A Shot Of Faith To The Head Paperback – Apr 16 2012
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About the Author
Mitch Stokes is a Fellow of Philosophy at New St. Andrews College in Moscow, Idaho. He received his Ph.D. in philosophy from Notre Dame under the direction of Alvin Plantinga and Peter van Inwagen. At Yale, he earned an M.A. in religion under the direction of Nicholas Wolterstorff. He also holds an M.S. in mechanical engineering and, prior to his philosophy career, worked for an international engineering firm where he earned five patents in aeroderivative gas turbine technology. He and his wife, Christine, have four children.
Top Customer Reviews
You'll find a variety of books on how to go about apologetics, but Mitch Stokes goes the extra mile in bringing you deeper into the intellect. With pointers at the end of each chapter, and a smooth progression from the first chapter to the last, you'll equip yourself at a higher level intellectually to grapple with the most difficult of non-believers. It is with a gracious heart that I recommend this book to any serious student of apologetics and philosophy; it is an invaluable resource and an assisting tool for the primary discipline of evangelism. Mitch Stokes, you've written what is now one of my favourite academic books.
I've received this complimentary book from the Thomas Nelson Publishing House through the Book Sneeze program in exchange for a review. A positive review was not required and the views expressed in my review are strictly my own.
As part of helping to equip Christians to be able to defend their faith, the author introduces the reader to the work of Alvin Plantinga, and to a lesser degree, Nicholas Wolterstorf and Peter van Inwagen. These are three very intelligent and articulate Christians who also happen to be stellar philosophers by anyone's measure and who successfully defend their Christianity in the academy. One of the key ideas Stokes brings forward is the idea of warrant. Plantinga argues (and Stokes boils it down for the reader) that there is reasonable warrant for belief in God and that, far from what the new atheists claim, and which they themselves cannot live consistently with, not everything ought to be disbelieved until proven by incontrovertible and observable fact. Stokes shows how Plantinga argues convincingly that there is much in life and thought that people, including the new atheists, take on the testimony of someone else or by the authority of a document (like the time and place of their birth, or who their parents are).Read more ›
Shortly into the book, Mr. Stokes accuses atheists of not being "humble." What does he call the Vatican with its billions of dollars of wealth, the huge churches in the United States, the 60-foot crosses by the highways, the blockbuster movies about Noah and heaven, the robes, the gold crosses, the constant begging for money for the glory of God, and the call to arms for religious war? Is this what Mr. Stokes thinks of as humble? Apparently, he does.
I haven't got enough time or space to point out all of the poor arguments and comments in this book. If you like to have faith without question, then this is the book for you. If you like to question and think about what a writer is saying, then this book will frustrate you with its sad logic.
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He does not directly confront God's wrongdoings described in the Bible, other than denying that God is capable of evil. But this goes against a plain reading of the text where God in the OT initiates mass slaughter, and in the NT condemns to eternal torment those who are not persuaded to accept Jesus. So it appears that the God on offer is a sanitized deity, not the Christian God, the God of the Bible.
As does William Lane Craig, Stokes finds a defeater-defeater in the writings of Plantinga. Drawing on Thomas Aquinas and Calvin, Plantinga hypothesizes that God has implanted in all humans a sense, the sensus divinitatis (sd), by which we know God innately. Like the beliefs formed from the perceptions of our sense organs, the awareness of God from the sd is a basic belief which requires no evidence. The sensed God is not just a general deity but the Christian God. How does Plantinga deduce the Christian God? Apparently, only Christianity can account for the absence of God's presence in some people, via the doctrine of original sin (a dogma inconsistent with evolution, not a problem for fundamentalist Christians). Inherited sin impairs the functioning of the sd, a function which can be restored only by the third member of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. At this point, Plantinga has unloaded the entire Christian package.
Stokes would have his fundamentalist cohorts tell me that , despite my unawareness or denial, I am a Christian. The Christian God has inserted a sensor which, if properly operating, tells me immediately that God exists and Jesus died for my sins. If I have not had this experience it is only because I have not allowed the Holy Spirit to repair my sd by freeing me from the sin passed from my parents. Nonbelievers will see this as a procrustean contrivance, presumptuous and ludicrous. Plantinga's scheme is supposed to relieve the believer from providing evidence, but it is mere speculation, leaving the Christian worse off in trying to justify it. There is no need to fill a nonexistent gap with God. There are credible naturalistic explanations for the feeling of the presence of a deity.
An example of how the grip of a religious ideology can blind believers to reality appears on pp. 220-21. Plantinga and Stokes inform us that the very notions of rationality and belief can exist only if theism (specifically Christian) is true. (Christian rationality is displayed by denial of biological evolution and global warming.)
Stokes makes dubious claims:
o Evidentialism is "false" (p. 9). Even accepting foundationalism, it is appropriate to ask for evidence when not discussing basic beliefs.
o "Science, too, is based on faith" (p. 37). An old refrain. Science does not go in with an assumption that the universe is lawlike. Science comes out with that as a (provisional) discovery.
o Science assumes methodological naturalism (pp. 128-30). A supernatural explanation is not precluded. Where there is an unanswered question, science acknowledges ignorance. Experience has shown that plugging a gap with a god is premature. (Theists rush in where scientists fear to tread.)
o "Scientists stop looking for an explanation whenever the believe they've found one" (p. 141). More a description of religion than science. Science never stops looking, but continues to confirm or disconfirm, to hypothesize and test.
o There are no "independent reasons to believe in" a multiverse (p.156). Some theories predict a multiverse (cosmic inflation, string theory). "There is no physical evidence for" a multiverse (p. 156). Wait for the science!
As noted, Stokes does not defend the misdeeds of God we find in the Bible. Other challenges go unaddressed:
o A lack of historical support for Bible events.
o The free will defense does not save God from responsibility for childhood cancer and tsunamis.
o "The God that failed" arguments: (1) Jesus's unfulfilled prediction of his return. (Circumventing this problem has taxed the ingenuity of theologians.) (2) Reconciliation of an omni-God, who wants everyone to accept Jesus, with (a) An ineffective revelation which left a legacy of multiple interpretations and denominations, and (b) After 2000 years, two thirds of the world remains non- Christian.
Stokes writes well and clearly; unfortunately in the service of a Christian story which does not survive scrutiny.
Over the past decade, New Atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Victor J. Stenger have answered these questions affirmatively. Their best-selling books have promoted the ideas that Christian faith is based on insufficient evidence; that in light of scientific advances, God is a "failed hypothesis"; and that suffering--when not actively caused by believers--disproves God's existence.
Stokes disagrees. Building on the philosophical insights of Alvin Plantinga (who blurbs the book), Stokes argues that theistic belief is rational, that science points to a designed universe (and where there's a design, there's a Designer), and that the problem of evil actually points to an incoherence in atheism (for how can there be moral law without a Moral Lawgiver?). One-sentence summaries don't do justice to the nuances of Stokes's arguments, but they point in the right general direction.
Although New Atheists can read this book with profit, its subtitle points to Stokes's intended readers, namely, Christians. He aims to help them "be a confident believer in an age of cranky atheists" (and I would've added, "atheist cranks"). It is less a book of apologetics, then, than a book about apologetics. And that's a shame, for the Christian book market is saturated with apologetics books written for Christians, and Stokes writes clearly and winsomely enough to directly engage nonbelieving readers. Nevertheless, the book is still worth reading, if only for its discussion of evidentialism.
In epistemology, evidentialism is the notion that, "to be rational, a belief must be supported by sufficient evidence." The "evidentialist objection" to theistic belief is that it "is not supported by sufficient evidence and therefore is not rational." Some Christian apologists subscribe to evidentialism and think Christianity crosses the evidentialist threshold for rationality. Following Plantinga, however, Stokes argues that evidentialism itself is self-defeating, since the chain of evidence for it--or for any other belief--will be circular or infinitely regressive, or will terminate in a basic belief that requires no further evidence. Since circular reasoning and infinite regresses do not produce knowledge, for evidentialism to work, it must be grounded in a basic belief, a belief which requires no evidence. Which means that evidentialism is a belief that doesn't have sufficient evidence. Obviously, that's a problem for evidentialism.
Thankfully, there's a better way to understand rationality. Again, following Plantinga, Stokes argues that "a rational belief is one formed by a properly functioning cognitive faculty operating in the appropriate environment." If, for example, my eyes are working properly and there is enough daylight for me to see clearly, I will form the belief, when I look out my window, that there are cars parked outside my office building. I don't need to infer this belief from other beliefs or provide a chain of evidence for it. Such a perception is a basic belief. There are many other kinds of beliefs that are basic in this way: beliefs formed on memory, for example, or testimony or personal experience. Perhaps, Stokes argues (again following Plantinga), belief in God is also such a basic belief that doesn't need an argument, let alone "sufficient evidence," to render it rational for the believer.
As Stokes point out, basic beliefs have potential "defeaters." Perhaps, for example, my perception of cars in the parking lot below has been caused by a holograph that my coworkers pasted to my windows. Stokes interprets science and evil as potential defeaters for belief in God, but offers arguments for thinking that both potential defeaters are unsuccessful, based on the design of the universe and existence of a moral law. While a believer can be rational in the absence of such arguments or evidences for faith, Stokes nonetheless thinks arguments can be helpful in clearing away objections and in shoring up a Christian's faith.
How, then, should a Christian use this book? In two ways, one intended by Stokes and another not. The intended way is as a manual in Christian apologetics. The unintended way is as an introduction to Alvin Plantinga's epistemology and philosophical theology. Either way, I highly recommend this book to Christian readers.
It turns out, however, that only one or two layers beneath the overly confident surface lies a surfeit of good ideas. With a little guided and informed examination it is revealed that their bark does not measure up to their bite. Mitch Stokes' book is that examination, and is a very well-guided tour of the problems with the so-called new atheists.
But the book begins in an unexpected place. In fact, I'm not sure I have read a non-technical or popular level book on Christian thought or apologetics that begins where he does. You might expect a book like this to open by dealing with the major arguments for God's existence or the reliability of Scripture or even a blow-by-blow examination of the new atheist's arguments. Instead, Stokes begins with the issues of argument, reason, and knowledge in the first place. Specifically he uses the epistemological work of Alvin Plantinga to argue against the evidentialism, Enlightenment rationalism, and scientific provincialism inherent (and necessary) to the work of the new atheists. In essence, he pulls the rug out from underneath their entire scheme.
From there Stokes deals with what are probably the two most popular and potent attacks on the faith - the assertion that science has `disproved God' and the problem of evil. Both sections are rich with table-turning insight and are profitable for anyone who has confronted these arguments or even doubted because of them.
If you are accustomed to a Christian apologetic being primarily about various arguments, you might end up a little frustrated with Stokes' take on their role and usefulness. He does not get rid of the baby with the bathwater, so to speak, but he does see a need for good arguments to bolster the reasonableness of faith. If I have a quibble with the book it is that I might place more emphasis on the power and usefulness of the arguments themselves, but that did not get in the way of the value of this work for me.
If you are worried because you don't know what any of that means, you are in luck. Though his book will force you to think and slow down a bit, it is entirely readable and accessible if you are ready to do so. I thoroughly enjoyed discovering this book, its treatment of Plantinga's ideas, and it thorough treatment of the new atheists and their arguments.
Stokes states that he wrote this book to encourage the believer and even possibly help anyone toying with doubt, and I think he has done a wonderful job.
The book is divided into three sections, each one addressing a different argument for atheism: that belief in God is irrational, that science has shown that God doesn't exist, and that the existence of evil in the world shows that God doesn't exist.
One of Stokes's central tasks here is deconstructing evidentialism - the argument that any belief must be supported by sufficient evidence to be rational, and which is used to criticize belief in God. This is probably the highlight of the book. In fact, Stokes generally does an excellent job of picking apart atheistic arguments. He doesn't do near as good a job, however, on his pro-Christian arguments, which are often too cursory. That this book was put together solely with Christians in mind makes this understandable (Stokes explicitly assumes a Christian worldview on the part of the reader), but it also means that this isn't really a book you can hand to your atheist friend to read.
While he covers a wide range of atheist scientists and philosophers in his discussions, Stokes leans too heavily on Plantinga for his pro-Christian arguments. A Shot of Faith to the Head thusly serves well enough as an introduction to Plantinga, but it would have been nice to get some other perspectives. However, Plantinga is always Stokes's go-to guy.
A Shot of Faith to the Head will be accessible to any reasonably educated person without a philosophy degree, but it may prove a great deal of work for the reader, as the philosophical and logical concepts here tend to be complex. The summaries at the end of each chapter are helpful in this regard, but the reader will still have a great deal of cognitive processing to do.
On the whole, Stokes's refutation of various atheistic arguments and defense of a rational belief are solid, and A Shot of Faith to the Head is a challenging but worthwhile book.
* * * * *
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze.com book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."
"The purpose of this book is to take a few of the most important intellectual weapons, tactics, and strategies from recent Christian philosophy and put them in your hands" (Kindle Loc. 298-99).
"Notice that the goal here isn't to convince atheists to believe in God; it's to train you to handily defend yourself. Yet sometimes the best defense is a good offense" (Kindle Loc. 302-4).
"The book you hold in your hands covers what I think are the most important topics in the debate between Christianity and atheism. The answers it provides aren't simply intellectual niceties, areas of interest to only philosophers or academics. Rather they're strategic answers to questions and objections we've all encountered" (Kindle Loc. 309-11).
Having established this, Stokes' book is split into 3 parts:
Defending belief in God in light of philosophy and logic
Defending belief in God in light of science
Defending belief in God in light of evil and suffering
In each part, Stokes carries the reader on a journey of discovery that leads to the realization that each of these fields of inquiry are actually better suited for theism than atheism. At the end of each chapter are short summary statements titled "For Your Arsenal" that give a clear snapshot of the ground covered. Through it all, Stokes interacts not just with the ideas in abstract, but with the actual writings of atheists like Victor Stenger, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens. He knows his way around the literature, and it shows.
While I anticipated to some degree where Stokes would go with both the science and evil chapters, I was pleasantly surprised at some new arguments he presents from the realm of mathematics and physics. These make a unique contribution to defending the faith that even I, as someone who studied this kind of thing in depth in seminary, hadn't quite run across yet. I will probably be re-reading some of those particular chapters to make sure the ideas have gotten embedded well in my own arsenal!
One bone I might pick with the method in this book is Stokes' critique of circularity. In essence, Stokes is explaining the concept of "properly basic beliefs" as a way around circularity (or more properly, to avoid it). These beliefs are those that
haven't been reasoned to at all, beliefs that are not supported by other beliefs by way or arguments. All reasoning needs a place to stand, a foundation. These foundational beliefs (for example, ordinary sense beliefs) are called properly basic beliefs because they're the basis of all our other beliefs (Kindle Loc. 579-81).
Stokes then makes the point that when our sensus divintatis (see Romans 1) is working properly, we can treat these basic beliefs as reliable. A corollary to that is that a properly working sensus divintatis (i.e. one that has been regenerated by the Holy Spirit) leads to the properly basic belief in God.
Because I come from the more Van Tillian/Framean school of apologetics, I am more comfortable with circularity and see it as unavoidable for everyone. I can see where Stokes is coming from by opting for properly basic beliefs as the stopping point (or foundation) to avoid the circle, but I just don't think it does. If these properly basic beliefs are self-authenticating, then we've grounded our ability to reason internally and we've avoided the circle only by making ourselves the foundation for rationality (despite claiming that God giving us the sensus divinitatis is what keeps our belief forming mechanism working properly). I would rather admit we all have circular belief systems, and then transcendentally compare circles. But, in the end, I'm a little more open to this Plantigan approach after reading Stokes and may need to revisit the issue in the coming months.
Later, to point out a conceptual bone to so speak, Stokes makes this puzzling statement in regard to the Holy Spirit's connection with our belief forming abilities:
"Notice that, whereas we would have a sensus divnitatis even had we not fallen into sin (albeit one that worked properly), regeneration is needed only because we fell. To put it crassly, whereas the sensus divinitatis comes standard, the Holy Spirit's work is an aftermarket option" (Kindle Loc. 1233-36).
Giving the benefit of the doubt, I can see the point Stokes is making. However, given the target audience who more likely than not doesn't have a rich Trinitarian theology in mind, this can make it seem like there is a scenarios where the Holy Spirit would have nothing to do. Or worse, that in the Garden prior to the Fall, the Holy Spirit had nothing to do. Certainly there was no regenerative work, but there was work internal and external to man prior to the fall into sin.
Also in this regard to puzzling statements, late in the book in one of the chapters on the problem of evil, Stokes says,
"When God's Son was crucified some two thousand years ago by the Roman government, the eternal relationship between the Father and Son was severed. This is why the cross is so horrific. To be sure, the physical suffering was genuine suffering, but that suffering was negligible compared to the pain of losing this infinitely close relationship" (Kindle Loc. 3508-9).
As I remarked in my review of Forsaken, you can't say things like this. In effect, Stokes affirmed the death of God by saying the Father-Son relationship was severed. However, I think this goes to show more that people with doctorates in philosophy can still make logical missteps here and there, than that Stokes actually believes this is what happens. For the larger point that he is making (God took drastic action to deal with sin and evil), it is not necessary to move beyond the text of Scripture and posit a ruptured Trinitarian relationship.
In the scope of the book, these are really minor criticisms. On the whole, I really enjoyed this book and would heartily recommend it for its larger goal. It is a very enjoyable read, and Stokes is a great writer. He takes at times complicated philosophical and scientific arguments and makes them easily understandable. As he says in the book's acknowledgements:
"The book's intent is...to address the recent avalanche of writings by belligerent atheists - atheists with ridiculously unwarranted confidence in the strength of their arguments. Additionally, the book still intends to boost the confidence of believers, particularly those who have been misled to believe that these militant atheists are at least writing in good faith, that they really have reason to sound so darn confident" (Kindle Loc. 3896-99).
Judged against that standard, this book is resounding success. Aside from the couple of missteps I pointed out (and the first of those may just be own methodological quibble) this book is an excellence defense of the faith. I liked it so much in fact that I decided to adopt it for my own apologetics class this coming year. It seems ideal for late high school, early college students, and I'd like to see just how effective it is in that regard.
[You're reading this review because I got a eReview copy through BookSneeze]