Harvest House, 2007. (Available in Australia at Koorong Books)
Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens. These have now become almost household names. They are some of the leading figures in the New Atheism brigade. These are militant, dogmatic atheists who are on a search and destroy mission when it comes to religion. They seem to despise faith and people of faith, and are conducting a holy war to convince us that only atheism is tenable.
This volume explores some of the main themes, contentions and accusations being made by the new atheist crusaders. Written in a witty and easy to read style, Marshall takes on the various claims made by these unholy warriors, especially their anti-Christian diatribes. He fairly yet firmly interacts with these men, showing that they stand on much shakier ground than they realise.
Consider some of the many criticisms made by the neo-atheists. One common charge is the claim that religion in general and Christianity in particular is unscientific, irrational, and simply based on blind faith.
For example, the atheists claim that Christians rely on ancient and discredited eyewitnesses. But as Marshall reminds us, almost everything we know is based on the testimony of others. The claims of the Gospel writers can be assessed and evaluated just like we weigh up the evidence of any other eye witness.
The Bible often “appeals to reason, empirical facts, and experiment”. Christians are not to just take a blind leap of faith, but to examine the evidence and test the truth claims being made. Faith in fact is a settled conviction based upon adequate evidence.
Also consider the claim that science and faith inevitably conflict. But is this so? Marshall cites sociologist Rodney Stark who notes that of the 52 greatest scientists between 1543 and 1680, almost all were “devout believers,” with only two being sceptics.
Even Darwin relied heavily on Anglican natural theology. Thus evolutionary philosopher Michael Ruse can argue that “without Christianity, I doubt we would have Darwinism.” Western intellectual history was largely Christian history: “Every great European thinker from John of Paris to John Locke was steeped in the Bible”.
Another contention of the atheists is that religion is the natural product of the evolutionary process. But the universal and persistent place of faith in the human community does not fit well in evolutionary thinking.
Why do only human animals have this longing for the transcendent? “Do gorillas tell ghost stories in the night?” asks Marshall. “Do chimps see King Kong in the clouds? When Fido is unfaithful, does he do penance?” If evolution wanted us to be religious, why not animals as well? Why only us?
The new atheists also think religion is immoral, and yet believe that atheism can account for morality. But as Marshall says, even Dawkins admits that it’s “hard to squeeze out-group altruism from the evolutionary rocks”.
Dawkins does speak of the upward climb of morality. But he seems to have no basis for it given his worldview. Marshall rightly asks, “What if the Christian faith lay at the heart of these great reform movements?” He documents how many of the great moral reformations were directly based on Christians seeking to be Christlike. From the elevation of women to the suppression of slavery, it was the Christian church that led the way.
And what about the supposed evils perpetrated by Christianity? Take the issue of the burning of witches. Atheist Bertrand Russell claimed that the church murdered “millions of unfortunate women”. Despite the hype and exaggeration of the theophobes, the actual figures are much different. At best, around 40,000 people were put to death, three quarters of whom were women. This is still too many, but a few facts need to be kept in mind.
For example, nearly everyone in those days feared witchcraft. Nonbelievers were equally concerned about the practice. Even atheists and sceptics like Thomas Hobbes and Jean Boden said witches should be killed. And many Christians actually did all they could to protect those charged with witchcraft.
While the track record of the Christian church is far from perfect, on the whole it has done far more good over the centuries than bad. It is not so clear if the same can be said about atheism. Much evil has been committed in the name of godless atheism.
Marshall reminds us that atheist Joseph Stalin on average killed more people in a single day than did the Spanish Inquisition in three centuries. And it was not just Stalin who was responsible for the bloodbaths of the twentieth century: “Lenin, Mao, Pol Pot, both Kims, Ho, Castro, Ceausescu, and Honecker were also atheists.”
Marshall looks at plenty of other atheist claims. Most are either groundless or a beat-up. Sure, one can always find fault in any religion, and one can always find “nice” atheists. But the distorted and jaundiced picture painted by the neo-atheists is really far from the truth.
They may be selling a lot of books, but they are also peddling a lot of half-truths and misconceptions. The public record needs to be set straight, and this book helps to do just that.