The war over religion
Published: Sunday | October 18, 2009
Ian Boyne, Contributor
"A little philosophy takes a man away from God. Much philosophy brings him back again."
- Francis Bacon
According to the World Christian Encyclopaedia, if atheism and secularism were categorised as a religion, they would be the third largest in the world (1.1 billion), behind Islam (1.5 billion) and Christianity (2.2 billion) but surpassing the Hindus.
And even more disturbing to Christians is the fact that the atheists and secularists category is among the most rapidly growing ideological group. Noteworthy, too, is that a lot of people are de-converting and making a lot of noise about it. Former fundamentalist preacher and missionary Dan Barker has just published his book, Godless: How An Evangelical Preacher Became One of America's Leading Atheists. Shortly before him, John Lotus, former ordained Minister of the Fundamentalist Church of Christ denomination and a Christian apologist with degrees in theology, philosophy and philosophy of religion, published his damning Why I Became an Atheist: A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity.
Lotus tells of how he thoroughly devoured all the main Christian apologetic works and used to use their arguments to confront sceptics, but how eventually he came to see that Christianity just could not stand up to rational scrutiny. The book, Leaving the Fold: Testimonies of Former Fundamentalists by Edward Babinski tells the stories of a number of Christians who have lost their faith and who now embrace reason over religion.
The atheists and secularists have been having quite a field day in the field of book publishing and media. George Bush's obnoxious and arrogant born again politics and foreign policy has served to deepen the hostility to religion. The Christian George Bush was bad PR for Christianity and the Bible. The revulsion to him and his crude and narrow nationalism developed into a groundswell against Christianity in particular. Besides, the fanaticism of the suicide bombers and of political Islam further served to cement the impression that religion was poisonous to modern society and peaceful development.
Then there is a whole genre of books like The Pagan Christ by Tom Harpur which have been published and which have sought to explain Christianity's rise in terms of ancient myths and pre-Christian religious rites. Edward Seaga's article in these pages recently reflected some of these views.
There is the "multiple crucified Saviours myth" of various pagan peoples which some say early Christians merely adopted. Some like Earl Doherty even assert confidently that there was no historical person named Jesus Christ or Yeshua and that Christianity is a total fabrication.
The pity is that many persons who read these views never acquaint themselves with the other side. They are not aware that there are reputable scholars and thinkers who have carefully considered and assessed these views and have made their conclusions available to the public.
The view, for example, that Jesus Christ never existed is dismissed by an atheist such as Richard Carrier, who specialises in ancient history and who is a highly engaging thinker. He runs the atheistic website The Secular Web and is author of two well-written books, Not the Impossible Faith and Sense and Goodness without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism.
So the Jesus-never-existed view does not deserve serious consideration. The views about the similarities between the birth and death narratives, of the various religions vis-a-vis Christianity; the similarities between pagan religions and Christianity; the influence on Christianity by the Hellenistic mystery religions and the view that the Old Testament depended on Near Eastern myths for its development have all been engaged by conservative biblical scholars. There is much valuable material available on the internet rebutting some of these views.
I must confess that I find many Christian attempts to rebut criticisms of Christianity pathetically weak and disappointing. I generally find that the atheists and agnostics argue much more soundly and are more intellectually rigorous. I find that the atheists, and especially the agnostics, ponder things more deeply and more profoundly than believers and that they are usually more sophisticated and nuanced in their analyses.
I think I have read the best of the atheists and agnostics and the best of the theists, and I generally find the former far more intellectually engaging.
So when I recommend some Christian thinkers, take me seriously. For while, in my view, the Christian philosophers, theologians and apologists are outclassed by the unbelievers in terms of intellectual rigour argumentation, there are some very serious believers who are very sharp and who meaningfully engage the sceptics.
On the internet, for example, if you go to Christian Think-Tank, you will find highly reasoned, seriously-researched essays dealing with many critical questions about the Bible. Bothered by texts seemingly to justify slavery and genocide? Bothered by texts from the Old Testament which seem to have antiquated and repugnant social law and customs? Shocked by the ethical practices of the Old Testament particularly? Go to that site. There you will find the best scholarship on these matters. These fellows really engage in high-quality apologetics and unlike many apologists they take sceptics' questions seriously and really engage them.
Another excellent site which keeps abreast of every sceptical piece of writing, every atheistic and agnostic scholar or popular writer and which seeks to debunk them is Textron Evaluation and Apologetics Ministry. Bart Ehrman, who is the leading and most-quoted biblical scholar who attacks the authenticity of Scripture, is challenged seriously by these apologists who take him to task over what they term his sloppy scholarship.
In fact, if you go to the website 4truth.net you can download videos featuring New Testament scholar Mike Licona who answers a number of Ehrman's major points. There are people like Mutaburuka, Mark Wignall and John Maxwell who ridicule Christianity but who are not aware of what the best Christian thinkers have had to say in response to the critique of them. If you read the critics of Christianity and theism, you should try to read the best of those who espouse Christianity. I try to get every significant work of every atheist and agnostic of note, including Victor Stenger's The New Atheism, just released in September.
Right until criticised
There is a scripture in Proverbs which says, "Every man first seems right when he states his case until another comes and examines him." I have seen so often in my study of philosophy and theology in particular, that I will read an author whose arguments seem unassailable only to read a critique of him which shows up weaknesses and raises issues which might not be evident at first examination of the subject matter. This is why wide reading is critical.
But there are some secularists and non-believers who are so self-assured, arrogant and contemptuous in their belief that religious people could have nothing of value to say that they feel any reading of those works constitutes a colossal waste of time and resources. They continue to trot out views which have been successfully contested, but that's totally unknown to them. No atheist who reads Scott Hahn and Benjamin Wiker's book, Answering the New Atheism: Dismantling Dawkins Case Against God can say the arguments offered for theism and Christianity are absurd. He can say they are not decisive or coercive, but he can't fail to be impressed by the reasoning.
No one can read David Berlinski's The Devil's Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions and not come away thoroughly impressed with the brilliance of its argumentation and critique of scientism. Berlinksi is not a believer, but a secular Jew. Yet, he recognises that many of the popular arguments against religion and for science are philosophically naive, pretentious and chauvinistic. The New Atheists are not well schooled in philosophy and certainly not in the philosophy of science. They don't realise science is not philosophically neutral.
I can recommend no better book to counter the hyper-faith in science and reason than, ironically a book by an agnostic, JL Schellenberg, The Wisdom to Doubt: A Justification of Religious Skepticism. This is a book showing that it is rational to withhold belief from Christianity and every other religion, but it also makes the point forcefully that one also has an ineluctable and rationally inescapable reason for having faith in science and reason.
In fact, one of the strongest arguments which counsel epistemic humility and a rejection of hubris is the recognition that in a naturalistic universe, one has a solid basis for trusting the deliverances of reason. The well-known Christian philosopher Alwin Plantinga has made a career out of showing that naturalists have no reason for being confident that "mind" which evolved through blind chance can be trusted to know truth.
Warranted Christian Belief is an excellent introduction to Plantinga's views. Even the brilliant atheist Thomas Nagel (the New Atheists are not in his class intellectually) says in his book The Last Word: "Can we have any continued confidence in reason as a source of knowledge about the apparent character of the world? In itself, I believe an evolutionary story (of the human race) tells against such confidence."
To acquaint yourself with the problems of having faith in reason as a naturalist, see one of the finest popular, but profound books defending Christianity, Timothy Keller's The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. Then you need to get a book which just rolled off the presses by noted researcher on religion Karen Armstrong, the over 400-page The Case for God.
She also engages, but critiques the New Atheists for their philosophical unsophistication. Noting earlier atheists, she says, "the more recent atheism of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris is rather different, because it has focused exclusively on the God developed by fundamentalism ... This has weakened their critique."
The New Atheists are significant combatants in the culture war over religion. The fighting is still intense and the atheists definitely have more resources on their side. But resources don't necessarily translate into critical reason and for me the case for God has not been overturned.
Ian Boyne is a veteran journalist who may be reached at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org