So you want a conversation?

Book Review: Against All Gods: What’s Right and Wrong About the New Atheism by Phillip Johnson and John Mark Reynolds

Price: US$10.20; NZ$29.97
Paperback: 128 pages
Publisher: Intervarsity Press (May 2, 2010)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0830837388
ISBN-13: 978-0830837380

This book’s subtitle intrigued me – “What’s right and wrong about the new atheism.” Has Phillip Johnson, the “Godfather” of “intelligent design” and harsh critic of evolutionary science and “scientific materialism” got something positive to say about “new atheism?” Does he think people like his arch-enemy Richard Dawkins have something right?

Johnson claims in the book’s introduction: “our intention is not to attack the atheists but to explore the case they are making.” And: “the arguments for atheism should be taken seriously and considered both respectfully and critically.”

Now that would be a change, wouldn’t it? Many religious authors jumped on the bandwagon of analysing and criticising “new atheism’ after publication of the best-selling books by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, Victor Stenger and Ayaan Hirsi Ali in recent years. But their bias, personal attacks, straw clutching and straw mannery make most of them useless. Perhaps Phillip Johnson will break ranks and honestly elaborate on his philosophical differences with science and atheism instead? Perhaps he will admit the popularity of these books may be because they have identified some real problems?

The rot sets in

Well, it didn’t take long for the rot to set in for “Against all Gods” too. We soon get the labeling (aggressive, angry, militant, evangelistic and strident atheists). Dawkins “relies heavily upon ex cathedra pronouncements and intimidation, tends to come across as a bully.” The new atheists are carrying out a “verbal jihad.”

Where has the serious and respectful consideration gone?

The only good these authors have to say about the “new atheists” is that they are, finally, taking this subject seriously. They actually discuss god beliefs.  And why do they think this positive? Because “it opens up an opportunity” for the “militant” theist. It “legitimates critical discussion of questions that have been swept under the rug for decades by the intellectual classes.”

Here’s an opportunity for Johnson and other like-minded theists to get their theological views and arguments for intelligent design into academia. Into the universities and the fora of science.

The authors are particularly concerned with getting to students. To the younger people who will be tomorrow’s leaders. They are on a long-term mission and wish to plant theological “sleepers” in academia and science. The book is honest about this strategy. As was in the Discovery Institute’s Wedge Strategy Document which bears all the marks of Johnson’s involvement (see Wedge Strategy: Center for Renewal of Science and Culture). This strategy declares: we seek to cultivate and convince influential individuals in print and broadcast media, as well as think-tank leaders, scientists and academics, congressional staff, talk show hosts, college and seminary presidents and faculty, future talent and potential academic allies.” The strategy includes targeting “opinion-maker conferences” and “Teacher Training.”

Again this call for a “conversation” is consistent with the ID tactics of bypassing research and publication. These people wish to get their anti-science ideas into the text books directly without going through the bother of the normal research process. They also want to gain an ideological influence in scientific and intellectual circles as if by right. Again without earning it.

The “scientific materialism” bogey

Of course, Johnson must have his compulsory swipe against “scientific materialism.” This is their main argument against evolutionary science and is, of course, the purpose of the Wedge Strategy. The strategy aims to achieve nothing less than the overthrow of materialism and its cultural legacies . . . and to replace it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions.”

However, his discussion in the book is revealing. Johnson is happy to quote American scientific institutions that insist “only naturalistic theories are permitted by their definition of science.” And that “this definition prevents scientists from considering the possibility of” supernatural causes. After all, these play into his hands. They are an admission, in his view, of the selective, blinkered view of modern science.

But he is really upset with the “new atheist” Victor Stenger who doesn’t buy into this argument. Stenger is happy to include the “supernatural’ in science. To point out that science can investigate, and should investigate, “supernatural” claims. Evidence determines the suitability for science study, not ideological definitions.

Stenger effectively calls the bluff of people like Johnson. He is pointing out that science is based on evidence, not a preconceived naturalism or anti-supernaturalism. All claims should be considered by their evidence and tested against reality.

I think this shows the weakness of accomodationist arguments that deny a basic conflict between science and religion. These restrict science to “naturalistic” causes and exclude science from the “supernatural” part of reality. I recently commented (see Pseudoscience and anti-science nonsense):

“Personally, I find these arguments opportunist. They try to deal politically with common theological attacks on science by conceding a domain to theology. I have a picture of wise scientists patting the theological children on the head, telling them to go away and play with their “supernatural” magic toys. Just leave us alone to get on with the real stuff. But the moment any evidence about these “supernatural” playthings surfaces scientists would be in like a shot, repossessing the “magical” toys and researching them.”

Johnson’s argument for introducing “supernaturalism” into science is just an attempt to remove the evidential requirements. This is the nature of his theological science he proposes. Effectively it is a return to pre-enlightenment times when descriptions about reality were decided by theistically motivated Aristoltian logic rather than empirical evidence and experiment.

In this book the two authors  wrote separate chapters. Reynolds echoes Johnson call for a conversation – but a straight-jacketed conversation.  He demands “charity” and “sympathy” in reading theistic texts like the bible. And he provides six rules for “good hermeneutics” in such reading. “New atheists such as Richard Dawkins often forget these six rules for good hermeneutics. And this mistake is often repeated in our universities if the bible is studied at all.”

Well so much for an open conversation. I can’t help but respond: “Where was your charity, sympathy and ‘good hermeneutics’ in your reading of the ‘new atheist’ books?”

Reynolds credits “rates of depression and suicide” partly to the belief by the “cultural elite” “that the only road to knowledge is the scientific.” He comes out with the tired old argument that “because science can only describe a narrow slice of what is .. it can never tell us what ought to be.” And “Is can never equal ought.”

When are these apologists going to stop relying on this old red herring of saying what science is not and start arguing the case for their claim that their theological approach is the cure all for our problems? It is the old tactic of criticising a straw man and inferring justification for one’s own ideology by default.


There is nothing new in this book. Johnson and Reynolds have chosen a misleading subtitle. They don’t believe the “new atheists” have anything right – except their willingness to discuss the god belief issue. On the contrary they suffer from the same straw mannery and blinkered views as other theological critics of the new atheist books.

They want “a conversation” because they see this as a way to win influence in academia and the halls of science without putting in the hard work. Without doing the research, writing the papers and presenting at conferences. Without allowing subjection of their ideas to normal academic scrutiny and testing against reality.

If they genuinely want a conversation they should organise it  themselves. They have control over a captive audience – through their churches and religious academic departments. These are ideal places for the conversation. The subject should be fitting. After all they spend much of their time talking about god theories. And, these days, they also devote much time to discussing the “new atheist” books. University departments and scientific conferences have much more important things to spend their time on.

Why don’t these ‘militant’ theists get some of these new atheists along to their own meetings and begin the real discussion. It’s just possible the members of those churches and departments will learn something form the “horses mouth” the seminars and theological courses devoted to new atheist strawmannery don’t convey.

You want a conversation – why not organise you own?

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5 responses to “So you want a conversation?

  1. I’m really starting to think that there isn’t a ‘conversation’ to be had.

    I’ve found two situations have become drearily familiar:

    1) A theist insists they are eager for a conversation, but doesn’t listen. This is not a conversation. It is a monologue with a captive audience.

    Basically: I’ll talk. You shut up!

    2) A theist insists they are eager for a conversation, but changes their mind after they start to listen. ‘You have offended me by criticising my beliefs!’

    Basically: I’m all for conversations when I can stack the deck in my favor. If you won’t let me, then shut up!

    3) A theist (or an ‘I’m an atheist, but’ person) insists that we confrontational atheists are somehow shutting down the conversation with all our talking.

    Basically: The best way to start a conversation is to shut up; so shut up already!

    Of them all, it’s 3) that confuses me the most. It basically insists that the best way for confrontational atheists to get their message out there is to not try to get their message out there – that the only way to have a conversation is to shut up and stop talking. O_o


  2. Just curious how your labeling of intelligent design as “pseudoscience” or “anti-science” makes you any better than Johnson or Reynolds. You’re subscribing to the same straw men that you’re condemning. If you want to slam the book, that’s fine. But don’t pretend that your arguments are any different than the book’s.


  3. Sabepashubbo – actually I didn’t label I’D anything. You didn’t read my post properly.

    However, I do agree that ID is not science. It avoids the evidential requirements.

    I am used to readers disagreeing with my reviews. But, in thus case you are attacking a straw man.


  4. You’re right. I didn’t read it in this post.

    (see Pseudoscience and anti-science nonsense)

    Pigliucci takes pseudoscience to task. As he puts it “superstition kills.” …The book details several examples of “faulty thinking.” For example, aids denial, astrology, creationism/intelligent design (ID) theory and global warming denial.

    That’s where I read it. So, um, no straw man attack on my part. And my argument still stands.

    I don’t have a problem with your review except that you come off trying to seem more self-righteous than those you are reviewing. If you call a spade a spade, then everything is perfectly fine with me.


  5. Again, sabepashubbo, on the surface your complaint is with Massimo, not me. He is the one who classified ID that way.

    However, if you want to have a go at me – I do point out in many places that ID is not science. Just do a search of this blog – I have often written posts on the nature of ID. In fact ID is an attempt to redefine science to remove evidential requirements. As made clear in the Wedge document these people want to replace modern science with a theistic science.

    Now, come on and engage with that. If you bear a torch for ID provide you arguments. Disagree with me on a substantive issue.

    Regarding my “self-righteousness.” Please provide an example or two. Obviously I am keen on any help I can get to improve my writing and removing something like that would be good. I just need to know what specifically has irritated you.

    I suspect, though, I could not come off more self-righteous than Johnson and Reynolds if a tried, though.

    And, yes, a spade is a spade. And ID is not science.


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