Saturday, October 02, 2010

Book Review- Against All Gods: What's Right and Wrong about the New Atheism by Phillip E. Johnson and John Mark Reynolds

Phillip E. Johnson and John Mark Reynolds have written a little gem of book in Against All Gods: What's Right and Wrong about the New Atheism.

For readers interested in the book's arrangement, Johnson has written the introduction, the epilogue and the first five chapters; while Reynolds has written chapters six through eight.

Johnson and Reynolds have succeeded in addressing the arguments from the New Atheism with a fresh, sensible approach that is difficult to argue with.

As Johnson explains:

"Our attitude toward the surge of atheism is that it opens up an opportunity for university discussions in and out of the classroom that can make teaching more exciting for the instructor and for the students. With that in mind, our intention is not to attack the atheists, but to explore the case they are making, in the hope of encouraging classroom instructors to put the arguments for atheism on the table for academic consideration...our position in this book is that the arguments for atheism should be taken seriously and considered both respectfully and critically." [p. 8-9]

The result is an engaging, surprisingly short book (116 p.) that is packed full with informative, well thought out argument and challenges to the New Atheist movement.

Chapter 1- Introducing the New Atheists

In this chapter, Phillip Johnson, most likely best known for his book Darwin on Trial, provides the reader with a brief history of the rise of the New Atheism and highlights some differences in their approach. Topics covered include the framing of the so-called "God vs. science" debate, why the new atheists are a threat to science, and the false connection between scientific advancement and naturalism.

Chapter 2- Harvard's Aborted Requirement in Reason and Faith

Much of the focus in this chapter is on the work of the passionate Darwinist Steven Pinker, Harvard psychologist and popular author. Building upon a piece written by Pinker in the Harvard Crimson in October of 2006, Johnson persuasively argues that faith is necessary for all people, including the scientist.

Johnson writes:

"If I were planning a course in reason and faith, the first thing I would want my students to understand is that it is wrong to assume that some people (e.g., the ones you find in church) rely on faith, whereas other people (e.g., the ones you would find in a laboratory) rely solely on reason. It would be much closer to the truth to say that everybody relies on faith and everybody reasons." [p. 34]

Johnson further builds upon this point using illustrations from laboratory science and past political conflicts.

Chapter 3- Earth's Distinction

Professor Johnson begins this chapter discussing science's search for extra-terrestrial life through its much talk about SETI project and concludes that:

"there is no evidence that intelligent life, superior to us or not, exists anywhere but on our own planet." [p. 42]

With this in mind, the reader is challenged with the fact that, with the current evidence we have, only intelligent life, and science, exist on Earth. Johnson then precedes to indirectly address the question, "What is the best explanation of these facts?" Building upon the work of astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez and philosopher Jay Richards in their book Privileged Planet: How Our Planet is Designed for Discovery, he argues that sufficient evidence exists to challenge the idea that our Earth is merely a product of chance.

The chapter is closed with numerous suggested questions for college students and their professors to discuss regarding the uniqueness of planet Earth.

Chapter 4- The Darwinian Worldview

This reviewer found this chapter to be extremely thought-provoking, as Johnson explains the kind of "pre-suppositional" approach used by Darwinists to teach their epistemology.

"The one subject to which the corrosive Darwinian method is never applied is Darwinism itself, which is too cherished to be subjected to such undignified investigation. It must be a rock of certainty, while everything else is dissolved into shifting sand by the acid of reductionism. In consequence, the possibility that Darwinism itself is a product of brain chemistry rather than reason is never mentioned..." [p. 55-56]

Thus, Darwinism, as Dawkins contends, is the only lens in which everything, including biology itself makes sense.

Those who are familiar with Professor Phillip Johnson's work on Darwinism will get nothing much new here, but this reviewer found his ever present bold denouncement of dogmatic naturalism to be refreshing, especially when one considers the many members of the scientific establishment that are to timid to question the current paradigm.

Chapter 5- The God Hypothesis in Physics

In this chapter, Victor Stenger's book God: The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist is given special attention.

Johnson effectively demonstrates that Stenger merely succeeds in rigging the game before it is played. This reviewer found these comments especially thought-provoking and relevant en light of the release of Stephen Hawking's newest book, The Grand Design:

"If the scientist is as respected as Stephen Hawking, publication ever in a popular book will suffice to refute any suggestion that the evidence of science supports the existence of God. Readers have probably noticed by now that Stenger's approach to the arguments for and against theism is asymmetrical. Theists are expected to produce proof, including proof that no naturalistic solution to the problem of creation is possible. Atheists need only to publish suggestions. Wildly speculative entities like undetectable, alternative universes are perfectly acceptable if they are advanced to refute theism. When atheists are allowed to enforce one-sided rules like that, the argument is effectively over before it has begun. We might say that Stenger's universe is fine-tuned for atheism." [p. 66-67]

Chapter 6- The Obstacle of Old Books

As I read the chapters presented by Professor Johnson in this book, I felt as though I was being led along a journey that recapped the rise of New Atheism and the state of the debate today.

However, I must admit that this reader feels that John Mark Reynolds took this work to another level. Not only is Reynolds' writing witty and powerful, but he seems to possess the uncanny ability to cut to the heart of whatever matter he is addressing while simultaneously educating the reader.

In this chapter, Reynolds intelligently points out, from an academic point of view, that while attacks on the Bible by atheists such as Richard Dawkins are not offensive, it does not help that Dawkins and others like him do not know how to read such books!

To this reviewers delight, after giving 4 reasons why the Bible deserves to be taken seriously, Reynolds presents a brief "mini-lesson" to the reader in biblical hermeneutics! Not only does the author explain the discipline and give helpful examples, but he also succeeds in writing one of the most mature and transparent responses to the often criticized narrative in the Bible of the conquest of Canaan by Joshua that this reader has ever come across. This response alone makes the book worth owning!

This chapter concludes with a challenge to skeptics to ask the right questions, with an opened-mind, when reading the Bible.

Chapter 7- A Wonderful Education

Reynolds continues in this chapter by demonstrating that historic Christianity has always valued education and that, contrary to popular rhetoric, it is modern skepticism that threatens ones desire to learn. The author's answer to this dilemma? A resurrection of wonder. Reynolds contends that it is wonder that "wants to believe that it may see what is actually true."

He writes:

"Belief combined with wonder allows for faith without foolish certainty. Faith is the best belief that retains what is hoped for within the bounds of best reason and experience. Education is the process of grounding our religious and cultural hopes in long discourse, reason and life experience. The educated religious person is a person of a reasonable and passionate faith. From the compromise between Socratic wonder and Christian theology came the traditional liberal arts curriculum of the English-speaking world in flagship institutions such as Oxford and Cambridge." [p. 89-90]

Chapter 8- Christianity and Beauty

In this final chapter, Reynolds takes issue with Christopher Hitchens' claim that everything religious is ultimately evil in some way. Instead of defending Christianity in the traditional manner, the author goes on the offensive contending that it is secularism, not Christianity, that in the end offers nothing of value to culture or progress.

He writes:

"The story of secularism is positive only when it has theism to criticize. It has shown no long-term capacity to govern and sustain a culture." [p. 109]

To his credit, Reynolds concedes that groups of people have used the guise of "religion" to do a great deal of harm; however, eventually it is Christian theism, not secularism, that finds itself at home with reason and meaning.

Further, Christians have a "better story to tell" than secularists:

"The basic story is this: the combination of Greek philosophy and Christianity produced Christendom, which has produced most of the great goods of our world. Christendom provides a home for both reason and meaning. It balances law and liberty. It makes love the central motive for human action and a reasonable God the end of that love. While Christians often fail, the basic ideas of Christendom keep pulling humanity back from the brink of utter tyranny or ruinous social chaos." [p. 103]


Against All Gods: What's Right and Wrong about the New Atheism was simply a treat to read. I especially recommend it to those who have found the arguments from the New Atheism persuasive. I believe if you read this book with an opened mind you will find that the Christianity attacked by the likes of Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris to be a child's Sunday School version. Reynolds and Johnson do well in presenting a mature look at the Christian Worldview that proves to be very compelling; or at least worth looking into!

Apologists will especially enjoy John Mark Reynolds' contributions to this text, as this reviewer believes that he succeeds in persuasively arguing for the legitimacy of the Christian Worldview and, in most cases, even manages to show it to be the superior.

Courage and Godspeed,

***Forthcoming Review- The Passionate Intellect by Alister McGrath

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