Book review: A Shot of Faith (To the Head)

Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and many other celebrity atheists have made it their life’s joy and work to treat Christians as intellectual and social punching bags. Christianity isn’t rational, they say; it’s actually worse than child abuse. Science has disproved the existence of God. The existence of evil and suffering are proofs for the falsity of Christian faith.

In A Shot of Faith (To the Head): Be a Confident Believer in an Age of Cranky Atheists (Thomas Nelson, 2012)Mitch Stokes turns these claims on their head, showing that they are self-defeating arguments that do not hold water. Stokes engages in a robust interaction with the New Atheists’ thought and work, addressing three main objections to Christianity. These are: that it is not rational, that it crumbles under the scrutiny of science, and that evil and suffering show that there is no God. Though he acknowledges that most Christians do not come to faith through argumentation (C.S. Lewis is a famous exception), his goal in this book is to bolster believers’ intellectual arsenal and their confidence. You can watch a trailer for the book here.

In an accessible, witty, and pull-no-punches style, Stokes shows that Christianity is utterly reasonable and faith is not a blind act. Science does not disprove God, but in fact points to the supernatural. Evil and suffering can stunningly be evidence for God’s existence. Stokes leans heavily on Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga, who has devoted his life to writing about the rationality of Christianity. I had not heard of Plantinga before, so much of his perspective was new and refreshing.

Part one is the most heady of the book, as Stokes tackles epistemology and the main argument atheists employ: evidentialism. Evidentialism is the belief (note the irony) that for something to be rational, it must be supported by sufficient observable evidence. But Stokes shows that evidentialists are using ladders supported in air. That is, evidentialism is self-defeating because it needs foundational beliefs to support its claims, foundational beliefs that do not rest on observable evidence. Stokes then posits a different definition of rationality: “a rational belief is one formed by a properly functioning cognitive faculty operating in the appropriate environment.” For example, the belief that it is snowing is based on the sensory experience of our eyes, brain, and experience and is thus a foundational, basic belief. We use these basic beliefs all the time (e.g. testimony, memory, personal experience). Likewise, the sensus divinitatis is a legitimate function that shows God’s existence. I didn’t find this last argument to be Stokes’ strongest, but it is interesting.

I thought part two – on science – is the strongest. Here Stokes shows that science and religion are not at odds, and neither are science and philosophy. Stokes covers a lot of ground in these chapters that is difficult to summarize. For example, he reclaims Galileo from the New Atheists’ grasp, shows that the “God of the gaps” argument is a faulty straw man, and demonstrates how naturalism is actually an enemy of true science. Most importantly, Stokes shows that there is a crucial difference between methodological naturalism and philosophical naturalism, but that it is impossible to keep them separate without crossing into the theological realm. Thus, “Naturalism leads to supernaturalism. That is, the physical world of space and time simply doesn’t have the resources to support itself. Describing the universe with physics requires the existence of numbers and other mathematical objects. And these objects are far ‘beyond matter'” (p. 184). This quotation is found within a fascinating discussion of mathematics pointing to divine design.

Part three – on suffering and evil – is solid. Stokes’ approach (based on Plantinga) is a familiar one employed by Van Til, Lewis, and Doug Wilson in his debates with Christopher Hitchens. There are no moral absolutes without a foundation, there is no evil without good, and there is no good without God. I also like that it goes one step further than Keller’s Reason for God, in that he works to show the plausibility of a God and then actually makes the case for the one Triune, redemption-working God. Unfortunately, he waits until page 200 to get there, but his placement of this argument within the context of evil and suffering is appropriate.

Stokes wraps up his three-fold presentation of philosophy, science, and evil with a ribbon by his closing discussion of proper functionality. By doing so, he shows that these three main objections to Christianity can be turned into a great strength of Christianity:

“If there is no designer, then there is no proper function, and therefore there is no such thing as rationality either. There’s only a sterile, impersonal ‘desert landscape.’ Beliefs are neither rational nor irrational. They just are…So, either there’s no proper (or improper) function, or else the atheist has cognitively malfunctioned. To put it a bit differently, either there’s no such thing as rationality (or irrationality) or else atheism is irrational. But atheists will heartily agree that there is such a thing as irrationality; they point to us as examples of it. In any case, that leaves only one option: atheists are damaged goods. Of course, all of us are damaged goods. Sin has caused some degree of irrationality in us all. And given the extent of the damage, it’s no wonder atheists don’t believe. The real wonder is why anyone believes. The explanation, of course, is that God has begun to repair humanity, at an unimaginable cost to himself.” (p. 221)

To wrap up this long-winded review, it’s a compelling book that is as accessible as a chemical engineer-turned Ph.D. in philosophy can be. Stokes walks the line between academic and popular apologetics with skill. Thus, it is not necessarily for new apologists or those who have never heard of philosophy, but excellent for those who have already had their feet damp. I would recommend it to anyone looking to, well, get a shot of faith to the head. Or to anyone seeking an intelligent, readable interaction with cranky atheists. It serves its stated purpose well in building up the believer’s faith and confidence.

Note: I received a free copy of the book in exchange for an objective review.

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