Afterthoughts: David Robertson

David Robertson


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

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

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

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

The moderator is Justin Brierley.

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

Lying for Jesus?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sex and the Holy City

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

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

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

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

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

However, this is no laughing matter when you consider:

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

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

In addition to:

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

The God-Shaped Hole

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


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

See also:

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


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

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

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

Dawkins –v- other atheists

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

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

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

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

Absolute morals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hitler’s Pope by John Cornwell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bulletin, Philadelphia, 27 September 2008

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

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

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

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

Christianity’s role in the Holocaust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Evidence that an atheist would accept for God’s existence

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

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

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

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

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

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

– George Carlin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reasonable faith based on evidence?  I think not.

And finally: purpose in life without God

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

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

– Christopher Hitchens

Books cited or recommended

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

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

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3 Responses to “Afterthoughts: David Robertson”

  1. Steven Carr Says:

    Didn’t good Cathlic countries like Ireland, Spain and Italy fight against Nazi Germany?

    Well, no.

    Did Robertson come up with any evidence for his child-killer god?

  2. PaulJ Says:

    So far I’ve listened to the first but not the second show. I was struck by the skewed perception Robertson and Morgan professed to have of – I wonder, in Robertson’s case, if the adverse reaction he receives is simply a result of the provocative nature of his posts.

    I used this programme as the basis for the first proper episode of my newly launched podcast, Skepticule. I also wondered if you, Ed, would like to be a guest – possibly via Skype – on a future episode. Though I admit that a podcast might be a bit of a come-down after real radio….

  3. manicstreetpreacher Says:

    Hello PaulJ

    Thank you for listening to the show and for your kind remarks. I hope you enjoy the second, which is a lot meatier!

    Yes, I would be delighted to take part in a podcast of your show through Skype. Feel free to contact me through this blog and we’ll arrange a date and time to record.


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