Posts Tagged ‘the god delusion’

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

06/04/2010

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

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

Argument from objective morality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resurrection of Jesus

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

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

On the historical Jesus and the criterion of embarrassment:

On the virgin birth and potency of the story:

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

Argument from personal experience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The last “Hussar!”

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

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

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

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

Craig –v- Hitchens: Third Thoughts – Deconstructing William

05/04/2010

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

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

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

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

Why resort to “arguments” at all?

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

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

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

Cosmological argument

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

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

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

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

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

“Is atheism true?”

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

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

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

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

Teleological argument

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Argument from fine tuning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

William Lane Craig –v- Christopher Hitchens: Second Thoughts

04/04/2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hitchens and Craig meet at the Christian Book Expo

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

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

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

Letters from Biola

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of Moderates

10/01/2010

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

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

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

A lovers’ tiff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Islam: the fringe is the centre

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

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

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

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

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

– Koran 9: 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moderate atheists and agnostics: more annoying than believers!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In conclusion – a pragmatic means but far from an end

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

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

That bleedin’ Luke census again!

28/12/2009

manicstreetpreacher: dog/bone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Jesus Timeline Part 1

The Jesus Timeline Part 2

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

Unbelievable? reports on the Intelligence Squared debate on Atheist Fundamentalism

13/12/2009

MSP is featured!

Justin Brierley, presenter of Premier Christian Radio’s sceptical debate show, Unbelievable?, has done a report on the above debate which I attended at Wellington College on 29 November 2009.  You can download the podcast here.

My question to the Christian members of the panel is at 23 minutes.  You can read my report on the lecture given by Ken Ham, head of Answers In Genesis, at Liverpool University in March 2008 over at Butterflies & Wheels here.

Good show Justin, but I could not disagree with you more about Charles Moore being the evening’s “revelation”.  And perhaps you would care to read my piece on why Dawkins most certainly should not debate William Lane Craig.

I’m also in the middle of writing and researching my own paper on whether atheism was responsible for Hitler’s Germany, which I wish I could forward to the audience member who thought that Hitler was an atheist in order to educate her!

Dawkins refuses to debate William Lane Craig

13/12/2009

manicstreetpreacher hopes that this old chestnut can finally be put to rest.

Further to my report on the Intelligence Squared debate at Wellington College on 29 November 2009, someone has edited together a YouTube clip of Richard Dawkins being asked why he refuses to debate William Lane Craig with Dawkins replying that it takes more to persuade him to share a platform with someone than that person just being a “professional debater” and he is “busy”:

Well done, Richard!  I have already given my thoughts here and here on Craig being a complete hack whose five “arguments” have been corrected repeatedly, yet he still continues to use them.  The only aim of the apologists is for Craig to use every dirty trick in his arsenal to make Dawkins look silly and thereby discredit the man rather than having to face the burden of actually answering his arguments.  As John W Luftus over at Debunking Christianity puts it:

Debates are like boxing matches.  No intelligent person thinks that the issues are solved depending on who wins a debate.  No one.  But debates are entertaining and educational.  The debaters are sparring, yes.  We like to watch them.  They want to win.  We want our man (or woman) to win for our side.  But they are like boxing matches.  And Dawkins is the leading atheist in our generation.  So Christians are acting just like the supremacists did back in Jack Johnson’s day.  “Knock Dawkins out,” they’re saying.  “Embarrass him.”  “Show the world our Christian man is better than your atheist man.”  “They’re a minority and so let’s keep them in their place.”  In Johnson’s day it was a fight between the races. This is a fight between skepticism and faith.

Craig has a totally arrogant, patronising and belittling style at the lectern whose only desire is to make fools out of his opponents, as this clip from his 1998 debate with Peter Atkins (YouTube Part 1) attests:

The clip demonstrates most of Craig’s underhand tactics: dropping in too many points than his opponent can possibly answer in the time allowed, straw-manning said opponents’ arguments, gross scientific distortions (he’s dead wrong about the Special Theory of Relativity’s assumption of the speed of light; while we cannot observe it directly going at a constant from A to B, we can make many different predictions about what would happen if that were the case, and verify them which is how we know it’s true), placing the burden of proof on his opponent when he is the one making the claim, discrediting the scientific method (but only when it suits him) without providing any positive arguments as to how faith answers these questions any better and generally being a condescending tool to some of the world’s most respected academics.

Late conservative commentator William F Buckley Jnr being an utterly biased moderator doesn’t help, but Craig doesn’t actually humiliate Atkins at all.  Like most of Craig’s opponents, Atkins is clearly dumbfounded by the idiocy of the man in front of him!

But even with such a wealth of dishonest tricks up his sleeve, Craig is very beatable as long as his opponent has done their homework (which, alas only a select few atheists bother to do!) and present positive reasons to reject belief in God.

I recommend watching and listening to Craig’s debate against Victor Stenger at University of Hawaii in 2003 for a clinical annihilation of his arguments for the existence of God (the video cuts out after first rebuttals, but Stenger comes out with some gems during cross-examination, closing statements and the audience Q & A).  Bart Ehrman thoroughly debunked Craig’s arguments on the historical evidence of Jesus’ resurrection, of which you can read the transcript while while watching or listening to the tape.

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.

Podcast Interview for Skepticule

22/10/2009

by

manicstreetpreacher

Skepticule

The clue is in the title.

Just a quickie this time to post the podcast of an interview I did for the blog, Skepticule.

I recorded it over Skype with Paul S Jenkins, who runs the blog, Notes from an Evil Burnee (because he’ll surely roast in hell), and who has posted some superb comments on my blog in recent weeks.

It lasts for about 20 minutes and we discuss my journey from passive agnostic to passionate atheist debating on Premier Christian Radio’s Unbelievable?, my live debates at Liverpool University and my online blogging and debating.

PaulSJenkins

Further reading

Hitchens and Fry versus the Catholic Church: Post Mortem – manicstreetpreacher witnesses first-hand a rhetorical massacre of Vatican hench(wo)men by the cream of British intellectualism.

Merseyside Skeptics Society Lecture on Paranormal Experiences – 17/09/2009 – manicstreetpreacher learns about how the truth is not out there…  it’s up here.

Debates with David Robertson and Richard Morgan on Unbelievable? – manicstreetpreacher goes head-to-head with one of the most determined Christian opponents to the New Atheists.

More Than I Could Chew? – manicstreetpreacher licks his wounds after his encounter with a bunch of fundamentalists at Follow My Way, Liverpool University 12 March 2009.  The rest of the panel weren’t too rational either…

An Open Letter to Rabbi Y Y Rubinstein manicstreetpreacher enquires of a former recent debating opponent on a few points.  Such as whether there is any evidence outside the texts themselves for a group of half a million people being dragged around the desert for decades to the only place in the Middle East that has no oil.  And how could the scribes of the King James Version have botched up so badly that Yahweh has been transformed into a moral abomination…

Peter S Williams: Up Close – Part I – manicstreetpreacher’s review of I Wish I Could Believe In Meaning following his live debate with the author at Liverpool University, 19 February 2009.

Peter S Williams: Up Close – Part II – manicstreetpreacher’s review of A Sceptic’s Guide to Atheism following his live debate with the author at Liverpool University, 19 February 2009.

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