About a third of the reviews are negative. These are all by people who are ideologically opposed to Christianity, and (in a few cases) have a personal grudge against the author. (Two or three of the one-star reviews are actually by the same person, a lawyer from San Diego who uses various "sock puppets" to attack me -- a dozen or so of his reviews have already been removed by Amazon.) I'm glad to say, no one who wasn't ideologically opposed, has yet claimed the book is a bad read. There was a Young Earth creationist from Northern Ireland who gave the book three stars, but he removed his review. Other than my mistaken notion that the universe is old, he seemed pretty cool with the book, anyway.
But here I'd like to focus on those few reviewers on either side who "cross the picket line," so to speak, and review Truth Behind the New Atheism against their ideological interests.
The book has received four such reviews, so far, as it happens, mostly by well-educated atheists who thought the book was pretty good. (Though none gave it five stars.)
Those reviewers include Richard Field, a professor of philosophy from Missouri, his former student Landon Hedrick, a PhD student who mentions his review on Amazon but posted it elsewhere, "Alan," and my old sparring partner, a scientist, philosopher, and musician from Oregon, "Dr. H."
All four take pains to make it clear that they disagree with me on a whole slew of issues. And having batted around some of those issues with three of them, two at great length and sometimes with real heat -- from epistemology to Isaiah's Suffering Servant to the Iraq War (we may disagree on politics even more than on religion!) -- how refreshing it is to disagree with people so much and manage to share mutual respect. This is what the "New Atheism" tends to kill -- friendly conversation. You don't see that with Dawkins, Grayling, Harris, Myers, Christina -- Hitchens comes closer, he was an oddball, by any accounting.
Anyway, I think Dr. H's review is the most interesting of the four, as is often the case. So I'll give most of his review here, followed by my initial response.
As this book was in progress I knew that it was to be, in part, a response to Richard Dawkins' "The God Delusion," so I read both books around the same time (Dawkins' first). I agree with most of Dawkins' conclusions, though not always with the specific rationale by which he arrives at them. Having been an atheist for pretty much all of my adult life I found few surprises here, which perhaps accounts for my surprise at finding the phrase "the new atheism" in the title of David's book.
My initial reaction to David's book was "'New atheism?' What's 'new' about it?" Having worked through a number of the turgid "classical" expostulations and defenses of atheist philosophy, I really can't say that I see Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, or Dennett as having formulated any earth-shaking new insights on the subject. From my perspective they differ from the atheist philosophers mainly in two ways: (1) they write for a popular (rather than an academic) audience; (2) they are boldly outspoken, sometimes to the point of veritable militancy.
But atheist populism and militancy is hardly new, either. One need look no further than the prior generation and the likes of Madalyn Murray O'hair, who campaigned tirelessly to remove all vestige of religious (mostly Christian) symbolism from US schools, money, and public institutions, and who ultimately came to a bad and violent end (no doubt to the righteous delight of at least some of her religious detractors). Indeed, it is to be wondered that it took so long for another figure of similar public stature to fill the void left by O'hair's untimely demise. That not one, but several figures ultimately filled that void -- flamboyantly -- is at least partially attributable to the meteoric rise, in numbers, and/or public visibility, of more or less organized militant religions groups, and their blatant political and social efforts to force their values on those who share neither their militancy nor, often, their beliefs. Social action begets social reaction.
One of the traditional ways of maintaining order in a rag-tag multitude loosely organized around a militant agenda is to tighten the organization by providing a clear and specific enemy upon which to focus ire. For Reaganites, it was "the Evil Empire;" for Bush neocons, it was "the Axis of Evil." And for Christian militants, it is "the New Atheists." (Not that I necessarily consider David a militant, but that is, in part, the audience to which he speaks.) The label is necessary to provide focus: just saying "I'm going to oppose atheists" is rather like saying "I'm going to fight evil" -- well and good, but kind of vague and amorphous. Fighting the Evil _Empire_, on the other hand, is something concrete, something you can point to on a map with a sense of mission not unlike that of planning an overt military campaign.
So it is with the militant Christian movements and "the New Atheists." It is telling that one rarely (ever?) hears one of these nouveau godless refer to /themselves/ as a "new atheist;" instead that label is applied by those who would rather be seen as warriors defending society against a disciplined invading army, than as provincial rabble tossing brickbats at random individual non-believers. David takes this concept and runs with it, constructing a straw "movement" out of an essentially anarchic group of individuals who just happen to be running vaguely in the same direction. Then he draws a bull's eye on the faux movement, and fires his big guns at it. Because the movement isn't /really/ a movement, he mostly misses, and eventually has to take on the individuals involved more or less one-on-one, and this he does, to a point.
Which brings me to my second major impression of the book: the /kind/ of evidence that David brings to bear in his deceptively light-hearted attacks on Dennett, Dawkins, et al. David and I have argued at length over the meaning of terms such as "evidence," "knowledge," "belief," "faith," and over the inherent strengths and weaknesses of various kinds of evidence. We part company widely over this issue. Traditionally, "belief" comes in at least two basic forms: that held through examination of confirming evidence; and that held either without the support of evidence, or in the face of contrary evidence. The first of these is often called (with some qualifiers) "knowledge"; the second is generally called "faith". David, however, indulges in some creative etymology whereby he insists that faith is /based on evidence/.
This apparent contradiction is only superficially resolved by his particular concept of "evidence". He maintains, for example, that anecdotal evidence (which he prefers to call "testimonial") is, or can be of equivalent value to physical evidence, and he does not accept that anecdotal evidence, by itself, is necessarily, inherently weak. Upon this point turn many of my disagreements with the arguments presented in the book. While he brings multiple points to bear on a given issue, articulates them well, and cites original sources. he's really building a house of cards on a false premise, because so many of those original sources are wholly anecdotal.
Nonetheless, usually he stacks his cards with great skill, so that one often has to dig beneath impressive sounding arguments, backed by illustrious authorities, to find that their fundamental justification is mere hearsay.
Occasionally the construction is not so skillful, and the essentially circular reasoning (not uncommon in theology) shows through rather baldly. For example, in rejecting as authentic "gospels" any but the four Canonical Gospels, David makes reference to "50 characteristics" that define the Gospels. But he derives that list of 50 from a minute analysis /of the four Canonical Gospels/ themselves.
It is of course possible to take a set of four of /anything/ as complex as a Gospel, and extract a set of characteristics from the four such that no fifth item will share enough of the characteristics to warrant inclusion in the set. This whole exercise calls to mind a statement one of my philosophy professors was fond of making: "All reasoning is basically circular; philosophy is a process by which we make the circles as large as possible." Except in this particular case the circle isn't quite large enough: it still shows.
So why am I recommending that you read a book that I think is mostly wrong?
Two reasons, mainly: This is an entertaining book; David writes in a friendly, easy to read style, with gentle wit and humor throughout. He does -not- bash you in the face with his point like televangelists (or even some of our "new atheists) are wont to do, and he is willing to laugh at himself and his peers as well as his adversaries.
More importantly, unless you're a practicing amateur theologist or ex-theologist, some of his arguments will make you think. Even if you feel that the argument must be wrong, you will have to figure out /why/ it might be wrong, and that can sometimes be a subtle task. This is not a pamphletized screed written by a Bible-thumping young-Earther who believes that polyester is a sin because of Leviticus 19:19.
This is precisely why I say that -atheists- should read this book. Far too many atheists, when pressed to defend their position, lash out against the stereotypical redneck Bible-literalist. While many such creatures do exist, trashing their arguments is like shooting tunafish in a bathtub -- too ridiculously easy to be sport, and ultimately both unnecessary and unproductive. Those atheists who are serious about overcoming superstition and advancing the cause of rationality have to be prepared to take on the more difficult arguments raised by intelligent, erudite, and articulate apologists like David Marshall and those whose works he cites.
Of course no atheist /has/ to go out and actively defend their non-faith. You can continue to be a closet non-believer, go unobtrusively about your life, live and let live . . . and wake up one morning to find that your child is being taught biology from a copy of Genesis at the local public school. But if you believe your position is worth defending, you would do well to prepare to defend it not from the weakest arguments against it, but from the strongest. Reading this book is as good a place as any to start finding out what some of those other arguments are.
In closing, I note that I would actually rate this book _4-stars_, but since there was a dearth of 3-star reviews, it seemed appropriate to stake out new territory. :-)
Heh. Seriously, thanks for reading the book, recommending it, and disagreeing substantially, as usual.
It appears, though, that the seeds of truth may finally be nibbling away at the intellectual nutrients in the "plausibility structure" of your worldview. Just pray that the termites hold hands! (Irony intended.)
First of all, you seem to recognize in effect (though not in so many words) that your atheism may be undermined by admitting the relevance of human testimony.
No need to go through the whole argument again. But when we're not talking about epistemology, you are capable of arguing for years at a stretch without offering one whit of anything OTHER THAN human testimony in support of your views. So the denial of this strategy to Christians seems a little arbitrary. (Especially in view of the many examples I gave in which one reasonably risks one's life on the strength of human testimony, and in which it can be quite strong, even compared to more "scientific" epistemologies.)
(Note: I gave two examples in our earlier conversation. One, leaving the home of my wife's parents in Japan with our two young sons in the back seats, I had to turn right across a lane coming from the left around a sharp bend -- they drive on the left in Japan. I would ask my wife to monitor traffic coming from the left -- risking our lives, and our childrens' lives, on her say-so. And yet I consider myself a safe driver -- I've never had an accident. Second, I pointed out that airline pilots have often needed to trust air traffic controllers with the lives of hundreds of passengers. And yet it can be quite reasonable to rely on human testimony in this way.)
I also show, here but in more detail in the "Faith vs. Reason" article at christthetao.com, that there is nothing "creative" about my linking faith to reason, that's been the most orthodox view for 2000 years. Kierkegaardian "leaps of faith" are more the innovation. (Note: I'm not even sure that's what Kierkegaard really meant. Some say no. Also: see the new chapter by Timothy McGrew and myself in True Reason, coming out next year from Kregel, on what Christians have believed about faith and reason.)
The other more substantial point to respond to seems to be your claim that my exclusion of Gnostic writings as "gospels" involves circular reasoning or some arbitrary act of classification. Here my main argument is not in this book, but in two others, especially "Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus." (Repeated and simplified in "The Truth about Jesus and the 'Lost Gospels.'")
The nub of my response is that:
(1) The the definition of a word is determined by useage; and as reflected in most dictionaries, Matthew, Mark, Luke & John has been the primary textual definition of "gospel" for centuries. It is up to anyone who wants to expand the meaning of the term in its textual sense to include other texts, to show that they resemble these four. (Just as one would judge whether a newly discovered carnivore does or does not belong to the dog family, by comparing it to wolves, foxes, canis familiarus, etc.)
(2) My basic procedure for classifying is a standard one: identify qualities shared among a given class, then see if a proposed specimen does or does not share those qualities. This is the same procedure used in astronomy, biology, etc.
(3) The 50 characteristics that define the canonical gospels are not in the slightest bit arbitrary. They are the most basic qualities that can be assigned to a text -- dating, cultural provinence, genre, moral stance, characterization, and so forth.
|What's "new" about that?|
As for the long jazz riff off the title -- you should know the title wasn't entirely mine. I do think "new atheism" makes some sense, and when I speak, usually explain the class, and what's "new" about it. Here it might be enough to point out that Dawkins works at New College, Oxford, founded in 1379. (Not "new" anymore, even in Oxford terms.) Assume, for the sake of the argument, that the school of thought was named after the academic school, kind of like the "Copenhagen Interpretation" or the "Nicean Creed."
(Note: Kidding aside, I generally argue that the "New Atheist" deserves to be called "new" due to four relative novelties in their teaching: (1) A shrill tone, which I think explains most of the one-star reviews of this book! (2) The post 9/11 context. Gnus feel a need or opportunity to project the evils of Islam on Christianity, thus, "the American Taliban." (3) A distinctly dark, I would say distorted, picture of Christian history, called Pope Pius XII "Hitler's Pope," for instance. (4) "Jesus spin" that relies either on the Jesus Seminar, Bart Ehrman, and Elaine Pagels, or on more radical types like Carrier, Price, et al, and that tends to rely on the "Gnostic Gospels" mentioned above, to neutralize Jesus.
And of course it's not just Christians who use the term. Victor Stenger, one of the most-cited Gnus after the Barbershop Quartet themselves, has written a book entitled The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason, in which he quotes a dozen or so times from this book. And PZ Myers and his followers seem happy to use the term. Remember the word "Christian," like the word "bolshevik," was originally given those movements by outsiders.)