Father Thomas D. Williams is author of Greater Than You Think, a direct answer to Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great), Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), and a whole host of others. Fr. Williams, a Catholic priest who teaches theology at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University in Rome, recently answered questions from National Review Online editor Kathryn Jean Lopez on God, man, and books. Kathryn Jean Lopez: There seem to be so many anti-God books on my bookshelf at once. What’s the occasion?
Fr. Thomas D. Williams: The two biggest factors at play are money and radical Islam. With The DaVinci Code, Dan Brown showed that atheism sells, and sparked a whole cottage industry in atheist literature. The neo-atheists authors jumped on the lucrative DaVinci bandwagon and are laughing all the way to the bank. Secondly, especially after 9/11, Americans are rightly petrified of what Islamic fundamentalists are willing to do to advance their agenda. The new atheists have exploited this fear of religious fanaticism and extended it to all religion, even moderate Christianity.
But this doesn’t mean that atheism per se is on the rise. The recent study of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life shows that atheists still make up a miniscule minority of Americans. Atheism isn’t growing. Atheists are just getting noisier.
Americans are curious and like to hear why atheists think the way they do. We are also into conspiracy theories and love to hear wild stories of cover-ups, especially when the bad guy is a big institution like the Church or government. Finally, for the many who have ceased actively practicing their faith, the neo-atheist books provide a veneer of respectability and justification for their inactivity.
Lopez: There also seem to be a lot of books in retaliation. What makes yours different? Fr. Williams: Mine is a simple, point-by-point rebuttal of the atheists’ central claims. I read through all the recent atheist literature (a little pre-Lenten penance!) and distilled the atheists’ accusations against God and religion into 27 theses. In my book, each atheist thesis forms a short chapter in which I respond head-on to the accusation. I think readers will find this to be a clear, helpful approach for understanding the crux of the neo-atheist arguments and having convincing answers at the ready.
Lopez: Is someone picking up your book going to have to agree that Catholicism is the one true faith?
Fr. Williams: Not at all. That isn’t the purpose of this book. It’s not an apologetics for the truth of Catholicism or even of Christianity more broadly. It is simply a dismantling of the atheists’ claims to show that they are based on myth, fallacy, and historical inaccuracy. From this, people can see that atheism isn’t a more “rational” worldview than religious belief; they are free to believe without feeling like they have adopted a less credible view of reality. In fact, it is more credible.
Lopez: How does Christopher Hitchens confuse you with an Islamofascist? Fr. Williams: Very cleverly. Hitchens writes well, and people who are taken in by his wordsmithery easily overlook his logical lacunae. He narrates detailed stories where religious people behave badly, and then applies that particular judgment to religion in general. In this way all religious believers are guilty by association of the crimes of the most fanatical. This is like blaming all Americans for Timothy McVeigh’s Oklahoma bombing or blaming all doctors for Jack Kevorkian’s medical misbehavior.
Lopez: What’s the most absurd point the atheist books make? Williams:There are so many it’s tough to choose just one. Among the more absurd is the accusation that parents who raise their children to believe in God are guilty of child abuse. This claim is especially worrisome because it demeans the gravity of real child abuse, and also seeks to impose an atheist standard on child-rearing. We easily forget how the imposition of atheism education failed so miserably in the former Soviet states. If the ACLU were really concerned about hate-mongering, they might say a word about these dangerous charges.
Lopez: What’s the best point they make? Fr. WilliAms: The best anti-God arguments are the classics — the ones that thoughtful people have wrestled with for millennia. Of these, the strongest is the existence of evil and the suffering of the innocent. Surprisingly, however, in their search for novelty our neo-atheist authors pay little attention to these more substantial arguments. They prefer to pit religion against science (a hopeless enterprise) and to make religion look like the culprit for all the world’s ills (another impossible task).
Lopez: So, say, you’re a typical Joe or Jane who believes and you are confronted with casual atheists at work, at school, at play. What do you do or say without being preachy? Or is preachy good? It usually doesn’t win fans in, say, the locker room though? Fr. Williams: There’s no need to be preachy. In my opinion, preachy is never good. The last thing we should do is assault a casual atheist with a battery of biblical quotations. This is a guaranteed turn-off. Sincere non-believers need to be heard, understood, and addressed with respect and seriousness. Again, I think the best way to do this is to first show that atheism does not hold the moral high ground, and that religious belief does not require a suspension of reason, but its full engagement. Sometimes it’s enough just to make people question their own assumptions and prejudices against religion. We don’t need to leave the locker room having made converts out of our agnostic friends. We need to start them re-thinking their position.
Lopez: Can you teach morality without religion? Does it work without religion?
Fr. Williams: Morality can be taught without religion, but experience shows that it rarely takes hold. Our nation’s Founders were convinced that morality without religious belief and practice is destined to fail, and this seems to be the case historically. But the important question isn’t so much whether morality is possible (in rare cases) without religion. A much better question is whether religion bolsters morality or undermines it. Here, the answer is patently clear: religion sustains and fortifies a moral citizenry by providing an ethical code, divine sanction, a standard for conduct, and the assurance of eternal justice.
Lopez: “WWJD?” is the popular expression. Can you pretend to know what he’d say, say, to Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins?
Fr. Williams: That depends. Jesus was quite indulgent with the sincerely erroneous, but severe with hypocrites. I don’t pretend to know the state of Hitchens’ soul or whether Dawkins really believes what he writes. I also don’t know what life experiences influenced their choice for atheism. I suspect, however, that Jesus would invite these men to openness to a greater truth, a truth that they cannot control or manipulate. This is a frightening endeavor, since it involves stepping into the unknown, but life without transcendence, without God, is the saddest of existences.
Lopez: What’s this pope got to offer Americans rich in a culture of hostility toward God — at least, it would seem, in the publishing industry?