Posts Tagged ‘harris’

That bleedin’ Luke census again!

28/12/2009

manicstreetpreacher: dog/bone.

Naturally, I was very happy to be given another mention on the 26 December 2009 edition of Unbelievable?, featuring Christian barrister Charles Foster and atheist scientist Robert Stovold. However, I was a little frustrated that the presenter Justin Brierley and the participants didn’t quite get my point about the mystical census in the Gospel of Luke.

While there is some ambiguity over whether a census of any kind took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria and whether he held office more than once, the points I was driving at in my email to Justin before the show was that Roman censuses were:

  1. Based on property ownership of the living, not the dead.
  2. Not based on remote genealogies, let alone false ones.
  3. Local censuses of provinces, not the entire Roman empire.

The reason why I am so insistent is that during my first appearance on Unbelievable? in September 2009, my “scholarly” opponent, Andy Bannister from London School of Fairyology, said that Dawkins, Hitchens etc. had “been machine gunned to the wall by ‘scholars’ of all stripes” by objecting to the apparent nonsense of having the population return to the home town of a distant ancestor because apparently people at that time were not as mobile as they are today we actually have records of such arrangements.

Being a tad green back in the day, I let it go.  However, a friend who had listened to the show emailed me to say that Bannister was talking rubbish.  I emailed him my friend’s comments and he did not respond.  Further research showed that this is actually a common objection by historians (as opposed to “scholars”) of all stripes and not something the Oxford biologist made up off the top of his head.

Despite repeated requests on my blog, Bannister has so far declined to cite a source for his assertion.  Funny.  At first, he seemed like such a straight kinda guy.  Rather like Tony Blair…

Justin did actually ask me to do the show but alas, I did not have enough holiday time till the end of the year.  Besides, I find biblical scholarship rather dense and unexciting.  Robert did a much better job than I could have done.  I had no idea, for example, that Josephus referred to Hercules as if he was a real person.  Kudos Stovold!

For those of us how can’t be bothered with textual criticism, below are the videos of a couple of excellent can-sized expositions of the Gospels’ historical dating botch-ups.

The Jesus Timeline Part 1

The Jesus Timeline Part 2

Lukeprog over at Common Sense Atheism may be a fawning Craigophile, but he does at least post some cracking material from the ‘Tube!

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?