Posts Tagged ‘university’

Peter S Williams Up Close – Part II



manicstreetpreacher reviews A Sceptic’s Guide to Atheism by Christian apologist, Peter S Williams, following their live debate at Liverpool University on 19 February 2009.

On 19 February 2009 I spoke in a live debate against Peter S Williams of Southampton-based Christian group, Damaris, opposing the motion “Does the Christian God Exist?” The YouTube links to the debate will follow.

In preparation for the debate, I read many of Williams’ articles, listened to his debates and podcasts and read his two most recent books, I Wish I Could Believe In Meaning: A Response to Nihilism and A Sceptic’s Guide to Atheism: God Is Not Dead! The latter was not officially released until 27 February, over a week after our debate, but Mr Williams in all his good Christian nature emailed me the final proof in PDF a few days beforehand.

Unlike my earlier piece on my Premier Christian Radio debates against Andy Bannister, this essay is not intended as a “what I wish I’d said at the time”. Indeed, I am very happy with my performance against Williams. Of course there are a few things I would change if we were going to do it again, one or two places were I stumbled over my words, points I would like to have discussed more thoroughly if time had allowed, but for my first live debate I was more than happy with the way I acquitted myself.

These essays are to expand on points which were raised in the debate and to provide a fuller analysis of my opponent’s written work.

A Sceptic’s Guide to Atheism: God Is Not Dead![i]

Sceptic pic

This is marginally better than Williams’ last effort, I Wish I Could Believe In Meaning, if only because Williams doesn’t plumb to the depths of deliberately misrepresenting his opponents.  However, it suffers from the same problems of being saturated with quotes from other writers whilst not giving any inkling of what Williams himself actually believes.

Williams rightly points out that his book will be dubbed a “flea” as per Richard Dawkins’ pithy response to apologists writing book-length rebuttals to The God Delusion.[ii] Having read theologian Alistair McGrath’s The Dawkins Delusion? (What’s with that title?!  You hold a chair at Oxford University for heaven’s sake, man.  Grow up!) and John Cornwell’s Darwin’s Angel, as well as Paula Kirby’s outstanding review of four of the Christian responses to The God Delusion, “Fleabytes”,[iii] it appears that Williams’ effort falls into exactly the same trap as the others in that it focuses so hard on trying to discredit the Four Horsemen that it neglects to defend and/or promote Christianity at all.

As with I Wish I Could Believe In Meaning, there is not a single argument/ sentence/ word/ syllable in support of God and Jesus!  As with his previous book, Williams takes it all for granted and sets about attacking straw man versions of his opponents.  The result is unlikely to change the minds of anyone who has sided with the Dawkins & Co. and might well put off those whose belief in Christianity is wavering towards the New Atheism.

Boxing match commentary

Williams opens with a blow-by-blow account of the criticisms of the New Atheist writers from Christians and other atheists.  He throws in a barrage of negative reviews, disparaging quotes, ad-hominem insults and mixes it up with criticisms from other atheists, in-group squabbles, finishing off with Sam Harris’ speech at the AAI Conference 2007 where Harris argued that perhaps the atheist label was doing us few favours.[iv]

So atheists disagree with each other’s ideas.  So what?  This is what we mean by the phrase “herding cats”.  At least our disagreements are confined to the written page and the debater’s lectern.  We’re not blowing up each other’s churches and mosques or flying planes into buildings.

Wet lettuce philosophising

Williams’ arguments for the existence of God are mainly limited to the philosophical musings of Aquinas, Anselm and Plantinga.  He rates the post-Anselm Ontological Arguments very highly; a truly ominous sign.

The Ontological Argument is little more than a footnote on philosophy courses; a brave attempt of historical interest only.  Even many theologians admit that the arguments for God’s existence are not to be seen as hard and fast proofs: they are justifications if you already believe. They are totally circular and self-refuting and amount to verbal and logical sleights of hand; an attempt to argue something into existence for which you have no physical proof.  As Kant argued in Critique of Pure Reason, you cannot prove anything (other than an abstraction) by use of sheer logic.

In his debate with Christopher Hitchens, Rabbi David Wolpe tellingly admitted that he taught theology at seminary for years and would run through all the arguments for God’s existence in lectures.  Not once in all that time did a student come up to him after the lecture and say, “Rabbi, I was a hardened atheist before I came into this class, but now thanks to you, I believe!”[v]

This was perfect example of how differently we approach the matter.  Williams argues from inside the theological “bubble” in accepting the initial premise and the conclusion before anything else and then proceeds to make mere assertions in support of his arguments.  I on other hand operate very much outside the theological bubble, which bursts all too easily when any outside evidence is introduced.

Final confirmation the scale of the problem came during Williams’ opening address in our debate when he flashed up a PowerPoint slide showing C S Lewis’ “Lunatic, Liar, or Lord?” conundrum in flowchart(!) form.  (Naturally, a quick dose of theistic logic conclusive proved Option Three to be true!)  My approach to the problem is questioning Jesus’ very existence as a real person, never mind his claims to divinity.

Williams’ refutation of Dawkins’ arguments about religious experiences being explained as hallucinations and tricks of the mind is laughable.  Firstly, Williams accuses Dawkins of not properly defining a religious experience before going onto quote Dawkins’ very definition (“a ghost or an angel or a Virgin Mary”) and then goes onto to assert that just because some religious experiences are hallucinations, doesn’t automatically mean that they all are.[vi]

Right, so it’s just Christian religious experiences that are genuine and all visions of Allah and Krishna must be filed in the drawer labelled “mind-torched whack-job”?

But as I set out below, the question of whether the philosophical arguments for God’s existence actually succeed is not even half of the argument.

Other people’s opinions

As with Williams’ previous book, A Sceptic’s Guide to Atheism is stuffed full of quotes from roughly ten writers a piece representing each side of the debate.  Whilst not quite as bad as I Wish Could Believe In Meaning, the footnote count of the end of each chapter is often over one hundred.  The book is crammed with quotes from others that if we did a word-count of the text, Williams’ own words could well be in the minority!

Williams simply doesn’t give himself enough breathing space to let his own views show, as though he is afraid to express them properly.  Instead of explaining the flaws in the atheists’ arguments, he simply quotes other writers who have criticised them and even then, we don’t get a flavour of what the rebuttals actually are, we just get ad-hominems from Keith Ward and Alvin Plantinga saying that if Dawkins’ book was handed in by a first year university student it would receive an “F” blah, blah, blah.  A little elaboration would go a long way.

Indeed, it is not even clear whether Williams has actually read some of the books himself.  He cites other writers who have replied to the American physicist Victor Stenger’s God, The Failed Hypothesis yet he never discusses Stenger’s book himself, much less explores the objections to it.  It’s as though he hasn’t bothered to read and understand the books for himself; it is sufficient if someone else he knows about has criticised the book and the matter can be left there.

This wholly inadequate style of arguing came to the fore in our live debate.  I used David Hume’s essay, “Of Miracles” from An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding in my opening address to discredit the eye-witness accounts of Christ’s miracles.  I set a direct challenge for Williams to refute Hume’s reasoning, stating that apologists have spent the following 250 years unsuccessfully trying to worm their way out it.

After all, if David Hume’s treatment of miracles is as fallacious as you have contend in this book, Peter, then you should have no problem knocking it over in less than thirty seconds, should you?  But no, as with his latest book, Williams simply regurgitated a line from Hume’s Abject Failure by John Earman about how terrible Hume’s argument is, and then utterly failed to explain exactly what is so terrible about it.[vii]

Not good enough.  Doesn’t even get out of the starting blocks.

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[viii] did McGrath say a word in public to admonish the Right Reverend Graham Dow for his unsophisticated take on matters?  Like hell he did!

A conflict with science?

Nowhere does Williams’ evasive style show more than in his treatment of the conflict between science and religion.  You’ve guessed it!  He throws in a lot of quotes from theologians asserting that there is no conflict between the two disciplines but offers absolutely no arguments or evidence in support.

There’s no discussion about attempts by the religious lobby to block potentially life-saving stem cell research or attempts to teach junk-science and creationism to school children.   There’s not even a hint of science’s capacity to determine the authenticity of religious relics such as the Shroud of Turin.

Unforgivably, Williams plays down the trial of Galileo by the Inquisition, quoting others who reckon his incarceration was not due so much to his heretic discoveries in relation to planetary movements, but due to personal animosities with Church leaders themselves.   Perhaps our intrepid apologist should re-familiarise himself with Augustine:

There is another form temptation, even more fraught with danger.  This is the disease of curiosity.  It is this which drives us to try and discover the secrets of nature, those secrets which are beyond our understanding, which can avail us nothing and which man should not wish to learn.

There’s not even a moment’s consideration given to the possibility that the origins of our cosmos and life on Earth is as much gap in our scientific knowledge today as the causes of disease was in Leonardo Da Vinci’s time.  No, instead Williams piles quote-upon-quote regarding the high improbability of the first single-celled life form arising on Earth.

Thankfully, there are scientists who are not prepared to give up in the face of uncertainty, but are prepared to battle on in the face of the odds.  These scientists may not pen New York Times bestsellers, but they are hard at work in laboratories, toiling away in obscurity and their work is responsible for the kind of life-saving discoveries that you and I depend on to live.

There’s less talk of Intelligent Design than Williams’ previous effort and the book is all the better for it.  Unsurprisingly, Williams omits to mention Darwin’s Black Box author and “Design Theorist” Michael Behe’s public humiliation at the hands of plaintiff counsel, Eric Rothschild, in the Kitzmiller –v- Dover P A case.

Nevertheless, Williams won’t leave Darwin alone without lobbing a few pebbles.  He cites the infamous statement pimped by the Discovery Institute that 300-plus scientists have signed as evidence of a growing opposition to Darwinism:

We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life.  Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged.[ix]

However, American physicist, Victor Stenger, puts a somewhat different spin on matters:

Note that “intelligent design” does not appear in the statement.  In fact, it is rather a mild expression of scepticism, always a reasonable scientific attitude, and a gratuitous call for careful examination of the evidence of Darwin’s theory – unnecessary because this has been the rule in evolution science since Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle.  Indeed, Darwin’s work still serves as an exemplar of the best in empirical and theoretical science, and is one of the most strenuously tested.[x]

A bit of Monty Python-esque evasion

Perhaps it is too sweeping to say that Williams did not tackle the question of whether the preaching of hell to children constitutes child abuse.  He does at least address the question of preaching hell to children, stating that children ought to be told compassionately that there is a very nasty place, a flip-side to heaven, that they will go as punishment for rejecting JC as their personal saviour, but this should be done as a deterrent from the risk harm; rather like warning them of electrocution if they put their fingers into a plug socket.[xi] Right.

Nevertheless, in our debate, during the audience Q & A, Williams floundered saying that Christians have long debated what hell really is and there is no clear consensus among the scholars etc. etc.  I now sympathise with Christopher Hitchens when he says that it’s next to impossible to get a straight answer out of believers as to what they really believe.

Why don’t believers just come clean and tell me that as an atheist who refuses to recognise the public torture, execution, and resurrection of a person that took place 2,000 years before I was born, on the other side of the world (and a particularly backward and barbaric part of the world at that), which I didn’t ask for, and would have tried to prevent had I known anything about, I am going to roast for eternity in Satan’s boiler-house along with all the other miserable sinners weeping and gnashing their teeth?

And finally… a half-hearted defence of the historical Jesus

The closest Williams comes to defending the actual truth of the Christian doctrine comes at the end with an appendix setting out the historical evidence for the life of Jesus Christ.

Yet again he throws in a quote from Dawkins’ section from The God Delusion about the historical unreliability of the Gospels and then counters it with a far more positive statement from Human Genome Project leader and born-again Christian, Francis Collins, and thinks this is an effective response![xii]

However, Williams never deals with the substance of Dawkins’ objections to the Gospels: the scant biographical details of Jesus in the epistles of Paul, the internal contradictions between the Gospels in just about every detail of Jesus’ life, the historical impossibility of Luke’s attempt to triangulate the story with the true historical context of First Century Palestine under the Romans, the ludicrous fabrication of an empire-wide census that required the population to return to the home town of distant ancestors, the blatant ripping off of just about all of the supernatural elements of the story from other religions in existence in the Mediterranean and Near-East region at the time.[xiii]

In my opening address in our debate, I raised many of these objections and yet again, Williams did not substantively reply to them; he just threw in more quotes from other writers.

In his book Williams waxes lyrical about the number of original New Testament documents that exist compared to recordings of other historical events and the writing of Greek philosophers.[xiv] This is little more than an argument based on strength of sales.  Is anyone going to argue that Dan Brown’s work is more truthful and more intelligent than Aristotle’s simply because he has sold more copies?

Williams also uses questionable extra-biblical sources in support of the Jesus myth, citing Thallus, Piny the Younger, Tacitus and Lucian of Samosata.[xv] True to form, Williams does not elaborate further on exactly how these accounts support the New Testament; he just expects the reader to go to the experts.

In fact, these accounts were written long after the “events” by writers born long after the “events”, are mainly limited to describing early Christian practices and are mainly based on the New Testament accounts themselves.

Thallus never wrote a word about Jesus; Lucian of Samosata wrote a satire, not anything remotely historical; Tacitus does not even mention the name “Jesus” and his reference to “Christus” means he almost certainly received his information from Christians, or Pliny the Younger, who in turn came by it from Christians he had tortured.

But in the end, this section does not even come close to a defence of the faith, let alone a promotion of it.   There is not a word, for example, on the questionable morality of vicarious atonement for sin by human sacrifice or even a reason as to why the Bible might be more valid than the Koran.

In conclusion

This one is worth an extra half star for not being quite as deliberately dishonest as I Wish I Could Believe In Meaning, but that hardly ranks as a compliment, much less a recommendation.

Indeed, based on these two works, and my debate against him, Williams perfectly befits the description he so eagerly applies to Richard Dawkins: an emperor who is looking rather scantily clad.

2 stars out of 5

Books cited or recommended

Cornwell, J. (2008). Darwin’s Angel: An Angel Riposte to The God Delusion. London: Profile Books.

Dawkins, R. (2007). The God Delusion. London: Transworld Publishers.

Hume, D. (2007). An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

McGrath, A E with McGrath, J C. (2007). The Dawkins Delusion? Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.

Stenger, V J. (2008). God, The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist. New York: Prometheus Books.

Williams, P S. (2009). A Sceptics Guide to Atheism: God Is Not Dead! Carlisle, Yorkshire: Paternoster.


[ii] “Fleas”,

[iii] Paula Kirby,Fleabytes: A review of 4 books written in response to The God Delusion”,, 19 February 2008:,2285,Fleabytes,Paula-Kirby.

[iv] Sam Harris, “The Problem with Atheism”, Atheist Alliance International 2007, Richard 25 October 2007:,1805,Sam-Harris-at-AAI-07,RichardDawkinsnet.

[v] Christopher Hitchens –v- Rabbi David Wolpe, “Is religion Good for the world?”,, 5 November 2008:,3304,Hitchens-Debates-Rabbi-Wolpe-on-God,NY-Times.

[vi] Williams (2009) 177 – 178.

[vii] Williams (2009) 231.

[viii] Jonathan Wynne-Jones, “Floods are judgment on society, say bishops” The Daily Telegraph, 2 July 2007:

Thomas Sutcliffe, “When is a bishop like a suicide bomber?”, The Independent, 3 July 2007:

[ix] “Doubts Over Evolution Mount With Over 300 Scientists Expressing Skepticism With Central Tenet of Darwin’s Theory”, Discovery Institute, April 1, 2004:

[x] Stenger (2008) 61.

[xi] Williams (2009) 77.

[xii] Williams (2009) 217 – 218.

[xiii] Dawkins (2007) 117 – 123.

[xiv] Williams (2009) 219 – 220.

[xv] Williams (2009) 228.

Special thanks to Steven Carr:

All web-based resources retrieved 1 March 2009.

Peter S Williams Up Close – Part I



manicstreetpreacher reviews I Wish I Could Believe In Meaning by Christian apologist, Peter S Williams, following their live debate at Liverpool University on 19 February 2009.

On 19 February 2009 I spoke in a live debate at Liverpool University against Peter S Williams of Southampton-based Christian group, Damaris, opposing the motion “Does the Christian God Exist?” The YouTube links will follow.

In preparation for the debate, I read many of Williams’ articles, listened to his debates and podcasts and read his two most recent books, I Wish I Could Believe In Meaning: A Response to Nihilism and A Sceptic’s Guide To Atheism: God Is Not Dead! The latter was not officially released until 27 February, over a week after our debate, but Mr Williams in all his good Christian nature emailed me the final proof in PDF a few days beforehand.

Unlike my earlier piece on my Premier Christian Radio debates against Andy Bannister, this essay is not intended as a “what I wish I’d said at the time”. Indeed, I am very happy with my performance against Williams. Of course there are a few things I would change if we were going to do it again, one or two places were I stumbled over my words, points I would like to have discussed more thoroughly if time had allowed, but for my first live debate I was more than happy with the way I acquitted myself.

These two essays are to expand on points which were raised in the debate and to provide a fuller analysis of my opponent’s written work.

I Wish I Could Believe In Meaning: A Response to Nihilism[i]


In which my antagonist sets out his reasons as to why the atheism of Richard Dawkins, Dan Dennett and Charles Darwin is deeply unsatisfying and that belief in God alone can provide meaning and purpose in people’s lives.

Except in relation to the latter he doesn’t.  He quite simply does not.

There is not one argument, not one sentence, not one word, not one single syllable in support of Williams’ proposition that only belief in God in general and the Christian God in particular is either truthful, useful or meaningful.  Perhaps because he knows he is preaching to his own choir, he takes it as read that his audience will have accepted the first premise and attempts to demonstrate that atheism is meaningless and with content.

The book is argued entirely negative terms: because the atheist world view provides no hope, no meaning and no purpose to life, it should be rejected in favour of theism.   Alas, Williams offers no positive arguments is favour of theism, but simply attempts to show how unattractive he finds atheistic materialism.

The only justification Williams gives is a personal anecdote about when a women he spoke to at the launch party of his first book, The Case For God, said that she wished she could believe in God as her life might have some purpose and meaning.  “Why don’t you?” was Williams’ reply to this poor lost little soul.  What I want to know is “Why should I?”

Apologists seem to require reminding of this ad nauseum (not that it ever sinks in) that an argument for usefulness is in no way, shape or form an argument for truth.  I’m sure the belief that Elvis will return from the dead/ alien captivity provides boundless hope and meaning to certain members of our society, but that is hardly going to persuade a rational sceptic of the truth of this proposition.   As I read the book, I was increasingly convinced that “I Wish I Could Believe in Wishful Thinking” would have been a far more appropriate title.


The one (count it) interesting passage that had me thinking was Williams’ discussion of beauty: is it subjective or objective?  Would the Mona Lisa still be beautiful if there were no human beings left on Earth to appreciate her?

Williams’ answer is that beauty must be objective since God is the final arbiter of such matters.  However, Williams comes up short, merely asserting that David Hume’s subjective view of beauty that “one man’s meat is another man’s poison” means that sadomasochism might be beautiful to some people but personally, Williams doesn’t like that sort of thing very much.[ii]

My own view is that beauty is a manmade construct; an opinion, an emotive response, nothing more.  If there was no-one left alive to appreciate a 24-carat diamond, then it would just exist as a piece of matter.  And if I’m wrong and there is a God, how can we possibly know his mind?  For all Williams knows, God may despise the roof of the Sistine Chapel, but on the other hand, think “A dead cow cut in half submerged in a tank?  An unmade bed sodden with beer cans and used condoms?  Now that’s art!”


Williams argues that objective morality can only come from God.  God exists and he has the final say on matters of right and wrong.

Williams quotes J L Mackie’s The Miracle of Theism to suggest that even some atheists reject the idea that morality can be objective as this would provide evidence in support of the existence of God.[iii] (I must say that I read Mackie somewhat differently, but this is nothing compared to the abject quote-mining that litters the entire book, more of which later.)  Williams also quotes agnostic philosopher Michael Ruse who argues that morals are a product of human evolution and therefore can only be subjective.[iv]

Williams makes assertions which sound great on paper but fall apart when given a small injection of reality. As I said in our debate, if there is an objective moral standard, if that objective moral standard is God and if the practice of slavery is objectively wrong, then why would God expressly and repeatedly mandate, regulate and justify it in the one book he thought was so important he dictated himself?[v]

When it comes to morality, I make an exception to my otherwise materialistic world-view.  De facto morals are relative and subjective.  There are practices in other parts of the world and practices of yesterday which we in Britain today quite rightly find abhorrent.  However, I believe that there is an objective standard of morality which can only be realised through human conversation, philosophical debate and scientific research.  Those who argue that objective morality can only be achieved through God still have all their work ahead of them.

The moral wrong of slavery is just as applicable to the people of first century Palestine while Paul was recommending the practice as it was in the nineteenth century whilst Abraham Lincoln and William Wilberforce were opposing it.  Just as the existence of Australia was just as applicable to white Europeans before the continent was discovered by James Cook in the 18th century.

Of course I am really indulging in a meta-physical fiction – a spot of decidedly unatheistic wishful thinking – since as with beauty, there would be no morality if every member of the human race was dead.  Furthermore, this objective standard will in all likelihood never be achieved, unless human progress reaches some sort of utopian endpoint where suffering and pain no longer exist.

Nevertheless, in the same way that geographical, physical and empirical facts such as the existence of Australia will only be discovered through human exploration, moral facts such as the evil of slavery can only be discovered by a similar process of research, debate and exchange of ideas.

No matter how much like chasing a rainbow this approach might seem, the alternative does not bear thinking about: saying that the actions of the 9/11 hijackers could never be said to be truly wrong, or worse; engaging in the kind of sloppy moral equivalence of the American Left in response to those attacks.  We must be able to condemn the atrocities carried out by Islamo-fascists as wrong, full-stop.  No ifs, no buts, no sickly relativistic maybes.

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

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

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

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

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

As a final point, if theists want to claim the one version of religious faith, they have to accept the other.  Sure, there are many good deeds carried out in the name of religious faith, but there are also many atrocities that flow directly from it as well, and those don’t equalise at the margins as much as Williams would wish.  Is there any wickedness, any evil, any atrocity that is denied to people who think they have God on their side?

Was it or was it not the American apologist, William Lane Craig, who stood at the very same lectern at Liverpool University as I did in March 2007 and rather obnoxiously argued that an atheist cannot say that torturing a child for fun is wrong?[vi]

Well, let’s just consider the flip side to that particular coin for a moment?  We all have access to news outlets.  Isn’t it so often the case that someone who will torture a child, maybe not for fun, but certainly because they believe they are objectively moral in so doing, will do it precisely because they think they have permission from God?

The smug assertion, trotted out so regularly by believers that an atheist cannot say that the God-ordered atrocities of the Old Testament were objectively wrong, falls down like a house of cards – like all religious reasoning – once matters are thought through a little more carefully.

Limited sources quoted to death

This might seem like a trivially aesthetic point, however, it is an important point against Williams’ writing style.  The book relies so heavily on quotes from other sources that it’s almost as if Williams doesn’t really understand the arguments he is writing about, but is, but is just regurgitating the writings of his opponents and then countering them with those of his supporters.

That Williams is playing with the ideas of only about twenty different writers doesn’t help matters either.  In the theist corner we have G K Chesterton, C S Lewis, Keith Ward, Michael Behe, William Dembski and William Lane Craig.   In the atheist corner we have Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Charles Darwin, David Hume, J L Mackie and Michael Ruse.  That’s not an exhaustive list, but there aren’t too many others.  And Williams pads out the book with so many quotes from these writers that it’s impossible to know what Williams’ own views really are.  I suspect Williams doesn’t know either.

In between the introduction and the concluding chapters, the footnote count is close to or exceeds one hundred references and some of the longer chapters have over two hundred!  The chapters just grind on like a machine stuck in first gear until they fizzle out completely.

The book wheezes under the weight of third party material that there is absolutely no flow to Williams’ arguments; no beginning, no middle, no end.

Unintelligent Design

Williams discredits himself badly with his abject support for “Design Theorists” Michael Behe, William Dembski and the other wedge-driving hacks at the ironically named Discovery Institute.

Williams argues that Intelligent Design (ID) is only concerned with detecting design in nature and not will the identity of the designer him/her/itself.  Yeah right, Peter, who do you think you’re trying to kid?  Admit it, ok.  The designer is God!  If not, then perhaps you would like to share with us other fledging scientific theories you are giving such passionate support to?

Anyone who has read Richard Dawkins’ treatment of Behe and ID in The God Delusion will read these passages with a withering sense of incredulity.[vii] I’m not a biologist, but without going into the finer points of information and the order in which proteins are arranged in a cell, I can see the fallacy in the ID argument a mile off.  It is little more than a dressed up “God of the Gaps” argument: “I can’t explain how this works.  Therefore it must be God.”

We have two theories: Theory A, evolution by Natural Selection, which has plenty of evidence to back it up.  Theory B, an invisible intelligent designer, has no evidence.  Here’s a scenario that Theory A seemingly can’t explain.  Therefore, Theory A falls down like a house of cards and Theory B is the right answer by default.

It’s an incredibly bad piece of reasoning which gets you nowhere.  It’s not all that long ago that people thought that disease and bad weather was God’s punishment for sin.  These days, the number of people who rely solely on good behaviour and prayer over modern medicine to fight the elements is mercifully small.

And just who is this Intelligent Designer?  Do you have his business card?  For one thing, I’d really love to have a stern word with him over the fantastic “design” job he did on my hairline!

Humans are not the end product of evolution.  We are not the products of an intelligent agent. The proof is in our own bodies.  The reason why humans often suffer terrible back pain is because our spines are supporting 70% of our body weight on its own.  Our spines are better suited to a species which should be still walking around on all fours.  The fact that the human oesophagus shares the roles of swallowing and breathing means that humans are very susceptible to choking to death every time they eat.  Some design, I would say.

It’s not just argument from the inadequacy of the designer as Williams so desperately contends.[viii] To accept that biological organisms were intelligently designed, you have to accept that the designer must have either been stupefying inept or incredibly callous and capricious and cruel.

Williams attempts to paint ID as a serious scientific argument that is gradually gaining credibility in the scientific community when in reality ID is a political ploy, an attempt to get creationism into school science classrooms by the back door.  Williams cites respectable scientific journals which have purportedly published peer-reviewed articles advocating ID.[ix]

In fact, the history of peer-reviewed articles advocating ID is sparse to say the least!   The amount of publish material advocating ID is outweighed by a week’s worth on Darwinian evolution.[x]

For all those non-scientists like me who would like to know more, the TalkOrigins website skilfully and concisely refutes every single one of the claims of ID, and for that matter, creationism.[xi]

If you are looking for a very amusing field test of Williams’ views on ID, I can do not better than suggest a listen to his Premier Christian Radio debate against Peter Hearty, a member of the UK National Secular Society and a scientist who actually knows what he’s talking about.  Hearty demolishes every single one of Williams’ assertions without a second thought![xii]

More amusing still is the extraordinary disclaimer that now appears on the Department of Biochemical Sciences website at Lehigh University:

The faculty in the Department of Biological Sciences is committed to the highest standards of scientific integrity and academic function.  This commitment carries with it unwavering support for academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas.  It also demands the utmost respect for the scientific method, integrity in the conduct of research, and recognition that the validity of any scientific model comes only as a result of rational hypothesis testing, sound experimentation, and findings that can be replicated by others.

The department faculty, then, are unequivocal in their support of evolutionary theory, which has its roots in the seminal work of Charles Darwin and has been supported by findings accumulated over 140 years.  The sole dissenter from this position, Prof Michael Behe, is a well-known proponent of “intelligent design.”  While we respect Prof Behe’s right to express his views, they are his alone and are in no way endorsed by the department.  It is our collective position that intelligent design has no basis in science, has not been tested experimentally, and should not be regarded as scientific.[xiii]

Then again, Behe destroyed his own reputation in the Kitzmiller –v- Dover P A trial when he admitted under cross-examination that ID could only be construed as a theory only in a very loose sense, placing it in the same category as astrology!   For a summary of Kitzmiller, I recommend the excellent documentary, Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial.[xiv]

I think now, ID has all the credibility of the theory that the movements of the planets dictate our lives.


Maybe I’m guilty of idolatry in relation to certain atheist writers, but as I read the quotes which peppered I Wish I Could Believe In Meaning and the way which Williams was attempting to use their own words against them, I thought, “That doesn’t sound like the Richard Dawkins/Dan Dennett/Charles Darwin I know!”

I sourced the quotes from their original texts myself and exactly as I suspected, Williams is engaging in that disgraceful, dirty and dishonest tactic known as “quote-mining”.  He takes certain quotes wholly out of context to make it appear that either the authors doubt their own views or they have a faith-based commitment to Darwinian evolution as a means of justifying their non-belief in God.

For the debate, I created a whole list of examples of this disgraceful tactic by my opponent.  On the night, I had no cause to use them, but I present two examples here to give an impression of what I mean.

1. Williams quoting Richard Dawkins:

Even if there were no actual evidence in favour of Darwinian theory we should still be justified in preferring it over all rival theories.[xv]

The full passage from The Blind Watchmaker is as follows:

Instead of examining the evidence for and against rival theories, I shall adopt more of an armchair approach.  My argument will be that Darwinism is the only known theory capable of explaining certain aspects of life.  If I am right it means that, even if there were no actual evidence in favour of Darwinian theory (there is of course) we should still be justified in preferring it over all rival theories.

One way to dramatise this point is to make a prediction.  I predict that, if a form of life is ever discovered in another part of the universe, however outlandish and weirdly alien that form of life may be in detail, it will resemble life on Earth in one key respect: it will have evolved by some form of Darwinian natural selection.   Unfortunately, this is a prediction that we shall, in all probability, not be able to test in our lifetimes, but it remains a way of dramatising an important truth about life in own planet.

The Darwinian theory is in principle capable of explaining life.  No other theory that has ever been suggested is in principle capable of explaining life.  I shall demonstrate this by discussing all rival theories, not the evidence for or against them, but their adequacy, in principle, as explanation for life.[xvi]

2. Williams quoting Daniel Dennett:

I have learned from my own embarrassing experience that how easy it is to concoct remarkably persuasive Darwinian explanations that evaporate on closer inspection.[xvii]

The full passage from Darwin’s Dangerous Idea is as follows:

The ideas expressed in this book are just the beginning.  This has been an introduction to Darwinian thinking, sacrificing details again and again to provide a better appreciation of the overall shape of Darwin’s idea.  But as Miles van der Rohe said, God is in the details.  I urge caution alongside the enthusiasm I have hope I have just kindled in you.  I have learned from my own embarrassing experience that how easy it is to concoct remarkably persuasive Darwinian explanations that evaporate on closer inspection.  The truly dangerous aspect of Darwin’s idea is its seductiveness.  Second-rate versions of the fundamental ideas continue to bedevil us, so we must keep a close watch, correcting each other as we go.  The only way of avoiding the mistakes is to learn from the mistakes we have already made.[xviii]

In another place Williams quotes from the sixth edition of Charles Darwin’s On The Origin Of Species by splicing two lines together from different pages of the book![xix] The first part of Williams’ quote actually comes further along by some 20 pages in Darwin’s book on than the second part![xx]

Finally, Williams mines H Allen Orr’s damning review of Michael Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box[xxi] to make it appear that Orr has doubts over Darwinism.[xxii]

This disgraceful tactic should speak for itself without any further comment from me.   Right from my first experiences of debating with apologists, I am no longer surprised at such below-the-belt tactics.  I wouldn’t trust their word if one of them told me Richard Dawkins’ views on the colour of an orange.

In conclusion

I thought this was a thoroughly lacklustre effort; bloated with quotes from other sources, reaching its conclusions without offering any arguments in support, grossly misrepresenting the atheistic world-view and repeatedly stooping to the depths of misquoting famous atheistic thinkers.

An extra half star for getting me to think about the objectivity/subjectivity of beauty but otherwise the film critic, Leonard Maltin, would rank this one as a “BOMB”.

1.5 stars out of 5

Books cited or recommended

Dawkins, R. (2007). The God Delusion. London: Transworld Publishers.

Dawkins, R. (2007). The Blind Watchmaker. London: Penguin.

Dennett, D C. (2006). Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. London: Penguin.

Mackie, J L (1990). The Miracle of Theism: Arguments for and against the Existence of God.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Williams, P S. (2004). I Wish I Could Believe In Meaning: A Response to Nihilism. Southampton: Damaris Publishing.


[ii] Williams (2004) 240.

[iii] Williams (2004) 64.

[iv] Williams (2004) 121.


[vi] William Lane Craig –v- Mike Begon debate “Is God a Delusion?” Liverpool University March 2007

[vii] Dawkins (2006) 156 – 161.

[viii] Williams (2004) 136 – 140.

[ix] Williams (2004) 425, 452.





[xiv] Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial (2007) NOVA:

[xv] Williams (2004) 118 – 119.

[xvi] Dawkins (2006) 287.

[xvii] Williams (2004) 430.

[xviii] Dennett (2006) 521.

[xix] Williams (2004) 418.


[xxi] H Allen Orr, “Darwin v. Intelligent Design (Again)”, Boston Review, December 1996/ January 1997:

[xxii] Williams (2004) 431.

All web-based resources retrieved 1 March 2009.

Follow My Way: An Inter-Faith Dialogue at Liverpool University, 12 March 2009, 6:45pm



For those of you who missed my debating début at Liverpool Uni last week, fear not!   I have received my first invitation to speak at Liverpool University’s Inter-Faith Dialogue to advocate the atheist cause on Thursday 12 March 2009 at 6:45pm held at the Science Lecture Theatre.

I’ll be on a panel with a Christian, a Jew and a Muslim.

We’ll have 10 minutes to make a statement at the lectern and then it will be thrown open to the floor.


Hamza Tzortzis

Edward Turner

Rabbi Y Y Rubinstein

Chaplain James Harding

University Science Lecture Theatre Building, Lecture Theatre A

Building 221 on the map

Parking is available outside the building or behind the Guild.

Popular landmarks around the building:

1) It is opposite the Veterinary Sciences Building just off Crown Street.

2) Behind Barclays Bank and Spar.

3) Two mins walk from Blackwells bookshop on campus.