Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Is Atheism Dead?: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Is Atheism Dead?
Atheists have always been among us, but after 9/11 they became especially vocal. These “new atheists” insisted that religion was not just wrong but stupid and dangerous. The new book by Eric Metaxas, Is Atheism Dead?, answers this accusation by showing that the more we learn about science the less naturalistic explanations for the universe’s origins seem plausible. Then he tells how archaeology has supported the biblical record time and again. In the third section, he addresses the new atheists’ “dangerous” claim specifically by showing how many people atheism killed in the 20th century and then takes on the “stupid” claim by discussing the philosophical problems with atheism, famous atheists who became theists, and famous scientists who were Christians.

In principle, it’s a worthy endeavor. In the actual execution, it’s a bit of a mixed bag.

The Good
Metaxas does a good job of marshaling the evidence that science points to God. From the beginning of the universe to the design in the universe to the increasing improbability of a naturalistic origin for life, the more we learn the more it is obvious to more and more people that this cannot have happened by accident.

He does a wonderful job showing how archaeology supports biblical accuracy. He tells this section as stories, and they’re quite compelling stories. My favorite is how a naughty twelve-year-old with a hammer accidentally discovered the oldest sample of the biblical text, proving it existed several hundred years before skeptics assert.

Also the stories of the atheists who became theists and the Christians who have built science are told well and make it hard to accept that the religious are by nature stupid.

The Bad
Because I enjoyed the good parts so much, I was really irritated by some unforced errors.

It takes more than archaeology to prove that the events recounted in the Bible actually happened. That there were Hittites and Hezekiah built a tunnel to a spring doesn’t prove the Red Sea parted or Jesus rose from the dead. He could have trimmed his stories and made room for some other reasons the narratives should be believed.

Second, he is very inconsistent with footnotes. He includes his sources at times, but he fails to provide sources for many things that need a citation. For example, he says Christopher Hitchens, quite out of his usual character, admitted in an interview that the design argument is actually a strong argument (page 35). But there is no citation. Was this a YouTube clip or a magazine article? Where would we find this? Metaxas doesn’t share that.

Then there are the absolute mistakes. In explaining the importance of the Dead Sea Scrolls he says they show “what we possess today as our own Bible is precisely the same as what existed then” (page 156). No they do not. They are very similar, but there were definitely copying errors and such over the next thousand years to the Masoretic Text. I have a copy of The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible which shows the differences. But a simple web search would have told him this.

Another issue is not quite an error, but it still bothers me. In discussing the banquet of manuscript evidence for the New Testament, he refers to relatively old sources, only citing the newer book which was written in the 1980s. It’s very easy to get updated information on this topic, and Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism made a big splash about two years ago pointing out how many apologists were citing very outdated numbers.

These things unsettle me about the book. I’m pretty well read on the design argument, and thankfully nothing jumped out at me in that section. But I know next to nothing about biblical archaeology, so what errors might I have missed? This troubles me.

The Ugly
The errors I noted were pretty minor, and his points were valid even if his data were outdated or overstated. His exclusive attention to biblical archaeology could be a design choice rather than an oversight.

His tone, though, becomes a problem. In the first two sections, he’s in story-telling mode, and his tone is warm and fun. When he gets to the section devoted more directly to the new atheists, though, he begins to imitate their ways. I won’t say he ever actually matches the way Hitchens or Dawkins talk about believers, but he does get quite snarky. It would have been much better had he chosen to imitate Chesterton’s wit or Lennox’s charm. We do not win people by out-insulting our opponents.

I wanted to love this book. I hoped it would be a one-stop shop for answering atheist accusations against believers in general and Christianity in particular. It doesn’t quite do for that. I wanted it to be a book you could hand someone who is skeptical but not committed to atheism. I’m not sure I would want to do that, both because of the flaws and the tone.

It is still a good reference for a believer who wants a summary of the case against the new atheists, as long as they’re aware of the flaws. It just could have been so much more.

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