‘I have reviewed contemporary popular atheology, paying particular attention to so-called ‘New Atheists’. I am seriously unimpressed’-Peter S. Williams
The writings of the new atheists have provoked a surprising number of responding books and in particular Dawkins’ book The God Delusion has now received over 30. These books vary in quality from average to excellent but Peter Williams’ book A Sceptic’s Guide To Atheism is exceptionally brilliant. In the grand scheme of things, Dawkins and his follower’s reactions to these book replies have been extremely dismissive, displaying a childish unwillingness to engage with critics by labeling them as ‘fleas’ in a reference to the poet W.B Yeats. In the preface to this book, Williams acknowledges that it will be dubbed as another flea (it has!), but amusingly he states that he would rather aspire to be a ‘sort of gadfly‘. Peter Williams, a Christian philosopher from Southampton, has worked extensively in christian apologetics through numerous scholarly articles, debates and he has several books to his name such as The Case For God and I Wish I Could Believe In Meaning: A Response To Nihilism. In this book, Williams sets out to survey and examine in detail the arguments that are being used by contemporary atheists. Although he concentrates on the New Atheism, he does include several other popular atheists like Julian Baggini, Lewis Wolpert, AC Grayling and Carl Sagan. He approaches these anti-religious thinkers from an entirely philosophical basis and painstakingly analyses their thinking in a logical and rational manner.
Atheism Then And Now
In the opening chapter entitled: Atheism Is Dead, Williams starts at the basics and sets the scene. First he clearly defines atheism and agnosticism and takes a look at the historical background of atheism throughout the 20th century, examining its fluctuating popularity in recent times. Next he outlines the rise and fall of AJ Ayer’s logical positivism, a much discredited philosophical movement that began in the 1920s. Also we learn about the rise of intellectual theism in recent decades that have been led by people like Alvin Plantinga and William Lane Craig who turned the tables on the naturalists somewhat.
In the following chapter, Williams takes a look at the recent rise of radical atheism, its roots, its motivations and general agenda. This chapter brings out all the main culprits in the New Atheist party and we learn about their attempts to assert themselves as a radical movement through their publications and prominence in the media (and the hugely ironic term they use to refer to themselves-The ‘Brights‘). After this he takes an interesting look at the various reactions to this movement. This includes many quotes from various thinkers on both sides but Williams points out that some of the most damning criticisms have come from fellow atheists of a more moderate variety such as Michael Shermer and Michael Ruse. This is all topped off nicely with a thorough roasting of AC Grayling’s bizarre and bigoted assertions in his book Against All Gods. This part is especially delightful to read. Having introduced the New Atheism and it’s proponents, Williams tells us what is about to follow: ‘In what follows I will take issue with the most prominent contemporary apologists for atheism. And at each and every turn, I will demonstrate that the case against theism simply doesn’t cut the philosophical mustard’.
The Root Of All Evil And Nothing But…
Is faith the root of all evil? This part of the book concentrates on the often used ‘root of all evil’ argument which basically is the accusation that religion causes more harm than good. Peter Williams effectively exposes the way many atheists misrepresent the meaning of faith and he shows that they don’t just misunderstand faith but also reason itself, the very thing they claim to possess! He points out that the views of rationalism that many people hold is rooted in a theory of epistemology known as classical foundationalism and that this view has some seriously knotty philosophical problems. This chapter is particularly interesting because he doesn’t attack their specific arguments first but attacks the very heart of the basic assumptions of contemporary atheism.
Is religion nothing buttery short of a sandwich? This is the odd yet provocative title for the 4th chapter which zones in on the way that ‘Many atheists try to explain away belief in God as the result of the ‘nothing but’ this or that natural cause’. First off, Williams writes about Alvin Plantinga’s alternative to classical foundationalism and the nature of basic and properly basic beliefs. The main target of this chapter is Daniel Dennett and his book Breaking The Spell in which he tries to explain how religions evolved as a purely natural phenomenon. His ideas and just-so stories are critiqued well in this chapter. One of the most fascinating parts is where the author takes a look at the psychology of belief and disbelief and examines the argument that ‘religion is just a psychological crutch’. Ironically he turns the often used Freudian psychoanalysis on itself and asks the question is ‘atheism just a psychological crutch?’. This is then followed by a look at ‘the God gene’ argument which was put forward by geneticist Dean Hamer. Dean Hamer argues that our genes radically determine our capacity to believe in God but Williams shows convincingly that this is not quite so.
Scientism And Evidence
Many of us today hear the absurd mantra that science explains everything or at least that it could do (Peter Atkins immediately springs to mind amongst others). Here Williams takes a look at the ‘science explains everything’ rhetorical trump card. Being particularly interested in science, I found this chapter to be one of the most interesting. The author swiftly continues on his debunking mission, zoning in on science sage Carl Sagan. He scrutinises Sagan’s objections that ‘space is dark and large, and we are small by comparison’ (and therefore insignificant), the Copernican myth, and the Galileo affair. Peter goes into detail on what the limits of science are and that the scientistic beliefs of many today are simply false. Science has no bearing on the why questions and questions of value, meaning and purpose. He also makes it clear that he is ‘not pointing out that science doesn’t currently explain everything in order to lay ground for a ‘god-of-the-gaps’ argument from ignorance’.
In the 6th chapter: A Significant Absence of Evidence, Peter Williams admirably takes on what is generally the most common objection to theism ‘there is insufficient evidence’ and convincingly shows it to be inept and fallacious. Here he aims his fire at biologist Lewis Wolpert and his presumption of atheism. In debates, Lewis Wolpert repeats the objection ‘God doesn’t exist, there is no evidence’ so many times that it verges on paranoia but Williams rightly exposes his question-begging obscurantism. Here of course, we tread onto more scientific ground and look at Origin of life theories and in particular Dawkins’ attempt to show that a naturalist mechanism for it is plausible.
Taking On The Emperor
Finally we come to the grand finale of the book. Here Williams devotes this last chapter to countering the claims of the ‘unofficial Emperor of the New Atheism’, Richard Dawkins. In The God Delusion Dawkins’ attempts to debunk natural theology and tries to establish a ‘new’ argument to show that God almost certainly doesn’t exist. Peter takes a look at each argument that Dawkins addresses and shows how he just doesn’t seriously engage with them or raise any substantial objections. Out of the numerous theistic responses to Dawkins’ philosophical claims that I have come across, Williams’ treatment of them are the most devastating and thorough. It is almost embarrassing to see how bad Professor Dawkins’ objections really are. He then takes special consideration to his main argument against theism clearly laying out the objections before reducing them to rubble. I don’t expect the reader to take my word for it (especially if you’re an atheist), but if you don’t believe me read the book. After this chapter Williams gives a useful and detailed appendix on the evidence for Jesus’ existence and the reliability of the gospels drawing from scholars such as Craig Blomberg, Gary Habermas and N.T Wright.
In conclusion, A Sceptic’s Guide To Atheism is a rock solid reply to contemporary atheism. Williams takes no prisoners. One of the unique aspects of this book is the immense amount of research that Williams has put into it. There is on average around 130 footnotes per chapter and he lists an astonishing amount of recommended resources such as books, online papers, videos, audio debates and some of his own essays. It is interesting to compare the amount of research in this book to the research done in recent New Atheist books. The difference is staggering. Another unique aspect is Williams’ use of quotes which are mainly from atheists. This is not a downside as it may seem to some, but it allows him to honestly and fairly engage with critics of theism and to really get into their way of thinking and of course it prevents him from misrepresenting them. Although this is largely a book that critiques atheism, the author does not neglect to build a positive case for theism and does so in various ways (even though it isn’t the main intention of the book). If you intend to read this book it does help to have some background knowledge on philosophy and science as Williams does get into some complex and deep issues throughout the book and covers a lot of ground in each chapter. It would probably be beneficial also, though not necessary, to have read at least one New Atheist books or at least be partially familiar with their arguments. A Sceptic’s Guide To Atheism is informative, well researched and devastating in its critique of New Atheism. If you are an atheist and are willing to challenge your own worldview or a theist looking for some unique and valuable apologetic material, I heartily recommend this book.
In passing when reading some other reviews of this book I came across Ed Turner’s review. Ed Turner is a New Atheist and a passionate Dawkins follower who runs a blog and has also taken part in several radio debates for Premier Christian radio. Peter’s book obviously rattled his cage and Turner wrote an absurd review completely misrepresenting the book. The ignorance and lack of reasoning displayed in Ed’s review is staggering and it just goes to show that when most atheists claim they have a monopoly on rational thinking and good arguments, they are talking utter piffle. Williams then wrote a response to it on his web page which meticulously takes Turner down point by point…Very Entertaining!