We continue our off-again, on-again series of popular and unpopular reviews I've posted over the past 14 years on Amazon. Today we come to one with a personal connection: Victor Stenger's The New Atheism.
Victor Stenger, The New Atheism "Shakes my faith . . . in Skeptics"
(** ; Amazon votes: - 68 / + 54)
I am one of Stenger's targets in this book. Stenger quotes and tries to refute my book, The Truth Behind the New Atheism, extensively, especially in his key second chapter on faith.
I welcome the response; I only wish it were better.
First of all, large stretches of The New Atheism read more like notes jotted down in the margins of other books, then put in consecutive order, than a coherent argument.
Second, his sources are often really poor. Earl Doherty on the New Testament? Sorry, but Doherty is not a serious scholar. (Ehrman is better, but better still would be to read BOTH sides of the argument.) Michelle Goldberg and Chris Hedges on American Christianity? It would be hard to find two people in the United States who know less about the subject. Hector Avalos on communism? Again, not his field.
Strangely, Stenger takes novelist Vox Day as his "debate partner" on communism, skipping my chapter on the subject. But I know Marxism pretty well -- I speak Russian and Chinese, have lived in and researched both societies, and have been intimately involved with religion in communist countries for decades. John Lennox, Alister McGrath, and especially David Aikman, also know a great deal about atheism and Marxism -- Aikman having a doctorate in precisely that subject. Yet Stenger simply ignores our arguments. He therefore says some quite silly things about communism, which are refuted in one part of my book he missed.
On Chinese religions, Stenger picks Karen Armstrong, of all people, as his "expert witness." He says Lao Zi hoped to end the violence of "what Karen Armstrong called the Warring States" period -- apparently thinking Armstrong came up with the phrase. (The title comes from a book written in the early Han, before Christ.)
One must admire Stenger for branching out in his retirement years, but all this garage-sale scholarship comes at a high cost to the facts. Confucius opposed animal sacrifice? Nonsense -- one of the best-known phrases from the Analects is "you care for the sheep -- I care for the rites." Jesus encouraged masters to beat their slaves? Baloney. Read the whole passage Stenger borrows from Dan Barker (his mistake), Luke 12, and it's clear that is not at all what Jesus is doing. In the 1400s "the Inquisition changed its focus to witchcraft?" In fact, for all its sins, the Inquisition actually opposed witch-hunts in Spain. The Gnostic writings are examples of "selflessnes?" In fact, they are among the most ego-centric religious texts one can find. (See my Truth About Jesus and the 'Lost Gospels.') "Religious liberty and diversity were core values of classical polytheism?" Here Stenger is borrowing from Jonathan Kirsch. But read his history rather than his simplistic generalizations, and even Kirsch admits things were more complicated than that. Christians "don't read the Bible . . . If they did, they wouldn't be Christians?" Poppycock. Millions of Christians are serious students of the Bible. Those I know who study it assiduously (I grew up in such a home), are generally the most committed.
Stenger criticizes me in chapter 2, on "the Folly of Faith." I wrote a response to a preliminary version of his critique . . . Here I'll just add a couple of observations.
First, Stenger ought to read the chapter "Have Christians Lost Their Minds?," from which he quotes ten times here, more carefully. He claims, in agreement with Dawkins and Harris, that faith "is belief in the absense of supportive evidence and even in light of contrary evidence." He needs to distinguish between (a) the claim that Christians define faith that way, and (b) the claim that whatever we mean by faith, in fact the Christian faith lacks supportive evidence . . .
The real dispute is over (b). Of course, Christians think we have good evidence for our faith, and atheists deny it -- but that doesn't mean faith means (to us) what Stenger repeatedly says it does. His bogus definition is not only false, Stenger holds to it "in the absense of supportive evidence and even in the light of contrary evidence," to use his Dawkinesque phrase.
Second, having quoted chapter 1 of my book repeatedly, though without I think reading it carefully, Stenger then skips ahead to the last chapter of the book, and quotes as follows:
The New Atheism reveals its simplistic grasp on reality in many ways. First, the most cocky atheists often fail to recognize the limits of science. Second, their theories leave too many facts out. Third, they refuse to ask certain obviously important questions. Fourth, to obscure the failure of their theory, some are driven to play a game of 'let's pretend.'
Stenger comments, in response:
I don't have the faintest idea what Marshall is talking about in leaving facts out, refusing to ask important questions, and playing 'let's pretend.' He gives no examples.
Yet all Stenger needed to do, was read the next eight pages of the book, to find numerous examples. (Not to mention the rest of the book.)
If he had read the whole book, he might also begin to develop a more positive understanding of what the Gospel has done for the world.
Stenger seems a nice enough fellow. I was touched by what he says about his life and family, and wish him happiness. I find his defense of the New Atheism remarkably sloppy and lacking in self-criticism -- he even shares his views on politics at great length. Stenger would do better, I think, to write about issues he knows well, and not try to be all things to all people. He might also be more credible if he admitted when critics have a point, and not simply jump in the nearest foxhole and start firing back without looking at what he's shooting at, or trying to shoot with.