Saturday, December 02, 2006

The despairing nihilism of intelligent design - please keep away from schools

Oh dear.... the creationists have returned to planet earth and appear to be fanning out from their landing site in the United States. After a week away, I see a Newsnight podcast on creationism in schools, following a Guardian report, Revealed: rise of creationism in UK schools stating that 59 schools are apparently using new materials about 'intelligent design' that had been circulated by a British creationist group called Truth in Science.

The language of the proponents of intelligent design is infuriating: it appropriates the ideas of challenge and open-mindedness to counter-argument, testing theories by evidence and examination of paradoxes, opposition to dogma and even offers a scientific justification for intelligent design ('irreducible complexity'). In fact it is anything but scientific and anything but a useful or valid challenge to the alleged dogma of Darwinism and the theory of evolution.

Darwin's challenge to Darwin
The creationists' theory of intelligent design relies on Darwin's own formulation of a credible challenge to his theory of evolution (see Origin of the Species p.90 - an admirable thing for a scientist to do, by the way, and completely lacking in formulation of intelligent design):

If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.
Irreducible complexity - the creationists' trump card
This has given rise to the idea of 'irreducible complexity' - things found in nature that cannot have been formed through the process of evolution, namely incremental change brought about by mutation causing changed traits which face selection pressures which allow reproduction of traits that confer a survival advantage - see Wikipedia on evolution). If something that we observe today cannot have formed gradually, then evolution fails as a theory - enter the triumphant intelligent designer, who wanted it that way from the start. Some have cited the human eye or winged flight as examples (what use is half an eye, so how could it have evolved?). But they are wrong... in both cases it is possible to show that gradual increases in the ability to see (eg. starting with recognising nearby movement) or to fly (falling out of a tree in a more controlled way) confer survival advantages and suggest that highly complex organs like the eye and wings could have evolved gradually starting from these basic traits.

A very strange organism - but is it evidence that it's all been designed intelligently...?
The current favourite of the intelligent designers to challenge evolution is the 'bacterial flagellum' - a kind of pump and motor mechanism found in a single cell organism (article / animation). And it is indeed a remarkable microscopic structure! The school materials distributed to schools by 'Truth in Science' make much of this little machine. The Teachers Manual part 3, gives the game away... notice how prescriptive it suddenly becomes. Students will:
  • Understand the concept of “irreducible complexity” – that some machines are made up of many parts, all of which are necessary for function
  • Recognise the bacterial flagellum as an example of an irreducibly complex system
  • Understand that irreducibly complex structures cannot evolve by slight, successive, advantageous variations, because at certain points in their evolution they will lose function altogether
Note there is no question here of debating whether this mechanism actually is irreducibly complex - students will 'recognise' and 'understand' it to be irreducibly complex and 'understand' that it cannot have evolved. There are two problems here: first there are plausible explanations for how this amazing mechanism might have evolved gradually (see Pallen & Matzke, Nature Reviews of Microbiology, 2006 / more accessible account / blog devoted to this). Second, is that the fact that something is difficult to explain, doesn't establish the counter theory - it means that it is difficult to explain and that it is a worthwhile challenge to test the dominant theory.

Things I dislike about all this...
  1. It's almost embarrassingly facile to point this out, but the intelligent design argument is circular - the intelligent designer (apparently labouring over the spec of everything from a strange bacteria to the human ability to smell a rat) must be more complex than anything imaginable. Sorry, but where did this come from? Who or what is the designer and how did it emerge?
  2. It denies the wonder of science and the power and elegance of Darwin's big idea, replacing inquiry with a form of defeatism. Rather than seeing gaps in knowledge or evidence as legitimate challenges to evolution it has immediate recourse to a bizarre supernatural explanation.
  3. No evidence whatsoever is offered for intelligent design. Unlike evolution, its proponents offer no means by which the idea can be verified or falsified. It should not be dignified as a 'theory' as no test is offered to falsify it. Like an invasive weed, it just fills any gap in understanding of the world with a one-size-fits-all super-explanation. This is what religion has done through the ages - enabling priests to explain the unknown by invoking gods and the supernatural.
  4. Whatever they say, it is religious propaganda. Numerous biases and assertions of 'truth' can be found on the 'Truth in Science' pages, despite the PR effort to argue that this is all healthy debate. Eg. the news page somehow omits the Guardian's searing article in favour of more favourable coverage.
Let me reserve some remaining concern for the attitude of Prime Minister Blair. In a recent interview with New Scientist he was asked about the teaching of creationism in schools. His reply...
If I notice creationism become the mainstream of the education system in this country then that’s the time to start worrying. As I’ve said, it’s really quite important for science to fight the battles it needs to fight. When MMR comes out, or stem cells, or GM, that’s the time to have a real debate
Doh!! If it becomes the mainstream, it's way too late 'to start worrying'. Blair's complacency about the place in schools of one of the greatest ideas in human history is astonishing. Except as part of a discussion on bogus science and the failure of religion to offer any useful explanation for our origins, creationism and it's slick alter-ego, intelligent design, have no place in schools.


Anonymous said...

I have two friends who constantly argue over the origin of my house. One says that he knows the builder; the other says that because he can explain the origin of the materials and understand the structure, it is obvious that all this stuff about a 'builder' is nonsense (which doesn't actually follow).

Invariably, this irrational stance goads the first friend into retorting that if that is what the science of building leads to (which, of course, it doesn't), then the science of building must be rubbish... and off we go.

For myself, I believe that I know the builder and I really don't have a problem with him using bricks and mortar.

I do have a problem with fundamentalist atheists adding a 'No Cross' logo to a critique of Intelligent Design. That really is crass.

Clive Bates said...

Adrian - many thanks for your post... but I don't think the builder versus bricks & mortar analogy really works with the origins of life and development of species. Species are self-replicating in a way that houses aren't.

Sorry if you are annoyed by the cross thing... it's just that I think we let religion off too lightly in modern society and that its supporters need to make their case for the moral and intellectual leadership they claim more convincingly (which I believe it can't do). Alternatively, they could play a more private and personal role. For me, it's one thing to respect a person's right to their private beliefs, no matter how much you disagree with them, but I think it's quite an aggressive act on the part of the religious 'Truth in Science' people to mail educational materials grounded in creationism to science departments of schools. Don't you?

Anonymous said...

I didn't mean the analogy to be pushed very far, only to illustrate the silliness of the argument on both sides, and the way that the very extreme views of a minority on each 'side' tend to wind us all up and make us choose 'sides' that should not exist at all.

I would like to distinguish between 'religion' (rules and regulations, Us and Them, and don't rock the boat) and 'faith', which is more about a life of trust in the purposes of a wise, loving and nerciful Creator. Alas, the life of faith is tough, and so easily degenerates into religion; but I think you may find many men and women of faith busy providing moral and intellectual leadership.

At the same time, I think we have to be aware that for many people religion provides a kind of moral Primary School; and it would be a mistake to dismiss Primary School teachers as stupid just because they spend their days teaching A,B,C and 1,2,3 and telling fairy tales.

But that's the challenge of both faith and democracy: to educate, to encourage, to woo the mindless into thinking. It's a perilous task in our soundbite world.

We need more intellectual rigour... which, on the whole, you seem to provide. Keep going!

Anonymous said...

I agree that the 'intelligent design' arguments are absolute nonsense. It definately the scary side of religious fanatics who want to somehow delete scientific understanding by arguing that all the answers can somehow be found in Creationism type thinking. However, this extremism shouldn't get mixed up with the pros and cons of faith schools. Most so called 'faith' schools do not teach this nonsense and do not see Science as a enemy of their faiths....

Clive Bates said...

Adrian - I don't think I've got an extreme view. I think that religion exists in a place that is very sheltered from criticism, and when it is criticised in straightforward terms some people can feel this to be an extremist attack. But really it isn't - it's just the sort of questioning we apply to most other things such as: was it right to invade Iraq? Does the PFI work? Is Casino Royale a good film? People apply incredibly direct and challenging language to voice their opinions on most things, but it seems to grate when done for religion. We even reserve 5 minutes of breakfast radio so that religious views can be aired without the normal standards of criticism and challenge applied to everything else - Thought for the Day. Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris were eloquent on this in letters to the New York Times this week 3rd December letters.

You referred to 'fundamentalist atheists' in your first post - Is it possible to be an extremist in NOT believing in something?



Clive Bates said...

Dear Anon... agree with you completely about conflating faith schools and creationism. Creationism and ID are a problem if taken seriously in any school. There are different reasons to oppose faith schools.

Anonymous said...

Clive, thank you.

You have made me realise that I am an extremist non-believer in Baseball, which seems to be cricket with its soul ripped out, a game for idiots.

It is not just that I dislike it, or even that I dislike it very much; the extreme bit is that although I really know very little about it, I have no wish even to discuss it or learn about it or try it because I KNOW that it is a game for idiots.

Given the opportunity, I would happily urge anyone to avoid it. I believe that my opinion is right, and that investigation would prove it to be so; but if I am honest, I don't want to investigate it ...because it IS a game for idiots.

How's that?

Clive Bates said...

Adrian - why resort to analogy and, dare I say it, sarcasm? Can we just discuss what it is you actually believe, rather than house builders or baseball? For example...

Do you believe there is a supernatural all-powerful being that controls, or could control, what happens in the world?

Do you belive God created the earth? If he did, was it 6,000 years ago or longer? Did he do it in seven days?

Do you think the power of prayer can heal sick people or make other changes in the real world?

Do you believe Jesus was born to a virgin, performed miracles, died on a crucifix and was resurrected?

Do you agree with the kind of rules laid down in Deuteronomy, Judges and Leviticus? If not, how do you decide what to accept in the Bible and what to ignore?

Do you think the ten commandments are a good moral code and should be obeyed? For example, do you reject the concept of a just war or self defence?

Do you think intelligent design is a real explanation for the origins of species?

Do you think people go to heaven or hell after they die?

Do you think Muslims and Hindus worship false icons and will go to hell?

These are rather 'traditional' beliefs - if you don't believe in these things, what do you believe in?

This is the trouble... you seem quite angry about me wanting to get to the bottom of what is being claimed by supporters of religion, but without actually defending it or presenting an alternative perspective.


Anonymous said...

I have used analogies because they generally avoid contentious, emotive and value-laden words that get in the way of understanding. I hope you can see that my mythical friends debating the origin of my house are both using obviously stupid arguments based on invalid assumptions; the point is that there is no need to be drawn in. There is a very wide spectrum of belief that some people (and I don’t know if you are one) would lump together and caricature as ‘Creationist’, and I think there may well be an equally wide spectrum of ‘Evolutionists’; to approach the question directly in those terms would play straight into the nutters’ hands.

However, if you would like me to be more direct: yes, there are fundamentalist unbelievers who are not interested in rational argument because they ‘know’ that belief in God is absurd; and there really are people who can quite seriously declare that there are no absolutes, without apparently noticing that they have set up an absolute of their own. Even more astounding is the sheer arrogance of atheists who assume that their position is somehow neutral while everybody else has a religion, unaware that their position is as much a matter of faith as anybody else’s; their arrogance is, of course, no greater than that of many religious people down the years – but it is the arrogance that goes more or less unchallenged in our day.

As for your specific questions…

Q1. I believe in God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth; yes. I believe that the Universe has some cause and purpose, a position that I think is at least as reasonable as the equally preposterous notion that it came into being because nothing happened nowhere for no reason.

Q2. Beyond that, I know about as much about creation as a bottle knows about glass-blowing, and I think we all ought to be honest enough to admit that. However, as I understand it, the best scientific research (which, admittedly, could turn out to be as far off-beam as the phlogiston theory) suggests that it all began with a massive outburst of energy (which, in the form of electromagnetic radiation, is commonly known as light, cf. Genesis 1:2) and progressed through a number of stages (possibly six, depending on how you choose to split them up) of such mind-boggling durations that you might as well call them ‘days’ as anything – certainly the author of Genesis (who had much more important things in mind than writing 21st Century science textbooks) was not thinking of 24-hour periods because he uses the term before the creation of the Sun. Would anyone seriously quibble with a film called ‘The Day of the Dinosaur’ just because it covered a period of millions of years? The appearance of Man seems to have been the last major step – the sixth day, if you like.

Q3. Of course, the existence or otherwise of an all-powerful creator is nothing more than an academic trifle unless that creator has a continuing involvement in and commitment to the creation. Are we part of a clock, wound up once in some convulsion and then left to tick-tock relentlessly through the centuries until it winds down to eternal silence – in which case, some sort of dreary scientific determinism is the best we can hope for; or is it some growing, purposeful thing, in which faith, hope and love (and beauty, joy, tears, integrity, pain, mercy, justice etc.) really matter?
I do believe that the Universe exists (in the present) because God wills it to do so; as the Bible puts it, He upholds it by His word of power. Personally, I have a strong suspicion that the comic singer Michael Flanders (of Flanders & Swann) might have been close to the truth when he dismissed his contemporary John Robinson (Bishop of Woolwich and author of ‘Honest to God’) as ‘just an idea in the mind of God’; perhaps that is what we are, where the ultimate particle is the energy of faith and the Universal Theory of Everything is, “God is love.”

In this context, the ‘supernatural’ and the ‘natural’ are all one: things natural to God happen both in test tubes and beyond the reach of our imagination. Yes, God heals the sick – but then, God created our bodies with the most phenomenal self-healing abilities which may sometimes work faster than we expect; bitterness, fear and despair can cripple that process, and faith, hope and love often seem to accelerate it. Who can say where those processes begin and end, and where God intervenes in some ‘extra’ or ‘miraculous’ creative way? Why should the creator stop creating? We are all walking miracles. Certainly I and many of my friends have experienced remarkable healings.

Q4. I do believe that Jesus was born to a virgin, performed miracles (see above), died on a cross (not a crucifix) and was resurrected. “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation,” as St. Paul puts it. He is, if you like, the inevitable manifestation of the love of God. From that point of view, His resurrection was equally inevitable (“It was impossible for death to hold Him,” says the Bible), though it may not have looked like it to Him at the time.

Q5. As for the kind of rules laid down in Deuteronomy, Judges and Leviticus, you have to see them in their context. The Bible is a collection of many kinds of literature; parts of the books of Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy are little more than a Public Health Manual (and a very effective one, too – the Psalms cite ‘three score years and ten’ as a normal life expectancy at a time when I think that few Ancient Brits got beyond about 45).

How could we deal with the modern HIV/AIDS epidemic without the benefit of modern drugs, condoms and Weapons of Mass Education (such as TV)? It is obvious that monogamy would stop STDs in their tracks, and stoning a few adulterers is probably the only way you could enforce that practically.

Incidentally, ‘an eye for an eye’ may seem harsh to us, but it was actually a limitation that saved Israel from the escalating blood-feuds that bedevil some cultures.
I accept the whole Bible – for what it is. And that is not a simple book of instructions! I believe that God inspired it – but he inspired theologians to write as theologians, chroniclers as chroniclers, poets as poets, prophets as prophets, storytellers as storytellers and so on. This is a book about life, glorious and messy; you can hardly expect it to be uniform and po-faced. It teaches a little by precept, but much more by examples (both good and bad) with a cast of characters as motley as any soap. To judge any part of it, you have to have to consider its context, its purpose and its style, and interpret it in the light of the whole. You also have to understand that its revelation of God is progressive: “The law (of Moses) was the schoolmaster, to lead me to Christ,” wrote St. Paul. The point of it all is Jesus Christ, and the revelation He brings of the love and mercy of God.

NB: Naturally, with such diversity, I can select bits and pieces that say more or less whatever I like and justify any amount of selfishness or bigotry. No doubt some people do; they could do much the same with the Koran or The Origin of the Species, and it would not be the fault of the books. Most Christians understand that the Bible is only an aid to a relationship with God, to be read with humility, love and an open heart.

Q6. I have never heard anyone seriously question the value of the Ten Commandments, and the injunction against murder does not necessarily preclude a just war or self defence.

Q7. I don’t know (or care) enough about Intelligent Design to say whether it is a real explanation for the origins of species. I suspect that it is not so much a scientific theory as a challenge to the idiot reductionist tendency, who believe that science is the be-all and end-all and who might just be missing something when they dismiss an onion as ‘nothing but skin’.

Q8. I do think that people go to heaven or hell after they die, but that is to some extent merely a confirmation of the choices we have made in this life. As one teacher put it: “There are those who will say to God, ‘Thy will be done!’ and those to whom God will say, in the end, ‘OK, thy will be done!’” We do not know much about the details of heaven, except that we will enjoy the presence of God; nor about hell, except that one of the Greek words translated as ‘hell’ was also used of Jerusalem’s refuse tip, where they burned dead animals and the bodies of convicts as well as the city’s rubbish.

Q9. Muslims do not worship false idols (not icons) and I believe that Hindus do. Whether they gain eternal life (heaven) or end up on the scrap heap (hell) will not depend on their being Muslims or Hindus; it will depend - as it does for all of us – on whether we humbly accept (implicitly or explicitly) the love of God expressed in Jesus Christ and respond to it.

I hope this thumbnail sketch of my faith helps. It is personal, but I think that (apart from the Michael Flanders bit) it is fairly mainstream: I was educated in both Protestant and Roman Catholic schools; my brother and one cousin are ordained RC ministers, while I have a fairly wide experience of evangelical Protestant churches; and I am currently Chairman of the local Churches Together group. I have tried to give you answers in non-religious terms that might not be to everyone’s traditional taste.

However, I do believe that the purpose of our lives is to experience the love of God for ourselves and respond to it; and rather than intellectual analysis, it needs something like a baby, born in a stable, for that to happen. For that reason, may I wish you…

A Very Happy Christmas!


Clive Bates said...


Merry Christmas to you too. Maybe I'm a "fundamentalist unbeliever" if that means that I've applied rational inquiry to the theory of God and its explanation of the world and concluded these beliefs - most of what you have set out - are extremely unlikely to be true.

I don't think that is 'fundamentalism' in any useful sense of the word - which to me means blind adherence to an ideology unsupported by by evidence or experience. In fact, my approach is sceptical and curious - wanting to know more and understand better, and changing what I think when I hear a better argument and evidence. I find religious ideas like those you have kindly articulated rarely stand the slightest scrutiny. God is not needed to explain most important things - and for many of the facts of religion to which you subscribe, there is not one shred of evidence or plausible explanation - other than recourse to the all purpose clincher that "God willed it" - an approach which is just too easy and the enemy of curiosity and open-mindedness (which is why I don't want to see it featuring in schools).

The moral code of the Bible is very flimsy (find the Biblical basis for abolition of slavery, for universal suffrage and equal rights for women, or for freedom of speech) and often intolerant for example in what Sam Harris calls the 'tiresome immensity' of the religious concern about private matters between consenting adults.

It actually helps with few modern ethical problems. No less than 4 of the 10 commandments deal with God's demands for an exclusive franchise and the rest - stealing, murder etc. - have underpinned all societies religious or secular for virtually all time. There just is no added value and plenty of contradiction, given the willingness with which Old Testament prophets require killing, stoning, rape and sex slavery. Search on the words 'stone to death' in Deuteronomy and you'll see what a monster God is, at least when communicating through Old Testament prophets. If these books aren't the word of God, then why are they held in such esteem? And how do you tell when it's God and when it is just some old guy trying to tell you not to eat diseased meat.

It's also odd that God's chosen people should be so geographically confined. The misfortune of being born a Hindu on the Indian sub-continent seems to be a passport to Hell (we need not go into what heaven and hell actually are...). But then the all-powerful and loving God is prone to be a bit arbitrary in his distribution of temporary, fatal and eternal suffering, as we have seen throughout history and up to the present day.

Adrian, I find these beliefs just too implausible with nothing at all to support them, except an old book, which you concede needs to be viewed in context.

I wonder have you examined why you believe these things? What causes you to invest in this belief system rather than some other, or none? It can't be direct experience, and certainly not direct evidence (which I think you concede)? So if not these things then what? If you had to stand in front of a class of kids and persuade someone, how would you make the case?

Regardless of all this, I hope you are enjoying the festive season as much as I am (and not allowing the Roman / Pagan origin of Christmas / Yuletide ruin the fun).



Anonymous said...

Clive, you may not be a complete fundamentalist, but it seems that you would do well to apply some of your scepticism to the garbled, second-hand assaults on the Bible that you appear to have swallowed, and let your curiosity extend to reading it for yourself.

However, we are all products of our history and experience, you of yours and I of mine. You say bluntly that the basis of my faith “can’t be direct experience” and I have to tell you that it is. All the real fun and joy I have ever experienced, and all that makes sense to me, has been in a Christian context; everything I have seen outside that context has seemed dull, insipid and tawdry by comparison.

There have been hard times when I’ve wanted to throw it all away, but I have looked around and I find myself in the same position as Simon Peter when Jesus suggested that he might want to pack it in: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life…”

Strange to tell, one thing that often turns me back is the reality of evil and my perception of it. If there is no God, and the world has no cause or purpose, evil is a meaningless concept; yet it still offends me (and you, I suspect).

Sometimes faith seems absolutely ridiculous, and the church seems full of sh*t; but when I turn away, life is ridiculous and the world is full of sh*t too, and it seems to me that Christianity is the only way that makes sense of that, the only thing that can turn bitter, poisonous sh*t into life-giving manure.

And from this point of view – you will just have to accept this – I find that atheist ideas ‘rarely stand the slightest scrutiny’; and for many of the ideas to which you subscribe, ‘there is not one shred of evidence or plausible explanation’. The whole creation proclaims God’s handiwork; all of science, even the idea of science, is built on reason; what shred of evidence is there that it is all just a big, inexplicable and meaningless accident?

Earth’s crammed with Heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes—
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.
(Elizabeth Barrett Browning)

I am sure that you will argue that I have a problem with Popper’s falsifiability test, and I agree that I cannot imagine any evidence or propose any scientific test that would shake my faith. But then, I never pretended that my faith could be contained within modern science’s rather restricted view. Do you seriously think that you don’t have the same problem with atheism? What on earth could God do to prove His existence, that you would (a) accept as scientific evidence and (b) not therefore dismiss as being explicable by that same science? For this reason, God does not bother to prove His existence; He merely offers His love.

As for morality, our modern concern for the abolition of slavery (battered through Parliament, mostly by Christians in the wake of the eighteenth century evangelical revival, incidentally), for universal suffrage and equal rights for women, or for freedom of speech, stands squarely on the New Testament themes that God is the Father of all and that Christ died for all, and St. Paul’s ringing declaration that now “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

We live, like it or not, in a culture largely shaped by Christian values. Even the ‘Enlightenment’ is a child of Christendom. It is very easy for atheists to imagine that our assumptions are ‘obvious’ and would survive the loss of their religious core, but I doubt it. There is nothing in science, natural logic or democracy with anything near enough power to defend the weak. What, apart from the Christian-inspired notion that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights…”, stands between natural selection and ethnic cleansing?

I like Sam Harris’s idea of the ‘tiresome immensity’ of religious concern about private matters between consenting adults: it really hits the nail on the head. Tiresome? Yes, just like those tedious injunctions to keep flammable materials away from fire and – yawn – not to suffocate children with plastic bags: so boring, so last year, don’t you think? Immensity? Absolutely, because relationships (or sexual morality, if that is all you can see) are integral to God and His purpose for the whole creation: these things are only immense because they are integral to the Universe, and not just bolted on as a disposable religious afterthought to annoy you.

Perhaps Sam Harris wrote the jacket notes (that’s as far as I got) for The God Delusion; it says that Dawkins debunks the ‘sex-obsessed God of the Old Testament’. Whoever wrote that has obviously not studied the Bible; as it happens, I am currently researching a book about Christian sexuality, and I can tell you that there is very little about sex in the Bible at all.

I have found something odd, however: many English words used to translate Hebrew or Greek words which in the Bible suggest general moral weakness or failure, have changed their meaning towards an explicitly sexual one. So when the 1611 Authorised Version of the Bible condemns Esau as a ‘fornicator’ it has nothing to do with sex at all – Esau was condemned for being a spineless fool who wasted his potential for the sake of the immediate pleasure of a hot meal. As this shift of meaning is in some cases observable between a 1964 dictionary and a 2006 one (years of seriously diminished Christian influence) it may be the atheists rather than the Christians who are obsessed by sex.

As requested, I checked the five references to stoning in Deuteronomy (yes, just five: how many did you think there were?), and the other six in Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers. Apart from the ultimate sanction for rebellious teenagers (was it ever used?) and the matter of adultery (which I explained before), the Law applies it to rape; murder (child sacrifice); failing to control a dangerous (killer) animal (after warning); and – from the point of view of Israel being ‘the People of God’ – treason (idolatry, witchcraft etc.). For a wandering Bronze Age tribe, this does not seem particularly excessive or monstrous.

And finally, the prophets. I find it particularly sad that you so ignorantly dismiss the Old Testament prophets, because I think you would have enjoyed their company. Today they would probably be bloggers, exposing scams, sniping at establishment hypocrisy and greed, warning us all of the dire consequences to the community and the environment if we persist with our blind self-indulgence, and pouring scorn on cowardly politicians who duck the crucial issues. They rage against bigotry and the self-righteous ostentation of the religious elite; they demand justice for the poor. They use the full panoply of verbal argument, from the highly personal to the universal, with wild exaggeration, irony, biting sarcasm and puns that sadly do not translate well into English.

I cannot recall or imagine any of the prophets requiring “killing, stoning, rape and sex slavery”. There is plenty of all four in the Bible, because it is brutally honest about the realities of life; I doubt if there is an army in the world that has not at some time fought under orders to ‘take no prisoners’; and the Israelites were as prone to brutality as their neighbours. But that does not mean that any of the authors commend such things or willingly require them. Is this some kind of atheist fantasy, enshrined in one of your sacred texts that you have never questioned?

The prophets do not hold back from declaring God’s inevitable judgements on wicked individuals and nations, but that does not mean (with the notable exception of Jonah, whose hilarious story proves the point) that they (or God) want those judgements to happen or intend to carry them out. To suggest that they do, is as absurd as saying that Greenpeace are threatening to melt the polar ice caps if we do not reduce our carbon emissions; or that the Police are threatening to smash your car and maim innocent bystanders if you drink and drive.

Even as I write, a headline catches my eye: “Girl, 18, killed hours after police told her to wear a seatbelt.” She was not wearing one. Did the Police kill her for not wearing a seatbelt? No. So, does God break up families to punish adultery? No. Does God give people AIDS to punish them for promiscuity? No.

Let me tell you what I have learnt, and be done. This is my case. It is a story, if you like, but then that is all that either of us has. You can only reject it or (however tentatively) consider that there might be something in it, and give it a try. The Psalmist says, “O taste and see that the Lord is good;” there really is no other way…

The unimaginable being that created us (for convenience called ‘God’) has created a world full of potential for endless glory: life, love, happiness, beauty. He wants to share it with us. But love is not love if it is not free, and He has given us that freedom. There may be hints of it in other species (the sad elephant, for example, standing by its dead mate) but mankind alone has (evolved, if you wish) the capacity to make commitments and to choose some higher goal than our own animal appetites. This freedom would be meaningless if the world were not also full of potential for disaster: death, bitterness, envy, malice and corruption and brutality of every sort.

One purpose of God’s Law is to make our lives easier, safer and more fruitful in this highly dangerous environment; we can hardly be surprised if breaking it leads to hardship and destruction, and it would be astonishing if the consequences were either proportionate or limited to the offender. It would also be surprising if other, very similar, moral codes had not been worked out by wise men in other places: it works.

However, the other, more important purpose of the Old Testament Law is to draw our attention to God and His love, and to the potential we have, by highlighting our failings. Mankind shares a longing (call it an evolutionary imperative, if you like) for ‘life as it should be’, something that we feel ought to be normal yet seems to be out of reach; we want to make the world ‘a better place’, but are constantly disappointed that even our greatest heroes have feet of clay. We ourselves fail to live up to our own standards; in case we don’t notice this, the Law provides a selection of tests. But the Law is not the remedy, only the diagnosis.

Recognising the goodness of God’s Law and our own inability to keep it, we see that we are daily polluting our beautiful world with our selfish choices (little pleasures at the expense of others, little lies to deflect the blame) and that we cannot stop the ripples from those choices poisoning other lives. Of course, it all gets lost in the maelstrom of life as we know it; but if I were the only one sending out these evil ripples, among perfect people who lived as I would like them to live, I would deserve to be exterminated. By that measure, we all do.

So, we can only ask God for mercy – which is what He was waiting for: He never expected us to do it alone. Coming into our world in the person of Jesus Christ and being executed unjustly, He squares the circle (as it were) of implacable justice and infinite mercy; rising from the dead, He offers a new kind of life to all who come to Him, a life based not on the Law but on faith in Him. It is a life that can deal honestly with the sh*t and has the power to overcome it.

In an agony of prayer the night before He died, Jesus faced a choice: to die an horrendous human death in order to make this new life possible for us, or to cut and run. He made His choice, and said to His Father in heaven: “Not what I want, but what You want!” All He asks is that we say the same to Him.

I will say no more. If you would like to take this further in private, please email me at

Clive Bates said...

Adrian - the trouble is all these heroic attempts to defend the scriptures - which are interesting by the way - (only 11 references to stoning to death!) don't really address the main problem... which is that the central story just isn't true, nor is it necessary or satisfactory as an explanation for why the world is as it is for our origins. Nor is there credible evidence for it - or many more would believe and the world religions would be far more mutually compatible than they are.

I do recommend Richard Dawkins' book, though I could see why his tone would be annoying to the devout. If not, how about Daniel Dennett's - Breaking the Spell? Much more measured than Dawkins and more philosophical - I'm reading it now.

Anonymous said...

So what is your explanation for the origin of the Universe? For good and evil, and for justice? I am sure that you want an answer for that, because I'm sure that you find ethnic cleansing as repulsive as I do - but why should it bother you?
Maybe it comes down to this: what is your explanation for Clive Bates? Are you really sure that you are nothing more than a gibbering chemical accident with no real meaning or purpose? I don't think so. I think God loves you.