Sunday, December 11, 2011

David Marshall: "Consilience"

I finished David Marshall’s The Truth Behind the New Atheism. The last chapter is entitled “Consilience”, which means the unity of knowledge that many new atheists seek, and which many Christians claim to have.

On page 216, Marshall states: “One reason I am a Christian is that following Jesus doesn’t force me to leave the rest of the human race (and its full experience) behind. Christ allows me to become an intellectually fulfilled humanist.” Marshall then goes on to talk about how early Christian thinkers believed that Greek philosophy and myth point (however dimly) to Christ, and he also affirms that there are elements of Chinese culture that dimly perceive Jesus.

C.S. Lewis said that, if you are an atheist and want to safeguard your atheism, then you’d better be careful about what you read, for so many book out there can lead a person to God and to Christ, even books that are not Christian. Many atheists, however, have said the opposite: that reading a variety of things can make a person skeptical about religion. I think of Dan Barker, who was once in Christian ministry but became an atheist because he read a lot.

I suppose that, if I have a stance on this, it’s that I believe in a loving higher power, but I do not try to force every item of knowledge out there into a coherent worldview (consilience), whether that worldview be Christian or not. I simply acknowledge that there are mysterious things that are out there. I’m skeptical about trying to force everything into a Christian worldview, because there are things that don’t fit into it all that well, plus I believe in respecting the dignity and integrity of things rather than subsuming them under Christianity. When it comes to the Hebrew Bible, for example, I seek to understand the ideologies of its authors within their own contexts rather than making all of their writings about Christ. The same would go with Chinese religion—-though I have to admit that I don’t know as much about that area of study.

Essentially, I don’t want to get to the point where I am afraid to read something because it might disturb my ideological applecart. What I find, though, is that I can easily be afraid of reading Christian books because I may come across something that will convince me that the God of Christianity is real, and the God of Christianity strikes me as somewhat of a monster who makes demands to which I can’t measure up. But I’m hesitant to read atheist books because I desire to believe in some sort of God, who loves me and has a purpose for my life. And yet, I enjoy reading atheists because they bash conservative Christianity, which I consider to be an oppressive belief system. I guess that I shouldn’t be afraid to read and to learn, both from Christian and also atheist books. But I also think that I should affirm and reaffirm to myself the things that I want to believe (i.e., a benevolent higher power)—-by being around people on a spiritual path, by reading their books and blogs, etc.

Marshall raises what I consider to be good questions that, in his mind, point to the truth of the Bible and Christianity. He mentions (albeit not by name) the anthropic principle, which states that the universe is just right for humans to exist, and that humanity would not exist were things off by just a little bit. This principle goes back to the universe’s origin, for “If the rate of expansion of the early universe were smaller by one part in one hundred million billion, or greater by one part in a million, some say the universe would have collapsed, or stars and planets would not have formed” (page 211). But that shows that the universe may have a designer, not that the designer is the Jewish or the Christian God, right? Marshall then raises other questions: Why have the Jews survived, whereas more prosperous ancient peoples (such as the Hittites) no longer exist? Why have the Jews appeared to bring blessing to humanity, as God promised to Abraham, since so many Nobel Prize winners have been Jews? Why did the Hebrews “affirm the unity and universal responsibility of humanity”, which conflicts with the alleged evolutionary tendency to disdain the “out-group”? Why did Virgil and others believe that a Savior would be born around the first century?

I think that these are good questions, but that may be due to my own Christian upbringing, since I was raised in a Christian home and in a Christian culture. A skeptic could probably say that none of these things proves the truth of Christianity. “So what if other people believed a savior would come in the first century,” a skeptic could say. “That just shows that Christians held beliefs that others in their time held, not that their beliefs were true!”

The next David Marshall book that I will read will be Jesus and the Religions of Man. I am not sure if I will blog through this book the same way that I did for The Truth Behind the New Atheism. For a variety of reasons, my blogging through The Truth Behind the New Atheism was rather polemical and went chapter-by-chapter. To be honest, that was rather tiring. Jesus and the Religions of Man appears to be more anecdotal, however, and so I may just read pieces each day and blog about something that interested me in my reading, rather than seeking to capture the essence of Marshall’s argument and then to evaluate it. But we’ll see. Marshall may say things that put me on the defensive, placing me in argument-mode!

In the meantime, if you are interested, check out Arizona Atheist’s critique of Marshall’s The Truth Behind the New Atheism. Marshall did not care for this critique (since he and Arizona Atheist appear to have a stormy polemical past), but I thought that it was thorough and informative. I think that Marshall’s book is worth reading, but so is Arizona Atheist’s review.


  1. Hi James,

    Thank you for the kind words about my review and for reading. I came across your blog while doing an internet search. I was curious about any thoughts you may have had about my review of the book. What things did you agree/disagree with?

    Take care.

  2. Hi Arizona Atheist! Thanks for commenting here. I read some parts of your review more thoroughly than others. I was especially impressed when you cited primary sources, such as Origen's statement about believing without proof. One concern I had at times was your bibliography, which seemed to have a lot of skeptical sources, as Marshall's footnotes often have Christian sources. I think it's good to acknowledge those sources, but also to identify their more neutral sources, and to seek out some neutral sources. But, then again, if a skeptical or Christian source makes a good argument, then it makes a good argument. But, for some things, it would be nice to see documentation from a more neutral source. I don't have anything specific in mind about your review, but there were times when I was reading Marshall and he made a historical claim, and he'd document it with a Christian source. In that case, I'd like to know what the Christian source's source is.

    But, overall, I enjoyed your review. If I read any other book on new atheism, and you have a review of it, I'll definitely read your review and link to it! I appreciate your thoroughness.

  3. Hi James. Thanks for the feedback. I see where you're coming from though I think that it ultimately doesn't matter if someone cites a “Christian” source or a “Skeptical” source so long as the information is checked for accuracy. Some of the skeptics I did cite are known for their fairness, such as Michael Shermer. When you look at Marshall's bibliography, which I did, many of his sources seem to be biased towards his beliefs since he cited Christian apologists who skewed facts or intelligent design advocates. Though, some of his information was accurate, but not much.

    If you're curious what his Christian sources' source was you could try to find the books he cites for free on the internet to read and find out their source. Google Books is a helpful resource for that. Sometimes I will buy a book cited by a book I'm reviewing and read it myself, which I did quite a few times while reviewing Marshall's book.

    I was curious, though. Which review did you read? The final version, or the one before it, because that's the one you linked to? The final version was called The Truth Behind the New Atheism: The Definitive Refutation.

    I've written several other reviews of books on the New Atheism. They are linked to on the right side of my blog if you're interested. I think I've written nine or ten of them.

    Thanks again for reading. I always enjoy getting any kind of feedback I can get on my reviews.

  4. It must have been the one before it. I did a google search on Marshall's book to see if anyone has reviewed it, and that led me to that particular review that you wrote. Then, I bookmarked it so I could come back to it. But thanks for the latest one! I may be revisiting your blog in the future for other posts. Another review of Marshall I liked was Hector Avalos' on slavery.

  5. Hi James. I hope you enjoy any other reviews you choose to read. I greatly enjoyed Avalos' paper on Marshall's section on slavery also. Have you read Avaos' new book on slavery and the bible? It's called Slavery, Abolitionism, and the Ethics of Biblical Scholarship. It's an excellent book, though it's pretty pricey. However, through the publisher you can get a discount of about half off. That's what I did.

  6. Actually, I haven't, nor have I read his book The End of Biblical Studies, but I may get to it some time. What I found interesting about Avalos' review was how he quoted Aristotle saying that there were anti-slavery voices in his time.

  7. I agree. His critique was very educational. Take care!


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