Posts Tagged ‘John Blanchard’

Defending Dawkins

2009/09/25

I recently came across Bettynoirbettyblanc’s blog, and this post in particular, where she discusses her problem with Richard Dawkins. I was composing a response to post in the discussion, but it grew into something a little long for a comment. Here it is, with relevant excerpts from her post.

In the post, Betty discusses her take on Richard Dawkins – a man who, for good or ill, is the first person people think of when atheism is mentioned in Britain, especially in connection with evolution. I encourage you to read what she writes before continuing here, as I will not cover all of what she says, nor present her thoughts in the order she does.

Why do I find him interesting? I just wonder about his dogged obsession with religion and with those that practice it. He is a scientist and yet he seems to spend [much] of his time trying to argue that following a religion is at best ridiculous and at worst positively harmful. I just don’t understand why.

I’ve read several of Dawkins’ books, and I think that this misrepresents him. While I think his tone regarding religion is not particularly helpful, it’s worth noting that of the ten popular books he has written, only one is about religion (yes, it’s The God Delusion).* Not exactly a dogged obsession. More of an unavoidable side-note for someone in his field who wishes to engage the public.

A whopping 40% of Americans are creationists and Dawkins compares them to holocaust deniers. This is highly offensive. A holocaust denier is someone who twists the facts of the historical record in order to bolster a racist agenda. These people are motivated by their hatred of Jews. The facts do not matter. For a creationist, evolution has not been proven beyond reasonable doubt. There are questions about the theory that they believe have not been adequately answered. They believe the story of creation not in order to further a hate campaign, but as part of a belief system.

While I wouldn’t personally choose to compare evolution-deniers to Holocaust-deniers, I understand Dawkins’ choice of such an analogy. First, it is accurate inasmuch as both holocaust-deniers and evolution-deniers reject the overwhelming preponderance of evidence in favour of a position that is based entirely on ideology. As Betty says, they “twist the facts of the historical record in order to bolster an agenda. … The facts do not matter.” At least that part applies equally well to both sorts of deniers.

For someone in Dawkins’ position – someone who has spent his life working to learn more about our biological origins – it is certainly understandable that he will view creationists as the enemy. He feels passionately about his work. Every one of his books that I have read (even, at times, The God Delusion) bursts with enthusiasm about what we, as a species, have learned about our origins through dogged scientific effort. He has committed his life to this pursuit. He has submitted himself to the scientific community, which tends to be ruthless in its attempts to disprove new ideas, and which only accepts them after repeated failures to disprove them. (One prominent example is the idea introduced in the mid-19th-century that the diversity of species is due to the accumulation of small changes accumulated over time and channelled by natural selection.)

Not only that, but for much of Dawkins’ career he has also engaged in the admirable task of sharing this wonder and these discoveries with the public, in his very readable and accessible books of science.

Creationists belittle not only Dawkins’ work, but the careful work of hundreds (thousands?) of scientists leading back to Darwin. They belittle it without any good arguments, without any good evidence, and usually with a complete failure to grasp the evidence they’re trying to refute.

They are not interested in submitting themselves to the rigours of science. They are not interested in letting the evidence rule on which answer is right. Their actions suggest that they are only interested in convincing everyone that the scientists are wrong (and/or evil) and that we should set science aside in favour of their ideological commitment to a disproven belief. (I’m referring there to young-earth creationism and ID, not religion in general.)

Either he wants people to know about evolution and to ‘convert’ the creationists or he just wants a nice argument to bolster his book sales. I think if it was the former then he would be wise to act in a more conciliatory manner, and watch his language (ie the use of the word ‘ignorant’, I would also like to point out at this point that some of the people I know who are most knowledgeable about evolution are in fact creationists).

While it may not be nice of him to call evolution-deniers “ignorant”, it is difficult to see how the term is wrong. The only way to confidently proclaim evolution false is to set aside (deliberately or in ignorance) the entire geological, molecular, geographical, and experimental bodies of evidence that support evolution. Though I’m sure most creationists’ motivation for this is simply to carry on believing what they wish to believe, not to promote hate (has Dawkins or anyone else ever claimed that?), that doesn’t change the facts. One has to remain ignorant (ie, not knowing of or understanding the evidence) to honestly deny evolution. (I can’t say much about the claim that “some of the people [Betty knows] who are most knowledgeable about evolution are in fact creationists”. Would they seem knowledgeable to a biologist, or only to someone like Betty who confesses little understanding of or interest in the science behind this “debate”?)

I can’t verify much of what he says because I don’t have access to the research or fully understand the terms and the processes involved. It’s been a long time since I did higher biology and chemistry! I suspect that for most of his vociferous cheerleaders on websites and forums across the globe, this is also the case. Perhaps they don’t wish to seem stupid for questioning?

In this respect, I find his followers similar to those of religious faiths. They are taking what he says at face value because they believe in him. They may well be correct – I don’t know. The argument seems reasonable, but who knows?

Is that a rhetorical question, “who knows?” Because there’s an obvious answer. The actual biologists (ie, people who dedicate their lives to understanding this stuff) know. And a good number of them have produced books that Betty and I and any of our readers can understand. These outreach biologists (Dawkins, Gould, Wilson, etc) don’t make arguments of the form “I believe this, and I’m and expert so just take my word for it.” They make arguments of the form “Here’s some evidence. Here’s why it supports evolution.” With plenty of references to original research so that you can independently verify their claims if you don’t trust them.

On the other side of the issue, I have read creationist apologists like Lee Strobel and John Blanchard argue for an evolution-denying ideology. They consistently fail to accurately represent the case for evolution, and then inexpertly demolish the straw men they have invented. (I’ve discussed Blanchard’s attempt here. Strobel is being taken apart in exquisite detail by Ebonmuse here.)

So, the supporters of evolution rely on the evidence, occasionally spending some time pointing out the flaws in the deniers’ arguments. The deniers of evolution paint caricatures of the evidence, attack the caricatures, and pretend that they’re doing science too. They don’t do real science: they don’t make falsifiable predictions, and they certainly don’t do experiments to test them.

When I read Dawkins, I can trust that most of what he says about science is based on the scientific method. He’s reporting conclusions that have been carefully tested, which qualified people have tried and failed to disprove. I take what he says at face value because I trust the procedure that has been followed to arrive at those conclusions. When I look further, the people who are qualified to understand the evidence all tend to agree with him.

On the other hand, he clearly isn’t speaking as a scientist in many of his comments about religion, and so I don’t take them at face value. In fact, I often disagree with him, vocally, in settings where that sets me apart (ie, among other humanists). I’m not treated as stupid for questioning because my humanist acquaintances – like Dawkins, like most atheists and humanists – value questioning. We believe that any claim should be open to question, no matter how popular it is. If the question has nothing to back it up – no evidence to motivate a shift in our beliefs, then we set it aside. But if the questioner has a sound reason for dissenting from popular opinion and solid evidence to back up their dissent, then that dissent spreads.

It was that sort of questioning that led to Darwin’s great breakthroughs. It is that sort of questioning that has led to every refinement and revision in the theory of evolution since then. It is that sort of questioning that has driven science for the past few centuries, with countless concrete benefits as proof of the process.

And, although religion is not uniformly anti-knowledge or anti-progress, the opponents of science have almost uniformly been religious.

Worse, I believe his words convert more people to fundamentalist ideas than anything else as they engender a sense of victimhood and persecution amongst those who don’t agree with what he says.

I would object to the use of the term “fundamentalist” here, as it seems completely divorced from any useful definition I’ve come across. But yes, to the extent that he overstates the religious antipathy to science, and exaggerates the incompatibility of science and religion, he does encourage an unhelpful us-versus-them mentality among atheists, and it’s one that I try to combat where I can. There are many, many religious believers who have nothing wrong with atheists or with evolution. Many of them are acquaintances and friends of mine.

Recent centuries and decades have seen a dramatic reduction in institutional discrimination against the non-religious. Keep in mind, however, that “victimhood” is not always an inappropriate feeling. Sometimes you are a victim, and you need to be aware of it. Some laws favouring religious over non-religious belief still remain, even in the enlightened West (even in uber-secular Finland). Dawkins is a scientist, and as Betty says, 40% of Americans deny the evidence that is at the foundation of his field. To the extent that they try to challenge the teaching of that science in schools, and seek to warp people’s perceptions of it in universities (for example, see this development), there is a concerted attack on precisely the field of knowledge Dawkins has devoted his life to. It’s worth noticing and acknowledging that scientists (and everyone who benefits from their work) are victims of the creationists’ campaign of science-denial. That way we can do something constructive to counter it.

I really don’t like my first mention of such an apparently pleasant person as Betty to come off so negative and critical. (I enjoyed this post of hers, and this one.) I hope that I have made it clear that Dawkins has by no means a free pass to my credulity, particularly when he talks about religion. Whether that helps encourage her to look deeper into the whole evolution/creation thing is up to her.

I hope Betty will respond to what I’ve said, either in the comments here or on her own blog post (where I’ll point her to this post). And of course, anyone else who agrees or disagrees with either of us is invited to comment too.

—–

* From the same list of publications, using just the titles as a guide, I count no more than 8 of 16 popular articles dealing with religion (at least 11 of the 16 have a scientific slant), and only 3 of 30 academic articles can plausibly be said to be about religion, the remainder being biological. So, out of 56 items listed, no more than 12, or about 21%, are about religion – most of these being popular articles. At least 48, or about 86%, deal primarily or exclusively with science. (Totals exceed 100% because some articles seem to deal with both science and religion. Also note that I think one or two articles appear both in the scientific and the popular list.) Readers can decide whether this amounts to a “dogged obsession with religion”. Perhaps the dogged obsession belongs to those apologists who wish to diminish his influence, Dawkins being a well-known and widely-respected public figure.

What does Blanchard teach us? (5 of 5)

2009/08/24

This is the fifth and final part in a series discussing John Blanchard’s book, Does God Believe in Atheists? In this post, I wrap up the discussion and try to derive a positive lesson from it all. The previous posts can be found here, here, here, and here.

Blanchard’s complete disregard for the other side of the story has completely turned me off. He doesn’t really try to understand evolution before attacking it. He doesn’t really try to understand humanism before attacking it. He gives only a cursory pass at each of the religions he dismisses as deeply flawed.

And so I have no interest in reading on to see why he thinks his own beliefs are so much better.

Blanchard uses his impressively extensive reading as a way to gather quotes around which to build straw men. I suspect that he generally doesn’t realize he’s doing this. He probably believes that folks like me really do hold the mickey-mouse philosophy he labels “humanism”. But that’s no excuse: it’s his job, as an author aiming to engage me, to actually know where I’m coming from. He doesn’t have to agree with me; I enjoy a couple of blogs by committed Christians who I often disagree with. But he does have to show some effort to understand where I’m coming from.

I (along with most atheists) am not certain there is no god. I have come across credible humanist approaches to the idea of “truth” in a largely material model of consciousness. I invite Blanchard to try reading any of the accessible introductions to Humanism that have appeared recently. Try On Humanism by Richard Norman (my own first exposure to the philosophy of Humanism). Try What’s it all about? by Julian Baggini. Heck, even try reading (really reading) The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins – even that has a more plausible and nuanced atheist perspective than the one Blanchard conjures up to attack.

What Blanchard teaches me is not that Christians, or religious people, are lazy thinkers. It’s not that humanists are superior to folks like him. We’re not.

The lesson is that humans are lazy thinkers. I have fallen prey to the same types of errors that I have criticized in Blanchard’s book, and I am bound to do so again. (See here for a recent example on this very blog.)

We (humans) like to give the benefit of the doubt to arguments whose conclusions we already agree with, and we like to see the worst in arguments that lead where we don’t want to follow. I’m more likely to double-check sources when I disagree with someone than when I agree with them. Hopefully, the knowledge that our critics are watching, combined with the conviction that we are fallible, will teach us all to be more careful in avoiding these errors.

Another reason for these posts is that, sometimes, I simply need to vent. Although I want to present as positive a face to the world as possible – to exhibit “exemplary behaviour”, as my parents always exhorted me growing up – I also want to present an honest face. I want you, my faithful reader, to know that I sometimes get pissed off. I get angry when someone trashes my beliefs.

But please also note that, when I get angry, I try to respond with reason and compassion. I have tried to give Blanchard the benefit of the doubt – though sometimes that means assuming he’s lazy rather than malicious. I have tried to produce coherent, logical arguments for my position, with pointers to good-quality references where relevant.

For some non-partisan discussion of some of the issues raised here – such as the nature of humanism, the religious implications of the evidence for our biological history (evolution), and details on other religions, I heartily recommend www.religioustolerance.org. It is run by the Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance, a team of individuals with different religious beliefs, who seek to promote tolerance through understanding. Have a poke around there for more details.

And, as always, the comments are open. If I’m wrong in what I say above, tell me.

Does Blanchard understand other religions? (4 of 5)

2009/08/17

This is the fourth part in a series discussing John Blanchard’s book, Does God Believe in Atheists? In this post, I discuss his presentation of religious beliefs which differ from his own. The previous posts are here, here, and here.

This entry in the series is very short. There are two reasons for this. One is that Blanchard himself doesn’t spend much time on the topic. The other is that not much needs to be said in response (from the humanist perspective at least – I imagine the Mormons or the Muslims might have more to say).

Blanchard spends very little time outlining the beliefs and practices of a number of non-Christian religions, as well as some Christian sects that he considers “atheistic” (remember his “everyone else” definition of atheism).

On the one hand, I tend to agree with him that there is very little reason to accept any of these religious beliefs as true. On the other hand, from what little I know of Mormonism and Islam (two of the groups on his list that I’ve had some contact with), he’s not terribly careful about presenting the beliefs as the believers understand them. (Sound familiar?)

It is illuminating to see other religions through Blanchard’s eyes. To him, their faults can be summed up as “not like what I believe”.

Which may illuminate why he defined atheists as “everyone else” to begin with. He’s not interested in how I, or my Mormon neighbours, or my Muslim neighbours, see the world. He’s interested in reinforcing his us-versus-them idea of Christianity.

Next up: What does Blanchard teach us?

Does Blanchard understand humanism? (3 of 5)

2009/08/10

This is the third part in a series discussing John Blanchard’s book, Does God Believe in Atheists? In this post, I discuss his presentation of humanist thought. The previous posts are here and here.

I hoped that Blanchard’s knowledge of philosophy would be better than his understanding of biology. And why not? Many people who are experts in one are completely uninterested in the other.

But then, many people can’t be bothered with either good science or good philosophy – both of which require them to be open to the possibility that their preconceptions are wrong.

As early as the introduction, we get strong indications that Blanchard might not be speaking to atheists after all. In a bid to pin down terminology right from the start, he decides to define atheism in a way that would be unrecognizable to most people who call themselves atheists. First, he defines theism with a list of fourteen characteristics that add up to Christianity (p21). Fair enough.

Then he defines atheism as everything else.

What???

I challenge Blanchard to produce a Muslim, a Hindu, or a Mormon who is willing to self-identify as an atheist. I challenge him to produce a self-identified atheist who group their beliefs in common with Muslims, Hindus, and Mormons, but not with Christians.

If we define God in the way I have suggested, our second proposition, which says that most people in the world are atheists, comes into play. (p23)

So Blanchard is consciously setting up a Christians-against-the-world picture of religion and atheism.

Let’s set aside this staggering redefinition of terms, and look at what he says about humanism in particular.

Blanchard relates the tale of Galileo being forced by the Roman Catholic church to recant on the Copernican heliocentric model of the solar system. He correctly notes that it’s commonly repeated in atheist circles. Why do we rehearse this story so often?

This story is worth telling because it is sometimes used by humanists to argue that science gets rid of God. (p157)

No. Its most common (and entirely appropriate) use in humanist contexts is to demonstrate how belief in God has been used as an excuse to impede science and to deny or ignore the physical evidence. Another point of the Galilean drama is that science offers natural explanations for things that had previously been attributed to God. That is, it makes unbelief more plausible. It does not make unbelief necessary.

On to modern secular humanism …

In John Gerstner’s words, ‘secularism in simpler language is merely worldliness; or “this-worldliness” in contrast to “other-worldliness”. This one-world-at-a-time philosophy sees the future as an irrelevance, if not an impertinence. (p161)

Yes, secularism focuses on the world we experience rather than the world some imagine might come later. How does that bit about the future come in? I can only imagine that he’s referring to the afterlife. Well, the afterlife may be the most important part of the future to a theist, but to atheists there is still plenty of future that we are concerned about in this world, in this life.

It gets worse.

He goes through some of the articles from the 1973 Humanist Manifesto II. Now, as a humanist, I don’t necessarily agree with all of its statements (though I support the main themes). Blanchard seems to neglect the fact that, as a non-dogmatic worldview, humanism fosters a great variety among its adherents. The Manifesto is not a statement of faith – it is entirely unlike the 1910 statement of Five Fundamentals of Christian doctrine after which fundamentalists were originally named.

But setting that aside, what does Blanchard have to say about the content of the Manifesto?

He quotes the first article of the Manifesto:

We find insufficient evidence for the existence of a supernatural; it is either meaningless or irrelevant to the question of the survival and fulfilment of the human race.

Okay, I agree with that, though a negative statement is not what I would put first. I am not, as a humanist, primarily concerned with any of the myriad things I don’t believe; I’m more interested in testing and applying those things that I do believe and value. But god-belief is relevant in that many people do believe in the supernatural, so communicating our position invariably includes pointing out how and why we differ.

Note, also, that the first article of the Manifesto is four paragraphs long. His quote is picked from the middle of the second paragraph. How does this article begin, you might wonder?

In the best sense, religion may inspire dedication to the highest ethical ideals. The cultivation of moral devotion and creative imagination is an expression of genuine “spiritual” experience and aspiration.

Such an olive branch contradicts Blanchard’s general theme of selfish and anti-religious humanists. Why might he ignore this important bit of text in one of his chosen sources on humanist attitudes?

Instead, he mentions Ludovic Kennedy, a humanist who, in 1997, was working on a book to “definitively disprove the existence of God”, and then declares, “The non-existence of God is not being floated as a possibility, or as a theory which is open to discussion or examination; it is being asserted as an article of faith.”

There are probably some humanists who, like Kennedy, are sure that there is no God. Not so many as Blanchard seems to assume, I think. Certainly, the Manifesto implies nothing of the sort. Even arch-atheist Richard Dawkins, in his most polemic book, The God Delusion, declares himself only about a 6 on a scale from 1 (strong theist) to 7 (strong atheist): “I’d be surprised to meet many people in category 7, but I include it for symmetry with category 1, which is well populated.” (p51) Note also that, in that book, Dawkins does discuss and examine the hypothesis of a god’s existence, as have many writers before him. Contra Blanchard, it is a theory being subjected, by humanists, to empirical enquiry, and not an article of faith.

(Blanchard’s book came out several years before The God Delusion, so it would be unfair of me to criticize him for not noticing this particular comment of Dawkins. However, Dawkins’ declaration makes one wonder to what extent even the most vocal atheists fit Blanchard’s caricature of dogmatic unbelief. I mention Dawkins because he is a high-profile atheist, and thus the sort of person that even a haphazard researcher like Blanchard might come across when forming his opinions. Blanchard is clearly not talking about him. He is clearly not talking about me – I’m a 5 or 6 on Dawkins’ scale, for what it’s worth. I wonder what atheists he thinks he is talking about?)

What does Blanchard make of the second article in the Manifesto? Here is the bit he quotes:

As far as we know, the total personality is a function of the biological organism transacting in a social and cultural context.

Blanchard manages to reduce this statement to “humans are just machines”, which is a good metaphor when used responsibly, but is a gross distortion of what the Manifesto is saying here. Then he raises the observation that we have not created a machine that is very much like a human, as if that refutes the idea presented in the Manifesto (or his distortion of it). If the irrelevance of his observation is not crashingly obvious to you, please let me know in the comments and we can address it.

I could go on, but I think the whole line of irksome misunderstandings Blanchard commits can be summed up in one line. In this passage, he has just asserted that the idea of “truth” becomes meaningless if the mind contemplating it is “just a machine”.

No humanist has yet been able to produce a credible response to that.” (p168)

He seems to feel roughly the same about every major tenet of humanism that he comes across.

Here’s the problem: Blanchard hasn’t been trying to find humanists’ credible responses. Or at least, he’s not reporting them. Throughout this section (and the one on evolution), what we see is Blanchard reading a text with an eye always on finding the flaw in the humanist’s or the biologist’s perspective, but always failing to see what people – the evolutionary biologists or the humanists – actually believe (or even say).

Next up: Does Blanchard understand other religions?

Does Blanchard understand evolution? (2 of 5)

2009/08/03

This is the second part in a series discussing John Blanchard’s book, Does God Believe in Atheists? In this post, I discuss his presentation of the theory of evolution. If you missed it, you may want to read the introductory post first.

In order to keep this post as short as possible, I provide links from this post to two of the most accessible and useful online sources of information on evolution: Wikipedia and the Talk Origins Archive. Links to the Talk Origins pages use a small (TO). All other links in this section are to Wikipedia articles. Please follow them for substantiation of my claims.

The scientific consensus on the basics of evolution is sound. It is based on mountains of empirical evidence, including molecular (genetic) evidence, comparative physiology and geographical distributions, and fossil evidence.

Even so, some people – particularly members of certain religious groups – remain unpersuaded. Blanchard is one of those people.

At one level, the existence of a god is a completely separate question from the manner in which life has developed over Earth’s history. So for someone to raise the topic of evolution in an argument against atheism means one of two things: either they believe in a conception of a god that conflicts with the physical evidence on which evolutionary theory is based, or they have an impression of the theory of evolution as something other than what it actually is. Or both.

It’s clear early on that Blanchard is guilty of at least the second error:

No longer limited to biology, evolution has become a total philosophy which claims to explain the origin and development of everything within a closed universe, and thereby to rule out the existence of God. (p83)

No, no, and no.

No, the theory of biological evolution that got its start with Darwin and Wallace has not become a philosophy, nor come to encompass other disciplines. It remains a theory about how species change over time. Other uses of the term evolution in science include chemical evolution (abiogenesis) (TO), stellar evolution, and galaxy formation and evolution. These are separate topics; the evidence supporting them is largely separate from the evidence supporting (biological) evolution.

No, none of these theories, either individually or taken together, explains the origin and development of everything. That is one of the goals of science, but no credible scientist claims to have achieved it yet.

And no, sciences do not rule out the existence of God (TO). They may, in their progress, disprove (or cast reasonable doubt on) certain claims made by humans on behalf of God – such as a geocentric universe, a young Earth, separate creation of similar species, and so forth. And of course, people can extrapolate beyond the science. Dawkins points out that “Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist,” because it revealed an alternative to the argument from design.

Blanchard goes on to present misleading arguments that are tiresomely familiar to those who care to learn about evolution.

For example, he describes Piltdown Man (TO) and Nebraska Man (TO) – famous hoax fossils. He plays down the fact that it was scientists, judging the evidence in light of evolutionary theory, who established them as hoaxes. With these and other examples, Blanchard declares that the fossil evidence is not enough to establish common descent.

I suspect he’s wrong, but whether he is or not, there’s a far more obvious flaw in his reasoning.

He’s implying that fossils are the crucial evidence for evolution. They aren’t. They never have been. In the The Origin of Species, Darwin focused on morphological patterns of relatedness and geographical distribution in modern species and genera (see here and here) – patterns which remain unexplained except in the light of common descent. Modern biologists spend much of their time with molecules: the genetic code confirms patterns of descent predicted by Darwin’s earlier methods.

Fossils are wonderful. They invariably support an evolutionary explanation of species development. And, in showing what animals (and occasionally plants) actually looked like, they satisfy human desires for a physical manifestation of the past. But organisms only fossilize under particular, rare conditions (TO). So we expect “gaps”. Even Darwin was aware of them, and (correctly) didn’t feel they undermined his argument. Fossils neither make nor break evolutionary theory; they simply support it.

In summary, Blanchard colossally fails to demonstrate a basic knowledge of why evolution is accepted by biologists. Without that knowledge, he has no hope of persuading a moderately-informed audience that there are deep flaws in evolutionary theory.

So far, he’s failing to engage this atheist; he’s just making me seriously doubt the rigour of his research.

Next up: Does Blanchard understand humanism?

Does God Believe in Atheists? (1 of 5)

2009/07/27

As a humanist, I am vividly aware that none of my knowledge is infallible. None of it. I must always be open to the possibility that any of my beliefs – from the most mundane to the most fundamental – could be wrong.

So, when a friend offered to lend me the book Does God Believe in Atheists? by Christian apologist John Blanchard, I was delighted to accept. The cover claims that the book “exposes the errors of secular humanism, materialism, relativism, determinism and existentialism”, “traces the rise of Darwinian evolutionism and uncovers the weaknesses in claims made by its contemporary exponents”, and “highlights the fundamental flaws in nine world religions and fourteen major cults.”

What’s more, a promotional blurb from Today proclaims that “John Blanchard masterfully engages both Christian and unbeliever alike.” So I had every reason to expect a robust challenge to my ideas.

Well, not every reason.

Shouldn’t a book that masterfully engages nonbelievers be able to muster at least one endorsement from an actual atheist for the cover? A quick web search throws up plenty of Christians’ reviews of the book, but none by atheists (except some unimpressed reviews on Amazon).

And there’s that quip about “Darwinian evolutionism”. Something about people using non-standard terms for biology’s grand unifying theory puts me on alert for misrepresentations of its substance.

Also, why bother talking about cults and other world religions when the thrust of the book is clearly to weigh the relative merits of atheism and Christianity?

Okay, simple solution. Before embarking on a cover-to-cover voyage through this good-sized tome (it’s about the size of my hardcover copy of The God Delusion), I checked the three areas that I was worried about – areas where I would be able to judge from my own knowledge whether Blanchard was putting an honest effort into engaging my worldview.

In a series of weekly posts, I will address each of these areas.

I’ll look at what Blanchard says about evolution; I’ll look at how he characterizes humanism; and I’ll look at why he’s spending time on other religions.

I hope that, along the way, I can help my non-humanist readers understand humanism (and evolution) a little better. I also hope that we can get a better idea about how to actually engage people of opposing beliefs (or at least, how not to engage people).

First up: Does Blanchard understand evolution?

For readers who enjoy this sort of thing, I also recommend Ebonmuse’s extensive and (currently) ongoing discussion of Lee Strobel’s book The Case for a Creator, over at Daylight Atheism.

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