Friday, April 24, 2009

Book Review: God, Actually

Over the years I have read a lot of books arguing for the Christian faith. Walk into any Christian bookshop and you will see row-upon-row of works arguing with absolute certainty that God exists, Jesus was divine, and Christianity is definitely the truth. Most of those I read said the same things and used the same evidence. There is nothing wrong with this per se. But I had become tired of reading these sorts of books.

In this sea of certainty, imagine my surprise when, on the New Release shelf at my local Christian bookstore, I saw a title of a book that repeated the word probably. I had come across Roy Williams's book God, Actually: Why God probably exists; Why Jesus was probably divine; and Why the 'rational' objections to religion are unconvincing.

As I flicked through the book, I could see that here was an author who took doubt seriously. Who understood the nature of evidence and persuasion. Who realised that, in a contemporary world, to speak of absolute certainty is to overstate the capacity of human beings to know without any questions remaining. Who takes seriously the necessity of faith as a fundamental feature of reality.

Williams was a skeptic/agnostic with a leaning toward atheism when it came to Christianity. In the beginning of the book, he shares his journey from skepticism to faith. As a lawyer, trained in rigorous, deductive thinking, his acceptance of Christianity did not come easily. And even now, his faith, although based on what he considers to be persuasive evidence, still remains faith that values doubt and uncertainty as a necessary part of that faith.

After we have heard about his journey, which continues to the present day, Williams explores what a deductive approach to Christianity might look like along with it advantages and limitations. He ends his preface with a statement of his goal for the book:

If anything in this book causes just one person to begin to think more closely or more clearly about even one issue, then it will have served a valuable purpose. My hope, though, is that many readers will be persuaded that the likelihood of the Christian God's existence lies well above 50 percent on what Richard Dawkins has called the 'spectrum of probabilities'. At least, some might reassess the all-too-common attitude that Christianity is a refuge for charlatans, killjoys and well-meaning dopes, and is certainly not something for 'sophisticated people'. In fact, the more sophisticated you think you are, the more carefully you need to consider it. (p. 8)

Then Williams takes us on a superbly fresh examination of the evidence for Christianity and the reasons it makes sense to believe that, at least, its claims are probably true. That is all that is needed for the beginning of faith.

Rowan divides his discussion up into three sections: reasons to believe in God; reasons to believe in Christianity; and answers to some common objections.

After providing a fresh survey of the physical universe and the human capacity for cognition and conscience, Williams spends a superb chapter discussing the nature of love and how that provides evidence for a belief in God. Then he turns to a penetrating analysis of, and response to, arguments against a designing God.

When Williams turns to Jesus and the resurrection, even when he is representing the standard evidences, his approach and perspective enliven and engage in a genuinely contemporary discussion that deeply respects the person who struggles to believe.

In the final section of the book, Williams turns to some objections constantly raised against Christian belief: the problem of suffering; the extremes of Christian involvement in politics; Christianity's relationship to other religions; and the traditional doctrines of heaven and hell. All of these issues are profound and problematic. Williams attempts some creative approaches to them which seem to me, in a number of places, to be somewhat strained and, themselves problematic. For example, he affirms a form of purgatory that I find unsupported in Scripture. Despite that, Williams models the sort of dialogue and willingness to question assumptions that are so important to a rigorous exploration of faith. Even here one has to give Williams his due even where there is disagreement. But the disagreement would not be a problem to Williams as he values the presence of uncertainty in the journey of faith.

God, Actually is a brilliant book. Williams writes with wit and a masterful command of language and sensitive argument. He displays a deep respect and empathy for his reader and his approach is reassuring and inspiring. Williams confidently engages with the ideas of contemporary atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchins.

If you are looking for a reasonable basis to believe, or have friends that are averse to dogmatic expressions of religion, then God, Actually may just be the book you need.

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  1. Hi Steve - may I have your permission to repost this in the UKCBD reviews section, please? Thanks in anticipation - Phil Groom (UKCBD Reviews Editor & general dogsbody)

  2. Hi Phil

    Absolutely! If you could include a link back to my blog, that would be appreciated.


  3. Dear Steve, I only saw your review of God, Actually quite recently. This is a belated but heartfelt 'thank you' for your generous remarks. The book (in a revised and updated edition) was officially released in the UK only last Friday, 19 June, and, later in the year, will be going to the US. Thanks again and best wishes, Roy

  4. Hi, I am from Melbourne.

    This book is so tacky that it a tragedy that it is taken seriously.

    It fits entirely within the kind of religion and naive god-ideas criticized in this set of essays.

  5. Hi Anonymous from Melbourne...

    Perhaps you could identify specific flaws in Roy Williams's arguments. The web site you refer to doesn't actually address the book.

  6. I found a reference to Roy Williams' book in Sojourners magazine. I've not yet read it, but am seeking out a vareity of reviews to ensure I'm not yet-again wasting my money on useless tomes that 'prove' little (as Steve's review rightly states).

    I too was impressed by Williams' use of the word "probably" in the title, and that he apparently follows through in the text. That's an 'about time' admirable feature.

    But in each review I've read thus far, I have yet to actually see any examples of newer evidence itself. Indeed, Steve, if the evidence you speak of that Williams is suppoeded to present, why not give even one really juicy example and flesh it out even a little?

    I have, in the meantime, read Richard Dawkins' equally limited response on his official blog-site, and found him (as usual) surly and dismissive (even titling his article "God, Actually: Another Flea," as though it were a meddlesome gnat uselessly buzzing about). No help there.

    Anyone out there coming up with some genuine 'evidence' for the whole approach, and I'm happy to listen. Meanwhile, I'm not about to lay down even $12 for a used copy - money's too tight right now for everyone (even ministers). Cheers..., Rev Michael V Hollingshead (PS - I posted this comment as 'Anonymous' only because for some bizarre reason, the site is insisting that my normal URL: contains 'illegal' characters?! What th'? Mvh)

  7. This review of his book may be of interest as well.