A Response to Edward Turner’s Review of A Sceptic’s Guide to Atheism

A Sceptic’s Guide to Atheism (Paternoster, 2009)

Peter S. Williams (MA, MPhil)

Edward Turner’s review of A Sceptic’s Guide to Atheism is interwoven with comments about a debate he and I had at Liverpool University in March 2009. I will not respond to Ed’s comments about our debate, but will focus upon his book review as such.

Ed’s review is far from laudatory (he gives my book 2 out of 5 stars); but he does have something complementary to say, referring to ‘Williams’ subtle brand of nuanced religion’.

I think that Ed’s complaints against A Sceptic’s Guide to Atheism can be divided into matters of form and matters of substance.

Concerning matters of form: Ed doesn’t like my style of writing. He dislikes the stage-setting chapters on the recent history of the God debate. He doesn’t like the fact that I focus on giving a negative critique of atheist arguments rather than upon a positive case for Christian theism. Moreover, Ed appears to be annoyed with me for not considering every possible atheist writer whose views I could have engaged with. He also thinks I should have spent more time criticising fellow religious believers.

Concerning matters of substance: Ed thinks my defence of arguments for the existence of God and the reliability of the New Testament leaves something to be desired. Ed also thinks I do a poor job of discussing the relationship between science and religion. And he appears to be annoyed that I don’t consider every possible objection that might be raised to everything positive that I have to say (especially if it’s an objection that Ed would make).

On Matters of Form

1) Writing Style.

Ed complains that ‘A Sceptic’s Guide to Atheism is stuffed full of quotes’, that ‘The footnote count of the end of each chapter is often over one hundred. The book is crammed with quotes from others that if we did a word-count of the text, Williams’ own words could well be in the minority!’, and that it is ‘saturated with quotes from other writers whilst not giving any inkling of what Williams himself actually believes.’

I admit I quote a lot. I’ll leave it to interested readers to work out the precise percentage involved. Some people like my books because they contain lots of quotations; but if you don’t like books containing lots of quotations, then you won’t like my books. That’s your prerogative.

However, I doubt that A Sceptic’s Guide to Atheism fails to give ‘any inkling’ of what I believe. Even when I am quoting, I would have thought it generally obvious whether or not I am quoting in neutral reportage, with approval or disapproval. Ed himself seems to have been able to form a sufficient inkling of what it is that I believe in order to know that he disagrees with me.

Ed complains that:

'Instead of explaining the flaws in the atheists’ arguments, he simply quotes other writers who have criticised them and even then, we don’t get a flavour of what the rebuttals actually are, we just get ad-hominems from Keith Ward and Alvin Plantinga saying that if Dawkins’ book was handed in by a first year university student it would receive an “F” blah, blah, blah. A little elaboration would go a long way.’

In fact, I do elaborate just such rebuttals (and at some length) in many places in A Sceptic’s Guide to Atheism – just not so much in the first two chapters. Moreover, I reject the characterisation of the reported reviews as ad hominem in nature. Plantinga says that Dawkins’ arguments would receive a failing grade in a sophomore philosophy class, but that’s a comment about Dawkins’ arguments, not about Dawkins.

2) Setting the Stage.

Ed writes: ‘Williams opens with a blow-by-blow account of the criticisms of the New Atheist writers from Christians and other atheists... So atheists disagree with each other’s ideas. So what? This is what we mean by the phrase “herding cats”.’ Well, indeed. Chapters One and Two of A Sceptic’s Guide to Atheism trace the history of the God debate in the public square from the hey-day of logical positivism to the recent history of the ‘new atheism’. This is stage setting to put the following discussion in context. If I didn’t highlight the differences between the participants in the ‘new atheist’ movement I would be open to charges of erecting a straw-man, of attacking a monolith of my own broad-brush construction, rather than a nuanced picture of the movement. Ed comments:

‘At least our disagreements are confined to the written page and the debater’s lectern. We’re not blowing up each other’s churches and mosques or flying planes into buildings.’

Now that’s painting with a broad brush. Neither I, nor any Christian I know, have ever blown up a church or a mosque; nor have we ever flown a plane into a building.

3) Being Too Negative?

Ed complains that A Sceptic’s Guide to Atheism ‘focuses so hard on trying to discredit the Four Horsemen that it neglects to defend and/or promote Christianity at all.’ Indeed, according to Ed: ‘there is not a single argument/sentence/word/syllable in support of God and Jesus! ...Williams takes it all for granted and sets about attacking straw man versions of his opponents.’ It’s true to say that A Sceptic’s Guide to Atheism mainly focuses on giving a negative critique of atheism, especially that of the ‘new’ or ‘neo’ atheists such as the self-proclaimed ‘Four Horsemen’ of Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens. After all, the book is entitled A Sceptic’s Guide to Atheism and not ‘A positive apologetic for Christian theism’. Ed seems to wish that I had written a rather different book that the one I was writing.

That said, its an exaggeration to say that my book neglects ‘to defend and/or promote Christianity at all’, or that it doesn’t contain ‘a single argument/sentence/word/syllable in support of God and Jesus’. Ed’s review is sufficient disproof of this exaggeration, for in it he complains:

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

I won’t dignify Ed’s disparaging comment about my being a ‘self-proclaimed “scholar”’ with a response.) If my book ‘addresses’ the issue of ‘whether or not God exists’, then it can hardly neglect to do anything to defend Christian belief ‘at all’! Indeed, Ed’s review critiques several examples of natural theology which I defend in A Sceptic’s Guide to Atheism as well as evidence I give pertaining to the person of Jesus in the appendix. So, while my focus is a negative critique of atheism, I clearly don’t neglect to defend the two central tenets of Christian theism (the existence of God and the incarnation of God).

4) Avoiding the Issue?

Ed complains:

‘I could concede… that there are good reasons to believe in God and Christianity and Christians are perfectly justified in doing so. Hell, I could even go the whole nine yards and say that I actually do believe in God! That I think that the virgin birth and the resurrection are as true as Caesar crossing the Rubicon, Hitler carrying out the Holocaust and Armstrong landing on the moon! That still does not in any sense allow Christians to force their beliefs on others. I cannot deny the existence of Joseph Stalin and Kim Jung Il, but at least I am not forced to obey them. Even if the Christian doctrine was true, even if the evidence for it was much better, what right would that give Christians to force their beliefs on others? Exactly the same right as liberals, conservatives and fascists: none whatsoever.’

I agree with Ed here; although I’m certainly glad to see Ed writing that: ‘If someone wants to believe in the Bible and live according to the teaching of Christianity I can’t stop that. If they want to encourage other people to share in these beliefs, then I suppose I can’t stop that either.’ It does sound as if Ed wishes he could ‘stop that’ in both instances, but I’m glad to see that he doesn’t advocate doing anything to ‘stop that’ (anything beyond ‘the lectern’ that is).

Ed chastises me for focusing on theoretical issues and thus not criticising fellow believers:

‘Williams’ new book is all theory and precious little practice. Accordingly, there is nothing about the foul rantings of Falwell and Robertson, the teaching of junk- science in schools classrooms, the destruction of the Twin Towers, the abuse of children by hell-fire preaching clergymen and the discouraging of condom use by the Catholic Church in sub-Saharan African where c. 3 million people die of HIV/AIDS each year. The simple fact is that Williams’ subtle brand of nuanced religion has very little impact on the way that religion is actually practised. Alistair McGrath got his feathers all ruffled in response to Dawkins and bleated on (at probably more speaking engagements than he was invited to in his career preceding publication of The God Delusion) about the importance of challenging those who take an overly literalist approach to the scriptures. Yet when, in July 2007, the Bishop of Carlisle informed us all that the floods in Northern Yorkshire were divine retribution for laws permitting homosexual marriage did McGrath say a word in public to admonish the Right Reverend Graham Dow for his unsophisticated take on matters? Like hell he did!’

(McGrath did evidently criticise Bishop James Jones for making similar comments to Bishop Dow. - cf. www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/ni/2007/07/that_flood_again.html) For the record, I don’t doubt that Falwell and Robertson engage in ‘foul rantings’; or that some Christians want to teach ‘junk-science’ (although I suspect that Ed and I would disagree over the precise application of this term). I’m not blind to the destruction of the Twin Towers (which is mentioned, although not by name, on page 2 of my book), or the terrible abuse of children by some clergy, or the discouraging of condom use by the Catholic Church. I don’t defend any of the above. Ed himself admits as much by mentioning ‘Williams’ subtle brand of nuanced religion’. I certainly hope that the ‘subtle’ and ‘nuanced’ nature of my religion will brush off on religious readers. But I think Ed is gesturing towards a rather sweeping generalization when he distinguishes between my own ‘subtle’ and ‘nuanced’ religion and ‘the way religion is actually practiced’. After all, my own ‘subtle’ and ‘nuanced’ religion is a way in which religion ‘is actually practiced’; and I personally know a great many Christians who seem to have similar views and practices to my own! What seems to really upset Ed is that I didn’t write a book actively condemning all of the above, and more besides no doubt.

In point of fact, A Sceptic’s Guide to Atheism does engage in criticism of Christians. Consider what I have to say on pages 28-29:

It is saddening to discover that ‘A survey undertaken by researchers at the University of Minnesota in 2006 identified atheists as America’s most distrusted minority…’ Or to find the American Sociological Review reporting in 2006 that it is generally thought socially acceptable in America to say you are intolerant of atheists. The status of American atheists as a ‘distrusted minority’ is understandably fertile ground for a range of more or less ‘militant’ attempts to assert an atheist identity within society. I have every sympathy with Daniel Dennett’s plea that ‘Whatever your theology, you can firmly object when you hear family or friends sneer at atheists or agnostics or other godless folk.’ Likewise, I stand shoulder to shoulder with Richard Dawkins in being appalled at the attitude displayed by many who profess the name of Christ. It is shameful that Dawkins can quote American writer Ann Coulter saying, ‘I defy any of my co- religionists to tell me they do not laugh at the idea of Dawkins burning in hell.’ I for one do not laugh at the idea of Dawkins burning in hell (not that I think hell involves literal burning, and not that I’d presume to forecast Dawkins’ eternal destination). Coulter should consider the following scriptures: James 3:9–10, 1 Peter 3:15–16 and Luke 5:27–36.

Other examples could be enumerated. No one should infer from the fact that A Sceptic’s Guide to Atheism does not condemn, for example, the comments by the Bishop of Carlisle, that I therefore agree with him! There’s a lot of stupid and hateful comments by atheists that we could pin on Ed by that sort of logic; after all, Ed’s review doesn’t list and condemn all the atheists that he disagrees with…

Ed admits:

‘Perhaps it is too sweeping to say that Williams did not tackle the question of whether the preaching of hell to children constitutes child abuse. He does at least address the question of preaching hell to children, stating that children ought to be told compassionately that there is a very nasty place, a flip-side to heaven, that they will go as punishment for rejecting JC as their personal saviour, but this should be done as a deterrent from the risk harm; rather like warning them of electrocution if they put their fingers into a plug socket. Right… Why don’t believers just come clean and tell me that as an atheist who refuses to recognise the public torture, execution, and resurrection of a person that took place 2,000 years before I was born, on the other side of the world (and a particularly backward and barbaric part of the world at that), which I didn’t ask for, and would have tried to prevent had I known anything about, I am going to roast for eternity in Satan’s boiler-house along with all the other miserable sinners weeping and gnashing their teeth?'

There’s a reason I wouldn’t ‘come clean’ and tell Ed such a thing. That reason is simply that I don’t believe what Ed thinks I believe! For a start, I don’t believe that Satan runs hell. The idea that hell is ‘Satan’s boiler-house’, to use Ed’s colourful image, isn’t Christian orthodoxy. Then again, I don’t believe that hell-fire is literal. That would, after all, be rather hard to square with the biblical description of hell as the ‘outer darkness’! Nor do I think that hell is eternal. Some Christians think this, but I don’t. Nor do I think hell is an arbitrary punishment, like a prison sentence, but rather an intrinsic result of human freedom to reject God. I don’t think that the fundamental issue here is a failure to believe something, but rather God’s respect for people’s freedom of choice to reject loving relationship with their creator if they so desire. My concept of hell is basically that of C.S. Lewis (cf. C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain), a concept to which Ed’s objections do not seem to me to apply.

5) Leaving Atheists Out?

Ed opines:

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

I haven’t read the whole of Victor Stenger’s book. I have read the long extract contained in Hitchen’s (ed.) The Portable Atheist. I have also listened to Stenger (debating with William Lane Craig); and I’ve read several articles on him. It’s true to say I don’t discuss Stenger much in my book (I’m not in the habit of critiquing in ignorance). Indeed, there are plenty of atheist’s whose writings I don’t discuss in my book. In many instances this is because I haven’t read what they have to say. Of course, this will be found a truly shocking admission by all those readers who can accurately profess to have read everything written by theists.

This said, it isn’t true to say that I ‘never’ discuss Stenger’s book. There is an endnote in which I discuss Stenger’s thinking about the origin of the universe:

‘many systems of particles are unstable, that is, have limited lifetimes as they undergo spontaneous phase 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, like a universe containing matter.’ (‘Cosmic Evidence’ from God: The Failed Hypothesis, in Christopher Hitchens (ed.), The Portable Atheist [Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2007], p. 326.)

I respond as follows:

The description ‘simple’ can only be predicated of something (something simple), not of nothing. Nothing is not a maximally simple something! To what, exactly, does Stenger’s ‘it’ refer when he says that ‘we cannot expect it to be very stable’ and ‘It would likely undergo a spontaneous phase transition...’? Either ‘it’ refers to something or to nothing. If ‘it’ refers to something, it does not refer to nothing. If ‘it’ refers to nothing, this is to say that it does not refer to anything, not to say that ‘nothing’ is a something to which ‘it’ refers! Stenger is treating ‘nothing’ like Lewis Caroll’s ‘nobody’ who passed Alice upon the road! What, exactly, does Stenger suppose to undergo a process of a phase transition, spontaneous or otherwise? And if we take Stenger’s quotation marks around ‘nothing’ as referring back to his attempt to argue that the existence of matter is a free lunch because the negative gravitational energy of the universe exactly cancels out the positive energy represented by matter, such that ‘the total energy of the universe is zero’ (Ibid., p. 314), then one simply has to point out that an overall energy measurement of zero obtained by averaging figures that apply to two aspects of an undoubtedly real universe does not thereby equal an ontological ‘nothing’!

So much for matters of form: If you prefer your books to have a low quotation and footnote count, mine won’t be your cup of tea. Besides this matter of taste, I don’t think Ed’s formal criticisms are accurate or reasonable. What about matters of substance?

On Matters of Substance

1) Natural Theology & The Evidence for Jesus.

Ed writes: ‘Williams’ arguments for the existence of God are mainly limited to the philosophical musings of Aquinas, Anselm and Plantinga [I'm in good company then!]. He rates the post-Anselm Ontological Arguments very highly; a truly ominous sign.’ Of course, this comment demonstrates the falsity of Ed’s claim that ‘there is not a single argument/sentence/word/syllable in support of God’ in my book! But why does Ed think that my defence of the ontological argument is an ‘ominous sign’?:

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

I wonder, with how may philosophy courses is Ed acquainted? Many theologians do indeed hold that the arguments for God’s existence are not to be seen as proofs. Many philosophers would agree with them. If one takes ‘proof’ in the strict, mathematical sense of the term, I would agree as well. But many philosophers of religion think that there are sound and persuasive arguments for belief in the existence of God. In fact, there is today a growing interest in all aspects of natural theology, including a revival of interest in the ontological argument. This argument is defended by noted contemporary scholars including Alvin Plantinga, William Lane Craig, Stephen T. Davis and Robert E. Maydole. As far as I can tell, its generally agreed that there are logically valid versions of the ontological argument (there are, of course, logically invalid versions). Current debate mainly concerns the truth of certain premises crucial to the soundness of the argument. As for the critique from Kant that Ed references, Chapter Seven references Stephen T. Davis’ response:

This oft-repeated claim is... quite mistaken. It is true that Anselm’s definition of God – ‘that being than which no greater can be conceived’ – is crucial to his argument ... but merely analyzing that concept will get one nowhere in proving the existence in reality of anything. One must also bring into consideration what Anselm surely took to be certain necessary truths (e.g. a thing is greater if it exists both in the mind and in reality than if it exists merely in the mind and the existence of the [greatest conceivable being] is possible). These claims are essential aspects of the OA, and do not follow merely from an examination of any concept of God. (Stephen T. Davis, ‘The ontological argument’ in Paul Copan and Paul K. Moser (eds.), The Rationality of Theism (London: Routledge, 2003), p. 94.)

Ed isn’t impressed with my brief discussion of the argument from religious experience:

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

However, I do not ‘accuse Dawkins of not properly defining a religious experience.’ Ed’s charge of self-contradiction is otiose. After discussing Richard Swinburne’s ‘principle of credulity’ in the context of religious experience, I point out that ‘Dawkins’ response to this kind of argument (which he doesn’t bother spelling out) is merely to point out that experiences can be delusional’. (Perhaps Ed miss-read my comment about Dawkins not spelling out the argument from religious experience as an accusation that Dawkins hadn’t defined religious experience.) Dawkins’ observation that experiences can be delusional concludes his attempted rebuttal of the argument from religious experience. Dawkins’ failure to advance more than one premise in his rebuttal means that it doesn’t even rise to the level of an argument. Merely observing that the brain can create illusions provides no support for the conclusion that all religious experiences are illusions. This is not the same thing as saying (as Ed thinks I say) that just because some religious experiences are delusional this ‘doesn’t automatically mean that they all are’; although that too is a good point.

Against this point (which I don’t make in the book), Ed replies: ‘so it’s just Christian religious experiences that are genuine and all visions of Allah and Krishna must be filed in the drawer labelled “mind-torched whack-job”?’ What could be said in response to this new objection? Well, we could compare the sheer relative quantities of experiences on offer. We could point out that people can misapprehend genuine objects of experience and go on to examine the actual extent to which religious experiences are mutually exclusive. We could also make independent arguments against the reliability of non-theistic, or even non-Christian, religious experiences. So, while Ed’s objection takes us in a new direction of debate I don’t see that it is any better than Dawkins’ objection. The main problem here, however, is that Ed mistakenly reads me as engaging with his objection to the religious experience argument, when I was in fact responding to Dawkins’ objection!

The Evidence for Jesus

Concerning the appendix of my book, Ed writes:

‘The closest Williams comes to defending the actual truth of the Christian doctrine comes at the end with an appendix setting out the historical evidence for the life of Jesus Christ. Yet again he throws in a quote from Dawkins’ section from The God Delusion about the historical unreliability of the Gospels and then counters it with a far more positive statement from Human Genome Project leader and born-again Christian, Francis Collins, and thinks this is an effective response!’

This is not the structure of my argument in the appendix to A Sceptic’s Guide to Atheism. I begin by contrasting the negative and positive statements of Dawkins and Collins as two non-experts in biblical studies, before asking how we can judge between their assertions. I then go on to sketch my own positive answer to this question in the rest of the appendix.

Ed misunderstands an evidential point I make about the New Testament manuscript tradition:

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

My argument is not that the greater number of NT copies compared to other ancient works shows that the NT is more likely to be truthful and intelligent! That would indeed be ridiculous. My argument is that the greater number of manuscript copies means that we can be more certain that our NT text reflects the original NT text than we can be that our text of other ancient works reflects the original text of those works. That is, my point was one about one of the necessary conditions of taking the NT text seriously as a historical document, namely the need for a sound textual tradition in the chain of testimony from original authorship to modern translations.

Ed takes issue with my use of what he dubs ‘questionable extra-biblical sources in support of the Jesus myth, citing Thallus, Piny the Younger, Tacitus and Lucian of Samosata. True to form,’ says Ed ‘Williams does not elaborate further on exactly how these accounts support the New Testament; he just expects the reader to go to the experts.’ My discussion of extra-biblical sources was of necessity fairly brief, but I did provide a list of details about Jesus (and early Christian practice) corroborated by these sources. Here’s the relevant section of the appendix:

Michel Onfray asserts that there are only ‘two or three vague references’ to Jesus ‘in ancient texts’. However, Gary R. Habermas explains that:

a number of ancient secular sources mention various aspects of Jesus’ life, corroborating the picture presented by the Gospels. The writers of these sources include ancient historians such as Tacitus, Suetonius, and Thallus. Jewish sources such as Josephus and the Talmud add to our knowledge. Government officials such as Pliny the Younger and even Roman Caesars Trajan and Hadrian describe early Christian beliefs and practices. Greek historian and satirist Lucian and Syrian Mara Bar-Serapion provide other details... at least seventeen non-Christian writings record more than fifty details concerning the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus, plus details concerning the earliest church. Most frequently reported is Jesus’ death, mentioned by twelve sources. Dated approximately 20 to 150 years after Jesus’ death, these secular sources are quite early by the standards of ancient historiography.

These sources tell us that:

Jesus lived during time of Tiberius Caesar.
He was virtuous.
He worked wonders.
He had a brother named James.
He was acclaimed as the Messiah.
He was crucified under Pontius Pilate.
He was crucified on the eve of the Jewish Passover.
Darkness and an earthquake occurred when he died.
His disciples believed he rose from the dead.
His disciples were willing to die for their belief.
Christianity spread rapidly as far as Rome.
His disciples denied the Roman gods and worshiped Jesus as God.

Blomberg points out that, by combining the evidence from first to third-century Greco-Roman writers, including Thallus, Pliny the Younger, Tacitus, Lucian of Samosata, and Mara bar Serapion: ‘one can clearly accumulate enough evidence to refute the fanciful notion that Jesus never existed, without even appealing to the testimony of Jewish or Christian sources. [This evidence includes] references to his crucifixion, being worshipped as a god, working miracles, having an unusual birth, and being viewed as a sage, king and an instigator of a controversy...’

And what’s wrong with expecting the reader to go to the experts for further information?

Of course, Ed himself embraces what Blomberg calls ‘the fanciful notion that Jesus never existed’. Of the extra-biblical sources he argues:

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

But, against that: Robert E. Van Voorst, Professor of New Testament at Western Theological Seminary, asks:

'What is the source of Tacitus’s information about Christ? Historians have proposed different kinds of sources, written and oral, Christian and Roman… Tacitus certainly did not draw, directly or indirectly, on the writings that came from the New Testament. No literary or oral dependence can be demonstrated between his description and the Gospel accounts… Nor did Tacitus likely draw his information from another Christian document, if his contempt for Christianity is any indication.’ (Jesus Outside the New Testament, Eerdmans, 2000, p. 49.)

And as Habermas comments, the time gap involved is actually rather good in terms of ancient history: ‘approximately 20 to 150 years after Jesus’ death.’ Some of the extra-biblical sources may have got their information from Christians, or from Christian sources; but then again, they may not: ‘the classical writers contain no certainly independent witness to Jesus [but] we do gain a later corroboration of certain key elements in the life of Jesus.’ (Voorst, p. 73.) What’s so historically damning about, for example, Pliny getting his information first hand from Christians threatened with torture around the turn of the first century? It may be unclear whether or not Thallus ever mentioned Jesus by name, to take another of Ed’s points; but he certainly did write about the darkness at the time of Jesus’ death (cf. www.christian-thinktank.com/jrthal.html).

Ed complains that the appendix contains ‘not a word, for example, on the questionable morality of vicarious atonement for sin by human sacrifice or even a reason as to why the Bible might be more valid than the Koran.’ While support for the historical accuracy of the NT places it in tension with the Koran where the two disagree, it is true to say that I don’t directly address the issues Ed mentions in my appendix. But once again, Ed’s complaint appears to be that my book doesn’t exhaustively address every possible objection that could be raised against the claims I defend. But I suggest that this is not a tenable criterion by which to judge any book of publishable (i.e. finite) length. I would hardly think that the sceptical reader would take an appendix as being anything other than an introduction to the subject at hand; and I would hope that they might explore some of the recommended materials I list for further information.

2) Science and Religion

When it comes to the relationship between science and religion, Ed reckons that I throw in ‘a lot of quotes from theologians asserting that there is no conflict between the two disciplines but offers absolutely no arguments or evidence in support.’ Of course, some of those quotes (and I don’t just quote theologians) actually contain arguments! To draw a distinction between quotations and arguments is be to erect a false dilemma.

Ed is correct when he says: ‘There’s no discussion about attempts by the religious lobby to block potentially life-saving stem cell research or attempts to teach junk-science and creationism to school children. There’s not even a hint of science’s capacity to determine the authenticity of religious relics such as the Shroud of Turin.’ I was not, after all, writing on applied medical ethics, or forensic archaeology.

Ed is dismayed by my discussion of the Galileo affair: ‘Unforgivably, Williams plays down the trial of Galileo by the Inquisition, quoting others who reckon his incarceration was not due so much to his heretic discoveries in relation to planetary movements, but due to personal animosities with Church leaders themselves.’ In this, Ed seems to have bought into the one-sided portrayal of this incident given by the popular media, whereas I reported the views of professional historians of science. As atheist John Loftus writes:

‘What must be understood about the trial: First, there was real debate about the geocentric system – but it was to be regarded as a “hypothesis not fact.” Second, Copernicus’s and Galileo’s systems contained ideas that were “hopelessly inaccurate,” and there was no evidence yet for things that should be noticed. For instance, the proper planetary orbits were not known yet – they were arguing for more complete circles revolving around the sun; and there was “no observable stellar parallax” – individual stars should appear at different points in the sky when the earth is at its two farthest distances in its cycle around the sun. Either the stars were immensely more distant, which we now know to be the case, or the earth didn’t move. Thus, the Copernican system was not yet established on scientific grounds. Third, the pope, Urban VIII, felt personally betrayed by Galileo, a former friend, because he thought one of the incompetent speakers in Galileo’s book Dialogue of Two Chief World Systems was intended to represent him.’ (Why I Became An Atheist, Prometheus, 2008, p. 108-109.)

As I conclude: ‘While the Catholic Church of the period certainly doesn’t come out of the Galileo incident well, the “science” verses “faith” portrayal of the affair beloved by Sagan et al. is historical revisionism plain and simple.’

Ed writes:

‘There’s not even a moment’s consideration given to the possibility that the origins of our cosmos and life on Earth is as much gap in our scientific knowledge today as the causes of disease was in Leonardo Da Vinci’s time. No, instead Williams piles quote upon quote regarding the high improbability of the first single-celled life form arising on Earth. Thankfully, there are scientists who are not prepared to give up in the face of uncertainty, but are prepared to battle on in the face of the odds.’

Of course, a gap in our current scientific knowledge cannot be guaranteed to be filled in after the manner of germ theory unless one assumes the truth of a naturalistic worldview. But my discussion of the origin of life problem did not form the basis for a 'gaps' type argument from ignorance; I gave principled reasons justifying an inference to design from the known data.

Ed is correct when he writes that: ‘There’s less talk of Intelligent Design than Williams’ previous effort and the book…’ However, this isn’t because I’ve backed off ID. I certainly don’t count the Dover ruling as a serious analysis of the ID movement. Ed writes that: ‘Unsurprisingly, Williams omits to mention Darwin’s Black Box author and “Design Theorist” Michael Behe’s public humiliation at the hands of plaintiff counsel, Eric Rothschild, in the Kitzmiller –v- Dover P. A.scientific theory with the question of when it should be counted as a good theory. (On the Dover Trial, cf. Casey Luskin et al, Traipsing Into Evolution: Intelligent Design and the Kitzmiller V. Dover Decision, Discovery, 2006) case.’ I followed the Dover case carefully and I simply don’t recognize Ed’s characterisation of events. As far as I’m concerned, Behe’s testimony wasn’t well understood or portrayed in either the court or the media, which (to address the issue I think Ed has in mind) confused the questions of when something counts as a scientific theory and when it counts as a good theory.

Ed appears to be annoyed by the fact that I doubt the grander explanatory claims of neo-Darwinism and that I support intelligent design theory. As Ed notes, I do indeed reference ‘the infamous statement pimped by the Discovery Institute that 300-plus scientists have signed as evidence of a growing opposition to Darwinism’:

We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged. (cf. www.dissentfromdarwin.org/)

In point of fact, over 700 scholars have now signed the statement. Ed quotes Victor Stenger’s response:

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

However, I don’t misrepresent this statement as a statement in support of ID. The statement is called a ‘Dissent from Darwinism’, not an ‘Assent to ID’! And if the statement is as ‘mild’ and ‘gratuitous’ as Stenger says, it can hardly be the cause of much concern to Ed.


Ed wishes I had written a rather different (and much longer) book than the one I set out to write - one primarily concerned to give a positive case for Christianity (whilst criticising more Christians than it does) and which engaged with Ed’s own pet objections. Thus Ed spends a lot of time criticising me for things that I didn’t write about, yet he makes surprisingly few substantive objections to the actual content of A Sceptic’s Guide to Atheism.

Ed displays an amusing tendency to make dramatic, sweeping assertions (e.g. my book doesn’t contain a single syllable in defence of God), which he then flatly contradicts (e.g. my defence of God in presenting the ontological and religious experience arguments in Chapter Seven isn’t very good). Against my defence of the ontological argument, Ed raises an objection from Kant that I considered and answered in the book itself. When it comes to the argument from religious experience, Ed misreads my critique of an objection from Dawkins, and confuses himself with an objection that I don’t consider (but which I don’t think it’s a knock-down objection). Ed doesn’t respond to any of the other arguments for God defend in Chapter Seven (e.g. the moral argument, Aquinas’ fourth way, the cosmological argument, and the fine tuning argument). Against the evidence for Jesus discussed in the appendix, Ed misunderstands my argumentative structure, and he misunderstands my argument about the manuscript tradition. Ed is also too quick to dismiss the extra-biblical evidence for Jesus out of hand, and too eager to embrace the radical position that Jesus never existed (cf. Gary R. Habermas, ‘A Summary Critique: Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Evidence for Jesus by G.A. Wells’ @ www.garyhabermas.com/articles/crj_summarycritique/crj_summarycritique.htm).