Unless you’ve been hiding in a cocoon for the past ten years, you can’t have failed to notice the New Atheists and their public challenge to religion and Christianity in particular. Men like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris (to name perhaps the three most famous examples) have proclaimed from whatever atheistic minaret they could find their call that the very idea of God is a delusion, that the God of the Bible is not great, and that ‘faith’ should be at an end.
Here in Australia they have been particularly successful in breaking into the mainstream media. The Global Atheist Convention was hosted in Melbourne in 2010, and in 2012 the event is returning to our shores. During the 2010 convention a number of speakers made media appearances, most notably Richard Dawkins on the ABC panel discussion show Q&A.
Their influence is immediately apparent to anyone in Christian ministry, from the full-time church pastor engaged in public evangelism to the believing office worker or homemaker trying hard to commend Christ. The arguments we’re all hearing are coming directly from the New Atheist movement, and many of us feel floored.
Apart from the content of their arguments, I’ve noticed a consistent trait on display—that of boorish and arrogant dismissal of their opponents. I’ve lost count of the times in my various discussions with New Atheist disciples when insults have come in thick and fast. This is then coupled with what can only be fairly described as an almost complete unwillingness to discuss the arguments being put forward by Christian apologists. We are, apparently, beneath the New Atheists, and do not actually need to be engaged with, so shallow is our own reasoning.
Now, none of this is to say that there have not been a number of very good responses to the New Atheists. The best I’ve read in recent years is Alister McGrath’s The Dawkins Delusion, where he systematically works through Dawkins’ similarly named book and exposes the numerous errors for all to see.1 But who has the time and mental faculty to work through not only everything the New Atheists pour out, but additional books in response? If you’re like me and you have a full-time job to hold down, coupled with a busy family, then the idea is daunting.
All of this is why I was so pleased to read Dr John Lennox’s Gunning for God: Why the New Atheists are Missing the Target. What McGrath did so well for one of Dawkins’ books, Lennox has managed to do for the whole genre of New Atheist argument. No doubt, I picked up the book enthusiastically—I’m a bit of a John Lennox fanboy, you see. Some of my favourite segments of the 2011 Oxygen conference were the seminars where Lennox systematically worked through a vast number of apologetic arguments. Over the past five years in particular, he has made a name for himself writing and debating against the New Atheists. If anyone has the experience to respond to their arguments and manner, then it’s Lennox.
What makes Gunning for God such a good read is the orderly way in which Lennox moves from chapter to chapter, drawing you along a pattern of thought from the initial point of contact—the ‘conflict’ between science and religion—through the assertions that religion causes harm and the questions of morality (both in the Scriptures and then more widely in our world) till we arrive at the Bible’s specific claims to recount supernatural events. Finally, we are led to the central supernatural claim of the Christian faith—that Jesus of Nazareth physically rose from the dead. Along the way Lennox examines the arguments of his opponents, points out their weaknesses, and then most helpfully shows their inconsistency of approach. It’s no surprise that chapters 2 and 3 are titled ‘Is Religion Poisonous?’ and ‘Is Atheism Poisonous?’ respectively.
Some of what Lennox writes has now become recognizably standard fare in this field, but no less palatable because of it. First is the confusion between whether the laws of nature describe or control events. Lennox is not afraid to address the giants in these fields. Responding to Stephen Hawking’s argument in A Brief History of Time that the universe has no need for a creator, he notes along with philosophers and physicists that physical laws describe rather than explain:
Physical laws… are merely a (mathematical) description of what normally happens under certain given conditions. Newton’s law of gravitation does not create gravity; it does not even explain gravity, as Newton himself realised. (p. 33)
That is, in Hawking’s insistence that the universe needs no creator because of the existence of gravity, he “has signally failed to answer the central question: why is there something rather than nothing?” (p. 35).
Also helpful in this chapter is Lennox’s clarification of the usage of the term ‘faith’, highlighting the false disjunction between faith and knowledge that has caused endless trouble ever since being introduced by the Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant (pp. 42‑43). The New Atheists have made this disjunction their paradigm for understanding religious claims, and Lennox helpfully demonstrates that this is in the face of no end of theists who argue in very different ways. We begin to see, yet again, their deliberate blindness to anything that does not fit their prejudiced assumptions about their opponents.
Where Gunning for God started to really engage me was in the next few chapters, as Lennox moves into a more philosophical field—that of morality. As with the rest of the book, this is a mixture of apologetic and polemic argument (or, if you like, defensive and offensive play). In this arena the polemic is well justified: the New Atheists lump the Islamic suicide bomber in with the Christian evangelical. Lennox is scathing:
There is a deep irony in the New Atheists’ failure to discriminate between religions; for they clearly expect everyone else to discriminate between atheists. They themselves, as self-confessedly peace-loving people, would not like to be arbitrarily classified with violent extremists of their own worldview persuasion, such as Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot. (p. 61)
It is to Lennox’s credit that he is prepared to go on the offensive to point out this “blatant inconsistency”. In fact it’s a strength of his whole presentation—he relentlessly points out the double standards of his opponents. Yet he is, unlike those he criticizes, equally ready to affirm where they do not behave in this way. Nevertheless, Lennox compellingly presents not only the weakness of the New Atheist claim, but more importantly the paucity of their method: they misrepresent Christ’s teaching on violence and the subsequent history of Christendom (p. 69); they make no distinction in understanding between those born into Christian cultures and those with genuine Christian belief (p. 71); they give next to no credit for all the good brought about by Christians in our Western culture (pp. 73-74), and so on. So weak is their methodology that Lennox shows us other less strident, but no less atheistic, scientists who criticize their work in this field.
Without a doubt the strongest part of the whole exercise is Lennox’s tackling of the question of morality in and of itself. Lennox drives to the heart of the New Atheist dilemma—they wish to portray us as, ultimately, no more than the random (but naturally selected) product of our DNA, while at the same time they consistently make strong moral statements about us. Yet how does this strong materialistic view give them the right to make claims of morality?
We are clearly dealing here with an extreme form of materialistic reductionism that views human beings as nothing but their genes… Generations of human beings are merely machines or vehicles for reproducing what Dawkins calls “selfish genes”. But in what sense, then, is it possible to base morality on our genes? (p. 107)
How can Dawkins’, Hitchens’, or anyone else’s standards be anything but limited human conventions: ultimately meaningless products of a blind, unguided evolutionary process? Thus, far from delivering an adequate explanation for morality, this particular New-Atheistic acid dissolves it into incoherence. (p. 113)
Thus the New Atheists “have not really begun to understand the implications of their own atheistic beliefs” and “do not appear to have taken on board the fact that their atheism removes from them… any moral values whatsoever” (p. 114).
It’s a compelling argument, and one that holds true in my own personal engagements. One discussion partner told me that his basic moral values were “minimization of harm” and “optimization of choice” but he couldn’t provide me with any rationale at all for that position. More recently, a far more belligerent opponent conceded that his moral code, while possibly the product of evolution, “just seems right”! And that’s all he had! It doesn’t, of course, prevent him sending almost daily email screeds decrying the apparent depravity of all religion. I’ve long since given up asking him on what basis he can know that they’re depraved. Who is he to judge? What is the foundation of his moral claim? What I have been seeing on the ground Lennox has brilliantly exposed.
But there is still more. The most challenging section of the book is where Lennox deals in a sustained manner with the arguments of philosopher David Hume. It is in doing this that Lennox most clearly demonstrates the difference between his own approach and that of those he criticizes. Dawkins arrogantly dismisses Thomas Aquinas’s ontological argument in a few pages and Anselm in little more.2 Lennox, in contrast, engages at depth with Hume on the topics of morality and the supernatural over the span of two chapters, returning again and again as the developing argument requires. Some of it was admittedly a little hard going, and required re-reading to make sure I’d understood the nuances of what was being put forward. But then, that’s the point! Lennox does what the New Atheists almost always fail to do—give due respect and attention to the best of the arguments that his opponents are providing. In doing so we get to grips with some of Hume’s crucial axioms, particularly at the point where they intersect with the central Christian apologetic claim:
One can agree with Hume that “uniform experience” shows that resurrection by means of natural mechanism is extremely improbable, and we may rule it out. But Christians do not claim that Jesus rose by some natural mechanism. They claim something totally different—that God raised him from the dead. (p. 184)
Again, what is striking is that Lennox actually properly understands and respects the arguments he is writing against. Of course, one area in which the New Atheists do not do this is the question of the resurrection:
I know of no serious attempt by any of the New Atheists to engage with the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Indeed, it is even worse than that. Their whole attitude to history in general is characterized by sheer closed-mind prejudice: light-years removed from the open-minded scientific attitude that they pretend to hold in high esteem. (p. 187)
Like their precursor Bertrand Russell, Lennox shows us that the New Atheists are “talking in sheer ignorance of the facts” (p. 189). By contrast, we get a well-laid out argument of the historicity of this momentous event that lies at the heart of Christianity.
It is this combination of both well-reasoned arguments and engagement and criticism of his opponents that makes Gunning for God such a great read. Time and time again Lennox patiently sets out his case in great detail, interacting with what the other side have to say but also having the courage to call them out on their bad arguments, boorishness and plain ignorance as required. There’s never a moment where you feel he’s over the top about it; in fact, for someone like me who is all too prone to the temptation of taking the occasional cheap shot, Gunning for God is a great encouragement that the more effective means of debate is sound, responsive argument.
Others will also be greatly encouraged. If you’re feeling like you’re on the back foot in trying to respond to the relentless fastball pace of the New Atheist attack, then Lennox’s book will leave you cheering on every page. He guides you past the bluster and rhetoric, pulling back the curtain on the Great Oz of the New Atheists. This is also a book for the middle-ground; in fact, I think this is the book to give to your discerning unbelieving friend. They will have, no doubt, read Dawkins. Reading Lennox will more than compensate, for not only will they get a detailed rebuttal of the New Atheist claims, they will also read an equally detailed defence of the Christian faith on the same terms.
Bottom line, I can’t think of a better book on this topic. High praise? Indeed, but only where it’s due.