Letter to an Influential Atheist

Posted in Reviews

There is an adage, which we all are familiar with; it goes something like this: Don’t judge a book by its cover. That is certainly a maxim to live by as one approaches Roger Steer’s new book, Letter to an Influential Atheist. Though the cover design is perhaps the ugliest I have ever seen (and, yes, the designer does take full credit for it), the content of the book more than makes up for the aesthetic shortcomings.

From his website, rogersteer.com, we learn that Steer is a British author and historian. Letter to an Influential Atheist is an open letter to Dr. Richard Dawkins, Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford, and arguably the most influential neo-Darwinist of our day. In a brief (139 pages) and non-technical style, Steer attempts to gently persuade Dawkins (and the reader) that in presenting evolution by natural selection as the explanation for our existence, Dawkins has drawn conclusions, which do not follow from the available data. Dawkins has taken leaps where he should be only taking steps. He is claiming too much for evolutionary mechanisms. The following quotation from Steer sums up his argument nicely:

Darwin and Wallace set out to solve the mystery of biological diversity. They came up with the theory of evolution by natural selection. It was a major insight in the progress of scientific understanding. However, you go on to make an unjustified leap in claiming that they solved the mystery of our existence – implying that it is an explanation that answers all our questions about life and the universe. This leap gets you in trouble. (2003, p. 64)

Steer begins his open letter by informing Dawkins that when Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace (co-founder of evolution by natural selection) independently formulated their theories, neither one viewed it as a theory of everything, which was to remove the necessity of an intelligent being as the cause of our existence. Did Darwin and Wallace disagree over the explanatory power of natural selection? Yes. But the fact remains that both viewed evolution by natural selection as a theory of biological diversity, not origins. Steer points out that neither Darwin nor Wallace would agree with Dawkins’ understanding of the explanatory power of their theory.

Next, Steer takes issue with Dawkins’ proclamation that evolution equals atheism. Steer points out that Darwin did not see any incompatibility between his theory and religion. Additionally, Wallace himself was no atheist. The question that arises then is, If the founders of evolution by natural selection were not atheists, why must their disciples be atheists? In a charitable way, Steer points out Dawkins’ deception in linking the names of Darwin and Wallace with his particular view of evolution by natural selection as if they all had the same understanding of its explanatory power.

Steer tackles other assertions by Dawkins that either go beyond the available data or simply do not sit well with Dawkins’ worldview, such as the complexity of the mind, consciousness, the notion that Francis Crick’s and James Watson’s discovery of DNA in 1953 proved that life is simply bytes of digital information without any spiritual dimension, etc. Steer also addresses Dawkins’ caricature of the Christian faith.

It is my guess that Letter to an Influential Atheist will be read by a wide audience because of its relative brevity and non-technical treatment of issues, which concern every thinking person. It will be interesting to watch the general response to the book. As of today, only three reviews have been posted at amazon.co.uk. There is an online debate, however, at bowness.demon.co.uk.

Of interest and concern to some Christians will be Steer’s acceptance of evolution by natural selection. There is not consensus among Christians as to the empirical validation of natural selection. In his book, Icons of Evolution: Science or Myth? Why Much of What We Teach About Evolution is Wrong, for example, Dr. Jonathan Wells demonstrates that one of the classic examples of natural selection – peppered moths – is farcical while another – Darwin’s finches – is far less supportive than is being let on. Either way, Steer’s acceptance of evolution by natural selection should not deter one from reading his book. The book is about a call for honesty and modesty from one of atheism’s elite and should be appreciated on those merits alone.

Joel Barnes