by Jonathan M.S. Pearce
First of all, let me say one thing: I am a friend of Peter’s and we are members of a group of casual philosophers and theologians who meet to discuss all manner of things (the Tippling Philosophers). His book, The Sceptic’s Guide to Atheism is a good book, in many ways, and he has many valid points. However, there are many equally valid criticisms that can be made, and I will attempt to set them out in this critique.
To start the ball rolling, I am going to contend that this is indeed a sceptical analysis of atheism. More accurately, it is an attempted deconstruction of New Atheism, and even more accurately, of the philosophy of Richard Dawkins. Williams sets his target on New Atheists such as Dawkins, but also Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett, amongst others. What is ironic here, is that Williams claims that these writers and thinkers create straw men of theistic arguments and philosophy, taking outdated versions of arguments, and poorly representing them, only to knock them down with rhetorical derision. This is certainly true, as I shall concede later. The problem, and this is where the irony comes in, is that Williams builds up his own straw man of what atheism is. He compounds this approach by using ‘proper’ atheistic philosophers to support his position, consistently quoting them in criticism of the atheistic philosophy employed by these so-called New Atheists. What Williams should be doing, if he is to approach the philosophy of atheism, as the title suggests, is to grapple with the arguments posed by the very philosophers he uses to defend his onslaught on Dawkins et al.
Therefore, Williams fails to deal with more nuanced and proficient atheistic philosophy, while at the same time accusing his opponents of doing the very same thing to theistic philosophy! Although Williams may have some erudite and well-researched points to make, the whole basis for his work is built on a shaky foundation of hypocrisy and straw men.
Moving away from this overarching issue, does Williams effectively deal with New Atheism? In many ways, yes, Williams does have many good points to make of some of the shaky arguments used by many of the New Atheists. He could be accused of cherry-picking the weaker arguments of the weaker arguers. Moreover, in deploying more recent philosophy against these authors, he produces modern theistic arguments as if they themselves are un-refutable. Yet, for every well-crafted argument from Alvin Plantinga and William Lane Craig, there are as many detractors and critics. It is these people and arguments that Williams neglects to engage. Take the Kalam Cosmological Argument. I, myself, have critiqued Craig’s use of the argument as necessitating philosophical realism, or Platonism (Pearce 2010). This assumption of the existence of objective realities is railroaded over the pages with a distinct air of question-begging.
It is difficult writing a concise book involving philosophy, because every philosophical topic impacts every other one in an interlocking web of dependence. It is difficult to make a point without some assumptions, because otherwise there is an endless regression of needing to prove, or assert the validity, of one premise or axiom, and then another. That said, when talking about moral relativism, or causality involving abstracts (for example), it is necessary to investigate whether these positions can be adhered to without huge philosophical assumptions. And they can’t. And the establishing of these assumptions is very much up for grabs. For instance, I am a nominalist of sorts. This philosophical position entails that the Kalam Cosmological Argument, and even certain aspects of moral objectivism, are not valid.
I will look to conclude more general analysis of the book at the end of this critique. Investigating some of the more incidental points, let me start by looking at Williams’ take on Naturalism. Williams tries to make a point by saying (p.4):
Sociologist Steve Fuller admits that: ‘naturalism remains a controversial position within academic philosophy, In fact, it is probably still a minority position.
Ah, not so quick Mr. Williams. You see, the philpapers survey of 2009, the largest survey of professional philosophers ever recorded, found that only 24.2% of philosophers adhere to non-naturalism. Steve Fuller may well have said that, but he doesn’t seem to be right. However, to make matters worse, Williams contradicts himself two pages later (p.6):
Naturalistic atheism remains the orthodox worldview of Western intellectual culture…
On the same page, Williams continues by using a Keith Ward quote (p.6) that seems to renege on his earlier sentence (although this is difficult to claim of him since most of the book is written through quotations of other academics, so it is a tough job sorting out exactly what Williams believes, as opposed to the people he is quoting to serve a particular end):
Looking around at my philosopher colleagues in Britain … I would say that very few of them are materialists. Some … are idealists. A good number are theists.
This is then effectively repeated as a view on p.18, when Williams quotes Quentin Smith lamenting the high number of theistic philosophers who are entering philosophy faculties. This is simply not borne out by the survey. Although the philpapers survey is not necessarily indicative of British philosophy, it is of Western philosophy, and thus, hopefully, offers a good snapshot of where British philosophy stands. This contradicts Ward’s views in that only 27% are non-physicalists (i.e. non-materialists), only 4.2% are idealists, and a mere 14.6% admitting theism. Something is rotten in the State of Denmark. It appears to be a case of quote-mining depending on what point Williams is trying to make. Where it supports his points that most Western philosophers are naturalist, then they are naturalist. When he needs there to appear strong support for theism or non-naturalism within Western intelligentsia, then we are suddenly mainly theistic.
In this same opening chapter, Williams brings Plantinga’s free-will defence of the Problem of Evil. This is a huge topic, and one that can only be treated with appropriate conciseness in the book. Whether the treatment is appropriate or not is anyone’s guess. I would say that the deference in which Plantinga is held is charitable, though he is no doubt one of the finest theistic philosophers of the last century, if not ever. The problem with Plantinga’s logical problem of evil is this, as Chris Hallquist states:
This is a giant non-sequitur: the fact that it is logically possible that something is false does not mean a compelling case for it has not been made, or that the contrary view is remotely plausible. And it’s especially difficult to see how Plantinga did anything to touch versions of the problem of evil based on specific evils like the Holocaust
It is logically possible that a albino crocodile stamped on my daffodils yesterday. However, the likelihood is minimal. Allowing any amount of evil to take place in the hope that it is for a greater good, logically, is dangerous. This is appealing to the 'he must have a greater good plan' and is just question begging. If you think God needs to allow the torture of babies who starve in a famine or die in a tsunami when he has the power to stop it, then so be it. I cannot live with that. Animal cruelty, despite CS Lewis and others' weak refutations, provides ample evidence for the non-all-loving God (see John Loftus' own chapter 'The Darwinian Problem Of Evil' in The Christian Delusion). There is simply is no reconciliation of such profound and wide spread suffering unless, as Plantinga seems to want to do, you appeal to the mysterious ways of God that we cannot know. This is carte blanche for anything at all to happen in the universe, no matter how horrifyingly evil. It is, in fact, very scary - it says, no matter what evil, even if every human in the universe, apart from Plantinga, was tortured for 50 years and then burnt to death (including his family in front of him), and humanity died out, even then, Plantinga would say God was moving in mysteriously and beneficent ways. Logically, this is possible. But it is so remotely plausible or probable, as to be statistically zero. This get-out-of-torture card doesn't wash with me.
Next comes the propensity with which Williams uses Anthony Flew as a case study and role model for would-be atheists. However, the use of Flew as a sensible example and trailblazer for leaving the atheistic fold, is controversial. Firstly, he did not become quite the theist that Williams hints at, but a logical agnostic. He wasn’t even a naturalist, either, but a sceptic. Moreover, according to Richard Carrier who had private correspondence with him, his ‘deconversion’ was primarily based on cosmological arguments, which were in turn based on thirty year-old cosmology and physics. When Carrier pointed this out, Flew admitted he was unaware of recent advances, as you can see by what Carrier said in this radio interview (hence the vernacular):
His sole reason, and he told me this himself, his only reason for believing there might be a God was the impossibility of science to explain the origin of life and he was basing this on thirty year old science. He did not check: I asked him this, “Did you look at any of the science that has been done on this in the last ten years?” and he said, “Well, no.” And so I sent him, you know, all the literature and so forth and he looked at it and said, “Oh … Oh, Ok, I’m wrong.” And so he admitted, he admitted and said, “Yes, Ok, you’re right. Science does have viable theories for the origin of life.” And in fact, he said that this kind of embarrassed him and he said, “You know I’m not even going to…I’m done talking about religion. I’m not gonna to make any public statements on this matter anymore.” I think he’s back to being a sceptic now.
. Carrier himself provides a devastating critique of the whole Flew enterprise (although he has his own critics on this), and the hijacking of his name for apologetic purposes. He is in a better position than most to claim this since he was having personal correspondence with Flew. I am going to cite a long quote from Carrier to highlight some of his criticisms:
Not a single argument in this book is anything Flew ever said in his letters to me were his reasons for becoming a theist, except one: the DNA argument, which he phrased very differently, and then rescinded in his letters to me. In his new preface to God & Philosophy he even cited my article in Biology & Philosophy as already refuting many of the claims which are now made in this book about the origin of life (see Richard Carrier, "The Argument from Biogenesis: Probabilities against a Natural Origin of Life," Biology & Philosophy 19.5, November 2004, pp. 739-64)[…]
Hence if Flew wrote this, or anyone competent enough to actually read the only article Flew cites against the argument from biogenesis in his new preface to God & Philosophy, I would at least expect a response to the facts and arguments in my article. Instead, the book is written in complete ignorance of its contents, as well as of the fact that I had sent it to Flew, and Flew had confessed to reading it, and had been persuaded by it to rescind his argument from DNA in his final preface to God & Philosophy (as even Oppenheimer documents, and as I show even more clearly in my article on Flew). As a result, on this one argument "Flew's" book stands already refuted on almost everything it says. Only a hack would attempt that. Someone who actually knew what he was doing (or who was actually Antony Flew) would not have left my article without response, as it was clearly the crucial piece that turned Flew around on the only actual argument he has ever made.
The real author not only has no knowledge of my crucially relevant interactions with Flew (even beyond this one example), he also thinks Flew's "biological-scientist friend" who corrected him on the science of biogenesis was Richard Dawkins, when in fact it was me. In his preface to God & Philosophy Flew erred in thinking (and claiming) that I was a scientist (yet another example of his apparent mental decline--Flew had written to me that Dawkins said nothing to him on this subject, and that I was the one who had persuaded him, and cites my article alone in the relevant footnote inGod & Philosophy). As a result of this mistake, Flew evidently misled the ghostwriter into believing Flew had been persuaded by a "scientist friend." The author thus picked the most obvious candidate: Dawkins. This is a mistake that Flew would not have made, and would surely have corrected had he ever actually read this book before it went to press (unless his memory is catastrophically failing him)
For example, the author pretending to be Flew claims there hasn't been enough time for abiogenesis. The real Antony Flew knows this is false. In fact he conceded it was false to me in writing, and I quoted him on this fact in my online article. You would think that even a forger who wants the world to think this is Flew's response to his own critics and that Flew remains a theist for sound reasons, would at least have his fictional Flew explain his retraction and re-retract it somehow. Instead, the author appears not even to know that Flew retracted the claim that there hasn't been enough time for abiogenesis. The author also seems unaware of the fact that Flew had radically changed earlier drafts of his preface to God & Philosophy to reflect exactly this change of position, even though this was also a matter of public record. Thus no explanation is given for his sudden (though apparently fictional) re-reversal.
There are many more examples of this kind of thing.
I admit that this quote is possibly a little long, but the content is vital, because so many apologists use this example to exemplify the correct behaviour that intelligent atheists should adopt. Williams himself sees it as “earth-shattering” and a “symbolic high water mark for the intellectual resurrection of theism”. It seems to be that ‘Flew’s’ book is a shoddy apologetic attempt to convince readers that belief in God is more philosophically viable than atheism, relying simply on a supposed lack o knowledge over one area of science.
In Chapter 3, Williams spends much time look at the philosophical idea of properly basic beliefs. These are axiomatic beliefs that do not depend on other assumptions that need proving in order to be held in a valid fashion. If you can warrant the use of properly basic beliefs in world where pyrrhonism is the only truly logical path to take, along the lines of Descartes’ cogito ergo sum, then you might be able to argue towards belief in God being a properly basic belief. Williams gets himself in problems herw. His quote from p.71:
…theistic belief grounded in religious experience carries the prima facie warrant of a properly basic belief.
Oh dear, this does seem to be immensely question begging. It implies and assumes that the experience of God that one might have is on the same evidential and sensory level of recognising the sky as blue in the morning, as Williams hints at earlier in the section. This makes for an uneasy conclusion, since you can use Williams’ properly basic belief argument (based upon experience) to argue for the warranted belief in any religio-spiritual experience. Crystal auras, Hindu, Sikh, animistic and Wiccah experiences all qualify. Anecdotally, I met a couple once, at university, and was speaking to the girlfriend at the bar. Her boyfriend was a Wiccah witch and he swore blind that he could astral project, and much of his belief system was built around these experiences that he had undergone. I asked her whether, since she was not an adherent to his beliefs, she believed he could astral project. She declared that, since they had been solid for over a year together, and their relationship, like any, was built on trust, she had to believe him. She believed he could astral project, or at least that he thought he could astral project. This experiential belief, which stretched past the individual in question to an (erstwhile sceptic!), was arguably a properly basic belief, warranted by his sensory experiences in exactly the same way a Christian can experience God. It is no less or more extraordinary to me, a disbeliever in both. A Christian might pour scorn on such fanciful witchcraft beliefs, but they are begging the question of their own fanciful beliefs in their own far-fetched God and rituals (of drinking the blood and eating the flesh of their dying and resurrecting God).
It is a dangerous ground, this properly basic belief, because it appears to me that there is only one properly basic belief (that I exist) and everything else is a belief qualified by evidence; a non-basic belief. Belief in God is most certainly one of the latter and Williams, in my opinion, is incorrect in asserting that it qualifies for the former. On p.72 he claims “there isn’t anything wrong with a belief in the ‘absence of evidence’ if it has a prima facie warrant due to a properly basic belief.” This, to me, is an outrageous claim. No belief can be properly basic unless it is of empirical basis. This is self-refuting in that it requires the establishment of the experiences to be sound, before establishing the so-called properly basic belief, a problem that Descartes contended with. An evidentially based properly basic belief in God falls into this circular and problematic trap. Even in reformed epistemology, whereby thinkers claim that belief in God can be a properly basic belief, it still remains a case of having to establish the plausibility and veracity of the evidence for the belief. Belief in God, and especially a narrow Christian version of God, has to compete with any other belief, thus giving them all access to being properly basic – even atheism!
One of the next issues that comes to the fore revolves around moral objectivity (p.76-83). Williams asks the rhetorical question (p.80), “where, in a naturalistic metaphysics, can one fit such a thing as an objective moral ideal?” which implies that there simply are no arguments for moral objectivity that don’t involve God. Moral universalism is a well-worn path of philosophy, tramped by many thinkers over the last few thousand years. Williams dismisses, nay ignores, this discipline with consummate ease. It could be that it may not be true, but it may be. It needs to be dealt with. Since logic is arguably, in my opinion, the only objective ideal in the universe (so much so that God cannot contravene it, or make a rock too heavy for him to lift), then one can conceive of a moral system, or even one moral point, that is undergirded by logically-based rationale. But this is not the place to start a whole argument over moral objectivism, though it is essential to point out that it can be argued.
Williams continues on p.81 “Nor can it obligate us to pay attention to them, because only persons can prescribe or obligate behaviour whilst a wholly naturalistic evolutionary history is impersonal.” This seems to be tacit admission from Williams that the moral code invoked by God is consequentialist in philosophy, that we adhere to morality and are obliged to do so on account of the punishment or reward of the afterlife. I say this because of the word obligation. It is a word of consequence. You cannot be obliged to do anything out of intrinsic duty. I do not believe in an intrinsic ought, an equally prudential word. Morality, if defined by God, is subjective to God. To argue that it emanates from his nature does nothing to defend such an accusation. As Keith Augustine points out:
While some retort that goodness flows from God's nature, this merely changes the form of the dilemma: Is compassion good because it is a part of God's nature, or is compassion a part of God's nature because it is already good? The first option produces problems parallel to those for DCT [Divine Command Theory]. If malice were a part of God's nature, for instance, it is doubtful that malice would automatically be good. If there are any objective moral standards at all, then a god can be either good or evil, and the assessment of a god's character would depend upon appealing to standards independent of any god's commands, opinions, statements, nature, or character.
So it seems like moral objectivity ends up being a ‘might is right’ subjectivity from God, no matter how theists try to play it. Again, this is a much larger field of debate than fit for the purposes of this piece, but it seems that Williams uses large sweeping dismissals of important philosophies, whilst defending theistic ideas with misplaced confident abandon.
Another example of the using of quotes which, if followed to their logical end, could get Williams into trouble, might be (p.87):
However, Burns and Law point out, ‘if God is omnipresent and the sustainer of all causal processes, whatever brings about an experience of God will, ultimately, be caused by God. It could only be shown that these alleged experiences were not caused by God if it could be shown that God does not exist.’
I would suggest re-reading this quote, but substituting the word ‘experience (of God)’ with the word ‘suffering’ or ‘evil’. I always find it interesting when theists use certain arguments or quotes to defend certain positions, but never investigate whether they cohere across the whole field of belief, with other defences. It is often the case that theists use defences in isolation. It seems that God sustains tsunamis and is responsible for millions of natural deaths (for example, two out of three foetuses are naturally aborted). Only the magic ‘don’t know God’s mind and it could logically all be for a greater good’ card can be invoked here. Which seems implausible, as mentioned before, in light of the evidence. Possible, but with the tiniest statistical possibility given the masses of evidence for suffering in the universe.
Another example of logical fallacy appears a few pages later amid some special pleading and question-begging (p.89):
Theists can see belief in God as properly basic because they can see at as the result of properly functioning cognitive faculties, given to humans by God with the truth-directed intent that they can know him in a properly basic manner, working in an appropriate manner: (Christian theists consider the work of the Holy Spirit in the believer’s mind to be a warranted Christian belief)…
And Musilms / Hindus / fill in the blank can’t, too? This seems to be an incredible claim on behalf of Christianity, and also begs the question of the existence of the Holy Spirit! If Descartes can easily doubt his senses, then so can anyone else! This outrageous quote seems to assume that theists have exclusive access to properly functioning cognitive faculties, and assumes that no other worldview, atheism included, can use these same arguments to defend their position.
Daniel Dennett is another serious target under fire, with his book Breaking the Spell. Whilst much of Williams criticism against the New Atheists may well be well-founded from a philosophical perspective, there are some quite over-zealous accusations on a more generic level. Dennett sets out to give a naturalistic account for religion – a worthy hypothesis to consider. It is a fascinating concept to wonder whether there are naturalistic mechanisms and evolutionary processes that can be considered responsible for the creation and sustenance of religion in the fiercely socialised societies that we have lived in. It seems pretty self-evident too, since virtually all societies have believed in God throughout history (bar maybe the Piraha tribe in the Amazon who are atheistic, and purportedly one of the happiest lot in the world!), and yet all the gods have been wildly variant, and mutually exclusive. The accusation that Williams levels at Dennett is that he does not seriously deal with all the arguments for a God before delving into naturalistic accounts for religion (from an almost anthropological viewpoint). Amongst many other quotes, this one sums up Williams’ approach (p.97):
Dennett effectively begs the question against theism for the majority of his book, before conspicuously failing to deliver on the all-important question of God’s existence.
On face value, this may seem like a fairly valid point, but in reality it opens up a whole can of worms that Williams would ill-advised to do. Essentially, Williams (and others that he quotes) are saying that in order for Dennett to posit a theory for a naturalistic explanation of how humans came to believe in religions he must, beyond all reasonable doubt, establish the veracity of naturalism and the incoherence of theism across the philosophical and evidential spectrums. Now you can argue that, by doing this, Dennett would be offering a much more robust and girded argument, but it really is not necessary, from a practical point of view. Williams needs to extrapolate his own accusation here to every other theological, religious, secular scientific or philosophical work. In order to establish such claims, either way might I add, would take a good thousand pages of effective argumentation across many disciplines. This is a ridiculous expectation and would equally have to be applied to Williams’ own book. Any analysis of biblical literature, Old or New Testament would necessitate 1000 pages of establishing that God actually existed in the first place. I don’t see Williams accusing Richard Bauckham in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony of not establishing that God and Jesus existed in the first place! Under Williams’ guidance, Bauckham would have to survey all arguments for and against God, modern and ancient, before concluding that God does exist, before commencing the actual body of work that he set out to do! No, the assumptions have to be made in order to get on with formulating a narrower hypothesis based on certain evidences and so on. I would rather that Williams dealt with the real core of Dennett’s book more effectively, other than the simple (paraphrased) “God designed it that way so that we can come to the truth of Christianity” (and all the other religions?).
On p. 100, Williams brings in Alister McGrath to attack the memetic view of Richard Dawkins (views that seem quite obvious, and almost self-evident to me). McGrath is quoted as saying “Dawkins is left in the decidedly uncomfortable position of having to accept that his own ideas must be accepted as the effects of memes.” To this, I simply say “So what?” Yes, every idea is memetic, but this says nothing about corresponding truth values. The great thing about scientific ‘memes’ is that the whole scientific method means that ideas and hypotheses are constantly tested, that evidence and data are the Holy Grails. With religion, it appears that the memes are the Holy Grails, the ideas, and data and evidence are used and massaged to fit the presuppositional ideologies and memes. Take the evidence for evolution. There is a huge wealth. Either the evidence is ignored, flatly denied, or fraudulently manipulated by Young Earth Creationists (for example) to allow them to cognitively dissonantly hold their presupposed views on how life as we know it came to be. Darwinian evolution, for example at the hands of Pigliucci and Muller (2010), is constantly undergoing change and evolution as it assimilates new data, withstands or gives way to new evidence. With Young Earth Creationism no amount of evidence gives way to the faith in the theory that the believers have. William Lane Craig is quite explicit about this (not necessarily about YEC):
Should a conflict arise between the witness of the Holy Spirit to the fundamental truth of the Christian faith and beliefs based on argument and evidence, then it is the former which must take precedence over the latter.
…We’ve already said that it’s the Holy Spirit who gives us the ultimate assurance of Christianity’s truth. Therefore, the only role left for argument and evidence to play is a subsidiary role.
So although both approaches (religious and scientific) are memetic, the scientific approach has self-correcting mechanisms – the scientific approach itself – that ensure that the truth is the end goal. Religion, on the other hand, has doctrine and orthodoxy as the memes that are the end goal.
Some pages later (p.107-8), Williams invokes another weak argument in looking for causality in terms of defective fathers for people’s (men’s) rejection of God. Williams claims that atheists’ relationships with their fathers are contributing factors to their worldview. However, in doing this, since he cannot find good evidence of this in New Atheists (bar maybe Hitchens), he moves well away from the targets of the book, and makes claims of the worldviews of Marx, Freud, Camus and Nietszche. Williams fails to look at the sheer mumber of people who, in everyday life, in secular and religious circles, go through equal familial upset. It is like looking at those four people and seeing that they, for example, have brown hair, and making conclusions from there. The fact that most people, for example, might have brown hair, is lost in the theory. You could apply this theory to saying the cause of people embracing God, the casual circumstance responsible for people’s real love for God is their solid love for their own father, and the relationship they had with them. On losing their father, they need to sustaining that fatherly love, and find God as a result. This is naïve, at best, and provides one of William’s weaker moments. Shall we claim that because 27% of born-again Christians get divorced as opposed to 21% of atheists or agnostics that God or belief in God is responsible for divorce? That would be a childish and irresponsible use of statistics. Just cherry=picking four atheists and making such conclusions about atheism is somewhat disingenuous.
When it comes to free will, and this is obviously a subject close to my heart (having written a book on the lack of it), Williams has a fairly underdeveloped approach (certainly in this book). The primary problem is that genetics is far more complex than philosophers, and particularly theistic ones, claim. There are so many straw men built up by theists, and Williams is no different here, that it beggars belief. In this discipline, you often here the term ‘gene for’ which is a misnomer. There is hardly ever a gene for. Take height for example:
An international team of researchers, including a number from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill schools of medicine and public health, have discovered hundreds of genes that influence human height.
Their findings confirm that the combination of a large number of genes in any given individual, rather than a simple "tall" gene or "short" gene, helps to determine a person's stature. It also points the way to future studies exploring how these genes combine into biological pathways to impact human growth.
Genetic influence, whether phenotypically in physical characteristics or behavioural traits, is created by whole sets of genes, and is mitigated by many others. This means that predictability, with our lack of knowledge, is very difficult. This is identical to chaos theory which dictates unpredictability, not because things aren’t determined (a common misinterpretation), but because there is such a complex mix of such a massive multitude of variables that prediction with present knowledge is too difficult. Naturalists, in my opinion, should be led to determinism. Williams uses David Stove (p. 113) to support his attack on genetic determinism:
…they deny, at least by implication, that human intentions, decisions and efforts are among the causal agencies which are at work in the world. This denial is so obviously false that no rational person, who paused to consider it coolly and in itself, would ever entertain it for one minute.
This is another outrageous quote, and a strong rhetorical device. It begs the question entirely that human intention has the magical ability of being able to be freely willed. Human intentions and decisions are precisely what determinists claim are determined by physical influences! I read New Scientist and Science Daily every day and am amazed at the sheer volume of supporting evidence for determinism that is piling up day upon day. However, in finding genetic influences for a certain behaviour or trait, it becomes very difficult because although that gene or set of genes my influence a human in one way, we do not know (yet) how all the other genes influence that behaviour. For example, we may strongly connect alcoholism with a set of genes (for addiction, intolerance, willpower, taste etc.), but may not realise that the genes that influence a person to being very athletic and enjoying sport may counteract, or be stronger than, the alcoholic genes. Thus this person may be seen as overcoming his genes, when it is his other genes that do the overcoming. This is entirely simplistic, but illustrates some of the difficulties in predicting behaviour. And I haven’t even brought in environmental influences! Our causal circumstances may be difficult to fathom, but that in no way means they are not deterministic.
Williams seeks to smuggle in free will on the back of supernaturalism without really providing a good argument for it, all the while not questioning naturalistic libertarians, but rather seeking to rub shoulders with them for rhetorical ends. This is a favourite subject of mine, so I will leave it there for fear of exhibiting obsessive behaviour. To conclude on his section on genes and other such influences, I will simply say that he barely scratched the surface of what I see as the most important argument in the whole of theism. I believe in determinism from evidence, philosophy and logic, and determinism utterly undermines personal theism. Which is the main reason I am not a believer. Williams would do well to address this point a little better, especially as it is a weakness in New Atheists who equally smuggle in free will, but with even less plausibility than theists! Craig, in his debates, often hunts down atheists hoping that they will logically admit to determinism, and I think he is correct in doing so, but that it shouldn’t be something we are afraid to admit.
Williams moves on to tackle atheists who use the Argument from Scale, essentially saying that the universe is mind-bogglingly massive as to pose the question of why a God focused on humanity would bother wasting time and effort on such a huge amount of irrelevant matter, energy and nothingness. He claims that humans fit on the scale in the middle from macroscopic to microscopic. First of all, this is a fairly nonsensical statement since it depends on time. The universe has and will be constantly expanding, which means measuring our position on the scale depends whether it is mathematically done just after the big bang, at one billion years, now or sometime into the universally expanded future. Furthermore, on present numbers, and I may be wrong, we are only roughly near the centre of the scale at best. The second reason it is pointless is that when we get down to point particles, they have no ‘size’ and occupy no physical space. Looking at actual measurable sizes, the Planck length is the radius of a Planck particle, which is 1.616252(81)×10−35 metres, and the universe is probably around 8.80 × 1026 metres. As you can see, we sit some several (4 to 5) orders of magnitude away from the middle, thus invalidating Williams’ claim that we are ideally situated in the prime middle of the scale of sizes, which he uses to counter the claim that it does not look like the universe was designed with us in mind.
This is not the place to be getting into highly developed theories of cosmologies and suchlike, but suffice it to say modern multiverse theories can certainly sidestep many of the design theory inferences. The size, scale, danger, issues of quarantine by distance and time, along with theories of evolution and abiogenesis fit far more coherently with atheism than with an all-loving, all powerful God creating a massive cosmos just for us, and forgetting to design planets without lethal plate tectonics, or solar systems without life-endangering meteorites. I see no such god designing this here cosmos, at least not the personal one of Christianity.
To move onto evolutionary matters, Williams, on p. 133 lists a number of “reputable” scientists who doubt the “grander explanatory claims of evolution”. Without knowing how they disagreed with evolution, or even of any bias that they might foster, the list is almost useless, and is dwarfed into insignificant statistical zero by those who do uphold evolution. The same can be said of the list of 100 scientists, used by Williams and put together by the Discovery Institute, who ambiguously claimed:
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.
This list was controversial at the best of times, as has been claimed of it by many. The scientists in question were very careful in their wording:
Such a statement could easily be agreed to by scientists who have no doubts about evolution itself, but dispute the exclusiveness of "Darwinism," that is, natural selection, when other mechanisms such as genetic drift and gene flow are being actively debated. To the layman, however, the ad gives the distinct impression that the 100 scientists question evolution itself.
Charles Darwin himself described natural selection as being "the main but not exclusive means of modification" of species. The modern theory of evolution additionally includes recombination as a source of variation and genetic drift and gene flow as mechanisms, meaning that the current theory of evolution, the modern evolutionary synthesis, does not in fact claim "the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life."
It is claimed also that the “expertise of those listed is not always apparent and is alleged to be deficient”. Fewer than 20% were biologists, and some have had their credentials questioned. Moreover, it represents a proportion of scientists that is less than 0.01% of scientists in the relevant fields (and that statistic is generous). To me, this seems a little disingenuous, firstly on the part of the Discovery Institute (unsurprising there) but also on the part of Williams for using this weak refutation and attempted (but wholly unsuccessful) use of argument from authority. It would be wise, to get a better idea about the state of evolutionary theory within the science community, to research Project Steve (which puts the 100 list to shame) and also the Clergy Letter Project that has 10,000 signatories of clergy who support evolution. Inspired by Project Steve is:
Inspired by Project Steve, and motivated by media coverage of the Discovery Institute's "Dissent From Darwinism" list, during the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District case, R. Joe Brandon initiated a four-day, word-of-mouth petition of scientists in support of evolution in October 2005. During the four-day drive A Scientific Support For Darwinism And For Public Schools Not To Teach Intelligent Design As Science gathered 7733 signatures of verifiable scientists. During the four days of the petition, A Scientific Support for Darwinism received signatures at a rate 697,000 percent higher than the Discovery Institute's petition, A Scientific Dissent from Darwinism, according to archaeologist R. Joe Brandon.
In reality, evolution is really as strong as a scientific theory can be, with some of the finer details still open for some marginal shifting. Francis Collins, who declares the evidence “incontrovertible”, and Simon Conway Morris, are two Christians who know their evolutionary eggs. Perhaps more theists would do well to listen to them, instead.
When Williams looks at exposing the mind-body problem, and touching on qualia (p.137), he paints a false dichotomy saying either dualism will explain it (there is no explanation in that, because dualism provides absolutely no explanatory power or mechanism) or naturalism will. I say false dichotomy because he does not entertain the idea of eliminativism, that qualia need no explaining because they do not exist. I have written, myself, about this (Pearce 2010a, p.59-74) in a little detail. The thought experiment ‘Mary’s Room’ casts some doubt on qualia, and notions such as synaesthesia and pain asymbolia lead one to think that the hard problem of consciousness will be settled in the naturalistic favour. However, again, that is not a debate from here.
The next comment I want to make concerns the C.S. Lewis quote on p.142. Williams has quoted a diamond:
…the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited. You must find why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood.
This is a complete aside, admittedly, but this is a majestic quote and it should be used against so many apologists themselves who dismiss 19th century higher critics for no better reason than previous apologists have done so, or on the behest of other apologists who can give no better reason than their work is passé.
Williams next spends pages 151 to 158 in tormenting poor Lewis Wolpert, the atheist biologist. Everything that Williams says is fairly on the money here: Wolpert is an exceptionally poor philosopher. But then, he is no philosopher. Williams does well to point out that Wolpert is in way out of his depth. Yet in correctly declaring this, Williams is again pointing out the straw man in his own approach as to which atheists he looks to philosophically spar with. Does Wolpert really represent atheistic philosophy? No, so why does Williams spend so much effort and time debunking his simplistic atheistic stance. That is equivalent to me debunking Christianity in a piece of work, and picking a sketchy Young Earth Creationist to critique as representative of theologically philosophical thinking.
From p.158 onwards, Williams talks of abiogenesis, the creation of life from chemical and organic building blocks. To quote Flew in starting this section off by saying. “It has become inordinately difficult even to begin to think about constructing a naturalistic theory of the first reproducing organism” is another naïve, or devious, approach. As already suggested, this is one area where Flew really has no idea of what he is talking about, and whose subject knowledge is thirty years out of date, which in the field, might as well be half a millenium. Williams continues on p.159 by saying abiogenesis is a “philosophical deduction entailed by the assumption of naturalism”. However, “God did it” is not only explanatorily weak in terms of giving up and admitting the God of the Gaps syndrome, but is entailed by the assumption of supernaturalism. Two can play at that game.
Current models of abiogenesis vary wildly – it is a truly exciting discipline – from primordial soup, to reliant on the heavy bombardment period, from thermodynamic origins, to Wächtershäuser's or Hoffman’s hypothesis. There are too many to list here, all summarily ignored and dismissed without even a tip of the hat. One of the main mistakes that apologists exhibit when postulating the statistical improbability of naturalistic abiogenesis, is that they handle statistics with poor subject knowledge. As mentioned earlier, they have no idea of frequency in their calculations, and so the whole notion of attaching a probability becomes ridiculous. To say the chances of chemicals spontaneously combining in a certain way has such and such a probability is hopeful when you have absolutely no idea of the frequency of these opportunities. To exemplify this, here is a list of methodological errors that apologists generally make:
1) They calculate the probability of the formation of a "modern" protein, or even a complete bacterium with all "modern" proteins, by random events. This is not the abiogenesis theory at all.
2) They assume that there is a fixed number of proteins, with fixed sequences for each protein, that are required for life.
3) They calculate the probability of sequential trials, rather than simultaneous trials.
4) They misunderstand what is meant by a probability calculation.
5) They seriously underestimate the number of functional enzymes/ribozymes present in a group of random sequences.
Putting four out of five of these glaring issues aside, let us return to probability and Ian Musgrave again:
Let's go back to our example with the coins. Say it takes a minute to toss the coins 4 times; to generate HHHH would take on average 8 minutes. Now get 16 friends, each with a coin, to all flip the coin simultaneously 4 times; the average time to generate HHHH is now 1 minute. Now try to flip 6 heads in a row; this has a probability of (1/2)6 or 1 in 64. This would take half an hour on average, but go out and recruit 64 people, and you can flip it in a minute. If you want to flip a sequence with a chance of 1 in a billion, just recruit the population of China to flip coins for you, you will have that sequence in no time flat.
So, if on our prebiotic earth we have a billion peptides growing simultaneously, that reduces the time taken to generate our replicator significantly.
Okay, you are looking at that number again, 1 chance in 4.29 x 1040, that's a big number, and although a billion starting molecules is a lot of molecules, could we ever get enough molecules to randomly assemble our first replicator in under half a billion years?
Yes, one kilogram of the amino acid arginine has 2.85 x 1024 molecules in it (that's well over a billion billion); a tonne of arginine has 2.85 x 1027 molecules. If you took a semi-trailer load of each amino acid and dumped it into a medium size lake, you would have enough molecules to generate our particular replicator in a few tens of years, given that you can make 55 amino acid long proteins in 1 to 2 weeks.
And those quotes are now twelve years old, and the discipline has moved on since then. In a connected field, Craig Venter has created the fist synthetic life form in the laboratory, and other sources of life such as methane-based life, suggest that abiogenesis is even more likely, as well as life elsewhere in a universe of 700 sextillion planets ( 700 with twenty-one zeroes after it).
All in all, there is a huge amount of scope for a more relevant portrayal of the science and research that has been done in this area. The problem with divining your data, science and arguments from the Discovery Institute and other apologetic organisations is that they are not the right people to refer to and have flagrant agendas. Obviously news conduits such as New Scientist and Science Daily have agendas too, but at least they are reporting on their own discipline. It is like deriving your religious and philosophical information from a science website. An example would be Williams’ use of Stephen C. Meyer as a source for critiquing naturalistic abiogenesis, which is possibly a bad move. Meyer has been widely criticised for his conclusions. Darrel Falk, a fellow Christian of the BioLogos foundation produces a devastating critique of Meyers work, exemplified by this:
Only a philosopher, I suppose, or someone else quite naïve about how science proceeds at a lab bench would be able to make such an assessment.
… Meyer’s disappointing tendency to reach premature conclusions based on his unsuccessful attempt to move from philosophy into genetics, biochemistry and molecular biology.
As for William’s use of Old Earth Creationist astronomer Hugh Ross, he should be wary. The use of his probabilities is cause for concern, as Sean Carroll so masterfully points out:
According to Reasons to Believe, the chance of life arising on a planet within the observable universe is only 1 in 10282 — or it would have been, if it weren’t for divine miracles. (Don’t tell them about there are 10500 vacua in string theory, it would ruin everything.) They get this number by writing down a long list of criteria that are purportedly necessary for the existence of life (“star’s space velocity relative to Local Standard of Rest”; “molybdenum quantity in crust”; “mass distribution of Oort Cloud objects”), then they assign probabilities to each, and cheerfully multiply them together. To the non-crackpot eye, most have little if any connection to the existence of life, and let’s not even mention that many of these are highly non-independent quantities. (You cannot calculate the fraction of “Sean Carroll”s in the world by multiplying the fraction of “Sean”s by the fraction of “Carroll’s. As good Irish names, they are strongly correlated.) It’s the worst kind of flim-flam, because it tries to cover the stench of nonsense by squirting liberal doses of scientific-smelling perfume. If someone didn’t know anything about the science, and already believed in an active God who made the universe just for us, they could come away convinced that modern science had vindicated all of their beliefs. And that’s not something any of us should sit still for.
The numbers just don’t add up, and many shouldn’t even be put together in any case. Additionally, Mark Perakh does a good job of critiquing Ross’ work and approaches as well:
Ross's persistent assertions of science being in full agreement with his particular beliefs, without any factual evidence, is a display of arrogance, revealing his books as propaganda tools having little to do with either science or the question of the existence of God.
And this seems to be indicative of many of the sources that Williams uses, And he uses a lot. I could have gone through many, many more of the multitudinous references and quotes throughout the book, and I am sure I would have found similar issues. This becomes a sad state of affairs because it undermines any veracious and well-made points that Williams has as they are poisoned by the many instances of relying on Christian apologists who are either bad scientists or are nor even scientists and have such a poor grasp of the subject as to be criminal.
Several pages later (p.165) Williams brings Fred Hoyle into play. This is again a dubious move. Williams essentially quotes Hoyle’s thinking that coined the phrase ‘Hoyle’s fallacy’, using probabilities that are wholly rejected by evolutionary biologists (Hoyles’ 1981 work is quite outdated too). These consistent appeals to authority end up backfiring when the authority is undermined, and found wanting.
This is not a section of the book that cast much doubt, for me personally, over (secular) scientific approaches to the origins of life and the universe. Williams closes ‘A Significant Absence of Evidence’ chapter (p.171) by bringing in Craig again, and paraphrasing, “the attitude of the heart being at least as important as the availability of the evidence”. I wholly disagree with this view in its entirety. The heart is an emotionally biased organ (which technically does nothing but pump blood, and what exactly is the attitude of the heart?). Williams, through Craig and Moreland, essentially implies that emotional intuition has more value than data, which boils down to the classic faith trumping reason position that Craig is so often criticised for. If there is contradictory evidence, well then to hell with it, because it is nothing compared to the truth of the Holy Spirit! Unless the Holy Spirit is responsible for Hugh Ross’ calculations on astronomical probabilities, then I don’t think you’ll persuade non-believers and New Atheists alike with that tack.
The really interesting debate comes in the short passage on p.171-2 when Williams brings into the foray talk of evidence and coercion. Williams quotes Michael J. Murray as saying, “if God were to make the truths of the faith evident to us in too forceful a way, it would be tantamount to the coercion one experiences when threatened by a mugger.” This is an area that has seemed entirely incoherent to me for sometime now. It can best be summed up in some questions that I have posed God in my forthcoming book 501 Questions to Ask God. Apologies for the long quote:
51. Quite often, people ask why you don’t give some really explicit, big piece of evidence so that no one can have doubt that you exist? For example, you could put a cross on the moon. This would mean that everyone could be ‘saved’ through union with God (Universal Salvation) and no one would have to go to hell. Theists respond that this would mean that people would be having their arms twisted to believe in you, that there would be no free will in the act of believing – everyone would have sufficient evidence. However, take Mark, a believer, who believes with just a ‘normal’ amount of evidence. He has sufficient evidence to believe. Why is it that Mark is not seen as having his arm twisted, as seen as having free will?
52. Someone (let’s call them Jill) would believe in God with less evidence than Mark. and someone could believe with just a little bit less, or might need a little more. This evidence is again sufficient for Jill. Is it true that the amount of evidence you have given to the world is arbitrary?
53. Given (for example) that you have provided just enough evidence so that Mark believes, and more than enough for Jill, it follows that anyone requiring more evidence than Mark will not have enough evidence to believe. Knowing that you could give enough evidence so that everyone could believe (thus achieving Universal Salvation), you have chosen not to. Thus is it not true that you want there to be non-believers / condemned people?
54. In the New Testament, your disciples were given visions and / or appearances of Jesus returning from the dead, with disciples eating meals with the resurrected Jesus. However, most of us now are not shown such luxury and evidence. Why is it that the level of evidence is not uniform across humanity and history, with some people receiving much more evidence than others for your existence?
The questions 51 to 54 are seemingly confusing, but offer a veritable conundrum to the believer. There is an illusion from an individual’s point of view that they have freely chosen to believe in God based on the amount of evidence they have received. This is sufficient reason for them. In Mark’s case, let’s call it (arbitrarily) 58% evidence. He thinks he has used his free will, but the truth is that that percentage is sufficient for him to believe. Jill believes with only 39%. Then when someone asks Mark, “Why doesn’t God show himself by putting a cross on the moon (90%)?” he answers “Because then that will be twisting your arm and not allowing you to freely choose God”. However, the fallacy here is that this is exactly what is happening to Mark in comparison to Jill. Whatever evidence Mark has received compared to Jill is effectively equivalent to a cross on the moon for someone else. The moral of the story is that evidence is seen as twisting someone’s arm whenever it is more evidence than you have received. It is an entirely subjective problem and does not appear to be easily resolved.
This really sums up the issues with appealing to theories of evidence. The whole area is entirely subjective and self-centred – the amount of evidence you receive is always the perfect amount of evidence.
In the following “The Emperor Has No Clothes” chapter, Williams brings the Kalam Cosmological (KCA) and other cosmological arguments into play. I mentioned at the outset of this exercise that there are issues with the KCA as it assumes the position of realism or Platonism with regards to abstracts – something to which I do not adhere. Without this assumption, it falls down like a house of cards (Pearce 2010). Williams insists that the arguments require an uncaused causer (God) to be the prime mover that ends the regression ad infinitum that is prompted by the causality invoked by such arguments. However, he fails to address the fact that uncaused matter has just as much probability (it is not even a probability that we can remotely evaluate) as an uncaused God who existed eternally, a-temporally, before he created time (and space) ex nihilo. I am not even sure that the concept of an omnipotent being creating ex nihilo is coherent, which is why I approve of some scholars suggesting that the God of Genesis (based on a different linguistic interpretation) was simply reformulating pre-existing matter. Ockham’s Razor would also stipulate, in my opinion, that positing God would add an extra assumption and entity in need of explaining. Uncaused universe vs uncaused causer is a worthy fight, no doubt, but my money’s on the universe, and that isn’t even mentioning loop quantum gravity, Big Bounces and eternally exiting matter, all of which Williams fails to deal with.
Part of the problem is that God is logically backed into a corner whereby, without any evidence, theists like Craig insist what God is entirely founded on logical arguments. God must have existed eternally, without a how or why, and must have entered time at the creation of the universe. It would be nice if God, one day, could actually tell us himself how and why he exists, and in what manner, rather than have his existence haggled over by presumptuous philosophers.
And so we reach the muddy waters of the Ontological Argument (OA), one of Williams favoured philosophical hunting grounds. I have problems with the whole nature of great-making properties that supposedly have intrinsic maximums such that Guanilo’s Island argument is rendered incoherent. God is supposed to have perfect knowledge, but this is impossible since one can not know infinities, since they are endless sets. If you set about trying to predict outcomes of certain calculations that involve infinite combinations, then I sure there is room for incoherence. There are lots to talk about with the OA from the denial of extra value of necessary existence to the notion that it is an entirely subjective exercise; from the circularity of arguing an eternally existing God giving the property of being great, leading to conclusions of necessity (i.e. eternal existence), to the biggest criticism of all: that a maximally great being is incoherent.
I believe that the standard criticisms of the OA hold, that God’s properties are inconsistent. God cannot be perfectly just and merciful simultaneously. I also contest (as I do in Pearce 2010a) that God can have divine foreknowledge and create man with free will, thus omniscience and omnipotence are incompatible as concluded by Kenneth Himma:
Omnipotence entails the power to create free beings, but omniscience rules out the possibility that such beings exist. Thus, a being that is omniscient lacks the ability to create free beings and is hence not omnipotent. Conversely, a being that is omnipotent has the power to create free beings and hence does not know what such beings would do if they existed. Thus, the argument concludes that omniscience and omnipotence are logically incompatible. If this is correct, then all versions of the ontological argument fail.
I also think one can argue that it is an even greater property for a universe to exist without cause than for a personal and eternal god to exist. This is a greater great-making property than any other. Therefore, the self-caused universe exists. It’s subjective, you see.
On p. 187, we see Williams illustrate a massive assumption which underlies the entire philosophical framework of his book:
Assuming that the objective theory of value is true…
Not an assumption I make. Admittedly, it would defeat the readability of a book if you had to outline all the foundational philosophy you use before making any conclusions – the work would be massive. But this is what he earlier accused Dennett of not doing, so this criticism is entirely fair game.
Williams later attacks Dawkins for the use of the ‘smelliness’ argument to rebut the ‘great-making properties’ coherency. Williams is scornful of Dawkins here, and I think this is unfair and that Dawkins actually had a good philosophical point. The fact is, smelliness depends on your culture, and even your species. What is a wonderful scent, a perfect perfume, to us, is disgusting to another culture and vice versa. The same applies across animal species, thus rendering the notion of good and bad smelling as entirely subjective. Now, you can argue that smelliness has no intrinsic value, but Williams continues to say that being, truth, goodness and beauty (p.189) all have these intrinsic properties, all of which can be debated. After all, beauty and smell are very closely connected, the visual and the olfactory senses evoking equally emotional reactions. There are huge assumptions here. It is very anthropocentric argumentation to start with, and they can be argued to make no sense as maximal notions.
More question-begging takes place on p.190 when, through Paul Copan, Williams assumes we have moral objectivity and that humans are rights bearing. What are human rights and where do they exist? We have a right to live, but a chicken does not, if we are hungry? As Andrew Brown points out:
The essential point about human rights is that there is no evidence whatsoever that they actually exist. Children are born without any belief in them and they were certainly never heard of in all the millennia of prehistory. Even in recorded history, they are a very new invention, and one which has been confined, even in principle, to a very small part of the world. They are based entirely on documents written by human beings, and produced through squalid political processes nothing like the later myths. Countries where enemies of the state are routinely tortured before being executed sign declarations of rights with as much enthusiasm as peaceful democracies.
We are told that the two qualities of human rights is that they are "self-evident" and "unassailable". This is like saying that the chief quality of porridge is its excellence as a material for building skyscrapers.
I simply find that question after question is begged in order to make quick and cheap attacks on the New Atheists that, to the layman, appear very plausible.
Williams comes to conclude his work by using some more atheist quotes against his New Atheist victims. Dawkins again receives a broadside from Michael Ruse (p.213):
"It is not that the atheists are having a field day because of the brilliance and novelty of their thinking. Frankly - and I speak here as a nonbeliever myself, pretty atheistic about Christianity and skeptical about all theological claims - the material being churned out is second rate. And that is a euphemism for "downright awful." [. . .] It is simply that it (and the other works, some of which I have gone after elsewhere) is not very good. For a start, Dawkins is brazen in his ignorance of philosophy and theology (not to mention the history of science). [. . .] Dawkins misunderstands the place of the proofs, but this is nothing to his treatment of the proofs themselves. This is a man truly out of his depth."
Why then, Williams, do you not concentrate on attacking the arguments of Ruse if they are so much better (by his own rhetoric)? To reiterate, this is clear admission of the straw man of atheism! This remains the one grander criticism of the work. Williams is correct in many of his criticisms of the New Atheists as some of their philosophy can be shoddy. But then, I would imagine the New Atheists, as they are often scientists, would critique Williams work on account of some pretty shoddy science. Dawkins may have produced straw man versions of antiquated philosophical arguments, but the sources that Williams uses to garner scientific authority are straw man versions of scientific arguments using out of date and / or poor data. There is an element of hypocrisy here, and this is the backbone of this work – it is built on a foundation of hypocrisy. On the ones hand, Williams accused New Atheists of creating straw men of theistic arguments, ones they purport to ‘represent’ theism as it were; and on the other hand, Williams himself stands up these New Atheists as straw men of the representation of atheistic philosophy, thus falling into the very trap that he accuses his targets of doing.
In conclusion, there is a lot to critique in some of the approaches of the New Atheists, and Williams does much of this without issue from myself. Nevertheless, I would like to see Williams give a thorough philosophical appraisal of the best atheist philosophers, starting with the Ruses and Nielsens of this world and others that he so often quotes. And I implore someone trying to argue credible science not to use often non-peer reviewed pseudo-science from dubious ‘scientific’ sources. While there is Creationism in this here world, there will always be a supply and demand for fringe science that tries to achieve an end; where conclusions are reached before the experiments are contrived, or data interpreted.
Williams rounds off his work by providing some fifteen pages of ‘evidence’ for Jesus to support the philosophical and logical arguments that he has exhibited. Unfortunately, this section is probably the weakest area of the book. This is due to the nature of biblical studies, and its intricate and voraciously argued grounds. Broadly speaking, Williams adopts a conservative and orthodox view of much of the literature, history and biblical evidence. It is a massive subject, and even more confusing and controversial when one realises that the New Testament is built upon the foundations of the Old Testament and these are very shaky foundations indeed. You cannot do justice to a position of biblical interpretation in such a short space. Pretty much everything that Williams states or concludes is highly contested.
Close to the start, Williams talks dating, and seems to lump all the Gospels as being before the fall of Jerusalem (70 CE). Hardly any scholars entertain that Matthew was written before 70 CE. Even with Luke, the majority believe that it was composed after 70 CE, though Williams seems to ignore any critical opinion, and concentrates on reporting only the evidence that better supports his position. Even the earliest of the Gospels, Mark, is generally believed to have been written shortly after the fall of Jerusalem. Yes, there is argument to be had in all of this, but Williams does not present this as being the case.
I simply disagree that the Gospels are reliable, even eyewitness, accounts. We have no idea, from a historical methodological point of view, who the sources were for the Gospels, and can only guess. A low point comes when Williams lists the non-biblical sources, through Habermas, of references to Jesus and Christianity as if this provides any kind of evidence or truth value to the claims of the New Testament. As the non-mythicist Charles Guignebert (Professor of the History Of Christianity at the Sorbonne), said "all the pagan and Jewish testimonies, so-called, afford us no information of any value about the life of Jesus, nor even any assurance that he ever lived." He continues of Pliny the Youbger, "Only the most robust credulity could reckon this assertion as admissible evidence for the historicity of Jesus". Of Tacitus, he argued "So long as there is that possibility [that Tacitus is merely echoing what Christians themselves were saying], the passage remains quite worthless". R. T. France claims that the Tacitus passage is at best just Tacitus repeating what he has heard through Christians. Suetonius mention of ‘Chrestus’ adds nothing, and is debated. Josephus is problematic, and heavily or even entirely interpolated. As for the Talmud (70-200 CE), there is huge variance in what is later claimed of Jesus, and all of the accurate information would have come from the Gospels anyway. Jesus is claimed as being hanged, having only five disciples (all of which have different names) who were all sentenced to death at their own trials and so on (not mentioned by Williams). Thallus, of which very little is known, and who wrote about events after 109 CE, is reported by Julius Africanus (221 CE) when he talked about Jesus’ crucifixion as follows:
On the whole world there pressed a most fearful darkness; and the rocks were rent by an earthquake, and many places in Judea and other districts were thrown down. This darkness Thallus, in his third book of History, calls (as appears to me without reason) an eclipse of the sun.
Lucian wrote a few scant sentences in the 2nd century:
The Christians, you know, worship a man to this day — the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account… You see, these misguided creatures start with the general conviction that they are immortal for all time, which explains the contempt of death and voluntary self-devotion which are so common among them; and then it was impressed on them by their original lawgiver that they are all brothers, from the moment that they are converted, and deny the gods of Greece, and worship the crucified sage, and live after his laws.
So it is apparent that extra biblical evidence is next to useless. All of it written long after Jesus died equates to nothing more than “Christians believe in Christ, who was crucified”. It is like claiming evidence for Allah and Muhammed existing based on the post-dated claim that people believe in them! Outrageously, Williams on p.227 claims that these sources tell us that:
· Jesus lived during the time of Tiberius Caesar
· He was virtuous.
· He worked wonders.
· He had a brother named James,
· He was acclaimed as 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 believe he rose from the dead.
· His disciples were willing to die for their belief.
This list is incredible, not least because Williams actually mixes up the claims here. He actually does seem to think that all those sources lead us to believe the above. They do nothing of the sort. They tell us that followers of Jesus at that time, claimed these things. If he is going to use the Talmud to uphold Christian claims, then why not that there were only five disciples? Cherry-picking is evident here. But the real issue is that none of these sources are primary evidence. At best they are tertiary evidence, and so cannot be used to assert the things that Williams claims. If I write on my blog that I know someone who thinks that Joseph Smith was the next Messiah, and it is read in two thousand years time, it cannot be used as evidence that Joseph Smith was actually the Messiah. It can only be used to assert that someone believed that Joseph Smith was the next Messiah (long after he died).
Williams knows this because he mixes in a couple of claims (the less instantly believable supernatural ones, e.g. “His disciples believe he rose from the dead”) as ‘people believed’, but with the others, they become simple assertions of fact!
Moreover, these sources, Williams claims, assure us that Jesus was historical. These writers did not have any better assurances than we do today that Jesus was mythological or not. Personally, I am agnostic over Jesus’ historicity, but I will not stand for claims made in support of his historicity that simply do not logically do what they are claimed to do.
Moving along to archaeological evidence, Williams seems to make another clanger. He calls into support the ossuaries found by Sukenik in 1945 (p.228) that he interpreted as early support for Jesus’ historicity with four crosses marked on them in charcoal and the words ‘Jesus, help’ and ‘Jesus, let him rise’ written on them. Unfortunately, Williams is using the original analysis that Sukenik made, which has since been debunked. J.P. Kane states:
Unfortunately more recent investigation has shown that this was a false scent. Sukenik himself remarked on an angled stroke which occurred after the apparent end of the word IOY. Bagatti read *lovg; I have myself tried to establish the reading *lou6[o]u from personal study of the inscription. The puzzling word 'AXcbd has been found by Dinkier in the name-lists of Preisigke. It occurs as the name of a merchant on a Fayum customs receipt of A.D. 158. Both of these words which were first thought to be exclamations of sorrow are thus established as the expected identification of the deceased. We must, then, dismiss Sukenik's suggestion that the ossuaries had reference to the crucifixion of Jesus, and emend to:
Ossuary 7 "ITJCTOOS Mou8[o]y
Jesus, son of Judas
Ossuary 8 'ITICTOOS 'AAcbO
Jesus, son of Alot
(Excuse the Greek font not translating across). This continues to explain that the crosses are in fact Yahwistic taws marking the elect of Yahweh, not crucifixion crosses. The point with these criticisms is that if I were an uncritical, or less knowledgeable (in the techniques used by apologists) reader, then I would read these evidences with awe and wonder, my unbelief being shaken. It is a task to have to cross reference and check each and every claim and source, and I have only done this to so few examples.
Williams continues by calling in A.N. Sherwin-White, one of Craig’s favourite sources for historical methodology. However, Sherwin-White, with his work on Acts and Paul, has been criticised. Richard Carrier speaks of John Lentz (The Journal of Theological Studies (41.1, April 1991: pp. 227-30) as saying:
Lentz also says Hemer relies too much on A. N. Sherwin-White without addressing the subsequent scholarship that criticized Sherwin-White's work: including A. H. M. Jones, who once sided with Sherwin-White, but upon examination of the evidence changed his mind, and other "material that is more recent than Jones seems to argue against Sherwin-White" as well.
Williams seems to copy William Lane Craig in citing Sherwin-White’s claim that the development of Christianity was too quick to be accounted for in terms of legendary development. This is a patently false claim as many legends have developed in very quick time (Joseph Smith and Mormonism, Sabbatai Zevi amongst many). In addition, Sherwin-White’s own words seem to completely contradict Craig’s (and Williams’) approach.
Mr. P. A. B. Bruce has suggested in private correspondence that the study of the Alexander sources is less encouraging for my thesis. There was a remarkable growth of myth around his person and deeds within the life-time of his contemporaries, and the historical embroidery was often deliberate. But the hard core still remains, and an alternative but neglected source--or pair of sources--survived for the serious inquirer Arrian to utilize in the second century A.D. This seems encouraging rather than the reverse. The point of my argument is not to suggest the literal accuracy of ancient sources, secular or ecclesiastical, but to offset the extreme scepticism with which the New Testament narratives are treated in some quarters. (my emphasis)
Possibly the most devastating critique of (apologist’s use of) Sherwin-White is Vince Hart’s “The Apologists' Abuse of A.N. Sherwin-White”, where it appears Habermas has successfully quote-mined him, and Lee Strobel seems to be entirely incorrect in his assertions that his work was meticulous, for example, since Sherwin-White only claimed he considered the topic “briefly and very generally.” (p.186). As Hart claims:
The apologetic abuse of the Oxford professor starts with William Lane Craig. His claim that Sherwin-White “states that for the gospels to be legends, the rate of legendary accumulation would have to be ‘unbelievable’" is at least a gross distortion if not an outright falsehood.
It’s probably about time that apologists stop using Sherwin-White, or at least start reading the original text themselves, rather than taking a point made by Craig, and embellishing it or aggrandising it beyond all original recognition.
Williams (p.229) uses Paul Copan to argue for the reliable oral to written transmission of the Gospels, an argument than can pretty much be applied to the Hadith and Qu’ran, and says nothing about the original truth values of the events that were claimed. Quite how so much speech was recorded and transmitted is beyond comprehension and belief. Such accuracy of speech recording and transmission has not been seen since the New Testament times until the invention of technological recording devices and insinuates the technique of poetic licence. Williams uses Copan and Blomberg to attempt to show veracity of the events of Jesus’ life (and death and afterlife). However, all this really does, at best, is assure that the claims of these events was accurately reported, not whether the events actually happened, especially since it is generally attested that the accounts were not eyewitness testimonies. This seems to be a recurrent problem.
On p.229, Williams (through Copan) makes claims about who Jesus was, or claimed to be, or was claimed to be by others. However, he relies heavily on Matthew, rather than the potentially more accurate Mark. Since all these writers are (by their own admission in some cases) evangelists, it is very difficult teasing out who Jesus claimed he was from who other people claimed he was. This is a subject that requires far more depth than the summary that Williams gives.
Williams finishes this appendix with CS Lewis’ famous trilemma, that Jesus was either a Lord, lunatic or liar as treated by Dawkins. The problem here, as has been pointed out by many, is that this is a false trilemma (dichotomy), and there are other options and shades of options. Austin Cline concludes on this argument:
It isn’t even necessary to go into much detail about alternative possibilities in order to dismiss Lewis’ argument because the options of “liar” and “lunatic” are themselves not refuted by Lewis. It’s clear that Lewis doesn’t regard them as credible, but he doesn’t give good reasons for anyone else to agree — he’s trying to persuade psychologically, not intellectually. There’s no good reason to insist that Jesus isn’t similar to other religious leaders like Joseph Smith, David Koresh, Marshall Applewhite, Jim Jones, and Claude Vorilhon. Are they liars? Lunatics? A bit of both?
Of course, Lewis’ primary goal is to argue against the liberal theological view of Jesus as a great human teacher, but there is nothing contradictory about someone being a great teacher while also being (or becoming) insane or also lying. No one is perfect and Lewis makes an error in assuming from the outset that Jesus’ teaching aren’t worth following unless he is perfect. In effect, then, his infamous false trilemma is based upon the premise of this false dilemma.
The appendix appears to be a very skeletal case for Christ. I am not sure what kind of reader that the whole book, and the appendix, is aimed at. For the philosophically erudite, they would already know the weaknesses of the New Atheists; for the philosophically illiterate, the book is probably too philosophically complex. It is well-written, and from my point of view, pitched perfectly for my readership. However, it does on occasion, seem to be trying to pull the wool over one’s eyes. For the theist, this will go unnoticed, since people are not critical of cognitively harmonious work. I hope for the discerning atheists, there is enough philosophy with which to seriously grapple (there is) but that said atheist has the wherewithal to challenge assumptions and sources used in this, and all other apologist books.
Used in conjunction with footnotes…
Augustine, K., “Divine Command Theory” (http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/theism/divine.html retrieved 25/11/2010)
Craig, W.L. (1994 ; rev. 3rd edition 2008), Reasonable Faith, Wheaton ; Crossway
Everett, D. (2008), ‘Don't Sleep, There are Snakes : Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle’, New York ; Pantheon Books
Lewis, C.S. (1998), Surprised By Joy, London ; Fount
Loftus, J. (ed. 2010), The Christian Delusion, NY ; Prometheus
Pearce, J. (2010), “Does modern cosmology supply the materials that can fill gaps in the traditional arguments for the existence of God?”
Pearce, J. (2010a), Free will? An investigation into whether we have free will, or whether I was always going to write this book, Hampshire ; Ginger Prince Publications
Pigliucci, M., Muller, G. (ed. 2010), Evolution - the Extended Synthesis, Mass ; MIT Press