manicstreetpreacher reviews A Sceptic’s Guide to Atheism 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 against Peter S Williams of Southampton-based Christian group, Damaris, opposing the motion “Does the Christian God Exist?” The YouTube links to the debate 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 essays are to expand on points which were raised in the debate and to provide a fuller analysis of my opponent’s written work.
A Sceptic’s Guide to Atheism: God Is Not Dead![i]
This is marginally better than Williams’ last effort, I Wish I Could Believe In Meaning, if only because Williams doesn’t plumb to the depths of deliberately misrepresenting his opponents. However, it suffers from the same problems of being saturated with quotes from other writers whilst not giving any inkling of what Williams himself actually believes.
Williams rightly points out that his book will be dubbed a “flea” as per Richard Dawkins’ pithy response to apologists writing book-length rebuttals to The God Delusion.[ii] Having read theologian Alistair McGrath’s The Dawkins Delusion? (What’s with that title?! You hold a chair at Oxford University for heaven’s sake, man. Grow up!) and John Cornwell’s Darwin’s Angel, as well as Paula Kirby’s outstanding review of four of the Christian responses to The God Delusion, “Fleabytes”,[iii] it appears that Williams’ effort falls into exactly the same trap as the others in that it focuses so hard on trying to discredit the Four Horsemen that it neglects to defend and/or promote Christianity at all.
As with I Wish I Could Believe In Meaning, there is not a single argument/ sentence/ word/ syllable in support of God and Jesus! As with his previous book, Williams takes it all for granted and sets about attacking straw man versions of his opponents. The result is unlikely to change the minds of anyone who has sided with the Dawkins & Co. and might well put off those whose belief in Christianity is wavering towards the New Atheism.
Boxing match commentary
Williams opens with a blow-by-blow account of the criticisms of the New Atheist writers from Christians and other atheists. He throws in a barrage of negative reviews, disparaging quotes, ad-hominem insults and mixes it up with criticisms from other atheists, in-group squabbles, finishing off with Sam Harris’ speech at the AAI Conference 2007 where Harris argued that perhaps the atheist label was doing us few favours.[iv]
So atheists disagree with each other’s ideas. So what? This is what we mean by the phrase “herding cats”. At least our disagreements are confined to the written page and the debater’s lectern. We’re not blowing up each other’s churches and mosques or flying planes into buildings.
Wet lettuce philosophising
Williams’ arguments for the existence of God are mainly limited to the philosophical musings of Aquinas, Anselm and Plantinga. He rates the post-Anselm Ontological Arguments very highly; a truly ominous sign.
The Ontological Argument is little more than a footnote on philosophy courses; a brave attempt of historical interest only. Even many theologians admit that the arguments for God’s existence are not to be seen as hard and fast proofs: they are justifications if you already believe. They are totally circular and self-refuting and amount to verbal and logical sleights of hand; an attempt to argue something into existence for which you have no physical proof. As Kant argued in Critique of Pure Reason, you cannot prove anything (other than an abstraction) by use of sheer logic.
In his debate with Christopher Hitchens, Rabbi David Wolpe tellingly admitted that he taught theology at seminary for years and would run through all the arguments for God’s existence in lectures. Not once in all that time did a student come up to him after the lecture and say, “Rabbi, I was a hardened atheist before I came into this class, but now thanks to you, I believe!”[v]
This was perfect example of how differently we approach the matter. Williams argues from inside the theological “bubble” in accepting the initial premise and the conclusion before anything else and then proceeds to make mere assertions in support of his arguments. I on other hand operate very much outside the theological bubble, which bursts all too easily when any outside evidence is introduced.
Final confirmation the scale of the problem came during Williams’ opening address in our debate when he flashed up a PowerPoint slide showing C S Lewis’ “Lunatic, Liar, or Lord?” conundrum in flowchart(!) form. (Naturally, a quick dose of theistic logic conclusive proved Option Three to be true!) My approach to the problem is questioning Jesus’ very existence as a real person, never mind his claims to divinity.
Williams’ refutation of Dawkins’ arguments about religious experiences being explained as hallucinations and tricks of the mind is laughable. Firstly, Williams accuses Dawkins of not properly defining a religious experience before going onto quote Dawkins’ very definition (“a ghost or an angel or a Virgin Mary”) and then goes onto to assert that just because some religious experiences are hallucinations, doesn’t automatically mean that they all are.[vi]
Right, so it’s just Christian religious experiences that are genuine and all visions of Allah and Krishna must be filed in the drawer labelled “mind-torched whack-job”?
But as I set out below, the question of whether the philosophical arguments for God’s existence actually succeed is not even half of the argument.
Other people’s opinions
As with Williams’ previous book, A Sceptic’s Guide to Atheism is stuffed full of quotes from roughly ten writers a piece representing each side of the debate. Whilst not quite as bad as I Wish Could Believe In Meaning, the footnote count of the end of each chapter is often over one hundred. The book is crammed with quotes from others that if we did a word-count of the text, Williams’ own words could well be in the minority!
Williams simply doesn’t give himself enough breathing space to let his own views show, as though he is afraid to express them properly. Instead of explaining the flaws in the atheists’ arguments, he simply quotes other writers who have criticised them and even then, we don’t get a flavour of what the rebuttals actually are, we just get ad-hominems from Keith Ward and Alvin Plantinga saying that if Dawkins’ book was handed in by a first year university student it would receive an “F” blah, blah, blah. A little elaboration would go a long way.
Indeed, it is not even clear whether Williams has actually read some of the books himself. He cites other writers who have replied to the American physicist Victor Stenger’s God, The Failed Hypothesis yet he never discusses Stenger’s book himself, much less explores the objections to it. It’s as though he hasn’t bothered to read and understand the books for himself; it is sufficient if someone else he knows about has criticised the book and the matter can be left there.
This wholly inadequate style of arguing came to the fore in our live debate. I used David Hume’s essay, “Of Miracles” from An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding in my opening address to discredit the eye-witness accounts of Christ’s miracles. I set a direct challenge for Williams to refute Hume’s reasoning, stating that apologists have spent the following 250 years unsuccessfully trying to worm their way out it.
After all, if David Hume’s treatment of miracles is as fallacious as you have contend in this book, Peter, then you should have no problem knocking it over in less than thirty seconds, should you? But no, as with his latest book, Williams simply regurgitated a line from Hume’s Abject Failure by John Earman about how terrible Hume’s argument is, and then utterly failed to explain exactly what is so terrible about it.[vii]
Not good enough. Doesn’t even get out of the starting blocks.
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[viii] did McGrath say a word in public to admonish the Right Reverend Graham Dow for his unsophisticated take on matters? Like hell he did!
A conflict with science?
Nowhere does Williams’ evasive style show more than in his treatment of the conflict between science and religion. You’ve guessed it! He throws in a lot of quotes from theologians asserting that there is no conflict between the two disciplines but offers absolutely no arguments or evidence in support.
There’s no discussion about attempts by the religious lobby to block potentially life-saving stem cell research or attempts to teach junk-science and creationism to school children. There’s not even a hint of science’s capacity to determine the authenticity of religious relics such as the Shroud of Turin.
Unforgivably, Williams plays down the trial of Galileo by the Inquisition, quoting others who reckon his incarceration was not due so much to his heretic discoveries in relation to planetary movements, but due to personal animosities with Church leaders themselves. Perhaps our intrepid apologist should re-familiarise himself with Augustine:
There is another form temptation, even more fraught with danger. This is the disease of curiosity. It is this which drives us to try and discover the secrets of nature, those secrets which are beyond our understanding, which can avail us nothing and which man should not wish to learn.
There’s not even a moment’s consideration given to the possibility that the origins of our cosmos and life on Earth is as much gap in our scientific knowledge today as the causes of disease was in Leonardo Da Vinci’s time. No, instead Williams piles quote-upon-quote regarding the high improbability of the first single-celled life form arising on Earth.
Thankfully, there are scientists who are not prepared to give up in the face of uncertainty, but are prepared to battle on in the face of the odds. These scientists may not pen New York Times bestsellers, but they are hard at work in laboratories, toiling away in obscurity and their work is responsible for the kind of life-saving discoveries that you and I depend on to live.
There’s less talk of Intelligent Design than Williams’ previous effort and the book is all the better for it. Unsurprisingly, Williams omits to mention Darwin’s Black Box author and “Design Theorist” Michael Behe’s public humiliation at the hands of plaintiff counsel, Eric Rothschild, in the Kitzmiller –v- Dover P A case.
Nevertheless, Williams won’t leave Darwin alone without lobbing a few pebbles. He cites the infamous statement pimped by the Discovery Institute that 300-plus scientists have signed as evidence of a growing opposition to Darwinism:
We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged.[ix]
However, American physicist, Victor Stenger, puts a somewhat different spin on matters:
Note that “intelligent design” does not appear in the statement. In fact, it is rather a mild expression of scepticism, always a reasonable scientific attitude, and a gratuitous call for careful examination of the evidence of Darwin’s theory – unnecessary because this has been the rule in evolution science since Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle. Indeed, Darwin’s work still serves as an exemplar of the best in empirical and theoretical science, and is one of the most strenuously tested.[x]
A bit of Monty Python-esque evasion
Perhaps it is too sweeping to say that Williams did not tackle the question of whether the preaching of hell to children constitutes child abuse. He does at least address the question of preaching hell to children, stating that children ought to be told compassionately that there is a very nasty place, a flip-side to heaven, that they will go as punishment for rejecting JC as their personal saviour, but this should be done as a deterrent from the risk harm; rather like warning them of electrocution if they put their fingers into a plug socket.[xi] Right.
Nevertheless, in our debate, during the audience Q & A, Williams floundered saying that Christians have long debated what hell really is and there is no clear consensus among the scholars etc. etc. I now sympathise with Christopher Hitchens when he says that it’s next to impossible to get a straight answer out of believers as to what they really believe.
Why don’t believers just come clean and tell me that as an atheist who refuses to recognise the public torture, execution, and resurrection of a person that took place 2,000 years before I was born, on the other side of the world (and a particularly backward and barbaric part of the world at that), which I didn’t ask for, and would have tried to prevent had I known anything about, I am going to roast for eternity in Satan’s boiler-house along with all the other miserable sinners weeping and gnashing their teeth?
And finally… a half-hearted defence of the historical Jesus
The closest Williams comes to defending the actual truth of the Christian doctrine comes at the end with an appendix setting out the historical evidence for the life of Jesus Christ.
Yet again he throws in a quote from Dawkins’ section from The God Delusion about the historical unreliability of the Gospels and then counters it with a far more positive statement from Human Genome Project leader and born-again Christian, Francis Collins, and thinks this is an effective response![xii]
However, Williams never deals with the substance of Dawkins’ objections to the Gospels: the scant biographical details of Jesus in the epistles of Paul, the internal contradictions between the Gospels in just about every detail of Jesus’ life, the historical impossibility of Luke’s attempt to triangulate the story with the true historical context of First Century Palestine under the Romans, the ludicrous fabrication of an empire-wide census that required the population to return to the home town of distant ancestors, the blatant ripping off of just about all of the supernatural elements of the story from other religions in existence in the Mediterranean and Near-East region at the time.[xiii]
In my opening address in our debate, I raised many of these objections and yet again, Williams did not substantively reply to them; he just threw in more quotes from other writers.
In his book Williams waxes lyrical about the number of original New Testament documents that exist compared to recordings of other historical events and the writing of Greek philosophers.[xiv] This is little more than an argument based on strength of sales. Is anyone going to argue that Dan Brown’s work is more truthful and more intelligent than Aristotle’s simply because he has sold more copies?
Williams also uses questionable extra-biblical sources in support of the Jesus myth, citing Thallus, Piny the Younger, Tacitus and Lucian of Samosata.[xv] True to form, Williams does not elaborate further on exactly how these accounts support the New Testament; he just expects the reader to go to the experts.
In fact, these accounts were written long after the “events” by writers born long after the “events”, are mainly limited to describing early Christian practices and are mainly based on the New Testament accounts themselves.
Thallus never wrote a word about Jesus; Lucian of Samosata wrote a satire, not anything remotely historical; Tacitus does not even mention the name “Jesus” and his reference to “Christus” means he almost certainly received his information from Christians, or Pliny the Younger, who in turn came by it from Christians he had tortured.
But in the end, this section does not even come close to a defence of the faith, let alone a promotion of it. There is not a word, for example, on the questionable morality of vicarious atonement for sin by human sacrifice or even a reason as to why the Bible might be more valid than the Koran.
This one is worth an extra half star for not being quite as deliberately dishonest as I Wish I Could Believe In Meaning, but that hardly ranks as a compliment, much less a recommendation.
Indeed, based on these two works, and my debate against him, Williams perfectly befits the description he so eagerly applies to Richard Dawkins: an emperor who is looking rather scantily clad.
2 stars out of 5
Books cited or recommended
Cornwell, J. (2008). Darwin’s Angel: An Angel Riposte to The God Delusion. London: Profile Books.
Dawkins, R. (2007). The God Delusion. London: Transworld Publishers.
Hume, D. (2007). An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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.
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 Sceptics Guide to Atheism: God Is Not Dead! Carlisle, Yorkshire: Paternoster.
[iii] Paula Kirby, “Fleabytes: A review of 4 books written in response to The God Delusion”, RichardDawkins.net, 19 February 2008: http://richarddawkins.net/article,2285,Fleabytes,Paula-Kirby.
[iv] Sam Harris, “The Problem with Atheism”, Atheist Alliance International 2007, Richard Dawkins.net: 25 October 2007: http://richarddawkins.net/article,1805,Sam-Harris-at-AAI-07,RichardDawkinsnet.
[v] Christopher Hitchens –v- Rabbi David Wolpe, “Is religion Good for the world?”, RichardDawkins.net, 5 November 2008: http://richarddawkins.net/article,3304,Hitchens-Debates-Rabbi-Wolpe-on-God,NY-Times.
[vi] Williams (2009) 177 – 178.
[vii] Williams (2009) 231.
[viii] Jonathan Wynne-Jones, “Floods are judgment on society, say bishops” The Daily Telegraph, 2 July 2007: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1556131/Floods-are-judgment-on-society-say-bishops.html.
Thomas Sutcliffe, “When is a bishop like a suicide bomber?”, The Independent, 3 July 2007: http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/columnists/thomas-sutcliffe/thomas-sutcliffe-when-is-a-bishop-like-a-suicide-bomber-455675.html.
[ix] “Doubts Over Evolution Mount With Over 300 Scientists Expressing Skepticism With Central Tenet of Darwin’s Theory”, Discovery Institute, April 1, 2004: http://www.discovery.org/scripts/viewDB/index.php?command=view&id=2114.
[x] Stenger (2008) 61.
[xi] Williams (2009) 77.
[xii] Williams (2009) 217 – 218.
[xiii] Dawkins (2007) 117 – 123.
[xiv] Williams (2009) 219 – 220.
[xv] Williams (2009) 228.
Special thanks to Steven Carr: http://www.bowness.demon.co.uk/.
All web-based resources retrieved 1 March 2009.