Book Review: Is God Just a Human Invention?

As a member of our local Atheist Christian Book Club, I’ve had the opportunity to delve back into the world of Christian apologetics, an area I haven’t touched since high school. It’s interesting to see what new ideas are out there, as well as what hasn’t changed in the last 15 years. Most recently, our group reviewed Is God Just a Human Invention? by Sean McDowell (son of well-known apologist Josh) and Jonathan Morrow. I was hoping that the breadth of topics covered by this book would yield some interesting new thoughts to consider, but I left feeling disappointed. McDowell and Morrow express little in the way of original thoughts, and when they do veer off the approved apologetic script, the results are unconvincing and best and downright shameful at worst.

I sometimes wonder why new apologetics books are published if they’re just going to repeat the same arguments ad infinitum. The very first chapter claims that theism is making a roaring comeback on college campuses, once bastions of godlessness, bolstered by “new insights and evidence” that have “brought new vitality to theism.” So what are these brand-new, earth-shattering ideas that have academia in such a tizzy? The cosmological argument! The argument from design! The argument from morality! Have the authors never read another apologetics text? Hell, the cosmological argument is at least a thousand years old! “The New Atheists can only ignore these arguments for so long,” they say. Well, the New Atheists haven’t been ignoring them, but even they were, there have been rebuttals of these arguments around for as long as believers have been repeating them. Perhaps, unlike McDowell and Morrow, they’re hesitant to tread the same well-worn paths.

Many of McDowell and Morrow’s arguments simply don’t work, or even make the opposite case. In a chapter about Christianity’s reputation for sexual repression, the authors assert, in Italics even, that “God is pro-sex!” The rest of the chapter details that God is specifically pro-heterosexual sex within the confines of marriage, which pretty much confirms the argument they think they’re debunking. Chapter 2 posits that the human brain is prone to error and unreliable, while Chapter 3 mocks atheists who would deny a miracle that happened in front of them. If our brains are so easily deceived, why would we not be skeptical of a seemingly impossible occurrence?

The most painful part of the book is watching McDowell and Morrow argue themselves in knots trying to rationalize biblical atrocities. In a chapter defending biblical slavery (!) McDowell and Morrow make the absurd claim that “God can’t just eradicate slavery all at once and still retain human freedom.” In other words, we cannot outlaw an institution that oppresses human beings because that would be oppressive to human beings? This isn’t the only conundrum. In a chapter about genocide in the Old Testament, the authors point to the Canaanite ritual of child sacrifice as justification for God’s command that Israel’s warriors “not leave alive anything that breathes“, which presumably would include children. Strangely, the authors don’t even touch on the slaughter of the Amalekites, where Saul is lambasted for not killing literally everything and everyone. Plus, there’s that whole worldwide flood thing. As a former Christian, I can sympathize with the authors, as it is indeed difficult to reconcile the barbaric God of the Old Testament with the New Testament’s God of love.

That said, McDowell and Morrow lose my sympathy when their arguments become disingenuous and insulting. When they hold up serial killer Ted Bundy as the inevitable result of atheistic immorality, or they quote “atheistic philosopher Frederick Nietzsche (who was carefully read by Hitler)” it becomes clear they are more interested in poisoning the well then having an authentic discussion. Perhaps more disturbing, in the previously-mentioned chapter on sexual repression, the authors have the audacity to claim that date rape – date rape – is no big deal outside of Christian morality. They paraphrase Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse in wondering why atheists would ever care about rape on college campuses:

When people go on dates, the frequently find themselves participating in many activities they don’t particularly want to do. Why is it a crisis, she asks, to get forced into sex, but not a crisis to get forced into eating Chinese food when you really wanted Mexican? Why aren’t there “basketball game date crisis centers” for students to visit after being dragged to a basketball game they didn’t want to attend?

How can anyone make these comparisons with a straight face? Have McDowell and Morrow never met a rape victim? Do they lack such a concept of a woman’s bodily autonomy, or even a basic human empathy, that the only thing keeping them from a libidinous rape parade is a WWJD bracelet? Or do they call the police in tears every time they get dragged to brunch with their wives’ friends, because that’s just like rape?

The authors do provide one passage worth special emphasis, as it sums up apologetics, intelligent design, and the whole of Christian ignorance in a single paragraph. McDowell and Morrow spend a chapter discussing the fine-tuning argument, and along the way they chastise science and its pesky desire to know stuff:

Can scientists only accept explanations that have further explanations? The problem with this objection is that it is always possible to ask for a further explanation. There comes a point, however, when scientists must deny the request for further explanation and accept the progress they have made. If the universe looks designed, why not accept design as the most plausible explanation, even if we can’t explain the Designer?

Oh, science! Hasn’t the time come to rest on your laurels? After all, we’ve already learned that the sun orbits the Earth, diseases are caused by imbalances of the humours, and everything around us is made from exactly five elements. Take a break – you’ve earned it!

The ultimate flaw in Is God Just a Human Invention? is its very thesis. McDowell and Morrow go specifically after the “New Atheists,” presumably because they think all atheists get their marching orders from the dastardly Four Horsemen. In reality, Dawkins doesn’t speak for all atheists. Neither do Hitchens, Dennett, or Harris. This isn’t to say that atheists are immune from dogma or demagoguery, but I would hope that anyone who is skeptical enough to become an atheist would also be discerning enough to understand that no one person or book has all the answers.