As many of you are well aware, the past year or so has been a period of rejuvenation for atheism. Four big selling books, by Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett and Harris have made a splash, and, I think, caught some evangelicals napping. Not so Douglas Wilson, who among other things is Head of a Christian college that focuses on “the lost tools of learning,” and the editor of the respected Credenda/Agenda magazine. His new book, Letter from a Christian Citizen responds to the similarly titled atheist tirade of Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation.
Wilson’s book, like all his work, is interesting, fun to read, and incisive. He is one of the very best writers out there today, and Letter from a Christian Citizen is one of the year’s most worthwhile books. It begins with a valuable “Foreword” from Gary DeMar about the pretensions of “new” atheism and the latest assault it has launched upon truly free-thinking people (meaning anyone who may want to disagree with it).
When Wilson enters the fray he does so cordially, thanking Harris for “setting your thoughts down so plainly.” (3). He explains that the acerbic attacks Harris has received from some Christians is not a sign of a general ill-will among believers (4-5), but then skillfully uses Harris’s characterizations of these church-goers to cut through the atheist’s unreasoned assumptions. “I am genuinely curious as what you can possibly offer as a basis for these judgments” he quips (6). After all, if the atheist version of the world corresponds with reality, what is Harris doing making moral judgments of other biochemically-driven systems? The ethics of the thing isn’t even on the table! As Wilson points out, “In order to demolish something intellectually, you have to have a standard for thought and reason” (8), and this standard extends (if one is to have any hope of a coherent worldview) into the realm of morality also (9, 40, 99). Hectoring believers with epithets and speaking patronizingly at them when one is standing on the equivalent of epistemological Balsawood is stock-in-trade for atheism. But when anyone dares ask for the fulcrum upon which the high-sounding appeals to “science” and “reason” turn all one hears is the crickets chirping outside.
In a recent post on Darwinian Fundamentalism there is an interesting quote from the Physicist Paul Davies:
Over the years I have often asked my physicist colleagues why the laws of physics are what they are. The answers vary from “that’s not a scientific question” to “nobody knows.” The favorite reply is, “There is no reason they are what they are — they just are.” The idea that the laws exist reasonlessly is deeply anti-rational. After all, the very essence of a scientific explanation of some phenomenon is that the world is ordered logically and that there are reasons things are as they are. If one traces these reasons all the way down to the bedrock of reality — the laws of physics — only to find that reason then deserts us, it makes a mockery of science.
What goes for the laws of physics goes also for the laws of thought or morality, or, indeed, anything. As Wilson ably demonstrates, atheists like Harris assume an epistemological and metaphysical starting point that is not their own. In fact, no such starting point is possible given atheism. So they either take the Fifth, or refuse to give the matter the serious attention it plainly deserves. They can do this because they have the schools and the media. (On a related side note, watch out for Ben Stein’s upcoming documentary, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed).
Wilson’s wit serves him well when at strategic places he drives his point home. A few illustrations may help:
Commenting on why time is insufficient as an explanation for macroevolution. – “If I wanted to walk across the swimming pool, I do not increase my chances by inching out onto the water slowly” (18).
On slavery (from Harris’s perspective) – “There is nothing wrong with it on your principles, where the universe is just time and chance acting on matter. Why does it matter if the master matter acts on the slave matter?” (22).
On where atheist ethics ends up – “The atheist who runs into moral chaos has arrived at his final home, given the truth of his premises.” (48).
Boiling down the issue of Evil – “It is either “the problem of evil,” which the Christian has, or “Evil? No problem!,” which the atheist has.” (51).
Referring to philosophical naturalism’s penchant for avoiding the arguments of ID – “If a scientist studying static from solar flare activity was to discover that all his printouts kept repeating the St. Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V his conclusion would not be that ‘given infinity and randomness, this was bound to happen sooner or later.'” (86).
What this book does is it shows that brilliant falsehoods can be perpetrated when the most fundamental questions are not faced head-on. Sam Harris is a philosopher (84), but he assumes far too much. And in Letter from a Christian Citizen, Doug Wilson puts these basic questions to him and shows that he has not even addressed them (nor, indeed, will he). Biblical Christianity is the only philosophy that can handle them. Wilson’s little response to Harris shows us why.
Wilson’s views on paedobaptism force him to open the Christian fold too widely to those who were baptized as infants (e.g. 3), and this may blunt his arguments in places for those of us who hold to believer’s baptism, but this book is a “must have,” and I intend to use it with my students in my apologetics classes from hereon in.