Posts Tagged ‘gospel’

More Than I Could Chew?

22/03/2009

follow_my_way_poster_2

Reflections on Follow My Way

The manicstreetpreacher licks his wounds after a gruelling public encounter with a bunch of religious fundamentalists.  The other panel members weren’t all that rational either…

Right now I don’t want to go out; I don’t want to make any friends.  All I want to do is make enemies.  I’ve never felt this much contempt for everyone and everything in my entire fucking life.  I don’t feel the need for anyone to like me anymore.  Jesus, it’s hard enough to like myself.

– Nicky Wire (1994)

On Thursday, 12 March 2009 at 7:00pm I attended Science Lecture Theatre A, Lecture Theatre Building at Liverpool University and debated a panel of what sounded like the beginnings of an exceptionally poor barroom joke:

Hamza Tzortzis, a Muslim[i]

Rabbi Y Y Rubinstein, a Jew[ii]

James Harding, a Christian and Anglican Chaplain of Liverpool’s three main universities[iii]

Without giving a blow-by-blow account, by the end of what had been an utterly gruelling evening I had felt as if my friends, work colleagues and fellow members of Liverpool Humanist Group would never speak to me again.

What’s more I felt as if I was the extremist, I was the ranter, I was the one trying to indoctrinate members of the audience and far more shrill, far more strident and far more intolerant than those believers against whom I lay the same charge.

It was the first time I had debated a Muslim and the first time I had debated in front of a predominantly Muslim audience.  A few quick points that atheist speakers in the same novel situation ought to be aware:

  1. If the event is organised by an Islamic society, expect arcane absurdities which do the religion no favours in the inclusiveness stakes, such as demanding that unmarried, unrelated men and women sit apart in the audience;
  2. The Muslim apologist will be given special treatment to cut off the other speakers whilst they are at the lectern trying to respond during their two precious minutes;
  3. If you intend to raise the issue of Wahhabi extremists brainwashing their children to become suicide bombers, don’t expect a positive reaction from the crowd.

After a very good reaction to my 10 minute opening address, which gave a whistle stop tour of atheism, anti-theism, secularism and the ills of religion on the world and humanist morality, throwing in a lambasting of the University Vice Chancellor, Sir Howard Newby, for his recent move to shut the philosophy, politics, statistics and communication studies departments, the crowd was firmly against me.

I found myself decrying miracles, the morality of the Holy Scriptures and Mother Teresa.  And then there was the small matter as set out in point three above, which nearly had me booed, jeered and hissed out of the hall.  My Christian opponent subsequently provoked the biggest cheer of the night, condemning me for saying “some really offensive things”.  Cheers and whistles which I myself added to.

It was actually Christopher Hitchens’ question on the usefulness of religion about whether you would prefer a child born tonight in Pakistan to grow up either as an atheist or a Wahhabi Muslim brainwashed into becoming a suicide bomber.[iv]

In retrospect, perhaps I ought to have pointed to the moral beacons of secular Scandinavia in front of a hijab-wearing audience, but I don’t regret it and I certainly don’t withdraw it, particularly, since the question was never actually answered and the topic was speedily moved to Blair and Bush’s adventures in Iraq.

The audience reaction was not so much indicative of any deliberate attempt to upset and provoke on my part (there was none) but the automatic respect accorded to religious faith in conversation.  Were the debate about Marxism, I very much doubt whether I would have received a similar response had I brought up the awkward fact of Joseph Stalin.

I certainly had my wish after my debate three weeks prior against Christian apologist Peter S Williams to come up against tougher opponents.  It wasn’t that my three antagonists had better arguments; it was that they were able to marshal an audience which was clearly on their side from the beginning.

Thus, when I raised the issue of lack of archaeological evidence for the Exodus and the conquest of Canaan, all Rabbi Rubinstein had to do was butt in from his chair by the main microphone and raise laughter and applause with an ad hominem against my bibliography.

“Oh, he reads the serious Jewish school now, does he?”  The flock loved it.

I tried to fight back with the doubtful location of Mount Sinai and the absence of any tombs for Moses, Solomon and David.  It didn’t matter; I had lost both the point and the crowd.  I have to resort to setting the record straight after the event when it’s too late with an open letter to the Rabbi.[v]

The audience were behind Hamza in particular.  He was given a roving microphone and cut me off several times during my precious two-minute slots at the lectern following questions from the audience.  He places a great of emphasis on the Argument from First Cause aka “Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing?”  He will not accept any rebuttals which impinge on other arguments, such as design or fine-tuning.  He also thinks that the Qu’ran is a book of such extraordinary power that it could only have been the product of a divine miracle.

I hope we have another live debate soon so I can expose these vacuous claims for what they are and in a more decisive manner than I was able to on this occasion.

Before the night, I had rather hoped that if it was going to turn nasty, it would be a squabble between the three apologists over who has the best imaginary friend, with me being the cool and reasonable one.  Alas, it was not be and I was reduced to fire fighting from all quarters.

The problem with Islam

A full castigation of the Qu’ran will have to wait for another paper, but having read the text myself,[vi] together the excellent executive summaries of Sam Harris[vii] and also my new best friend, Edmund Standing,[viii] I can safely conclude that anyone who says that this book is of such mind-blowing brilliance and so prescient of society’s universal and timeless needs is either deluded, dishonest, demagogic or a combination of all three.

The assertion that “Islam is a religion of peace which has been hijacked by extremists” is a claim utterly falsified by reading the Qu’ran.   Anyone who says that there could be nothing in the book that could possibly have mandated the atrocities of 9/11 or 7/7 doesn’t know what they’re talking about:

And fight in the way of Allah with those who fight with you, and do not exceed the limits, surely Allah does not love those who exceed the limits.

And kill them wherever you find them, and drive them out from whence they drove you out, and persecution is severer than slaughter, and do not fight with them at the Sacred Mosque until they fight with you in it, but if they do fight you, then slay them; such is the recompense of the unbelievers.

But if they desist, then surely Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.

And fight with them until there is no persecution, and religion should be only for Allah, but if they desist, then there should be no hostility except against the oppressors.

The Sacred month for the sacred month and all sacred things are (under the law of) retaliation; whoever then acts aggressively against you, inflict injury on him according to the injury he has inflicted on you and be careful (of your duty) to Allah and know that Allah is with those who guard (against evil) (2.190-4).

Ditto anyone who swallows the line that Islam says “there shall be no compulsion in religion”:

Allah will bring disgrace to the unbelievers (9.2).

O Prophet! strive hard against the unbelievers and the hypocrites and be unyielding to them; and their abode is hell, and evil is the destination (9.73).

Meanwhile, the applicability of the Prophet’s family values in today’s ever-shifting moral Zeitgeist are questionable to say the least:

Narrated ‘Ursa:

The Prophet wrote the (marriage contract) with ‘Aisha while she was six years old and consummated his marriage with her while she was nine years old and she remained with him for nine years (i.e. till his death).

– Hadith collection of Imam al-Bukhari

While it is always a relief to hear religious people do not take their texts literally and read the Holy Scriptures as authorising genocide and jihad, there can be little doubt that many people do take such passages literally.  If you’re still not convinced, perhaps they would care to read Osama Bin Laden’s Letter to America:

In the Name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful,

“Permission to fight (against disbelievers) is given to those (believers) who are fought against, because they have been wronged and surely, Allah is Able to give them (believers) victory.” [Qu’ran 22:39]

“Those who believe, fight in the Cause of Allah, and those who disbelieve, fight in the cause of Taghut (anything worshipped other than Allah e.g. Satan). So fight you against the friends of Satan; ever feeble is indeed the plot of Satan.” [Qu’ran 4:76][ix]

The latest polling data should alarming levels of fundamentalism among British Muslims.  The Centre for Social Cohesion produced a report in 2008 entitled Islam on Campus: A survey of UK student opinion.[x] The study, based on a poll of 1,400 students as well as field work and interviews, revealed of British Muslim students that:

  • 32% said killing in the name of religion can be justified;
  • 60% of active members of campus Islamic societies said killing in the name of religion can be justified;
  • 50% would be unsupportive of a friend’s decision to leave Islam;
  • 24% do not feel that men and women are fully equal in the eyes of Allah;
  • 28% said Islam was incompatible with secularism;
  • 40% said that they thought that it was unacceptable for Muslim men and women to mix freely;
  • 25% said they had not very much or no respect at all for homosexuals, as opposed to 4% of non-Muslim students.

A 2007 poll of 1,000 of the wider Muslim population in Britain conducted by the think tank Policy Exchange found that:

  • 86% of Muslims feel that religion is the most important thing in their life;
  • 36% of 16 to 24-year-olds believe if a Muslim converts to another religion they should be punished by death;
  • 74% of 16 to 24-year-olds would prefer Muslim women to choose to wear the veil;
  • 58% believe that “many of the problems in the world today are a result of arrogant Western attitudes”;
  • Only 37% accept that ‘one of the benefits of modern society is the freedom to criticise other people’s religious or political views, even when it causes offence’.[xi]

A 2006 Populus poll for The Times found that 37% of British Muslims believe that “the Jewish community in Britain is a legitimate target as part of the ongoing struggle for justice in the Middle East”.[xii]A 2005 Daily Telegraph poll found that 32% of British Muslims agreed with the notion that “Western society is decadent and immoral and that Muslims should seek to bring it to an end”. [xiii]

During a coda in a Muslim restaurant after the debate with my two remaining antagonists (Rabbi Rubinstein had to leave at 9pm while the debate was still ongoing) and members of the Islamic Society, I spoke further with Hamza and Muslim students.

The question of 1.3 million deaths in Iraq/ 3 million deaths in Vietnam/ 150,000 deaths at Hiroshima –v- 3,000 deaths on 9/11 arose as it had done so earlier that evening.

I am not going to write one word in defence of US foreign policy since World War II.  America has much to answer for and the body count arising from its activities abroad doesn’t even bear thinking about.

However, unlike the sloppy moral equivalence of Noam Chomsky in comparing Bill Clinton’s 1998 rocketing of the Sudanese Al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant, which purportedly lead to the deaths of thousands of innocent Sudanese from preventable diseases with 9/11, the body count is, bizarrely of secondly importance.

It can be demonstrated with this rather morbid thought experiment.  Which would you prefer; that your father was the bombardier on the Enola Gay that dropped Little Boy on Hiroshima which killed tens of thousands of women and children, or that he was in the My Lai massacre in the Vietnam War and killed 20 women and children at the point of a bayonet?

It’s a massive moral paradox, but I think most people would go for option 1!

One of the few statements of Henry Kissinger I have agreed with is that statesmen very often have to choose between evils.  (For the record, I don’t agree with the second part of that statement, that normal rules of morality cannot apply to them.  I think certain liberals have mounted a very convincing case to bring Kissinger to an International Criminal Court on charges of war crimes along with the like of Milosevic and Karadzic.[xiv])

But the question remains, would we like it if the situation is reversed?  Would we like America to switch military support from Israel to Hamas?  Would we trust the governments of Saudi Arabia and Iran by selling them nuclear weapons?  If the Iraqi National guard had invaded Washington, would they take any notice of the US employing human shields?  Would the US even use human shields?

Again, I don’t support the Iraq War, but I don’t point-blank reject its motives and its results either.  It is still possible to establish a first principle; there is still an argument for self-preservation, as there was for the fire-bombing of Dresden and the destruction of Hiroshima.  We wouldn’t be in Iraq if it wasn’t for 9/11.  The World changed beyond recognition for all time that day.

Also, anyone who says “Well ok, Saddam Hussein was a bad guy, but…” should educate themselves as to the extent of the man’s atrocities against the Kuwaitis, the Kurds and his own people.  Whatever happens to Iraq now, it has been an enormously costly exercise; that I cannot deny.  But I just have a hunch that in 10 years time it won’t be looked upon quite the same negative light as Vietnam.

The comparative sense of tribalism between me and Hamza and the Muslim students was astonishing.  Whilst I do not support America’s misadventures abroad, I do not feel the desire to take up arms and avenge the suffering visited upon them by innocent citizens of the perpetrators’ countries, or sympathise with those who do.  I hope I stand to be corrected in this, but I had the impression that Hamza and some of the other students do.

They repeatedly attempted to justify suicide attacks, play down religion’s role and play up that of secular politics.  The moderator of the debate, kindly gave me a lift home after the meal and pointed out that suicide bombing had only arisen in the last 20 years or so and was devised by the Tamil Tigers, whose motives are political, even if their religious views are Hindu, (as opposed to the common misperception that they are atheists).

I said to him that Jains and Tibetan Buddhists do not practice suicide bombing.   Tibetan Buddhists in particular are extremely oppressed.  If mistreatment by a foreign army occupying your country is sufficient to cause the requisite level of despair, Tibetan Buddhists ought to be blowing themselves up on Chinese public transportation.  But they do not do this, because their religion does not mandate in any way, shape or form.  This is a problem with Islam.

The problem with atheism

My opponents had a big advantage to me on the night.  They were advocating something positive, something inspiring, something that can provide hope.  Whether any of it was true or not was apparently of no concern whatsoever to the flock before them.

All I can say in reply to that is those who provide false consolation are false friends.  However, this still left me as the underdog.  I was essentially advancing a negative position.  I was speaking against their offers of hope and salvation.  I was the nasty teenager going around telling all the toddlers that there’s no such thing as Santa Claus.

The Christian chaplain had a wonderfully inspiring story of how he was seriously injured in a car accident as a child.  He spent months in hospital in intensive care whilst everyday his parents were told by the doctors to expect him to die.  However, the power of prayer apparently saved him.   In response to that, I said that we should consider all the children who didn’t make it, who died every single day the chaplain was in hospital, who were seemingly less ill than he was and the prayers of whose parents were not answered by the Almighty.

When people talk about miracles they mean when a baby falls out of a top storey window and bounces harmlessly on a pile of grass cuttings.  People to hold their hands aloft and thanks heaven for this wonderful salvation.  They have nothing to say when in the Congo and Cambodia and Rwanda there were ditches filled with dead babies and no one did a thing.

The truth may set you free, but it sure can leave a bitter aftertaste.

At the Atheist Alliance International Conference 2007, Sam Harris argued controversially that actually the “atheist” brand was doing the anti-religious cause few favours.[xv] Atheism is a term that we do need, in very much the same way that we do not have terms like “non-astrologer” or “non-racist”.  People, whether they believe in God or, what Dan Dennett describes as, “believe in belief in God” see atheists speaking out against religion as a cranky, intolerant, sub-cult.

Atheists seemingly never have to stop answering the bogus “Hitler/ Stalin/ Mao = the endgame of atheism” card.   “This meme is not going away,” commented Harris.  I felt that my knowledge of history and philosophy far outstripped any of my opponents.  Nevertheless, all Rabbi Rubinstein had to do was mention the crimes of Hitler and Stalin being caused by them allegedly being atheists to gain a murmur of approval from the crowd and was then up to me to cut into my own time at the next visit to the microphone to refute it.

That night I had first-hand experience of Harris’ dilemma.  My three opponents appeared so happy, so content living their lies.  They had something to offer the crowd which I simply could not.  On the other hand, I must have come across as miserable, angry, intolerant and trying desperately to indoctrinate people into my way of thinking.

Faith seems to trump evidence at every turn.  I could have lectured to them extensively on the historical unreliability of the Gospels, but they wouldn’t have taken any notice.  The idea that someone died to wash away their sins obviously appeals to their deepest hopes and fears and no amount of evidence would dissuade them of it.  Any claim, no matter how ridiculous, is irrefutable as long as it is dressed in faith.  The onus suddenly switches to the non-believer to disprove it, which is often an impossible task.  Apparently, no qualifications whatsoever are required in order to believe, but conversely no qualifications are sufficient in order to criticise.

Right now, my head is filled with visions of celestial teapots and self-propelled spaghetti monsters…

How to re-brand the atheist mark?  Can it ever be a positive?  I contend that atheism is a by-product of an enquiring mind that is forever asking questions and will not accept easy answers.  There is some empirical data which suggests that religious people are happy and healthier than non-believers and I can easily accept this.  Who would have wanted to be me that night?

When faced with such terrible ideas, what can I do – attempt to refute them or let them go unanswered and keep on plugging the “use what’s up here” card?  It’s frustrating, but I simply cannot provide an alternative manifesto at this time.  The best I can do is to refute the idea that an atheist has no reason to save someone else’s life as I did in my opening statement:

Quite simply an atheist does not need to refer his or her problems upwards.  We view them for what they are, on their own terms.  There is fulfilment in performing a good deed for its own sake, as opposed to doing it because invisible Big Brother in sky wants you to do it.   If we were endangered we would hope someone else would do the same thing for us.

Similarly, an atheist can easily abhor pain and suffering for its own sake.  We object to the Holocaust because we would not like the same thing to happen to us.  If we saw it happening in front of our eyes we would act to stop it.  Or if we witnessed the aftermath, we would try to alleviate its effects.

When the Asian tsunami struck on Boxing Day 2004, it was exactly these kinds of sentiments that took people of all faiths and none at all to the other side of the world to help ease the suffering of perfect strangers.

It’s amazing how far a little human solidity will get you and equally amazing how permission from the divine is unnecessary.

A humanist is, after all, someone who can be good when no-one is watching.

I am a straight-talker and I always have been.  If it looks like a spade, and it feels like a spade, and it digs like a spade, then I will frame it in explicitly shovel-esque language.  I have been loathed for it at every stage of my life, but then again I have always garnered a certain level of respect from what I term a “sincere minority”.

In conclusion – this glorious struggle continues

When the debate itself was all over, at about 9:45pm, I felt absolutely awful!  I was sure that I would be banned from speaking again at the University for good.  One or two of my friends who had come along congratulated me, but others left for their cars and their beds straightaway without a word.

Members of the University of Liverpool Atheist Society were incredulous to put it mildly.  The chair said I was welcome to come to Tuesday night drinks at the society as usual.  I detected more than a hint of polite insincerity in her tone.

However, one gentleman came up to me, smiled and shook my hand and said, “Brilliant.  Your arguing was just brilliant”.  A member of the City Christian Union gave me his phone number and asked to meet up some time as there were “a few things he wanted to talk about”.  At the restaurant afterwards, James Harding said I deserve respect for going into the lion’s den like Daniel.

Members of Liverpool Humanist Group emailed the next day saying how well I had stood up to it all and promoted the cause of humanism.  I had a few positive comments posted on my blog from audience members who wanted me to elaborate on certain issues.

In work the next day, colleagues who had been present said how well I had done and I ought to re-train as a barrister.  One solicitor who had missed the event due to a personal commitment said after the reports from the other she was definitely coming for the next one.

And then there was the small matter of receiving a Facebook message the Sunday after the event from the Islamic Society… inviting me back to Follow My Way Part II scheduled to be held at the University after Easter.

This news could almost make me believe in God.  Surely it must fulfil David Hume’s criteria for a miracle?  I have asked myself whether I am under a misapprehension, or I am deluded, or hallucinating, but apparently not.

However, the more naturalistic explanation for my invitation is, I postulate, that no matter how much your views are disagreed with, a substantial number of people always respect you for having the courage to speak your mind without consideration for what the reaction will be.

Is the heading quote from Manic Street Preachers’ skinny bassist an accurate summation of how I’m feeling right now?  Only in so far as I’m not doing this to make any new friends.  Indeed, I am filled with a wonderful sensation of “me against the world”.  Very Manic-esque.

Is the title to this essay an accurate description of what happened to me on the night?  Well, I was certainly left feeling rather full and had a few crumbs round my mouth and down my front.

But it wasn’t about overfilling my tummy.  It was about finally getting my trousers off.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to friends, workmates and Liverpool Humanist Group members who came along for all their support before, during and after.  I won’t incriminate you here; you know who you are.

Special thanks to Edmund Standing (a qualified theologian with a first class honours in the subject and several other very impressive letters after his name), for giving some helpful advice to a fellow atheist crusader he has never met before in his life:

http://edmundstanding.blogspot.com/

http://www.jewcy.com/user/3956/edmund_standing

http://www.hurryupharry.org/

http://www.butterfliesandwheels.com/

Extra special thanks to Liverpool University Islamic Society for having me to speak, for a wonderful meal afterwards and risking the University’s buildings and contents insurance by inviting me back for a second time.


[i] www.hamzatzortzis.com.

[ii] http://www.rabbiyy.com/.

[iii] www.faithexpress.net.

[iv] Among other occasions, the question was posed in by Hitchens in his debate against Dinesh D’Souza, “What’s So Great About God? Atheism –v- Religion” at Macky Auditorium, CU Boulder, January 26, 2009 and can be viewed at: http://richarddawkins.net/article,3623,Debate-Christopher-Hitchens-and-Dinesh-DSouza,Thomas-Center.

[v] https://edthemanicstreetpreacher.wordpress.com/2009/03/22/open-letter-rabbi-y-y/.

[vi] For what it’s worth, my version of the sacred text is translated and with an introduction by Arthur J Arberry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), but I’m sure it’s full of mistranslations and passages taken out of context.

[vii] The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason (London: Simon & Schuster, 2006).

[viii] Edmund Standing, “A Critical Examination of the Qu’ran”, Butterflies and Wheels, 6 February 2009,

Part 1: http://www.butterfliesandwheels.com/articleprint.php?num=384,

Part 2: http://www.butterfliesandwheels.com/articleprint.php?num=385,

Part 3: http://www.butterfliesandwheels.com/articleprint.php?num=386,

Part 4: http://www.butterfliesandwheels.com/articleprint.php?num=387.

[ix] “Full text: bin Laden’s ‘letter to America’”, The Guardian, 24 November 2002: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2002/nov/24/theobserver.

[x] Full report: http://www.socialcohesion.co.uk/files/1231525079_1.pdf.  Executive summary: http://www.socialcohesion.co.uk/files/1231525079_2.pdf.

[xi] “British Muslims poll: Key points”, BBC News, 29 January 2007: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/6309983.stm.

[xii] Peter Riddell, “Poll shows voters believe press is right not to publish cartoons”, The Times, 7 February 2006: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/politics/article727952.ece.

[xiii] Anthony King, “One in four Muslims sympathises with motives of terrorists”, The Daily Telegraph, 23 July 2005: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1494648/One-in-four-Muslims-sympathises-with-motives-of-terrorists.html.

[xiv] For a superb exposition of Kissinger’s war crimes, see Christopher Hitchens, The Trial of Henry Kissinger (London: Verso, 2002) and its accompanying documentary, The Trials of Henry Kissinger (2002) which contains Kissinger’s statement about statesmen having to choose between evils and can be viewed at: http://video.google.co.uk/videoplay?docid=-2411718527195635002&ei=bEO9Se-IBoiGqwL3zcA-&q=trials+of+henry+kissinger+hitchens&hl=en.

[xv] The video of Harris’ speech on 28 September 2007 can be viewed at:

http://richarddawkins.net/article,1805,Sam-Harris-at-AAI-07,RichardDawkinsnet.  An edited transcript is at http://richarddawkins.net/article,1702,The-Problem-with-Atheism,Sam-Harris.

All web-based resources retrieved 15 March 2009.

Peter S Williams Up Close – Part I

07/03/2009

williams-pic

http://www.arn.org/authors/williams.html

http://idpluspeterswilliams.blogspot.com/

manicstreetpreacher reviews I Wish I Could Believe In Meaning by Christian apologist, Peter S Williams, following their live debate at Liverpool University on 19 February 2009.

On 19 February 2009 I spoke in a live debate at Liverpool University against Peter S Williams of Southampton-based Christian group, Damaris, opposing the motion “Does the Christian God Exist?” The YouTube links will follow.

In preparation for the debate, I read many of Williams’ articles, listened to his debates and podcasts and read his two most recent books, I Wish I Could Believe In Meaning: A Response to Nihilism and A Sceptic’s Guide To Atheism: God Is Not Dead! The latter was not officially released until 27 February, over a week after our debate, but Mr Williams in all his good Christian nature emailed me the final proof in PDF a few days beforehand.

Unlike my earlier piece on my Premier Christian Radio debates against Andy Bannister, this essay is not intended as a “what I wish I’d said at the time”. Indeed, I am very happy with my performance against Williams. Of course there are a few things I would change if we were going to do it again, one or two places were I stumbled over my words, points I would like to have discussed more thoroughly if time had allowed, but for my first live debate I was more than happy with the way I acquitted myself.

These two essays are to expand on points which were raised in the debate and to provide a fuller analysis of my opponent’s written work.

I Wish I Could Believe In Meaning: A Response to Nihilism[i]


meaning-cover1

In which my antagonist sets out his reasons as to why the atheism of Richard Dawkins, Dan Dennett and Charles Darwin is deeply unsatisfying and that belief in God alone can provide meaning and purpose in people’s lives.

Except in relation to the latter he doesn’t.  He quite simply does not.

There is not one argument, not one sentence, not one word, not one single syllable in support of Williams’ proposition that only belief in God in general and the Christian God in particular is either truthful, useful or meaningful.  Perhaps because he knows he is preaching to his own choir, he takes it as read that his audience will have accepted the first premise and attempts to demonstrate that atheism is meaningless and with content.

The book is argued entirely negative terms: because the atheist world view provides no hope, no meaning and no purpose to life, it should be rejected in favour of theism.   Alas, Williams offers no positive arguments is favour of theism, but simply attempts to show how unattractive he finds atheistic materialism.

The only justification Williams gives is a personal anecdote about when a women he spoke to at the launch party of his first book, The Case For God, said that she wished she could believe in God as her life might have some purpose and meaning.  “Why don’t you?” was Williams’ reply to this poor lost little soul.  What I want to know is “Why should I?”

Apologists seem to require reminding of this ad nauseum (not that it ever sinks in) that an argument for usefulness is in no way, shape or form an argument for truth.  I’m sure the belief that Elvis will return from the dead/ alien captivity provides boundless hope and meaning to certain members of our society, but that is hardly going to persuade a rational sceptic of the truth of this proposition.   As I read the book, I was increasingly convinced that “I Wish I Could Believe in Wishful Thinking” would have been a far more appropriate title.

Beauty

The one (count it) interesting passage that had me thinking was Williams’ discussion of beauty: is it subjective or objective?  Would the Mona Lisa still be beautiful if there were no human beings left on Earth to appreciate her?

Williams’ answer is that beauty must be objective since God is the final arbiter of such matters.  However, Williams comes up short, merely asserting that David Hume’s subjective view of beauty that “one man’s meat is another man’s poison” means that sadomasochism might be beautiful to some people but personally, Williams doesn’t like that sort of thing very much.[ii]

My own view is that beauty is a manmade construct; an opinion, an emotive response, nothing more.  If there was no-one left alive to appreciate a 24-carat diamond, then it would just exist as a piece of matter.  And if I’m wrong and there is a God, how can we possibly know his mind?  For all Williams knows, God may despise the roof of the Sistine Chapel, but on the other hand, think “A dead cow cut in half submerged in a tank?  An unmade bed sodden with beer cans and used condoms?  Now that’s art!”

Morals

Williams argues that objective morality can only come from God.  God exists and he has the final say on matters of right and wrong.

Williams quotes J L Mackie’s The Miracle of Theism to suggest that even some atheists reject the idea that morality can be objective as this would provide evidence in support of the existence of God.[iii] (I must say that I read Mackie somewhat differently, but this is nothing compared to the abject quote-mining that litters the entire book, more of which later.)  Williams also quotes agnostic philosopher Michael Ruse who argues that morals are a product of human evolution and therefore can only be subjective.[iv]

Williams makes assertions which sound great on paper but fall apart when given a small injection of reality. As I said in our debate, if there is an objective moral standard, if that objective moral standard is God and if the practice of slavery is objectively wrong, then why would God expressly and repeatedly mandate, regulate and justify it in the one book he thought was so important he dictated himself?[v]

When it comes to morality, I make an exception to my otherwise materialistic world-view.  De facto morals are relative and subjective.  There are practices in other parts of the world and practices of yesterday which we in Britain today quite rightly find abhorrent.  However, I believe that there is an objective standard of morality which can only be realised through human conversation, philosophical debate and scientific research.  Those who argue that objective morality can only be achieved through God still have all their work ahead of them.

The moral wrong of slavery is just as applicable to the people of first century Palestine while Paul was recommending the practice as it was in the nineteenth century whilst Abraham Lincoln and William Wilberforce were opposing it.  Just as the existence of Australia was just as applicable to white Europeans before the continent was discovered by James Cook in the 18th century.

Of course I am really indulging in a meta-physical fiction – a spot of decidedly unatheistic wishful thinking – since as with beauty, there would be no morality if every member of the human race was dead.  Furthermore, this objective standard will in all likelihood never be achieved, unless human progress reaches some sort of utopian endpoint where suffering and pain no longer exist.

Nevertheless, in the same way that geographical, physical and empirical facts such as the existence of Australia will only be discovered through human exploration, moral facts such as the evil of slavery can only be discovered by a similar process of research, debate and exchange of ideas.

No matter how much like chasing a rainbow this approach might seem, the alternative does not bear thinking about: saying that the actions of the 9/11 hijackers could never be said to be truly wrong, or worse; engaging in the kind of sloppy moral equivalence of the American Left in response to those attacks.  We must be able to condemn the atrocities carried out by Islamo-fascists as wrong, full-stop.  No ifs, no buts, no sickly relativistic maybes.

So why would an atheist justify an altruistic act or condemn an evil one?  Quite simply an atheist does not need to refer his or her problems upwards.  We view them for what they are and for their own sake.  There is fulfilment in performing a good deed for its own sake, as opposed to doing it because an invisible Big Brother in sky wants you to do it.   If we were endangered we would hope someone else would do the same thing for us.

Similarly, an atheist can easily abhor pain and suffering for its own sake.  We object to the Holocaust because we would not like the same thing to happen to us.  If we saw it happening in front of our eyes we would act to stop it.  Or if we witnessed the aftermath, we would try to alleviate its effects.

When the Asian tsunami struck on Boxing Day in 2004, it was exactly these kinds of sentiments that took people of all faiths and none at all to the other side of the world to help ease the suffering of perfect strangers.

It’s amazing how far human solidity will get you and equally amazing how permission from the divine is unnecessary.

A humanist is, after all, someone who can be good when no-one is watching.

As a final point, if theists want to claim the one version of religious faith, they have to accept the other.  Sure, there are many good deeds carried out in the name of religious faith, but there are also many atrocities that flow directly from it as well, and those don’t equalise at the margins as much as Williams would wish.  Is there any wickedness, any evil, any atrocity that is denied to people who think they have God on their side?

Was it or was it not the American apologist, William Lane Craig, who stood at the very same lectern at Liverpool University as I did in March 2007 and rather obnoxiously argued that an atheist cannot say that torturing a child for fun is wrong?[vi]

Well, let’s just consider the flip side to that particular coin for a moment?  We all have access to news outlets.  Isn’t it so often the case that someone who will torture a child, maybe not for fun, but certainly because they believe they are objectively moral in so doing, will do it precisely because they think they have permission from God?

The smug assertion, trotted out so regularly by believers that an atheist cannot say that the God-ordered atrocities of the Old Testament were objectively wrong, falls down like a house of cards – like all religious reasoning – once matters are thought through a little more carefully.

Limited sources quoted to death

This might seem like a trivially aesthetic point, however, it is an important point against Williams’ writing style.  The book relies so heavily on quotes from other sources that it’s almost as if Williams doesn’t really understand the arguments he is writing about, but is, but is just regurgitating the writings of his opponents and then countering them with those of his supporters.

That Williams is playing with the ideas of only about twenty different writers doesn’t help matters either.  In the theist corner we have G K Chesterton, C S Lewis, Keith Ward, Michael Behe, William Dembski and William Lane Craig.   In the atheist corner we have Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Charles Darwin, David Hume, J L Mackie and Michael Ruse.  That’s not an exhaustive list, but there aren’t too many others.  And Williams pads out the book with so many quotes from these writers that it’s impossible to know what Williams’ own views really are.  I suspect Williams doesn’t know either.

In between the introduction and the concluding chapters, the footnote count is close to or exceeds one hundred references and some of the longer chapters have over two hundred!  The chapters just grind on like a machine stuck in first gear until they fizzle out completely.

The book wheezes under the weight of third party material that there is absolutely no flow to Williams’ arguments; no beginning, no middle, no end.

Unintelligent Design

Williams discredits himself badly with his abject support for “Design Theorists” Michael Behe, William Dembski and the other wedge-driving hacks at the ironically named Discovery Institute.

Williams argues that Intelligent Design (ID) is only concerned with detecting design in nature and not will the identity of the designer him/her/itself.  Yeah right, Peter, who do you think you’re trying to kid?  Admit it, ok.  The designer is God!  If not, then perhaps you would like to share with us other fledging scientific theories you are giving such passionate support to?

Anyone who has read Richard Dawkins’ treatment of Behe and ID in The God Delusion will read these passages with a withering sense of incredulity.[vii] I’m not a biologist, but without going into the finer points of information and the order in which proteins are arranged in a cell, I can see the fallacy in the ID argument a mile off.  It is little more than a dressed up “God of the Gaps” argument: “I can’t explain how this works.  Therefore it must be God.”

We have two theories: Theory A, evolution by Natural Selection, which has plenty of evidence to back it up.  Theory B, an invisible intelligent designer, has no evidence.  Here’s a scenario that Theory A seemingly can’t explain.  Therefore, Theory A falls down like a house of cards and Theory B is the right answer by default.

It’s an incredibly bad piece of reasoning which gets you nowhere.  It’s not all that long ago that people thought that disease and bad weather was God’s punishment for sin.  These days, the number of people who rely solely on good behaviour and prayer over modern medicine to fight the elements is mercifully small.

And just who is this Intelligent Designer?  Do you have his business card?  For one thing, I’d really love to have a stern word with him over the fantastic “design” job he did on my hairline!

Humans are not the end product of evolution.  We are not the products of an intelligent agent. The proof is in our own bodies.  The reason why humans often suffer terrible back pain is because our spines are supporting 70% of our body weight on its own.  Our spines are better suited to a species which should be still walking around on all fours.  The fact that the human oesophagus shares the roles of swallowing and breathing means that humans are very susceptible to choking to death every time they eat.  Some design, I would say.

It’s not just argument from the inadequacy of the designer as Williams so desperately contends.[viii] To accept that biological organisms were intelligently designed, you have to accept that the designer must have either been stupefying inept or incredibly callous and capricious and cruel.

Williams attempts to paint ID as a serious scientific argument that is gradually gaining credibility in the scientific community when in reality ID is a political ploy, an attempt to get creationism into school science classrooms by the back door.  Williams cites respectable scientific journals which have purportedly published peer-reviewed articles advocating ID.[ix]

In fact, the history of peer-reviewed articles advocating ID is sparse to say the least!   The amount of publish material advocating ID is outweighed by a week’s worth on Darwinian evolution.[x]

For all those non-scientists like me who would like to know more, the TalkOrigins website skilfully and concisely refutes every single one of the claims of ID, and for that matter, creationism.[xi]

If you are looking for a very amusing field test of Williams’ views on ID, I can do not better than suggest a listen to his Premier Christian Radio debate against Peter Hearty, a member of the UK National Secular Society and a scientist who actually knows what he’s talking about.  Hearty demolishes every single one of Williams’ assertions without a second thought![xii]

More amusing still is the extraordinary disclaimer that now appears on the Department of Biochemical Sciences website at Lehigh University:

The faculty in the Department of Biological Sciences is committed to the highest standards of scientific integrity and academic function.  This commitment carries with it unwavering support for academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas.  It also demands the utmost respect for the scientific method, integrity in the conduct of research, and recognition that the validity of any scientific model comes only as a result of rational hypothesis testing, sound experimentation, and findings that can be replicated by others.

The department faculty, then, are unequivocal in their support of evolutionary theory, which has its roots in the seminal work of Charles Darwin and has been supported by findings accumulated over 140 years.  The sole dissenter from this position, Prof Michael Behe, is a well-known proponent of “intelligent design.”  While we respect Prof Behe’s right to express his views, they are his alone and are in no way endorsed by the department.  It is our collective position that intelligent design has no basis in science, has not been tested experimentally, and should not be regarded as scientific.[xiii]

Then again, Behe destroyed his own reputation in the Kitzmiller –v- Dover P A trial when he admitted under cross-examination that ID could only be construed as a theory only in a very loose sense, placing it in the same category as astrology!   For a summary of Kitzmiller, I recommend the excellent documentary, Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial.[xiv]

I think now, ID has all the credibility of the theory that the movements of the planets dictate our lives.

Quote-mining

Maybe I’m guilty of idolatry in relation to certain atheist writers, but as I read the quotes which peppered I Wish I Could Believe In Meaning and the way which Williams was attempting to use their own words against them, I thought, “That doesn’t sound like the Richard Dawkins/Dan Dennett/Charles Darwin I know!”

I sourced the quotes from their original texts myself and exactly as I suspected, Williams is engaging in that disgraceful, dirty and dishonest tactic known as “quote-mining”.  He takes certain quotes wholly out of context to make it appear that either the authors doubt their own views or they have a faith-based commitment to Darwinian evolution as a means of justifying their non-belief in God.

For the debate, I created a whole list of examples of this disgraceful tactic by my opponent.  On the night, I had no cause to use them, but I present two examples here to give an impression of what I mean.

1. Williams quoting Richard Dawkins:

Even if there were no actual evidence in favour of Darwinian theory we should still be justified in preferring it over all rival theories.[xv]

The full passage from The Blind Watchmaker is as follows:

Instead of examining the evidence for and against rival theories, I shall adopt more of an armchair approach.  My argument will be that Darwinism is the only known theory capable of explaining certain aspects of life.  If I am right it means that, even if there were no actual evidence in favour of Darwinian theory (there is of course) we should still be justified in preferring it over all rival theories.

One way to dramatise this point is to make a prediction.  I predict that, if a form of life is ever discovered in another part of the universe, however outlandish and weirdly alien that form of life may be in detail, it will resemble life on Earth in one key respect: it will have evolved by some form of Darwinian natural selection.   Unfortunately, this is a prediction that we shall, in all probability, not be able to test in our lifetimes, but it remains a way of dramatising an important truth about life in own planet.

The Darwinian theory is in principle capable of explaining life.  No other theory that has ever been suggested is in principle capable of explaining life.  I shall demonstrate this by discussing all rival theories, not the evidence for or against them, but their adequacy, in principle, as explanation for life.[xvi]

2. Williams quoting Daniel Dennett:

I have learned from my own embarrassing experience that how easy it is to concoct remarkably persuasive Darwinian explanations that evaporate on closer inspection.[xvii]

The full passage from Darwin’s Dangerous Idea is as follows:

The ideas expressed in this book are just the beginning.  This has been an introduction to Darwinian thinking, sacrificing details again and again to provide a better appreciation of the overall shape of Darwin’s idea.  But as Miles van der Rohe said, God is in the details.  I urge caution alongside the enthusiasm I have hope I have just kindled in you.  I have learned from my own embarrassing experience that how easy it is to concoct remarkably persuasive Darwinian explanations that evaporate on closer inspection.  The truly dangerous aspect of Darwin’s idea is its seductiveness.  Second-rate versions of the fundamental ideas continue to bedevil us, so we must keep a close watch, correcting each other as we go.  The only way of avoiding the mistakes is to learn from the mistakes we have already made.[xviii]

In another place Williams quotes from the sixth edition of Charles Darwin’s On The Origin Of Species by splicing two lines together from different pages of the book![xix] The first part of Williams’ quote actually comes further along by some 20 pages in Darwin’s book on than the second part![xx]

Finally, Williams mines H Allen Orr’s damning review of Michael Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box[xxi] to make it appear that Orr has doubts over Darwinism.[xxii]

This disgraceful tactic should speak for itself without any further comment from me.   Right from my first experiences of debating with apologists, I am no longer surprised at such below-the-belt tactics.  I wouldn’t trust their word if one of them told me Richard Dawkins’ views on the colour of an orange.

In conclusion

I thought this was a thoroughly lacklustre effort; bloated with quotes from other sources, reaching its conclusions without offering any arguments in support, grossly misrepresenting the atheistic world-view and repeatedly stooping to the depths of misquoting famous atheistic thinkers.

An extra half star for getting me to think about the objectivity/subjectivity of beauty but otherwise the film critic, Leonard Maltin, would rank this one as a “BOMB”.

1.5 stars out of 5

Books cited or recommended

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

Dawkins, R. (2007). The Blind Watchmaker. London: Penguin.

Dennett, D C. (2006). Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. London: Penguin.

Mackie, J L (1990). The Miracle of Theism: Arguments for and against the Existence of God.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Williams, P S. (2004). I Wish I Could Believe In Meaning: A Response to Nihilism. Southampton: Damaris Publishing.


[i] http://www.amazon.co.uk/Wish-Could-Believe-Meaning-Response/dp/190475306X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1235499072&sr=1-1.

[ii] Williams (2004) 240.

[iii] Williams (2004) 64.

[iv] Williams (2004) 121.

[v] http://skepticsannotatedbible.com/says_about/slavery.html.

[vi] William Lane Craig –v- Mike Begon debate “Is God a Delusion?” Liverpool University March 2007 http://www.bethinking.org/events/reasonable-faith.

[vii] Dawkins (2006) 156 – 161.

[viii] Williams (2004) 136 – 140.

[ix] Williams (2004) 425, 452.

[x] http://www.talkorigins.org/indexcc/CI/CI001_4.html.

[xi] http://www.talkorigins.org/.

[xii] http://www.arn.org/docs/williams/pw_radiodebate.htm.

[xiii] http://www.lehigh.edu/~inbios/news/evolution.htm.

[xiv] Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial (2007) NOVA: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/id/.

[xv] Williams (2004) 118 – 119.

[xvi] Dawkins (2006) 287.

[xvii] Williams (2004) 430.

[xviii] Dennett (2006) 521.

[xix] Williams (2004) 418.

[xx] http://darwin-online.org.uk/content/frameset?viewtype=side&itemID=F391&pageseq=1.

[xxi] H Allen Orr, “Darwin v. Intelligent Design (Again)”, Boston Review, December 1996/ January 1997: http://bostonreview.net/BR21.6/orr.html.

[xxii] Williams (2004) 431.

All web-based resources retrieved 1 March 2009.

My Debates on Premier Christian Radio Against Theologian Andy Bannister

07/02/2009

AndyBannister

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…

http://www.andybannister.co.uk/Site/About_Andy.html

andybannister@mac.com

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 www.skepticsannotatedbible.com 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

07/02/2009

debate_poster11

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

Liverpool

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:

http://www.arn.org/authors/williams.html

http://www.damaris.org/content/content.php?type=2&id=14

http://www.bethinking.org/search/author/Peter%20S.%20Williams

http://idpluspeterswilliams.blogspot.com/

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

http://ondemand.premier.org.uk/unbelievable/AudioFeed.aspx

My Premier Christian Radio forum profile page is at:

http://www.premiercommunity.org.uk/profile/manicstreetpreacher

My new WordPress blog is at

https://edthemanicstreetpreacher.wordpress.com/

And I promise I will put something up there soon!

Ed “MSP” Turner

http://www.liverpoolhumanists.co.uk/

http://www.humanism.org.uk/home

http://www.secularism.org.uk/

www.richarddawkins.net

www.buildupthatwall.com

www.samharris.org

www.skepticsannotatedbible.com

www.godhatesshrimp.com