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A Friendly Letter

By April 1, 2010 No Comments

There are few things in life that never disappoint. As a writer, David Myers is one of them. Here, once again, one finds his graceful writing and gracious manner, combined with a deep knowledge of psychological research and willing self-identification as a “faith-head” in the Reformed tradition. The letter is addressed to those, such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, who argue that religion as such is both false and toxic.

The “Why God is Good” part of the subtitle is somewhat misleading, for the emphasis is overwhelmingly on the “Faith Isn’t Evil” theme. With reference to the truth of religion, however, he makes the following points. First, human understanding is finite and no infallible guide. Click to purchase from Amazon Second, reason, human thought unaided by the divine help of Word and Spirit, has the right to be decisive, but only so far as we can test. Third, the bad behavior of believers doesn’t show their beliefs to be false any more than the atrocities of Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot show atheism to be false. Fourth, in the final analysis, faith (like unbelief) is a leap insofar as conclusive, unambiguous evidence is not available.

Most of the book is devoted to a response to the charge that religion is toxic or dangerous. This defense takes place on two broad fronts. The first of these is a reply to the claim that religion is anti-science. The argument is partly conceptual, partly historical, and partly contemporary. Conceptually the claim is that there is no inherent conflict between monotheistic faith and experimental science. In fact, the counter-claim is made that many of the findings of the sciences are not only consistent with theistic belief but also fit quite nicely with claims about nature and human nature made on theological grounds.

Historically the point is the familiar one that many of the greatest creators of what we know as modern science were in fact believers in a creator God. The contemporary point is simply that this continues to be true. Myers nicely uses his own school, Hope College, as a case in point. Firmly rooted in the Reformed branch of the Christian faith, it is widely known for the excellence of its science departments and for the quantity and quality of serious scientific research by its students, not just its faculty.

The second front we can broadly call behavioral. Myers concedes that terrible things have been done and continue to be done in the name of religion; then he places that dismal history in a fourfold context. First, the religious notion of sin provides the best explanation for these phenomena. From a theological point of view it is, unfortunately, not surprising. Second, the Bible recognizes that religious profession does not render the believers immune to sin and therefore, both the Old and New Testament carry on a sustained critique of religion run amok. On pain of plagiarism, secular critiques should footnote Jesus and the prophets. Third, the extremes of good and evil tend to cancel each other out when the question is whether religion is socially harmful or helpful. The Klan doesn’t show that religion is inherently detrimental to society any more than Mother Theresa shows that it is necessarily a social good. Fourth, Myers suggests that we bracket the extremes of good and evil done in the name of religion and look at ordinary believers in between. He reviews the research on a wide variety of issues, including divorce, smoking, crime, prejudice, volunteering, generosity, happiness, and health. The result is that religion comes off looking pretty good. The spirit of these analyses is shown in the following passage: “Late on a Friday night you are walking alone down a deserted city street. Several older teen males emerge from a building you have just passed and start walking behind you. Based on these data and on what your gut tells you, would you feel more or less threatened if you knew that they were leaving a Bible study class” (73).

David’s letter is not likely to end the debate that the likes of Dawkins and Hitchens have tried to stir up. But his is a voice that deserves to be heard by believers and unbelievers alike.

Merold Westphal is the Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Fordham University, Bronx, New York.