Against All Gods: What's Right and Wrong About the New Atheism
Phillip E. Johnson
IVP Books, 2010
119 pp., $18.00
Benjamin B. DeVan
Against All Gods
As for money and fame as motivators, it is noteworthy that no riposte to the New Atheism has yet achieved bestseller status, though books marketed as ripostes generally do not. The closest exceptions which in part respond to the New Atheism are Dinesh D'Souza's What's So Great about Christianity (Regnery, 2007) and Tim Keller'sThe Reason for God (Dutton, 2008). But even D'Souza and Keller are much less successful than Christopher Hitchens' #1 New York Times bestseller God Is Not Great, Sam Harris' The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, or Dawkins' The God Delusion, which Dawkins reports as selling over two million copies in English. Dozens of book-length responses, debates, spin-off documentaries, and thousands of articles (like the one you are reading now) supply free publicity for Dawkins and his comrades to religious audiences who will purchase and peruse copies of New Atheist bestsellers in an attempt to discover the basis for all the fuss.
Yet Dawkins' complaint about "fleas" has a certain merit. What's wrong with some of the books billed as responses to the New Atheism is that they border on—if not crossing well into—false advertising. They use Dawkins or the New Atheism as a pretext to promote their own pet projects, which relate at best tangentially to the New Atheists.
One example is the hardcover edition of Jesus for the Nonreligious by the radical retired bishop John Shelby Spong (satirist Becky Garrison insinuates that Spong is a closet wannabe New Atheist himself). Spong's dust jacket claims he "speaks directly to those contemporary critics of Christianity who call God a 'delusion' and who write letters to a 'Christian nation.'" But a text search of Jesus for the Nonreligious reveals no references to Dawkins or to Harris, in spite of their inclusion in Spong's bibliography. Nor is it evident how the substance of Spong's book speaks "directly" to New Atheists. HarperCollins wisely removed this descriptor from the paperback edition of Jesus for the Nonreligious.
Against All Gods falls short of blatant bait-and-switch. But its title and subtitle do function for this reviewer as lures for a loosely related collection of essays that mention the New Atheists but do not live up to a vigorous "cultural analysis and critique of their claims," as one endorser extols. Johnson and Reynolds are witty and insightful, but Johnson mostly rehashes debates about Darwinism without any footnotes. Reynolds footnotes sparingly; his essay on basic hermeneutics, "The Obstacle of Old Books" quotes Dawkins once and alludes to Dawkins and Hitchens once more together, but the rest of this chapter appears to be regurgitated from Reynolds' lectures to undergraduates. I have nothing against rearranging old class notes for publication purposes, but Reynolds' essay ties tenuously to New Atheist criticisms of the Bible.
What's right about responses to the New Atheists such as Mary Eberstadt's The Loser Letters, John Lennox's God's Undertaker?, David Marshall's The Truth Behind the New Atheism, David G. Myers' A Friendly Letter to Skeptics and Atheists, and David Robertson's The Dawkins Letters, is that they deal with New Atheist salvos directly, explicitly, and specifically without losing sight of a bigger picture. They rarely if ever meander off onto pre-determined, semi-relevant rabbit trails. What's right about D'Souza and Keller is their adroit incorporation of the New Atheists within D'Souza and Keller's own broad, strong realms of persuasion.
In contrast, Against All Gods: What's Right and Wrong About the New Atheism recycles ancillary material that teeters under the weight of its subtitle. As an aspiring scholar of the New Atheism, I welcome virtually any interaction with its ideas which seeks to winnow New Atheist wheat (legitimate points and grievances) from chaff (careless history, wild accusations, logical fallacies). But in The Truth Behind the New Atheism, David Marshall recounts a letter by Friedrich Engels, who was "pious when young, and lost his faith reading David Strauss' The Life of Jesus. 'Why does not someone write a devastating refutation?' he wrote his friend Fritz Graebar."
My concern is that Christians and non-Christians alike will order or pick up Against All Gods expecting not supplementary musings, but a devastating critique of the New Atheists and their often powerful and compelling rhetoric. I can easily picture the precocious university students Johnson and Reynolds refer to querying, "Is this the best rejoinder Christians have?"