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.

Take a Shot and You’ll Be Stoked: a book review

Mitch Stoke's Shot It is no secret that since the twin towers fell just over ten years ago, certain atheists have gotten louder and much more forceful in their opposition to religion. The late Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett, are dubbed the four horseman of the new atheism and have set to work showing up religious believers for their lack of evidence, failure to reckon with modern science, and the manifold ways that religion drives war, injustice and cruel acts (like Sept. 11, for example). In the face of such vitriolic opposition what are believers to do? Does belief in God even make sense?

Mitch Stokes has written a thoughtful book aimed at bolstering the faith of ordinary believers by augmenting their beliefs in God with some of the thoughtful arguments provided from Christian philosophy. Senior Fellow of Philosophy at New St. Andrews College in Moscow, Idaho, Stokes was an engineer before earning a masters in religion at Yale under Nicholas Wolterstorff, and a Ph.D in philosophy at Notre Dame under Alvin Plantinga and Peter van Inwagen. If these names ring a bell then you know that Stokes has a good academic pedigree, but this is not a book of academic philosophy. Rather it is meant to present the insights of Christian philosophy at a popular level.

Stokes organizes his book into four sections (3 parts with an intermission between Part One and Two). In Part One, Stokes tackles the conjecture that belief in God is irrational by demonstrating that neither Christians and atheists simply trust the evidence, but have to accept certain facts as ‘basic beliefs.’ The motto’follow the evidence’ in bequeathed to us from the Enlightenment, but it is impossible for us to only believe what we have personal evidence for. Rather we accept certain things as basic. Christianity can be ‘rational’ and not reliant solely on evidence for faith in God. In fact, according to Scripture it is the Spirit that reveals Himself to us and not our reading of the evidence.

In a short intermission, Stokes lays out what you can expect or not expect from an argument. He doesn’t think that you can argue an atheist into the kingdom of God (not the purpose of this book) or dismantle every argument but does see the importance of argument for intellectual engagement and giving believers confidence that there are actual reasonable supports for the faith.

In Parts Two and Three, Stokes engages the two main arguments against the existence of God from athiests: the challenge of science and the challenge of evil. He argues that science no where disproves God and that the inference for design may be made from many findings. He challenges the claims of purely naturalistic evolution. He argues that the existence of evil is due to human freedom and that God’s ways transcend our own (he might have good reasons for allowing evil that we don’t understand from our vantage point).

I really enjoyed this book and thought that it would be accessible to a general audience (though not necessarily an easy read for all). I think that Part One, where Stokes dismantles evidentialist claims. I think his weakest section is part three where he tackles the problem of evil. I generally agree with his conclusions but he introduces the problem of evil as a cosmic problem (the existence of parasitic wasps observed by Charles Darwin) but then seems to restrict most of his discussion to human evil (in two short chapters!). I think he should have unpacked this problem a little more.

That being said, I think this book is welcome apologetic resource for Christians who are perturbed by the claims of the New Atheists and other antagonists.

Thank you to Thomas Nelson for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for this review.