Monday, April 22, 2013

A Theist commends An Atheist Defends Religion

An Atheist Defends Religion: Why Humanity is Better Off with Religion than without It, Bruce Sheiman. New York: Alpha/Penguin Group, 2009, 239 pages. ISBN 9781592578542, $14.95.

This book is a welcome relief from anti-religious diatribes such as The God Delusion by atheist Richard Dawkins. Unlike those books, An Atheist Defends Religion is written by an atheist who sees religion as a valuable asset to society even though he does not embrace it. Unlike those atheists who want, when they have reached the top of the hill, to push the prophet and the priest down to their demise, Sheiman believes the world is a better place because of religion (pp. ix-x).

The back cover describes the author as "an atheist who wants to believe in God." After reading the book, I would describe Bruce Sheiman as "an atheist who does not want to believe in a random chaotic world without purpose."

The book is designed to reach "the 'moderate majority' of religious America: people who are not militant atheists or literalist believers; people who accept that science and religion are essential for a fulfilling life (p. vi)."

Sheiman is a committed atheist who accepts the prevailing theories of science, big bang evolution, and so forth. He does not defend any particular religion, though it is clear that he believes the enlightenment of the present world arrives mostly through the progress of Christianity.

There are a few defects in the book, but they do not greatly obstruct its usefulness. An Atheist Defends Religion has neither index nor footnotes/endnotes. Both would be helpful. After defining fundamentalism as a form of extremism (chapter 6), I was disappointed that Sheiman throws all theists who believe in a literal creation into the "fundamentalist theism" pot (pp. 145, 148) -- a pot of crackpots, radicals and extremists -- even though there is great diversity of belief and action within this group.

The end of the book reveals a slightly different view and conclusion than one might expect from the title. This work is not only a defense of religion, but an attempt to move the fringes toward a compromised middle where science and religion co-exist -- "a Third Way, a compromise path between two polar opposites (p. 219)." In Sheiman's Third Way equation, there is no room for militant atheists like Richard Dawkins or fundamentalist Bible believers who will not believe the evolutionary origins of science. It may forecast a milquetoast world toward which we move -- one in which freedom of speech is jettisoned for the tolerance of toleration and the fringes are repudiated as hate-speakers and incarcerated as evil-doers. This is not the author's intent, but could be an adverse side effect of such as vision.

I cannot accept his proposal, though I enjoyed the book and consider it worth reading. It will make you think. It is also a conversation the brightest conservative Christian thinkers need to engage.

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