Sunday, January 17, 2010

Book Review: Deepest Differences: A Christian-Atheist Dialogue

Sire, James W. and Carl Peraino. Deepest Differences: A Christian-Atheist Dialogue, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009. Pp. 203. $15.00.

Two friends from a book club “chance” upon one another with their respective wives at an arboretum, striking up a conversation about a popular author’s obituary (Kurt Vonnegut) which contains a reference to God. Deepest Differences discusses the crux of the atheist/Christian debate which boils down the issue to that of either chance (atheism), or purpose (theism). Further discussion reveals how these ideas emanate throughout all of life’s grandest questions. Sire, a Christian (PhD., University of Missouri, English, 1964) and Peraino, an atheist (PhD., University of Wisconsin, Biochemistry, 1961), are both retired, but their minds are as keen and ready for battle as a Spartan army.

What follows is an exchange of over seventy emails, formatted in this book according to logical and thematic sequence in ten chapters. Some of the themes of interest to readers are: the basis of morality, the character, existence and acts of the Christian God, evolution and intelligent design, and the problem of evil (with a brief discussion on free will). This book is the second in its class published by InterVarsity Press, the first of which is a similar email exchange between a Christian professor of church history, and an evolutionary biologist/punk rocker (title: Is Belief in God Good, Bad or Irrelevant?).

With an informal style suitable for both atheist and Christian readers at the popular level, these two veterans aim to convince each other and their readers of their precommitments: Peraino of his naturalism, and Sire of his supernaturalism. Peraino is also committed to monism, the idea that there is no “mind/body” problem. That is, humans do not have any immaterial aspect to their being, and therefore humans have no need to invoke the supernatural in order to explain origins, morality, meaning or destiny (Ravi Zacharias' paradigmatic system of argumentation). Sire, on the other hand, is committed to the doctrine of creation-- intelligent design being a more plausible approach than either Darwinian evolution on the one hand, or six-day creationism on the other. Peraino believes the basis for human morality is grounded in propagating the human race (population growth/survival), while Sire affirms morality is grounded in the transcendent, good, character of God. The style of the book allows readers to engage in meaningful dialogue without getting bogged down in minutiae, and a study guide and recommended reading list promoting both atheist and Christian views on the aforementioned subjects will enable the dialogue to continue at a deeper level, whetting the appetite for further reflection and diaglogue.

Where this book succeeds is that it engages in real, “coffee table” discourse over technical subjects, so it approaches detail at a conversational level readers will find amiable. The layout of the book coheres as a unified whole by delineating what the title suggests: the deepest differences, or presuppositions of each authors’ worldview. Point and counterpoint are given with clarity and in concise fashion, and yet, thoughts are not always fully developed. For example, the debate over Intelligent Design (ID) covers less than ten pages, and basically is a multi-tiered rejoinder by Sire to Peraino’s snide remarks concerning ID theory (for which he graciously apologizes). Sire answers Peraino’s statements concerning the apparent silliness of ID point-by-point, but the discussion is rather limited to public and private school controversies regarding ID proponents Michael Behe and William Demski, rather than any foundational and any apparent, scientific aspects of the theory. While Sire is happy to admit he is agnostic toward ID theory, he would have done well to at least offer the following enthymeme:

1) Design is observed

2) Design requires information

3) Information requires mind

4) Therefore, there is a mind as a cause of the observed design (see Nancy Pearcy's book Total Truth for this argument).

Sire does offer Peraino a few texts for reading on ID theory, but Peraino declines, admitting that he is too far gone to muster up the strength for heavy-duty texts (p. 82).

It is yet interesting to see these two, older, gentlemen hash out their objections to each others’ worldview, while attempting to present a positive case for their own. As noted earlier, the easy-going style of email exchanges is laudable, as the tome is imbued with candor, wit, and humor while hashing out the weighty matters of science and religion and all the issues ensuing from this particular debate.

Deepest Differences, at the end of the book, finally offers the crux of the matter, and that is the epistemological relationship of faith and reason. Those who have studied the atheist/Christian dialogue know to look for this as the heart of the issue: “How do we know what we think we know?” William Lane Craig has recently written that Western culture is still very modernist, and Peraino proves Craig’s point as a scientist bent on logical positivism (that nothing seen in a lab is to be believed as real) as an epistemological paradigm—-a scientist who represents a vast constituency around the world. Readers familiar with this issue will breathe a sigh of relief when the discussion finally immigrates upon the scene.

In addition to a close-encounter “real” dialogue at the popular level, the study guide and recommended reading list at the back of the book make it definitely worth having. In fact, if it were not for such aids in this publication, it would lose much of its value. The study guide, which contains penetrating questions regarding the issues and arguments, is even-handed, and one envisions subsequent, real conversations between honest skeptics on both sides of the debate, each having a copy of the book in hand. In Deepest Differences, readers are pointed to 49 books and/or articles arguing for both Christianity and atheism on a great number of themes. Sire and Peraino contribute a cordial, meaningful, and sometimes witty dialogue that surpasses much of the vitriol we see in debates between atheists and Christians today. The book, for only $15.00, is recommended as a primer for this newly rekindled debate radiating throughout Western society.

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