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Sal Restivo, Beyond New Atheism and Theism: A Sociology of Science, Secularism and Religiosity, 2024

In the late 1980s I enjoyed Sal Restivo’s The Social Relations of Physics, Mysticism and Mathematics (Dordrecht: Reidel, 1984), in particular for his clear critique of claims about parallels between quantum physics and Eastern religions, as advanced by Fritj of Capra in his Tao of Physics. Thus, I looked forward towards reading this recent book by Restivo. And I was not disappointed. It is well written, makes convincing arguments and argues for a particular stance. The central issue in this book is the debate, through publica-tions, between ‘new atheists’ and their theistic opponents. The main atheists considered are Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. The main contemporary defenders of theism are William Lane Craig, John Lennox, Alvin Plantinga and Frank Turek. 

In evaluating a debate, one can assume two rather different roles, that of the arbiter and that of the observer. The arbiter listens to arguments made by both sides, assesses those for their intellectual or legal merit, and concludes which position is the better one. The observer looks at the confrontation from a distance, seeking to discern what is driving the debate. What interests or emotions are involved? As a sociologist, one would expect that Restivo is an observer, who studies religion, science, and debates about God and science as human practices. But he is also an arbiter, someone who defends a particular position: “Ultimately, my objective is to show that we can in fact deliver a knockout punch that eliminates both atheism and theism.” (14) 

The first three chapters are introductory. The first chapter invokes the rise of atheism over a couple of millennia. In the second chapter, we learn of his own childhood, as the author is also someone who has been socialized in a particular way. In the third chapter, he argues that both the new atheists and the defenders of theism rely on outdated myths about science. Since the 1970s, science has been studied as a human practice, a social construction. There still are scientific truths (including those from sociology), and these aren’t arbitrary, but we do not have absolute, culture-independent certainty. 

Chapter four presents us with ‘The New Atheist Worldview’. A central issue is that these authors view religion in terms that draw on the natural sciences, with a special status for physics, rather than respecting sociology as a scientific discipline in its own right, especially relevant when it comes to a social and cultural phenomenon such as religion. Chapter five introduces as a contrasting voice, Alister McGrath’s book The Dawkins Delusion

The next couple of chapters are on contemporary theists who oppose new atheism. They use scientistic and logical arguments similar to those used by the new atheists. They too lack a sociological imagination, a respect for the societal reality of symbolic language. Frank Turek is an American Christian apologist and radio host, who refers to scientific theories such as the Big Bang theory to argue that the universe had a beginning. John Lennox is a professor of mathematics at Oxford University, well qualified in science, but disregarding the sociocultural nature of religious beliefs, including beliefs about the trustworthiness of the Bible, and practices. William Lane Craig is an analytical Christian philosopher, who in a variety of philosophical debates arbitrarily picks the side that fits his ‘God exists’ agenda. Following these three, Restivo discusses two thinkers who upon his view offer more robust philosophical and theological reflection, Hans Küng and Alvin Plantinga. But these too fall short of their ambitions. Küng was searching for a foundation of unshakeable certainty, but why should there be one? The Christian philosopher Plantinga argued that one can claim belief in God’s existence as a basic belief, one that does not depend on further arguments, while using logic in convoluted ways. According to Restivo, the recognition Plantinga has received signals that philosophy suffers from a naïve relativistic tolerance. 

The last three chapters offer his own sociological understanding of religion, gods and morality. He writes half a chapter on the emergence of a sociological approach to religion. Restivo draws his main inspiration from Émile Durkheim, treating God as a symbol that stands for group structures and values. He argues that societies with substantial numbers of ‘nones’ may have a strong sense of good and evil, thus undermining the idea that a theistic stance is necessary for the good of society. The final chapter, “The Knowing Society: A Secular Moral Order”, offers his alternative to new atheists and to reactionary theists. 

In ‘theology and science’, we have quite a few contributions that argue against Richard Dawkins and the like. Some are similar in kind to the arguments of the theists discussed here. Is this the most important argument to be made? The rise of historical, anthropological and sociological understanding of religions, their scriptures and function, may be a far more important result

of the nineteenth century than the rise of an evolutionary understanding of the variety of living organisms. Restivo’s book is original, accessible and challenging. He presents an important position alongside those of the new atheists and theists. A position that is to some extent also atheistic, but not by arguing against the existence of God but by arguing for a secular understanding of the character of religion. 

Willem B. Drees 

 Academic Secretary for the Social Sci-ences and Humanities, Royal Holland Society of the Sciences and Humanities (KHMW); professor emeritus for philos-ophy of religion, Leiden University, the Netherlands.



Reprinted from Reviews in Science, Religion and Theology, 3(1) March 2024, pp. 37-39