This week I engaged in a radio debate with an atheist on Unbelievable on Premier Christian Radio (which you can listen to here). My interlocutor was a British atheist, a retired biology teacher who goes by the pseudonym Elliot George. In his book, Godbuster, George attempts to dismantle theistic belief. I knew when I saw the front cover that the book was unlikely to be particularly professional or intellectually challenging. After all, who writes “Dare you read this?” on the front cover of an intellectually serious piece of work? This initial impression was further compounded when I noticed that the book contains no citations or references, except for the occasional in-text citation to YouTube or Wikipedia. Apparently Elliot George was even reliant upon Wikipedia as his source for the ten commandments (p. 125).
The intellectual content of the book is also confronted with severe problems. The book showed little, if any, engagement or interaction with high-level Christian argumentation. No serious Christian arguments were addressed by the book. Instead, George throughout the book persists in attacking strawmen, even redefining terminology to comport with his position.
George employs throughout the book a definition of “belief” that differs starkly with the manner in which the word is commonly used in everyday communication. On page 52, George lists the qualities of “facts” vs. “beliefs”. According to George, while facts are “supported by evidence”, beliefs are based on “no supporting evidence” and “no repeatable observations.” I would have to disagree with George on this point. While George is correct to distinguish between beliefs and facts (beliefs are subject to change; facts are not subject to change and are true irrespective of whether people believe them to be so), beliefs can certainly correspond to facts. Beliefs can frequently be based on evidence. Indeed, a search of the scientific literature at PubMed.org reveals many scientific papers where scientists will say that they believe this or that in view of the presented data.
George also seeks to redefine the word “faith” (a common tactic among the new atheists) such that it likewise means adherence to a set of propositions without rational justification — or, as he puts it, “unquestioned, unevidenced belief” (p. 49). What makes “faith” different from “belief” in George’s view? He tells us: “Faith is just a set of beliefs held with more determination but no better justification,” (p.51). On page 39, he asserts that faith is “a system of strongly held but unfounded beliefs” and that “confidence is not faith.” There is a small problem with this, however: the word “confidence” is itself is derived from the Latin con (with) and fides (faith) — it thus literally means, “with faith“! The Greek word translated “faith” in our Bibles is pistis, which carries the connotation of “trust”. It has nothing to do with whether one has good evidence to justify one’s faith. Indeed, faith can be both rationally justified or unjustified.
What sort of faith does the Bible instruct believers to have? In Proverbs 14:15, we read, “The simple believes everything, but the prudent gives thought to his steps.” Furthermore, 1 Peter 3:15 tells us to “always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.” Christians, then, are called to a reasonable faith. There were many apologists among the early ante-nicene church fathers (among them, Justin Martyr, Theophilus of Antioch, Tertullian, Origen, etc) who clearly believed that Christianity had strong intellectual merit. Furthermore, many of the apostolic fathers including Peter, Paul, Apollos and Stephen engaged in debate, intellectually contending for the faith. Speaking of Apollos, for instance, the book of Acts (18:28) says of him that “he powerfully refuted the Jews in public, showing by the Scriptures that the Christ was Jesus.” Faith is defined for us by Theophilus of Antioch in the second century, in his Apology to the pagan Autolycus (book 1, chapter 8):
“Do you not know that faith is the leading principle in all matters? For what husbandman can reap, unless he first trust his seed to the earth? Or who can cross the sea, unless he first entrust himself to the boat and the pilot? And what sick person can be healed, unless first he trust himself to the care of the physician? And what art or knowledge can any one learn, unless he first apply and entrust himself to the teacher? If, then, the husbandman trusts the earth, and the sailor the boat, and the sick the physician, will you not place confidence in God, even when you hold so many pledges at His hand?”
There, faith is clearly defined as being synonymous with trust according to Scripture and church history.
What is Evidence?
Chapter 4 of the book concerns the nature of evidence. I also had some disagreements with this chapter. For example, George claims that personal experiences are “valueless as evidence” (p. 56). Really? Then how, may I ask, does Elliot George know the material world exists? Does he have anything to go on besides his own personal experience?
George further claims on page 65 that “There has been no evidence produced to support the claim that there is any god throughout all of history.” Again, this is a claim that is extremely easy to refute, for George has here confused “no evidence” with “insufficient evidence”. I would adopt a Bayesian understanding of what constitutes “evidence” — that is to say, E is evidence for H if and only if probability of H given E is greater than the probability of H in the absence of E. Thus, it is incontrovertible that there is evidence for the existence of God. But is it sufficient to warrant belief? I would argue so. But that is a separate discussion.
I identified trivial factual mistakes in the book that could have been avoided by some very simple research. Among them was the claim that “The Bible was edited in the 4th century AD under the command of Emperor Constantine and it has been translated, transcribed and re-edited many times since,” (p 62). No source is provided for this assertion, and no ancient historian would seriously entertain such a claim. On the very next page, George makes a blunder concerning the Qur’an, asserting that it “dates back to the 6th century.” The Qur’an is alleged to have been revealed between 610 and 632 A.D., which would mean that it dates back to the seventh century.
On page 65, George makes a further blunder: “Emperor Constantine even sent one of his women to the ‘holy land’ to search for evidence to support Christianity when he decided to adopt it as the Roman Empire’s State religion.” I have never seen any mention of such a woman being sent to the holy land in any of the primary sources. It is possible that I have missed it, but George’s book provides no citation. As for the Emperor Constantine adopting Christianity as the official state religion of the Empire, that isn’t quite true — although it is a popular misconception. The edict of Milan (313 A.D.) granted religious freedom to the Roman Empire, thus making Christianity permissible. It was thus an edict of tolerance, not of making Christianity the official religion of the state. With that said, Constantine did grant a great many favors to Christians, exempting the churches from certain taxes, granting them lands, and underwriting the building of basilicas. Non-Christians were required to pay for some of these building projects, and so there may be a grain of truth in George’s assertion. But it was in fact the Emperor Theodosius I (379-395 A.D.) who made Nicene Christianity the official state religion of the Empire with the Edict of Thessalonica in 380 A.D.
On page 46, George claims that the birth of Mithras out of a rock was “an event that was celebrated on December 25th”. It is true that Mithras was born out of a rock, but it is not true that his birth was celebrated on December 25th. The festival of the sun, natalis Invicti, was not a festival specific to the Mysteries of Mithras.
He also claims that “3000 yrs ago, the Ancient Romans believed in Dionysus who was born of a virgin on December 25th. He was a travelling teacher who turned water into wine and was called ‘Holy Child’!” This is just completely false. His birth was in fact celebrated on January 6th. He was not born of a virgin, but Zeus sexually impregnated his mother Semele. Moreover, there is no version of the story in which he is ever referred to as “Holy Child”. The Adventures of Leucippe and Clitophon by Achilles Tatius is the earliest possible reference to Dionysus turning water into wine. That was written in the 2nd century A.D. Even if one grants that the myth may have pre-Christian origins, it is a real stretch to interpret this as claiming that Dionysus turned water into wine. The myths purports Dionysus to have introduced wine into the world, calling it “the water of summer and saying “This is the water, this is the spring.”
It may seem like nitpicking to point out some of the above errors. But remember that this book is claiming to occupy the intellectual high ground. The book criticizes religious people for promulgating erroneous information concerning, for instance, evolution. Is it too much, then, to expect the author of such a book to research and present information responsibly?
The Origins of the Universe
Chapter 7 concerns the origins of the Universe, and I agree with George’s arguments for the Big Bang and his conclusion that the Universe had a beginning. What George fails to address, however, are the cosmological and teleological arguments. Indeed, these arguments do not even get a mention in the book!
Arguments for Evolution
George writes that “Evolution simply means change. If you accept that you need a new flu vaccine each year because the flu virus has changed, you are accepting evolution,” (p. 97). Does he really think that this is the bone of contention? I don’t know anybody who would reject the proposition that species change over time — not even young earth creationists would assert that. The question is not “Is evolution by natural selection a real process?” but “Is evolution by natural selection causally sufficient to explain the complexity and diversity of life we see on earth today?” He also notes that “evolution has nothing to say yet about the origin of life; that’s another question.” He is right — but that doesn’t get him off the hook. In order to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist, natural mechanisms must be adequate to account for the design-like features of living systems and the information required for the origin of the first life. Information, in every other realm of experience, uniformly traces it source back to an intelligent agent. Thus, the best — most causally adequate — explanation of the information necessary for the first life is that it too arose by virtue of an intelligent agent.
On page 100, George claims that “there is no reason to imagine a boundary between ‘little’ bits of natural selection and ‘big’ bits. Where would you put this ‘boundary’?” There are in fact several reasons, that I have discussed quite at length in my writing, for thinking that there is indeed a limit to what neo-Darwinism can accomplish. For a brief discussion of some of that evidence, I refer readers to my Apologetics315 podcast on evolution and intelligent design.
George proceeds to critique arguments that no intellectually reputable or educated person would make in critique of biological evolution. Such arguments might be entertained by people who have never taken the time to seriously study the subject. But shouldn’t George, since he claims the intellectual high ground, seek to address the best arguments available rather than the worst? Examples of such weak arguments are “Evolution is driven solely by random chance”; “If we evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?” and so forth. Furthermore, most of the arguments presented in the chapter attempt to substantiate the proposition of universal common ancestry or that natural selection is a real process. But this falls short of a demonstration of the causal sufficiency of the neo-Darwinian mechanism.
So what about George’s arguments for common ancestry? Do they stand up? His first exhibit is the fossil record. For a critique of this argument, I refer readers to my article here.
His second exhibit is the cellular and molecular evidence. He notes that,
“Early microscopists noticed that all creatures are made of cells and almost every cell contains a nucleus. More recently, electron microscopes have enabled the detection of two other omnipresent cellular organelles, mitochondria and ribosomes and centrifugal fractionation has shown that all cellular organisms have DNA as their genetic material. The ubiquitious nature of these components is an obvious example of common ancestry.
George fails to provide, however, a reason to favor the common ancestry hypothesis over the common design hypothesis. George also mentions that,
“Our recently acquired ability to read the genetic code on the DNA has uncovered facts such as the percentage of genes we humans share with other species: Bacteria share 7% with us, Mustard Cress 15%, Roundworms 21%, Fruit fly 36%, Zebra Fish 85%, Chimpanzee 98%. Notice that the closer you get to human anatomy, the greater the genetic similarity. The best explanation for such progressive commonality is that organisms share a ‘family tree’ with branches coming off an ancestral ‘trunk’; in other words, we have evolved.”
George also deploys the argument from biogeography. For a discussion of that, I refer readers to my article here.
George mentions the argument from suboptimal design, with specific reference to the inverse wiring of the vertebrate retina and the recurrent laryngeal nerve. For my response to this argument, I refer readers to my article here.
A Poor Case Against Religion
On page 147, George lists ten of what he considers to be the “worst Bible passages, which indicate, in the mind of their readers, approval for sexism, genocide and slavery.” I will provide a brief response to these here.
No. 1. 1 Timothy 2:12
“I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.”
Yes, the Apostle Paul does forbid a woman from teaching. But it doesn’t follow that he does not regard men and women as equals. Indeed, in Galatians 3:28 he tells us that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Paul was a complementarian — and believed that there were different roles that were to be fulfilled by men and women. But this is not to insinuate that men and women are not equal.
No. 2. 1 Samuel 15:3
“This is what the Lord Almighty says… ‘Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.'”
Of course, quite aside from his failure to mention the exceeding wickedness of the Canaanites (such as their ritualistic child sacrifices), George fails to mention the context. In 1 Samuel 27:8, we read,
“Now David and his men went up and made raids against the Geshurites, the Girzites, and the Amalekites, for these were the inhabitants of the land from of old, as far as Shur, to the land of Egypt.”
Then the Amalekites show up again in 1 Samuel 30. In verse 1, we read:
“Now when David and his men came to Ziklag on the third day, the Amalekites had made a raid against the Negeb and against Ziklag. They had overcome Ziklag and burned it with fire.”
It seems quite clear, then, that Soul didn’t wipe out all of the Amalekites. Nor did David complete the job, since 1 Samuel 30:17 tells us that four hundred of them escaped his pursuit. Indeed, they show up again some 250 years later during the time of King Hezekiah (1 Chronicles 4:43)!
Furthermore, the “city of Amalek” spoken of in 1 Samuel 15:5 was most likely a fortified military encampment. The phrae “both man and woman, child and infant…” is probably, as argued by Paul Copan in his book Is God a Moral Monster?, “stereotypical for describing all the inhabitants of a town or region,” and need not imply anything regarding the ages or genders of the people being slain.
No. 3. Exodus 22:18
“Do not allow a sorceress to live.”
Sorcery was a practice that God took very seriously. Under the law of theocratic Israel, the penalty for practicing sorcery was death. This law, however, is no longer applicable today. If Christianity is indeed true, and such genuine sorcery was indeed practiced, then it seems that this is not an unfair punishment.
No. 4. Psalm 137:9
“Happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us — he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.”
Again, one has to examine the context. The context is the captivity in Babylon. In verses 1-3, the Psalmist speaks of the Babylonians as committing atrocities against God’s people. The Psalmist writes that he wishes that the same be done to Babylon as was done to Israel — that their infants be dashed against the rocks. The psalmist’s request is not necessarily approved of by God, and there is nothing in the context to suggest that it necessarily was.
No. 5. Judges 19:25-28
“So the man took his concubine and sent her outside to them, and they raped and abused her throughout the night, and at dawn they let her go. At daybreak the woman went back to the house, where her master was staying, fell down at the door and lay there until daylight. When her master got up in the morning and opened the door of the house and stepped out to continue on his way, there lay his concubine, fallen in the doorway of the house, with her hands on the threshold. He said to her, ‘Get up; let’s go.’ But there was no answer. Then the man put her on his donkey and set out for home.”
George comments that “Group rape of servants is permissible according to the Bible! More benefits for men!” The only problem, of course, is that the text nowhere indicates or even suggests that the rape was approved by God. This account is descriptive, not prescriptive.
No. 6. Romans 1:27
“In the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.”
This may well upset modern western sensibilities but I have no problem with calling homosexuality an immoral practice. In what position is Elliot George to sit as judge and morally critique God?
No. 7. Judges 11:30-31, 34-35
“And Jepthah gave a vow to the Lord, and said, ‘If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the Lord’s, to be offered up by me as a burnt-offering.’ Then Jepthah came into his home at Mizpah; and there was his daughter coming out to meet him with timbrels and with dancing. She was his only child; he had no son or daughter except her. When he saw her, he tore his clothes, and said ‘Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low; you have become the cause of great trouble to me. For I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot take back my vow.'”
The vow that Jepthah made here cannot have been pleasing to God, since his vow was made in order to purchase favor, not to express gratitude to God. In any case, it seems to me unlikely that Jepthah really did offer his daughter as a burnt offering. That would have been an abomination to the Lord. Rather, it seems more likely that she was to be offered as a “living sacrifice”. She was to live a life consecrated to the Lord’s service, remaining unmarried and apart from her family.
Number 8: Genesis 22
“Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt-offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.”
Again, George completely misses the context. Isaac was the promised covenant son that God had given to Abraham. God was testing Abraham’s faith in God’s integrity in keeping His promises. Abraham knew that God would not go back on His word to bless all nations through Isaac and to found a people (namely, Israel) through him.
Number 9: Ephesians 5:22
“Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord!”
George claims that this constitutes “Biblical authorization of misogyny” but really it is nothing of the kind. Believing that wives ought to submit to their husbands is not misogyny, and George would have done well to read the context. Here are verses 22-25:
“Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her,”
The relationship between the husband and his wife is intended to typify the relationship between Christ and the church. Just as the church walks in full submission to Christ and Christ loves the church to the extent that He was willing to lay down His life for her, so the wife ought to submit to her husband and the husband ought to love his wife self-sacrificially. One could even argue that the bar is far higher for a husband than for a wife. There is no greater or honorable love than that which is self-sacrificial even to the point of laying down one’s own life.
Number 10: 1 Peter 2:18
“Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the cruel.”
What George fails to mention is that slave trading is explicitly condemned in Scripture (1 Timothy 1:20; Exodus 21:16). Peter in the cited text acknowledges that slavery exists and gives instructions to slaves to serve their masters well and so be a good witness to them for Christ — this text does not condone slavery.
This review represents only a brief summary of some of the problems with the book. There are many more problems with George’s position than I have the time or inclination to address. Can Elliot George defend his position under cross examination? Listen to the debate to find out.