“Religion poisons everything,” claims Christopher Hitchens in the subtitle of his book God Is Not Great. Richard Dawkins, author of the 450-page The God Delusion, asserts that all faith is fiction. Yet another author, Sam Harris, argues that religion is the main cause of division and violence in society. As specious as their claims might sound, these and other atheistic authors have been raking in a killing lately, with rankings in the New York Times and Amazon best seller lists, millions of copies sold, and translations into as many as 31 languages.
All of which makes a recent book by Father Thomas Williams, LC, such a necessary and timely response.
In Greater Than You Think: A Theologian Answers the Atheists About God, Father Williams, LC, offers a reasoned, thorough, and yet concise and user-friendly response to the various accusations that these recent atheist authors have been launching against faith in God. The result is a slender, clearly written, and incisive guidebook, written in a question-and-answer format, to teach believers how to engage confidently in debate with atheists—or at least, how not to be seduced by the intellectual glitter of their arguments.
Poking Holes in a Straw Man
Is the God of the atheists just a straw man—or, as Father Williams puts it, a “straw divinity”? It would seem so.
On page after page, Father Williams consistently demonstrates how the apologists for atheism fall into a whole array of logical fallacies and factual errors as they attack a faith they fail to understand. Each of these errors is brought into the light, with its holes and inconsistencies exposed. And this process of unmasking the straw man is done in an enjoyable style that keeps the reader engaged.
For starters, Father Williams observes how Hitchens, Dawkins, and friends do not seem to grasp the basic idea that not all religions are the same, and that even within a specific religion, there can be a whole range of attitudes from the indifferent to the violently fanatical. Blithely passing over these distinctions, they lump all religions into one category, as if there were no difference between Muslim, Catholic, Jew, and Satanist, and as if all religious believers must of necessity be fundamentalist fanatics. Fr Williams raises the fair question: how they can denounce something so confidently when they understand it so poorly?
Speaking of poor scholarship, he also observes a habit of selective reading in their use of historical facts. The authors lean heavily on horror stories and unsavory anecdotes—all the while conveniently leaving aside facts and stories that would disprove their thesis. After blaming religion for conflicts and wars, they remain silent about the many schools, hospitals, and charitable organizations founded by believing Catholics. Is this a balanced reading of the facts? Father Williams’ exposé allows the evidence to speak for itself.
There are also many cases, he observes, where these authors base their arguments for atheism on what could happen, while conveniently ignoring what actually did and does happen in real historical events. For example, Father Williams shows how they confidently assert that atheism will result in a higher ethical standard and a greater intellectual maturity– and yet, statistics from history and even from current polls show quite the opposite. This inconsistency needs to be addressed, and Father Williams does so with direct and incisive clarity.
Another important defect exposed in Greater Than You Think is the deep inconsistency in the way these atheists present themselves—as enlightened critics of despotic and intolerant religions—and the reality of their own attitudes as revealed in their words.
One of their major objections to religious belief is that it spawns intolerance, which breeds violence. Yet, as Fr Williams shows, these authors’ tone, language, and even explicit recommendations are among the most intolerant and despotic of all.
other times atheistic intolerance goes beyond mere name-calling. In The End of Faith, Sam Harris
ominously announces: “Words like ‘God’ and ‘Allah’ must go the way of
‘Apollo’ and ‘Baal’ or they will unmake our world.” Whereas earlier he
had excoriated Christians for their supposed intolerance, suddenly he does an about-face and starts
inciting his co-irreligionists to active intolerance of religion. He makes the frightening claim
that the ideal of religious tolerance “is one of the principal forces driving us toward the
abyss.” “Given the link between belief and action,” he adds, “we can no more
tolerate a diversity of religious beliefs than a diversity of beliefs about epidemiology and basic
hygiene.” Yes, you read correctly. Religious tolerance is the culprit and must be done away
with. No longer should people be allowed to believe whatever they choose. They must abandon faith or
pay the consequences.
Greater Than You Think, pg. 133
As Fr Williams shows, such a form of aggressive atheism is a religion in itself—and it appears that it, too, is not exempt from a streak of fundamentalist believers.
An Orderly Approach
Greater Than You Think is structured in five parts, each of which covers a particular category of attacks against religious faith. Each part is subdivided into a series of questions and answers so that readers can quickly pinpoint specific subtopics of false assumptions and accusations.
The first part, “Religion in the Crosshairs” examines the question of religion in its broadest scope, asking questions such as “Isn’t religion just wishful thinking?” and “Are religious people less intelligent than nonbelievers?”
The second part, “Religion and Society” looks more closely at atheists’ argument that religion is harmful to society. Fr Williams summarizes their accusations into six questions, such as “Doesn’t religion cause war and violence?” and “Is religious education a form of child abuse?”
In the third part, “Faith-Science-Reason,” Fr Williams examines that thorny frontier between faith and science, with all the misunderstandings that have perpetuated the idea of a backward-thinking, anti-science faith. Through questions such as “Aren’t all scientists and thinking people atheists, or at least agnostics?” and “Is religious faith irrational?” he effectively refutes specific attacks raised by Dawkins, Hitchens, and company.
Part four, “Christianity Under Fire” raises and effectively responds to some of the typical atheistic arguments rehashed by the new atheists: “Did the historical Jesus really exist?” and “Do Christians hate sex?”
Finally, the fifth part, “Atheism Under the Microscope” turns the tables and holds atheists accountable for the real, historical fruits of their own particular creed. Why should believers always be on the defensive, he asks? It’s time to go on the offensive and question whether or not atheism really would build a better world. With his unerringly logical style, Father Williams makes it clear that there is an answer to questions such as “Are atheists more tolerant than believers?” and “Are atheists happier than believers?” – and that these answers are not particularly flattering for the other side.
This refreshing read by a convinced Catholic priest and expert communicator is an outstanding example of how to engage in dialogue about our faith. Those who read it will find themselves enriched and strengthened not only as believers, but also as apostles in the modern world.
Author and speaker
Father Thomas Williams, LC, is professor of theology and ethics at the Pontifical Regina Apostolorum
College in Rome. He has appeared as a commentator on Church affairs for CNN, ABC, and NBC, and is
currently serving as a consultant on Vatican affairs for CBS News.
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Greater Than You Think
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