Book Review: Unbelievable?

I really like the idea of Justin Brierley’s podcast “Unbelievable?” Bringing together opposing viewpoints for reasonable discussion is exactly what we do in the Atheist Christian Book Club, so when we read Brierley’s book, also titled Unbelievable?, I felt legitimately optimistic. Surely Brierley’s ten years of mediating between theists and atheists would refine his own beliefs, weeding out the weakest arguments and leaving only the sturdiest pillars of faith for his readers to consider. Sadly, I found that Brierley’s arguments were oddly focused on unquantifiable inklings and hunches, and not enough on hard evidence.

A big theme of Unbelievable? is what I call the argument from “there’s just got to be more!” I’m sure there’s a more formal name for this fallacy, but Brierley continually assumes that, because mankind searches for a higher power or a greater purpose, this indicates there is a power or purpose to be found. In chapter 2, Brierley says that, despite scientific discoveries regarding human origins, he “can’t escape a conviction that the order, elegance, and majesty of the universe and our existence within it is crying out for an explanation beyond itself.” He quotes a psalm where David stands in awe of the vastness of the universe, but rather than being humbled by mankind’s seeming insignificance on the cosmic scale, Brierley promotes David’s “sense of purpose” and “belief that he was made in God’s image” – as if believing it makes it so.

Some of Brierley’s support for his faith comes from feelings so vague they could be used to prop up almost any belief. He recounts the stories of people who found God in pop music and poetry, rainbows and romance. He treats childbirth, one of the most well-studied areas of medicine, as pure magic. Has no one pointed out to Brierley that, even if we grant his “evidence”, they don’t point to any particular religious persuasion, or perhaps not even to God at all?

At times Brierley shows plain, unadorned ignorance, presenting fallacious arguments and patent untruths that I can’t believe have gone ten years without being corrected. He claims that the second law of thermodynamics would inhibit evolution, ignoring that the Earth is not a closed system so the law does not apply. He seems to believe that anything that provides hope is good by default, but he doesn’t make the connection that not everything that provides hope is true. He adds “legend” to C.S. Lewis’ “liar, lunatic, Lord” trilemma, but he applies this only to mythicism, never addressing the idea that Jesus’ exploits could have grown legendary after his death. At one point, in two sentences Brierley manages to confuse weak and strong atheism and assert quantity over quality for theistic arguments:

Atheism … has an overall much shorter list of arguments of its own in favour of a naturalistic worldview, the prime one being the argument from suffering.

In this respect, I’ve often felt that the weight of arguments in favour of theism is frequently underappreciated by sceptics. They may dispute their validity, but the preponderance of arguments tips the scales towards belief in God.

It’s confounding statements like this that make me lose any respect I may have had for Brierley at the outset. He touts his impartial debate moderation, and this may be the case, but his book shows all the confirmation bias and bad-faith arguments I’ve come to expect from apologetic authors.