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.

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24