Vox Day’s The Irrational Atheist

Theodore BealeA friend recommended that I read The Irrational Atheist after I praised David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions.  I’ve now finished it (technically, I started reading it and then my Kindle read the rest of it to me on a long, solo car trip to SC the other day).  It is a strange, fascinating, eclectic, hard-to-categorize work by an author who deserves all of the same adjectives.  Vox Day is Theodore Beale, a game designer, science fiction writer, musician, provocateur, and polymath who has also written on economics and, in this work, on the new atheism.

My criticism of the book is limited and primarily stylistic.  Let me go ahead and get this out of the way:  this book REALLY needed a better editor!  Some of Day’s ramblings, while fascinating, kept the book from being the tight argument it could have been and lent the book the feel of a late night stream of consciousness soap box screed by a brilliant but overly-caffeinated buddy about three hours after everybody, especially said buddy, should’ve gone to bed.  I have the sensation, after reading/hearing the book, that Day, if he could hone his thoughts a bit more succinctly, could pen an absolutely devastating verbal sniper assault on pretty much any target on which he set his sights.  Instead, what we have here is a literary sawed-off-shotgun blast.  Actually, that’s too precise.  Day writes like a blasted blunderbuss.  It is exhilaratingly chaotic, but a bit messy.

For instance, Day’s foray into the open theism of his friend and former pastor Greg Boyd is unfortunate, not because the subject isn’t interesting and not because Day might not have interesting thoughts on the matter, but rather because his excursus on that particular theological debate was really not essential to his basic argument (though he employs it in response to one of the atheist writers).  The issue of open theism is too big for an excursus, but the book, The Irrational Atheist, is too big for the treatment that open theism deserves.  It would have been better for Day just to give a brief nod to his opinion that the view of exhaustive providence assumed by the atheist to which he was responding was not, again, in Day’s opinion, the only or best option.

Some of the ramblings, like the meandering exit Day takes to discuss one of his earlier game designs, will likely feel as forced and strange to other readers as it did to me (if I may presume to assume such).  His brief, occasional, and controversial nods to issues of race and gender will likely strike some readers as unnecessarily distracting (though Day apparently traffics confidently in such provocations).  Day has a wild and intriguing mind. Perhaps the editor just gave up in sheer frustration!

Again, those are largely stylistic quibbles.  The fact is, when Day does focus, which he does for most of the book, what he does is utterly spellbinding, effective, educational, destructive, and exhilarating.  Simply put, this…was…an…AMAZING…book!  It’s certainly near the top of the list of titles critiquing the new atheism that I would recommend.

Day works through the arguments, positions, and assumptions of “the unholy trinity” of atheism:  Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins.  He also deals with Daniel Dennett (who, along with “the unholy trinity” usually makes up the fourth of the “four horsemen of the new atheism”) and some lesser known writers.  His critique of these men and their works is something to behold.  Quite honestly, what Vox Day does to Sam Harris’ writings is one of the most devastating deconstruction jobs I have ever seen in print, especially in his treatment of Harris’ arguments concerning the supposed tendencies toward crimes in red and blue states.  He hammers, relentlessly, the shoddy scholarship behind Harris’ premises, as well as the bizarre extremes to which Harris goes.  His treatment of the others is equally unrelenting, though Harris, in particular, seems to have earned the wrath of Day in ways the others did not.  Daniel Dennett seems to get off the easiest, though Day’s handling of Dennett is also effective.

Along the way, Day skewers the new atheists’ platitudes about religious wars, about the Inquisition, about the crusades, about the intelligence of believers vs. non-believers, about the supposed dangers of traditional sexual mores, and more.  What is so utterly fascinating is the statistical data Day employs in his arguments.  It is a refreshingly fact-based approach, though it is not without its moments of genuine literary flourish.

I would definitely recommend Vox Day’s The Irrational Atheist.  It’s strengths far outweigh its weaknesses.

Kudos to the gloriously eccentric Vox Day for this powerhouse book!

Read it!

David Berlinski’s The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions

This review will be regrettably brief since, for some reason, I have waited a very long time to write this since finishing David Berlinski’s The Devil’s Delusion.  Even so, I wanted to post at least a strong recommendation of the work because of the significant contribution I believe it makes to the literature responding to the so-called “New Atheism.”  In fact, I would count Berlinski’s work up there with (though still beneath) David Bentley Hart’s insofar as responses to atheism go, though the works are very different in so many ways.

It is a perplexing and intriguing book from a modern polymath.  Berlinski is not a Christian and claims no particular religious beliefs at all, other than, I presume, theism.  He is Jewish by birth and a mathematician by profession.  He possesses a frequently humorous, sometimes eccentric and oftentimes dazzling intellect that probably warrants him the admittedly overused monikor of “rennaissance man.” He speaks of mathematics, philosophy, science, physics and theology in ways that reveal significant study in these field, and, refreshigly, he does so with an often-moving literary flourish.

Essentially, Berlinski is skewering the pretentiousness and patronizing absurdities of the assumptions of modernity, and, particularly, of scientific modernity, in this work.  He paints a picture of theories-run-amuck in many quarters of the scientific community.  These theories are then dogmatized, Berlinski suggests, by a thin-skinned and tight-knit community which utilizes a slick media machine to demonize any who dare to question the assumptions and conclusions of this machine.  The victims, he argues, are an unsuspecting public who cower before the double barrell approach of scientific obfuscation and media aggressiveness.

In saying these things, Berlinski is not pandering to ignorant, anti-science bigots who want to be shielded from uncomfortable conclusions.  Rather, he demonstrates his thesis in profound and provocative ways that I can only encourage you to read.  You may or may not agree with all of Berlinski’s conclusions, but I daresay you cannot read this work without appreciating his case that a great many of the mantras of modernity, scientific and philosophical, are buttressed by establishment-driven and media-propagated agendas.

Read this book.


Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian

This odd and eclectic little book contains a series of brief vignettes Vonnegut did for New York radio some years back.  The basic premise is that Jack Kevorkian takes him almost to the point of death (in a Huntsville, TX, death chamber) so that Vonnegut can go and interview dead people.  Each presentation reveals the upshot of these conversations.

The interviews are often humorous and sarcastic.  They usually wish to make a general point about this or that particular issue in American society.  They all reflect Vonnegut’s own interesting but usually leftist takes on American culture.

The book is intended to be a collection of witty social commentary, not a reflection on theology.  Even so, Vonnegut does explain his personal views on the afterlife:

About belief or lack of belief in an afterlife: Some of you may know that I am neither Christian nor Jewish nor Buddhist, nor a conventionally religious person of any sort.

I am a humanist, which means, in part, that I have tried to behave decently without any expectation of rewards or punishments after I’m dead. My German-American ancestors, the earliest of whom settled in our Middle West about the time of our Civil War called themselves “Freethinkers,” which is the same sort of thing. My great grandfather Clemens Vonnegut wrote, for example, “If what Jesus said was good, what can it matter whether he was God or not?”

The question from Vonnegut’s grandfather is tragic, for, of course, it matters a great deal whether or not Jesus was God.  Regardless, it is a helpful insight into Vonnegut’s mind.  He appears to foster a respect for the historical figure of Jesus while harboring none for the identity of Jesus.  As a Christian, this is a fatal misstep, but it likely describes the position of many Americans who seek to hold to the teachings of Jesus (selectively chosen, of course) while eschewing orthodox Christianity.  (C.S. Lewis, among others, dealt, in my mind, a definitive death blow to this kind of attempted end-around run in Mere Christianity.)

Interestingly, there is no hell in Vonnegut’s book (as he points out more than once) so even Hitler is in Heaven.  Some of the people don’t really even want to be there.  Regardless, Vonnegut’s encounters are thought-provoking at best and mildly irritating at their worst.

To give you a taste, here is Vonnegut’s interview with Karla Faye Tucker:

It is late in the afternoon of February 3, 1998. I have just been unstrapped from a gurney following another controlled near-death experience in this busy execution chamber in Huntsville, Texas.

For the first time in my career, I was actually on the heels of a celebrity as I made my way down the blue tunnel to Paradise. She was Karla Faye Tucker, the born-again murderer of two strangers with a pickax. Karla Faye was completely killed here, by the State of Texas, shortly after lunchtime.

Two hours later, on another gurney, I myself was made only three-quarters dead. I caught up with Karla Faye in the tunnel, about a 150 yards from the far end, near the Pearly Gates. Since she was dragging her feet, I hastened to assure her that there was no Hell waiting for her, no Hell waiting for anyone. She said that was too bad because she would be glad to go to Hell if only she could take the governor of Texas with her. “He’s a murderer, too,” said Karla Faye. “He murdered me.”

Clearly, the intent is to use Tucker as a vehicle for Vonnegut to stress his disapproval of the death penalty.  As a literary device, it really is quite effective, regardless of whether or not one agrees with Vonnegut’s views on this or that issue.

So here is my own take on this book:  if you’d like to kill a little time by observing the musings of an interesting, often short-sighted, occasionally insightful and frequently humorous humanist, check it out.  Christians will find some aspects of the book disheartening and sad, and they should.  There is limited value in the work.  It does show the inner mental workings of one of America’s more interesting writers.  For a Christian, though, the book oftentimes lapses into the kind of modernistic and vapid platitudes one may encounter on any street corner on any given day.

Alister and Joanna Collicut McGrath’s The Dawkins Delusion?

Subtitled, Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine, Alister McGrath and his wife Joanna Collicut have written a real gem of a book in The Dawkins Delusion? Written primarily by Alister McGrath, one of Evanglicalism’s shining intellectual lights, this small book is a significant contribution to the Christian response to the work of famed British atheist Richard Dawkins.

It is intriguing for many reasons.  I found McGrath’s revelation of the frustration that many atheist academics feel toward Dawkins and his work to be insightful and intriguing.  In short, many of Dawkins’ own colleagues find the frankly unfettered hatred that Dawkins shows religion to be unnecessary and injurious to their cause.  Many also seem to feel that Dawkins’ own form of atheist fundamentalism is not very thoughtful.  Along these same lines, I was struck by Dawkin’s dismissal of significant scientific voices who dare to say that science, by its very nature, cannot dismiss with the possibility of God.

McGrath’s handling of the charge that religion leads men to do evil things was even-handed and thoughtful.  He persuasively demonstrates the fundamental fallacies of such a notion and rightly calls Dawkins to task for such a sweeping and naive assertion.

In all, though, McGrath is strongest in his discussion of the nature of science and its limits.  He did work in chemistry and molecular biophysics at Oxford and speaks with helpful insight to these questions.

If you would like a relatively brief but thought-provoking assesment of Dawkins’ main arguments and the problems inherent therein, check out McGrath’s book.  It is very helpful and very well done.