Posts Tagged ‘qu’ran’

Lewis Wolpert and Russell Cowburn debate “Can science tell us anything about God?”


manicstreetpreacher analyses a debate between two scientists at opposite ends of the spectrum of religious belief.

I have listened to the 19 December 2009 edition of Premier Christian Radio’s sceptical debate programme Unbelievable? featuring atheistic embryologist Lewis Wolpert of University College London, author of Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast: The Evolutionary Origins of Belief and theistic physicist Russell Cowburn of Imperial College London on their recent debate “Can science tell us anything about God” held at Gunnersbury Baptist Church on 8 November 2009, as well as the audio of the full debate from the Gunnersbury website.

UPDATE 08/01/2009

I have found a video of the full debate:

Wolpert’s main line of attack is there is absolutely no evidence for God and he doesn’t seem to have done very much since raising Jesus from the dead over two millennia ago.  I have to agree with him here: people get all choked up every time a baby falls out of a window and is saved by the soft roof of a passing car – they remain oddly silent at all the ditches that are full of dead babies when no one did a thing.  I thought that Cowburn’s objections that Wolpert and the rest of the world’s non-believers ought to believe what was written down 2,000 years ago and it is irrational and unreasonable to expect God to appear in to each and every one of us were very weak.

As Thomas Paine argued in The Age of Reason (First Part, Section 1 – 2), we are perfectly entitled to reject Moses’ account of meeting God atop of Mount Sinai (if such a place even exists; no geographer has ever been able to identify the biblical Sinai from the true geographical location!) then I am perfectly entitled to reject his account, because to me it is hearsay and not direct revelation:

No one will deny or dispute the power of the Almighty to make such a communication, if he pleases.  But admitting, for the sake of a case, that something has been revealed to a certain person, and not revealed to any other person, it is revelation to that person only.  When he tells it to a second person, a second to a third, a third to a fourth, and so on, it ceases to be a revelation to all those persons.  It is revelation to the first person only, and hearsay to every other, and consequently they are not obliged to believe it.

It is a contradiction in terms and ideas, to call anything a revelation that comes to us at second-hand, either verbally or in writing.  Revelation is necessarily limited to the first communication – after this, it is only an account of something which that person says was a revelation made to him; and though he may find himself obliged to believe it, it cannot be incumbent on me to believe it in the same manner; for it was not a revelation made to me, and I have only his word for it that it was made to him.

When Moses told the children of Israel that he received the two tables of the commandments from the hands of God, they were not obliged to believe him, because they had no other authority for it than his telling them so; and I have no other authority for it than some historian telling me so.  The commandments carry no internal evidence of divinity with them; they contain some good moral precepts, such as any man qualified to be a lawgiver, or a legislator, could produce himself, without having recourse to supernatural intervention.

When I am told that the Koran was written in Heaven and brought to Mahomet by an angel, the account comes too near the same kind of hearsay evidence and second-hand authority as the former.  I did not see the angel myself, and, therefore, I have a right not to believe it.

Cowburn should also read my disgracefully unscholarly piece about Richard Bauckham’s erm, “arguments” in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses for my full thoughts.  That quote at the end from Sam Harris about how the evidence for Christianity would still not be good enough even if we had multiple contemporary eyewitness accounts empties all “scholarly” discourses about the reliability of oral tradition from direct observers and who-first-started-to-believe-what-when.

Of course, the atheist will always complain about the hiddenness of God.  Why can’t God just reveal himself in the middle of the World Cup final when most of the humans on the planet will be watching and put the matter beyond doubt rather than appearing to stupefied illiterates in remote parts of Middle East in the pre-scientific past?  If you can’t believe what you read last week in The Sunday Times, then fail to understand Cowburn’s scepticism when confronted with a collection of disjointed and contradictory documents from the ancient past.

And I’m still waiting for a convincing response to Christopher Hitchens’ 94,000 – 98,000 Year Wait Gambit as to the Almighty being rather tardy and allowing of a great deal of suffering and death before finally deciding to step in with an offer of salvation:

Perhaps Cowburn can now supply it.

Finally, I would recommend that Cowburn investigates the work of Victor Stenger, American cosmologist, atheist and author of Has Science Found God? and God, The Failed Hypothesis who debunks the idea that “whatever begins to exist has a cause” as the kind of common sense logic that tells us that the Earth is flat.  Particles produced by nuclear decay come into existence without a cause.  The universe was like a subatomic particle at the time of the Big Bang, so this example could well apply to the beginning of the universe.

Stenger also debunks the fine-tuning argument that carbon-based life in the universe cannot have come about naturally because it was too “improbable”.  Firstly, virtually all every day events are “improbable” when you state them a priori and then crunch the numbers, such as a person’s very existence in this world.  And secondly, what is the probability that this universe is the result of a divine design?  It could be even lower than the naturalistic alternative.  What data do we have in order to make the calculation?  Not very much, it would appear.

I have recently posted my own analysis of Stenger’s debate against William Lane Craig at the University of Hawaii in 2003, as well as the transcript of Stenger’s three main speeches, which provides further comment and elaboration.

UPDATE: 26/12/2009

I emailed this piece to Lewis Wolpert and Russell Cowburn for their comments.  “Lewy” replied saying that he liked the piece and hoped that I liked his theory about the origins of human religious behaviour.  I realise now that the piece neglects somewhat Lewis’ book on religion!  Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast is less a polemic against the untruths of and crimes of religious faith, but an explanation of why Homo sapiens practise religion if there is no God.  I replied to Lewis that such theories come ten-a-penny, but his is as good as some and better than most.

Essentially, Lewis thinks that religious behaviour is an extension of humans’ interpretation of “cause and effect”, such as shaking a tree to make its fruit fall off and using tools to make other objects.  The offshoot of this is that we see agency and patterns in practically everything, even whether no such invisible guiding hand (i.e. God!) exists.  Lewis says that animals show the seeds of this behaviour to a very limited extent.  They know that shaking a tree will get the fruit down, but aren’t intelligent enough to use tools.

However, a few days after posting my original piece I came across this article on the BBC News website which says that certain groups of chimpanzees in the Nimba Mountains of Guinea, Africa, are now using both stone and wooden cleavers, as well as stone anvils, to process Treculia fruits:

The apes are not simply cracking into the Treculia to get to otherwise unobtainable food, say researchers.

Instead, they are actively chopping up the food into more manageable portions.

I emailed the article to Lewis, saying that they’ll be worshipping the sun and sacrificing their cubs to ensure it rises every morning in no time!  Lewis replied that the chimps are beginning to learn how to use tools, but it is very limited.  Perhaps there won’t be any Blessed Virgin Marys and weeping statutes for a while after all.

For more on the evolution of religious faith, I would strongly recommend watching or listening to J Anderson “Andy” Thomson’s superb lecture at the American Atheists 2009 conference and Thomson and R Elizabeth Cornwell’s paper, “The Evolution of Religion”.

Finally, I have often been asked what evidence that I as an atheist would accept for the existence of God.  Up until now, I have jumped in with both feet and then made a bit of a fool of myself.  This is partly due to theists always being able to re-invent their God to conform to the empirical data and then accusing me of merely citing reasons not to believe in God.

However, I thought that Lewis’ example of having his departed wife returned to him was a wonderfully moving example of possible evidence for the supernatural that would make a sceptic reassess his or her non-belief.  While I have not lost anyone close to me up to now in my life, I might just use that one in future when I am asked the question again.

The Last Straw


Jay Smith 2

manicstreetpreacher exposes the dishonesty, double-standards and hypocrisy of Christian “scholar”/ evangelical/ demagogue, Jay Smith, in light of his public speaking appearances.  And takes a swipe at few former adversaries in the process.

That’s it!!!!!  I’ve had enough and I just can’t TAKE IT ANY MORE!!!!! The Saturday, 30 May 2009 edition of Unbelievable? on Premier Christian Radio here was the fourth time I’ve heard Jay Smith speak and I can remain silent no longer.  I HAVE to expose this man’s distortion, hypocrisy and double standards.

The previous three encounters were him giving a joint lecture with Andy Bannister (who I twice debated on Unbelievable? back in September ‘08), “The Historical Jesus –v- The Historical Mohammed” on the Bethinking website here, “Does Islam Oppress Women?” on Premier’s Unbelievable? here and an Unbelievable? special programme, “Up The Ladder In Hyde Park” here.

For those of you have not had yet had the pleasure, Smith is an American Christian apologist living in London and affiliated to London School Theology who is on a mission to convert all Muslims to Jesus.  His method?  Well, for starters, there’s going down to Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park with a ladder, a soap box and his cronies in tow and screaming what is perilously close to flat-out abuse and bigotry about why there are no prominent Muslim scientists.  And then there’s doing pseudo-academic lectures at his institution in which he applies wholly different standards of investigation and evidence than to he applies to his own religion.

In a nutshell, my argument is that Smith displays an extraordinary partition in his brain.  In respect of Islam, he is most definitely an atheist.  He judges the Qur’an at face value.  When it says all non-believers will roast in Fire/ Hell/ Gehenna forever, that is precisely what it means.  No allegories, no metaphors, no “scholarly” sophist interpretation.

When it comes to his own religion Christianity, however, he displays an inordinate level of irrationality.  I know a psychologist who takes more than a passing interest in human religious behaviour.  I forwarded him the above links to Jay’s appearances.  He says he could write a PhD dissertation on what he’s heard.

Historicity of the sacred texts

Listening to Andy Bannister’s tedious segment on the historical Jesus on the bethinking lecture and debating him on the historicity of the Gospels on Unbelievable? myself here has helped to persuade me that theology and biblical scholarship are really not academic subjects at all.  Rather like pondering the shape and colour of fairies’ wings, if you don’t accept the very existence of the first proposition – God or fairies – there’s no point carrying on; you are quite literally talking about the appearance and qualities of nothing.

Bannister’s nonsense about the “context” (surely his favourite word in the English language) of First Century Palestine, Jesus conforming to Second and Third Temple Judaism and the ignition of a “resurrection-shaped bomb” (?!) is exposed as precisely that next to Smith’s confident presentation of hard archaeological and scientific evidence which shows Islam as the man-made fabrication, plagiarised from the two preceding monotheisms.

I stress that I have not taken the time to research and verify Smith’s claims for myself; however, they are certainly the kinds of methods that I use in discrediting the claims of religion.

Scripture and morality

On the most recent Unbelievable? debate on Biblical inerrancy here, Smith stated that whilst he accepted the “problems” with the God of the Old Testament and the inherent barbarity of some of its passages, he said that the text must be judged as a whole rather than sceptics focusing on one area.  In addition, we ought not to impose our 21st century viewpoints on what was happening in 1,400BC to understand fully what God was doing at that time.

Oh really?  Perhaps our eminent “scholar” should take another listen to his lecture on Mohammed here, in particular c. the 75 minute mark where he discusses the following revelation regarding the Prophet’s family values:

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

Smith 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?  (Genesis 22) Or Moses ordering the slaughter the Midianite boys and the enslavement of the girls? (Numbers 31:13 – 18)

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 as an atheist of all religions would make.

Similarly when he debated Mohamed Ali of the Islam Channel, he made similar face-value condemnations of the Qur’an’s treatment of women regarding how a woman inherits one third of what a man receives (4:11), how a man may beat his wife if he becomes angry with her (4:34) and how a man’s testimony is worth half of a man’s (2:282).

Whilst I didn’t necessarily disagree with what he was saying, there was no engagement with scholar discourses of the kind he surely would demand of an atheist when debating Christianity!  In fact, I could have done that debate.  All I needed to have done was print off What The Qur’an Says About Women’s Rights from The Skeptics Annotated Bible and take that into the studio!

This is makes me all the more incensed, since Smith’s partner in intellectual crime, Andy Bannister, criticised me in our second Unbelievable? debate, here, for using the SAB due to its lack of references to the “scholars”.

Well, I like to return the favour to both of them and remind everyone what the Bible has to say about women: The Skeptics Annotated Bible: What The Bible Says About Women’s Rights.

After listening to these two travesties, the words “pot” and “kettle” spring to mind.   In fact, they are a disgrace.  There, I’ve said it.  I am tempted to say that Smith behaves like a schoolboy who’s found his father’s gun.  However, I think discovery of aforementioned patriarch’s pornography collection is probably a more realistic description.


I suppose you’re thinking now I have sent off a vitriolic email to Justin Brierley (one of the few theists I have met who is unbiased, impartial, welcomes having his faith challenged and frankly, if he’ll leave my comments about the Catholic Church making itself a soft target and that religious war is a fight over who has the best imaginary friend in the show unedited here, he deserves a place in heaven if I turn out to be wrong) challenging Smith to a live debate?

Well, you’d be wrong.  I have no argument with people like Smith.  There is a growing list of apologists with whom I will never share a platform.

Andy Bannister and Rabbi Y Y Rubinstein, who I have debated myself, distorted my arguments, made petty ad hominems against my sources and even fabricated arguments and evidence for the sake of keeping their own flock happy.   I have written pieces of my encounters with both of them respectively here and here.

I did receive replies from the two of them, but little of substance that actually tackled my arguments.  Andrew, I’m still waiting for that lost Roman census that required the population to trek back to the home town of a distant relative…

David Robertson, whose pamphlet-style reply to Richard Dawkins, The Dawkins Letters: Challenging Atheist Myths was a pathetic cocktail of empty arguments and the kind of smug moral superiority that only Christians can pull off. I first heard Robertson debate The Atheist Blogger, Adrian Hayter, on Unbelievable? here and here, and his disgraceful tactics, particularly in relation to Darwin’s views on eugenics and the “Hitler and Stalin were both atheists!” card, made my blood boil.  The frontispiece of Robertson’s book quotes some bile-laden replies from atheists on the forum and I can well understand why he provokes such fierce reactions.

In my initial burst of anger after listening to the shows, I challenged Robertson to a live debate here.  However, on further consideration, I withdraw this challenge.  It would be pointless exercise.

The debate format is not well suited to discover the truth at the best of times and not just because of time constraints.  As well as arguing a position, speakers also have a crowd to please; and the theist more than the atheist.  My intended audience is simply those who are there to listen to the arguments and have an open mind.  I’m not even out to impress my fellow secular-humanists.  I have never deliberately misrepresented facts or made a straw man of my opponents’ positions.  When I have made mistakes, I have gratefully accepted the subsequent rebukes and corrections of my audience.

I am concerned with one thing: The Truth.  The religious apologists on the other hand have to keep their flock happy, not to mention Invisible Big Brother in the sky who just might send them and their family into Room 101 for all eternity after they depart this life if they slip up and let an atheist argument hit the bull’s-eye.  With stakes that high, what’s a few sacrifices to the alter of intellectual honesty?

It is very difficult to debate someone who can produce “arguments” and “evidence” out of thin air.  Public speaking is stressful enough; thinking on your feet in a verbal confrontation a million times more.  Even if your opponent is honest and straight-arrowed, you will still encounter new arguments that you won’t be able to refute on the spot.  I haven’t done a debate yet where I haven’t had to conduct substantial research post-debate.  It is frustrating enough to have that feeling of “If only I’d known that at the time!”   It is uttering infuriating to discover that your opponents argument was a made up load of tripe all along, voiced for the purpose of discrediting you and your sources in front of their followers, whilst preserving the reputation of their own religion.

Richard Dawkins has coined a special term for it: Lying for Jesus.  These are the tactics that the above mentioned apologists employ, and I want nothing more to do with them.

Jay Smith is the latest addition to this list of hack apologists who I would not touch with a bargepole.  There’s no point debating people like this.  Let them spout their specious trash to their flocks.   I have better things to do than argue with a brick wall, much less hit my head against one.