Book Review: Atheist Overreach: What Atheism Can’t Deliver by Christian Smith

Atheist Overreach: What Atheism Can’t Deliver, Christian Smith. 168 pp. Oxford University Press

Christian Smith is a professor of sociology at Notre Dame. Since I own some of his other books, I was eager to see what he had to say about atheism in this book. As a sociologist, Smith knows the impact of religion on society. He is concerned about the impact of secularism on society as well. The book isn’t an apologetic for religion nor necessarily an apologetic against atheism. Having said this, Smith can be polemical at times. What Smith seeks out to accomplish is to show the areas where atheists tend to ‘overreach.’ The topics he addresses are morality, the grounding for human rights, the limitations of science, and why humans seem inclined to be religious. Smith is aware there have been much larger works that have addressed these topics. He is writing for a more general audience. Smith has spent plenty of time reading atheist literature. And I should note he isn’t simply critiquing people like Harris, Dawkins, or some of the other big-name atheists. When it comes to morality, Smith thinks Aristotelian virtue ethics is a better option then Nietzschean nihilism and what atheists champion as an ‘overreaching optimism.’ The latter leads to a universalistic humanism which will require people to adhere to high moral norms and to share their resources in an egalitarian fashion for the sake of equal opportunity and the promotion of human rights (Kindle locations, 642 of 2795).

In his chapter on human rights, Smith says “being a human person endows one with such rights and entitles one to their respect by and justice from others. Such basic human rights are such that they place a moral duty on people to honor, protect, and defend not only their own rights but also the rights of other humans if they are able to do so. Further, many modern people believe in universal benevolence, that is, belief in the inherent moral goodness of sustaining the lives, reducing the suffering, promoting the health, and increasing the well-being of other people, including strangers, and perhaps particularly of the weak and vulnerable. Again, in principle, benevolence is commonly believed valid for every person of both sexes in all nations, races, religions, social classes, and ethnicities. Whether other people are similar to us or not, it is widely believed, it is morally good to protect their lives and relieve their sufferings, simply because they are human. Such beliefs may seem idealistic. But they are woven into the institutional and cultural fabric of many contemporary societies and the international system.” – Kindle locations 721 of 2795.

Having said this, Smith notes that “A naturalistic universe is one that consists of energy and matter and other natural entities, such as vacuums, operating in a closed system in time and space, in which no transcendent, supernatural, divine being or superhuman power exists as creator, sustainer, guide, or judge. Such a universe has come to exist by chance—not by design or providence but by purposeless natural forces and processes. There is no inherent, ultimate meaning or purpose. Any meaning or purpose that exists for humans in a naturalistic universe is constructed by and for humans themselves. When the natural forces of entropy eventually extinguish the human race—if some natural or human made disaster does not do so sooner—there will be no memory or meaning, just as none existed before human consciousness evolved. This naturalistic universe is the background reality that mainstream natural science seems to tell us we inhabit.” -Kindle locations 672-673 of 2795.

Smith notes that atheism isn’t naturalism. However, there is a relationship between the two. The question Smith asks is if we really do live in the naturalistic cosmos that atheists and much of science tell us we occupy, do we have good reasons for believing in universal benevolence and human rights as moral facts and imperatives?” There is no doubt that many believers in naturalism are fully committed to human dignity, universal benevolence, and human rights. But the question is whether people who believe that we live in a naturalistic universe are rationally warranted in asserting and championing such moral claims and imperatives? Smith doesn’t think so. A naturalistic worldview can only lead one to hold to an arbitrary, subjective, personal preference—but not a rational, compelling, universally binding fact and obligation. -Locations 721 of 2795.

Smith’s chapter on “Why Scientists Playing Amateur Theology Fail” is mostly aimed at scientists who try to do criticize theology. From Smith’s perspective, these scientists are out of their league in this area. He wants scientists to stick with what they know and stop doing half- baked philosophy and theology. He wants them to learn enough so they can know the difference between scientific, philosophical, and theological claims.- Kindle locations 1490 pf 2795. He notes science can’t prove or disprove the central ideas of most religious thought.

In the final chapter called “Are Humans Naturally Religious?” Smith notes that as along as humans ponder the Big Questions such as “Where we come from?” “What should I love for and why?” and others, religion will always play a role in society. But he notes “We can confidently say that humans are naturally religious or by nature religious—as a matter of real, natural potential, capacity, and tendency—while at the same time acknowledging that many humans and even some cultures are not particularly religious at all. Such an account entails many implications, theoretical and practical, worth considering. But it strongly suggests that we should not expect human societies to become thoroughly secularized on any long-term basis. Secularization as a process will likely be limited, contingent, and susceptible to reversal. The New Atheist dream of a fundamentally secular world will prove illusory.” – Kindle locations 1756 of 2795.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. I think the title is fitting. It is not that atheism can’t attempt to provide answers to morality, human rights, dignity, as well as other issues. But atheists do need to be honest that they are overreaching in these areas. I know atheists don’t think atheism is a worldview (i.e, how one views reality). But judging by the books Smith has read (I have read them as well), atheists are trying to answer worldview questions. So as long as they keep doing so, authors such as Smith are correct to point out the shortcomings of such a worldview.