Mitch Stokes and I have a number of things in common. We were both engineers before taking a left-turn (or perhaps a right-turn) into philosophical theology. We’re both conservative Reformed believers. We both think highly of the Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga. We both want to take the New Atheism seriously, but not too seriously. And we both think that A Shot of Faith (to the Head) provides powerful ammunition for believers who want to respond to outspoken critics and skeptics. There is, however, one regrettable difference between us: Stokes wrote the book, whereas I can only wish I’d written it.
A Shot of Faith (to the Head) essentially distills and popularizes Plantingan apologetics. Plantinga doesn’t style himself as a Christian apologist, or present his writings as primarily apologetical, yet he has devoted much of his career over the last five decades to defending the rationality of Christian faith. His books, while analytically rigorous and profound, are also remarkably lucid, accessible, and witty. Until now, however, no work has condensed and synthesized Plantinga’s arguments into one coherent apologetic targeted at the New Atheists and their ilk. Stokes’s book does exactly that, and with the same relaxed and playful humor that one finds in Plantinga’s writings.
The three parts of the book deal with three common objections to the Christian faith. Part 1 addresses the claim that belief in God is irrational. Stokes, senior fellow of philosophy at New Saint Andrews College, observes that this objection is usually planted in the soil of evidentialism, the idea that rational beliefs must always be based on evidence or arguments. He counters, rightly, that evidentialism is self-defeating. Some of our beliefs must be basic beliefs—not inferred from other beliefs—and such beliefs can be rational if “formed by a properly functioning cognitive faculty operating in the appropriate environment.” Following Plantinga’s lead, Stokes argues that if the “Christian epistemic story” is true, then the Christian’s belief in God will be both basic and rational. The pay-off: atheists cannot argue that theistic belief is irrational until they first show that the Christian story is false.
A short “intermission” after Part 1 considers the topic of arguments for the existence of God. Having shown that belief in God doesn’t need to be based on arguments, Stokes reflects on some ways in which theistic arguments may nevertheless be useful. While it’s unreasonable to demand irrefutable proof of God’s existence, we may still point to certain “clues” that show our theistic beliefs to be “plausible.” I confess I find this a rather weak position. I concur that a good theistic argument doesn’t have to be irrefutable, but surely we should expect the conclusions of our arguments to rise above the level of mere plausibility. If indeed the heavens declare the glory of God (Ps. 19:1), and God’s existence can be “clearly perceived” from the creation (Rom. 1:20), it would appear that God has given humans something stronger than “clues” about his existence.
Building on the conclusions of Part 1, the second half of the book deals with two alleged defeaters for belief in God: “Science Has Shown There’s No God” and “Evil and Suffering Show There’s No God.” (A defeater is a reason to abandon a belief or at least to hold it less firmly; in the case of belief in God, the most common potential defeaters are arguments against the existence of God.) On the science issue, Stokes makes some excellent points about the mythological war between religion and science (the Galileo affair serves as Exhibit A), about “God of the gaps” reasoning, and about confusing methodological naturalism with philosophical naturalism. In perhaps the strongest element of the discussion, Stokes argues that naturalism is actually hostile to the scientific method. Enlisting the unlikely help of the naturalist philosopher W. V. O. Quine, Stokes observes that science depends on mathematics, but the truths of mathematics presuppose the real existence of numbers, which are not “natural” (i.e., physical) entities. Stokes suggests, almost in passing, that numbers and other “Platonic Forms” can be can thought of as divine ideas; it would have been nice to see this argument spelled out in a little more detail.
Part 3 addresses two forms of the atheistic argument from evil: the “logical problem” (the existence of God is logically incompatible with the existence of evil) and the “probabilistic problem” (the existence of evil renders the existence of God very improbable). Stokes deploys Plantinga’s famous Free Will Defense to swiftly dispatch the first problem. Somewhat surprisingly for a Calvinist, Stokes endorses the FWD without qualification; the reader assumes that he shares Plantinga’s libertarian view of free will and contention that God must be limited by human free choices. In response to the probabilistic problem, Stokes argues the familiar line that the atheist is in no position to argue that God could have no morally sufficient reasons for permitting evil. Moreover, the Bible does give us a partial explanation for the evil and suffering the world, and that is enough to “hold us over” until the eschaton. The defense of Christian faith is finally rounded out with an offensive move: the atheist has a much stickier problem of evil to deal with, since on his view there can be no ultimate distinction between good and evil.
Each chapter ends with a bullet-point summary (“For Your Arsenal”) of the main points discussed in that chapter. These will serve as invaluable “quick references” for readers eager to apply the book’s arguments in their interactions with unbelievers.
I joked that this is a book I wish I’d written myself, although I would have taken a different tack at points. For example, I think Stokes too casually dismisses the Darwinian arguments against apparent design, and his characterization of the probabilistic argument from evil doesn’t do justice to the strongest formulations. The back-cover blurb claims that the book constructs “a simple yet solid case for Christian belief,” but this is an overstatement. Strictly speaking, the focus of the book is a defense of the rationality of theistic belief—and a fine defense it is. As such, I would happily recommend A Shot of Faith (to the Head) to any Christian who has been intimidated by the rhetoric of aggressive atheists. Stokes recognizes that his arguments are unlikely to persuade those atheists to change their misguided ways, but this book will undoubtedly assist and encourage any thoughtful Christian to be “a confident believer in an age of cranky atheists.”
James N. Anderson is assistant professor of theology and philosophy at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte and an ordained minister in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church.