The Atheist Who Didn't Exist: Or The Dreadful Consequences of Bad Arguments has a brilliant title which – and this isn't always the case – matches the book's contents.
Written by Andy Bannister, director of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries Canada, it's a romp through the fashionable arguments against Christianity, showing why they aren't nearly as convincing as people think they are, and in many cases are plain daft.
Among his chapter titles are The Aardvark in the Artichokes (or: Why Not All Gods are the Same), Sven and the Art of Refrigerator Maintenance (or: Why Religion Doesn't Poison Everything) and The Peculiar Case of the Postmodern Penguin (or: Why Life without God is Meaningless). These give you something of a flavour of the book, which is rigorous, penetrating, gracious and very funny.
The context of the book is the stream of anti-religion propaganda that's been produced over the last few years by the 'new atheists' like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and their ilk. Bannister is adept at taking them on, puncturing their arguments with well-aimed pins and offering though-provoking alternatives to their bleaker imaginings.
The aim of his book, he says, is simple: it is "to clear away some of the weeds of bad arguments so that a more sensible dialogue can be had". Why? Because "The 'God Question' is arguably the most important question that anybody can think about. Whether or not God exists is not a mere intellectual curiosity, up there with "What's the ten trillionth digit of Pi?" or "Did Newton invent the cat flap?", but a question that has implications for every area of our lives, not least because it is directly tied to the question of meaning: is there something that we are meant to be, or is a life spent playing computer games and eating pizza as valid as one spent fighting poverty or serving the cause of justice?"
He's by no means the first to do this. David Fergusson, Alister McGrath and Francis Spufford are just three doughty defenders of the faith whose works will outlast the controversies that gave rise to them. Bannister, however, has his own style and his own target readership – and that's deliberate.
He tells Christian Today: "Over the 20 years or so that I've been involved in Christian ministry – most of it focused on reaching sceptics – I became frustrated with the fact that so many really great books explaining the Christian faith never find their way into their hands of atheists or agnostics. Most evangelistic and apologetic books are simply read by Christians. Now on the one hand, there's nothing wrong with that: Christians need to be equipped to share and defend their faith. But I wanted to write something that would actually be read by sceptics. The question was how.
"Then I came across a quote by CS Lewis. Asked why he had taken up writing fiction – like the Narnia books – Lewis explained that too often the front entrance to people's minds is guarded by 'watchful dragons': things like cynicism, pride, and poor arguments. But story and imagination could let you 'steal past those watchful dragons'. That was a revelatory moment for me: maybe I could use a whole different approach, something completely fresh, to engage with atheism."
Of The Atheist Who Didn't Exist, he says, "rather than creep past the dragon, it uses comedy and wit to tickle the dragon's nose, so that whilst it's busy laughing, we can bring truth in through the front door".
This sort of approach is badly needed, he believes. While in the UK the 'new atheism' movement may seem to have peaked, with culture warriors like Richard Dawkins getting less air time, Bannister – himself based in the US – believes that "many of the arguments of the New Atheists have gone viral, spreading like an infestation of Japanese knotweed into the culture". In other words, it's too often just assumes that the Dawkinsites have won: and "I felt there was a need to show that those arguments – whether those parroting them have read the New Atheists or not – are not just wrong, but laughably, comically wrong."
Bannister recognises that it isn't easy to be a Christian in a culture where the current is running so strongly against belief. However, he says: "It's important to remember that Christianity is based on truth claims – about who God is, about what it means to be human and, most importantly, about who Jesus was. Either those claims are true: in which case it doesn't matter how few people believe them – two plus two would remain four, even if I hypnotised the entire population of the world to believe that it was five. Or those claims are false, in which case it doesn't matter how many people believe it. In short, there's only one good reason to believe the gospel: and that's if it's true. So even if it's tough: hold on!"
But, he adds – and here again, his comments catch the tone of the book "Remember that questions cut both ways. If you have a sceptical friend or colleague who insists on throwing objections to the gospel at you, by all means patiently tackle them. But in all of this, keep in mind that arguments don't win somebody for Christ, ultimately Jesus needs to draw somebody to him. Arguments, can, however, help remove the obstacles that prevent somebody seeing Jesus clearly in the first place. And that's our job as followers, disciples and ambassadors of Christ – to introduce people to Jesus, and then to get out of the way."
The Atheist Who Didn't Exist is published by Lion Hudson, price £8.99.
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