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Book Review - The Atheist Debater's Handbook, by B.C. Johnson

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The Atheist Debater's Handbook, by B.C. Johnson

The Atheist Debater's Handbook, by B.C. Johnson

Are there good reasons to be an atheist? Are the arguments for theism sound, or can they be rebutted? Many books have been written on these topics, but most of them have been by theologians and philosophers, and are not as accessible to most people as one might like.


Title: The Atheist Debater’s Handbook
Author: B.C. Johnson
Publisher: Prometheus Books
ISBN: 0879752106

•  Many basic arguments covered
•  Easy to read and understand
•  Topics often debated get primary focus

•  Unnecessary space used on Christianity

•  Covers most of the topics debated in religion
•  Chapters are laid out clearly & logically
•  Both general theism and Christian theism discussed.


Book Review

B.C. Johnson’s book The Atheist Debater’s Handbook summarizes some of the best arguments from a wide variety of theological and philosophical journals. However, he presents them in a form which does not require a philosophy degree to understand and appreciate. In this way, he manages to inform the average atheist or skeptic about many of the basic arguments which are used to critique theism.

The variety of arguments which are addressed is quite wide: science, nature, design, the mind, miracles, existence, religious experiences, morality, faith, the problem of evil, and more. In each case, he examines how these topics are used to bolster acceptance of theism, and then how those arguments can be refuted.

Some of the arguments he offers are quite good. For example, with the Argument to Design, he points out that it is based upon the premise that we can understand what it means to say that something is “designed” in the first place.

This requires a basis of comparison — we need to be able to discriminate between those things which are designed by a god, and those which are not. But according to the theist, absolutely everything in the universe is the product of design, whether by us or by their god. In this way, the very possibility of making a judgment is undermined.

With regards to the argument that religious experience provides us information and knowledge about gods, Johnson also offers a basic, but interesting objection. As he describes it, we can only test the validity of such experiences if we were able to see if it could tell the difference between gods and other sorts of things which the theist might experience:

    But how do we test this supposed religious sense? We would have to already know that God exists before we could find that the religious sense was reliable in detecting him. This is because a test would consist of discovering whether God was in fact near when a theist sensed His presence. And to know this we would have to have some independent means of knowing that God exists.
The Atheist Debater's Handbook, by B.C. Johnson

The Atheist Debater's Handbook, by B.C. Johnson

But despite the fact that Johnson offers some very good arguments, his book is limited by the very nature of the task he has set for himself. Because he is focusing on summarizing and simplifying arguments which just about anyone can understand, he must necessarily ignore many complicated issues and rebuttals. Other arguments against theism, some better than what he describes, must remain unstated.

But such drawbacks are simply unavoidable when writing a short, basic book — were it anything else, he wouldn’t be able to accomplish his task. One other drawback may have been avoidable, however, and that is his focus on Christianity.

Many of his arguments are good precisely because they apply to general theism, regardless of the specifics of religious dogmas. But when he moves off into questions of Christianity, the focus of his book also moves and loses some cohesion. The couple of chapters he spends on Christianity are not enough to soundly address the particular Christian arguments, while the same space could have been used to address further issues on general theism. It probably would have been better to instead write a second book much like the first, but this time refuting specific Christian arguments and premises.

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