Both the Contestant and the Referee: A Review of The End of Secularism

Harold Kildow, of the Evangelical Political Scholars Association, reviews Hunter Baker’s new book The End of Secularism:

“the political liberalism that perhaps marked a climax run in the history of liberty, had as one of its pillars religious toleration. A corollary is that government is not in the business of caring for souls—and thus a salutary separation of church and state is called for. It is but a short rhetorical step from there to the default understanding regnant to this day, to wit: toleration, liberty, and all the good things of our Western political patrimony depend upon a strict neutrality in government when it comes to religion. Thus secularism is the sine qua non of a well-ordered, and peaceful, democratic nation. Of course, Baker’s title announces the end of secularism, not its ascendancy; his brief but thorough treatment (194 pages not including notes and a very valuable bibliography) belongs in the hands of students and their professors, parishioners and their pastors, and everyone concerned that the referee has entered the game as a contestant.

Elite opinion, at least since the French Enlightenment, has tended to secularism and outright atheism. But the baleful effects of elite belief are less pronounced in societies or eras where government does not imagine itself to have authority over all or most of the public’s life. The era of Big Government is, sadly, still with us; and as its power and authority have increased, the number of perches for self styled elites has increased, and like the branches of a well watered tree, offers refuge and sustenance for many an obnoxious bird. What makes secularism especially obnoxious in Baker’s telling is its deceptive posture as morally neutral—and its concomitant assertion that the threat to social comity is solely from religion. Remove religion and its entirely unwarranted moral certainty from the public square, and, voilà!, problem solved, the era of life and light can begin in earnest.

But secularism, to bring another metaphor, has its hand on the scale while selling us the goods.”

Read the whole thing here.

Arriving on shelves late last year, The End of Secularism challenges the notion that religion must be kept a private matter and therefore prevented from informing public life and policy decisions. Baker argues that secularism itself not only fails to be neutral, but does not solve the problem of religious difference.

For more details about the book, you can listen to an excellent interview with Hunter Baker on the White Horse Inn or download the book’s introduction here.

With many voices today claiming that Christianity poses a threat to freedom, this book looks to be a timely and persuasive call to reexamine secularism’s status as the “super rational public philosophy to trump all the rest”.

Book Review: The Making of an Atheist by James Spiegel

Chris at the Cloud of Witnesses blog reviews the new book by James Spiegel on the influence of immorality, broken paternal relationships, and other psychological factors in why many embrace atheism.

Apologetics Study Bible for Students

The sheer volume of Bible translations, commentaries and resources available in English is staggering. While many language groups still go without the Bible in their own dialect, English has many hundreds of translations to encourage personal study, meditation and memorization. Holman Bible Publishers have added to that vast reservoir by releasing the Apologetics Study Bible for Students. HCSB is responsible for the popular Apologetics Study Bible, which sold more than 115,000 copies. This new study Bible is directed to younger Christians, with the goal of providing accessible responses to some of the central challenges to Christianity.

The study Bible uses the HCSB translation, which tries to find a middle ground between dynamic and formal equivalence (what they have termed “optimal equivalence”). Some might argue that it can sometimes favour literalness over readability but overall it is still a solid, useful translation. Edited by Sean McDowell, a leader at the Bible department of Capistrano Valley Christian Schools in California, the Apologetics Study Bible for Students also includes contributions from Josh McDowell, C. S. Lewis, Dan Kimball, Hank Hanegraaff, and others.

Some other features:

• Two-color design-intensive layout on every page

• Sixty “Twisted Scriptures” explanations (addressing eccentric Biblical interpretations by cults and others)

• Fifty “Bones & Dirt” entries (archaeology meets apologetics)

• Fifty “Notable Quotes”

• Twenty-five “Tactics” against common anti-Christian arguments

• Twenty “Personal Stories” of how God has worked in real lives

• Twenty “Top Five” lists to help remember key apologetics topics

It’s true, the Apologetics Study Bible was not without its weaknesses, but it nonetheless presented some good material from top evangelical apologists and scholars in a way that was accessible and easy to understand.  It will be exciting if this new study Bible is able to do something similar and encourage a whole new generation of Christians to become people of virtue and maturity by having renewed confidence in their Bibles and realizing that our religion is a religion of knowledge, not private faith.

(HT: Brian at Apologetics 315)

Half a God is no God at all: Tim Keller on The Shack

Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer PCA in Manhattan, offers his impressions of the best-selling novel, The Shack:

“Anyone who is strongly influenced by the imaginative world of The Shack will be totally unprepared for the far more multi-dimensional and complex God that you actually meet when you read the Bible. In the prophets the reader will find a God who is constantly condemning and vowing judgment on his enemies, while the Persons of the Triune-God of The Shack repeatedly deny that sin is any offense to them. The reader of Psalm 119 is filled with delight at God’s statutes, decrees, and laws, yet the God of The Shack insists that he doesn’t give us any rules or even have any expectations of human beings. All he wants is relationship. The reader of the lives of Abraham, Jacob, Moses, and Isaiah will learn that the holiness of God makes his immediate presence dangerous or fatal to us. Someone may counter (as Young seems to do, on p.192) that because of Jesus, God is now only a God of love, making all talk of holiness, wrath, and law obsolete. But when John, one of Jesus’ closest friends, long after the crucifixion sees the risen Christ in person on the isle of Patmos, John ‘fell at his feet as dead.’ (Rev.1:17.) The Shack effectively deconstructs the holiness and transcendence of God. It is simply not there. In its place is unconditional love, period. The God of The Shack has none of the balance and complexity of the Biblical God. Half a God is not God at all.”

Read the whole thing at the Gospel Coalition blog.

The Decade of Atheism?

Nathan Jacobson from Afterall.net:

“Radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt concluded 2009 by broadcasting a debate about God between polemicists Michael Shermer and Gregory Koukl, thereby bidding adieu to what he called “The Decade of the New Atheists”. It was indeed a remarkable cultural phenomenon how four atheologians in particular rose to prominence by selling scads of books: Sam Harris with The End of Faith, Christopher Hitchens with god is not Great, Daniel Dennet with Breaking the Spell, and, of course, Richard Dawkins with The God Delusion. But just as noteworthy, perhaps, is the cavalcade of able critics who rose to these challenges to Christian theism. As with the cottage industry of criticism that accompanied Dan Brown’s and then Ron Howard’s The Davinci Code, these broadsides served as provocation for countless apologists. Of course, none of these apologists were remotely as successful as their atheistic rivals in terms of sales. One wonders whether they will slip into oblivion just as Hume survives in philosophy readers, while most of his contemporaneous critics do not. Whatever happens, the swift and mostly scholarly response to this one decade’s worth of the now perennial barrage on Christian theism leaves it an open question whether, in the final analysis, it was the atheists or their counterparts who owned the aughts.”

It’s an intriguing question. Nathan has also posted a list of published books and articles that have responded to the New Atheists. It’s worth checking out and judging the debate for yourself.

One Minute Answers To Skeptics

This month, a new and revised edition of Charlie H. Campbell’s One Minute Answers to Skeptics: Concise Responses to the Top 40 Questions has been released. The book is designed to offer succinct but solid answers to common questions that Christians frequently encounter about their faith. Campbell is the director of the Always Be Ready apologetics ministry and a frequent speaker at churches and on campuses in the US.

With answers to questions ranging from God and suffering to the fate of those those who have never heard about Jesus, the book seeks to equip high school or university students or anyone else who wants to be prepared to respond to skeptics. Brian, at the Apologetics315 blog, offered these comments in his review of the book:

Campbell intentionally gears his answers to be useful for conversion. He provides scriptural references and citations as needed, but the overall answers he provides offer an encapsulated, concise response that will be an appropriate starting point for ongoing dialogue with the skeptic. With this goal in mind, the book achieves its purpose of being a starting point for the conversation; it is not intended to provide a complete, comprehensive answer. If the reader is looking for a substantial treatment of the questions that are posed, he will need to do further digging elsewhere.

This book is a fine beginner’s primer for the complete novice in apologetics or for young people who are asking questions. For those who want to be ready with sound conversational answers and who have a good understanding of the meat of the issues, this small book may also be a good tool to have alongside other apologetics texts.

Brian makes some good points, and with those things kept in mind, it is a book that could be very helpful. If you are thinking of picking it up, I would recommend it with a few further caveats:

  • Don’t rely on superficial answers. Recognize the limitations of a memorized technique or a series of prepared steps. While these can be handy for those who are nervous about evangelism, they will have weaknesses and not work in all contexts. Often the questions we encounter are serious obstacles for some people and should not be dismissed lightly. One-liners may work in brief encounters but for other situations, we should prefer thoughtful answers. Our responses can be simple without being simplistic.
  • Take the questions seriously. One of the dangers in apologetics is not listening. Don’t answer a question that hasn’t been asked. And be honest, if you don’t know an answer, don’t hide your ignorance. There are many things we do not know or understand. The Christian mind is a fallen, finite mind.
  • Cultivate intellectual integrity. Dig deeper and develop your own intellectual resources. I find that that the best answers come from asking questions of yourself and in your past experience in dealing with doubts.
  • Realise that apologetics is person-variable. This is key. The goal of apologetics is not merely to produce sound arguments but to persuade people, and it is important to remember that not every sound argument will be equally persuasive with everyone. Persuasion involves much more than the soundness and validity of the argument. One size does not fit all. It is vital to treat inquirers as indivduals and try and understand their particular needs and develop an apologetic that is geared toward those needs. As Douglas Groothius has said, “Don’t reduce people to cliches.”

The book is published by Harvest House Publishers and you can view a chapter from the book on their website.  Here are some endorsements:

“This is a handy book with helpful answers for busy people.”
—Dr. Norman Geisler, author or coauthor of more than 70 books, including The Baker Encyclopedia of Apologetics

“A refreshing model of ‘conversational apologetics’! This book will equip you to be ‘always ready to give an answer for the hope that lies within you.’”
—Nancy Leigh DeMoss, author and Revive Our Hearts radio host

“I hope many seekers will give serious consideration to the thoughts so well expressed in this timely and pithy book. Well worth reading.”
—Charles Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship and author of more than 20 books

“I have heard that one definition of genius is taking complex things and being able to simplify them. I was impressed that such difficult questions could be adequately answered in such a few lines. I think the majority of Christians who want and need answers to tough questions like these often want a simple, sufficient answer without having to read an entire book on the subject. In quick, simple answers, Charlie has done it. I know this was not easy, but on behalf of Christians everywhere in all sincerity, thanks.”
—Bryan Newberry, pastor,  Calvary Chapel San Diego, California

"The single most incompetent logical argument ever made"

David B. Hart has written a favourable review of The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution over at First Things, but has some pretty strong passing comments of Richard Dawkins’ previous work:

[W]hat makes The God Delusion so frustrating to any reader who has a shred of decent philosophical training and who knows the history of ideas is its special combination of encyclopedic ignorance and thuggish bluster. Repeatedly, Dawkins discusses such issues as Thomas’ “five ways” (which he, as many do, mistakes for Thomas’ chief “proofs” for the “existence” of God); but he never bothers to consult anyone who could explain these issues to him. And he is desperately in need of such explanations, given how utterly bewildered he is on every significant point. He cannot distinguish questions regarding the existence of the universe from questions regarding its physical origin; he does not grasp how assertions regarding the absolute must logically differ from assertions regarding contingent beings; he does not know the differences between truths of reason and empirical facts; he has no concept of ontology, in contradistinction to, say, physics or evolutionary biology; he does not understand how assertions regarding transcendental perfections differ from assertions regarding maximum magnitude; he clumsily imagines that the idea of God is susceptible to the same argument from infinite regress traditionally advanced against materialism; he does not understand what the metaphysical concept of simplicity entails; and on and on. His own pet proof of “why there almost certainly is no God” (a proof in which he takes much evident pride) is one that a usually mild-spoken friend of mine (a friend who has devoted too much of his life to teaching undergraduates the basic rules of logic and the elementary language of philosophy) has described as “possibly the single most incompetent logical argument ever made for or against anything in the whole history of the human race.”

That may be an exaggeration. My friend has spent little time among theologians. But that is neither here nor there. All of these failings would be pardonable if Dawkins were capable of correction. But his habitual response to any concept whose meaning he has not taken the time to learn is to dismiss it as meaningless, with the sort of truculent affectation of contempt that suggests he really knows, at some level, that he is out of his depth.

Read the whole thing.

Hart is the author of Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies.

For a collection of reviews of The God Delusion, visit this page.

(Source: Justin Taylor)

Pascal on Human Happiness

Penguin has put out a new series of books, called ‘Great Ideas’, that corral some of the important writings in the history of human thought. Each title is published in a slim, accessible format (some are just excerpts from the original works) with absolutely gorgeous cover art. For those that might otherwise have been intimidated by reading Locke or Dostoyevsky, the Penguin collection represents an excellent introduction to many great literary classics.

Human Happiness by Blaise Pascal is one of their titles in the third series of the ‘Great Ideas’ collection. It is a composite of excerpts from the writings of the seventeenth century Christian philosopher on the condition of man and the felicity of the religious life. Although Pascal was well known to the European scientific community because of his involvement in debates about mathematical and empirical concepts, little of Pascal’s writing was published in his lifetime. It was after his death in 1662 (Pascal was only thirty nine), that his thoughts about religion were posthumously arranged by his family and friends and released (entitled Pensées). Pascal is most well known today for the application of his mathematical genius to restore an old apologetic argument (that it is more prudent to bet on God existing rather than on his not existing), but he also one of the best philosophers to grapple with both the topic of man’s concomitant wretchedness and glory and the problem of God’s hiddenness. This book in the Penguin series contains only one-fifth of the total fragments available but seeks nonetheless to give Pascal’s thoughts on the human pursuit of satisfaction and real joy in life.

Douglas Groothius, author and professor of philosopher at Denver Seminary, has recently written a good review of the Penguin book:

Does Human Happiness succeed as a primer for Pensées and Pascal’s other writings? The answer is, Yes and No. It does succeed in presenting an assemblage of the more assessable and psychologically pertinent fragments concerning the mysteries of being human. But it fails as a primer for two reasons. First, as mentioned above, some crucial texts on Christ go missing. A good primer cannot, of course, include everything and still be a primer. But it should never expunge the essential. Second, given the extraordinary nature of Pensées (an incomplete work of Christian apologetics written in the middle of the Seventeen Century), the neophyte is owed more introductory material to initiate them to the intellectual ambiance of the work. However, this want of prolegomena is overcome somewhat by the timeless and lapidary quality of many of Pascal’s fragments—e.g., “Man’s sensitivity to little things and insensitivity to the greatest things are marks of a strange disorder.” (One may find some assistance in understanding Pascal’s thoughts, life, and world by consulting my book, On Pascal [Wadsworth, 2003].)

In a time when literacy is in deep decline and when so many are learning so little about things that matter so much, I commend Penguin for the Great Idea series and for this particular installment. A close and contentious reading of Blaise Pascal can indeed transform the way one sees oneself—and how one sees God.

You can read the whole thing here.

The book that Groothius mentions (On Pascal) is also available on Amazon.

If you’re interested in reading Pensées, the Christian Classics Ethereal Library has a version online and freely available to view.

Plantinga's Warranted Christian Belief now available online

Christian Classics Ethereal Library has made Alvin Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Belief available online in full. Published in 2000, Warranted Christian Belief is Plantinga’s third entry in his series on epistemology and represents an important work in the debate about the rationality of theistic belief. Plantinga suggests that the many common arguments against Christianity can be divided into two categories: the claim that Christian belief is false (de facto objections) and the claim that Christian belief is irrational or intellectually unacceptable (de jure objections). In his book, Plantinga focuses on the de jure objection and defends the view that belief in God may not only be rational, but rational without supporting beliefs or arguments.

Expect an intellectual work out – the argumentation can be complicated at times, but it is worth the investment. Plantinga is one of the great philosopher’s alive today and his writing has had a massive effect on the way scholars have approached questions in metaphysics, epistemology and philosophy of religion. William Lane Craig has suggested that Plantinga’s 1967 book, God and Other Minds, was the turning point in the debate about the death of God.

Some endorsements for Warranted Christian Belief:

“Warranted Christian Belief is a tour de force … it will be a welcome summary of an important movement, and for anyone interested in debates about the rationality of religious belief, a reference book for many years to come.” – Books & Culture

“This is an impressive book … Every philosopher interested in epistemology should read it and every philosopher should be interested in epistemology.” – Australasian Journal of Philosophy

“The book is full of philosophical and theological interest and is an exciting book to read… Throughout the book the writing is clear and entertaining, parts of it written with a controlled passion and enthusiasm, and with hafts of sarcasm, self-deprecation and other assorted humour. Plantinga has command of a vast range of philosophical and theological material.” – Mind

James Anderson has written a helpful introduction and review of the book here.

(HT: Patrick Chan at Triablogue)

Is there salvation outside Christianity?

Wintery Knight has pointed out a helpful summary by Stephen Notman of the classic title in the Zondervan Counterpoints series on Christian theology, Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World. Edited by Dennis L. Okholm and Timothy R. Phillips, the book surveys the different approaches in reconciling religious pluralism with the exclusive claims of Christ.newbookcover

Traditionally, the debate has been characterized by the positions of exclusivism, inclusivism and pluralism. The title includes a fourth position; agnosticism (defended by Alister McGrath). Here is a quick run-down of the positions in the debate:

  • Exclusivism/Particularism: This view maintains that the central claims of Christianity are true and only those who explicitly place faith in the Christ of the Bible are saved. Salvation cannot be achieved through the claims or structures of other religions. It is important to point out that exclusivists do not say that every religion is wrong in every respect, but that only where other religions contradict the self-disclosure of Christ, they are wrong. This is defended by by R. Douglas Geivett and W. Gary Phillips.
  • Inclusivism: This view can be broken down into different positions. Generally, inclusivists affirm the truth of fundamental Christian claims, but nevertheless appeal to the love of God and insist that God has revealed Himself, even in saving ways, within other religions.  All who are saved are in fact saved on account of the person and work of Jesus Christ, but conscious faith in Jesus is not necessary: some may be saved who have never heard of him, and may respond positively to the light they have received.
    • Soft inclusivism (Agnosticism): Unconvinced by the clarity of teaching of Scripture on whether those outside Christianity are truly condemned, advocates allow for the faint possibility that God may save some who have never heard of Christ – so long as these individuals respond to God’s grace in Creation and entrust themselves in repentance and faith. Some also go further in arguing that there is biblical reason to be hopeful and not simply agnostic about the possibility of salvation for those outside Christianity. Alister McGrath puts forward a version of soft inclusivism in the book.
    • Hard inclusivism: This view differs from radical pluralism in that it does argue for Christ as the absolute basis of a person’s salvation. But while Jesus may have been God’s principal plan of salvation for humanity, it is argued that salvation itself is not unavailable in other religions. Unlike exclusivism or soft inclusivism, this view emphasizes believing, but not believing in Christ. Jesus is therefore ontologically necessary, but not epistemologically necessary. Some hard inclusivists will also concede that God may yet use other religions as instruments of his salvation. Clark Pinnock argues for this position.
  • Religious Pluralism: This view relativizes every religious claim. According to it, no religion can advance any legitimate claim of superiority over any other religion. Every religion has the same moral and spiritual weight, and offers an equally valid path to salvation. John Hick has been one of the leading voices of this position, and he defends it in Four Views.

Read Stephen Notman’s summary of the debate in the book.

Although no longer recent, the book remains a significant effort to represent the strongest positions and the strongest advocates for those positions. R. Douglas Geivett and W. Gary Phillips put forward a convincing exegesis of the important texts (Acts 4:12; John 3:16, 18; Romans 10:9-15; and John 14:6; 17:20) and provide a robust defense of the traditional Christian position. For anyone who has pondered these questions, Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World is an excellent introduction.

For further reading on the topic, Ronald Nash’s Is Jesus the Only Savior? is a great book, or Paul Copan’s article If you had been born in another country, is it at all likely that you would be a Christian? The latest issue of Philosophia Christi also features a dialogue on religious pluralism with scholars Keith Yandell, Paul Moser and Paul Knitter.

The Case for Life After Death

Christianity Today has posted an interview by Mark Galli with Dinesh D’Souza, the former policy analyst and political commentator turned Christian apologist. In the interview, D’Souza discusses his latest book, Life After Death: The Evidence (Regnery 2009), and the debate over post-mortem existence:

Why do we need a book on life after death when it appears that most people believe in it?

Life after death is a universal sentiment, but in modern times and only in one civilization—the West—a powerful movement has risen to deny life after death. Ordinarily you could ignore the deniers because they are a small minority, but they tend to be some of the most educated people, and they appeal to the authority of knowledge and science.

This book is different in that it doesn’t attempt to present what the Bible says about life after death. Rather, it’s an attempt to provide secular corroboration through reason and science for what believers have affirmed by faith. There’s a lot of powerful evidence, and new evidence, that shows that not only the afterlife but also the Christian conception of the afterlife can be affirmed by modern science.

What to you is the strongest argument against life after death?

There are two strong arguments. One was made most famous by Sigmund Freud. It essentially says that belief in the afterlife can be safely dismissed because it is a case of wish fulfillment. Freud distinguished between error and illusion: An error is a mistaken belief; an illusion isn’t a mistaken belief, but it’s a belief rooted in what you hope will be rather than what is the case. For example, if a servant girl says, “I’m going to marry a prince,” is she making an error? No, because she actually could marry a prince, but it’s an illusion. The chances of this are preposterously low, so it reflects her wishful thinking rather than any clear-eyed view of the facts. Freud basically said that we all have this juvenile desire to survive our deaths, so we made up this idea.

What is the second strong argument against life after death?

The argument that insists that science has searched for the soul, some ghostly immaterial part of us, and has found nothing. What we call immaterial things—our thoughts, our emotions—are extensions of material objects in our brains, and when the material objects disintegrate, the rest of us goes with them.

Read the whole thing to find out how D’Souza responds to those two arguments.

Life After Death: The Evidence marshals recent findings from quantum mechanics, the AWARE study (“Awareness During Resuscitation”), and other discoveries in neuroscience that suggest the mind cannot be reduced to the brain and that consciousness and free will seem to operate uninfluenced by the laws of nature (read D’Souza’s article at the Huffington Post about NDE’s and the case for the afterlife). He also turns one of the atheists’ favorite arguments against Christianity – the problem of evil – back on the materialist by showing that our revulsion over unpunished evils demonstrates that moral beliefs must correspond to another post-mortem reality. While a recent name in apologetics, D’Souza’s has been impressive in his debates with the New Atheists (watch this one with Christopher Hitchens, for example) and this new book looks like it will be an interesting read.

Atheist philosopher slammed for endorsing Meyer's book on Intelligent Design

Thomas Nagel’s recent endorsement of Stephen Meyer’s latest book, Signature in the Cell (2009), has generated a firestorm of debate. In the Times Literary Supplement, the atheist philosopher and professor at New York University, wrote:

“Stephen C. Meyer’s Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design (HarperCollins) is a detailed account of the problem of how life came into existence from lifeless matter – something that had to happen before the process of biological evolution could begin. The controversy over Intelligent Design has so far focused mainly on whether the evolution of life since its beginnings can be explained entirely by natural selection and other non-purposive causes. Meyer takes up the prior question of how the immensely complex and exquisitely functional chemical structure of DNA, which cannot be explained by natural selection because it makes natural selection possible, could have originated without an intentional cause. He examines the history and present state of research on non-purposive chemical explanations of the origin of life, and argues that the available evidence offers no prospect of a credible naturalistic alternative to the hypothesis of an intentional cause. Meyer is a Christian, but atheists, and theists who believe God never intervenes in the natural world, will be instructed by his careful presentation of this fiendishly difficult problem.”

Nagel’s positive review provoked instant outrage from his fellow atheists. While Nagel has been critical of scientific naturalism in the past, the recommendation of Meyer’s book as one of the years’ best brought fierce condemnation in the blogosphere and beyond. Brian Leiter has described him as a disgrace and more, while Stephen Fletcher, a chemist and professor at Loughborough University, is simply incredulous:

“The belief that we share this planet with supernatural beings is an old one. Students of magic and religion have identified innumerable varieties of them – gods, devils, pixies, fairies, you name it. A familiar motif is that they operate at the very fringes of perception. While the scullery maid sleeps, they are busy in the kitchen making the milk go sour. For a society with no concept of bacteria, this is, perhaps, a forgivable conceit. But for a modern university professor to take this idea seriously is, I think, mind-blowing.”

Thomas Nagel has responded to Fletcher, in a letter to the Times,

Sir, – Stephen Fletcher objects to my recommending Stephen C. Meyer’s Signature in the Cell in Books of the Year. Fletcher’s statement that “It is hard to imagine a worse book” suggests that he has read it. If he has, he knows that it includes a chapter on “The RNA World” which describes that hypothesis for the origin of DNA at least as fully as the Wikipedia article that Fletcher recommends. Meyer discusses this and other proposals about the chemical precursors of DNA, and argues that they all pose similar problems about how the process could have got started.

The tone of Fletcher’s letter exemplifies the widespread intolerance of any challenge to the dogma that everything in the world must be ultimately explainable by chemistry and physics. There are reasons to doubt this that have nothing to do with theism, beginning with the apparent physical irreducibility of consciousness. Doubts about reductive explanations of the origin of life also do not depend on theism. Since I am not tempted to believe in God, I do not draw Meyer’s conclusions, but the problems he poses lend support to the view that physics is not the theory of everything, and that more attention should be given to the possibility of an expanded conception of the natural order.

THOMAS NAGEL
29 Washington Square, New York 10011.

But not all are critical of Nagel. Bradley Morton disagrees with Leiter and has more sympathy for Nagel’s comments. John Walton, a chemist and professor at the University of St Andrews has come to Nagel’s (and Meyer’s) defense. Walton, also writing to the Times:

Sir, – The resilience of the “prebiotic soup” myth, in spite of torrents of counter-evidence, is truly astonishing. Even professionals such as Stephen Fletcher (Letters, December 4), criticizing Thomas Nagel’s recommendation of Signature in the Cell by Stephen C. Meyer (Books of the Year, November 27), apparently still believe in it. Fletcher asserts that “Natural selection is in fact a chemical process as well as a biological process, and it was operating for about half a billion years before the earliest cellular life forms appear in the fossil record”.

Actually the operation of neoDarwinian natural selection depends on the prior existence of entities capable of self-replication. Variants are produced in their genetic material by mutations, the variants are copied by the organism’s biochemical machinery, and then natural selection ensures the most “fit” survive. Before the arrival of organisms capable of reproduction, this process could not operate. In the words of the renowned evolutionist Theodosius Dobzhansky: “Prebiological natural selection is a contradiction in terms”. It follows that, even in principle, some quite different explanation is required to account for the origin of life. Fletcher is pinning his hopes on a supposed RNA world. He tells us: “Indeed, before DNA there was another hereditary system at work, less biologically fit than DNA, most likely RNA (ribonucleic acid)”.

It is an amusing irony that while castigating students of religion for believing in the supernatural, he offers in its place an entirely imaginary “RNA world” the only support for which is speculation! Intense laboratory research has failed to produce even one nucleotide (RNA component) under geologically plausible conditions. As for the chains of nucleotides required for the RNA world, there are insuperable problems associated with their information content, as well as the chemical selectivity needed for their assembly. Furthermore, the earth’s oldest Precambrian rocks show very good evidence that life was present from the start, so the half-billion years Fletcher counts on were actually not available for chemical evolution.

Rather than just kowtowing to the creaky naturalist “prebiotic soup” scenario, Meyer engages with the whole range of origin of life problems. Anyone interested in discovering where the evidence leads will find this a fascinating book.

JOHN C. WALTON
School of Chemistry, University of St Andrews, North Haugh, St Andrews.