Saturday, March 24, 2012

Review: Why People Don’t Believe: Confronting Seven Challenges to the Christian Faith by Paul Chamberlain

Paul Chamberlain states in Why People Don’t Believe that “the first and foundational charge against religious faith in the 21st-century is that religion breeds violence and shocking abuse of human dignity” (20). He asserts that “this theme is foundational to the new critics of religion and represents the most important message they wish to communicate to the public” (20). He notes, however, that most Christians are unaware of the allegations being brought against religion, including Christianity. In fact, he says, when they do hear such criticism, they’re shocked and bewildered.

It is because of this that Chamberlain, director of the Institute of Christian Apologetics at Trinity Western University (Langley, British Columbia, Canada), says he penned his book, noting that his goal is twofold: He wants to help people of faith understand the concerns raised against religion and provide information with which they can engage critics in “thoughtful and frank dialogue” (15). To this end, he outlines the challenges from those who object to religion and considers whether they are true of Christianity.

Chamberlain says that the 9/11 attacks drastically changed the way that people feel about religion. While assaults on Christianity are not new, that horrific day in September, 2001, brought, as he puts it, a new fervency to critics of religion. He quotes Sam Harris at length and throws in some comments from Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens for good measure in outlining the viewpoint of the new atheists. Harris calls religion “a living spring of violence” (12). How does religion supposedly lead to violent behaviour? Its opponents suggest that its irrationality is the source of the problem.

The alleged irrationality of religion, Chamberlain writes, is viewed “not merely as one defect among others; it is seen as a foundational flaw in religion because it prepares the ground for many others and, in fact, gives rise to them” (24). As he says, atheists insist that religion gets people to believe “stunningly irrational things for which there is no evidence” (24). This supposedly indicates that religious people “lack the constraints that normally guide us in decisions of whether to accept or reject claims we encounter” (24). This supposed inability to choose that which is rational results in theists carrying out all kinds of crazy actions including suicide bombings and the like. As Dawkins puts it, those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities (25).

Chamberlain then outlines the arguments that religion is anti-scientific, that the Bible is an immoral book that promotes violence, that teaching about an afterlife is both scandalous and dangerous, that religion engenders intolerance and that religion encourages believers to impose their teachings on other people because of their insistence on the existence of absolute truth and its universal goodness.

In chapter three, Chamberlain begins his response to these accusations. For starters, he notes that the majority of religious people are as shocked as the non-religious when it comes to violence done in the name of God, and he criticizes atheists for their failure to distinguish between extremists and mainstream adherents (47). Unfortunately, the media gives this “lunatic fringe” more attention than the average people of faith and the public makes the mistake of assuming they are official spokespersons for their religions. Chamberlain cites several examples including the late Jerry Falwell whose remarks about AIDS and homosexuality offended both Christian and non-Christian alike. Ultimately, Chamberlain says, that by focusing on these abnormal characters, Dawkins presents a portrayal of Christianity that is “so inaccurate that most Christians wouldn’t recognize their own faith in his descriptions of it.” (51).

The new atheists assert that, if religion were eradicated from the world, peace would reign. Is this true? Chamberlain says no and presents a detailed explanation to make his case. He begins with an expose on irreligion’s violent record, noting that godless societies in countries such as the former Soviet Union and China have a bloodier record than regimes where God is acknowledged.

Then he discusses the fact that there are often political motivations where violence is done in the name of religion as well as cultural causes, remarking that people will react aggressively to whomever or whatever they perceive is a threat to their community, religious or otherwise. He uses the examples of Quebecois separatists and First Nations people in Canada to demonstrate that thesis in action.

The author then discusses the role that religion does have in the violence, noting that it can be used as a tool to incite people to commit combative acts. However, this constitutes an abuse of religion and is not necessarily the fault of religion itself. As Chamberlain notes, any ideal can be used for evil as well as for good.

In the fourth chapter of the book, Chamberlain answers the challenge to Christianity’s rationality and looks at the evidence behind the Christian’s faith. He notes that the belief that our truth claims “float entirely free of reason and evidence” is “so flagrantly false that one wonders what the critics are reading or researching when they make such an assertion” (74). He lists a goodly number of fine Christian minds, including that of C.S. Lewis who made his journey from atheism to Christianity precisely because of the latter’s overwhelming evidence. He concludes that the critics are committing the fallacy of the false dilemma in assuming there are only two options – we either have evidence and therefore do not need faith or we have unjustified belief in something (77). Chamberlain offers a third alternative in which the two are combined: We have evidence that leads to justified faith.

So is Christianity rational? Chamberlain answers with a resounding yes and offers brief discussions of the issue of evil, Aquinas’ Five Ways, the burden of proof, the doctrine of the Trinity, and freedom of will. He ends the chapter questioning why Dawkins works so hard to refute the evidence when the atheist says there is no evidence to begin with.

Chapter 5 deals with the claim that Christianity is anti-scientific. Chamberlain begins with a discussion of worldviews as the framework in which we operate. He then comments on the illusion of conflict between science and religion, noting that the discipline of science as we know it would not exist but for Christianity. Because scientists understood the world to be made by an intelligent rational God, they believed that, through study, they could comprehend how God’s creation works. This constituted the epistemological basis for science for centuries.

Next, Chamberlain takes a look at the complaint that Biblical morality is appalling. The first thing to remember, he says, is that “all texts must be interpreted within their historical, social and literary contexts” (105). Failure to do this brings the problems that arise in Dawkins’ misinterpretations of the text – misinterpretations that stem from “a superficial engagement with Scripture” (106). For example, the atheist never distinguishes between prescriptive and descriptive actions, thereby insisting that everything that happens in Scripture is approved by God.

Chamberlain briefly discusses some well-known attacks on the Bible including the case of Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac and notes that Dawkins, like so many atheists, completely ignores those passages which demonstrate the Lord’s love, compassion and mercy. He ends the chapter with a thorough discussion of morally sufficient reasons for God’s actions in the Old Testament, presented in light of his character, and the necessity of reading the Old Testament through a Christological filter.

Chapter 7 is entitled Living the Way Jesus Calls Us to Live. Here Chamberlain addresses the atheist’s contention that Christians have no respect for others. He purports that “the more authentic a commitment to Jesus’ teaching, the more a person will promote values of human dignity and worth” (119). Yes, there are episodes in history where Christians have failed, but God, Christianity and Christ’s followers should not all be condemned for the mistakes of what constitutes a minority of people. Topics discussed include the Golden Rule and the issue of nationalism/internationalism as well as social justice.

In the eighth chapter, Chamberlain suggests that those who think we would be better off without Christianity should take a serious look at the blessings it has bestowed down through the centuries. He focuses on the Christian concern for good health care and education as well as children’s rights, and looks at several venerable institutions, including the Red Cross, as examples of Christians making a positive difference in the world.

Chamberlain concludes the book by pointing out that Jesus Christ is not the source of the world’s ills, but the solution to them. He advises us not to judge Christianity by the people who abuse it, but by the one who is at the heart of it. As the author puts it, “Violence is not the way of Jesus, and it is not the way of his true followers” (155).

This book is chock full of information which reflects the copious amount of research done by Chamberlain. While you can find entire books devoted to any one of the topics he covers, it is unlikely that you will find a text that does a better job synopsizing the issues so clearly and succinctly. On top of that, it’s simply an interesting and entertaining read. Therefore, this book is recommended. Pick it up here.

Apologetics 315 Book Reviewer Mary Lou is a Canadian journalist currently working on a Master’s degree in Theological Studies from Tyndale University College and Seminary, Toronto, Ontario. She holds three other degrees, including one in history, and writes poetry and fiction as well as non-fiction.


Carolyn Weber said...

This was an extremely helpful review. Hats off to reviewer and fellow Canadian Mary Lou! I will be chasing up Chamberlain's book. Thanks, too, to Brian Auten for the post and his discernment.

Marianne Foscarini said...

Thank you for bringing this book to my attention! I have been aware that a growing number of people believe, “religion breeds violence and shocking abuse of human dignity.” But what I didn’t fully understand is how deeply the “new” atheists believe religion’s so-called foundational flaw is irrational thought by believers. And how atheists think this is breeding atrocities. Why People Don’t Believe is one book I must read.

MaryLou said...

Thank you, ladies, for your positive responses. I appreciate it!

emmzee said...

Thanks for the review, I've added it to my (extremely long) Amazon wish list for future reading! Also, I completed my MTS at Tyndale a few years ago, so Mary Lou, hope you're progressing well towards that! Are you taking all of Dr Beverley's classes like I did? :)

MaryLou said...

I have an extremely long wish list, too, emmzee. And there are more good books coming all the time. With my bank account, it's hard to keep up!

While Dr. Beverley is my faculty advisor, I have never taken one of his classes. I only have two courses to go to complete my degree so it looks like I won't have that pleasure.

Denise said...

Thanks for this helpful review! Does he address Steve Pinker at all when it comes to the influence of Vhristianity on our morality? In Pinker's latest book, he argues that we owe our good sense of morality fully to the Enlightenment.

Elliot said...

Thank you for the review Mary Lou!

Denise: Hello! In relation to owing our good 'sense' of morality to the Enlightenment, even if we take this to be true for the purpose of the question (I would question whether it is true), it does not matter whether this knowledge (i.e. 'sense') of moral truths has originated from a movement such as the Enlightenment, which may or may not have been heavily influenced by Christianity. Such 'knowledge' of morality is different to the ontological nature of moral truths (i.e. in what way is an 'objective' moral truth actually objective). This ontological nature cannot rationally be grounded in a purely naturalistic perspective. In this way, moral epistemology, which appears to be what Stephen Pinker is discussing, is separate to moral ontology, which is what is important for the moral argument. The origin of our moral 'sense' is therefore not important for many formulations of the moral argument. Regardless, God's existence certainly does not rely on the moral argument; this is merely one of a wide spectrum of pieces of evidence.

Sorry for the rambling... :)

All blessings to everyone!

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