book review / commentary
Stealing From God: Why Atheists Need God to Make Their Case
by Frank Turek
Navpress, 2014, 270 pages
Reviewed by T.J. Nelson
or the love of Cthulhu, will you atheists and Christians please stop bickering.
When I first heard about Stealing From God, I was excited. I thought finally we can all take our communion from somebody with something new to say in defense of religion. By the house of R'lyeh, maybe I would even be convinced to give up the Way of Cthulhu. But it was not to be. What we have here is not so much a case for Christianity as a case of unleavened atheism-bashing.
I'd be the first to say that Richard Dawkins, the bad guy in this book, overdid it by channeling the soft-totalitarian Left we're all tired of, and forgot that science depends on creativity and openness to dissenting ideas. If Dawkins's views were to prevail in science, our progress toward understanding the natural world would rapidly come to a halt. Unfortunately, the vitriol that the radical atheists and the creationists injected into the argument continues to poison the debate; thus begat a revivalist counter-movement that attacks Dawkins's straw god with straw science (see Fig. 1).
Don't get me started, either, about Daniel Dennett and the other faculty lounge über-materialists who claim to believe that the inner conscious world we all experience is an illusion. I can assure you that this view is not universally held in the scientific community. Using Dennett to discredit atheism is like using Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker to discredit Christian theology: they have some followers, but their views aren't representative.
Turek's idea is that if God doesn't exist, then good and evil don't really exist either, because such concepts come only from God. So to an atheist all decisions, such as whether to pick daisies or commit genocide, are mere personal preferences—matters of opinion. Atheists, Turek believes, live in a shadow world where there is no black or white, only gray, and everything is permitted.
For Turek, pretty much everything is proof that God exists; without God the universe would literally fall apart. If atheism is true, he says, there's no way even to know anything with any confidence. Let's go through his arguments—what he calls ‘CRIMES’. They're appealing to religious people who associate modern secularism with leftist ideology. Though there's a big difference, there's also some overlap, so no doubt we're going to hear these arguments a lot.
Causality. Atheists believe the law of causality does not apply to the creation of the universe, says Turek; therefore atheism is flawed, and therefore God created the universe. The reasoning seems to be that if one view is false then its opposite must be true. He also brings up the fine-tuning argument, which says that the physical constants of the universe are too finely tuned to result from chance, so God must have set their values to make life possible.
Turek also brings up the First Cause argument several times: since the universe exists, he says, somebody had to have created it.
Reason. Turek quotes Haldane as saying “If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true ... and hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms.” He concludes: “According to atheism we are nothing more than a bag of rocks.” He marshals a number of different arguments for this idea, such as that the placebo effect in pharmacology proves mind over matter, and therefore, he is saying, the mind is non-physical. No argument there, but the bag of rocks argument, which Turek repeats several times, is a classic strawman.
He brings up Daniel Dennett again in this chapter, but his wrath burns brightest when he discusses Dawkins. He more or less agrees with my assessment of Dawkins's work, but he has fallen right into his trap: fighting Dawkins's arguments is the path to madness. Hail Dawkins ... er, Cthulhu ...There lay great Dawkins ... I mean, Cthulhu, the eldritch abomination and his hordes, hidden in green slimy vaults.
Sorry, slipped there for a moment ... what I meant to say was, Dawkins's straw god arguments are not valid; refuting them with straw science doesn't help Turek's case. He writes: “Atheism cannot explain the origin of the laws of logic or our ability to reason. No future discovery will change that fact.” [p.52]. He sounds pretty sure about that.
Information and Intentionality. In this chapter Turek argues for intelligent design, using familiar arguments: creation requires a creator, and DNA could not have evolved into its current state. “It's impossible in principle for nature to create itself,” he says [p.74].
Morality. Justice doesn't exist without God, says Turek. Therefore, since we believe in justice, there must be a God. He says: “The moral implications of atheism are unlivable.” On page 97, he accuses atheist David Silverman of saying that eating babies isn't necessarily immoral. Now, I don't know what Silverman eats, but I didn't see anything in Turek's quotes that says he believed that. If I were Silverman, I'd probably be very unhappy about that.
Evil. The concept of evil, he says, doesn't exist without God. Same argument. Shadows prove the existence of light, so evil proves the existence of God.
Science. Turek says science wouldn't exist without God. By this, he doesn't mean that scientists are divine beings. He is saying that God created reason, which many people use from time to time.
He also writes: “For a materialist, the laws of physics determine everything we think and do ... [so] we have no justification to believe anything we think, including any thought that atheism is true.”
Now, Roger Scruton made a similar argument, so it's worth answering. If our minds are created by evolution, how can we know whether we're perceiving the real world and reasoning correctly about it?
The answer is we don't. We make deductions about it, and the world provides appropriate feedback. Engineers call this a control loop. Whatever is really going on, we have to adapt to the feedback we get. If the world appears to be real, by which I mean if our feedback makes sense according to the model inside our heads, we conclude that something real exists; we chug along, maximizing the good feedback and minimizing the bad, never knowing for sure what's really going on, and maybe that's as much as we can hope for.
As far as trusting our logic, the argument works both ways: how do we know whatever God put into our minds is real? Maybe he created the illusion that we are separate, independent beings, just to screw with us. How can we be sure God isn't actually evil, but programmed us to think he's good, as the Vorlons did on Babylon 5? The question belongs to philosophers, which is why they make the big bucks. (Note: I'm not saying God is evil here, so please don't misquote me.)
I also disagree with Turek that morality comes only from God. Morality is a philosophy, a tradition that some of us are taught. Credit where credit's due: whether or not we agree about the source of this tradition, we Westerners learned much of it from Judaism and Christianity. Eastern cultures developed it in other ways. And some people deprived of those traditions, or who find them inadequate, have to build a moral system from scratch, with great effort and pain, as they build and re-build their personalities and ego structure.
Now, maybe Turek would say that God dictated a strict set of rules to Westerners, gave Indians the concept of reincarnation, and inspired Confucius to write the Analects for the Chinese. Or maybe, as the atheists would say, it is just as likely that morality is a natural phenomenon derived from universally discoverable truths about how social beings must interact, and from altruism, a biologically programmed process that helps our species survive by keeping us together as a society. Yes, some people are not altruistic, but a species composed entirely of Adolf Hitlers would go extinct pretty fast. God, it is said, works in mysterious ways. Who can say that he's not working with atheists, showing them morality in their own way?
This book is certainly interesting and highly readable, and it may inspire readers to think about these important questions. I don't know enough about mainstream religion to say whether his ideas are representative, but if they are, it would seem that Dawkins and his kin must have done real damage to Christianity to generate this much defensiveness. Perhaps, as many have claimed, we need Christianity for Western civilization to endure. But Christianity could be harmed even more if its adherents define themselves using flawed arguments and polemical opposition to scientific materialism like we see here.
An atheist might not care, but I for one would miss it. Even so, I couldn't help thinking, not so much that Dawkins was right, but that maybe I can begin to understand where Dawkins might have been coming from. And for inspiring that small sliver of compassion I thank Frank Turek.
feb 14, 2015; updated feb 25, 2015
Stealing from God: Why Atheists Need God to Make Their Case
by Frank Turek
The atheist case for right and wrong
What if our sense right and wrong is determined by reason?
Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens
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The Rage Against God: How Atheism Led Me To Faith
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Religion Without God
by Ronald Dworkin
The God Delusion
by Richard Dawkins
Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False
by Thomas Nagel
The Soul of the World
by Roger Scruton