Book Review

"What Atheism Can’t Deliver"

May 3, 2019

Western Christians have long lamented their loss of influence in the public square. As secularism continues to take root in Europe and the United States, Christianity appears ill-equipped to combat many of the claims made by secular moralists and atheists, who argue that universal morality, benevolence, and human rights are achievable without the aid of a religious framework or a higher deity, while simultaneously arguing against the existence of God on the basis of science.

Of course, there are exceptions for every absolute. Christian Smith, professor of sociology at Notre Dame, is one such exception. In his concise polemic against what he calls “new atheists,” Smith refutes, rather unflinchingly, what he considers to be instances of intellectual overreach by many of the movement’s leaders. What makes Atheist Overreach: What Atheism Can't Deliver unique, and perhaps more persuasive than other books on the subject, is Smith’s intellectual honesty about the limits of the arguments advanced by these new atheists. In the book’s introduction, Smith makes it clear that he’s not attempting to “show that atheism as a worldview is fundamentally right or wrong” (3), but rather, that many of the leading arguments put forth by new atheists go too far, risking intellectual dishonesty. “Atheism, in many of its current expressions,” Smith argues, “is overreaching” (4).

Smith divides Atheist Overreach into four sections, written as essays that can be read congruently or individually. While the arguments and analysis presented within each essay stand on their own, for the casual reader or curious skeptic, the essays are best read in corresponding fashion, as each chapter tends to build off of the others, despite Smith’s promise that they do not. Those with minimal knowledge of the intellectual and philosophical nuances of new atheism will find a complete and chronological reading of Smith’s work advantageous.

In his first essay, Smith asks, “Just how ‘good without God’ are atheists justified in being?” (45). While Smith admits that “atheists can be good despite not believing in God,” he argues that in most cases, atheism holds to an ethical standard that is more stringent than their corresponding humanistic morality allows (10). Working from the argument set forth in the previous chapter, in his second essay, Smith asks, “Does naturalism warrant belief in universal benevolence human rights?” (45). Smith sets out to determine whether or not those who adhere to a naturalist universe have a valid reason to believe in “universal benevolence and human rights as moral facts and imperatives” (48). If truth is relative, then it would be logical to conclude that morality – a form of truth – is also relative. Smith argues against a relative view of morality, preferring a more consistent and objective view (79). Through critical analysis, he argues that “people don’t invent these moral principles, nor do they necessarily derive from the will or character of God. They simply are what they are, just part of the fabric of our reality” (79).

In his third essay, Smith asks “Why scientists playing amateur atheology fail?” (87). Here, Smith attempts to determine “who has the right, the competence, the legitimate authority to make claims that stick, claims that others should recognize as valid” (88). For example, the constraints of the scientific method logically prohibit a definitive solution to the question of God. Science deals with the physical, natural world, and is therefore – by its own working definitions – unable to prove or disprove, even in theory, the existence of God. Theology on the other hand, which deals extensively in the realm of the supernatural, is in a better position to make such claims. For Smith:

“The bemusing irony in all of this is that the presupposition that authorizes only science to tell us what is real and true, and that produces such dramatic conclusions about the universe’s pointlessness, is not itself a scientific statement and could never, ever itself be validated by empirical science. It is instead a philosophical presupposition, something not unlike a faith commitment.” (94).

Smith’s most convincing arguments are found within this chapter. While his other essays are philosophically and sociologically nuanced and engaging, they appear to leave the reader wanting. Not here. The overreach of atheism as Smith understands it is on full display in this chapter, and is effectively exposited through his high-caliber understanding and implementation of rhetorical logic.

In his fourth and final essay, Smith asks, “Are humans naturally religious?” (105). Moving beyond the “academic curiosity” (105) of the question, Smith approaches the topic in relation to its larger practical implications. Even so, he utilizes empirical data to offer an answer to the question. Ultimately, Smith posits that while “humans are naturally religious or by nature religious,” such features will not always be actively expressed (122).

Atheist Overreach, while grounded in strong sociological and philosophical arguments and analyses, does not offer a definitive solution to the subject presented within. Showing admirable humility, Smith concedes as much in his conclusion, contending that his book “is clearly not the definitive word on atheism’s prospects and limits,” but should instead be used as a propellent for “ongoing public conversations” (130). Smith’s acknowledgement of the limits of his own arguments is refreshing, given our current climate of public debate. Of course, any book which argues the overreach of certain ideas without being conscious of its own potential for overreach, ultimately fails on its own merit. Smith’s work is self-aware enough to avoid this dilemma and as a result offers a much needed addition to the ongoing debate between atheists and people of faith, that is worth consuming.