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Defenders of the faith

31 January 2014

Nick Spencer looks at Cambridge sermons

The Unknown God: Responses to the New Atheists
John Hughes, editor
SCM Press £12.99
Church Times Bookshop special offer price £10.99

"THERE is no need to take the small coterie of polemicists known collectively as the New Atheists particularly seriously." So writes David Bentley Hart in the last of the nine sermons in The Unknown God. It is one of the few statements in the book with which to disagree.

Hart's point that the New Atheist gang is too philosophically shallow, theologically ignorant, historically biased, and scientifically partial to merit a response is understandable. Years hence, they will no doubt be read as much as Toland, Tindal, Collins, and Wooston, the terrors of the 18th-century deistic scare. But they are taken seriously today, which is why Christian thinkers should do the same. The all-star line-up for this volume suggests that they already are, for which we should be glad.

The sermons in The Unknown God were preached at Jesus College, Cambridge, in Lent term 2011 - a service of enormous quality, though varying length, if the book is anything to go by. They are witty, generous, and learned, and the volume manages to avoid repetition, except in so far as most contributors note the exhausting anger of the New Atheists.

Conor Cunningham spells out the ontological suicide of ultra-Darwinism; John Cornwell cleverly combines the story of three sets of brothers in talking about morality and imagination; Hart rehearses the revolutionary impact of Christianity on the ancient world; Hughes outlines what atheism owes Christianity; Tina Beattie wrestles with scripture and suffering. The only real mistake that the editor makes is to begin with Terry Eagleton, whose talk on "Faith, Knowledge and Terror" is so good, learned, and genuinely funny that the collection never quite reaches this dizzying height again.

Still, if one can get over the rather steep price to pay for a book of about 100 pages, The Unknown God is a worthy addition to anti-atheist library.

Nick Spencer is director of studies at the think tank Theos.

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