Book Review: “How to Be an Atheist” by Mitch Stokes
by J.W. Wartick
I’ll admit it: going into Mitch Stokes’ How to Be an Atheist: Why Many Skeptics Aren’t Skeptical Enough, I was skeptical [har, har]. Any book that claims to discuss “how to be x” where “x” is some worldview to which the author does not describe has an uphill battle. After finishing, I have to say that my fears were premature. In this astonishing book, Stokes does well what few even attempt: relational, witty engagement with those with whom one disagrees. The book is a calling for self-described skeptics to examine their own skepticism and see whether they are being skeptical enough. Throughout the book, key tenets of “belief” that most people share are challenged by means of classical and modern skeptical argument. Few aspects of life are left unexamined. Whether it is the belief in other minds, morality, or the origin of the universe, Stokes encourages consistent skepticism on all counts.
The book is organized around three parts: Sense and Reason, Science, and Morality. Stokes avoids the potential pitfalls of getting bogged down in complex attempts to defend an alternative view and focuses instead upon skeptical inquiry. He takes a microscope to these topics and asks, effectively, “How should we treat this topic if we were really going to be skeptics?” It’s a refreshing perspective, and one that makes the book highly readable. It reads like an inquiry in the best, technical sense of the term.
‘How do the topics of this inquiry fare?’ you might wonder. Under skeptical scrutiny, very little is left for us. This is not an extended apologetic for the Christian faith. No, this book is specifically aimed at seeing where skepticism takes us if we are actually consistent about it. Free will, objective morality, sense perception, and even realism about scientific inquiry are each cast into doubt. None of this is done in a condescending way or through trickery. Instead, Stokes continually utilizes the works of atheists as sources for his points. True skepticism leaves very little to be affirmed in the world, and what is left behind looks rather pale in comparison to what we experience.
How to Be an Atheist is one of those rare apologetics books that could, I think, reasonably be handed to a skeptical, atheistic friend as a book they might be willing to read–and engage with. Stokes’ humorous style is never offputting. Instead, he encourages a consistent, skeptical look a the world. He shows just how bleak such a vision of the world ought to be. Moreover, he does so by using the words and works of atheists themselves…
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