What do I think of Bruce Sheiman’s book? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.
It’s hard to know what to think when you see a title of An Atheist Defends Religion. You might think a similar title could be A Jew defends Adolf Hitler or A Christian defends Muslim terrorists. The two seem so antithetical. Why on Earth would an atheist want to defend religion? Isn’t religion the bane of the atheist’s existence? Unfortunately, if we start thinking out that way, we start thinking out wrong. In fact, we are thinking in a fundamentalist way that Sheiman in his book condemns that has created an us vs. them climate. Ironically, as Sheiman argues, this only makes the situation worse for atheism and in turn for science (Which is not to be equated with atheism either) since generally, for most of the public, if they’re asked to choose between religion and science, they’ll go with religion.
Sheiman does not hold back in saying he is an atheist in the book, but he also considers himself an aspiring theist. He does not like the worldview presented by atheism. I do appreciate greatly his honesty at this point. Sheiman wants to follow the evidence where it leads and while he would like to believe in God, he says he just cannot bring himself to do it now. I do not know what is holding him back and that could be another conversation some day to have, but I do know that belief is not a lightswitch that you can just turn off and on. We need to have people believe because they think something is more likely than not to be true.
Sheiman also does not see atheism as a form of intellectual triumphalism. I find this to be an excellent point to make as well. There are intelligent people on both sides, but I find way too often that the atheists I meet have the attitude that if you don’t believe in God, you’re automatically rational. My wife saw yesterday as we were leaving church a billboard for rationalists.org saying that if you don’t believe in God, you’re not alone. Now I have no problem with unbelievers getting together and discussing atheism and agnosticism. I have a problem with that being labeled as rational, as if if you are a theist, you are automatically irrational. This mindset I have come to call presuppositional atheism.
That having been said, if you’re interested in the God debate, you won’t find much in the book. Sheiman is not going to take you through the arguments pro or con and weigh them out. Instead, he’s going to defend religion as a cultural phenomenon. God might not be around in Sheiman’s world to do us good, but the belief in God is doing good. This will come out in ethics, in giving to charity, in the health of people who are religious, and even in the advancement of civilization and science. Atheism does not have this. It is bankrupt as an ideology. It does not inspire like religion does and it has a gloomy picture of the world, despite what many atheists say.
At this point, atheists might want to trot out the evils done in religion, but on location 186, Sheiman has an answer:
“Religion’s misdeeds may make for provocative history, but the everyday good works of billions of people is the real history of religion, one that parallels the growth and prosperity of humankind. There are countless examples of individuals lifting themselves out of personal misery through faith. In the lives of these individuals, God is not a delusion, God is not a spell that must be broken—God is indeed great.”
It’s easy to speak about all the evils brought about by theism if you just ignore all the good things and look at only what you think is evil (And much of that is misunderstood!). The same atheists who often do this tend to ignore the millions killed by atheist leaders such as Stalin, Mao, and Pol-Pot, all of which must boil down to a coincidence. When atheists want to see the real legacy of theism, they too often want to exclude any possibility that the Dark Ages idea is a myth, Christianity did nothing to bring about civilization, and want to happily ignore that as they drive down the street they can pass so many hospitals with religious terminology in their names. Have theists many times done evil? Absolutely. That is not because theism is evil, though it could be, but because of another belief we all have strong empirical evidence for. Humans are very prone to doing evil.
As we go through, the start is that religion gives some people meaning to life. Sheiman admits this saying he thinks religion is false and therefore he cannot embrace that meaning. He believes science is true, but it lacks that meaning. Science can tell us many fascinating and wonderful things, and then what? We can also learn that all that we have is going to die in the cold death of a universe that neither knows nor cares. As Bertrand Russell said
Such, in outline, but even more purposeless, more void of meaning, is the world which Science presents for our belief. Amid such a world, if anywhere, our ideals henceforward must find a home. That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins–all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.
(A Free Man’s Worship)
The caveat I have at this point, which will be expanded on later, is to say “Could not both stories be true?” As a Christian, I have no problem saying that science gives us loads of factual information about the world. On the other hand, I have no problem saying God has revealed Himself in Scripture, in Christ, in creation, and in morality. I just wish readers to keep this in their mind as we will discuss it later.
Sheiman also argues that religion leads to greater care of humanity. This is not because religious people want a “Get out of Hell free card” or want to earn bonus points with God. We know God would see right through such things after all. We do this because they see the ultimate example in God. This is especially so for Christians like myself who believe in the incarnation and see the way God lived among us. Who after all would be foolish enough to deny the impetus to good living that the life of Jesus has left on this world? (Unfortunately, I know many who would I think be foolish enough to do just that.)
Sheiman considers it a shame that while religion could motivate some people to do evil, that that is emphasized while all the simple small deeds done in the name of religion are ignored. Most of these will in fact go unnoticed because a lot of religious people who do them do not like to claim recognition for their good deeds. I myself have made it a point often to do a kind act for someone when they can’t see it and then to get away as soon as I can before they find out that I did it for them. It’s nice to be praised for something, but you should not do something because you will be praised for it.
Sheiman also argues that religious people give far more and he has the data to back it up. He gives an example of a Methodist bishop asking for $10 donations to help African children facing malaria. They wanted to buy nets to protect them from mosquitoes. Within minutes, $14,000 had been raised. Atheists can argue that they can give just as much, and no doubt they can, but the same incentive and motivation is not there. Sheiman humorously says on page 40 that militant atheists want the benefits of religion without religion, just like wanting the taste of chocolate without wanting to have the calories.
If someone wants to point to science here, Sheiman has no reason to listen to them. Science paints a dismal picture of selfish genes and the survival of the fittest and that we come from a blind evolutionary process that did not see us coming. The thinking of Harris and Dawkins that morality can be derived from science escapes Sheiman. He is not the only one it escapes. In fact, his chief example of this kind of thinking is Peter Singer. Sheiman says in response to Singer that while he likes the idea of treating animals more like humans, he just can’t have the enthusiasm for the idea of treating humans more like animals.
The next chapter is about religion being union with the divine. I do not have much to say here as I do not really have experience with mystical experiences.
Next we move to mental happiness and health. Those who are religious according to Sheiman tend to be healthier. They also tend to have better marriages. Both of these can be seen to fit because religious belief can often be optimistic. (Despite still many of my fellow Christians who I think are pessimists when it comes to prophecy.) Many of us believe the most awesome being of all loves us unconditionally. With our marriages, if we’re Christians, we believe that we have an example in Jesus Christ. Husbands love their wives as Christ loved the church and wives love their husbands as the church loves Christ.
Of course, there will be people who struggle in their marriages and who struggle with issues like depression who are theists, but the odds of being one are less if you are a theist. In fact, if you do struggle in these areas, your struggle could be made easier because of your theistic beliefs. You can always have someone to fall back on, namely God. Recently I started reading Tim Keller’s The Meaning of Marriage. He points out that if you enter marriage expecting your spouse to provide what only God can provide, you’re going to have a marriage that suffers. Those who look to God to be their savior instead of their spouse will have happier marriages. Overall, theism will mean a better life with marriage and health.
We next move to religion being a force for progress. In our day and age on the internet, it’s common to see the graph that is meant to indicate the hole left by the “Dark Ages.”
An atheist like Tim O’Neill has thankfully helped to shatter this into a million pieces. Despite what atheists think, science was on the rise in that period. I really do not think the Enlightenment contributed much new to the situation. Do we have any reason to think Christian scientists would have stopped studying creation? In fact, if religion has been a driving force in the world, then that we are here now and got to the point where science was possible should show that religion has not been the impediment it is said to be.
Sheiman also attributes to this the rise in the belief in equality of humanity and the abolition of slavery. The reason these came to be accepted was because of a religious belief in the equality of humanity, including passages like Galatians 3:28. If all mankind is in the image of God, should we not treat each person that we meet as if they were indeed someone who bore the image of God?
The sixth chapter is on fundamentalism and violence, and this is quite an amusing one as I contend there are fundamentalist atheists just as much as there are fundamentalist Christians. When it comes to the violence, Sheiman argues that much of the violence is political in nature rather than religious. It could use religion to push it further, but it could just as easily use, say, belief in evolution to push it further. This would not argue that evolution is false, so why should religion being used to promote violence be seen as an indicator that religious beliefs are false? Those stand or fall on other grounds. As Sheiman says on page 117:
“The militant atheists lament that religion is the foremost source of the world’s violence is contradicted by three realities: Most religious organizations do not foster violence; many nonreligious groups do engage in violence; and many religious moral precepts encourage nonvio lence. Indeed, we can confidently assert that if religion was the sole or primary force behind wars, then secular ideologies should be relatively benign by comparison, which history teaches us has not been the case. Revealingly, in his Encyclopedia of Wars, Charles Phillips chronicled a total of 1,763 conflicts throughout history, of which just 123 were categorized as religious. And it is important to note further that over the last century the most brutality has been perpetrated by nonreligious cult figures (Hitler, Stalin, Kim Jong-Il, Mao Zedong, Saddam Hussein, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Fidel Castro, Slobodan Milosevic, Robert Mugabe—you get the picture). Thus to attribute the impetus behind violence mainly to religious sentiments is a highly simplistic interpretation of history.”
Sheiman also argues that those who are violent and we would think psychotic tend to be some of the most normal people. The difference is they’re just constantly surrounded by like-minded people. Keep in mind the 9/11 terrorists blended in quite successfully with the American culture they were hiding in. Unfortunately, when these people get together, they tend to reinforce each other’s own radical ideas. This is not just the area of religion. Atheists can do the exact same thing. Atheists can even have their own Messiahs, such as a Utopian idea brought about through fascism, or the idea that science is the guiding light that is going to save us all. Consider these statements as well, On page 124 we read:
“Recent research cited by Cass Sunstein, for example, has shown that people with a particular political orientation who join a like-minded group emerge from that group with stronger political leanings than they started with. “In almost every group,” Sunstein writes, “people ended up with more extreme positions …. The result is group polarization, which occurs when like-minded people interact and end up in a more extreme position in line with their original inclinations.” And with the Internet added to the fundamentalist equation, it is now easier than ever for extremists of all types to find their ideological soul mates and reinforce their radical thinking.”
Consider this with one of my favorite groups to show as an example, Jesus mythicists. It’s on the internet that you get this crazy idea being popularized that Jesus never existed and it relies on some of the worst conspiracy theory thinking. I put these people in the same group as 9-11 truthers or anti-vaccination people. Still, internet atheists can get together and applaud themselves as being rational people who see past the smoke and mirrors. Interestingly, these people who are often opposed to Intelligent Design (And I am not advocating that) because it is “on the fringe” do not realize that their belief systems are even more on the fringe. At least with ID, you have a number of PH.D.s in the field who hold to this, though definitely a great minority. In the field of mythicism, you could count them on one hand.
In fact, Sheiman in speaking of these fundamentalists say they’re often just as closed-minded as their counterparts. One difference is that I have met many conservative Christians, like myself, who actually read the other side and seek to understand it. I do not meet many atheists who have done likewise. (Sheiman is obviously an exception.) In fact, one question I usually ask is “When was the last time you read a work of scholarship in this field that disagreed with you?” Usually, I get just crickets and in fact if any such work is recommended, it is discounted immediately because the author has “bias.”
For now, let’s move on to science. I am interested in the philosophy of science and the history of science, but I do not speak about science as science. I could not, for instance, give you an argument that would show you should believe in evolution, nor would I give much of one that would show you shouldn’t. I choose to debate on questions that I know. If I woke up tomorrow and saw a headline that said “SBC all agrees macroevolution is a fact,” I would say “Cool” and move on. If I saw instead “National Academy of Sciences says evolution is proven false,” I would say “Cool” and move on. It doesn’t matter to me. My interpretation of Genesis does not hang on evolution.
In fact, I like the description I heard best of science and religion this way. Science and religion are opposed, much like a thumb and a finger are opposed, so that they can grasp everything between them. Unfortunately, if they are made opponents, atheists will only lower themselves. After all, if you say you cannot be a scientist if you are a religious person, then people will see science as the enemy. Sadly, there are a lot of great minds who are religious and these people will be excluded from the discussion of science and who knows what they could contribute to the field?
I am one of those who thinks science cannot offer the final proof on theism. It cannot prove or disprove theism. Hence, my wondering with what Sheiman says earlier. Could you not believe in both stories? There are many Christian scientists who do. Could not you not say both stories give truth about reality instead of having this idea perhaps unknowingly that the two stories are opposed? Science on its own would tell you that we will die in a cold death, but that’s assuming there is no outside interference. A religious person can believe that if God does not interfere, this will happen. (Note I am not using the term supernatural. I do not use it as I find it inaccurate.)
One response to this could be the one one often finds on the internet of science being either the only way to truth or the best way to truth. Sheiman says that this is scientism and not science, and rightfully so, and that this is just atheism masquerading as science. I agree wholeheartedly and such people do a disservice to science and religion both. It is as indicated earlier a belief in the salvation of science. Such people often treat scientific conclusions the way their Christian counterparts treat the Bible. I often refer to such people as not daring to question the words of prophets Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, and Dennett, and anyone else who comes along. The new atheists have spoken. The case is closed.
Many atheists look at the world of science and speak of wonder, but for those of us who are religious, science alone does not bring that wonder. It is wonderful what we see, but we consider it all the more wonderful to think about the mind behind this creation. I can drive down the road and think “Wow. God made all of this.” I am amazed at that point. In reality, we are often looking at the same data. It is the belief that we bring to the data that is changing matters.
As we go on looking at this topic, I do see Sheiman talk about the literal interpretation of Scripture. This is a term I do wish many times would just die. The word “literal” has come to be in some ways meaningless. Literal often refers to a hard wooden interpretation of a text instead of a look at the text as the author intended. I happen to agree with John Walton and think that the text should not be read in light of modern scientific understanding when it comes to Genesis 1-3, but should rather be read in light of the way ancient Israelites saw the world around them.
I also disagree with Sheiman that if theism and atheism was a matter of evidence, people would be converted all the time. I think there are many other factors that influence why people believe what they believe. People in cults, for instance, are given a mindset by the cult that affects how they view and interpret evidence, including counter-evidence to their position. We could look at many Christians who get such emotional solace from their beliefs that they really cannot handle anything that goes against them. We could look at atheists who would face a social stigma if they went against their atheism or even some who would not want to abandon atheism because a belief like Christianity has something to say about their sexual lifestyles. We all know people who believe what they believe for less than intellectual reasons. Pascal years ago said that if you take the most astute philosopher and put him on a plank of sufficient size and suspend that plank over a large chasm, watch and see how quickly his emotions overtake his reason.
I did find myself disappointed by Sheiman’s argument of “Who created God?” as a question he often asks. I hold to a Thomistic view which in essence sees this as asking “What created existence?” To ask who created God becomes a question that doesn’t make sense on that since God’s nature is to be.
I also did not find the last chapter convincing with Sheiman’s way on getting the universe we have that seems to have some design without God. I kept wondering in it why this should be the case, but to be fair, I will not claim to understand all the science involved.
If there’s one thing that would definitely improve this book, it would be seeing where the quotes can be found that Sheiman gives. Many times he can give a quote and give just an author who said it without being able to know where the quote can be found. If a book is given, many times a page number is not given. I saw a number of quotes I would like to have been able to look up, but I would not be as easily able to.
Still, this is a fascinating read and one that I wish more atheists would read. We could probably have better debates if we did.