Saturday, December 19, 2009

Book Review: God is Great, God is Good edited by William Lane Craig & Chad Meister

God is Great, God is Good edited by William Lane Craig and Chad Meister is a book geared specifically to address the arguments and rhetoric of the so-called New Atheism. With contributions from fourteen scholars, this is a 14-chapter book of essays critiquing the most notable points of contention from popular atheist writers Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens.

Because of the topical way the book is composed, it could easily be read in a non-linear fashion; it doesn't have to be read from beginning to end. However, the book follows a structure: Part 1 – God Is – presents essays dealing with God's existence. Part 2 – God is Great – presents evidence from natural theology which show God's power in creation. Part 3 – God is Good – presents essays with a moral theme. And Part 4 – Why it Matters – wraps up the overall case with discussions on divine revelation, history, and the identity of Jesus Christ. This review will present an overview of the chapter content and highlight some notable points.

William Lane Craig opens the book in chapter one and deals with Richard Dawkins' treatment of the arguments for God. He demonstrates that the main arguments from The God Delusion are poorly formulated and outright inadequate. In particular, Craig deals with what Dawkins calls the main argument of his book – the “who designed the designer” objection. Among other things, Craig points out that: “In order to recognize an explanation as the best, you don't need to be able to explain the explanation. In fact, such a requirement would lead to an infinite regress of explanations, so that nothing could ever be explained and science would be destroyed.”1

In chapter two, J.P. Moreland deals with The Image of God and the Failure of Scientific Atheism. He explains that atheism and/or naturalism cannot give an account for five particular (and crucially important) features of human persons, what Moreland calls the “five recalcitrant features of the image of God.” These five are consciousness and the mental, free will, rationality, unified selves, and intrinsic, equal value and rights. He concludes that “given the epistemological and Grand Story constraints placed on the scientific naturalist ontology, not a single one of these five fits naturally in a non-ad-hoc way.”2 Like much of Moreland's work, it is profound and fascinating; a mere listing of his five points does no justice to the depth of content he provides for each.

Paul Moser contributes the third chapter dealing with the hiddenness of God, entitled: Evidence of a Morally Perfect God. Like many of the chapters in the book, this chapter could be called a condensed version of the main points of this author's most recent work. For Moser, the is his notable The Elusive God: Reorienting Religious Epistemology. Moser's theme is to show that a morally perfect God would present evidence for his existence that aligns with his own purposes for redemption, what Moser calls “purposively available evidence of divine reality.” Included in this concept is the idea that the heart condition and will of the person doing the seeking plays a vital role in the evidence that is available to them. To quote Moser: “What if divinely desired human knowledge of God is not a spectator sport but rather calls for obedient human knowledge of God as authoritative Lord, not as a morally indefinite creator?”3

John Polkinghorne contributes chapter four: God and Physics. Here the physicist and theologian explores the implications of fundamental worldviews. His view is that materialism (naturalism) just doesn’t make sense of the world: “My contention will be that the materialist starting point is unsatisfying. The laws of nature, as modern physics has discovered them to be, have a character which is not self-contained but rather seems to point beyond them to the need for a further and deeper level of intelligibility.”4

Chapters five a six deal with themes of evolution. Michael Behe’s chapter God and Evolution reiterates themes presented in his book The Edge of Evolution, giving evidence that evolution has its limits and a fully Darwinian explanation of life is unwarranted. Michael J. Murray’s chapter Evolutionary Explanations of Religion examines the New Atheism’s idea of religion as a mere bi-product of evolution. His discussion springboards from the “evidence that human minds are in fact, if not exactly hard-wired, at least strongly predisposed to religious belief and behavior.”5 He examines four different naturalistic accounts of religion and shows that none of them can answer the question satisfactorily.

Chad Meister begins a chapter in the next section entitled: God, Evil and Morality. This is basically a discussion on the problem of evil based upon the arguments typically wielded by the New Atheists. However, Meister points out that: “Everyone must provide an account of the evil which exists in the world, and of the various worldview options it seems clear that the atheistic account is the least successful.”6 Meister doesn't end with that point, but explores the issue in order to expose the core of the conflict: “...believing that something is right or wrong and justifying one's belief that something is right or wrong are two very different matters. In believing in morality without justifying morality, the New Atheists are confusing an epistemic (knowledge) issue with an ontological (foundational existence) one.”7 He notes that atheists can do good things and accomplish worthy goals, but:
“...what they cannot do, from within their atheistic worldview, is provide a reasonable justification for the existence of non-subjective, universally binding moral values such as compassion, dignity, and respect or moral vices such as evil and injustice. For that task, they would need to include God in their inventory of what exists.”8
Alister McGrath continues the discussion of evil in chapter eight with Is Religion Evil? He points out the New Atheism's angle: “One of its central themes is the simplistic soundbite ideally attuned to a media-driven culture which prefers breezy slogans to serious analysis: Religion is evil.9 However, McGrath aims to show that only individual religions exist, “religion” doesn't. He asserts that the real problem is absolutism. He shows that atheism has problems of its own to explain: “Atheism is just fine when it remains nothing more than ideas, discussed in university seminar rooms. But when it grasps political power, it turns out to be just as bad as anything else.”10 And finally, McGrath shows what happens when Dawkins' atheism gains power: “...Dawkins fails to appreciate that when a society rejects the idea of God, it tends to transcendentalize alternatives – such as the ideals of liberty and equality. These now become quasi-divine authorities, which none are permitted to challenge.”11

Chapter nine is by Paul Copan: Are Old Testament Laws Evil? His goal in this chapter is to counter the numerous and varied accusations that the Old Testament laws are evil. Copan evaluates the ethics of the Old Testament in light of the historical context of the time, covering five common categories of objections. He offers clarifications, corrections, and context to the typical objections raised about Old Testament laws. He points out that: “The New Atheists resist the notion of Yahweh's rightful prerogatives over humans; they seem uncomfortable with the idea of judgment or cosmic authority.”12 Copan also shows that from the atheistic view of the world, there is no actual foundation for their complaints because, “...despite Dawkins's moral outrage, his metaphysic disallows it, admitting that a universe full of electrons contains ‘no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.’”13 Copan reminds the reader that: “...the New Atheists somehow gloss over the destructive atheistic ideologies that have led to far greater loss of human life within just one century than ‘religion’ … with its wars, inquisitions and witch trials. Atheism has proven to be a far more destructive force than ‘religion.’”14

Concluding the third part of the book is Jerry L. Walls’ chapter, How Could God Create Hell? He examines the idea philosophically with the goals to both clarify what the doctrine implies and to show that it does not contradict the existence of a loving God. Walls first points of the deep significance of exploring the topic of hell: “Not to care, and care deeply, about the truth of the matter where hell is concerned is nothing short of insane. […] Given what is at stake in the doctrine, however, no rational person can be indifferent to whether it is true or not.”15 He also points out that some reject hell because of the fact that many people either abuse the idea for purposes of manipulation, or simply respond emotionally to the threat of hell – however, rejection based on those reasons is an error in thinking. As Walls puts it, “...no one should make the mistake of concluding that the doctrine of hell is false because some, if not many, persons who have believed in it have done so for irrational or emotional reasons.”16 Walls comes to the conclusion that God is not torturing people; rather, people bring hell upon themselves because of their own choice: “So in short, hell is created when free beings use (more accurately, abuse) the freedom God has given them not to embrace him but to reject him. In so doing, they reject the only possible source of deep and lasting happiness, and thereby consign themselves to frustration, misery and suffering.”17 Walls draws from some of C.S. Lewis' ideas and emphasizes the idea that hell is self-inflicted, while providing little scriptural support for the philosophical conclusions.

Part four (Why it Matters) begins with Charles Taliaferro on Recognizing Divine Revelation. He details four reasons for denying divine revelation: the problem of fairness, vanity and jealousy of God, the inadequacy of religious experience, and the no miracles objection. He answers each of them concisely and satisfactorily while suggesting that the critic's concern should not only be with looking at the Bible; the critic should also attempt to look through the Bible and see who and what it reveals.

In chapter twelve, Scot McKnight writes on The Messiah You Never Expected. He lays out ten observations about the life and character of Jesus in light of the time period he lived. One of his goals here is to show that, upon encountering Jesus for the first time, people were in wonder and amazement at his character and his activity. He shows us that we ought to read the Gospels with this in mind (as if we are reading them for the first time) in order to answer the question: “Who do you say that I am?”

In chapter thirteen, Gary Habermas contributes his essay on Tracing Jesus’ Resurrection to Its Earliest Eyewitness Accounts. His goal here is to show that the resurrection appearances are securely grounded in the historical tradition. The original resurrection proclamation was exceptionally early and linked to the initial eyewitnesses themselves. Habermas concludes that: “This argument has stunned a generation of critical scholars, causing them to realize that Jesus' resurrection appearances, unlike later parallels which may have borrowed from Christianity, are firmly grounded in the historical tradition.”18

Why Faith in Jesus Matters by Mark Mittelberg is the final chapter. Here Mittelberg makes a case for putting faith in Christ. Regarding faith, he says:
“This might surprise you, but even atheists live by faith – including the so-called New Atheists. They operate in the belief that there is no Creator, no higher moral law to which they are accountable, no divine judgment and no afterlife. They can't prove any of these things. They don't know for a fact that there is no God, spiritual standard, day of reckoning or existence after death. In fact, most people in the world believe that denying these things goes against the evidence as well as human experience and therefore requires more faith. I'll say it again: everybody has faith – in something.”19
Two additional supplements to the fourteen chapters are the postscript and the appendix. The postscript is a discussion between Antony Flew (the former atheist) and Gary Habermas. The discussion between Flew and Habermas is meant simply to explore the journey that Flew took in his change of views. It is not meant to critically examine the multiple facets of the various arguments, but to get an idea of what lines of thought most influenced Flew. In response to Habermas’ question to Flew on the evidence for the resurrection, Flew says: “The evidence for the resurrection is better than for claimed miracles in any other religion. It’s outstandingly different in quality and quantity, I think, from the evidence offered for the occurrence of most other supposedly miraculous events.”20 The reader will also note his various reasons for not yet being persuaded by this evidence.

The appendix contains philosopher Alvin Plantinga's review of Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion. It bears the title: “The Dawkins Confusion: Naturalism “Ad Absurdum.” Although this review can be found freely on the Internet, its inclusion here is an appropriate final word on the most notable work of the New Atheists.

In conclusion, God is Great, God is Good edited by Craig and Meister is a substantive and scholarly response to the New Atheism. It is also a great introduction to the most recent work of some very notable scholars and philosophers.

1 William Lane Craig, God is Great, God is Good (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009), p. 27.
2 J.P. Moreland, p. 47.
3 Paul Moser, p. 57.
4 John Polkinghorne, p. 65.
5 Michael J. Murray, p. 91.
6 Chad Meister, p. 108.
7 Ibid., p. 110.
8 Ibid., p. 117.
9 Alister McGrath, p. 120.
10 Ibid.., p. 127.
11 Ibid., p. 128.
12 Paul Copan, p. 152.
13 Ibid., p. 153
14 Ibid.
15 Jerry L. Walls, pp. 156-157.
16 Ibid., p. 158.
17 Ibid., p. 162.
18 Gary Habermas, p. 215.
19 Mark Mittelberg, p. 218.
20 Antony Flew, p. 242.

5 comments :

Mike Felker said...

Great review, Brian! Assuming you've read other responses to the new atheists, would you put this as one of the top? If not, which book would be the best one to hand to a friend who is becoming swayed by the new atheists?

Brian said...

Mike,

Thanks for the comment. I would suggest that part of the choice would be the particular person you are speaking with. Personally, if the person I was speaking with was not afraid of a fair amount of philosophical terminology and depth, then I would be very happy to recommend God is Great, God is Good at the top because I think it has so much great content to offer from heavy hitting scholars dealing specifically with New Atheism issues.

However, if the person would do better with something easier and quicker to read, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend Atheism ReMix by Albert Mohler (dealing with New Atheism in general) or The Dawkins Letters by David Robertson dealing specifically with typical atheism myths in Dawkins book. These are both small and very readable, which can be an important point in choosing a book to recommend that someone will actually read.

I hope that helps. I will be reviewing a pile of books dealing with atheism in the coming months.

jwwartick said...

Great review! I was wavering on whether or not to buy this, but now I simply must pick it up.

RkBall said...

I love anthologies -- is that what you call this kind of multiple-contributor book? -- so, I'm going to get this one for sure. One I have just read is In Defense of Miracles. Skillfully constructed organization -- by no means just an eclectic series of one-off chapters by various writers. Highly recommended. It's like a one-stop college course in miracles.

nbjacobson said...

Mike. I recently read Eric Reitan's Is God a Delusion? Reitan is a "liberal" Christian and sympathetic to some of the New Atheist's critique or religious conservatism. Nonetheless, it is a superbly meticulous and powerful critique. I highly recommend it.

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