Sunday, July 7, 2013

A Pierre Corneille Book Review: Kenneth W. Daniels, Why I Believed: Reflections of a Former Missionary"

(This is a reprint of a review I wrote for Goodreads a while back.  I have edited it.)

Kenneth W. Daniels is a former evangelical/fundamentalist missionary to Africa who lost his faith, convinced, he says, by reason and logic that evangelical/fundamentalist Christianity doesn't hold water. Almost all of the arguments he offers are the ones that any thoughtful atheist, agnostic, or theist has encountered, considered, and acknowledged, so there's really nothing new here for the thoughtful atheist, agnostic, or theist.  But it is a welcome critique of religious faith that doesn't rely on the tropes of Hitchensite anti-religionism. 

The weaknesses of the book, such as they are weaknesses, are few. His primary intended audience is those who are probably least likely to read the book, that is, those evangelical/fundamentalist Christians who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible. The arguments he offers are devastating to that particular approach to Christianity. He does engage other, less "fundamentalist" defenders of Christianity, such as C. S. Lewis, who, although an evangelical, certainly does not believe in the inerrancy of (most of) the Bible and who doesn't discount that humans may have evolved from "lesser" mammals.  But Daniels's argumentation is focused on addressing the possible objections that members of his primary intended audience might raise. In other words, he is not addressing straw man arguments--because those arguments exist among the audience he means to write for--but he does not delve as fully as do more self-consciously questioning theists. I'm not sure this counts as a "weakness" (he is clear about who his intended audience is), but the book leaves other readers where they probably were when they picked it up.

Another "weakness," if it is right to call it a weakness, is that Daniels does not seem to acknowledge (at least not to the extent that I would prefer) that his naturalistic worldview is based necessarily on unprovable assumptions. This is particularly clear when he spends much time debunking the alleged "miracles" that appear in the Bible. This debunking project is quite well done, but I would have liked him to go the extra mile and point out that miracles, by their very definition, are a-natural. In short, no one who subscribes completely to a naturalistic worldview could acknowledge a miracle even if it ambled up upon the water in their direction because in any such miracle "must have a reasonable explanation and if we don't know the explanation, then it's because we simply haven't uncovered it yet." Again, this isn't so much a weakness as it is a quality of the position for which Mr. Daniels argues so well.

What I liked best about this book is its humility and its tone. Daniels is not out to explain "how religion poisons everything." Rather, he remains consistently respectful to the persons whose worldview he challenges so well. Indeed, my own receptiveness to his book--I usually identify as "an agnostic who leans toward theism" or as an "apophatist"--causes me to wonder about my own antipathy to the atheist/agnostic/naturalist arguments. Perhaps I what I object to in these arguments is more the strident and bigoted tone of the Dawkins and Hitchens crowd than what they actually argue.

At any rate, this book is worth a read.

No comments: