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Michael Poole, The ‘New’ Atheism, 10 Arguments that don’t hold water (Lion Hudson, 2009)

£3.99, 96 pages  

Buy from: http://w ww.lionhudson.com/detail.php?product_id=2328124

Author details: http://www.kcl.ac.uk/schools/sspp/education/staff/mpoole.html

The ‘New’ Atheism, 10 Arguments that don’t hold water is a short, pocket sized, critical response to recent ‘new atheist’ arguments popularised by authors such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennet. Advertised as a ‘book written for those without a lot of time for reading’ (p8) it is reminiscent in both style and content of the popular OUP ‘Very short Introduction’ series. Each of its ten chapters deals with a specific argument identified by Michael Poole as central to, or frequently used by, new atheist authors. Poole is well qualified to write this short handbook as he is a visiting Research Fellow in Science and Religion at King’s College, London, author of a number of books including the ‘Users guide to science and belief’ (2007, Lion Hudson) and has previously debated with Richard Dawkins.

The book starts strongly by addressing the arguments ‘Religion is evil because many bad deeds have been done by religious people’, ‘Faith is believing what you know ain’t so’ and ‘Religious beliefs are memes, mind viruses, self-delusion, placebos, wishful thinking and indoctrination’. Poole’s reply to each argument is very short, however his brevity is far more a reflection of the weakness of these atheist arguments than any attempt to abbreviate the (fairly standard) theistic responses. The next four chapters deal with various types of evidence that people commonly use to inform their worldview before leading nicely into a chapter critiquing the scientific bias commonly presented by the new brand of atheism. The final three chapters address whether good scientists can be religious believers, whether the biological theory of evolution removes the main argument for God’s existence, and whether the cosmological theory of multi-verses makes the existence of God improbable.

In an area that spans science, philosophy and theology, arguments concerning science and religion can often get rather convoluted and difficult to follow. In an attempt to address this difficulty many contemporary authors try to distil their position into a few memorable points, a tactic especially favoured by debaters. Such a tactic can often lead to the accusation of ‘straw-man’ arguments, however writing about Poole’s previous work Richard Dawkins states ‘Poole's collation of my ideas is so thorough, and his representation of them so fair, that I have almost no complaints along these lines. (S&CB, 1995, 7(1):45-50)’. Readers can therefore be confident that despite writing from an unashamedly Christian position, Poole is keen to deal fairly with the debate.  Indeed he makes six excellent and memorable points that should be heeded by all those who hold the new atheist position. However, the chapters concerning evidence reflect the more convoluted (and some would say social scienc-y) nature of this debate that do not fit well with the volume’s attempt to identify ten concise points. This book is useful as a very short introduction to the failings of new atheism seen from a theistic perspective - but should be read as an introduction for further reflection, and not as suggesting that new atheism can be brushed off quite as easily and simply as the length of the volume might suggest.

Simon Kolstoe, Postdoctoral Researcher, University College London

Difficulty: Easy