on 15 March 2008
David Robertson is a Scottish Presbyterian who ministers in Dundee. Having read Dawkins 'God Delusion' he decided to respond with a series of letters addressing the major themes of the book. These include letters addressing: the notion that atheists are the truly enlightened, intelligent ones; the impossibility of true beauty without God; the myth of atheist tolerance and rationality; the myth of a cruel Old Testament God; the false dichotomy Dawkins creates between science and religion; the "who made God?" argument; the nonsense that all religion is inherently evil; the myth of morality within an atheistic worldview; the myth of an immoral bible, and; the charge of child abuse.
Where to start? The first half of the book is definitely less persuasive than the latter. One might conjecture that Robertson's understandable irritation with Dawkins slides off into sarcasm and thus dents the force of his presentation. Seriously critiquing Dawkins view of "multiverses" could have been achieved without mockery. Even if, especially at this point, one does think that Dawkins might deserve a dose of his own medicine. Further, the brevity he must deal with each topic to fit his chosen format (short letters), inevitably leads to some shortcuts in his arguments. For example, Robertson doesn't really address some of the real moral problems from reading the Old Testament. This is an area he really should have spent considerably more time on, as it's something one hears more and more often. His letter on this, frankly, comes across as assertion rather than explanation for how Christians view this problematic material. It lacks substance and wanders off into preaching/proclamation rather than tackling the difficulties. This was the most disappointing chapter in the book.
Nonetheless, things pick up considerably in the second half of the book. The tone changes, becoming less polemical, and far more compellingly argued. Indeed, the strongest letters cover the basis for morality without God and whether religion is really the source of all evil. Here Robertson takes Dawkins to task for his continual oversimplification, ad hominem polemics, failure to express what Christians actually believe rather than his straw-man caricatures, and his genuine failure to engage informed and erudite Christian tradition. To say one does not need to know about spaghetti monsters is surely effective and clever rhetoric, but is simply a strategy of evasion, an utter cop out to avoid being challenged by the best of Christian thought. The latter half of the book also pushes Dawkins to consider the outcome of his polemics and where it might lead, especially in view of the irresponsible charge of child abuse.
Overall, Robertson's book is well worth reading, if only for the latter half of the book, which is passionately expressed, critically on target, and better representative of the concerns about the underlying philosophy Dawkins holds. Moral relativity and the drive of the selfish gene unchecked by the good, loving, and holy God revealed in the face of Jesus, are more likely to lead to 'might is right' and 'the ends justify the means' than 'care for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger in your midst' and 'love your neighbour'.
Perhaps some day, when the heat has gone out of the current polemics, Robertson will write a much more lengthy and detailed response. If he does, I'd be glad to read it.
on 21 December 2008
Like the previous reviewer (S.Gerhard) I came to this book because I'd read The God Delusion (which I enjoyed, although it's not without its weak points) and wanted to read a Christian response. I'd already listened to a recording of a lecture given by Robertson at Queens College, Belfast and although unconvinced by the content, wasn't totally discouraged and thought that I'd read the book anyway, thinking it might have more to offer. Unfortunately, I can't really say that it does. Like the lecture, the book relies heavily on rhetoric and the substitution faith-based assertion in place of argument - something already pointed out by previous (non-Chrisitan) reviewers. Robertson also does all the things he accuses Dawkins of doing, e.g. preaching to the choir and taking statements out of context/misrepresenting them. His 'atheist myths' are a mixture of exaggerated caricatures of Dawkins' position and `Christian myths' turned on their head. The whole first chapter, for example, is built around a misconstrual of Dawkins' term "consciousness raising". In chapter ten, he seizes on Dawkins' rhetoric comparing the religious indoctrination of children with child sexual abuse and runs with it to create a paranoid 1984 scenario where Stalinist-atheist thought-police come around to take Christians' children away from them (p.115). Surely neither he nor anyone else can seriously believe that this is what Dawkins is advocating? Although his taking offence at the comparison with paedophiles is understandable, it's worth pointing out that Robertson himself is happy to employ rhetoric equating loving relationships between consenting adults with the sexual abuse of children, when those adults happen to be of the same sex (p.38).
Many of the previous Christian reviewers of this book praise David Robertson as "gracious and humble" or some such, whilst lambasting Richard Dawkins as splentitive, vitriolic, ranting, etc. I'm afraid I don't really see a significant difference in tone between the two books. Robertson easily matches Dawkins in terms of scorn and ridicule, and is certainly no slouch when it comes to patronizing condescension, e,g, Robertson derides the question of the origin of God as being at the level of a six-year-old. While he is entitled to that opinion and that response, I do feel obliged to point out that perhaps the reason six-year-olds ask such questions is that it only requires the intellect of a six-year-old to recognise "God has always existed' for the lazy special pleading it is.
There are inconsistencies too. On the subject of morality, Robertson argues for an absolute morality that can be derived from the Bible, while elsewhere insisting that we take the Bible in its historical context - you can't have it both ways. If you assume morality is absolute and can be derived from the Bible, then if Abraham's willingness to slit his son's throat was pleasing to God in the Middle Bronze Age then it's pleasing to God now. Similarly, if the Lord is happy to command (and assist in) wholesale slaughter across an entire region (Josh. 10,40), then how do you get the idea that God frowns on genocide today? During the plagues of Egypt it is frequently God who `hardens pharaoh's heart' (so much for free-will!) to prevent him from allowing the Israelites depart - the purpose of this is to allow God the opportunity to demonstrate his power by sending more plagues to afflict the Egyptians (Exod. 10,1ff.), i.e to show-off. This kind of manipulation can hardly be considered moral. If David Robertson has explanations for these passages (some of which were raised by Dawkins) I'd be interested to hear them, but they should be real explanations. It's not enough to simply cite another passage in which God's got his `nice-God' hat on or simply assert: `I've read the OT and I think God is nice - trust me on this one, I'm an expert.' Well, I've read the OT too, and it strikes me that the overarching message is not love but obedience: Follow God's commands and he'll be nice to you; disobey him and he'll afflict you in all kinds of nasty ways (cf. Lev. 26,14-39). This is, of course, the moral of the Abraham story - total (unthinking) obedience brings God's favour. But I digress - the point is that I agree entirely with Robertson when he says that you have to view the Bible in its historical context. The morality on display in the OT is entirely consistent with the Bronze/Iron Age context it derives from - a harsh and callous world that called for a harsh and callous God. This hardly recommends the OT as an instruction manual of absolute morality.
I have countless other objections to what David Robertson says and how he says it but I've almost run out of space and I don't want to rubbish the book completely. There are some valid points tucked away amongst the rhetoric and at the very least it provides an insight into the Christian position and mode of thought. If you're a non-believer, you'll find it a frustrating read, but persevere with an open-mind and you will find some food for thought. If you're a believer you'll obviously find a lot you agree with as the book is aimed at a Christian audience. At this point I can't avoid a final criticism. In the section on further reading, David Robertson says he can't recommend that his readers also read Dawkins' book - they can take his word for how bad it is! This strikes me as an astonishing statement for someone purportedly in favour of open-mindedness, considering the other side of the argument and thinking for oneself. It would seem that this only applies to atheists; Christians should read Christian-friendly books and simply believe what their pastor tells them about mad, bad, dangerous-to-know Dawkins. This is, of course, utter nonsense. Read The Dawkins Letters by all means, but read The God Delusion as well (again with an open mind, if possible) - who knows, you may even find some of your Christian myths challenged. ;-)
on 25 November 2015
The book is a useful alternative view to Richard Dawkins' arguments for atheism ("The God Delusion"). I don't agree with every argument that David Robertson puts forward, but he writes in an accessible and fairly logical way. David counters Richard's arguments by a) pointing out some unscientific (or illogical) conclusions drawn from certain episodes in history and/or from scientific discoveries and b) pointing out that picking out a few examples of Christians behaving badly is not a reasonable argument for the non-existence of God. I also found it useful to read “Rescuing Darwin: God and evolution in Britain today” by Nick Spencer and Denis Alexander (published by Theos).
on 22 June 2007
Christians, particularly of the evangelical type to whom Robertson belongs, can be really bad at responding intelligently to arguments against their beliefs. They tend either to flail wildly, retreat into comfortable ghettos or fail to engage properly at all. So it is refreshing to get a book like Robertson's that refuses to resort to type but instead provides an intelligent, reasoned, compassionate and compelling argument that manages to deal properly with the real issues.
Robertson does a superb job of not only addressing the issues that Dawkins' book The God Delusion raises (challenging ad hominem arguments, pointing out logical inconsistencies), but also at taking on wider myths, as he calls them, employed in Atheist rhetoric. It does not come across as a tub-thumpers' wild ravings, but rather as a book that constructively deals with bigger arguments.
If you are a Christian then this is a great book to read to help you talk with atheist friends. Buy a few copies and give them away. Or if you have been challenged by reading The God Delusion then this book will cause you to think again about why you believe what you do believe.
The call often goes out for Christians to dare to read the books of prominent atheists, but having read this I would issue the opposite challenge: If you are an atheist, if you are serious about having your ideas tested and engaging in real debate, I dare you to read the Dawkins Letters.
on 1 October 2007
I took up Gaston's challenge above with enthusiasm, but found myself very disappointed. As a former Christian with a theological training, now an atheist, I am following "The God Debate" with interest. I enjoyed Dawkins' book, though it definitely has its faults, and was interested to read what seems to be regarded as the best Christian rebuttal.
It is an easy read and makes some good points, but I found Robertson's book very annoying in parts. Again and again, he acknowledges one of Dawkins' points, makes an assertion, does not back it up, then falls back on rhetoric. For example, one of Dawkins' arguments is that the God of the Old Testament is frequently vicious and cruel. Personally, I think it is a good point. I am waiting for Robertson to explain to me how to explain Abraham being ready to kill his son, or Joshua wiping out a nation. But no. This is skated over and we read about a God who is apparently "a God of mercy, justice, beauty, holiness" etc. This is preaching, not argument.
I could give other examples, but this isn't the appropriate forum to continue the debate itself. This book is worth reading, to get a Christian perspective, but its lack of follow-through and intellectual rigour is intensely frustrating. Maybe at some point a Christian will deliver a thought-out, robust reply to Dawkins' arguments. Until then, we can only wait.
on 17 January 2012
I was about to add some fulsome comments about this book when I saw that Mr Haswell had done it before me and very well, too. My copy of David's book has pencil notes down most pages and Mr Haswell has covered most of them and most articulately. I must add: I too was annoyed at the slur on anyone asking about the origin of God. This is a common response to this fundamental question.('Treat it with disdain or we may have to consider it seriously'!) David fails to understand that by asserting that the universe is so wonderful that it requires a creator, Christians have invoked a specific principle, viz, anything wonderful requires a creator. The 'Who created God?' question is merely to apply the self-same principle to justify the existence of God! If you don't like the principle, don't use it! David's attempt to ridicule the question as worthy of a six(teen?) year old is not only regrettable but also displays a shallowness of thinking born of his dependence on the existence of God.
And that is the problem really. Someone who feels that their life would be meaningless without God is hardly likely to be able to discuss evidence about his existence objectively. This is evident in the many books written to challenge Dawkins or atheism generally. It becomes clear that the writers have a common starting point - two immovable assumptions: a) God exists b) he is all those things that Christians believe him to be. One could have more sympathy with those who say 'I can't answer that'. There is also a tendency to try to paint atheism as a belief system diametrically opposite Theism, rather like devil-worship because it's then easier to counter-attack. But atheism is not a belief system, any more than belief in a round earth. It's simple disbelief! Atheism is based on evidence, theism on need. A theist needs God; an atheist doesn't need the absence of God. In fact most atheists wouldn't care tuppence if there actually were a Christian God (though not an Old Testament God with his psychopathic tendencies). It would be rather like a flat earth. It would change things but we would adjust!
Very few theists seem consider the significance of their use of the word 'faith' to describe their belief. The whole mantra of theism is shot through with the uncertainty encapsulated in the word. I am always reminded of this by the burial prayer 'in the sure and certain hope of resurrection'. Evidently it is not resurrection which is 'sure and certain', merely the hope of it! But why this uncertainty if theists are as confident as David Robertson? I do not have mere faith that sun will rise or birds fly tomorrow. I KNOW they will. To say that I had only 'faith' that these things will happen would display a considerable and disconcerting level of uncertainty. And so it is with faith in theism.
David's rather disdainful, nit-picking approach is perhaps understandable in view of the abrasive and combative style of Dawkin's book, which for all its length failed to highlight the simple fact that belief in an all-powerful, caring, and above all, good God is rendered totally untenable by the evidence of the millions of innocent men, women and, especially, children, who have been drowned, suffocated, incinerated and crushed in those little quirks of 'God's wonderful creation' - floods, tsunamis, volcanoes and earthquakes. I find theists' response to that evidence is always a little less assured than David's to Dawkins.
on 4 March 2008
What many people seem unwilling to say is that Dawkins isn't an atheist. Atheism is a vacuum: it takes no offense at Christianity because it simply doesn't believe. Another reviewer used Dawkins' stamp-collecting analogy, and it's a good one. This is a paraphrase but, essentially, someone who doesn't collect stamps isn't anti-stamps - he just doesn't collect them. Ayup.
As a non-stamp collector, I have no feelings on stamp collecting one way or the other. If one worth a fortune popped through my letterbox tomorrow I'd take an interest, but failing that, I'm indifferent. In all likelihood, most non-stamp collectors are indifferent.
Now, were we to write huge tomes of Dostoyevsky proportion violently spewing hatred and rhetoric at stamps, the art of collecting them and those that do, we would have crossed a line into anti-stamp, and everything that comes with that. This is what Dawkins has done. He used to be interesting, legitimate and intellectual - profoundly so. TGD, however, is a work of irrational anti-God rhetoric. He's segued from atheist to Fundamentalist, Evangelical Anti-Theist, while ostensibly maintaining the former mantel. Disingenuous. Atheism and anti-theism are wildly different things... however, he knows he's preaching to the choir (please forgive) so he can call himself whatever he wishes and those who follow him will nod along regardless, either because they share his anti-theist views, or because of what he *used* to be. (The Blind Watchmaker, for example, is an insanely interesting and well-written book. Thought-provoking, intelligent and a joy to read.) The excellence of his previous offerings has allowed him to hold on to the label SuperRationalAtheist which, now, is very, very misleading and gives him a degree of credibility he no longer deserves.
Ultimately, Dawkins undermines the veracity of the atheist position.
So it really is left to people like David Robertson to "dispell the anti-theist myths" and propaganda put forward by Dawkins. He effortlessly matches Dawkins intellectually, and surpasses him in research. But where he has Dawkins absolute beat is in how gracious he is - something the reviewer before me pointed out, too. Dawkins sees fit to consistently insult Christians, our beliefs, and God. That he has so little respect for the beliefs of others - that he is so fundamentally intolerant - is a damning indictment on his world-view, and audaciously hypocritical. Robertson, though, responds with grace, integrity, humour and self-depreciation.
Where Dawkins seeks to get laughs from like-minded folk at the expense of another, Robertson makes gentle jokes at the expense of himself; where Dawkins decries all people of faith as foolish and deluded (at best), Robertson seeks to understand those who view the world differently from himself. All of that combined makes TDL so much more effective and readable than TGD and, truth be told, the myriad other rebuttals.
Robertson hasn't gotten terribly involved in pushing any agenda or polemic. He is open and honest from the start that he is a man of God, and that for him the Bible is inerrant, and *of course* he talks about God. In a debate about God, God will come up in conversation. However, the meat of TDL meets Dawkins on a level he'd be comfortable with, without preaching or evangelising, and he has done so in a way that invites us all to think for ourselves. Dawkins violently shoves his anti-God faith down peoples' throats; Robertson cites source after source, and asks us to research his faith for ourselves.
For someone who shares Dawkins' anti-theist views, this kind of open-mindedness is anathema, and worthy of scorn. But anyone who wants to see both sides of the story and walk their own path rather than blindly follow Dawkins', this book is wonderful. Equally, any Christian who wishes to become more involved in apologetics could do much, *much* worse than this quiet gem.
on 21 December 2014
Really good read , really helped to put Dawkins assertions into perspective and debunk the more fanciful points made by Dawkins.Helps to sort fact from fiction .
on 2 October 2009
This book really contains some of the least persuasive arguments I have ever read. It is a collection or letters by people with no background in science starting off with an obvious and unashamed bias - that God exists. Many claim that Dawkins' is biased; that he has started off with the premise that God does not exist, but this simply is not so. He was in fact brought up in a Christian environment and changed his world view as evidence has been presented. He clearly states that given real evidence for God he will happily change his view.
This book is full of logical fallacies and total misunderstandings of Dawkins work to the point where it is almost unreadable, such as the argument in chapter 2 explaining that Dawkins' arguments aren't as spiritually satisfying as religious ones and therefore can not be true. What makes people think that the thought of no God given purpose to life is depressing to them, and therefore can not be true? One reader says that to demand a copy of the God Delusion in every school (a demand made by Philip Pullman on the cover) is in itself a form of indoctrination. Not so. Dawkins makes quite clear that he does not want people to blindly follow, merely to think for themselves and question their faith.
The most annoying of the criticisms in this book is one that has been stated over and over again. The writer will state that Dawkins' arguments are childish and not worthy of a high school essay, and yet fail to say why this is the case. They never bother to deconstruct his arguments, and yet feel they are able to criticise Dawkins for not properly deconstructing arguments for God's existence. This is total hypocrisy and itself not worthy of a high school essay. If you want to critique an argument by all means do so, thats what science is about (unlike religion), but for goodness sake do it properly. If you want to read an anti-Dawkins book keep looking as this one is not worth your time, fit only to provide examples of irrational thinking masquerading as reason.
on 28 February 2008
I'm an agnostic. Dawkins' book didn't tip me off the fence into atheism, but this book has me teetering to the 'belief' side of things.
It's well-written, intellectually more rigorous than Dawkins and a damn sight more gracious.
Robertson comes across as a reasonable gentleman; Dawkins as a bit of a ranting toff.