Atheism’s New Clothes
David H Glass
IVP, pb, £16.99
In the ongoing argument between Christians and the New Atheists Christian apologists have one great advantage: they usually have a greater understanding than philosophy than Dawkins and his allies. The New Atheists do not see it this way because they believe they are basing their opposition to religion on science but the question of whether science leads to atheism is a philosophical, not a scientific, question. The claim that only science can lead to truth is not itself something we can derive from science.
David Glass, who has higher degrees in both philosophy and science and teaches maths and computing at the University of Ulster, understands this very well. His book debunking the claims of the New Atheists is not written in the same punchy, polemical style they usually adopt but it is carefully argued and makes a good case for Christian belief.
Glass has read widely in the philosophy of religion and quotes an impressive number of writers but the person who appears to have influenced him the most is Richard Swinburne. Fellow Ulsterman and mathematician, John Lennox, is also frequently quoted.
As Glass points out, there has in recent years been a revival of theism among philosophers thanks to the work of people like Swinburne. This means that Christians are well equipped to respond to the New Atheists and it is quite possible that the final result of the debate will be to convey to the wider public just how strong the case for belief in God really is. It was interesting to read Anthony Kenny round off a review in the Times Literary Supplement recently by saying that on the basis of the books he was reviewing ‘the palm would undoubtedly have to be awarded to theism’. The same Anthony Kenny subjected Dawkins to the humiliation of public tutorials in philosophy during his debate with Rowan Williams.
After examining the nature of faith and the question of whether science undermines religion, Glass devotes two chapters to the evidence for the existence of God. He argues that there are some gaps in knowledge that science cannot solve in principle and that in these cases it may be justified to appeal to God. Discussing a question made much of by the New Atheists, ‘Who caused God?’, Glass argues that God (unlike the universe) did not have a beginning and theism does not maintain God is ‘self-caused’ but rather ‘uncaused’. Discussing arguments for multiple universes, Glass finds that Martin (Lord) Rees shows that the possibility of a multiverse should be taken seriously but that that is a long way from demonstrating it undermines the evidence for design.
Perhaps the most interesting chapter is the one in which Glass subjects Dawkins’ claim that Darwinism leads to atheism to critical scrutiny. Glass shows that Dawkins supplements Darwin with an appeal to David Hume, calling on philosophy to do what biological science alone is unable to do. Glass is unimpressed by Dawkins’ argument that if God exists he must have organized complexity and that this would be even more in need of explanation than the complexity found in nature. As Keith Ward has pointed out, God is not complex in the sense of being composed of separate and separable parts. Dawkins’ mistake is to think about God in a materialist way.
Other chapters deal with claims about the evolution of religion, religion and morality, the problem of evil, revelation, and Jesus and the resurrection. On morality Glass subjects the views of Sam Harris to close examination. In some ways he is the most interesting figure among the new atheists. He is sceptical about claims that consciousness is an emergent, physical property of brains, argues we do not know what happens after death, and sees the limitations of using evolutionary biology to explain morality. He seeks to base morality in happiness and suffering but leaves important questions unanswered. For him and all the New Atheists there is the problem of explaining why the well-being of the human race should be important if we are the accidental result of an unplanned evolutionary process.
The weakness of this book is one it shares with a number of works in the philosophy of religion. As his discussion of the Canaanites shows, Glass is not well read in theology, particularly in biblical theology. Conservative evangelical apologists need to learn that there are times when critical biblical scholarship can support faith rather than hinder it.