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'A Friendly Letter to Skeptics and Atheists' reviewed

By Graham Young - posted Thursday, 9 April 2009


An anti-Christian crusade has been growing for years in the intellectual Anglophone world and it has recently burst into print with such works as God is not Great by Christopher Hitchens and The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins.

These are intellectually and philosophically impoverished books, but they have the great marketing virtue of confirming a bias that is already present in the book-buying public.

As A Friendly Letter to Skeptics and Atheists says, “To judge faith by … ‘vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first year theology student wince’ is like judging science by eugenics, nuclear warheads and chemical pollutants.” (p.100)

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These tracts demand an answer that exposes their shallowness and responds to their vitality with a rambunctiousness of its own, knotting words into cords and driving them out of the temples of knowledge. This book is not that riposte.

Author David Myers is a psychologist, columnist, “faith-head” and in the form of the book and some of its allusions, obviously an admirer of CS Lewis. This is an encouraging base from which to build a bridgehead to attack what he calls “the new atheism”, but that attack never really materialises.

Rather, it all too frequently demonstrates just why the anti-clericists are on such a roll as it modestly and apologetically tries to assert that what it believes is true, while at the same time insinuating that its substance is not really that different from the militant atheist’s base position.

One of the admirable things about CS Lewis is that he had the debater’s skills of thinking on his feet, doing so by clear and lucid analogy and never losing sight of the point that he is trying to make. His works have structure, which sometimes is too apparent to make for a comfortable read. By the end of the Screwtape Letters or A Grief Observed you know exactly what he is driving at and how he got there, even if you are not totally convinced.

Myer’s argument is more a series of intellectual vignettes than a structured argument, which in the end taper off into proofs that religion makes its adherents happy (materialistic Marx would have said “Yes, but so what, it is the opium of the masses”), and that the religious live longer (but as he denies eternal life, this begs a rather more serious question).

It is a “friendly” letter but it seems to regard structure as inimical to amity and therefore it neither clearly defines what it is attacking, nor what it is defending.

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Indeed, the sort of Christianity that it offers up asks the question “Why defend this?” In Myers’ world God does not create and nor does he answer prayer. Yet, while Myers is almost wholly rational and empirical in his approach to religion he feels compelled to defend the non-rational as well.

Borrowing from Howard Gardner’s notion of multiple intelligences, he says that reason cannot exist without emotion. From there he somehow hooks his defence into the PC side of the gender wars by defining scepticism as a boy’s club because women are more prone to faith than men, as evidenced by their practice. And women are more in touch with the emotional than men, thus reinforcing stereotype.

We are left wondering what his argument hangs on. Is non-rational thinking a valid way of knowing, or must everything be rational?

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About the Author

Graham Young is chief editor and the publisher of On Line Opinion. He is executive director of the Australian Institute for Progress, an Australian think tank based in Brisbane, and the publisher of On Line Opinion.

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