Posts Tagged ‘letter to a christian nation’

Peter Hitchens: ‘The Rage Against God’

17/05/2010

manicstreetpreacher is simply appalled.

I have not read Peter Hitchens’ addition to the host of “flea” responses to the New Atheism, The Rage Against God, but I heard him on the Saturday, 15 May 2010 edition of Premier Christian Radio’s Unbelievable? discussing the book with atheist scientific broadcaster and writer, Adam Rutherford.

Without giving a blow-by-blow account, what started off as a reasonable and balanced discussion on the pros and cons Christian versus secular morality swiftly descended into a demagogic point-scoring exercise by Hitchens on the questions of abortion and sex education.  I was most offended by Hitchens’ cheap emotional ploy of stating that abortion was murder and abortion clinics were comparable to the Nazi death camps.

Perhaps Hitchens should take a look at this picture…

…watch Sam Harris’ take on stem cell research from his lecture at Beyond Belief 2006

…read my blog and listen to the debate on Unbelievable? with former Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris on abortion aired a few months ago…

Abortion is a difficult issue and I struggle with it greatly.  Evan Harris did very well to convey the moral minefield of the topic and is a superb spokesman for humanists and secularists everywhere.  Abortion is hardly a wonderful thing that we need to be encouraging more of, but it is alas the least worst option.   Rather like democracy as a form of government, as Winston Churchill once said.

(…)

Paul Hill, a Christian minister who murdered an abortion clinic doctor in the USA, was far more evil than the doctor he killed could ever reasonably be considered.  Hill’s victim terminated foetuses at the request of their mothers.  Foetuses that could not feel pain like we can, who had no memories, no emotions, no wife, no children, no friends, no relatives to mourn them.  I admit that it is an awful choice to make, but I do so without hesitation.

…to realise how crudely simplistic his reasoning really is.  Such moral absolutist hysteria advances the quest for truth not one iota.

I am pro-choice because I believe that fertilised embryos do not feel pain, experience emotions or accrue memories like a living human being after birth until an advanced stage of gestation, if at all.  I’m not holding anything against foetuses as the Nazis regarded Jews as sub-human as Peter Hitchens argues, but THEY ARE NOT HUMAN BEINGS!

However, I would change my stance if convincing evidence were produced that contradicted  my impression of the sensory and emotional content of foetuses.  I wonder what evidence or argument would change Peter Hitchens’ stance on abortion and convince him that it was ethical?  I suspect none whatsoever; he has ruled it out a priori on religious grounds and no evidence or reasoning would change his mind.  I suppose that’s why they call it blind faith.

Debates are always subjective affairs and very often both sides claim victory.  But it was no small wonder that Peter Hitchens attempted to dissuade listeners from watching his debate against older, wiser and funnier brother, Christopher Hitchens, at The Hauenstein Center in April 2008 on the Iraq War and religion, because quite simply he was pulverised by his heretical elder sibling.  It was an embarrassment, frankly.  I don’t even support the Iraq War and I thought Hitch Snr made a better argument.  And as for Petee’s arguments in favour of God?  Let’s just say I won’t be spending my hard earned cash on his new book if this performance is anything to go by.

To conclude this post, I present the video of the full event.  Sit back and enjoy the slaughter.

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Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape, The Monty Hall Problem and Genocide Neglect

07/04/2010

manicstreetpreacher’s brain is feeling rather sore.

Following his extraordinary appearance at TED 2010 discussing the link between science and human morality, this lecture by Sam Harris discusses in greater detail his upcoming book, The Moral Landscape, due to be published on 5 October 2010.

Harris raises The Monty Hall Problem.  This is an intriguing game of probabilities that appears to be a total affront to common sense.  People have it explained to them and they still don’t get it.  When it was first published in Parade magazine thousands of people, many with PhDs, wrote in to tell the publishers that the solution was wrong.

Suppose you’re on a game show, and you’re given the choice of three doors: Behind one door is a car; behind the others, goats. You pick a door, say Number 1, and the host, who knows what’s behind the doors, opens another door, say Number 3, which has a goat.  He then says to you, “Do you want to pick door Number 2?” Is it to your advantage to switch your choice?

Many people think that switching doors will have no effect on increasing your chances of winning the car at all.  It will be 50/50.

However, this is incorrect!  Switching doors will increase your chances of winning the car to 2/3s!?!?!?!?!

I’m not sure that I understand it completely.  Wikipedia has the full story!

Aside from this brain ache, Sam Harris discusses the intriguing contradictions in human morality.  An interesting paradox he raises is “Genocide Neglect” as described in this paper by Paul Slovic: the more suffering people that humans are faced with, the less they will care.

Genocides such as those carried out in Rwanda and Cambodia attract minimal attention in the media, whereas the story of Jessica McClure, the 18 month old girl who fell down a well in Midland, Texas in 1987 gained round-the-clock television coverage during her 58 hour rescue and transformed CNN into a fledging cable channel into a global news service provider!

Harris has hit on something depressingly solipsistic about the human moral condition.  New Coke backlash anybody?

Craig –v- Hitchens: Fourth Thoughts – Sleepless in Biola

06/04/2010

The third and final part (Part I / Part II) of manicstreetpreacher’s reassessment of Christopher Hitchens’ debate against William Lane Craig will examine the “emotional blackmail factor” that pervades Dr Craig’s case for the Almighty.

When Craig is not appealing to flawed logic, he appeals to common sense and inner feelings to guilt trip his audiences into accepting his arguments as this last post will demonstrate.

Argument from objective morality

After name-dropping atheist philosophers like Michael Ruse who contend that morality is just a by-product of evolution and universal norms such as the wrongness of rape and torturing children have no deeper meaning than assisting our survival, Craig argued that human morality is objective and therefore must come from God with nothing more than “the problem is that objective moral values do exist and deep down we all know it” to back it up.  As he phrases it:

  1. If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist.
  2. Objective moral values do exist.
  3. Therefore God exists.

Both of Craig’s premises are flawed, so his conclusion is invalid.  Firstly, objective morals could well exist without God.  They could be hardwired into our genes as an evolutionary survival mechanism.  So clearly, Craig’s first premise is incorrect.

However, objective moral values de facto do not exist.  Not everyone has the same moral standards.  Our perception of what is right and wrong have changed over the centuries with Richard Dawkins has termed “the shifting moral Zeitgeist”.  Indeed, practices in other parts of the World today which are considered the height of piety seem barbaric to Westerners.  You only have to look inside the books of our religions and see what these pronouncements mandate to see that this is the case.

I am becoming increasingly convinced that the moral argument for God is just rank wishful thinking, (how this differs from all other arguments from God, I am not entirely certain).  Perhaps it would be wonderful if there was a list of rules set in stone somewhere in the metaphysical universe, but I simply don’t see any evidence for it.  We just have to feel our around, sometimes getting it right, sometimes making mistakes, always striving for a state of moral perfection regardless of whether that will ever be achieved in reality.

I really wish that Hitchens had raised Craig’s appalling views on the morality of the God of the Old Testament.  I had been very suspicious of Craig declaring the atrocities of the Israelites’ slaughter of the Canaanites to be off-limits in debates, since it was a question of biblical inerrancy, not whether God existed.  I found my answer in an appalling radio interview and then with an article on Craig’s website which I commented on a few months after the Biola debate in which Craig argued that since God sets down moral values, he can arbitrarily overrule them with the result being that murder, torture and ethical cleansing are suddenly all fine and dandy.  Therefore, the Israelites were acting entirely in accordance with the will of God in exterminating the Canaanites and the Bible’s inerrancy is unaffected.

I won’t repeat my piece here; I suggest that it is read in full, but it is a stunning indictment of the theological mind which totally undermines Craig’s argument from objective morality, since he knows that murder, torture and genocide are wrong independent of God’s commands.  It is also a graphic illustration of Plato’s “Euthyphro Dilemma”: if God tells you to torture a baby, it becomes morally right and indeed obligatory to torture a baby.

Resurrection of Jesus

A key component in Craig’s argument for the resurrection of Jesus is that his followers would not have believed in a dying and rising Jewish messiah, much less have died for that belief.  For his second rebuttal after cross-examination, a clearly weary Hitchens invoked Tertullian’s maxim credo quia absurdum: “I believe it because it is absurd”.  He recounted his research on Mother Teresa and the circumstances surrounding her thoroughly discredited post-death miracle that will see her canonised by the Vatican and will in fact contribute to the misery and suffering of millions in the Third World by promoting shamanism and devaluing modern medicine.

A fair point, but I have seen Hitchens do much better on the historical Jesus.  Check out these two clips from his debate against D’Souza at Freedom Fest 2008 in Las Vegas.

On the historical Jesus and the criterion of embarrassment:

On the virgin birth and potency of the story:

Craig is basing his argument on discredited sources that are self-contradictory, written decades after the events that they purport to describe, copied and re-copied over centuries by fallible scribes with their own theological axes to grind.  And as we shall see in the next section, this is not even the reason why he believes in the resurrection at all.

Argument from personal experience

In his opening speech, Hitchens quoted from two editions of Craig’s book, Reasonable Faith, where Craig argues that a person knows that Christianity is true because the “Inner Witness of the Holy Spirit” assures him that it is true.  Whereas reason and evidence can be used to support this proposition they cannot be used to overthrow it.  A person has enough assurances from God with regard to his existence and the consequences that will be metered out for rejecting belief in God are entirely on the shoulders of the non-believer.

Although Craig’s response to this in his first rebuttal was somewhat convoluted, I cannot see how he refuted Hitchens’ interpretation, or even amended it significantly.  According to Craig, all belief in God entails is a warm fuzzy feeling inside that there has to be something more than this veil of tears and all arguments and evidence in support are wholly ancillary.  Atheist theologian Robert Price summed up Craig’s stance perfectly in their 1999 debate on the resurrection:

Dr Craig then freely admits that his conviction arises from purely subjective factors.  To me it sounds no different in principle from the teenage Mormon door-knocker: he tells you that the Book of Mormon was written by ancient Americans because he has a warm swelling feeling inside when he asks God if it’s true.

Craig said that Hitchens had to show that he is delusional; otherwise his belief in God through personal experience is still valid.  Again, this is a prime example of Craig placing the burden of proof on his opponent.  Without access to Craig’s medical records (I’ll avoid making the cheap shot that they would make for interesting reading!), this is an impossible task.

Nevertheless, people have all sorts of personal experiences that seem real to them: out of body, alien abduction, near death.  Without any corroborating evidence, the sceptic is perfectly justified in writing them off as deluded, not matter how sincere they are.  Indeed, virtually all of these experiences can be reproduced on subjects in the lab under control conditions.

So what sort of evidence would corroborate personal religious experience?  As Victor Stenger points out in God, The Failed Hypothesis and The New Atheism, perhaps if someone returned from such an experience with some new knowledge in their heads that they could not have otherwise obtained except through the agency of an all-powerful, all-knowing supernatural being.  If Craig really does have a hotline to the Big Guy in the Sky, then I don’t know why he hasn’t found a better way to spend his evenings than arguing with miserable heretics like Hitchens who are all fire-bound anyway.

Perhaps personal experience of God is something I will address in a future post, but for now I’ll direct Craig to Sam Harris’ take on the argument from meaning and purpose with his “Diamond The Size of a Refrigerator Buried in Your Back Yard” Gambit for him to realise what a risible non sequitur his reasoning is.

The last “Hussar!”

The debate moderator, Hugh Hewitt, posed the final question of the evening to Hitchens and asked why there was such a high public demand for debates on the God question at present.  Hitchens’ reply was that he is part of a small group of people who want to take a stand against theocratic bullying from Islamist regimes in the Middle East who are soon to obtain nuclear weaponry, terror attacks against civilian non-combatants by Al-Qaeda, fanatical Jewish settlers stealing land from Palestinians to bring on the Messiah and fundamentalist American Christians who want junk taught in school science classes.   For the first time that evening, Craig had to wait politely as the audience’s applause died down before he could retort.

Hitchens may well have wanted to debate the wrong topic that night.  The New Atheism may well be a form of “village atheism”; hostile to the social effects of religion rather than appreciative of the subtle nuances of theological “scholarship”.  But I’ll conclude these posts with a thought from my original piece after first watching the debate that I definitely stand by:

I could accept every one of Craig’s five arguments; you still have all your work ahead of you convincing me that the Pope, the holder of the keys of St Peter, Christ’s vicar on Earth is objectively moral to go to Africa and say, “AIDS might be bad, but condoms might be worse”.  This is a sinister and immoral aspect to religion that interests me more than the mere existence of God and the truthfulness of the scriptures; one which Hitchens tackles head on, but Craig wilfully evades.

Craig may have won the battle.  But the outcome of the war might not be so rosy for him.

Craig –v- Hitchens: Third Thoughts – Deconstructing William

05/04/2010

manicstreetpreacher’s second out of three posts (Part I / Part III) reassessing Christopher Hitchens’ debate against William Lane Craig discusses the “Rubik’s Cube factor” of Craig’s continually evolving God in the face of objections to design.

As always, Craig started off the debate by presenting his bog-standard five “arguments” that make it seem rational that God exists: origins of the universe, fine-tuning of the universe, existence of objective moral values, resurrection of Jesus Christ and personal experience of God.  In CraigWorld these are so amazingly irrefutable that he has used them in just about every debate for the past 15 years, despite their obvious weaknesses and being corrected ad infinitum by opponents and critics.

However, Craig will still say he has won the debate unless and until his arguments have been “torn down” and “a new set of arguments” put in their place.  Has it ever occurred to Craig that his “arguments” are not worth expending the effort?  After all, you can make a plausible case that the Earth is flat or that the Holocaust never happened if you limit the debate to a narrow set of facts and arguments.

Consider the case of Thomas Aikenhead, a teenage medical student who was the last person in Britain to be executed for blasphemy in Edinburgh, 1697 for scorning the Holy Trinity as “a rhapsody of feigned and ill-invented nonsense” and “not worthy of man’s refutation”.  Can’t Craig learn anything from this?

Why resort to “arguments” at all?

Atheists hardly ever raise the argument from hiddenness in a debate, but let’s face it: there is no empirical data whatsoever in support of the existence of God.  The fact that debates have to be held on this question at all has to say a great deal.  If God does exist, why does he choose to remain hidden?  Wouldn’t it just be great if we could see God creating new planets and species in front of eyes rather than just having to makes “inferences to the best explanation”?

Anselm’s Ontological Argument declares by fiat that existence is both a necessary and great-making property and therefore a maximally great being by its very definition must exist in reality.  Fine.  I could engage in the same smart-Alec sophistry by declaring that evidence, proof and certainty beyond reasonable doubt in the minds of all living creatures in the universe are great making properties and therefore by definition such a being does not exist.

Before turning to Craig’s “arguments”, I have previously posted a series of highly amusing and irreverent YouTube videos refuting Craig’s arguments.  Victor Stenger, American atheist physicist, presented plausible rational alternatives to Craig’s supernatural “God of the Gaps” reasoning during their 2003 debate the University of Hawaii.

Cosmological argument

Craig is being flagrantly dishonest by continuing to assert that the universe began to exist with the Big Bang singularity.  Although not on this occasion, Craig has quoted Stephen Hawking as writing, “Almost everyone now believes that the universe and time itself had a beginning at Big Bang.”   However, Hawking and his partner in physics, Roger Penrose, have recanted an earlier thesis when they said that the universe began with the Big Bang singularity.  But hacks like Craig and conservative Christian apologist Dinesh D’Souza mine extracts from Hawking’s A Brief History of Time and The Nature of Space and Time to make it appear that Hawking still believes that the universe began with the Big Bang singularity.

Hawking acknowledges in Brief History, “So in the end our [Hawking and Penrose] work became generally accepted and nowadays nearly everyone assumes that the universe started with a Big Bang singularity.”  However, the very next sentence Hawking writes, “It is perhaps ironic that, having changed my mind, I am now trying to convince other physicists that there was in fact no singularity at the beginning of the universe – as we shall see later, it can disappear once quantum effects are taken into account (p. 50).”

In his latest book, The New Atheism,Victor Stenger clarifies:

D’Souza has glanced at A Brief History of Time, mining quotations that seem to confirm his preconceived ideas.  He quotes Hawking as saying, “There must have been a Big Bang singularity.”   D’Souza has lifted it out of context and given it precisely the opposite meaning of what Hawking intended…  Hawking was referring to the calculation he published with Penrose in 1970, and D’Souza cut off the quotation.  This act of editorship makes it look like Hawking is confirming that the Big Bang actually happened when in fact the full quote reveals just the opposite.

Craig’s assertion “out of nothing, nothing comes” is sheer folk wisdom.  We see apparently uncaused events all the time in radioactive decay.   Firstly, Craig ought to have looked at the smoke detectors in the Biola gym and considered when a particular Americium atom decays inside it, what caused one to decay rather than some other one.  The answer is nothing that we know. Secondly, even in a vacuum, virtual particles come into existence all the time and are measurable.  Appealing to “common sense” reasoning when it is at odds with modern physics contradicts is not intellectually honest.

“Is atheism true?”

Craig responds to Hitchens’ speech by saying that he has no positive arguments to show that “atheism is true”.  This is a misrepresentation of the atheist position and part of Craig’s debating trick to shift the burden of proof onto his opponent when he is the one advancing the positive claim.  Atheism is a term devised by the religious to label people who do not share their views.  It is the opinion that theism is untrue since there are no good reasons to believe that God exists.  There is no evidence for God and saying “God did it” in order to explain away the existence of the natural world is no explanation at all.  Craig is asking the impossible by demanding arguments or evidence that God does not exist.

Having loaded the burden of proof onto his opponent’s shoulders, Craig excused himself from having to provide anything like the extraordinary evidence that his extraordinary claims warrant.  He said that he was arguing for the “best explanation of the data”.  But even if the debate were only about inference to the best explanation, Craig has still not provided anything like the level of proof required to discharge his claims.

Craig closed his first rebuttal by saying that all the evidence has been on his side.  He certainly presented reasons to believe, but that does not mean that they were any better than those for Russell’s teapot or the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Subsequently, Craig showed that providing evidence against God is pointless, since far from “Christians being able to follow the evidence wherever it leads”, believers can move the characteristics of their God around like a Rubik’s Cube so that God confirms with the empirical data post hoc.  Craig’s responses to Hitchens’ objections to arguments from design proved this in spades.

Teleological argument

In his first rebuttal, Craig quotes Christian apologist Alvin Plantinga and portrays Hitchens’ belief in the scientific truth of evolution by natural selection as a faith-based commitment: atheists are ideologically committed to evolution since as an alternative to God it is the only game in town.  This is a gross misrepresentation.  Believing in evolution is not a faith claim at all, but accepting a coherent scientific hypothesis supported by masses of evidence and one that has survived sustained assaults by creationists.  Even if evolution had not been discovered, or indeed was untrue, this would still not provide one shred of evidence either for design or a designer.

After Hitchens in his opening speech rather beautifully recounted how he had the mitochondria trail of his African Homo sapiens ancestry traced with a DNA swab from his cheek by the National Geographic Genographic Project, Craig employed a ridiculous sound bite about the sheer “improbability” of evolution by natural selection.  This next clip is from a different event, but it is virtually identical to what he said at Biola.

There are two objections to a priori improbability of which Craig has no doubt been informed repeatedly.  Firstly, Craig’s obsession with low probability is irrelevant since improbable events happen every day.  If you crunch the numbers in relation to your own existence (i.e. the probability that a particular sperm united with a particular egg multiplied by the probability that your parents met, repeating the calculation back until the beginning of time), invariably you will get a fantastically low probability.

Secondly, what is the probability of the supernatural alternative?  What’s the probability that the universe is the product of a divine design?  What’s the probability that the laws of nature are violated?  It could be even lower.  And what empirical data do we have to make the calculation at all?  I have never heard an apologist answer these questions and Craig disappointed me yet again at Biola.

Then Craig moved onto Hitchens’ “98,000 Year Wait” Gambit claiming that God’s timing in bringing the Christian revelation to the largest number of people possible was perfect since only 2 percent of humans who have ever lived were born before the year 1AD.  The claim sounded highly dubious.  Sure enough, the report by the Population Reference Bureau to which Craig referred (download PDF) actually shows that at least 47 billion out of the estimated 106 billion people that have ever lived were born before 1AD. That’s about 43 percent, not 2 percent.  Craig may well have based his argument on this article by D’Souza:

I’m indebted to Erik Kreps of the Survey Research Center of the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research.  An adept numbers guy, Kreps notes that it is not the number of years but the levels of human population that are the issue here.  The Population Reference Bureau estimates that the number of people who have ever been born is approximately 105 billion.  Of this number, about 2 percent were born before Christ came to earth.

“So in a sense,” Kreps notes, “God’s timing couldn’t have been more perfect.  If He’d come earlier in human history, how reliable would the records of his relationship with man be?  But He showed up just before the exponential explosion in the world’s population, so even though 98 percent of humanity’s timeline had passed, only 2 percent of humanity had previously been born, so 98 percent of us have walked the earth since the Redemption.”

Kreps/ D’Souza/ Craig either misread the chart thinking the number of 1,137,789,769 at “Births Between Benchmarks” for 8000BC represented the people born before 1AD or just divided 106 billion by 47 billion and thought the 2.25 meant 2.25 percent.  I just wonder how Craig’s God will be reinvented in the light of this correction.

Argument from fine tuning

This idea that the universe is fine-tuned for human life is an utter distortion of physics by apologists who have leaped on part of a scientific concept as supposed evidence for their God.

One look at the universe shows that it is anything but congenial for our kind of life.  The Earth is the one speck of dust that we know is capable of supporting life in a vast abyss of virtual nothingness. Our observations of the nearest solar systems and planets do not bode well for the prospect of having intelligent carbon-based neighbours.  Is that a universe that is friendly towards life?

The planetary version of the Anthropic Fine Tuning Principle makes even less sense.  Theists are basically saying, “Look how hostile the solar system is life.  If it wasn’t for the gravity of Jupiter sucking up all the space debris, we’d have a cataclysm of the kind that wiped out the dinosaurs every five minutes.  God must have placed Jupiter in the path of the asteroids when he was finally bothered to create beings who could worship him!”  What nonsense!

The Anthropic Cosmological Principle is like Darwinism.  It is an alternative to the design explanation, not a feature of it.  An all-powerful God would be capable of designing life to exist irrespective of the heat, cold, sunlight and asteroid conditions.  Indeed, he could design us to survive in a hard vacuum!

However, the inhabitants of CraigWorld see the vast emptiness of space and the sheer improbability of life and say, “Oh, it points to a designer God who created the universe with humans in mind!”  But theologians keep their children fed by constantly reinventing their God to conform to the empirical data.

Suppose we reverse the data and imagine a Star Trek-like universe where intelligent life is overwhelmingly probable and our extra-terrestrial neighbours visit us regularly (and not just long enough for a single frame blurry photo to be taken by someone driving a potato truck in Iowa).  The theologians would still say, “Oh, it points to a designer God who created the universe with humans in mind!”  The words, “cake”, “eat” and “have” spring to mind.

Hitchens argues that the failed galaxies and certain destruction of the Earth by the explosion of its own sun do not imply a benevolent designer.  Craig’s reply is that this does not disprove that they were designed, since manmade objects such as cars and houses are not built to last forever.  True, but this was never part of Hitchens’ argument.  However, you would be hard pressed to argue that this was all the result of an all-wise and all-loving designer who cared for his creations.

Finally, Craig says that this objection has no purchase on Christian theism, since for Christians; the end of life on Earth is the beginning of eternal life.   This is a ludicrous assertion that has no more substance than a child’s fairytale.  Craig offers no evidence for a soul separate from the physical body or the prospect of life after death, aside from ancient scriptures, which of course predicted the end would come 2,000 years ago (Matthew 16).

We are still waiting.  Perhaps it’s time to give up and move on, Doctor?  No, evidence is an occasional convenience in CraigWorld.  What matters is good ol’ fashioned faith, as my third and final post tomorrow will demonstrate to degree of probability beyond mere inference to the best explanation.

William Lane Craig –v- Christopher Hitchens: Second Thoughts

04/04/2010

With his 100th post 😮 manicstreetpreacher begins his reassessment of a notorious debate as he tries to figure out where his hero went wrong.

Craig was flawless and unstoppable.  Hitchens was rambling and incoherent, with the occasional rhetorical jab.  Frankly, Craig spanked Hitchens like a foolish child.

So went the verdict of the web’s most fawning atheist Craigophile, Lukeprog, over at Common Sense Atheism a year ago today in respect of Christopher Hitchens’ debate against Christian apologist, William Lane Craig, at Biola University on the motion “Does God Exist?”.

Luke subsequently commented that his piece was linked all over the web.  Craig himself quoted it in his post-debate newsletter to his flock.  Lee Strobel quoted it in his foreword to Craig’s latest apologetic, On Guard.  I linked to it in my original comment piece back in June last year when the Biola DVD hit the torrents sites.  I’m certainly not giving Luke the satisfaction of linking to it again here.

I have mixed feeling about my original piece.  After the damning verdict against Hitchens on the blogs was clearly exaggerated, I wanted to stick up for the guy.  At the same time, my blood was very much up that he had let Craig get away with so much and smugly declare that his five pathetic “arguments” for God’s existence were unassailable and that his opponent had provided no evidence or argument that God did not exist, that it turned into an ad hominem rant against Craig.

I originally titled it “We should all feel very sorry for this man”, which irritatingly still appears when the post is automatically generated by WordPress as a “possibly related” post.  I even made some very unkind remarks about Craig’s spindly hands that since he is obviously close to punching his last ticket, he is dreaming of eternal life next to the Father’s right hand more than usual but will be sorely disappointed.  “What a great analysis,” I thought when I hit “Publish”.  Until one of the post’s first commenters pointed out that Craig suffers from a neuromuscular disorder that affects the appearance and movement of his hands.  Damn.  It has been my most reviewed and re-edited post.

So one year after the actual debate, I have taken a step back and watched the tape again with the benefit of having seen and heard a lot more lectures and debates by Craig.  The remainder of this post and my second and third posts will present what I now think.

Hitchens and Craig meet at the Christian Book Expo

Two weeks before their debate, Hitchens sat on a panel with four Christian authors: Craig, Douglas Wilson, Lee Strobel and Jim Denison at the 2009 Christian Book Expo held in Dallas, Texas on Saturday, 21 March 2010.  The debate moderated by Christianity Today writer Stan Guthrie, who in reality turned into a sixth discussion participant.

The full audio of the discussion can be downloaded here; the full tape video is uploaded to YouTube below.

Hitchens dominated the discussion and received most of the airtime and audience questions.  However, in his closing remarks, Craig baited him by saying that his arguments amounted to “I don’t like it”, as opposed to “I don’t believe it’s true” and condescendingly asked him to engage more with him and his cohorts’ wonderful arguments in their upcoming debate at Biola.  In an Apologia podcast immediately afterwards, Craig sounded incredibly pleased with himself, saying that Hitchens did not have the “intellectual capacity” to answer his arguments.  The clip with Craig and Hitchens interviewed can be listened to here.  Following the encounter, the blogs predicted a beat down for Hitchens at Craig’s hands, including former student of Craig and evangelical preacher turned atheist author and blogger, John W Loftus.

Letters from Biola

I’ll come right out and say that Hitchens lost the debate.  No two ways about it.  While he didn’t come off as badly as Lukeprog’s infamous sound bite implied, he simply didn’t prepare enough in advance to answer Craig’s arguments.  Hitchens is more concerned with the social effects of religion.  Craig wanted to argue over its truth and after all, that was the debate’s motion.  Craig boasts a great delivery at the lectern.  He compresses his points very well and splits his arguments up piecemeal.  Hitchens sears, flows and mixes it all up into one.  He also has a habit of making “throat-clearing” precursors before answering points.

Even so, I had severely underestimated Craig.  A very few others aside, I had only seen his debates against Bart Ehrman and Victor Stenger which were the two occasions when he had been convincingly beaten.  Having now seen and heard many more of his debates, I can see that Craig does not debate his opponents has such, but executes premeditated hit-jobs on them.  Craig makes a point of not debating anyone without a doctorate.  He made an exception with Hitchens, who has been a visiting professor at several universities, but as far as I know does not hold an actual PhD and during the debate, Craig referred to him as “Mister” rather than “Doctor” or “Professor”.   Was this an attempt on Craig’s part to discredit the leading debater of the Four Horsemen?  Very possibly.

Craig employed every single one of his dirty tricks at Biola: scientific distortion, quote-mining of authorities, dropping in as many points as possible, patronising and intimidating erudition, demagogically pandering to the audience… the lot.  It can take ten times as long to answer a question than to ask it.  Craig fires out arguments in quick succession and then chides his opponent for failing to answer all of this arguments and objections.  He also presented straw man versions of Hitchens’ own arguments, which took up a great deal of Hitchens’ time in his rebuttals, only for Craig of course go on and then say that Hitchens had not properly refuted his original arguments!

Craig also constantly appeals to authorities.  During the Hitchens debate he quoted external sources no fewer than 19 times!  However, he is extremely selective in the way that he uses quotes.  In their debates against Craig on the resurrection, Bart Ehrman and Bishop John Shelby Spong exposed Craig’s use of authorities on New Testament scholarship who in reality are deeply opposed.

Richard Dawkins was quite right to refuse publically a debate against Craig on the grounds that the man is simply a “professional debater” rather than a proper academic worth taking seriously.  Hitchens was too respectful and had clearly been taken in by the Craig hype, as his slightly nervous demeanour at the pre-debate press conference showed.

So with the dust well and truly settled, let’s take a look at Craig’s arguments now he is unable to hide behind his debating tricks.  My next post tomorrow will begin the deconstruction of Craig’s arguments and tactics piece by piece.

Sam Harris at TED 2010: Science can answer moral questions

23/03/2010

manicstreetpreacher is delighted to see that his hero of atheism has still got it!

My detractors who chide me for being a mouthpiece for the Four Horsemen should take a look at this and see why I choose to rely on Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens so much.

Questions of good and evil, right and wrong are commonly thought unanswerable by science.  But Sam Harris argues that science can – and should – be an authority on moral issues, shaping human values and setting out what constitutes a good life.

Sit back and enjoy.

TED link

Thread on Richard Dawkins.net

Sam Harris’ homepage

Project Reason

Sam Harris’ Wikipedia page

Andrew Brown posts another clanger on Comment is free

13/03/2010

manicstreetpreacher wonders whether this hack can stoop any lower.

US evolutionary biologist and author of Why Evolution Is True, Jerry Coyne, recently described British science and religion journalist Andrew Brown as “The Guardian’s resident moron”.

I have been less than impressed by Brown after his pathetic attack on Sam Harrisobjection to Francis Collins’ appointment as head of the National Institute of Health, culminating in Brown quote-mining Harris’ The End of Faith something rotten to make it look like Harris endorses torture and rendition.  I can only assume that this was a dummy-spitting exercise by Brown to recoup ground from the commenters who lambasted his first piece and rallied in support for Harris.

Now, Brown has not simply scraped the bottom of the barrel, he has removed the base of said wooden container entirely and is tunnelling fast for Australia.  On 11 March 2010, Brown posted this appalling piece on The Guardian: Comment is free arguing that perhaps we are being a tad harsh on all those child sodomising Catholic priests, since the rate of child abuse among the clergy is apparently much lower than other professions.

Pinch yourself to make sure that you’re not having a bad dream:

[T]here is no doubt that a lot of children were damaged for life by priests, and that this was mostly covered up by the hierarchy until recently.  But was the Catholic church unfairly singled out?  Aren’t all children vulnerable to exploitation, especially when they are poor and unwanted?…

The most detailed statistics on child abuse for the Catholic clergy that I can find come from the John Jay Institute’s report drawn up for the American Catholic bishops’ conference.  From this it emerges that the frequency of child abuse among Catholic priests is not remarkable but its pattern is.  Although there are no figures for the number of abusers in the wider population, there are figure for the number of victims.  These vary wildly: the most pessimistic survey finds that 27% of American women and 16% of men had “a history of childhood sexual abuse”; while the the [sic] most optimistic had 12.8% of women and 4.3% of men. Obviously a great deal depends here on the definition of abuse; also on the definition of “childhood”. In some of these surveys it runs up to 18, which is a couple of years above the age of consent in Britain.

Well, if a report has been prepared for the American Catholic Bishops Conference, who are we to argue with it?

The Catholic figures show that between about 4% of priests and deacons serving in the US between 1950 and 2002 had been accused of sexual abuse of someone under 18. In this country, the figure was a 10th of that: 0.4%.  But whereas the victims in the general population are overwhelmingly female, the pattern among American Catholic priests was quite different.  Four out of five of their victims were male.  Most were adolescents: two out of five were 14 or over; 15% were under 10.

This is vile, but whether it is more vile than the record of any other profession is not obvious.  The concentration on boys makes the Catholic pattern of abuse stand out; what makes it so shocking is that parents trusted their children with priests.  They stood in for the parents.  But this isn’t all that different from the pattern in the wider world, either, where the vast majority of abuse comes from within families.  The other point that makes the Catholic abuse is that it is nowadays very widely reported.  It may be the best reported crime in the world: that, too tends to skew perceptions.

I’ll agree with Brown there.  Yes, it is extremely vile.  But there my support ends.  His post is an exercise in “Yeah, but what about…”.  Road traffic deaths kill far more people every year than deliberate homicide, so let’s get the police to withdraw all personnel and resources from investigating murders and get them to devote all their time and effort ensuring that motorists wear their seat beats and drive under the speed limits, shall we?

So why the concentration on Catholic priests and brothers?  Perhaps I am unduly cynical, but I believe that all institutions attempt to cover up institutional wrongdoing although the Roman Catholic church has had a higher opinion of itself than most, and thus a greater tendency to lie about these things.  Because it is an extremely authoritarian institution at least within the hierarchy, it is also one where there were few checks and balances on the misbehaviour of the powerful.  The scandal has been loudest and most damaging in Ireland, because it came along just at the moment when the church was losing its power over society at large, and where it was no longer able to cover up what had happened, but still willing to try.  Much the same is true in the diocese of Boston which was bankrupted by the scandal.

Perhaps I am being unduly cynical, but I think we are entitled to demand a higher standard of moral behaviour from institutions and individuals whose alleged purpose is to uphold and enforce those of us mere mortals who do not have a one-to-one with The Big Surveillance Camera In The Sky.

Rabbi David Wolpe raised this objection in a debate against Christopher Hitchens: the public is more shocked and the criticism more vitriolic when a clergyman falls into error.  Hitch’s reply was that he is not shocked at all.  The Catholic Church preaches that women are vessels of temptation, insists on celibacy, makes sex a matter of guilt and shame and comprises an all male priesthood that is based on sexual repression.  What is going to happen to the children under the care of those people?   No need to act surprised.  The Church wasn’t surprised at all.  They knew it was going on all the time which is why they covered up for it.

Hitchens’ comments are at the beginning of this tape.

And regardless of whether the abuse itself has been exaggerated or blown out of proportion in the media, there is no playing down the deliberate covering-up of the scandal by the Vatican, of which the present pope, Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger, played a pivotal role by issuing a Vatican edict in 2001 while  a cardinal ordering Catholic bishops and priests were not to cooperate with the police on pain of excommunication.  Only last Tuesday (9 March 2010) the BBC’s Newsnight reported on the case of Bill Carney was named as one of the worst cases in Dublin’s Catholic diocese in the Murphy Report into clerical abuse in Ireland.  However, for the last 10 years Carney has been free to live quietly in Britain and is now hiding out in the Canary Islands.

Brown’s insulting apologia concludes thus:

Certainly the safeguards against paedophilia in the priesthood are now among the tightest in the world.  That won’t stop a steady trickle of scandals; but I think that objectively your child is less likely to be abused by a Catholic or Anglican priest in the west today than by the members of almost any other profession.

Well, that’s a relief.  I’m sure that all those children and families whose lives have been ruined by the abuse and subsequent covering up by the Vatican will be consoled no end by the knowledge that it could have been worse if they were looked after by doctors and lawyers.

Brown’s vile wipe was ripped to shreds by its own commenters, and justly so.  Why does this appalling man continue to be published in the national dailies?

UPDATE 14 MARCH 2010

As I expected, Jerry Coyne has commented on Brown’s piece on his blog with typical rhetorical fire:

It’s a disgusting and self-serving piece of faitheistic tripe, and its underlying message is this: those people who attack the Catholic church for systematic child abuse are really anti-Catholic bigots.  After all, claims Brown, the Church was no worse than other abusers…

I beg to differ with Brown’s implicit conclusion.  The concentration on Catholic priests and brothers comes from the shocking institutionalization of that abuse: the consistent efforts of Church officials, who knew full well about the abuse, to cover it up and, sometimes, simply transfer abusers to new places.  Yes, other professions sometimes cover up child abuse, but not, I think, on such a massive scale.  I am not aware of this kind of cover-up being endemic to American public schools, for example.

And what Brown fails to grasp is that the abuse is doubly shocking because it was committed by those priests to whom parents not only entrusted their children, but entrusted them to inculcate in those children a sense of morality.  The outrage comes from seeing that those who were supposed to serve as role models – as paragons of morality – systematically abused that trust in the most heinous ways.  And perhaps the Church’s ridiculous policy of celibacy contributed to this abuse.

Fortunately, Brown’s commenters – as usual – take him apart.  It must be disheartening for the Resident Moron to watch, week after week, as his readers chew his tuchus to pieces.  Maybe the Guardian keeps him on because his continuing idiocy promotes traffic on their website.  But really, how can a reputable paper tolerate such witless garbage?  Do the editors have any notion of what should pass for decent commentary?

Nice one, Jerry.  The words “asshole”, “new” and “rip” spring to mind.

Sam Harris: Of Meaning

17/01/2010

manicstreetpreacher shares an all time classic from one of the Four Horseman.

Lately I have been referring rather to a lot to this effing genius put-down by “New Atheist” Sam Harris (Homepage / The Reason Project) in reply to the argument from religious moderates that while their faith may be unproven and potentially false, it still provides great meaning and purpose in the lives of ordinary people.

The passage is from Harris’ first book, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and The Future of Reason, but for a quick point n click reference, here is Harris’ essay, “An Atheist Manifesto”:

It is perfectly absurd for religious moderates to suggest that a rational human being can believe in God simply because this belief makes him happy, relieves his fear of death or gives his life meaning.  The absurdity becomes obvious the moment we swap the notion of God for some other consoling proposition: Imagine, for instance, that a man wants to believe that there is a diamond buried somewhere in his yard that is the size of a refrigerator.  No doubt it would feel uncommonly good to believe this.  Just imagine what would happen if he then followed the example of religious moderates and maintained this belief along pragmatic lines: When asked why he thinks that there is a diamond in his yard that is thousands of times larger than any yet discovered, he says things like, “This belief gives my life meaning,” or “My family and I enjoy digging for it on Sundays,” or “I wouldn’t want to live in a universe where there wasn’t a diamond buried in my backyard that is the size of a refrigerator.”  Clearly these responses are inadequate. But they are worse than that. They are the responses of a madman or an idiot.

The full lecture, entitled “The View from the End of the World”, given for The Long Now Foundation, 9 December 2005 can be heard below

or viewed below.

Of Moderates

10/01/2010

manicstreetpreacher lets you in on what really makes his blood boil.

By failing to live by the letter of the texts, while tolerating the irrationality of those who do, religious moderates betray faith and reason equally.

– Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and The Future of Reason

A lovers’ tiff

I read this post a few days ago on Edmund Standing’s blog (also cross-posted on Harry’s Place) regarding Norwegian “liberal” Muslims who have come out in support of Kurt Westergaard, one of the Danish cartoonists who caricatured the prophet Muhammad and provoked the fury of Islamists on an international scale in 2006:

A liberal Norwegian Muslim organisation named LIM (Equality, Integration, Diversity) is standing up for free speech and against Islamism.  Shakil Rehman of LIM has spoken in defence of republishing the notorious Jyllands-Posten cartoons in the Norwegian newspaper Klassekampen…  Now LIM have challenged the Islamic Council of Norway (IRN) to organise a demonstration in defence of free speech, not that they think this is likely to happen…  Rehman is unimpressed with arguments about it being ‘offensive’ to depict Muhammad…  Muhammad is not God, says Rehman, and he is not above criticism…

Before I go any further, I must make clear that Standing is a personal friend of mine and we see eye-to-eye on a great number of issues.  In fact, he has been an important source of advice and support and without his example I would not have done as much as I have in the one year I have being writing this blog.  Standing has written some truly excellent pieces on the Old Testament, the Gospel of Matthew, the “value” of theology, the Qur’an, the far left’s abuse of the language of racial prejudice and Rage Against the Machine’s UK Christmas Number 1.

Standing has a gift for trawling the darkest reaches of the Internet in his spare time when the rest of us find it depressing enough to read the BBC News homepage.  The result has been a devastating report for The Centre for Social Cohesion which cuts through the British National Party’s attempts to clean up their politics and exposes them for the racist, anti-Semitic, neo-Nazi scum that they are (download PDF).  Even before we began corresponding, I kept some of his articles in a hard-copy folder alongside Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and (he’s not going to thank me for this next one!) Johann Hari.

However, the concluding paragraph of Standing’s post really made me see red:

Islam, as Rehman shows, can be ‘liberalised’ and can co-exist peacefully with liberal European culture.  Just as Jews no longer stone disobedient children, and Christians no longer burn ‘heretics’ at the stake, so a future is possible in which Muslims in Europe are as ‘European’ as anyone else.

I get it.  So, Muslims are capable of common sense and rationality as much as anyone else and are well able to cherry pick their appalling holy book to exorcise the nasty bits that do not sit well with 21st century Western secular society, right?  Let’s not forget that this is coming from someone who has written of the Qur’an:

I am at a complete loss as to understand how anyone can hold such a high opinion of a book which, it turns out, is so crude, so blatantly a product of a specific time and place, and so filled with childish threats and superstition.  Reading the Qur’an is an arduous task, for in translation at least it is not a book whose literary style naturally commands admiration in the reader; in fact it is an exceedingly tedious book, made up of a collection of disjointed and often self-contradictory texts, filled with tiresome repetition of certain key phrases and themes, and brimming over with threats of torture and torment for those who will not accept its authority…  I hope to demonstrate… quite what a divisive, primitive, and insulting book it actually is…

While Jews may no longer think it acceptable to stone their children to death for drunken insolence, many of them still think it is perfectly kosher to slice off the foreskin of their days-old infant boys in a procedure done without the use of anaesthetic which would otherwise require the subject’s expressed or implied consent in law.  This is clearly one piece of Bronze Age parenting that has survived the Enlightenment.  Similarly, most Christians do not torture or burn heretics at the stake, although they would look rather blushed if you told them that Augustine and Aquinas – still two of the leading lights in theological seminaries the world over – endorsed such practices in their writings.

Islam: the fringe is the centre

Last year I read my copy of Arthur J Arberry’s English translation of the Koran in full and it was an appalling experience.  I started to write my own opinion on the Koran for this blog, but I can’t bring myself to complete the piece, because the prospect of re-reading the central text in greater detail is utterly unpalatable.  On page after page the reader is informed that God will administer a painful chastisement in Hell, Fire or Gehenna to non-believers.  It’s not like we have a choice in the matter either.  The Koran oozes with a particular sinister brand of predestination that would make John Calvin raise an eyebrow: God has blinded and deceived those whom he chooses into disbelief and there is no way that they can save themselves.

In 2007, two years after a well-to-do group of young British Muslims blew themselves up on London transport and took many innocent people with them in the process; Ed Husain published The Islamist, an autobiographical account of how he was transformed from his parents’ moderate Muslim upbringing to become an extremist bent on the Islamisation of the world as a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir.  As is so often the case, it was only the love of a good woman that brought Husain back from the edge.

I have great praise for Husain’s book.  It is a touching story about how an otherwise sane and rational individual had his mind poisoned by religious dogma.  However, I do have one caveat.  Husain fails to address the intrinsic violence and tribalism in the Koran and the Hadith.  He cherry-picks passages that portray his prophet in a favourable light, while ignoring those that show he was in fact a medieval butcher.  Someone who has not read the Koran for themselves would come away thinking that Hussein’s descent into fundamentalism was a perversion of “true Islam” and that he simply “fell in with the wrong crowd”.  My own experience of the central text shows that exactly the opposite is true.

Now, whenever I see “moderate” Muslims on Newsnight calling for their ilk to come out against extremism and saying that Islam does not mandate such things, I know they being disingenuous.  The actions of the 9/11 hijackers may not be typical of all Muslims, but they were a perfectly rational interpretation of the Qur’an and the Hadith.  The recent case of Umar Farouq Abdulmutallab, the 23-year-old Nigerian man charged as the Christmas Day Detroit underpants bomber, who was a former head of University College London’s Islamic Society and lived in a £4 million house while studying, is further proof, if any were needed, that Islamism is not a movement where the poorest of the poor have risen up against the ills of the Israeli government and US foreign policy.

Then, when the sacred months have passed, slay the idolaters wherever ye find them, and take them (captive), and besiege them, and prepare for them each ambush.  But if they repent and establish worship and pay the poor-due, then leave their way free.  Lo!  Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.

– Koran 9: 5

There’s no such thing as “moderation” in religion

I also find Standing’s closing paragraph to be unintentionally patronising to Muslims by applauding them for their liberal approach.  It is like praising a Roman Catholic for admitting that he does not really believe that the Pope is infallible, which shows Standing’s position to be intellectually untenable.

Those passages about insolent children and homosexuals being stoned to death are as canonical as love thy neighbour as thyself.  Religious moderates simply apply their humanistic morality to ignore those unsavoury passages on the grounds of the “context” in which they were written.  However, they do not have the courage to admit to it.  And Christians, please don’t tell me that Jesus rescinds the barbarism of the Old Testament, because he doesn’t.  If anything, the New Testament ramifies much of the Old Testament with Jesus beginning the Sermon on the Mount that he has “not come to abolish the law and the prophets, but fulfil” and “Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled” (Matthew 5: 17 – 18).

I have to concede that religious moderates are far better than religious extremists.  They are not blowing themselves up in marketplaces or flying planes into buildings.  However, one of the most startling ideas to have come from the New Atheists is that religious moderates are actually fuelling fundamentalism by creating a taboo of criticising religious faith as much as social and political ideas.  The Christian dogma that Jesus will return to Earth trailing clouds of glory and judge humanity for 2,000 years of sexual indiscretion may be a ridiculous belief to a non-believer (and certainly a promise that is long overdue!) but it would not on its face appear to be a mandate for extremism.  Until you realise that there are fundamentalist Christians hard at work in the Middle East attempting to incite Armageddon among the warring factions to bring about the return of their Messiah.

In a recent Intelligence Squared debate I attended featuring Richard Dawkins and A C Grayling, theist panellists Charles Moore and Richard Harries denounced “mad creationists” in response to a question I asked.  Fair enough, but are their beliefs regarding the resurrection and the Second Coming any more rational?  Surely these involve scientific claims regarding the decomposition of corpses and human flight without the aid of technology.  Why shouldn’t we laugh at them when they espouse these beliefs?  If Harries was so offended by Dawkins’ comparing the likelihood of the existence of the God of Abraham with leprechauns, he should have spent the rest of the evening defending the claim that Almighty Zeus sent his only begotten son Perseus to Earth via a virgin birth to rid humanity of Medusa and the Kraken, and then he would have realised how much we – believers and atheists alike – really respect religious claims.

I know that Lord Harries is not a creationist.  Indeed, he has supported Richard Dawkins in the fight against creationism entering school science classes.  I am sure he doesn’t take stories such as Noah’s Ark and Sodom and Gomorrah literally and thinks that there is a link between metrological and seismic phenomena and human morality.  Doubtless he disagreed strongly with his colleague in the Church of England, the then Bishop of Carlisle, who’s verdict on the July 2007 floods in Northern Yorkshire was that they were divine retribution were punishment for homosexual marriage.  But if Harries ever said or wrote in public condemnation of the Right Reverend Graham Dow’s decidedly Old Testament take on the bad weather, I have yet to discover it.

If the moderates do not police their religions, then the atheists will be forced to.

Accordingly, I am not prepared to say that a world inhabited only by religious moderates would be a much better place.  That can only be possible in a world with no religious believers at all, moderate or extremist.  Whereas many Roman Catholics may feel uncomfortable with the thought that their Church is lying to people in AIDS ravaged countries in Africa, where around 3 million people a year die of the disease, by preaching the sinfulness and ineffectiveness of condoms, they are inadvertently contributing to the problem by creating a climate in our public discourse that makes it impossible for the Vatican to receive the same level of condemnation that a US president would receive for getting a blow job in the Oval Office.

Moderate atheists and agnostics: more annoying than believers!

I’m an atheist butters like the philosopher Michael Ruse infuriate me more than liberal theologians like Alister McGrath.  Ruse accuses Dawkins of being a poor philosopher and not taking the arguments for God existence seriously enough, but ultimately he agrees with his position on the existence of God.  This is rather like someone in the 1930s saying that while they disagree with Nazism and do not accept the claims of Mein Kampf, they nonetheless respect National Socialism, appreciate its nuances and feel that only a proper and sincere engagement with Nazi philosophy could overthrow Hitler’s regime.

In contrast to Standing’s tolerant approach, my hand-to-throat response was demonstrated by my reaction to a recent edition of Premier Christian Radio’s Unbelievable? Christian apologist to Muslims, Jay Smith, debated Muslim moderate, Muhammad Al-Hussaini, on the Ethical Guidelines for Christian and Muslim Witness in Britain (download PDF), in particular point 6: the requirement not to ridicule or demean other faiths.  I am not the biggest fan of Jay Smith (!), however, the attempts by Al-Hussaini to portray the Koran as a moderate text made me even angrier; especially his quoting of “Let there be no compulsion in religion” at Sura 2 of the Koran.   With my blood still very much up, I fired off a bile-laden email to the presenter and the participants:

[T]he verse constantly quoted from Sura 2 of the Koran by apologists eager to claim that Islam is a tolerant and pluralistic religion, “Let there be no compulsion in religion”, is followed a few verses later with the promise that all unbelievers will dwell forever in the Fire in the next life.  There doesn’t seem to be anything optional about that preachment…

Although I am unimpressed by the gross hypocrisy and double-standards that Jay Smith employs when promoting his own religion over Islam, I agree that the Koran should be “ridiculed and demeaned” at every opportunity, because frankly I am insulted and offended every time someone tries to tell me that it is a miracle of literature that could only have been authored by an omnipotent deity.

As it happens, Al-Hussaini sent me a very civil and respectful response and probably didn’t deserve the full-on MSP treatment that he received.  But the idea that Christians should respect a religion that ineptly plagiarises their own holy book was akin to historian Hugh Trevor-Roper’s reaction to the Rushdie affair:

I wonder how Salman Rushdie is faring these days under the benevolent protection of British law and British police, about whom he has been so rude.  Not too comfortably I hope…  I would not shed a tear if some British Muslims, deploring his manners, should waylay him in a dark street and seek to improve them.  If that should cause him thereafter to control his pen, society would benefit and literature would not suffer.

As Ibn Warraq rightly pointed out in Why I Am Not A Muslim:

Will that “closest hooligan” Trevor-Roper wake up from his complacent slumbers, when those “poor hurt Muslims” begin demanding the withdrawal of those classic Western literature and intellectual history that offend their Islamic sensibilities but must be dear to Professor Trevor-Roper’s heart?

In conclusion – a pragmatic means but far from an end

While Standing may well agree with much of what I have written in principle, he knows that religious faith is not going to be eradicated within our lifetimes and is prepared to play real-politick and endorse religious moderates even if it means making an ideological trade-off.  I certainly see the practical sense in this, but for once I am thinking with my gut and am not yet prepared to compromise my philosophy.  This is one example where integrity is everything for me.  Standing’s approach’s is scarily reminiscent to the “you’ll never get rid of it” line taken by many of the Four Horseman’s atheistic opponents such as Ruse.

And of course if you start thinking like that, you never will get rid of religious faith.  Ever.

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!