitler was a Christian even though he never went to church on a regular basis, talked about God less and less the longer he was in power and is on record for being critical of Christianity. I wonder, had Hitler been a world famous scientist and Einstein an evil dictator then would atheists still be confident that Hitler believed in God and Einstein did not?

In the show, Ed claimed society gave religion an easy ride, yet does it? If a Christian claims to be morally and intellectually superior to everyone else they are quite rightly accused of being arrogant and judgemental. If an atheist does it, they get a round of applause and sell lots of books. Would, for example, a newspaper dare publish an article claiming only theists can be in charge of the NIH (as Sam Harris and others did with Frances Collins?) How often do people poke fun at religion? I can only think of one example of somebody poking fun at atheism (and that’s John Cleese who has made fun of religion as well).

In the show Ed asked David Robertson what his views on evolution are however I got the feeling this was in the hope he would admit to being a creationist and all the atheists could give a round of applause having seen the litmus test for rationality failed. But the show wasn’t on evolution nor do I believe those sorts of questions are done in the interest of truth. A while ago the Guardian got 3 scientists, two popular writers and two broadcasters and made them do a science quiz. One of the questions asked was ‘how old is the earth?’ Seeing as society is obsessed with the fact creations are wrong you’d think that all eight of the panel would have the age of the universe ready to roll off their tongue. You’d certainly think the scientists would know it off by heart. But no – Robert Winston was the only one to get it right and he’s Jewish. Is being ignorant about the age of the universe socially acceptable but being misinformed wrong? Why does David Robertson’s beliefs on evolution prove Europe would be better off without God? The sad truth is that this ‘enlightened’ secular society is just as scientifically illiterate than many creationists are. The only difference being, that saying ‘I find science boring’ isn’t frowned upon in the same way as religion is.

Finally, like a lot of atheists you seem to think that the moral argument is a claim to Christian superiority. That would be like hearing the fine tuning argument and then asking a Christian whether converting to atheism stops the universe from being finely tuned and causes them to float off into space. The question is a philosophical question about where morality comes from. If explaining the evolutionary origins of religion (as Dawkins spends a whole chapter doing in The God Delusion) disproves God then does writing a chapter on the evolutionary origins of morality prove that all Dawkins moral statements are no more than an accident of evolution?

Nonetheless, it was a fascinating discussion. I think a Christian Europe would be better than an atheist one not because there’ll be less corruption in politics or that Christians make better leader etc. I believe Europe will will be better of Christian because I believe that Christianity is true and a Europe with genuine hope is better than a Europe which is no more than a small spec in a meaningless universe. In a billion years time, will it matter what sort of Europe we ended up with. As I Christian I can say yes.

I’ll get round to responding in due course, but I have to quote Steven Carr’s reply to the following quote from one of Hitler’s secretaries, Traudl Junge, that Robertson quotes in his book and continually posts on Internet forums, emailed to me during our exchange and read out on Show 2 in order to demonstrate conclusive that  Der Führer was not a Christian:

Sometimes we also had interesting discussions about the church and the development of the human race. Perhaps it’s going too far to call them discussions, because he would begin explaining his ideas when some question or remark from one of us had set them off, and we just listened.  He was not a member of any church, and thought the Christian religions were outdated, hypocritical institutions that lured people into them.  The laws of nature were his religion.  He could reconcile his dogma of violence better with nature than with the Christian doctrine of loving your neighbour and your enemy.  “Science isn’t yet clear about the origins of humanity,” he once said. “We are probably the highest stage of development of some mammal which developed from reptiles and moved on to human beings, perhaps by way of the apes.  We are a part of creation and children of nature, and the same laws apply to us as to all living creatures.  And in nature the law of the struggle for survival has reigned from the first.  Everything incapable of life, everything weak is eliminated.  Only mankind and above all the church have made it their aim to keep alive the weak, those unfit to live, and people of an inferior kind.”

Traudall Junge – from Until the Final Hour – Arcade Publishing – 2004 – p108.

Carr replies as follows (NB: David Robertson persists on spelling Carr’s first name “Stephen”):

I see Robertson is still touting the quote from a woman who says on the very next page of the book that she had only a “very vague and inaccurate memory” of what Hitler had said.  Robertson always seems to leave that out.

In the very next line, Traudl Junge says she could remember only “fragments”. Robertson always seems to stop quoting just before that.  Funny…

(…)

And Robertson still cannot spell Traudl Junge’s name correctly, which speaks volumes for his inability to be corrected on even the tiniest detail.  He will never accept even that he spelled somebody’s name wrongly, he is so closed-minded!

Most rational people will accept after 10 or 12 reminders that they have not spelled somebody’s name correctly.  But Robertson is infallible.  If he believes Traudl should be spelled Traudall, then he will never change his mind, no matter how often he looks at the book he claims to have read.

You would think that just once or twice, Robertson would glance at the cover of the book he allegedly owns and see how to spell the woman’s name.

Or at least actually listen to somebody who knows how to spell it, and accept that for once in his life, Robertson might be wrong about something, even if it is only 1 thing in a 70 year lifespan.

Well done, Steven!  I’ll remember that if I ever meet Robertson at the debater’s lectern again!

My replies to David:

Comment:261078

Where are the TV schedules brimming with science programmes (all of which get high viewing figures)?  Why do universities find it harder to fill science courses than other subjects?  Why do most newspapers have horoscopes?  An atheist Europe does not mean a rational Europe.

David – I actually agree whole-heartedly with you here!  It is depressing how little column inches are dedicated to science in favour of horoscopes!

Indeed, my view of religion is that it is the ultimate superstition and/or conspiracy theory!  Humans have the innate tendency to attribute deliberate design and agency to everything that they see around them.

If a car or a watch had a designer, then surely an eye or universe must have come into existence through the same process?

Well, no.  But that’s for another thread.

Watch Dawkins’ Channel 4 series from a couple of years ago, The Enemies of Reason, which debunks superstition and pseudo-science like astrology, crystal-therapy, psychics, faith healers and homeopathy.

Also read my recent blog piece on homeopathy and a write-up of a brilliant lecture I attended on paranormal experiences.  The truth is not out there, it’s up here.

Comment:261081

Another thing I found curious is the way atheists will claim Hitler was a Christian even though he never went to church on a regular basis, talked about God less and less the longer he was in power and is on record for being critical of Christianity.

As I said on the show, I think that a serious case can be made either way as to Hitler’s religious beliefs.  David R quotes Traudl Junge, one of Hitler’s secretaries, who had to endure hours of his tedious ramblings into the small hours about how unchristian he was and how much he opposed the Church.  (Just how accurately Junge is quoted is a source of debate in itself, if you read Steven Carr’s post above.)  Robertson also quotes one of Hitler’s numerous anti-Christian remarks recorded in Table Talk.

On the other hand, it is not true to say that Hitler was a complete lapsed Catholic.  He constantly invoked God and Christ in his speeches and this website contains some fascinating pictures of him attending church and praying at a public rally.

I think that Christianity has to take a fair share of the blame for National Socialism, anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, and not just the scientists or the intellectuals as Robertson maintains.

Whether or Hitler was himself a believer, he certainly knew how to play on people’s religious prejudices for his own ends.  He also had massive support from both Catholic and Protestant churches.  I expand on this in the relevant section in my afterthought piece.

Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot etc. certainly were atheists and there’s no way I can get away from that fact.  However, David R ignores the second strand of Dawkins’ argument in The God Delusion and simply equates lack of belief in God with being an evil mass-murder.

While atheism (or more accurately the extermination of conventional theistic religion and its replacement with a new order and a new Messiah) may have been part of the Communist totalitarian regimes of the 20th century, its members were not motivated by their simply disbelief in Yahweh, Christ or Zeus.  These were other political dogmas that combined with modern technology to produce an explosive cocktail of destruction.

I’m not writing one word in defence of Stalin.  I am simply saying that atheism cannot be blamed for him.

Comment:261082

If Ed is allowed to claim that Stalin et al weren’t real atheists then why can’t I claim that all the bad Christian leaders throughout history weren’t real Christians?

David – I certainly don’t make that claim at all!  From my pre-debate review of Robertson’s book and public speaking:

Robertson contradicts himself yet again in response to Dawkins quoting abusive and threatening emails from Christians.  He states that these people cannot be Christians because they are threatening violence as opposed to turning the other cheek and using foul language.  Further on, however, he refuses to accept the same “reasoning” from atheists who apparently argue that Hitler and Stalin could not have been atheists because they weren’t rational people.  What do want to do with your cake; have it or eat it?

And also:

Hitler and Stalin may or may not have been atheists, but they certainly weren’t secularists, humanists or rationalists.   I’m sure we could all topple the arguments for National Socialism if we put our minds it.  I’m equally certain that most people would struggle to accept that its founder and leader was a rational individual.   If he wanted a Thousand Year Reich, going to war with Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union simultaneously wasn’t really the best way to go about it.

Comment:261086

I wonder, had Hitler been a world famous scientist and Einstein an evil dictator then would atheists still be confident that Hitler believed in God and Einstein did not?

Well, this is simply a matter of the proper representation of Einstein’s true views.  At best, he could be described as a pantheist or a deist.  He used the word “God” to convey his belief Spinoza’s God: the God who created held universe together but took no interest in human affairs.  This is entirely metaphorical, but apologists leap on statements such as “science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind,” and leap on them as evidence that Einstein was a theist and therefore religion has scientific credibility.

Einstein himself made clear:

It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated.  I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly.  If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.

I for one am certainly not going to try to claim that Francis Collins is really an atheist!  However, apologists think that it is a valid argument in support of the truth or usefulness of religious faith to claim that prominent scientists are really believers.

To finish off this discussion of Einstein’s religious beliefs, I have written a blog piece that shows a commonly quoted statement purporting to be from Einstein in support of the Church in Hitler’s Germany is a fabrication.

Comment:261091

In the show, Ed claimed society gave religion an easy ride, yet does it?

Well yes, it does actually.  Read the section on the Catholic Church’s present policy on condom use in the Third World in my afterthought piece for proof of this:

This is faith-based stupidity that carries with it potentially genocidal consequences.  It is only due to the automatic respect that is accorded to religion and its institutions – in effect a “free lunch” – means the Vatican can get away with it.

Imagine if the US president, the chief executive officer of a multi-national corporation or a leading celebrity made similar remarks.  Would their career survive?  Of course not.  So why do we make an exception for clergymen?

And do you think I don’t get sick of theists telling me that I have no morals or mentioning Hitler and Stalin in the same breath?

Comment:261091

Would, for example, a newspaper dare publish an article claiming only theists can be in charge of the NIH (as Sam Harris and others did with Francis Collins?)

Would you Adam and Eve it?!  It just so happens that I have written a detailed report of the strange case of Dr Collins and Mr Harris on my blog.

In his follow-up article to the piece in The New York Times, Harris well and truly put paid to the bogus idea that there can ever be a harmony between science and religion:

Is it really so difficult to perceive a conflict between Collins’ science and his religion?  Just imagine how scientific it would seem if Collins, as a devout Hindu, informed his audience that Lord Brahma had created the universe and now sleeps; Lord Vishnu sustains it and tinkers with our DNA (in a way that respects the law of karma and rebirth); and Lord Shiva will eventually destroy it in a great conflagration.

American evolutionary biologist and author of Why Evolution is True, Jerry A Coyne, wrote a suitably pithy rebuttal of Harris’ critics on his blog:

[Harris] did not say that Collins should be excluded from consideration.  Harris, like me, is simply worried about Collins using his status as NIH director to spread wacko religious ideas.  Harris has the additional concern (one that I don’t really share) that Collins might deflect research away from understanding the human brain and the behavior it engenders…

What is fascinating is that Collins has said no one single word in reply to Harris’ repeated tongue-lashings when atheist scientists like Richard Dawkins and Michael Shermer (and for that matter Harris himself) have gone to great lengths to make their views known when they have been misrepresented.

As they were with the film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed.

Comment:261092

In the show Ed asked David Robertson what his views on evolution are however I got the feeling this was in the hope he would admit to being a creationist and all the atheists could give a round of applause having seen the litmus test for rationality failed…  Why does David Robertson’s beliefs on evolution prove Europe would be better off without God?

Actually, David, the reason why I asked Robertson whether he believed in evolution or not was to demonstrate the strange partition in his brain between science and religion.

In The Dawkins Letters, Robertson stands up for the head of the science department, Stephen Layfield of Emmanuel College, after Dawkins rips into him for advocating children be taught “Creation Science” and “Flood Geology” (!) in science classes.  But Robertson adds the caveat that Layfield “may or may not be wrong” about evolution, but it’s better to let the little darlings make up their own minds.

I had two points to make in asking David to clarify his views.

Firstly, I think that deep down, David does believe in evolution because he sees the scientific coherency of it.  However, I think that he is also determined to hold onto his religious belief that all the evil and suffering in the world was due to Adam’s fall in the Garden of Eden for which we “messed up” and “polluted” human beings have been paying for every since.

Accepting evolution fully would destroy this meta-narrative for him, because death, pain and suffering are all part of the natural order and have nothing to do with man’s rejection of his creator.

Secondly, evolution is a fact whether we like the idea of being related to monkeys or not (although how that is any worse than being made from dirt, I do not know) and is part of the science that has rid the world of smallpox and predicts when earthquakes will happen.

It sounds so reasonable to “teach the argument” and let the children decide between evolution, creationism and “intelligent design”.  But just try to apply that to any other disciple:

OK children, we’ve seen photos of all those corpses piled high at places like Auschwitz and Belsen, heard the endless testimony of victims, perpetrators and rescuers and seen the documents showing that the Nazi leaders knew exactly what they were doing.

Now let’s hear from this guy David Irving, who says that it was all a hoax.

Then you can make up your own minds.

This article by Dawkins and Jerry Coyne following the decision in the Kitzmiller –v- Dover PA Intelligent Design trial is an excellent discussion of what is an isn’t proper to teach school children.

David Robertson’s nod to multi-cultural relativism is not going to help anyone.

Comment:261168

Finally, like a lot of atheists you seem to think that the moral argument is a claim to Christian superiority.

All I want to say about the moral argument here is that I am becoming ever more convinced that it is wishful thinking.

David quoted G K Chesterton’s famous remark that “when men stop believing in God, they won’t believe in nothing but in anything.”  I retorted that Chesterton himself was a very vocal supporter of fascism, so clearly his devout belief in God didn’t stop him from believing in anything.

Robertson as Christian doesn’t know anything more than I as an atheist know, or at least he doesn’t have access to any more sources of information than I do.

All this talk about how only a believer can aspire to absolute morality or can justify why they would risk their life to save that of stranger is white noise.

Clearly in reality morals are relative.  There are practices of yesteryear and in other parts of the world today that we in the West find abhorrent.  However the shifting moral Zeitgeist means that humanity makes moral progress without recourse to religion.  I doubt whether anyone today would want to return to the legal systems of the Bible.

Let’s say that in 50 years time it is taboo to eat meat, keep pets or harm animals in any way whatsoever.  The West has followed Peter Singer’s advice and has become vegan.

What will the theists say?  That respecting animals is the absolute standard of morality as dictated by the creator of the universe!

Doubtless there would be some Christians taking part in the fight to accord animals equal rights with human beings.  They would cherry-pick a few nice verses from the Bible respecting animals (and ignoring all those copious passages in Leviticus recommending animal sacrifice) and point to people like St Francis.

Nevertheless, in my imaginary future scenario, there would surely be plenty of non-believers who had formed their view independent of faith and indeed in spite of its opposition to societal change.

This is retrospective evidentialism of a particularly rank and hypocritical variety.

David Robertson does what he feels is right according to his innate morality and add God as a needless layer on top of it.

So Far: David Robertson

26/08/2009

David RobertsonUntitled-3

http://www.stpeters-dundee.org.uk/

manicstreetpreacher reviews the writings and public speaking of a Christian apologist and Dawkins agitator before going head-to-head with him.

I originally wrote this piece before recording my two debates against David Robertson and Richard Morgan for Premier Christian Radio’s Unbelievable? in London on 20 July 2009.  I am informed that the shows are due to be broadcast on Saturday, 12 and Saturday 19 September 2009.  I’ll post the links to the podcasts as soon as they are posted on the Unbelievable? website.

The podcast to Show One: Richard Morgan, David Robertson and MSP discuss religious debating online, Unbelievable? Premier Christian Radio, 12 September 2009 can be downloaded here.

The podcast to Show Two: Richard Morgan, David Robertson and MSP discuss the rights and wrongs of Christian and atheist influences on Europe, Unbelievable?, Premier Christian Radio, 19 September 2009 can be downloaded here.

See also my afterthought piece on the debates.

For various reasons, I did not publish the piece on my blog, but I forwarded a late draft to David and Premier DJ, Justin Brierley, prior to recording the debates, to which I briefly reference in the second show.  The article below is largely unchanged, save for a few tweaks and corrected typos.

The start of a beautiful friendship?

I’ve never met David Robertson, but we go way back.  Robertson one of the many Christian apologists who have written replies to The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins.  Robertson’s effort is The Dawkins Letters: Challenging Atheist Myths. On the frontispiece and the chapters of his book there are vitriolic remarks about Robertson from atheist bloggers on RichardDawkins.net.  Robertson has included these in an attempt to demonstrate that atheists can be just as aggressive, intolerant and dangerous as religious people.

I first heard Robertson debate The Atheist Blogger,[1] Adrian Hayter, on Premier Christian Radio’s religious debate show, Unbelievable?,[2] which I have appeared on three times so far.  I was so infuriated at the claims he made on the two shows, his apparent distortion of the historical record, his misrepresentation of the views of atheists and his use of the “Hitler and Stalin were atheists” card to argue that only Christians can be truly moral and atheists were all potential ethic cleansers that I, for want of a better term, went off on one.

I wrote an open letter on my blog challenging him to a live debate.[3] I emailed Unbelievable? host, Justin Brierley, demanding that he have the pair of us on the show to duke it out.  I called him a liar on the Premier Christian Community web forum.  In short, I understood full well what those aforementioned abusive atheist bloggers must have gone through.

The first draft of this review was entitled “I have no argument with this man”.  I surrounded the word “reverend” in quotation marks and called his book “a piece of apologetics trash”.  I labelled Robertson as “Scotland’s answer to Jerry Falwell” and even finished off with a comparison to the Holocaust denying historian, David Irving.  In short, I poured bile and vitriol over everything in his book and his public speaking.

But then something happened which changed all that.  I posted a piece on American “scholar” Jay Smith on my blog[4] which took the opportunity to slate several other apologists including Robertson for Lying for Jesus.[5] I copied it to said apologists with a damning covering email, and guess what?  Robertson was the only one to respond to my allegations.[6]

While I wasn’t altogether convinced by his explanations, particularly in regard to his use of a quote from Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, I began to feel that far from a case of outright dishonestly, we had a difference of opinion – a pretty drastic and potentially irreconcilable difference of opinion – but nothing as sinister as I had first envisaged.

Besides, in our email correspondence, it turned out that Robertson’s favourite are the Manic Street Preachers.  Someone with a taste in such highly-charged, intelligent, protest punk rock can’t be all bad.

So I’ve toned down this review into something far more respectful and conciliatory.  If nothing else, it was beginning to sound like the smug ad hominem rantings of Alistair McGrath.  I also hope that it will provide a good basis for when the two of us record a debate on the motion “Would Europe be better off as an atheistic or Christian society?” on Unbelievable? on 20 July 2009.

Overview

Robertson is a Presbyterian minister at St Peter’s Free Church in Dundee.  The Dawkins Letters comprises ten letters addressed to Dawkins which challenges what Robertson perceives as an atheist myth in TGD, book ended with introductory and final letters addressed to the reader, the latter entitled, “Why Believe?”

Robertson joins the ranks of John Cornwell, Alistair McGrath, and Peter S Williams (in addition to numerous others), collectively christened by Dawkins as the “Fleas”, after a poem by W B Yeats,[7] who have written replies to TGD.

Having read the efforts of the above three writers, Robertson’s effort is the clear winner in that he does at least put up the best fight than the other “fleas” and his book gives a clear indication of what he believes.

However, I was not persuaded by The Dawkins Letters.  I found its arguments to be Robertson’s personal views stated as cold-hard fact, often self-contradictory, while showing a very selective interpretation of the historical record.

Rather than setting out deliberately to lie, I think Robertson has tried to stick up for Christians in the face of Dawkins’ onslaught.  In doing so, he has missed the point.  Dawkins is not criticising Christians themselves, he is criticising the idea of religious faith and the harm it can lead to.  Robertson’s response often degenerates to a succession of point-scoring whilst failing to address the real arguments.

Like all the “flea” books, The Dawkins Letters is written for Christians who have not read TGD themselves, but have heard how strident and intolerant its author is from the press.   In the book, Robertson praises Dawkins several times for his arguments and even comments in the first of two YouTube videos on his church’s website[7] that the book is brilliantly well-written.  However, in the final letter, he advises readers who haven’t read it yet not to bother since “it really is as bad as I’ve tried to make out”.  This represents a lack of courage in his convictions as well as trying to deny the readers the chance to make up their own minds.

I do recommend Paula Kirby’s treatment of The Dawkins Letters in her superb review of four of the “Flea” books on RichardDawkins.net, “Fleabytes”.[8] Kirby replies in detail to all of Robertson’s letters.  The first draft of this review quoted her comments at length.  In our correspondence, Robertson countered some of Kirby’s comments, so I have taken most of them out.  However, I still recommend that it is read in full, if only for its brilliant incisiveness from which I have learnt a great deal.

Absence of evidence

I found it difficult to engage with many of the arguments of The Dawkins Letters, simply because Robertson asserts his own opinion as the truth.  He makes bare assertions and does not provide any evidence for any of his claims.

Robertson claims that possessing Christian faith is a bar to employment and promotion without giving any examples; anecdotal or statistical.   He claims that Christians were not given an adequate opportunity to respond to Richard Dawkins’ documentary, Root of All Evil? and the National Secular Society are rewarded with all the lime light without mentioning Radio 4’s Thought for the Day and the fact that it is invariably a clergyman who is called upon to pronounce moral judgement in response to a public issue.

Robertson simply asserts that the Bible is inerrant and truth can only be found in Jesus Christ without mentioning Matthew 10: 34 (“I have not come to bring peace but a sword”) or Matthew 16 (where JC promises his Second Coming will happen within the lifetime of his listeners).   In Letter 9: The Myth of the Immoral Bible he recognises that passages such as Jephthah’s daughter (Judges 11[9]) represent “problems” in the Bible, but says not a word in attempting to resolve these problems.  All that is offered are “weasel” terms like “context” and “literal” and where have atheists heard that before?

Robertson writes that truth, beauty and morality can only be found through God without giving a shred of evidence for this view.  “You cannot explain beauty or evil, creation or humanity, time or space, without God.  Or at least you can, but to my mind the materialistic, atheistic explanation is emotionally, spiritually and above all intellectually inadequate.”  All I can say in reply is that I get by perfectly well without referring everything to a god, and such unnecessary assumptions only raise more questions than they answer.

When Robertson does try to tackle the evidence, the results are unconvincing.  He states that if the evidence for the New Testament narrative was on a par with Russell’s teapot or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, then all the millions of Christians wouldn’t believe it the first place.  Unfortunately, the reader is left to guess precisely what this mountain of hard evidence that renders all non-believers so deluded actually is, because Robertson omits to include it.

This piece of circular logic is not an argument that Robertson would not accept from all the billions of Jews, Muslims and Hindus who think that Christians are deluded and they are correct.  He even admits that he is “not going to believe that Mohammed is a prophet just because some religion tells me to.”  So why do precisely this in respect of Christianity?  Although he derides this line of thinking, Robertson is just as much an atheist towards the vast majority of religious believers as I am.

There are also predictable ad hominems against bibliography as a means of avoiding answering Dawkins’ actual arguments.[10] In replying to Dawkins’ objections to the reliability of the Gospels, Robertson contends that using Robin Lane Fox, A N Wilson and Free Inquiry magazine for advice on biblical scholarship is “a bit like me suggesting that those who want to find out about evolution should only go to the Answers in Genesis website!”

If these people are so mistaken, there should be no problem in refuting their arguments. Again, however, Robertson stops there, so the reader is left to guess at the water-tight historicity of the New Testament he hints at and be stuck with Dawkins’ opinion that the whole farrago is made up pile of baloney; self-contradictory and laughably unhistorical.

Logic and reason

Robertson gets rather exasperated at Dawkins’ view that God cannot be both omnipotent and omniscient:

[Y]ou argue, ‘If God is omniscient he already knows how he is going to intervene to change the course of history using his omnipotence – but that means he can’t his mind about his intervention which means he is not omnipotent.  I can hardly believe that a professor at Oxford wrote such a juvenile argument!  If you really want to go down that line, here are a few more for you.  Can God create a stone heavier than he can lift?  Can God make a square circle?  These may be amusing ‘problems’ for a teenage class in metaphysics but as a reason for believing that God cannot exist?  As Mr McEnroe would say, ‘You cannot be serious!’

However, the whole omnipotent/ omniscient question is a contradiction and one that is raised by atheists far more scholarly than Dawkins.  I would particularly recommend John Allen Paulo’s marvellous little book, Irreligion, on this and many other points:

If one assumes that God is both omnipotent and omniscient, an obvious contradiction arises.  Being omniscient, God knows how everything will happen; He can predict the future trajectory of every snow flake, the spouting of every blade of grass, and the deeds of every human being, as well as all of His own actions.  But being omnipotent, He can act in any way and do any thing He wants, including behaving in ways different from those he predicted, making his expectations uncertain and fallible.  He thus cannot be both omnipotent and omniscient.[11]

By demanding both omnipotence and omniscience, theists effectively are saying that God can make a square circle or a stone heavier than he can lift!  Robertson professes to be a Calvinist and therefore God has predetermined the destiny of everyone before they were even born.  Whether he wants to admit it or not, he simply cannot believe in miracles.  If God is omniscient, then he has known the course of every detail of history long before he instigated it and therefore cannot be omnipotent to intervene as he goes along.

Karen Owen’s limerick that Dawkins cites is worth repeating:

Can the omniscient God, who
Knows the future, find
The omnipotence to
Change His future mind?

Without having to examine the scientific evidence and remaining in one’s armchair, God is a logical impossibility.  If God knows everything that will happen in the future then he will not intervene as events unfold, so what is the point of praying?  Childish questions the apologist may cry, but what it has to say a great deal that children can and do pick holes in the stuff.

Robertson attempts justify the special privilege that religion is awarded in social conversation, claiming that matters of sexuality are also cordoned off in a similar manner by secularists in Britain and America.  He recounts cases from 2006 where Christian Unions at several British universities were censured for potentially encouraging homophobia.[12] Perhaps this next one is the “Humour? What humour?!” Robertson alludes to in the introduction, but it comes perilously close to pure bigotry:

The 150-strong CU in Birmingham was suspended for refusing to alter its constitution to allow non-Christians to preach at meetings and to amend its literature to include references to gays, lesbians, bisexuals and those of a ‘transgender’ sexuality (one wonders what the logic was for leaving out polygamists, bestialists and paedophiles?).

I’m not an easy person to offend, but lumping gays into the same category as paedophiles and bestialists crossed my boundary.  It is also completely ignorant of the sociological record.

On the contrary, it is thanks to those honest-speaking secularists that matters of sexuality have been brought fully into the public domain.  Thanks to years of honest conversation and scientific research, we now know that a person has as much choice of being gay or straight as they do of being black or white.  Thanks to the ever-shifting moral Zeitgeist, society has moved away from the view of Leviticus (let’s not forget, a book that also mandates the stoning to death of adulterers and insolent children), so that cases like Alan Turing, a brilliant mathematician and key figure in the World War II British code cracking centre of Bletchley Park, who committed suicide when faced with the choice of imprisonment or a course of compulsory hormone injections amounting to chemical castration which would have caused him to grow breasts, is now a shameful footnote in the history of humanity’s moral progress.  Rather like slavery, which by the way, the “Good Book” also mandates.[13]

Moral arguments

In writing this review and in preparation for our debate, I read not only Robertson’s book, but also a few that he recommends in his final letter to the reader.  I can now see that Robertson blames all the pain and suffering in the world as resulting from society’s abandonment of Christian values.  When people forget that we are all made in the image of God then it can only lead to the gulags and the killing fields.

Reading these books myself, I found this a very naïve, almost childlike interpretation of the causes of human suffering.  Robertson contends that Niall Ferguson’s study of 20th century conflict, The War of the World, presents a “stunning indictment of the failure of secularism and ‘science’ to bring peace on earth.”  I found Ferguson’s book to be a complex study of the economic, racial and political causes of modern conflict, barely mentioning religious faith (or lack thereof), except to point out that every European fascist leader was raised as a Catholic, and Christian Nazis and Serbs carried out sustained campaigns of rape in wartime every bit as much as godless Soviets.

Robertson also claims that Table Talk, a collection of Hitler’s private statements recorded in his Berlin bunker by his secretaries, is irrefutable proof of Hitler’s atheism, ignoring both the dubious reliability of the source itself[14] and Hitler’s repeated public professions of faith in God, Christ and Providence.[15] Robertson cites Ian Kershaw’s definitive two-part biography for further reading on Hitler’s atheism.  What he fails to mention is that Kershaw himself places serious caveats on the reliability of the Table Talk monologues.[16]

Robertson also argues that Hitler had the support of Germany’s scientists and intellectuals, whilst failing to acknowledge that the country’s universities were purged as soon as Hitler came to power in 1933 and many of her finest thinkers fled to avoid persecution (not least of whom was Albert Einstein), whilst their works were thrown onto bonfires.

However, there is a wider issue here.  Robertson seemingly makes the link between atheism and state sponsored genocide a priori without any discussion whatsoever with the additional factors of political dogmas every bit as dangerous as religious ones.  So what if these men were atheists?  Some of them were also vegetarians, had black hair and sported moustaches.  To make a direct link from atheism to Nazi Germany is like blaming it on the Germans as a people; ditto Stalinist Russia on peoples east of the Urals.

Robertson chides Dawkins for spending a mere six pages in TGD discussing the religious views of 20th century tyrants.  However, reading the works of objective, non-polemical historians such as Allan Bullock, Ian Kershaw and Niall Ferguson following the accusations of religious apologists, I am amazed how little space they use in discussing the religious views of the 20th century dictators.  This degeneration into cheap point-scoring ignores the true causes of human conflict.

The greatest crimes of the twentieth century argument does not depend on the perpetrators’ simple disbelief in a supernatural creator or opposition to organised religion; it was due to other extreme dogmas such as nationalism, communism and racial superiority thrown together in a potent cocktail that exploded with the help of modern technology.

Robertson’s reasoning is also self-contradictory.  He says in his book and YouTube videos that simply because a person does not believe in God does not make them less moral any more than it makes them less beautiful.  Yet he also tries to pin crimes against humanity on atheism precisely because they were committed by atheists.

Robertson contradicts himself yet again in response to Dawkins quoting abusive and threatening emails from Christians.  He states that these people cannot be Christians because they are threatening violence as opposed to turning the other cheek and using foul language.  Further on, however, he refuses to accept the same “reasoning” from atheists who apparently argue that Hitler and Stalin could not have been atheists because they weren’t rational people.  What do want to do with your cake; have it or eat it?

Robertson has ignored the second strand of Dawkins’ argument; whether atheism systematically influences people to do evil things.  There is not one shred of evidence that if a rational and sane person simply rejects the idea of a personal creator, who stands in judgement over all of us, will reward us with an eternity in paradise after we die if we are moral, and punish with an eternity in fire if we are not, or that the Bible is the infallible word of said creator, it will make them behave any worse.

Hitler and Stalin may or may not have been atheists, but they certainly weren’t secularists, humanists or rationalists.   I’m sure we could all topple the arguments for National Socialism if we put our minds it.  I’m equally certain that most people would struggle to accept that its founder and leader was a rational individual.   If he wanted a Thousand Year Reich, going to war with Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union simultaneously wasn’t really the best way to go about it.

Robertson repeatedly states that Christians have a greater respect for human life because they believe that we are all made in the image of God.  When played out in practice, this view is startlingly naïve.

What about the Amalekites, the Canaanites, the Hittites and the Midianites?  The Muslim women and children who were burnt alive by the Crusaders following the capture of Jerusalem?  The Jews who were victims of countless pogroms?  The heretics and witches who were burnt at the stake on the orders of the Church during a Europe-wide inquisition that went on for 500 years?  The Jews (again) who were sent to the gas chambers of Auschwitz by Nazi soldiers with “God is with Us” inscribed on their belt buckles?  The Northern Ireland Catholics and Protestants who were the victims of sectarian violence for being members of the “wrong” confession?  The Bosnian Muslims who fell at the hands of Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croatians?  The Tutsi who were slaughtered by the Hutu in Rwanda, for which may priests and nuns are now awaiting trial for genocide?  The victims of Joseph Koney’s “Lord’s Resistance Army” in Uganda?

Weren’t they all God’s creations as well?[17]

In attempting to argue that Christians lead the way in the shifting moral Zeitgeist, Robertson pulls out the familiar canard of the abolition of the slave trade.  Dawkins cites H G Well’s New Republic as well as T H Huxley’s toe-curling views on race as evidence that men who seen as progressive and liberal in their own times would be seen as racist bigots today.

Not so, according to Robertson.  Wells and Huxley were in fact arguing against the Zeitgeist pushed by the likes William Wilberforce and other Christians petitioning Parliament to abolish the slave trade in 1807 and slavery itself in 1833.

I am at an utter loss as to why Christians are so fond of citing abolition as evidence of the moral superiority of their faith when in fact scratching below the historical surface reveals them to be shooting themselves in the foot.

For starters, the Bible mandates slavery expressly and repeatedly.  God clearly expect us to keep slaves and even gives us helpful tips when we sell members of own families as such (Exodus 21: 7).  The Curse of Ham (Genesis 9: 20 – 27) was used for centuries in Europe to justify black African slavery.[18] Jesus never says a word against slavery and even passively endorses the practice by using slaves in some of his parables (Matthew 24: 48 – 51).  Paul tells slaves to serve their masters well and their Christian masters especially well so as to partake in their holiness (1 Timothy 6: 1 – 5).  Noted Christian theologians from Augustine[19] to Robert Lewis Dabney[20] defended slavery on a biblical basis.  Wilberforce and his followers were in fact on the wrong side of the theological argument.

Robertson claims that he would prefer to stick with the tried and tested morality of the Bible rather than the atheist Zeitgeist.  However, it is an embarrassment to anyone claiming that the Bible is the best book that we have on morality because by today’s standards it gets the question of slavery – something that had no moral content at the time it was composed – wrong.  This is clear evidence (if any were more needed) that this is a book of its time and contains nothing that could not have known or imagined by someone to whom a wheelbarrow would have been an exciting new example of emerging technology.

As usual, Sam Harris puts matters far more skilfully than I ever could: “Jews, Christians and Muslims claim that their Holy Books are so profound, so prescient of society’s needs, that they could have only been authored under direction the creator of the universe.  An atheist is simply someone who has considered this claim for a moment; read the books; and found the claim to be ridiculous.”

In addition, a little lateral thinking rather devalues the Wilberforce’s efforts for the faith.  This was the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the nineteenth.  Who was Wilberforce’s opposition?  Secular humanists?  No.  Godless Marxists?  No.  They were other Christians who were using exactly the same book to take the polar opposite position.  For every one Wilberforce, there was a hundred of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederate States of America, who argued in Congress on the eve of the American Civil War that God mandated slavery “in both Testaments from Genesis to Revelation”.[21]

Indeed, a founding member of the American Anti-Slavery Society was the great deist thinker, Thomas Paine.[22] Benjamin Franklin, the renowned atheist and contributor to the America Declaration of Independence and Constitution, was also a noted abolitionist.  If Wilberforce was motivated by his faith to make a stand against this grotesque and barbaric practice, it was about time.

Robertson also omits to mention that it was another 150 years before blacks began to be accorded equal rights with white people, certainly in America.  Dawkins quotes a speech by Abraham Lincoln in which the freer of the slaves makes clear that he was not advocating that blacks were in any way equal with whites.  If any eighteenth or nineteenth century Christian abolitionist truly argued that blacks were made in the image of God and were equal to whites, I have been unable to discover the fact.  Certainly Robertson provides no evidence for it.

What a wonderful world?

Robertson waxes lyrical in his book and on his YouTube videos that the sheer beauty of creation is overwhelming evidence for God.  He describes episodes of watching sunsets on the River Tay with his daughter and how you only have to open your eyes to see God incarnate.

I am becoming increasingly fond of the Argument from Evil.  I suppose it doesn’t disprove the existence of a god (after all, there’s no reason to presume that your god may be good[23]), but it certainly calls into serious question that if a god does exist whether he actually cares about his creation and is worthy of worshipping.

Put plainly, if God is supposed to be the most incomparably powerful, beautiful, awesome, loving, generous, perfect being, as per Robertson’s quote from American Calvinist theologian, Jonathan Edwards, then how come he made such a dreadful mistake?  If the world is not the way God wants it to be, then what in heaven’s name was he thinking in the first place?  If God is incapable of doing evil then where did evil come from?

When believers sing about how wonderful everything is, what they mean are the rivers and the oceans and the snow capped mountains and the stars and the indentations in the ears of newborn babies.

What about all the babies that are born everyday without limbs, or brains, or with cancer, or without a chance of living beyond a day?  In what mysterious ways is the Lord working when this happens?

If this creator exists, why doesn’t he take credit for the whole thing and all the misery and despair that goes with it?  Shouldn’t we be praising God for the earthquakes and the tsunamis and the cancer cell and the AIDS virus?  Aren’t they part of the divine plan as well?

Epicurus’ conundrum has never been answered, much less refuted, since he first posited it in Ancient Greece:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then he is not omnipotent.

Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.

Is he both able and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?

Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God?

Then again, if God does exist, he has let slip a real clanger:

I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things.

- Isaiah 45: 7[24]

Despicable creatures made in the image of their creator

Robertson has a truly bizarre view of the human condition.  While harping on about being made in the image of God, he nevertheless asserts that we are essentially “screwed up”.  Einstein’s right apparently; “we are a sorry lot”.

Further investigation into Robertson’s library goes some way to explain matters.  After all, was it was it not Robertson’s hero, John Calvin, who ran a theocratic police state in Geneva that perpetrated the burning of Jews and witches and also put to death the physician Michael Servetus for disagreeing with the tenants of Christianity?  Calvin certainly didn’t think that man was made in the image of God as the next passage makes abundantly clear:

We are all made of mud, and this mud is not just on the hem of our gown, or on the sole of our boots, or in our shoes.  We are full of it; we are nothing but mud and filth both inside and out.[25]

And let’s not forget that Calvin’s theory of predestination has us all damned from the outset if God so chooses:

…the eternal principle, by which [God] has determined what He will do with each man.  For He does not create equal, but appoints some to eternal life, and others to eternal damnation.[26]

John Knox, the founder of Robertson’s Presbyterian sect, condemned the physical world to be ungodly whilst Scottish Reformers rejected all earthly pleasures; physical, sexual or aesthetic.

Apologists may argue that the horrors of the Medieval Inquisition was a total abrogation of  Christian teaching by power-hungry men eager to use religion as a cover for their own despotic ends.  But the simple fact is that some of the mainstays of theological seminaries the world over set the “scholarly” groundwork for this by declaring that heretics must be either tortured, in the case of Augustine,[27] or killed outright as Thomas Aquinas reasoned.[28]

Robertson hails 18th century theologian, Jonathan Edwards, as “one of the greatest philosophical minds that America has ever produced”.  Nevertheless, Edwards followed in the footsteps of Calvin with this little gem:

[You are] a little, wretched, despicable creature; a worm, a mere nothing, and less than nothing; a vile insect, that has risen up in contempt against the majesty of the heaven and the earth.[29] [30]

But who created us all this way in the first place?  Who created Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot?  Who created Charles Manson, Peter Sutcliffe and Myra Hindley?  It really does disturb me what kind of being this creator can be if, as Robertson is so fond of saying, we are all made in his image.

According to Robertson’s world-view we are all worms, covered in filth, unworthy of our very existence for which we must still thank our creator.  But we can take heart.  We were all created in his image, he designed the universe with us in mind and he has a plan everyone.

That line by the poet Fulke Greville that Christopher Hitchens is so fond of quoting springs to mind: “Created sick, commanded to be sound.”

Science –v- religion

In order to show that there is no conflict between science and religion, Robertson trots out Robert Jastrow’s analogy about how a scientist scales a peak of ignorance after years of toil, only to reach the summit to discover that the theologians have been there for centuries.

If we dissect this statement for a moment, it turns out to be just another example of how religious people can invent a god to conform to the scientific evidence.  “Look, we’ve discovered evolution, we discovered DNA, and we’ve discovered the Big Bang.  We’ve discovered that we can’t take the Genesis narrative literally any more.  God is obviously far more ingenious than we first thought!”

In fact, the peaks of ignorance that scientists are attempting to scale are those imposed by theology.  It’s not all that long ago that people thought that disease and earthquakes were divine retribution for sin.   Thanks to science, we now have the miracles of germ theory and seismology.

And what exactly are the great theological achievements of history?  Isaac Newton was a devote Christian and actually wrote more extensively on theology than physics, but can anyone name his theological works?  Which would we prefer; that all scientific knowledge disappeared tomorrow or all theological writings were jettisoned?  I think I’ll firmly go for Option B.[31] [32]

On the second Unbelievable? debate against Adrian Hayter, Robertson made much of the fact that the full title to the first edition of The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin’s was On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.  “Darwin clearly believed in favoured races,” Robertson opined.

Here, Robertson commits the naturalistic fallacy of confusing what is with what ought to be.  Evolution is a scientific fact like gravity with no moral implications.  Species will replicate their genes by producing more offspring if their biological traits are more favourable to their physical surroundings.  Saying that evolution is immoral because it encourages eugenics is like saying that nuclear physics is immoral because it gave us the Bomb.

The common charge that Darwin advocated eugenics is completely wrong.  Darwin deplored eugenics and stated that such a programme would only ever have a contingent effect on the appearance of the human race.  This is the passage often quoted by creationists from The Descent of Man, first published in 1871:

With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated.  We civilized men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination.  We build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed and the sick, thus the weak members of civilized societies propagate their kind.  No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man.  Hardly anyone is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.

However, the passage in full shows that Darwin was deeply compassionate to the handicapped and was not in favour of any euthanasia programme:

With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health.  We civilised men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment.  There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small-pox.  Thus the weak members of civilised societies propagate their kind.  No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man.  It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.

The aid which we feel impelled to give to the helpless is mainly an incidental result of the instinct of sympathy, which was originally acquired as part of the social instincts, but subsequently rendered, in the manner previously indicated, more tender and more widely diffused.  Nor could we check our sympathy, if so urged by hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature.  The surgeon may harden himself whilst performing an operation, for he knows that he is acting for the good of his patient; but if we were intentionally to neglect the weak and helpless, it could only be for a contingent benefit, with a certain and great present evil.[33]

In 2008, the American TV presenter and charisma vacuum, Ben Stein, headed up the documentary-film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed.[34] The film was an effort to promote “Intelligent Design” (ID), the theory that life on Earth is too complex to be explained by evolution alone and in need of an external “designer” to assist the process.

Among its many crimes against intellectual honesty,[35] the film attempted to portray Hitler’s eugenics programme and the Holocaust as having been directly inspired by Darwin’s theory.  Stein quotes the first, highly selective passage, above from Descent of Man, in an effort to portray Darwin as advocating eugenics.

The Anti-Defamation League, an American Jewish pressure group dedicated to fighting anti-Semitism, issued the following statement regarding Expelled which is the first and last word against anyone claiming that Darwinian natural selection is in any way a direct link to eugenics or Social Darwinism:

The film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed misappropriates the Holocaust and its imagery as a part of its political effort to discredit the scientific community which rejects so-called intelligent design theory.

Hitler did not need Darwin to devise his heinous plan to exterminate the Jewish people and Darwin and evolutionary theory cannot explain Hitler’s genocidal madness.

Using the Holocaust in order to tarnish those who promote the theory of evolution is outrageous and trivializes the complex factors that led to the mass extermination of European Jewry.[36]

Robertson has also stressed that Dawkins’ mentor, the late biologist Bill Hamilton, secretly favoured a programme of eugenics and infanticide as a way of preserving the human race.  Whilst it is true that Hamilton,[37] along with plenty of other scientists, have advocated eugenics, this line of thinking is hardly systematic within the scientific community.  Indeed, while some geneticists were supporters of eugenics in the early 20th century, the movement drew on support from many sources, including the religious.  As the United Methodist Church recently stated in an apology for its support for eugenics:

Ironically, as the Eugenics movement came to the United States, the churches, especially the Methodists, the Presbyterians, and the Episcopalians, embraced it.  Methodist churches around the country promoted the American Eugenics Society “Fitter Family Contests” wherein the fittest families were invariably fair skinned and well off.  Methodist bishops endorsed one of the first books circulated to the US churches promoting eugenics.  Unlike the battles over evolution and creationism, both conservative and progressive church leaders endorsed eugenics.[38]

Opposition came from many quarters; some clergy, secular critics, and scientists spoke out against eugenics on social and scientific grounds.  Clarence Darrow, who famously defended the teaching of evolution in the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial, wrote a scathing attack on eugenics:

We have neither facts nor theories to give us any evidence based on biology or any other branch of science as to how we could breed intelligence, happiness, or anything else that would improve the race.  We have no idea of the meaning of the word ‘improvement.’   We can imagine no human organization we could trust with the job, even if [eugenicists] knew what should be done and the proper way to do it…  Amongst the schemes for [remoulding] society this is the most senseless and impudent that has ever been put forward by irresponsible fanatics to plague a long-suffering race.[39]

The late Harvard biologist Stephen Jay Gould was an outspoken critic of crude biological determinism and eugenics and his book, The Mismeasure of Man (1981), argued against misuses of science to support racist ideologies throughout history and demonstrated why modern evolutionary biology does not support these ideologies.

Robertson is decidedly non-committal on whether he himself actually believes in the scientific truth of Darwin.  He stands up for Stephen Layfield, the head of science at Emmanuel College, Gateshead, North East England, who Dawkins tears the proverbial new one in TGD for promoting “creation science” over evolution, by writing that Layfield has attracted Dawkins’ criticism for “daring to question evolution”.

However, Robertson only goes as far to say that “Layfield may or may not be wrong”.  Yet he also insists that Christianity explains evil and we are all descendants of Adam.  This is another flat-out contradiction since Darwinian evolution totally disproves the Biblical narrative.  Death, disease and suffering were all part of the natural order for millions of years before man came on the scene.  We never began in a perfect state only to fall from God’s grace.  We should stop worrying and get on with our lives rather than beating ourselves up over what is nothing more than a malignant fairy tale.

Dwelling on the question of why there is “something” rather than “nothing”, Robertson also drops in a suspicious quote from A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking which is presented on its own without any elaboration and frankly gives the impression that Hawking is a theist: “It would be very difficult to explain why the universe should have begun in just this way, except as the act of a God who intended to create beings like us.”

Paula Kirby put matters into their properly context:

[I] tracked down the quote in A Brief History of Time for myself.  It’s certainly there, as quoted.  However, it’s followed by a lengthy argument to the effect that the universe didn’t, in fact, begin in the “just this way” referred to in the quote, and that he believes a “no boundary” model to be more accurate — i.e. that the universe had no beginning at all.  In fact, Hawking’s whole chapter culminates in the words: “So long as the universe had a beginning, we could suppose it had a creator.  But if the universe is really completely self-contained [as he himself has just argued], having no boundary or no edge, it would have neither beginning nor end: it would simply be.  What place, then, for a creator?”

Now, maybe David Robertson was a little unfortunate here.  A Brief History of Time has the dubious distinction of having been hailed as the least read bestseller of all time, so he may well have felt safe in distorting Hawking’s opinions as expressed in it.  Still, such behaviour is a bit hard to reconcile with the Ninth Commandment, is it not?

The first draft of this review lambasted Robertson for rampant dishonesty.  However, in his replies to my piece on Jay Smith, Robertson stated that all he intended to say was literally that Stephen Hawking thought that is was difficult to explain the existence of the universe without a creator god, not that he thought that the universe was created by God which is why A Brief History of Time is such a dull book to read.

I nailed Peter S Williams in my review of his book I Wish I Could Believe In Meaning[40] for engaging in the same tactics, although of course Williams denied it with vague and unconvincing responses.[41] While I am no longer accusing Robertson of outright dishonesty, I still believe that this is a misappropriation of Hawking’s true opinions.

In this vein, I’d recommend Dawkins’ speech at the American Atheist Conference 2009 where he exposes apologists’ tactics of quoting-mining atheist scientists.[42] Pay particular attention to where he says that in The Blind Watchmaker (1986) he began a chapter stating that the explosion of fossils in the Cambrian period is so amazing, “It is as though the fossils were planted there without any evolutionary history.”  However, this was a piece of rhetorical overture intended to whet the reader’s appetite for what was to follow.  Sadly, it has been mined by apologists out to misrepresent Dawkins as doubting evolution.

In conclusion – a much needed gap

This review has turned out to be less critical than I had originally intended.[43] Our personal email correspondence has shown that Robertson is prepared to have his views scrutinised and challenged and is always up for a verbal punch up at the lectern, which is considerably more than most believers.

Nevertheless, there is little in The Dawkins Letters and its author’s public speaking that I as an atheist can recommend.  The main problem is that Robertson has a very bludgeoning style which means his opponents interpret his views in ways that he denies.

I am certain that he will feel that I have not represented his views fairly.  Richard Dawkins made similar comments following the publication of TGD that critics had read what their prejudices had expected see in the book as opposed to what was actually on the page.[44] I think the philosopher A C Grayling said it best in response to Intelligent Design theorist Steve Fuller’s protestations over Grayling’s negative review of Dissent over Descent:

Steve Fuller complains, as do all authors whose books are panned, that I did not read his book properly (or at all).  Alas, I did.[45]

Clearly the differences between evangelicals on both sides of the fence are enormous.  It’s not just a difference of opinion; it’s a difference of opinion regarding the other side’s opinions leading to yet more disagreements!  I suppose that’s why they call it a debate.

I will end with a word of praise by saying that Robertson is one of the most formidable, passionate and well-read apologists that I have ever come across.  That I have spent over seven thousand words refuting his work has to say something in itself.  It has happened so often, that after so many retorts, that believers abruptly end the conversation with one excuse or another.  Not Robertson.  I am certainly going to have my work cut out for me on the 21st July with him and Justin.

Bring it on.

Books cited or recommended

Bullock, A. (1993). Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives. London: Fontana Press.

Cornwell, J. (2008). Darwin’s Angel: An Angelic Riposte to The God Delusion. London: Profile Books.

Dawkins, R. (2007). The God Delusion. London: Transworld Publishers.

Ellerbe, H. (1995). The Dark Side of Christian History. Windermere, FL: Morningstar and Lark.

Ferguson, N. (2006). The War of the World: History’s Age of Hatred. London: Allen Lane.

Goldberg, D M. (2003). The Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Princeton, N J: Princeton University Press.

Harris, S. (2006a). The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason. London: Simon & Schuster.

Harris, S. (2006b). Letter to a Christian Nation: A Challenge to Faith. London: Bantam Press.

Hitchens, C.  (2007a). God Is Not Great: The Case Against Religion. London: Atlantic Books.

Hitchens, C.  (2007b). Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man. London: Atlantic Books.

Johnson, P. (1990). A History of Christianity. London: Penguin.

Kershaw, I. (1998). Hitler, 1889 – 1936: Hubris. London: Penguin.

Kershaw, I. (2000). Hitler, 1936 – 1945: Nemesis. London: Penguin.

McGrath, A E with McGrath, J C. (2007). The Dawkins Delusion? Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.

Paulos, J A. (2008). Irreligion: A Mathematician Explains How the Arguments for God Just Don’t Add Up. New York: Hill and Wang.

Robertson, D A. (2008). The Dawkins Letters: Challenging Atheists Myths. Fearn, Ross-shire: Christian Focus Publications, 2008 edition.

Stenger, V J. (2008). God, The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist. New York: Prometheus Books.

Williams, P S. (2009). A Sceptic’s Guide to Atheism: God Is Not Dead! Carlisle, Yorkshire: Paternoster.


[1] http://atheistblogger.com/.

[2] David Robertson –v- Adrian Hayter, “Challenging Atheist Myths – Part 1”, Unbelievable?, Premier Christian Radio, 21 March 2009:

http://media.premier.org.uk/unbelievable/6b8630e9-3500-4f57-8d54-5f5bb43c5fc7.mp3.

David Robertson –v- Adrian Hayter, “Challenging Atheist Myths – Part 2”, Unbelievable?, Premier Christian Radio, 28 March 2009: http://media.premier.org.uk/unbelievable/9fb7859e-bb89-483c-8e5b-663966ad7842.mp3.

[3] http://edthemanicstreetpreacher.wordpress.com/2009/04/25/an-open-letter-to-pastor-david-robertson/.

[4] http://edthemanicstreetpreacher.wordpress.com/2009/06/06/the-last-straw/.

[5] Richard Dawkins, “Lying for Jesus?”, RichardDawkins.net, 23 March 2008:

http://richarddawkins.net/article,2394,Lying-for-Jesus,Richard-Dawkins.

[6] http://edthemanicstreetpreacher.wordpress.com/2009/08/26/emails-david-robertson/.

[6] http://richarddawkins.net/fleas.

[7] http://www.stpeters-dundee.org.uk/node/13.

[8] RichardDawkins.net, 19 February 2008: http://richarddawkins.net/article,2285,Fleabytes,Paula-Kirby.

[9] For a wonderful depiction of this Sunday school classic, see NonStampCollector, YouTube, 29 May 2009: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pt66kbYmXXk.   I’d very much recommend viewing the rest of his material as well: http://www.youtube.com/user/NonStampCollector.

[10] For a terse but effective response to this style of apologetics, see P Z Myers, “The Courtier’s Reply”, Pharyngula, 24 December 2006: http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2006/12/the_courtiers_reply.php.

[11] Paulos (2008) 41.

[12] David Lister and Ruth Gledhill, “Students sue over Christian rights at colleges”, The Times, 18 November 2006: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/education/student/article640592.ece.

[13] The Skeptics Annotated Bible; “What the Bible Says About Slavery”:

http://skepticsannotatedbible.com/says_about/slavery.html.

[14] Richard C Carrier, “Was Catholic Hitler ‘Anti-Christian’? On the Trail of Bogus Quotes”, Freethought Today, Volume 19, Number 9, November 2002:  http://www.ffrf.org/fttoday/2002/nov02/carrier.php.

[15] Richard E Smith, “Religion and the Holocaust”, Freethought Today, March 1997: http://www.ffrf.org/fttoday/1997/march97/holocaust.html

[16] Kershaw (2000) 1024 – 1025: “The available German text is, therefore, at best a construct; neither the original nor the copy of that original exists…  [There is] no reliable German text whose authenticity can be placed beyond question.”

[17] The idea that we are all made in God’s image and he will pronounce the final judgement on everyone’s character after departing the earthly life met its natural conclusion in the early 1200s during Pope Innocent III’s crusade against the heretical Cathars.  When the crusaders fell upon the town of Beziers and the commanding legate, Arnaud, was asked how to distinguish Catholic from Cathar, he replied, “Kill them all, for God knows his own!”

[18] Goldberg (2003) passim.

[19] “And this is why we do not find the word slave in any part of Scripture until righteous Noah branded the sin of his son with this name. It is a name, therefore, introduced by sin and not by nature… The prime cause, then, of slavery is sin, which brings man under the dominion of his fellow – that which does not happen save by the judgment of God, with whom is no unrighteousness, and who knows how to award fit punishments to every variety of offence.” – Augustine, The City of God, Book 19, Chapter 15: http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/120119.htm.

[20] A Defense of Virginia and the South. New York: E J Hale and Son, 1867.

[21] Jefferson Davis, “Inaugural Address as Provisional President of the Confederacy”, Montgomery, AL, 18 February 1861, Confederate States of America Congressional Journal 1 (1861), 64 – 66; quoted in Dunbar Rowland, Jefferson Davis’s Place In History as Revealed in His Letters, Papers, and Speeches, Volume 1, (Jackson, MS: Torgerson Press, 1923) 286; quoted in Stenger (2008) 202 – 203.

[22] Hitchens (2007b) 28.

[23] Richard Dawkins, “The Theology of the Tsunami”, Free Inquiry, April/ May 2005, Volume 25, Number 3: http://richarddawkins.net/article,127,The-Theology-of-the-Tsunami,Richard-Dawkins.

[24] This passage is from those useless hacks who translated the King James Version blindfolded from the Torah, which was very sweet and cuddly in its original Hebrew, Rabbi Y Y Rubinstein.  Modern translations have “calamity” instead of “evil”.  I would have thought that “calamity” still covers death, disease, suffering…

[25] Jean Delumeau, Sin and Fear (1990) translated by Eric Nicholson, New York: St Martins Press, 27; quoted in Ellerbe (1995) 104.

[26] Delumeau (1990) 536; quoted in Ellerbe (1995) 99.

[27] Johnson (1990) 116: “We must not imagine that Augustine was necessarily a cruel man…  He thought that heretics should be examined ‘not by stretching them on the rack, not by scorching them with flames, or furrowing their flesh with iron claws, but by beating them with rods’.”

[28] “I answer that, With regard to heretics two points must be observed: one, on their own side; the other, on the side of the Church.  On their own side there is the sin, whereby they deserve not only to be separated from the Church by excommunication, but also to be severed from the world by death.  For it is a much graver matter to corrupt the faith which quickens the soul, than to forge money, which supports temporal life.  Wherefore if forgers of money and other evil-doers are forthwith condemned to death by the secular authority, much more reason is there for heretics, as soon as they are convicted of heresy, to be not only excommunicated but even put to death.” – Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Article 3 of Question 11 in the Secunda Secundae: http://www.newadvent.org/summa/3011.htm#article3.

[29] Jonathan Edwards, “The Justice of God in the Damnation of Sinners”, from The Works of Jonathan Edwards, A M, London: Henry G Bohn, 673; quoted in Ellerbe (1995) 106.

[30] Robertson (2008) 103, and Cornwell (2008) 77 – 84, berate Dawkins for relying on a paper by John Hartung on the basis that Hartung once wrote a positive review of Kevin MacDonald’s book A People That Shall Dwell Alone: Judaism as a Group Evolutionary Strategy because MacDonald is a suspected anti-Semite and was an expert witness for David Irving in his 2000 libel action against Deborah Lipstadt.  Having now looked into their bibliographies, the words “kettle” and “pot” spring to mind.

For the article they are criticising, see Dawkins (2007) 288 – 293; quoting John Hartung, “Love Thy Neighbor: The evolution of in-group morality”, first published in Skeptic, Volume 3, Number 4, 1995, 86 – 99, and Volume 4, Number 1, 1996, 24 – 31, which can now be accessed at: http://strugglesforexistence.com/pdf/LTN.pdf.

[31] See Richard Dawkins, “The Emptiness of Theology”, Free Inquiry, Spring 1998, Volume 18 Number 2: http://richarddawkins.net/article,88,The-Emptiness-of-Theology,Richard-Dawkins.

This superb piece by a qualified theologian who gives the “subject” the treatment it deserves: Edmund Standing, “Are the ‘New Atheists’ avoiding the ‘real arguments’?”, Butterflies and Wheels, 27 October 2007: http://www.butterfliesandwheels.com/articleprint.php?num=280.

[33] http://darwin-online.org.uk/.

[34] http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1091617/.

[35] http://www.expelledexposed.com/.

[36] http://www.adl.org/PresRele/HolNa_52/5277_52.htm.

[37] Andrew Brown, “Bill Hamilton”, Prospect, January 2003, which can now be read at: http://www.geocities.com/lclane2/hamilton.html.

[38] http://calms.umc.org/2008/Text.aspx?mode=Petition&Number=1175.

[39] Clarence Darrow, “The Eugenics Cult”, The American Mercury, Volume 8, June 1926, 137.

[40] http://edthemanicstreetpreacher.wordpress.com/2009/03/07/peter-s-williams-up-close-%e2%80%93-part-i/.

[41] http://idpluspeterswilliams.blogspot.com/2009/03/response-to-edward-turners-review-of-i.html.

[42] Richard Dawkins at American Atheists 09, RichardDawkins.net, 19 April 2009: http://richarddawkins.net/article,3752,Richard-Dawkins-at-American-Atheists-09,Richard-Dawkins.

[43] Coincidentally, while I was editing this piece, Robertson was far more bearable to listen to on David Robertson –v- Paul Orton, “The Moral Argument for God”, Unbelievable?, Premier Christian Radio, 13 June 2009: http://media.premier.org.uk/unbelievable/1aebbb26-1885-492b-b6d7-9c498d0766d0.mp3.

See also Robertson debate Alistair McBay of the National Secular Society, “Is faith in God a delusion?”, 23 September 2008, Edinburgh University: http://atheistdebate.org/.

[44] Richard Dawkins, “Honest Mistakes or Wilful Mendacity?”, RichardDawkins.net, 6 September 2007: http://richarddawkins.net/article,1610,n,n.

[45] A C Grayling, “Bolus of Nonsense”, NewHumanist.org, September 2008: http://newhumanist.org.uk/1881.

All web-based resources accessed 10 July 2009.


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