Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Book Review: God is Great, God is Good (2009)

Craig, William Lane, and Chad Meister, eds. God is Great, God is Good: Why Believing in God is Reasonable and Responsible. Downers Grove: IVP, 2009. $19.00

The 21st century has seen the emergence of a vocal and public cadre of ‘New Atheists’, headed by prolific authors and speakers like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris. The current volume, God is Great, God is Good: Why Believing in God is Reasonable and Responsible, responds directly to the New Atheists’ argument that theism is not only unreasonable, but patently false, socially unacceptable, and dangerously evil (7-8). Editors Meister and Craig seek to compile contributions from “top-notch scholars from across the disciplines” to comprehensively deal with the charges laid by New Atheists.

God is Great is divided into four parts. Part I (God Is) contains three essays rebutting atheistic arguments against theism and setting forth positive reasons for theistic belief. Part II (God is Great) holds another three essays dealing with the relationship between theism and science. Part III (God is Good) contains four rebuttals of common New Atheist attacks upon the character and beneficence of God and faith. Part IV (Why It Matters) has four diverse essays on the importance of Christian faith. What follows is a brief review, with some critical interaction, with each section and individual essay.

William Lane Craig opens by responding to Dawkins’ supposed refutation of theistic arguments (“Dawkins on Arguments for God,” 13-31). In the God Delusion, Richard Dawkins expresses great confidence that theistic ‘proofs’ or arguments for the existence of God have been effectively demolished. Craig begs to differ, and examines how Dawkins deals with the four most common theistic proofs. Dawkins does address the Kalam Cosmological Argument (16-17), but “doesn’t dispute either premise” (P1 ‘Everything that begins to exist has an external cause’; P2 ‘The universe began to exist’.), instead choosing to question “the theological significance of the argument’s conclusion (C ‘Therefore the universe has an external cause’).” Craig reminds the reader that the Cosmological Argument is not intended to establish God’s omniscience, goodness, etc., but rather to establish the need for a primary cause of the universe—something which Dawkins apparently acknowledges the argument accomplishes.

Dawkins openly challenges the Moral Argument, insisting in some of his writing that there is “no design, no purpose, no evil, no good” in the universe (18); however, he proceeds to engage in extensive moralizing (19), thereby demonstrating that he does implicitly acknowledge the existence of objective morality.

Dawkins understandably spends the most time on the Teleological Argument, which lies closest to his own area of expertise. The TA asserts that the fine-tuning evident in the universe is due to either necessity, chance, or design; the first two are implausible, hence design. Dawkins appeals instead to chance by invoking multiverse theory (21). Craig notes various problems with multiverse theory (22-26), most notably the absence of supporting evidence. Dawkins is aware of these problems, but insists that the multiverse is preferable to the “self-defeating . . . hypothesis of an intelligent designer.” (26) This brings Dawkins to his ironclad refutation of Christianity: if God designed the universe, who designed the designer? Dawkins considers this a crushing and decisive objection to theism. Craig easily deals with Dawkins’ objection, noting that the best explanation for a phenomenon (in this case apparent design) does not itself need to be readily explainable (27).

Finally, Dawkins unveils a tirade of “ridicule and invective” against the Ontological Argument; but, Craig insists, does not raise any “serious objection” to it (29), hoping instead that rhetoric will win the day. In essence, Craig demonstrates that Dawkins has not impugned the power or persuasiveness of any of the four traditional theistic proofs. It would have been helpful for Craig to provide an example of the “ridicule” that Dawkins heaps upon the ontological argument to demonstrate the lack of substance in his presentation. Nonetheless, Craig’s essay is clear, concise, and thoroughly demolishes the New Atheistic presumption to have dealt a mortal blow to the rationality of theism.

J. P. Moreland (Chapter Two, ‘The Image of God and the Failure of Scientific Atheism’, 32-48) argues for theism from a different angle. Moreland argues that there are certain human characteristics which are readily explicable in a Christian worldview but notoriously difficult to incorporate within scientific atheism (33). To set the stage, Moreland lays out three philosophical tenets of scientific atheism. First, strong or weak scientism in epistemology (the scientific process and/or the conclusions of modern science are the only or the most reliable sources of human knowledge). Second, evolutionary biology as the metanarrative accounting for how things came to be (36). Third, physics as the governing ontology, describing the entities that can conceivably exist (thereby ruling out supernatural or supranatural entities).

Moreland then describes the five features of human beings which pose serious challenges to scientific atheism: self-consciousness, rationality, unified selfhood, libertarian free will, and intrinsic value. Moreland does not argue that these five characteristics establish theism as rationally compelling; rather, he posits that they make better sense within a theistic universe than an atheistic one. Furthermore, he suggests that these human characteristics are not just explicable, but expected within Christian theism, as they are based upon the image of God within us. Thus, “these features provide a degree of confirmation for Christianity.” (33) Moreland acknowledges that some atheists will seize the horns of the dilemma, arguing that human beings do not actually possess one or more of the characteristics. But Moreland rightly responds, for example, that “the experience of libertarian free will is . . . so compelling . . . that people cannot act as though that experience is an illusion, even if it is one.” (39) Self-consciousness, rationality, unified selfhood, free will, and intrinsic value are intuitively grasped and embraced, and defended by persuasive philosophical arguments. Moreland's contribution is solid and extremely helpful. Atheists often pretend that the universe is just as it should be expected to be according to their worldview; Moreland points out that fundamental aspects of our existence cohere neatly with Christianity, but not with atheism.

Paul Moser closes the first part of the book by encouraging readers to approach the question of God’s existence from a new perspective (Chapter Three, ‘Evidence of a Morally Perfect God’, 49-62). Moser’s primary thesis is that we need to approach God not just form a theological perspective, but from a kardiotheological view—taking into account “one’s motivational heart (including one’s will) rather than just . . . one’s mind or one’s emotions.” (53) Inquiry into God’s existence has been biased by viewing the postulate of God “as a morally indefinite creator,” (54) an abstract transcendent figure. Instead, Moser insists that the Christian God is “a being worthy of worship,” with “inherent moral perfection” deserving of “unqualified adoration, love, trust and obedience.” (51) I certainly agree with Moser. His emphasis upon God’s definite character, and his promotion of kardiotheology, is helpful. I wonder, however, whether this project is even imaginable or coherent to an atheist. Can an atheist conceive of a divine being who is worthy of prostate worship? Moser seems to be aware of this potential objection, and responds by suggesting that such atheists will never be able to discern the God who exists (56). Moser suggests that “knowledge of God is not a spectator sport,” (57) but rather requires that we approach God as “authoritative Lord.” (57) God will not foist Himself upon human beings unwilling to willingly receive Him (59).

Moser closes with a less-than-convincing presentation of the centrality of AGAPE love. His definition of God’s love (“the divine morally righteous unselfish love that uncoercively seeks what is good for all people involved”) is comprehensive and helpful; building that edifice upon the questionable differentiation of the Greek agape from phileo and eros is problematic. Nonetheless, Moser’s essay is a helpful reminder that the Christian’s investigation into the existence and nature of God ought never be a purely philosophical or abstract pursuit: knowledge of God is irreducibly relational (61). In the end, however, Moser is appealing to the house of faith; his project is and will remain unacceptable to those outside the bounds of the church.

Part Two of God is Great deals with the relationship between theism and science. John Polkinghorne (Chapter Four, ‘God and Physics,’ 65-77) argues that the materialist view of the universe is “unsatisfying” because nature points beyond itself to “a deeper level of intelligibility.” (65) I agree that materialism is an intellectually and emotionally unsatisfying view of the universe; however, I suspect that Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, and Richard Dawkins would disagree—the New Atheists all assert that it is theism which is intellectually unsatisfying as a worldview, while their brand of materialistic atheism is perfectly fulfilling to them. Thus, one has to ask Polkinghorne, ‘unsatisfying to whom?’ Polkinghorne continues by laying out the failure of materialism to aptly explain the universe’s fine-tuning (68-70) and lack of physical determinism (72).

Michael Behe follows with a discussion of the limits of evolutionary theory (Chapter Five, ‘God and Evolution,’ 78-90). After a brief discussion of the rise and dominance of Darwinian evolutionary theory (79-84), Behe focuses his attention on the central role of random mutation. He argues that both common descent and natural selection are interesting and true, but ultimately trivial—what matters for Darwinism is not what has happened, but rather how. Thus, random mutation is the true philosophical driving force of evolutionary theory. Behe then discusses the various forms of random mutation (85), and two in-depth examples (apparently condensed versions of his lengthier discussions in The End of Evolution). He concludes that malaria and the sickle-cell mutation demonstrate that “random mutation is incoherent” and “unlikely to be responsible for the profoundly coherent, integrated, complex systems that fill the cell.” (87-88) The structure of the cell, Behe argues, proclaims its fundamental design. I suspect that, once again, the atheist is going to grant Behe’s conclusion that random mutation’s incoherence is “unlikely” to have given rise to the apparent design that we see, without accepting his conclusion that what we see is therefore most likely designed.

New Atheists and theists are generally agreed that human beings seem to be hard-wired to be religious, to believe in supernatural beings. Michael Murray evaluates atheistic explanations for intuitive religiosity (Chapter Six, ‘Evolutionary Explanations of Religion,’ 91-104). Evolutionary biologists tend to interpret God-wiring as evidence that “God is an artifact of the brain.” (101) Murray challenges this conclusion, and points out that atheists generally offer no supporting arguments for their conclusion. It is simply assumed that, obviously, if we are hard-wired to believe in God, such beliefs must be false. Murray insists that human beings are hard-wired to believe many things from birth, including “that one and one equal two, that animals give birth to offspring of the same species and that certain unnatural events are caused by agents.” (102) In other words, many of our intuitive beliefs are not only basic, but properly basic true beliefs. Murray concludes astutely that current scientific explanations of religion only reveal what Christians have argued for centuries: “there is within the human mind, and indeed by natural instinct, an awareness of divinity.” (104)

Part Three of God is Great deals with atheistic critiques of Christian theism. Chad Meister opens the section with an essay dealing with the age-old problem of evil (Chapter Seven, ‘God, Evil, and Morality,’ 107-18). Meister argues that it is time that “the tables are turned” on atheist critics: “when it comes to the existence of evil in our world it’s the atheists who should be on the defensive.” (108) Acknowledging evil requires the admission of an objective standard of morality, which then requires a metaphysical foundation (109). New Atheists do seem to affirm moral objectivism; indeed, they argue that God is evil and unjust, thereby implicitly acknowledging objective standards. Meister helpfully reminds the reader that it is insufficient to merely affirm ethical realities, as Hitchens does; rather, one must justify ethical realities (110).

Meister then evaluates the proposed foundations for ethics provided by Dawkins and Hitchens—particularly Dawkins’ reciprocal altruism (113-14). The fatal flaw in Dawkins’ ethical scheme is that it is merely descriptive (describing how we do in fact behave) rather than prescriptive (prescribing how we ought to behave). Thus, there is nothing objectively good or evil; only what is programmed or evolutionarily advantageous (114-15). Other atheists (Meister cites Michael Ruse and E. O. Wilson) admit that objective morality cannot be grounded in evolution (115). Meister concludes that atheism simply cannot “provide a reasonable justification for the existence of non-subjective, universally binding moral values . . . or moral vices.” (117)

Alister McGrath (Chapter Eight, ‘Is Religion Evil?’, 119-33) attacks one of the key soundbites of the New Atheism: “religion is evil.” (120) Through his article McGrath makes several loosely connected points. First, religion is a ‘false universal’, with no widely accepted definition of religion (122). Second, all worldviews (religious and secular) demand allegiance from their followers and thereby contain the potential for violence (123). Third, Christianity is about the transfiguration of violence, not killing in His name—violence committed in the name of Christ through the centuries has been an aberration and a denial of the true faith (125). Fourth, secular political extremism has emerged as the most successful source of acute violence and oppression in the 20th and 21st centuries (126-27). Fifth, atheists are unwilling to evaluate the fruits of their worldview honestly and critically (128). Sixth, atheism, like religion, can be a divisive ideology, as evidenced by the self-proclaimed ‘brights’ who were free of the religious superstition still beguiling the comparative ‘dims’ (130-31).

McGrath does a good job of unveiling the lack of accountability within an atheistic worldview, and the horrors that has unleashed upon the world in the last two hundred years (126-27). What is severely lacking in McGrath’s essay is the positive side of Christianity—the immense good that has been wrought by and through the Christian faith over two millennia. The emergence of modern science, medicine, universal human rights, education, social welfare, the status of women—the socio-economic and cultural benefits of Christianity should be trumpeted by theists in the face of naked assertions that ‘religion is evil’.

Paul Copan responds to New Atheist arguments that the God of the Old Testament is a monstrous, evil being (Chapter Nine, ‘Are Old Testament Laws Evil?’ 134-54). Copan acknowledges the impossibility of responding comprehensively in a brief essay. The thesis he defends is that the atheistic critiques are a distortion of Old Testament ideals and realities (136). Copan sets forth five factors which explain (or mitigate) troubling elements of the Old Testament Law. First, Mosaic law is embedded within a narrative context which reveals God’s redemptive activity and moral character (137). Second, Old Testament law “reflects a meeting point between divine/creational ideals and the reality of human sin and evil social structures.” (138) Copan defends that argument with an appeal to Jesus’ teaching on divorce in contrast with Mosaic legislation. However, one still has to wonder how we can discern which elements of Old Testament law represent divine compromise with human sin, and which represent eternal divine ideals. Copan rightly states that Christians do not need to “justify all aspects” of the Law; but fails to provide guidance as to what needs defending and what does not.

Third, Copan emphasizes the vast moral improvement represented by Mosaic legislation over and above other Ancient Near Eastern moral codes (139-44). Fourth, Copan offers seven explanations for the seemingly harsh dictums of genocidal warfare against the Canaanites (145-48). Fifth, Copan notes that the Old Testament law points toward, and is fulfilled in, the new covenant in Jesus Christ (148-49). Copan concludes by chiding New Atheists on two counts: first, the God of the Bible is not to be trivialized or trifled with; and second, that the lack of a foundation for objective morality in their worldview precludes their supposed moral outrage at the character of God (152). While I concur with Copan’s assessment, it must be noted again that he is preaching to the choir. His arguments and justifications are persuasive to me as a Christian who wants to be so persuaded. For the most part, however, his arguments are not going to sway a skeptic. For example, Copan argues that “The Mosaic law reveals God’s forbearance because of human hard-heartedness.” (149) We can certainly see this in light of the New Testament; however, orthodox Jews would most likely protest against that presentation of Old Testament law, asserting instead that the law of Moses is God’s eternal covenant with His people.

Jerry Walls recapitulates and updates C. S. Lewis’ argument that hell is actualized by the free rebellion of human beings (Chapter Ten, ‘How Could God Create Hell?’ 155-66). God creates the possibility of hell by creating free-willed creatures (you can almost hear compatibilists squirming in their chairs throughout this chapter). Drawing on Nietzsche’s imagery of dancing and joy, Walls argues that “hell is inhabited by those who simply refuse the invitation to participate in the [divine] dance.” (163) New Atheists insist that it is “incoherent” to conceive of someone freely choosing eternal damnation; in response, Walls cites the perverse pleasure that people find in resentment and bitterness, and rejection of a freely-offered grace.

While I appreciate and agree with the broad strokes of Walls’ argument (reflective not only of Lewis’ Great Divorce, but also Tim Keller’s The Reason for God), it must be noted that he has to neglect or downplay a fair amount of biblical data to mount his case. For example, Walls argues that eternal torment “results less from sulfurous flames” than from misguided self-will (166); I agree, but what do we then do with the passages that speak of flames and a lake of fire (e.g. Lk. 16:19-31; Rev. 20:10)? Are all such passages merely figurative language?
Part Four (Why It Matters) is the most diverse and disjointed section of God is Great. On the one hand, the essays are all connected to the reasonability of Christian theism. On the other hand, they are only loosely connected to one another.

Charles Taliaferro (Chapter Eleven, ‘Recognizing Divine Revelation’, 169-86) seeks to establish a framework of inquiry through which divine revelation can be recognized (170-71). His primary thesis is that “if there is some good reason to believe there is a good God [the subject of the first three sections of the book], there is some reason to believe this God would provide some means for awareness of and a relationship with God.” (172) Taliaferro responds concisely to four influential objections to the notion of special divine revelation: unfairness; God’s vanity and jealousy; the irrelevance of religious experience; and the impossibility of miracles.

He is particularly persuasive in responding to the argument against miracles, noting that Hume effectively defines miracles out of existence. Taliaferro notes that Hume did the same to the notion of negro intelligence. Hume’s blatant racism prevented him from acknowledging any exceptions to his preconceived notions of the ignorance of blacks. “Hume’s strategy was to define the nature of black persons so as to make any reported exception to nature implausible.” (184-85) Taliaferro notes the similar structure contained within Hume’s argument against miracles: decide something is impossible; define the course of nature so as to exclude it; argue that nature contains no exceptions to its rules; exclude testimony of exceptions. If there are reasons to be open to the existence of God, “one should not define nature and explanations so as to make recognizing divine presence as difficult as Hume made recognizing blacks’ intelligence.” (185)

Scot McKnight evaluates the person and ministry of Jesus in light of Jewish messianic expectations (Chapter Twelve, ‘The Messiah You Never Expected,’ 187-201). He notes ten characteristics of Jesus that were outside the bounds of expectations. McKnight’s chapter is well-written and clear, but it was difficult to ascertain its particular purpose within the current volume. It seems that perhaps the editors were looking for an essay which established the unique, divine person of Jesus Christ within the context of biblical Christianity. McKnight points in that direction, arguing that Jesus was: (1) free; (2) confident (had chutzpah); (3) a lightning rod (inciting opposition from nearly every quarter); (4) an activist (getting people on board with the kingdom agenda of God); (5) preachy (forcing listeners to choose sides); (6) attuned to hypocrisy; (7) charismatic; (8) intensely spiritual; (9) compassionate to all people; and (10) at home, but not at home, within Jewish piety. All that establishes, however, is the unique personality and ministry of Jesus—it does not demonstrate the creedal Christological confessions of the faith.

Gary Habermas contributes a helpful chapter on the resurrection of Jesus (Chapter Thirteen, ‘Tracing Jesus’ Resurrection to Its Earliest Eyewitness Accounts’, 202-16). After briefly outlining his trademark minimal facts approach to the resurrection (202-03), Habermas traces the chronology of the creedal confession of 1 Corinthians 15:3-8. Paul writes 1 Corinthians approximately 20 years after the crucifixion (205); but received the creedal information earlier, probably from his first trip to Jerusalem less than five years after the crucifixion (206-07). Each time Paul visited Jerusalem, his gospel message (including, one must presume, the resurrection) was confirmed by the apostles (including Peter and James). (212) Yet the material Paul presents in 1 Corinthians 15 is received five years after the crucifixion, indicating its existence earlier yet. Thus, “the underlying content of the gospel message regarding the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ goes back to the very beginning.” (212) Habermas briefly considers and rejects the popular atheistic assertion that “Christianity copied its message from other earlier ancient religions,” (212-13) referring readers to his other works on the subject. Habermas concludes that the resurrection of Jesus was proclaimed by the earliest church by disciples who were convinced that they had personally seen the risen Lord (215).

Once again, I found myself applauding Habermas’ chapter, and appreciating its apologetic value, while questioning its purpose and place within the current volume. There needed to be a tighter connection between the unique person and ministry of Jesus and the unique claims about his identity and purpose that Jesus made (which isn’t done), with the early and universal Christian confessions concerning Christ. Then Habermas can present the resurrection as God’s vindication of the person and ministry of Jesus Christ—the confirmation that Jesus was who He claimed to be. As it stands, Habermas’ defense of the resurrection stands as a somewhat naked brute historical fact in grave need of interpretation.

Mark Mittelberg closes God is Great with a brief consideration of the importance of Christianity (Chapter Fourteen, ‘Why Faith in Jesus Matters,’ 217-27). Mittelberg helpfully reminds the reader that “everyone has faith,” (217) including atheists, who trust that “there is no Creator, no higher moral law to which they are accountable, no divine judgment and no afterlife.” (218) Given that everyone lives by faith, why have faith in Jesus? Mittelberg presents an evangelistic appeal to acknowledge our need for God’s greatness, goodness, and grace in our lives (221-22); we simply need what Jesus offers (225).

The compilation of essays in God is Great, God is Good seeks to counter the arguments of New Atheists that Christianity is irrational, unreasonable, and harmful to society. As a postscript, the volume publishes a conversation between philosophers and friends Gary Habermas and Antony Flew regarding Flew’s conversion from atheism to theism (Postscript, ‘My Pilgrimage from Atheism to Theism: A Discussion Between Antony Flew and Gary Habermas’, 228-46). The editors rightly rejoice in the acknowledgment of one of the twentieth century’s most prominent philosophical atheists that atheism is untenable. Perhaps I am suffering from apologetic fatigue, but I am somewhat tired of Christians trumpeting Flew’s intellectual conversion. Yes, it is evidence (indirect and weak to be sure, but evidence nonetheless) that theism is more intellectually plausible than atheism. It is not, however, a pillar to lean on. After all, Flew never converted to Christian theism, but rather to a form of Enlightenment deism—acknowledging some sort of divine first cause, but emphatically not a personal divine being.

The volume concludes with a marvelous review of Dawkins’ God Delusion by Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga (Appendix, ‘The Dawkins Confusion: Naturalism Ad Absurdum,’ 247-58). Much of the ground Plantinga treads has been covered in other essays (particularly Craig’s opening contribution); but Plantinga’s treatment of complexity, probability, and divine simplicity is a helpful addition. Indeed, I found myself wondering why Plantinga’s essay was not adapted and adopted as an additional chapter in the first section of the book.

God is Great, God is Good is a very helpful compilation of essays for Christian apologists and philosophers to add to their toolbox. The essays are not all of equal weight and value. Chapters 1, 6, 7, 10, and 11 were particularly fresh and insightful. Chapters 8 and 12 were disappointing more for what they did not say than what they did. The fourth section (Why It Matters) suffered from a lack of connection and focus. All in all, however, God is Great is a worthwhile contribution to the conversation. It introduces readers to a wide spectrum of issues raised by New Atheists, and provides credible responses.