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, Adrian Hayter, on Premier Christian Radio’s religious debate show, Unbelievable?, 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. 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 which took the opportunity to slate several other apologists including Robertson for Lying for Jesus. I copied it to said apologists with a damning covering email, and guess what? Robertson was the only one to respond to my allegations.
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.
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, 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 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”. 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) 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. 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.
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. 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.
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 and Hitler’s repeated public professions of faith in God, Christ and Providence. 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.
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?
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. 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 to Robert Lewis Dabney 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”.
Indeed, a founding member of the American Anti-Slavery Society was the great deist thinker, Thomas Paine. 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), 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
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.
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.
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, or killed outright as Thomas Aquinas reasoned.
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. 
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. 
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.
In 2008, the American TV presenter and charisma vacuum, Ben Stein, headed up the documentary-film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. 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, 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.
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, 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.
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.
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 for engaging in the same tactics, although of course Williams denied it with vague and unconvincing responses. 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. 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. 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. 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.
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.
 David Robertson –v- Adrian Hayter, “Challenging Atheist Myths – Part 1”, Unbelievable?, Premier Christian Radio, 21 March 2009:
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.
 Richard Dawkins, “Lying for Jesus?”, RichardDawkins.net, 23 March 2008:
 RichardDawkins.net, 19 February 2008: http://richarddawkins.net/article,2285,Fleabytes,Paula-Kirby.
 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.
 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.
 Paulos (2008) 41.
 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.
 The Skeptics Annotated Bible; “What the Bible Says About Slavery”:
 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.
 Richard E Smith, “Religion and the Holocaust”, Freethought Today, March 1997: http://www.ffrf.org/fttoday/1997/march97/holocaust.html
 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.”
 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!”
 Goldberg (2003) passim.
 “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.
 A Defense of Virginia and the South. New York: E J Hale and Son, 1867.
 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.
 Hitchens (2007b) 28.
 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.
 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…
 Jean Delumeau, Sin and Fear (1990) translated by Eric Nicholson, New York: St Martins Press, 27; quoted in Ellerbe (1995) 104.
 Delumeau (1990) 536; quoted in Ellerbe (1995) 99.
 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’.”
 “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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 Andrew Brown, “Bill Hamilton”, Prospect, January 2003, which can now be read at: http://www.geocities.com/lclane2/hamilton.html.
 Clarence Darrow, “The Eugenics Cult”, The American Mercury, Volume 8, June 1926, 137.
 Richard Dawkins at American Atheists 09, RichardDawkins.net, 19 April 2009: http://richarddawkins.net/article,3752,Richard-Dawkins-at-American-Atheists-09,Richard-Dawkins.
 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/.
 Richard Dawkins, “Honest Mistakes or Wilful Mendacity?”, RichardDawkins.net, 6 September 2007: http://richarddawkins.net/article,1610,n,n.
 A C Grayling, “Bolus of Nonsense”, NewHumanist.org, September 2008: http://newhumanist.org.uk/1881.
All web-based resources accessed 10 July 2009.