Atheism

 

 

Dan Barker, Losing Faith in Faith:

 

Religion Explained, Pascal Boyer

 

The Plague, Albert Camus

 

Godless, Ann Coulter

 

The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins

 

Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomena, Daniel Dennett

 

I don’t have Enough Faith to be an Atheist, Norman Geisler

 

End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Defense of Reason, Sam Harris

 

Letter to a Christian Nation, Sam Harris

 

God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, Christopher Hitchens

 

Political Pilgrims, Paul Hollander

 

Freethinkers: A History of American Skepticism, Jacoby, Susan

 

The Case Against Christianity, Michael Martin

 

Dawkins’ God: Genes, Memes, and the Meaning of Life

McGrath, Alister

 

Does God Exist? The Debate Between Theists & Atheists J. P. Moreland

 

The Golden Compass, Philip Pullman

 

The Subtle Knife, Philip Pullman

 

Why I am not a Christian, Bertrand Russell

 

Autobiography, Bertrand Russell

The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, Carl Sagan

 

How we believe: Science, Skepticism, and the Search for God, Michael Shermer

 

Why Christianity Must Change or Die, John Spong

 

Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism, Paul Vitz

 

God’s Funeral: The Decline of Faith in Western Civilization, A. N. Wilson

 

Marx & Satan, Richard Wurmbrand

 

 

 

 

 

 

Atheism

 

 

Dan Barker, Losing Faith in Faith:

*** From Preacher to Atheist . . . and back again.

 

The best and most persuasive parts of this book are (in good evangelical tradition) the "personal testimony" portions. Barker's own story of how he spent nineteen years in various Christian denominations, as singer, preacher, and itinerate evangelist, certainly turns the tables on the typical Christian testimony. He talked about how for five years, he tried to retain his faith in Christianity, but God didn't seem to hear or answer. That touched me, and seemed real. At times, he did manage to effectively challenge my faith, on an emotional level.

 

Another part of Losing Faith that flowed well was his "low-down" on pastors he knew. As he says, "They are not all Elmer Gantry;" most were, like himself, sincerely mistaken, in his view. Still, he begins to show a pretty heavy hand at this point: a few pastors are con men, and the rest, it seems, are all clowns. Those of us who know intelligent, compassionate and humble ministers -- and I know many, and missionaries who are simply heroic -- may begin at this point to wonder either how broad Barker's experience was (and he says it was very broad), or how honest he is in reporting it.  When Barker

verges onto verifiable issues, a knowledgeable believer may conclude, "We need to improve Christian education, if only to improve the intellectual reach of our infidels." I wouldn't call Barker's arguments "straw men," only because people who hold to the views he attacks really can be found. But he is often attacking a kind of American folk religion, rather than Christianity as it is held by knowledgeable adults.

 

Barker's letter from "God" to a "theologian" is a clever idea, and he pulls it off well rhetorically. But I couldn't help remember (as I read it) the replies real Christian theologians, and philosophers, have given to these very same questions. (Including some by C. S. Lewis, whom Barker weakly attempts to refute in this book, but obviously does not know or understand well.) Barker's complaints are often not just wrong, but show a fundamental misunderstanding of Christian views on things -- he should read Lewis' explanation of worship in Reflections the Psalms and Weight of Glory, and begin his argument against it from square one. (If possible.)

 

Another major problem with this book is Barker's misunderstanding of "faith." Christian faith, in the orthodox (as opposed to folk) understanding, has nothing to do with believing what you know isn't true, or forcing yourself to believe ten impossible things before breakfast. I think Lewis actually corrects this error in Mere Christianity, as have numerous other Christian thinkers. Barker ought to read more attentively.

 

This error gets him into trouble in his reply to "Pascal's Wager." I think his reply to Pascal's argument (which I never much cared for) is actually pretty interesting, otherwise. (Though see Peter Kreeft's expanded version of that argument.) But Barker betrays the fact that he probably has not actually read Pascal for himself, when he assumes that the Wager was his only or primary argument for Christianity.

 

Most of the rest of Barker's arguments will be familiar to most educated Christians, and replies will likely spring to mind. Barker tries to automatically rule miracles out with his definition of history. ("A criterion of critical history is the assumption of natural regularity over time. This precludes miracles.")

 

This is, of course, simple dogmatism. "Christianity is harmful. More people have been killed in the name of a god than for any other reason. The Church has a shameful, bloody history . . . " Barker's understanding of history is highly questionable, but an even greater problem is that he seems as credulous in accepting the "authorized" skeptical version of history

ignorant, it seems, of the enormous positive accomplishments of Christian faith) as he once credulously his parents' Christianity.

 

His arguments against the historical Jesus, the resurrection, and so on, are simply lame.

 

All in all, despite its weaknesses, I found this book interesting, readable, and sobering. While a bit egotistical (Barker loves to highlight his own witty replies to Christian challenges), on a personal level I found him often likeable. He has trod a well-beaten path, from what M Scott Peck describes as the first three stages of spirituality. I hope he is as honest and open-minded as he claims. While he rejects a childish and unexamined form of Christianity, it seems clear to me that he has yet to honestly perceive, let alone consider, the Christian faith as it is understood by mature and knowledgeable adults. Perhaps he will move beyond the adolescent reaction represented in this book, and learn to be skeptical about skepticism, as well. It'd be something to have a heart-to-heart talk when that happens.

 

 

Religion Explained, Pascal Boyer

*** “A Mile Wide, Five Inches Deep”

 

 

Pascal Boyer is nothing if not ambitious. He seeks not only to explain the religion of the Fang people in Africa among whom he did research, he wants to explain all religion, everywhere -- even in the future. In addition, he wants his explanation to be an evolutionary one, and to not merely explain but explain away, without remainder of ghost or god or other supernatural agent. I do not think he succeeds; I don't think he even faces the real questions squarely. Nor did I find his argument as enlightening as that of, say, William James, whom he deigns to criticize, or Rodney Stark, whom he never mentions. But there is no doubt this is an interesting book, and that there are elements of truth in it.

Since other reviewers give a mostly positive summary of Boyer's arguments, I'll seek a unique evolutionary niche by pointing out (from a Christian perspective) where I think they fail.

(1) Recently, a friend's father passed away, officially at 8:20 one morning. A close friend who lived some miles distant saw a bright light at 8:15, "sensed it had something to do with my Dad," and spoke his name. "She says heard him say 'Yeah!' in his own voice." She replied, "'Go in peace.' The next thing she knew my sister was calling her and telling her he had passed away."

Whether you think the dead live on or not, it seems to me this experience, and others like it (I have myself seen prayer answered in remarkable ways), ought to fit into any successful explanation of religion. Yet Boyer makes little mention of such incidents. James is more scientific than Boyer's in that he tries to include more such data in his system.

(2) And it goes without saying that James is a better writer. This book is vastly improved from Boyer's previous, and practically unreadable, The Naturalness of Religious Ideas. At times he even tells good stories, about the Fang or witchcraft in France. But he is rather repetitive, using his chosen set of jargon (explained in some reviews below) like a mantra at times.

(3) Boyer argues that several mechanisms in the brain create the elements that, put together, we call religion. Each was formed by evolution, he argues, and can only be understood in terms of evolution. But the actual effect of his argument, to the extent it is persuasive, seems at first glance to support any form of the general idea that people are adapted for their environment, and does not require a Darwinian or neo-Darwinian mechanism. He says little about mutations, genetic drift, fossils -- what he really does, sometimes well, is relate religious activity to adaptation. Any theory, even teleological, that posits man as somehow suited for life on earth, would seem to fit most the data here about as well. At any rate, Boyer has not made the connection clear.

(4) Boyer's cognitive and anthropological approach is often interesting, but he deals awkwardly with historical religions. Like Tolstoy's portrayal of the Napoleonic War as a grass-roots movement, Boyer ignores the profound impact key individuals (Jesus, Mohammed, Darwin, Marx) have had on human consciousness. It is not even clear he has read the New Testament, Koran, the Gita, or many Buddhist sutras. Why should he? "Doctrines are the way they are because of the organization of religious institutions." With that jaunty bit of dogmatism, Boyer ignores two hundred years of research on Christian origins (for example), which clearly shows that basic Christian teachings were formulated long before Christianity gained institutional powers.

Anyone who wants to explain religion needs a better grasp of history, and also philosophy and theology. Boyer claims,
"Christian churches have always been happy to accept past miracle-workers into their fold but rather reticent with new ones." Untrue, on two counts, and misleading on another. First, orthodox churches never cheerfully accepted all past claims for miracles, but discriminate on the basis of character and teachings -- which is why Joseph Smith is still rejected. Second, nor is the church always unwilling to admit new miracles. Augustine was Bishop of Hippo and the ultimate
"establishment theologian" -- yet he recorded miracles he himself had witnessed. I have often spoken about modern miracles in churches, and have yet to be evicted. And third, of course it is reasonable to be "reticent" with new claims -- if you don't want egg on your face.

(5) No doubt there is often a disconnect between the faith of common people and that of "religious guilds." (As, perhaps, between anthropologists and their first-year students.) But having grown up in a blue-color evangelical home, before studying religious thought, I think Boyer badly exaggerates that gap when it comes to Christianity. The faith of ordinary pious Christians around the world is surprisingly consistent, which is why an Anglican like C. S. Lewis who is steeped in classical Christian thought, is the most popular writer among evangelical American Christians. The gap between philosophy and popular religion is greater in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism, as I have seen while living in Asia and doing research for my books.

(6) Boyer mentions three forms of moral suasion in religion: rules, models, and "intuitions and feelings." He asserts that the last category is dominant, and the others therefore superfluous. I find this simplistic. As Scott Peck points out, the example a leader sets has an enormous effect on followers. And so, of course, do sacred rules. As Naipaul shows, for example, entire nations have been radically transformed by Islamic doctrines.

(7) The author seems to follow the rule, common to some skeptics, of never saying anything nasty about "the other" without applying it to our society. "You really do not 'choose' to be a Muslim . . . if you are born in Saudi Arabia, any more than you have much choice when you identify yourself as a Christian in the US." This I suppose explains why unbelievers are tortured by the religious police in New York City.

(8) E. O. Wilson says this book is "in the spirit of the Enlightenment," and so it is. But what that means is, Boyer is ignorant of a vast historical literature that has overthrown many Enlightenment stereotypes about the Middle Ages. Knowing little of history, Boyer caricatures the long and fruitful relationship between Christian theology and Western society as a mere history of "intense struggle between the Churches and civil society." Anyone who shares that prejudice might begin to correct it by reading Stark, One True God and For the Glory of God.

(9) As in his earlier book, Boyer exhibits a lazy arrogance towards anyone who thinks any religion may be true. "People who think that we have religion because religion is true . . . will find little here to support their views and in fact no discussion of these views." And in fact, the only argument Boyer makes against religious interpretations of life is his alleged success in explaining religion without reference to the supernatural. He certainly does not engage thoughtful religious thinkers. (I am not sure he has read any.) But as a Christian, I did find a bit here to support my views. Boyer does not seem to realize, for example, that his main thesis, that religious ideas are "natural" and therefore universal, has been a Christian dogma for 2000 years, though social scientists since David Hume have been slow to return to it.

(10) "In every instance where the Church has tried to offer its own description of what happens in the world and there was some scientific alternative on the very same topic, the latter has proved better." Balderdash. I could easily give fifteen instances in different fields in which the scientific community went down rabbit holes, before slowly and reluctantly returning (consciously or no) to a dogma that Christians had held all along. Boyer mentions a few such ancient orthodox truths himself, though he is too theologically ignorant to recognize them as such. (I sometimes get the feeling, to the contrary, that social science is in the business of reconstituting Christian dogma from scratch, as Robert Coles, Ernest Becker, Scott Peck, Rene Girard, for examples, almost recognize.)

But I don't want to be entirely critical. Boyer is no dunce. I did learn a lot about human nature here, and found the book worth reading. In each chapter he gives a good explanation of alternative secular theories before offering his own, generally more nuanced, views; and in many cases they may represent progress. The book often offers a good description (at times) of how people deal with religious ideas. I do not think Boyer really explains where they come from, still less whether they correspond to reality. But this book represents an impressive synthesis of insights, though limited in the ways described above. It should I think be viewed more as a partial description of how people process religious concepts, than as where they ultimately come from.

 

 

The Plague, Albert Camus

**** “Good Art; One-Dimensional Philosophy”

 

There are more things in heaven and in earth than dreamt of in Camus' philosophy; but it is a lucid dream, as far as it goes.  The story takes place in a drab town in North Africa. There is something dreary also about the narrator, who does not so much deny his heroism, as despise it.  (Like an alter-ego of the narrator in Dostoevsky's Notes from the Underground, who despises his villainy.)  One does not notice flowers or taste food much in Oran, and one gets the feeling that the buildings are gray.  One wonders if Camus knows any other kind of town, or any other kind of life.  The book is almost as dreary as 1984, and without the meadow where Orwell's lovers found pleasure.  But perhaps that is part of what makes it a great mood piece.

The novel's main weakness is philosophical. It seems to me that good philosophy, if not art, having assigned itself so sweeping a theme as the meaning of suffering, will try to represent positions it attacks truthfully. Solzhenitsyn understands his Marxists, and Dostoevsky his atheists.  It seems to me this is one place Camus falls short. I found something bizarre in the attack Camus waged against what he seemed to think was the Christian idea of suffering.  "There are more things to admire in men than to despise," he argued. "Everyone is more or less sick of the plague." "Until my dying day I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture."  What is bizarre is that Camus seems to think he is attacking Christianity here.  Actually, he is echoing some of the truths it has taught Western culture: man made in the image of God, original sin that one might call a sickness, the call of the prophets to rescue the downtrodden.

Camus' priest, who says that the townspeople should not fight the disease, is at best one of the straight men out of the book of Job, at worst a heretic.  The skeptical doctor, on the other hand, is a figure of Christ in one dimension. Like Rieux, Christians have always "fought against creation as we found it," because we follow a man who risked his life to heal. Like Rieux, Jesus was not too heroic to show fear or doubt, and also came to a moment of alienation from God.  In fact, some say the Gospel first caught on largely because Christians were the only people in the Roman Empire willing to nurse the sick during plagues.  By contrast, French existentialists come late to the healing profession.

The question that never seems to occur to anyone in this book, or in the reviews below, is, could the state of having no illusions Camus recommends be the biggest self-delusion of all? Considering my own life and those of people I know, the Gospels are more realistic than the Plague, precisely because in them, tones of black and gray fit into a larger pattern that includes more cheerful colors as well.  Miracles, the Ressurection, and the reality of a God who answers prayer, are in my opinion truths that must be faced by any person who wants to construct a complete picture of reality.  (Not to mention meadows with flowers, children opening presents at Christmas, the sound of cicattas after rain.)  Camus limits himself both by artistic design, There are more things in heaven and in earth than dreamt of in Camus' philosophy; but it is a lucid dream, as far as it goes. The story takes place in a drab town in North Africa. There is something dreary also about the narrator, who does not so much deny his heroism, as despise it. (Like an alter-ego of the narrator in Dostoevsky's Notes from the Underground, who despises his villainy.) One does not notice flowers or taste food much in Oran, and one gets the feeling that the buildings are gray. One wonders if Camus knows any other kind of town, or any other kind of life. The book is almost as dreary as 1984, and without the meadow where Orwell's lovers found pleasure. But perhaps that is part of what makes it a great mood piece.

The novel's main weakness is philosophical. It seems to me that good philosophy, if not art, having assigned itself so sweeping a theme as the meaning of suffering, will try to represent positions it attacks truthfully. Solzhenitsyn understands his Marxists, and Dostoevsky his atheists. It seems to me this is one place Camus falls short. I found something bizarre in the attack Camus waged against what he seemed to think was the Christian idea of suffering. "There are more things to admire in men than to despise," he argued. "Everyone is more or less sick of the plague." "Until my dying day I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture." What is bizarre is that Camus seems to think he is attacking Christianity here. Actually, he is echoing some of the truths it has taught Western culture: man made in the image of God, original sin that one might call a sickness, the call of the prophets to rescue the downtrodden.

Camus' priest, who says that the townspeople should not fight the disease, is at best one of the straight men out of the book of Job, at worst a heretic. The skeptical doctor, on the other hand, is a figure of Christ in one dimension. Like Rieux, Christians have always "fought against creation as we found it," because we follow a man who risked his life to heal. Like Rieux, Jesus was not too heroic to show fear or doubt, and also came to a moment of alienation from God. In fact, some say the Gospel first caught on largely because Christians were the only people in the Roman Empire willing to nurse the sick during plagues. By contrast, French existentialists come late to the healing profession.

The question that never seems to occur to anyone in this book, or in the reviews below, is, could the state of having no illusions Camus recommends be the biggest self-delusion of all? Considering my own life and those of people I know, the Gospels are more realistic than the Plague, precisely because in them, tones of black and gray fit into a larger pattern that includes more cheerful colors as well. Miracles, the Ressurection, and the reality of a God who answers prayer, are in my opinion truths that must be faced by any person who wants to construct a complete picture of reality. (Not to mention meadows with flowers, children opening presents at Christmas, the sound of cicattas after rain.) Camus limits himself both by artistic design, and by materialistic dogma, to show life from a certain, narrow angle, and does it well. But it would be a terrible mistake to impose that view on all of reality, as Camus invites his readers to do. Camus does not add to orthodoxy, but subtracts from it -- and from life.

Camus discovered death, and depicts it well.  If he had discovered life, he would have been a more complete philosopher; but perhaps he wouldn't have won the Nobel Prize for literature.  Read this excellent book, and let its truths sink into your soul.  Then reach for Chesterton, Dickens, or Wu Cheng En -- or even Solzhenitsyn, who went through worse hells than a plague and came out more cheerful -- and see what Camus missed.  

One minor complaint on the artistic side. How is it that Rieux's friends felt free to drop in on him at all hours during the height of a plague?  Considering the doctors I know, this seems to me almost as big a miracle as if he'd laid hands on them and they jumped out of their beds and went home.

 

Godless, Ann Coulter

** “Date for Dawkins”?

 

I'm a Christian. I vote Republican, dislike abortion, and find much of the liberal agenda absurd or troubling. I also enjoy a good punch line, and Coulter’s pack a good punch. But I don't much recommend this book.

Like Richard Dawkins, Coulter is witty and a talented writer, but shows little genuine love of truth. Both mine opponents for ammunition, to show them (each another, included) as completely despicable fools. They both tend to rely on unreliable media sources or buddies. "Liberal" is to Ann Coulter as "Christian" is to Richard Dawkins. Neither shows much sense of his or her own limitations. If Dawkins were not married, I'd love to set them up on a blind date, then sit at the next table with a camcorder. How the suds and sophistry would flow!

If you choose to read either book, you may find interesting and useful facts. (Despite my criticism, I think Coulter often makes good points -- she has a good eye for the absurdity of some opponents) and you will certainly find good lines. I suggest you double or triple check every alleged fact before making it your own, though.

For any atheists reading this, please don't take Coulter's claim that Christians all laugh over the thought of Richard Dawkins roasting in hell seriously. (As Dawkins himself, who apparently had never heard of the woman, does.) I am writing a book refuting Dawkins, so I have talked about him to quite a few believers. No one so far has expressed anything like those sentiments. Neither do I feel them. One of the worst qualities of this book is the way Coulter uses the Gospel as a sort of stick to beat her political opponents with. As I recall, Paul said something about "speaking the truth in love" -- advice Coulter totally ignores. But Christianity is more than a set of useful ideas -- it is a life, lived on the model of someone who treated his enemies rather differently.

 

 

The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins

** “A Museum of Old Errors”

 

In Oxford, where Richard Dawkins teaches, lie two connected museums: the Museum of Natural History, where Lewis Carroll took little Alice to see the Dodo, and behind it the Pitts River Museum, where one can still find totem poles contributed by E.B. Tylor, one of the founders of Cultural Anthropology and former curator. If anyone ever builds a museum of old errors about religion, he could do worse than to begin with the arguments in this book.

I enjoyed it, as I enjoy those museums. Dawkins writes well -- God Delusion is full of lively anecdotes, witty replies, and interesting quotations or scientific facts. Occasionally Dawkins even made a winning point. (Along with dinosaur fossils and old rocks, one can also find live squirrels on museum grounds.)

But this book is a rich collection of error, gross exaggerations, and dubious statements. I counted over 160, ranging from trivial to grotesque and vital.

Obviously I can't list all 160. My book on the "New Atheism" will give many. But for now I'll offer a few examples.

Let me begin with gross errors of fact. Dawkins claims that the "Gospel of Thomas" tells many miracle stories. Now first of all, calling Thomas a Gospel is problematic, for reasons I give in "Why the Jesus Seminar Can't find Jesus'" Secondly, Dawkins claims it is "more or less arbitrary" that the four canonical Gospels were chosen instead -- which is also nonsense, as I show. But let those points pass. "Serious" historians like Pagels and Ehrman have been filling peoples' minds with these ideas, and it wouldn't be fair to blame Dawkins for them.

The more grotesque error is that Dawkins is confusing the "Gospel" of Thomas with the "Infancy Gospel of Thomas" -- which actually contains the stories he refers to. Thomas, the pseudo-Gospel, contains no narrative whatsoever, apart from "So and So said." It is as if I wrote a book against evolution and credited Karl Marx with the Origin of Species: such a basic blunder is not auspicious.

An error less blatant, but more profound, lies in claiming that Pascal admits that the odds against Christianity being true are high. In fact, Pascal thought the evidence was excellent, and gave quite a bit of it in Pensees. An atheist who thinks "Pascal's Wager" was all he had to say on the subject (Shermer makes the same error) is like a creationist who thinks Steven Jay Gould denied there was evidence for evolution.

The argument I found most persuasive (for a moment, before I started to think -- and talk with scientists) was Dawkin's claim that few eminent scientists believe in the Judeo-Christian God. But the alleged scarcity of believers in those quarters would only be relevant if elite scientists were particularly knowledgable about the evidence for and against religious faith. Is it likely that after 80 hours a week working on biology or physics, they have time for 1st Century history, comparative religion, and philosophy, then pour over missionary journals for evidence of miracles in their spare time? No matter how smart you are, your opinion is only of value if you have studied the evidence fairly.

I asked an Oxford physicist about Dawkin's claim that the effort to find distinguished scientists who believe "have an air of desperation, generating the unmistakably hollow sound of bottoms of barrels being scraped." After naming some prominent Oxford scientists who are Christians (including one of Dawkin's bosses!), he said he thought the correlation between scientific success and faith was, if anything, the converse in the UK. He added that he thought a sociological explanation probably best fit the facts in the US; which is also my hypothesis, but one Dawkins does not even seem to consider. Some scientists I have talked with on the same subject have suggested that there might be some prejudice against believers, especially in biology. I don't know if these alternative explanationss hold water. The problem is Dawkins does not consider them: he seems to simply assume that a "bright is a bright is a bright' -- someone smart enough to study science, must ipso facto know better about theology, no questions asked.

And reading Dawkins is itself likely to bring up such questions for thoughtful readers. Here he is, the most famous atheist in the world, an Oxford professor, free to study anything he likes. But over and over again, he shows himself poorly informed, often mistaken, and shallow in his thinking.

Dawkins takes on classic "proofs" for the existence of God. He then offers his own "proof" that God does not exist. There are two problems with this section. First, it is terribly shallow -- he does not interact with strong opponents like Richard Swinburne or William Craig enough even to convince an informed reader that he has even read them. Second, he overlooks most of what I, at least, think are the best arguments for the supernatural and for God. I wrote my favorite ten on the back cover as I began the book: Dawkins offered feeble arguments against three, and I think ignored the rest entirely.

One of Dawkins' errors lies in assuming something like E. B. Tylor's old theory of the evolution of religions -- which, like Tylor's totem poles, now belongs in the museum. As I show in Jesus and the Religions of Man, Tylor was soundly refuted when (among other things) his student, Andrew Lang, found that primitive peoples often had a clear reocgnition of a Supreme God surprisingly like the God of the Bible. Yet another Oxford scholars, James Legge, the first professor of Chinese here, also played a role more than a hundred years ago in this discovery. All of these men lived and taught within a ten minute walk of Dawkins' college. He never mentions any of them.

But here's the worst, and why this book finally made me lose patience with Dawkins, except as a prose artist and his early work as a scientist. In the past, Dawkins defined faith as believing without or even against the evidence. Alister McGrath, also an eminent Oxford professor and one of the world's acknowledged experts on Christian thought (which Dawkins admits is his primary target here), among other things pointed out that no serious Christian thinker would accept Dawkin's definition of "faith." He explained what Christians do mean by the word, and gave a copy of the manuscript to Dawkins.

That's how scholarship is supposed to work. You make a claim, give your evidence, then see what other scholars say about it. If they argue against you, you either amend your claim, or show where they are wrong.

Dawkins read that book. He poured over it, writing notes in the margins, as he admits. But he simply ignores McGrath's argument on this point. Dawkins just repeats his old dogma: "faith is evil precisely because it requires no evidence and brooks no argument."
Never mind that he fails to give serious evidence that that is what Christians mean by faith. Never mind that McGrath gives evidence that this is NOT what we mean by faith. On this subject (and others), it is Dawkins who "requires no evidence and brooks no argument." (See my discussion on this topic.)

Dawkins may be a good biologist (though Denis Noble's recent book challenging his signature "Selfish Gene" analogy is also worth a read), but he is badly out of his depth in the fields most relevant to his argument in this book -- philosophy, history, and theology. His contempt for these fields (as it seems to me) betray an almost magical assumption that competence in one field automatically transfers to another. God Delusion clearly shows that one can be "bright" yet also deeply ignorant.

Dedicated atheists may enjoy this book, and poorly educated Christians find it a challenge. But while Dawkins tries to turn the table on people who describe him as a creature of the 19th Century, it is hard to deny that the shoe does seem to fit -- a museum.

 

 

Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomena, Daniel Dennett

** “Amateur Hour”

 

At the core of this book (which meanders a lot), Dennett synthesizes the work of William James, Pascal Boyer, Scott Atran, and the early Rodney Stark into a multi-disciplinarian theory of religion. Dennett follows Boyer in supposing that religion derives from the cooption of several distinct mental faculties that evolved independently: mechanisms that enable us to sort memories, recognize "cheaters" in a transaction, act as moral (therefore trustworthy) members of society, share stories, and recognize what Dennett calls the "intentional stance." The "disposition to attribute agency to anything complicated that moves," as he describes this latter, is crucial, the "irritant around which the pearls of religion grow." Echoing Edward Tylor's theory of animism, Dennett argues that we "over-attribute" intentionality to natural objects. When a loved one dies, we deal with fear of decay and her ongoing life in our minds by ceremoniously removing the body and projecting our thoughts as a "spirit," a "virtual person created by the survivors' troubled mind-sets."

I see four major problems with Dennett's argument. First, he knows very little about religion. Second, he simply ignores most of the contrary data. Third, often his "new ideas" actually echo orthodox Christian insights, of which he appears entirely ignorant. And fourth, he overlooks a key phenomena -- awareness of God in primitive cultures.

Dennett's knowledge of religion is derivative and weak. He buys the long-discredited notion that the Medievals thought the world flat. He finds Elaine Pagel's ill-informed "Gnostic Gospel"theories persuasive. (See my Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus, and Grandma Marshall Could, if you want to know why Pagels is wrong.) But his deepest error has to do with a misunderstanding of faith and reason. He assumes that Christianity, in particular, recommends "blind faith," and spends much of the book lecturing believers to finally critique our faith rationally.

It is painful to see a philosopher so badly informed on this subject. Not once does he interact with a single Christian or Jewish philosopher, scientist, historian, or theologian. One would have hoped he would have at least read the previous pope's Fides et Ratio. But that might not have helped. In a parallel apologia for atheism, Michael Shermer quoted John Paul's words on the complementary nature of faith and reason, took a poll which showed that a plurality of theists believe for rational reasons, yet still managed to buy the "blind faith" meme. (See my anthology of quotes on faith and reason by key Christian thinkers at christthetao.com.)

A related problem is that Dennett entirely neglects to consider empirical reasons for faith. Many people I know claim to have experienced miracles. Millions credit their faith to supernatural events, even sophisticated believers like Augustine and Pascal. While he tries to be measured and careful in his criticism, Dennett disdains to even speak of this wealth of empirical data. How can one explain a phenomena without mentioning it?

Thirdly, Dennett appears ignorant of how orthodox some of his points are. Dennett warns against "over-attributing intentionality" to artifacts - what Christians call "idolatry." He criticizes what Jesus called "vain repetition" in religion. He thinks his most "shocking" conclusion is that it is unwise to trust poorly credentialed preachers too strongly! Yet Jesus warned against "wolves in sheep's clothing" -- a phrase that makes use of (I count) five different key "discoveries" Dennett mentions about human memory, to make Dennett's most important point 2000 years before him, and far more memorably.

Dennett invests much ink on "memetics." Memes work "unobtrusively, without disturbing their hosts any more than is absolutely necessary." They may "conceal their true nature from their hosts." They "acquire tricks" "exploit" romance, "proliferate," and "benefit" from adaptation. Wicked religious memes teach "submission" (Islam) and love of "the Word" (Christians) over life. Here it almost sounds as if he has invented a new theory of demon possession.

The root fallacy here lies in confusing subject and object. Dennett himself warns that our "built-in love for the intentional stance" encourages us to see "invisible agents" as "secret puppeteers behind the perplexing phenomena." It is hard to understand why people fall for bizarre beliefs! But blaming the ideas themselves, rather than the people who buy and sell them, is to confuse subject and object.

If Dennett finds agency where it does not exist, he also overlooks it where it may. Assuming the view, common since Hume, that people were originally polytheistic, he writes of "the historical process by which polytheisms turned into monotheism," and "dramatic deformation" between ancient and modern ideas of God.

Here, Dennett has not even carefully read his own sources. Emile Durkheim, it is true, argued that religious beliefs have "varied infinitely," and none of them, therefore,
"expresses (truth) adequately." (Elementary Forms, 420) But earlier in the same work, Durkheim noted that among Australian tribes, concepts of the Supreme God "are fundamentally the same everywhere." The Supreme God was always "eternal," "a sort of creator," "father of men," "made animals and trees,"
"benefactor," "communicates," "punishes," "judge after death," "they feel his presence everywhere." Stark and Armstrong also touch on this subject. See the chapter "The Non-History of God" in my Jesus and the Religions of Man, for the longer story.

It is untenable now to simply assume the triumph of secular thought. The oft-prophecied reign of irreligious man has been delayed so long that theorists like Boyer throw up their hands and declare faith congenital. Philosophical theists have staged a comeback. Astronomers have learned (often to their frank horror) that the universe had a beginning, after all. Anthropic coincidences have led some to call for a repeal of the Copernican Principle. The origin of life remains shrouded in mystery. An historian of the stature of N. T. Wright has written a book like The Resurrection of the Son of God. Great 20th Century social experiments conducted in the names of Hegel, Feurbach, Marx, Engels, and Tylor led to horror.

A cynic might suppose that this is a good moment to try bluffing. But Dennett's ignorance seems sincere. Next time, professor, please do your homework, and give us an argument, rather than a question-begging free-association intellectual ramble.

 

 

I don’t have Enough Faith to be an Atheist, Norman Geisler

**** “A Wealth of Evidence, Mostly Good”

 

I was pleasantly surprised at both the quantity and quality of the evidence Geisler and Turek presented in this book; I guess I was expecting "Young Earth" material and a repetitious gloss of points made by Josh Mcdowell. (I borrowed the book from a church so conservative you half expect a moat and a drawbridge as you walk in the door.)

Some points negative reviewers below make hit the mark, I think. One can criticize the tone at times; the authors do look to be "stacking the deck" a bit. (Though the writing is generally good, and the illustrations are often amusing, and add clarity to the points they reference.)  Like some other readers, I found the biology a bit spotty, (the astronomy a bit better), and some arguments from philosophy too abstract to persuade fully.  For instance, how can illness be a result of the fall of man, when fossils deformed by sickness can be found from millions of years before human beings existed?  It is also true that one must discuss chemical evolution to refute the idea that life arose through natural processes.  (For a really first-rate and respectful discussion of this issue in depth, see Rana and Ross, Origins of Life: Biblical and Evolutionary Models Face Off
.)  Geisler and Turek follow C. S. Lewis in taking a philosophical approach to miracles, asking in effect, "Could miracles happen if God exists?" But it seems to me that the better question is, "Do miracles, in fact, happen?" I think an empirical argument for miracles much strengthens the case for Christianity: for many people, including me, the Bible seems more credible because they have seen evidence that miracles do in fact happen.

But all in all, the authors have crammed a rich feast of mostly telling evidence for the Christian faith into the book's 400 pages. Many of the points they offer, even on science and philosophy, are effective. And the "historical Jesus" section (140 pages) is excellent. Either the skeptics who claim there is nothing new in this book have read a lot more than me (and reading books for and against the Christian faith is both my hobby and vocation), or they have overlooked some of the good stuff here.

And looking over their criticism, I think the latter is more likely. Several critics assume that Christian faith means "a firm belief in something for which there is no proof," or that religion "tells us to ignore reason and accept faith."  Having just completed a historical study of Christian thought on faith and reason from the 2nd Century to modern times, I would argue that this is not at all what Christians usually mean by faith.  In fact, as physicist and theologian John Polkinghorne points out, faith in the Chrisitian sense is arrived at by means rather similar to scientific hypothesizing.  Another critic implies that the Big Bang is popular among laymen, but not scientists.  Nonsense.  Another complains that Geisler and Turek describe Buddhism, Hinduism, and the New Age as "pantheistic," though Buddhism can be atheistic, and Hinduism polytheistic. Actually, the authors say "some forms" of Buddhism are pantheistic, and (page 198) Hinduism is "pantheistic and polytheistic."

The authors and their critics are however both wrong in overlooking theism in non-Western cultures. Geisler and Turek describe Confucianism as "atheistic," though Confucius himself believed in God, as did his most important, and many later, disciples. Theism is also common in other non-Western cultures. (See chapter 9 of my Jesus and the Religions of Man.
) The almost universal awareness of God is one evidence against the claim, also advanced below, that theism is some kind of a subjective cultural accident.

Finally, another critic claims that none of those who wrote the New Testament personally saw Jesus. Actually several of the authors of the New Testament say they did, and (despite radical criticism) there is good reason to think they did. (See my Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus, and Grandma Marshall Could
, for an in-depth rebuttal of such modern criticism.)

G. K. Chesterton said that an open mind, like an open mouth, is meant to be "closed on something solid." If you are just looking for reasons to gripe, you can probably find things to criticize, even to mock, here. But if you are looking for solid truth in which to sink your cognitive canines, and are willing to consider evidence for the Christian faith, you can find a lot of good evidence in this book (and elsewhere) that deserves a careful taste-test.

 

 

End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Defense of Reason, Sam Harris

** “Who Wants Blind Faith?” 

 

As a Christian scholar with a skeptical streak, I am always on the look-out for good attacks on my faith. Harris, a neuroscientist and Stanford grad, is bright. He has a gift for good, straight rhetorical jabs -- "120 million of us place the big bang at 2,500 years after the Babylonians and Sumerians learned to brew beer." And there is no doubt he is aiming at theistic faith. He wants to show that (1) Religious faith does not care about evidence; (2) It is also contrary to the evidence; (3) Religion is more harmful than just about anything; (4) Moderation in religion is no virtue; (5) We can get by without God anyway, thank you very much, and (6 ) The only good thing about religion is the unitive state of consciousness, as experienced in Advetic and Buddhist meditative practice.

Harris did not challenge my faith, though, for a simple reason: he appears almost entirely ignorant of what Christians think, why we think it, and gobs more. Despite a long bibliography, in essence Harris is asking us to take his points on blind, or at least tunnel-visioned, faith.

First, in his discussion of faith itself, Harris reveals how thinly he has read in Christian thought. Referring to a few Bible verses and often out-of-context quotes, Harris concludes that religious faith by definition is "an act of knowledge that has a low degree of evidence," or none at all. He ponderously and repeatedly informs us that such "faith" is a bad idea. Of course it is! The fact is, the need to base faith on evidence has been the NORMAL Christian position for two thousand years. (Including such central thinkers as -- list alert! -- Justin, Clement, Origin, Gregory of Nazianzus and of Nyssa, Augustine, Aquinus, Calvin, Matteo Ricci, Descartes, Locke, Pascal (The "wager" is not all he wrote!), Cotton Mather, John Wesley, Kepler, Schaeffer, C. S. Lewis, J.P. Moreland, John Eccles, John Paul II (read fairly), Richard Swinburne, Mortimer Adler, and John Polkinghorne. For quotes, see my article on faith and reason at christthetao.com.) In fact, Harris' view depends on stacking the deck and culpable ignorance. He cherry-picks a few quotes to show Pascal and Augustine in the worst possible light, pans John Paul's thoughtful book in a glib sentence or two, misrepresenting his views on faith, and ignores the rest entirely.

Harris is wrong then to assume that in theory, Christianity recommends "blind faith." But what about practice? How does Harris' argument that religious faith "floats entirely free of evidence and reason" make out? Or his argument that "religion" is liable to get us all killed, and freedom from religion to save us?

Here again, the problem is not that Harris grapples with contrary arguments and loses, but that he does not appear to have met any at all. I realize some of the examples I give may sound fantastic to readers who share Harris' views. But the only way one can know if they ARE fantastic is by reading and fairly considering these arguments; to deny arguments without reading them is simply to beg the question.

Harris is a philosopher. Has he read debates between William Lane Craig and leading atheist philosophers on the existence of God? Has he read such seminal philosophers as Plantinga (at Notre Dame) and Swinburne (Oxford)? These folk are several rungs above him in the academic pecking order. He has a right to challenge their arguments. But for a neophyte to dismiss the contrary claims of leading thinkers in his field without so much as a mention, reveals an arrogance, ignorance, or both, that disqualify his views in the mind of any reflective person.

In the 20th Century, leading astronomers were shocked to find the universe had a beginning, sometimes resisting the idea because it seemed to veer too close to Genesis. Many have also been amazed to find how finely tuned the cosmos appears for life. (See quotes by Einstein, Jastrow, Davies, Penzias, Ellis, etc in Ross, Creator and the Cosmos.) Steve Hawking credits the same Augustine upon whom Harris heaps such scorn with being the first person to realize that time began with the universe -- an idea he and other early Christian thinkers likely derived from Scripture. What does Harris have to say in response to these well-known facts? Nada.

Harris also ignores the Pullitzer-Prize winning arguments of the atheist psychologist Ernest Becker, who records his shock at finding the insights of Otto Rank closely following the "naive" Biblical intuitions of Kierkegaard: "Such a mixture of intense clinical insight and pure Christian theology is absolutely heady. One doesn't know what kind of emotional attitude to adopt towards it." Harris has his attitude picked out: contempt, based on unsullied ignorance.

Nor does Harris deal well with history. If evidence for the resurrection is so bad, how do people like William Lane Craig come off so well in debates with leading skeptics? Has Harris tackled the arguments of the great British historian N. T. Wright for the resurrection, or the evidence Gary Habermas has amassed after a thorough review of the relevant literature? How does he deal with the detailed arguments of sociologist Rodney Stark (and leading secular historians) that Christian theism led to the invention of science and the end of slavery? What does he say to Indian philosopher Vishal Mangalwadi, who argues that the mysticism Harris loves ruined India, and Christian reform helped save it? Or Shanghai historian Gu Weiming on how the Gospel helped China? Was the great scholar Hu Shi (a skeptic and colleague of the founder of the Chinese Communist Party) mistaken when he said Christian missionaries "taught us many things, the greatest of which was to look at women as people?" How does he respond to U-Cal Berkley historian Irwin Scheimer who described the great good "Samurai Christians" did in Japan? Has he read Brian Tierney's anthology in which medieval philosophers quote the New Testament as they formulated the modern concept of separation of church and state? Or Stanford anthropologist (and one of the greatest living French thinkers) Rene Girard's argument that the Gospels "secretly controlled" the long process by which mankind realized that the poor and weak should be treated kindly?

On all this and more, Harris offers not a peep. He simply asserts, over and over again, that only a child or a fool would think there is evidence for religion. He even shows contempt for the Bible as literature, in the teeth of the views of even great writers who were atheists. This is fanaticism.

Nor, as informed reviewers note below, does Harris do better in regard to Buddhism, on the history of which he is surprisingly naive. (Tibet Buddhists, white hats, Chinese, black hats? There have been entire dynasties when Tibetan Buddhists were the oppressors and the Chinese were on the receiving end! As for Inquisitions, I could show you hot springs in Japan where Catholics were boiled to death.)

Nor, again, does Harris deal seriously with the most spectacular social experiment of modern times -- the rise and fall of Marxism-Leninism. He mentions communism three times, only to dismiss it as a secular "religion," along with Naziism -- which he blames on Christianity! But in the 20th Century, communists helped one third of the planet throw off the bonds of religion. Harris writes of the Inquisition, "There is no other instance in which so many ordinary men and women have been so deranged by their beliefs in God." Yet over twenty-five years, Joseph Stalin alone killed more innocent people EVERY DAY on average than the Spanish Inquisition over all Spanish dominions in all of 300 YEARS! (Read the books, Harris, and do the math!) Communist torturers taunted victims with some of the same enlightenment slogans he finds so liberating. (Lenin himself shared Harris' view of religion, and his talent for anti-religious hyperbole: "A thousand epidemics and plagues are to be preferred to the slightest notion of a god.") Despite this history, names like "Solzhenitsyn" and "Wurmbrand" are absent from his bibliography. I have known some of the victims.

A rabbit in the Chronicles of Narnia sat by a great waterfall and listened to whispered conversations a hundred miles away. So Harris sits in close chronological proximity to a roar of suffering caused by his fellow skeptics, and hears the pin-prick of the Inquisition a thousand miles away. If a materialists want to argue that religion is harmful, they need to grips with the dark side of anti-religious history.

How could anyone make it through one of our best universities, study in graduate school, write a book for a major publisher, and take such a profoundly shallow and ignorant approach to his subject? And this book is lavishly praised by the Economist, Guardian, New York Times, Amazon, Richard Dawkins, and -- sorry to see -- John Derbyshire! His ignorance is obviously a symptom of something in the air, but seems self-imposed as well. He has, after all, read the Bible, along with a few great Christian thinkers of the past. But he notices only the worst. He is like a person who goes into a mine of rich gems, and comes out with scraps of sub-bituminous coal.

On page 13 Harris complains that "The central tenet of every religious tradition is that all other religions are mere repositories of error." As a scholar of religion, I consider this ignorant poppycock, as regards many religions, including my own. But on page 15, Harris writes, "The very ideal of religious tolerance is one of the principle forces driving us towards the abyss." So "religions" are intolerant and therefore bad, and yet his own intolerence will save us, somehow.

One feels, as William James put it, an "impatience at the ridiculous swagger of the program, in view of what its authors are actually able to perform." Like fireworks over a lake, Harris' rhetoric sizzles, but little but himself is illumined, still less set ablaze.

 

 

Letter to a Christian Nation, Sam Harris

** “Is this an Honest Book?”

 

 

I've just received a contract to write a book refuting Dawkins, Harris and Daniel Dennett, so you know where I stand. I am that awful creature, a Christian apologist. I write apologetics because I have asked about the truth of Christianity all my life, and therefore, look for the best arguments against it. I agree wholeheartedly when Harris tells us, "It really matters what billions of human beings believe and why they believe it." Harris writes in a very straightforward manner. In response, I will also be frank.

Harris is, undoubtedly, a good writer. Though the book is terribly short -- it take two hours or so to read -- he covers a lot of territory, and gets in a lot of jabs. Mostly he attacks the morality, rather than truth, of Christianity, so that's where I'll concentrate my remarks. (Skeptics who want to know how I defend the truth of my faith may find my books Jesus and the Religions of Man and Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus a challenge.)

At times, I was impressed with what appeared to be Harris' honest passion. "On a day when over one hundred thousand children were simultaneously torn from their mothers' arms and casually drowned," he writes, "liberal theology must stand revealed for what it is: the sheerest of moral pretenses." I almost said, "Amen! God! Why do you let things like that happen?" I agree with Harris that the cruel death of innocent childen is at least an emotionally strong argument against the reality of a good God; I feel the same way.

If Harris would shut his mouth at that point, or continue in the vein of Ivan Karamazov or Elie Weisel (or for that matter, Job, or Jesus on the cross) I might give his book five stars, or four considering the fact that he is not, after all, Weisel.

It's not just that Harris gets a lot of things wrong. Religion or history are not Harris' subject: he has a scientific background, inspired (it appears) by the writings of Richard Dawkins. That can, perhaps, be overlooked: the strong points of his writing are literary flare and passion, not detail.

But his errors follow a consistent pattern, which after a while causes me to wonder if he is, after all, being honest with himself or with us. Time and again I am brought up short by some statement, and forced to ask, "Does he honestly believe that?" He tells us that Gandhi got his doctrine of non-violence from the Jains, and Martin L. King got his from Gandhi. But read Gandhi's Autobiography, where he describes how deeply the Sermon on the Mount moved him, especially the words "turn the other cheek." And read King, who said he came to Gandhi through Jesus. Again, does Harris think his discussion of Reginald Finger's position on an AIDs vaccine ("condemning millions of men and women to die unnessarily each year") is fair? Has he really persuaded himself that Mother Theresa is "not a friend of the poor," and has hurt women somehow?

No one has helped Indian women more than Christian missionaries. They helped end the burning of widows, started schools for women (Theresa taught in one), freed sex slaves, and began to challenge caste. (See the works of Vishal and Rush Mangalwadi, and J. N. Farquhar's Crown of Hinduism, for details.) Even today, Christians are the only community in India in which girls are seldom killed in uterus. (See the Indian census on-line, which shows this quite clearly.) Harris' cheap shots do nothing to hurt Mother Theresa, but reveal him as petty, ill-informed, and probably not quite honest.

Harris also talks at length about the Bible and slavery. Doesn't he know that Medieval Europe (especially northern) was the first great civilization not built on the backs of slaves? Or that the impetus for abolition in the modern world came almost exlusively from zealous Christians with open Bibles? He blames Christians for thinking God "will take offense at something people do while naked." Has he never considered the cost of the Sexual Liberation movement, championed mostly by skeptics? He also accuses "red-staters" of a "lack of charity. But in his book, Who Really Cares, Arthur Brooks persuasively shows that by every measure, religious people in America (and Europe) are far more generous than secularists. Harris blames Christians for "cherry-picking" Bible verses, then does it himself: a surprisingly large percentage of this book is Bible quotations, meant to vindicate his disparaging views of Scripture. The game is rigged, folks.

The litmus test when it comes to honesty is the totalitarian holocausts of the 20th Century. As a long-time student of communist history, I take this seriously: I've known some of the Christians who were imprisoned and tortured for their faith. Harris says the "anti-Semitism that built the Nazi death camps" as "a direct inheritance from medieval Christianity." If so, why did the Nazis also kill the mentally retarded, Poles, and Catholic priests? By contrast, the term "social Darwinist" appears nowhere in Harris' analysis. Read the book From Darwin to Hitler, and tell me this is a reasonable oversight.

One waits to see how Harris will respond to what I have heard him describe as the most common answer to his jibes against Christianity: what about Marxists who killed a hundred million innocent people in the 20th Century? Weren't they atheists? (As a long-time student of communism, who studied the subject under the great Slavic historian, Donald Treadgold, this is a subject I know quite a bit about.) Well yes, Harris says, but they "are never especially rational." Since they weren't "champions of reason" (actually, they were), they don't count. The logic escapes me. Does that mean if a modern Christian points out that the Inquisitors failed to "love their neighbors as themselves," then they don't count as Christians? Stalin alone killed as many innocent people every day as the Inquisitors killed in 300 years. (Not to mention a dozen equally vile thugs.) Harris hears the cries of a few unfortunates hounded to death 800 hundred years ago clearly. But he shrugs his shoulders at the ocean of bodies at his feet and says, "It's not our fault." This, I can't respect.

At the beginning of the book, Harris tells that us "dozens" of scientific surveys show that "well over half" of Americans agree that the Bible that "only those who accept the divinity of Jesus Christ will experience salvation after death." He doesn't name any of those surveys, though. The only survey I could find on the subject show that about one third think anyone is damned because of wrong belief. And most don't think hell is a literal place of fire and brimstone, but "separation from God." Yet he bases the entire premise of his book on this hand-waving reference to ghostly surveys. (Note to non-American readers: please don't take everything you read about America in books like this seriously!)

Harris gets the blood boiling, as you can see. His writing has nothing to do with real scholarship (his fellow unbeliever Scott Atran, a serious scholar of religion, is withering in his rebuttal), or indeed, it seems to me, with an honest search for truth. As a polemicist,

God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, Christopher Hitchens

* “Not much to argue with”

 

I'd read Hitchens before, and while not ready to grant him George Orwell's mantle, I looked forward to a lively and intelligent attack on religion, a bracing intellectual challenge.

What I got, instead, was akin to one of those movies in which an adolescent is trapped inside the body of Dad. Hitchens stands as tall, rhetorically, as a mature adult, but seems to know no more about his chosen topic, and to argue no more seriously, than the scornful boy "whose voice has not yet broken" he once was, as he describes himself.

By the time I finished reading Dawkins' The God Delusion, I'd listed 160 errors, gross exaggerations, and dubious claims. Harris makes some arguments against God based on the suffering in the world that really do pack a wallop. And Dennett discusses theories about religion that serious anthropologists and psychologists have proposed.

But there is almost no substance in this book, not even errors. Hitchens is all rhetoric, no real argument. He's not a scientist, theologian, or historian, so all he can do is stack the deck and glue the cards together with clever rhetoric. This is fine for an essay, but grows old by the time you get far into the book, if you like compelling and substantial arguments.

Hitchens does manage to make a few mistakes, though. "There was little or no evidence for the life of Jesus." (127) I guess they should just fire all those historians at Oxford, Harvard, Duke, and other major schools (some of them skeptics) who write histories thousands of pages long based on what they regard as pretty good evidence. (The Nag Hammadi texts)"were of the same period and provenance as many of the . . . authorized 'Gospels'" Nonsense. They are from the 2nd to 4th Centuries, probably written by non-Jews, while the Biblical Gospels are from the 1st Century, written by Jews, apart from Luke. "Iraq boasts quite a long history of intermarriage and intercommunal cooperation. But . . . once again, religion had poisoned everything." Then why didn't it do so earlier in this "long history," during all of which Iraqis have been religious?

These are a few lonely instances in which Hitchens makes a point substantial enough to argue with. For the most part, I found Hitchens' book added little to nothing of substance to what the other three say; lots of verbal fireworks, but not much even destructive power.

 

 

Political Pilgrims, Paul Hollander

**** “Peace, Peace, where there is no Peace”

 

Political Pilgrims is the amazing story of how Western intellectuals embraced Marxist tyrants at the very moment their colleagues were rotting in prison cells, and the common people everyone claimed to be concerned for, were starving. The book relates how cultural and religious leaders from the West, including familiar names, visited the Soviet Union, China, Cuba, and other communist countries, and told the most appalling lies to flatter their hosts and express their contempt for Western society.  It is quite an education, as another reviewer put it. Marx's revolutionary myth dominated history for the better part of the 20th Century, and if we are serious about not repeating the errors of that period, this book should be a part of our education.  The short story Buddha's Smile in Solzhenitsyn's masterpiece, The First Circle, brilliantly tells the same story, from the point of view of Soviet prisoners. Lewis Feuer's Marx and the Intellectuals compares Marx and Engels themselves with the kind of people Hollander is describing.  I also recommend the writings of the Rumanian philosopher, pastor, and former prisoner, Richard Wurmbrand.

Hollander retells George Keenan's story of a Norwegian radical who, when asked what country he most admired, said, "Albania." Keenan noted that the student obviously knew nothing of Albania, but chose that country "simply because it seems to be a club with a particularly sharp nail at the end of it with which to beat one's own society."

The same reactionary psychology has, it seems to me, been transferred in our day to an uncritical and naive attraction towards what is (simplistically) called "eastern religion." One could write an even longer book about how Westerners project their fantasies on monist ideologies: people like Joseph Campbell and Karen Armstrong "explaining" human sacrifice, the Theosophical Society standing up for caste, Arthur C. Clarke (Did he know much more of Asian history than the Albanian radical knew of Albania?) describing Buddhism as "the only faith that never became stained with blood." Even Hollander allowed that, "While the suspension of disbelief has its place in human life, it belongs more to the religious (or aesthetic) than the political realm." But his book should be read, in my opinion, as a warning against all forms of ideological naivite. A love of truth, and a determination to tell it no matter how out of fashion it may seem, is essential to integrity in all walks of life. Political Pilgrims vividly illustrates, in the political realm, the evil that can be done when honesty plays second fiddle to fashion.....

 

Freethinkers: A History of American Skepticism, Jacoby, Susan

*** “Good Stories, Incoherent Ideas”

 

Susan Jacoby's history of "freethinkers" is well-written, reasonably fair, and informative, if a somewhat meandering and an ultimately incoherent read of anti-religious history in America. As a Christian, I seldom found the tone too shrill, or comments too unreasonable. Above all, she seemed to be saying, "Hey, we secularists have contributed to American democracy, too!" Fair enough; so you have.

Jacoby's description of Lincoln seemed balanced and thoughtful.

I was glad to learn more about Robert Ingersoll, but the unfunny quips Jacoby quoted hardly justified the comparison with Voltaire. Jacoby did not mediate whatever depth he may have had to this reader, anyway.

Whether to sound sensational, or because she is unable to view contemporaries with as much dispassion as the ancients, Jacoby's take on modern Christians, especially those who lean Republican, seemed the least fair part of the book. She accused Justice Antonin Scalia of extreme "contempt for democracy" because he thinks the Constitution is a "dead" (rather "enduring") document and means no more and no less than what its authors meant to convey. If in early America horse thiefs were subject to capital punishment, by Scalia's reasoning "courts should be free to hand down death sentences for grand theft auto." But that is an abysmal misreading of Scalia's argument. In the article Jacoby critiques, Scalia went on to point out that "there is plenty of room within this system for evolving standards," arguing only that the instrument of change should be elected representatives, not judges. In fact, Scalia was precisely trying to protect the right of the people to make laws. That is why he abhors Roe vs. Wade. It is rather Orwellian to accuse those who think the people should vote on an issue of "contempt for democracy," as opposed to those who think the Supreme Court should decide it all for us. Her misrepresentation of Scalia made me wonder if her take on earlier figures was always fair.

Jacoby's book is undermined by two even more critical errors, one political, the other philosophical, both centered on confusion about the word "freethinker."

Freethinkers are not just atheists, she tells us, but liberal Christians, deists, unitarians, and others who share "a rationalist approach to fundamental questions of earthly existence." But Soviet style communists do not qualify. So apparently thought unconstrained by dogmas is what makes one a "free-thinker."  But then Jacoby adds that a free-thinker finds no evidence of miracles, and does not believe in the resurrection.  So now a freethinker must only come to conclusions in conformity with certain dogmas she approves.  What about someone who thinks freely, and concludes that some miracles happen, including the resurrection?  Anyone who thinks that is not possible should read The Resurrection of the Son of God
, by British historian N. T. Wright.  So I find the premise behind Jacoby's title fundamentally confused.

Jacoby misunderstands the faith, Christianity, her foil most of the way, on two key points. First, she assumes that wholehearted Christians care nothing for separation of Church and State. In fact, thoughtful Christians would say it was Jesus' idea to make out separate checks to Caesar and God, and a darn good one, too. (See Brian Tierney's The Crisis of Church and State, 1050-1300
, to follow the influence that and other NT sayings had over the centuries in European thought from primary documents.) Secondly, and more vitally, she misdefines religion. "The scientific method itself, with its demand to 'Prove it,' discourages the leaps of faith in the unverifiable that are the essence of any religion." This concept of science is simplistic. The concept of faith is simply false, and has been eloquently denied by Christian apologists for two thousand years. (As I found recently when I researched what 30 or so key Christian thinkers wrote about faith and reason, from the 2nd to the 21st Centuries.) But it is not surprising that such misconceptions should lie at the heart of a history of skepticism: they often confuse skeptical thinking about religion.

 

 

The Case Against Christianity, Michael Martin

*** “Nice try, but no cigar”

 

This book is a well-written and systematic argument against the Christian faith, mostly from the point of view of Biblical criticism and philosophy. Martin's his writing is disciplined and readable, though not as lyrical as, say, Bertrand Russell. Unlike some
skeptical writers, he has done a bit of homework, quoting Plantinga,
Habermas, and Kierkegaard, for example. (Though he seems to have
missed some others that he really should have read.) His tone is
fairly genial.

Martin's argumentative method is to throw lots of
arguments up and see what sticks. (Could the resurrection be caused
by the indetermidacy principle of quantum physics? Or by Resurrecting
Finite Miracle Workers (RFMW)?) The more you know about the subjects
he covers, however, the less seems to stick. And the more slides off,
the more you wonder if Martin has got some of the mud in his own eyes.

Martin's first main argument, against the historicity of Jesus, is
so weak, and Martin appears to unconscious of that weakness, that it
undermines his credibility. He'll start an argument with, "Some
scholars believe. . . " and end it (same sentence) "clearly,
then. . ." What kind of argument is that? An argument is not as
strong as the sum of its dependant clauses! A piece of speculation
(often very wild) by an unnamed "scholar" seems to set up
like concrete in Martin's mind in the space of a few clauses into
fact. If my father built houses that way, he would have gotten into a
lot of trouble during the recent earthquake in Seattle!

Argument from silence is another of Martin's favorite weapons. "Surely if X believed or knew Y he would have said so." Generally speaking, though, the argument from silence is a logical fallacy, because you cannot infer that an event did not happen because someone failed to mention it! Also, the epistles to which Martin appeals in this regard, are short and on other subjects. (Such as Christian living.) In any case, the Gospels do relate Jesus' life. Many wise and literary Christian scholars (Lewis, Polkinghome, Chesterton, Per Beskow) and even many non-Christians, have repeatedly pointed out the characteristics of the Gospels that mark them as historical. But Martin does not seem aware of these arguments, or of the qualities in the Gospel that make them credible, at the least.

Martin believes that the differences among the Gospel accounts of the resurrection are
a strong argument against it. What do you think skeptics would say if
they agreed on all points? "Conspiracy!" And rightly so.
As prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi said of the Manson case, when the
killers prepared beforehand what to say, "The stories tallied
perfectly," But when you have honest witnesses, "There will
always be left over evidence that just doesn't fit." And the
prosecutor in the Columbine case said, "Any time you have a
tramautic situation, even if only one person is killed, every
testimony is different." So it appears to many that the
superficial differences, but underlying agreement, of the NT records,
are very impressive evidence for the truth of the resurrection. But
Martin does not even consider this possibility.

Martin's argument against Paul's testimony that 500 witnesses to the resurrection were
mostly still alive, was breathtaking. "The fact that 500 people
reported seeing a resurrected man would surely have attracted wide
attention and come to the attention of. . . historians."
Therefore, since we didn't have any clear secular references to that,
this report must be false, and Paul an unreliable witness! This is
only a touch less ludicrous than Jesus Mysteries, that argues against
the existence of Jesus since Roman historians don't mention him much,
and then turns around and notes that they don't say much about
Christians at all until 250 A. D.! But if the community itself was
ignored when it had hundreds of thousands of members, why should a
single incident within that community be recorded when the membership
was still just a few thousand? In fact, from my studies in China I
know that remarkable things can happen among a disfavored group
(Christians, again) with little or no mention of those events in the
press. From many such specious arguments, Martin proves to his own
satisfaction that the Gospels are unreliable, but to mine that (at
least) he is out of the loop when it comes to evidence about
historical matters.

If you want philosophy, Martin might help a bit more, but even here I think some of his arguments rather contrived. For example, I guess the tension Smith describes between
Scripture and theory of salvation arises because he is concerned with
philosophizing about salvation for others, rather than gaining it for
himself. But the Bible explicitly limits itself to aiding in the
latter, not the former, enterprise. And Martin has overlooked other
Scriptural principles on this topic, such as that we are judged by the
light given us, and that God, not man, is the judge. Martin might
have come to a better understanding of the issue by reading
C. S. Lewis' Great Divorce
. It is a pity that he nowhere mentions the
most influential Christian thinker of the 20th Century, and
unfortunate for his argument. If you're in the market for arguments
against Christianity, what you get here for the most part is quality
in terms of style, but mostly just quantity as to substance.

 

Dawkins’ God: Genes, Memes, and the Meaning of Life

McGrath, Alister

**** “Learn from your Critics!” 

 

This is the first book by McGrath I have read, and liked it very much. It's punchy and pithy without being pugnatious That is quite an achievement for a book responding to someone as angry as Richard Dawkins seems to be. McGrath never takes a cheap shot. And the points he makes are, I think, solid.

The chapter on "proof and faith" is particularly good. So deeply has the idea that religion does not demand evidence been engrained, that even after reading McGrath's argument, some reviewers refuse to believe Christianity does. Let me refer skeptics to the anthology on "Faith and Reason" on my website, at christthetao.com.

The reviewer who tells us that McGrath's point is that science can't settle the God question either way, so it comes down to "faith," is half right. McGrath does argue that science cannot prove the existence or non-existence of God. It does not follow though that belief is intellectually arbitrary; McGrath just thinks the evidence is of a different kind. It is true, as two thoughtful but disappointed skeptics complain, that he fails to spell out what that evidence is here. I wish he'd given at least a brief sketch of his reasons for believing.

One remarks, "When a leading advocate of Christianity, despite all of his knowledge and sophistication, fails to make the case for it, one wonders." I hope readers who feel that way will look further; I am pretty sure McGrath is simply trying to limit his subject. (This is, I think, the old-fashioned method of Christian scholarship.) Let me refer readers who want to consider evidence for the Christian faith to a few books on a similar level: N. T. Wright's series on the historical Jesus (culimating in the especially relevant Resurrection of the Son of God); my own Why the Jesus Seminar Can't find Jesus, and Grandma Marshall Could; G. K. Chesterton's Everlasting Man; the relevant writings of C. S. Lewis, Polkinghorne, Swinburne, Plantinga, and Wolterstorff (whom McGrath mentions), and the new book by Francis Collins. To the person who (also reasonably) asks, if Christianity is true, shouldn't it "show some results" for good in human history, I recommend my Jesus and the Religions of Man, Stark's For the Glory of God, and Christianity on Trial, by Carroll and Shiflett. (The quick answer is that it has, in spades.) Another reviewer asks why McGrath didn't refute Dennett along with Dawkins; my review of his recent book on the origin of religion should come out soon, or I can e-mail it. (christthetao@msn.com. Warning: I'm less gentle than McGrath!)

One thing I like about Dawkins is his frankness. I hope he learned from previewing McGrath's book. Believe it or not, some Christians would like to see intelligent opponents like Dawkins come to the battle better prepared, to make the exchange of ideas less an endless correction of conventional myths, and more a learning opportunity on both sides. It would also be less embarrassing that way. It often seems that the volume of smoke is inversely proportional to the heat of the fire.

 

 

Does God Exist? The Debate Between Theists & Atheists J. P. Moreland

**** “Good Enough to Argue With”

 

 

All of the protagonists in this book are sharp, knowledgeable (in some ways but not others), polite, and engaging. The Christians probably "won," though I am not sure whether that is because of laziness on the part of the atheists, or the inherent weakness of their position. Of the primary debaters, Moreland is more on target intellectually, though less original. All the secondary debaters made good points.

The besetting weakness of this book (ironically, Nielsen and Craig agree) is that Nielsen is too contemptuous of or bored with conventional arguments for God to engage them. He thinks Hume and Kant have answered them in theory, why go to the mat on details? (Nor does he even explain why their arguments were so forceful.) Instead "God" is incoherent by definition, case closed. He then blames Morehead and Craig (in a polite way) for the poor debate: Get over this proof of God thing, already! His attitude was not much better in his debate a few years later with Craig. Perhaps rather than debating God with orthodox Christians, Nielsen should have taken part in activities he liked, whether darts or snow-boarding. Yawning in the face of your opponent is not only rude, it leaves the impression one lacks reason.

Nielsen's own argument was to me sometimes interesting, but seldom persuasive. "It makes no sense to say something is indirectly observable if it is not at least in theory or in principle directly observable as well." Not only do modern theories in physics seem to contradict this dicta, in reality, we don't directly observe anything -- sensual images cascade to consciousness along a long series of photo-chemical and mechanical reactions, whose validity we cannot test directly. In that sense, I sometimes wonder if God may not be more directly "encounterable" than anything in the sensual world.

Much of Nielsen's argument rests on the weight of abstract adjectives that apply more to the God of Advetic Hinduism than of orthodox Christianity. "You can't encounter a transcendent being." "An infinite individual is a contradiction in terms," because an individual must be "distinguishable from other individuals and thus finite." But the Christian God, as opposed to Brahma, is not "infinite" or purely "transcendent" in the senses that his argument require. Nielsen is likewise fond of the word "anthropomorphic," though as one respondent points out, the Christian view is theomorphism: that we are created in the image of God. Given his contempt for orthodox Christianity, it is perhaps not surprising that Nielsen admits he knows little about the gospels or cosmology. Why does he come to these things, anyway?

Philosophy for Craig is a contact sport, and he vigorously sorts arguments right and left (or right and wrong), as happy to contradict Moreland as Nielsen. I am not sure he has always been so cheerful about being contradicted, but his arguments are forceful, knowledgeable, and to the point.

Overall, Anthony Flew seemed pretty good, honest and "present" as the Buddhists say. But a second weakness of this book is that the skeptics argued erroneously from comparative religion, and the Christians answered them only partially. Flew accused Jesuits who identified the Chinese "Tian" with "God" of a "Jesuitical maneuver." In my opinion as a China scholar, Matteo Ricci, the primary Jesuit in question, was on the right track. Many people who have studied Chinese culture in depth have agreed, including the great Kang Xi emperor, the scholar James Legge, and others. (See my True Son of Heaven: How Jesus Fulfills the Chinese Culture.) A case can be made from anthropology that people in most cultures around the world have in fact been aware of the Supreme God as understood by Christians.

Parson's argument about molecular evolution unfortunately goes unanswered; I think this is an interesting topic for debate. His argument against the resurrection seems to me like begging the question. He complains that it is "more reasonable for an atheist to believe just about any alternative scenario, no matter how improbable." Whatever happened to proportioning belief to the evidence? Parsons says, suppose Mother Theresa claimed she could fly by flapping her arms. Obviously we would not believe such a report, so why believe the resurrection? Such an example only shows he has not really come to grips with the nature of and evidence for the resurrection (see, in particular, N. T. Wright's The Resurrection of the Son of God
), or of the Gospels. I argue in my new book, Why the Jesus Seminar Can't find Jesus, and Grandma Marshall Could, that Gospel miracles are "realistic, purposeful, constructive, respectful, and pious." The picture of Mother Theresa flapping her frail arms like a pigeon qualifies in none of these regards. Parsons is going to have to read the Gospels more fairly if he wants to persuade anyone that his explanation is the true one.

Flew assumes the Christian Creator "sees the production of human life as an or the main object" of creation. So why bother with all those other galaxies? But Christian intellectuals who have grown up on C. S. Lewis (most of us, maybe), have never claimed that God's only purpose in creating is human life. Who knows what else he has in mind? Flew replies in advance that the response "His ways are not our ways" is just a post hoc response. On the contrary, admitting the limits to our knowledge has been part of Christian theology from ancient times, and is in general wise epistemology. As Confucius said, "To know what you know, and know what you don't know, this is knowledge."

I find the atheists represented here enjoyable to read, and highly knowledgeable in some areas. It must be tough to be a professional philosopher: aside from logic, language and epistemology, you have to know a little bit about almost everything, it seems. Here you get useful bits of knowledge and thought from most all the contributors, though.

 

 

The Golden Compass, Philip Pullman

**** “A Very Imaginary World”

 

Bombay puts out movies. Detroit makes cars. Seattle sells coffee and books. Oxford most popular manufacture seems to be imaginary worlds: Wonderland, Middle Earth, Narnia, the indeterminate feline cages of Edwin Schrodinger, the parallel universe of Philip Pullman.

As a critic of atheism [...], you might expect me to prefer Tolkien and Lewis. And honestly, I don't think anything holds a candle to Middle Earth for coherence, integrity, or pure creative genius. Narnia is a seemingly more casual confection; but behind Lewis' simplicity and good cheer, lies a philosophical profundity that again, I don't think Pullman can match. But on it's own terms, The Golden Compass may (I admit reluctantly) be an equally brilliant (if not quite so healthy) an invention.

The story begins in Oxford, and ends somewhere near the North Pole. But while place-names are familiar, history took several left turns before the curtain came up: John Calvin became pope and abolished the papacy, transportation is by air ship and barge, and everyone has an animal daemon companion, that sticks closer than a brother. (Fear of the occult here need not detain us much; Pullman may have wanted to tweak Christian noses, but these are not evil spirits in our sense -- and he makes ingenious use of these petgeists. His militant polar bears are also marvellous: just the right blend of icy ursan nature and quirky anthropomorphisms.)

A lot of the fun here is all the "what if" games Pullman sets in motion. "Here, on this deck, millions of other universes exist, unaware of one another." Another is his talent with aphorisms: "Being a practiced liar doesn't mean you have a powerful imagination. Many good liars have no imagination at all; it's that which gives their lies such wide-eyed conviction."

His Dark Materials is, of course, intended as a critique of Christianity in general, and C. S. Lewis in particular. It is rather hypocritical for some fans to both enjoy the attack, and to complain that Christians don't! But all I'll say about that side of the book -- and it does not overwhelm the story in book one usually, less say than in The Da Vinci Code -- is that here, too, Pullman is describing an imaginary universe.

In Pullman's universe, the victory of Christianity is the "triumph of despair." In the real world, as I show in The Truth Behind the New Atheism, it was the crucial (in every sense) defeat of despair. In Pullman's world, Christianity brought "centuries of darkness." In the real world, it was the Gospel of Jesus, more than anything, that raised the status of women around the world (even in China, India, and Japan), ended slavery (twice), fought against forced prostitution, caste, foot-binding, widow-burning, and human sacrifice, healed, invented science, and educated women and the poor. In short, there is strong empirical evidence that in our world Jesus has in fact proven and continues to be "the light of the world."

But that's no reason we who know that can't enjoy reading a great story about a very imaginary world.

 

 

The Subtle Knife, Philip Pullman

***** “Brilliant Promethian Invention”

 

Let me begin by stating my biases. I'm a Christian scholar who writes books defending my faith: most recently, The Truth Behind the New Atheism (responding to Dawkins & Co) and The Truth About Jesus and the 'Lost Gospels' (responding to neo-Gnostic ideas like those of Elaine Pagels and Bart Ehrman). Si nce this is a story about destroying God, which portrays "the Church" as an instrument of pure evil, you'd be right to assume Philip Pullman and I are at odds about the nature of life and the true source of liberation.  But this tension also makes the book more interesting to me, joining as it does art to a philosophy that seems a blend of the atheistic and the Gnostic, but that might more accurately be described as Promethian.

Let me evaluate the book as story, before addressing its philosophy.

I agree with other readers who find Pullman a brilliant writer.  The characters are wonderful: better, perhaps, than The Golden Compass.  I especially like Will, the troubled, dangerous, but honorable young man who is its main hero.  The interplay of worlds is also marvelous; especially interesting for someone like me, who has done a bit of walking up Banbury Road (once in search of Tolkien's tomb).  The Spectres are nastier than Dementors. I also like the way the physics of dark matter is tied into "dust" and into the occult; there is enough coherence to the suggestion to tempt suggestable minds into playing with I Ching, or cracking tortoise shells.

Perhaps that is one of Pullman's purposes.  Certainly he loses few opportunities to tweak C. S. Lewis' nose -- is that why witches are associated with the North, and the breakup of winter is a work of deep evil, rather than "good magic?"  Lewis himself was tempted by the occult as a young man; one gets the feeling that Pullman's atheism may also be less than complete.

I am bemused by some of the reviews, otherwise quite perceptive, which deny that Pullman is "anti-Christian" or "anti-Catholic."  Of course he is.  This is, in the end, a novel about killing God, after all.  The Church is almost pure evil.  Will's knife may be subtle, but the one Philip Pullman places in the back of Christianity is not.  "He showed me many things I had never seen, cruelties and horrors all committed in the name of the Authority, all designed to destroy the joys and the truthfulness of life."  "Imagine the daring of it, to make war on the Creator! . . . in every world, agents of the Authority are sacrificing children to their cruel god."

Pullman is often classified as an atheist, and perhaps he is; but his imagination sometimes borders on Gnostic.  He loves to retell the story of the fall in reverse: Mary Malone "must play the serpent," a story Gnostic literature delights in retelling with the serpent as "instructor."  But ultimately, Pullman's imagination pulls away from Gnosticism by being (contrary to some Christian critics, at least in these first two books) moral, and worlds-affirming.  The Nag Hammadi literature shows almost no interest in kindness or any form of morality, and despises the "bonds of flesh."  (See The Truth About Jesus and the "Lost Gospels.")  Pullman's world, by contrast, is a morally impassioned multi-verse, that delights (his witches are earthy) in nature.

Pullman is a rebel with a cause, more like Promethius or the Monkey King storming the heavens, than Gnostics despising the earth.

Pullman wants his book to make us think about life, so it is fair I think to bring a couple questions up at this point.  First, is he right that theism in general, and Christianity in particular, have mainly served an oppressive role in human history?  Or could it be that most great reforms in history have in fact been inspired by the message he thinks so harm us?  And second, does the Promethian urge, when carried out in real life, tend to liberate, or enslave?

If, aside from reading a brilliant work of promethian fiction, you would also like to look into real-world issues that it touches on

 

 

Why I am not a Christian, Bertrand Russell

*** “Poetic at Times, but Cranky and Prone to Error”

 

Russell is certainly a lively writer. The essay that most impressed me was A Free Man's Worship. As a Christian, I found this essay an eloquent and poetic specimen of the trajedy Russell admired. (Though I disagree with it.)

The title essay, and some of the others, however, come across to one who does not share Russell's emotional reasons for disliking Christianity, or is aware of contrary evidence, as cranky at best. Here are a few samples: "There's no reason the world could not have come into being without a cause." "The Christian church is the principle enemy of moral progress in the world." "No orthodox Christian can find any positive reason" for condemning the murder of unbaptised children. "That Christianity improved the status of women. . . is one of the grossest perversions it is possible to make." "The whole concept of God is derived from the ancient Oriental despotisms." "Historically it is doubtful whether Christ existed."

It is easy to understand gut-level responses to such rhetoric, as reflected in the reviews on both sides below. Russell makes bold statements in a tone of brisk confidence that he seems to expect his readers will interpret as the certainty a truly logical approach to life can ensure. To me, as to others, such statements often come across as flaky, dogmatic, and out of touch with reality.

I have a special reason for feeling that way. I just finished writing a book (Jesus and the Religions of Man) that argues flatly to the contrary on most of these points. (Not that I was aiming at Russell in particular.) I did a lot of research on these topics for my book, and give a good chunk of empirical data. With that evidence still fresh in mind, Russell's breezy statements (accompanied by almost no evidence) come across as bombastic and a little unreal.

And so I salute Russell as the poet lauriette of modern agnosticism. But don't buy into his arguments, or rather credal statements, until you've had a chance to really look over the evidence, for both sides.

Why was Russell not a Christian? In Faith of the Fatherless, psychologist Paul Vitz proposed a different (and tragic) theory, having to do with Russell's sad and lonely childhood. I don't want to be patronizing. But I do find some support for Vitz' theory both in Russell's mode of argument, and in the way he sometimes wrote of life. "When I contemplate the things that people do with their lives, I think (the end of the world) is almost a consolation." "(It is plausible that) this world was made by the devil when God was not looking." It is hard for me to believe that anyone who has known deep human love, or even carefully studied the weeds in his own backyard, could say such things.

And so read this book with both a critical mind and an open heart. The barbs of Bertrand Russell should be a reminder to believers to be patient with skeptics, even or especially when they mock our faith. And for those who are tempted to take Russell's pronouncements at face value, let me recommend a few books (besides my own, of course)to balance these ideas as written here and as echoed by modern followers: Hugh Ross, Creator and the Cosmos; Charles Thaxton, Heart of Science; G. K. Chesterton, Everlasting Man; and Don Richardson, Eternity in Their Hearts, and maybe Gary Habermas, on the historical Jesus.

 

Autobiography, Bertrand Russell

***** “Gossipy, passionate, and thoughtful”

 

One gets the impression, as one reads the brilliant character sketches Russell draws of the scholars and lords and ladies who made up his circle of acquaintances, that the English upper class was mostly mad, scoundrels, or geniuses, with a fair amount of overlap. (The author as an outstanding case in point.) The keenness of Russell's insight into character, vivid descriptions, and eye for the absurd, make many passages of this book a delight. "My advice to anyone who wishes to write is to know the very best literature by heart, and ignore the rest as completely as possible." "The past is an awful God, though he gives life almost the whole of its haunting beauty." "(Plato's) austerity in matters of art pleases me, for it does not seem to be the easy condemnation that comes from the Phillistine." Reading Why I am Not a Christian ..., I got the impression that he had a gloomy outlook on life. But here, I often found great joy in poetry, nature, and the wonder of life. "I had never, till that moment, heard of Blake, and the poem affected me so much that I became dizzy and had to lean against the wall." Tempered, however, by morbid thoughts, and fear of insanity.

One of the odder aspects of the book to me was Russell's "idealism." On one page, he speaks of a mystical experience in which gave him a universal compassion for all mankind: on the very next page, he relates how he "fell out of love" with his wife, and then, how he ditched her. Passing from the same Bodhissattva-like musings elsewhere, he relates, on the next page or so, how he tried to strangle a friend in a rage. He can be sympathetic and even kind, but for a would-be Boddhisattva and fighter for the rights of women, he seems to have hurt a lot of ladies, in particular, rather badly. Yet his friendships in general, with both sexes, seem warm and affectionate.

I docked the book a star because the version I bought (Bantom) seemed dishonest in its packaging. The front and back covers show an old man, though this version only covers the period to 1914. On the back cover, it promises "more exciting episodes than most novels, details more intimate than most exposes, and more intensity of emotion than most fiction writers would dare ascribe to a single hero." Largely hype. This is not Dumas, or Augustine. It's a different kind of story.

Someone else on the back cover calls Russell "a Genius-Saint." Genius, maybe, but the second accolade implies very low standards for sainthood. The book did make me think Russell a more balanced figure than I thought.  But part of that balance appears to have been something like madness, and something like cruelty.  Intellectually, Russell was a brilliant man.  Emotionally, he often strikes me as a lonely and bewildered child, angry at being abandoned, not sure where to look for love, and not sure how to give it.

 

 

The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, Carl Sagan

*** “Dr. Sagan’s Big-Tent Revival”

 

This is a book I feel like applauding or booing, depending on whether I'm in the mood to count virtues or vices.  Let’s start with virtues.  Sagan is not only a good writer, he comes across as a likable human being.  The book is personal and warm, passionate, thoughtful, and well-written. It is full of interesting anecdotes, the point of which is well-stated.  One doesn't know whether to laugh or cry when reading Sagan's mail from alien abductees. Maybe that's a test of our humanity. (Or humility.)

Sagan's "baloney-detecting kit" is a useful set of principles for separating fact from fiction. As a Christian scholar and skeptic of skepticism, I found myself breaking it out and using it, and related principles, right away.

For example, when Sagan emphasizes how prone memory is to error.  "Our memories (like many preachers, Sagan is fond of saying "we" when he really seems to mean "you") are almost never challenged. They can, instead, be frozen into place, no matter how flawed . . . or become a work of continual artistic revision." Some of Sagan's protegies, repeating these arguments, almost had me convinced. (Skeptics, too, can avail themselves of the power of suggestibility.) So I conducted an experiment with my students, and found short-term memory extremely accurate. I also had a chance to test long-term memory on a family trip to my boyhood home, and found no evidence of "artistic revision" at all. So it seems to me Sagan improperly generalizes about memory from fringe cases.

I also find myself skeptical of the priority of skepticism itself. "Look at all the foolish things people fall for!" is the basic argument here, "People are so gullible, so willing to believe!" Sagan gives many examples, the point of which is "Be skeptical!" Seems a bit like stacking the deck, to me. What about the harm that comes from an overly-critical view? What about the admiral who can't believe the Japanese are really attacking, or the parents who refuse to buy their children's story about a trusted uncle? Two human propensities -- foolish credulity and foolish incredulity -- are both common. But they cancel one another, and we're left with a problem -- what's the evidence? Sagan is against one, but hustles us towards the other -- because he buys it himself. Thus, he writes glibly of hte "Copernican Insight" and the scientific illiteracy of those who doubt it, even as top-notch astronomers discuss the strong challenge anthropic discoveries seem to pose to that principle.

Most of Sagan's arguments are directed towards the fringe -- alien abductees, satanic abuse -- but he jabs inwards towards "mainstream religion" with frequency. Many of these jabs are directed at Christianity, but with only occasional accuracy. About the witch trials, for example, he overstates the number of victims on the order of 10 to 100, and makes all the old mistakes in linking them closely to The Church that even one fair-minded Wiccan historian has expressed embarrassment about. I don't think Sagan is being malicious, and often he does get his facts straight. But he is a professional scientist, and an amateur historian or political scientist. He simply over-estimates the intellectual magic and breadth of "science," and under-estimates the gullibility of his own and other scientific minds. And he clearly has not read good opposing arguments -- in science, history, or philosophy.

Again, Sagan writes as if Democracy and Science, his favorite values, appeared POOF! Like a puff of smoke during the Enlightenment. This is historically naive. Serious historians have traced the slow growth of free institutions and scientific thought to origins in the Middle Ages and Christian thinking. (Treadgold, Davies, Dawson, Landes, etc.) Sagan points out: "If we only know our side of the argument, we hardly know that." Good advice, but when it comes to religion, it is clear he has not taken it. He seems only to have read very skeptical historians, and not always the best of those.

Sagan encourages scientists to sail out into political waters. He does not seem to see the danger (obvious to me, having met with many examples) that historically and politically naive scientists will play upon the prestige of their fields to muck in matters of which they know less than they think. "To know what you know, and know what you don't know, this is knowledge," said Confucius. But Sagan castigates Americans for flunking an adult science test, holding up Japanese and others as models by comparison, apparently not aware that Japanese adults did far worse on the very same test. He implies the Bible speaks of a flat earth, or the inferiority of blacks. (It does neither.) Nor, on a more complex topic, do I think any fair historian would agree that Christianity subjugated women. I have offered an historical argument (in Jesus and the Religions of Man) that, on the contrary, nothing has liberated women more around the world than the teachings and example of Christ. In the spirit of Sagan's call for criticism, I welcome fair-minded rebuttal.

 

 

 

How we believe: Science, Skepticism, and the Search for God, Michael Shermer

 

*** “Personal, Interesting, but Sloppy and Unpersuasive”

 

Having just finished two other books by skeptics (Sam Harris and Pascal Boyer) who want to explain and / or abolish religion, Shermer's easy style and cheerful approach were a welcome change of pace. Sure, he meanders a bit, but in the process covers many interesting topics, and offers some great quotes. Unlike Harris or Boyer, Shermer is not afraid to credit faith with good influence on occasion (making his argument far more credible), and he has a pretty decent grounding, overall, in Christianity, the "orthodoxy" he goes after most often. (Though he also discusses the Bible Code, NDEs, Ghost Dances, Nation of Islam, and other Messianic cults -- most of which I found fascinating.) I also liked the last chapter, on Steven Jay Gould and historical contingency -- the butterfly effect. As an historian, I think the theory helps explain both the pattern of Chinese dynastic power, and the way schools of thought mix as they form, then congeal into orthodoxies.

Elsewhere, though, I found Shermer's arguments unsuccessful, and often confused.

For one thing, sloppiness often undermines Shermer's credibility. He flubs the story of Augustine's famous conversion - the verse quoted in Confessions did not tell Augustine to sell all he had and give to the poor, but to avoid sexual immorality! No one who has read Pensees should talk as if "The Wager" were Pascal's only argument for Christianity. Shermer's ten arguments for God, and his responses, are as others remark embarrassing - not only because they are short and therefore inadequate, but they often also miss the point. Shermer introduces Michael Behe as his primary antagonist on ID, but then most of his arguments seem to argue past Behe.

Shermer also fails to critique his own arguments objectively. Shermer often tells us, "People are pattern-seeking animals." True, but we can also be pattern-avoiding, overlooking signs of cancer or an affair. The question is which faculty is most in play when it comes to religion. One cannot simply assume that faith in God means connecting too many dots, rather than disbelieving, means not connecting enough. This is the weakness of a psychological approach to religion without an adequate discussion of objective evidence. After all, math and logic and science and history also connect dots.

Shermer relies on Burton Mack on Jesus. This is a poor choice. See my Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus, and Grandma Marshall Could, for a critique of Mack, Crossan, Borg, and Funk, among others. I argue that Mack is more a maker of myths than a believable historian.

Shermer's surveys of why people believe, or do not believe, were probably the most interesting part of the book for me. He summarizes the data at the end of the book in a series of useful graphs. He finds that skeptics are more likely to be well-educated, open-minded, male, and to conflict with their parents. But here too, his analysis is premature. First of all, he assumes that a person who describes himself as "inventive, curious, original," is these things - which seems a bit naïve. Secondly, the only society he surveys is America. He does not therefore control for the sociological difference between orthodox views and new sects. A different kind of person is likely to convert than stick with the views of his ancestors. To decide what difference theism itself makes, it would be necessary to take similar surveys in (say) communist China or Russia, Tibet, Iran, and Japan. If Shermer did so, having studied culture and religion all my adult life, I am sure he would get quite different results. While education may make Americans a bit less likely to believe in God, it seems to make Taiwanese or Singaporean far more likely to become Christians. And this, Rodney Stark shows, was also the case in Medieval Europe, among the first scientists.

Shermer asks, "How can one set of people find no evidence for God's existence, while another set finds quite the opposite? Both are observing the same world. The answer, as we shall see, lies in the psychology of belief." To be fair, he should also consider whether the answer might lie instead in (1) the psychology of unbelief (see Paul Vitz, Faith of the Fatherless); (2) the sociology of unbelief (see Stark, For the Glory of God); (3) the fact that people observe different parts of the world; (4) the possibility that science has become a rival god (there is evidence for that in this book); (5) sex on campus (see Tom Wolfe!); (6) different ways in which people on different levels of society falsify or deny God (see Cornelius Plantinga, A Bestiary of Sin); (7) public education may discriminate against faith. (Shermer himself says, "It is not acceptable in science" to offer supernatural explanations. And indeed, many of us have learned, even a hint of openness to the supernatural can be bad for one's academic health;) (8) the public education system may have become a propaganda machine for humanism, as envisioned by Dewey; or (9) the sociological tendencies described by Stark. Each hypothesis, I say, should be considered.

Finally, Shermer puzzles much over the relationship between faith and reason. His survey shows that the most common reason for faith is intellectual. He thinks this is a modern heresy, an inappropriate response to skepticism on the part of Christians, who should admit that they believe because they want to, end of story. He praises the pope for writing, "Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth." But when the pope describes faith and reason as both "inseparable" and "distinct," he complains: "Either faith and reason are inseparable or they are distinct." Why? It does not occur to him that the poetry he has just praised shows that it is possible for two things to be both "inseparable" and "distinct." Both wings on a bird are inseparable in the sense of being joined through its body, and in being required for flight - yet are distinct as well. The world is full of objects both "inseparable" in that sense and "distinct:" electron and proton, head and shoulders, mother and child. Skeptics often assume "faith" means "blind faith:" it is to Shermer's credit that he digs up evidence to the contrary. But the evidence takes him by surprise, and he resorts to the improbable assumption that Pope John Paul does not properly understand the Christian tradition, and educated Christians have heretical notions of epistemology. He is, of course, mistaken. Far from a modern heresy, however, John Paul (and Pascal!) accurately understood that faith and reason complement one another in the Christian tradition. (See the anthology on Faith and Reason on my web site, christthetao.com, for quotes on faith and reason from leading Christian thinkers over the centuries.) So while I credit Shermer for being open-minded enough to learn new things about religion, it remains to be seen how open and self-critical he really is.

 

 

Atheism, Ayn Rand, and Other Heresies,  George Smith

**** “Lucid, Thoughtful, and sometimes way off”

 

Most anthologies of essays are like a loose pile of sand, but thematically, I thought this one hung together fairly well. The style varied from popular to almost bibliographical.

The Ayn Rand essays were informative, though I thought Smith bent over backwards a bit too far to shield Rand herself from the charge of fanaticism. (As is so often done with Marx.) The essays I liked the best were "My Path to Atheism," "Atheism and the Virtue of Reasonableness," (good advice for theists as well), and "Frantz Fanon and John Locke at Stanford," which I read as a stirring defense of free thought against the PC mind control so prevalent in our academic establishments. If everyone (including Smith himself)would follow his rules for debate in that second essay, we might be in for a lot of good, healthy debate!

As a Christian, I was perturbed, but not surprised (having seen it so often), to find someone as apparently well-informed as Smith badly misunderstand what orthodox Christians mean by faith. He repeated the old canard that "Faith conflicts with reason," and a great deal of his discussion was saddled with this profound and oft-repudiated error. Faith, he argued,
"cannot give you knowledge." It is "intellectually
dishonest, and should be rejected by every person of integrity." He backed up his mangled argument with the writings of some obscure theologian. But when understood as orthodox Christians understand it (as I argue in my book Jesus and the Religions of Man
), it is truer to say that nothing besides faith can give knowledge. "Never, never doubt the efficacy of your mind," Smith advised. Yes, and that is (in the Christian sense) an act of faith. Beyond a reasonable and tested faith in reason, memory, the fives senses, and other people, faith in God is the highest form not of blind faith (an un-Christian concept), but of the clear-headed act of reason by which rational beings perceive what is real in their environment. If you think faith is a wild and uneccessary leap in the dark, you misunderstand the Christian religion, and the nature of knowledge in general.

Suffering from this misunderstanding, Smith blames Augustine for the Dark Ages; which I think is radically unfair. (Especially considering that Augustine, one of the greatest thinkers in world history, died in a city under siege of the invaders who really did usher in the Dark Ages.)

Smith also tries halfheartedly to argue that Jesus fit the "profile" of an abusive cult leader. This is nonsense. In fact, compare the more detailed list of traits common to cult leaders compiled by such skeptical psychologists as Marcia Fabin and Anthony Storr with the Gospels, and it appears that Jesus was at the opposite end of the spectrum from that sort of person. I have been studying world religion, gurus, Messiahs, and "Living Buddhas" for many years, and I have not found any who resembled Jesus.

Despite these criticisms, I enjoyed this book and found a lot of value in it. Smith is extremely well-read, and writes with a style that is usually clear and reasonable. I look forward to reading his general defense of atheism.

 

 

Why Christianity Must Change or Die, John Spong

“Why the Episcopal Church Must Change or Die”

 

When it comes to religion, I have a prejudice. I like to read books by people who know something. I respect Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, or atheists who care about evidence, and go to the trouble of reading intelligent Christian writers before setting out to publicly refute our faith.

By that test, this book is an embarrassment.

The problem is clear in the end notes. Almost all of the books Spong refers to are by other critics of orthodox Christianity: Pagels, Armstrong, Tillich, Strauss, Campbell, Sagan.  He does quote page one (did he get any further?) of a book by Richard Swinburne. He also lists Christian physicist, John Polkinghorne, in his bibliography, but makes no mention of his arguments.

The meat of the book consists of a long string of skeptical assertions, with little corroborating evidence, and no reference to responses by Christian or fair-minded secular scholars. "Almost every medical breakthrough has been opposed by Christian leaders." (What about the many medical breakthroughs made by dedicated Christian physicians? Or historians of science, non-Christians like Landes, Davies, and Whitehead among them, who relate the rise of Western science to elements of Christian teaching?) "The problem of evil simply cannot be solved." (What does Spong say to arguments by top-notch philosophers like Plantinga, Wolterstorf or Swinburne, to the contrary?) "The masculinity of the deity . . . has been used for thousands of years to justify the oppression of women . . . "  (Has Spong heard of sociologist Rodney Stark, who shows that Christianity was popular among Roman women because it liberated women? Or historians Gu Weiming, J. N. Farquhar, or philosopher Vishal Mangalwadi, who show how Christianity freed Asian women from widow-burning, foot-binding, and other forms of social oppression?)  The Gospels "Do not appear to be historical at all."  (Can Spong refute N.T. Wright, Craig Blomberg, or John Polkinghorne, who defend the reliability of the Gospels on historical grounds?  Does he even have good reason to challenge the skeptics in his own bibliography, who admit that much of the Gospels do appear historical?)  "Nor does a cure result from prayers for God's intervention." (I have heard hundreds of stories to the contrary, many first-hand; has Spong refuted them too?) "The God I know can only be pointed to; this God can never be enclosed by propositional statements." (Uh -- isn't that itself a propositional statement about God?) Spong even spends four pages trying to resurrect Sigmund Freud's hoary old theory of the origin of religion.

Both the Spong books I have read so far have been an uncritical, ill-informed expurgation of the most unbalanced attacks on Christianity since the 19th Century, adopting the tone of that century, and making no allowance for Christian responses. Spong risks everything on the gamble that his readers are unaware of contrary arguments, as he himself appears to be. As you see below, even some non-Christians find this mode of argument embarrassing.

In Spong's view, Christians are not merely fools, we are victims of a "mental lobotomy."

Spong reminds me of the cleric on the bus-trip from hell to heaven in C. S. Lewis' The Great Divorce
: "When the doctrine of the Resurrection ceased to commend itself to the critical faculties which God had given me, I openly rejected it. I preached my famous sermon. I defied the whole chapter. I took every risk." His friend responds: "What risk? What was at all likely to come of it except what actually came -- popularity, sales for your books, invitations, and finally a bishopric?"

I wish Bishop Spong well. I hope that some day, perhaps on a bus somewhere, we can talk about serious matters in a serious manner.

 

 

Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism, Paul Vitz

**** “”

 

I found Faith of the Fatherless readable, sympathetic, and suggestive if not absolutely persuasive. The book is admittedly anecdotal; it would be beyond the ability of one man to run his survey to "a group made up of millions," as the critic below suggests. But it seems to me Vitz gives a good sample of the most famous theists and anti-theists of the past two centuries, and I felt summarized their stories in an interesting and empathetic manner. I did not find his tone ad hominem, certainly not like Paul Johnson's Intellectuals. While I think a more whollistic undertanding of the development of spirituality would discuss moral and rational reasons for atheism or theism, as well as irrational causes such as the character of one's father, Vitz is a psychologist, after all, not primarily a philosopher. While the model he gives here may be a bit simplistic, he does not dismiss these other factors out-of-hand, as do determinists.

Aside from other questionable statements, Eric Rogers' criticism below directly misrepresented Vitz on at least four points. Vitz did not make the remark imputed to him in the first paragraph; Roger has telescoped a long quotation to make him say what he did not say. Vitz did not "assume Voltaire hated his father simply because he changed his name;" he gave strong corroborative evidence for that hatred. Nor did he "assume" H.G.Wells rejected his father; he quoted him directly on the subject in an exceedingly persuasive passage. Nor, finally and most importantly, did Vitz claim that his theory determined a child's view of God. He stated directly and repeatedly that lack of a strong father figure is only a strong influencing factor. So the fact that siblings may choose different beliefs is no argument against Vitz' theory. I find it ironic that Rogers should accuse Vitz, and Christians in general by implication, of determinism, ad hominem, and illogic, when Vitz specifically rejects the shoddy deterministic logic that atheists (especially Marxists and Freudians) have used against Christianity for hundreds of years. The vehemence and inaccuracy of Roger's attack almost begs a psychological explanation itself.

Faith of the Fathers should not be mistaken for an apologetic for the Christian faith, however. An atheist could even argue that the conclusion children come to who have lost their fathers is a valid inference from personal experience to the true nature of a cruel universe. The book adds to my sense of responsibility as I raise children of the same vulnerable age, and my concern as I see parents abandoning their responsibiities so easily in modern society.

How might Vitz's argument apply to non-Western cultures? As I argue in Jesus and the Religions of Man, the concept of the Creator is both universal and surprisingly consistent around the world, even in "Hindu," "Buddhist" and tribal cultures. I find tentative corroboration of Vitz's argument in the ways Confucian thought has, for 3000 years, related duty to Heaven, as "Parent" of mankind, to duty to one's parents. The early life of Mao Zedong also strongly confirms the link in a negative way. I think many readers are likely to find possible confirmation of Vitz' theory among their own circle must not forget or oversimplify the pain and the complex causes that lie behind individual cases.

 

God’s Funeral: The Decline of Faith in Western Civilization, A. N. Wilson

**** “Brilliant Reportage from the Bottom of the Well”

 

I had read Wilson's biographies of C.S.Lewis and Jesus before picking up this book, and found that while he was an excellent writer with an eye for telling detail, what the details told, tended to be what Wilson himself wanted to see. He piled up non-sequitors like foot stools to reach shaky conclusions. He mistook his own wild guesses for established fact. And most of all, he seemed glibly unaware of threatening counter-arguments.

God's Funeral is not free of such faults. However, I can't deny the book is a good read; full of interesting character sketches and iconoclastic ideas. You can do much worse on a rainy day.

I am not sure the Victorian era was altogether the spiritual watershed Wilson portrayed it as. For example, after depicting the loss of faith of a number of intellectuals raised in Christian homes, supposedly the greatest thinkers of the day, he alleged that even the prominent Christian Prime Minister William Gladstone toned down his faith during this period. But it was Gladstone who noted, presumably late in his career, that, "I have known 95 of the world's great men in my time, and of those, 87 were followers of the Bible." No doubt Gladstone's definition of "great" was influenced by his beliefs; but so was Wilson's. Some of the important figures Wilson describes here, like Marx, Bertrand Russell, and George Sand, have elsewhere been very convincingly described as flakes. (See Paul Johnson, Intellectuals, for example.) Gladstone's comment reminds us that Wilson catches only a very constricted view of modern faith, like the frog in the Chinese story who looks at the sky out of a well and thinks he has seen the world.

In Wilson's view, evidence against the truth of Christianity that began to accumulate in the 19th Century, such as Darwin's theory of Evolution and Biblical criticism, terminally undermined the basis for belief. Modern Christians who ignore that evidence are, he thinks, fooling themselves with sophistry (evangelicals) or willing themselves to believe despite the evidence (liberals). The problem with this generalization, while it may accurately describe individual cases on all sides, is that it does not take into account opposing phenomena; areas of evidence that have increased the credibility of the Christian faith as the modern era wore on. (And which parallel the continued growth and spread of the world-wide church, about which Wilson is fairly subdued.) Exit the well, and look in other directions, and you are likely to notice such things as: the Anthropic Principle, the failure of radical New Testament criticism (Crossan, Funk, Wilson himself) to come up with a credible materialistic explanation for the Gospels, the surprising complexity of even "primitive" life, (which of Darwin's atheist contemporaries thought we'd still be looking for a way for life to emerge from non-life at the turn of the millenia?), the long-prophecied return of the Jewish people to Israel, the surprisingly univeral nature of the Christian concept of God, the undermining of mechanistic models in physics, or the folly and destruction of Marxist, Nazi, sexual, and aquarian revolts against orthodox morality. In addition, many modern believers (including myself) have seen God answer prayer in remarkable ways. All these are among the empirical evidences that have driven many thoughtful people toward, rather than away from, belief.

On the other hand, much of the prima facia evidence against God on which modern skeptics set such store, such as suffering and the regularity of natural law, have been familiar throughout history; even the apostles expressed such doubts. So I find these generalizations from historical periods rather dubious; and I am tempted to wonder if there are really more atheists now than there were hundreds of years ago, or if they just have better jobs.

God's Funeral is not a bad read. But if you find the philosophy that underlies it persuasive, let me challenge you to read a book I just wrote as well, called Jesus and the Religions of Man. While completed just before I read God's Funeral, it gives an empirical argument for the Christian faith that I think any skeptic who sees only what Wilson sees, broadening. If, after reading it, you don't agree, send the book back, and I'll refund what you paid for it.

 

 

 

 

Marx & Satan, Richard Wurmbrand

“Worth Serious Consideration”

 

As a grad student in China Studies, I once made the mistake of referring to Marx and Satan in the footnote of a paper for a very by-the-book scholar. He circled the title in heavy red ink and wrote in the margin with even heavier sarcasm: "Might the book have a bias?"

Richard Wurmbrand certainly did have a bias, though not the one the "one star" reviewers below accuse him of. No, this is not "anti-Semitic drivel;" Wurmbrand was himself a Jew, persecuted by the fascists for his race, who loved his people. No, he is not a "reactionary fanatic," nor does this book represent "the scarier mindscapes of the Bible Belt." Wurmbrand is actually from Romania, which is I believe some distance from Texas, and you read his many fascinating books, you will find he was actually quite thoughtful. But yes, he was biased against communism. He spent many years in slave labor camps, was tortured, and saw friends die. (A slave labor camp, I might point out, is rather a scarier place than a Southern Baptist church; tens of millions of people died in such places in the last century.)

Despite the provocative title of this book, such experiences did not render Wurmbrand bitter or unhinged. His argument here is not a vitriolic piece of ad hominem; rather it is a serious suggestion, backed up, it seems, by a fair amount of circumstantial evidence.

It is commonly argued that Marx had nothing to do with the crimes of communism. Even if Wurmbrand's central thesis does not convince you, the evidence he offers does at least show the spiritual or psychological continuity between Marx and the crimes committed in his name.

The book has its flaws, true. The evidence Wurmbrand offers is not overpowering. Wurmbrand sometimes takes phrases like "demonic fury" a little too seriously; I suspect it was often mere hyperbole. Also, he is not critical enough with his sources. Although he does not base anything on it, in one place he seems to accept the "Ritual Satanic Abuse" scam, for example. Finally, the book is a bit gossipy.

Still, Wurmbrand knows a great deal about communism. He seems to have read very widely in primary sources, and provides strongly suggestive quotes to back up his thesis. He shows caution at times, and is knowledgeable and thoughtful.

A few months ago I came across a dissertation in my university library entitled "The Role of Atheism in the Marxist Tradition." The author of the dissertation, a journalist named David Aikman, wrote it under the guidance of Donald Treadgold, editor of The Slavic Review and a leading historian of the Soviet Union. It was interesting to me to find that Aikman took Wurmbrand's thesis very seriously, and in his own study of Marx, Engels, and Lenin, had found additional evidence that seemed to point in the same general direction.

What did Marx and his chief disciples really believe? As Wurmbrand admits, Marx and Satan is not the final word on that question. But I think this little book does point out a set of facts that more conventional history largely ignores, and that ought to be considered; and not only as an intellectual curiosity. Wurmbrand was not an arm-chair critic, but a witness, survivor, philosopher, and passionate lover of God and man. The facts he points out, and his observations on this subject, are worth considering, if not just for their own sake, for the sake of those who died.