Tag Archives: atheism

Defined by opposition

Some people seem to be having an identity crisis of late. Far more words than necessary have been spilled over whether or not Britain is a “Christian” country – a debate whose only endpoint seems to be applying an adjective to a collective group of some 63m or so people in the hope of electorally appealing to the proportion of those that identify as such.

The prime minister’s comments, coming after talking about his faith but before calling the police when the bishop of Oxford came to visit, prompted the utterly predictable backlash from the British Humanist Association (BHA). Beyond the futile question as it stands, the debate (if you can call it that) is symptomatic of a wider issue of how we define ourselves either as individuals, communities or societies.

One thing I have begun to notice of late is how we often define ourselves in terms of what we are not. I’ve been known to do it myself sometimes. It seems as though it is easier to express ourselves via some means of negation than it is of affirmation. Or at least, if there is some affirmation is quickly followed by a clarification which is expressed by negation. In other words, saying, “I’m X. But by X, I don’t mean Y” where Y might be confused or conflated with X, or may be thought to be some sort of subgroup of X.

In the case of the BHA it may (rightly) be saying we are not explicitly a christian country but without offering any kind of positive alternative.

I might wonder if there is some kind of Popperian sense of falsification going on in some of our heads. To take the work of one of the signatories, Richard Dawkins, for example, in The Extended Phenotype he was very keen to repeatedly point out that his formulation of evolution was not Lamarckian. Here, he provides good evidence which seems to go some way to falsifying the position he is countering. Though in so doing, one must be careful to fairly and accurately portray what one might be defined against, or else fall prey to the straw man fallacy (not that I am suggesting that Dawkins did this in The Extended Phenotype).

I might guess that our tendency to be drawn to the straw man is because it is easier to look to another and say that we are not like them rather than articulate a positive statement about what it is we believe and stand for. And it is, I would posit, easier to besmirch  a view we disagree with it and be loose in doing so than to put forward a tightly argued proposition of our own.

Apart from intellectual laziness, one of the dangers is potentially to throw the baby out with the bathwater. To take an example, I know a lot of people for whom the term ‘Calvinism’ is one of the greatest evils in the world. By running as far away from any hint of it, much of the good and right things that Calvin wrote (though I wouldn’t agree with everything he wrote and wouldn’t usually call myself a Calvinist) may be left behind.

If we were to move to another area of interest, I sometimes wonder about particular expressions of atheism. One wonders how such an idea might be articulated if there were not such a thing as theism against which it could lean.

I’m not really making a point here, just musing out some thoughts on a Friday lunchtime. Do  you see others (or even yourself) trying express their identity in terms of what they are not?

Sympathy for atheists (part 2 of 2) – some frustrations

One of the frustrations I have in discussing matters of faith and ‘religion’ with atheists, which I don’t get when discussing with people of other faiths, is the insistence that the primary issue is whether or not God exists. But, as I said in part 1, to critique someone’s point of view, it helps if you try to see things from that point of view, even if you don’t hold to it yourself.

So in looking at atheism, which is not merely a rejection of christianity, but of any ‘religion’ that may be described as theistic, I do have a great deal of sympathy. After all, if the existence of God had been proved there would be no need for much further discussion and we could all agree. But the fact remains that God’s existence has not been proved. There is still doubt and disbelief, and that is not entirely irrational.

Where my frustration lies is with those who I would describe as more fundamentalist to whom this is seen as a blocking problem. i.e. one which must be resolved fully and finally before any other progress can be made. When I try to speak of the good work of many a philosopher and theologian over the centuries, who have wrestled with a great many of these ideas and those related to them, I often get a response back that theology is “nothing more than weasel words” or a play on semantics or some other similar kind of put-down.

That point of view I have little sympathy for. Imagine for a moment that I am a sceptic about chemistry. Having read a little chemistry, I know that the whole science is dependent upon the interaction of electrons and their “orbits” or quantum shells. But this imaginary sceptic doubts whether there is such a thing as an electron. “Show me one,” I demand. “Let me hold it in my hand and turn it over so that I may examine it.” The chemist friend, who is extremely patient, explains that one cannot hold an electron in the hand as one might hold a coin. He pulls up a blackboard and does some illustrative diagrams, though he explains that these are models which represent the behaviour of electrons, but which are not necessarily 100% accurate depictions thereof. He does some fancy demonstrations by throwing group 1 metals into water, putting nails into acid and setting fire to the resulting gas. He does everything he can with the means available to his disposal to show me that chemistry is real. I turn to him and say, “That’s just trying to weasel your way with coloured flames and powders. You haven’t shown me a single electron.”

The frustration that the chemist would feel at my imaginary dunce is the frustration that I do feel for those who would ask for a proof of God before looking at any other aspect of christianity. For me, and also for many other christians, the route to belief leaves a big clue in the name – Christ. Though my understanding is that Christ is a title, the same as Messiah, which is attributed to Jesus. So when referring to the person I will tend to refer to Jesus rather than to Christ.

Going after the historical Jesus

Given that this christian’s faith is grounded in the person of Jesus, if any wish to dissuade me from my belief (as you are perfectly entitled to do) then this must be the starting point, rather than an attempt to start with the question of God.

Logically, there’s nothing wrong the latter approach. If the idea of God could be disproved then not only would christianity fall but so would most religions. In this respect, it’s a prize that any atheist should desire, if being right is their aim. Yet it is because the idea of God varies so much from one religion to the next, that trying to disprove its existence is a tricky task.

There certainly have been efforts made to try to discredit Jesus, though some of these fall prey to the same kind of bad apologetics I alluded to before. Here, I think specifically of adherents to the Christ Myth hypothesis, who believe, contrary to evidence, that Jesus never existed. Even Richard Dawkins has backed away from such extreme irrational revisionism!

To discredit the figure of Jesus would only result in the falsification of christianity. To try to discredit all other religions would require more effort. This would put to the test those who not only do not believe in a god, but who also claim that not believing in a god is an insignificant part of their lives. I see whole twitter feeds, comment profiles and blogs dedicated to telling us how much of a non-issue it is for them. Yet such an effort would be needed to allay the suspicion that atheism is a lazy cop-out, a non-thought process. I’m sure there a number of things we don’t believe in, but the truth is we either don’t give them much attention or we have a glib answer to hand.

To those who do not think much about the matter, I can understand that. There are a great many things in this world to worry about, competing for our attention. So why should you pay attention to the guy on the street corner yelling out random things interjected with the word ‘Jesus’ every now and then. I don’t expect you to know the difference between a Mormon and a Jehovah’s Witness, let alone why neither of them are typically regarded as christians, in spite of seemingly having so much in common with your friend who says she goes a pentecostal church, or your uncle, the lifelong anglican. It’s absolutely to fine for you to have your (non-)belief and I don’t find there anything wrong with that. I might disagree with you, but if so, let us sit down and reason together.

To those who have thought about the matter, and admit as much, I commend you. It takes guts to be willing to take a serious look at something you disagree with. I would have some questions to ask you, though maybe I’ll save those for another time.


I suppose my point is this: atheists and christians often talk at cross-purposes. For a christian to speak of God, we do not all speak with the same understanding or viewpoint. I speak from my own perspective, many aspects of which will be familiar and shared with a wide range of christians from a number of denominations and those of none. There are ideas of God which I reject, such as the depictions of an old man with a large beard in the clouds, a sky fairy or kind of invisible puppeteer. I know of no christian whose beliefs are expressed as such, or which could be fairly described likewise.

Theology is not so much a study of God, as a searching of God. It cannot be contained in a cage to have Its behaviour studied, to see how it reacts to certain stimuli. In part 1, I mentioned an ordo fides that the christian has. In this respect, God is best seen as a sort of tentative ‘conclusion’, but not a ‘conclusion’ that is ever finalised, if you get what I mean. I know I’m playing loosely words there, but I admit I struggle to find the perfect expression. But one person’s ‘conclusion’ should not be another person’s starting point. To do so misses out on a wealth of reasoning and nuance which may not be readily apparent from a concise statement of conclusion – such as a creed or other statement of faith.

To be an atheist can be to be wholly independent of any religion. That is, a viewpoint of non-belief that is purely a vaccum, not referencing any other viewpoint, whether “religious” or not. It need not be though, and of those that I ‘meet’ on the internet, in particular their atheism is formulated with specific reference to a number of religions, in particular the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Islam, Christianity and Catholicism (where I am careful to distinguish the latter two, though many conflate them  – incorrectly in my view).

It is almost inevitable that any prolonged discussion between a christian and an atheist will involve some level of disagreement. What I would hope need not be necessary is any form of insult, ridicule or hectoring. Because there is a great risk of talking past one another, or of possibly making assumptions about what another person does and doesn’t believe, why not listen to one another? Don’t assume you know what another person thinks, but hear them out before interjecting with any clarifications. Be aware that another may be approaching a subject from a completely different angle, couching their reasoning in different terms and with different emphases.

By all means, we should challenge one another and permit ourselves to be challenged. Only, if you do, don’t demand everything on your own terms. An atheist might want to discuss the question of God’s existence, but if that’s not the way a christian naturally approaches the issue, don’t be surprised if the response seems oblique. Likewise, to any christian that might wish to challenge an atheist, listen to what they have to say first; don’t project onto them the views of others who may hold similar views. If we can base discussions on these foundations, then I would hope that there may be a lot less unnecessary disagreement and that any disagreements remain solely on the things which matter to each of us in our shared humanity.

Sympathy for atheists (part 1 of 2)

It’s probably fair to say that I spend a reasonable amount of my spare time questioning and investigating my faith. This involves not only my own critical thinking, but also reading both proponents and opponents of my faith. I won’t agree with all, but I think it’s better to be well-informed of as many relevant viewpoints as one can reasonably manage without being confuddled by the noise. Indeed, if you look through my fairly eclectic reading, I hope you’ll see a fair array of views present. The idea behind this is somewhat akin to “iron sharpens iron.” i.e. the better quality the opposition I engage with, the more refined my understanding will become. Of course, if anything is revealed to me which falsifies any idea I’ve had, and it stands up when scrutinised, tested, etc. then the most logical course of action is to change my mind.

It would be my hope that any other person who regards themselves as a rationalist would recognise this as being a fair description of their worldview. You might choose to word it slightly differently, but I think the essence of the idea is there.

So when it comes to christianity, there are two different sorts of opposition. One would be someone who at claims to be a christian (see here for a longer discussion on this) but who holds a very different viewpoint. An example of this would be Marcus Borg, who would say he is a christian, but who thinks that the history is less relevant than the “more than literal” meaning of the christian message. The other kind of opposition would be atheistic, whereby the claims of christianity are thought to be false.

This is where I come to the slightly provocative title of this post. I have lot of sympathy for atheists who, very rightly, would wish to counter a christian viewpoint. The reason I have this sympathy is the great variety of beliefs that are held by different christians. Not only that, but to those who don’t live and breathe christianity, it’s not always clear what is an essential belief held by christians and what might be incidental.

If one is to provide an incisive critique into christianity, then it helps to try to view things from a christian’s perspective. One of the attacks I read and hear most frequently is the attack on the idea of a God.  Yet I do not know of many christians for whom this is their starting point. Though it is true that without God, christianity would be a nonsense, it is not the start and end of christian belief. To say that God is the Alpha and Omega does not mean to say that a belief in God is all there is, it is a more poetic statement about the cosmos. As has been demonstrated repeatedly by a number of christian/atheist discussions, there is little agreement about what one might mean by ‘god’ – at one end you might come up with such a pithy definition that it lacks any depth or understanding; it is barely an outline, bearing little resemblance to the portrayals made of God in scripture, art, belief and apologetics throughout history. At the other end of the scale, one might try to come up with a highly detailed and nuanced view of God. One of the many dangers here, though, is that few other christians would wholly agree with the description given. In this case, one must go through every understanding of God and attempt to refute each in turn; a task which is surely too great for any one person to attempt.

There is a wider question of whether or not any description of God could ever be said to be accurate. I would argue, somewhat apophatically, that the answer to this must be ‘no’. However, before I lunge down the route of mysticism, I would give a kataphatic response that we can get a glimpse, a beginning of understanding. To me, that beginning is found in the person of Jesus.

Of course, and this may have occurred to you, that the opening line of the Apostles’ Creed is a statement expressing belief in the existence of God. This, I will admit, is a personal bugbear of mine as the authors of the creed seem to be trying to work somewhat chronologically through the bible rather than express what I would refer to as an ‘order of belief’ – an ordo fides, if you will. To my way of thinking, I go by Jesus’ sayings that “no one can come to the father except through me.” and “he who has seen me has seen the father” [John 14:5-14].

In practice, I don’t know of many people at all who are christians because they first believed in the existence of God and then somehow progressed on from there to christianity. So even though I am happy to describe myself as a theist, and have no issue with anyone describing me as such, it is secondary to my being a christian.

The bible and apologetics don’t always help

Another area of sympathy for atheists comes from the area of christian apologetics. Though there is some that I like and find quite stimulating, there is, quite frankly, a load of old guff out there. But why is apologetics needed? Surely the key source material for christian belief, the bible, has the answers?

Sadly, not. The question of the existence of God is barely addressed in the bible. Aside from a particularly unhelpful little quip in Psalm 14 and a less than convincing appeal to the argument from design at the start of Romans, there is very little in the 66 books which set out a case. Instead, God is very much a factor which is assumed. It was only much later that the question began to be posed and the idea of God doubted and disbelieved. Only then was there a need for apologetics.

However, the field is cursed by a problem. That is, those who are christians already (in most cases) accept the conclusions before they hear the argument. This creates a predisposition to agreeing with the argument, regardless of its validity. Thus, many a well-meaning christian has parroted a line of bad reasoning. Though before my fellow christians accuse me of being an infidel, I would point out that the same is true of many an atheist. If you read the Amazon reviews of something like God is not Great or The God Delusion, you will find a great many reviews there are from atheists who have read those books to reinforce their confirmation bias. So no one group is entirely free from what I think is a very natural tendency to seek out the like-minded.

That’s it, for now

I do have a few more points to make, but I shall leave for those for later, as this is getting quite long. In case those points address concerns you may have now, I’ve not opened comments on this piece; you’ll have to wait until the 2nd part next week.

Book Review: Dialogues and Natural History of Religion by David Hume

A word first on the precise book I read, as I am aware that the works of David Hume have been published under various similar titles but with different contents. This version was published by Oxford University Press and has an introduction written by John C.A. Gaskin. The bulk of the book is made of Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion and The Natural History of Religion. It also contains Hume’s My Own Life, section XI of An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding and a letter dated 10/03/1751 concerning the Dialogues.

As a freethinking christian, I am advocate of reading views that contradict one’s own. You can see some examples of other such books I have read, including those by Marcus Borg, Christopher Hitchens and Ben Whitney. When I asked Simon Clare for a recommendation of such a book, he mentioned Hume in passing, but ultimately recommended Whitney. Though I thought it would be worthwhile having a read of some of Hume’s work.

The inclusion of section XI of An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding was a little odd, as the notes reference other sections which weren’t included in this volume.

The bulk of the book is made up of the Dialogues, which I confess came as quite a pleasant surprise as I was not expecting a classic work of atheistic thinking to be quite so good. The thing that struck me most was the format. I’ve not read a work like it since I did Plato’s Republic quite some years ago. Instead of a straightforward exposition, Hume has created several characters who enter into a protracted discussion. In so doing, the notes to the book state that Hume somewhat disguises what his own view is. The two main characters are Cleanthes (who dominates the early part of the discussion) and Philo (who dominates the latter part). There is also Demea who interjects occasionally. Though Demea is not cast as a simpleton, as Galileo did in a similar dialogue which got him in an awful lot of trouble, he is regarded as an earnest believer and is not as nuanced as Cleanthes.

In setting up a dialogue as he has done, Hume somewhat disguises what his own view was. Cleanthes is, roughly, the reasonable believer while Philo is the extreme sceptic. Which of these represent Hume’s voice? The notes attached, and a few comments I’ve seen when looking into it, say that Philo represents Hume’s true view. Given the body of the other writings in this volume, that is an understandable point of view. Though in the letter about the Dialogues which is included, Hume explicitly states that he sides with Cleanthes. The notes try to dismiss this by stating it was a typo, though I’m not so sure.

As for the contents of the Dialogues themselves, they can be roughly divided up into two parts. In the first, the existence of God is assumed and then the question is posed as to what we might discern about the nature and character of God by mere observation of the world around us. In so doing, Hume deliberately blinkers the conversation by limiting it to “natural religion” and excludes any consideration of history. In this first part, the ultra-sceptic Philo puts in his objections occasionally but is typically well-countered by Cleanthes. However, having started with the fairly narrow premise of what might be inferred about God, it is of little surprise that the answers which emerge are very limited. An interesting point raised in the notes in that this first half is meant to be a counter-argument to the argument from design, though it was written before William Paley’s famous, influential and nowadays disregarded work, Natural Theology. I say it is meant to be a counter-argument rather than it is a counter-argument as it seems to me that Hume and the participants in his fictional dialogue rather side-step the issue and merely present other, reasonable possibilities so that one could only conclude that natural theology is not compelling, rather than showing it to be false.

The second half of the Dialogues turns the question around and Philo takes to the fore. Instead of taking the existence of God as obvious, this is now called into question and instead, the participants look at whether the existence of God is necessitated by what we observe from the world around us. Crucial to this is the classic question attributed to Epicurus, the question of theodicy. In so doing, Hume examines four “sources” of evil and there is a discussion on each in turn, though I did feel that a proper definition of ‘evil’ was somewhat lacking, making the discussion amenable to the prejudices of the participants (i.e. the different voices in Hume’s head which he wrestles with). Consequently, the conclusions of the discussions may be somewhat skewed away from the rational objectivity for which he strives. It is interesting to note that at this point in the dialogues Demea departs, though no particular reason is given; it seems to me that Hume is saying something along the lines of, “given that all has been said, the devout believer has no choice but to concede defeat and leave.” Though I admit, that is just my interpretation. Yours may be different.

I also admit that I used the word ‘conclusion’ in the preceding paragraph rather loosely, as Hume does not really come to any succinct verdict. He certainly doesn’t go so far as to say that he has disproved God, which is what I was expecting, given the book’s reputation as a classic work of atheism. Instead, he merely goes so far as to demonstrate reasonable doubt.  Yet this is, as I said earlier, reasonable doubt on a single strand of theological thought, that of natural theology. If anything, he well demonstrates that this strand alone is insufficient to base a belief of God on. In this, I would agree with him. Though it is Hume’s own limited scope that leaves open much more to be explored. My own faith, for example, though I am fascinated by the fine-tuning question in physics, do not hurry down the path of teleology which tends to lead to the God-of-the-gaps argument. Instead, I take fine-tuning as a possible indication of the providence of God, but I hold it tentatively, aware that it might be wrong. The rock of my faith, however, is the person of Jesus, who, if memory serves me correctly, does not get a single mention in the Dialogues. If he does, then he is certainly not a central figure. Neither is Abraham or David or the Buddha or Muhammad.

So what then, of the follow-up, The Natural History of Religion? The introductory notes states that it was unusual for it to be partnered with the Dialogues, as the Natural History was considered an inferior work, though the editor of this volume wished for them to be paired. In this respect, I would agree with the prevailing view as the Natural History contains far fewer points of relevance.

As an aside, if you read the Natural History (and to some extent, the latter parts of the Dialogues) one may see why the so-called “New Atheism” is really not all that new. The starting premise, though unstated, is that all religion must be untrue. This is assumed, without reason or evidence. The question which then arises, and which this book attempts to answer, is “Where did religion come from?” The answers which Hume gives are, sadly, all too frequently echoed today by the internet atheists one meets on discussion forums whose knowledge and understanding of any religion is shaped predominantly from a few years of attending church as a child, followed by confirmation bias of listening to and reading the naysayers as adults. So we find here an attempt at understanding the evolution of monotheistic thought out of polytheism. There is a discussion likening beliefs in gods to belief in elves and pixies. Yet nowhere does Hume draw on any historical evidence for his assertions. They are stated as though they should be taken at face value, which I doubt even his arch-sceptic, Philo, would have done.

It was a disappointing end to the volume, as I must admit I really rather liked the Dialogues. They have much to offer and much to mull over. Certainly, anyone who wishes to delve into the idea of teleology should only do so if they pay heed to Hume tapping on their shoulder, warning them of fruitless alleyways of thought. Yet to include the Natural History of Religion without tackling the very real historical figures of Jesus, Buddha and Muhammad, to name just three, is to miss the point entirely. That said, I would recommend that anyone who might regard themselves as a christian, a catholic, a Jew or a Muslim, should read Hume.  Though he does little to challenge the specifics of faith, the philosophical musings on what we might know about the nature of God and how we know it is of great value. His case for the reasonableness of doubt is well made and is one that I agree with, even though I do not go so far as some readers of Hume might to do allow doubt to fester into disbelief.

Return from blogging break

Picture courtesy of Damian Gadal (Creative Commons)

Picture courtesy of Damian Gadal (Creative Commons)

Hello all. I’m back from my blogging break. There’s been an awful lot happening in the last couple of months. There have been lots of thoughts running through my head that have gone by without being written down or explored. I’ve made a few comments on other blogs or news/comment websites, but taking a break from the blog was necessary and I think it’s done some good.

I must confess that I have done some writing during the ‘off’ period, mostly in August. Though many are not finished, I thought I’d give a taster of what’s to come, either to whet your appetite or else warn you to stay away.

At some point, I plan to finish my series ‘The Nature and Origin of Morality’ which has lain dormant for a few years now. I tried an initial sketch when the opportunity arose when guest blogging for The Big Bible blog a few months ago, but I hope to build on this if I get a few days uninterrupted to think and write.

One of the main reasons for the break has been that I moved house. I have written two bits on this. One is a detailed account of the process; the other is a list of hints and tips that I either employed and found useful or things I wish I had done but didn’t. The former was written more for my own reference, but some of you may find it interesting. The latter is more for your benefit or, if I word it correctly for search engine optimisation (SEO) it might help a complete stranger.

Over the summer, one of the big buzz topics has been feminism and the online reaction to some of its outspoken advocates. I’ve commented a little on some points and offered messages of support who have been victims of online bullying, but this piece will hopefully clarify my position of why I will support many feminists but why I don’t adopt the term myself, preferring the expression ‘egalitarian’.

Another topic, as triggered by the cases of Julian Assange, Bradley/Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden is that of whistleblowing. I think, given this name of this blog, I ought to explore the nature of speaking the truth and what consequences that has and whether there ought to be any restrictions on doing so.

I’m working on a couple of pieces on christian belief, atheism and existentialism with the slightly provocative working titles of ‘Sympathy for atheists’ and ‘On the non-existence of God’. These are quite embryonic in their development and have yet to start their journey from my brain to my fingertips.

One piece that I started a couple of years ago, but have struggled with the wording explores the fallibility of human nature and the wrongdoings that are committed by christians, sometimes in the name of christianity. I’ve restarted it a couple of times and shelved it again and again. This time, I’m aiming to finish it. If you can goad me on or offer encouragement, then that’ll be much appreciated.

The most ambitious project, which I’ve started work on, but am a long way (maybe 2-3 years) from finishing is a statement of faith. I realise that I don’t have anything like that which is at all thorough on this blog, so my intention is to look at the 129 questions of the Heidelberg Catechism, looking at the answers given and giving my own response. I’m aiming to do one per week, in the hope that this will be as much an investigation into my own beliefs as it is an exposition. The objective, as ever, will be to provide food for thought.

In amongst these, I’ll also be putting in some book reviews. Specifically, these are:

Thinking in Numbers – Daniel Tammet
Dogmatics in Outline – Karl Barth
Borders: A Very Short Introduction – Alexander Diener & Joshua Hagen
From the Earth to the Moon – Jules Verne
Longitude – Dava Sobel
A Broad Place – Jurgen Moltmann
Dialogues and Natural History of Religion – David Hume
Around the Moon – Jules Verne
Mathematics: A Very Short Introduction – Timothy Gowers
History of the Peloponnesian War – Thucydides
The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories – H.P. Lovecraft
Robotics:A Very Short Introduction – Alan Winfield
Confessions – Augustine of Hippo

So that’s the plan. I can’t say it’s all a promise I’ll stick to. I may well get stuck with some of these posts and have to shelve them for a while. Other things may crop up which will intrude, either because they are interesting or there is some need that must be addressed. Meanwhile, the offer is always open to host any guest writers. Feel free to contact me if you’re interested. If you’ve got things you’d like to see here, whether it be a point of clarification over some issue or just something you think would be interesting, then please send your suggestions in. I’m always on the lookout for further book recommendations. I’ve got a few hundred on my reading list, but it can never be too long.

So what about you? Been up to anything interesting over the summer?

Book Review: Faith in the Public Square by Rowan Williams

This was one of those books I picked up on the off-chance as I was browsing round a bookshop one lunchtime. I was aware of its existence a little while ago, when it seemed to cause a minor stir among some Anglicans but it seems to have little longer-lasting impact. The first thing to note about it, however, is that it’s not a book that Rowan actually set out to write. Instead, it’s a collection of transcripts of various sermons and lectures he gave between June 2002 and February 2012. Much of the vernacular used for a public address has been kept; in fact, I’m not certain how much editing was done to the transcripts at all, apart from the staff at Bloomsbury occasionally omitting spaces whenever they thought italics were most appropriate, something I hope they will correct in any subsequent print runs.

As the title suggests, the book is largely about how issues of faith and religion play out in public life. The lectures have been ordered by theme, rather than by the order in which they were first given, so as to try to give some kind of coherency to discussions on a quite wide variety of topics. The first two parts of the book, which are the longest and, I think it’s fair to say, the most intricate, are about secularism, multiculturalism, pluralism and the different ways these are perceived, coupled with Rowan’s own thoughts about which is the right path to walk down.

If anything though, these chapters could be skipped, as Rowan summarises it all very nicely in the Preface. The rest is more filling in the details. Crucial to this point of view is the distinction between what he refers to as “procedural secularism” and “programmatic secularism”. The former is a stance where no religious (or non-religious) position is given undue privilege in places of public life, such in government or media. The latter is (though Rowan, if I recall from those early chapters correctly, does not use the phrase) “aggressive secularism” – a term that is too often used, more often than not, incorrectly. It denotes the idea that religion ought to have no place in public life; it should be out of sight, out of mind. He does single out the French for having this view, something I have written a little about some time ago.

Rowan advocates procedural secularism whilst rejecting programmatic secularism, as well as those who advocate the latter under the guise of the former. Though he does not mention by name the National Secular Society, the inference is all too easy to draw.

After this opening, which I warn you gets a little turgid, the book moves onto the application of religious (though mainly christian) thinking into other areas of public life. i.e. after having advocated that christians be allowed a voice in a liberal democracy, here is what one influential christian has to say on matters of environmentalism, justice, finance and community.

What he has to say is well thought through, effortlessly sensible and immensely thought-provoking. That said, it’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. Despite the back cover’s claim that he is “the finest theologian in Britain” (a title reader’s of Hannah’s Child may smirk at), there is very little theology here. This more ‘applied’ theology than ‘pure’ theology, to bring in a mathematical analogy. I suppose it is inevitable that the book would appeal to a christian secularist, such as myself, though I would be interested in reading the thoughts of an atheist secularist on the book.

Book Review: Walking Without God by Ben Whitney

Before beginning the review proper, I need to say a few words about how I came across this small volume.

One of the blogs I occasionally peruse is that of Simon Clare (who operates on Twitter as @FaithlessEye). A little while ago, he posted a review/critique of Thomas à Kempis. I have, for some time, been of the belief that it is a good thing to engage with those with whom you are naturally inclined to disagree. So I was impressed that an atheist would be reading quite an old treatise on christian faith; one, I hasten to add, that I have not read myself. I left a comment asking if there was anything he might recommend for me so that I could do a similar exercise, only from a different angle. Walking Without God was his recommendation.

Whitney begins by giving us an introduction to himself, as a former baptist preacher who has, for some reason, given up his faith, though he doesn’t go into the details of when and why. He simply states his case as he now sees it. The bulk of the book is made of 9 short essays, where he has picked a phrase or a verse from one of the Psalms and looks at what it might mean to think about the subject matter of each quote from a perspective that wants to engage with the idea of ‘spirituality’ but from a perspective without God.

In terms of atheist writing, this is about as far removed from, say, Christopher Hitchens, as one might hope to get. Whitney is almost relentlessly positive. Though he gives some critiques of traditional religion, particularly christianity, these are quite reasonable and never descends into the ranting rhetoric that so marred God is Not Great when I read it last year. One might not expect me to agree with everything that Whitney writes but I probably agreed with more than I disagreed with. He is almost relentlessly positive and espouses a worldview that does not set itself against any other, but rather one that can stand up in its own right. I would wholeheartedly recommend this to anyone of faith or anyone of none.

Probably the aspect of the book that chimed with my own take on the Psalms is the sort of “theologically jingoistic” tone of some Psalms, where the author(s) seem to demonise their enemies. I get raised eyebrows when I mention the topic in christian circles. Rather than give a blow by account of each essay, I shall copy somewhat Whitney’s style, by picking some quotes and saying a little about them. Hopefully, this will give you a little flavour of the book, along with my own responses to a small sample of quotes. Though, whilst I acknowledge my choosing of the quotes may not seem wholly representative of Whitney’s book, I admit I cherry-picked them because I found them interesting points of engagement, I think it reflects that Whitney’s style, as he is not really attempting a full-blown study of the Psalms.

“Religion, including the Christian version of it, is about the ‘big questions’ in life; or it should be.”

I’m not wholly convinced about this. While I think christianity should ask the ‘big questions’ I am not sure that that is the point, nor should it be, of christianity. Rather, christianity is the story of the relationship between God and people. What then differentiates christianity from any other philosophy or religion is how the ‘big questions’ are then looked at in the light of this story. It’s asking the questions in particular context. Though the start of this sentence hints at a generalisation of christianity to religion (similar, in my opinion, to using potatoes to make generalised statements about food) Whitney does avoid this for most of the book, which only adds to his credibility.

“The gospel accounts were written later of course by those who now believed certain things about him so they are not to be trusted as any kind of impartial record.”

I would agree with to an extent. As I write my reviews partly as I’m reading, but partly after I finish, I must confess that this sentence is being written about 4 days after I finished the book. Already, I have moved on and am reading Marcus Borg’s book, ‘Jesus: Uncovering the life, teachings and relevance of a religious revolutionary’. He takes a very similar tack to Whitney here, but then, as a member of the Jesus Seminar, that may not come as a surprise. I will write more about this anon. But for now, I would merely say that to recognise that there is an angle does not mean that the gospels should be disregarded. Scepticism doesn’t mean throwing the historical baby out with the metaphorical bathwater. When it comes to gospel hermeneutics, I would side more with the critical realism of Tom Wright (as espoused in the first half of The New Testament and the People of God) than with Whitney, who seems to be more on the side of Bultmann’s demythologisation programme. I may be wrong about that, but it’s the impression I got.

“I suspect that Jesus has been turned into something he never intended to be and that many subsequent claims made about him are based on misunderstandings, such as taking things literally about his birth and death that were never intended to be seen in that way.”

The question of literalism is indeed a thorny one, as alluded to above. In order to any kind of sensible or coherent opinion, one must ask the question, ‘how did the particular anecdote (or pericope) arise?’ One considers the testimony of Papias of Hierapolis that Mark’s gospel was based on the eyewitness testimony of Peter, so it should not be surprising that that particular gospel omits a story of Jesus’ birth. Who then, was the source for Matthew & Luke? It seems most likely that the one person who remained with the disciples after the resurrection who was also present at Jesus’ birth was Mary. The difficulty faced then, when looking at the figure of Jesus, is trying to come up with a sensible and consistent set of criteria that would allow for the distinction between what was the written form of oral history and what were ‘editorial’ embellishments. Whitney doesn’t give any such details, so the reader is left slightly guessing at how Whitney thinks Jesus’ history has been distorted. It would also be worth exploring, in my view at least, precisely what Whitney thinks the original intention was behind the stories of Jesus’ birth and death.

“Religious faith should be a means through which we grapple with and express our deepest emotions, not, as it sometimes seems, a way of repressing them into a set of rules and regulations.”

My response to this epitomises my view of the book. There is little here which I disagree with; I think it’s a very good statement. However, when it comes to saying “faith should” it just seems to be pointing slightly in the wrong direction. Expressions of the christian faith come in many shapes, sizes and colours. I hope readers of this blog get a fair impression of where I stand; what I accept, what I reject and what I am agnostic about. Amongst those that I disagree with are those who hold to something akin to a Pelagian point of view that christianity is about rules and regulations. This may come about by trying to get everyone in society to adhere to your moralistic rules or when routine becomes a ritual which must be observed with pious regularity, usually at the disdain of non-conformists such as myself. That said, I have long been suspicious of christians whose faith is primarily, if not wholly, based on emotions. So while our feelings may inform, colour or shape our beliefs (and indeed vice, versa), neither one should dictate the  other.

“In respectable Victorian Britain city businessmen stopped off at a child prostitute on their way back to their home in the suburbs where the family both stayed together and prayed together.”

This comment towards the end of the book stands out as most unusual when one considers the whole book. It is certainly a novel statement, made seemingly as a statement of fact, though with no evidence offered in its support. I include it here as it highlights the fact that Whitney doesn’t cite any references. I’d be interested as to what support he has for it.

“…Jesus also seems to have taught that the poor and the helpless were at the centre of what he called the ‘kingdom of God’. This is when we are closest to the historical Jesus, whatever the church has done with him since… It is an interesting phrase [and]…is one of the most common phrases in the New Testament and so must be at the heart of what religion is supposed to be about… The rule of God on earth, or ‘the right way of living’ in my understanding, is what matters.”

This reflects possibly a far more insightful view of the christian message than most I have heard either from any atheists or a great many christians. It brings to mind something Tom Wright once said, that the authors of the gospels would take exception to the apostles’ creed, as it jumps from Jesus’ birth straight to his death & resurrection when the gospels actually contain quite a bit about what he said and did in between. Thought I wouldn’t equate God’s rule on earth with ‘the right way of living’ this is a far better portrayal of christianity than the straw man of ‘magical sky pixie’ or similar such terms that get banded about on tiresome internet arguments. For that, I doff my cap to Mr Whitney.

Fisking Christopher Hitchens

As much as I wanted to read God is Not Great as an insightful and sharp critique of the world’s religions, the whole book is littered with factual errors, unevidenced rhetoric and hyperbole. If it is your desire that Hitchens be praised then I’m afraid you need to look for a review that has chosen to gloss over the book’s many flaws. For those that really jumped off the page at me, I turned the corner of the future reference (which doesn’t include all chapters). By the time I finished, this is what the edge book looked like:

If you think that I am unduly singling this out because it happens to be advocating atheism, then you’d be mistaken. After finishing reading God is Not Great, I began to read Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life, which is equally full of non-sequiturs and which I intend to subject to equally close scrutiny. There are many good and reasonable reasons one may have for being an atheist, just as there for being a christian. My aim here is simply to demonstrate that the reasons Hitchens advocates are not as compelling as he would have liked you to think.

Chapter 1 – Putting it Mildly

P7: “Religion spoke its last intelligible or noble or inspiring words a long time ago: either that it mutated into an admirable but nebulous humanism, as did, say, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a brave Lutheran pastor hanged by the Nazis for his refusal to collude with them.”

The only reasonable conclusion is that Hitchens never read any of Bonhoeffer’s writings, as that conclusion is not borne out by the evidence of reading either of his 2 best known works: The Cost of Discipleship or Letters and Papers from Prison. On page 176, a similar statement is made to the effect of saying that martin Luther King Jr wasn’t really a christian – a sort of strange twist on the No True Scotsman fallacy.

Chapter 2 – Religion Kills

P16/17: “As to the Anglican Church into which I was originally baptized [sic]…..it has a historic responsibility for the Crusades, for persecution of Catholics, Jews, and Dissenters, and for combat against science and reason.”

Errr….come again? Given that the Anglican church was founded by Henry VIII in the 16th century, some 400 years after the Crusades, one can but wonder what timeline Hitchens was working on. As for the other allegations, Hitchens wholly fails to provide any evidence or even so much as a secondary reference.

P20/21: “To be a Serb is to be Christian orthodox. In the 1940s, this meant a Nazi puppet state, set up in Croatia and the patronage of the Vatican, which naturally sought to exterminate all the Jews in the region…”

Naturally?? I know that Catholicism did itself no favours with its complicity during the Second World War, but it goes far too far to suggest that the Vatican shared the Nazis’ anti-Semitic extremism in a desire for mass murder of the Jews.

P27: “I can think of a handful of priests and bishops and rabbis and imams who have put humanity ahead of their own sect or creed. History gives us many other such examples, which a going to discuss later on. But this is a compliment to humanism, not to religion.”

As touched on above, here we see Hitchens’ twist on the No True Scotsman fallacy. Only in this case, anyone who has been “religious” and done something good cannot have possibly done it because of their religion. Hitchens is desperate to find some other reason for it. Unfortunately, his choice of humanism betrays only his lack of knowledge of humanism’s origins. Long before organisations such the National Humanist Association hijacked the word to try to make it synonymous with atheism (see more here) humanism was a socio-political offshoot of christianity. To cite from the Encyclopaedia Britannica: “though humanism gradually became identified with classroom studies of the classics, it more properly embraced any attitude exalting man’s relationship to God, his free will and his superiority over nature. Philosophically, humanism made man the measure of all things.” It then goes on to say, “In recent years [my edition was published in 1976] the term humanism has often been used to refer to value systems that emphasize the personal worth of each individual but that do not include a belief in God.” So the atheistic term is a very late arrival on the humanistic scene. The micropaedia article ends with a quote from christian theologian Karl Barth: “there is no humanism without the Gospel.”

Chapter 3 – A Short Digression on the Pig

P40: “Porcophobia – and porcophilia – thus probably originate in a night-time of human sacrifice and even cannibalism at which the “holy” texts often do more than hint”

Really? Hitchens doesn’t give any examples of hints of cannibalism in the Pentateuch or in the Qur’an. Nor does he provide evidence of “more than [a] hint”. It is an isolated assertion, devoid of meaningful context and vacuous of evidence.

Chapter 4 – A Note on Health

P56: “Violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children: organized [sic] religion ought to have a great deal on its conscience.”

Possibly one of the most revealing passages in the book, Hitchens gives us a great example of “projecting” onto one’s hate-figure some of the characteristics which one fears to be present in oneself. I’m not saying that Hitchens was necessarily violent (although he did support the illegal war against Iraq), but many of the other attributes embody his attitude towards religion. As shown below, his logic is most certainly irrational and intolerant. His alliance towards his own bigoted brand of atheism makes him tribalistic in his animosity to those who do not share his views and his wilful misreading of texts and failure to engage with the serious scholars of christianity shows he wished to remain ignorant of any viewpoint that would undermine his own argument.

P59/60: “even the stoutest defenders of the Bible story now admit that if Jesus was ever born it wasn’t until at least AD 4.”

This may be a simple typo, as Hitchens is alone in the authors I have read to assert that Jesus was born after AD 1. Most of what I read usually puts his birth at between 4 BC and 6 BC, largely due to the fact that Herod the Great (not to be confused with Herod Antipas) died in 4 BC.

P60: “When the earthquake hits, or the tsunami inundates, or the twin towers ignite, you can see and hear the secret satisfaction of the faithful.”

What an utterly vile comment. It is disgusting to suggest that religious people delight in disaster and the death of others. All of these are tragedies and their victims to be mourned. For 2 of the 3, these are natural disasters; the other stemmed from a gross misunderstanding of Islam.

Chapter 5 – The Metaphysical Claims of Religion

P64: “Muhammad is claimed by his own followers to have thought, as did Jesus, that the desert was pullulating with djinns, or evil spirits.”

I can’t say my knowledge of Islam is broad enough to be able to give an opinion on that side of the assertion, but it is bizarre to suggest that Jesus thought the desert was full of evil spirits. He doesn’t give his references (a common theme throughout the book) so there is no way to know where Hitchens got this idea from.

Chapter 7 – The Nightmare of the “Old” Testament

P100: When criticizing the notion of the 10th commandment Hitchens comments, “If god really wanted people to be free of such thoughts, he should have taken more care to invent a different species.”

Hitchens spectacularly demonstrates a failure to understand the nature of free will. I wouldn’t claim I fully grasp it myself, but there can be many puerile statements made which demonstrate what it is not. This is a prime example of the like.

P104: “Apart from the absurdity of claiming to be meek in such a way as to assert superiority in meekness over all others, we have to remember the commandingly authoritarian and bloody manner in which Moses is described”.

Hitchens makes a mistake which is not unique to him, in mistaking the word “meek” for “weak” – when its meaning, especially in the Hebrew context, is far closer to “power, under control.” To be meek is to be a very strong character. When we use “meek and mild” these are not synonyms; their relationship is more akin to “sweet and sour.”

Chapter 8 – The Evil of the “New” Testament

P115: “The contradictions and illiteracies of the New Testament have filled up many books by eminent scholars, and have never been explained by any Christian authority except in the feeblest terms of “metaphor” and “a Christ of faith.”

Here, we see Hitchens’ use of the argument from authority, which he employs when it suits him and condemns when it is used against him. While there are a tiny number of mostly innocuous inconsistencies in the New Testament, they are significant enough to be worthy of attention. Hitchens’ flippant dismissal demonstrates little about the resolution of any inconsistencies and tells us much more about how Hitchens would like to think of christians. Most that I come across are capable of discerning between what is metaphor and what is history, but Hitchens implies that he favours a false dichotomy between the two.

Chapter 9 – The Koran Is Borrowed

P127: “…while there was little or no evidence for the life of Jesus, the figure of the prophet Muhammad was by contrast a person in ascertainable history.”

Wow! Simply wow! This is in the same league of historical denialism that is illegal in some European countries.  If he wishes to cast aspersions on the historicity of Jesus, then it would be very interesting to see his thoughts on the likes of Hannibal, Alexander the Great or Octavian.

P129: “But Islam when examined is not much more than a rather obvious and ill-arranged set of plagiarisms, helping itself from earlier books and traditions as occasion happened to require.”

Hitchens doesn’t provide much evidence to support this rather sweeping generalisation. To do so would require a book in and of itself, carefully researched and cross-referenced. But that needs a lot more work than is needed for a pithy remark.

Chapter 10 – The Tawdriness of the Miraculous

P142: “One of professor Bart Ehrman’s more astonishing findings is that the account of Jesus’s [sic] resurrection in the Gospel of Mark was only added many years later.”

This comes near the start of a paragraph that is worthy of an essay by way of dissection in itself. Hitchens would have done well to familiarise himself with NT Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God before taking such a blunt analysis to a subject that requires such care. Ehrman is cited uncritically. Unusually, note how Hitchens refers to him as “professor” – something he doesn’t do for most authors he references, even if they are professors. This shows again Hitchens’ devotion to the argument from authority, even though he says just 8 pages later, “The “ARGUMENT FROM AUTHORITY” [caps original] is the weakest of all arguments.”

P143: “And exceptional claims demand exceptional evidence.”

Still on the subject of resurrection, this concludes a demonstration of Hitchens’ failure to engage with christians over the subject of resurrection, as he is under the mistaken impression that christians believe that Jesus didn’t really die. This is sometimes known as the docetist heresy and is rejected by just about all christians. But in this concluding statement, he makes a logical clanger, trotting out the well-worn fallacy that muddles epistemology with ontology. In other words, if something which is an exceptional claim does not have exceptional evidence it must necessarily be false. Wrong! If a claim is extraordinary, but there is insufficient evidence to prove it, then we must make the most reasonable assessment based on what evidence there is, and retain an element of scepticism.

Chapter 11 – Religion’s Corrupt Beginnings

P167: “If anything proves the human manufacture of religion, it is the way that the Mormon elders resolved this difficulty.”

The difficulty referred to is how the Mormon church initially regarded black people as being less than human. The “resolution” relates to an additional revelation in 1978, where it was revealed that black people were human after all. While this does expose an absurdity within Mormonism and demonstrates how the church changed its credo in the face of societal pressures, Hitchens makes an astounding error in logic to suppose that this “proves” that religion is manufactured by humans. Mormonism, yes; but to extrapolate to all religions on the basis of one instance is negligent indeed.

P168: “Christians used to resolve this problem by saying that Jesus descended into hell after his crucifixion, where it is thought that he saved or converted the dead.”

This is not the same problem as the prior quote. This is about the (very real) problem of how christians might think of the salvation of those who came before Jesus. While it is true that some christians may well have thought along those lines it would be unfair to present this is a panacea agreed upon by all christians. The roots of the idea stem from the apocryphal Gospel of Peter where a talking cross emerges from Jesus’ tomb and a voice from heaven asks, “Have you preached to those that sleep?” to which the cross replies, “Yes.” This is not a text that will be familiar to the majority of christians, nor is there universal agreement as to “where” Jesus went between his death and resurrection. To those who think he went to hell, they have a hard time explaining Luke 23:43, although they will often quote Ephesians 4:8-10 in their favour.

Chapter 12 – How Religions End

P172: “So the Sabbatau Sevi religion came to an end…..But had its founder been put to death, we should be hearing of it still, and of the elaborate mutual excommunications, stonings, and schisms that its followers would subsequently have engaged in.”

Although the chapter with which Hitchens uses this passage to conclude is mildly interesting, the poor logic is again mildly irritating. Clearly intended as a swipe at christianity, he envisages the second half of the above quote as an inevitable consequence of a religion where the leader was executed. By the same logic, one could look at the Tolpuddle martyrs in isolation and suppose that all trade union movements are destined to end in deportation.

Chapter 13 – Does Religion Make People Behave?

P176: “In no real as opposed to nominal sense, then, was [Dr Martin Luther King jr] a Christian.”

See my comment relating to P7.

P180: “The chance that someone’s secular [italics original] or freethinking opinion would cause him or her to denounce the whole injustice was extremely high. The chance that someone’s religious belief would cause him or her to take a stand against slavery and racism was statistically quite small.”

This comes shortly after a mysterious reference to “the whole record” which Hitchens fails to reference, so any reader wanting to investigate this claim will be bereft of the opportunity to do so. Hitchens also seems to imply an inherent link between secularism and freethinking which is again unfounded. Further than that, he seems to assume a mutual exclusivity between this point of view and a religious one, when no reason is given to suppose that they are.

P192: “At a minimum, this makes it impossible to argue that religion causes people to behave in a more kindly or civilized manner.”

This is the non-sequitur which concludes the chapter on “Does religion make people behave.” His case, though, is composed purely of anecdotes which could not determine the case one way or another. More to the point, however, is that it is written in such a way as to indicate that behaviour is one of the primary concerns of religion, which is a dubious assessment to say the least.

Chapter 15 – Religion as an Original Sin

P206: “sacramental guttings and throat-cuttings, particularly of lambs, occur every year in the Christian and Muslim world, either to celebrate Easter or the feast of Eid.”

I can’t speak for Islam, but this is certainly something I have never witnessed in a christian church. Maybe Hitchens was confusing Easter, occurring in spring, with regular livestock farming and the lambing season.

P209: Speaking of Jesus’ crucifixion: “Once again we have a father demonstrating love by subjecting a son to torture, but this time the father is not trying to impress god. He is god, and he is trying to impress humans.”

Hitchens here demonstrates that in spite of being familiar with some elements of christianity, he had no understanding of even the basic tenets of it. I know of no christian that would suppose that Jesus’ crucifixion was meant to “impress humans.”

P209: “I have to accept that I am responsible for the flogging and mocking and crucifixion, in which I had no say and no part, and agree that every time I decline this responsibility, or that I sin in word or deed, I am intensifying the agony of it.”

I don’t think there are many christians that subscribe to this view. The crucifixion of Jesus was a stand-alone event in history. It happened, it was not repeated and no subsequent events can affect what happened; such is the linear nature of time. While christians believe that Jesus died for “sin” I think that Hitchens has chosen to take a very literalistic view of some discussions on causality which are still the subject of discussion today.

Chapter 16 – Is Religion Child Abuse?

P227: “Sexual innocence, which can be charming in the young if it is not needlessly protracted, is positively corrosive and repulsive in the mature adult.”

I could dissect this a lot, but I don’t wish to go into much detail. However, it begs the question as to how long he means by “needlessly protracted”. One may also wonder if he went about asking people if they were virgins and choosing to find them “repulsive” if they said yes; this seems to me to be on a par with the sort of feelings exhibited by those who choose to be homophobes – judging someone on the basis of their sexuality.

P228: “we are talking about the systematic rape and torture of children, positively aided and abetted by a hierarchy which knowingly moved the grossest offenders to parishes where they would be safer.”

The much-documented instances of child abuse in the Catholic church are indeed horrific (as are the more recent revelations about those in the Anglican church in Chichester – the nearest diocese to where I live), but to suggest that this is systematic is a wilful misreading of the situation. It imagines that there are meetings taking place about how to perpetuate such atrocities, which is in the realm of the conspiracy theorist.

Chapter 17 – The “Case” Against Secularism

P233: “According to the really extreme religious totalitarians, such as John Calvin, who borrowed his awful doctrine from Augustine, an infinity of punishment can be awaiting you even before you are born.”

Hitchens demonstrates his love of pejorative adjectives, but without backing them up. Though Calvin was an important figure in Reforming christianity, not all of his views have been universally accepted.  The idea of predestination was not originally Calvin’s at all, but Paul’s (see Romans 9:14-24) – Calvin & Augustine merely pointed out and wrote about this view.

P233: “Calvin’s Geneva was a prototypical totalitarian state, and Calvin himself a sadist and torturer and killer, who burned Servetus (one of the great thinkers and questioners of the day) while the man was still alive.”

If you read up on Servetus, you will find much more that demonstrates how Hitchens has twisted the truth to suit his own rhetorical purposes. Servetus was a polymath, with a special interest in theology. He did not agree with Calvin on predestination and they entered into mutual (though heated) correspondence, where Calvin once wrote, “I neither hate you, nor despise you; nor do I wish to persecute you.” That said, Calvin was not exactly outspoken in condemnation of Servetus’ execution and this may well call into question Calvin’s integrity – though Calvin never testified against Servetus nor did he order or carry out the execution.

Chapter 18 – The Resistance of the Rational

P254: “I dare say that there have been at least as many credulous idiots who professed faith in god as there have been dolts and simpletons who concluded otherwise.”

It would be ungracious of me to let this comment pass without saying that I agree with it. Hitchens does get some things right, occasionally, and this is one of those instances. I’ve read various attempts to prove that atheists are more intelligent than christians and vice versa; neither of those two have ever, to the best of my knowledge, come up with a convincing case.

P255: “It does not matter at all to me that we have no certainty that Socrates even existed. The records of his life and his words are secondhand, almost but not quite as much as are the books of the Jewish and Christian Bible and the hadiths of Islam.”

It serves as interesting contrast to the comment made on P115 & P127. It seems that historical attestation can be done away with if it suits your argument. Who knew?!

P260: “In view of the terror imposed by religion on science and scholarship throughout the early Christian centuries (Augustine maintained that the pagan gods did exist, but only as devils, and that the earth was less than six thousand years old)…”

A few points on this one. First of all, the “terror imposed by religion” has little more in favour of it than the Loch Ness Monster. Such rhetoric is the bleating of the desperate, who wants history to show that they have been persecuted in the past. For a more reasonable, well-evidenced look at the history of science and religion, see God’s Philosophers by James Hannam. The parentheses about Augustine are quite out of place within the chapter and the paragraph within which the comment sits; it seems to be an afterthought inserted without much attention. As for the content of it, Hitchens demonstrates that he has read the title of Augustine’s The Literal Meaning of Genesis without reading any of its content, as Augustine argues exactly the opposite point which Hitchens portrays.

Book Review: God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens

As you will no doubt be aware, Hitchens sadly died at the end of last year. His death robbed the world of its most caustic critics. In this, arguably his most famous book, the focus of his ire is here turned to “religion”.

Prior to reading this, I had read a couple of reviews including this where Tom Wright talks briefly about the excerpts of the book he was given. Wright points out the existence of, though fails to detail, factual errors which Hitchens makes, particularly with relation to Anglicanism, a subject which Wright is something of an expert on.

Here’s a summary of the book by chapter:

Chapter 1: Putting it Mildly

He wastes little time in building up a head of steam, launching into an opening tirade of immense magnitude. He is keen to instil in the reader the notion that he is not an outsider looking at religion, but rather that he has had a good taster of many faiths, as well as being a regular converser with religious friends. This, of course, is a way of ensuring that the foundation of the book is an appeal to the argument from authority.

Hitchens never attempts to define religion. Instead, he uses sweeping generalisations. The whole opening salvo is based on cherry-picked examples which, though damning, are extrapolated beyond where there is available evidence. So his concluding statement that “religion poisons everything” is revealed as gross hyperbole, when the evidence presented can only go so far as supporting the much more reasonable assertion that “some aspects of some religions poison some things”.

Chapter 2: Religion Kills

Here, Hitchens gives some anecdotal evidence of why he believes religions are inherently violent, though the case he makes is not as strong as the chapter title suggests. It contains a revealing passage, where Hitchens recounts an interview he did with an American broadcaster in 2001, when he was given the following scenario: “I was to imagine myself in a strange city as the evening was coming on. Toward me I was to imagine that I saw a large group of men approaching. Now – would I feel safer, or less safe, if I was to learn that they were just coming from a prayer meeting?” this question is now reasonably well known; partly because of Hitchens’ witty response where he limited himself to cities beginning with the letter ‘B’ but also because it reveals nothing about the danger posed by people coming from prayer meetings and everything about the prejudices of the person being asked the question.

Chapter 3: A Short Digression on the Pig: or, Why Heaven Hates Ham

This is just a couple of pages focusing, reasonably enough, on Judaism and Islam and their aversion to the pig and products we derive from it. Rather than actually attempt to answer the implied question in the title, the chapter amounts to little more than, “Look at this people. Aren’t they silly?”

Chapter 4: A Note on Health, or Which Religions Can Be Hazardous

One of the better chapters, this looks at instances when “religion” has engendered such a powerful belief in aspects of healthcare as to lead people to wrong understandings of medicine, sometimes with adverse consequences. This is something I, and many christians I know, support; though the portrait painted by Hitchens does emphasize the bad minority with little more than a nod towards the good majority.

Chapter 5: The Metaphysical Claims of Religion Are False

This is a very short chapter in which the content does little to support the assertion of the chapter title. He states as fact the half-truth that “religion” is necessarily based on a pre-scientific understanding of the world (he contradicts this in a later chapter) and then goes on misuse Ockham’s razor to argue that because scientific philosophy doesn’t need god, that there is no god.

Chapter 6: Arguments from Design

This is a difficult chapter to summarise. On the one hand, Hitchens is reasonably good at pointing out some follies that are held by creationists, though the chapter is suffused with the sense that his understanding is based on a particular Americanised brand of creationism; one that is nowhere near as pervasive in countries with coastlines on less than 2 distinct oceans.  While he attempts to pick a fight with christianity, it is rather an odd imitation of christianity. It’s rather like saying you are going to pick a fight with Muhammad Ali and then wandering into Madame Tussaud’s.

Chapter 7: Revelation: The Nightmare of the “Old” Testament

As might be expected from the title, this is Hitchens taking on the 39 books of the Old Testament (OT), though he suggests it is rather disparaging of christians to refer to it as such. Implicit within it then, this is as much a dig at Judaism as it is at christianity. He mostly focuses on Genesis, but the critique is far too short and narrow in scope to be of any value.

Chapter 8: The “New” Testament Exceeds the Evil of the “Old” One

With the Jewish backdrop to christianity ‘dealt with’ Hitchens then turns his Sauronic eye to his (mis)understanding of christianity. As with the OT, Hitchens’ scope is extremely limited. He fails to engage with most of the New Testament writers or with any countless numbers of theologians who he dismisses contemptuously. But if we are to take to heart the “golden rule” then it must have been Hitchens’ intention for this chapter to be tossed aside just as lightly.

Chapter 9: The Koran Is Borrowed from Both Jewish and Christian Myths

After looking at Judaism and christianity, the next natural target would be Islam, and Hitchens duly obliges. In spite of the dubious claims of Islam, in particular surrounding its origins, Hitchens doesn’t make the best case against it here. See, for example, Tom Holland’s recent tv programme for channel 4 on the origins of Islam.

Chapter 10: The Tawdriness of the Miraculous and the Decline of Hell

Again, the title is misleading, as Hitchens doesn’t really talk about hell. As for miracles, he rightly debunks one but then makes the logical fallacy of supposing that all alleged miracles are as easy to refute. He again resorts to Ockham’s razor but oversteps the mark by taking what should be ‘highly unlikely’ to mean ‘impossible fancy.’

Chapter 11: “The Lowly Stamp of Their Origin”: Religion’s Corrupt Beginnings

This should have been one of the best chapters in the book. After all, if you can provide good evidence that Mohammed was the author of the Q’uran rather than its reciter, or if you can demonstrate categorically that Jesus was not resurrected, then the basis of Islam and christianity would be gone. Instead, he mostly looks at Mormonism and attempts to deceive the readers into thinking that all “religions” begin in the same way.

Chapter 12: A Coda: How Religions End

This looks at the end of once sect in particular, rather than any thorough study. The point of this chapter is rather elusive, as is any sense of a well thought-through argument.

Chapter 13: Does Religion Make People Behave Better?

The question posed bears little to no resemblance to the contents of the chapter.  Instead, he takes a few “religious” people and points out that they are fallible humans. This would seem quite reasonable to do, except that Hitchens contrives to make this a case against religion. Full of non-sequiturs, it is a wonder that this managed to get published.

Chapter 14: There Is No “Eastern” Solution

Hitchens clearly was aware that the bulk of ire had been directed towards the three Abrahamic monotheisms. But as this was supposed to discredit all religions, though Hitchens still fails to define what he means by the term, it was necessary to include a quick pop at some of those ideas that come from the other side of the Ural Mountains.

Chapter 15: Religion as an Original Sin

Here, Hitchens circles round to have another go at christianity. Clearly, he forgot some points when wrote chapter 8. He demonstrates his failure to even attempt to understand christian theology, as he clearly picks out some elements of the gospel, omitting those that would undermine his case, and state without evidence or reason that it is immoral.

Chapter 16: Is Religion Child Abuse?

Hitchens makes a few cases here, none of which get close to even attempting to answer the question posed by the chapter’s title. He opens with a look some ideas of “hell” – falsely assuming universal agreement on the subject. From here, he denounces circumcision and prohibitions on masturbation, before a surprisingly short few paragraphs on child abuse in the catholic church, though he statement that “we are talking about the systematic rape and torture of children” fails spectacularly to have any sense of proportion. Yes, any instances of abuse are vile and to be condemned, as is any attempt at hiding it, but it is not reasonable to suppose that it was in any way orchestrated abuse dictated from the powers that be to carry out the abuse in the first place.

Chapter 17: An Objection Anticipated: The Last-Ditch “Case” Against Secularism

Here, Hitchens presents a fine counter-argument to some arguments. As noted earlier, he does seem a little muddled about what is atheism and what is secularism, though he does acknowledge at the end of the chapter the existence of secular christians and Jews. The argument that seems to have been put to him is roughly this: “well, if you think religions are so bad, look at non-religious regimes such as Nazism and Communism and the atrocities they committed.” Hitchens rightly notes the complicity of some organised religious institutions in the rise and toleration of Nazism, but he makes a logical flaw by inferring this as being representative of all religion. Apart from that, though, this is a good chapter that makes a good case for secularism, though as with the rest of the book, it is spoiled by over-use of hyperbole.

Chapter 18: A Finer Tradition: The Resistance of the Rational

By this point, Hitchens was clearly starting to run out of steam. The chapter looks a little at some philosophers including Spinoza, Kant and Hume. The chapter consists of little more than summaries of their viewpoints with the odd quotation thrown in. Hitchens credits them as the giants upon whose shoulders he perches, before he suddenly remembers he hadn’t criticised Hanukah and Christmas – and duly remedies this.

Chapter 19: In Conclusion: The Need for a New Enlightenment

Hitchens’ invective finishes with a plea for a rejection of religion, which he mistakenly conflates with the idea of enlightenment, to be taken out of the realm of lofty philosophy and to be taken up by the masses. While enlightenment, freethinking and sceptical enquiry are, of course, to be encouraged, to imagine that these equate to Hitchens’ own brand of intolerance would be a blunder indeed.

The back cover states that “God Is Not Great makes the ultimate case against religion.” If this really is the ultimate case, then “religion” need have nothing to worry about. The book is a fantastic (or rather, fantastical) example of rhetoric trumping reason. For every assertion made without providing any supporting evidence, Hitchens gives the reader a dazzling turn of phrase, loaded with wit and acerbic humour. As far as presenting a sober, insightful and devastating critique on the many different religions, their various ‘flavours’, nuances, history, beliefs and practices, this book is an unqualified failure.

This should be obvious to any reasonable-minded person, and it would be a sad indictment indeed if anyone were to be brought round to Hitchens’ own intolerant view on the basis of this piece of writing which falls well below the journalistic standard which he lived up to earlier in his career. To give such a verdict on the book, though, should not be seen as an attack upon atheism itself. To do so would be to fall into the very same trap of logical fallacy that Hitchens falls into from almost every conceivable angle. There are many reasons why someone may choose to be an atheist, many of them reasonable, many of them not. Hitchens presents us with a compendium of arguments falling squarely in the latter category.

If you have read thus far, you will have noticed a particular turn of phrase used throughout. This has not been particularly kind or gracious. As such, one may think something along the lines of “[look at this christian. He’s read something that has challenged his faith, and this is reaction to cognitive dissonance.]” I will forgive you if you have thought something like that. When I review books, I want to give you the best possible impression of what it is like to read the book in question. While I disagreed with Hitchens and found him sloppy in his fact-checking and logic, this is but one aspect of the book. So I chose to make my review mirror his turn of phrase with loaded rhetoric in order to make a point. So if you have enjoyed the sharpness of my own tongue in this review then you may well enjoy God Is Not Great. On the other hand, if my harsh phraseology has given you a bad taste in your mouth, then you can only expect more of this if you pick up the book to read it.

Empty chair syndrome

Last autumn, there were a couple of stories going round the blogosphere (though rarely hitting mainstream media) that seemed to me very similar, though with some holding apparently contradictory views. The link between them is an empty chair on a stage. During his recent speaking tour of the UK, William Lane Craig invited Richard Dawkins to a debate. Craig was already booked to speak at the venue in Oxford, so Dawkins would not have as far to travel as the visiting American. Dawkins declined this invitation, though apparently Craig left an empty chair on stage to signify Dawkins’ absence.

More recently, another empty chair was left on stage, at a test for Sally Morgan. Led in part by the science writer (and now something of a libel law expert), Simon Singh, Sally Morgan had been invited to take part in a test of her psychic abilities. Like Dawkins, she declined this invitation. Unlike Dawkins, though, Morgan chose not to write an ad hominem attack on Singh to be published by a national newspaper. There were however, some letters sent between Singh and Morgan’s lawyers, which, in spite of being marked “Strictly Private and Confidential” Singh thought appropriate to publish online. I will leave it to you to consider whether it was appropriate to publish the letters.

What struck me was the reaction from the “pop science” or “science journalism” section of the blogosphere, who seemed to consider that in the case of Dawkins/Craig, that the person declining the invitation was right in declining and that the empty chair was a bullying gesture, while in the Morgan/Singh case, Morgan was considered be the slippery one who was rejecting a perfectly honest invitation.

My personal opinion is that in both cases, the invitation should have been accepted. My reasons are as follows: Both Dawkins & Morgan have made personal financial profit from their relative claims. As such, there is some duty of responsibility to defend their claims. In contrast to this, had an anonymous blogger (such as myself) been invited, I think there wouldn’t be a duty as no one has paid me for my writing or for a tv show (which is probably a fair reflection of the value of my thoughts!). Both have considerable media experience and so would not be flayed in an environment where they are far less experienced and uncomfortable than their critics.

On the other hand, I do have sympathy for them both. In both cases, there was an underlying theme of trying to portray the non-attendee as being in some way scared or unwilling to appear on a platform with their critics. The empty chair is loaded symbolism, somewhat akin to giving them a white feather, in an effort to shame them. This is, I think, an act of bullying that should not be encouraged.

In the case of Craig/Dawkins there was also a phrase banded about to the effect of “[this would look good on your CV, not mine]” in reference to the merits of one having debated the other. I think various other commenters have made as much of this as can be made, so I will offer nothing further.

To the best of my knowledge, no one has ever invited me to a debate or a test of my claims in a public arena. I certainly do not recall ever having declined such an invitation. If such an invitation were to come, I think in all probability that I would decline. I am not a skilled debater. One of the reasons that I choose to write is that I have a mild stammer, which always makes me appear to be even less intelligent than I actually am. The trouble is, my mind moves faster than my mouth, so when I come to speak I can usually think of 2 or 3 ways of saying the same thing, and I often get muddled. By writing, this can be slowed down. So when it comes to oratory, I prefer to write word-for-word and then either read or memorise what I am to say. This makes such events as those Dawkins & Morgan were invited to something of a problem for me.

But if such a case were to arise, I would dearly hope that no one leaves an empty chair for me on stage. It is an act that I think is ungracious and, if you will allow me to be a little quaint, a rather poor show. If I were to go further into old parlance, I would say it is “ungentlemanly” or “unladylike” though I hope you do not infer this to be sexist; it is not meant to be.

It is rare for me to pick a fight. I do not go out of my way to present challenges to others that I demand they meet. I may ask questions of them to clarify their views and I may respond to articles, blog posts, etc. that others have written. Anyone is, of course, welcome to write responses to anything I write. If such a response is included, I would hope that they inform me and I am very willing to provide a link to any such response in my blog. I do not like the empty chair and would hope that I never stoop to such a cheap level as to do anything like it. Debate and the free exchange of ideas should not be about point-scoring, but should be constructive and proactive; something I always try to achieve here, though I could not necessarily say that I always succeed.