Saturday, March 13, 2010

Book Review: A Sceptic’s Guide to Atheism by Peter S. Williams

A Sceptic’s Guide to Atheism: God is Not Dead by Peter S. Williams stands apart among the recent books responding to the so-called new atheism. Philosopher Peter S. Williams delves deep into the works and claims of contemporary atheist proponents, excavates their core ideas, evaluates their reasoning, and delivers an extremely thorough, easy-to-read, and philosophically satisfying response.

Williams’ title reclaims the original meaning of the term “sceptical,” which has become rather limited in recent usage. He seeks to restore the original meaning: “This book aims to apply rigorous critical judgement to contemporary popular defenses of metaphysically materialistic atheism, especially defenses arising out of the so-called ‘New Atheism’.”1  The purpose of this review is simply to offer a concise overview of the topics covered by Williams.

Chapter One: Atheism is Dead unpacks the views of atheism and agnosticism and explores the cultural landscape of atheism from the rise and fall of positivism to the intellectual rise of theism. Instead of God being dead, as Nietzsche proclaimed, atheism was on the way out. Enter chapter 2: Long Live the New Atheism? which charts the rise of the new atheism. Here Williams recounts the coining of the term “Brights,” introduces the main personalities of the movement, and demonstrates the unique personality of this fresh brand of non-believing fundamentalists. Williams leaves no opportunity for the reader to find fault in his writing; he presents excerpt after excerpt directly from those most central to the movement, providing an amazing historical narrative.

Chapter Three begins an assessment of the main ideas of the new atheists: “I will take issue with the most prominent arguments of the most prominent contemporary apologists for atheism. And at each and every turn, I will demonstrate that the case against theism doesn’t cut the philosophical mustard.”2  Entitled Is Faith the Root of All Evil?, this chapter extracts the ideas of a number of atheists, from Philip Pullman and A.C. Grayling to Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins. The author seems to be a master at sourcing the strongest of atheist contentions and objections and unpacking them for critical philosophical analysis at their most crucial points. Williams’ writing flows smoothly and his arguments are clear and poignant.

Chapter Four: Is Religion Nothing Buttery Short of a Sandwich? evaluates the idea that “belief in God is nothing but…” Here Williams exposes the oft-repeated genetic fallacy of many new atheists. Here Daniel Dennett’s writings are the primary target of analysis, with the author drawing arguments together from atheistic and theistic philosophers alike to make his point.

In Chapter Five: Does Science Explain Everything? Williams contends that, “The ‘Science explains everything’ objection to theism is a myth we can and should leave behind.”3  He explores the difference between science and scientism, the proper relationship between theology and science, even explores some evolutionary considerations:

there is a distinction between evolution as a scientific theory and Darwinism as a philosophy […] It is, of course, impossible to know that humans are ‘nothing but’ an accidental by-product of random evolutionary processes unless one knows that there is no cosmic teleology. But one cannot possibly know that without knowing that God doesn’t exist. Therefore, one cannot discount God’s existence by positing the theory of evolution without begging the question.4

Chapter Six: A Significant Absence of Evidence? tackles the claim that atheism should follow from the “insufficient evidence” for God. Williams’ analysis here includes a critique of atheist Lewis Wolport’s views before evaluating the so-called presumption of atheism and the “less evidence than we’d expect” argument.

Chapter Seven: The Emperor has No Clothes: Natural Theology and the God Hypothesis is a critique of Richard Dawkins’ objections to the existence of God. In this chapter Williams examines Dawkins’ arguments one by one. He shows just how far the “the emperor of the new atheism” falls short in handling the various arguments for God’s existence. At the same time, Williams takes the opportunity to recast the arguments properly. Williams concludes the book with a summary chapter that wraps up his assessment of the new atheist arguments. The author also includes a substantial appendix on the evidence for Jesus.

A Sceptic’s Guide to Atheism by Peter S. Williams is at the top of the list of this reviewer’s recommendations on books dealing with the new atheism. It may be difficult to find another book on the new atheism that matches this one in scope, depth, analysis, clarity, and completeness. In short, this is the only one you need.

1 Peter S. Williams, A Sceptic’s Guide to Atheism: God is Not Dead (Colorado Springs, CO: Paternoster Press, 2009), preface.
2 Ibid., p. 54.
3 Ibid., p. 143.
4 Ibid., p. 134.

1 Comment

  1. Jordan March 13, 2010

    Thanks for the review, this book looks very interesting. I'll have to put it on my "to-read" list. Looks like it's hard to find in Canada though…