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Book Review: The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas November 28, 2009

Posted by pacejmiller in Book Reviews, Religion.
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Fear not, religious nuts.  Atheists have not yet taken over the world.  Not yet, anyway.

Remember the infamous Atheist Bus Campaign that stirred up all that controversy at the end of 2008?  You know, the posters on the side of UK buses that said: ‘There’s probably no God.  Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”?  Well, Ariane Sherine, the creator of that campaign, has come up with yet another brilliant idea.

The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas is a clever collection of 42 mini-essays about the birth date of Jesus Christ contributed by an assortment of well-known people from all walks of life.  Stand-up comedians, scientists, writers, journalists, filmmakers, cartoonists and bloggers.  And the one thing all of them have in common?  None of them believe in God.  Any God.

Now, I use the term ‘well-known’ loosely, as there are many names in the list that I’m sure many are not familiar with.  The ones people should at least recognise include Derren Brown (the illusionist who does all that freaky mind control stuff), Zoe Margolis (blog author of Girl with a One-Track Mind), Brian Cox (the physicist – though I erroneously thought it was the Scottish actor from X-Men 2), and of course, the most famous atheist of them all, Mr God Delusion himself, Richard Dawkins.

As for the names you don’t recognise, there is a helpful biographies section at the end.  Unfortunately, I didn’t know about this section until I got there.  A shame, because if I had read about who the authors are and what they do before reading their respective essays it would have put their words in the proper perspective  (potential readers take note).

The various essays are separated into categories: Stories, Science, How To, Philosophy, Arts and Events.  However, I think this was just to make things more manageable for the reader, as each essay is written so differently and touch on such a wide array of issues and themes that it would have been impossible to classify them with any degree of specificity.  The essays range from personal stories and experiences about how they lost their faith, to opinions on what Christmas means to them as an atheist; from complex scientific explanations to discussions on Christmas shopping, gifts, parties, music, film and literature.  You really do get a broad spectrum of views, as some authors were brought up as Catholics, some are Jews, while others were raised by atheist or agnostic parents.

While you may not find all the essays appealing or interesting, the good thing with having 42 different entries is that you can pick and choose what you want to read, and skip, skim or come back (or not) to the others.  The entries range from just a couple of pages up to 10 pages at the very most, so even if you skip a few completely, you won’t feel as though you’re wasting the book.

My favourite essay of the lot is by comedian Catie Wilkins, who wrote a hilarious yet heart-felt little piece called ‘110 Love Street’.  As a film lover, I also liked ‘An Atheist at the Movies’ by David Baddiel and Arvind Ethan David, who discuss everything from The Golden Compass to The Passion of the Christ to Contact.  Of course, the big names don’t disappoint either.  Derren Brown’s piece ‘On Kindness’ and Richard Dawkins’ original Christmas story ‘The Great Bus Mystery’ are both fabulously written and exceptionally well thought out.  Even if you don’t agree with where they are coming from you can at least marvel at their intellect.

I know many religious people will scoff at such a book (especially one with this title), but it is honestly quite harmless.  There is nothing grossly offensive to be found between the covers (unless you are a nutjob).  It can definitely be enjoyed by agnostics (referred to by Sherine as ‘eggnostics’) and non-self-righteous, open-minded religious folk (who aren’t crazy).  At the end of the day, The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas is a funny, eye-opening read that turned out to be more educational than I could have imagined.  It would make a great gift for Christmas, especially since 50% of the overall total profit from the book goes to the Terrence Higgins Trust, the UK’s leading HIV and sexual health charity.  For religious fanatics who ‘refuse to read such nonsense’ (or are just too lazy to turn the page), the book is also available in audio format on iTunes.
4 out of 5 stars!

Book Review: “God, Actually” by Roy Williams August 10, 2009

Posted by pacejmiller in Book Reviews.
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The obvious cover design is a good indication of the type of people 'God, Actually' is targeting

The obvious cover design is a good indication of the type of people 'God, Actually' is targeting

Here’s my long overdue review of the book ‘God, Actually’ by Australian writer Roy Williams, a former lawyer who struggled for years with his faith.  It was a gift from my devout Christian friend, who has recommended many such texts to me over the years in his attempts to convert me (after I told him I read ‘The God Delusion’ by Richard Dawkins!).  And I must say, out of all the things I have read, ‘God, Actually’ is the only book that has really done anything to clarify some of the fundamental issues I have about religion and Christianity in particular.

I should make it clear from the outset that you are unlikely to find any ground-breaking arguments in this book.  So if you don’t start off with an open mind, you’re likely to scoff at what Williams has to say.  However, what I did like about the Williams’ approach is how he applies (or at least tries to) reason and logic to religious issues and does not take an unreasonable, hard-line stance to the more controversial questions.  While I don’t agree with a lot of what he says, he does end up espousing a form of ‘liberal’ Christianity that I think a lot of people on the fringe can relate to, and perhaps even believe in.

Who is Roy Williams?

We’ve all seen those Christian books written by ‘former skeptics’ on the shelves; people who were once atheists that became advocates because of some life-changing experience or because they actively sought God.  Sure, it makes the book seem more compelling and the transformation more amazing, but when you actually read a couple of pages you realize that these people were probably (closet) Christians all along just using a clever marketing ploy.  They never answer the tough questions that true skeptics or unbelievers would ask.

And so I had my doubts about the author when I first started reading the book.  A former lawyer, Williams claims he was a skeptic about Christianity for most of his life, even though his great-grandfather was a Presbyterian minister.  It was not until his mid-thirties, through ‘prodigious reading’, parenthood and a bout with depression that he became a true Christian.  Is this guy a Christian in skeptics’ clothing or a genuine converted?

Well, a bit of both.  Reading ‘God, Actually’, I got the feeling that Williams was not a ‘pretend atheist’, but the seeds of Christianity were always inside him, ready to bloom.  He had a Christian upbringing and never strayed too far from the church, though his heart was not in it and was disheartened with it all.  However, he says that his journey back into Christianity occurred when he and his wife decided to send their daughter to Sunday school.  That raised alarm bells – why would someone who was truly skeptical about Christianity want to do that?

Nevertheless, I didn’t allow that to cloud my judgment when it came to the merit of Williams’ arguments.

Main issues covered

The book is divided into 3 parts.  Part 1 covers ‘Reasons to Believe in God’, in which Williams tackles evolution and the human mind, in particular the emotion of love.

Part 2 discusses ‘Reasons to Believe in Christianity’, which explains why Christianity ought to be preferred to other religions – and the reason, of course, is the ‘evidence’ of Jesus and his resurrection.

Finally, in Part 3, Williams provides answers to some common objections to Christianity, such as suffering, other religions and the concepts of Heaven and Hell.

What I liked

What I liked most about Williams is that he does not talk down to the reader – he merely offers his personal point of view on why he believes the arguments against God are unconvincing to him, and why the arguments for God are.

However, just like the way Christian apologists can find a way to break down any argument propounded by atheists, I have no doubt atheists can do the same to all of William’s arguments.  But Williams doesn’t deny this – he is putting forward his view and hopes to convince the reader.  As he says, if he can convince just one person, then his job has been a success.

From the start, Williams tells his reader that it is impossible to be 100% certain about the existence of God (think of the implications, he says!), and thus it is necessary to adopt a deductive approach.  Faith is ultimately required.  It’s a reminder that no matter how much you read about religion, at the end of the day, it’s a matter of faith – either you have it or you don’t.

Williams is what I would call a ‘liberal’ Christian, and in some ways that may be problematic because many fundamental Christians probably won’t agree with his views, particularly those on the difficult issues of abortion, euthanasia and cloning.  But because it emphasises substance rather than form, the Christianity that Williams advocates is one that a lot of non-believers may accept.  For instance, he recognises that culture plays a crucial role in shaping a person’s religious beliefs, and that God (if he exists) will take a fair and overall approach to evaluating a person’s life when they die.  So someone who was born, lived and died in a place without access to Christianity will not be judged unfavourably.

On the issue of evolution, he puts forward a view that is not new, but is at least plausible from a logic standpoint – that evolution does not disprove God; rather, it’s just the mechanism of God’s design.  On Jesus, he puts forward a compelling case based on the Gospels, deduction and comparisons with other deities, much like Lee Strobel did in The Case for Christ, but more objectively.  It doesn’t break any new ground, but it’s well-argued and a solid discussion nonetheless.

Another thing I liked was the constant references to literature and films in his examples and analogies – like Shakespeare, Jane Austen and The Matrix.  Needless to say, I could relate!

What I didn’t like

While Williams starts off well in tackling the main arguments raised by atheists, as he moves on, he too often lapses into preach-mode, citing verses from the Bible as evidence and proceeding on the basis that God exists as fact.  He may start off on a topic objectively (or at least try), but he can’t help but make the same mistake that a lot of Christian apologists do.  For example, Williams uses the emotion of ‘love’ as justification for God’s existence – because it’s such a wonderful thing.  But that argument depends on the presupposition that God exists, not the other way around.

Another common trap that Williams falls into (and to be fair, many atheists do too) is that he sometimes argues why people SHOULD believe in God rather than whether God exists as a matter of fact.  For example, he says that we should believe in God because of his love for us, or because he ‘created’ us.  But God either exists or he does not – whether we SHOULD believe in him is irrelevant.

Williams also makes some incorrect or dubious assumptions.  For instance, he suggests that humans are wired by God to believe in a deity – but judging from the number of atheists and agnostics out there, the applicability of that statement is limited.  He also says that people must seek God to be saved – but what if someone really tried, really put in an effort, and yet still didn’t find God convincing, or believed in the wrong God, or a different God, or no God at all?  That seems awfully unfair if God punishes you for not reaching the conclusion that he wants – especially if he was the one that ‘created’ you to be this way.

There are also some inconsistencies in Williams’ arguments.  On the question of suffering, he says that God doesn’t intervene when humans suffer because of free will.  That I understand.  However, on the other hand, when things are favourable (eg we haven’t been blown up by nuclear weapons despite numerous close calls), Williams attributes this to God’s grace.  God either intervenes or he does not.  To say God does not intervene because of free will, and then to say the fact that we have not blown ourselves up (something totally within the control of humans) is evidence of God’s grace is inherently contradictory.

But perhaps Williams’ biggest problem is that he too often explains something by saying that it simply ‘rings true’ to him.  The thing is, the same argument won’t necessarily ring true to everyone, and it may actually have the opposite effect.  What if something rings true to him but rings false to someone else?  Does that mean his instincts are right and the other person’s are wrong?  I understand it’s a personal view but it doesn’t make a good argument.

Oh, and I didn’t like Williams’ explicit use of his ‘lawyer’ training to support his arguments.  For example, he applies his lawyer skills to the inconsistent records of Jesus, in particular the Gospels.  He says he would be more skeptical if all the records matched up.  Well, aren’t inconsistencies the first thing that a lawyer would look for?  Sometimes that’s all it takes to generate reasonable doubt.

Conclusion

‘God, Actually’ provides viable alternatives to atheist theories.  Whether they convince you or not is beside the point – what it does well is put holes in some atheist arguments and suggest that these arguments are not irrefutable.  In a way, this book best helps people who are ALREADY believers in the Christian faith who have doubts because of atheist theories and arguments.  Williams’ arguments may put away those lingering doubts.  But what it falls well short of is convincing atheists from switching sides or agnostics from falling towards Christianity.

That being said, it’s about as objective of a book as you can expect to find from a Christian apologist.  It would be great if one of these books could be written by a genuine agnostic and not someone who has already fallen firmly into one side or another (Christian or Atheist) and analyses the arguments objectively without providing a subjective conclusion – instead, allowing people to decide for themselves.

[PS: for those with a bit of time, check out this thread on Dawkins’ website where his loyal supporters trounce poor Roy Williams’ book and then the man himself when he joins the discussion.  It’s highly entertaining and somewhat cringeworthy at times – but what it demonstrates is that no matter how hard Christians try, some people will never be convinced.]

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