David Robertson’s Fleabytes: On Science and Faith

manicstreetpreacher is back.  Yeah, baby!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear David

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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7 Responses to “David Robertson’s Fleabytes: On Science and Faith”

  1. PaulJ Says:

    Welcome back MSP!

  2. Martin Says:

    Hi Ed

    Good to see you back and raring to go!

    Isn’t David Robertson about that whackiest whackjob the UK has to offer. He should really just decamp to Kentucky to start work on the replica noah’s ark!

    I suspect that it will not be long before something rather unpalatable surfaces about Mr Robertson.

    Best regards


  3. James Says:

    I only just stumbled upon your blog today, and this post made me laugh so much. Bravo, sir! I was raised as a Christian and forced to attend church every Sunday, and yet I don’t think I ever thought of the stories I was told as any different from the Andersen’s Tales or King Arthur myths I enjoyed. I wonder what makes a believer?

    I’m also interested in people who ‘relapse’ into religious traditions after years of agnosticism or atheism. I’m thinking here of Waugh’s Lord Sebastian Flyte, and also of Richey Edwards, who was apparently drawn back to Christian/Biblical ideas after attempting the rather disturbing, if sometimes effective, 12 steps programme at The Priory. Richey seemed to be fascinated, but also appalled by Christianity before his treatment for alcoholism etc., but I’ve read accounts that claim he was permanently in possession of, and eager to quote from, a Bible afterwards.

    Do you know of any psychological studies into the various reasons people may have for accepting religious traditions, or for succumbing to them after strong resistance? I wonder just how objective anyone can be in exploring this subject!

    • manicstreetpreacher Says:

      Thanks for your kudos, James.

      For further reading on the “If there is no God, why are some humans religious?” question, try Dan Dennett’s Breaking The Spell, Dean Hamer’s The God Gene, Lewis Wolpert’s Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast and Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained.

      As for succumbing to religious belief after years of atheism, that’s a tough one. But Lawrence Wright’s recent article in The New Yorker about how a lot of celebs and otherwise intelligent people get sucked into the Church of Scientology is well worth a read. See also his interview on MSNBC.

      More than enough to keep you going!

      I don’t deny the consoling power of religion for some people, especially in times of distress. Perhaps that is why Richey Edwards may have briefly turned to God before his final demise.

      However, we simply do not have a choice of about the existence facts. Just because a thought is comforting does not mean that it is true. As Sam Harris’ Refrigerator Sized Diamond Under Your Back Yard Gambit proves beyond doubt.


  4. James Says:

    Thanks for your help! I’m just reading the Lawrence Wright article now. It’s interesting to hear about a former Scientologist. I remain astounded that even the most desperate people could be drawn in by such inferior science fiction.

    Apparently, “THE ONLY WAY YOU CAN CONTROL PEOPLE IS TO LIE TO THEM. You can write that down in your book in great big letters. The only way you can control anybody is to lie to them.”

    • manicstreetpreacher Says:

      That’s partly what fascinates me so much about religion. How humans have a partition in their brains and that otherwise intelligent rational people who use and trust modern science day in, day out can vehemently believe in concepts that have no more evidential basis than fairies and unicorns, not to mention all the other thousands of gods in respect of which they are atheists like Krishna and Poseidon.

      To quote Sam Harris again, “You can be smart enough to build a nuclear bomb and yet still believe that you’ll get 72 virgins in paradise.”

      The urban myth about Scientology is that L Ron Hubbard bet his fellow sci-fi author and hardened atheist friend Arthur C Clarke that he could invent a religion himself and within a decade or two it would be a worldwide religion. If the story is true, it looks like Clarke had to pay up big time!

      Have you seen film The Book of Eli with Denzel Washington and Gary Oldman? !!!SPOILER ALERT!!! I don’t know why Oldman’s character is so desperate to get hold of a copy of the King James Version. He’s canny enough to invent his own religion that I’m sure the uneducated post-apocalyptic masses would swallow hook line and sinker!

  5. gil Says:

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