Book Review – True Reason: Christian Responses to the Challenge of Atheism

Recently a good friend of mine, Troy, has decided to go in the way of the Atheist worldview. Troy has a similar history to me growing up in the Pentecostal church and as of recently we’ve been working together for the last few years, are neighbours and we share chickens in his back yard. Naturally, when one of my friends goes in the way of some sort of intellectual inquiry, I jump in head first into the discussion. Generally I see very little need anymore to change someone’s mind, especially since I no longer see very much evidence for people’s belief to have any correlation to any action. Convincing him I am right aside, I have this need to be in constant dialogue (my wife calls this a problem) and always be pushing back, asking questions and digging deeper whenever someone will give me the chance. Sarnia is generally a tough city for much conversation that gets me excited. So over the last few months our inboxes have been filling up with large rants, arguments, pleas and evidence as to what is right, reasonable, logical, faithful etc.

It’s been a while since I’ve done any reading on the New Atheists, unless it’s following links from the Sarnia Skeptic (who has been more interested in railing against local psychics and homeopathic products lately). Their arguments are nothing new but there does seem to be a growing force of folks who can’t get enough of hearing over and over again about how bad religion is for the world. So this was a perfect time to jump into the cesspool of popular philosophy and fundamentalism. I say that with full understanding that the Christian contribution to it all is as large if not greater to the ongoing rhetoric, fallacies and hype surrounding this conversation. I may try and do some kind of review on some of the New Atheists books and thinking, but there is plenty of it out there, and it’s draining to just repeat the same things over and over again and feel like it’s nothing more than ships crossing in the night. So instead, I thought it would be better to jump into some of the Christian responses to the New Atheists and see how they were doing at responding, seeing as I’m a Christian and all.

truereasoncoverI picked up True Reason: Christian Responses to the Challenge of Atheism which is a book of essays from William Lane Craig, Sean McDowell, along with Gilson, Weitnauer, John DePoe, Chuck Edwards, Matthew Flannagan, Peter Grice, Randy Hardman, David Marshall, Glenn Sunshine, David Wood, and Samuel Youngs.

Overall, it kind of felt like I was back in my intro to Philosophy class at Tyndale and I was learning the right way to argue people. The problem with this way of learning is that you are only ever hearing the arguments from the person that is telling you how to argue them. At school I remember going to one of my first classes and the professor said “if anyone ever says relativism is true, ask them if that statement is true.” And that was the end of that argument. Of course! How stupid people are for arguing for relativism. We didn’t engage in their thinking, why they came to their conclusions, their arguments for those conclusions or any of the initial premises or clarifications for what they were trying to say. This book was overwhelmingly one-sided in that it was kind of a primer of the New Atheist movement and then all the right ways to tell them how wrong they were. If I hadn’t read anything by the New Atheists I’d really think they were a bunch of idiots if this book was my only understanding of what they are saying.

I get that books can’t do everything and tackle every angle, but the problem with books like this is that most of the audience is going to be Christians who are never going to want to read New Atheist, or any secular skeptic’s material . So you end up having one side of the argument educating people on what both sides of the argument are saying. Most folks that pick up this book will not be interested in hearing the opposing side, they will just want to be encouraged that there is smart people looking out for them and giving right answers to all the naysayers that would ever suggest that God doesn’t exist. With that said, it just didn’t feel genuine. Some of the arguments were great, some of the arguments were horrendous, and others were honest attempts to try and defeat someone else’s logic.

With that said, I do think that some of the arguments did successfully point out some of the flaws within the atheist worldview. Many of the authors criticize the New Atheists for not looking at history, scriptures and religions honestly and rather pinpoint into their own interpretations of what they think something means, which is usually clouded by anger, misinformed history or a lack of research beyond a shallow initial reflex to an argument they don’t understand. Which if anything is true about New Atheists, that is it. But I really didn’t see that much difference in tactics from some of these authors, so it was kind of one step forward, one step back.

I found an excellent source of reviews of every single chapter in this book by a Christian turned Atheist, and well he’s smart and I liked his reviews for the most part. His name is Mike Doolittle and I feel that in some ways, after reading these reviews he’s kind of twin Atheist brother. That doesn’t really say much, but I’ll just let it stand because I always kind of wanted a twin brother who I could argue with every night. I point to these reviews because I think he does a decent job at pointing out a lot of the inconsistencies throughout the book that even the Christian should be aware of.

So now, just for some quotes that stood out to me, some that I found to say something of value to the argument that I think would help move the argument into a healthy direction for actually moving it forward and getting off the hamster wheel.

But Christianity obviously did not succeed because its first audiences were all gullible rubes who lapped up any supernatural claim.
— David Marshall

Defining these two worldviews shows us the root problem: naturalism and theism are at odds, not science and Christianity. Naturalism is intrinsically atheistic because it sees nothing outside the natural or material world. Here is what’s interesting about the foundational beliefs of naturalists: naturalists place enormous trust in nature’s order and their powers of reason, but their worldview ultimately undermines any basis for such confidence. Science is only possible if the world is ordered and if we can trust our senses and reason.
— David Marshall

Judges should be taken literally whereas Joshua is hagiographic history, a highly stylized, exaggerated account of the events designed to teach theological and moral points rather than to describe in detail what literally happened.
— Matthew Flannagan
(note: This was a chapter asking the question Did God Command the Genocide of the Canaanites? and I found this response to be quite an interesting take on this whole issue specifically).

There is mystery in Christianity. There is a lived-out life of action in Christ’s name. Christians rightly embrace the imagination, the power of narrative, the importance of beauty and the arts, and the value of community. All of that is crucial. Nevertheless, wrapped up in all this there is a deep and essential reasonableness to the faith.
— Tom Gilson

The contrasts are clear: atheists claim that religion is the main barrier to reason. Christians believe our capacity to reason comes from being created in the image of an all-knowing God, and that the active use of reason is an important way to honor Him. Atheists brand themselves as a community united by reason. Christians marvel at how this group rallies together even as their most prominent leader, Richard Dawkins, argues that evolution favors the selfish gene, not the reasonable group. Atheists work hard to eradicate religion for the sake of a brighter future. Christians are amazed that atheists so blissfully ignore the scientific fact that, if religion is a false consolation, the future always ends in death.
— Carson Weitnauer

From the outside looking in, it appears that many atheists, out of an overwhelming desire to crush religion and win a cultural battle on behalf of secularism, have convinced themselves that they are an exceptional group of human beings who are uniquely governed by reason. Freed from the perceived handcuffs of faith and dogma, they believe they have been singularly liberated to exercise rational thought and the tools of science on behalf of human progress. Unfortunately, these loud, public, and often repeated declarations of their great love for reason have also blinded them to some obvious realities.
— Carson Weitnauer

In order to recognize an explanation as the best, one needn’t be able to explain the explanation. In fact, so requiring would lead to an infinite regress of explanations, so that nothing could ever be explained and science would be destroyed. So in the case at hand, in order to recognize that intelligent design is the best explanation of the appearance of design in the universe, one needn’t be able to explain the designer.
–William Lane Craig
(note: I’m not posting this because I believe in intelligent design theory, I just found this line of reasoning to be fair)

24 Comments

  • Dude, what you need to do is get your hands on a copy of David Bentley Hart’s, ‘Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies’. It would be interesting for you to read with your friend Troy and discuss as you go.

  • wow. it’s pretty funny how when christians are trying to understand and address the atheist movement, they read books by christians – who have no interest or see no validity in an atheist point of view. What about reading “The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins? Or how about reading “Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon” by Dan Dennett? Or “Losing Faith in Faith” by Dan Barker? Any of these 3 books would give you a pretty educated view about what atheism is about.
    And Nathan, you point out that my arguments are nothing new. I’ll admit that. But if you or any other religious person were able to prove my arguments wrong, or at least answer our questions in a way that is logical or acceptable, these arguments would go away.
    Every christian needs to realize that atheism isn’t here just to upset your fun time at church, atheism began out of a need to believe as many true things as possible. All an atheist is looking for is truth.

  • Hi Troy,

    I just want to touch on one thing you’ve said, namely, “But if you…at least answer our questions in a way that is logical or acceptable…”, to which my response would be, logical and acceptable according to whom? Who is it that gets to set the standard here by which arguments are measured? My point is simply that the discussion between atheism and Christianity (for example) is *not* a discussion between logic and illogic, but rather between two competing plausibility structures (Lesslie Newbigin’s term). Atheism is one particular plausibility structure, Christianity is another, and both are socially embodied and rooted.

    So, back to my question. The Christian must answer the atheist’s questions in a “logical or acceptable” fashion. Presumably this means, in a fashion that is “logical and acceptable” *to the atheist*, and therein lies the problem. It’s not that Christianity is illogical, it’s that it works from within a *different* plausibility structure. This is why these conversations often end up with folks just talking past each other. So, perhaps it would be more fruitful for the atheist to realize that they do not have a monopoly on what is “logically or acceptable” but that they inhabit a *particular* plausibility structure, and that there are other, different plausibility structures (Christianity, for example) that aren’t necessarily “illogical” for the simply reason that they do not fit into the plausibility structure of the atheist.

  • Forgive some of my spelling! :)

  • Troy, are you really criticizing me because I’m reading a book by Christians on the Atheist debate? Not only that, I didn’t even have a lot of good things to say about the book. Also, I’ve read and watched almost everything that you’ve sent me as well, and there is a few more of the books on the list, that I will get to and I will review. Also, I linked to a brilliant atheist who also reviewed this book too.

    However, the New Atheists are getting repetitive and are just extending arguments from a long long time ago. I would love to read some Atheists that are actually saying something and engaging in the arguments that are being made, and not engaging in the same old arguments! I’m asking you to engage with Christian arguments past what the New Athiests are engaging in. Where are the atheist that are engaging in the arguments I’m actually making? What of those three books would be the best one that you would suggest that actually answers some of the harder questions that are posed? Turtle asks a few questions there that I think are valid and that haven’t really been addressed by any of the folks you are suggesting (but if they are, tell me which one specifically and I’ll read it).

  • Well then you should toss up the arguments which the atheists aren’t addressing, and I will happily do my best :)

  • I’m getting there.
    Wait till my next review!

  • And sorry, I am not criticizing you. I just find that the way to understand a movement isn’t to see how others are responding to it, but to actually explore it from the inside.
    “Their arguments are nothing new but there does seem to be a growing force of folks who can’t get enough of hearing over and over again about how bad religion is for the world.”
    There are a lot of people damaged by religion and the control it has on people, so sure there are a lot of upset people waving the flag, pushing back against religion. But what you’d find if you dove into the subject, the essence of an atheist point of view isn’t to just fight the church. Its to believe and know as many truths as possible. When something so mainstream as Chrsitianity has so many holes in it’s origins and ideals, yeah, atheists are going to fight it. Not for the sake of fighting it because they don;t like churches and potlucks, but because it’s false.

  • JR Turtle,
    Sure, you raise an excellent point. Probably the biggest thing that causes this seemingly “passing in the night” scenario is the whole idea of if we can’t prove it’s wrong, than there’s a chance it’s right. That’s fine. I get that. There are a lot of things that could’ve happened which are core truths to Christianity. That’s fine. We look at the evidence against such things, use logic and a process that everyone uses (even Chrstians use it for everything BUT their beliefs), and we come to a conclusion that these things are wrong. Simple as that. But to quell this, bring us the questions that we’re not answering…

  • OK, I think I understand. I guess what I see, is that many of the atheists are responding and ripping apart religion without doing what you are saying, exploring it from the inside. And I see myself as much more defending theism that trying to attack atheism. Atheism is in many, many ways perceived as a a response to religion, not a stand alone worldview in which makes sense in and of itself. Which is why I want to read Atheists who are set on making arguments for a new worldview that aren’t just responding to why our worldview is wrong. For instance, every book you posted there was an attack on faith and religion, so of course I’m going to defend it because they are attacking something they haven’t not taken the time to understand. What I’m hoping for is an Atheist who isn’t attacking as much as he is defending his own worldview.

    Any worldview that exists merely as an attack on a worldview it sees as wrong isn’t one I think has a lot of merit to it. Those atheists exist though, I just don’t think these are them from what I can tell from reading what I have read.

  • Thanks for response, Troy.

    The question isn’t can or can’t we prove X but rather, “what constitutes proof?” You seem to be of the impression that proof means, “looking at the evidence…using logic…and coming to a conclusion [about] these things.”

    Again, re: logic I would point you to my earlier comment. Christians too “look at the evidence” and use logic and come to conclusions about the reasonableness of belief in the risen Jesus and the God who reveals Himself there.

    “Looking at the evidence” for Christianity is not like “looking at the evidence for global warming”. The two are categorically different, because the gospel is a proclamation that God has come to us *from elsewhere*. This God who comes to us in Christ Jesus is not *part* of creation, He is the Creator and thus utterly and totally distinct from creation. Therefore, He cannot be “looked at” like one might look at and examine something that is a part of the created order. This is where the truth of the gospel becomes more elusive, for it is by nature not something we can pin down and “look at” and discover the reasonableness of it all on our own. The way the Church understands our knowledge of this sort of truth can be seen in the term “revelation”.

    The truth of the gospel is not a truth that we can seek out and discover via our (very subjective) means of examination and reasoning, rather, the truth of the gospel is something we can know only as the God of the gospel pulls back the curtain, so to speak, and reveals to us the truth of Christ. Thus, the Christian comes to something like the Bible with a very different posture than the atheist. The Christian comes humbly, as a true seeker, as one who knows that they can know nothing apart from the Spirit of God who opens our eyes to see rightly. The atheist comes proudly, as one who already is convinced that they see rightly and thus is unable to see at all.

  • Again JR, you’re projecting past the very foundation that atheism calls in to question. You say that our idea of proof doesn’t apply because God is the creator. Well where is the proof that God is the creator? Where is the proof that God even exists? There is none. Even your ideas are subject to these very basic questions. Also it is an age-old perception that atheists approach the bible proudly, like we already have the answers, and the bible really can’t tell us anything. Well here’s another issue that atheists call into question – the very validity of the bible. I can talk to many different theologians and receive many different perspectives on what the bible is saying. When you look at the bible and consider that its origins are less than reliable, its received thousands of modifications and translations throughout history and its been used to preach love, hate, hope and oppression. And than once you read it, its horrifying. Its all over the place. It contradicts itself. These are things that the atheist can’t get past. Why is the Christian able to get past these things? What is your response? If God was what the bible says he was, why is there not a newer updated version that uses miracles and instances of God revealing himself from this age? Surely God knows how far we’ve come, surely he’s aware of our scientific processes and approaches to understanding. These are really basic problems which the atheist finds with the bible. And above all, atheism is not proud. Atheism is based on science – not iphones and space ships – but rather science in terms of the process of verification. Either these things in the bible happened or they didn’t. Either God revealed himself to man or he didn’t. The process of science asks these questions, looks at the evidence or lack of, and makes a conclusion. If evidence were present, atheists would be the first to proclaim that the Bible DID happen. Science works that way – operate on facts and odservations until they’re proven to be false by more reliable facts and observations. Science is the first to admit when its wrong. Atheism follows this example. I don’t really want to pursue this in Nathan’s comment thread, so if you want to chat further, feel free to get my email from Nathan. Cheers!

  • Troy, before you leave, can you answer my question/statement though?

    Are atheists not just as guilty as Christians for not exploring it from the inside and then making assumptions based on what they think they know about each other’s belief system?

  • I would say a mass majority of atheists were at one point Christians. I know I was. I experienced it, believed it, lived it. So I would disagree that atheists are guilty of not exploring Christianity from the inside out. It was this exploration that lead me to atheism.

  • But one of the main criticisms of Atheist worldview is that they are NOT interacting with the arguments of some of the more intellectual Christians. They are only interacting with their own understanding of Christianity (or any religion). So to start to pick apart the atheist worldview we have to pick apart the atheist view of religion and Christianity. Which is what at least I have been doing when I am writing. What Turtle has proposed here, from what I can find isn’t an argument that I’ve seen an atheist tackle at all?

  • Well I think that I am addressing the argument, by simply stating that the very foundation that you have built your argument on is shaky. I still don’t know how one can build an argument for Christianity without addressing the very basic issues that atheists have. Why would you believe a book that is documented and proven to be innacurate, written in a time when the very basic standards that we trust today weren’t even around? To me, this seems unreasonable. I’m not even attacking religion, i’m just attacking the very fiber that enables your religion. Addressing that would be a good place to start…

  • Christianity is not an argument. It’s a way of life that has been documented for a very long time. What is wrong with that? Why does someone need an argument to make this decision for their life? Again, even by the questions you ask shows me that you are interacting with your own understanding of Christianity and the Bible, not even the one I’ve defined for you let alone Christian thinkers for centuries.

  • I know Christianity isn’t an argument. Your reasons for living that way and teaching your kids that way are.
    Atheism has no problem with you living your life as a christian. Christianity as a philosophy has so many really good things to it: Grace, forgiveness, second chances, humility, etc. These are all great things for societies to practice – and things that our society does try to practice and recognize. I try very hard to practice those things personally, and teach them to my kids. Why? Because it feels good, it makes people around me happy. I don’t do it because I have to, I do it because it feels right. It’s wired into me. As you’ve stated, our lives are probably very similar in terms of our values and world view.
    Atheism calls out against the fundamental issue that humans are broken and doomed without God. This is simply an unproven claim. Humans are not broken. humans are not born into sin. Human’s don’t need a higher power to show them the truth. Prove otherwise. Science and understanding of evolution and civilization knows that. We as a species know that now because of our ability to understand what makes a human tick, figured out by science, research and observation. When they wrote the bible, they didn’t know this stuff.
    If you still want to believe that – go ahead. No atheist will stop you. BUT we will stop you when you try to put these values on the young and vulnerable. We will try to stop you when these basics ideas enter into politics and laws. I would say we will happily stop fighting you when you can finally present proof that God is real. That the bible is accurate. Until then, get ready for resistance and ridicule.
    Again, community, empathy, helping each other are not religious traits, they are human traits. These are traits that early humans demonstrated, and that are very well documented in the animal kingdom. They are traits that we’ve developed in the roughly 160,000 years that we (humans) have been around.
    These things are FACT. Knowledge of these are what make our need for a bible and deity completely redundant. That (in a nutshell) is why I base my views within atheism.

  • The Christian faith isn’t based on ‘having to do it’ either. There are people that do things for all sorts of reasons, but the stories in the Bible are actually all about getting away from ‘having to do something’ (the law) to wanting to do something (grace). Grace is a motivator in the Christian story because of what the person who experience grace acknowledges. Ie. A Good God created a good creation that he loves and is willing to put himself on the line for it. Any story that uses force or manipulation or lies or guilt to emphasize living a certain way is NOT Christian.

    Atheism says that there is no God. You would be hard pressed to find a consensus of atheists that don’t think humans are broken or have a natural tendency for evil or selfishness. Even the authors that you have listed acknowledge human selfishness at being at our core. Christianity doesn’t say we need a higher power to show us truth, it says that there IS a higher power. Christianity easily acknowledges that truth can be found in all places, not just in some supernatural experience of God revealing something to you.

    No one is arguing that the Bible is ‘accurate’ as in all things it says are literally and absolutely factual and true about the world – at least not in this thread and the arguments I’m making. So even in this comment you are arguing for an Atheism that resists your understanding of religion and Christian theology, which you, nor the atheists you are pointing to have much knowledge of.

    The only way that this conversation can evolve so we can mutually respect each other’s worldviews is for you to admit and state what your core assumptions (plausibility structure) are. But if you continually lie to yourself and believe that ALL your beliefs about the world come from nothing but logic, then you will forever look at my beliefs as insane. Until you can explain why you take logic and reason to be your sole way to understand the world then anything anyone ever says that lies outside of your way of seeing the world will be looked at by you as insane.

  • I’m impressed, you’ve analyzed the authors I mentioned in a previous thread, and came to these conclusions already…
    Humans aren’t broken. Humans have tendancies towards selfishness, violence, etc, that’s ok, but it’s not anybody’s fault. It’s how we are. It’s how we evolved. It’s why people get murdered and genocides happen. And it is something that culture and society corrects because secular thinking allows us to see that these tendancies are wrong and hurtful, and aren’t good for the collective group. but that doesn’t mean that we’re broken. Good luck finding an atheist who thinks humans are broken. We don’t decide that, evolution decides what’s broken and what needs corrected. Believing that we were created by something and that this deity will put itse’f on the line? That is broken. That makes no sense to me.
    Again, your philosophies are great in terms to what you get from Christianity. I’ve admitted that before and its a fact that causes me to wonder why we’re even arguing about these things ;)
    But, a huge elephant in the room is that you seem to arrive at these conclusions about the bible, and yet, so many other people who are much more educated and experienced than you are come to completely different conclusions. Why do so many pastors preach fear and punishment? Why do so many doctrines damn homosexuality? You don’t don’t preach that stuff, but do you see that as a problem? How do you know what you see Christianity being is “right”? You’re essentially doing exactly what I’m doing – we’re both picking what we want to use as our principles. The only difference is that I’m not using a deity.
    And are you willing to readily admit to the Free Methodist church, to your congregation at theStory that you don’t think the bible is accurate?
    Do you not admit that this opens up another can of worms — how do you know which parts were accurate and which parts are bullshit?

  • Sorry, I never should have used the word broken, it’s clearly a trigger word.
    What I meant was selfish.

    This book might interest you in what I’m trying to say. http://www.amazon.com/Original-Selfishness-Evil-Light-Evolution/dp/0754653153

    Basically a scientific explanation of original sin. Whatever language we choose to use, the basic idea is that humans are not able to fix the problem of evil and we never will be able to. Again, I don’t think there are atheists that are arguing against that. What they are arguing for would be more of a relativist mindset – no such thing as good and evil outside of what we determine to be good or evil. But at the core, atheists acknowledge an inherent problem – we just give credit to different things for it. I’m assuming you and I agree that there is evil and it’s a very definable thing, we just don’t agree on where it comes from and what to do with it. Which is all I’m saying here.

    Yes I admit that it opens up another can of worms, this is what I’ve been saying our conversation SHOULD be. Not if your view is right and mine is wrong, but rather what are the implications if one of our views are right or wrong, how should we then live?

  • Do atheists admit an inherent problem with humanity? I don’t think that’s accurate. The big thing is that our happiness isn’t an intended result – because there is no intended result with evolution. Thus our happiness or controlling evil is completely irrelevant to anything in the universe except our lives right now.
    Anyway… what we do now is we continue to dialog and be friends and I provide you with eggs as needed :)

  • Isn’t Sam Harris’ basic argument in Moral Landscape that there is an ‘ought’ or a way that things should be based on our happiness?

  • my argument makes room for that theory, but I don’t want to get into that on here. Send me an email.

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