A Review of
What Atheism Can’t Deliver
Hardback: Oxford UP, 2018
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Reviewed by Mark A. Jenkins
In his new book, Atheist Overreach: What Atheism Can’t Deliver, Christian Smith identifies “a broad audience—particularly college students and the reading public.” (130) If he is to be believed, this book is not an apologetic. He does not intend to refute atheism or to defend theists. Rather, he offers a critical response to certain sweeping claims made by some atheists. Such claims constitute the “overreach” cited in his title.
Professor of Sociology and the Director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame, Smith has published numerous books and articles, scholarly and popular, on the sociology of religion. Raised an evangelical Christian, Smith converted in 2011 to Roman Catholicism, a transition he explored in his How to Go From Being a Good Evangelical to a Committed Catholic in 95 Difficult Steps.
Four questions in as many chapters are given consideration. The first two chapters consider questions of morality. Smith has called them the heart of the book. He explores whether adequate justification can be offered by atheists for “being good without God.” Can a belief in and pursuit of universal benevolence and human rights be justified without recourse to a belief in God? Of course, some if not most atheists hold that this view can be rationally explained. Their moral arguments, though, are often grounded in “a combination of pragmatic functionalism, enlightened self-interest, and social-contract reasoning.” (15) In keeping with the book’s theme, Smith maintains that, while it is possible to create a moral framework that qualifies as “good,” he sees no clear pathway from there to an ethic of universal benevolence and human rights.
If so, why do so many atheists espouse such an ethic? Smith somewhat condescendingly suggests that it is the remnant of ethical teachings learned elsewhere. Many atheists’ moral views were religiously formed prior to their abandonment of theism. “When they later became atheists, they then set out to reaffirm the core of their prior moral sensibilities and commitments in light of their beliefs in a godless universe.” (43) Using “motivated reasoning,” they engage in a sort of confirmation bias, failing to seek information that might “confirm or disconfirm a particular belief.”
Smith then proceeds to ask: What kind of morality arises from a world without God—a naturalistic universe devoid of ultimate meaning or purpose? Our contemporary focus on universal benevolence and human rights, he claims, results from the transcendent monotheism of Judaism and Christianity. Smith is unconvinced that such an ethic could arise in a naturalistic world, nor that it is likely to continue if loosed from the moorings of transcendent monotheism. He calls upon atheists to articulate a rational and compelling reason for such high moral standards and concludes by once again suggesting that atheists ought “to consider the possibility that they are indeed overreaching in their claim to be able rationally to justify a commitment to universal benevolence and human rights.” (86)[click_to_tweet tweet=”Christian Smith: Atheists ‘ought to consider the possibility that they are indeed overreaching in their claim to be able rationally to justify a commitment to universal benevolence and human rights.'” quote=”Christian Smith: Atheists ‘ought to consider the possibility that they are indeed overreaching in their claim to be able rationally to justify a commitment to universal benevolence and human rights.'”]
Two shorter, but no less meaty, chapters follow. The first is based upon a lecture given in 2016 at Brigham Young University in which he critiques certain sweeping claims made by some atheists regarding the existence of God. “There is a lot of misguided and sloppy thinking about science and religion going on these days … and critiquing that can help to sharpen our own critical thinking skills.” There is more than a little of a straw-man argument here. Still, it is familiar terrain for any intelligent theist who has debated such things with an atheist. Atheists often claim that science has shown that there is no God. By definition a discipline grounded in verifiable, quantifiable, data is incapable of addressing the question of whether or not there is a being who transcends the very world where such data is situated. It’s a fun read but this ground has been well tilled elsewhere.
Philosophical anthropology is the topic of a final chapter exploring whether human beings are religious by nature. Here Smith leans heavily upon Critical Realism (CR), a somewhat abstruse philosophy developed in response to positivist empiricism. There is an ontological component to CR positing elements in reality that are independent of human awareness and knowledge. Smith seems to fall into some of the same overreach here that he accuses his atheist colleagues of employing. Scientists and atheists, by definition, hold a positivist view of the world. As such, CR’s allowance for the possibility of beings beyond our knowing is unlikely to be palatable to them.
Smith repeatedly states that this is not an apologetic. He evaluates certain claims by atheists invites them to a more intellectually rigorous conversation. At times, his tone appears to belie this claim. But I take him at his word. He is a committed Christian. But that bit of biographical data is irrelevant. In these pages, he seeks and invites a mutually respectful and intellectually rigorous conversation.
Likely, we are all aware of our societal tendency to cut ourselves off from those with whom we disagree. Social media website algorithms exponentially increase this intellectual isolation. We become trapped in what C. Thi Nguyen has called “epistemic bubbles,” divorced from ideas contrary to our own. And, if we are not vigilant, this disconnect often morphs into distrust: the echo chamber.
Smith’s work, if it can break through the epistemic bubbles of his atheist colleagues, is a welcome addition to the conversation. It attempts to evaluate (and challenge) some of the moral, scientific, and philosophical claims made by some (but not all) atheists. And, in the process, to create a space where a more comprehensive, intellectually honest, dialogue can occur. I am uncertain, however, whether his words will reach beyond the epistemic bubbles of the theistic community. As it stands, this book feels like those most likely to read it may too easily miss the invitation to wider dialogue and, instead, look to it for tools to employ in their attempts to prove their adversaries wrong.
If that is so, Smith’s work is only just begun.