manicstreetpreacher reviews I Wish I Could Believe In Meaning by Christian apologist, Peter S Williams, following their live debate at Liverpool University on 19 February 2009.
On 19 February 2009 I spoke in a live debate at Liverpool University against Peter S Williams of Southampton-based Christian group, Damaris, opposing the motion “Does the Christian God Exist?” The YouTube links will follow.
In preparation for the debate, I read many of Williams’ articles, listened to his debates and podcasts and read his two most recent books, I Wish I Could Believe In Meaning: A Response to Nihilism and A Sceptic’s Guide To Atheism: God Is Not Dead! The latter was not officially released until 27 February, over a week after our debate, but Mr Williams in all his good Christian nature emailed me the final proof in PDF a few days beforehand.
Unlike my earlier piece on my Premier Christian Radio debates against Andy Bannister, this essay is not intended as a “what I wish I’d said at the time”. Indeed, I am very happy with my performance against Williams. Of course there are a few things I would change if we were going to do it again, one or two places were I stumbled over my words, points I would like to have discussed more thoroughly if time had allowed, but for my first live debate I was more than happy with the way I acquitted myself.
These two essays are to expand on points which were raised in the debate and to provide a fuller analysis of my opponent’s written work.
I Wish I Could Believe In Meaning: A Response to Nihilism[i]
In which my antagonist sets out his reasons as to why the atheism of Richard Dawkins, Dan Dennett and Charles Darwin is deeply unsatisfying and that belief in God alone can provide meaning and purpose in people’s lives.
Except in relation to the latter he doesn’t. He quite simply does not.
There is not one argument, not one sentence, not one word, not one single syllable in support of Williams’ proposition that only belief in God in general and the Christian God in particular is either truthful, useful or meaningful. Perhaps because he knows he is preaching to his own choir, he takes it as read that his audience will have accepted the first premise and attempts to demonstrate that atheism is meaningless and with content.
The book is argued entirely negative terms: because the atheist world view provides no hope, no meaning and no purpose to life, it should be rejected in favour of theism. Alas, Williams offers no positive arguments is favour of theism, but simply attempts to show how unattractive he finds atheistic materialism.
The only justification Williams gives is a personal anecdote about when a women he spoke to at the launch party of his first book, The Case For God, said that she wished she could believe in God as her life might have some purpose and meaning. “Why don’t you?” was Williams’ reply to this poor lost little soul. What I want to know is “Why should I?”
Apologists seem to require reminding of this ad nauseum (not that it ever sinks in) that an argument for usefulness is in no way, shape or form an argument for truth. I’m sure the belief that Elvis will return from the dead/ alien captivity provides boundless hope and meaning to certain members of our society, but that is hardly going to persuade a rational sceptic of the truth of this proposition. As I read the book, I was increasingly convinced that “I Wish I Could Believe in Wishful Thinking” would have been a far more appropriate title.
The one (count it) interesting passage that had me thinking was Williams’ discussion of beauty: is it subjective or objective? Would the Mona Lisa still be beautiful if there were no human beings left on Earth to appreciate her?
Williams’ answer is that beauty must be objective since God is the final arbiter of such matters. However, Williams comes up short, merely asserting that David Hume’s subjective view of beauty that “one man’s meat is another man’s poison” means that sadomasochism might be beautiful to some people but personally, Williams doesn’t like that sort of thing very much.[ii]
My own view is that beauty is a manmade construct; an opinion, an emotive response, nothing more. If there was no-one left alive to appreciate a 24-carat diamond, then it would just exist as a piece of matter. And if I’m wrong and there is a God, how can we possibly know his mind? For all Williams knows, God may despise the roof of the Sistine Chapel, but on the other hand, think “A dead cow cut in half submerged in a tank? An unmade bed sodden with beer cans and used condoms? Now that’s art!”
Williams argues that objective morality can only come from God. God exists and he has the final say on matters of right and wrong.
Williams quotes J L Mackie’s The Miracle of Theism to suggest that even some atheists reject the idea that morality can be objective as this would provide evidence in support of the existence of God.[iii] (I must say that I read Mackie somewhat differently, but this is nothing compared to the abject quote-mining that litters the entire book, more of which later.) Williams also quotes agnostic philosopher Michael Ruse who argues that morals are a product of human evolution and therefore can only be subjective.[iv]
Williams makes assertions which sound great on paper but fall apart when given a small injection of reality. As I said in our debate, if there is an objective moral standard, if that objective moral standard is God and if the practice of slavery is objectively wrong, then why would God expressly and repeatedly mandate, regulate and justify it in the one book he thought was so important he dictated himself?[v]
When it comes to morality, I make an exception to my otherwise materialistic world-view. De facto morals are relative and subjective. There are practices in other parts of the world and practices of yesterday which we in Britain today quite rightly find abhorrent. However, I believe that there is an objective standard of morality which can only be realised through human conversation, philosophical debate and scientific research. Those who argue that objective morality can only be achieved through God still have all their work ahead of them.
The moral wrong of slavery is just as applicable to the people of first century Palestine while Paul was recommending the practice as it was in the nineteenth century whilst Abraham Lincoln and William Wilberforce were opposing it. Just as the existence of Australia was just as applicable to white Europeans before the continent was discovered by James Cook in the 18th century.
Of course I am really indulging in a meta-physical fiction – a spot of decidedly unatheistic wishful thinking – since as with beauty, there would be no morality if every member of the human race was dead. Furthermore, this objective standard will in all likelihood never be achieved, unless human progress reaches some sort of utopian endpoint where suffering and pain no longer exist.
Nevertheless, in the same way that geographical, physical and empirical facts such as the existence of Australia will only be discovered through human exploration, moral facts such as the evil of slavery can only be discovered by a similar process of research, debate and exchange of ideas.
No matter how much like chasing a rainbow this approach might seem, the alternative does not bear thinking about: saying that the actions of the 9/11 hijackers could never be said to be truly wrong, or worse; engaging in the kind of sloppy moral equivalence of the American Left in response to those attacks. We must be able to condemn the atrocities carried out by Islamo-fascists as wrong, full-stop. No ifs, no buts, no sickly relativistic maybes.
So why would an atheist justify an altruistic act or condemn an evil one? Quite simply an atheist does not need to refer his or her problems upwards. We view them for what they are and for their own sake. There is fulfilment in performing a good deed for its own sake, as opposed to doing it because an invisible Big Brother in sky wants you to do it. If we were endangered we would hope someone else would do the same thing for us.
Similarly, an atheist can easily abhor pain and suffering for its own sake. We object to the Holocaust because we would not like the same thing to happen to us. If we saw it happening in front of our eyes we would act to stop it. Or if we witnessed the aftermath, we would try to alleviate its effects.
When the Asian tsunami struck on Boxing Day in 2004, it was exactly these kinds of sentiments that took people of all faiths and none at all to the other side of the world to help ease the suffering of perfect strangers.
It’s amazing how far human solidity will get you and equally amazing how permission from the divine is unnecessary.
A humanist is, after all, someone who can be good when no-one is watching.
As a final point, if theists want to claim the one version of religious faith, they have to accept the other. Sure, there are many good deeds carried out in the name of religious faith, but there are also many atrocities that flow directly from it as well, and those don’t equalise at the margins as much as Williams would wish. Is there any wickedness, any evil, any atrocity that is denied to people who think they have God on their side?
Was it or was it not the American apologist, William Lane Craig, who stood at the very same lectern at Liverpool University as I did in March 2007 and rather obnoxiously argued that an atheist cannot say that torturing a child for fun is wrong?[vi]
Well, let’s just consider the flip side to that particular coin for a moment? We all have access to news outlets. Isn’t it so often the case that someone who will torture a child, maybe not for fun, but certainly because they believe they are objectively moral in so doing, will do it precisely because they think they have permission from God?
The smug assertion, trotted out so regularly by believers that an atheist cannot say that the God-ordered atrocities of the Old Testament were objectively wrong, falls down like a house of cards – like all religious reasoning – once matters are thought through a little more carefully.
Limited sources quoted to death
This might seem like a trivially aesthetic point, however, it is an important point against Williams’ writing style. The book relies so heavily on quotes from other sources that it’s almost as if Williams doesn’t really understand the arguments he is writing about, but is, but is just regurgitating the writings of his opponents and then countering them with those of his supporters.
That Williams is playing with the ideas of only about twenty different writers doesn’t help matters either. In the theist corner we have G K Chesterton, C S Lewis, Keith Ward, Michael Behe, William Dembski and William Lane Craig. In the atheist corner we have Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Charles Darwin, David Hume, J L Mackie and Michael Ruse. That’s not an exhaustive list, but there aren’t too many others. And Williams pads out the book with so many quotes from these writers that it’s impossible to know what Williams’ own views really are. I suspect Williams doesn’t know either.
In between the introduction and the concluding chapters, the footnote count is close to or exceeds one hundred references and some of the longer chapters have over two hundred! The chapters just grind on like a machine stuck in first gear until they fizzle out completely.
The book wheezes under the weight of third party material that there is absolutely no flow to Williams’ arguments; no beginning, no middle, no end.
Williams discredits himself badly with his abject support for “Design Theorists” Michael Behe, William Dembski and the other wedge-driving hacks at the ironically named Discovery Institute.
Williams argues that Intelligent Design (ID) is only concerned with detecting design in nature and not will the identity of the designer him/her/itself. Yeah right, Peter, who do you think you’re trying to kid? Admit it, ok. The designer is God! If not, then perhaps you would like to share with us other fledging scientific theories you are giving such passionate support to?
Anyone who has read Richard Dawkins’ treatment of Behe and ID in The God Delusion will read these passages with a withering sense of incredulity.[vii] I’m not a biologist, but without going into the finer points of information and the order in which proteins are arranged in a cell, I can see the fallacy in the ID argument a mile off. It is little more than a dressed up “God of the Gaps” argument: “I can’t explain how this works. Therefore it must be God.”
We have two theories: Theory A, evolution by Natural Selection, which has plenty of evidence to back it up. Theory B, an invisible intelligent designer, has no evidence. Here’s a scenario that Theory A seemingly can’t explain. Therefore, Theory A falls down like a house of cards and Theory B is the right answer by default.
It’s an incredibly bad piece of reasoning which gets you nowhere. It’s not all that long ago that people thought that disease and bad weather was God’s punishment for sin. These days, the number of people who rely solely on good behaviour and prayer over modern medicine to fight the elements is mercifully small.
And just who is this Intelligent Designer? Do you have his business card? For one thing, I’d really love to have a stern word with him over the fantastic “design” job he did on my hairline!
Humans are not the end product of evolution. We are not the products of an intelligent agent. The proof is in our own bodies. The reason why humans often suffer terrible back pain is because our spines are supporting 70% of our body weight on its own. Our spines are better suited to a species which should be still walking around on all fours. The fact that the human oesophagus shares the roles of swallowing and breathing means that humans are very susceptible to choking to death every time they eat. Some design, I would say.
It’s not just argument from the inadequacy of the designer as Williams so desperately contends.[viii] To accept that biological organisms were intelligently designed, you have to accept that the designer must have either been stupefying inept or incredibly callous and capricious and cruel.
Williams attempts to paint ID as a serious scientific argument that is gradually gaining credibility in the scientific community when in reality ID is a political ploy, an attempt to get creationism into school science classrooms by the back door. Williams cites respectable scientific journals which have purportedly published peer-reviewed articles advocating ID.[ix]
In fact, the history of peer-reviewed articles advocating ID is sparse to say the least! The amount of publish material advocating ID is outweighed by a week’s worth on Darwinian evolution.[x]
If you are looking for a very amusing field test of Williams’ views on ID, I can do not better than suggest a listen to his Premier Christian Radio debate against Peter Hearty, a member of the UK National Secular Society and a scientist who actually knows what he’s talking about. Hearty demolishes every single one of Williams’ assertions without a second thought![xii]
The faculty in the Department of Biological Sciences is committed to the highest standards of scientific integrity and academic function. This commitment carries with it unwavering support for academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas. It also demands the utmost respect for the scientific method, integrity in the conduct of research, and recognition that the validity of any scientific model comes only as a result of rational hypothesis testing, sound experimentation, and findings that can be replicated by others.
The department faculty, then, are unequivocal in their support of evolutionary theory, which has its roots in the seminal work of Charles Darwin and has been supported by findings accumulated over 140 years. The sole dissenter from this position, Prof Michael Behe, is a well-known proponent of “intelligent design.” While we respect Prof Behe’s right to express his views, they are his alone and are in no way endorsed by the department. It is our collective position that intelligent design has no basis in science, has not been tested experimentally, and should not be regarded as scientific.[xiii]
Then again, Behe destroyed his own reputation in the Kitzmiller –v- Dover P A trial when he admitted under cross-examination that ID could only be construed as a theory only in a very loose sense, placing it in the same category as astrology! For a summary of Kitzmiller, I recommend the excellent documentary, Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial.[xiv]
I think now, ID has all the credibility of the theory that the movements of the planets dictate our lives.
Maybe I’m guilty of idolatry in relation to certain atheist writers, but as I read the quotes which peppered I Wish I Could Believe In Meaning and the way which Williams was attempting to use their own words against them, I thought, “That doesn’t sound like the Richard Dawkins/Dan Dennett/Charles Darwin I know!”
I sourced the quotes from their original texts myself and exactly as I suspected, Williams is engaging in that disgraceful, dirty and dishonest tactic known as “quote-mining”. He takes certain quotes wholly out of context to make it appear that either the authors doubt their own views or they have a faith-based commitment to Darwinian evolution as a means of justifying their non-belief in God.
For the debate, I created a whole list of examples of this disgraceful tactic by my opponent. On the night, I had no cause to use them, but I present two examples here to give an impression of what I mean.
1. Williams quoting Richard Dawkins:
Even if there were no actual evidence in favour of Darwinian theory we should still be justified in preferring it over all rival theories.[xv]
The full passage from The Blind Watchmaker is as follows:
Instead of examining the evidence for and against rival theories, I shall adopt more of an armchair approach. My argument will be that Darwinism is the only known theory capable of explaining certain aspects of life. If I am right it means that, even if there were no actual evidence in favour of Darwinian theory (there is of course) we should still be justified in preferring it over all rival theories.
One way to dramatise this point is to make a prediction. I predict that, if a form of life is ever discovered in another part of the universe, however outlandish and weirdly alien that form of life may be in detail, it will resemble life on Earth in one key respect: it will have evolved by some form of Darwinian natural selection. Unfortunately, this is a prediction that we shall, in all probability, not be able to test in our lifetimes, but it remains a way of dramatising an important truth about life in own planet.
The Darwinian theory is in principle capable of explaining life. No other theory that has ever been suggested is in principle capable of explaining life. I shall demonstrate this by discussing all rival theories, not the evidence for or against them, but their adequacy, in principle, as explanation for life.[xvi]
2. Williams quoting Daniel Dennett:
I have learned from my own embarrassing experience that how easy it is to concoct remarkably persuasive Darwinian explanations that evaporate on closer inspection.[xvii]
The full passage from Darwin’s Dangerous Idea is as follows:
The ideas expressed in this book are just the beginning. This has been an introduction to Darwinian thinking, sacrificing details again and again to provide a better appreciation of the overall shape of Darwin’s idea. But as Miles van der Rohe said, God is in the details. I urge caution alongside the enthusiasm I have hope I have just kindled in you. I have learned from my own embarrassing experience that how easy it is to concoct remarkably persuasive Darwinian explanations that evaporate on closer inspection. The truly dangerous aspect of Darwin’s idea is its seductiveness. Second-rate versions of the fundamental ideas continue to bedevil us, so we must keep a close watch, correcting each other as we go. The only way of avoiding the mistakes is to learn from the mistakes we have already made.[xviii]
In another place Williams quotes from the sixth edition of Charles Darwin’s On The Origin Of Species by splicing two lines together from different pages of the book![xix] The first part of Williams’ quote actually comes further along by some 20 pages in Darwin’s book on than the second part![xx]
This disgraceful tactic should speak for itself without any further comment from me. Right from my first experiences of debating with apologists, I am no longer surprised at such below-the-belt tactics. I wouldn’t trust their word if one of them told me Richard Dawkins’ views on the colour of an orange.
I thought this was a thoroughly lacklustre effort; bloated with quotes from other sources, reaching its conclusions without offering any arguments in support, grossly misrepresenting the atheistic world-view and repeatedly stooping to the depths of misquoting famous atheistic thinkers.
An extra half star for getting me to think about the objectivity/subjectivity of beauty but otherwise the film critic, Leonard Maltin, would rank this one as a “BOMB”.
1.5 stars out of 5
Books cited or recommended
Dawkins, R. (2007). The God Delusion. London: Transworld Publishers.
Dawkins, R. (2007). The Blind Watchmaker. London: Penguin.
Dennett, D C. (2006). Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. London: Penguin.
Mackie, J L (1990). The Miracle of Theism: Arguments for and against the Existence of God. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Williams, P S. (2004). I Wish I Could Believe In Meaning: A Response to Nihilism. Southampton: Damaris Publishing.
[ii] Williams (2004) 240.
[iii] Williams (2004) 64.
[iv] Williams (2004) 121.
[vii] Dawkins (2006) 156 – 161.
[viii] Williams (2004) 136 – 140.
[ix] Williams (2004) 425, 452.
[xv] Williams (2004) 118 – 119.
[xvi] Dawkins (2006) 287.
[xvii] Williams (2004) 430.
[xviii] Dennett (2006) 521.
[xix] Williams (2004) 418.
[xxii] Williams (2004) 431.
All web-based resources retrieved 1 March 2009.