Posts Tagged ‘faith’

Update to Hitchens on Free Speech


I have today added the following text to my post of Hitchens’ speech to the University of Toronto in 2006 proposing the motion “freedom of speech includes the freedom to hate”.

UPDATE: 03/08/2013

I am currently drafting an epic post reviewing all of Hitchens’ public debates available to see/hear on the Internet and have finally come across the full version of this debate.

It looks as though Hitch was debating students from the University of Toronto (as opposed to other prominent writers and public commentators) and was given twice as much speaking time as his opponents (!).


Reza Aslan debates Sam Harris on religion and reason


MP3 audio

Since Reza Aslan’s recent appearance/ultra-conservative, reactionary, right-wing hatchet job on Fox News discussing his new book on the historical Jesus, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth has gone viral in the last week, I thought now would be a good time to re-examine Aslan’s debate with Sam Harris on religion and reason in the modern world in 2007.

The debate was held at the Los Angeles Public Library on 25 January 2007 and was moderated by American-Jewish lawyer, author and public commentator, Jonathan Kirsch, (who in reality turned out to be a second debating opponent for Harris!).

The outcome of the encounter is probably best described as a “draw” since I don’t believe a neutral observer would be persuaded by one commentator’s view over the other.  Obviously, I agree with Harris’ position and therefore would award the debate to him, but I don’t believe that he exposed the fatuity of Aslan’s views as he has done with other opponents.

Aslan is clearly an intelligent and well-read man; at times too intelligent for his own good.  He makes grandiose ad hominems against Harris’ method by accusing him of taking his view of Islam from “Fox News”, when in fact Harris has based his views on peer-reviewed sociological studies and opinion polls that prove “extremist” religious views are far more widely held than Aslan is prepared to admit.

Although Aslan holds himself out as a Muslim, deep down, I suspect that he is really an atheist who fits Daniel Dennett’s idea of someone who “believes in belief in God”.  Yet his thoughtful, allegorical approach to the scriptures is exactly the kind of religious moderation that Harris exposes as providing cover for the extremists and on a proper reading of the texts is intellectually and theologically bankrupt.

If Aslan’s subtle, scholarly, nuanced brand of religion was truly the mainstream; Harris would not have felt the need to write his books attacking religion and indeed the horrific acts which Harris decries such as 9/11 would not have happened.

Alas, not all religious people display such a profooowwwnd sophistication and experteese.

Richard Bauckham and the Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony





manicstreetpreacher proffers his heretical, unscholarly opinion of Anglican New Testament historian, Richard Bauckham, after hearing his debate on Premier Christian Radio’s Unbelievable?, 29 August 2009.

Richard Bauckham -v- James Crossley on the Gospels as eyewitness testimony, Part I, Unbelievable?, Premier Christian Radio, Saturday, 29 August 2009

I’ve just finished listening to the first debate between Richard Bauckham and James Crossley and found it to be the same old circular, assertive, self-opinionated and ultimately frustrating and unconvincing mode of thinking that leads me to conclude that theology and biblical scholarship are not really subjects at all.  Bauckham, author of Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, committed the usual mistake of assuming that Jesus and all the other characters actually existed and the basic narrative of the Gospels is in some sense historically true and proceeding from there.

Bauckham mentioned Paul’s account of five hundred people seeing Jesus ascending in heaven (1 Corinthians 15:6), but failed to acknowledge the fact that Paul mentions very few other details about Jesus’ life and nothing was written down until the Gospel of Mark, a full 50 to 60 years after the supposed crucifixion.  As an aside, Acts 1:15 states that the number of witnesses who saw Jesus before the ascension was 120, so which account is the more accurate?   (For more in a similar vein, see Skeptics Annotated Bible: Contradictions and Self-Contradictions in the Bible by William Henry Burr.)

Bauckham also put great trust in the Gospel of Luke.   What he omits to mention is that Luke messes up his historical dates in relation to the nativity something rotten and fabricates a Roman census with the ludicrous obligation for the populous to return to the town of their ancestry to be registered in order to fulfil the prophesy that the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem.   As Robin Lane Fox summarises in 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.  (London: Penguin, 2006, p. 31)

These are very straightforward objections raised by “New Atheists” Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.  Critics chide them for relying on “unscholarly” sources, but this amounts to little more than ad hominems against bibliography as a means of avoiding answering their actual objections.

Personally, I don’t think the single man Jesus of Nazareth actually existed.  My two-pence is that the character is based on several eccentric preachers doing the rounds in 1st century Palestine, and there were no shortage of those.  Perhaps one stood out more than others, but we simply don’t have enough evidence to be certain.  As American mathematician, John Allen Paulos, points out in his superb little bastion of common sense, Irreligion, we are used to reserving judgement on events that happened within recent memory for which we have far more of contemporary documentation and living eyewitnesses to hand.  Let’s take the Watergate scandal for example: we still don’t know who ordered what and are prepared to reserve our final opinions until conclusive evidence comes to light.

The fact that the debate over the historical Jesus has been so long running and scholarly opinion so varied has to say something in itself.  I recently read Who On Earth Was Jesus? by Quaker humanist writer and former World In Action journalist, David Boulton.  I was interested to read about J P Meier’s multi-volume study of the historical Jesus, A Marginal Jew, since first time I appeared on Unbelievable?, my theologian opponent, Andy Bannister, mentioned it.

Meier’s “Criterion of Embarrassment” particularly fascinated me: the more difficulties the stories would have caused for the early church, the less likely they were fabricated.  Christians see the discovery of the empty tomb by Mary Magdalene and her girlfriends as concrete evidence for the story’s authenticity.  Since women did not have equal standing with men at that time and place as it was unlikely to have been concocted by the early church.

As is so often the case, Christopher Hitchens put a rather different spin on matters in a debate with Dinesh D’Souza at Freedom Fest 2008: “What religion that wants its fabrication to be believed is going to say, ‘You’ve got to believe it, because we have some illiterate, hysterical girls who said they saw this’?”


The following quote from Daniel Dennett’s book, Breaking The Spell, which spends all of six pages on discussing the arguments for God’s existence(!) is, in my view, the last word on assessing the truth of the Holy Scriptures:

We can begin with anthropomorphic Gods and the arguments from the presumed historical documentation, such as this: according to the Bible, which is the literal truth, God exists, has always existed, and created the universe in seven days a few thousand years ago.  The historical arguments are apparently satisfying to those who accept them, but they simply cannot be introduced into a serious investigation, since they are manifestly question begging.  (If this is not obvious to you, ask whether the Book of Mormon (1829) or the founding document of Scientology, L Ron Hubbard’s book Dianetics (1950), should be taken as irrefutable evidence for the propositions it contains.  No text can be conceded the status of “gospel truth” without foreclosing all rational enquiry.)  (London: Penguin, 2007, pp. 240 – 241)

Manifestly question begging” is the key phrase here.  The Bible, like the notion of God, raises more questions than it answers.  The most satisfying explanation is to take out Ockam’s trusty razor and consign it to the flames, along with all other sophistry and illusion as the great Mr Hume once advised.

Returning to Bauckham, I can do no better than the comments of prolific ‘net infidel Steven Carr regarding Jesus and the Eyewitnesses in response to the “scholarly” Mr Bannister:

“Have a look at Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses for example”

And laugh heartily at the arguments it presents which are ridiculous.

Apparently, the anonymous Gospel of Mark is based on the eyewitness testimony of Peter, and this is proved because Peter is the first person named in the Gospel and also the last person named in the Gospel.

What a load of trash!

Not one single ancient author ever said he used that technique of “inclusio”.

Not one ancient reader ever said he head heard of that technique.

And no ancient author ever discussed such a technique, although there were many other writing techniques discussed.

Bauckham says on page 124 that this “inclusion” technique is “hardly noticed by modern scholars.”

Which is code for “I just made it up and pulled it out my behind”.

How should we treat first-century sources like the Gospel of Mark which were anonymous, undated, have no indication of sources, have no chronology, steal plot lines from the Old Testament and have scenes of Jesus speaking to Satan in the desert?

There is absolutely nothing in the Gospel of Mark to indicate it is even intended to be history.

Indeed, the characters in it are absurd…

Mark 4:11 says that the secret of the kingdom of God has been given to the disciples.  What was this secret?  When was it given to the disciples, who seem totally ignorant of who Jesus was (Mark 4:41)?

In Mark 6:7-13 till 29-30 the disciples are sent out to preach and teach.  As the disciples did not know Jesus was the Messiah until Mark 8:30, that must have been interesting!

Surely the average Christian would fall about laughing if he read such stories in the Book of Mormon or the Koran.

Serious scholars, (and not jokes like Bauckham and his “inclusion” Bible-code techniques), have treated the Gospels just like other first-century sources.

This is why the Quest for the Historical Jesus has failed so miserably that “serious scholars” are now counting the failures (First Quest, Second Quest, Third Quest).

Treating the Gospels as ancient sources means you fail to find the Historical Jesus so totally that you can have books devoted to documenting and classifying the failures.

Following Bannister’s recommendation, I did actually purchase a copy of Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. I haven’t read it in detail yet, but a quick skim through a couple of chapters made my left eyebrow virtually fly off my forehead.  If I concocted a story about the exploits of His Noodly Appendage and used the word “witnesses” a lot, challenging readers a few centuries down the line to go out and find them, would that make the story a lot more easy to swallow?

Also, Bauckham should consider Victor Stenger’s comments regarding of the reliability of eyewitness testimony in God, The Failed Hypothesis.  When DNA forensic evidence was passed as admissible in court, numerous people on death row convicted of serious crimes on the basis of eyewitness testimony alone had their convictions overturned after their cases were re-examined.  Eyewitness testimony based on reliable oral tradition?  I think not.

I will hopefully get round to reading Bauckham’s book more thoroughly, although I do not have very high hopes for it.  I’ve been doing this religious-debate thing long enough to hear all of the kinds of arguments that apologists throw at me.

Ultimately, we have a collection of disparate documents, based on third hand accounts by people who never net the man, set in the pre-scientific past, copied, re-copied, edited, altered by countless anonymous scribes with their own theological axes to grind, which portray a world that bears scant resemblance to our own.

I will listen intently to next week’s show on the reliability of the New Testament miracle accounts, but I think it too will be a foregone conclusion.  Sam Harris’ recent chastisement of theistic scientist, Francis Collins, sums up the woeful inadequacy of the Gospels’ account beautifully:

[E]ven if we had multiple, contemporaneous, first-hand accounts of the miracles of Jesus, this would still not constitute sufficient support for the central tenets of Christianity.  Indeed, first-hand accounts of miracles are extremely common, even in the 21st century.  I’ve met scores of educated men and women who are convinced that their favourite Hindu or Buddhist guru has magic powers, and many of the miracles that they describe are every bit as outlandish as those attributed to Jesus.  Stories about yogis and mystics walking on water, raising the dead, flying without the aid of technology, materialising objects, reading minds, foretelling the future are circulating right now, in communities where the average levels of education, access to information, and sceptical doubt are far higher than we would expect of first century fishermen and goatherds.

In fact, all of Jesus’ powers have been attributed to the South Indian guru Sathya Sai Baba by vast numbers of eyewitnesses who believe that he is a living god. The man even claims to have been born of a virgin.  [Christianity] is predicated on the claim that miracle stories of the sort that today surround a person like Sathya Sai Baba – and do not even merit an hour on the Discovery Channel – somehow become especially credible when set in the pre-scientific religious context of the 1st century Roman Empire, decades after their supposed occurrence, as evidenced by discrepant and fragmentary copies of copies of copies of ancient Greek manuscripts.

Does anyone else see a problem with that?

Hitchens on Free Speech


UPDATE: 03/08/2013

I am currently drafting an epic post reviewing all of Hitchens’ public debates available to see/hear on the Internet and have finally come across the full version of this debate.

It looks as though Hitch was debating students from the University of Toronto (as opposed to other prominent writers and public commentators) and was given twice as much speaking time as his opponents (!).


Original post continues…

Sad as it sounds; I must have watched this speech about 200 times and counting!  An absolutely brilliant piece of rhetoric; it changed at a stroke my views on hate speech, Holocaust denial laws and the value of being a misfit.  I listen to it when I’m angry at the world and feel like I’m conforming too much.  I even typed out the transcript.  Voilà:

The transcript of a speech by Christopher Hitchens from a debate at Hart House, University of Toronto, 15 November 2006.  “Be It Resolved: Freedom of Speech Includes the Freedom to Hate.”  Hitchens argued the affirmative position.

FIRE!!!  Fire… fire… fire.  Now you’ve heard it.  Not shouted in a crowded theatre, admittedly, as I realise I seem now to have shouted it in the Hogwarts dining room.  But the point is made.  Everyone knows the fatuous verdict of the greatly over-praised Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who, asked for an actual example of when it would be proper to limit speech or define it as an action, gave that of shouting “fire” in a crowded theatre.

It’s very often forgotten what he was doing in that case was sending to prison a group of Yiddish-speaking socialists, whose literature was printed in a language most Americans couldn’t read, opposing President Wilson’s participation in the First World War and the dragging of the United States into this sanguinary conflict, which the Yiddish-speaking socialists had fled from Russia to escape.

In fact, it could be just as plausibly argued that the Yiddish-speaking socialists, who were jailed by the excellent and over-praised Judge Oliver Wendell Holmes, were the real fire fighters, were the ones shouting “fire” when there really was fire in a very crowded theatre indeed.

And who is to decide?  Well, keep that question if you would – ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, I hope I may say comrades and friends – before your minds.

I exempt myself from the speaker’s kind offer of protection that was so generously proffered at the opening of this evening.  Anyone who wants to say anything abusive about or to me is quite free to do so, and welcome in fact, at their own risk.

But before they do that they must have taken, as I’m sure we all should, a short refresher course in the classic texts on this matter.  Which are John Milton’s Areopagitica; “Areopagitica” being the great hill of Athens for discussion and free expression.  Thomas Paine’s introduction to The Age of Reason.  And I would say John Stuart Mill’s essay “On Liberty”, in which it is variously said – I’ll be very daring and summarise all three of these great gentlemen of the great tradition of, especially, English liberty, in one go.

What they say is it’s not just the right of the person who speaks to be heard, it is the right of everyone in the audience to listen, and to hear.  And every time you silence somebody, you make yourself a prisoner of your own action because you deny yourself the right to hear something.  In other words, your own right to hear and be exposed is as much involved in all these cases as is the right of the other to voice his or her view.

Indeed, as John Stuart Mill said, if all in society were agreed on the truth and beauty and value of one proposition, all except one person, it would be most important – in fact it would become even more important – that that one heretic be heard, because we would still benefit from his perhaps outrageous or appalling view.

In more modern times this has been put, I think best, by a personal heroine of mine, Rosa Luxembourg, who said freedom of speech is meaningless unless it means the freedom of the person who thinks differently.

My great friend John O’ Sullivan, former editor of the National Review, and I think probably my most conservative and reactionary Catholic friend, once said – it’s a tiny thought experiment – he says, if you hear the Pope saying he believes in God, you think, well, the Pope’s doing his job again today.  If you hear the Pope saying he’s really begun to doubt the existence of God, you begin to think he might be on to something.

Well, if everybody in North America is forced to attend, at school, training in sensitivity on Holocaust awareness and is taught to study the Final Solution, about which nothing was actually done by this country, or North America, or by the United Kingdom while it was going on, but let’s say as if in compensation for that everyone is made to swallow an official and unalterable story of it now, and it’s taught as the great moral exemplar, the moral equivalent of the morally lacking elements of the Second World War, a way of distilling our uneasy conscience about that combat.

If that’s the case with everybody, as it more or less is, and one person gets up and says, “You know what, this Holocaust, I’m not sure it even happened.  In fact, I’m pretty certain it didn’t.  Indeed, I begin to wonder if the only thing is that the Jews brought a little bit of violence on themselves.”  That person doesn’t just have a right to speak, that person’s right to speak must be given extra protection.  Because what he has to say must have taken him some effort to come up with, might contain a grain of historical truth, might in any case get people to think about why do they know what they already think they know.  How do I know that I know this, except that I’ve always been taught this and never heard anything else?

It’s always worth establishing first principles.  It’s always worth saying what would you do if you met a Flat Earth Society member?  Come to think of it, how can I prove the Earth is round?  Am I sure about the theory of evolution?  I know it’s supposed to be true.  Here’s someone who says there’s no such thing; it’s all intelligent design.  How sure am I of my own views?  Don’t take refuge in the false security of consensus, and the feeling that whatever you think you’re bound to be OK, because you’re in the safely moral majority.

One of the proudest moments of my life, that’s to say, in the recent past, has been defending the British historian, David Irving, who is now in prison in Austria for nothing more than the potential of uttering an unwelcome thought on Austrian soil.  He didn’t actually say anything in Austria.  He wasn’t even accused of saying anything.  He was accused of perhaps planning to say something that violated an Austrian law that says only one version of the history of the Second World War may be taught in our brave little Tyrolean republic.

The republic that gave us Kurt Waldheim as Secretary General of the United Nations, a man wanted in several countries for war crimes.  You know the country that has Jörg Haider, the leader of its own fascist party, in the cabinet that sent David Irving to jail.

You know the two things that have made Austria famous, given it its reputation by any chance?  Just while I’ve got you.  I hope there are some Austrians here to be upset by it.  Well, a pity if not, but the two great achievements of Austria are to have convinced the world that Hitler was German and that Beethoven was Viennese.

Now to this proud record they can add, they have the courage finally to face their past and lock up a British historian who has committed no crime except that of thought in writing.  And that’s a scandal.  And I can’t find a seconder usually when I propose this, but I don’t care.  I don’t need a seconder.  My own opinion is enough for me and I claim the right to have it defended against any consensus, any majority, any where, any place, any time. And anyone who disagrees with this can pick a number, get in line, and kiss my ass.

Now, I don’t know how many of you, don’t feel you’re grown-up enough to decide for yourselves and think you need to be protected from David Irving’s edition of the Goebbels Diaries for example, out of which I learned more about the Third Reich than I had from studying Hugh Trevor-Roper and A J P Taylor combined when I was at Oxford.  But for those of you who do, I’d recommend another short course of revision.

Go again and see, not just the film and the play, but read the text of Robert Bolt’s wonderful play, A Man for All Seasons – some of you most have seen it.  Where Sir Thomas More decides that he would rather die than lie or betray his faith.  And at one moment More is arguing with the particularly vicious witch-hunting prosecutor; a servant of the king and a hungry and ambitious man.

And More says to this man, “You’d break the law to punish the devil, wouldn’t you?”

And the prosecutor, the witch-hunter, says, “Break it?” he said, “I’d cut down every law in England if I could do that, if I could capture him!”

And More says, “Yes you would, wouldn’t you?  And then when you’d cornered the devil and the devil turned round to meet you, where would you run for protection, all the laws of England having been cut down and flattened?  Who would protect you then?”

Bear in mind, ladies and gentleman, that every time you violate – or propose to violate – the right to free speech of someone else, you in potentia, you’re making a rod for your own back.  Because the other question raised by Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes is simply this: who’s going to decide, to whom do you award the right to decide which speech is harmful, or who is the harmful speaker?  Or to determine in advance what are the harmful consequences going to be that we know enough about in advance to prevent?  To whom would you give this job?  To whom you’re going to award the task of being the censor?

Isn’t a famous old story that the man who has to read all the pornography, in order to decide what’s fit to be passed and what is fit not to be, is the man most likely to become debauched?

Did you hear any speaker in the opposition to this motion – eloquent as one of them was – to whom you would delegate the task of deciding for you what you could read?  To whom you would give the job of deciding for you?  Relieve you of the responsibility of hearing what you might have to hear?  Do you know any one?  Hands up.  Do you know any one to whom you’d give this job?  Does anyone have a nominee?

You mean there is no one in Canada good enough to decide what I can read?  Or hear?  I had no idea…  But there’s a law that says there must be such a person – or there’s a sub-section of some piddling law – that says it.  Well the hell with that law then.  It’s inviting you to be liars and hypocrites and to deny what you evidently know already.

About the censorious instinct: we basically know already what we need to know, and we’ve known it for a long time, it comes from an old story about another great Englishman – sorry to sound particular about that this evening – Dr Samuel Johnson, the great lexicographer, complier of the first great dictionary of the English language.  When it was complete, Dr Johnson was waited upon by various delegations of people to congratulate him.   Of the nobility, of equality, of the Commons, of the Lords and also by a delegation of respectable ladies of London who attended on him in his Fleet Street lodgings and congratulated him.

“Dr Johnson,” they said, “We are delighted to find that you’ve not included any indecent or obscene words in your dictionary.”

“Ladies,” said Dr Johnson, “I congratulate you on being able to look them up.”

Anyone who can understand that joke – and I’m pleased to see that about 10 per cent of you can! – gets the point about censorship, especially “prior restraint” as it’s known in the United States, where it’s banned by the First Amendment to the Constitution.  It may not be determined in advance what words are apt or inapt.  No one has the knowledge that would be required to make that call and – more to the point – one has to suspect the motives of those who do so.  In particular, the motives of those who are determined to be offended, of those who will go through a treasure house of English – like Dr Johnson’s first lexicon – in search of filthy words to satisfy themselves and some instinct about which I dare not speculate…

Now, I am absolutely convinced that the main source of hatred in the world is religion, and organised religion.  Absolutely convinced of it.  And I am glad that you applaud; because it’s a very great problem for those who oppose this motion isn’t it?  How are they going to ban religion?  How are they going to stop the expression of religious loathing, hatred and bigotry?

I speak as someone who is a very regular target of this, and not just in rhetorical form.  I have been the target of many death threats.  I know within a short distance of where I am currently living in Washington, I can name two or three people whose names you probably know who can’t go anywhere now without a security detail because of the criticisms they’ve made of one monotheism in particular.  And this is in the capital city of the United States.

So I know what I’m talking about, and I also have to notice that the sort of people who ring me up and say they know where my children go to school, and they certainly know what my home number is and where I live, and what they are going to do to them and to my wife and to me, and who I have to take seriously because they already have done it to people I know, are just the people who are going to seek the protection of the hate speech law, if I say what I think about their religion, which I’m now going to do.

Because I don’t have any what you might call “ethnic bias”, I have no grudge of that sort, I can rub along with pretty much anyone of any, as it were, origin or sexual orientation, or language group – except people from Yorkshire of course, who are completely untakable – and I’m beginning to resent the confusion that’s being imposed on us now – and there was some of it this evening – between religious belief, blasphemy, ethnicity, profanity and what one might call “multicultural etiquette”.

It’s quite common now for people now to use the expression – for example – “anti-Islamic racism”, as if an attack on a religion was an attack on an ethnic group. The word “Islamophobia” in fact is beginning to acquire the opprobrium that was once reserved for racial prejudice.  This is a subtle and very nasty insinuation that needs to be met head on.

Who said, “What if Falwell says he hates fags?  What if people act upon that?”  The Bible says you have to hate fags.  If Falwell says he is saying it because the Bible says so, he’s right.  Yes, it might make people go out and use violence.  What are you going to do about that?  You’re up against a group of people who will say, “You put your hands on our Bible and we’ll call the hate speech police.”  Now what are you going to do when you’ve dug that trap for yourself?

Somebody said that anti-Semitism and Kristallnacht in Germany was the result of ten years of Jew-baiting.  Ten years?! You must be joking!   It’s the result of 2,000 years of Christianity, based on one verse of one chapter of St John’s Gospel, which led to a pogrom after every Easter sermon every year for hundreds of years; because it claims that the Jews demanded the blood of Christ be on the heads of themselves and all their children to the remotest generation.  That’s the warrant and license for, and incitement to, anti-Jewish pogroms.  What are you going to do about that?  Where is your piddling sub-section now?!  Does it say St John’s Gospel must be censored?!

Do I, who have read Freud and know what the future of an illusion really is and know that religious belief is ineradicable as long as we remain a stupid, poorly evolved mammalian species, think that some Canadian law is going to solve this problem?  Please!

No our problem is this: our prefrontal lobes are too small.  And our adrenaline glands are too big.  And our thumb-finger opposition isn’t all that it might be.  And we’re afraid of the dark, and we’re afraid to die, and we believe in the truths of holy books that are so stupid and so fabricated that a child can – and all children do, as you can tell by their questions – actually see through them.  And I think it should be – religion – treated with ridicule, and hatred, and contempt.  And I claim that right.

Now let’s not dance around, not all monotheisms are exactly the same – at the moment.  They’re all based on the same illusion, they’re all plagiarisms of each other, but there’s one in particular that at the moment is proposing a serious menace not just to freedom of speech and freedom of expression, but to quite a lot of other freedoms too.  And this is the religion that exhibits the horrible trio of self-hatred, self-righteousness and self-pity.  I’m talking about militant Islam.

Globally, it’s a gigantic power.  Globally, it’s a gigantic power.  It controls an enormous amount of oil wealth, several large countries and states with an enormous fortune, it’s pumping the ideology of Wahhabism and Salafism around the world, poisoning societies where it goes, ruining the minds of children, stultifying the young in its madrases, training people in violence, making a cult of death and suicide and murder.  That’s what it does globally, it’s quite strong.

In our society it poses as a cringing minority, whose faith you might offend, which deserves all the protection that a small and vulnerable group might need.

Now, it makes quite large claims for itself, doesn’t it?  It says it’s the final revelation.  It says that god spoke to one illiterate businessman in the Arabian Peninsula three times through an archangel, and the resulting material – which as you can see when you read it – is largely plagiarised from the Old and the New Testament.   Almost all of it actually plagiarised – ineptly – from the Old and the New Testament, is to be accepted as a divine revelation and as the final and unalterable one and those who do not accept this revelation are fit to be treated as cattle, infidels, potential chattel, slaves and victims.

Well I tell you what; I don’t think Mohammad ever heard those voices.  I don’t believe it.  And the likelihood that I’m right, as opposed to the likelihood that a businessman who couldn’t read, had bits of the Old and New Testament re-dictated to him by an archangel, I think puts me much more near the position of being objectively correct.

But who is the one under threat?  The person who promulgates this and says “I’d better listen because if I don’t I’m in danger”, or me who says “No, I think this is so silly you could even publish a cartoon about it”?

And up go the placards and up go the yells and the howls and the screams, “Behead those…”  This is in London, this is in Toronto, this is in New York.  It’s right in our midst now.  “Behead those…”  “Behead those who cartoon Islam”.

Do they get arrested for hate speech?  No.  Might I get in trouble for saying what I’ve just said about the prophet Mohammad?  Yes, I might.  Where are your priorities ladies and gentlemen?  You’re giving away what’s most precious in your own society, and you’re giving it away without a fight and you’re even praising the people who want to deny you the right to resist it.  Shame on you while you do this.  Make the best use of the time you’ve got left.  This is really serious.

Now, if you look anywhere you like.  Because we had invocations of a rather drivelling and sickly kind tonight of our sympathy – what about the poor fags?  What about the poor Jews, the wretched women who can’t take the abuse and the slaves and their descendants and the tribes who didn’t make it, and were told that land was forfeit?

Look anywhere you like for the warrant for slavery, for the subjection of women as chattel, for the burning and flogging of homosexuals, for ethnic cleansing, for anti-Semitism, for all of this, you look no further than a famous book that’s on every pulpit in this city, and in every synagogue and in every mosque.

And then just see whether you can square the fact that the force of the main source of hatred is also the main caller for censorship.  And when you’ve realised that you’re therefore this evening being faced with a gigantic false antithesis, I hope that still won’t stop you from giving the motion before you the resounding endorsement that it deserves.  Thanks awfully.

Night, night.

Stay cool.

So Far: David Robertson


David RobertsonUntitled-3

manicstreetpreacher reviews the writings and public speaking of a Christian apologist and Dawkins agitator before going head-to-head with him.

I originally wrote this piece before recording my two debates against David Robertson and Richard Morgan for Premier Christian Radio’s Unbelievable? in London on 20 July 2009.  I am informed that the shows are due to be broadcast on Saturday, 12 and Saturday 19 September 2009.  I’ll post the links to the podcasts as soon as they are posted on the Unbelievable? website.

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

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

See also my afterthought piece on the debates.

For various reasons, I did not publish the piece on my blog, but I forwarded a late draft to David and Premier DJ, Justin Brierley, prior to recording the debates, to which I briefly reference in the second show.  The article below is largely unchanged, save for a few tweaks and corrected typos.

The start of a beautiful friendship?

I’ve never met David Robertson, but we go way back.  Robertson one of the many Christian apologists who have written replies to The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins.  Robertson’s effort is The Dawkins Letters: Challenging Atheist Myths. On the frontispiece and the chapters of his book there are vitriolic remarks about Robertson from atheist bloggers on  Robertson has included these in an attempt to demonstrate that atheists can be just as aggressive, intolerant and dangerous as religious people.

I first heard Robertson debate The Atheist Blogger,[1] Adrian Hayter, on Premier Christian Radio’s religious debate show, Unbelievable?,[2] which I have appeared on three times so far.  I was so infuriated at the claims he made on the two shows, his apparent distortion of the historical record, his misrepresentation of the views of atheists and his use of the “Hitler and Stalin were atheists” card to argue that only Christians can be truly moral and atheists were all potential ethic cleansers that I, for want of a better term, went off on one.

I wrote an open letter on my blog challenging him to a live debate.[3] I emailed Unbelievable? host, Justin Brierley, demanding that he have the pair of us on the show to duke it out.  I called him a liar on the Premier Christian Community web forum.  In short, I understood full well what those aforementioned abusive atheist bloggers must have gone through.

The first draft of this review was entitled “I have no argument with this man”.  I surrounded the word “reverend” in quotation marks and called his book “a piece of apologetics trash”.  I labelled Robertson as “Scotland’s answer to Jerry Falwell” and even finished off with a comparison to the Holocaust denying historian, David Irving.  In short, I poured bile and vitriol over everything in his book and his public speaking.

But then something happened which changed all that.  I posted a piece on American “scholar” Jay Smith on my blog[4] which took the opportunity to slate several other apologists including Robertson for Lying for Jesus.[5] I copied it to said apologists with a damning covering email, and guess what?  Robertson was the only one to respond to my allegations.[6]

While I wasn’t altogether convinced by his explanations, particularly in regard to his use of a quote from Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, I began to feel that far from a case of outright dishonestly, we had a difference of opinion – a pretty drastic and potentially irreconcilable difference of opinion – but nothing as sinister as I had first envisaged.

Besides, in our email correspondence, it turned out that Robertson’s favourite are the Manic Street Preachers.  Someone with a taste in such highly-charged, intelligent, protest punk rock can’t be all bad.

So I’ve toned down this review into something far more respectful and conciliatory.  If nothing else, it was beginning to sound like the smug ad hominem rantings of Alistair McGrath.  I also hope that it will provide a good basis for when the two of us record a debate on the motion “Would Europe be better off as an atheistic or Christian society?” on Unbelievable? on 20 July 2009.


Robertson is a Presbyterian minister at St Peter’s Free Church in Dundee.  The Dawkins Letters comprises ten letters addressed to Dawkins which challenges what Robertson perceives as an atheist myth in TGD, book ended with introductory and final letters addressed to the reader, the latter entitled, “Why Believe?”

Robertson joins the ranks of John Cornwell, Alistair McGrath, and Peter S Williams (in addition to numerous others), collectively christened by Dawkins as the “Fleas”, after a poem by W B Yeats,[7] who have written replies to TGD.

Having read the efforts of the above three writers, Robertson’s effort is the clear winner in that he does at least put up the best fight than the other “fleas” and his book gives a clear indication of what he believes.

However, I was not persuaded by The Dawkins Letters.  I found its arguments to be Robertson’s personal views stated as cold-hard fact, often self-contradictory, while showing a very selective interpretation of the historical record.

Rather than setting out deliberately to lie, I think Robertson has tried to stick up for Christians in the face of Dawkins’ onslaught.  In doing so, he has missed the point.  Dawkins is not criticising Christians themselves, he is criticising the idea of religious faith and the harm it can lead to.  Robertson’s response often degenerates to a succession of point-scoring whilst failing to address the real arguments.

Like all the “flea” books, The Dawkins Letters is written for Christians who have not read TGD themselves, but have heard how strident and intolerant its author is from the press.   In the book, Robertson praises Dawkins several times for his arguments and even comments in the first of two YouTube videos on his church’s website[7] that the book is brilliantly well-written.  However, in the final letter, he advises readers who haven’t read it yet not to bother since “it really is as bad as I’ve tried to make out”.  This represents a lack of courage in his convictions as well as trying to deny the readers the chance to make up their own minds.

I do recommend Paula Kirby’s treatment of The Dawkins Letters in her superb review of four of the “Flea” books on, “Fleabytes”.[8] Kirby replies in detail to all of Robertson’s letters.  The first draft of this review quoted her comments at length.  In our correspondence, Robertson countered some of Kirby’s comments, so I have taken most of them out.  However, I still recommend that it is read in full, if only for its brilliant incisiveness from which I have learnt a great deal.

Absence of evidence

I found it difficult to engage with many of the arguments of The Dawkins Letters, simply because Robertson asserts his own opinion as the truth.  He makes bare assertions and does not provide any evidence for any of his claims.

Robertson claims that possessing Christian faith is a bar to employment and promotion without giving any examples; anecdotal or statistical.   He claims that Christians were not given an adequate opportunity to respond to Richard Dawkins’ documentary, Root of All Evil? and the National Secular Society are rewarded with all the lime light without mentioning Radio 4’s Thought for the Day and the fact that it is invariably a clergyman who is called upon to pronounce moral judgement in response to a public issue.

Robertson simply asserts that the Bible is inerrant and truth can only be found in Jesus Christ without mentioning Matthew 10: 34 (“I have not come to bring peace but a sword”) or Matthew 16 (where JC promises his Second Coming will happen within the lifetime of his listeners).   In Letter 9: The Myth of the Immoral Bible he recognises that passages such as Jephthah’s daughter (Judges 11[9]) represent “problems” in the Bible, but says not a word in attempting to resolve these problems.  All that is offered are “weasel” terms like “context” and “literal” and where have atheists heard that before?

Robertson writes that truth, beauty and morality can only be found through God without giving a shred of evidence for this view.  “You cannot explain beauty or evil, creation or humanity, time or space, without God.  Or at least you can, but to my mind the materialistic, atheistic explanation is emotionally, spiritually and above all intellectually inadequate.”  All I can say in reply is that I get by perfectly well without referring everything to a god, and such unnecessary assumptions only raise more questions than they answer.

When Robertson does try to tackle the evidence, the results are unconvincing.  He states that if the evidence for the New Testament narrative was on a par with Russell’s teapot or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, then all the millions of Christians wouldn’t believe it the first place.  Unfortunately, the reader is left to guess precisely what this mountain of hard evidence that renders all non-believers so deluded actually is, because Robertson omits to include it.

This piece of circular logic is not an argument that Robertson would not accept from all the billions of Jews, Muslims and Hindus who think that Christians are deluded and they are correct.  He even admits that he is “not going to believe that Mohammed is a prophet just because some religion tells me to.”  So why do precisely this in respect of Christianity?  Although he derides this line of thinking, Robertson is just as much an atheist towards the vast majority of religious believers as I am.

There are also predictable ad hominems against bibliography as a means of avoiding answering Dawkins’ actual arguments.[10] In replying to Dawkins’ objections to the reliability of the Gospels, Robertson contends that using Robin Lane Fox, A N Wilson and Free Inquiry magazine for advice on biblical scholarship is “a bit like me suggesting that those who want to find out about evolution should only go to the Answers in Genesis website!”

If these people are so mistaken, there should be no problem in refuting their arguments. Again, however, Robertson stops there, so the reader is left to guess at the water-tight historicity of the New Testament he hints at and be stuck with Dawkins’ opinion that the whole farrago is made up pile of baloney; self-contradictory and laughably unhistorical.

Logic and reason

Robertson gets rather exasperated at Dawkins’ view that God cannot be both omnipotent and omniscient:

[Y]ou argue, ‘If God is omniscient he already knows how he is going to intervene to change the course of history using his omnipotence – but that means he can’t his mind about his intervention which means he is not omnipotent.  I can hardly believe that a professor at Oxford wrote such a juvenile argument!  If you really want to go down that line, here are a few more for you.  Can God create a stone heavier than he can lift?  Can God make a square circle?  These may be amusing ‘problems’ for a teenage class in metaphysics but as a reason for believing that God cannot exist?  As Mr McEnroe would say, ‘You cannot be serious!’

However, the whole omnipotent/ omniscient question is a contradiction and one that is raised by atheists far more scholarly than Dawkins.  I would particularly recommend John Allen Paulo’s marvellous little book, Irreligion, on this and many other points:

If one assumes that God is both omnipotent and omniscient, an obvious contradiction arises.  Being omniscient, God knows how everything will happen; He can predict the future trajectory of every snow flake, the spouting of every blade of grass, and the deeds of every human being, as well as all of His own actions.  But being omnipotent, He can act in any way and do any thing He wants, including behaving in ways different from those he predicted, making his expectations uncertain and fallible.  He thus cannot be both omnipotent and omniscient.[11]

By demanding both omnipotence and omniscience, theists effectively are saying that God can make a square circle or a stone heavier than he can lift!  Robertson professes to be a Calvinist and therefore God has predetermined the destiny of everyone before they were even born.  Whether he wants to admit it or not, he simply cannot believe in miracles.  If God is omniscient, then he has known the course of every detail of history long before he instigated it and therefore cannot be omnipotent to intervene as he goes along.

Karen Owen’s limerick that Dawkins cites is worth repeating:

Can the omniscient God, who
Knows the future, find
The omnipotence to
Change His future mind?

Without having to examine the scientific evidence and remaining in one’s armchair, God is a logical impossibility.  If God knows everything that will happen in the future then he will not intervene as events unfold, so what is the point of praying?  Childish questions the apologist may cry, but what it has to say a great deal that children can and do pick holes in the stuff.

Robertson attempts justify the special privilege that religion is awarded in social conversation, claiming that matters of sexuality are also cordoned off in a similar manner by secularists in Britain and America.  He recounts cases from 2006 where Christian Unions at several British universities were censured for potentially encouraging homophobia.[12] Perhaps this next one is the “Humour? What humour?!” Robertson alludes to in the introduction, but it comes perilously close to pure bigotry:

The 150-strong CU in Birmingham was suspended for refusing to alter its constitution to allow non-Christians to preach at meetings and to amend its literature to include references to gays, lesbians, bisexuals and those of a ‘transgender’ sexuality (one wonders what the logic was for leaving out polygamists, bestialists and paedophiles?).

I’m not an easy person to offend, but lumping gays into the same category as paedophiles and bestialists crossed my boundary.  It is also completely ignorant of the sociological record.

On the contrary, it is thanks to those honest-speaking secularists that matters of sexuality have been brought fully into the public domain.  Thanks to years of honest conversation and scientific research, we now know that a person has as much choice of being gay or straight as they do of being black or white.  Thanks to the ever-shifting moral Zeitgeist, society has moved away from the view of Leviticus (let’s not forget, a book that also mandates the stoning to death of adulterers and insolent children), so that cases like Alan Turing, a brilliant mathematician and key figure in the World War II British code cracking centre of Bletchley Park, who committed suicide when faced with the choice of imprisonment or a course of compulsory hormone injections amounting to chemical castration which would have caused him to grow breasts, is now a shameful footnote in the history of humanity’s moral progress.  Rather like slavery, which by the way, the “Good Book” also mandates.[13]

Moral arguments

In writing this review and in preparation for our debate, I read not only Robertson’s book, but also a few that he recommends in his final letter to the reader.  I can now see that Robertson blames all the pain and suffering in the world as resulting from society’s abandonment of Christian values.  When people forget that we are all made in the image of God then it can only lead to the gulags and the killing fields.

Reading these books myself, I found this a very naïve, almost childlike interpretation of the causes of human suffering.  Robertson contends that Niall Ferguson’s study of 20th century conflict, The War of the World, presents a “stunning indictment of the failure of secularism and ‘science’ to bring peace on earth.”  I found Ferguson’s book to be a complex study of the economic, racial and political causes of modern conflict, barely mentioning religious faith (or lack thereof), except to point out that every European fascist leader was raised as a Catholic, and Christian Nazis and Serbs carried out sustained campaigns of rape in wartime every bit as much as godless Soviets.

Robertson also claims that Table Talk, a collection of Hitler’s private statements recorded in his Berlin bunker by his secretaries, is irrefutable proof of Hitler’s atheism, ignoring both the dubious reliability of the source itself[14] and Hitler’s repeated public professions of faith in God, Christ and Providence.[15] Robertson cites Ian Kershaw’s definitive two-part biography for further reading on Hitler’s atheism.  What he fails to mention is that Kershaw himself places serious caveats on the reliability of the Table Talk monologues.[16]

Robertson also argues that Hitler had the support of Germany’s scientists and intellectuals, whilst failing to acknowledge that the country’s universities were purged as soon as Hitler came to power in 1933 and many of her finest thinkers fled to avoid persecution (not least of whom was Albert Einstein), whilst their works were thrown onto bonfires.

However, there is a wider issue here.  Robertson seemingly makes the link between atheism and state sponsored genocide a priori without any discussion whatsoever with the additional factors of political dogmas every bit as dangerous as religious ones.  So what if these men were atheists?  Some of them were also vegetarians, had black hair and sported moustaches.  To make a direct link from atheism to Nazi Germany is like blaming it on the Germans as a people; ditto Stalinist Russia on peoples east of the Urals.

Robertson chides Dawkins for spending a mere six pages in TGD discussing the religious views of 20th century tyrants.  However, reading the works of objective, non-polemical historians such as Allan Bullock, Ian Kershaw and Niall Ferguson following the accusations of religious apologists, I am amazed how little space they use in discussing the religious views of the 20th century dictators.  This degeneration into cheap point-scoring ignores the true causes of human conflict.

The greatest crimes of the twentieth century argument does not depend on the perpetrators’ simple disbelief in a supernatural creator or opposition to organised religion; it was due to other extreme dogmas such as nationalism, communism and racial superiority thrown together in a potent cocktail that exploded with the help of modern technology.

Robertson’s reasoning is also self-contradictory.  He says in his book and YouTube videos that simply because a person does not believe in God does not make them less moral any more than it makes them less beautiful.  Yet he also tries to pin crimes against humanity on atheism precisely because they were committed by atheists.

Robertson contradicts himself yet again in response to Dawkins quoting abusive and threatening emails from Christians.  He states that these people cannot be Christians because they are threatening violence as opposed to turning the other cheek and using foul language.  Further on, however, he refuses to accept the same “reasoning” from atheists who apparently argue that Hitler and Stalin could not have been atheists because they weren’t rational people.  What do want to do with your cake; have it or eat it?

Robertson has ignored the second strand of Dawkins’ argument; whether atheism systematically influences people to do evil things.  There is not one shred of evidence that if a rational and sane person simply rejects the idea of a personal creator, who stands in judgement over all of us, will reward us with an eternity in paradise after we die if we are moral, and punish with an eternity in fire if we are not, or that the Bible is the infallible word of said creator, it will make them behave any worse.

Hitler and Stalin may or may not have been atheists, but they certainly weren’t secularists, humanists or rationalists.   I’m sure we could all topple the arguments for National Socialism if we put our minds it.  I’m equally certain that most people would struggle to accept that its founder and leader was a rational individual.   If he wanted a Thousand Year Reich, going to war with Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union simultaneously wasn’t really the best way to go about it.

Robertson repeatedly states that Christians have a greater respect for human life because they believe that we are all made in the image of God.  When played out in practice, this view is startlingly naïve.

What about the Amalekites, the Canaanites, the Hittites and the Midianites?  The Muslim women and children who were burnt alive by the Crusaders following the capture of Jerusalem?  The Jews who were victims of countless pogroms?  The heretics and witches who were burnt at the stake on the orders of the Church during a Europe-wide inquisition that went on for 500 years?  The Jews (again) who were sent to the gas chambers of Auschwitz by Nazi soldiers with “God is with Us” inscribed on their belt buckles?  The Northern Ireland Catholics and Protestants who were the victims of sectarian violence for being members of the “wrong” confession?  The Bosnian Muslims who fell at the hands of Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croatians?  The Tutsi who were slaughtered by the Hutu in Rwanda, for which may priests and nuns are now awaiting trial for genocide?  The victims of Joseph Koney’s “Lord’s Resistance Army” in Uganda?

Weren’t they all God’s creations as well?[17]

In attempting to argue that Christians lead the way in the shifting moral Zeitgeist, Robertson pulls out the familiar canard of the abolition of the slave trade.  Dawkins cites H G Well’s New Republic as well as T H Huxley’s toe-curling views on race as evidence that men who seen as progressive and liberal in their own times would be seen as racist bigots today.

Not so, according to Robertson.  Wells and Huxley were in fact arguing against the Zeitgeist pushed by the likes William Wilberforce and other Christians petitioning Parliament to abolish the slave trade in 1807 and slavery itself in 1833.

I am at an utter loss as to why Christians are so fond of citing abolition as evidence of the moral superiority of their faith when in fact scratching below the historical surface reveals them to be shooting themselves in the foot.

For starters, the Bible mandates slavery expressly and repeatedly.  God clearly expect us to keep slaves and even gives us helpful tips when we sell members of own families as such (Exodus 21: 7).  The Curse of Ham (Genesis 9: 20 – 27) was used for centuries in Europe to justify black African slavery.[18] Jesus never says a word against slavery and even passively endorses the practice by using slaves in some of his parables (Matthew 24: 48 – 51).  Paul tells slaves to serve their masters well and their Christian masters especially well so as to partake in their holiness (1 Timothy 6: 1 – 5).  Noted Christian theologians from Augustine[19] to Robert Lewis Dabney[20] defended slavery on a biblical basis.  Wilberforce and his followers were in fact on the wrong side of the theological argument.

Robertson claims that he would prefer to stick with the tried and tested morality of the Bible rather than the atheist Zeitgeist.  However, it is an embarrassment to anyone claiming that the Bible is the best book that we have on morality because by today’s standards it gets the question of slavery – something that had no moral content at the time it was composed – wrong.  This is clear evidence (if any were more needed) that this is a book of its time and contains nothing that could not have known or imagined by someone to whom a wheelbarrow would have been an exciting new example of emerging technology.

As usual, Sam Harris puts matters far more skilfully than I ever could: “Jews, Christians and Muslims claim that their Holy Books are so profound, so prescient of society’s needs, that they could have only been authored under direction the creator of the universe.  An atheist is simply someone who has considered this claim for a moment; read the books; and found the claim to be ridiculous.”

In addition, a little lateral thinking rather devalues the Wilberforce’s efforts for the faith.  This was the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the nineteenth.  Who was Wilberforce’s opposition?  Secular humanists?  No.  Godless Marxists?  No.  They were other Christians who were using exactly the same book to take the polar opposite position.  For every one Wilberforce, there was a hundred of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederate States of America, who argued in Congress on the eve of the American Civil War that God mandated slavery “in both Testaments from Genesis to Revelation”.[21]

Indeed, a founding member of the American Anti-Slavery Society was the great deist thinker, Thomas Paine.[22] Benjamin Franklin, the renowned atheist and contributor to the America Declaration of Independence and Constitution, was also a noted abolitionist.  If Wilberforce was motivated by his faith to make a stand against this grotesque and barbaric practice, it was about time.

Robertson also omits to mention that it was another 150 years before blacks began to be accorded equal rights with white people, certainly in America.  Dawkins quotes a speech by Abraham Lincoln in which the freer of the slaves makes clear that he was not advocating that blacks were in any way equal with whites.  If any eighteenth or nineteenth century Christian abolitionist truly argued that blacks were made in the image of God and were equal to whites, I have been unable to discover the fact.  Certainly Robertson provides no evidence for it.

What a wonderful world?

Robertson waxes lyrical in his book and on his YouTube videos that the sheer beauty of creation is overwhelming evidence for God.  He describes episodes of watching sunsets on the River Tay with his daughter and how you only have to open your eyes to see God incarnate.

I am becoming increasingly fond of the Argument from Evil.  I suppose it doesn’t disprove the existence of a god (after all, there’s no reason to presume that your god may be good[23]), but it certainly calls into serious question that if a god does exist whether he actually cares about his creation and is worthy of worshipping.

Put plainly, if God is supposed to be the most incomparably powerful, beautiful, awesome, loving, generous, perfect being, as per Robertson’s quote from American Calvinist theologian, Jonathan Edwards, then how come he made such a dreadful mistake?  If the world is not the way God wants it to be, then what in heaven’s name was he thinking in the first place?  If God is incapable of doing evil then where did evil come from?

When believers sing about how wonderful everything is, what they mean are the rivers and the oceans and the snow capped mountains and the stars and the indentations in the ears of newborn babies.

What about all the babies that are born everyday without limbs, or brains, or with cancer, or without a chance of living beyond a day?  In what mysterious ways is the Lord working when this happens?

If this creator exists, why doesn’t he take credit for the whole thing and all the misery and despair that goes with it?  Shouldn’t we be praising God for the earthquakes and the tsunamis and the cancer cell and the AIDS virus?  Aren’t they part of the divine plan as well?

Epicurus’ conundrum has never been answered, much less refuted, since he first posited it in Ancient Greece:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then he is not omnipotent.

Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.

Is he both able and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?

Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God?

Then again, if God does exist, he has let slip a real clanger:

I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things.

– Isaiah 45: 7[24]

Despicable creatures made in the image of their creator

Robertson has a truly bizarre view of the human condition.  While harping on about being made in the image of God, he nevertheless asserts that we are essentially “screwed up”.  Einstein’s right apparently; “we are a sorry lot”.

Further investigation into Robertson’s library goes some way to explain matters.  After all, was it was it not Robertson’s hero, John Calvin, who ran a theocratic police state in Geneva that perpetrated the burning of Jews and witches and also put to death the physician Michael Servetus for disagreeing with the tenants of Christianity?  Calvin certainly didn’t think that man was made in the image of God as the next passage makes abundantly clear:

We are all made of mud, and this mud is not just on the hem of our gown, or on the sole of our boots, or in our shoes.  We are full of it; we are nothing but mud and filth both inside and out.[25]

And let’s not forget that Calvin’s theory of predestination has us all damned from the outset if God so chooses:

…the eternal principle, by which [God] has determined what He will do with each man.  For He does not create equal, but appoints some to eternal life, and others to eternal damnation.[26]

John Knox, the founder of Robertson’s Presbyterian sect, condemned the physical world to be ungodly whilst Scottish Reformers rejected all earthly pleasures; physical, sexual or aesthetic.

Apologists may argue that the horrors of the Medieval Inquisition was a total abrogation of  Christian teaching by power-hungry men eager to use religion as a cover for their own despotic ends.  But the simple fact is that some of the mainstays of theological seminaries the world over set the “scholarly” groundwork for this by declaring that heretics must be either tortured, in the case of Augustine,[27] or killed outright as Thomas Aquinas reasoned.[28]

Robertson hails 18th century theologian, Jonathan Edwards, as “one of the greatest philosophical minds that America has ever produced”.  Nevertheless, Edwards followed in the footsteps of Calvin with this little gem:

[You are] a little, wretched, despicable creature; a worm, a mere nothing, and less than nothing; a vile insect, that has risen up in contempt against the majesty of the heaven and the earth.[29] [30]

But who created us all this way in the first place?  Who created Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot?  Who created Charles Manson, Peter Sutcliffe and Myra Hindley?  It really does disturb me what kind of being this creator can be if, as Robertson is so fond of saying, we are all made in his image.

According to Robertson’s world-view we are all worms, covered in filth, unworthy of our very existence for which we must still thank our creator.  But we can take heart.  We were all created in his image, he designed the universe with us in mind and he has a plan everyone.

That line by the poet Fulke Greville that Christopher Hitchens is so fond of quoting springs to mind: “Created sick, commanded to be sound.”

Science –v- religion

In order to show that there is no conflict between science and religion, Robertson trots out Robert Jastrow’s analogy about how a scientist scales a peak of ignorance after years of toil, only to reach the summit to discover that the theologians have been there for centuries.

If we dissect this statement for a moment, it turns out to be just another example of how religious people can invent a god to conform to the scientific evidence.  “Look, we’ve discovered evolution, we discovered DNA, and we’ve discovered the Big Bang.  We’ve discovered that we can’t take the Genesis narrative literally any more.  God is obviously far more ingenious than we first thought!”

In fact, the peaks of ignorance that scientists are attempting to scale are those imposed by theology.  It’s not all that long ago that people thought that disease and earthquakes were divine retribution for sin.   Thanks to science, we now have the miracles of germ theory and seismology.

And what exactly are the great theological achievements of history?  Isaac Newton was a devote Christian and actually wrote more extensively on theology than physics, but can anyone name his theological works?  Which would we prefer; that all scientific knowledge disappeared tomorrow or all theological writings were jettisoned?  I think I’ll firmly go for Option B.[31] [32]

On the second Unbelievable? debate against Adrian Hayter, Robertson made much of the fact that the full title to the first edition of The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin’s was On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.  “Darwin clearly believed in favoured races,” Robertson opined.

Here, Robertson commits the naturalistic fallacy of confusing what is with what ought to be.  Evolution is a scientific fact like gravity with no moral implications.  Species will replicate their genes by producing more offspring if their biological traits are more favourable to their physical surroundings.  Saying that evolution is immoral because it encourages eugenics is like saying that nuclear physics is immoral because it gave us the Bomb.

The common charge that Darwin advocated eugenics is completely wrong.  Darwin deplored eugenics and stated that such a programme would only ever have a contingent effect on the appearance of the human race.  This is the passage often quoted by creationists from The Descent of Man, first published in 1871:

With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated.  We civilized men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination.  We build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed and the sick, thus the weak members of civilized societies propagate their kind.  No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man.  Hardly anyone is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.

However, the passage in full shows that Darwin was deeply compassionate to the handicapped and was not in favour of any euthanasia programme:

With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health.  We civilised men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment.  There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small-pox.  Thus the weak members of civilised societies propagate their kind.  No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man.  It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.

The aid which we feel impelled to give to the helpless is mainly an incidental result of the instinct of sympathy, which was originally acquired as part of the social instincts, but subsequently rendered, in the manner previously indicated, more tender and more widely diffused.  Nor could we check our sympathy, if so urged by hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature.  The surgeon may harden himself whilst performing an operation, for he knows that he is acting for the good of his patient; but if we were intentionally to neglect the weak and helpless, it could only be for a contingent benefit, with a certain and great present evil.[33]

In 2008, the American TV presenter and charisma vacuum, Ben Stein, headed up the documentary-film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed.[34] The film was an effort to promote “Intelligent Design” (ID), the theory that life on Earth is too complex to be explained by evolution alone and in need of an external “designer” to assist the process.

Among its many crimes against intellectual honesty,[35] the film attempted to portray Hitler’s eugenics programme and the Holocaust as having been directly inspired by Darwin’s theory.  Stein quotes the first, highly selective passage, above from Descent of Man, in an effort to portray Darwin as advocating eugenics.

The Anti-Defamation League, an American Jewish pressure group dedicated to fighting anti-Semitism, issued the following statement regarding Expelled which is the first and last word against anyone claiming that Darwinian natural selection is in any way a direct link to eugenics or Social Darwinism:

The film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed misappropriates the Holocaust and its imagery as a part of its political effort to discredit the scientific community which rejects so-called intelligent design theory.

Hitler did not need Darwin to devise his heinous plan to exterminate the Jewish people and Darwin and evolutionary theory cannot explain Hitler’s genocidal madness.

Using the Holocaust in order to tarnish those who promote the theory of evolution is outrageous and trivializes the complex factors that led to the mass extermination of European Jewry.[36]

Robertson has also stressed that Dawkins’ mentor, the late biologist Bill Hamilton, secretly favoured a programme of eugenics and infanticide as a way of preserving the human race.  Whilst it is true that Hamilton,[37] along with plenty of other scientists, have advocated eugenics, this line of thinking is hardly systematic within the scientific community.  Indeed, while some geneticists were supporters of eugenics in the early 20th century, the movement drew on support from many sources, including the religious.  As the United Methodist Church recently stated in an apology for its support for eugenics:

Ironically, as the Eugenics movement came to the United States, the churches, especially the Methodists, the Presbyterians, and the Episcopalians, embraced it.  Methodist churches around the country promoted the American Eugenics Society “Fitter Family Contests” wherein the fittest families were invariably fair skinned and well off.  Methodist bishops endorsed one of the first books circulated to the US churches promoting eugenics.  Unlike the battles over evolution and creationism, both conservative and progressive church leaders endorsed eugenics.[38]

Opposition came from many quarters; some clergy, secular critics, and scientists spoke out against eugenics on social and scientific grounds.  Clarence Darrow, who famously defended the teaching of evolution in the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial, wrote a scathing attack on eugenics:

We have neither facts nor theories to give us any evidence based on biology or any other branch of science as to how we could breed intelligence, happiness, or anything else that would improve the race.  We have no idea of the meaning of the word ‘improvement.’   We can imagine no human organization we could trust with the job, even if [eugenicists] knew what should be done and the proper way to do it…  Amongst the schemes for [remoulding] society this is the most senseless and impudent that has ever been put forward by irresponsible fanatics to plague a long-suffering race.[39]

The late Harvard biologist Stephen Jay Gould was an outspoken critic of crude biological determinism and eugenics and his book, The Mismeasure of Man (1981), argued against misuses of science to support racist ideologies throughout history and demonstrated why modern evolutionary biology does not support these ideologies.

Robertson is decidedly non-committal on whether he himself actually believes in the scientific truth of Darwin.  He stands up for Stephen Layfield, the head of science at Emmanuel College, Gateshead, North East England, who Dawkins tears the proverbial new one in TGD for promoting “creation science” over evolution, by writing that Layfield has attracted Dawkins’ criticism for “daring to question evolution”.

However, Robertson only goes as far to say that “Layfield may or may not be wrong”.  Yet he also insists that Christianity explains evil and we are all descendants of Adam.  This is another flat-out contradiction since Darwinian evolution totally disproves the Biblical narrative.  Death, disease and suffering were all part of the natural order for millions of years before man came on the scene.  We never began in a perfect state only to fall from God’s grace.  We should stop worrying and get on with our lives rather than beating ourselves up over what is nothing more than a malignant fairy tale.

Dwelling on the question of why there is “something” rather than “nothing”, Robertson also drops in a suspicious quote from A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking which is presented on its own without any elaboration and frankly gives the impression that Hawking is a theist: “It would be very difficult to explain why the universe should have begun in just this way, except as the act of a God who intended to create beings like us.”

Paula Kirby put matters into their properly context:

[I] tracked down the quote in A Brief History of Time for myself.  It’s certainly there, as quoted.  However, it’s followed by a lengthy argument to the effect that the universe didn’t, in fact, begin in the “just this way” referred to in the quote, and that he believes a “no boundary” model to be more accurate — i.e. that the universe had no beginning at all.  In fact, Hawking’s whole chapter culminates in the words: “So long as the universe had a beginning, we could suppose it had a creator.  But if the universe is really completely self-contained [as he himself has just argued], having no boundary or no edge, it would have neither beginning nor end: it would simply be.  What place, then, for a creator?”

Now, maybe David Robertson was a little unfortunate here.  A Brief History of Time has the dubious distinction of having been hailed as the least read bestseller of all time, so he may well have felt safe in distorting Hawking’s opinions as expressed in it.  Still, such behaviour is a bit hard to reconcile with the Ninth Commandment, is it not?

The first draft of this review lambasted Robertson for rampant dishonesty.  However, in his replies to my piece on Jay Smith, Robertson stated that all he intended to say was literally that Stephen Hawking thought that is was difficult to explain the existence of the universe without a creator god, not that he thought that the universe was created by God which is why A Brief History of Time is such a dull book to read.

I nailed Peter S Williams in my review of his book I Wish I Could Believe In Meaning[40] for engaging in the same tactics, although of course Williams denied it with vague and unconvincing responses.[41] While I am no longer accusing Robertson of outright dishonesty, I still believe that this is a misappropriation of Hawking’s true opinions.

In this vein, I’d recommend Dawkins’ speech at the American Atheist Conference 2009 where he exposes apologists’ tactics of quoting-mining atheist scientists.[42] Pay particular attention to where he says that in The Blind Watchmaker (1986) he began a chapter stating that the explosion of fossils in the Cambrian period is so amazing, “It is as though the fossils were planted there without any evolutionary history.”  However, this was a piece of rhetorical overture intended to whet the reader’s appetite for what was to follow.  Sadly, it has been mined by apologists out to misrepresent Dawkins as doubting evolution.

In conclusion – a much needed gap

This review has turned out to be less critical than I had originally intended.[43] Our personal email correspondence has shown that Robertson is prepared to have his views scrutinised and challenged and is always up for a verbal punch up at the lectern, which is considerably more than most believers.

Nevertheless, there is little in The Dawkins Letters and its author’s public speaking that I as an atheist can recommend.  The main problem is that Robertson has a very bludgeoning style which means his opponents interpret his views in ways that he denies.

I am certain that he will feel that I have not represented his views fairly.  Richard Dawkins made similar comments following the publication of TGD that critics had read what their prejudices had expected see in the book as opposed to what was actually on the page.[44] I think the philosopher A C Grayling said it best in response to Intelligent Design theorist Steve Fuller’s protestations over Grayling’s negative review of Dissent over Descent:

Steve Fuller complains, as do all authors whose books are panned, that I did not read his book properly (or at all).  Alas, I did.[45]

Clearly the differences between evangelicals on both sides of the fence are enormous.  It’s not just a difference of opinion; it’s a difference of opinion regarding the other side’s opinions leading to yet more disagreements!  I suppose that’s why they call it a debate.

I will end with a word of praise by saying that Robertson is one of the most formidable, passionate and well-read apologists that I have ever come across.  That I have spent over seven thousand words refuting his work has to say something in itself.  It has happened so often, that after so many retorts, that believers abruptly end the conversation with one excuse or another.  Not Robertson.  I am certainly going to have my work cut out for me on the 21st July with him and Justin.

Bring it on.

Books cited or recommended

Bullock, A. (1993). Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives. London: Fontana Press.

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

Dawkins, R. (2007). The God Delusion. London: Transworld Publishers.

Ellerbe, H. (1995). The Dark Side of Christian History. Windermere, FL: Morningstar and Lark.

Ferguson, N. (2006). The War of the World: History’s Age of Hatred. London: Allen Lane.

Goldberg, D M. (2003). The Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Princeton, N J: Princeton University Press.

Harris, S. (2006a). The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason. London: Simon & Schuster.

Harris, S. (2006b). Letter to a Christian Nation: A Challenge to Faith. London: Bantam Press.

Hitchens, C.  (2007a). God Is Not Great: The Case Against Religion. London: Atlantic Books.

Hitchens, C.  (2007b). Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man. London: Atlantic Books.

Johnson, P. (1990). A History of Christianity. London: Penguin.

Kershaw, I. (1998). Hitler, 1889 – 1936: Hubris. London: Penguin.

Kershaw, I. (2000). Hitler, 1936 – 1945: Nemesis. London: Penguin.

McGrath, A E with McGrath, J C. (2007). The Dawkins Delusion? Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.

Paulos, J A. (2008). Irreligion: A Mathematician Explains How the Arguments for God Just Don’t Add Up. New York: Hill and Wang.

Robertson, D A. (2008). The Dawkins Letters: Challenging Atheists Myths. Fearn, Ross-shire: Christian Focus Publications, 2008 edition.

Stenger, V J. (2008). God, The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist. New York: Prometheus Books.

Williams, P S. (2009). A Sceptic’s Guide to Atheism: God Is Not Dead! Carlisle, Yorkshire: Paternoster.


[2] David Robertson –v- Adrian Hayter, “Challenging Atheist Myths – Part 1”, Unbelievable?, Premier Christian Radio, 21 March 2009:

David Robertson –v- Adrian Hayter, “Challenging Atheist Myths – Part 2”, Unbelievable?, Premier Christian Radio, 28 March 2009:



[5] Richard Dawkins, “Lying for Jesus?”,, 23 March 2008:,2394,Lying-for-Jesus,Richard-Dawkins.




[8], 19 February 2008:,2285,Fleabytes,Paula-Kirby.

[9] For a wonderful depiction of this Sunday school classic, see NonStampCollector, YouTube, 29 May 2009:   I’d very much recommend viewing the rest of his material as well:

[10] For a terse but effective response to this style of apologetics, see P Z Myers, “The Courtier’s Reply”, Pharyngula, 24 December 2006:

[11] Paulos (2008) 41.

[12] David Lister and Ruth Gledhill, “Students sue over Christian rights at colleges”, The Times, 18 November 2006:

[13] The Skeptics Annotated Bible; “What the Bible Says About Slavery”:

[14] Richard C Carrier, “Was Catholic Hitler ‘Anti-Christian’? On the Trail of Bogus Quotes”, Freethought Today, Volume 19, Number 9, November 2002:

[15] Richard E Smith, “Religion and the Holocaust”, Freethought Today, March 1997:

[16] Kershaw (2000) 1024 – 1025: “The available German text is, therefore, at best a construct; neither the original nor the copy of that original exists…  [There is] no reliable German text whose authenticity can be placed beyond question.”

[17] The idea that we are all made in God’s image and he will pronounce the final judgement on everyone’s character after departing the earthly life met its natural conclusion in the early 1200s during Pope Innocent III’s crusade against the heretical Cathars.  When the crusaders fell upon the town of Beziers and the commanding legate, Arnaud, was asked how to distinguish Catholic from Cathar, he replied, “Kill them all, for God knows his own!”

[18] Goldberg (2003) passim.

[19] “And this is why we do not find the word slave in any part of Scripture until righteous Noah branded the sin of his son with this name. It is a name, therefore, introduced by sin and not by nature… The prime cause, then, of slavery is sin, which brings man under the dominion of his fellow – that which does not happen save by the judgment of God, with whom is no unrighteousness, and who knows how to award fit punishments to every variety of offence.” – Augustine, The City of God, Book 19, Chapter 15:

[20] A Defense of Virginia and the South. New York: E J Hale and Son, 1867.

[21] Jefferson Davis, “Inaugural Address as Provisional President of the Confederacy”, Montgomery, AL, 18 February 1861, Confederate States of America Congressional Journal 1 (1861), 64 – 66; quoted in Dunbar Rowland, Jefferson Davis’s Place In History as Revealed in His Letters, Papers, and Speeches, Volume 1, (Jackson, MS: Torgerson Press, 1923) 286; quoted in Stenger (2008) 202 – 203.

[22] Hitchens (2007b) 28.

[23] Richard Dawkins, “The Theology of the Tsunami”, Free Inquiry, April/ May 2005, Volume 25, Number 3:,127,The-Theology-of-the-Tsunami,Richard-Dawkins.

[24] This passage is from those useless hacks who translated the King James Version blindfolded from the Torah, which was very sweet and cuddly in its original Hebrew, Rabbi Y Y Rubinstein.  Modern translations have “calamity” instead of “evil”.  I would have thought that “calamity” still covers death, disease, suffering…

[25] Jean Delumeau, Sin and Fear (1990) translated by Eric Nicholson, New York: St Martins Press, 27; quoted in Ellerbe (1995) 104.

[26] Delumeau (1990) 536; quoted in Ellerbe (1995) 99.

[27] Johnson (1990) 116: “We must not imagine that Augustine was necessarily a cruel man…  He thought that heretics should be examined ‘not by stretching them on the rack, not by scorching them with flames, or furrowing their flesh with iron claws, but by beating them with rods’.”

[28] “I answer that, With regard to heretics two points must be observed: one, on their own side; the other, on the side of the Church.  On their own side there is the sin, whereby they deserve not only to be separated from the Church by excommunication, but also to be severed from the world by death.  For it is a much graver matter to corrupt the faith which quickens the soul, than to forge money, which supports temporal life.  Wherefore if forgers of money and other evil-doers are forthwith condemned to death by the secular authority, much more reason is there for heretics, as soon as they are convicted of heresy, to be not only excommunicated but even put to death.” – Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Article 3 of Question 11 in the Secunda Secundae:

[29] Jonathan Edwards, “The Justice of God in the Damnation of Sinners”, from The Works of Jonathan Edwards, A M, London: Henry G Bohn, 673; quoted in Ellerbe (1995) 106.

[30] Robertson (2008) 103, and Cornwell (2008) 77 – 84, berate Dawkins for relying on a paper by John Hartung on the basis that Hartung once wrote a positive review of Kevin MacDonald’s book A People That Shall Dwell Alone: Judaism as a Group Evolutionary Strategy because MacDonald is a suspected anti-Semite and was an expert witness for David Irving in his 2000 libel action against Deborah Lipstadt.  Having now looked into their bibliographies, the words “kettle” and “pot” spring to mind.

For the article they are criticising, see Dawkins (2007) 288 – 293; quoting John Hartung, “Love Thy Neighbor: The evolution of in-group morality”, first published in Skeptic, Volume 3, Number 4, 1995, 86 – 99, and Volume 4, Number 1, 1996, 24 – 31, which can now be accessed at:

[31] See Richard Dawkins, “The Emptiness of Theology”, Free Inquiry, Spring 1998, Volume 18 Number 2:,88,The-Emptiness-of-Theology,Richard-Dawkins.

This superb piece by a qualified theologian who gives the “subject” the treatment it deserves: Edmund Standing, “Are the ‘New Atheists’ avoiding the ‘real arguments’?”, Butterflies and Wheels, 27 October 2007:





[37] Andrew Brown, “Bill Hamilton”, Prospect, January 2003, which can now be read at:


[39] Clarence Darrow, “The Eugenics Cult”, The American Mercury, Volume 8, June 1926, 137.



[42] Richard Dawkins at American Atheists 09,, 19 April 2009:,3752,Richard-Dawkins-at-American-Atheists-09,Richard-Dawkins.

[43] Coincidentally, while I was editing this piece, Robertson was far more bearable to listen to on David Robertson –v- Paul Orton, “The Moral Argument for God”, Unbelievable?, Premier Christian Radio, 13 June 2009:

See also Robertson debate Alistair McBay of the National Secular Society, “Is faith in God a delusion?”, 23 September 2008, Edinburgh University:

[44] Richard Dawkins, “Honest Mistakes or Wilful Mendacity?”,, 6 September 2007:,1610,n,n.

[45] A C Grayling, “Bolus of Nonsense”,, September 2008:

All web-based resources accessed 10 July 2009.

An Open Letter to Rabbi Y Y Rubinstein



manicstreetpreacher enquires of a former recent debating opponent on a few points.  Such as whether there is any evidence outside the texts themselves for a group of half a million people being dragged around the desert for decades to the only place in the Middle East that has no oil.  And how could the scribes of the King James Version have botched up so badly that Yahweh has been transformed into a moral abomination…

Dear Rabbi Rubinstein

Follow My Way – 12 March 2009, Liverpool University

I very much enjoyed debating you at Liverpool University’s Follow My Way event on 12 March 2009.  It was a shame you had to leave early.  I have a few clean-up points which we didn’t have chance to address.

Archaeology and the Old Testament

As I was attempting to say in the debate before you questioned my bibliography, the stories of the Exodus, the wandering and the conquest of Canaan have long been dismissed by the “serious” school of Jewish archaeology as myths with no more basis in historical fact than King Arthur plucking Excalibur from the grasp of The Lady of The Lake.

I suggest you read The Bible Unearthed by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman upon which I have based some of my arguments in this area.  Finkelstein and Silberman are biblical “minimalists” in that they view the events portrayed in the Old Testament as having little basis in reality, as opposed to “maximalists” who see the OT as an accurate historical record.

In respect of the Exodus, there is no way that a mass of half a million plus Jews escaping from Egypt would have passed Egyptian military outposts without being stopped in their tracks.  There is no mention of Moses outside the Bible and the episode is not mentioned at all in contemporary Egyptian and Mesopotamian texts.  Not a single campsite or sign of occupation from the time of Ramesses II and his immediate predecessors has ever been identified in Sinai.  And it has not been from lack of trying.  We are talking about one of the most heavily excavated areas in the World.

It gets better.  Archaeological excavations show that Jericho was a tiny hillside settlement c. 1,300BC and therefore had no walls to bring down whether by the sound of Joshua’s horns or more conventional military methods.

Maximalists such as Kenneth Kitchen clutch at straws, in particular the Tel Dan seal which alludes to “The House of David”.  Whilst Finkelstein and Silberman concede that David and Solomon probably did exist, population levels at that time could only have rendered them as minor tribal chieftains.   Again, there is no mention of either king in contemporary Mesopotamia texts even though we have good records of other Middle Eastern rulers from the same period.

Kitchen and Tudor Parfitt, with the latter’s ludicrous confection of fabrication and assertion, The Lost Ark of the Covenant, desperately spin the archaeological evidence further than it could ever reasonably be expected to go in non-religious history.

One highly respected scholar, William Dever, has tried to straddle both minimalist and maximalist positions in his book, Recent Archaeological Discoveries and Biblical Research (1993).  However, even Dever concedes:

Absolutely no trace of Moses, or indeed any Israelite presence in Egypt, has ever turned up.  Of the Exodus, and the wandering in the wilderness – events so crucial in the Biblical recitation of the “mighty acts of God” – we have no evidence whatsoever…  Recent Israeli excavations at Kadesh-Barnea, the Sinai oasis where the Israelites are said to have encamped for forty years, have revealed an extensive settlement, but not so much as a potsherd earlier than tenth century BC.

Even the location of the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem remains a mystery, despite impressive finds having been made which pre-date the period.

As for Mount Sinai, the geographical location is entirely separate from biblical one and so far, has proved surprisingly illusive for what one would think would surely be a vast feature on any landscape.

As I contended in the debate, our earliest written sources for the likes of Alexander The Great and Ramesses II may be dated hundreds of years after their deaths, but we at least know they existed and can be sure of many of the details of their lives because we have their tombs, coins with their faces on and have unearthed the sites of their battles.

I think this admission by the entire “serious” school of Jewish archaeology, who had every motive to go into the desert and dig up what David Ben-Gorian called “the title deeds” to prove the Israelis’ claim to the Holy Land, is a shining example of what Bertrand Russell termed “evidence over interest” and is far more noble, far more admirable and far more Socratic than any of the nonsense that clergymen attempt to foist upon their flocks.

Nevertheless, you could prove your case very easily by pointing out where Moses and Solomon are buried.

But, we could argue all day about scant archaeological which could imply the historicity of the narrative.  If we just take a step back, the story is falsified by looking at matters more philosophically:

Let me tell you something that we Israelis have against Moses.  He took us 40 years through the desert in order to bring us to the one spot in the Middle East that has no oil!

– Golda Meir, Israeli Prime Minister 1969 – 1974

My mother’s Jewish ancestors are told that until they got to Sinai, they’d been dragging themselves around the desert under the impression that adultery, murder, theft and perjury were all fine, and got to Mount Sinai only to be told it’s not kosher after all.

– Christopher Hitchens

Even taken as a metaphor, the story is an insult; not only to humanity’s moral sense, but also its intelligence.  What society would have even got that far thinking that the above acts were permissible?  And why would the creator of the universe reward his chosen with the right to ethically cleanse their way to gaining such a worthless piece of land?

The Torah as a moral guide

Having debated seasoned apologists for a while now, I know that terms such as “translation” and “context” seem to cover a multitude of sins.  Since I’m feeling charitable, I’ll let go the repeated endorsements of slavery that litter the Jewish Bible (even rather bizarre pronouncements such as not beating your slaves so hard that they die on the spot, but if they live for one or two days afterwards, that’s all fine and dandy – Exodus 21: 20-21), as mistranslations, distortions and misinterpretations by those hacks who penned the King James Version.

However, I don’t think following pronouncements survived the journey into Hebrew:

Thou shalt smite them, and utterly destroy them, thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor show mercy unto them.  And thou shalt consume all the people which the LORD thy God shall deliver thee; thine eye shall have no pity upon them…  For they will turn away thy son from following me… so will the anger of the LORD be kindled against you, and destroy thee suddenly… the LORD thy God hath chosen thee to be a special people unto himself, above all people that are on the face of the earth.

– Deuteronomy 7

And Moses said unto them, Have ye saved all the women alive?  Behold, these caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to commit trespass against the LORD in the matter of Peor, and there was a plague among the congregation of the LORD.  Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him.  But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.

– Numbers 31: 15 – 18

Are these ethical preachments?  Is Moses a man we should look up to as a great moral teacher?  Can you with a straight face explain away as a mistranslation the fact that rabbis in the Israeli army to this very day solemnly debate whether the Palestinians are the Amalekites and therefore the biblical warrant to exterminate them still remains?

I have to put it in these terms because I can scarcely believe that an otherwise noble and intelligent people can be guilty of such bovine stupidity and flat-out racism.

And don’t even get me started on the millennia-long, fine Jewish tradition of mutilating the genitalia of infant boys without their consent… (Genesis 17, Leviticus 12: 3).

Atheism and the greatest crimes of the twentieth century

Before you trot out this well-worn, bogus argument again, can you at least reveal what the secular roots of fascism and anti-Semitism actually were in Europe in the 1930s?

The links below are some excellent articles first published in Free Inquiry magazine which give a more definite answer to Hitler’s religious views and set out the Church’s complicity in the rise of European totalitarianism:

“Hitler was not an atheist” – John Patrick Michael Murphy

“The Great Scandal: Christianity’s Role in the Rise of the Nazis” – Gregory S Paul

Sidebars to “The Great Scandal” by Gregory Paul

I managed to track down Part II of Gregory Paul’s article in an online database, which I can forward to you if you wish.  The articles also refer to excellent works for further reading if you want to find out what really motivated this man as opposed to his alleged non-belief in Yahweh/ Jesus/ Zeus.  I would particularly recommend Ian Kershaw’s work.  His two-volume biography was condensed only last year into a more manageable thousand-page volume, which I’m sure my father would be happy to lend to you.

I won’t go into Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and Kim Jung Il any further now, but just because I don’t believe in your god does not make a supporter of their regimes, any more than someone with a moustache ought to be likened to Saddam Hussein.

And finally… the last word on miracles

Below is a link to the website that I alluded to in my opening address, the title, if not the contents of which you ought to ponder before giving that lecture on miracles with guaranteed results:

Best regards


My Debates on Premier Christian Radio Against Theologian Andy Bannister



manicstreetpreacher’s afterthought piece on his first two formal debates on religion in the light of further research and online debate.  Make sure you check out the comments section at the end.  There are some very interesting responses, not least from my “scholarly” opponent himself…

In the summer of 2008 I recorded my first two formal debates on Christianity against Andy Bannister of London School of Theology on Premier Christian Radio’s show Unbelievable? The links to the two shows are below. The moderator is Justin Brierley.

MSP -v- theologian Andy Bannister on historicity of Gospels, Unbelievable?, Premier Christian Radio, Saturday, 6 September 2008

MSP -v- theologian Andy Bannister on morality of the Bible, Unbelievable? Premier Christian Radio, Saturday, 13 September 2008

Having listened back to the shows, researched and tested my arguments more thoroughly and taken heed of the responses from friends and the show’s listeners I have the following comments to make.

I realise this looks like an exercise in “what I should have said at the time” but debating with other bloggers on Premier’s web forum has been essential preparation for my first live debate on religion against Peter S Williams of Damaris at Mountford Hall in my home city of Liverpool at 7pm, 19 February 2009 when we will be debating the motion “Does the Christian God exist?”

Prayers for salvation

Firstly, thank you to all those concerned callers praying for my soul which has now been damned to an eternity of hell-fire by not accepting that the torture and execution of another human being in a remote part of Palestine 2,000 years before I was born will in any way atone for my sins. As to my thoughts on the actual effectiveness of such prayers, as Daniel Dennett asked of his religious friends who prayed for him whilst he was undergoing life-saving heart surgery a couple of years ago, “Did you also sacrifice a goat?”

The martyrdom of the disciples

One anxious caller asked if the Gospels were false, then why would the disciples die for their faith. This is a common objection that I encounter and it is easily answered. If there is any evidence that the disciples did in fact die for their faith, then I haven’t heard of it. The Bible doesn’t say what happened to the disciples. My research tells me that their collective fate as martyrs was inserted into the myth at least 200 years after the supposed events. Therefore, we can safely dismiss this claim as a fabrication aimed at reassuring the flock without unravelling the fatuous biblical tradition of the story.

Secondly, even if the story is at some level true and the disciples did die for their beliefs, then all that proves is the strength of their convictions, not whether Jesus did de facto rise from the dead. They may have been genuinely mistaken or had been conned. People die for their faith all the time. Just look at all the all suicide cults. This is all just bare assertion based on circumstantial evidence with a splash of wishful thinking.

Eye-witness evidence can never prove a miracle

Although theists try (unconvincingly) to worm their way out of it, David Hume’s analysis of miracles is pretty bullet-proof. Either the laws of nature were temporarily suspended in your favour or you were under a misapprehension and what you witnessed has a natural explanation. The former is only possible if the latter is even more improbable. Either a man you saw tortured to death three days ago came back to life to walk again, or you were hallucinating or you were conned. Which is more likely? If you have heard the report second or third hand, then you have to be even more sceptical. And if you are reading about it in texts which were written decades after the events they purport to describe, by people who weren’t there at the time, have been corrupted over the centuries by careless scribes and persons unknown pushing their own agenda then quite simply you are showing a willingness to believe absolutely anything.

But even if the evidence for the supernatural elements of the story was much better and there were multiple eye-witness accounts of Christ’s miracles, this still would be enough evidence. Miracles are still very commonly reported in 2009. There are millions of people, including Western educated people, who will swear blind that their favourite Eastern guru is a living god and can perform all the miracles attributed to Christ: fly without technology, walk on water, raise the dead, heal sickness with their touch, read minds, divine the future, produce objects out of thin air.

Thanks to the miracle of YouTube, you can witness the evidence for yourself. Search for “Sathya Sai Baba”, sit back and be under whelmed. These miracles convince no-one except their most devoted followers. Yet when they are placed in an ancient text, written decades after their supposed occurrence, they become so convincing that a large portion of people on Earth think that it is a legitimate project to organise their lives around.

Do you see the problem with this?

Argument from blind faith

I can only repeat that simply asserting that something magical must have happened in the sands of First Century Palestine which best explains the rise of Christianity is absolutely no evidence at all. So what if the early Christians were persecuted by the Romans? So were the Mormons in 19th Century America. The reason why they are based in Salt Lake City, a piece of barren desert in the middle of Utah, is because they were chased out of every other settled piece of land before they figured out that perhaps the rest of the country didn’t take too kindly to group of people saying they were God’s chosen few. Their leader, Joseph Smith, died a martyr’s death at the hands of an angry mob in an Illinois jail in 1844.

Atheists thank God for modern-day cults like Mormonism and Scientology! We don’t know much, if anything, about who the original writers of the Bible. However, we know from more recent experience that the founders of religious movements are crackpots, mountebanks and charlatans exploiting gullible and credulous people and getting away with it all in the name of God. On what basis can we claim that the writers of the New Testament absolutely were not cut from a similar cloth?

What evidence do theists have the God has not revealed himself as the messiah of John Frum in the cargo cult on the island of Tanna in the Pacific or through Sathya Sai Baba in south India? Merely insisting that Christian belief is stronger is flat out arrogance.

As an aside, if you are going to accept the one version of this kind of blind faith, you have to concede the other. It was on 11 September 2001 when 19 pious men showed the pious nation of the United States of America just how socially beneficial this level of religious faith can be.

The historicity of the Roman Census and Herod’s Slaughter of the Innocents

I repeated Dawkins’ objection that the Romans would not require the populous to return to their town of birth (more accurately the place of origin of their lineage) to register. In Joseph’s case this would have been King David, who if he ever existed (at most he and his son, Solomon, were marginal tribal chieftains going by modern Israeli archaeology), would have lived over 1,000 years ago. Andy stated that Dawkins had been “machine-gunned to the wall” by religious scholars and non-religious historians and the Romans did perform censuses like this.

A member of Liverpool Humanist Group emailed me the following the debate:

I had a correspondence in The Guardian years ago about this: the problem is not limited to the absurdity of a Nazarene trekking off to Bethlehem (Roman censuses obviously did not require people to return to their ancestral homes – and even if Joseph had taxable property there, why stay in a stable?!)  as a] there was no census of all the world; and b] a Roman census in Judaea is incompatible with Herod still being king. The Luke narrative at least is a load of made-up cobblers.

Dawkins’ objection to the census in TGD is not off the top of his own head, as Andy implied.  The position is supported by agnostic historians whom Dawkins actually cited: A N Wilson’s Jesus and Robin Lane Fox’s The Unauthorized Version, so I’d love to known who exactly these “scholars” are who have “machine-gunned Dawkins to the wall” on this point.

Furthermore, the Census is not even mentioned in Matthew, so which narrative are we going to trust? Similarly Luke fails to mention Herod’s slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem and he was supposedly a lot closer to the action than any contemporary Roman historian such as Josephus. Wouldn’t Christians been on much firmer ground if a writer outside the Gospels had mentioned the census and the massacre?

Surely a contemporary historian would have recorded a larger scale monumental event such as the graves of Jerusalem opening at the time of the crucifixion, the dead walking around the city and appearing to many as told in Matthew?

How’s this for putting things into “context”?

Theologians seem to like using the word “context” rather a lot, but I’ve learnt that it is the last refuge for casuistry and evasion. Claiming that the kind of cheap “miracles” performed by charlatans today is so much more credible because they fit into the “context” of their time is as unfalsifiable as it is risible. If the Gospels recorded Jesus laying chickens eggs, then a theologian could justify it by its “context”.

So let’s forget all the theological waffling about the early texts, the deeply theological musings of Paul versus the stripped down accounts of the Gospels, the whole farrago has been blown apart by this gambit courtesy by Christopher Hitchens.

If you accept even an Old-Earth Creationist view that humans have been around for at least 100,000 years, you have to accept the following:

For the first few tens of thousands of years, humans are born with a life expectancy of 20 – 25 years, dying in childbirth or killing its mother, dying through micro-organisms they didn’t know existed and which Genesis omits to mention, dying through their teeth piercing their brains, dying through wars over food, turf and women, dying through earthquakes, hurricanes, volcanoes; thinking all this was a punishment for sin, worshipping a multitude of “false” gods along the way.   Scientists reckon we were down to a mere 5,000 before moving off the African savanna.

And heaven watched all that going on with folded arms for 98,000 years before deciding only 2,000 years ago that it was time for an intervention.  By way of a human sacrifice in a particular remote, backward and illiterate part of the Middle East.  Have it told to children in pornographic detail for the next two millennia. That’ll work, that’ll make them all love each other. Let the Chinese wait another few centuries to hear of this “revelation”.  And even today it still hasn’t been heard, much less believed by the majority of the world’s population.

That’s not to be believed, no reasonable person can believe it. But it’s the only argument for God’s plan that there has been and ever will be.

It always amazes me how meagre the scraps that believers will accept from their master’s table and call it heavenly.  Just as when 10,000 people die in an earthquake, one child is pulled alive from the rubble and this is hailed as a miracle.  Call it faith by all means, but please don’t pretend that it is supported by evidence.

Andy and Jay Smith lecture on “The Historical Jesus –v- The Historical Muhammad”

Before recording the debate I listened to Andy and Jay Smith lecture on the falsity of Islam.  I thought Andy’s segment on the historical Jesus was very superficial and simply made bare assertions that Jesus’ life seemed to fit into the historical context of First Century Palestine very well, similar to his talk about “a resurrection-shaped bomb” on the first show. Jay’s section on the other hand convincingly tore into Islam using historical, archaeological and scientific methods, similar to those I use against Christianity and I was very impressed by the presentation. (Apart from the bit where he said that Muhammad could not be a prophet because he was not descended from Abraham; that had me in stitches.)

Andy clearly accepts my style of arguments against all other religions, but is deaf towards them in respect of Christianity. It just goes to show that we are all atheists in respect of 99.9% of all the gods that societies have every believed in. Some of us just one god further.

Most astonishing, however, was Jay’s approach to the morality of the Koran. At 75 minutes Jay states that when Muhammad was 53 years old he married a seven year old girl, Aisha, and consummated the marriage when she was nine. There is absolute no circular, unintelligible padding about “context” or “scholarship” or “the early Islamic movement”. It is a flat-out admonition of the text at its face value of exactly the type I would make. Jay states that whilst that would not be considered paedophilia at the time, this isn’t a model for mankind today.

Rather like Abraham almost making a human sacrifice of his son Isaac? Or Moses ordering the slaughter the Midianite boys and the enslavement of the girls?

Intelligence of the people of First Century Palestine

Andy played the hurt feelings card when I said that the only evidence of miracle comes from the mouths of gullible and credulous people who want it all to be true and refuse to consider the possibility that there is a natural explanation. He said that people at that time weren’t stupid, which had been the “implicature” of my portrait on the millions strong cult of Sathya Sai Baba.

It would be tempting to quote Hitchens at this point and argue that it is decidedly strange that God decided to intervene in a particularly backward, illiterate part of the world when at least the there was a bit of philosophy and boat-building going on in China, but I won’t be that cruel.

Whilst we cannot ignore that these purported events were witnessed by terrified, sheep herding peasants, even if they were well-educated by the standards of their time, this would still not prevent scepticism.

Even someone in the ancient world who was really clever, like Hippocrates, the Greek physician and “father of medicine” (doctors throughout the world to this day still swear the Hippocratic Oath), would be woefully uninformed in his field by today’s standards. Indeed, Hippocrates was responsible for the theory that the bodies consists of four humours which when unbalance caused illness. Whilst this was a brave early attempt, it is of course completely wrong! However, for centuries doctors simply assumed it was true and failed to investigate further. As a result patients were inadvertently bled to death when they were ill in an attempt to rebalance their humours. Now we know that the one thing you need when you’re ill is your blood! This is a strong example of the need to treat all evidence and hypothesis with a continuing scepticism so that mistakes are not repeated.

Sadly, religion is the one area that seems to be excluded from this maxim, as the following thought experience from The End of Faith by Sam Harris amply demonstrates:

Imagine that we could revive a well educated Christian of the fourteenth century.  The man would prove to be a total ignoramus, except on matters of faith.  His beliefs about geography, astronomy and medicine would embarrass even a child, but he would know more or less everything there is to know about God.  Though he would be considered a fool to think that the earth is the centre of the cosmos, or that trepanning constitutes wise medical intervention, his religious ideas would still be beyond reproach.  There are two explanations for this: either we perfected our religious understanding of the world a millennium ago – while our knowledge on all other fronts was still hopelessly inchoate – or religion, being the mere maintenance of dogma, is one area of discourse that does not admit of progress. (London: Simon & Schuster, 2006, pp. 21 – 22)

I think I’ll go for option two.

Scriptural interpretation

Turning to the second debate on the morality of Christian teaching, I am still waiting for a convincing and intelligible answer to the old question “How do you know which are the good parts of the Bible that we are supposed to follow?” Despite the New Testament repeatedly condoning slavery, the one line in Paul’s letter to the Galatians that says everyone, man or woman, Jew or Gentile, free or bound is at one in the kingdom of Christ, is the one we are supposed to follow and therefore the Bible doesn’t really condone slavery at all.

Similarly the Old Testament book of Leviticus, with its celebrations of copious blood-letting and mandating the death penalty for adulterers and disobedient children contains the line “Love thy neighbour as thyself”. Wouldn’t it just be easier of the books just didn’t say those things in the first place? Wouldn’t Christians be on much firmer ground if the Bible was so amazingly brilliant that it could only have been written by an omnipotent being? There are some wonderful passages in the Bible, but there is nothing in there that could not have been written by someone in the Iron Age.

Interestingly, one of the callers in response to our discussion of the parable of The Three Talents read the story as meaning that the Jews who refused to follow Christ were going to meet a sorry end eventually! As George Bernard Shaw so memorably put it ”No-one ever believes the Bible means what it says. He is always convinced that it says what he means.”

I’m pleased that Andy doesn’t read the bible as condoning slavery or the death penalty for apostasy. Indeed, if religion in general and Christianity in particular comprised Andy Bannisters and Alistair McGraths, then I wouldn’t need to oppose it. However, plenty of people DO read the text at face value, as the President of the CSA, Jefferson Davis, clearly did in arguing his line on slavery.

The Hitchens Challenge on Human Morality

As for Christianity being a reinforcement for ordinary human morality, I also note that no one has replied to The Hitchens Challenge:

Name a moral action performed or a moral statement uttered by a believer which could not possibly be performed by a non-believer. Now name a wicked action or a wicked statement which could only have come from someone who thought they were on a mission from God.

The second part is as easy as pie. The first is unanswerable.

If Hitchens has been picked up on for this challenge “quite a few times” for it being philosophically incorrect, it hasn’t stopped the Hitch from continuing to put it out in his most recent debates with Frank Turek and Rabbi David Wolpe. May be someone should email him at Vanity Fair and put him right.

The challenge has nothing to do with biological justification for altruistic actions. Darwinism is a description of the development of biological organisms, not a moral code. The point of the challenge is whether we need divine permission to perform an altruistic action.

Consider what is moral: performing an altruistic action for its own sake, or doing so simply because of the promise of an eternal reward or the threat of an eternal punishment? The theist’s justification utterly negates the moral content of stepping in front of a bus to save someone else’s live. As the Hitch would say, if you are going to that for one, you have to accept it for all. If believers are going to justify all their good deeds by reference to the divine, then they have to accept all the wicked deeds that are committed for precisely the same reason.

So how would a non-believer justify jumping in front of a bus for a total stranger? May be because there is fulfilment in performing a good deed for its own sake. May be because if they were endangered they would hope someone else would do the same thing for them. A humanist is someone who can do good when no-one is watching.

The Hitchens Challenge is essentially Nobel Prize winning physicist Steven Weinberg’s famous statement turned into a challenge:

With or without religion, good people will do good and bad people will so evil. But for a good person to do evil, that takes religion.

My position on religion as a reinforcement for human morality can be broken down as follows:

  1. Religious people claim that they derive their values from the moral gold standard  i.e. the supernatural creator of the universe and therefore say they can justify why they do altruistic deeds whereas atheists cannot;
  2. All human beings, religious and atheist, do good deeds as well as evil deeds;
  3. There is no good deed performed by a religious man that an atheist cannot bring himself to do;
  4. The scriptures contain acts of barbarism committed by God or which he approves and/ or mandates, but which are considered morally abhorrent by people today;
  5. Religious people do especially evil deeds which they cite God’s will and/ or scripture to justify: Paul Hill murdering abortion clinic doctors/ the Vatican’s contraception policy Third World/ priests teaching children that they will burn in eternal hell-fire;
  6. Therefore, humans clearly do not derive their morals from the supernatural.

 The evolutionary explanation for altruism

A member of Liverpool Humanist Group, who is studying for a Ph.D. in zoology and therefore more read up on these matters emailed me the following:

I hadn’t realised that Richard Dawkins was so ignorant of the literature on the evolution of cooperation – there’s quite a lot of it!  Evolution predicts that we should peacefully cooperate, not that we should “run around fighting and stealing each other’s wives”.  But this is a topic that isn’t explained sufficiently.  The subtle nuances of evolutionary theory and some of the wonderful experiments that have backed up the theory are simply not talked about enough.  It’s my personal view that there is nothing wrong with accepting humans as “naturally selected automata” as far as ethics are concerned.  But the fact is that cultural evolution in the form of ethical teaching also impacts on personal behaviour.

 Theists have to contend with the fact that our primate cousins show the seeds of altruistic behaviour whilst engaging in no religious behaviour. Chimpanzees regularly comfort each other after fights and look after young that are not their own. Chimpanzees have been known to die attempting to save one of their own from drowning!

The Darwinian maxim “survival of the fittest” is one of the most misunderstood terms in our language. “Fittest” does not necessarily mean the strongest and most powerful. There are clear natural selection benefits to co-operation and altruistic behaviour. Humans do very easily overcome their Darwinian urges. The most obvious example is contraception. We forego the reproductive advantage of enjoying sexual intercourse without the burden of producing offspring. This is something that heaven in general and the Catholic Church in particular oppose in the strongest possible terms, as people in sub-Saharan Africa are finding out to their cost.

The shifting moral Zeitgeist

Andy also dismissed Dawkins’ view on the shifting moral Zeitgeist, saying that Dawkins was an Oxford University Professor in an ivory tower and was ignorant of the fact that we are now all descending back into barbarism. I have four points to make in respect of this.

First, this is yet another ad-hominem. I’m sure even Richard Dawkins takes a break from studying fossils by occasionally by reading newspapers.

Second, I was amused that Andy raised the rise of terrorism as an indicator of our reversion to the Dark Ages. I wonder what the main contributor to the rise in global terrorism is. Would that be religion by any chance?

Third, I question whether a clergyman has ever said that society is becoming more moral or that God is pleased with us for a change and we should pat ourselves on the back? I seriously doubt it. They would be doing themselves out of business.

Forth and finally, for all the faults that the modern age possesses, for how much a better place the world would be without nuclear weapons, I am glad I live in 2008 rather than 1308, or for that matter, 8. Would Andy prefer to go back to the Middle Ages or Bronze Age Palestine when people were infinitely more religious and superstitious? When it was commonly held that God was responsible for disease and tempest? When the Church had supreme authority of everybody’s lives? Where you could be burnt at the stake after a trial you had no chance of winning? Where you could be stoned to death for being a homosexual? Or sold into slavery at your father’s behest? I’m not saying society today is perfect, but I know which one I would choose.

Ironically, whilst morals are de-facto relative and become more liberal over time, only an atheist can adopt a moral absolutist stance. The theists have to tie themselves in logical sheepshanks making excuses and concessions for the barbarisms of ancient times that are celebrated, even expressly mandated by God.

An atheist on the other hand may understand the immoral behaviour of by-gone years on the grounds of ignorance and convention, but does not excuse it. Therefore it is the atheists who can rightly claim to hold an objective, timeless standard of morality.

Argument from lack of “serious scholarship”

Andy repeatedly dismissed mine and Dawkins’ sources as not being from proper biblical scholars. This is what atheists now term “The Courtier’s Reply”, after P Z Myers’ brilliant response to all those pseudo-intellectual critics who simply attack Dawkins’ bibliography rather than his arguments:

I have considered the impudent accusations of Mr Dawkins with exasperation at his lack of serious scholarship. He has apparently not read the detailed discourses of Count Roderigo of Seville on the exquisite and exotic leathers of the Emperor’s boots, nor does he give a moment’s consideration to Bellini’s masterwork, On the Luminescence of the Emperor’s Feathered Hat. We have entire schools dedicated to writing learned treatises on the beauty of the Emperor’s raiment, and every major newspaper runs a section dedicated to imperial fashion; Dawkins cavalierly dismisses them all. He even laughs at the highly popular and most persuasive arguments of his fellow countryman, Lord D T Mawkscribbler, who famously pointed out that the Emperor would not wear common cotton, nor uncomfortable polyester, but must, I say must, wear undergarments of the finest silk.

Dawkins arrogantly ignores all these deep philosophical ponderings to crudely accuse the Emperor of nudity.

Personally, I suspect that perhaps the Emperor might not be fully clothed — how else to explain the apparent sloth of the staff at the palace laundry — but, well, everyone else does seem to go on about his clothes, and this Dawkins fellow is such a rude upstart who lacks the wit of my elegant circumlocutions, that, while unable to deal with the substance of his accusations, I should at least chide him for his very bad form.

Until Dawkins has trained in the shops of Paris and Milan, until he has learned to tell the difference between a ruffled flounce and a puffy pantaloon, we should all pretend he has not spoken out against the Emperor’s taste. His training in biology may give him the ability to recognize dangling genitalia when he sees it, but it has not taught him the proper appreciation of Imaginary Fabrics.

 This is nothing more than an avoidance tactic. Saying that someone has not read the right books is a complete non-starter for actually rebutting their arguments. Those types of criticisms are usually reserved for the final paragraph of a review, not the first line. Terry Eagleton’s damning review of the TGD in the London Review of Books lists a series of theologians which Dawkins ignores, but then utterly fails to explain how a discussion of these would make any difference to TGD’s overall conclusion.

I think the contributors of have something far more interesting and relevant to say than Richard Swinburne and Alistair McGrath. The next time some lunatic from Christian Voice screams, “God thinks gays are any abomination!” people of reason can consult the SAB and turn around and say, “Yeah but God says the same thing about shrimp!”

The truth is theology has little relevance to the way that religion is actually practised. It is all very well treating the Bible as some kind of cipher that requires years of study to understand properly or making some dry theological point such as “silly Dawkins, doesn’t he know that Augustine rejected biblical literalism in the Fifth Century?!” but what difference does that make when biblical literalists like Ken Ham of Answers In Genesis say that they only way to save peoples’ souls is to preach that the earth is only 6,000 years old and that dinosaurs walked alongside Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden? Or Intelligent Design proponents want to teach junk-science to school children?

The following is a recent example close to home of just how irrelevant the theologians are. In July 2007 there were some very serious floods in Northern Yorkshire which killed and displaced a large number of people. The Bishop of Carlisle took a rather Old Testament view of the situation and stated publicly that the floods were divine punishment for society’s acceptance of homosexuality.

Now I’m certain that Alistair McGrath, John Cornwell, Terry Eagleton and Andy Bannister would use all their serious scholarship to argue that despite all those repeated prohibitions against homosexuality and all those tales of global floods and fire/ brimstone, the Bible doesn’t in fact make a link between metrology and morality and Christians have absolutely no problem with gays whatsoever. However, if any of them actually wrote an open letter to the Right Reverend Graham Dow telling him that this was an absurdly literalist, outdated take on matters, then I must have missed it!

My issue with theologians is that they see the Bible as some kind cipher which you have to study for years before understanding properly. To use borrow Paley’s watchmaker analogy, if a reasonably literate, educated man with no previous religious instruction, found a copy of the Bible on a deserted beach and sat down to read it cover-to-cover, on finishing the last verse of Revelation, would he come to the conclusion that this book was written and/ or inspired by the divine, supernatural omniscient, omnipresent creator of the universe? I seriously doubt it!

Moreover, he would conclude that it was written by barbaric Middle Eastern tribesman with a scant sense of morality where drawing up just a short list of reasons to kill your enemies was an improvement over the general barbarity of the time.

Dawkins cites Winston Churchill’s son, Randolph’s reaction to his first reading of the Bible when Evelyn Waugh and a brother officer laid down a wager for Churchill. It is a perfect example of my Paleyesque thought experiment.

In the hope of keeping him quiet for a few hours Freddy and I have bet Randolph 20 [pounds sterling] that he cannot read the whole Bible in a fortnight. It would have been worth it at the price. Unhappily it has not had the result we hoped. He has never read any of it before and is hideously excited; keeps reading quotations aloud ‘I say, I bet you didn’t know this came in the Bible…’ or merely slapping his side and chortling ‘God, isn’t God a shit!’

The God of the Old Testament

Interestingly, Andy did not say a word in defence of the Old Testament God when I brought up the famous passage at the start of TGD,“arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully”but resorted to arguments from authority as to all the nasty comments other critics have made about Dawkins.

Again, I don’t know what Richard Dawkins lectures Andy has been to where he has had to “back down” from his description of the Old Testament God, but they are certainly not those I’ve been to! See 50 minutes into this lecture given in my home city of Liverpool earlier this year:

As you can see, quite to the contrary, Dawkins gleefully dissects the passage TGD practically word-for-word! They say a joke ceases to be funny when you explain it. This is one of those exceptions that prove the rule.

Dawkins relying on “scholars who had some nasty right wing views” on his section on the Old Testament God turned out to be the likes of the Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, as my checking of TGD confirmed (Andy didn’t name them specifically on air), who are not scholars at all, but US televangelists. These “reverends” made fanatical pronouncements like Hurricane Katrina was punishment for a lesbian actress living in New Orleans and Dawkins well knows it.

Whilst these evangelists seem extreme to us in the UK, they are far more mainstream in the USA, with ministries comprising millions of people and millions of dollars. Ronald Regan consulted Falwell about biblical prophesies regarding the end of the world during his presidency in the 1980’s when there was a risk that the Cold War might turn hot!

The following Hitchens clip is the last word on these cretins:

The “Flea” books

There have been around 30(!) books by Christians published in direct response to TGD. This somewhat gives the lie to the idea that Christians have nothing to fear from TGD. The seem to be running scared, otherwise why spend so much paper trying to refute it! The reference to fleas comes from a poem by W B Yeats, “But was there a dog who ever praised his fleas?” which Dawkins quoted in response to Alistair McGrath’s The Dawkins Delusion? which was the second book McGrath had published with Dawkins’ name in the title, the first being Dawkins’ God.

Andy cited John Cornwell’s Darwin’s Angel as an effective rebuttal to TGD. I admire John Cornwell very much. He is a practicing Catholic, yet has also written some of the best critical work of the Catholic Church with Hitler’s Pope and The Pope in Winter. However Darwin’s Angel was a shockingly bad ad-hominem attack on Dawkins, distorting TGD from start to finish, whilst not presenting one single argument in defence of the existence of God or the morality of Christianity.

Dawkins responded to Cornwell’s book with an article tellingly entitled “Honest mistakes or wilful mendacity?” so I’m not sure where Andy got the idea that Dawkins has had to back away from his assessment of the Old Testament God as a result of Cornwell’s criticisms.

Paul Kirby puts it better than I ever could in her review of the “flea” books written in response to TGD.

“I’m an atheist but…”

Finally, it was Michael Ruse, not Dan Dennett as Andy maintained who vivified TGD for its over-reliance on Internet resources and non-reliance on serious scholarship. Dawkins and Dennett are very strong supporters of each other, regularly cite each others’ work and often share the same platform at conferences. Dennett wrote a glowing review of TDG for Free Inquiry and also stood up for Dawkins in the face of H Allen Orr’s criticisms.

Following the debate, Andy emailed me a link to the heated email exchange between Dennett and Ruse.  For Ruse it was a case of spitting out his dummy out with Dennett remaining his usual implacable self. Clearly, atheists are not immune from indulging in The Courtier’s Reply. The spat is nothing more than a case of what Dawkins dubs as “I’m an atheist but…”:

A small aside to finish with; Andy gave a qualified, but otherwise glowing recommendation of TDG at the start of Show 1, but then utterly vilified it at the beginning of Show 2. What are your views on The God Delusion, Andy?

My Live Debate on Religion – Liverpool University – 19 Feb 2009



I’ll be speaking a live debate on Christianity at Liverpool University against Christian apologist Peter S Williams of Damaris on the motion “Does the Christian God Exist?”

The official poster is above. Full details of the time and venue are as follows:

Mountford Hall

Liverpool University Students Guild

160 Mount Pleasant


L3 5TR

Entry: FREE (seating is restricted, so come early to avoid disappointment)

Doors: 7:30pm

Debate starts: 8:00pm

Finish: 9:30pm

Hope you can make it!

I also have slots on CityTalk this Tuesday (10th Feb) morning as well as BBC Radio Merseyside next weekend, so keep a listen out for those.

Read more about my antagonist at:

My three debates on Premier Christian Radio can be found at:

My Premier Christian Radio forum profile page is at:

My new WordPress blog is at

And I promise I will put something up there soon!

Ed “MSP” Turner