Advent is a time of expectation, a season to remember that the world once longed for a Messiah.
The 25 days are for many a time of heightened faith and renewed religious practice. But in 2008, Advent also comes at a time of greater prominence of those who do not believe in God — and who challenge the beliefs of those who do.
Atheists like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris have gained international prominence, and organizations such as the American Humanist Association that is sponsoring holiday ads with the message “Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness’ sake” perhaps hope that God will be less and less part of the equation in America.
With that in mind, the Register found three recent books that answer the atheists’ charges. We offer them here as Advent reading.
by JOHN GRONDELSKI
Greater Than You Think:
A Theologian Answers the
Atheists About God
By Thomas D. Williams, LC
192 pages, $13.99
To order: faithwords.com
The recent spate of books hawking and popularizing belief in atheism prompted Legionary Father Thomas Williams to write this punchy little riposte, giving Christians the ammunition they need to repel the salvos.
Greater Than You Think is arranged around 27 brief chapters, each taking on particular aspersions thrust at believers (like “Are religious people less intelligent than nonbelievers?” or “Doesn’t religion cause war and violence?”). The book also poses some questions on its own (like “Are atheists more tolerant than believers?” and “Are atheists more generous than their religious counterparts?”).
Father Williams is dean of the Pontifical Regina Apostolorum College in Rome and an occasional Vatican analyst for CBS News. Living in Europe, he’s more exposed to the ascendancy of atheism: In many quarters, secularism is taken for granted and religiosity is a sign of being retrograde, stupid and/or American. The author is not just content with parrying the attacks, but recognizes that the best defense is often a good rhetorical offense.
Responding to charges that religion has been responsible for war and bloodletting, Father Williams asks how comparatively immaculate are the hands of unbelieving critics.
“If we take the century spanning 1900 to 2000, we discover death tolls in the name of religion-free utopias totaling well over 100 million. That’s 100 million human lives arbitrarily snuffed out in the name of a godless paradise. ... Together, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong and Pol Pot produced the kind of mass slaughter that Torquemada couldn’t have dreamed of.”
Father Williams deals with all the usual canards against religion: It is unscientific and anti-science; it misrepresents the origins of the universe; it depends on fanciful (and forged) biblical testimonies. Facing all these problems in one place and addressing them in a pithy way are the key points of this book.
Pithy, however, is often the enemy of profound, and while Father Williams’ comebacks may throw the atheist juggernaut off track, anybody who wants to dig deeper into these issues will need to look elsewhere. Good sound bites do not necessarily lead to in-depth understanding, and — let’s face it — religion, misused, is responsible for some of the less attractive things with which atheism charges it. This book offers a good, popular beginning, but it tends to paint with broad strokes: Those in need of the finer details should treat it as a starting point rather than an end.
I recently listened to a man bemoaning extremism perpetrated in the name of religion. I could also, however, detect an underlying prejudice: Somehow religion itself is an obstacle toward a more humane, rational world. He wasn’t explicitly aware of his own bias and so this book fills a gap. It takes on the flood of pro-atheism literature on the market today and does so on a tart but ultimately optimistic note:
“Some may think that Friedrich Nietzsche was right in saying that religion is a cop-out, that we should have the courage to embrace the absurdity and meaninglessness of human existence without looking further,” Father Williams writes. “Yet Nietzsche could just as well have been dead wrong. Sometimes we are almost too afraid to believe that God is as great as He seems, and we don’t dare to get our hopes up. Sometimes what our faith tells us seems too good to be true. But we must remember that sometimes wishes do come true. Some stories do have a happy ending. Some people — and God is the first among them — really do keep their promises.”
by JOHN GRONDELSKI
Answering the New Atheism:
Dismantling Dawkins’ Case Against God
By Scott Hahn and Benjamin Wiker
Emmaus Road, 2008
151 pages, $12.95
To order: Emmausroad.org
Ever since the logical positivists of the 19th century, “scientists” have acquired a veneer of authority as possessors of pristine “knowledge,” even when pontificating on fields far removed from their competence. Their gleam seemed particularly resplendent when contrasted to the narrow obscurantism of religious minds: Think of the Scopes trial.
Richard Dawkins is the latest in a long line of scientists intent on using evolution not just as a theory to account for the physical origins of life on earth, but as the foundation for a total cosmological Weltanschauung that finally and decisively eradicates the pestilence of religion. The God Delusion is the Oxford scientist’s attempt to drive a nail into religion’s coffin.
Answering the New Atheism is an analysis of Dawkins’ case, a case found to be shoddy, poorly argued and philosophically indefensible.
That perspective is important because, as the authors note, lots of people have been seduced by Dawkins’ “arguments.” Scott Hahn and Benjamin Wiker basically show that those “arguments,” when philosophically scrutinized, collapse under their own contradictions.
The authors score Dawkins on two points: his inexhaustible faith in chance (as long as God does not enter the picture) and his inability ultimately to ground his secular morality in anything other than his preferences. Let’s consider each point.
Dawkins puts unlimited stock in chance. With billions and billions of planets orbiting billions and billions of stars over billions and billions of years, DNA — the building blocks of life — just had to emerge somewhere. Hahn and Wiker point out the problems with this thesis. Just as you cannot build the Empire State Building with mere building blocks, so DNA itself doesn’t get us to life, which requires cells. The billions and billions of mutations required by evolutionary biology to arrive at and hone living cells runs us up against one boundary: time. Earth is not infinite. Even if all the necessary mutations had occurred at a change per second (impossible on an evolutionary scale), we are still temporally far beyond the Big Bang.
But, “against all odds, the simplest cell formed on our planet almost immediately upon our planet being cool enough to allow for the simplest biological life. If getting the right chemical combination to allow for the simplest cell by chance is anything like getting a perfect deal in bridge, we are (if we take Dawkins’ view of things), really, really, really lucky. It looks like somebody stacked the deck,” the authors write. But “that is obviously not the conclusion he wants to draw. … Why such devotion to the great and fickle god, Chance? Quite simple. He would rather believe in anything but God.”
What would an evolutionary morality look like? If “survival of the fittest” is the driver of evolution, then nothing is intrinsically moral or immoral. What helps natural adaptation here and now is moral; what hinders it in these concrete circumstances is immoral.
But Dawkins disavows such a morality of the claw, preferring a morality of “human super niceness.” Such altruism, however, is hardly grounded in the dignity of man, a creature made in the image and likeness of God with an objective nature and an eternal destiny. Dig deep enough and his morality is “a pastiche of Christianity as filtered through 19th-century liberalism (more or less what we would find in John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism) and its radical extension, via Darwinism, into the farther reaches of 21st-century liberalism.” Jesus is “nice” insofar as he is made in the imago Dawkins.
Why read this book? Because a lot of people will read Dawkins’ book, experiencing a crisis of faith because a “scientist” offers rhetorically seductive “explanations” against faith. Philosophical reasoning, alas, has gone into such popular decline that many folks just can’t see how Dawkins is trying to substitute his ersatz faith for the real coin. Hahn and Wiker help open those eyes.
John M. Grondelski writes
from Bern, Switzerland.
Challenging the Creeds of Unbelief
by BRIAN WELTER
The Irrational Atheist:
Dissecting the Unholy Trinity of Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens
By Vox Day
Benbella Books, 2008
305 pages, $19.69
To order: benbellabooks.com
Vox Day’s book succeeds because he lo--cates the split be-tween science-based atheism and Judeo-Christian belief in meaning. Athe---ists and be--lievers are ultimately fighting over the meaning of scientific and technological advancement and its proper use.
Day looks at the basic presuppositions of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and other atheists. He goes on the offensive and plays the game of these atheists, accusing them of being the irrational ones, despite their pride in being rationalist heirs of the Enlightenment.
Rather than a theological argument, Day deconstructs many atheist arguments, eventually concluding late in the book that “Predicated on an unreliable human attribute that may not even exist [rationalism], rejecting the foundation of Man’s most successful civilization ... and refusing to learn from its past disasters, atheism is not so much the basis for an irrational philosophy as for an insane one.”
In his painstaking criticism, he characterizes atheists as irrational because of their major inconsistencies and wrong assumptions on which their entire arguments stand.
He saves most of his acid for Sam Harris and his The End of Faith. Harris, Day notes, has the most basic facts wrong about the religions he disdains: “Harris repeatedly demonstrates an inability to distinguish between the relative significance of the Old Testament to Christians, while raising issues that have been debated by theologians and philosophers for nearly 2,000 years as if they were new and no one had ever thought of them before.”
The Irrational Atheist shows that atheism collapses fairly easily, but not by aggressive evangelism or piety-emotionalism. The book applies to atheists the same standards of consistency and intellectual integrity that atheists pretend they are applying to Christianity.
Day also, in a sense, protects Christianity against atheist abuse by claiming that we are all irrational: “But the ultimate atheist irrationality is the idea that Man himself is rational.”
The author, an evangelical, does not have at his disposal the rich resources of Catholicism. But he develops the wonderful Christian anthropology that mainline churches turned away from in their socialist-feminist rush to create God’s Kingdom on earth. Day notes that none of us makes sense because of our sinfulness, passions and mysteries: “You are not a robot, you are a human being. Man is not a rational animal, he is a rationalizing one who uses his intellect to construct reasons in post facto defense of his irrational desires.”
Day opens the way to a deeper sense of mystery and, as important, to the unavoidable fact that humans as fallen creatures inevitably slip up. He never loses sight of the Christian view of why atheists have gotten so many things wrong.
Brian Welter is based in
Burnaby, British Columbia.