2016: Terry Eagleton, Distinguished Professor of English Literature at Lancaster University, delivers the ninth annual Theos lecture
Atheism’s New Clothes
8th February 2013
Guest contributor Leah Brumer reviews 'Atheism's New Clothes' by physicist and philosopher David H. Glass.
Over the last decade Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins critically altered the discourse surrounding the science-religion debate.
Claiming that religion is everything from evil to delusional, the New Atheists took a decidedly confrontational stance on what was before a more thoughtfully nuanced, if not mutually respectful discussion around science and religion’s perceived incompatibility. But alas, this is no longer. The hallmark of the New Atheism is a militant aggression with which the aforementioned authors argue against religion and belief in God since it is based on faith rather than evidence, and because science has now removed the need for God (p.11). To this end, religion is considered not only irrational but incredibly dangerous and would be better off eradicated from the face of the earth, as it bears the blame for much of the world’s suffering.
New Atheism has received its share of hype, probably as much for its hostile attack on deeply held personal beliefs, as for the questionable weight of its philosophical, theological and intellectual claims. And it is this point that David H. Glass takes up in his new work, Atheism’s New Clothes, providing a thoroughly engaging and comprehensive defense of Christian theism. Methodically taking the New Atheists to task on virtually each and every point they make against Christianity, Glass gives a carefully considered and philosophically superior response to what is by now the New Atheists’ fairly infamous arguments.
In his first chapter, Glass gives an outline of the New Atheists and their specific arguments against religion. Making certain to highlight the New Atheists lack of theological knowledge and their inadequate engagement with arguments for the existence of God, Glass makes plain the elephant in the room- the complete lack of recognition, if not denial, by the New Atheists that their claims simply do not stand up (p.27). Seizing the opportunity to illustrate this point, Glass reworks Myers’ version of the Courtier’s reply (also where the title of the book comes from), positing the New Atheists as the Emperor, as opposed to Theology, as it was claimed in the original Myers’ version. From here Glass situates his position and clarifies his terms of engagement for his work; his offer, a two part process that aims to defend Christianity in particular and theism in general (p.30). Assuming the central claims of Christianity to be true in the orthodox sense, Glass sets himself no small task, though he is clearly confident that recent developments in biblical studies will provide him with enough ammunition to prove his argument.
Of the many hotly contested and polarizing issues surrounding the science-religion debate, time and time again, I find myself most intrigued by arguments surrounding belief; it is an endlessly complicated topic for the atheists I know, yet completely inherent and as natural as breathing for believers. For the New Atheists, it is the so-called “irrationality” of committing one’s self to something that they cannot prove nor fully explain that is so difficult to reconcile. Exploring these fundamental issues, Glass investigates the relationship between faith and reason by offering a selection of the most influential views from Christian thinkers Thomas Aquinas, Richard Swinburne, Paul Helm and Alvin Plantinga. Differentiating between belief that and belief in, Glass suggests that both intellectual belief (belief that) as well as trust (belief in) are integral in the discussion around faith and God. Glass says, “it is something we must do”- it requires a thoughtful and premeditated decision as well as trust and confidence in God; it cannot be reduced down to an exercise in weighing evidence and arriving at a conclusion.
Glass moves onto to respond to other big questions leveled by the New Atheists: Does science undermine belief in God? Is there evidence for God in the beginnings, existence and order of the universe and human consciousness? Do evolution and biology undermine belief? What is the relationship between religion, morality and evil? And what does the question of God mean in relation to revelation, the Gospels and the resurrection? Glass does an immense job of not only defending Christianity but of offering a clear and thorough critique of New Atheism, giving his opponents a chance to be on the defensive. This is particularly evident when Glass takes on Dawkins’ two main arguments against God in Chapter 6. Glass pinpoints the redundancy in Dawkins’ reliance on both a Darwinian and Humean argument in order to support his claims. This exposes the undeniable short-comings of the Darwinian argument on dealing with the origins of life and the fine-tuning of the cosmos; without the Humean argument, used to plug the gaps, Dawkins’ Darwinian objection to God fails. No matter how carefully he may position himself, Dawkins is effectively his own undoing. In addition, Glass adds fuel to the fire when he further points out that the Humean argument that Dawkins uses has been successfully rebutted by many thinkers on both sides of the debate further discrediting Dawkins position.
Throughout the book, Glass never lets you forget that his engagement is not just an intellectual exercise; it is much more than a matter of winning or conceding arguments. At its core, New Atheism is a program constructed to marginalize, (if not eradicate), religion. So it goes without saying that there is much at stake here. But Glass shows that he has no intention of leaving any room for doubt. He demonstrates repeatedly throughout the book the various holes and deficiently reasoned arguments offered by the New Atheists and provides plenty of evidence leaving the New Atheists’ claims dubious at best.
Extensive yet accessible, Atheism’s New Clothes provides strong intellectual, theological, philosophical and evidential offerings in support of Christian theism. As expected, Glass’ work will surely be well received not only throughout the Christian community, but possibly by believers of other faiths as well. Though many claims are specific to Christianity, his defense of theism could possibly have wider-reaching benefits for those in defense of other religions. I do wonder, however, if it will affect any real change of hearts and minds for readers firmly settled on the other side of this debate. Though, if nothing else, Atheism’s New Clothes provides compelling food for thought for those readers. But without a doubt this book would be most useful to those individuals caught in the middle of this discussion; those on the fence about the big questions would surely benefit from this somewhat challenging, though deeply engaging read.
Leah Brumer | Leah has recently completed postgraduate work in Social Anthropology at the London School of Economics