How to Be an Atheist: Why Many Skeptics Aren't Skeptical Enough

By Mitch Stokes

Publisher: Crossway

A review by Jack Kettler

A brief bio:

Mitch Stokes (PhD, Notre Dame) is a senior fellow of philosophy at New St. Andrews College in Moscow, Idaho. In addition to studying philosophy under world-renowned philosopher Alvin Plantinga, Stokes holds degrees in religion and mechanical engineering, and holds five patents in aeroderivative gas turbine technology.

What others are saying:

How to Be an Atheist is the best popular discussion of the (alleged) conflict between science and religion that I have ever read. The book is well written, well organized, and philosophically sophisticated. Moreover, the author’s knowledge of science, the history of science, and the history of ‘the conflict between science and religion’ is admirably suited to his purpose. Above all, the book is accessible. No reader who is interested in questions about the relation between science and religion will have any difficulty in following the author’s arguments.” - Peter van Inwagen, John Cardinal O’Hara Professor of Philosophy, University of Notre Dame

“How many times has atheistic naturalism appeared to be a charade, like a shell game where you never seem to see all the steps of the process? Or how frequently have you been told that atheists are too soft—that they must be even more rigorously skeptical? But then when they do follow their own system, there is nothing left with which to build their worldview! Get ready—you’re embarking on a challenging journey here. In this volume, Mitch Stokes uncovers issue after issue where atheistic naturalism looks more like the king who wore no clothes, and Stokes is the one to give him the message! This is must reading—I recommend it highly!” - Gary R. Habermas, Distinguished Research Professor and Chair, Philosophy Department, Liberty University

“I’ve been saying for years that professional skeptics are not skeptical enough, that they are selective in their skepticism, and that if they ever turned their skeptical faculties on their own skepticism and the materialist worldview that almost invariably comes attached to it, they would see the house of cards they’ve built collapse of its own internal inadequacies. Mitch Stokes, in this incisive book, does a wonderful job filling in the details to this charge against skepticism.” - William A. Dembski, Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture, Discovery Institute; author, Being as Communion

 “Opponents of Christianity have often claimed that science disproves the God of the Bible. But actual scientists and philosophers of science have been far more modest, expressing serious reservations about the use of science to prove anything about the origin and ultimate nature of the world. In this book, Stokes expresses a deep respect for science, but like the best scientists themselves, is carefully skeptical about the idea that science is our final gateway to truth. He also argues that despite all recent claims to the contrary, morality does not make sense without God. The book deals with some highly technical matters in a learned way, but with wit and clarity. I profited from it very much.” - John M. Frame, J. D. Trimble Chair of Systematic Theology and Philosophy, Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando

“Mitch Stokes takes the so-called new atheists out to the intellectual woodshed. His clear and powerful double whammy against atheism—it is difficult to ground morality in science, and it is difficult to ground science on atheism—shows just how much faith it takes to be an atheist.” - Kelly James Clark, Senior Research Fellow, Kaufman Interfaith Institute; The Honors Program, Brooks College

The foreword is by J. P. Moreland (PhD, University of Southern California) is distinguished professor of philosophy at Biola University. He is an author of, contributor to, or editor of over ninety books, including The Soul: How We Know It's Real and Why It Matters.

I purchased this book at the Atlanta G3 Reformation Conference this years in January. I’m still amazed that I procrastinated about buying it. The book is a gold mine of material to use in debates with atheists. The book is logically structured into three parts: Sense and Reason, Science, and Morality.

“One of atheism’s virtues is its avowed skepticism. (I cannot, in fact, think of another virtue at the moment.) Yet many unbelievers, it seems to me, don't take their skepticism seriously enough. I find this puzzling.” (14) Stokes makes a compelling case in this book for good old fashioned skepticism. Skepticism can be especially beneficial when considering our senses and their epistemological unreliability. This may be why P.T. Barnum said, a sucker is born every minute.    

Stokes in part one: “Sense and Reason” explains what it means to be skeptical about our senses, induction, deductive and reason in general. In this section, Stokes interacts with the writings of the Scottish philosopher David Hume. After surveying some of Hume’s reasons for skepticism, Stoke asks, how can we know that we’re not just brains in a vat like portrayed in the movie The Matrix? Epistemology is the study of how we know things. Does our epistemology get us beyond absolute skepticism? Stokes closes the first chapter in this section with an important observation: “There are people who think that these epistemological considerations are mere niceties. But they are not niceties. Any debate about God’s existence that ignores them will go well purely by accident. To put it differently, epistemology is our friend.” (42)

In part two: “Science” Stokes argues for the importance of thinking and arguing philosophically about science in particular. He brings up Isaac Newton, and David Hume, who both believed that science must be restricted to speaking about what can be observed empirically even though the senses can be notoriously unreliable. For example, David Hume would no doubt agree that that knowledge comes through the senses in the following order: (a) sensations (b) perceptions (c) memory images, (d) development of abstract ideas. Perceptions are inferences from sensations. Hume and other empiricists would never be able to answer how you know valid from invalid inferences? Hume’s rigid scientific observationalism is deficient and thus the need for other epistemological avenues is established.

Stokes makes a valuable analysis in the section: “Rather, my point in part 2 is that anyone who takes skepticism seriously should also be skeptical about the claim that science is somehow in conflict with God’s existence.” (79)    

In part three: “Morality” Stokes systematically demonstrates that science is nearly bankrupt on issues like reason, knowledge and sense perception and common sense skepticism. Has science really shown that reality is ultimately materialistic? Or, has science proved that there is no God? Stokes argues that “if atheism or naturalism were true, and the realm of science were ‘all that is or ever was or ever will be’, then our common-sense morality is completely undone” (151).

In the final section Stokes wraps up his case against atheism with many observations such as: “Suppose I’m correct and the premise If naturalism is true then nihilism is true is itself true. Perhaps then we should give up the belief that naturalism is true. That is, maybe whatever convinced us of naturalism is itself wrong. Say, for example, we believe that science shows that God doesn’t exist. Well maybe, if we can’t block the inference from naturalism to nihilism, this might give us enough reason to question whether science really shows that there’s no God (in addition to the reasons we saw in part 2). In any case, if naturalism implies nihilism, then a consistent naturalist must either accept moral or else give up naturalism. Of course, most do neither.” (229, 230)

If atheists were more skeptical, they would never fall for the logically impossible to prove universal negative assertion “there is no God.” In conclusion, how does an atheist find meaning in life if the connection between naturalism and nihilism is unavoidable? One atheist cited in Stokes book suggested taking prescription anti depressant drugs to carry on with an ultimate meaningless life short of suicide.

The Scriptures truly do speak wisdom: “The fool hath said in his heart, there is no God. They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that doeth good.” (Psalm 14:1)

I highly recommend this book. It should be in every Christian’s library.

Mr. Kettler is the owner of a conservative web hub and the author of the new book, The Religion That Started in a Hat: A Reference Manual for Christians who Witness to Mormons that is available at Amazon.