Monday, May 28, 2012

Book Review: A Shot of Faith {to the head}

a shot of faith to the head

There is a plethora of books available that argue the case for theism. Most of these are quite repetitive offering pretty much the same arguments. But Mitch Stokes’s book A Shot of Faith {to the head} takes a fresh approach drawing together three lines of argument in support of his contention that ‘atheism is undone’.

In three sections, Stokes explores rationality, design and absolute standards suggesting that atheism has no explanation for these without allowing for the supernatural. These three lines of argument are not new, in themselves. What I found striking was the way he connects all of these by the concept of right function.

His argument goes like this (as far as I understand it):

  1. A rational belief is one which is formed by a brain that is functioning properly within an appropriate context.
  2. It makes no sense to talk about something functioning properly if there is no standard of right functioning.
  3. To have a standard of right functioning implies that something is designed for a particular function. Without design there would be no sense of right function – in this case, of the brain’s cognitive ability.
  4. Currently, there is no natural explanation for the concept of right function. If something can be judged to be incorrectly functioning apart from our personal opinion, there must be some objective standard which supplies the definition of proper function independent of human thinking.
  5. If that independent standard of proper functioning exists independently of human thinking then that standard must be external to the natural world.
  6. The idea of a standard external to the natural world that provides this concept of right function, which in turn implies design, requires a designer external to the natural world. The name for this designer is God.

Given this argument (which is fleshed out in the book) the atheist is caught on the horns of a dilemma. As Stokes summarises it:

… if the atheist is right, and there is no divine designer, then there’s no such thing as rationality (or irrationality, and so belief in God isn’t irrational). If the atheist is wrong, on the other hand, and there is a divine designer, then the atheist is irrational… (p. 222)

Alvin Plantinga, one of the most well-known philosophers today, describes the book as ‘[a] fine book: lively, clear, accessible, but also deep, and deeply competent.’

I would concur with that judgment – but there are some problematic aspects of the book. Firstly, the book has an unfortunate subtitle: Be a Confident Believer in an Age of Cranky Atheists. While there are a number of well-known atheists who give atheism a bad name, many atheists are genuine about their non-belief in theism and engage in deep thinking about the various arguments for and against the existence of God. Labelling atheists as cranky in this generalised way won’t attract atheists to read the book (I wouldn’t have thought). I hope they can see past this unnecessary name calling.

Secondly, I don’t think the argument offered in this book deals with the possibility that rationality may be something inherently and eternally present in the universe itself. If Christians can assert that God just existed eternally, then why can’t matter and the laws of physics just exist eternally? I would have liked to have seen how Stokes might deal with this question.

In my opinion, this book is not likely to change anyone’s mind. Stokes does make the point that the book is primarily aimed at believers who may wish to strengthen their belief with a coherent argument. And the atheist reader will likely raise many objections to the arguments offered. At its heart, the book is a retelling of the intelligent design argument.

A Shot of Faith {to the head} is definitely worth reading. I thoroughly enjoyed it and anyone who understands basic philosophy will find it an easy read. It will be especially helpful to Christians who need a shot of faith to the head – faith doesn’t have to be irrational and this book provides one example of how faith can be rational.

Book details: Mitch Stokes, A Shot of Faith {to the head}, Thomas Nelson, 2012.