A sensible shot of faith

Rudi Hayward reviews A Shot of Faith to the Head.

I have a lot of enthusiasm for this book, which contains a lot of philosophy in a popular and accessible way.  It is a response to the ‘new atheism' but not in a defensive mode; rather, Mitch Stokes takes the most common criticisms of Christianity and turns them against atheism.  The criticisms are that belief in God is irrational because lacking in evidence, that science has shown there is no God and that the existence of evil and suffering contradicts belief in a loving God.  These criticisms are dealt with in the three main sections that make up the bulk of the book – a short intermission on the rules of argument in chapters 8-10 making up the rest.

Stokes is a professional philosopher who studied under Nicholas Wolterstorff and Alvin Plantinga, well-regarded philosophers who have spearheaded a renaissance of professing Christians in academic philosophy.  Plantinga's influence, especially, is evident throughout the book.  However this is very much a popular book with short chapters and punchy prose.

On the first objection Stokes begins by arguing that public evidence is not always necessary for us to hold a belief rationally (not only is it hard to see what evidence we have to support the belief that evidence is necessary, but there's plenty of evidence that many of our beliefs are largely held on trust).  Now, the Christian has a ready account as to why we should trust our usual belief-forming mechanisms with or without public evidence, but the atheist's reliance on an evolutionary account of our cognitive abilities leads us into deep trouble.  So what at first looked a serious criticism of Christianity turns into a major headache for the atheist.

A similar pattern emerges with the science-verses-God objection. It turns out, among other things, that Galileo was a Christian attacking Aristotle, that the 'God of the gaps' is a recent invention and quite unappealing to orthodox Christian views of God, that explanations like: "that’s just how it is" and "maybe this is just one of billions of universes" are no better than "God did it", and that the natural sciences imply naturalism is wrong.

Finally Stokes takes on the problem of evil.  He reviews and responds to both the “logical” and “probabilistic” versions before again turning the tables.  Atheists, the new ones especially, tend to say things like “We are nothing but matter,” and ”Humans are the end result of the random and unguided mechanisms of natural selection”.  Such views undermine our usual sense that such things as rape, torture, genocide, etc. are unconditionally wrong whatever people may happen to think or whatever values we may have evolved to hold.  He concludes that a naturalistic explanation for moral obligation is impossible.  So the fact that we recognize the existence of evil turns out to count against atheism.

This is a very good book, but in a few places it fell short.  Here are two of them.

  1. The sensus divinitatis (an innate sense of the divine) is said to be part of humans' ordinary belief-forming mechanism except many people don’t believe in God because it has gone wrong.  On Stokes' account the problem is that sin has damaged this sense so that it partially works for some and fails altogether for others.  However Stokes also mentions that atheists could still be responding to the faint whispers of their sensus divinitatis when they posit an ultimate natural principle.  It is a real shame that he does not take this suggestion seriously here, since it is close to what Paul seems to imply in Romans 1:25.  The biblical position is not so much that the sensus divinitatis is damaged, rather that it is misdirected.  The atheist may deny the existence of God, but at some point they will end up giving divine status to something created.
  2. This becomes more important when Stokes turns to mathematics as a problem for naturalists.  He speaks rather warmly of Pythagoras and his religious attachment to numbers.  Here we should recognize an example of the sensus divinitatis being misdirected!  This is a typically pagan belief in the divinity of something created rather than the Creator - so it is disconcerting when Stokes tries to accommodate this faith in maths with belief in God when he takes numbers to be part of God, even identical to God's intellect.

These concerns aside, A Shot of Faith to the Head is well worth a read.

Stokes, Mitch: A Shot of Faith to the Head: Be a confident believer in an age of cranky atheists (Thomas Nelson, 2012)

Rudi Hayward teaches Religious Studies and Philosophy at a secondary school in London. 20 years ago he read Francis Schaeffer and decided to study philosophy at university. He plays football regularly and badly, and is his local church’s leading expert in reformational philosophy.

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