A Boghossian u-turn

You may recall a few years ago, self-proclaimed street epistemologist, Peter Boghossian mocking those who publish academic papers in philosophy of religion. I wasn’t the only one to seriously question Boghossian on this move either. [1]

ScreenHunter_379 Jun. 15 02.19

It appears that, without any hint of irony or retraction of his previously declared position, that he has himself recently published in the subject of philosophy of religion. Not in one of the bigger journals on the subject but, nonetheless, what would still qualify as being published academically.

the big bog

If I read this situation the way Boghossian reads academics in his ‘A Manual for Creating Atheists’ I might stoop to claiming that Boghossian has blatently contradicted himself and, in doing so, has placed himself (in his own metaphor) as being at the kids’ table. However, since I believe in extending people the principle of charity, I will do my best to interpret the situation as one where Boghossian has outgrown his previous grandiose claims and realised that to mock academic philosophy of religion was completely erroneous. Having realised this was such a Trumpesque twitter soundbite of a moment he has done a u-turn. The only thing which is sad about such u-turns is that some people never actually come out and retract their previous statements and take them back.

How glad we all are Mr Boghossian that you have joined the academic world of philosophy of religion! How sweet the irony I’m sure you must admit! [2]

(I would like to read and review this article but it is currently behind a pay wall. If Mr Boghossian should read this and feel disposed to send me a copy I will happily review it for him.)


[1] https://aremonstrantsramblings.wordpress.com/2014/06/15/peter-boghossian-ostracizing-atheistagnostic-philosophers/

[2] I’m convinced Boghossian loves irony. If you’ve read what I’ve written about his views previously you might note the irony of this small sample of his tweets:




I can only laugh.


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Blaming God for my deconversion?

My thanks to Lydia McGrew for making me aware of a recent piece she wrote on deconversions away from Christianity. Reading it it does sound a little bit like a reply to my post where I explained my own deconversion from Christianity (‘My journey away from Christianity’). This reply will make more sense if you read Lydia’s piece first so here’s the link:


Now I’m obviously not going to defend every deconversion story (I don’t know them all for starters) or even all the ones Lydia had in mind but I will respond to what seems to apply to my own story.

Lydia explains why she does not like the excuse (if it really is such a thing) that a person might say they didn’t want to deconvert but they ended up doing so after struggling with their faith and God did not meet their expectations in some way since it is making God to blame.

I’m not sure what to make of that. I can honestly say I don’t think I’m blaming a being I don’t believe exists (that really would be quite irrational and require more help from a psychologist than a theologian). I became convinced, and still am, that the New Testament (NT) suggests some genuine degree of companionship between God and a follower of his not just in the afterlife but in this life also. Numerous Christian theologians of late have emphasized this by drawing attention to Jesus’ teachings on the Kingdom of Heaven sayings of Jesus (eg. N.T. Wright). I also explained why I thought this was so due to what the NT seems to suggest about the companionship of the Holy Spirit. Even as a Christian I was always a strong believer that God is not our slave and not bound by our orders or whims. Yet, at the same time, I believed in the companionship of God. But as days became weeks and weeks became months and months became years there came a point where I had to admit that I had absolutely no companionship with God at all. And I want to be clear it wasn’t just the experience of that that caused the deconversion. It was reflecting and thinking about it that caused that. I could not reconcile many NT passages with my own experiences. I could not understand the value of a God who is willing to die for us and yet appears to play hide and seek when we need him the most. What good is his presence in heaven where there will be no suffering? The time for it is in this life. And even if God would keep it from us for some mysterious greater good then I think he is asking us to be fideistic about our faith.

So, in brief, I cannot believe in a God who essentially requires us to believe in him in only some academic, rational way and who denies us genuine experiential companionship in this life.

Now, I know, this will leads many Christians to reply that I am requiring God to meet a standard he does not have to. Fair enough. So I am accepting that the fault is mine if that is the case. I’m not blaming God. If it turns out my requirement of God was wrong then I’ll take that on the chin when the time comes. I’m okay with that. I don’t want to be with, or worship, a being who claims to love us and yet who cannot (or will not) be with us in our sufferings. Being with someone like that would not be heaven to me – that would be hell. So, if the Christian God does turn out to be real he will not be punishing me by denying me heaven. He will be saving me from being in the presence of a being whom I hate with all my being. So, if Christianity does turn out to be true, I will not be uttering Bertrand Russell’s immortal words but rather choose my own. I’m not sure I need say anything in fact. God isn’t to blame I just don’t want to be anywhere near him if that’s the God who turns out to exist.

Now, even though I have huge respect for Lydia and the form of Christianity she adheres to, I do take some offense at the charge that my deconversion story is due to having too “childish” a view of the Christian God (as if I’m describing some parody of God Christians really don’t believe in). I am annoyed at that charge because I have spent enough time in churches, Bible Colleges, study groups, talking to top Christian theologians and philosophers, and reading Christian literature to get my criticism spot on. Even though in recent years my church experience had been in charismatic churches most of my years were in non-charismatic, and even anti-charismatic, circles. Even then, the VAST majority of Christians gave testimony to their experiences of God in their lives and how they could see him at work. They talked about God teaching them, comforting them, answering their prayers, and guiding them. Christianity is soaked with such accounts of God at work. A God who is active in the world is the bog standard view of God in Christianity and is not some childish parody. Even in the (almost Plymouth) Brethren church I grew up in talk of God in action in people’s lives was the default view. Now if this view of God is faulty then it appears Christianity is in a very bad position since most of its adherents have misunderstood their own religion and if that is the case that has serious implications for how badly God communicated himself in the Bible.

I know that Lydia would be the first to reject any charge of sounding fidestic in her response and she even says as much. But I think her response is open to that criticism. As Christians are generally quite prone to doing we get offered the God whose thoughts are above our thoughts and whose ways are above our ways. When God doesn’t make sense we have to put it down to our human reasoning limitations. This really does look like fideism is sneaking in through the back door here.

This is not in response to Lydia but, in the last 18 months, I have become interested in how disturbing some Christians find deconversion. This is something they clearly feel they cannot be fideist about. They must explain it. Most opt for the “You’ve not understood my God!” charge (see comments underneath Lydia’s post) which is interesting not least because Christianity has so many differing versions of what God is like for starters. I guess these Christians probably think most Christians throughout history were not real Christians but only the ones in their own little sect. Then you might get the ad hominem charge that your faith was never a genuine one. I laugh at that one. Or you get the ‘poor theology’ charge. This one usually comes from a Christian who has read less theology than Benny Hinn. I like asking such people what the most recent systematic theology is that they’ve read. (They’re unlikely to even know what a systematic theology book looks like!) Some of them haven’t even read the whole of the Bible either! I would suggest Christians get so uppity about deconversions because it resonates with the fact that they themselves have their own doubts and they spend a great deal of time trying not to think about them too much. That someone could have genuinely been a Christian, studied Christian theology deeply, and spent decades in church listening carefully yet walked away from it all bothers them profoundly. Yet, in this case, the fideistic wall filler isn’t enough. Instead we get a barrage of pretty flimsy responses ranging from logical fallacies through to plain old insults. This is why I won’t bother engaging with most Christians in comments sections anymore.

My thanks to Lydia for her piece.

My apologies for not making my reply more sequential. I started that way but it all end up in the mixer!! (Writing it at 3am probably didn’t help either!)

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Led up the garden path by Timothy Keller

Recently I saw a book called Walking with God through Pain and Suffering by Timothy Keller. I readily admit I didn’t read the whole book but, knowing Keller’s penchant for Calvinism, I couldn’t help but read the chapter called The Sovereignty of God.

As you would expect, there are the common explanations that suffering is ultimately the result of human sin (Adam and Eve) but that individual suffering is largely mysterious as to the direct cause (Job).

What is more curious is his use of David Bentley Hart’s book The Doors of the Sea: Where was God in the Tsunami as he tries to explain how suffering is the enemy of God. Firstly because Hart is ardently anti-Calvinist (especially in that book) and secondly because this makes little sense on a Calvinist worldview. How can something God divinely authors and decrees be described as his enemy? Keller, in my opinion, offers us little of a response.

What is even more curious is that Keller gives just two pages to explain compatibilism to his audience. I have already claimed in numerous previous blogs that this is one of the fundamental issues that causes the Calvinist a huge intellectual problem and this is why it is sad to see it treated so very briefly.

In the key paragraph Keller states:

What do we mean, first, when we say that God is sovereign over history and therefore over suffering? The doctrine of the sovereignty of God in the Bible has sometimes been called compatibilism. [227] The Bible teaches that God is completely in control of what happens in history and yet he exercises that control in such a way that human beings are responsible for their freely chosen actions and the result of those actions. Human freedom and God’s direction of historical events are therefore completely compatible. To put it practically and vividly – if a man robs a bank, that moral evil is fully his responsibility, though it also is part of God’s plan.

Walking with God through Pain and Suffering p.140

Keller goes on to assert that this should be understood quite differently to some Islamic and ancient Greek ideas of fate but, if you think about it, it’s pretty tough to see how.

How on earth can God “completely control” (not partially control or merely know in advance) each and every individual action that takes place in the universe and yet still hold such agents fully responsible for their actions? They are doing what he has decreed!

I confess that I love Calvinist analogies and the robber analogy doesn’t disappoint. Now imagine that same man robbed the bank because he was literally forced to by some other agent (person). How on earth can the robbery be his responsibility? Even the most incompetant solicitor would argue for dimished responsibility in this case.

Now here comes the sneaky bit… A few sentences later Keller explains:

God’s plan works through our choices, not around or despite them. Our choices have consequences, and we are never forced by God to do anything – we always do what we most want to do. God works out his will perfectly through our willing actions.

I think Keller has been sneaky here myself. Calling it God’s plan makes it sound more compatible with the man’s action than if he were to admit it was God’s will or decree. Once you call it that it becomes much harder to explain how it could possibly be compatible. It also becomes harder when you remember that God has given us our natures and desires by his own sovereign decree as well. You desire what you desire because God has decreed you will desire it. But Keller is not about to make that clear to his popular Christian audience. Now the robber analogy should make it clear that the robber robs according to his own desire and will but that this desire and predisposition to do such an act has been created by some other agent’s source other than his own so that the other agent’s will is achieved. Keller doesn’t go back to his own analogy to spell this out and it’s no surprise he doesn’t.

Good luck finding a Calvinist who can explain compatibilism… this is where you will be told about divine mysteries and the fallen nature of man’s understanding. The mystery card is played by all people who believe irrational things!


Footnote 227 recommends D.A. Carson and J.I. Packer for further reading on compatibilism. If Keller is in agreement with these two it would indicate he is an inconsistent Calvinist as Jerry Walls puts it. For a refutation of Carson and Packer see:


Posted in Calvinism, Free Will, Theodicy | Tagged , | 4 Comments

To tu quoque or not to tu quoque?

Or I might equally call this: Why pinching an Alvin Plantinga argument to one problem and applying it to another isn’t really good enough!

Those of you who follow the exchange between Arminians and Calvinists will no doubt be aware of the objections against compatibilism. One chief concern with compatibilism (as opposed to the various libertarian accounts of human freedom) is simply to ask why God does not choose more people to ‘freely’ love him (as compatibilists define freedom). This is an argument very well articulated by Jerry Walls so I would suggest listening to his lecture called ‘What’s wrong with Calvinism’ to hear it from a great Arminian philosopher. [1]

Personally, I am yet to hear one single good response to this objection from any Calvinist. In fact, recent responses appear to be admitting that there is to be no rational reply at all and, even more than this, that we ought not expect one either!

In a recent post Calvinist blogger Derek Rishmawy expressed his response. After giving some quotes from Thaddeus Williams’ book ‘Love, Freedom, and Evil’ he summarizes:

“In other words, just because you can’t see a good enough reason for God to call and liberate those that he does and not others, that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have a good enough reason. It’s just one that you can’t see. But you’re not God. You’re not the counter-intuitive Lord of all Creation who chose to redeem the world through assuming human nature, frailty, and the weight of sin and dying on a cross in order to rise to new life. That’s not the sort of thing you would come up with on your own. So maybe, just maybe, God’s ways in salvation are going to be a bit beyond us. That doesn’t mean they’re not true, though.” [2]

This is Rishmawy’s explanation of what Williams calls the “cognitive gap” response. Williams is borrowing this response from Alvin Plantinga’s classic response to the logical problem of evil where Plantinga points out that one would have to know that there is no good or just reason for God to allow for suffering and evil in the world before logically concluding that God does not exist (as per Epicurus and Hume).

So Williams and Rishmawy appear to be claiming they can use this to answer this problem (which Williams calls the “sparcity objection”).

What they appear to have missed in Plantinga’s argument is that he did not stop there. He then proceded to provide a logically valid hypothesis for why there might be suffering and evil in the world (the classic argument from free will). Now I notice that Williams (at least so far as Rishmawy summarizes him) and Rishmawy don’t do this. Instead they end up envoking mystery as a virtue in the face of an extremely perplexing problem which seems to be in direct conflict with the God revealed in the Bible (as Calvinists claim to believe in). Plantinga’s response works precisely because he shows that there are reasonable responses to the logical problem of evil and conditions, under which, suffering might make some sense. In doing so he demonstrates that there is not necessarily any such logical contradiction in affirming God’s omnipotence, his omnibenevolence, and the existence of suffering and evil. He shows that the three affirmations do not contain a logical contradiction at all. These Calvinists appear to be doing no such thing with their mere appeal to mystery and cognitive distance between humans and God.

We all know that arguments from intuition can have their problems but are arguments which glory in their counter-intuitiveness to be given an uncritical welcome? It sure sounds like some Calvinists glory in such. Notice that God is now emphasized as the “counter-intuitive Lord” where I guess we just have to admit that our ways are not his ways.

So God loves all human beings (feel free to cite your favourite biblical verse) yet he chooses only a very small percentage to save? And yet when we ask why the reply is that we cannot understand God sufficiently to answer this question. These Calvinists often write endless multi-volume systematic theologies on how God has made it possible to know about the nature of the Trinity, the two natures of Christ (among many other highly complex Christological matters), God’s communicable attributes and his incommunicable attributes, the essential nature of humans, sin, atonement, miracles, and the resurrection ad infinitum. All these complex theological problems can be answered rationally so say the Calvinists albeit with some differences of opinion. But when it comes to a simple question a child might well ask as to why God chooses so few for salvation they have to “punt to mystery” (to borrow from Jerry Walls).

I also do not think that either Rishmawy or Williams have really seen the force of this argument. Certainly not the way in which Jerry Walls presents it. As he has said:

“Now consider how difficult it is to make sense of such passages [Walls has been looking at biblical passages where God pleads with people to repent and expresses saddness at their unwillingness to do so] if a compatibilist view of freedom is assumed. On this assumption God has determined his people to refuse to repent, for whatever people willingly do is what they have been determined to do. Moreover, God could, if he wanted to, cause his people to gladly turn from their sins and to joyously worship him. He could do this by causing them to have the appropriate desires so they would willingly repent and obey him. But if God has chosen not to do this, what do we make of his apparent desire that his people repent? What do we make of his sending his prophets over and over if the people can’t really repent, given that God has determined them to remain hard-hearted and unwilling to repent?”

‘Why I am not a Calvinist’ by Jerry Walls and Joseph Dongell pp.117,8

It is not just that we have a mystery here. Instead we have a theology which simply no longer makes any sense of the biblical narrative. God is single-handedly (monergistically) responsible for the hard hearts of unrepentant people and yet he endlessly expresses his frustration at this and even saddness when they fail to repent. This is a complete logical contradition. How can God genuinely want the unrepentant to repent and yet be monergistically in control of whether they repent or not? The Calvinist philosopher Paul Helm made a very astute observation when he critiqued Jim Packer’s Calvinism where he used the word antinomy to refer to mysteries in the face of such problems. Helm asks that if we resort to mystery in the face of a logical contradiction then how do we know the difference between a real contradiction and an apparent contradiction? [3] Exactly the same ought to be asked of Williams and Rishmawy. But then perhaps their reply would be the same as Calvinist Edwin Palmer when he said:

“He [the Calvinist] realizes that what he advocates is ridiculous… The Calvinist freely admits that his position is illogical, ridiculous, nonsensical, and foolish.”

‘The Five Points of Calvinism’ p.85

No doubt feeling a little guilty of punting to mystery, Rishmawy’s retort to such a practice was to point out that we all appeal to mystery at some point in our thinking. Hence the title of this post. Not content with appeals to mystery, we now have the use of a logical fallacy to support it! It is not a virtue to point out that others have problems in their worldviews as a justification for the existence of my own. The reason for that ought to be obvious. If that were a legitimate argument then you could make any worldview virtuous on this basis and preclude it from rational scrutiny. That way lies complete madness.

I would also point out that appeals to mystery by Christians seriously undermines their classical approach to evaluating other religions as not true. Christians will often appeal to logical problems in other religions in order to attempt to demonstrate the superiority of Christianity but if Christians persist with this mystery / cognitive gap approach to the knowledge of God then should they not give such a luxuary to others as well? Would a Christian find it convincing if a Hindu believed in many gods and one god at the same time? Surely they would want to reason with them. They should either accept Advaita Vedanta or some form of monotheism. But what if they tell the Christian that just because such concepts do not make sense logically doesn’t mean to say that both cannot be true at the same time? This is often the solution to the problem of god(s) being personal or ultimately impersonal as well. Where would the Christian go with these discussions now? I have talked to many Buddhists about the rationality of their worldview and often they will simply smile. They are not being patronizing (I don’t think) but rather their smile suggests that human reason is not capable of sufficiently causing them to doubt their beliefs or the teachings of the Buddha. If reason be usurped by appeals to mystery then why should Christians (or more specifically Calvinists) be the only ones to get a ‘get-out-of-logic-free’ card with this kind of strategy?

This modern-day mystical Calvinism, if taken to its logical conclusion, offers nothing but a gaping black hole epistemologically.

But then, perhaps there is a problem of cognitive distance between the divine and ourselves? That might start explaining why Christians can interpret their scriptures in such different and opposing ways on so many important issues? If Christians took this problem of cognitive distance a bit more seriously then perhaps they might end up being more inclusive and sympathetic to other religious views on what constitutes the divine and be less pedantic that their revelation is the only one which counts? Just a thought!

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Daomzm3nyIg

Also my blog summary and notes on the lecture: https://aremonstrantsramblings.wordpress.com/2013/11/23/whats-wrong-with-calvinism/

[2] http://derekzrishmawy.com/2015/08/10/calvinism-and-the-problem-of-evil-or-dealing-with-the-sparsity-objection/

[3] ‘The Providence of God’ by Paul Helm pp. 61-65

Posted in Calvinism, Epistemology, Free Will | Tagged , , | 9 Comments

Is Boghossian still precontemplative?

A recent tweet I made actually provoked a response from the, almost infamous, Peter Boghossian:

ScreenHunter_01 Aug. 19 12.21

In the link I had provided some good evidence, from scholarly sources no less, correcting Boghossian’s mistaken (or perhaps I should say made up?) historical etymology of the Greek word ἔλεγχος.

Both in his book and in a lecture he claims there was some huge semantic change in the meaning of the word when used in the New Testament as opposed to more classical Greek. He made such a claim without any evidence whatsoever. He did not cite one single scholarly, or even a more popular, source that supported this claim. Nothing.

As I have said, I made the correction using scholarly literature.

In reply Boghossian appears to want my correction published in a peer-reviewed journal! Now this is hilarious for many reasons. Peer reviewed journals don’t tend to publish articles stating the bloody obvious! Peer review journals also don’t tend to publish articles written to correct claims of non-specialists that are completely unfounded and which agree with the already agreed scholarly consensus. An article that is simply pointing out a mistake that someone has not done their homework and looked up the meaning of a word properly is not going to make it to peer review.

I think, very likely, Boghossian knows this and that is why he has made the request. It is so he can avoid having to look at the evidence. On this matter it is quite unambiguous. He only needs to read my response and either apologize for his mistake or he needs to show that the scholarly literature is wrong and he is right (which is something which would interest a publishing journal in Greek language studies!).

I would also like to note the irony of such a request as well. Has Peter Boghossian got anything published in peer reviewed journals on the subject of philosophy of religion? Last time I checked he has not. Did he not go straight to writing a popular level book on the subject? Does this mean we can just ignore all his arguments in his book and instead wait until he got some of them peer reviewed? Well, according to Peter, that’s how we should have reacted. The hypocrisy here is really quite staggering. As well as bearing the hallmarks of precontemplation he also appears to have some serious issues with consistency and coherence.

My Twitter replies:

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Unfortunately Boghossian is unlikely to see them because he currently has me blocked! So much for dialogue eh Peter?

ScreenHunter_03 Aug. 19 12.46


And if you want a really good giggle…

Posted in Street Epistemology | Tagged | 4 Comments

My journey away from Christianity

My testimony is no doubt quite similar to many modern-day evangelical Christians. When I was ten years of age I became a Christian at a Billy Graham rally in my home town. However my Christian journey did not really become really real for me until I was 18 and went to a Bible College. This is where I was baptized. I then did a further 5 years at Bible College and University studying theology and gaining my post-graduate certificate in education. If I count the years I was serious about my Christian faith they run from 18 to 40. 22 years! No small journey I think it’s fair to say. Christianity has not been a small part of my life. It has consumed my life and I have devoted a huge amount of my life to it.

My journey away from Christianity centered around two primary concerns:

1. The silence of God.
2. The contrary and diverse teachings of the church (God’s inability to communicate effectively enough to resolve some pretty important questions Christians still debate).

The first takes priority in terms of weight for me personally but the second has been a concern for much longer. The first is primarily experiential. The second is an argument which I think is highly problematic for, not only Christians, but all religious traditions which assert infallible and exclusive divine communication.

Let me first say that my journey has not taken me away from theism. I still believe in some sort of God and perhaps that God is even personal (so I do not yet qualify as a deist yet either) but I do not believe this God involves himself in the affairs of humanity on this planet. In that sense I might be called a deist to some degree.

The evangelical churches I have always been involved with have very much stressed the ongoing, and sometimes meticulous, involvement of God in his creation. Not only does this God do things but he also speaks frequently and beyond what the Bible says. This led me to a crisis in my faith during the year 2014 when I was diagnosed with a brain aneurysm. My primary problem was not that God did not miraculously heal it or that he did not take any of the pain away throughout that year as I suffered daily chronic headaches (and which I still suffer from now). It was not that I was left with mental health issues subsequent to the brain surgery. It was not that my health may possibly never be the same again. I am genuinely willing to accept the suffering for what it is. Huge numbers of human beings suffer and many have it much worse than I. The problem was his silence.

Many times I begged God to speak to me. Even just a single word. Something I would know was not a creation of my own mind whether conscious or subconscious. So many Christian preachers I listened to would tell with great frequency how God was talking to them or to people in their congregations all the time and sometimes over what many would consider to be the most trivial of matters (I remember one example being God telling a person what to put on their toast). Some of these preachers seem to be in conversation with God every waking moment of the day! So why does God not speak to someone crying out, literally, in such pain and desperation? What is the value of God talking to all these people who are well when the sick are ignored? (I don’t want to broaden this into an argument so much as express my experience so I will ignore the broader questions for now.)

In my most desperate moments of physical and mental agony, depression, and loneliness God was not there. I was rescued from suicidal thoughts by my family and a very good psychologist. I know some Christians will assert that he was there (in some sense behind it all) but I am afraid he was not there in any proper or real sense of that term for me.There was no sense of companionship, friendship, or experience of the one called “the comforter” in the New Testament. And if there is to be absolutely no relational value in being a Christian then I seriously question the value of believing it. So perhaps God doesn’t continually chat with these other Christians either and they are projecting onto God what their conscious mind expresses? But even if that is the case that helps very little since God is still silent. It just makes it even more painful to realize that huge numbers of Christians are deluding themselves into thinking God is talking with them continuously when in fact he is not. The companionship which the New Testament appears to talk about was simply not there. So what is the point of all this noetic belief if that’s all my Christianity is (was)? What kind of God has no relational component to offer in this life?

Christians love to use the father analogy for God. But what father would do that to his child especially if he has all the means to be alongside them at that moment? Certainly no decent father would distance himself at such a time. I cannot bring myself to believe in a God who is so clearly absent at the moment I needed him most. (And don’t get me started on the ‘Footprints’ poem!!) If the Christian God does exist and he does communicate with people then my spiritual antenna (as one of my Christian friends put it) is clearly broken.

What I do know is that if my son was in unbearable pain and desperation and was sitting begging for me to comfort him in such a moment of desperation, and it were in my power to comfort him, I would!

I do think this could be broadened into an argument but that’s not the point right here and now. I am very far from being the greatest sufferer in the world so don’t get me wrong as I don’t want to sound like that. When you spend as much time as I have in the last two years in and around hospitals you begin to realize just how fortunate you are more than how unfair it is that you are sick. But those other people must give their own experiences and make their own arguments. Some of them will say that God was there for them. I am less concerned with judging that. I can only give my own personal experience.

My journey is not over but it has taken a turn I had not expected!

My second point is an argument against all revelational forms of theism and I shall make it in an upcoming post. I think this argument is potent and often gets overlooked far too quickly.

PS. I still stand by the vast majority of what I have said in previous posts. I still think the likes of Carrier, Dawkins, and Boghossian are laughable commentators on theological and philosophical matters and I shall therefore leave all such posts right where they are! I do continue to think that the only rational form of Christianity is one which allows for libertarian free will and that Calvinism is highly irrational and to be treated with contempt. On such matters I hope to be able to keep writing.

Thanks for reading!


I would like to respond to some of the questions which Christians have asked me regarding this piece. Some have asked what right I have for seeking such an experience of God in this life. Some appear to think I am unjustified in seeking such a relationship with God as if it were unbiblical. Christians who are less charismatic appear to be suggesting that we ought not expect any experiential element to our Christian walk. Someone suggested I listen to a sermon by J.P. Moreland (video below) which I did. He describes times in his own life when he has found God to be silent. However he also sets out a biblical bases for why we ought to expect to hear God’s voice experientially. His view is:

“The Bible does indeed tell us that we can expect God to speak to us.”

He begins by citing Philippians 3:15:

“All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you.” (NIV)

Paul is talking about having maturity in growing as a Christian and seems to be suggesting that God will make it clear to a person when they are not on the right path. I don’t ever recall such an experience in the last 22 years of being a Christian. I say that with complete honesty. Not once. No doubt I would have been on the wrong path on many occasions but never once did I experience this.

He also stresses that God still speaks to people today as he spoke to them in the Bible. He stresses this might be a lot more subtle than hearing an audible voice which is fair enough I think. He encourages people to be discerning in this matter. Now this is all well and good but I don’t honestly recall having any experience of this either.

He says that God speaks though prophecy. I can think of three specific occasions when people have given me such ‘words’ and none of the three ‘words’ came to pass. Two of them cannot possibly come true in the future either. On one of the occasions a certain preacher tried to push me over so I would fall to the ground. Since I didn’t fall he pushed me twice as hard. Again I did not fall over since I did not wish to simulate something that was happening to me.

He also says we should expect for Christians to see visions and dreams. I’ve had neither to my knowledge. I had a dream many years ago that England would beat Germany at football (real football not American ‘football’!) by a score of 5-1. The next day this actually happened. Did I think this was from God? Of course not. He says that God speaks through ideas and feelings (Nehemiah 2:17) but how do I know that’s God and not me? He suggests a period of trial and error but that’s the exact same process I use to discern my own good ideas and bad ideas! He also says it will feel like it’s coming from ‘outside’ rather than bubbling up from the inside. I cannot relate to that either. He says that some Christians get angelic visitations. Needless to say I’ve never had such an experience! He says another way is a person getting a pre-linguistic sense of something. But I know countless non-religious people who get these same experiences as well. All human beings get such ‘senses’ of something to do or say which seems to come from somewhere outside themselves.

Moreland concludes that while it is usual for Christians to get periods of silence but that there should be parts of our Christian journey where it is clear that God is communicating to us. This is why I have walked away. Such clear experiences of God communicating have not happened in my experience. I do not have some “romantic” notion of the Christian God (as one commentator claimed) but the same idea of a relational God that Christians have classically believed in.

When I was a Christian I would have explained this away probably by suggesting that such a person is not genuine or sincere in their search for God but I cannot doubt my own sincerity. I know (as much as I can know anything at all) that my journey was a genuine one. I think Moreland’s message convinces me that I ought to feel justified to conclude that, at least for myself, God is indeed completely silent. You cannot love someone who is, to all intents and purposes, not there in any discernible way!

This is a programme worth watching. Derren Brown shows how some Christian preachers use some very underhanded means to give prophetic words and give an appearance that God is giving them knowledge they could not possibly have otherwise. I don’t think this accounts for all such experiences but it’s clear that some preachers are up to some dodgy stuff:


This blog recently received a reply which I would like to address specifically. It comes from a blogger called Triablogue. Here it is in full (link below):

i) I think there’s extensive, compelling evidence for a God who is active in human affairs. But the pattern of God’s activity is perplexing.
ii) Suppose, for the sake of argument, that the God of Arminian theism is nicer than the God of Reformed theism. Problem is, having a nice God on paper doesn’t make real life any nicer.
You can say all the warm and winsome things about God that Arminians are wont to say. You can contrast that with the “stern” God of Calvinism. But as this erstwhile Arminian blogger discovered from painful personal experience, the loving, fatherly “relational” God of Arminian theology is a paper God. A God that only exists in the mind of the Arminian. A verbal construct. You can say the Calvinist God is harsh or “morally monstrous.” You can contrast the Calvinist God with what you deem to be the superior character of the Arminian God. But switching from Calvinism to Arminianism doesn’t make the world any different. Believing in a nicer God doesn’t make the world a kinder gentler place than believing in a “harsh” God.
In the Arminian lodge, you have hot chocolate and chestnuts roasting on an open fire. But when you have to get up and go outside, the dark arctic bast slaps you in the face. The world you must live in everyday is just the same whether you’re Arminian or Calvinist. Believing in a softhearted God does nothing to soften the world. It changes nothing. The toasty, climate-controlled environment of Arminian theology doesn’t survive exposure to the elements. It fosters expectations that are dashed by brutal experience. The glib, fact-free bromides of a Jerry Walls didn’t prepare him for his ordeal. Reality is unforgiving.
I would just like to say, I’m surprised it took this long for an unsympathetic Calvinist to turn up and gloat at this post. I was expecting it a lot earlier to be honest.
Regarding i) it’s a real shame such “compelling” evidence appears to be so uncompelling even to very sincere truth-seekers! But then the typical Calvinist reply to this is to suggest such people are not really sincere in their searching for God which is, of course, a classic ad hominem. This blogger may feel there is compelling evidence for such activity but I wonder what he/she would list? Patterns in toast, funny feelings, weird dreams, that one person survived a plane crash when the other 244 passengers died, things which could be mere concidence, or appeals to what we cannot yet explain? I think the confession that such activity is “perplexing” is an admission that the case is maybe not as compelling as he/she first thought!
ii) I would have thought that any careful reader of my post would have noticed, my concern was not with the character of God as described in classic Christian theism. It was not about whether God is ‘nice’ or not in human terms. That had nothing whatsoever to do with my deconversion. My only expectations were for a relationship with God the kind of which the New Testament describes and Calvinists and Arminians see that pretty much the same I’d say. But of course I can see why this blogger has chosen to distort it this way. This blogger must also think there cannot be evangelical Arminians since the God of evangelical Arminianism is far from “softhearted” as they usually adhere to the doctrine of punishment after death and they hold to the judgement described as being done by God in the Bible. But this oft-used parody of the God of Arminianism is just that. This Calvinist almost wants to boast of the seemingly horrid kind of God he/she believes in! It’s almost as if the more horrible God appears to us the better he must be!
My thanks to the person blogging for pointing out that the world is a harsh place. That is a very welcome reminder. Having been in daily chronic pain for almost two years I needed to be reminded of that just in case I had forgotten!
This kind of response from a Calvinist reveals, I think, their very fatalistic approach to apologetics and relationships. This blogger must think that his/her total lack of empathy can have no adverse affect whatsoever. After all, should I change my mind it will have everything to do with God and nothing to do with him or her.
One last observation I would make is that the responses from Arminians has always been one of sympathy but responses from Calvinists have been mixed. A few have been sympathetic but there have been a few who have either completely ignored me or been really very cold in their response (both online and in person). I suppose those are the ones who are being more consistent in displaying what the Calvinist God is like? The love of the Christ they believe in is shining through. Well done to them!
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Terry Virgo – leg lengthening miracle or parlour trick?

It was as a child that I became fascinated with magic. I remember being completely mesmerized by David Copperfield and his incredible ability at sleight of hand. Even as a child I knew I was being deceived but that was part of the fun. I wanted to be deceived. Trying to work out how he did his tricks was enjoyable.

As I have got older my love of magic has been joined by an outrage for those who use magic and mentalism to attempt to convince people they have special powers that they know fully well they do not have. There are a good many people out there claiming to be psychic or able to have supernatural knowledge about other people who are merely abusing techniques that are well known by professional magicians, can be performed much better by professional magicians, and which have a very natural explanation. This deception also extends into the Christian church without doubt.

One person I have long respected for exposing such practices is the British magician and mentalist Derren Brown. In recent years Brown has regularly exposed frauds due to his professional expertise, knowledge, and careful research. You could say he is Britain’s answer to James Randi. DerrenBrowncSeamusRyan7-1024x770If there are Christian leaders caught using such techniques then it seems fair that they should be publicly challenged and that is the intention here. Terry Virgo is a well known Christian preacher and church planter in the charismatic tradition here in the UK. You can find out more about him here:

Wikipedia – Terry Virgo  10464375_901175099899984_1716624247018436600_n

I am not claiming to know for certain, or to have proven beyond doubt, that Terry Virgo performed nothing more than a visual deception. I do, however, encourage you to carefully compare the two video clips below.

First I would like you to watch this clip from the Derren Brown’s expose called ‘Miracles for Sale.’ This was a programme where Brown trains a non-religious person to become a fake Christian miracle healer using lots of showmanship. This particular clip is where Brown explains how to give the illusion that a leg has been lengthened.

Now I would like you to compare Brown’s tutorial with this clip of Terry Virgo supposedly healing a man’s leg by lengthening it.

If you watch the second video back carefully and pick a mark on the carpet behind the man’s left shoe you can actually see that it is the left shoe that is being pushed back rather than the man’s right leg being lengthened (as Virgo is praying out loud for). This would strongly suggest that we have an example of the shoe on the normal leg being pushed in rather than the short leg being lengthened. The evidence certainly suggests to me that this was not a miracle healing but a visual trick. This would also explain why the gentleman in question appeared to be unaware of the difference in length between his feet (which appears more than a little odd) and also his apathy at having been ‘healed.’ If you listen to their conversation we are being asked to believe that the man being healed was completely unaware of a one inch difference in the length of his legs! I find it hard to take that seriously.

If it can be demonstrated that this was not a sleight of hand magic trick then I will remove this post and I will write a retraction and a full apology. Until I see evidence to the contrary I am afraid the evidence suggests this is not a genuine healing. Worse than that it appears to be a deliberate and premeditated attempt to fool people into thinking a healing took place when that was not the case.

As the theologian Roger Olson has said:

“I never believed in “leg lengthening ministry.” Can God heal a short leg to make it normal? I don’t doubt it. Does he give that gift to certain healing evangelists? Are there thousands of people being healed in that manner in charismatic healing revivals? I don’t believe it. Never have.”

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The prosperity gospel is alive and well in the UK

nf-logo-dropshadow My personal experience of church in the UK is almost entirely within evangelicalism and so I readily admit my criticism is selective and it is only my experience. Furthermore this piece is only about one particular form of that evangelicalism.

I had, until recently, been a member of a New Frontiers (NF) church for about four years. In addition to the obvious flirtation with Calvinism, the obsession with a very small amount of Christian leaders such as Terry Virgo, John Piper and Mark Driscoll (at least before his downfall), some weird ideas about apostles, and the bias toward in-house trained young male leaders there was a teaching I never managed to believe and now I have left it is one which makes me cringe. Actually it’s worse than that; it makes me angry.

As with most evangelicals in the UK NF would no doubt reject the typical brand of prosperity gospel represented and easily found on various Sky television channels. The idea that simply giving money will cause you to be blessed or to be healed I never found in NF. But I still think NF is influenced by this kind of thinking and this is how it presents itself.

NF will regularly ask its members to give their testimonies of how God has ‘provided’ for them. This could take the form of physical healing or some more general answer to prayer. Testimonies typically focus on how the person was financially struggling but that how ‘giving it over to God’, or giving money to the church which one really could not sensibly afford to, resulted in their financial blessing. The other typical example is physical healing. Testimonies abound of people being prayed for and healed and yet it’s very hard to hear testimonies of people who have not. If you want your video testimony to be recorded and placed on their websites it really needs to be a story with a ‘miraculous’ ending.

From someone who has spent a significant amount of time within NF I have to admit that the impression you end up with is that in order to fit in with the main body of the church you need to be having some amazing positive experience of God blessing you in one of these two ways. If you don’t have some such story then it’s more than likely that, like myself, you will end up feeling like an outsider.

I wonder what poor Christians would think of this kind (culture) of church? I mean Christians who are really poor. Ones who are starving to death daily. Ones who lack basic housing. Ones who lack basic health care. What kind of ‘god’ helps western Christians who are nowhere near poverty in these realms and yet appears to abandon millions of others even to the point where they literally die from their poverty? Can the church not see how utterly absurd such a notion is?If that is the God of Christianity then it may be that I will have to conclude that is not the God I believe in anymore.

Some may think I raise these issues out of personal bitterness or jealousy (especially since my experience is that I have not been healed) and perhaps there is a small element of that but this in no way invalidates my point. Whatever your response it cannot be written off with an ad hominem!

Where is the church where being poor in spirit, poor in health, and poor in finances makes you feel like you belong?

The poor are a by-product of the system in which we live and for which we are responsible. They are marginalized by our social and cultural world. They are the oppressed, exploited proletariat, robbed of the fruit of their labor and despoiled of their humanity. Hence the poverty of the poor is not a call to generous relief action, but a demand that we go and build a different social order.

Gustavo Gutierrez

Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments

Peter Boghossian seeks new vocation

Peter Boghossian must be seeking a new job. He has recently joined a very tiny, niche, and widely ignored group who are calling for academic philosophy of religion to be withdrawn from secular universities. [1] 

This seems a little odd since Boghossian teaches sophomore-level philosophy of religion in a secular university himself. [2]


Surely if one seriously thought that philosophy of religion should not be being taught in secular universities one would not be teaching it in a secular university? If he got his wish, that would be the end of his ‘introduction to atheism’ classes at Portland State University!


[1] I’m Calling For An End to the Philosophy of Religion As A Discipline In Secular Universities

The intimidating list of academics (I am being sarcastic) calling for this change appear to be: Richard Dawkins, Peter Boghossian, John Loftus, and Jerry Coyne!

I have written more on this subject here: Peter Boghossian ostracizing atheist/agnostic philosophers

Could it be that these four men are so widely ignored by professional philosophers of religion that they are on this quest? I did ask Graham Oppy if he would be responding to Loftus’s response to his video interview on philosophy of religion and he said he would not be. Too busy writing good books on philosophy of religion probably!

Following some of Peter’s links makes things even more confusing. Notice this screenshot:

ScreenHunter_398 Aug. 01 15.35

Peter recommends a ‘Secular Studies programme’ instead of philosophy of religion and asks us to look up the ‘Pitzer’s program’. Funny things is – if you do that guess what you find being taught on that course? Yes, that’s right – some philosophy of religion!!!

ScreenHunter_399 Aug. 01 15.40

[2] If anyone should be in doubt about that have a look at Peter’s schedule and required reading for his ‘Atheism PHL 365U 001’ course:


Anyone who knows the subject well will also spot his bias toward New Atheism and the lack of reading he requires his students to do from theist philosophers. It’s certainly an odd philosophy of religion course which requires students to read so many people who are not published in the subject as well. In fact, he virtually ignores all the atheist, agnostic and theistic philosophers one would consider compulsory reading in a philosophy of religion course in favour of reading lots of Sam Harris and his own book (which no other university that I know of uses as a standard textbook on the subject!).

In fact, after seeing his syllabus and clips of him teaching at Portland, I am not usre he could get away with this course in many universities. I don’t know how it can be considered good practice for the lecturer to be very clearly trying to convert his students into his own conclusions on the matter. I would certainly fear the objectivity of his marking!


PS. I have recently been blocked by Peter Boghossian on Twitter. While I attempt to get over this hugely distressing moment in my life I do wonder what his reason was. I was never rude to him and never said anything about him as a person. I have only ever asked some difficult questions about his street epistemology. It does seem rather odd since he is such an advocate (so he says) for engaging with one’s critics. First I was ignored. Now I am banned. Interesting approach for interacting with one’s critics Peter.

ScreenHunter_397 Aug. 01 13.44

Posted in Atheism, Atheist apologists, Education, Street Epistemology | Tagged | 11 Comments

God in the Old Testament

This is a response to ‘from synapse to byte’s’ [STB] article ‘Scrapping Morality’ found here.

Complaints regarding certain passages, especially in the Old Testament, have been a matter of heated debate on the internet in recent years. None more so than passages regarding certain case laws and moral actions found in the historical narratives and legal sections of the Old Testament. One reason I have not written on this topic before is because there are already so many good replies already in existence (far superior to this one as well – I will provide some links at the bottom for suggestions) but also because there is nowhere near the same level of scandal among academics. The claim that these passages cause Judaism / Christianity such a huge problem they cannot possibly overcome their implications is almost entirely a popularist one. However, since this article was recommended to me by the writer of it I would like to explain why I don’t find his complaints to be seriously problematic.

The first complaint he makes is his idea that a personal being cannot be the proper grounding for an objective morality because a person’s claims are subjective and therefore cannot properly ground an objective truth (true analytically a priori). STB has not given a definition of ‘objective moral values’ (and doesn’t do so properly in the entire article strangely enough) so I’m concerned he’s defining this in a way philosophers would not since the belief that God can be the proper grounding for objective moral values is not contrary to how professional philosophers define objective moral values. Objective moral values are referred to as a view called moral realism in philosophy. Take a couple of definitions by top-level philosophers:

“Moral realism is the theory that moral judgements enjoy a special sort of objectivity: such as judgements, where true, are so independently of what any human being, anywhere, in any circumstance whatever, thinks of them.”

 (Russ Shafer-Landau – ‘Moral Realism – A Defense’ p.2)

“Realism holds that moral judgements can be true or false, that sometimes they are true and that what makes them true is independent from people’s (or groups of people’s) beliefs, judgements or desires.”

(Andrew Fisher – Metaethics: An Introduction’ p.77)

“Moral realists are those who think that, in these respects, things should be taken at face value—moral claims do purport to report facts and are true if they get the facts right. Moreover, they hold, at least some moral claims actually are true. That much is the common (and more or less defining) ground of moral realism.”

(Geoff Sayre-McCord – Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy article on Moral Realism, 2009)

So the question is whether God’s character can be an appropriate grounding for moral values and yet they can be objective. The obvious answer is yes. The view that morals are objective is merely that there is some reason for thinking moral values can be factually right or wrong on the basis of some factor. It’s actually an equivocation to use the word ‘subject’ to refer to the basis of that objectivity as the personality of God. Of course God is a ‘subject’, in the sense of being a person, but it is not God’s belief that certain moral actions are wrong which make them wrong but rather his nature (his essential character). This would be why all three of these philosophers cited would have no problem with God being a logically possible grounding for objective moral values.  This is why Shafer-Landau contrasts them with “human being[s]” and Fisher with “people’s beliefs.” Therefore, to attempt to make the case that God’s character cannot be a legitimate grounding for objective moral values is either to be using the phrase objective moral values differently from professional philosophers or to be equivocating on the word ‘subject’. After all, if that were the case then any objective truth claim made by a person would be ‘subjective’ in the sense that it’s being made by a subject. But an objective truth claim made by a ‘subject’ (in that sense) does not make the truth of the statement ‘subjective’ (in the sense of not being objectively true). If that were the case then anyone claiming 2+2=4 could not make the claim it is objectively true! I seriously doubt STB is claiming there are no facts of any kind made by persons which can be objectively true which is why this criticism is confused (not to mention self-defeating since the claim appears to claim objectivity and yet it’s perpetrated by a person/subject!).

Then STB turns his attention to the claim that the source of morality could possibly be the Abrahamic God. He says:

“This incoherent concept of this subjective objectivity as the foundation of morality reaches absurdity when we add to the mix the actual moral decrees made by the Abrahamic god. A consistent moral law-giver might deserve some respect, but a cursory look at the ever-changing whims of the biblical god makes this god appear as objective as a 3-year-old in a candy shop.”

So his complaint appears to be that Yahweh (the Abrahamic God) has inconsistent and changing moral values over time. He then cites three examples: rape, slavery, and genocide.

The first thing to point out is that anyone can hold to objective moral values and still think that different moral actions are right moral actions in differing circumstances. In short, moral realists do not have to hold to moral absolutism. Moral absolutism is the view that there is only ever one moral response to a certain situation (eg. “Abortion is always wrong”). But one would still be considered a moral realist (again, by the definitions professional philosophers use) if one thought that abortion is always wrong unless it takes place before the eighth week. That is still to have a belief about the factual rightness or wrongness of abortion and so constitutes a moral realist view. So STB needs to be more careful not to imply that any circumstantial change to a moral value does not imply a rejection of moral realism because it’s not. To reject moral realism would be to argue that there can never be any situation where there is a right or wrong moral action and clearly no theist holds that view.

His essentially argument of inconsistency boils down to arguing:

1. Those who hold to objective morality must believe moral commands can never change.

2. Theists claim to hold to objective morality.

3. Theists believe moral commands can change.


C. Theists are internally inconsistent.

The obvious problem is the fallacious definition found in premise 1. Because it’s based on an incorrect understanding of what theists actually believe the argument is obviously invalid (it’s a straw man in other words).

Let us briefly take on these three examples however:

1. STB cites Judges 21:10-22 as evidence that Yahweh once thought that rape is morally permissible. This is a part of the narrative where more than four hundred virgins from Jabesh-gilead are taken for the men of the tribe of Benjamin. It is a shame that STB does not interact with any biblical scholarship at this point since if he had he would have noticed why this is a very bad passage to use for what he wants. For a start there is nothing said by Yahweh in Judges 21 which makes the case look very shoddy. Worse than that, however, is the ending of the story where the writer comments, after telling the story:

“In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”

Judges 21:25

So not only is there no mention of Yahweh affirming what Benjamin did at this point in the narrative there is actually a strong denouncement of what they did immediately after telling what happened.

As the professor of Old Testament, David T. Lamb states on this chapter:

“The perspective of the text toward the men who committed the gang rape in Judges in highly negative, and the outrage of the men of Israel against the perpetrators of this heinous crime leads to civil war (Judges 19-21)… The Bible includes numerous examples of violent behaviour, but we shouldn’t assume that simply because these stories are included in the Old Testament that the behaviour is being condoned.”

David T. Lamb God behaving badly p.94

So not only does STB fail to note that the text itself condemns the actions recorded in Judges 21 but he also fails to notice that this action by the tribe of Benjamin caused the remaining tribes of Israel to go to civil war against Benjamin in protest to what they were doing.

Quite clearly this passage does not vindicate what STB thinks it does – in fact it does quite the opposite.

2. STB’s second example is slavery. He proposes that Abrahamic religions will today condemn slavery whereas in the OT Yahweh condones such a thing (Leviticus 25:44-46).

Despite this claim, however, there is quite a significant amount of scholarship which has argued that what we call slavery today is a very different phenomenon from the ‘slavery’ (many prefer to call it ‘voluntary servitude’ or ‘bonded service’) of the OT. A great many OT scholars have pointed this out [1] but STB again fails to interact with any of them which makes his case rather dubious. Here is the OT scholar Christopher J.H. Wright:

“First, slavery in relatively small societies like Israel was qualitatively vastly different from slavery in the large imperial civilizations… We must put out of our mind pictures such as the Roman gallery slaves of ‘Ben Hur’, or the neck-irons, slave-ships and sugar plantations of modern black slavery when we read the word ‘slave’ in the Old Testament. It is not even the most helpful translation of the word ‘ebed, which basically meant a bonded worker, and in some circumstances could be a term of high office when applied to royal servants. In the pastoral-agricultural society of Israel slaves were largely residential, domestic workers. In many cases they would have been debtors working off their debt through bonded labour to their creditor. Secondly, slavery in the Old Testament was not simply tolerated with a ‘rubber stamp’ of uncritical approval. Aspects of Old Testament thought and practice in this area virtually ‘neutralized’ slavery as an institution and sowed the seeds of its radical rejection in much later Christian thinking. Certainly these aspects, to which we now turn, made Israel unquestionably unique in the ancient world in its attitude to slavery. This is a fact unanimously acknowledged by ancient Near Eastern scholars.”

Christopher J.H. Wright Old Testament Ethics for the people of God p.333

Wright then goes on to number a long list of characteristics to Old Testament slavery which are radically different from what we think of when we think of slavery in modern times. The fact that slavery was voluntary, slaves were to be freed in the seventh year and released with what we would today call unemployment benefit, they were protected from bodily harm, and there was a law of asylum for runaway slaves. Listen to Christian philosopher Craig Hovey in his response to Sam Harris on this topic:

“Now, it is true that the Old Testament gives clear commands about the treatment of slaves. But what is most striking is something Harris completely ignores: the Bible’s trajectory of liberation that inspired the abolitionists. In the same way that Jacob sells himself into Laban’s employ (Genesis 30-31) or a present-day soldier agrees to serve for a certain number of years in exchange for college funding, the slavery laws in the Bible regulate a contractual system of debt-payment for those too poor to pay by other means. It was an ancient system that, in Israel’s life, provided an option for people otherwise trapped in poverty. In historical context, moreover, Israel’s specific regulations regarding slavery were much more humane than its neighbours’. The regulations are oriented toward the goal of freeing slaves by forgiving their debts before they have been “worked off.” Freedom rather than ownership is the operating principle.”

Craig Hovey What makes us moral? p.61,2

The New Testament rejection of slave trading can clearly still take a moral realist view of slavery due to the changing social conditions at that time. The severe problems of poverty common in largely nomadic societies were now quite different from the social structures they then found themselves in. This is why, by the way, quite a number of the Old Testament case law was abandoned as well.

3. His third example is “genocide” (Deuteronomy 7:1-2). The immediate problem with citing Deuteronomy 7 as a proof text for Yahweh being pro-genocide is that many scholars see this complete destruction in relation to the religion and occult practices of the Canaanites rather than the Canaanites as a people group.  (Deuteronomy 7:3–5; 12:2,3; cp. Exodus 34:12,13) As Peter C. Craigie notes on the Deuteronomy 7 passage:

“Any kind of treaty would be a compromise and would lead to disaster; therefore the Israelites were to destroy systematically the physical religious ‘furniture’ of their enemies, indicating thereby their complete lack of recognition for the god of their enemies.”

Peter C. Craigie The Book of Deuteronomy (NICOT) p.177

Even then it does not appear that it is merely the fact that they worship idols and break the first commandment that God brings judgement on them. Many historians have noted that their religious practices included both bestiality and regular infant sacrifice.

Further evidence that the judgement on the Canaanites was not racially motivated is that later on in the prophets the Jebusites (descended from the third son of Canaan) are incorporated into the new Israelites. (Zechariah 9:7 / Matthew 15:21) [See The Illustrated Bible Dictionary p.737] In other words not only were they permitted to live and not be killed but they were to be reconciled to God and be a part of the chosen people of God (we see this already through the stories of Hagar and Ruth as well by the way).

Yet more evidence exists that no such ‘genocide’ of the Canaanites was even attempted, even less achieved by the Israelites since the most dramatic accounts of the defeat of the Canaanites are found in the book of Joshua which has been noted by scholars as having all the hallmarks of Ancient Near Eastern war rhetoric and hagiography.  This is why the book of Judges makes it very clear not all the people were even displaced geographically. As Lamb points out:

“The major point of similarity between the biblical conquest narratives and those of their neighbours is the hyperbolic language. The hyperbolic nature of the two Joshua texts can be seen when they are examined alongside other texts. While Joshua 10:40 and Joshua 11:12-15 speak of everyone being destroyed, elsewhere in Joshua and Judges a very different perspective is given. These other texts repeatedly state that the Israelites did not kill all the Canaanites; they couldn’t even drive all of them out of the land (Joshua 13:1-6; 15:63; 17:12; Judges 1:19-34)… To reconcile these two divergent perspectives on Israel’s conquest, a nonliteral reading of the texts which speak of “all” people being destroyed is required.”

David T. Lamb God behaving badly p.77

Wright also makes the same point:

“We do need to allow for the exaggerated language of warfare. Israel, like other nations of the ancient Near East whose documents we possess, had a rhetoric of war that often exceeded reality on the ground. Even in the Old Testament itself this phenomenon is recognized and accepted. It is well known, for example, that the book of Joshua describes the conquest in rhetorically total terms – all the land is captured, all the kings are defeated, all the people without survivors are destroyed. Yet the book of Judges sees no contradiction in telling us that the process of subduing the inhabitants of the land was far from completed and went on for some considerable time. So even in the Old Testament itself, rhetorical generalization is recognized for what it is. We need, therefore, in reading some of the more graphic descriptions, either of what is commanded to be done, or recorded as accomplished, to allow for this rhetorical element. This is not to accuse the biblical writers of falsehood, but to recognize the literary conventions of writing about warfare.”

Christopher J.H. Wright Old Testament Ethics for the people of God p.474,5

The philosopher Richard Swinburne has made it clear why God has the right to judge human beings in the way he does with the Canaanites (whom he gave four hundred years to repent before judging them and therefore cannot be judged as having done so in a moment of anger or “on a whim”):

“If God is our creator, our life comes as a temporary gift from him; and he can take it back when he chooses. If A has the right to take something back from B, A has the right to allow someone else to take it back for him. And if A is God, he has the right to command someone else on his behalf to end a life. God therefore has the right to order the Israelites to kill the Canaanites. God’s reasons for issuing this command, according to the Old Testament, was to preserve the young monotheistic religion of Israel from lethal spiritual infection by the polytheism of the Canaanites, a religion which included child sacrifice and cultic prostitution. Such spiritual infection was without doubt a very real danger. When monotheism had become more deeply rooted in Israel, such an extreme measure was not, according to the Old Testament, required again. It was a defensive measure necessary to preserve the identity of the people of Israel. While the Israelites would not have had the right to take this extreme measure without the explicit command of God, he had the right to issue that command.”

Richard Swinburne ‘What does the Old Testament Mean?’ in Divine Evil: The Moral Character of the God of Abraham (Edited by Bergmann, Murray, and Rea) p.224

A hermeneutical warning is also worth raising here too. As philosopher Eleonore Stump warned Louise Antony on this same issue:

“… it is especially important in presenting an interpretation of a text to consider alternative readings. To support one interpretation is to support it over others. But then those others need to be canvassed, and something needs to be done to show why they are to be rejected.”

Eleonore Stump ‘Comments on ‘Does God love us?’ in Divine Evil: The Moral Character of the God of Abraham (Edited by Bergmann, Murray, and Rea) p.48

This is, unfortunately, the exact same methodology which STB employs. He states his own interpretation of these texts but completely fails to interact with professional scholarship on their interpretation at all. Zero interaction. The principle of charity is also completely ignored. It’s as if the views of the professionals matters not one jot to him. This seriously brings into question whether his interpretation of them is indeed the better one.

Now STB offers a couple more biblical passages but if he interacted with scholarship instead of asserting his own interpretation of them he would be forced to reconsider what he is attempting to draw from them. He needs to realize that many accounts of history in the Old Testament are just that and not every story mentioned is a vindication of what people did in that story (thus there is no vindication of Lot’s behaviour and neither is there a divine ethic being taught in the poetry of Psalm 137:9 instead of a very human emotional outburst in the face of what Babylon has done to Israel in the context of the exile). Since I have already done this at length with the three main examples he chose so far I see no need to comment on all of them. Answers to the other ones can easily be looked up.

Briefly I would also like to suggest that the advocating of the ‘Golden Rule’ by Jesus was not to borrow a ‘secular’ principle as STB claims. Just because there were Jewish Rabbis and other religious teachers who have taught this principle before Jesus does not make his ethical framework any less radical. After all, to the contrary, the Golden Rule is not found in some amorphous consequentialist metaethic but rather in a profoundly religious and teleological one. There are principles in Jesus’ ethics which challenge even this rule of thumb (“love your enemies” and “forgive seventy times seven” – in other words endlessly). It’s important that one does not attempt to suggest, as STB does, that Jesus’ ethics can be summarized by some individualistic or relative interpretation of the Golden Rule – they cannot.

STB finishes by suggesting that he is not a moral realist himself and rather that his ‘morality’ simply ‘works’ for him. This is rather self-destructive to his case however. If STB is claiming that Yahweh’s morality does not work for him personally then that’s fine but that is something very different from offering a logical refutation of either moral realism or the ethical standards of the God of the Bible. In order to do that STB would have needed to have constructed a moral realism of his own and then shown it was more probably correct than any other form of realism and that Yahweh does not meet it. Instead he appears to be suggesting that there really are no moral rights or wrongs in any objective sense. That’s fine but this means his case against Christianity cannot amount to anymore than noting that it has very different standards of ethics than his own personal standards he lives by which leaves him personally with a bad feeling. What moral outrage does not accomplish is to suggest that it makes the other person wrong. It just means he feels outraged by the moral standards of Yahweh. But that does not equate to Yahweh is morally wrong. For him to be morally wrong STB would need to embrace moral realism in some form and his blog makes it pretty clear he rejects moral realism (objective moral truths). Notice that I’m not saying STB cannot attempt to question the internal logic of the Christian view (clearly he attempts that) but what he cannot do is suggest that different moral perspectives to his own are wrong moral perspectives (and he certainly sounds a lot like that by the end).

I therefore submit that we barely even have a substantial criticism of Christian ethics being made by STB and certainly not the logical refutation he claimed to have achieved. But then I think that is true of this criticism as portrayed by the New Atheists of late on the whole anyway. If only they would read and interact with scholarship on this matter.


STB’s responses to this refutation has been essentially to complain that he does not have the time to interact with scholarship on these matters (although appearing to know said scholarship well enough to know it’s a load of hogwash!), to complain that it’s not worth studying a subject formally if scholars have differing opinions (in which case I suppose he does not study any subject at a scholarly level), an ad hominem attack (questioning people’s motivations), and to formulate this handy syllogism:

  • P1: Christians hold that whatever their god condones is moral.
  • P2: Christians hold that the apparent condoning of activity “X” found in the bible is not immoral because the activity is actually a diminutive “x”.
  • C1: Therefore, Christians hold that “X” would be immoral even if their god condoned “X”. (P2)
  • C2: Therefore, Christians hold 2 logically contradictory notions. (P1 & C1)
  • P3: Christians would refuse to follow diminutive “x” because they deem it immoral.
  • C3: Therefore, Christians hold 2 logically contradictory notions. (P2 & P4)

I wonder if you can figure out why I am not even going to bother responding to this syllogism? I encourage STB to offer it up for publication in a philosophical journal and see what happens. (He also appears unaware that conclusions are supposed to follow from the premises!) I doubt one is well placed to write supposed formal disproofs of Christianity if one cannot even write a basic, logically valid, syllogism and also not manage to assess the religion aright.

This highly superficial approach of STB’s is further evidenced in posts such as this one where he cites a list of reasons he abandoned Christianity. His list of reasons are a complete and utter car wreck all the way through (and also indicate that he did not understand Christianity very well though he claims to have been one once) but he even claims that rape is “condoned or encouraged” in the Bible. No doubt this ludicrous statement comes from his hermeneutical inadequacies evidenced by the fact that he appears unable to distinguish between a report of something and the recommendation of it. The fact that he could not admit to his serious and obvious misreading of Judges 21 was an indication that such a person is not interested in truth or practicing the principle of charity but desperate to sling enough mud in the hope some of it sticks. This is indicative of the desperation of much New Atheism.


[1] Here are some very worthwhile lectures for further research:

Here are some links showing some slightly different approaches to the issue from a Christian perspective:

Contra Mundum: Did God Command Genocide in the Old Testament?

Slaughter of the Canaanites

The best way of getting out of the whole Canaanite genocide thing, and it comes right from the Bible (but you may not like it)

Yahweh Wars and the Canaanites

Genocide in Canaan? Part II

What about God’s cruelty against the Midianites?

I strongly recommend the books I cited in this blog post but especially:


divine evil book


Posted in Arguments for God, Atheism, Bible, Christianity, Metaethics, New Atheism, The Moral Argument | Tagged , , | 18 Comments