By PAULA KIRBY
Added: Tue, 19 Feb 2008 00:00:00 UTC
Fleabytes: A review of 4 books written in response to The God Delusion:
John Cornwell, Darwin's Angel: An Angelic Riposte to The God Delusion, Profile Books, 2007, Alister McGrath with Joanna Collicutt McGrath, The Dawkins Delusion? , SPCK, 2007, David Robertson, The Dawkins Letters: Challenging Atheist Myths, Christian Focus, 2007, and Andrew Wilson, Deluded by Dawkins? A Christian Response to The God Delusion, Kingsway, 2007
In the beginning ...
You will no doubt have heard the (admittedly not particularly funny) joke about there being two versions of The God Delusion: one of them moderate, reasonable, utterly convincing and only bought by atheists, and the other vicious, aggressive, offensive, and exclusively bought by Christians. It is clear that religion is an emotive issue and that the reader's beliefs (or lack of them) will strongly colour his or her reaction to any writing on the subject. For this reason I'm going to lay my cards on the table right at the start: I am an atheist, a great fan of Richard Dawkins' books and an enthusiastic contributor to this website when time allows.
However, only the first of those admissions pre-dates my initial reading of The God Delusion (hereafter referred to as TGD). When I first read the book I'd never encountered anything else by Richard Dawkins or even heard of this website. I had stopped being a Christian some years before, but had no axe to grind against Christianity beyond the fact that I no longer believed in it. I had heard that TGD was an offensive, over-hostile book, and actually expected to dislike it for that very reason. I certainly wasn't a paid-up member of the Richard Dawkins fan club and there was nothing in my beliefs that might have been expected to prevent my seeing the horrors of TGD, if indeed they were there at all.
What other preconceptions should I declare openly before beginning my review? Over the last year or so I have spent a considerable amount of my time debating with Christians and it's only fair to say that, for the most part, I have found both the substance and the style of their arguments to be highly alienating, and my atheism has strengthened considerably as a result. One Christian whose behaviour falls well and truly into the "alienating" category is the one who calls himself "Wee Flea" on this website — none other than the David Robertson who wrote one of the very books I'm about to review. This is, therefore, another prejudice I have to declare: it simply isn't possible to approach The Dawkins Letters as I might approach a book written by someone of whom I had formed no prior impression. It would be neither possible - nor, I think, desirable — to consider any claims he may make about the superiority of Christian morality or the evil into which a non-Christian must slide without weighing them against what we know of his own, apparently Christianity-inspired, behaviour towards people on this site.
I also had a preconception that Alister McGrath's book, The Dawkins Delusion?, would probably be the meatiest of the four and the most likely to pose a serious challenge to my atheism. He is, after all, an Oxford theologian, and I remember having his book Explaining Your Faith on my bookshelf in my Christian days.
But I was wrong about McGrath. Just how wrong I will save for my specific review of his book. Of the four books, rather astonishingly only one attempted a serious rebuttal of TGD and imparted a clear view of its writer's beliefs — and that was David Robertson's. There is very little by way of argument in the other books that Robertson does not cover in his, and so I shall respond to his book in detail and simply highlight particular features of the others in much briefer reviews.
Certain issues — such as Hitler and Stalin, for example — appear over and over again in all the books. Rather than repeat myself in responding to them, I have dealt with each of them just once, as a special topic placed at what seemed the most appropriate position within the main reviews.
You can access each section of the reviews via the links below:
David Robertson, The Dawkins Letters: Challenging Atheist Myths
Introduction and Letter 1: The myth of the higher consciousness
Letter 2: The myth of Godless beauty
+ Special Topic: Atheism as faith
Letter 3: The myth of atheist rationality and tolerance
+ Special Topic: What atheists would accept as evidence
Letter 4: The myth of the cruel Old Testament God
Letter 5: The myth of the science/religion conflict
+ Special Topic: The Bible
Letter 6: The myth of the created God and the uncreated universe
+ Special Topic: Cosmological questions
Letter 7: The myth of the inherent evil of religion
Letter 8: The myth of Godless morality
Letter 9: The myth of the immoral Bible
+ Special Topic: Hitler and Stalin
Letter 10: The myth of religious child abuse
Final letter to the reader: Why believe?
John Cornwell, Darwin's Angel: An Angelic Riposte to The God Delusion
+ Special Topic: Paranoia
Andrew Wilson, Deluded by Dawkins? A Christian Response to The God Delusion
+ Special Topic: Miracles
Alister McGrath with Joanna Collicutt McGrath, The Dawkins Delusion? Atheist fundamentalism and the denial of the divine
David Robertson, The Dawkins Letters: Challenging Atheist Myths
Rather to my surprise, I found this the best of the four books. Not because I found its arguments convincing — I didn't; nor because it didn't creak under the weight of the distortions of what Dawkins really says in TGD — it does; nor because it avoids the patronising tone and personal animus that characterises two of its fellows — it doesn't. It was the best purely and simply because it does at least attempt to give some explanation of what Robertson believes and, of the four writers, Robertson puts up by far the best fight albeit — and this won't come as a surprise to anyone who knows him from his Wee Flea posts on this website — not always the cleanest.
Robertson addresses ten letters to Dawkins, each ostensibly challenging the corresponding chapter in TGD and also tackling "an atheist myth". These are followed by an eleventh letter, to the reader, on the subject of "Why believe?" Good question: I know we're all agog to hear the answer, but I won't spoil the fun by revealing it too early. There's also an introductory letter to the reader, in which he claims that many of the essays in A Devil's Chaplain attack religious beliefs (they don't) and that Dawkins is appealing to people's ignorance (rather the opposite, I would have thought), and in which — you'll like this — Robertson dedicates the book "to the glory of God and in memory of the many millions who lost their lives in the wars and injustices of the Failed Atheist 20th Century." If you think you can detect a clue as to what he's going to base a lot of his argument on — you're right.
Letter 1: The myth of the higher consciousness
According to Robertson, Dawkins claims that those who share his views have attained a higher consciousness and are therefore "de facto more intelligent, rational and honest than other human beings". Does Dawkins actually make that claim anywhere in TGD? I think not, but let's not spoil a good yarn by a pedantic insistence on accuracy. Besides, there's plenty more where that came from: the claim, for instance, that "you do not discuss with 'fundamentalists' or those who believe in revelation or supernaturalism." Actually, Dawkins has said he doesn't enter into public debate with creationists - which is not quite the same thing.
Robertson tries early on to create an analogy between Dawkins' criticism of religion and the way intellectuals criticised Jews and Judaism in 1930s Germany (we're meant to infer that Dawkins' criticism of religion now may have similarly sinister consequences). This is a theme that will re-emerge again and again in these books. Soon afterwards, however, he offsets this piece of paranoia with a question of startling naivety: "Do most people not already know that it is perfectly possible to leave a religion and not suffer any significant consequences?" He concedes that in Islam such an action would be problematic, but registers astonishment that anyone might think it might be difficult for Christians. If he is being sincere in this then Robertson, like Cornwell's insular angel who thinks most Christians are liberals who have no problem with the idea of evolution, really needs to get out more.
But soon the paranoia emerges again: "Being a Christian," he asserts, "is more often than not a stumbling block to one's chosen career path, rather than being an atheist." This is followed by the claim that "The National Secular Society get a far bigger exposure than the vast majority of Christian churches" and the lament that evangelical Christians would never be given the chance to broadcast a rebuttal to Dawkins' TV series, The Root of All Evil? Maybe Robertson is unfamiliar with the tedious daily God-slot on the Radio 4 Today programme — the UK's leading national morning radio news programme — or even with its condescending equivalent on the more light-hearted Radio 2; maybe it has escaped him that, the moment there is any hint of an ethical dimension to a news story, it is a clergyman — not the NSS — whose opinion is immediately sought.
The letter ends with a quick reference to Niall Ferguson's study of 20th century history and its "stunning indictment of the failure of secularism and 'science' to bring peace on earth" (in effect just a repeat of the slur that atheism must result in Stalin and Hitler, and a subject I deal with more thoroughly later) and a quick plug for truth being ultimately found in Jesus Christ. Does he offer any evidence for this assertion? No, of course not.
Letter 2: The Myth of Godless Beauty
No one who has seen Wee Flea in action on this website will be surprised to learn that this letter opens with an attack on the "vitriol" of some of the responses to his first letter when it was posted here, and suggests that the people behind it are "eccentric, extreme and in need of some kind of therapy". He goes on to claim that videos of Dawkins' tour of the USA show similarities to revivalist TV evangelist rallies, totally under Dawkins' control, and that he mocks those who disagree with him and refuses to engage with them constructively. (Quite apart from the fact that the videos show nothing of the sort, the lack of self-awareness shown by Robertson here is quite staggering: mockery of those who disagree? Refusal to engage constructively? Does that remind you of anyone?)
Special topic: Atheism as faith
The mention of evangelist rallies perhaps makes this a good place to get the issue of religious terminology out of the way. Either these writers genuinely can't get their heads round the concept of a life that isn't governed by the structures and observances of religious belief, or each of them thinks it's uproariously funny, witty and original to apply the terminology of faith to Dawkins and atheists in general. The books therefore abound in phrases such as "atheist creed", "heresy", "disciple", "faith", "atheist church" and — of course — "fundamentalist". These little witticisms clearly provide believers with endless fun and a constant source of merriment and perhaps we shouldn't begrudge them their moment of mirth: after all, as we shall see, there's not much room for light-heartedness when it comes to their own beliefs.
Be that as it may, is it appropriate to think of atheism as a faith? The fleas clearly think it is, on the basis that we can no more provide evidence for our position than they can for theirs: consequently, we need something additional — faith — to justify our belief in it. However, there is a major difference between the positions of atheists and theists here, and the philosopher Julian Baggini puts it so well in his book Atheism: A Very Short Introduction that I shall quote him in full: "Only religious belief requires faith because only religious belief postulates the existence of entities which we have no good evidence to believe exist. It is a simple error to suppose that just because atheist beliefs are also 'unproven' or 'uncertain' that they too require faith. Faith does not plug the gap between reasons to believe and certain proof. Rather it is what supports beliefs that lack the ordinary support of evidence or argument. And that is why, as the traditional religious texts tell us, faith is not as easy as ordinary belief. Or, as atheists tell us, why faith is foolish."
The meaningfulness of concepts such as "heresy", "creed" and the like clearly depends upon the existence of a set of core doctrinal texts outlining the "terms and conditions" of an ideology, so to speak. Atheism can boast no such core texts, not least because it has no holy being to hand them down to us and declare their inerrancy. The one thing that binds atheists together is a lack of belief in a god or gods. Nothing in that simple statement suggests the kind of imposed orthodoxy that could make talk of "creeds" or "heresy" remotely appropriate.
But what of fundamentalism? Is atheist fundamentalism even possible? Again, no, for the simple reason that atheism HAS no fundamentals to be fundamentalist about, unless you count non-belief in a god or gods, which is no more than the definition of an atheist. If we are to say that having (or not having) a belief is the same as being fundamentalist about it, then we have no choice but to say that all Christians, too, are fundamentalists. Which would be to strip the term of all meaning.
It is certainly possible to be a dogmatic atheist, i.e. an atheist who rules out any possibility that they might be wrong, in the same way as it is possible to be dogmatic on any subject, from politics to the right way to pronounce "scone". However, most atheists I know, whilst confident that current evidence points their way, are open to the possibility of new evidence emerging that could change their point of view. Many have actively sought to understand or even achieve faith. There's no reason to think that atheists are more dogmatic than anyone else in society.
It is also possible to be a hostile atheist, an atheist who hates everything to do with religion and would like to see it consigned to history, but this is by no means an automatic part of the definition of an atheist. Furthermore, hostility does not have to mean a desire for violent suppression: it is as silly to suggest that such people are likely to try to achieve their ends through violence as it would be to suggest that I (who cannot abide football) am likely to fire a machine gun into the crowds at Hampden Park.
Robertson goes on to recall his failed attempt at atheism, agreeing with Dawkins that the gods of religion were "somehow trivial compared to such beauty and grace [of the natural world]" but then adding: "And here's the rub. They are. But neither could I replace them with humans."
Yes, read it again. He's suggesting that atheists either see humans as gods or want to turn them into gods. I find such thinking extraordinary, not least because it so fundamentally misses the point about atheists, which is that gods do not figure in our view of the world at all, but also because it is not atheists who see humans as a particularly special part of the universe, and not atheists who see humans as "the apex of creation". If evolution teaches us anything, it is not JUST that all species are the product of eons of development and that there is therefore nothing particularly special about any one of them, but also that they are impermanent. No grounds for speciesism here! It's not atheists who claim God-given dominion over all the creatures of the Earth! And again — we are not advocating a replacement for a god we do not believe in. Why would we need to replace something we don't believe we've ever had? Is the concept of life without a god of any kind really so impossible for a believer to get his head around? Apparently so.
Robertson also claims, "You cannot explain beauty or evil, creation or humanity, time or space, without God. Or at least you can, but to my mind the materialistic, atheistic explanation is emotionally, spiritually and above all intellectually inadequate." So it IS possible to explain all these things without God — but Robertson feels happier with the religious explanations. Okaaaay but let's not pretend this constitutes an "intellectually adequate" response.
In support of his view, Robertson offers a quote from Jonathan Edwards ("one of the greatest philosophical minds that America has ever produced", he claims, though he doesn't say in whose opinion and omits to mention that Edwards' philosophy was much influenced by his being a Calvinist theologian): "For as God is infinitely the Greatest Being, so he is infinitely the most beautiful and excellent. All the beauty to be found throughout the whole creation is but a reflection of the diffused beams of that Being who hath an infinite fullness of brightness and glory. God is the foundation of beauty and glory."
All Robertson has done with this quote is to compound the offence of offering his own opinion as fact by adding someone else's opinion as fact too. Why is it that the religious have such difficulty in spotting a bald assertion made in the absence of any verifiable evidence whatsoever? What is it that they find so satisfying in a claim such as this one? Why is it that they don't share the desire to say to Jonathan Edwards (and others like him), "That's all very well, but how do you know? What are you basing that statement on?"
(Robertson is fond of opinion stated unreservedly as fact and indulges in it several times in this book: he unblushingly refers to Solomon as "the wisest man who ever lived" — which is a pretty sweeping claim; and doesn't hesitate to declare Gilead, by Marilynn Robinson, to be "the best novel of the past century". What? Better than Ulysses? Better than Darkness at Noon? Better than Mrs Dalloway? Better than The Tin Drum? Better than Midnight's Children? Better than Empress of Blandings?! — well, why shouldn't I put in my own plea for a personal favourite if Robertson can do it? I truly think you would have to be a man of the cloth before you could feel entitled to offer your personal opinion as incontrovertible fact in this way. This isn't a cheap point: this approach is found again and again in what Robertson and other believers claim about religion. It matters when opinion is proffered as fact.)
Robertson goes on to state that he's not convinced that the sense of wonder described so beautifully by Dawkins is "just a product of our natural being / environment", but then, he wouldn't be, would he? The sort of wishful thinking we saw above re-emerges quite blatantly when Robertson quotes a chemist as saying that "love, hate, beauty, spirituality and so on were all in the end 'just' chemical reactions". Robertson's response: "This seems to me a profoundly depressing, minimalist view of the universe and of human life." Oddly enough, he follows this claim that the atheist view is depressing by the apparently contradictory claim that it's also based on wishful thinking. Still, he misses the point entirely that, regardless of what underlies such sensory experiences, our experience of them remains the same. Whether love is an independent force that bestows itself upon us or whether it's a chain of chemical reactions, the feeling of being in love is identically intoxicating. This being the case, what grounds are there for deeming the chemist's view "profoundly depressing"?
Classic Robertson distortion — of the kind we are familiar with from Wee Flea's posts — follows, when he claims that Dawkins cites letters from Christians chiding Einstein's lack of religion purely so that he can "imply or assert that Christians are either ignorant or full of 'intellectual and moral cowardice'" — whereas actually it is quite clear from TGD that they are cited to refute the claim made by so many Christians that Einstein was himself a believer. Once more I must ask — how could an honest mind not realise this?
The letter moves towards its conclusion with a denial of Dawkins' claim that religion is based on faith, not knowledge. Robertson wishes to claim the opposite: "Faith without knowledge is blind and stupid. Biblical faith is in a person. If you do not know about that person you cannot have faith in him" — but, of course, fails to address how anyone in the 21st century can have knowledge of the person in question without faith: faith, at the very least, in the accuracy and reliability of ancient texts, which can only be trusted to have both those qualities if you believe the equally faith-dependent notion that they were inspired by God. Quite apart from which, if you have knowledge, faith is redundant and significant chunks of Paul's letters become utterly meaningless.
Then comes the pained lament of "How would you feel if I took some of the more ludicrous and ignorant comments from some of the atheists on your website and used them as an example of how atheism rots the brain? It would not be fair or honest." This consideration, it has to be said, has not stopped Robertson from doing just that on the frontispiece of his book. In fact, it makes for amusing reading, but of course we know the context in which he provokes such responses. Given that he spends much of his time on this site atheist-baiting, it does seem a little disingenuous to complain when we bite.
Finally, he claims to find Christian claims "wonderfully liberating" (from what, I wonder?) and that they "best fit the facts as far as I can see them". It would seem unkind to question his eyesight, but less so to ask for his evidence for that assertion. None is given, however.
Letter 3: The Myth of Atheist Rationality and Tolerance
Robertson claims that Dawkins' position is primarily philosophical and religious, rather than scientific, and that atheists are being unfairly circular when they demand proof for God's existence but then insist that only material proof counts. He argues that this reduces God to the level of a chemical reaction and that the atheist premise — that everything boils down to a chemical reaction — is itself an unprovable assertion. Oh yes, and let's not forget that such a belief "end[s] up with the absurdity of man as God".
The "man as God" nonsense has already been dealt with above. That particular demon emerges from the religious, not the atheist, mode of thinking. But the question about what constitutes proof is a valid one — and not as impossible to answer as Robertson would like to think. There is no need to come up with a chemical formula for God. Christians claim that God intervenes in the world: that his presence is discernible in the universe, in the laws of physics, in answered prayer, in personal revelation, in our sense of right and wrong. If those claims are true, then there is no reason why they should not be testable and why evidence of God's presence and influence on all those things should not be found. And yet, as Victor Stenger points out in his admirable book God: The Failed Hypothesis, all those questions can be explored and examined, and there is simply no evidence to suggest that supernatural intervention is necessary or present in any of them.
Special topic: What atheists would accept as evidence for the supernatural
These are just a few examples (and they'll be familiar to you if you've read Stenger's book) of phenomena that would defy any reasonable natural explanation. There will be many others.
1. If one type of prayer were convincingly demonstrated to work better than another type. For instance, if the efficacy of prayers said by Christians were consistently significantly greater than that of prayers said by Moslems or pagans, or people who just keep their fingers crossed. Or if any kind of prayer were shown to have a consistent, significant effect. Or if a single prayer achieved something truly extraordinary, something which simply could not be otherwise explained: the scientifically verified re-growth of an amputated limb, for instance.
2. If a new planet were to appear (as opposed to just being seen for the first time thanks to better instruments, for instance) in the solar system. This would violate the law of energy conservation and could only have a non-natural cause.
3. If evidence were to emerge that the universe must have begun in a high state of order, necessarily imposed from outside.
4. If there were any observable astronomical phenomenon that required the addition of a supernatural element before it could be described.
5. If, say, the Bible, had contained some specific information about the world which was unknown to science at the time of the "revelation" but which was later confirmed by observation. If it contained successful predictions of specific events in our own time that could have no plausible alternate explanation (not just vague allusions to suffering / evil / upheaval).
6. If someone undergoing a religious experience subsequently had new, verifiable knowledge that could not have been gained by other means. Not the usual stuff about how we should all love one another and watch our cholesterol, but something specific — the example Stenger gives would have been of someone in the 20th century specifically knowing that on 26 December 2004 a tsunami in the Indian Ocean would kill hundreds of thousands of people. We just couldn't account for such prescience other than by the existence of something outside the material world.
So let's not pretend that there's nothing atheists would accept as evidence for God: that's simply not true. What we won't accept as evidence is that which is not evidence. Robertson himself writes in this letter that "I'm not going to accept Mohammed as a prophet just because some religion tells me to". He also writes that experience "cannot be the determining factor in ascertaining what is objective truth." Well, I won't argue with either of those statements, though they don't shed any light on what it is that he thinks makes Christianity so self-evidently objectively truthful.
According to Robertson, religion can plead "Not Guilty" when it comes to the bloodshed in Northern Ireland, Bosnia and Iraq. This is not only demonstrably wrong, it's also rather terrifying: he seems to be suffering from a total blind spot when it comes to his own religion, simply unable to see (or unwilling to acknowledge) the harm for which it has (not always, but often) been responsible. I can only recommend he read Christopher Hitchens' God is Not Great, where he will learn otherwise. To take just the example of Bosnia, it is preposterous to pretend that it was all about ethnicity rather than religion: as if to underline the point, Serbian Orthodox troops were sometimes joined by Orthodox volunteers from Greece and Russia, who had nothing but their religion to motivate their participation. Orthodox fighters sported large crosses on their cartridge belts, and Catholics taped pictures of the Virgin Mary to their rifle butts. Religion was no innocent bystander in these events, much less a force for peace.
Robertson's sanguine state of mind promptly vanishes when contemplating the consequences of atheism, however: "The trouble is that your ridicule, combined with an atheist fundamentalism and the bitterness and irrationality of some of your own supporters, leads to persecution and intolerance." Now — no prizes for guessing which characters from history pop up in the next sentence. Yes, it's atheism's (sic) terrible trinity: Stalin, Pol Pot and Hitler. "Atheistic secular fundamentalism is in my view more intolerant and coercive than almost any religious position." (I deal with this issue as a special topic as part of my response to Letter 9.)
This assertion is followed by one that is, if anything, even more extraordinary: "I would suggest that biblical Christianity is the most tolerant and practical worldview that exists." Just in case you're not entirely convinced by this, he bases his claim on the fact that Christians are forbidden by God from using force; that Christianity is open to all knowledge because "all truth is God's truth"; and Christians respect all humans because all humans are made in the image of God.
By the way, have you ever asked a Christian what they actually mean when they say that humans are made in the image of God? And more importantly, have you ever received an answer that made any kind of sense at all? The word "image" is inherently visual, so to say that we are made in God's image suggests that God must have a physical appearance: which is clearly nonsensical, and Christians not unreasonably protest if they get the impression that an atheist is accusing them of belief in anything so physical as an old bearded man in the sky. So maybe the word "image" is being used poetically, and it's not our physical features that are the image of God's, but our emotions and intellect? Yet that doesn't stack up either, for the idea of any god worthy of the name being subject to the same kind of petty, trifling feelings that preoccupy so much of human experience is just plain silly: surely his emotions must be on a far grander scale. Likewise, human intellect is indeed rather special, it seems; yet it doesn't come close to what would be needed to create a universe, design the laws of physics, create the myriad species of life and then listen in to every conversation, be eye-witness to every action, privy to every unspoken thought, AND notice whenever a sparrow's feather drops to earth. Maybe it is our capacity for goodness that makes us the image of God? But that can't be right either, by Christianity's own account: for not only were the original, pre-Fall human beings susceptible to temptation (which God surely cannot be) but, as we will see from Robertson's arguments later on, since that Fall we have been corrupt and polluted, and full of the seeds of evil. None of which sounds very God-like.
However he's choosing to interpret "made in the image of God", I have to say his argument that this ensures respect from Christians might sit with me better if I hadn't so recently been reading Sam Harris's account (in The End of Faith) of the Inquisition, and the horrific and demonically inventive torture and murder of heretics, "witches" and the like, all at the hands of ordained clergy. Being made in the image of God wasn't that much of a safeguard against Christian-inflicted barbarity after all, it would seem.
Letter 4: The Myth of the Cruel Old Testament God
"When I read the Old Testament I find a wonderful God — a God of mercy, justice, beauty, holiness and love, a God who cares passionately for the poor, for his people and for his creation", writes Robertson. This perfectly extraordinary statement must reveal one of two things: EITHER the astonishing ability of Christians to see what they want to see and remain utterly oblivious to that which is less comforting and less convenient OR the astonishing ability of Christians to redefine words to suit themselves. Or both, of course.
I would be tempted to leave my discussion of this letter there — after all, Robertson's statement is self-evidently either wrong or a sign of utter delusion, so what more can I add? — but for the fact that he demonstrates such extraordinary solipsism in this letter that I can't leave it unmentioned.
He objects to Dawkins' opening paragraph of chapter 2 in TGD. You know the one: "The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction " Robertson finds it offensive: "you are implying that I believe in this cruel, capricious and evil god." He goes on, "if you attack my family, my friends, my community I am offended because part of my identity is tied up with them . My identity is bound up with the God of the Bible and especially Jesus Christ. Therefore, when you attack him you are attacking me. So please don't patronise."
Leaving to one side the sheer audacity of Wee Flea, of all people, complaining about being patronised, let's get one thing straight: David Robertson, this paragraph is not about you. TGD is not about you. The universe was not created with you in mind. Of course our identity is bound up with all our choices, preferences and beliefs. All of them — which football team we support, our favourite composer, our preferred holiday destination, whether we take sugar in our coffee - form part of who we are. Yet it would be ludicrous to suggest that no one should be allowed to write anything that is in opposition to our own preferences, for fear of causing us offence; and equally ludicrous to suggest that religion should be granted special status in this regard. When Robertson writes in his book that atheists have a "profoundly depressing" view of the world, I would challenge that on the basis of reality, not on the basis that my identity is bound up with my atheism and that he's therefore offending and patronising me.
Yet still he goes on: "Maybe I deserve the offensive remarks." No, David. It's not about you! It is only your God who has you in his thoughts every second of every minute of every hour I'm afraid we mere humans don't give you a thought from one irritating post on this website to the next.
A few pages further on we have another example of Wee Flea-esque twisting of words: "I am fascinated that you think that there is something to be said for treating Buddhism not as a religion but as an ethic or philosophy of life. Would you therefore accept the philosophy that says that handicapped people are born that way because they were bad in a previous life and they are just getting their karma?"
How does he arrive at that question, based on what Dawkins wrote? Why would treating Buddhism as an ethic or philosophy imply acceptance or approval of its claims — particularly its supernatural claims? (And by the way, offensive as I find the Buddhist explanation of disability, how is it more offensive than the notion that it's due to demon possession, or divine punishment or — possibly even more nauseating — an opportunity for others to demonstrate their Christ-like compassion?)
Moving on to the argument that belief in a god is comparable to belief in the celestial teapot and other patently (but not demonstrably!) invented phenomena, Robertson asks, "Do you seriously think that the evidence for the God of the Bible is on the same level as the tooth fairy?" He adds: "if the only evidence that existed for Jesus Christ was the same as that which exists for the Flying Spaghetti Monster then I and millions of others would not believe in him. So how about dealing with the evidence that we assert and staying away from that which only states your presupposition — that there is no God?" But something tells me that David Robertson wouldn't find this argument quite so convincing if uttered — as it could be - by a Moslem in defence of her belief in Mohammed as God's final and perfect prophet, or a Hindu in defence of his belief in Vishnu.
The concluding lines of this letter reinforce the wishful thinking that underlies Robertson's beliefs: "I live in a universe created by a personal God, the God of mercy, logic, justice, goodness, truth, beauty and love — the God whose purposes and intentions are good. You live in a universe which appeared from nowhere, is going nowhere and means nothing. Perhaps in the next chapter you will give us some reason for this soulless, cold and depressing belief."
Well, I don't find a universe without ultimate purpose to be soulless (except in the strictly literal sense), cold OR depressing, so perhaps David Robertson shouldn't project his fears of meaninglessness onto others. And he may well find his version of the universe more comforting — but he has yet to give us any evidence whatsoever to suggest that it's a reflection of reality.
Letter 5: The Myth of the Science/Religion Conflict
Robertson is not the only one of the four apologists to accuse Dawkins of "shockingly bad" understanding of Christian theology: it's common to them all and so I shall deal with it at some length here.
Special topic: The Bible
We are all familiar with PZ Myers' inspired "Courtier's Reply" to allegations of inadequate understanding of the Bible and theology, but there's another angle to this issue, too, it seems to me, and that is that Dawkins and other atheists are deliberately refusing to take the Bible at anything more than face value. At first glance this may seem deliberately obtuse but actually it is all part of stripping away the special treatment that has been accorded to faith in our societies. We are just no longer prepared to read "Show him no pity. Do not spare him or shield him. You must certainly put him to death. Your hand must be the first in putting him to death, and then the hands of all the people. Stone him to death because he tried to turn you away from the LORD your God " (Deuteronomy 13: 8-10, NIV) and pretend it means "God is love, God is good, God is moral."
Likewise, when Dawkins argues that omniscience and omnipotence are mutually exclusive (thus provoking shrieks of indignation and scorn from Robertson in this letter), he is simply refusing to engage in the sort of wordplay and casuistry that allow theologians to twist and turn and claim "Ah yes, well, that's not really what omnipotence means in this context." How many theologians have been kept gainlessly employed, how many trees have been felled, to produce and disseminate such sophistry? And why should a book that requires such reams of debate, disagreement and interpretation before it can be held to make any sense be considered to be the Word of God, for goodness' sake?
As a result, you don't need your words to be interpreted, translated, or otherwise made comprehensible by even one go-between, let alone whole university faculties of them. You are God, for God's sake — you are perfect and omniscient and omnipotent. You have the ability to create a book that will light up the world with its goodness and truth and unmistakably divine insight. A book that will speak directly to any human being in whatever age they live. A book that speaks incontrovertibly to the heart and mind of any being that opens it — and here's the thing: EVEN IF THEIR THEOLOGY IS SHOCKINGLY BAD.
If it is necessary to read the Bible in a certain way, through a certain kind of lens, with a willingness to allow words to mean what they do not mean, and not to mean what they do mean; if it can only be made to be not offensive, not repellent, not meaningless after years of in-depth theological study, then your benevolent, all-powerful and all-knowing God cannot have viewed it as a particularly important way of getting his message across. In which case, it's hard to see why "evidence" based on it should be taken very seriously.
Moving on, we come to an interesting insight into Robertson's take on beauty: "I have no doubt that human beings who are not believers can produce great works of art — but that is because they are Imago Dei — created in the image of God" - a non sequitur based on an unproven assertion. Given his eagerness to attribute Nazi characteristics to atheists, I'm rather surprised that Robertson indulged in this next comment, reminiscent as it is of the Nazi persecution of "degenerate art": "The ugliness of much modern art is that it has lost its connection with the divine and the wonder of beauty." Ugliness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, yet Robertson confidently declares, not only that much modern art is ugly, but also why that should be the case. (It may be worth reminding ourselves at this juncture that it is atheists and not Christians who stand accused of arrogance in these books!)
Having previously declared that experience isn't a reliable factor in determining objective truth, Robertson now tries to deploy it as if it were, with a list of types of personal experience which "at the very least point us towards God: answered prayer, a sense of God ('truly God is amongst you'), experience of the miraculous, experience of the truths and truthfulness of the Bible and the experiences of being filled with the Spirit, to name but a few." All of which, unfortunately for his argument, can be accounted for perfectly naturalistically by the combined forces of psychology and probability.
"The historical evidence for the claims that Jesus made is quite clear. The Gospels make it explicit," says Robertson, thus demonstrating once more a less than secure grasp on the very concept of historical evidence.
I was a little baffled for a while by his section on "Religious Scientists", which goes to some trouble to list a number of scientists who don't share Dawkins' atheism, as though this in some way undermined Dawkins' position: why do this when TGD itself acknowledges the existence of just about all of them? But I fear this was my naivety showing through: Robertson is writing with a Christian audience in mind, an audience that hasn't read TGD and therefore won't know that Dawkins himself raises this issue and deals with it. This impression is thus created that Dawkins claims that hardly any scientists believe in God, but that Robertson has exposed this as a fraud.
We end with a reminder of Stalin, Mao and Hitler and their adherence to scientific materialism, and Robertson's claim that he "honestly believe[s] that this is where your atheistic hatred of God will eventually lead society." (David, please: atheists don't hate God: we don't believe in him. However foolish and misguided you may believe us to be, at least do us the courtesy of not considering us SO foolish as to waste time and energy hating something we don't believe exists. We may hate the power of religion over people's minds and over our governments, and we may hate some of the expressions and consequences of religious belief. But we do not hate God, just as you do not hate Marxist daffodils.)
And finally: "without that biblical worldview I have no real explanation of, nor defence against, the evil of which humans are capable" and yet another bald assertion: "The presence, power and perfection of Jesus Christ is (sic) no delusion."
Since he develops his theme about human evil later, I shall save my comments for then.
Letter 6: The Myth of the Created God and the Uncreated Universe
The section in TGD that deals with cosmology is without doubt a difficult one for the reader — even the willing reader — to get his or her head around, since it deals with concepts that are so infinitely beyond our day-to-day experience and equally beyond our capacity for imagination. Many of the theories being generated by science — tested and challenged and re-tested, and so far found to have withstood such sustained attempts to disprove them — are bizarre beyond our strangest dreams. We shouldn't be surprised then, when someone who is deeply wedded to a religious explanation of the universe dismisses them scornfully, and David Robertson performs accordingly: "I found it fascinating that when you were challenged about this you argued that we don't know where matter came from but one day scientists will find out. Despite this rather touching faith in the potential omniscience of scientists, I'm afraid that will not do. The existence of God [ ] is dependent on the fact that there is any matter at all, and that we live in a universe which is so fine tuned that life is possible at all. Why is there something rather than nothing?"
This is a question that, understandably, comes up in several of these books and to anyone who is interested in the subject matter, I strongly recommend Victor Stenger's book, God: The Failed Hypothesis. Not being even remotely qualified to comment on such matters, it is from this book that I have taken the points below, though I don't for one moment recommend them as an alternative to the book itself which, despite the complexity of its subject matter, is actually surprisingly readable and enjoyable.
Special topic: Cosmological questions
1. Why is there something rather than nothing?
Why is there God rather than nothing? Why, anyway, should "nothing" be a more natural state of affairs than "something"? In fact, our best current knowledge of physics and cosmology shows that "something" is more natural than "nothing". Nature is able to build complex structures by processes of self-organization, which is how simplicity leads to complexity. Many simple systems of particles are unstable, undergoing spontaneous transitions to more complex structures of lower energy. "Since 'nothing' is as simple as it gets, we cannot expect it to be very stable. It would likely undergo a spontaneous phase transition to something more complicated, such as a universe containing matter. The transition of nothing-to-something is a natural one, not requiring any agent. As Nobel laureate physicist Frank Wilczek has put it, 'The answer to the ancient question [Why is there something rather than nothing] would then be that "nothing" is unstable.' An empty universe requires supernatural intervention — not a full one. Only by the constant action of an agent outside the universe, such as God, could a state of nothingness be explained."
2. Big Bang must have been caused by God — you can't explain it any other way
This would be a compelling argument if Big Bang could be shown to have violated the law of conservation of energy. However, neither observations nor theory indicate that this was the case. The negative gravitational energy in the universe exactly cancels out the positive energy represented by matter, meaning that the total energy of the universe is zero. Consequently the existence of matter and energy requires no violation of energy conservation. This being the case, there is no reason to suppose there was any supernatural element to the "creation" at all.
If the universe had a beginning (such as an act of creation), it would have had to have begun in a state of high order necessarily imposed from outside. Stenger demonstrates that our best current cosmological understanding shows that, at Planck time (i.e. 6.4 x 10-44 second after Big Bang) the universe had "no structure or organization, designed or otherwise. It was a state of chaos."
4. There must have been a cause
Whilst our everyday experience tells us that for every effect there must be a cause, everyday experience is not a reliable guide when it comes to explaining the odder aspects of the universe. "In fact, physical
events at the atomic and subatomic level are observed to have no evident cause. For example, when an atom in an excited energy level drops to a lower level and emits a photon, a particle of light, we find no cause of that event. Similarly, no cause is evident in the decay of a radioactive nucleus."
5. Where do the laws of physics come from then?
The mathematical formulations of models show that, once the requirement that they be objective and universal has been met, most of the familiar laws of physics emerge naturally. Those that are not immediately obvious can be plausibly explained as having arisen through the process of "spontaneous symmetry breaking". "Most of [the laws of physics] are statements composed by humans that follow from the symmetries of the void out of which the universe spontaneously arose. Rather than being handed down from above, like the Ten Commandments, they look exactly as they should look if they were not handed down from anywhere."
6. What about the fine-tuning of the universe?
Stenger argues that "many of the examples of fine-tuning found in theological literature suffer from simple misunderstandings of physics", often based on the fact that the apparent fine-tuning cited is actually dependent on the unit of measurement being used, and not anything inherent in the physical parameters at all.
Life cannot develop on planets unless their star is long-lived. Stenger shows that the lifetime of a star is dependent on three parameters: varying those parameters randomly in a range of ten orders of magnitude around their present values, he discovers that over half the stars will have lifetimes long enough to allow planetary life to develop. So no fine-tuning there.
Another flaw in the fine-tuning argument is that investigators generally vary a single parameter whilst assuming all the others remain fixed; they also work on the erroneous principle that the parameters are independent of each other.
I shall quote Stenger's next paragraph in full: "Physicist Anthony Aguire has independently examined the universes that result when six cosmological parameters are simultaneously varied by orders of magnitude, and found he could construct cosmologies in which 'stars, planets, and intelligent life can plausibly arise.' Physicist Craig Hogan has done another independent analysis that leads to similar conclusions. And theoretical physicists at Kyoto University in Japan have shown that heavy elements needed for life will be present in even the earliest stars independent of what the exact parameters for star formation may have been."
"No fine-tuning is necessary for the production of carbon, oxygen, and the other basic elements of life. They are in fact the elements that are among the easiest to form by common nuclear reactions."
Stenger also reports the result of a 1952 experiment that showed that the molecular ingredients of life are also easy to produce.
7. The universe must have a purpose, and that purpose is set by God
Well, if so, and that purpose was humanity, then God wasted a great deal of space where humanity will never make an appearance. (Since the universe is expanding, the furthest observed galaxy to date is now about 40 billion light years away. That's a LOT of space.) He wasted a lot of time too: humans have only been around for less than one-hundredth of one percent of Earth's history. None of this points to humans occupying a place of particular, planned significance in the universe.
Science certainly doesn't have all the answers as yet. But how likely is it that, where modern science, based on an astonishing foundation of rigorously tested knowledge and assisted by superb instrumentation, has not yet succeeded, ancient myths have? The more we learn about the world and the universe, the less they resemble the picture presented by the Bible.
Robertson dwells on the subject of the sheer improbability of life having arisen in the universe — indeed, of the universe being suitable for life at all. But as with the list of religious scientists, I again got the impression that this was designed to create the impression that Dawkins had tried to dodge this issue in TGD — which, of course, he hadn't. This suspicion of devious behaviour on Robertson's part is in no way reduced by his quotation from Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time, on the following page: "It would be very difficult to explain why the universe should have begun in just this way, except as the act of a God who intended to create beings like us."
Wow. What a compelling quote. If even Stephen Hawking thinks the universe is evidence of a creator God, then who are we — who, even, is Richard Dawkins — to demur? Surely this clinches the argument for anyone with any sense, or any humility, at all? But wait. What's this? Familiar as I am with the way David Robertson twists words and distorts meaning on this website, I couldn't feel entirely confident that Hawking had been faithfully represented here so tracked down the quote in A Brief History of Time for myself. It's certainly there, as quoted. However, it's followed by a lengthy argument to the effect that the universe didn't, in fact, begin in the "just this way" referred to in the quote, and that he believes a "no boundary" model to be more accurate — i.e. that the universe had no beginning at all. In fact, Hawking's whole chapter culminates in the words: "So long as the universe had a beginning, we could suppose it had a creator. But if the universe is really completely self-contained [as he himself has just argued], having no boundary or no edge, it would have neither beginning nor end: it would simply be. What place, then, for a creator?"
Now, maybe David Robertson was a little unfortunate here. A Brief History of Time has the dubious distinction of having been hailed as the least read bestseller of all time, so he may well have felt safe in distorting Hawking's opinions as expressed in it. Still, such behaviour is a bit hard to reconcile with the Ninth Commandment, is it not?
The other main argument of this letter (and it appears, of course, in the other books too) is that Dawkins has completely misunderstood the nature of the Christian God when he discusses the probability of its existence in evolutionary terms. Anyone who's read this far is doubtless familiar with Dawkins' argument: that natural selection shows us beyond any doubt that complex life forms evolved over vast periods of time from simple life forms: the God posited by Christians must be extraordinarily complex and therefore simply cannot have been always in existence in that form. In effect: who designed the designer?
This provokes howls of protest from all the apologists reviewed here. Robertson claims it is a question that could have been expected of a six-year old (which does, rather amusingly, suggest that even a six-year old can see the obvious flaw in the God posited by Christianity), before showing us that the very question is stupid because "God is not made. God is the creator, not the creation. God is outside of time and space. [ ] God creates ex nihilo. That's what makes him God. [ ] Christians and other theists do not argue that God was created. That is precisely the point. He did not come from anywhere. He has always been. He did not evolve, nor was he made. [ ] We do not believe in a created God. We believe in an uncreated supernatural power. I'm afraid you disprove nothing when you argue against the existence of a created God." (Can't you just hear him hyperventilating here?)
Yes, David — and Andrew, and Alister, and John — we do know that you believe in an uncreated supernatural power. (Well, actually, John Cornwell doesn't — he claims that God is natural, not supernatural, but let's not get sidetracked.) The point is: regardless of what you believe, such a being is simply impossible, and Dawkins' argument explains why. That is simply not how the universe works. Complex beings do not just exist — they evolve. Simply repeating your mantra of what you believe — the magic wand argument — does not remotely address the challenge issued by Dawkins here. The God you believe in is simply impossible. This won't stop you believing in him — but the simple fact of your belief does not constitute any kind of argument against the impossibility of its being based in reality.
Letter 7: The Myth of the Inherent Evil of Religion
Actually, this letter should be called "The Myth of Benevolent Atheism", since Robertson doesn't defend religion against any of the accusations levelled against it in TGD, but simply tries to turn them all around to claim that atheism must lead to worse.
Dawkins' attacks on religion, according to Robertson, are dangerous, an incitement to violence and intolerance: "If you regard religion as a virus what should be done with a virus? It should be eradicated." (Should it? Weren't viruses created by God too? If not, where did they come from? Just a thought.) And: "When you go around describing religion as evil and as a virus you should not be surprised if there are those who hear your words and put them into practice in a way you would not like."
Sorry, David — just give me the page reference where Dawkins claims that religion — per se — is evil, will you? I mean, I'm sure you haven't put words in his mouth here, or taken a comment out of context — you wouldn't do that, would you? Though hang on, what's this: 2 sentences further on you write, "Atheists don't bomb or burn? Try telling that to the members of the 77 churches in Norway which were burnt down when some over-zealous young atheists took on board the teaching about how dangerous and evil religion was."
Now, admittedly, Robertson doesn't specifically claim that these acts of arson were carried out in response to TGD but context, as he keeps telling us, is everything, and this sentence is in the same paragraph as the one warning that Dawkins' campaign could have unintended consequences — so at the very least, he hasn't made it clear that these acts weren't a consequence of TGD. I hadn't heard of this arson campaign and was shocked, so checked it out and discovered that it wasn't, in fact, perpetrated by a group of secular humanists roused to a frenzy by the vision of the primacy of rational thought (such as TGD is trying to foster), but by a group of fans of a most unpleasant-sounding musical genre called "Black Metal", which has an ideology that embraces misanthropy, paganism, Satanism, nationalism and a rather morbid obsession with mortality. Whilst they are also undoubtedly anti-Christian in their themes, I think it is fair to say that you will find very few such people among the eager readership of TGD, or amongst atheists as a whole — and to imply otherwise (even by omission) is not just dishonest but silly. For anyone who's interested, by the way, the wave of arson attacks against churches in Norway took place between 1992 and 1996, a full 10 to 14 years before the publication of TGD.
Not content with likening atheists to Black Metal hooligans, Robertson reminds us that Bakunin and Lenin both argued that religion was "a virus which needed to be eradicated — they both advocated and implemented the killing of believers as a social obligation."
It's bizarre, isn't it? Is Robertson really unable to distinguish between boorish thugs who are driven by a totalitarian ideology that leads them to create an ersatz religion based on a virtually "divine" leader, and a movement that is trying to create a world based on secular, humanist, rational, democratic values? Each of those four adjectives is important, and each one of them marks and extends the gulf between the goals of the "New Atheist movement" (always supposing there really is such a thing) and those of the self-idolizing, inhumane, insane and anti-democratic monsters with whom Robertson and other theists are so desperate to associate us.
Would I like to see a world free of religion? Well, yes, I would, but if it happens in my lifetime it will be because the religious extremists have got hold of nuclear weapons and have blown us all up as a mark of dedication to their version of god, not because the atheists have run amok and exterminated them all. No one is remotely suggesting violence or oppression or "eradication" here — Robertson is assuming that we will indulge in the same kind of atrocities that the Church indulged in over the centuries, but the whole point of Dawkins' argument about the moral zeitgeist is that it has moved on: just because the Church burned witches at the stake and tortured heretics and banned books in a desperate bid to suppress views it didn't approve of, doesn't mean that we morally improved 21st century atheists are going to be attracted to the same methods. We favour the persuasion of the book over the persuasion of the branding iron; the argument of logic and reason and science over the argument of the rack. If religion loses followers in a secular society it will be because a) it is no longer being actively forced on children by the State and b) because former believers will have lost their belief. Not through force, not through coercion, not through oppression, not through extermination (it's embarrassing to even have to refute such patent nonsense), but through debate and explanation. There isn't the slightest prospect of a secular humanist state banning (or even attempting to ban) religion — whether practised publicly or privately - and to suggest otherwise (especially on the basis of writings by Richard Dawkins, who so clearly comes across as someone with a social conscience and an enormous sense of humanity) is either paranoia or downright, disgraceful dishonesty.
Talking of which, Robertson writes (when defending his use of the word "fundamentalist" to describe Dawkins), "You do not debate". Again, this is an assertion that he might have got away with, given that his book is most likely to be read by Christians who don't want to read TGD for themselves but want to know how to argue against it, but those of us who have seen the videos on this website, or on YouTube, or the BBC website — or (hey, now here's an idea) have actually read TGD, will know that it's just, plain untrue. How can Robertson make such an allegation in a book purporting to respond to TGD, when TGD itself refers to instances when Dawkins has taken part in precisely the sorts of debate that Robertson accuses him of shunning? The section headed "An Interlude at Cambridge" is all about a conference he attended — and spoke at; and argued at — that was sponsored by the Templeton Foundation! So what's all this nonsense about refusing to debate?
I hope that by now you are getting some sense of the evidence that Robertson relies on for his faith. I confess that I am not, and this gives me some difficulty when I encounter this claim: "You define faith as believing something without evidence — a definition which is just something that you have made up in your own head and has nothing to do with Christianity. My own faith is based on evidence. The minute you disprove that evidence I will change my faith."
Well, no, Dawkins' definition is pretty mainstream. My New Oxford Dictionary of English defines faith as "strong belief in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof" — and no, spiritual apprehension is not evidence, since it is subjective and therefore untestable, as well as attributable to psychological phenomena that are perfectly natural in origin. If Robertson's faith is based on evidence, then his faith is redundant. There is no need for me to have faith that my employer will pay my salary this month if I have evidence that the money is in my account. And it's a bold offer that he'll change his faith if Dawkins can disprove his evidence, but it's still not clear what evidence he thinks he has. There is no evidence that God created the universe. There is no evidence that life could not have originated without God. There is no evidence that the universe exists for the purpose of making human life possible. There is no evidence of an afterlife. There is no evidence of the Garden of Eden, a Tree of Knowledge or talking snakes. There is no evidence of the Israelites wandering through the desert. There is no evidence for a virgin birth. There is no evidence for a resurrection, or a bodily ascension into the heavens. There is no evidence of a soul. There is no evidence of answered prayer. There is no evidence of the miraculous suspension of natural laws. There is no evidence that the Bible was written by or inspired by God. There is no evidence for God whatsoever - unless you count a warm and cosy feeling that "there's got to be something more than this". And even that can be accounted for in terms of a brain that has evolved sufficiently far to be able to reflect on questions relating to its own existence and be mournfully conscious of its own mortality.
The final argument in this letter that I shall pick up on is Robertson's assertion that the weakening of Christianity in Europe would leave us vulnerable to Islam sweeping in in its stead: "Secularism cannot handle nor deal with Islam — it does not have the spiritual, moral or intellectual fibre to do so. If you were to destroy Christianity (which is your aim), what that would leave is a spiritual and moral vacuum in Western Europe that would be filled by either a new fascism or Islam."
Leaving aside the nonsense that belief in a non-existent deity can increase our spiritual, moral or intellectual fibre (a claim not altogether borne out by careful observation of our religious brothers and sisters, it has to be said), this argument completely misses the point, which is that at the heart of what Dawkins is advocating is a blossoming of our critical faculties, increased insistence in our demand for evidence, beliefs rooted in reason, and a rejection of ideologies based on raw emotion, illogicality or the supernatural. It is hard to see how a vigorous adherence to the notions of critical thinking and intellectual independence might leave us more exposed to the menace of religious or pseudo-religious ideologies.
Robertson wrote his book before the attempted terrorist attack on Glasgow Airport this summer. I wonder whether the reaction of baggage handler John Smeaton gave him pause to reflect on his sweeping assertion that only Christianity has the guts to stand up to Islam? Smeaton tackled one of the terrorists for the simple reason that "You needn't think we're going to let you get away with that sort of thing in Glasgow, sonny." A love of freedom, a commitment to democracy, and a straightforward sense of right and wrong, such as is innate in all of us, are sufficient to ensure vigorous resistance to militant Islam. Here, as everywhere else, no god is required.
Letter 8: The Myth of Godless Morality
David Robertson doesn't like the look of the universe described by Dawkins. He quotes from The Blind Watchmaker: "The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference" — but then twists that description to write: "That then, is the atheist basis of morality — no justice, no rhyme nor reason, no purpose, no evil, no good, just blind, pitiless indifference."
Note the leap there from the UNIVERSE being pitilessly indifferent, to ATHEISTS being pitilessly indifferent. And this, despite the fact that he's already acknowledged Dawkins' evolutionary explanations for "good" behaviour, defined in terms of altruism towards those who share our genes, and those in the social group around us whose opinion of us will be reflected in their behaviour towards us etc.
This kind of morality falls far short of David Robertson's high standards: "it does not seem much of a morality. It is still primarily focused on the Selfish Gene. It is all about me, me and mine. As a Christian I believe that the Bible teaches that human beings are fundamentally selfish and self-centred — however the Bible is not content to leave us there. There is something better. Christ came to challenge and to deliver us from the self-centredness which you glorify as the basis of morality."
He demonstrates a lack of understanding on two fronts here: firstly, he is assuming that atheists seek their morality from the universe, in the same way that a theist seeks morality from God. He has been taught to seek the basis of morality outside himself, and erroneously assumes that atheists must do the same. But morality does not come from the universe (or God), it comes from people and from the behaviours that make it possible for us to co-exist — successfully for the most part - in social groups.
Secondly, he misunderstands the nature of "the Selfish Gene". It is not a gene for selfishness, in the way we might speak of a gene for a nut allergy, but simply the fact that genes behave selfishly in seeking whatever most improves their chances of replicating, regardless of other considerations. It does not follow from this that the human who is "home" to these genes must therefore be selfish, or that someone who subscribes to the view of "the selfish gene" is a glorifier of selfishness! Robertson is really hostage to his worldview here: his beliefs limiting and sabotaging his comprehension.
Robertson frets about the lack of concepts such as "free will, choice or responsibility" in evolution-based views of morality, and also about the lack of absoluteness in such morals: "if there are no absolutes then there is no ultimate standard to judge by. And if there is no ultimate standard then we are left with anything goes, might is right, or the whims of a changing or confused society." The logical fallacy of seeking absolute morality in God was covered fully in TGD, so the briefest of recaps will suffice here: does God choose what is good because it is good, or is the good only good because God chooses it? If the former, then "good" is clearly independent of God; if the latter, then the very concept of what is "good" is entirely arbitrary. As Julian Baggini points out, in this case God could choose torture and thereby define it as "good". But everything in us rebels against such a notion: we know that torture is not wrong just because God does not choose it: which demonstrates that we do not need God in order to be able to distinguish right from wrong. No, a normal, healthy degree of empathy with others and the simple understanding that their welfare also counts is all it take to get morality off the ground.
Robertson claims that the Christian view of morality explains evil (it's because "human beings are screwed up"); it explains the universe (i.e. why people have a sense that they really should behave one way but then go off and behave in a different way); and it explains himself ("In looking at the horror of the Holocaust it was the most humbling and awful experience to realise that not only were the Nazis human but I was too. The same evil that came to such horrendous fruition in the Nazis was also, at least in seed form, present in me.")
He goes on to describe, at some length, biologists whose science-based understanding of humanity has led them to advocate measures that the vast majority of us would find repulsive. Bill Hamilton, for instance, "to whom you owed a great deal in the writing of your book The Selfish Gene - and whose writing you stated was passionate, vivid and informed" is claimed by Robertson to have "argued for a radical programme of infanticide, eugenics and euthanasia in order to save the world." I know nothing about Bill Hamilton so he may or may not have expressed these views in this way. On the other hand, I do know how David Robertson distorted Stephen Hawking's views (above), and he hasn't cited a reference for his comment here, so perhaps we shouldn't take his claim too seriously. But even if Bill Hamilton had held the views ascribed to him here, of what relevance is that to The God Delusion, which makes it perfectly clear that Richard Dawkins does not? Why does quoting one area of person's work with approval imply whole-hearted acceptance and approval of their whole being? Newton held some very strange views on alchemy, but this doesn't mean he has nothing to teach us in other areas.
However, I think Robertson uses the Bill Hamilton example for a different reason here: to highlight what he sees as the inevitability of the human descent into hideousness if we turn our backs on God. This is so central to the case he makes in this letter, and, I believe, to his case altogether, that it's worth quoting his final paragraph in full:
"The Christian view of morality is not, as most people suppose, that the Bible gives us a set of laws to live by. Real Christians are not moralists — thinking that if only we offer a reward here, a bit of punishment there, then 'decent' human beings will behave better and somehow earn their own stairway to heaven. We know that we can neither legislate nor use religion to make us good. Real Christians realise that the Bible's teaching is that there is an absolute morality - from which we all fall short. And no amount of religion, good works or pious acts will ever be able to make us right. That is where grace, salvation, the cross and all the wonderful truths of the acts of God in Christ come into their own. God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. That is why the Gospel is Good News. Not because it gives us a set of laws to live by, or religious rites to perform, but because it deals with the biggest problem in the world — the problem of the human heart. It is for that reason that every year I religiously watch Schindler's List to remind me of why I am a minister of the Christian Gospel. I don't just want to explain the Darkness. I want to defeat it."
In Robertson's view, humans are inherently prone to evil. (Remember his comment elsewhere, that "humans are polluted"?) In his view we ALL have the capacity to be Nazis and to commit the worst possible atrocities. And it is only Christianity that can save us from becoming the very worst we might be. It is not, perhaps, that atheists must inevitably be inherently worse than Christians - more that, without Christ, atheists don't have anything to put the brakes on their innate evil or to save them from the eternal consequences of it.
And he calls Dawkins' view of the universe depressing!
What Robertson puts forward here is so utterly repugnant, so inherently foul, so full of loathing for humankind and, by extension, himself, that it genuinely grieves me. It's not new, of course - more than one of my evangelical Christian acquaintances has told me that they are "a miserable wretch". But how sad to believe it. How sad to be forbidden by the tenets of your religion from taking a relatively objective, appraising view of yourself and assessing — as honestly as you can — your strengths and weaknesses, and - importantly - accepting who you are, as you are, without any of this appallingly masochistic fear of what may be lurking beneath.
Quite apart from the tragedy of viewing oneself and the rest of humankind (the rest of the universe, too) through such a joyless filter, the very case he makes is such palpable nonsense. Let's take a look.
1) Christianity explains evil.
Well, it's not exactly a watertight explanation, is it? According to the Genesis story, it was Adam and Eve's disregard for a single prohibition that led to all the evil in the world: natural disasters, pain, disease, the hunter and the hunted, selfishness, cruelty, death, the lot. Everything that has caused humans to suffer since then is attributable to this one act of disobedience (itself instigated by a talking snake, such as all of us encounter in our gardens every time we venture out with the lawn mower, no doubt). The suffering that ensued was so grievous to God that he sent his only son to take upon himself the punishment that we deserve — death by crucifixion. That son then rose from the dead to demonstrate how he'd conquered death on our behalf, and to offer eternal life to those who believe in him, based on their acceptance of his atonement for their sins.
There is so much in this alleged "explanation" that is simply preposterous. The Earth was a cooling planet with unstable tectonic plates and a fragile crust long before the first humans appeared. Consequently, earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis and all the other natural disasters that cause so much devastation and destruction would have occurred with or without Adam and Eve. Their attribution to such a silly story shows categorically that this is just an ancient myth, created before humans were able to explain such phenomena more realistically.
Pain is not of itself an evil, but a powerful survival tool. Those few people born without the ability to sense pain tend not to live very long. So no Adam and Eve explanation required for that.
Much disease is the result of microscopic organisms: bacteria, viruses. If God created everything, he created those too. For what purpose, if it was only Adam and Eve's disobedience that permitted them to be unleashed on the world?
The manmade nature of this myth is again apparent in the idea that a perfect world would be one in which there was no death. Death is very sad, to be sure, but without it there would be no space for offspring, no space for food, no space to move, no oxygen to breathe. Death is what makes life possible. Death requires no explanation — unless you posit an all-loving creator god, of course.
This leaves us with the issues of selfishness, cruelty etc, but the fact that all the other supposed evils ushered in as a result of that talking snake clearly have scientific explanations that make a mockery of original sin should alert us to the fact that the explanation for these phenomena, too, is to be sought in science rather than ancient myth and, indeed, the disciplines of genetics and psychology are not slow to step up to the bar.
However, let's take the myth at face value for a moment and accept that the whole of creation has been groaning under the weight of the suffering caused by Adam and Eve's disobedience ever since. Why would God let that happen? He's omniscient, so must have realised at the very moment it happened that evil was now inescapably in the beings he'd created and would result in suffering for as long as his creation endured. So now he has a choice between two options: he can sit back and watch the suffering that ensues, all the while blaming the humans who perform bad acts and then punishing them accordingly (though that seems rather unjust, given that it wasn't their fault that Adam and Eve did what they did and therefore made them susceptible to evil); before finally relenting and sending Jesus to take our punishment for us and making everything alright again. OR he can just wipe out his work to date and start again. Remember - we're talking about less than a week here to create everything in the universe. So that's the choice: a week of hard labour, or thousands upon thousands of years of human suffering, followed by hideous torture inflicted on his own son. Why didn't he just wipe it all out and start again?
The Bible tells us he did eventually have some thoughts along these lines - hence the Noah story. But, by the very theory of original sin itself, that was never going to work, was it? If original sin has nothing to do with one's own acts and everything to do with evil introduced into the world by Adam and Eve, then how was destroying everyone except Noah and repopulating the world through him and his descendants going to help? Clearly Noah himself must have been tarnished by original sin, so the exercise was utterly futile. Pointless tokenism and pathetic half-measures - and this from a god who is supposedly all-knowing and all-powerful. It simply doesn't make sense. The only rational and loving option would have been to put the fallen universe out of its misery right at the start and to have gone back to the drawing board and had another go when he'd worked out how to do it better.
Quite apart from which, if it was The Fall that brought evil and suffering into the world, and Jesus's death on the cross that saved us from the consequences of The Fall, why is there still evil and suffering in the world? Why are there still earthquakes? Why is there still suffering? Why do some humans still commit evil acts? OK, Christianity may save us from the consequences of our sinfulness in the afterlife, but what about this life? Yet again, the religious treat this life — the one, brief life we know we have — as a disposable item, of secondary importance to the serious business of a totally unproven and exceedingly unlikely afterlife.
There is a further inconsistency in Robertson's argument. He sees atheism as inevitably leading to gross acts of evil but then argues that Christianity is not primarily about morality and that there's no reason why Christians should act any more morally than non-Christians. It's simply that Christians have a "get out of jail free" card because Jesus has taken their punishment on their behalf. So in fact, the only beneficiaries of Christianity are Christians themselves (and that only after their death), not society as a whole. It is therefore very hard to see why he should fear for society at large in the absence of Christianity. And yet we are all familiar with the laments of those who claim to see a decline in society's values to mirror the decline in religiosity. In fact, this entire letter is called "The Myth of Godless Morality". There seems to be a fundamental contradiction here: does Christianity lead to better behaviour (Robertson seems to be saying that it does not, whilst maintaining that atheism leads to worse behaviour, which seems to be very much like wanting to have your communion wafer and eat it) or is it just a way out of having to face up to the consequences of our bad behaviour?
If the latter, then that seems to be a very dodgy morality indeed. In fact, the whole concept of atonement is offensive as an approach to morality, and could only have arisen from a primitive tribal belief in blood sacrifice - the transference of our guilt onto an innocent being. Quite apart from the injustice of burdening and murdering the innocent being in this way, how — as Christopher Hitchens has forcefully argued - can this in any way be construed as being relieved of the responsibility of one's own actions? Someone else can take the punishment for my crime on my behalf, but the responsibility for that crime still rests with me, and me alone.
Robertson argues that the atheist explanation of good and bad behaviour removes free will, choice and responsibility, leaving us deterministically programmed by our genes and by evolutionary forces utterly beyond our control. On this basis, how can we be held responsible for our behaviour? But I would argue that Christianity's absurd focus on "original sin" is equally deterministic: according to this preposterous philosophy humans are inherently evil, not because of anything we have or have not done ourselves, but because of the legacy of Adam and Eve. Because of that inherent evil - which is not our choice, not the result of our own behaviour, but something that we are just born with - we deserve to die. More than that (for we all die) — we deserve to be tortured in hell for all eternity. However, we are spared that unhappy fate by the self-sacrifice of someone else we never even knew, and on whose decision we had no influence. So, Isaac-like, we have just been condemned and then reprieved on the basis of actions over which we have had no control whatsoever.
So much for our free will, choice and responsibility, which, it seems, have now been reduced to our freedom to either believe or disbelieve this absurd and nightmarish nonsense.
Morality? I don't think so.
Claim no. 2: it explains the universe
As advanced by Robertson, this is really just a repeat of claim no. 1, since it is based on C S Lewis's argument that only Christianity can answer the question of why humans have an innate sense of right and wrong, yet persist in doing wrong. According to Lewis/Robertson, only original sin can explain this. Which is plain ignorant: human beings have an innate sense of right and wrong because we are social animals, needing other humans around us in order to survive. Physical and emotional proximity requires us to adhere to certain rules, otherwise our societies could not survive, and generally we do indeed adhere to those rules. When we don't, it is because there is a competing urge: to further ourselves even though doing so may be harmful to others. This does not require tortured explanations: we are, after all, simply animals descended from other animals and there is no reason why we should have been granted a short cut to happy and peaceful co-existence. The failure to be perfect requires no particular explanation — perfection forms no part of our universe. The lack of it poses a philosophical problem only to those who posit a perfect creator.
And this is meant to explain the universe? The puny question of human conduct is at the heart of the universe, makes it comprehensible to us, unravels its mysteries and satisfies our curiosity? I think not. Contemplation of the universe throws up far more, and far more interesting and absorbing, questions than why humans behave as they do (that question, after all, can be dealt with zoologically, in the same way as the study of any other type of animal behaviour). The sheer narcissism of believing human conduct to hold the secret to the mysteries of the universe is just mind-boggling. The following information comes from Victor Stenger's book, God: The Failed Hypothesis. The closest star to Earth (after the sun) is Proxima Centauri. It is forty trillion kilometres away. Our galaxy contains an estimated 200 to 400 BILLION other stars, and ours is just one of approximately 100 BILLION galaxies in the visible universe. The galaxy closest to us is 2.44 million light-years away. The furthest observed galaxy to date is 13.2 billion light-years away. However, if the inflationary Big Bang model is correct and the universe is indeed expanding, this galaxy is now roughly 40 billion light-years away. The distance travelled by light in a single year is 9.45 trillion kilometres, so multiplying that by 40 billion will give you the approximate size of the universe. It's a big number.
Just imagine for a moment the sheer, breathtaking inanity — not to mention arrogance - of thinking that all that vastness, all those billions upon billions of stars and galaxies, are in any way explained by the fact of us! If you truly think Christianity provides the answers to the universe, I can only suggest you're asking the wrong questions.
Thirdly, Robertson claims that Christianity explains him and uses his sense of identity with the Nazis to support his claim. And this is another problem with the lack of nuance in the Christian understanding of evil and "sin". Because everything that "falls short of the glory of God" is equally sinful and equally deserving of an eternity in hell, and because even feeling tempted to commit a "sin" is deemed as much a failing as actually committing it, there can be no sense of proportion — and therefore no justice. Viewed in such a light, the person who is tempted to steal a biro from their office but doesn't, and the person who incinerates Jews in the name of National Socialism, is guilty of the same degree of offence. Again, what we are confronted with here is patently NOT ethical, NOT moral and NOT helpful: an obstacle to a healthy, moral society, not a conduit to it. To convince yourself that you are steeped in sinfulness, that you are "polluted", that you are as evil as the most power-crazed, genocidal psychopath, is to convince yourself of a madness. To believe that only faith in your deity keeps you from committing the worst atrocities that can be imagined — and to believe this in the face of the undeniable fact that faith in a deity has directly CAUSED such atrocities to be committed again and again in the course of human history — is to be a victim of a tragic degree of self-loathing.
There is no health in this view: no peace, no beauty, no love, no generosity (to yourself or to others), no tolerance, no sanity. No joy, no optimism, no sense of proportion. And certainly no morality.
Letter 9: The Myth of the Immoral Bible
Another letter demanding that the Bible be read on its own terms and not just like any other book. I've already dealt with this issue above, so won't repeat myself here. Robertson writes that "I have no doubt that Jesus literally rose from the dead. It was not symbolic of anything, it was written not as poetry but as verifiable history, and it is a fact that is repeated several times." I have had occasion earlier in this review to question Robertson's hold on the concept of "historical evidence" — now we see him claiming the resurrection as verifiable history. How can we verify it? By reading the Bible, of course. Where can it be verified outside the Bible? Er ask me another.
We all no doubt recall the chapter in TGD that deals with the changing moral zeitgeist and the way it supports its argument that our moral standards change over time with quotes of toe-curling racism from men who were enlightened for their time, but would be dismissed from their posts if they were to express such views today (as James Watson has discovered to his cost). Our moral Reverend distorts Dawkins' purpose in writing about this, claiming that he is prepared to excuse Washington and Jefferson for holding slaves 250 years ago but condemns the practice in the Old Testament 2000 years ago. Robertson further writes that Dawkins is "trying to defend the horrific statements of such enlightened and liberal atheists as H.G. Wells and Thomas Huxley", and goes on to write, "In order to defend them, you declare, 'It is a commonplace that good historians don't judge statements from past times by the standards of their own.' Exactly. Please apply that to the Bible as well."
Three comments here: the first is that it is perfectly clear from TGD that Dawkins is not even remotely trying to defend either Washington or Jefferson, Wells or Huxley: in fact, he makes his own repugnance at their comments more than apparent. Secondly, it IS a commonplace that good historians don't judge the past by the standards of the present, and the reason this is advanced in TGD is NOT to defend the indefensible, but to support Dawkins' case that our moral values change — and for the better — over time. And thirdly, atheists DO apply this view to the Bible: understood as the best morality that a primitive, Bronze-to-Iron Age, desert tribe could come up with, it is perhaps reasonable; understood as the best morality that a perfect, all-loving God can come up with, it's patently unacceptable. Here again, Christians need to be more consistent: do they agree with us atheists that the Bible and the "morality" presented within it are the product of primitive humans and shouldn't therefore be judged by the moral standards of today; or do they claim that both are eternal and still have validity — in which case we have no choice BUT to judge them by the moral standards of today? They can't have it both ways.
"When I read that I had to stop and take a deep breath. Did he really write that? Does he really have the audacity to think that he can get away with such a big lie?!" No, not an extract from my diary on the night I read Robertson trying to portray Stephen Hawking as a creationist, but Robertson's own reaction to Dawkins' view that the sort of ideas about "inferior races" advanced by H G Wells would now be unacceptable in society as a result of improved education, and "in particular, the increased understanding that each of us shares a common humanity with members of other races and the other sex — both deeply unbiblical ideas that come from biological science, especially evolution." Robertson defends his offended sensibilities with another reference to the biblical teaching that all human beings — of all races and both male and female — are made in the image of God.
Leaving aside the rather quaint idea of God looking like a human being, let alone looking like human beings of both sexes and all races (which conjures up a rather alarming image), the Bible isn't exactly consistent in its implementation of its own teaching. The Midianites, the Amelekites, the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah — were they not all made in the image of God too? Did this prevent Yahweh demanding or even personally inflicting their destruction? (Yet they were presumably also victims of original sin — the very people that God would be sacrificing his son to save a few hundred years later: all very confusing.) And the Bible's decrees on the proper place of women, and the way women are shown as being treated as chattel — even by those men held up to be worthy — and not with any sense of disapproval either, all testify to their lesser status in God's eyes. It would appear that all humans are made in God's image, but some are made more in his image than others.
Robertson uses his horror at the notion that evolution might have enlightened us on this score to take us on an all-too predictable detour to Stalin and Hitler, Mao and Pol Pot. It is here that he makes the most extraordinary claim: "The only argument I have heard atheists use is that, well, really, Stalin was not an atheist because he behaved unreasonably and unreasonable people cannot be atheists! It's the ultimate in circular arguments and there is no point in trying to break into the circle." Robertson's book was written in response to The God Delusion so we have to assume that he has actually read the book that he's responding to. Just for fun, then, let us see what TGD actually says on this subject: "There seems no doubt that, as a matter of fact, Stalin was an atheist" (page 309) and (page 315, both in paperback edition) "Stalin was probably an atheist and Hitler probably wasn't; but even if they were both atheists, the bottom line of the Stalin/Hitler debate is very simple. Individual atheists may do evil things but they don't do evil things in the name of atheism. Stalin and Hitler did extremely evil things, in the name of, respectively, dogmatic and doctrinaire Marxism, and an insane and unscientific eugenics theory tinged with sub-Wagnerian ravings." Since Robertson MUST have read this, and since not even the most biased interpretation can turn "Stalin was probably an atheist" into "Stalin can't have been an atheist", what possible excuse can we find for such blatant distortion? Can it be that Robertson fears his argument would not be strong enough if it were just to send out into the world on its own?
Special topic: Hitler and Stalin See also Special topic: Paranoia
The Soviet Union under Stalin was undoubtedly an avowedly atheist state, and it was unquestionably the setting for some of the most horrific atrocities of the 20th century. But does this mean that all atheists are Stalins-in-waiting, any more than Hitler's vegetarianism means all vegetarians are fascists? What we see in Stalinism is tyranny and totalitarianism, not just atheism. Tyranny and totalitarianism are certainly not automatic consequences of atheism, as the existence of millions of perfectly decent, humane, democratic atheists around the world demonstrates; nor, as history clearly shows, are tyranny and totalitarianism exclusive to atheism. Julian Baggini shows how Soviet Communism was in any case two steps removed from the central beliefs of atheism: "First, communism is just one atheist belief and certainly not the most popular one. Second, Soviet communism, with its active oppression of religion, is a distortion of original Marxist communism, which did not advocate oppression of the religious. [...] Soviet communism was therefore not even a logical extension of Marxism, let alone a logical extension of core atheist values, which are not communist at all."
Christopher Hitchens writes: "Communist absolutists did not so much negate religion, in societies that they well understood were saturated with faith and superstition, as seek to replace it. The solemn elevation of infallible leaders who were a source of endless bounty and blessing; the permanent search for heretics and
schismatics; the mummification of the dead leaders as icons and relics; the lurid show trials that elicited incredible confessions by means of torture ... none of these was very difficult to interpret in traditional terms." Hitchens' point is borne out by a poem printed in Pravda, which was recently posted on this website by Mr Darcy:
O great Stalin, O leader of the peoples;
Thou who broughtest Men to birth;
Thou who fructifiest the earth;
Thou who restorest the centuries;
Thou who makest bloom the spring;
Thou who makest vibrate the musical cords;
Thou splendour of my spring, O thou sun reflected by millions of hearts.
This is not atheism! It is religion turned to new, mad, totalitarian ends.
Incidentally, despite the Church's claims that it opposed the Soviet regime all along, the evidence suggests otherwise, showing that the Russian Orthodox Church "overtly backed every military initiative of the Soviet regime: suppression of the Hungarian uprising (1956), the erection of the Berlin Wall (1961), the invasion of Czechoslovakia (1968) and Afghanistan (1979)." (Quoted by Baggini.)
Stalinist Russia is indeed a dire warning of the dangers of totalitarianism: but there is no reason to see totalitarianism as the inevitable or even the likely outcome of a society dedicated to secular, humanist, liberal, democratic values.
Whether Hitler was personally an atheist or a Christian is hard to declare with any confidence, since he made numerous conflicting statements on the issue. It is certainly true that he never renounced his membership of the Catholic church, and that his recipe for German womanhood was "Church, kitchen and children", in that order. Once more, Julian Baggini offers incisive analysis:
"More substantively, a concordat was signed between the Nazi government and the Catholic Church in 1933. The collusion between the Protestant churches and the Nazi regime was even closer, helped by an anti-Semitic tradition in German Protestantism. Resistance came not from the established Protestant churches but by the breakaway Confessional Church, led by pastors Martin Niemöller and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. These dissidents are justifiably held up by Christians today as shining examples of principled resistance to Nazism, but the fact that they had to leave the established Church to lead this resistance is no cause for Christian celebration."
Baggini is so good on this subject that I shall quote his next paragraph too: "Looked at in this context, the problem with Nazi Germany was not its supposed atheism but its elevation of concepts such as blood, soil, and nation to quasi-religious status. It should be clear that what has been said in this book that such sacralisation is utterly alien to mainstream rational atheism."
He goes on to point out that, although the causes of the Holocaust are complex, it is impossible to deny the role played by religion in Western anti-Semitism. Baggini further sees the tendency of religion to set up opposing groups - the righteous and the unrighteous; the saved and the damned; the good and the bad — as having prepared the ground for Nazism to make its distinction between superior Aryans and inferior non-Aryans.
His main point, however — and mine also — is that there is nothing inherently atheist about fascist ideology or practice and that it is therefore wrong to blame it on atheism.
3. The world today
Robertson, Cornwell and McGrath all seek to convey the impression that such horrors are a thing of the past and that our best chances of protecting ourselves from them in the future is to shun atheism in favour of Christianity.
Yet this is an over-rosy view of the world. Rwanda has been the scene of some of the most horrific atrocities of recent and even not-so-recent years: yet it is the most Christian country in Africa with the highest percentage of churches per head of population. 65% of the population are practising Roman Catholics and another 15% Protestant. Much of the slaughter was carried out by Christians, and there are a number of clergy and nuns are among those now on trial for genocide. The death toll from the slaughter is estimated at 500,000 at the very least — some estimates place it as high as a million. This from a total population of only 9 million. Yet again, Christianity was not just unable to prevent such horrors, but was an active participant in them.
Arguably the biggest threat facing the world today — alongside nuclear terrorism and global warming — is not, as the Pope recently claimed, the numbers of Catholics converting to Protestantism, but AIDS. AIDS is estimated to have killed around 25 million people since it was recognised in 1981 (including over half a million children in 2005 alone.) The following information is taken from Wikipedia:
"Globally, between 33.4 and 46 million people currently live with HIV. In 2005, between 3.4 and 6.2 million people were newly infected and between 2.4 and 3.3 million people with AIDS died, an increase from 2003 and the highest number since 1981.
Sub-Saharan Africa remains by far the worst affected region, with an estimated 21.6 to 27.4 million people currently living with HIV. Two million [1.5—3.0 million] of them are children younger than 15 years of age. More than 64% of all people living with HIV are in sub-Saharan Africa, as are more than three quarters (76%) of all women living with HIV. In 2005, there were 12.0 million [10.6—13.6 million] AIDS orphans living in sub-Saharan Africa 2005. South & South East Asia are second worst affected with 15%. AIDS accounts for the deaths of 500,000 children in this region. Two-thirds of HIV/AIDS infections in Asia occur in India, with an estimated 5.7 million infections (estimated 3.4 — 9.4 million) (0.9% of population), surpassing South Africa's estimated 5.5 million (4.9—6.1 million) (11.9% of population) infections, making it the country with the highest number of HIV infections in the world. In the 35 African nations with the highest prevalence, average life expectancy is 48.3 years— 6.5 years less than it would be without the disease."
Even the most lunatic totalitarian monster could only dream of exterminating people on the scale that AIDS is set to achieve. No averagely compassionate human being could fail to be moved by such suffering. So how has the religious West responded?
The Catholic Church has consistently refused to relax its prohibition on contraception, despite overwhelming evidence that condom use provides effective protection against the disease. Even worse than this, it has actively promoted the lie that condoms contain tiny holes that allow the virus to pass through — something that has been roundly denied and condemned by the World Health Organisation.
And President Bush has recently cut off funding to any overseas family-planning group that provides information on abortion. Sam Harris quotes the New York Times as writing that this "has effectively stopped condom provision to 16 countries and reduced it in 13 others, including some with the world's highest rates of AIDS infection." Harris goes on, "Under the influence of Christian notions of the sinfulness of sex outside marriage, the US government has required that one-third of its AIDS prevention funds allocated to Africa be squandered on teaching abstinence rather than condom use. It is no exaggeration to say that millions could die as a direct result of this single efflorescence of religious dogmatism."
An insistence on seeing atheism as the cause of all mass suffering is not just wrong but, given the enormity of the suffering in question, also trivialises the issue and reflects shamefully on those who attempt this ruse.
What all the cases above have in common is that they arose from a plethora of irrational thought processes, from megalomaniacal power-seeking to insane anti-Semitism, and from a frenzy of tribalism to a bizarre privileging of the religious concept of sexual purity over the more fundamental moral requirement to save life and spare suffering. Far from being the likely cause of such outbreaks of horror in the future, the sort of rational, liberal and democratic secularism advocated by just about every atheist you are ever likely to meet must surely be our greatest safeguard against them.
The letter culminates with another distortion, which shines a deadly spotlight on the difference in the honesty which Dawkins and Robertson are willing to bring to their respective arguments. Dawkins in TGD cites numerous quotes from Hitler, some of which tend to show strongly that he either did still think of himself as a Christian or that he at least still wanted to give the impression that he did. These are offset, however, with the words, "Quotations like these have to be balanced by others from his Table Talk, in which Hitler expressed virulently anti-Christian views, as recorded by his secretary." Dawkins then goes on to quote four such examples, and refers to the existence of more. In other words, Dawkins' representation of Hitler's religious views reflects with honesty the genuinely mixed messages given off by the man.
Does Robertson's representation demonstrate an equal commitment to genuine enquiry and assessment? Er no. Robertson quotes exclusively from Table Talk, saying that it "tells us conclusively what Hitler thought about Christianity", and not even referring to the existence of a plethora of quotes that show Table Talk to be not so conclusive after all. What price Christian morality?
Speaking of morality, Victor Stenger points out that the key moral teachings for which Jesus is best remembered (entreaties to turn the other cheek and to love your enemies, for instance) can be found in Taoist, Buddhist and Hindu texts that all originated up to 500 years before Jesus was even born. He quotes Joseph McCabe as saying, "[The sentiments attributed to Christ] were familiar in the Jewish schools, and to all the Pharisees, long before the time of Christ, as they were familiar in all of the civilizations of the earth — Egyptian, Babylonian, and Persian, Greek and Hindu."
Letter 10: The Myth of Religious Child Abuse
Robertson correctly quotes Dawkins as asking, 'Isn't it also a form of child abuse to label children as possessors of beliefs that they are too young to have thought about?' and, in my view probably correctly, understands this to mean that Dawkins is saying that children should not be taught religion either. After all, any child who is being labelled a Christian is almost certainly being brought up as one.
The rest of the letter is developed into a wild and absurd picture of religious thought police raiding homes to ensure that no religious teachings are being shared with children, and placing the children of offending parents in state care.
Robertson starts by accusing Dawkins of under-playing the seriousness of child sex abuse in order to emphasise the psychological damage caused by religion. Child sex abuse is perhaps another of those subjects - like religion - where open and honest assessment is frowned upon in polite society. Of course there is no acceptable form of it, but that isn't to say that there aren't degrees of outrageousness within it: and Dawkins himself makes the point that an inappropriate and humiliating fondling is not to be compared to the "pain and disgust of a sodomized altar boy". Nevertheless, it is now widely acknowledged by child psychologists that emotional and psychological abuse leave scars every bit as painful and damaging as physical or sexual abuse.
Robertson writes, "You accuse me of being worse than a paedophile because I happily teach young children that God loves them, that they are important and have a purpose and a place in this world." Sounds harmless enough, put like that, doesn't it? But of course, Robertson has revealed earlier what he really believes and what he really teaches these young innocents: that they are polluted; that they contain with themselves the seeds of the worst evil that humans are capable of; that they deserve to die for their sinfulness and worse — to be tortured for ever after their death. That this is the fate that will befall them unless they accept biblical teachings of God's love for them hook, line and sinker. Rounding this little party piece off with the assurance that "God loves you" doesn't even begin to offset the psychological damage caused by what has gone before. So yes, David: I would certainly say that puts you firmly in the category of child abuser, and that children deserve to be protected from having their minds polluted — now there's an example of the correct use of the word — with such foul and evil insanity.
There is another parallel between the religious indoctrination of children and child sex abuse, over and above the damage it does to its victims. The reason why it is abusive to inflict sex on children is that children are simply not ready, either physically or emotionally, to deal with it. Sex is what adulthood is for. Likewise, children are simply not ready, either emotionally or intellectually, to deal with religion. Religion requires the ability to be self-reflective and introspective, as well as to handle metaphysical concepts. Young children simply do not have this capacity. More importantly, nor do they yet have the capacity to sift the information they are given by adults and to filter out on a rational basis that which they can accept and that which they must reject. To indoctrinate a child in a supernatural belief system that she is neither intellectually nor emotionally equipped to assess for herself is therefore an abuse of adult power, in exactly the same way as forcing her to drink alcohol or watch an 18-rated film would be.
As for the claim that the logical conclusion of Dawkins' view would be for children to be taken into state care for their own protection, we once more see paranoia at work. (Robertson writes: "I do not want a Stalinist system which bans Christianity from school and home.") Dawkins' plea is for parents to open their eyes to what they are doing to their children, and to stop doing it — quite simply, to leave it to the children themselves to decide whether they want to associate themselves with religion when they are old enough to do so rationally. You will notice that he is all in favour of children being taught about the different religions, just that they should not be instructed to believe that any of them is actually true. Quite specifically he writes: "If, having been fairly and properly exposed to all the scientific evidence, they grow up and decide that the Bible is literally true or that the movements of the planets rule their lives, that is their privilege. The important point is that it is their privilege to decide what they shall think, and not their parents' privilege to impose it by force majeure." This is a plea for a change of approach on the part of religious parents — not a decree to be imposed by force. And it's impossible to believe that Robertson doesn't know it, and isn't just deliberately twisting Dawkins' argument for the purposes of strengthening his own.
The letter goes on to defend Emmanuel College, Gateshead, on the basis of its excellent educational results, and accuses Dawkins of being anti-liberal and anti-humanitarian in wishing to deprive children from deprived areas of a first-class education. Again, the distortion here flags itself up without any help from me. The city academies — ALL of them, whether founded on Christian principles or not - are a disgrace: to give wealthy individuals and/or foundations almost total control over the ethos and management of a State school, in return for a derisory sum of money — a paltry one-off payment of £2 million — is simply appalling. The higher level of educational attainment from these schools becomes rather less surprising when you realise that they receive about 33% more state funding per pupil than standard state schools.
Robertson suggests that falling academic standards have coincided with the decline in Christianity and the rise in secularism, and asserts that, unlike Christians, "although atheists talk the talk about education, when it comes to walking the walk, they do not generally build schools or put their money where their mouth is. Instead they prefer to seize, cuckoo-like, the work, money and initiatives of others so that they can then use these to teach on the basis of their own philosophy." Several of the city academies have in fact been sponsored by wealthy business people or corporations eager to inculcate a spirit of business and enterprise in young people. Are we to believe that the roughly half of all city academies that are sponsored by the United Learning Trust (a Christian-affiliated organisation) do not equally exist for the purpose of promoting their sponsor's particular passion? As an aside, for all Robertson's praise for Christians who put their hands in their pockets to pay for a better education for deprived children, a report last year showed that 23 of the 27 academy sponsors had not actually paid all the money that was due from them.
Dawkins is particularly scathing about Stephen Layfield, Head of Science at Emmanuel College, and Robertson tries to argue that this was due to the latter's "daring to question evolution." Well, yes: it is unacceptable for a school's Head of Science to be so ignorant of science as to doubt evolution. It is the equivalent of a Head of Geography doubting the existence of Africa. But it was Layfield's support for the teaching of creationism in science lessons that really roused Dawkins' ire. Robertson tries to claim that this does not, in fact, happen and that (according to the College — whose word he happily accepts, despite the fact that Dawkins has already exposed their devious behaviour in relation to the article by Stephen Layfield that so mysteriously vanished from their website after attention had been drawn to it in the national press, so it's just possible that they're not 100% reliable as arbiters of their own actions): "The policy of the College is to teach the arguments for and against evolution, intelligent design, etc. Students are encourage to take a critical approach and not to accept things without subjecting them to scrutiny and discussion. Teachers and students are encouraged to state their own views."
A number of comments here. Firstly, it is absurd and anti-intellectual to speak of arguments against evolution. There simply aren't any outside the minds of people who are determined to seek truth in Bronze Age myth rather than 21st century science. And secondly, it is equally absurd to think that teachers and students stating their views is remotely to the point. What matters when it comes to the truth is evidence. And the evidence all points one way. Teachers and students may state their views that sitting on a public toilet seat will make you pregnant, but this does not constitute an education in biology.
Robertson tries to make out that the faith-profile of the science staff at Emmanuel College roughly reflects that of the school he himself attended, where "my chemistry teacher was an atheist, my physics teacher was a Christian and my biology teacher was a young-earth creationist. They were all good teachers who did not seek to impose their views." My question would be: if they did not seek to impose their views, how does he even know what they were? I have no idea whatsoever what religious views — if any — my school teachers held, and it would have been as inappropriate for them to discuss their religious beliefs with us as it would have been for them to discuss their voting intentions.
Readers may be interested to see this website - http://www.freewebs.com/cityacademies/creationism.htm - which has been created by a young man who attended Emmanuel's sister college in Middlesbrough and expresses his, shall we say, surprise, at OFSTED's findings that creationism did not find its way onto the science curriculum. (By the way, the spelling and grammar on the website aren't of themselves a wonderful advertisement for the supposedly superior education provided by the Emmanuel Schools Foundation.)
Robertson's letter finishes with a sermon that offers no evidence, no support for its claims whatsoever, just a collection of assertions based on nothing but his own belief, quotes from the Bible, and wishful thinking: "[The Bible] is the living and enduring Word of God. Heaven and earth will pass away but the Word of God will endure forever." Of atheism he claims: "I have tried that route. And it just does not work. It does not work because it does not ring true. It does not work because there is something inside me that tells me there is more to life than this life. It does not work because the whole universe screams out the majesty and glory of God. It does not work because I have a mind which tells me that I am neither an inanimate object nor just a collection of molecules on their way to nothing. It does not work because I know that my body is more than a throwaway survival machine, just as I know that the world is not flat and life is not meaningless. The atheist answer to death is to be found in Camus' L'Etranger (The Stranger). It is hopeless. The Christian answer is vastly different. It is Christ."
It might work in the pulpit in front of a nodding congregation and, depending on their excitability, might even elicit a hearty "Amen!" from them at its conclusion — but really, there is nothing in there of any substance at all. Robertson has something inside him that tells him there's more to life than this life? If I replied that I have something inside me that tells me there isn't, would he accept that as valid evidence for the truth of atheism? I think not. The whole universe certainly screams out majesty and glory, but there is nothing in it that requires God for its explanation and, as Dawkins has demonstrated so vividly in Unweaving the Rainbow, the scientific reality of how it works is far more awe-inspiring than anything the petty, jealous, capricious god invented by a primitive desert tribe could come up with. All the messages from Robertson's mind telling him that he's not what he in fact is - just a mortal human, whose life ends at death and is not an object of concern to any omnipotent deity - are the simple consequence of humans having evolved to a level of sophistication that allows us to reflect on such questions. I'm afraid he simply hasn't made his case.
Ever since letter 8 it has been clear to me that Robertson really does see the universe as being all about a cosmic battle between Good (God) and Evil (Satan). He has been careful not to mention Satan by name, but he's been the elephant in the room, an elephant that suddenly shatters the peace with a loud trumpet in the very last paragraph of this letter, the last one addressed to Dawkins: "You want to replace God with humanity. You want us as the Higher Consciousness, to become like God. I believe that a long time ago there was someone else who once offered humanity the key to all knowledge. We fell for it then and have ever since been paying the price. I pray that we will not fall for that one again."
Yes, Robertson is comparing Dawkins to Satan, and the search for scientific knowledge to the eating of the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge. Bizarre and lunatic as this undoubtedly seems — and is - the whole of Robertson's book and arguments and behaviour make sense if we realise that he actually does believe this monstrous fairy tale. His insistence on seeing the very basest motives in Dawkins' arguments and predicting the direst possible consequences of heeding them; his lies in the way he presents his arguments; his vindictiveness on this website; his refusal to enter into proper discourse with us and his repeated goading and mockery instead — they all make sense when viewed as the equivalent of Moslems hurling rocks and pebbles at stone representations of Satan. Robertson sees his fight against atheism and atheists as a fight against the devil.
Final Letter to the Reader — Why Believe?
The final sales pitch begins with a reading list, a list that is more than normally revealing: "The books below are the books I have interacted with — there is only one book I would regard to be absolutely trustworthy, the Bible! Obviously The God Delusion is the book I am interacting with. If you already have the book then you will know what I am referring to. If you don't, I cannot honestly recommend that you should get it. It really is as bad as I have tried to demonstrate and I would be reluctant to put any more money into it!" (My emphasis.)
You've got to admire the sheer chutzpah of this man. After all, in his introductory letter to the reader, he states his aim as being that the reader "may think and consider these things for yourself". How on earth the reader is meant to think and consider the strengths and weaknesses of TGD without actually reading it is beyond me — but of course, that isn't Robertson's aim at all: rather, his intention has been to enable his readers to denounce TGD using HIS arguments. If they were to actually read TGD for themselves, they'd a) see how distorted his representation of the book had been and b) quite possibly begin to question the very basis of their beliefs. And we wouldn't want thinking for themselves to go that far, would we?
However, never let it be said that Robertson is shying away from the science vs religion debate: no, he recommends reading Alister McGrath's take on the subject instead! His book recommendations also include works by Hugh Miller ("a 19th century populist writer who is as good as Dawkins in communicating his message, but has the distinct advantage of being a Christian"); John Polkinghorne, Owen Gingerich, Francis Collins and Michael Behe — all names we will remember from the list of religious scientists in TGD. There follows a list of evangelical mainstays: works by C S Lewis, Lee Strobel's The Case for Christ, John Stott, Alister McGrath again, plus Robertson's beloved Calvin and Jonathan Edwards.
Despicably, he devotes a whole paragraph to books on "the whole question of the 20th century being the failed century of atheism", which concludes with works by Dietrich Bonhoeffer "to see how a Christian dealt with the evil of Nazism" — as if Bonhoeffer, admirable as his stance was, was remotely typical of the way Christians in Germany responded to Nazism: the very reason Bonhoeffer's name stands out as such a beacon of decency is because it is surrounded by such a mire of Christian complicity and collusion.
The universe becomes more and more weird the more you delve into it, and the same must be said of the mind of an evangelical Christian. Referring the reader to films that he has found stimulating and informative, Robertson writes, "In terms of human nature and describing the problems that modern society faces Crash is thought-provoking and disturbing." Can you imagine anyone regarding a film like Crash as in anyway representative of real life? This is a perfect example of the way an obsession with evil leads to a warped interpretation of and relationship with the whole of society.
The next paragraph indulges in what I can only term "pulpit humour" — you know: the sort of really banal, pathetic, joyless, witless "joke" that, in any other setting, would be met with disdain but that, uttered by a preacher in front of a suitably trained congregation, is sure to be greeted with obedient laughter as it were some priceless witticism. Are you ready for this demonstration of Christian humour and joie de vivre? Here it is: "(Perhaps I should point out that no atheists were harmed in the making of this book!)"
In the pause that you will no doubt need to wipe the streaming tears from your face and recover your breath after being overcome by the hilarity, I might just mention as an aside that it was "pulpit humour" such as this that helped to speed my departure from Christianity. Having been struck one Sunday by a line in the creed that I realised I simply didn't believe, I began to scrutinise every word of every Bible reading, every hymn, every sermon, every prayer to see what else I was unconsciously saying "amen" to without actually believing. What became clear to me was that church services put words into their congregations' mouths all the time, and that congregations are lulled into not even noticing the fact. Their willingness to nod sagely at breathtakingly patronising sermons that, actually, had said nothing of any note, and to laugh at dismal attempts at humour that were embarrassing in their banality, spoke volumes of their willingness to judge what was said in church by entirely different standards from anything they encountered elsewhere. When subjected to the same level of critical assessment that we should aspire to bring to, say, a news broadcast or a politician's statement, the whole performance is exposed for the empty, shallow, rather pathetic shambles that it is.
OK, back to this letter to the reader. Robertson writes that TGD saddened him — "I thought Bertrand Russell was the most depressing atheist I had ever read but Dawkins beats him hands down." To illustrate the point, he then quotes from River out of Eden. Which begs the question: if it was TGD that had saddened him and convinced him that Dawkins was the most depressing atheist he'd ever read, why the need to quote from a different book altogether?
The quote from River out of Eden is the one about humans being survival machines for our genes. It is written from a very particular, evolutionary perspective and a gene's-eye view (as it were), and in no way merits Robertson's comment of "What a desperate, sad and ugly world." If Robertson believes that Dawkins' world is "desperate, sad and ugly", I can only challenge him to open A Devil's Chaplain or Unweaving the Rainbow at random and start reading: I can guarantee it won't be long before he comes across an outpouring of delight in the joys and wonders of the universe as explained by science.
There follows a statement of such spectacular malevolence that it may well take your breath away: "I have no doubt that if atheist philosophy gets an ever-increasing grip on Europe or the USA then we are really heading for another Dark Age."
It's ironic, isn't it — Robertson would argue that Christianity embodies and espouses love for our neighbour in a way that no other philosophy can; that humans are made in the image of God and that this makes them especially valuable and important. Yet what comes through statements like this is the very opposite: a loathing of humankind, a mistrust of them, a fear of them. They are, after all, "polluted" and "evil". It is precisely this view of humanity that permitted the torturers of the Inquisition to set about their grisly business with such vim. It is this view of humanity that saw thousands of harmless, lonely old women burned alive by those who believed they could detect signs of the devil in them. When you see the whole of life as a battleground between God and Satan, then no atrocity committed in the fight against Satan can be deemed too atrocious to contemplate. It is the view of humans as bad, evil, corrupt and polluted that is most likely to lead to the sort of violence and persecution that Robertson would like to lay at atheism's door. After all, if your opponent is Satan-possessed, destroying Satan must take priority over respect for their humanity.
Robertson finishes by listing ten reasons why he believes Christianity to be true: the creation, the human mind and spirit, the moral law, beauty, religion, experience, history, the church, the Bible, and Jesus. Included under "the moral law" is the claim that the Bible brings us the answer to evil - though I would suggest that it's only someone who has been immersed in Bible teachings all their life who would ever think that evil is the biggest question anyway.
Most of Robertson's arguments under these headings have been covered already and he only makes a very half-hearted case for them here, so I'll just look at the final one: Jesus. "Jesus is the reason I believe and will continue to believe." But why? There follows a whole string of Bible quotes saying how great Jesus is, but nothing to justify why Robertson agrees with them. Presumably the Bible quotes are meant to be utterly convincing on their own? But they're not. I look at the stories of Jesus in the Gospels and see a charismatic man who spoke some wise words (but words that were not original, even in his own day) and often (but not always) showed compassion and gentleness. He could also be strangely petulant (as when he cursed a fig tree for not bearing fruit out of season, for instance) and heedless of other people (as when he cast demons into a herd of someone else's pigs, resulting in the destruction of both them and — presumably — their owner's livelihood), and sometimes utterly abstruse — hardly wise in someone who's come to convey a message, I wouldn't have thought. His diplomatic skills, his negotiation skills, his ability to explain himself without rubbing people up the wrong way — all left a great deal to be desired. You wouldn't hire him as a sales person, and you wouldn't employ him as your ambassador to a hostile nation (though, if the Bible is to be believed, this is precisely what God did.) Yet again, we see Christians starting with the dogma ("Jesus is the radiance of God's glory" etc) and working backwards to interpret the "evidence" in that light, and either disregarding or re-interpreting anything that doesn't fit the image they long to cling to.
"Would I really want to trade Jesus Christ for the Selfish Gene?" asks Robertson spectacularly pointlessly: for that isn't a choice that's available. Not only is no one (least of all Richard Dawkins!) suggesting that the Selfish Gene should be an object of veneration but, whether Robertson chooses to believe it or not, he is stuck with his selfish gene, same as he is stuck with sharing an ancestor with chimpanzees, same as he is stuck with the colour of his eyes.
"Why would I swap the fullness of Jesus Christ for the emptiness of a universe and a life without God?" The answer is the same: it's not a choice that's available to Robertson or anyone else. The universe is as it is, regardless of what he believes, and there is simply nothing to support the view that there is any kind of supernatural being behind it. Nothing. There is nothing in Robertson's arguments that can't be explained by a combination of physics, chemistry, biology, evolution, genetics, psychology, sociology and the leitmotifs of ancient storytellers.
Does that make life empty? Meaningless? Depressing? If you are someone who needs someone else to tell you how to live your life; someone else to guide your decisions, make your choices and set your goals; someone else to tell you that, despite your evil, depraved nature, you are the apple of God's eye, then maybe it does. The rest of us, however, can and do delight in the knowledge that we can use our limited lifespans to be with people we love, to learn, to grow in every sense of the word, to enquire, to achieve, to give, to share, to celebrate, to encourage, to nurture, to make a contribution to society and — if we are fortunate — help to make it a better place. Why would I or anyone else swap the joy and adventure of such a life for a Calvinist obsession with evil that sees every human as vile?
John Cornwell, Darwin's Angel: An Angelic Riposte to The God Delusion
I shall keep this section brief, since I have already posted a review plus further comments about this book elsewhere on this website (Honest Mistakes or Willful Mendacity thread, posts 97, 104, 106 and 111. See also Flagellant's comments on the same thread, post 116 — and, of course, Richard's own comments in the main article on that thread) and will therefore try to avoid repeating myself here. Suffice it to say that I was genuinely shocked when I read this book: not just at the complete lack of an argument, but at the incredibly spiteful, twisted, distorted nature of the accusations being made. Now, Richard Dawkins has been accused by the apologists of distorting what they believe, so maybe it's only fair to expect the same in return? But no — in Cornwell's case, it isn't even a distortion of Dawkins' argument: it's distortion for the purpose of sheer, personal abuse.
Cornwell (or rather, Cornwell in the guise of Dawkins' guardian angel — he doesn't even have the moral fibre to make his attack in person) tries at every opportunity to make Dawkins appear irredeemably narcissistic. Take this as an example: "I was glad that you could quote the magnificent encomium [Cornwell likes this word and uses it a lot, with a sneer that's audible despite the written medium] of the late Douglas Adams [ ] for your outspoken courage which, you relate, you 'never tire of sharing' with others." A quick look at TGD will show — in case you were in any doubt — that what Dawkins 'never tires of sharing' is Adams' impromptu speech challenging the notion that religious faith should be protected by a wall of respect. Adams does indeed refer to Richard Dawkins — but only in passing, and the word "courage" is neither used nor implied, nor would it even fit into the context.
This is spite, pure and simple. As are Cornwell's repeated snide remarks about Dawkins' alleged tendency to quote himself rather than others in support of his comments: "You quote yourself (who else?) " being just one example. So insistently does Cornwell make this point that I was specifically on the look-out for instances of such behaviour on Dawkins' part when I recently re-read TGD. Did I find them? No. In fact, almost every one of the 420 pages of the paperback edition contains references to other authors, with very few of them referencing Dawkins' other works. The "Books cited or recommended" section at the back refers to 169 books, of which 7 are by Richard Dawkins. As narcissism goes, it probably compares favourably with masquerading as an angel.
This was the first of the four books that I read and the first time I'd encountered the sustained allegation that atheism must lead to a repeat of the atrocities carried out by Hitler and Stalin, and I was absolutely appalled at the sheer, horrific, cynical exploitation of human misery in order to gain a cheap (and dishonest) point. Three flea books further on I'm now a seasoned campaigner: not one of them misses this particular trick, though Wilson only mentions it in passing. I have therefore dealt with it as a special topic above.
In many ways I found Cornwell's book the most disturbing of the four: at times he sounds almost literally mad. And never more so than when he allows his utter paranoia to shine through, as here: "I could not help noting that some of your most ardent followers have already characterised religion as a sort of viral infection, an HIV of the mind, requiring drastic final solutions — quarantine, liquidation." Where on earth does he get such ridiculous assertions from? (This interpretation of atheists viewing religion as a virus that must be stamped out is another theme that emerges with tedious predictability in all four books — for the record, the actual assertion made by Dawkins is that religious ideas spread in the same way that viruses do. At no point does he mention or even hint at quarantine, liquidation, extermination or any of the other exotic fantasies that lurk in these believers' fevered imaginations.)
Special topic: Paranoia
It is simply impossible to read these four backs back-to-back and not be struck by the extraordinary degree of paranoia that is apparent in them. Their authors seem determined to see themselves as persecuted and to predict worse persecutions in the future. And this characteristic is not limited to the "fleas": only recently one of the more evangelical Christians on this site declared his conviction that he would face imprisonment for his Christian beliefs in his lifetime. Since, whatever these fears are based on, it's not the actual content of TGD or the intentions of any atheist I know of, where do they come from and why have they taken such a hold of believers' brains?
I would argue that it is pure wishful thinking. This may sound unlikely: why should anyone wish to be persecuted? But when we recall the persecution that the early Christians did suffer — incarceration, public floggings, other forms of torture, being ripped apart by lions or slowly roasted over hot coals (and bearing in mind that history teems with examples of Christians inflicting similar torments on others whose beliefs did not take precisely the approved form) — it becomes apparent that the mockery and candid scepticism that is the worst they face in Western societies today are a feeble trial indeed. Would-be disciples in the 21st century can be forgiven for feeling slightly inadequate when compared with their more heroic predecessors.
It is not just the Koran that welcomes martyrs: the Bible, too, makes it clear that being persecuted is part of the job description for any serious Christian. Consider these quotes:
"Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the
kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and
falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because
great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who
were before you." (Matthew 5: 10-12)
"Therefore, among God's churches we boast about your perseverance and faith in all
the persecutions and trials you are enduring." (2 Thessalonians, 1:4)
"You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience,
love, endurance, persecutions, suffering — what kind of things happened to me in Antioch,
Iconium and Lystra, the persecutions I endured. Yet the Lord rescued me from all of
them. In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted,
while evil men and imposters will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived."
(2 Timothy 3: 10-13)
A Christian's instructions are clear. Suffer for your faith! Be persecuted! If you're not being persecuted, you're just not trying hard enough! But oh dear: how hard that is when they are surrounded by people who tolerate their belief, even if they don't actually approve of it. There is only one solution, and that is to make the very moderate criticism that they're subjected to sound like the most vicious of persecution. Write of the desire to ban religion, to wipe it out, annihilate it, exterminate it. Claim that those who practise it will be imprisoned, disenfranchised, physically assaulted. That their children will be forcibly removed from them. Recreate the horrors of the Holocaust and the gulags in believers' imaginations.
How else, in a liberal democracy, are they to stand any chance of claiming the rewards of the persecuted?
Anyone reading Cornwell's book having first read TGD must surely conclude that he has quite deliberately twisted and distorted everything Dawkins has written in it. How else to account for claims such as the following: "You have issued a glowing promise of ultimate happiness, if only your readers will trust in you" or "[Y]ou are insistent that all religious believers are by definition fundamentalists and that even the mildest, most tolerant form of faith leads inexorably to the suicide bomber". What scurrilous nonsense! What Dawkins actually writes is that "even mild and moderate religion helps to provide the climate of faith in which extremism naturally flourishes" and "The teachings of 'moderate' religion, though not extremist in themselves, are an open invitation to extremism" and "If children were taught to question and think through their beliefs, instead of being taught the superior virtue of faith without question, it is a good bet that there would be no suicide bombers." Is it really possible for an educated, honest mind to sincerely mistake the one for the other?
As for Cornwell's argument in support of the existence of God well, maybe he has another book due out soon in which he covers that one. He certainly doesn't in Darwin's Angel. At one point he writes, "The word 'god' expresses a diversity of meanings, depending on cultural, philosophical, ethnic, and historical background" — and that's about as specific as he gets. Hardly surprising, maybe, if the following is true: "When a person thinks about a god, or God, every conception of that idea, special to that person, comes as a new act of imagination, or memory, rather than an item of received and mutant information." Vagueness is clearly a virtue in Cornwell's mind: elsewhere he writes, "For religious believers, moreover, it is not their belief in God, but God, that makes them good: God's presence, whose goodness tames the egoism, vanity, and violence of the human heart." Don't bother asking for evidence for this assertion: it isn't forthcoming.
"Imagination" is a word that figures very prominently in this book: indeed, I am left with the impression that Cornwell is suggesting that our imaginations are themselves evidence of the reality of God - but I may be mistaken on that: the whole book is such a swirl of meaningless rhetoric that it's perfectly possible I've misinterpreted what he really is trying to say. No mistaking the personal animosity to Richard Dawkins, though: "You are also disturbed by the dimension of imagination, aren't you? It's so close to art, music, poetry - stuff that's made up rather than facts that can be reducible to physics, chemistry and biology". Quite apart from the clunkiness of the language ("can be reducible"?), this is a frankly astonishing accusation to level at the author of Unweaving the Rainbow!
All in all, even on re-visiting the book to refresh my memory of it before writing this, I still stand by my original assessment of it: with angels like these, who needs demons?
Andrew Wilson, Deluded by Dawkins? A Christian Response to The God Delusion
Andrew Wilson was an entirely unknown name to me prior to reading his book, but a Google search led me to the following comment on the blog site of a "reformed charismatic, by God's awesome grace" : "Andrew Wilson of King's Eastbourne has written a stunning deconstruction of Dawkins' The God Delusion, it's long but definately (sic) worth reading. It's also funny. Which helps."
Well, it's not that long, actually: 112 pages all told, which includes a preface that doesn't start till page 6, plus a full page given over to a single Bible quotation between each and every chapter. Which leaves just 94 pages for his actual argument. Add to that the fact that the font size is unusually large and unusually generously spaced out; and that nearly every page contains rather copious footnotes (sometimes taking up more than half the page in question, and very often simply consisting of Bible references), and you begin to see that this is a very insubstantial book indeed. Is it, however, a "stunning deconstruction of Dawkins' The God Delusion"?
Wilson establishes his credentials as a denouncer of Dawkins from the very first pages, where he almost bursts a blood vessel in his eagerness to deploy words like "arrogant", "strident", "belligerence", "fundamentalist", "overconfident", "bluster" and so on. His familiarity with Dawkins' oeuvre would appear to be limited to his book titles — which wouldn't of itself be an issue but for the fact that he claims, "Richard Dawkins has spent much of his career attacking belief in God, particularly the Christian God. He has written books about it " Has he, indeed? I shall be interested to read them. (My hunch is that Wilson has seen the title "A Devil's Chaplain" and has drawn his own — incorrect — conclusions about its content.)
Wilson spends a lot of time arguing that many of Dawkins' points in TGD are irrelevant to the central question of whether there is a God or not. This may be technically correct (for instance, the existence or otherwise of religious scientists is not of itself proof either for or against God), but overlooks the fact that Dawkins is simply responding here to arguments regularly used by theists. If theists insist on trying to claim Einstein as one of their own and implying that belief in God is therefore scientifically credible, then that has to be countered and can't be written off as irrelevant.
The reformed charismatic reviewer quoted above says that Wilson's book is funny, and I have to confess that I did find some humour in it, though surely of the unintended kind. Wilson argues that there is a killer argument that absolutely proves the truth of Christianity, and he complains that Dawkins doesn't even discuss it properly in TGD. My curiosity was, naturally enough, aroused by this point, and I read on eagerly: "Most seriously, Dawkins spends the best part of the book either making points that are not directly relevant to the question of whether or not there is a god [ ] or attacking bad reasons to believe that there is, whilst the most definitive argument that Christians have used since AD30, the resurrection of Jesus, is not even discussed." This, claims Wilson, "is damaging to Dawkins' argument, perhaps fatally so." "Perhaps," he continues, "he is not really prepared to engage with the worldview-challenging events of Easter, save to say that they cannot have happened because dead people can't rise. If so, his positioning is just as unquestioning, just as fundamentalist, as that of many of the individuals he has written his book to refute."
Well, I did tell you it was funny.
In chapter 2, Wilson has assembled a table summarising the arguments of TGD and adding his own brief comment to each, and assigning it to a category: A (Agree), I (irrelevant), U (Unsubstantiated), or D (Disagree). Here are a few examples from it:
Summary of argument and content
If there was no religion, maybe people wouldn't kill each other.
Really? Cf. the 20th century.
Einstein did not believe in a personal God
Absolutely, yes, it should.
Secularism, the Founding Fathers and the religion of America
The Founding Fathers were deists or atheists, so the American religious right can't use them in support of merging church and state.
Yes (but what has that got to do with God's existence?)
Omnipotent omniscience is impossible, since you cannot change your mind.
Is there a six-year-old in the room? (see Num 23:19 etc)
The argument from Scripture
The Bible is a load of rubbish because a) the Gospels contradict each other on where Jesus was born, b) sending Joseph to Bethlehem would be like sending me to Ashby-de-la-Zouch, c) atheists agree that it is, and so on.
There is more nonsense to refute here than can fit in this box (see section on Scripture, below)
Deciding to believe is impossible
The roots of religion
Given that there is no God, religious faith must have developed for a biological reason. This might be trusting your parents.
There are no arguments about God's existence here.
The roots of morality: why are we good?
Some religious people are very nasty.
There are interesting moral dilemmas, which religious and irreligious people react to in the same ways.
These are fascinating, but largely irrelevant to the argument.
God told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac
Yes, but he knew he would intervene to be revealed as Yahweh-yireh
The moral zeitgeist
People's views about morality change
Yes (so what?)
Consciousness raising again
Children should not be referred to as "Christian", "Catholic", "Muslim", any more than "Democrat" or "Keynesian"
Agreed (and none in the NT are. Titus 1:6 indicates that there would be children of Christians who were not believers.)
And so it goes on. When I first read this table, I assumed it must be a kind of Executive Summary, to be followed up with more in-depth analysis later in the book — but I was wrong! This is it. The only issues that Wilson goes into in any detail later are the very few (he gets them down to four) questions which he accepts as relevant and where he disagrees with Dawkins.
Note that by dismissing so much in the table above, he is excused the trouble of having to deal with the issues of — for example — atrocities carried out by the religious, the fact that morality has been shown to be no less lively in non-religious people than in believers, the cosmological arguments against God and so on and so forth. Dawkins' argument about the changing moral zeitgeist — which is important because it makes so much of the behaviour described in the Old Testament as commanded by God repulsive to us, and because it makes the central Christian notion of atonement through blood sacrifice repugnant — is dismissed with a cavalier "Yes (so what?)"
Wilson's fundamental premise here is mistaken. He argues as though The God Delusion were only about one delusion, whereas in reality it is about two: firstly, the delusion of believing that God exists, and secondly the delusion of thinking that belief in God is a good thing in itself. Wilson may not wish to engage with the second of those delusions, but to claim he knows better than Dawkins what Dawkins himself was trying to achieve with his own book is a bit rich.
Be that as its may, the four points that Wilson deigns to engage with are these: anti-supernaturalism, logic, scripture, and improbability. I'll deal with each of them briefly.
Wilson takes issue with the atheist worldview, saying our assumption that the natural world that we perceive with our physical senses is all there is "simply cannot be given unquestionable status". He believes in miracles, both those reported in the Bible, and those he claims to have witnessed in his own church. At one point he sounds surprisingly Cornwell-esque when he writes: "The Christian understanding of a miracle is as something which enables creation to be more fully itself, restoring the created order and redeeming it from the effects of sin." Hopefully that's clarified the question for all of us.
He goes on to list 3 "miracles" that he claims to have personally witnessed in a single month: a healed wrist, a healed shoulder, and healed eyesight — all healed instantaneously, in front of witnesses, as a result of prayer. Maybe I am about to fall into the trap of circularity that Wilson accuses atheists of, but I have no difficulty in saying that I absolutely do not believe in these alleged miracles. Not that I suspect him of lying: I don't doubt for a moment that he is convinced of the veracity of his claims. But no, I don't believe miracles happen, and therefore I don't believe that these miracles happened. My interpretation would be entirely psychological: we know now beyond a doubt that the brain plays an enormous role in the physical health of the body: changing what the brain believes about its state of health is often enough to induce either disease or cure. I visited the website of Wilson's church (King's Church, Eastbourne) and, once I'd recovered from seeing a photo of him and realising he can't be older than about 23 (actually, that explains a lot), I couldn't help noticing that the photo of the congregation has them all standing with hands held aloft in charismatic adulation. (Have I just been reading too much David Robertson, or does anyone else find themselves irresistibly reminded of the Nazi salute when they see a crowd of Christians with one arm raised diagonally above the head?) My point is that this photo suggests an intense, emotional atmosphere, one in which people are actively expecting healing to occur: the very atmosphere, in fact, that would lead the brain to become convinced that healing had occurred, and hence to take care of it itself. Whether it was the cure or the original problem — or both — that had its origins in psychology hardly matters.
Special topic: Miracles
So why am I so adamant that these were no miracles in Wilson's sense? Well, imagine if they were. It would mean that God had intervened to heal certain individuals on request. That would mean that he was ABLE to heal people on request. And presumably that he was able to heal them even without such a request. Which would then inevitably mean that, in all the other cases of other injured wrists, painful shoulders or defective eyesight in the world — problems causing pain, limited mobility, restricted freedom, suffering, maybe depression, etc — he was simply choosing not to heal them: choosing to let people continue having their experience of life diminished because he chose not to exercise his healing power. Any human who had it in their power to reduce or remove suffering but chose not to do so would be rightly accused of callousness, lack of humanity, sociopathy even. They would be the sort of person you would not choose to spend time with. The same must apply to any god who behaved in the same way.
And what trivial causes of suffering this omnipotent God chooses to show his power on: a painful wrist, a stiff shoulder, migraines. Is there no one dying of cancer who might have been given priority access to this miraculous healing power? No child about to be orphaned by AIDS? No couples left devastated by multiple miscarriages? No one trapped by fire and praying in vain for help to arrive in time? No tortured prisoner whimpering in pain? No young girl screaming in agony as her genitals are sliced off in the name of her parents' god? Shame on you, Andrew Wilson — and shame on your party-trick god.
Furthermore, Wilson's definition of a miracle (as given above) would mean that these injuries/defects had arisen as a result of sin (original sin, presumably, rather than the individuals' sin, though he doesn't specify). Again, such a notion is inherently repugnant and incompatible with any system of justice or morality that any decent human being would recognise as such.
A god who behaved in this capricious and callous way would be utterly contemptible.
Wilson devotes all of two pages to this chapter! In it he announces two responses to Dawkins' argument that God cannot be both omniscient AND omnipotent since the two are mutually incompatible: firstly, that logicians have been aware of this issue for thousands of years (he cites the books of Numbers and 1 Samuel to ram his point home). You may feel, as I do, that this was rather a needless exertion, since it is no part of Dawkins' argument that the objection is a new one.
Wilson's second response is to quote C S Lewis (who else?), saying "You may attribute miracles to him but not nonsense." Wilson seems to feel that Lewis hasn't made the point quite well enough, for he adds: "Can God do things which are logically impossible? No. Can he do things which he did not know he was going to do? No. Can he stop being good, or holy, or glorious? No. But to infer from these things that God is not all-powerful, or (more fatuously) that God is impossible, is to build theology upon a rather silly and pedantic understanding of the word "omnipotent".
Well, such claims are possible when you have nothing to base your description of an entity on: you are free to add words, remove words, change the meaning of words to your heart's content. Let us not forget that there isn't a theologian alive or dead who has ever demonstrated convincingly that God exists at all: yet they do not scruple to pile adjective upon adjective upon this entirely unproven being. They can claim anything they like — no one can prove them wrong. If they choose to believe that "omnipotent" doesn't actually mean "omnipotent", there's no reality-check to stop them. This is Alice through the Looking Glass language, and Alice through the Looking Glass logic.
This is Wilson's longest chapter, which is hardly surprising, given what he has revealed of himself so far. He doesn't give a bibliography, but I can't help feeling that Lee Strobel has been done out of a credit here — this chapter has Strobel's book The Case for Christ stamped all over it. The only point that is clearly Wilson's own is his disagreement with Dawkins' rather generous (I thought) addition to Lewis's famous "mad, bad or God" claim about Jesus, arguing that if Jesus had genuinely been mistaken (as suggested by Dawkins), then that would be covered by "mad". OK. So be it.
Wilson goes on to argue for the historical reliability of the Gospels, rather irrelevantly pointing out that the bits picked on by Dawkins in exposing their unreliability do not form the basis of much recent Christian preaching anyway. This rather overlooks the fact that, if parts of the Gospels are not entirely reliable, then their reliability when it comes to even less credible stories is inevitably undermined: just ask any barrister who has ever demolished the credibility of a witness in order to secure his client's acquittal.
Wilson sees the New Testament as lending support to belief in God "in that (a) it is a compilation of 27 separate documents from various authors throughout the first century of Christian belief, which both argue for and depend on the historical fact of Jesus' resurrection, and (b) these documents depict the various ways in which the early disciples came to terms with that had happened, including their gradual realisation that Jesus was God himself. "
Well, if we are to accept the self-referential as unimpeachable evidence, then we must also accept that the Koran is proof that Mohammed is God's final and perfect messenger.
Wilson reckons his case for the literal truth of the resurrection is strengthened by the fact that "we have no such documents arguing the opposite" - which conjures up the rather beguiling image of the Jerusalem Times carrying the front page headline "Crucified man stays dead" and a newspaper vendor calling excitedly, "Read all about it."
He further reckons that the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947 gave the lie to Dawkins' argument that the scriptures we have today are inaccurate copies of the originals and therefore not reliable. What Wilson fails to acknowledge, however, is the decades-long time lag between the alleged events and their being written down at all. The very earliest of Paul's letters cannot have been written less than 20 years after the alleged resurrection, and may well have been later still. This is more than long enough for oral transmission to have distorted the tale beyond all recognition and for the rumour of resurrection to have taken hold of credulous people's minds. Paul never met Jesus. (No, Andrew Wilson, an alleged supernatural encounter that could be explained with more credibility by an epileptic seizure doesn't count.) Therefore not even the earliest of the New Testament accounts was based on first hand experience of the events described as occurring in the life of Jesus.
There follow several pages of "Courtier's Reply", which I shan't go into, culminating in the rather extraordinary claim that "the historical evidence, both inside and outside the Bible, points to the fact that Jesus rose from the dead." I can't wait to hear the evidence from outside the Bible, but unfortunately I shall have to, since Wilson forgets to include it.
Lee Strobel is in full evidence again in the treatment of the empty tomb (apparently "there is only one plausible explanation of the empty tomb, let alone the numerous resurrection appearances we know about. And this means that the resurrection actually happened") and the apparently inexplicable willingness of the disciples to be persecuted, tortured and murdered for proclaiming something that they knew to be untrue.
On the first issue, Wilson perhaps needs to go and remind himself what "plausible" actually means; and on the second, psychology spoils his story again. We don't know that the resurrection happened, and we don't know that the resurrection appearances happened. We only know that the New Testament claims that they did. Of course, the chances that they really did are miniscule indeed, not to say non-existent. But how difficult would it be for an impressionable and hysterical young person — whether one of the various women cited in the Gospels as the first to encounter the risen Jesus or one of the disciples — to imagine, in their fevered, grief-stricken and confused state, that this man whose charisma had so dominated their lives in the previous three years and who had struck them as being so other-worldly and convinced them that he was indeed the Messiah — how difficult would it be for a mind thus prepared to imagine that it had seen the resurrected Jesus? And then to convey that conviction to the brethren, whose minds had also been prepared in the same way?
The brain is a powerful organ, as we have already seen, and would have no difficulty convincing itself of the truth of the image it had created. Remember, too, that in the ancient world, resurrection was something of a cliché in denoting heroes and other special people — and Jesus had struck them as very special indeed. Don't forget that the stories about the discovery of the empty tomb, and Jesus's post-death appearances to the disciples weren't written down for decades: more than enough time for them to have acquired a life of their own.
This is pure speculation, of course — but we have witnessed for ourselves (too often to tragic effect) the effects of a charismatic leader on his all-too gullible followers. The Andrew Wilsons and David Robertsons of this world won't be remotely swayed by this suggestion: but they cannot argue that the resurrection is the only possible, or even the most plausible, explanation for the events following the crucifixion.
There is very little in this final chapter that hasn't been covered in dealing with David Robertson's book, so I won't repeat those arguments here.
Wilson is clearly not a fan of evolution (that won't come as a surprise to anyone) and does his best to argue against natural selection in a section headed "Irreducible complexity and the illusion of design", but it is clear that he has simply raided a creationist textbook or website for his argument here, for he eagerly declares the bombardier beetle as his "personal favourite" example of complexity which would not sit comfortably with Darwinian explanations. Given that none of the other books here reviewed approach this subject, I will quote Wilson's footnote in full:
"The bombardier beetle has a very unusual defence mechanism. It has tubes in its tail which store two different chemicals, and these chemicals, when mixed together, cause an explosion. It also has a third substance, an inhibitor, which prevents any explosion from taking place until the chemicals enter a chamber in its rear; at this point an enzyme is added and an explosion takes places, firing a 100°C jet out of its backside at its enemies, and propelling itself several feet away. It is not clear how natural selection, which requires each step to be advantageous, could ever have produced a bombardier beetle that did not immediately blow itself to smithereens."
Funnily enough, 2 footnotes further up, Wilson has made reference to one of Dawkins' other books, The Blind Watchmaker. Sadly, he evidently hadn't actually read it for, if he had, he would have found the following in response to a slightly more detailed version of Wilson's rendering above:
"The statement that 'these two chemicals, when mixed together, literally explode' is, quite simply, false, although it is regularly repeated throughout creationist literature . It is true that [the bombardier beetle] squirts a scaldingly hot mixture of hydrogen peroxide and hydroquinone at enemies. But hydrogen peroxide and hydroquinone don't react violently together unless a catalyst is added. This is what the bombardier beetle does. As for the evolutionary precursors of the system, both hydrogen peroxide and various kinds of quinones are used for other purposes in body chemistry. The bombardier beetle's ancestors simply pressed into different service chemicals that already happened to be around. That's often how evolution works."
Wilson's final assault is on the anthropic principle and cosmological improbability. He has another go at Dawkins' insistence that any creator god must have evolved from something less complex, whining that his God is eternal and so exempt from this argument. He goes on to demonstrate a less than subtle grasp of the anthropic principle, and then to flag up the "astronomically unlikely" chances of life originating by chance and to claim that Dawkins somehow tries to muddy the waters so as to downplay the improbability.
A quick glance at the relevant chapters of TGD will show that, far from downplaying the improbabilities involved, Dawkins actually draws attention to them, stating that the improbability of the origin of life was "many orders of magnitude more improbably than most people realize." Wilson quotes various statistics to show that the improbability is greater even than Dawkins suggests — but unfortunately he doesn't cite his references, and we saw from the bombardier beetle example that he becomes slightly excitable in the presence of creationist arguments.
In a sense, however, it doesn't matter: for Dawkins makes the case that, no matter how improbable, life only had to originate ONCE. And that in a universe that, as we have seen, is vast and ancient beyond our capacity to imagine. Wilson's choice of the epithet "astronomically unlikely" is unintentionally apposite: for we are indeed dealing with astronomical scales here, in both the space and time available for life to have emerged. The chances of something inordinately improbable happening within an area of, say, 1000 square miles and within a timeframe of, say 100 years, are vastly less than the chances of something inordinately improbable happening somewhere in an area the size of our universe and sometime within a timeframe of nearly 14 billion years. It's understandable that the human brain should struggle to take this in — but what is becoming clearer and clearer with every new discovery is that to reject the insights of the science of cosmology on the basis of human notions of logic is to be very narrow-minded and parochial indeed.
In his conclusion, Wilson disagrees with Robertson, and argues that TGD is "stimulating, well written, amusing and combative" and "worth taking seriously". No exhortations to the reader here not to bother reading it for herself! After a brief reprise of his main arguments, and the exhortation to Christians to "fight intellectual battles" and present "reasoned argument" in tackling atheists (presumably he's thinking of his reasoned, intellectual argument for the resurrection here?), he suggests that Dawkins "remains an enigma" and, despite his apparent confidence in science to "offer the consolation currently provided by religion" and "his apparent frustration with the idea of an infinite God" - "he may still be questing"! The wellspring of this rather startling comment is an interview given by Richard after publication of TGD in which he said that "[a supernatural intelligent designer] does seem to me to be a worthy idea. Refutable - but nevertheless grand and big enough to be worthy of respect If there is a God, it's going to be whole lot bigger and whole lot more incomprehensible than anything that any theologian of any religion has ever proposed."
Strange, how Wilson sees in this reason to suggest that Dawkins may be secretly yearning for God when, on the previous page, he was accusing him of being "just as fundamentalist as the religious fanatics he is seeking to discredit." But then, a page is a long time in Christian apologetics.
Alister McGrath with Joanna Collicutt McGrath, The Dawkins Delusion? Atheist fundamentalism and the denial of the divine
As I said in my opening remarks, I had been expecting McGrath's book to be the heavyweight among the four, the one most likely to present in-depth and possibly challenging arguments. I could not have been more wrong. Despite McGrath's claim in the introduction that his aim is "a critical engagement with the arguments set out in The God Delusion, its 65 pages (72 if you include the introduction) contain not a single positive argument in defence of Christianity. Not one. The reader gets to the end of it with absolutely NO idea what McGrath's religion is - unless it's hatred of Richard Dawkins. It is, quite simply, 72 pages of snide, distorted, falsified, predictable ad hominem attack all the way. You will have gathered that all the flea books contain elements of this (though Wilson's slightly less than the others) and that in their different ways all have appalled and angered me to one degree or another. McGrath's is without doubt the worst, the most disgraceful, of the lot. For this reason, I cannot review it as such - there is, after all, no argument whatsoever to engage with. I will simply quote some of his comments, so you can see for yourself just how low he is prepared to stoop.
Before embarking on this necessarily ugly and unpleasant journey, however, I must share with you the one bit of pleasure and amusement I did get from this otherwise desperately tedious book: by the time we reach the foot of page 2, McGrath has already informed us no fewer than SIX times that he used to be an atheist! It's on the back cover, the frontispiece, three times in the (7-page) introduction, and by the time it appears for the sixth time on page 2 itself, we really begin to wonder why he feels this is such a compelling argument. Maybe it's because it's the only one he has to sustain him through the rest of the book.
Here - for your edification if not your delight - are some quotes from his text:
"[We] need to treat those who disagree with us on such questions with complete intellectual respect, rather than dismissing them as liars, knaves and charlatans." [And where does Dawkins do that, might we ask?]
"Whereas Gould at least tries to weigh up the evidence, Dawkins simply offers the atheist equivalent of slick hellfire preaching, substituting turbocharged rhetoric and highly selective manipulation of facts for careful, evidence-based thinking."
"There's lots of pseudoscientific speculation "
"When I read The God Delusion I was both saddened and troubled. How, I wondered, could such a gifted popularizer of the natural sciences, who once had such a passionate concern for the objective analysis of evidence, turn into such an aggressive anti-religious propagandist, with an apparent disregard for evidence that was not favourable to his case? Why were the natural sciences beings so abused in an attempt to advance atheist fundamentalism?" (My emphasis.)
"While this embittered book is written with rhetorical passion and power, the stridency of its assertions merely masks tired, weak and recycled arguments."
"God is a delusion - a 'psychotic delinquent' invented by mad, deluded people. That's the take-home message of The God Delusion."
[On religious abuse of children:] "Having read the ludicrous misrepresentations of religion which are such a depressing feature of The God Delusion, I very much fear that secularists would merely force their own dogmas down the throats of the same gullible children."
"I do not wish to be unkind, but this whole approach sounds uncomfortably like the anti-religious programmes build into the education of Soviet children during the 1950s "
"There is indeed a need for society to reflect on how it educates its children. Yet no case can be made for them to be force-fed Dawkins' favoured dogmas and distortions."
"The God Delusion, more by its failings than its achievements, reinforces the need for high-quality religious education in the public arena, countering the crude caricatures, prejudicial stereotypes and blatant misrepresentations now being aggressively peddled by atheist fundamentalism."
"One of the most characteristic features of Dawkins' anti-religious polemic is his presentation of the pathological as if it were normal, the fringe as if it were the centre, crackpots as if they were the mainstream. It generally works well for his intended audience, who can be assumed to know little about religion, and probably care for it even less. But it's not acceptable. And it's certainly not scientific."
"It's yet another wearisome example of the endless recycling of out-dated arguments that has become so characteristic of atheism in recent years."
"His inept engagement with Luther shows up how Dawkins abandons even the pretence of rigorous evidence-based scholarship."
"In this book, Dawkins throws the conventions of academic scholarship to the winds; he wants to write a work of propaganda, and consequently treats the accurate rendition of religion as an inconvenient impediment to his chief agenda, which is the intellectual and cultural destruction of religion. It's an unpleasant characteristic that he shares with other fundamentalists."
"There is no difficulty, for example, in believing that Darwin's theory of evolution is presently the best explanation of the available evidence; but that doesn't mean it is correct."
"This rambling pastiche is poorly structured, making it quite difficult to follow its basic argument "
" Dawkins' brash and simplistic arguments "
I should point out here that we have still only reached page 9 of this shamelessly bad book. I wish I could tell you that it improves as McGrath gets more into his stride, but it simply continues in the same vein throughout. I read this book in bed — it only took me an hour or so to get through it; but I then lay awake, seething with anger and indignation, until 5 o'clock in the morning! Not, I hasten to add before any Christians try to re-create the experience in their own image, because I disapprove of TGD being subjected to criticism and challenge, but because McGrath's attempt at it results in nothing more than an outpouring of smug, self-satisfied venom.
Actually, talking of smugness, a further, much needed source of mirth is provided by McGrath's blithely self-congratulatory tone: writing of a lecture he had given, he says, "The lecture had not been particularly remarkable. I had simply demonstrated, by rigorous use of scientific, historical and philosophical arguments, that Dawkins' intellectual case against God didn't stand up to critical examination." And further on he writes, "I was severely and quite properly critical of this pseudoscientific idea in Dawkins' God " , leaving the words "even if I do say so myself" echoing in the reader's mind if not actually written on the page. In the "For Further Reading" section at the back, McGrath recommends only one book on Christian belief, describing it as follows: "The most widely used textbook of Christian theology, which sets out what Christians believe and why, clearly and impartially, is: Alister E. McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction " !)
Searching the book again, I chanced upon another example of McGrath's contemptible sophistry: "[Dawkins] is adamant that he himself, as a good atheist, would never, ever fly airplanes into skyscrapers, or commit any other outrageous act of violence or oppression. Good for him. Neither would I. Yet there are those in both our constituencies who would." Yes, humanists are rightly feared the world over for their tendency to commit mass murder in the name of tolerance and human welfare.
Like Wilson, McGrath doesn't scruple to take it upon himself to suggest that Dawkins might be "an atheist whose faith is faltering". And like Robertson, it is clear from what he writes that McGrath is aware that many of his readers will be Christians who have not read TGD — making his distortion of its contents all the more disgraceful.
This is a truly despicable book and a criminal waste of paper, ink and time. It is worse even than John Cornwell's — the only significant achievement to which this book can lay claim.
Did I mention that McGrath used to be an atheist, by the way?
Baggini, J., Atheism: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2003
Cornwell, J., Darwin's Angel: An Angelic Riposte to The God Delusion, Profile Books, 2007
Dawkins, R., The God Delusion, Black Swan, 2006
Harris, S., The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason, The Free Press, 2005
Hawking, S., A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes, Bantam Books, 1988
Hitchens, C., God is Not Great: The Case against Religion, Atlantic Books, 2007
Robertson, D., The Dawkins Letters: Challenging Atheist Myths, Christian Focus Publications, 2007
Stenger, V. J., God: The Failed Hypothesis. How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist, Prometheus Books, 2007
McGrath, A. with Collicutt McGrath, J., The Dawkins Delusion? Atheist fundamentalism and the denial of the divine, SPCK, 2007
Wilson, A., Deluded by Dawkins? A Christian Response to The God Delusion, Kingsway, 2007
Stephen Cave - Financial Times Comments
What we really know about our evolutionary past – and what we don’t
Stacy L. Memering,Viviana A.... Comments
Magic at Every Age
A review of Richard Dawkins, The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True
Andy Liegl - CBR (Comic Book... Comments
In front of a packed crowd during his panel titled "My Two Years with Dawkins, Christ and a Small Crab Called Eric" at Comic-Con International in San Diego, artist, writer and indie filmmaker Dave McKean recounted two recent life events on radically opposite ends of the philosophical spectrum: an all-ages book he illustrated with scientist and Atheism proponent Richard Dawkins called "The Magic of Reality," and a film he shot starring Michael Sheen in Port Talbot, Wales called "The Gospel of Us," a modern day interpretation of "The Passion" story chronicling Jesus Christ's final days of life on Earth.
Doctor Science - Obsidian Wings Comments
Last weekend I noticed two religion blogs, one Jewish and one evangelical (though not fundamentalist) Christian, discussing the same passages in the Bible: the ones commanding the Israelites to fight, slaughter, enslave, and dispossess the Canaanite inhabitants of the Land of Israel. To commit genocide, in fact.
Oliver Kamm - The Times Comments
Review of The Magic of Reality
John Gray - The Globe and Mail Comments
A review of The Future of Blasphemy Speaking of the Sacred in an Age of Human Rights
by Austin Dacey
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Your right to practice your religion no more entitles you to try to save souls in your employer’s time than your right to a family life (equally guaranteed by Human Rights legislation) entitles you to take long phone calls from your spouse during working hours.
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[The God Delusion is] absolutely chock-full of things Richard Dawkins really does believe. Which is handy, because it saves everyone the trouble of making them up.
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Christianity is like a big, chunky sweater. It may feel cozy, it may keep you warm, but just let one stitch be dropped and the whole thing unravels before your very eyes. Evolution is that stitch.