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Through a Glass Darkly
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. ;-)