Book Review: A Friendly Letter

March 01, 2012

Book Review: A Friendly Letter

The ‘New Atheism’, like Barth studies in theology or ‘postmodern theory’ in the humanities, is exploding the limits of an intellectual cottage industry and becoming a multinational marketing phenomenon. The exponents and opponents of this revivification of the militant atheism of the early twentieth century (akin to that of Bertrand Russell or the ‘Vienna Circle’) seem to be developing their own paper-based shortterm system of carbon sequestration. So what virtues does another Christian response to the ‘new atheism’ have in such an environment?

Well, I’m not going to say that Myers’ book is unique, or that it says something that no one else has said. That would be a brave claim indeed. So many people, atheist and theist, skeptic and Christian, have presented their arguments for their beliefs or unbeliefs and against the irrational credulity or dogmatic skepticism of their opponents that there is little new ground to cover. And indeed, that is not what Myers attempts to do: his focus is not on Dawkins & co. per se; nor is he seeking to present arguments to combat their rejection of religion or to bolster the faith of believers. What he does is direct his attention to the skeptical onlooker. And in that regard, he does an admirable job. In fact, despite my reservations about elements of his thought, if I were choosing a book on the new atheism to give to my skeptical friends, this would be it. Let me explain why, as well as noting the concerns I have with the book.

The first reason I would reach for this book is that it is short and easy to read. And yes, that is, in my view and for this purpose, a great virtue. There may come a time when you want your friends to wade through a carefully constructed refutation of the claims of Dawkins, Hitchens, and so on, but that’s probably not where you ought to start. It’s certainly not where I would want to start with my friends (not if I want to keep them as friends, and develop an actual real world conversation with them on these matters). At 136 pages (plus 16 pages of appendix, notes and acknowledgements) it is an admirably short book. It is also very easy to read. Myers has a good grasp of his material, especially the psychological literature, and an ease and felicity of expression that make for easy reading. He uses examples and stories and metaphor and data to both illustrate and further his arguments. Quite simply, he writes well. And that is a great virtue in a book aimed at interested inquirers (after all, dare I say, we want to sustain their interest, rather than anaesthetise it).

Related to that is the genre and tone of the book. It is written as an extended ‘open letter’ to a questioning skeptic. That needs to be noted: it presumes that the person reading it is open to consider the claims that religion might have to acceptance by a reasonable person— however slender those reasons may turn out to be. That, of course, is significant. In my view it is probably pointless to turn your attention to those who are closed-mindedly skeptical (like, say, Richard Dawkins) as they are no more open to changing their minds in light of arguments and evidence than your average religious bigot. And as an open letter to an honest inquirer it presumes that they will consider the arguments and evidence openly. There is, then, no belligerence in the book. Its tone is open and irenic, warm and even whimsical. Myers also makes no pretence that the house of religion is all clean and in order. He is clear that there is a lot of mess, many skeletons in Christianity’s closets (inexpertly cast into the back, with the odd desiccated limb protruding through gaping doors), and that we ought to be ashamed of that. But he is equally clear that they do not, in and of themselves, invalidate the claims of religion on our minds and our hearts and our souls.

I should, I suppose, outline the book’s argument, before turning to those points of disagreement or reserve I have with Myers and which might, for some evangelicals, even vitiate the book’s value. Having set the scene with a brief description of the critique of religion as false and dangerous and of his own position of ‘skeptical faith’, he moves on to an apology—a mea culpa— for the ways in which Christianity has damaged people in the face of its own claims to liberating truth. That is far from unique (I think, for instance, of Greg Clarke’s response to The Da Vinci Code a few years ago1); but it is refreshing. It is also good to see him note the uncritical stridency of Dawkins’ attacks on religion; and his identification of the social-psychological phenomenon of the ‘out-group homogeneity bias’ (in which we tend to recognise the diversity of our own group but see all members of other groups as the same) as the source for much of the unthinking rejection of all religion on the basis of its extremist elements.

He moves on to claim that at the heart of both religion and science is the project of ‘faith seeking understanding’ (my term—borrowed from figures from Augustine through Anselm to Plantinga), and that ‘aggressive antireligious skepticism is predominantly a product of Euro-American white men’ which, while not proving it wrong, is ‘an interesting cultural phenomenon’ (p23). Before discussing ways in which science affirms religious claims, he first tackles three popular religious beliefs which can constitute stumbling blocks for the skeptical enquirer: the existence of a separable, immortal soul (which he dismisses on the basis of Scripture and contemporary mind-brain holism—a claim many evangelicals would echo); the potency of petitionary prayers (on the basis of a lack of empirical evidence for its efficacy and his fundamental theological assumptions —he sees prayer as primarily an expression of dependence on a loving God rather than a way of changing the world—a claim some evangelicals would dispute); and the plausibility of a created universe (he rejects young earth creationism and intelligent design in favour of ‘theistic evolution’, again on the basis of his understanding of the biblical picture of God as creator as well as the weight of evidence for an evolutionary explanation of the origins of species—on which, Myers and I both suspect, evangelicals are fairly evenly divided).

Having dealt with these potential difficulties posed by theistic faith, Myers turns to a discussion of areas in which scientific evidence (especially that from the social sciences) coheres well with or actively supports religious faith. He notes that contemporary social-psychology fits well with the biblical understanding of the complexity of human beings, and presents clear evidence that a wellformed and committed religious faith leads to greater civility, tolerance, benevolence, happiness and health (contrary to Hitchens’ claim that ‘religion poisons everything’—it seems that religious nominalism, rather than committed faith, promotes prejudice: ‘Tribalism plus theism equals arrogance’ p85). In passing, he seeks to reassure skeptics that ‘Christianity is not intrinsically antagonistic to gays and lesbians’ (p75). He argues that the Bible does not unambiguously condemn same-sex relationships characterised by self-giving love and fidelity. To the contrary: ‘There is a Christian case for gay marriage, which arises from the human need to belong, from the biblical mandate for justice, from the benefits of a culturewide norm of monogamy, and from a refutation of popular arguments against gay marriage’ (p77, italics his). On this matter, I suspect, most evangelicals (myself included) would beg to differ. The biblical data, while not as prominent as some might imagine, cannot be so easily dismissed; nor does a rejection of homophobia bring with it an endorsement of gay marriage. Still, I suspect that our skeptical friends might find it interesting to see a stance on homosexual relationships that distances itself so clearly from the uncritical intolerance that the Church is generally seen to express—an important point given the intended readership of this book. Perhaps those of us who disagree with him on same-sex unions ought to consider how we can more effectively embody our ‘hate the sin but love the sinner’ rhetoric? But let me continue.

He closes with two chapters dealing with the epistemic status of religious belief (that is, its intellectual justification). In the last-but-one chapter he counters the claim that explaining religious belief scientifically, sociologically or psychologically allows us to dismiss its intellectual credibility; on the contrary, just as ‘explaining a belief doesn’t explain it away’ (p123, italics his), so theism does generate a sense of moral urgency—something strikingly lacking in Dawkins’ take on the universe (but not, I should add, from that of other atheists such as Peter Singer). His final chapter notes the evidence and arguments both for and against theism and atheism, and ends with the view that when reason cannot decide we can let our hearts do the work and take the risk of faith. I’m not persuaded that this is right; and even if it is, it seems to me that he could have noted the way that faith can become self-authenticating, opening us up to the reality of God in a way that allows God to demonstrate his goodness and fidelity. Faith can be a risky step into the light rather than a leap into the dark. But that’s another matter.

As I’ve already hinted, my main criticism of the book is that Myers’ views on some matters lie outside the ambit of evangelical orthodoxy. Now Myers does not claim to be evangelical Christian; rather, he explicitly identifies himself as a ‘mainline Protestant’ which in the US (where he lives and works) is a position generally to the theological left of most evangelicals. And the book reflects that. As I’ve noted, his views on prayer, for instance, would raise the eyebrows of most evangelicals of nonclassical- Calvinist persuasion (seeing as he calls into question the notion that prayer—by way, of course, of God’s freely willed response to our request- might ‘change the world’ ). So, too, would his support for gay marriage (along with the arguments he adduces in its favour), as would the tone of his latter discussion of ‘religion’, with its flavour (but not, please note, outright avowal) of pluralistic inclusivism. These are points on which I would sharply differ with his theological position, as would many evangelical Christians. I would also question the way his last chapter seems to make religious faith a non-rational leap into the dark rather than the kind of reason-affirming commitment that people like Schaeffer and C.S. Lewis argue for. The big question is whether these differences undercut the value of the book, rendering it useless for its intended purpose.

My judgement, for what it’s worth, is that no, they don’t. They would be matters I’d like to discuss further with my atheist friend. But the point of a book like this is to start a conversation, not to finish it; and it’s a great conversation starter. You, of course, will need to make your own judgement. There are other treatments of the new atheism aimed at a popular audience which will not generate such concerns amongst evangelicals, such as Alister McGrath with Joanna-Collicut McGrath, The Dawkins Delusion (London: SPCK, 2007) or Andrew Wilson, Deluded by Dawkins? (Eastbourne: Kingsway, 2007). They are, however, primarily of benefit to a Christian audience and aim more at countering Dawkins’ claims and pointing out the holes in his argument than at persuading a skeptical onlooker to consider the claims of Christianity. So, if you want a book that, despite its flaws, can be put in the hands of your interested non-Christian friends to prompt a useful discussion about how God is good and religion doesn’t poison everything, then have a good look at Myers’ Friendly Letter.



1 ‘Is it worth believing? The spiritual challenge of The Da Vinci Code’ (Kingsford, NSW: Matthias Media, 2005). See also ‘Convinced by DaVinci?’ CASE DVD, 2004. This and other responses to the Da Vinci Code by Greg Clarke and others are available through the CASE website.

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