‘Greater Than’ Is Pretty Great


Rev. Thomas D. Williams, L.C., FaithWords, 192 pages, $13.99
In the absence of any other proof, the thumb alone would convince me of God’s existence.
— Sir Isaac Newton
It would seem improbable that a Christian might, in a scant 192 pages, bring sound argument and refutation against the not-always-measured considerations of four prominent atheists, who have written four different (though similarly themed) books, but Rev. Thomas D. Williams, L.C., manages to do so with both effectiveness and humor.
His small book is titled, Greater Than You Think: A Theologian Answers the Atheists about God, and it is meant to rebut the recent string of best-sellers promoting a “new” intellectualist atheism over the same-old knuckle-dragging faith in the “fairy tale” of a Creator God. Responding to noted New Atheists — Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett, and most especially Christopher Hitchens — Father Williams has produced a quick read that manages to point out flaws in simple reasoning and clear errors in the more complex arguments that are often blindsided by the atheist’s own prejudice.
Father Williams’s book will be unlikely to convince his opponents, or even silence them, but it may well help both believers and unbelievers to step away from a spiritual precipice — believers because they may consider how their own behavior helps create atheists, unbelievers because it gives them a means to make a thinking choice (and therefore permission, if it’s what they are looking for) to believe.
Greater Than You Think manages to make short work of the often over-long arguments of the bestsellers, sometimes by foregoing niceties for clarity. Father Williams writes in his introduction:
My own limited experience indicates that atheism — especially in its more passionate strain — always has its causes. All the convinced atheists I know do not merely disbelieve in God; they hate Him. He becomes for them an object not of simple indifference, but of the most visceral animosity . . . [which is] always motivated by one of two things: a deep injustice suffered, for which they blame God and cannot forgive Him; or a deep injustice they have committed, for which they cannot forgive themselves.
From there he takes just 27 succinct chapters to demonstrate — in a simple Q&A format — how a hatred of God translates into a need to denigrate believers, remove God from the public square, and encourage some truly extreme positions (children “have had their psychological and physical lives irreparably maimed by compulsory education of faith,” says Hitchens. “Words like ‘God’ and ‘Allah’ must go the way of ‘Apollo’ and ‘Baal,’ or they will unmake our world,” declares Harris).
While making his case, Father Williams manages to do some necessary (and gratifying) record-correcting on the scurrilous claims that religion and science must be enemies. Quoting scientists from Sir Isaac Newton (see above) to Stephen Hawkings, Father Williams rolls his eyes at the eternally offered example of church errors on Gallileo, and wonders why, if the church was so reactionary against scientific inquiry, “they don’t have a whole slew of examples”:
The natural sciences grew out of Christian culture. As the sociologist Rodney Stark has so convincingly shown, science was “still-born” in the great civilizations of the ancient world, except in Christian civilizations. Why is it that empirical science and the scientific method did not develop in China (with its sophisticated society), in India (with its philosophical schools), in Arabia (with its advanced mathematics), in Japan . . . or even in ancient Greece or Rome? . . . Science flourished in societies where a Christian mind-set understood nature to be ordered and intelligible, the work of an intelligent Creator. . . . Far from being an obstacle to science, Christian soil was the necessary humus where science took root.
Father Williams also addresses the origins of the Church and the historical evidence for the existence of Jesus. Here, some might feel Father Williams is at his weakest. Among his arguments for the historical truth of Christ and His intention — from the beginning — to form a church, Father Williams touches on Scripture and first-century documents, but he rounds out his case by reminding the reader that, “The fact that there is no record of any contemporary refuting these claims, or asserting that Jesus never lived, is ample historical evidence . . . .”
He is correct, of course, and his point is as valid as any atheist’s charge that there are scant secular records substantiating the claims of the early Church. But the argument also allows an opening for the predictable charge that any such refutations were destroyed by the self-interested and tyrannical Church. What this “weakness” in Father Williams’s argument demonstrates, though, is that eventually the debate is reduced to one making a choice for either belief or disbelief and simply running on that faith.
At times, Father Williams uses simple arguments to good effect, as when wondering whether failures and quackery in medicine should indict all doctors in the same way that failures within the church are used to indict all believers and belief itself, and he comes off as being both fun and feisty:
Does the mere fact that religion can be co-opted for evil purposes mean that religion itself is evil? By that twisted logic, the fact that science has often been put to use for all sorts of devilry (the atomic bomb, chemical weapons . . . instant coffee) means that science itself must be evil.
Nowhere does Father Williams more clearly enjoy himself than when he takes two chapters to “turn the tables” on the opposition, demonstrating that atheism cannot rightly claim to make anyone more tolerant, a better citizen, or a happier or more generous person. Father Williams usefully articulates the real-world effect of the atheist-utopia daydream: “The removal of God leaves Caesar unchallenged, and easily paves the way for totalitarianism.”
Arguments laid aside, Greater Than You Think is, finally, an appeal to Christians that we examine our consciences and identify where in our public discourses or private relations we have failed to reflect the teachings of Christ and His Church, and have thus contributed to the building of the kind of raw and offensive stereotypes upon which Dawkins, Hitchens, et al. hang their bigotry and call it a reasoned and justifiable hate.
In reminding the believing reader that these men would hate us less if we gave them less to hate us about, Father Williams actually makes his strongest case against atheism, for he demonstrates to the atheists that a true and disciplined faith is not a wild lashing out with wagging finger, but an inward quest; one that insists we look outside ourselves and our own puny concerns, every day, and acknowledge both the existence and importance of lesser and greater beings, and where we have fallen short in our dealings with them.
With such accountability comes something like peace — an imperfect peace, to be sure –but one that is greater than we think.

Elizabeth Scalia

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Elizabeth Scalia is the popular writer and blogger known as "The Anchoress." She writes a weekly column for First Things and is the managing editor for the Catholic Portal at Patheos.

  • Todd

    While this book is nice, I’m sure, we need an outstanding lived Christian example in the world above the intellectual arguments.

    We should be clear that we welcome the arguments of atheists. They sharpen our own attempts at communication. They give us cause to reflect on our experiences of faith. They point to what is unclear or even malignant in the witness of faith in the world. We should thank them for the opportunity to amend what we have done wrong and tackle the improvements needed with relish and good cheer.

  • jeff from mpls

    I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around the idea that there is just this giant sucking sound where there ought to be powerful examples of our faith, hope, and charity in the Catholic Church.

    Are you kidding me?

    Come on, Elizabeth, we call them saints. You could purge every trace of hagiography from the writings if you’d like, you could even grant Christopher Hitchens that Mother Theresa was just an ordinary Jane looking for fame. I’ll give you all of that, and I’m still here to say the Catholic Church has a treasure, and I mean an embarrassment of riches, in the hundreds, if not thousands of bona fide saints whose lives point, via reflection, to Christ himself.

    Now I can anticipate your saying yes, that’s jolly good and all, but most of us aren’t saints; we’re the clowns who are ruining the Catholic brand for everyone. True, but keep in mind, as long as we’re alive, you or I could yet come face to face with martyrdom, or the occasion to exhibit an act of indescribable selflessness. Between you and me, our actions wouldn’t amount to a hill of beans in a world that hasn’t been convinced by the copious examples our Church has already supplied.

  • Elizabeth Scalia

    Jeff, I don’t disagree with you about the Saints. But it is nevertheless true that the sort of stereotypes of Christians that abound do so because of the behavior of many of us, modern day Christians. We live in a world of instant media that slants a tad left, shall we say. It is not a bad thing to remind us living Christians, in the world, that our public actions help to define Christianity – and faithfulness as a whole – to the rest of the world, and that our public lapses help contribute to the sort of atmosphere that welcomes these “new” atheists, and is receptive to their arguments.

  • Ken N.

    Perhaps you will not change the beliefs of an atheist. If you are around them long enough, they will certainly have an impact on you. This book will help you plant a few seeds with someone who has not heard any good, sound reasoning for belief in God.

  • Patrick

    Rodney Stark has done and continues to do good work, but let’s not forget that priest and award-winning physicist Stanley L. Jaki has also made a career out of analyzing why science was stillborn everywhere but in the Christian West.

  • Deacon Greg Kandra

    Elizabeth Scalia wrote: But it is nevertheless true that the sort of stereotypes of Christians that abound do so because of the behavior of many of us, modern day Christians. We live in a world of instant media that slants a tad left, shall we say. It is not a bad thing to remind us living Christians, in the world, that our public actions help to define Christianity – and faithfulness as a whole – to the rest of the world, and that our public lapses help contribute to the sort of atmosphere that welcomes these “new” atheists, and is receptive to their arguments.

    True enough. Once, it was said of early believers, in awe and envy, “See how these Christians love one another!” How many of us give non-believers reason to say that about us today?

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