Posts Tagged ‘the dawkins letters’

Ukip Shipping Forecast

21/01/2014

SilvesterFloods

Further to my recent post challenging some of the country’s “top” theologians to say a word in public to denounce Ukip’s David Silvester’s decidedly Old Testament take on the recent storms and floods that have been battering the country, you can listen to a very amusing spoof edition by Nicholas Pegg of the Shipping Forecast here.

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Ukip councillor David Silvester displays a disgraceful lack of ‘scholarship’ in the face of Britain’s recent floods. But will the ‘scholars’ actually correct him on it?

19/01/2014

SilvesterFloods

Ukip councillor David Silvester has recently drawn a link between meteorology and morality by publishing a letter saying that he warned prime minster David Cameron last year that Britain would face a spot of the old divine judgment for passing gay marriage laws that fly the face of the Bible’s teachings of a kind that The Right Reverend Graham Dow drew in response to the flooding in his North Yorkshire constituency in July 2007.  Silvester’s comments have been widely reported by the World’s media: BBC News, ITV News, Channel 4, The Daily Mail, Toronto Sun, London Evening Standard, The Huffington Post.

This from The Daily Telegraph’s report:

David Silvester, who defected from the Conservatives in protest at David Cameron’s support for same-sex unions, claimed he had warned the Prime Minister that the legislation would result in “disasters”.

The Henley-on-Thames councillor said that the country had been “beset by storms” since the passage of the new law on gay marriage because Mr Cameron had acted “arrogantly against the Gospel”.

In a letter to the Henley Standard he wrote: “The scriptures make it abundantly clear that a Christian nation that abandons its faith and acts contrary to the Gospel (and in naked breach of a coronation oath) will be beset by natural disasters such as storms, disease, pestilence and war.

“I wrote to David Cameron in April 2012 to warn him that disasters would accompany the passage of his same-sex marriage bill.

“But he went ahead despite a 600,000-signature petition by concerned Christians and more than half of his own parliamentary party saying that he should not do so.”

Blaming the Prime Minister for the bad weather, he added: “It is his fault that large swathes of the nation have been afflicted by storms and floods.

“He has arrogantly acted against the Gospel that once made Britain ‘great’ and the lesson surely to be learned is that no man or men, however powerful, can mess with Almighty God with impunity and get away with it for everything a nation does is weighed on the scaled of divine approval or disapproval.”

In my recent post deriding theology as a proper academic discipline, I drew on my review of Christian apologist Peter S Williams’ response to the New Atheists, A Sceptic’s Guide To Atheism and criticised the theologians for being all theory and no practice:

Avoiding the real issues

Williams’ contribution is fatally flawed along with the other “flea” books by self-proclaimed “scholars”, because it only addresses barely a quarter of the arguments of the Four Horsemen, namely whether or not God exists, without saying a word in defence of the effects of organised religion on the world.

Unfortunately, religion is not just about the sophisticated ponderings of scholars in ivory towers debating the finer points of the Trinity.  It has an effect on every single one of us, whether we like it or not.

(…)

Like all theology and religious philosophising, Williams’ new book is all theory and precious little practice.  Accordingly, there is nothing about the foul rantings of Falwell and Robertson, the teaching of junk-science in schools classrooms, the destruction of the Twin Towers, the abuse of children by hell-fire preaching clergymen and the discouraging of condom use by the Catholic Church in sub-Saharan African where c. 3 million people die of HIV/AIDS each year.

The simple fact is that Williams’ subtle brand of nuanced religion has very little impact on the way that religion is actually practised.  Alistair McGrath got his feathers all ruffled in response to Dawkins and bleated on (at probably more speaking engagements than he was invited to in his career preceding publication of The God Delusion) about the importance of challenging those who take an overly literalist approach to the scriptures.

Yet when, in July 2007, the Bishop of Carlisle informed us all that the floods in Northern Yorkshire were divine retribution for laws permitting homosexual marriage did McGrath say a word in public to admonish the Right Reverend Graham Dow for his unsophisticated take on matters?  Like hell he did!

I believe that comments of the kind made by the Bishop of Carlisle and David Silvester would be perfect opportunities for “serious scholars” to confront head-on the “extremists” of their own faiths and show that they are prepared to police their religions rather than leaving it up to the godless heretics to do so in their “shrill” and “strident” fashion.

I have therefore sent the link to this post to four of the “fleas” who railed against the New Atheists for their supposed failure to engage with the best of Christian “scholarship” in their books: Alister McGrath (author of The Dawkins Delusion?), David Robertson (author of The Dawkins Letters), John Cornwell (author of Darwin’s Angel) and Peter S Williams (author of A Sceptic’s Guide To Atheism), inviting them to issue a public denunciation of Silvester of the kind they singularly failed to do in the face of the then Bishop of Carlisle’s shockingly unsubtle, Old Testament take on the situation.

I have also forwarded the post to the host Premier Christian Radio’s sceptical debate show, Unbelievable?, Justin Brierley and former opponents, Andy Bannister and Peter Harris.

My covering emails are in the comments section and I will publish any response I receive.

“Scholars”: Please prove me wrong so I can find another pastime.

Against Theology

20/12/2013

This draft has been sitting in My Documents folder for quite a while.  Since I have recently been chided for my lack of serious “scholarship” (note the scare quotes) while debating on David Robertson’s blog on the question of whether Stalin was influenced by Darwin and evolution and my reply involved delving into this draft and copying any pasting the links and quotes, I thought that now would be as good a time as any to complete and publish the draft.

Some of most entertaining articles I have ever read have been those debunking theology.  There’s something so pompous and self-important about all theologians I have encountered.  When I first started reading the reactions to Richard DawkinsThe God Delusion, one of the more stinging comments was that he has not engaged in any serious Christian or Jewish theology.  No discussion of the finer details of the Trinity.  No dissection of the Transubstantiation.  As US evolutionary biologist, H Allen Orr, put it in his lengthy review:

[T]he result is that The God Delusion, a book that never squarely faces its opponents.  You will find no serious examination of Christian or Jewish theology in Dawkins’s book (does he know Augustine rejected biblical literalism in the early fifth century?), no attempt to follow philosophical debates about the nature of religious propositions (are they like ordinary claims about everyday matters?)…  Instead, Dawkins has written a book that’s distinctly, even defiantly, middlebrow.  Dawkins’s intellectual universe appears populated by the likes of Douglas Adams, the author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and Carl Sagan, the science populariser.

Richard, what were you thinking committing such a gapping hole in your research?

Nevertheless, Dawkins has hit back at this criticism both before and after the publication of his book.   Dawkins’ response to Oxford University’s Christian theologian Alister McGrath’s criticisms that he has a poor grasp of theology in his 2004 book, Dawkins’ God: Genes, Memes And The Meaning of Life:

Yes, I have, of course, met this point before.  It sounds superficially fair.  But it presupposes that there is something in Christian theology to be ignorant about.  The entire thrust of my position is that Christian theology is a non-subject.  It is empty.  Vacuous.  Devoid of coherence or content.  I imagine that McGrath would join me in expressing disbelief in fairies, astrology and Thor’s hammer.  How would he respond if a fairyologist, astrologer or Viking accused him of ignorance of their respective subjects?

The only part of theology that could possibly demand my attention is the part that purports to demonstrate that God does exist.  This part of theology I have, indeed, studied with considerable attention.  And found it utterly wanting.

Spot on.  Ninety-nine percent of all theology simply assumes that God exists; the content of the Bible is literally or metaphorically “true” and proceeds from there.  For an atheist to start arguing against the Trinity and assert that God is not one in three, but one in five would be to accept God’s existence implicitly and therefore contradict their core position!  Learned theological treatises among Christian theologians (and those of any other religion for that matter) have no more scientific or intellectual content than the discussion of Norse-like gods between Conan and his companion, Subotai, in Conan The Barbarian at the beginning of this post.  The cue to Basil Poledouris’ (wonderful) score is even called “Theology”!

Science blogger Jason Rosenhouse’s reply to Orr’s review, “Orr On Dawkins”, elaborates further:

Dawkins provides no serious discussion of Jewish or Christian theology?  Of course not, because such theology is mostly irrelevant to how religion is actually practiced.  Theology is an academic pursuit, and like many such pursuits it concerns itself primarily with esoterica far removed from people’s actual lives. Much Christian theology in particular tends to take the form of viewing the Bible as a complex cipher, one that requires years of training to understand properly.

And since Orr is criticizing Dawkins’ superficiality, it is a bit rich for him to reduce Augustine’s views to the slogan that he rejected biblical literalism.  Augustine did take the view that the Bible should be interpreted in as literal a way as possible, and in some of his writing he even endorsed a young-Earth position.  He was willing to countenance a somewhat allegorical interpretation of Genesis, but that was only because he felt the Bible should not be read in a way that contradicts what clear scientific evidence is telling us.  A worthy sentiment, certainly, but not one that finds much theological justification.

At any rate, Dawkins is perfectly aware that many serious Christians do not accept Biblical literalism.  So what?  Dawkins’ book is primarily about the reasonableness of believing in a creator God, and on the social impact of widespread religious belief.  The minutiae of different schools of Christian thought just isn’t the concern of this book.

The rest of this post will provide further resources and pithy sound bites giving this pseudo-intellectual non-subject that is needless contributing to the destruction of the rainforests and the worsening of climate change the respect it deserves.

Thomas Jefferson (quoted in The God Delusion [London: Transworld Publishers, 2007, p. 55]):

Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions. Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them; and no man ever had a distinct idea of the trinity.  It is the mere Abracadabra of the mountebanks calling themselves the priests of Jesus.

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Anti-Christ:

Anyone with theologian blood in his veins will approach things with a warped and deceitful attitude.  This gives rise to a pathos that calls itself faith: turning a blind eye to yourself for once and for all, so you do not have to stomach the sight of incurable mendacity.  This universally faulty optic is made into a morality, a virtue, a holiness, seeing-wrong is given a good conscience, – other types of optic are not allowed to have value any more now that this one has been sanctified with names like “God”, “redemption”, and “eternity”.  I have unearthed the theologian instinct everywhere: it is the most widespread and genuinely subterranean form of deceit on earth.  Anything a theologian thinks is true must be false: this is practically a criterion of truth.

Sam Harris defines the God of the religious community at large:

We can talk about religion as it is for most people most of the time, or we can talk about what religion could be, or should be.  Or perhaps what it is for the tiniest minority of people…

If we talk about consciousness and the laws of nature, we won’t be talking about the God that most of our neighbours believe in, which is a personal god, who hears our prayers and occasionally answers them…

The God that our neighbours believe in is essentially an invisible person.  It’s a creator deity, who created the universe to have a relationship with once species of primate.  Lucky us!

He’s got galaxy upon galaxy to attend to but he’s especially concerned with what we do, and he’s especially concerned with what we do while naked.  He most certainly does not approve of homosexuality.  And he has created this cosmos as a vast laboratory in which to test our powers of credulity.  And the test is this: Can you believe in this God on bad evidence, which is to say on faith.  And if you can you will win an eternity of happiness after you die.

And it’s precisely this sort of god or this sort of scheme that you must believe in if you are to have any kind of future in politics in this country, no matter what your gifts.  You could be an unprecedented genius, you could look like George Clooney, you could have a billion dollars and you could have the social skills of Oprah, and you are going nowhere in politics in this country unless you believe in that sort of God.

So we can talk about anything we want – I’m happy to talk about consciousness – but please notice that when we migrate away from the God that is really shaping human events or the God-talk that is really shaping human events in our world at this moment.

Harris damns all theological discourse in Letter To A Christian Nation: A Challenge To Faith [London: Transworld Publishers, 2007, pp. 65 – 66]:

Consider the recent deliberations of the Roman Catholic Church on the doctrine of limbo.  Thirty top theologians from around the world recently met at the Vatican to discuss the question of what happens to babies who die without having undergone the sacred rite of baptism.  Since the Middles Ages, Catholics have believed that such babies go to a state of limbo, where they enjoy what St. Thomas Aquinas termed “natural happiness” forever.  This was in contrast to the opinion of St. Augustine, who believed that these unlucky infant souls would spend an eternity in hell.

Though limbo had no real foundation in scripture, and was never official Church doctrine, it has been a major part of the Catholic tradition for centuries.  In 1905, Pope Pius X appeared to fully endorse it: “Children who die without baptism go into limbo, where they do not enjoy God, but they do not suffer either.”

Can we even conceive of a project more intellectually forlorn than this?  Just imagine what these deliberations must be like.  Is there the slightest possibility that someone will present evidence indicating the eternal fate of unbaptized children after death?  How can any educated person think this anything but a hilarious, terrifying, and unconscionable waste of time?  When one considers the fact that this is the very institution that has produced and sheltered an elite army of child molesters, the whole enterprise begins to exude a truly diabolical aura of misspent human energy.

To finish with Sam Harris, here’s his summary of religious scientist Francis Collins’ true beliefs:

1.  Jesus Christ, a carpenter by trade, was born of a virgin, ritually murdered as a scapegoat for the collective sins of his species, and then resurrected from death after an interval of three days.

2.  He promptly ascended, bodily, to “heaven”—where, for two millennia, he has eavesdropped upon (and, on occasion, even answered) the simultaneous prayers of billions of beleaguered human beings.

3.  Not content to maintain this numinous arrangement indefinitely, this invisible carpenter will one day return to earth to judge humanity for its sexual indiscretions and skeptical doubts, at which time he will grant immortality to anyone who has had the good fortune to be convinced, on mother’s knee, that this baffling litany of miracles is the most important series of truth-claims ever revealed about the cosmos.

4.  Every other member of our species, past and present, from Cleopatra to Einstein, no matter what his or her terrestrial accomplishments, will be consigned to a far less desirable fate, best left unspecified.

5.  In the meantime, God/Jesus may or may not intervene in our world, as He pleases, curing the occasional end-stage cancer (or not), answering an especially earnest prayer for guidance (or not), consoling the bereaved (or not), through His perfectly wise and loving agency.

How many scientific laws would be violated by such a scheme?  One is tempted to say “all of them.”

Richard Dawkins, “Let’s Hope It’s A Lasting Vogue”:

Athorism is enjoying a certain vogue right now.  Can there be a productive conversation between Valhallans and athorists?  Naïve literalists apart, sophisticated thoreologians long ago ceased believing in the material substance of Thor’s mighty hammer.  But the spiritual essence of hammeriness remains a thunderingly enlightened revelation, and hammerological faith retains its special place in the eschatology of neo-Valhallism, while enjoying a productive conversation with the scientific theory of thunder in its non-overlapping magisterium.  Militant athorists are their own worst enemy.  Ignorant of the finer points of thoreology, they really should desist from their strident and intolerant strawmandering, and treat Thor-faith with the uniquely protected respect it has always received in the past.  In any case, they are doomed to failure.  People need Thor, and nothing will ever remove him from the culture.  What are you going to put in his place?

Richard Dawkins, “The Emptiness of Theology”:

What has theology ever said that is of the smallest use to anybody?  When has theology ever said anything that is demonstrably true and is not obvious?  I have listened to theologians, read them, debated against them.  I have never heard any of them ever say anything of the smallest use, anything that was not either platitudinously obvious or downright false.  If all the achievements of scientists were wiped out tomorrow, there would be no doctors but witch doctors, no transport faster than horses, no computers, no printed books, no agriculture beyond subsistence peasant farming.  If all the achievements of theologians were wiped out tomorrow, would anyone notice the smallest difference?  Even the bad achievements of scientists, the bombs, and sonar-guided whaling vessels work!  The achievements of theologians don’t do anything, don’t affect anything, don’t mean anything.  What makes anyone think that “theology” is a subject at all?

P Z Myer’s, “The Courtier’s Reply”:

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.

Paula Kirby, “Fleabytes”, (Special Topic: The Bible):

We are all familiar with PZ Myers’ inspired “Courtier’s Reply” to allegations of inadequate understanding of the Bible and theology, but there’s another angle to this issue, too, it seems to me, and that is that Dawkins and other atheists are deliberately refusing to take the Bible at anything more than face value.  At first glance this may seem deliberately obtuse but actually it is all part of stripping away the special treatment that has been accorded to faith in our societies.  We are just no longer prepared to read “Show him no pity.  Do not spare him or shield him.  You must certainly put him to death.  Your hand must be the first in putting him to death, and then the hands of all the people.  Stone him to death because he tried to turn you away from the LORD your God” (Deuteronomy 13: 8-10, NIV) and pretend it means “God is love, God is good, God is moral.”

Likewise, when Dawkins argues that omniscience and omnipotence are mutually exclusive (thus provoking shrieks of indignation and scorn from Robertson in this letter), he is simply refusing to engage in the sort of wordplay and casuistry that allow theologians to twist and turn and claim “Ah yes, well, that’s not really what omnipotence means in this context.”  How many theologians have been kept gainlessly employed, how many trees have been felled, to produce and disseminate such sophistry?  And why should a book that requires such reams of debate, disagreement and interpretation before it can be held to make any sense be considered to be the Word of God, for goodness’ sake?

As a result, you don’t need your words to be interpreted, translated, or otherwise made comprehensible by even one go-between, let alone whole university faculties of them.  You are God, for God’s sake – you are perfect and omniscient and omnipotent.  You have the ability to create a book that will light up the world with its goodness and truth and unmistakably divine insight.  A book that will speak directly to any human being in whatever age they live.  A book that speaks incontrovertibly to the heart and mind of any being that opens it – and here’s the thing: EVEN IF THEIR THEOLOGY IS SHOCKINGLY BAD.

If it is necessary to read the Bible in a certain way, through a certain kind of lens, with a willingness to allow words to mean what they do not mean, and not to mean what they do mean; if it can only be made to be not offensive, not repellent, not meaningless after years of in-depth theological study, then your benevolent, all-powerful and all-knowing God cannot have viewed it as a particularly important way of getting his message across.  In which case, it’s hard to see why “evidence” based on it should be taken very seriously.

To conclude with my own contribution to this issue;reviewing Peter S Williams’ reply to Dawkins & Co., A Sceptic’s Guide To Atheism:

Avoiding the real issues

Williams’ contribution is fatally flawed along with the other “flea” books by self-proclaimed “scholars”, because it only addresses barely a quarter of the arguments of the Four Horsemen, namely whether or not God exists, without saying a word in defence of the effects of organised religion on the world.

Unfortunately, religion is not just about the sophisticated ponderings of scholars in ivory towers debating the finer points of the Trinity.  It has an effect on every single one of us, whether we like it or not.

I could concede every single word of Alvin Plantinga and say that there are good reasons to believe in God and Christianity and Christians are perfectly justified in doing so.  Hell, I could even go the whole nine yards and say that I actually do believe in God!  That I think that the virgin birth and the resurrection are as true as Caesar crossing the Rubicon, Hitler carrying out the Holocaust and Armstrong landing on the moon!

That still does not in any sense allow Christians to force their beliefs on others.  I cannot deny the existence of Joseph Stalin and Kim Jung Il, but at least I am not forced to obey them.  Even if the Christian doctrine was true, even if the evidence for it was much better, what right would that give Christians to force their beliefs on others?  Exactly the same right as liberals, conservatives and fascists: none whatsoever.

Although the theologians are called to defend religion at the debater’s lectern, ironically, they are not the people with whom I have my main quarrel.  If the theologians ran religion, it would be a far more benign entity and one that perhaps I could live with happily.  It’s not so much belief in ancient myths and fairy tales that angers me; it is the severely negative consequences that these unfounded beliefs have on the world.

If someone wants to believe in the Bible and live according to the teaching of Christianity I can’t stop that.  If they want to encourage other people to share in these beliefs, then I suppose I can’t stop that either.   What I do resent is the effects such unfounded beliefs have and their utter lack of negotiability.  If stopping the effects of religion means cutting it off at the roots and spoiling believers’ blissful ignorance and indulgence in ancient fairytales, then so be it.

Like all theology and religious philosophising, Williams’ new book is all theory and precious little practice.  Accordingly, there is nothing about the foul rantings of Falwell and Robertson, the teaching of junk-science in schools classrooms, the destruction of the Twin Towers, the abuse of children by hell-fire preaching clergymen and the discouraging of condom use by the Catholic Church in sub-Saharan African where c. 3 million people die of HIV/AIDS each year.

The simple fact is that Williams’ subtle brand of nuanced religion has very little impact on the way that religion is actually practised.  Alistair McGrath got his feathers all ruffled in response to Dawkins and bleated on (at probably more speaking engagements than he was invited to in his career preceding publication of The God Delusion) about the importance of challenging those who take an overly literalist approach to the scriptures.

Yet when, in July 2007, the Bishop of Carlisle informed us all that the floods in Northern Yorkshire were divine retribution for laws permitting homosexual marriage did McGrath say a word in public to admonish the Right Reverend Graham Dow for his unsophisticated take on matters?  Like hell he did!

That is all.

David Robertson on modern day Christian martyrs

18/11/2013

“Dead Martyrs” by Manic Street Preachers

Pastor David Robertson of St Peter’s Free Church in Dundee and founding member of SOLAS – The Centre For Public Christianity, my old rival from my days debating on Premier Christian Radio’s Unbelievable? and their now alas deleted online forum has set up a new blog: theweeflea.  Robertson recently decried the lack of mainstream media coverage over the deaths of 81 Christians in Pakistan at the hands of Islamist suicide bombers in September of this year.

I’ll begin by conceding one of Robertson’s points.  The Pakistan bombing could have and maybe should have received the same level of attention from this country’s media and government that the Kenya shopping mall bombing did.  Perhaps the latter was considered more “televisual” by media editors.  I’m sure there are many parents of missing and murdered children who are aggrieved that the media coverage of their torments is dwarfed by the attention piled on Madeline McCann.  In this respect, we can more or less swallow Robertson’s post whole.

However, Robertson’s piece unwittingly reveals a deeper motive of his apologetic.  One of the categories it is filed under on his blog is called “The Persecuted Church” and during our debates on Unbelievable? in 2009, Robertson made out the Christian beliefs were coming under disproportionately harsh attack by “militant atheists” and “atheist fundamentalists”.  I am reminded of Paula Kirby’s excellent review of four of the “flea” responses to Richard Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion (which includes Robertson’s The Dawkins Letters), “Fleabytes”.  Kirby addresses the topic of Christian paranoia in detail:

It is simply impossible to read these four books back-to-back and not be struck by the extraordinary degree of paranoia that is apparent in them.  Their authors seem determined to see themselves as persecuted and to predict worse persecutions in the future.  And this characteristic is not limited to the “fleas”: only recently one of the more evangelical Christians on this site declared his conviction that he would face imprisonment for his Christian beliefs in his lifetime.  Since, whatever these fears are based on, it’s not the actual content of TGD or the intentions of any atheist I know of, where do they come from and why have they taken such a hold of believers’ brains?

I would argue that it is pure wishful thinking.  This may sound unlikely: why should anyone wish to be persecuted?  But when we recall the persecution that the early Christians did suffer — incarceration, public floggings, other forms of torture, being ripped apart by lions or slowly roasted over hot coals (and bearing in mind that history teems with examples of Christians inflicting similar torments on others whose beliefs did not take precisely the approved form) — it becomes apparent that the mockery and candid scepticism that is the worst they face in Western societies today are a feeble trial indeed.  Would-be disciples in the 21st century can be forgiven for feeling slightly inadequate when compared with their more heroic predecessors.

It is not just the Koran that welcomes martyrs: the Bible, too, makes it clear that being persecuted is part of the job description for any serious Christian.  Consider these quotes:

“Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.  Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5: 10-12)

(…)

A Christian’s instructions are clear.  Suffer for your faith!  Be persecuted!  If you’re not being persecuted, you’re just not trying hard enough!  But oh dear: how hard that is when they are surrounded by people who tolerate their belief, even if they don’t actually approve of it.  There is only one solution, and that is to make the very moderate criticism that they’re subjected to sound like the most vicious of persecution.  Write of the desire to ban religion, to wipe it out, annihilate it, exterminate it.  Claim that those who practise it will be imprisoned, disenfranchised, physically assaulted.  That their children will be forcibly removed from them.  Recreate the horrors of the Holocaust and the gulags in believers’ imaginations.

How else, in a liberal democracy, are they to stand any chance of claiming the rewards of the persecuted?

Kirby’s analysis strikes at the heart of the religious persecution dilemma.  On the one hand, Christians are being persecuted for their beliefs ranging from moderate criticism via the written and spoken word to the extreme religious conflict like that seen in Pakistan.  But on the other hand, persecution is very much part of their agenda.  Their founder was allegedly publicly executed for his beliefs and the Church has always taught that many of his followers died for their faith in the following years (even though the Bible doesn’t mention what happened to the 12 apostles!).  At the end of the 20th Century, the Church of England positively celebrated the sacrifice made by martyrs to the cause with the unveiling of ten statues in the stones of Westminster Abbey.

Therefore, persecution and martyrdom is very much part of the Christian religion and makes it all the more sickeningly masochistic for it, as both Kirby’s analysis and the Manic Street Preachers’ song I posted at the head of this piece demonstrates.

Robertson has argued elsewhere on his blog that the existence of evil and suffering in the World is all part of God’s plan.  If we take this appalling “theodicy” to its natural conclusion then in a similar way to theists arguing that atheists have no basis to judge any action as “right” or “wrong” because there is no cosmic outcome beyond the grave; equally the atheist could argue that the theist has no basis for saying that an action is morally right or wrong since those murderous religious persecutors were ultimately instruments for God’s will in testing their Christian victims’ faith, conducting Job-like trials and sending them to a martyrs death where they will experience everlasting bliss beyond the grave!

I have not seen Robertson reproduce this claim directly on his newest blog, but all over the Internet you will read the “statistic” that 100,000 Christians die for their faith ever year.  However, as this article by the BBC’s Ruth Alexander neatly demonstrates, this figure is at best a massaging of the figures and at worst an exaggeration.  Many of the Christians dying in the World every year are actually victims of other Christians in the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DCR), which has claimed the lives of in excess of four million from 2000 to 2010:

This means we can say right away that the internet rumours of Muslims being behind the killing of 100,000 Christian martyrs are nonsense.  The DRC is a Christian country.  In the civil war, Christians were killing Christians.

For the record, I disagree with the following paragraphs in Alexander’s article that religion had no part to play in the Rwandan genocide.  Religion was an essential factor in the mass murder of civilian non-combatants as the post-war genocide trials featuring the prosecution of priests and nuns amply demonstrates.

The remainder of the issue actually speaks to the atheist’s side of the argument.  Conflict, persecution and balkanisation of communities along religious lines are very much part of our case against God.  Who is carrying out the persecutions?  Secular humanists?  Godless Marxists?  No, they are Islamic fundamentalists!  This is not so much a case of Christian persecution as it is religious conflict.

Robertson continually barks on about “militant atheism” and “atheist fundamentalism”.  Yet if this charge is to stick, I challenge him to name a war that is currently being fought by atheists/secularists/humanists in the name of their non-belief in his invisible deity and/or their love of reason, honest debate and scientific scepticism or a non-believing terrorist movement whose adherents are blowing themselves and innocent members of the public to smithereens for the promise of an eternal reward.  In his post, he admits that the Islamist suicide bombers belief that they are acting under God’s instructions.  Yet as Sam Harris stated in his debate on morality against Christian apologist William Lane Craig (who Robertson clearly thinks very highly of):

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.

This is a system of morality that is nothing short of psychotic and not for the first time, Robertson’s apologetics has fallen down like a house of cards once a step is taken outside his own personal echo chamber.

David Robertson’s Fleabytes: On Science and Faith

13/11/2010

manicstreetpreacher is back.  Yeah, baby!

Hello again the blogosphere!  It has been a good few months since my last post ruminating on my blogging burnout, but the manicstreetpreacher has psychologically recovered more or less and the iconoclastic fire is beginning to burn again in his soul.

I have been tempted to blog on a number of topics in my time away, but after 119 posts and innumerable hours on other blogs and debate forums, I was beginning run out of topics to write about and nothing was exciting me anymore.  However, one area that has escaped my net thus far is the question of religious education of children.  With this post, I kill two birds with one stone by blogging on a previously untouched topic and taking a pop at an old adversary.

Pastor David Robertson of St Peter’s Free Church of Scotland, Dundee is an ardent opponent of the New Atheism and author of The Dawkins Letters: Challenging Atheist Myths, a Christian response to Richard Dawkins’ 2006 anti-religious polemic, The God Delusion.

After hearing his first two appearances on Premier Christian Radio’s sceptics’ debate show, Unbelievable? I penned a vitriolic open letter and had an exchange of emails that turned from rather angry to really quite civilised before finally debating him in September 2009 on the show on religious debate online and whether Europe should be atheist or Christian along with Christian convert, Richard Morgan.

During my sabbatical I have been following Robertson’s own blog and in particular his “Fleabytes” series of YouTube videos in reply to Dawkins’ Channel 4 series, Root of All Evil? (Google Video links: Part I / Part II).

I registered for a user account with the St Peter’s Church website under my usual Internet moniker so that I could post replies to these videos, but my application was not approved.  I was not provided with an explanation, despite emailing the site’s administrator, copying in Robertson himself to that email.

Since I have not been allowed to post on Robertson’s website directly, below is a copy of the reply I had intended to post:

Dear David

I have been watching these instalments with fascination.  If you really believe that Christian faith is based on evidence and – as you state quite categorically in your book – the moment that evidence is disproved you will cease to believe, then I take it you must teach the young members of your congregation to think about the things that ought to make them stop believing in Christianity.

Some religious people claim that trust in science and particular Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is as much a faith claim as belief in a personal creator God.  I must point out to you that science is self-validating and scientists are constantly striving to prove each other wrong, and even themselves wrong.  Stephen Hawking jokes that he became famous for proving that the universe and space time began with a singularity known as the “Big Bang” and then he became famous again for proving that the universe and space time didn’t begin with the Big Bang.

While I appreciate that you “don’t know and don’t care” about the scientific truth of evolution (while still ridiculing Richard Dawkins’ main argument in The God Delusion as amounting to nothing more than “evolution is true, therefore God does not exist” and asserting that Darwin’s idea of “favoured races” inspired Hitler’s eugenics and Stalin’s atrocities with the other side of your face), Darwin in fact dedicated an entire chapter in The Origins of Species discussing the potential problems with his theory and stated in no uncertain terms what would be required to disprove it:

If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed, which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down. But I can find out no such case.

As you can see, Darwin is explicating laying down the gauntlet to his opponents and saying “Come and have a go if you think you’re smart enough”, and even providing them with the weapons to defeat him.  Over 150 years later, no one has managed to do so.

Continuing is this vein of self-scrutiny and the constant quest for falsification, I expect you provide the children in your congregation with the tools to examine critically their Christian faith.  For example, they ought to consider whether:

  1. an all-good, all-loving God would be so intent on remaining hidden from his treasured creations.  After all, it has been said that the invisible and the non-existent look very similar.
  2. there is any more evidence to support the Gospels’ account of Christ’s resurrection than Almighty Zeus sending his only begotten son Perseus to Earth to wield his big, strong weapon to slay Medusa and rid humanity of the Kraken.  If you can’t believe what you saw this morning on a bastion of daily journalism such as Sky News, how can you accept something that was written two-three thousand years ago by people who were primitive by our standards, decades after the events they purport to describe and copied and recopied by scribes who were careless or grinding their own theological axes?
  3. all New Testament scholars see the basic Gospel narratives as an accurate depiction of history.  For example, Robin Lane Fox’s The Unauthorized Version describes Luke’s nativity as “historically impossible and internally incoherent”, particularly in relation to the apparent fabrication of a Roman census that had the onerous requirement for the population to return to their town of origin.
  4. the miracles of Jesus reported in a two thousand year old text are any more believable than those allegedly performed by today’s charlatan gurus and mystics that are testified as authentic by thousands upon thousands of devoted followers – including many Western educated people – and available to view on the modern miracle of YouTube.
  5. there is any evidence outside the text to confirm the events of the Old Testament, in particular the Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt.  Biblical “maximalists” such as James Hoffmeier and Kenneth Kitchen are satisfied that the  stories of Moses and Joshua are historically accurate, however, “minimalists” such Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman have declared that there is no corroborating evidence whatsoever for these stories and have consigned them to the same mythical status as Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.  How come we do not see such disagreements in relation to other historical characters such as Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan?
  6. double-blind controlled experiments on the effectiveness of intercessory prayer show that Christian prayers have an objectively higher success rate than those of other religions.
  7. one child being plucked from the sea following a plane crash that killed 153 really constitutes a divine miracle as the girl’s family claimed.
  8. if there is a divine link between morality and metrology, as the then Bishop of Carlisle pronounced in July 2007 blaming the recent floods in Northern Yorkshire on gay marriage, then why don’t we see a few more tidal waves crashing down the centre of Manchester’s Canal Street during Pride?
  9. regardless of whether the resurrection is an historical fact, the Pope is morally right to go to sub-Saharan Africa, where 2 – 3 million people die of HIV/AIDS in any one year and actually say words to the effect, “AIDS might be bad, but condoms might be worse”.
  10. they ought to view programmes like Root of All Evil? and read books like The God Delusion for themselves without any prior input from your good self, their religious parents or school teachers.

Please understand that I am not claiming that I hold the correct view on any of these issues; I am merely advocating them as food for thought for you and your flock.  I therefore look forward to the fly-on-wall episode showing one of your Sunday school classes discussing these very points.

With best wishes for Christmas and 2011 to you, your family and your congregation

manicstreetpreacher

Jihadist walks free after ‘Islam will dominate…’ and ‘Kill Gordon Brown’ graffiti on war memorial ruled not hate speech

02/05/2010

Now this is religion getting a “free lunch”, David Robertson.

Further to my recent post on 59-year-old Harry Taylor receiving a 6 month suspended jail sentence, 100 hours unpaid work and ordered to pay £250 in legal costs for leaving “offensive” and “obscene” religious images in the multi-faith room at Liverpool John Lennon Airport, I am appalled to read this story in The Daily Mail:

A Muslim protester who daubed a war memorial with graffiti glorifying Osama Bin Laden and proclaiming ‘Islam will dominate the world’ walked free from court after prosecutors ruled his actions were not motivated by religion.

Tohseef Shah, 21, could have faced a tougher sentence if the court had accepted that the insults – which included a threat to kill the Prime Minister – were inspired by religious hatred.

But – citing a loophole in the law – the Crown Prosecution Service chose not to charge him with that offence and he escaped with only a two-year conditional discharge and an order to pay the council £500 compensation after admitting causing criminal damage.

Yesterday the decision was attacked by politicians and veterans who were shocked by the desecration of the memorial in Burton-upon-Trent, Staffordshire…

Shah sprayed the words ‘Islam will dominate the world – Osama is on his way’ and ‘Kill Gordon Brown’ on the plinth of the memorial in December.

He was arrested after his DNA was found on the discarded spray-can but refused to give an explanation for his actions or show any remorse, a court heard.

The story has also been posted on website of The Freethinker.

What really beggars belief is that the Counter Terrorism Division of the Crown Prosecution Service in London decided that the incident was not racially or religiously motivated saying, “While it was appreciated that what was sprayed on the memorial may have been perceived by some to be part of a racial or religious incident, no racial or religious group can be shown to have been targeted.”

Does not all 4.5 billion non-Muslims in the world today not count as a racial and / or religiously defined group?

Shah, who reportedly lives with his parents in a £200,000 detached house, has a picture of a flaming lion’s head superimposed on crossed Kalashnikov rifles on his Facebook profile.

This latest legal debacle angers me in particular since during my first debate Premier Christian Radio’s Unbelievable?, against Scottish Presbyterian Pastor David Robertson, author of The Dawkins Letters, a “flea” response to The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, scoffed that I was “living in a fantasy world” for claiming that the New Atheists were attempting to break the taboo of criticising religion our in social discourse, which I remarked had been receiving “a free lunch”.

Following his most recent appearance on Unbelievable?, Robertson is now pushing the myth on Premier Christian Community’s online debate forum that Joseph Stalin was converted to atheism after reading Charles Darwin’s On The Origin of The Species and it influenced his brutal politics, despite being corrected on an earlier occasion by yours truly that the Russian dictator rejected Darwinism in favour of Lamarckism that lead to Lysenko’s insane “miraculous” agricultural programme which was responsible for the starvation of millions.

Robertson is also insisting that evolution leads to immorality, refusing to accept that the human species’ survival depends on co-operation and altruism even though his answer was “I don’t know and I don’t care” when I asked him whether he actually believed in the scientific truth of evolution during our second debate.

After comparing my report on the heavy-handed treatment of atheist Harry Taylor – who never threatened anyone with violence – with this latest episode of religious beliefs receiving special treatment, I hope Robertson will revise his views.  But then again, I think that our good Pastor has a preconceived notion of the World and picks and chooses arguments, facts and authorities to back that up while ignoring a wealth of contradictory evidence and even contradicting his own reasoning.

As with his preconception of Darwinism being inherently immoral, it is part of Robertson’s worldview that Christians are persecuted for their faith.  In a similar way that the pseudo-fact of Jesus’ disciples dying for their faith, this is held out as evidence for the truth of doctrine.  And no evidence or argument is going to change his mind any time soon.

Bishop John Shelby Spong debates William Lane Craig on the resurrection

27/03/2010

manicstreetpreacher applauds the world’s greatest atheist Christian.

This will be a quickie, I promise.  I first listened to Bishop John Shelby “Jack” Spong on Premier Christian Radio’s Unbelievable? at the end of last year.  He was a breath of fresh air, a joy to hear.  If only all believers were like him.  And since he upset Scottish Presbyterian Calvinist (!) pastor and author of The Dawkins Letters, David Robertson, when DJ Justin Brierley read out the listeners’ reactions on a subsequent show, he must be doing something right.

Spong’s Palm Sunday 2005 debate on the resurrection of Jesus against Christian apologist, William Lane Craig, is well worth watching or hearing.  Not in the sense that Spong “wins” the debate against Craig.  But because he rises above Craig’s petty attempts to rationalise his fairy tale and explains the philosophy of being an atheist Christian.

Although credit is very much due for exposing Craig’s dishonest reliance on authorities who are in fact at opposite ends of New Testament scholarship spectrum, the real treat is Spong recounting a story from his friend, the late, great astronomer, Carl Sagan, who pointed out that if Jesus left the Earth at the speed of light on his ascension to heaven, 2,000 years later he still would not have left our Milky Way galaxy!

I’ll leave it there.  Just download and enjoy.

Audio / Video

Michael Shermer debates David Robertson on whether Christianity is good for us: Premier Christian Radio, “Unbelievable?”, 20 February 2010

25/02/2010

manicstreetpreacher to Michael Shermer:

I have of course had multiple encounters with Pastor David Robertson of St Peter’s Free Church, Dundee, Scotland, author of The Dawkins Letters.  For the Saturday, 20 February 2010 edition of Premier Christian Radio’s Unbelievable? Robertson debated Michael Shermer, head of the American Skeptics Society and author of numerous books debunking all things paranormal and pseudo-scientific, such as Why People Believe Weird Things and Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design.

The debate focuses on the comparative levels of charitable giving, happiness, well-being, mutual respect and trust and attitudes towards slavery and gay rights between believers and non-believers.

I’m not going to give a blow-by-blow account of the debate, and I’m certainly not posting this to gloat at Robertson (who I consider a personal friend of sorts after our encounters), but he is an extremely tough debating opponent.  While I was satisfied with how I came off in my debates against him, I took as many hits as I scored and tripped over my own arguments on a couple of occasions, particularly on evidence an atheist would accept as evidence for God in Show One and the moral argument in Show Two.

Shermer on the other hand is a seasoned pro and has heard it all before and will do so a thousand times again.  While I in my reckless youth tend to take more of an all-guns-blazing approach at the microphone, Shermer is far more laid back in his citing of peer-reviewed journal papers, opinion polls and tried-and-trusted philosophical arguments.

These were especially effective against Robertson’s arguments which seemed to be based largely on personal experience of visits to “Sweden’s atheist utopia” where apparently people are much less willing to sell you a drink than the Americans.  Shermer is going to withhold judgement until he runs the experiment for himself.

I particularly admired the way Shermer put paid to the popular notion that Christians lead the fight against slavery by pointing out that William Wilberforce and John Newton were in the minority of Christians who opposed the practice when the established Anglican and Catholic Churches were defending it.

In a similar vein to how Christianity has a posteriori claimed the moral high ground in respect of abolition, Shermer predicts that the current firestorm over gay marriage in the USA will be resolved in the next 20 years or so to the benefit of homosexuals.  While today the most vehement opponents of gay marriage are Christians, as with slavery, Christians will surely single out the few of their number who supported gay marriage and hold them out as leading the fight for equal rights!

I will credit Robertson for contributing to a high-brow discussion and for once not playing the “Hitler and Stalin were atheists” card while giving a nod to the crimes committed by the Christian Conquistadors against the indigenous people of the Americas; a Holocaust in its own right.  Perhaps MSP’s email to him in response his comments following Brierley’s coverage of the Dawkins/ Grayling I2 debate on atheist fundamentalism had a small part to play in that.

The two places where I thought Robertson really fell down was in his closing remarks where he accused the secularists as “living in a fantasyland” before going on to say in the same breath that Christians know that they will not live in a utopia until they get to heaven.  Right.

In addition, Marx and Engels never said that “religion is the opiate of the people”.  This is in fact one of the most common out-of-context quotes of all time.  The full quote from Marx’s introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right is:

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering.  Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.  It is the opium of the people.

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness.  To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.

Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower. The criticism of religion disillusions man, so that he will think, act, and fashion his reality like a man who has discarded his illusions and regained his senses, so that he will move around himself as his own true Sun.  Religion is only the illusory Sun which revolves around man as long as he does not revolve around himself.

Don’t let Christopher Hitchens hear you say that one, David!

Download the full debate audio.

Dawkins and Grayling Defend Atheism: Afterthoughts

03/12/2009

manicstreetpreacher relaxes with a cigar and a glass of brandy following a dashed fine battle of rhetoric between the godly and the infidels.

The rain it raineth on the just
And also on the unjust fella;
But chiefly on the just, because
The unjust steals the just’s umbrella.

– Lord Bowen

When you demand “respect”, you are demanding we lie to you.  I have too much real respect for you as a human being to engage in that charade.

– Johann Hari, “Why should I respect these oppressive religions?”

On Sunday, 30 November 2009, I attended a debate hosted by Intelligence Squared at Wellington College, Berkshire entitled “Atheism is the new fundamentalism”.

Speaking for the motion were former bishop of Oxford Richard Harries and former editor of The Daily Telegraph and The Spectator, Charles Moore.

Speaking against the motion were prominent professor of philosopher from Birkbeck College, University of London, author and public commentator A C Grayling and evolutionary biologist, former Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University and “Britain’s Most Prominent Atheist”, Richard Dawkins.

The moderator of the debate was Dr Antony Seldon, master of Wellington College, who deserves an MSP blog profile to himself!

The event was streamed live over the Internet by the organisers and questions were taken over email and Twitter from viewers at the other end of the fibre optics.  Within 24 hours, the full recording was posted on the Intelligence Squared website.

The YouTube playlist begins here:

You can download an MP3 audio of the debate here.

The pre-debate/ live-streaming page for the debate on RichardDawkins.net is here.

The post-debate page on RichardDawkins.net is here.

The motion was defeated in both audience and online polls before and after the event.  The results were as follows:

Initial audience vote

For: 333
Against: 675
Undecided: 389

Final online vote

For: 37
Against: 889
Undecided: 12

Final audience vote

For: 363
Against: 1,070
Undecided: 85

Since the debate was made available on the Internet so soon after the event, I will not give a blow-by-blow account, but will let the viewers judge for themselves and provide my thoughts from the frontline.

As I predicted before the event, this one was far more evenly matched than Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry’s massacre of the Catholic Church in London at the end of October.  Against my predictions, however, was that the tone of the debate was far more hand-to-throat than the tea-and-cucumber-sandwiches-garden-party that I had envisaged.  There was genuine anger between the parties, which surprised me because Richard Dawkins and Richard Harries have shared a platform on a number of occasions and have been united in the fight against the teaching of creationism in science school classes.

Harries especially appeared to have taken matters awfully personally that his friend and colleague, Dawkins, had been so forceful in his condemnation of religion.  Charles Moore, I have say, even as a lifelong reader of The Daily Telegraph, let his side down badly.  His opening speech was packed with ad hominems Richard Dawkins, accusing him of treating the debate on religion like a game of Cluedo: “It was Reverend Green, with the Bible, in the nursery”, and even called him “Kommandant Dawkins” at one point.  Grayling drew a pretty large cheer later on in the evening for hauling Moore up on his below-the-belt tactics.

A commenter on RichardDawkins.net summed Moore up rather well:

After that loathsome Charles Moore used his entire time on a ranting, batshit crazy personal attack against Richard, calling him “Commandant Dawkins” and comparing him to Josef Mengele, I was at first astonished that Richard didn’t bother to respond to any of that garbage, but proceeded to issue a focused attack on the debate proposition which effectively ended the discussion; his points were unanswerable and Harries and Moore didn’t even bother to try.  But then I realized that this is one of the reasons I admire Richard so much: he is perfectly capable of becoming enraged if someone lies about the theory of evolution, but the fact that an asshole slanders him at length is of no interest to him.  Is there anybody around, atheist or otherwise, more passionate about fighting for the truth?

It was Dawkins and Grayling were the stars of the debate and were on tip-top form.  Dawkins was cool and rational.  Grayling – who I saw speak live for the first time on the night – said the least on the panel in terms of words, but spoke volumes more than any of them.  I was very impressed.  The cartoon to which he referred in his opening speech is below:

Grayling continually hammered home the point that it is simply not possible for an atheist to be fundamentalist about their non-belief.  You either believe or you do not.  The word “atheist” is an invention by believers to label those who do not share their views.  Except we do not have words like “afairyist” or “non-stamp collector”.  Grayling was understated and good humoured and drew a big “aaaaaaaah!” from the crowd when he said that the most religious experience he has had was meeting his wife.  He  also also a bitching impression of an old Irish woman greeting a leprechaun.

One member of the audience asked Dawkins why he refused to debate American Christian apologist William Lane Craig, as surely he was avoiding religion’s “best case” in so doing.  Dawkins pithily dismissed Craig (without repeating his name) by saying that he debated with bishops, scientists and theologians who had a valid contribution to make and not just someone “whose only claim to fame is being a professional debater; I’m busy”.

There has been an Internet campaign to get Dawkins and Craig on the same platform and apologists have accused Dawkins of cowardice in refusing the invitation.  Craig himself said that Peter May, Chair of the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship in the UK contacted Dawkins shortly after The God Delusion went on sale to invite him to debate as part of Craig’s upcoming “Reasonable Faith” tour in the UK in 2007, but Dawkins replied saying that “he had never heard of him” and “it wouldn’t look very good on my CV”.

I’m glad that Dawkins took the opportunity to put this matter to rest.  I will certainly credit Craig with being an expert debater, but that is all he is.  His five “arguments” have been refuted ad nauseum yet he still keeps on using them.  American physicist and author of God, The Failed Hypothesis, Victor Stenger commented during a recent lecture (YouTube Part One) that he refuted Craig’s cosmological argument during their debate in at the University of Hawaii back in 2003 (video / audio) on the basis that Stephen Hawking in A Brief History of Time recanted his and Roger Penrose’s earlier thesis and now state that the universe did not begin in a singularity known as the “Big Bang”.  According to Stenger, Craig is clearly “lying” to his scientifically ignorant audiences by continuing to use the Kalam Cosmological Argument.

Craig’s strongest weapon is to drop in several points of misinformation and scientific hokum during his time at the microphone and then ridicule and belittle (even by the standards of Christopher Hitchens!) his opponents and say that they have not answered his points.  Pathetic.   I’m sure Craig would mop the floor with Dawkins in a live debate, but it would be the result of multiple punches below the belt.  Besides, Dawkins soundly refutes all five of Craig’s “arguments” in The God Delusion.

The same arguments keep coming up as well.  Dawkins and Grayling had to refute the old “Hitler and Stalin were atheists…” canard for the umpteenth time.  While Dawkins’ line that their atheism was as incidental to their evil acts as their moustaches goes so far, I am still frustrated that he has never really tackled the issue of Stalin’s brutal oppression of the Russian Orthodox Church.  Grayling made up for this minor deficiency by arguing that the 20th century totalitarians were strikingly similar to the three monotheisms in that they set up a monolithic ideology with a leader that could not be questioned under pain of horrific punishment.  It is unsurprising that despite Stalin being an atheist in respect of Yahweh, Christ and Zeus, was still educated to become a priest in a Georgian seminary.  This would have immeasurably influenced his politics and his methods.

And I have to say that Dr Seldon was one of the best moderators I have ever seen!  He was an absolute hoot and very nearly upstaged the speakers with sparklingly wit and camp demeanour which reminded me of John Hurt’s performance in The Naked Civil Servant!

My question to Moore and Harries about their subtle, scholarly, nuanced brand of religion –v- creationist ignorance of the kind I witnessed Ken Ham, head of Answers In Genesis, preach at Liverpool University in March 2008 is at the beginning of part seven.  I’m the baldy headed toff in the cream shirt:

I was reasonably satisfied with their answers in that they did not attempt to evade the question, although of course I wasn’t convinced by them.  Harries played that theist’s trick of saying that the New Atheists are ignoring the evidence.  WELL WHAT IN THE NAME OF GOD AND ALL THAT’S HOLY IS THIS EVIDENCE?!?!?!?!?!

Earlier on the in the Q & A, Harries drew jeers and whistles (including from myself) when he objected to Dawkins and Grayling comparing the probability of the existence of God to the existence of leprechauns.  If Harries thinks we are being shrill and strident in rejecting the Judeo-Christian God as a fairytale, he really ought to consider for a moment whether there is any more evidence to support his faith than belief in Zeus or Amon-Ra!

And I just love the way that both men consider that young-earth creationist beliefs are mad without giving a moment’s thought to the plausibility of a virgin conceiving, a corpse walking and a man defying all the laws of gravity and natural prohibitions with regard to flight without the aid of technology by descending from the sky trailing clouds of glory, surrounded by angels to commence his two thousand year overdue judgment of humanity (both living and dead) for its wrongdoings, before casting most of them into a pit of fire and taking a select few to live happily ever after in his “kingdom”.

Where is the evidence in support of that?

In conclusion – how dare you call us fundamentalists!

This was a truly electric debate.  It was great to be in the audience.  The video really doesn’t do it justice.  While not quite as much fun as the cheap thrill of witnessing Hitch and Fry steamroller the Vatican, the more balanced spread of audience support and the stronger showing by the theist side of the house made for a tense experience.  I had genuine doubts about whether the motion would be defeated in the audience vote.

And all credit to Dawkins and Grayling.  They were polite yet forceful.  They were passionate without being angry.  There were no theatrical performances or cheap personal attacks.  They focused on their opponents’ arguments and demolished them thoroughly.  Moore and Harries were firmly on the back foot and as one questioner towards the end pointed out, they were getting defensive because their side is losing the argument.

More like this Intelligence Squared, please.  And get Antony Seldon to moderate all your debates!

manicstreetpreacher relaxes with a cigar and a glass of brandy following a dashed fine battle of rhetoric between the godly and the infidels.

Richard Dawkins and A C Grayling Debate Atheist Fundamentalism Against the Sweet Mediocrity of Our Native Church

22/11/2009

manicstreetpreacher wets the appetite for his next live debate on religion.

UPDATE 03/12/2009: My afterthought piece of the debate, with video and audio links is here.

Having just about recovered from the other-worldly experience of witnessing Hitchens and Fry exact retribution on a biblical scale against the Catholic Church in London at the end of last month, I am geared up to attend my next live debate.

This time, two of Britain’s finest atheist writers, zoologist Richard Dawkins of Oxford University and philosopher A C Grayling of Birkbeck College, University of London go head-to-head against former Anglican Bishop of Oxford, Richard Harries, and former editor of The Daily Telegraph and The Spectator Charles Moore to debate the topic “Is Atheism the New Fundamentalism?” The moderator is Dr Antony Seldon, Master of Wellington College.

The debate is being held at on Sunday, 29 November 2009.   The doors open 6pm and the debate starts at 7pm.

Once again, Intelligence Squared is hosting the debate.

The venue is Wellington College, Berkshire:

Wellington College
Duke’s Ride
Crowthorne
Berkshire
RG45 7PU

Tel: 01344 444 000
Fax: 01344 444 002

Email: info@wellingtoncollege.org.uk
Web: www.wellingtoncollege.org.uk
Event page: http://www.wellingtoncollege.org.uk/page.aspx?id=8686

Previous form

Richard Dawkins needs no introduction!  However, this is a rare public debate for him.  Dawkins writes in The God Delusion that he rarely takes part in formal debates because he is not a confrontational person and feels that the adversary format is ill-suited to discover the truth.  Dawkins also refuses to debate creationists because if one of them shared a platform with a prominent evolutionary biologist, it would give the lay pubic the impression that there was a serious issue worth debating!  For the creationists, winning or losing the debate is irrelevant: the victory is that the debate has gone ahead at all.  Dawkins has no desire to provide them with the oxygen of publicity.

However, there are still plenty of debates Dawkins has participated in that are worth investigating.

Dawkins and Grayling teamed up with the Hitch to debate against – as Dawkins later put it – three “rather half-hearted religious apologists (‘Of course I don’t believe in a God with a long white beard, but…’)” on whether “We would all be better off without religion”, the audio of which can be accessed here, or on YouTube:

You can read a review of the event by a pleasantly-surprised believing journalist, Ruth Gledhill, The Times’ religious affairs correspondent here.

Incidentally, Charles Moore, who is standing up for God on this occasion, wrote of that debate:

Although I voted against the motion both times, I think the shift of votes was justified, on the basis of the speeches.  All six spoke well, but the opponents of religion were more eloquent, more passionate, more – odd though it sounds to say it – believing.

The last big debate Dawkins took part in was on 21 October 2008 at the Oxford University Museum of natural history against Oxford University mathematician and Christian John Lennox.  The audio of the debate can be accessed at RichardDawkins.net here.

Dawkins and Lennox also had a closed-door conversation on religion and science earlier in the year with only a tape recorder present, the audio for which can be accessed here.  As American biologist and blogwit, P Z Myers concluded:

Dawkins just probes with a few pointed questions, and Lennox, a theologian, babbles on and on and on, asserting the most amazing things.  All those miracles in the bible?  They literally happened – he doesn’t hide behind metaphor and poetry.  Water into wine, resurrections, walking on water… it all actually happened, exactly as written, and further, he claims that all of these accounts represent historically valid evidence.  This is the sophisticated theology we godless atheists are always skipping over, I guess.

Dawkins’ debate with then head of the Human Genome Project and evangelical Christian for the pages of Time magazine in 2006 is worth a read:

DAWKINS: I accept that there may be things far grander and more incomprehensible than we can possibly imagine.  What I can’t understand is why you invoke improbability and yet you will not admit that you’re shooting yourself in the foot by postulating something just as improbable, magicking into existence the word God.

COLLINS: My God is not improbable to me.  He has no need of a creation story for himself or to be fine-tuned by something else. God is the answer to all of those “How must it have come to be” questions.

DAWKINS: I think that’s the mother and father of all cop-outs.  It’s an honest scientific quest to discover where this apparent improbability comes from.  Now Dr Collins says, “Well, God did it. And God needs no explanation because God is outside all this.”  Well, what an incredible evasion of the responsibility to explain. Scientists don’t do that.  Scientists say, “We’re working on it. We’re struggling to understand.”

Dawkins and Richard Harries had a very civilised discussion for Dawkins’ 2006 Channel 4 documentary, Root of All Evil? (Part 1 / Part 2).  The full uncut interview can be viewed below:

They also debated Darwin and Christianity at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History on Darwin Day 2009:

And let’s not forget that Dawkins and Harries both signed an open letter to the then Prime Minister Tony Blair to protest against the head of new-fangled city academy Emmanuel College, Gateshead, after the head of the science department (!), Stephen Layfield delivered a lecture proposing that young earth creationism and flood geology be taught in science classes:

Dear Prime Minister

We write as a group of scientists and Bishops to express our concern about the teaching of science in the Emmanuel City Technology College in Gateshead.  Evolution is a scientific theory of great explanatory power, able to account for a wide range of phenomena in a number of disciplines.  It can be refined, confirmed and even radically altered by attention to evidence.  It is not, as spokesmen for the college maintain, a ‘faith position’ in the same category as the biblical account of creation which has a different function and purpose.

The issue goes wider than what is currently being taught in one college.  There is a growing anxiety about what will be taught and how it will be taught in the new generation of proposed faith schools.  We believe that the curricula in such schools, as well as that of Emmanuel City Technical College, need to be strictly monitored in order that the respective disciplines of science and religious studies are properly respected.

Yours sincerely

The Right Reverend Richard Harries, Bishop of Oxford
Sir David Attenborough, FRS
The Right Reverend Christopher Herbert, Bishop of St Albans
Lord May of Oxford, President of the Royal Society
Professor John Enderby, FRS, Physical Secretary, Royal Society
The Right Reverend John Oliver, Bishop of Hereford
The Right Reverend Mark Santer, Bishop of Birmingham
Sir Neil Chalmers, Director, Natural History Museum
The Right Reverend Thomas Butler, Bishop of Southwark
Sir Martin Rees, FRS, Astronomer Royal
The Right Reverend Kenneth Stevenson, Bishop of Portsmouth
Professor Patrick Bateson, FRS, Biological Secretary, Royal Society
The Right Reverend Crispian Hollis, Roman Catholic Bishop of Portsmouth
Sir Richard Southwood, FRS, Past Biological Secretary, Royal Society
Sir Francis Graham-Smith, FRS, Past Physical Secretary, Royal Society
Professor Richard Dawkins, FRS

Aside from that, Dawkins had a public discussion at The Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival in 2007 with Anglican theologian Alistair McGrath following the publication of The God Delusion and McGrath’s reply (if that’s the right word for it), The Dawkins Delusion? (McGrath’s effort is terrible, even by the low standards of the “fleas”.  Paula Kirby does the book justice in her “Fleabytes” review of four Christian responses to The God Delusion.)

However, the real treat is Dawkins’ full uncut interview with McGrath for Root of All Evil?

None of the footage was used in the final version of the programme.  McGrath claimed it was because he had landed several blows on Dawkins and made him “appear uncomfortable”.  My theory is that the producers were concerned for the well-being of viewers who might be operating heavy machinery while watching it.  McGrath is horrendously boring and babbles incomprehensibly.  One blogger at RD.net summed up his style thus:

A fly on the wall in the McGrath household:

MRS McGRATH: What would you like for dinner, dear?

MR McGRATH: Well, if I can just come back on that actually, I think you’ve raised a very interesting point, pivotal to the way this discussion should continue.  This is certainly something that needs to be engaged with and explored further.  It seems to me that there are areas we can push into here that can challenge us and I welcome that.  When I was an atheist, these on-going philosophical subjects were subject to different interpretations and perspectives so, suffice to say, the Christian faith has fortified me and others to take all of these very very very interesting points into account and offer an explanation such as this: Egg and chips will be fine, love.

MRS McGRATH: I’m leaving you.

Nevertheless, try and stay awake because Dawkins uses his wonderful brand of pithy sarcasm, to which McGrath is seemingly oblivious.  And the knock-out punch comes at 45 minutes when Dawkins nails him whether God intervened to save one child in a tsunami that claimed the lives of thousands.  As one blogger commenting on the interview’s entry on RD.net put it:

For 45 minutes it’s a gentle game of ping pong and then when it comes to the issue god and suffering McGrath’s arms get tired and Dawkins switches to a tennis racket.  At 50 minutes McGrath is undone.

Magic!

A C Grayling is a slightly less-known quantity to me.  I have read a few of his books and seen some of his debates and lectures and can recommend the following to whet your appetites.

Against All Gods is Grayling’s contribution to the New Atheism.  It is brief – more of a pamphlet than a book – but there are some real gems in it.  Of particular interest to the topic at hand is Grayling’s rubbishing the concept of “atheist fundamentalism” by asking what a non-fundamentalist atheist is: someone who sort of doesn’t, but not quite not believes in God?!  Grayling also predicts that far from seeing a resurgence of religion, we are actually witnessing its death-throes; a violent convulsion before it’s gone for good.

Grayling is a champion of the enlightenment and wrote Towards the Light in celebration of rationalism’s conquest over dogma.  Be sure to read his hilarious exchanges with wedge-driving ID hack from the ironically-named Discovery Institute, Steve Fuller over Grayling’s damning review of Fuller’s Dissent Over DescentGrayling’s reply to Fuller’s indignant response to his review contained this all-time classic which I have quoted myself on at least one occasion:

Steve Fuller complains, as do all authors whose books are panned, that I did not read his book properly (or at all).  Alas, I did.

Grayling’s appearance at Beyond Belief 2008 on Human Flourishing and Eudaimonics is also worth watching:

Although it has nothing to do with religion, Grayling’s discussion with Christopher Hitchens on the moral implication of the Allies’ devastating bombing campaign against civilians of the Axis powers during World War II at the Goethe-Institut, Washington in 2006 following the publication of Grayling’s Among The Dead Cities is a real treat.   It’s on YouTube in 11 parts or you can watch it on FORA.tv and C-Span.

Predictions for this one

Unlike the rhetorical slaughter by Hitchens and Fry of the Vatican, which I predicted in advance of the actual event, I feel that this one will be too close to call.  Probably both sides will come away claiming victory.  Dawkins and Grayling are far more cordial and polite in comparison to Hitchens’ bull-in-a-china-shop/ take-no-prisoners approach at the lectern.

However, I hope that the two heretics will push the point that atheists are offended by what they read in the holy books of the world’s religions and how this is put into practice all too literally by millions of believers the world over, whether it be  indoctrinating their children into thinking that their non-Catholic/Protestant/Muslim/Jewish [delete as applicable] friends will suffer an eternity in hellfire, to ploughing millions dollars every year into spreading creationism – money that would be far better spent on potentially life-saving scientific research – or flying aeroplanes into skyscrapers.

I know what these books say because I’ve read them.  Why should we respect the utterly ridiculous claim that they could only have been authored by an omnipotent deity?  Why shouldn’t we get angry when such ideas are granted special privilege in public discourse?

The idea that we must automatically “respect” other people’s ideas is complete nonsense.  It is a special favour granted only to religious faith.  In every other area of conversation we most certainly do not respect people’s views and opinions.  If one member of the panel wanted to promulgate their honest, sincere, faith-based claim that the Holocaust never happened, that National Socialism was the only proper form of government, or even something less sinister such as Elvis was still alive, is that a view that the audience would “respect”?  Of course not!

In every other conversational topic we demand good reasons.  We demand evidence.  Reason and evidence really are contagious.  If you give good reasons, people will accept your claims as they accept the colour of your hair.  Religious faith is a reason not to give reasons.  It is a conversation stopper.  Even if the New Atheists are completely wrong about the existence of God and the negative effects of religion upon society, they have at the very least helped moved religious faith into the same sphere.

Perhaps into ten years time whenever someone opens their mouth or puts pen to paper in criticism of religion, this will be accepted as if they had criticised a political ideology as opposed the hysterical responses of the present day where theists and atheists alike rush to publish books and articles denouncing the “shrillness” and “stridency” of those brave few who dare speak out.

At the very least, I hope I get the chance to thank Dawkins for his very kind comment that I was “most certainly not boring” during my appearance on Premier’s Christian Radio’s religious sceptics’ debate show Unbelievable? with author of The Dawkins Letters (another “flea” response to The God Delusion), Pastor David Robertson and former-atheist-converted-to-Christianity, Richard Morgan.

It’s on YouTube in 11 parts or you can watch it on FORA.tv and C-Span.