Posts Tagged ‘morality’

Video of William Lane Craig’s misrepresentation of Sam Harris during and after their debate on morality


Further to my posts reviewing the debate on morality between atheist Sam Harris and Christian apologist William Lane Craig, together with Craig’s distortions of Harris’ written work, nooneleftalivekibo has cited my first post in the above video, for which I am grateful and flattered.

Having watched a few nooneleftalivekibo’s other videos, I recommend those that expose Craig’s misrepresentation and quote-mining of Stephen Law, Michael Ruse and Stephen Hawking.

William Lane Craig’s misrepresentation of Sam Harris’ written work during their debate on morality


William Lane Craig –v- Sam Harris, “Is the Foundation of Morality Natural or Supernatural? / Is Good from God?”, University of Notre Dame, Indiana, United States, 7 April 2011

MP3 Audio

Transcript of Craig’s and Harris’ main speeches and rebuttals
(I have removed the irritating ‘Er, uh’s in my citations below)

Video edited to be only Sam Harris speaking
(So the rest of us can cut to chase!)

As part of my post discussing Sam Harris’ debate against William Lane Craig on whether the foundation of human morality was natural or supernatural, I discuss Craig’s presentation of Harris work alongside their true context in Harris’ books The End of Faith [London: Simon & Schuster UK Ltd, 2006], The Moral Landscape [London: Transworld Publishers, 2006] and Free Will [New York: Free Press, 2012], together with his articles “Response to Critics of The Moral Landscape and The Moral Landscape Challenge” and give my verdict on how Craig sought to misrepresent Harris.

Craig’s opening statement:

[Harris] rightly declares, “If only one person in the world held down a terrified, struggling, screaming little girl, cut off her genitals with a septic blade, and sewed her back up, … the only question would be how severely that person should be punished …”

This quote appears on pp. 66 – 67 of my edition of The Moral Landscape and is in fact Harris citing psychologist Steven Pinker’s book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature [New York: Viking, 2002, p.273], who in turn is quoting Donald Symons.  The full quote continues:

…, and whether the death penalty would be a sufficiently severe sanction.  But when millions of people do this, instead of the enormity being magnified millions-fold, it suddenly becomes ‘culture,’ and thereby magically becomes less, rather than more, horrible, and is even defended by some Western ‘moral thinkers,’ including feminists.

The passage appears in Chapter 2: “Moral Truth” in The Moral Landscape under a segment entitled “Moral Blindness in the Name of ‘Tolerance’”, which includes Harris’ transcript of his conversation with a female advisor on President Obama’s Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues who thought that it was better to “respect” a hypothetical ancient culture’s crackpot religious tradition of removing the eyeballs of every third child than to declare them morally wrong.

Craig’s quotation of this passage (notwithstanding that it was not even from Harris’ pen!) is misleading in that it gave the audience the impression that Harris simply advocates stern retribution to those who carry out female circumcision.  However, Harris’ argument runs much deeper than this as he is decrying the appalling moral relativism of secularists who are too afraid to criticise the practices of religious cultures in respect of actions that they would find morally repugnant were they carried out in isolation by individuals.

Craig’s opening statement continues:

So how does Sam Harris propose to solve the Value Problem?  The trick he proposes is simply to re-define what he means by “good” and “evil”, in non-moral terms.  He says, “We should “define ‘good’ as that which supports [the] well-being” of conscious creatures.  So, he says, “questions about values … are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures.”  And therefore, he concludes, “it makes no sense … to ask whether maximizing well-being is ‘good’.”  Why not?  Because he’s redefined the word “good” to mean the well-being of conscious creatures.  So to ask, “Why is maximizing creatures’ well-being good?” is on his definition the same as asking, “Why does maximizing creatures’ well-being maximize creatures’ well-being?” It’s just a tautology. It’s just talking in circles!  So, Dr. Harris has quote-unquote “solved” the Value Problem just by re-defining his terms.  It’s nothing but wordplay.

If Harris actually uses the term “Value Problem” with the pages of The Moral Landscape, let alone explicitly redefining what we mean by “good”, then I must have missed it.  The term seems to have been something constructed by his critics.  However, in his article “Response to Critics of The Moral Landscape published in January 2011, three months before his debate against Craig, Harris discusses the issue in detail; too much detail for me to include in this post in its entirety, but I present some relevant extracts.  Harris is responding to philosopher Russell Blackford’s review:

The Value Problem

My critics have been especially exercised over the subtitle of my book, “how science can determine human values.”  The charge is that I haven’t actually used science to determine the foundational value (well-being) upon which my proffered science of morality would rest. Rather, I have just assumed that well-being is a value, and this move is both unscientific and question-begging.


[T]he same can be said about medicine, or science as a whole.  As I point out in my book, science is based on values that must be presupposed—like the desire to understand the universe, a respect for evidence and logical coherence, etc.  One who doesn’t share these values cannot do science.  But nor can he attack the presuppositions of science in a way that anyone should find compelling. Scientists need not apologise for presupposing the value of evidence, nor does this presupposition render science unscientific.  In my book, I argue that the value of well-being—specifically the value of avoiding the worst possible misery for everyone—is on the same footing.  There is no problem in presupposing that the worst possible misery for everyone is bad and worth avoiding and that normative morality consists, at an absolute minimum, in acting so as to avoid it.  To say that the worst possible misery for everyone is “bad” is, on my account, like saying that an argument that contradicts itself is “illogical.”  Our spade is turned. Anyone who says it isn’t simply isn’t making sense.  The fatal flaw that Blackford claims to have found in my view of morality could just as well be located in science as a whole—or reason generally.  Our “oughts” are built right into the foundations.  We need not apologise for pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps in this way.  It is far better than pulling ourselves down by them.

Harris clearly acknowledges that he is starting with a scientific and philosophical presupposition, but one that is both reasonable and applicable to other areas of science.  It certainly makes far more sense than the theist presupposition of goodness which is whatever God commands is automatically good.

It is also rank hypocrisy on Craig’s part to accuse Harris of tautology and wordplay since throughout the entire debate he offered no evidence whatsoever of the goodness of God’s character but simply engaged in Anselm-esque ontological word games that God’s character was the definition of goodness rather like the definition of a bachelor is that he is unmarried.

Craig’s opening statement continues:

Sam Harris believes that all of our actions are causally determined and that there is no free will.  Dr Harris rejects not only libertarian accounts of free will but also compatibilistic accounts of freedom.  But, if there is no free will, then no one is morally responsible for anything! In the end, Dr Harris admits this, though it’s tucked away in the endnotes of his volume.  Moral responsibility, he says, and I quote, “is a social construct,” not an objective reality: I quote: “in neuroscientific terms no person is more or less responsible than any other” for the actions they perform.  His thoroughgoing determinism spells the end of any hope or possibility of objective moral duties because on his worldview we have no control over what we do.

Harris discusses his views on “free will” on pp. 135 – 147 of The Moral Landscape under the sections entitled “The Illusion of Free Will” and “Moral Responsibility” as well as in his short book Free Will.  It is clear to me that just because Harris believes that human thoughts and actions are governed by prior causes over which we have no control (“determinism”), this does not negate the existence of human choice and moral responsibility.  On p. 143 of The Moral Landscape under the section “Moral Responsibility”, Harris writes:

Of course, we hold one another accountable for more than those actions than we consciously plan, because most voluntary behaviour comes about without explicit planning.  But why is the conscious decision to do another person harm particularly blameworthy?  Because consciousness is, among other things, the context in which our intentions become completely available to us.  What we do subsequent to conscious planning tends to fully reflect the global properties of our minds – our beliefs, desires, goals, prejudices, etc.  If, after weeks of deliberation, library research, and debate with your friends, you still decide to kill the king – well, killing the king really reflects the sort of person you are.  Consequently it makes sense for the rest of society to worry about you.

The endnote in The Moral Landscape to which Craig refers is endnote 109 on p. 279 of my edition which itself refers to a passage in the main text on pp. 143 – 144 under the section “Moral Responsibility” and again is Harris quoting another author; this time the neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga from his paper “Forty-five years of split-brain research and still going strong”, Nat Rev Neurosci, Volume 6, Number 8, 653 – 659.  The full passage from Gazzinga, with the parts that Craig quoted in bold, is as follows:

Neuroscience will never find the brain correlate of responsibility, because that is something we ascribe to humans – to people – not to brains.  It is a moral value we demand of our fellow, rule-following human beings.  Just as optometrists can tell us how much vision a person has (20/20 or 20/200) but cannot tell us when someone is legally blind or has too little vision to drive a school bus, so psychiatrists and brain scientists might be able to tell us what someone’s mental state or brain state is but cannot tell us (without being arbitrary) when someone has too little control to be held responsible.  The issue of responsibility (like the issue of who can drive school buses) is a social choice.  In neuroscientific terms, no person is more or less responsible than any other for actions.  We are all part of a deterministic system that someday, in theory, we will completely understand.  Yet the idea of responsibility, a social construct that exists in the rules of a society, does not exist in the neuronal structures of the brain.

The endnote continues in Harris’ own words with the extracts that Craig quoted in bold:

While it is true that responsibility is a social construct attributed to people and not to brains, it is a social construct that can make more or less sense given certain facts about a person’s brain.  I think we can easily imagine discoveries in neuroscience, as well as brain imagining technology, that would allow us to attribute responsibility to persons in a far more precise way than we do at present.  A ‘Twinkie defence’ would be entirely uncontroversial if we learned that there was something at the creamy centre of every Twinkie that obliterated the front lobe’s inhibitory control over the limbic system.

But perhaps ‘responsibility’ is simply the wrong construct: for Gazzaniga is surely correct to say that in ‘neuroscientific terms, no person is more or less responsible than any other for actions.’  Conscious actions arise on the basis of neural events of which we are not conscious.  Whether they are predictable or not, we do not cause our causes.

The relevant paragraph on pp. 143 – 144 of the main text to which the endnote refers reads as follows:

While viewing human beings as forces of nature does not prevent us from thinking in terms of moral responsibility, it does call the logic of retribution into question.  Clearly, we need to build prisons for people who are intent on harming others.  But if we could incarcerate earthquakes and hurricanes for their crimes, we would build prisons for them as well.

Accordingly, it is clear to me that Harris’ views on “free will” are far more complex and layered that Craig let on in the debate.  It is equally clear that Craig has simply skimmed through Harris’ book, noted that Harris does not agree with the theist concept of “free will” and hastily concluded that Harris thinks there can be no moral responsibility on a deterministic view of “free will” without actually reading the remainder of Harris’ views, or at least reading them properly.

See also my recent post setting out Harris’ views on “free will” which links to a number of relevant web articles and lectures he has given on the topic.

Craig’s first rebuttal

Dr Harris has to defend an even more radical claim than that.  He claims that the property of being good is identical with the property of creaturely flourishing.  And he’s not offered any defence of this radical identity claim. In fact, I think we have a knock-down argument against it.  Now bear with me here; this is a little technical.  On the next-to-last page of his book, Dr Harris makes the telling admission that if people like rapists, liars, and thieves could be just as happy as good people, then his “moral landscape” would no longer be a moral landscape.  Rather, it would just be a continuum of well-being whose peaks are occupied by good and bad people, or evil people, alike.

Now what’s interesting about this is that earlier in the book, Dr Harris explained that about three million Americans are psychopathic.  That is to say, they don’t care about the mental states of others.  They enjoy inflicting pain on other people. But that implies that there’s a possible world, which we can conceive, in which the continuum of human well-being is not a moral landscape.  The peaks of well-being could be occupied by evil people.  But that entails that in the actual world, the continuum of well-being and the moral landscape are not identical either.  For identity is a necessary relation. There is no possible world in which some entity A is not identical to A.  So if there’s any possible world in which A is not identical to B, then it follows that A is not in fact identical to B.

Now since it’s possible that human well-being and moral goodness are not identical, it follows necessarily that human well-being and goodness are not the same, as Dr Harris has asserted in his book.

Now it’s not often in philosophy that you get a knock-down argument against a position.  But I think we’ve got one here.  By granting that it’s possible that the continuum of well-being is not identical to the moral landscape, Dr Harris’ view becomes logically incoherent.

For once, Craig has actually quoted Harris’ own words (although notice the rather ominous and accusatory description that they appear “on the next to last page of his book”).  The full passage is at pp. 241 – 242 of The Moral Landscape in Chapter 5 “The Future of Happiness” under the section “On Being Right or Wrong”:

It is also conceivable that a science of human flourishing could be possible, and yet people could be made equally happy by very different ‘moral’ impulses.  Perhaps there is no connection between being good and feeling good – and, therefore, no connection between moral behaviour (as generally conceived) and subjective well-being.  In this case, rapists, liars, and thieves would experience the same depth of happiness as the saints.  This scenario stands the greatest chance of being true while seeming quite far-fetched.  Neuroimagining work already suggests what has long been obvious through introspection: human co-operation is rewarding.  However, if evil turned out to be as reliable path to happiness as goodness is, my argument about the moral landscape would still stand, as would the likely utility of neuroscience for investigating it.  It would no longer be an especially ‘moral’ landscape; rather it would be a continuum of well-being, upon which saints and sinners would occupy equivalent peaks.

Worries of this kind seem to ignore some very obvious facts about human beings: we have all evolved from common ancestors and are, therefore, far more similar than we are different; brains and primary human emotions clearly transcend culture, and they are unquestionably influenced by states of the world (as anyone who has ever stubbed his toe can attest).  No one, to my knowledge, believes that there is so much variance in the requisites of human well-being as to make the above concerns seem plausible.

Like all good scientists, Harris has actually armed his opponents with the tools that they need to disprove his thesis.  Yet, contra-Craig, he has only admitted that in one possible World his thesis would require amendment, but would not be completely invalid.  However, Harris spends all of Chapter 2 “Good and Evil” arguing that love, compassion and well-being can be understood as good for us at the level of the brain and that psychopaths do not in fact occupy the same peaks of happiness and well-being as those who exude love and compassion toward their fellow creatures.

Just because it is possible to imagine a scenario where Harris’ thesis does not apply does not invalidate is applicability in The Real World.  Yet again, Craig takes Harris’ words out of their true context, cobbles together a possible World where they do not makes sense and declares Harris’ thesis null and void on that basis.


As I stated in my main post discussing the outcome of the debate, at the time of publishing this post, this is actually the last debate of William Lane Craig’s that I have watched.  As with many other atheist bloggers, after seeing so many of his debates and lectures, I am fed up of the lies, distortions and dishonest tactics that he uses in his attempts to overthrow his opponents.

I only wish that Sam Harris was not the only one to call him out on it.

Sam Harris beats William Lane Craig in their debate on morality


William Lane Craig –v- Sam Harris, “Is the Foundation of Morality Natural or Supernatural? / Is Good from God?”, University of Notre Dame, Indiana, United States, 7 April 2011

MP3 Audio

Transcript of Craig’s and Harris’ main speeches and rebuttals
(I have removed the irritating ‘Er, uh’s in my citations below)

Video edited to be only Sam Harris speaking
(So the rest of us can cut to chase!)

Although I watched this debate when it was first posted online over two and a half years ago and intended to do a full write up of it then, I was still on an extended blogging sabbatical and had not read Sam Harris’ book on morality and ethics, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values.  Now that the dust of their clash has settled, I have read Harris’ book more than once and offered my own thoughts on the burden of proof in showing that the source of human morals is divine, and Harris has issued The Moral Landscape Challenge”, I now feel that I can dissect this encounter properly.

Debate overview

As with most religious debates, opinion on the blogosphere is divided with as many handing the debate to Harris as to Craig.  Luke Muehlhauser at the now-archived Common Sense Atheism (who I repeated described as the web’s most fawning Craigophile atheist, both on my blog and his!) declared Craig the winner on rhetorical grounds (which I believe he consistently overvalued in any event), yet conversely considered the debate a victory for the New Atheists as it gave the wider the public the hear their arguments for secular morality

It is abundantly clear – even more than is usually the case with Craig’s atheist opponents – that Harris has a different speaking and debating style.  The format for this debate with 20 minute opening statements and then rebuttals for each side of 12, 8 and 5 minutes, was much more structured than any other debate I have seen Harris participate.  At most, Harris and his opponents have been given a few minutes to state their case before the debate turns to a back-and-forth discussion between the two participants and the moderator.  In many of Harris’ debates, he has been faced with a very biased moderator who has turned out to be an additional opponent to him!

Harris received much criticism for supposedly straying off-topic in his rebuttals by discussing the problem of evil, Yahweh’s atrocities in the Old Testament, the plurality and diversity of the World’s religions, and the contradictions of Christian theology regarding the supposed existence of a good God and hell.  However, from the opening sentence of his first rebuttal – “Well, that was all very… interesting…” – it was clear to me that he was not going to conform to Craig’s rules of debating and let him railroad the discussion in an argument of semantics, syntax and philosophical “logic”.

Just because Craig does not want to debate certain issues such as the problem of the “unevangelised” and his own repugnant “divine command theory” in justification of Yahweh’s atrocities in the Old Testament, does mean that they are irrelevant to the topic under discussion.  In his second rebuttal, Craig makes the extraordinary (and presumably unintentional) concession:

[Harris] then responds, “But there’s no good reason to believe that such a being exists.  Look at the problem of evil and the problem of the unevangelized.”  Both of these, as I explained in my opening, are irrelevant in tonight’s debate because I’m not arguing that God exists. Maybe he’s right; maybe these are insuperable objections to Christianity or to theism.  It wouldn’t affect either of my contentions: that if God exists, then we have a sound foundation for moral values and duties; if God does not exist, then we have no foundation for objective moral values and duties.  So these are red herrings.  [My emphasis]

This would be like Craig arguing, “It’s irrelevant as to whether or not unicorns do in fact exist; I’m arguing that the foundation for human morals are unicorn tears.”  Craig offered no evidence to show that God’s character was good other than Anselm-esque word games such as (in his final statement):

Dr Harris [argued]… against this position is to say that you’re merely defining God as good, which is the same fallacy I accused him of committing.  I don’t think this is the case at all.  God is a being worthy of worship.  Any being that is not worthy of worship is not God.  And therefore God must be perfectly good and essentially good.  More than that, as Anselm saw, God is the greatest conceivable being, and therefore he is the very paradigm of goodness itself.  He is the greatest good.  So once you understand the concept of God, you can see that asking, “Well, why is God good?” is sort of like asking, “Why are all bachelors unmarried?”  It’s the very concept of the greatest conceivable being, of being worthy of worship that entails the essential goodness of God.

Similar to atheist objections to the ontological argument for God’s existence, this is still nothing more than mere sophistry.  Word games will not suffice, Dr Craig; we demand evidence in support of your arguments.

As Harris posted shortly after the debate:

While I believe I answered (or pre-empted) all of Craig’s substantive challenges, I’ve received a fair amount of criticism for not rebutting his remarks point for point. Generally speaking, my critics seem to have been duped by Craig’s opening statement, in which he presumed to narrow the topic of our debate (I later learned that he insisted upon speaking first and made many other demands.  You can read an amusing, behind-the-scenes account here.)  Those who expected me to follow the path Craig cut in his opening remarks don’t seem to understand the game he was playing.  He knew that if he began, “Here are 5 (bogus) points that Sam Harris must answer if he has a shred of self-respect,” this would leave me with a choice between delivering my prepared remarks, which I believed to be crucial, or wasting my time putting out the small fires he had set.  If I stuck to my argument, as I mostly did, he could return in the next round to say, “You will notice that Dr Harris entirely failed to address points 2 and 5.  It is no wonder, because they make a mockery of his entire philosophy.”

As I observed once during the debate, but should have probably mentioned again, Craig employs other high school debating tricks to mislead the audience: He falsely summarises what his opponent has said; he falsely claims that certain points have been conceded; and, in our debate, he falsely charged me with having wandered from the agreed upon topic.  The fact that such tricks often work is a real weakness of the debate format, especially one in which the participants are unable to address one another directly.  Nevertheless, I believe I was right not to waste much time rebutting irrelevancies, correcting Craig’s distortions of my published work, or taking his words out of my mouth.  Instead, I simply argued for a scientific conception of moral truth and against one based on the biblical God.  This was, after all, the argument that the organisers at Notre Dame had invited me to make.

While fellow-atheist blogger Chris Hallquist initially sided with Craig that Harris had strayed off the topic of the debate, he subsequently conceded:

In two paragraphs, Harris just owned Craig and proved he’s smarter than probably everyone else who’s ever written about Craig, myself included.  I’m embarrassed to say that, in my initial write-up of the debate, I unthinkingly accepted Craig’s claims that Harris had strayed off topic.  This was partly, I guess, because I knew going into the debate that Craig would try to frame it as a debate about the conditional claim “if God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist.”  Had I been debating Craig, I probably would have figured it wasn’t worth the energy to fight him on the framing.

But thankfully, Harris was debating Craig, not me, and he never forgot that Craig’s interpretation of the topic wasn’t the actual topic.  They were supposed to be debating “Is Good from God?” and it’s completely ridiculous to claim that questions like “does God exist?” and “if there were a God, what could we infer about his character?” are irrelevant to that question.  Similarly, it isn’t at all obvious that the “God” there can only be referring to some very abstract god, and not the god that Craig actually believes in.

I still think Harris would have benefited from taking 30 seconds to point out how ridiculous and hypocritical Craig’s accusations of “irrelevance” were.  Nevertheless, I think he largely had the right strategy, and it’s humbling to realise I’m still vulnerable to such silly debating tricks after years of watching Craig.

I maintain that Victor Stenger and Bart Ehrman retain their joint-crown of Atheist Opponent Who Has Made Craig Look Like A Complete Fool At The Lectern, however, Harris in his own quiet and subtle way utterly destroyed Craig and everything for which he stands.  Craig simply defined God as good and argued from inside the “theological bubble” (aka “CraigWorld”) whereas Harris argued from the Real World and discussed scientific examples of human behaviour about which religion as little, if anything, useful to say.

Harris also demonstrated with reference to the World’s appalling suffering and the Bible (which after all Craig maintains is the inerrant word of the creator of the Universe) that if some kind of supernatural being is at the heart of the Universe, he must be cruel, capricious and unworthy of worship.  Craig dismissed these arguments as “red herrings” and “village atheist objections”, but ultimately Harris won the evidential case as to God’s true character.

It was also a stark contrast in presentation styles.  Harris in his plain black suit and open-necked blue shirt was calm, collected and considered.  If anyone needs some lessons in public speaking before taking the podium, they could do no better than to watch a few Sam Harris lectures.  Craig on the other hand, in his gold-buttoned navy blazer, starched white shirt and neck-crunching tie, looked and sounded harried as the debate progressed as evidenced by the increased volume of his smug, nasally voice at the beginning of his second rebuttal when he became severely irate at Harris’ description of certain Christian beliefs as psychotic.  His Gish Gallop was turned all the way up to eleven, particularly in the rebuttals, and stood ill at ease with Harris’ slow and methodical delivery that was filled with pauses at key moments.

As fatuous as some of these comments may appear, there is always an element of “beauty parade” in all public appearances.  Harris was JFK.  Craig was Nixon.

Craig’s quote-mining of The Moral Landscape

In the middle of Harris’ opening statement he warned the audience not to trust Craig’s reading of his work and that half of the quotes Craig gives in his opening statement are not from Harris himself, but are in fact Harris quoting other authors and “often to different effect”.

I have been through Harris’ book and Craig’s remarks in the debate with a fine tooth comb and on another post I discuss Craig’s presentation of The Moral Landscape together with their true presentation by Harris.


During Craig’s second rebuttal, he upped the Southern nasally drawl aplenty when he accused Harris of accusing all Christians of being psychopaths.  When Harris next took the lectern he invited the audience to “sort it out on YouTube”.  I have taken up Harris on his invitation and now present the full transcript of the subject under disagreement.

Harris’ first rebuttal

We are being offered a psychopathic and psychotic moral attitude… it is psychopathic because this is a total detachment from the well-being of human beings. It so easily rationalises the slaughter of children.  OK, just think about the Muslims at this moment who are blowing themselves up, convinced that they are agents of God’s will.  There is absolutely nothing that Dr Craig can say against their behaviour, in moral terms, apart from his own faith-based claim that they’re praying to the wrong God.  If they had the right God, what they were doing would be good, on “divine command theory”.

Now, I’m obviously not saying that all that Dr Craig or all religious people are psychopaths and psychotics, but this to me is the true horror of religion. It allows perfectly decent and sane people to believe by the billions, what only lunatics could believe on their own [my emphasis].

Craig’s second rebuttal:

[Harris] also says it’s “psychopathic” to believe these things.  Now, that remark is just as stupid as it is insulting.  It is absurd to think that Peter Van Inwagen here at the University of Notre Dame is psychopathic, or that a guy like Dr Tom Flint, who is as gracious a Christian gentlemen as I could have ever met, is psychopathic.  This is simply below the belt.

Harris’ second rebuttal:

Well, perhaps you’ve noticed Dr Craig has a charming habit of summarising his opponent’s points in a way in which they were not actually given, so I will leave it to you to sort it out on Youtube.  Needless to say, I didn’t call those esteemed colleagues of his psychopaths, as I made clear.

Right here, Craig well and truly lets his mask slip.  He gives up the pretence of honest debate and intellectual discourse for the sake of scoring a cheap and dishonest point against his opponent.  In his post-debate podcast Craig stands by the accusation saying that Harris has argued in his written work that religious belief is a form of insanity.  However, this is another misrepresentation of Harris’ work; he makes clear in The End of Faith:

Clearly, there is sanity in numbers.  And yet, it is merely an accident of history that it is considered normal in our society to believe that the Creator of the universe can hear your thoughts, while it is demonstrative of mental illness to believe that he is communicating with you by having the rain tap in Morse code on your bedroom window.  And so, while religious people are not generally mad, their core beliefs absolutely are.  [London: Simon & Schuster UK Ltd, 2006, p. 72]

This incident, together with my comments in respect of Craig quote-mining Harris’ book is the strongest evidence yet that Craig has no interest in advancing science and human knowledge, but simply to reinforce his own dogmatically held religious convictions.

At the time of publishing this post, this is actually the last debate of William Lane Craig’s that I have watched.  As with many other atheist bloggers, after seeing so many of his debates and lectures, I am fed up of the lies, distortions and dishonest tactics that he uses in his attempts to overthrow his opponents.

I only wish that Sam Harris was not the only one to call him out on it.

The clinching moment?

I fully accept that one of the other “Four Horsemen”, Christopher Hitchens, lost his debate against Craig on the existence of God at Biola University in April 2009.  Hitchens conceded the debate at Craig’s final rebuttal before the audience Q & A: he smiled and chuckled to himself when Craig invited him to become a Christian, he raised his arms and applauded when Craig walked past him on his way back to his seat and he leaned forward to the moderator, Hugh Hewitt, to give up his five minute rebuttal so there could be more time for questions from the audience.

There was no such gesture from Harris throughout his debate with Craig, but possibly a glimmer of concession from Craig towards Harris.   During the audience Q & A period (c. 1 hour 23 minutes on the tape) the two men locked horns on the question of Craig’s “divine command theory”.  Harris states that if God issued such a command to exterminate an entire race of people he would be evil.  Craig retorts that Harris has no basis for making such objective moral judgements.  Harris replies, “I’ve tried to give you a basis… sorry.”  The audience laughs and applauds.  Craig glances towards the moderator, raises an eyebrow and then suppresses a frown with a goofy smile that betrays his frustration and confusion.

Craig lost the argument that day, and he lost badly.  Not even his attempt to re-write the debate in his two-part post-debate podcast that runs to nearly an hour and features extra encouragement by the fawning Kevin Harris – who clearly gets his money by turning up to kiss CraigButt – can repair the damage.

The Moral Landscape Challenge

Harris has recently issued The Moral Landscape Challenge: readers can win $20,000 if they can disprove his central thesis in an essay of 1,000 or less and Harris will recant his thesis.  Even if none of the essays can make Harris recant his thesis, the best essay will still win $2,000.

It has been nearly three years since The Moral Landscape was first published in English, and in that time it has been attacked by readers and non-readers alike.  Many seem to have judged from the resulting cacophony that the book’s central thesis was easily refuted. However, I have yet to encounter a substantial criticism that I feel was not adequately answered in the book itself (and in subsequent talks).

So I would like to issue a public challenge.  Anyone who believes that my case for a scientific understanding of morality is mistaken is invited to prove it in 1,000 words or less.  (You must address the central argument of the book—not peripheral issues.)  The best response will be published on this website, and its author will receive $2,000.  If any essay actually persuades me, however, its author will receive $20,000, and I will publicly recant my view.

Submissions will be accepted here the week of February 2-9, 2014.


Here [is my central thesis]: Morality and values depend on the existence of conscious minds—and specifically on the fact that such minds can experience various forms of well-being and suffering in this universe.  Conscious minds and their states are natural phenomena, fully constrained by the laws of the universe (whatever these turn out to be in the end).  Therefore, questions of morality and values must have right and wrong answers that fall within the purview of science (in principle, if not in practice).  Consequently, some people and cultures will be right (to a greater or lesser degree), and some will be wrong, with respect to what they deem important in life.

You might want to read what I’ve already written in response to a few critics.  (A version of that article became the Afterword to the paperback edition of The Moral Landscape.)  I also recommend that you watch the talk I linked to above.

This is either an admiral display of honest inquiry from a brilliant scientist who wants his views to be criticised in order to facilitate self-improvement or a display of unbridled arrogance, depending on your point of view.

Whichever is true of Harris’ motives, suffice it say, a certain Dr William Lane Craig is already out of pocket.

Richard Dawkins versus religious moral absolutism


If the religious want their divinely inspired / transcendent / objective / absolute / whatever-piece-of-philosophical-theological-casuistry-they-want-to-use moral standard, they are more than welcome to it.

Atheist Media Blog page page

Full episode

Addendum to “William Lane Craig Provides the ‘Scholarly’ Basis for Holy Horror”


As part of my three posts reassessing Christopher Hitchens’ debate against Christian apologist William Lane Craig held at Biola University on 4 April 2009, I have added the following text to the end of my piece on Craig’s take on the morals of the Old Testament God.

UPDATE 06/04/2010:

Since publishing this piece, I have come across a podcast on this topic as part of the “Reasonable Faith: Conversations with Dr William Lane Craig” series that Craig’s website produces  if you can bear it.  Lukeprog over at Common Sense Atheism has posted an excellent discussion.

I have also found this comment by Richard Dawkins posted on the debate forum of his website:

Theological justification for genocide Part One

Richard Dawkins >> Mon Apr 21, 2008 8:22 am

One of our commenters on another thread, stevencarrwork, posted a link to this article by the American theologian and Christian apologist William Lane Craig.  I read it and found it so dumbfoundingly, staggeringly awful that I wanted to post it again.  It is a stunning example of the theological mind at work.  And remember, this is NOT an ‘extremist’, ‘fundamentalist’, ‘picking on the worst case’ example.  My understanding is that William Lane Craig is a widely respected apologist for the Christian religion.  Read his article and rub your eyes to make sure you are not having a bad dream.


That just about says it all.

(H/T: Steven Carr)

Sam Harris at TED 2010: Science can answer moral questions


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

Sam Harris’ homepage

Project Reason

Sam Harris’ Wikipedia page

William Lane Craig Provides the “Scholarly” Basis for Holy Horror



manicstreetpreacher finally has his answer as to what one of America’s top Christian apologists has to say about the butchery of the Old Testament.


Is the good loved by the gods because it is good, or is it good because it is loved by the gods?

– Plato

Earlier this year, I reported on the Craig/Hitchens debate at Biola University.  I had been wondering about Craig’s views on evolution for a while, but during the debate he finally revealed that he did not accept Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection.   According to Craig’s “science” based on John Barrow and Frank Tipler’s The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, evolution was so “improbable” (surely Craig’s favourite word in the English language) that the sun would have burned out long before Homo sapiens could have evolved.

Craig has stiffened his position in the last couple of years.  During his 2007 debate in London against embryologist Lewis Wolpert, author of Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast, Craig stated  that he “neither believed nor disbelieved” in evolution, but had reservations over it on the grounds of improbability.

In the Hitchens debate, however, Craig rubbished evolution completely.  I suppose it was the only way he could overthrow Hitchens’ “98,000 Year Wait Gambit” that in order to believe Christianity in the light of what we now know about the origins of the human race, you have to believe that Homo sapiens crawled painfully on their hands and knees for tens of thousands of years with low life expectancy and massive infant mortality with God watching with folded arms before finally intervening with a human sacrifice in a very remote part of the Middle East, the news of which still hasn’t permeated large parts of the civilised world.

As I wrote at the time, even to me as a non-scientist this was “a load of anthropic bunkum”.  Richard Dawkins convincingly argues that the Anthropic Principle is similar to evolution: it is an alternative to the design explanation.  We on Earth just happen to be lucky that our planet possesses the right “Goldilocks qualities” of being “just right” for life to emerge.  After all, physical parameters ought to be irrelevant to an omnipotent God; he could have designed us to survive in a cold, hard vacuum if he wanted.

In addition, Craig appears totally ignorant of the fact that evolution is about small steps producing gradual, but ultimately massive change over very long periods of time.  Improbable, my foot!  Far from Craig “following the evidence wherever it leads” as he is so proud of saying, he is massaging the scientific evidence to ensure that his fantasy of the universe being designed with him in mind can remain in tact.

My other great Craig-curio was what he thought of the atrocities of the Old Testament.  Craig teaches at Talbot School of Theology at Biola University where I understand that the students are taught that the Bible is free from error in all its words.  I’ve always wondered what Craig made of the God-ordered massacres of the Old Testament, however, in the debates I have seen up until now; he has always cordoned off that topic.

I was mildly disappointed that Hitchens did not tear Craig in half like he usually does at the lectern.  Craig smugly declared himself the victor of that clash.  However, as good as it would have been to see Hitchens wipe the floor with his opponent he showed Craig as a right-wing fundamentalist.  It was almost like watching Ted Haggard or Pat Robertson adopt the guise of a “serious scholar” as Craig harped on about the Gospels’ promise of eternal life as embodied in the resurrection of Jesus.

Continuing this gradual breaking down of Craig’s shell, I recently came across this audio clip of Craig on YouTube replying to The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation author Sam Harris (homepage / The Reason Project) and his objections to the barbarism of the Old Testament:

You will note that Craig says that rather than being an argument against the existence of God, the violence in the Old Testament that was apparently mandated by God is a question of whether the Bible is inerrant.  It is open to debate as to whether the Israelites correctly interpreted the word of God in slaughtering all those poor Canaanites.

However, Craig well and truly lets his veil slip by stating that the Israelites were carrying out the will of God in dispensing with his enemies after emerging from 400 years in Egyptian captivity!  Craig admitted that their acts would have been immoral but for the fact that they were ordered by God.  The acts of murder and genocide became moral because God had ordered them.

Craig even admits that God has the right to end the lives of everyone on Earth this second if he so chooses.  Talk about self-imposed slavery!

I couldn’t believe my ears and wanted further proof that this really was Craig’s view.  After all, this is a man who argues that objective moral values such as the wrongness of rape and torturing a child can only come from God and therefore the existence of objective morality is an argument for the existence of God.  As Craig puts it:

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

Seeking further evidence, I came across this article on Craig’s ironically titled website, Reasonable Faith, written in response to a couple of email questions on the violence of the Old Testament and discovered that it just keeps on getting worse.

For your shock, if not your consideration:

[T]he problem isn’t that God ended the Canaanites’ lives.  The problem is that He commanded the Israeli soldiers to end them.  Isn’t that like commanding someone to commit murder?  No, it’s not.  Rather, since our moral duties are determined by God’s commands, it is commanding someone to do something which, in the absence of a divine command, would have been murder.  The act was morally obligatory for the Israeli soldiers in virtue of God’s command, even though, had they undertaken it on their on initiative, it would have been wrong.

God can do anything.  Even make genocide morally right:

On divine command theory, then, God has the right to command an act, which, in the absence of a divine command, would have been sin, but which is now morally obligatory in virtue of that command. [My emphasis]

This segment clearly demonstrates that Craig knows that murder, rape and torture are wrong independently of any divine command.  But he says that they can be morally right if ordered by God as per Plato’s Euthyphro Dilemma quoted at the head of this article.

Do you see what Craig has done there?  He has totally undermined his own argument that without God there can be no objective morality!

Craig goes on to explain that the destruction of unclean races by a super-race favoured by God is a virtuous thing (three guesses who tried to put that one into practice in the last century?):

By setting such strong, harsh dichotomies God taught Israel that any assimilation to pagan idolatry is intolerable.  It was His way of preserving Israel’s spiritual health and posterity.  God knew that if these Canaanite children were allowed to live, they would spell the undoing of Israel.  The killing of the Canaanite children not only served to prevent assimilation to Canaanite identity but also served as a shattering, tangible illustration of Israel’s being set exclusively apart for God.

The murder of children is all fine and dandy as long as we think that God wants it.  It was for their own good and they’ve actually gone to a better place:

Moreover, if we believe, as I do, that God’s grace is extended to those who die in infancy or as small children, the death of these children was actually their salvation.  We are so wedded to an earthly, naturalistic perspective that we forget that those who die are happy to quit this earth for heaven’s incomparable joy.  Therefore, God does these children no wrong in taking their lives.

But please spare a thought for those poor child murderers:

So whom does God wrong in commanding the destruction of the Canaanites?  Not the Canaanite adults, for they were corrupt and deserving of judgement.  Not the children, for they inherit eternal life.  So who is wronged?  Ironically, I think the most difficult part of this whole debate is the apparent wrong done to the Israeli soldiers themselves.  Can you imagine what it would be like to have to break into some house and kill a terrified woman and her children?  The brutalizing effect on these Israeli soldiers is disturbing.

Someone please pass me a bucket.  I’m about to blow chunks over all this moral relativism:

But then, again, we’re thinking of this from a Christianized, Western standpoint.  For people in the ancient world, life was already brutal.  Violence and war were a fact of life for people living in the ancient Near East.  Evidence of this fact is that the people who told these stories apparently thought nothing of what the Israeli soldiers were commanded to do (especially if these are founding legends of the nation).  No one was wringing his hands over the soldiers’ having to kill the Canaanites; those who did so were national heroes.

It always brings a smile to my lips when apologists claim that God can be the only source of objective morality, yet when a sceptic pulls out a nasty passage from the Good Book, they go all relativist on you and say things like, “Well ok, but things were a lot different back then.  Genocide, rape and slavery were the norm…”

No, genocide, rape and slavery were not morally right, even for people living 3,000 years ago.  Perhaps books like Leviticus and Deuteronomy were the Universal Declaration on Human Rights of their day when simply compiling a short list of reasons to kill your enemies was an improvement over the general barbarity of the time.  But values such as self-sacrifice, charity and love were still admired while murder and rape were reviled.

If we are unable to say that it was morally wrong of Moses to issue an order to his troops, as Thomas Paine put it in The Age of Reason, “to butcher the boys, massacre the mothers and debauch the daughters,” (Numbers 31: 13 – 18) then conversely, we cannot say that him leading the Children of Israel out of slavery in Egypt was morally right either!

Craig’s response continues by contending that Osama bin Laden has it soooooo wrong:

Now how does all this relate to Islamic jihad?  Islam sees violence as a means of propagating the Muslim faith.  Islam divides the world into two camps:  the dar al-Islam (House of Submission) and the dar al-harb (House of War).  The former are those lands which have been brought into submission to Islam; the latter are those nations which have not yet been brought into submission.  This is how Islam actually views the world!

No, Dr Craig, those nineteen pious men who showed your pious nation the social benefits of this level of blind faith on 11 September 2001 were not trying to convert anybody that day.  They were exacting what they saw as retribution from their god for America’s decadence and moral depravity.  Rather like the Israelites exterminating the Canaanites in fact.  If you are in any doubt as to this, perhaps you should take a look at this clip from two men whom you worryingly resemble:

Craig’s final conjecture can only be settled once and for all by force of arms:

By contrast, the conquest of Canaan represented God’s just judgement upon those peoples.  The purpose was not at all to get them to convert to Judaism!  War was not being used as an instrument of propagating the Jewish faith.  Moreover, the slaughter of the Canaanites represented an unusual historical circumstance, not a regular means of behavior.

The problem with Islam, then, is not that it has got the wrong moral theory; it’s that it has got the wrong God.  If the Muslim thinks that our moral duties are constituted by God’s commands, then I agree with him.  But Muslims and Christians differ radically over God’s nature.  Christians believe that God is all-loving, while Muslims believe that God loves only Muslims.  Allah has no love for unbelievers and sinners.  Therefore, they can be killed indiscriminately.  Moreover, in Islam God’s omnipotence trumps everything, even His own nature.  He is therefore utterly arbitrary in His dealing with mankind.  By contrast Christians hold that God’s holy and loving nature determines what He commands.

The question, then, is not whose moral theory is correct, but which is the true God?

Why don’t you and the Muslims settle it once and for all by stepping outside, Dr Craig?  This has clearly been the approach of certain Jewish rabbis in the upper quarters of the Israeli Defence Forces which continue to this day, not least during Israel’s military strikes against the Palestinians at the start of 2009.  As Hitchens reported in March this year:

I remember being in Israel in 1986 when the chief army “chaplain” in the occupied territories, Rabbi Shmuel Derlich, issued his troops a 1,000-word pastoral letter enjoining them to apply the biblical commandment to exterminate the Amalekites as “the enemies of Israel.”  Nobody has recently encountered any Amalekites, so the chief educational officer of the Israeli Defense Forces asked Rabbi Derlich whether he would care to define his terms and say whom he meant. Rather evasively – if rather alarmingly – the man of God replied, “Germans.”  There are no Germans in Judaea and Samaria or, indeed, in the Old Testament, so the rabbi’s exhortation to slay all Germans as well as quite probably all Palestinians was referred to the Judge Advocate General’s Office. Forty military rabbis publicly came to Derlich’s support, and the rather spineless conclusion of the JAG was that he had committed no legal offense but should perhaps refrain in the future from making political statements on the army’s behalf…

Now, it’s common to hear people say [that violent passages in the Bible are] not intended to be “taken literally.”  One also often hears the excuse that some wicked things are done “in the name of” religion, as if the wicked things were somehow the result of a misinterpretation.  But the nationalist rabbis who prepare Israeli soldiers for their mission seem to think that this book might be the word of God, in which case the only misinterpretation would be the failure to take it literally.  (I hate to break it to you, but the people who think that God’s will is revealed in scripture are known as “religious.”  Those who do not think so must try to find another name for themselves.)

Possibly you remember Dr Baruch Goldstein, the man who in February 1994 unslung his weapon and killed more than two dozen worshippers at the mosque in Hebron.  He had been a physician in the Israeli army and had first attracted attention by saying that he would refuse to treat non-Jews on the Sabbath.  Now read Ethan Bronner’s report in the March 22 New York Times about the preachments of the Israeli army’s latest chief rabbi, a West Bank settler named Avichai Rontzski who also holds the rank of brigadier general.  He has “said that the main reason for a Jewish doctor to treat a non-Jew on the Sabbath … is to avoid exposing Diaspora Jews to hatred.”  Those of us who follow these things recognize that statement as one of the leading indicators of a truly determined racist and fundamentalist.  Yet it comes not this time in the garb of a homicidal lone-wolf nut bag but in the full uniform and accoutrement of a general and a high priest…  The latest news, according to Bronner, is that the Israeli Defense Ministry has felt compelled to reprimand Rontzski for “a rabbinal edict against showing the enemy mercy” that was distributed in booklet form to men and women in uniform (see Numbers 31: 13 – 18).

At least Craig is correct when he says at one point in the article that many Old Testament scholars are sceptical that the conquest of Canaan was an actual historical event, but that’s hardly the point.  The Bible is supposed to be a document containing timeless social and moral codes while portraying the actions of people we ought to admire.  In this exercise, it fails miserably.  As he and Hitchens discussed in their Biola debate, Dostoyevsky in The Brothers Karamazov wonders whether “without God, all things are possible.”  But as Hitchens argued, surely the corollary is true: that with God, all things are thinkable as well.

If one of the world’s foremost Christian apologists can issue such a grotesque defence of Yahweh that contradicts all of his own arguments for the divine source of human morality at a stroke, then it is unsurprising that PhD graduates in the 21st century will fly aeroplanes into buildings believing that they are morally right to do so and will be rewarded by God in the afterlife.

I don’t say that all religious people are mad, bad or sad per se, but they very often can be when it comes to their religious beliefs.  As the Nobel Laureate physicist Steven Weinberg famously once said, “With or without religion, good people will do good things and bad people will do bad things.  But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.”

William Lane Craig is living proof of this.

UPDATE 06/04/2010:

Since publishing this piece, I have come across a podcast on this topic as part of the “Reasonable Faith: Conversations with Dr William Lane Craig” series that Craig’s website produces  if you can bear it.  Lukeprog over at Common Sense Atheism has posted an excellent discussion.

I have also found this comment by Richard Dawkins posted on the debate forum of his website:

Theological justification for genocide Part One

Richard Dawkins >> Mon Apr 21, 2008 8:22 am

One of our commenters on another thread, stevencarrwork, posted a link to this article by the American theologian and Christian apologist William Lane Craig.  I read it and found it so dumbfoundingly, staggeringly awful that I wanted to post it again.  It is a stunning example of the theological mind at work.  And remember, this is NOT an ‘extremist’, ‘fundamentalist’, ‘picking on the worst case’ example.  My understanding is that William Lane Craig is a widely respected apologist for the Christian religion.  Read his article and rub your eyes to make sure you are not having a bad dream.


That just about says it all.

(H/T: Steven Carr)

An Open Letter to Pastor David Robertson




manicstreetpreacher challenges the author of The Dawkins Letters to duke it out at the lectern.

Listen to Robertson debate The Atheist Blogger, Adrian Hayter, on Premier Christian Radio’s Unbelievable?

21 March 2009, “Challenging Atheist Myths”, Part 1

28 March 2009 “Challenging Atheist Myths”, Part 2

Dear Pastor Robertson

If you feel that religion is the only path to a tolerant and rational society, why don’t you go and live in Iran or Saudi Arabia?  Or you should borrow Doc Brown’s DeLorean and take a trip back to Spain in the 1400s?

I’m not saying that life in 21st century Britain is perfect, but I know which I would choose.

You say you like to debate atheists frequently.  We should get lock swords on the podium sometime.  I’m sure it would be a blast.

To get a flavour, listen to my Unbelievable debates against Andy Bannister on the historicity and morality of the Bible and the role of religion in global conflict against Meic Pearse.   The latter should put paid to your assertion that atheist was responsible for Hitler’s Germany and the idea that the Church was in no way culpable for its atrocities.

Also check out my blog:

I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours sincerely


More Than I Could Chew?



Reflections on Follow My Way

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

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

– Nicky Wire (1994)

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

Hamza Tzortzis, a Muslim[i]

Rabbi Y Y Rubinstein, a Jew[ii]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The problem with Islam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Allah will bring disgrace to the unbelievers (9.2).

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

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

Narrated ‘Ursa:

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

– Hadith collection of Imam al-Bukhari

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The problem with atheism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In conclusion – this glorious struggle continues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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




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


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

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

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

Part 1:,

Part 2:,

Part 3:,

Part 4:

[ix] “Full text: bin Laden’s ‘letter to America’”, The Guardian, 24 November 2002:

[x] Full report:  Executive summary:

[xi] “British Muslims poll: Key points”, BBC News, 29 January 2007:

[xii] Peter Riddell, “Poll shows voters believe press is right not to publish cartoons”, The Times, 7 February 2006:

[xiii] Anthony King, “One in four Muslims sympathises with motives of terrorists”, The Daily Telegraph, 23 July 2005:

[xiv] For a superb exposition of Kissinger’s war crimes, see Christopher Hitchens, The Trial of Henry Kissinger (London: Verso, 2002) and its accompanying documentary, The Trials of Henry Kissinger (2002) which contains Kissinger’s statement about statesmen having to choose between evils and can be viewed at:

[xv] The video of Harris’ speech on 28 September 2007 can be viewed at:,1805,Sam-Harris-at-AAI-07,RichardDawkinsnet.  An edited transcript is at,1702,The-Problem-with-Atheism,Sam-Harris.

All web-based resources retrieved 15 March 2009.

My Debates on Premier Christian Radio Against Theologian Andy Bannister



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

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

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

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

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

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

Prayers for salvation

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

The martyrdom of the disciples

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

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

Eye-witness evidence can never prove a miracle

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

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

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

Do you see the problem with this?

Argument from blind faith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Intelligence of the people of First Century Palestine

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

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

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

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

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

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

I think I’ll go for option two.

Scriptural interpretation

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

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

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

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

The Hitchens Challenge on Human Morality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 The evolutionary explanation for altruism

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

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

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

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

The shifting moral Zeitgeist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Argument from lack of “serious scholarship”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The God of the Old Testament

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

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

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

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

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

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

The “Flea” books

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

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

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

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

“I’m an atheist but…”

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

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

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