The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist: A Review

Chris Price Articles, Book Reviews 4 Comments

Several years ago I was stepping down the stairs in our backyard carrying my 8 month old son. Half way down the stairs I placed my weight on a step and it cracked beneath me. I barely managed to maintain my balance and keep a hold of my baby boy. The step looked safe, it looked like it would bear up under my weight, but as soon as it was tested it cracked under the load.

I tell this story as an illustration of how I have begun to feel about the various analogies or arguments used to justify popular level atheism, or what has been branded in recent years as the ‘New Atheism.’ Let me provide you with a smattering of samples:

‘Atheism is not a belief. It is the absence of a belief in God.’

The atheist, therefore, does not need to bear any burden of proof when it comes to asserting their non-belief. Rather, the burden of proof rests solely on the shoulders of the theist. After all, ‘extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.’

‘Believing in God is like believing in the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Some of us out grow all of these silly ideas, but religious believers fail to mentally mature beyond the infantile concept of a benign deity.

‘We are all atheists in regard to Zeus, Thor and Artemis. I just go one God further by including Yahweh in my pantheon of non-existent deities.’

OK.

“Religion Poisons Everything.”

Religion is a purveyor of violence, oppression and intolerance in our world.

‘We can be good without God.’

These are all atheistic soundbites that are prevalent in our culture, saturating the blogosphere and inundating our Facebook and Twitter feeds. These slogans may look as though they can bear up under scrutiny, but what if as soon as you put any intellectual weight on them, as soon as you ask a few prying questions, they collapse like the step in my stairs under the pressure and are exposed as vacuous non sequiturs not worthy, in some cases, of the massive intellects who have uttered them? What if that were the case?

The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist

Enter Andy Bannister and his book, “The Atheist who Didn’t Exist; Or: the Dreadful Consequences of Bad Arguments.” These atheistic soundbites have always deserved an intellectual flogging and Bannister has provided them with a lashing in this fast paced, witty, mostly well-mannered and humorous work. And, make no mistake about it, Bannister’s book is funny. But it is a witty, cutting humour that is, at times, ironic and, at other times, uproariously ridiculous. In this way, the book fits comfortably in the fine-tradition of British humour, at least as I have enjoyed it.

I am reticent to compare anyone to the literary giant[1] G.K. Chesterton, but I will risk the comparison here because Andy’s humorous insights and his rhetorical flourish occasionally flirt with the mastery that is found in Chesterton’s Orthodoxy though, admittedly, Bannister’s book may more closely reflect the purpose of Chesterton’s Heresies. Maybe this is an overly generous comparison. But no more generous than Andy continually referring to the above atheist slogans as actual arguments.

I also credit Bannister with finally figuring out what footnotes are for. Scholarly interaction? Referencing other works? No! Boring. Tired. It has been done. Instead insert jokes. One-liners. Pop-culture anecdotes. Beat up on Justin Bieber. Share insights irrelevant to the arguments being espoused in the main text. That is what footnotes ‘ought’ to be for.[2] I actually read the footnotes with giggles instead of groans which was a first for me.

All of this leads to what may be an apologetic triumph. A book that you will not only read without the help of a self-appointed friend enlisted to slap you in the face every half-hour to keep you from nodding off, but one you will laugh your way through, while also having your intellect stimulated and your belief strengthened.

Filled with Facts

Not only is Bannister’s book funny. It is filled with facts. Let me give you a brief example of the pesky facts that Bannister marches out to disavow the overly pedantic claims of some of the New Atheists. Let’s take, for example, the idea that religion poisons everything or that religion is the greatest source of violence in the world. More, specifically, perhaps you have heard it said (as I have) that religion has caused most of the wars in history. That claim is certainly helpful and comforting, if one is an atheist. But is it true because, as Andy elsewhere reminds us, the psychological comfort of an idea has no necessary bearing on its factual accuracy.

Enter facts. The Encyclopedia of Wars, records in three ponderous volumes around 1,763 wars between 8000 BC and 2003 AD. To quote Andy, “Of these, the editors see fit to categorize only 123 conflicts as ‘religious’. That’s less than 7 per cent in over ten thousand years of history – if religious types are really out to get us all, as Hitchens claims, they’ve got some catching up to do. Indeed, even many of the wars we’re quick to tag as ‘religious’ often had secular or political goals.”[3]

But wait a second, one might protest, Andy is talking about history. Surely only science provides us with reliable facts and objective truth about our world.[4] This is another well-worn slogan of popular level atheism. Well, science is great, the greatest tool humanity has yet to discover for explaining how the physical universe operates when left to itself. But that above statement by scientists is not quite right as Bannister helpfully points out. Not only is it not itself a scientific utterance and, therefore, provides us with a textbook example of self-referential incoherence, it has other disastrous consequences that Bannister kindly highlights for the reader, like leaving us intellectually impotent to adjudicate meaningfully on lifes most profound questions. This is all representative of Bannister’s approach. Not only does he tell you why these assertions are off-base he points out, as the subtitle suggests, how disastrous the logic of these slogans would be, even to reason and science itself, if they were true reflections of sound argumentation. Thankfully, Bannister convincingly shows us again and again that they are not.

Limitations

This book is not an introduction to the reasonableness of Christianity. These pages contain a lot of reductios [5] regarding the atheist position, but there are scarcely any robust arguments for the truth of the Christian worldview except, of course, a few notable hints in later chapters that point the reader in this direction. If that is what you are looking for you will have to search elsewhere. Those books have been written. And Andy is not shy about recommending those resources to the interested reader. The purpose of his book is more along these lines:

“To clear away some of the weeds of bad arguments so that a more sensible dialogue can be had. Because here’s the thing: the “God Question” is arguably the most important question that anybody can think about.”[6]

In this stated purpose the book succeeds magnificently and also preempts the charge of just disemboweling caricatures or erecting straw-men to mercilessly mock, as Dawkins, himself, has so frequently done. I mean, Bannister does do this, in a sense, but he is forced into it by the popularity of these atheistic sound bites and the enormous books sales of men like Sam Harris, the late Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins.[7] As a result, arguments that probably deserve nothing more than an eye-roll get an entire book from Bannister. For which one can certainly be grateful because it lead to him writing a masterful work of apologetics to clear away the debris that block a meaningful, illuminating dialogue about the God question from occurring at a popular, cultural level. In this Bannister is a helpful friend to the believer and the non-believer; though regarding the latter, one must be willing to have a slew of sacred slogans skewered and satired by the wit of a brit.

Conclusion

The writing of many books is endless. So, what is unique about these pages? Well, Andy Bannister wrote it and there is only one of him. These pages are original because Andy Bannister is original. Sure, this type of book has probably been written before. But, as far as I know, it has never been written like this before and because of that this work is a welcomed breathe of fresh air blowing through a discipline that is crucial in our day and age but can also feel stale, repetitive and, frankly, boring as hell.

I think we may need more apologists like Bannister. I heartily recommend, “The Atheist who didn’t Exist” to you. One last parting word of advice. It helps to read this book with an English accent in mind. The arguments are far more convincing when you do so and I am sure it would please the author.

 

About the Author

Chris Price

Chris Price is the lead pastor at Calvary Baptist church and the author of Suffering with God, published by Apologetics Canada. He lives in Port Coquitlam, B.C. with his beautiful wife Diandra and his two children Kaeden and Mila.

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[1] I use the word ‘giant’ in the most literal sense possible. Chesterton was big enough to swallow three Andy Bannister’s before breakfast.

[2] I’m just jesting, of course, but I did truly find his footnotes refreshing.

[3] Andy Bannister, The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist. p. 106

[4] Even the historical sciences? Hmmm.

[5] I am referring here, not to a spell from the Harry Potter books, but to a form of argumentation known in Latin as reductio ad absurdum. See Wikepedia for a defintion: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reductio_ad_absurdum

[6] p. 27

[7] What I mean is that the intellectual atheist would say that Bannister is attacking straw men because you won’t find much of this popular level nonsense in the writings of the late J.L. Mackie or Kai Nelson or William Rowe. But who has time to read these brilliant non-theists? Very few. Dawkins and his ilk are much more readily digestible for the everday atheist so someone has to provide an intellectual antitode to ease the conceptual indigestion that can result from spending too much time feeding on the words of the four horseman of the atheistic apocalypse. Bannister does well at this.

Comments 4

  1. Great review! Can’t wait to read it then send it off to college as another weapon in my son’s armory. Thanks!

  2. Thank you,
    It is definitely worth the read! Really enjoyable. I’m sure your son will find it interesting and helpful.

  3. This definition is for wimps. ‘Atheism is not a belief. It is the absence of a belief in God.’

    This is my definition:
    Atheism: 100% certain magical beings (Easter Bunny, Zeus, tooth fairy, Allah, God) are moronic fantasies for cowardly childish uneducated idiots.

    “and your belief strengthened.”

    If any idea requires belief then most certainly it’s nonsense and it should be thrown out.

    1. Post
      Author

      Thanks for commenting. Wow. That is a bold definition of atheism. I00 percent certainty is impressive. I have that kind of certainty about so few things in my life. Though, I must add, the definition may be unnecessarily offensive to sincere, kind people of faith; that being said, I appreciate the boldness and confidence. And I assume with a definition like that you are willing to shoulder some of the burden of proof, showing why you belief that the existence of God is infantile nonsense and I find that admirable.

      You also have a strong belief in the non-value of beliefs. I’m not entirely sure what you are getting at here, but you may find chapter 10 of Andy’s book helpful: the subtitle is everyone has faith. He unpacks this idea better than I ever could. But just in case you are not interested in his book I’ve cut and pasted below some thoughts on faith (or belief) to clarify the Christian perspective.

      I think that, on the internet at least, people tend to think about faith like Victor Stenger, who writes that, “Faith, which is belief without supportive evidence, should not be given the respect, even deference, it obtains in modern society. Faith is always foolish and leads to many of the evils of society.”

      Faith is defined as a belief that has no supporting evidence. Stenger’s statement and those like it actually represent an enormous distortion of faith in the Christian tradition. Hebrews 11:1, 2 defines faith as ‘confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.’ There is nothing in this definition that would suggest that faith is belief that lacks evidence. In fact, the truth is atheists also have faith and assurance about things they cannot see. We all do. For example, no one witnessed the Big Bang or the emergence of life from non-life, but many atheists are quite sure about the occurrence of these events (as are many Christians). But if a non-believer retorts to me that their willingness to affirm these events is inferred by what they do observe, I will agree and point out that the believer would claim that this is the same reason that he or she believes in God – not because they ‘see’ God, but because God makes best sense of what they do observe. In other words, the faith or belief is an active trust based on reasons.

      Let me just point out one last irony: some atheists, like Victor Stenger, feel free to claim that faith is belief without evidence. Yet, it turns out that this is a belief about faith that is held with very little evidence; a belief that closes its mind to what the Bible and thoughtful Christians actually say about their faith. Below is a sampling of what a few significant leaders and thinkers in church history have claimed about faith:

      “Reason directs those who are truly pious and philosophical to honour and love only what is true.” – Justin Martyr First Apology

      “But they are much deceived, who think that we believe in Christ without any proofs concerning Christ.” – St. Augustine

      “Faith is not a blind thing; for faith begins with knowledge. It is not a speculative thing; for faith believes facts of which it is sure. It is not an unpractical, dreamy thing; for faith trusts, and stakes its destiny upon the truth of revelation.” – Charles Spurgeon

      “Biblical faith isn’t wishing; it’s confidence… It’s a sense of certainty grounded in the evidence that Christianity is true – not just ‘true for me’ but actually, fully, and completely true. God does not want your leap of faith. He wants your step of trust.” – Gregory Koukl

      In the Christian tradition, faith is active trust based on reason, not blind belief in spite of reason. Faith and reason are friends not foes; in fact, I would say you couldn’t have one without the other.

      I hope the above helps clarify the Christian view on faith or belief. I realize my review of Andy’s book had a bit of an edge to it and if it was unnecessarily offensive to you or your views I do apologize. My hope, as well as Andys, is to promote dialogue not shut it down.

      And I know it appears like I was dissing the ‘New Atheists’ above so I want to go on record and express how much I like Christopher Hitchens as a writer and miss his wit, as well as stating that ‘The Blind Watchmaker’ by Richard Dawkins is my favourite book of science popularizing ever. It is beautifully written. And I want to thank you for taking the time to comment on this site.

      Cheers

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