A Friendly Letter to Skeptics and Atheists
by David G Meyers (Jossey-Bass 2008)
Reviewer: Rev Andrew Prior.
Andrew is Web Minister at Scots Church Adelaide, and a church (re)Wired. (churchrewired.org) His first degree in Agricultural Science also introduced him to philosophy and theology.
Those wanting a book attacking science, and presenting a safe faith that can ignore scientific insight, will be disappointed by this book. It provides nothing of the sort. Christian readers who are anti-science will conclude David Meyers has crossed over to the dark side. Those other religious believers, whose faith proclaims science as the answer to everything, will also be disappointed. This is a brave book, avoiding the shallow arguments, condescension and abuse, which flavor much of the discussion about the relationship of science and religion. It is a friendly letter to atheists and skeptics. It is irenic and respectful, and an invitation to share common ground. The author also has that rare skill of being non technical without "dumbing down" his content.
They say you can lock a theologian in the library, but you cannot make it change its mind! Nonetheless, I would put this book on college reading lists. It calls us to be honest, and models that honesty. It confronts us with the challenge that repeated scientific studies find little or no measurable efficacy in prayers for healing. It debunks the paranormal, and religious flirtations with the idea that near death experiences are a kind of proof of life after death. Meyers is scrupulously honest. Our cognitive capacities are awesome, he says. We are made in the divine image. Yet we are error prone. We see illusory relationships and causes. He agrees with many scientific critiques of religious claims.
This is no comforting read for someone with a frightened faith. It bluntly confronts lazy theology and lazy reasoning. The letter on Big Ideas and Biblical Wisdom- the book is written as a series of letters- is a confronting mixture of affirmation of central Christian orthodoxies, and challenges about how (unchristian) personal attitudes and beliefs override espoused faith positions. The letter titled Secularity and Civility correctly and points out how some atheists conveniently omit the un-civil societies of North Korea, China, Vietnam, and the former Soviet states, when they argue for the civility of secular philosophies. They conveniently focus on secular countries, whose values have been nourished by long Christian histories. But this same letter immediately points out contrary US data, which shows the "bible belt" states often have higher divorce rates, higher smoking rates (a health indicator), and higher crime rates. The letters challenge us to be more rigorous in our argument, more careful in our research and more honest in our conclusions. They may not be an easy read if we have comfortably indulged in the notion that Christians are morally superior.
The book addresses poplar misconceptions about Christian belief, confronting stereotypes about the foolishness of belief in God, and the negativity of Christianity. It may be challenging read for overprotected faith, but I found it a heartening reminder of the richness and health that comes from our belief and practice. This might be where the real effectiveness of the book lies; as a tonic for believers who are troubled and irritated by the excesses of popularly reported religion, and wearied by the naïve parroting of Dawkins' and Hitchens' opinions. Meyers is quite scrupulous in owning and admitting the excesses, and yet also shows that there is a solidity underlying our faith.
He quotes a line from Henry Thoreau: We hear and apprehend only what we half already know. That will be true for the readers of this book. I doubt he will convince any fully believing atheists. Those who "half already know" there is a problem with their position, might well find these friendly letters an introduction to gospel.
Richard Dawkins has said, according to Meyers (pp13) the world has "no design, no purpose, no evil and good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference." I suspect Meyers would say this conclusion is already religious. It is outside the competence of the scientific method. He says, "When reason cannot decide, we justifiably listen to our hearts." He is quoting William James. "'Our passional nature' must decide between genuine important options that cannot ‘be decided on intellectual grounds.'" (pp130) The question his friendly letters ask the church is this: "Will you listen to reason?" If we will not adopt the good skepticism of reason, then our undisciplined hearts deserve the scorn of skeptics and atheists.
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