True Reason and the New Atheist: a book review

The New Atheists declaim God and religion as outmoded and evil. To them, faith is not reasonable but an irrational hypothesis with dire consequences for the human race. Belief in God has underwrote henious crimes against humanity: the fall of the two towers, the crusades, etc. And so the New Atheists describe themselves as the ‘party of reason’ chooses to ground their convictions in empirical, material evidence. But is the New Atheism a reasonable alternative to Christian truth?  Which is reasonable alternative?

In True Reason: Confronting the Irrationality of the New Atheism, Tom Gilson and Carson Weitnauer have gathered together over a dozen Christian apologists in order to answer two questions: (1) Do the New Atheists reason well? (2) Do Christians fare any better. Contributors include John Snowstreet, Tom Gilson, Carson Weitnauer, William Lane Craig, Chuck Edwards, David Marshall, Lenny Esposito, David Wood, Peter Grice, Timothy McGrew, Samuel Youngs, Sean McDowell, John DePoe, Randall Hardman, Matthew Flannagan, and Glenn Sunshine.

Of the so-called ‘four horsemen of the New Atheism,’ True Reason interacts most with Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. The late Christopher Hitchens is referenced but his arguments are not focused on in a substantial way (though the God question is now more firmly settled for him). Daniel Dennett is barely mentioned (except in the notes) but several New Atheist lesser lights are referenced (i.e. Loftus, RIchard Carrier, etc.).  Dawkins and Harris remain highly visible and influential figures who tout atheism’s rationality and the unreasonableness of faith. It makes sense for these authors to focus here.

The multi-author approach allows for an interdisciplinary answer to New Atheist claims. Logic, cosmology, ethics, and history are drawn on by various authors to show that the New Atheist answers arevastly overly simple. A close analysis of Dawkins and Harris’s arguments show how much of their rhetoric rests on rhetoric rather than reason and they are guilty of fuzzy logic in a number of respects (Chapters by Chuck Edwards and Tom Gilson are particularly good on this score).

I think that these apologists (as a group) make a good case for the reasonableness of Christian belief and point out flaws in  the New Atheist perspective. I am a Christian, so perhaps biased in my assessment here, but I do think that this book illustrates well that some of what New Atheists call ‘reason’ is not reason, and some aspects of Christian belief that they dismiss as unreasonable, has a rational basis. This doesn’t mean that all Christians are reasonable and all New Atheists are not. What they do show, is that the religion criticized by Harris and Dawkins is a bit of a strawman.

Having done college ministry at a secular university, I knew several students who were enamored with the likes of Hitchens, Dawkins and Harris. I think this is an important contribution to dismantling the foundations of the New Atheism. Christians who are unsure of the reasonableness of their faith, will be encouraged and strengthened by these arguments and will find a quick reference to some of the thorny apologetic questions from their secular, non-Christian friends. This is a great resource.

While this book answers difficult questions, I wish that there was more pastoral sensitivity in places. I don’t mean that the authors are insensitive and uncaring, but this volume stays focused on the topic of reason where a more holistic approach may get at the heart of some the New Atheist issues. If we acknowledge that many of the New Atheist claims aren’t ‘reasonable’ but represent an emotional appeal, we begin to see these arguments for what they are. When Hitchens or Harris talk about the evil of 9-11 and blame religious belief, they speak out of a profound sense of woundedness, anger and bitterness for the injustice of it.  I applaud the focus on thinking well and understanding the reason for our faith–there is far too much flabby thinking about God; however a holistic response to the new atheists needs to deal directly with this anger and bitterness (not just show that blaming God is false causation). I think this is what is missing in some of the essays.

But there are essays in here that deal with some of the thorny issues: the existence of evil, Christian historic response to slavery, the ‘Canaanite genocide,’ etc. I think being able to answer these questions as they come up is important, and so I think this book is a great resource to have on hand.  I give True Reason four stars for presenting well the reasonableness of Christian truth with philosophical acumen.

Thank you to Kregel Publications for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

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