Arguing in favour of God

16 November 2012

Edward Dowler on books that take on the new atheists robustly

Science and Belief: The big issues
Russell Stannard
Lion £8.99 (978-0-7459-5572-8)
Church Times Bookshop £8.10 (Use code CT285 )

Making Sense of Faith in God: How belief makes science possible
Jonathan Clatworthy
SPCK £7.99 (978-0-281-06404-5)
Church Times Bookshop £7.10 (Use code CT285 )

Atheism's New Clothes: Exploring and exposing the claims of the new atheists
David H. Glass
Apollos £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30 (Use code CT285 )

Light from Light: Scientists and theologians in dialogue
Gerald O'Collins SJ and Mary Ann Meyers, editors
Eerdmans £23.99
Church Times Bookshop £21.60 (Use code CT285 )

RICHARD DAWKINS is a "greatly liked and respected person": we know this because he has told us so himself, and he never says anything that cannot be supported by factual evidence.

Perhaps the most worrying thing about the popularity of the new atheists is not, contrary to what they might suppose, that their arguments have brilliant persuasive force - almost all of them have been subjected to devastating critiques.

Rather, Christians should be concerned that crude and over-stated diatribes such as Dawkins's The God Delusion and Christopher Hitchens's God is Not Great sum up ideas that are already strongly latent in Western society, in particular the Anglo-American sub-section of it. Many people warm to them because they express in vivid Technicolor ideas that already subsist in their own minds, albeit in a more shadowy fashion. All of these books engage the new atheists in different ways, and all provide a helpful contribution to the on-going debate.

In Science and Belief: The big issues, which accompanies a BBC TV series of the same name, Russell Stannard offers an exploration of various issues in which science and religion are thought to conflict with one another. The book includes chapters on evolution, creation, morality, and extra-terrestrial activity. He presents both scientific and theological information with the expertise and lucidity of an experienced teacher.


Stannard makes no secret of his position as a licensed lay minister in the Church of England, but treats opposing views courteously and fairly. He suggests models of inter-action between science and religion: conflict, independence, interaction, and integration, the last of these being the one that he favours. Study of the created world should lead us to the Creator, just as awareness of God should lead to curiosity about his Creation. Indeed, this latter insight formed the historical basis of modern science.

In Making Sense of Faith in God, Jonathan Clatworthy gets off to an embarrassing start by dismissing all approaches to theology other than the liberalism of Modern Church (formerly the Modern Churchpeople's Union) as being reactionary and wrong. He thus risks replicating the dogmatism of the new atheists and fundamentalists who are his target. Thereafter, however, he moves to a helpful, engaging, and fairly conservative exposition of some key issues in philosophy of religion and the religion-science debate, arguing that, while the existence of God cannot be proved, it provides the simplest, most elegant, and most satisfying explanation for a range of phenomena, such as the order of the universe, moral values, and religious experience.

The occasional bit of loose talk ("atheism appeals to science": does it always do so?) is made up for by Clatworthy's describing complex ideas in an accessible way, but without dumbing them down. Although a stalwart defence of theism, the book is disappointingly free of Christology: God is "benevolent creativity", and therefore behind all things are "mind, intention, wisdom, purpose, value, meaning, and goodness"; but we hear hardly anything about the particular characteristics of the God whom we encounter in Jesus Christ.

Both Stannard's and Clatworthy's books would be rewarding not only for individual study by the non-specialist, but also for discussion by parish groups, taking a chapter at a time.

In Atheism's New Clothes, David H. Glass offers a thorough-going refutation of the new atheism. In a market that is already crowded with writers such as Alister McGrath, David Bentley Hart, Keith Ward, Terry Eagleton, and John Lennox, I wondered whether it was necessary to have yet another book to remind me of the ignorance, narrow-mindedness, scientism, and materialism of the new atheists.

Ultimately, I was persuaded, however, that Glass has some particular things to bring to the table. As an expert in computer science and theoretical physics, as well as philosophy of religion, he brings not only wide-ranging specialist knowledge, but forensic skill in the analysis of arguments and the assessment of probability. These tools provide interesting and lethal ways to precision-bomb the opposition.


For example, one chapter analyses whether Dawkins's aversion to the argument from design is based on philosophical arguments derived from Hume, or on scientific arguments derived from Darwin. For if, as Glass demonstrates, it is largely on the former of these that Dawkins rests his case, then, contrary to what Dawkins asserts, the findings of modern science become largely irrelevant to what he has to say.

In one of the earliest (and best) refutations of Dawkins and Co., The New Atheists, Tina Beattie expresses her concern that intellectually confident, hyper-rationalist males pitted against one another from opposing atheist and Christian camps can seem like mirror images of one another. Glass is open to this criticism: the "God" whose probability he defends does not always seem like the one whose ineffable mystery is encountered by the spiritual tradition and apophatic theology.

The pick of these books is Light from Light, edited by O'Collins and Meyers, and a model of the kind of integration of science and theology which looks confidently past some of the stale arguments between science and belief. It is the result of a confer-ence in Istanbul between scientists and theologians on the subject of light. Each contribution is an elegant and erudite engagement with this theme from a different perspective (scientific in Part One and theological in Part Two).

A short review cannot do justice to this fine collection of essays, but the conclusion of Marco Bersanelli, Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Milan, gives a flavour of it. He cuts through the Dawkinsite canard that once science has explained everything away, God fades out of the picture: "achieving a good scientific explanation", Bersanelli writes, "is by no means an obstacle to maintaining deeper levels of meaning that light, or other physical reality, may communicate and inspire."

The Revd Dr Edward Dowler is Vicar of Clay Hill in the diocese of London.


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