Book Review: Atheist Overreach: What Atheism Can’t Deliver (Smith)

There is much to praise in Christian Smith's Atheist Overreach: What Atheism Can't Deliver. The prose is fresh and clear, and the ideas are painstakingly presented with considerable academic precision, yet with little of the endemic turgidity…

There is much to praise in Christian Smith's Atheist Overreach: What Atheism Can't Deliver. The prose is fresh and clear, and the ideas are painstakingly presented with considerable academic precision, yet with little of the endemic turgidity…

Oxford University Press 2019
New York, NY
Hardcover $21.73
Kindle $9.99
ISBN 9780190880927 (hardcover)
ISBN 9780190880941 (epub)

There is much to praise in Christian Smith’s Atheist Overreach: What Atheism Can’t Deliver. The prose is fresh and clear, and the ideas are painstakingly presented with considerable academic precision, yet with little of the endemic turgidity. Where more technical discussion is needed, it is handled in footnotes, thus preserving the smooth flow of the text. Not often seen in the atheist-believer debates, Smith takes the trouble to address himself to arguments actually made, focusing his analysis on a small selection of recent texts.1

And finally, like many texts of apologetics, it is blessedly short.
‘Overreach’, as the subtitle makes clear, is the problem of claiming more than can be delivered, such as championing a moral standard that, given the inherent resources of your ethical theory, you cannot justify with good reasons. Most of the book deals with the question of morality, and of its four essays, the first two question whether atheism can rationally support some crucial moral ideas, e.g., universal human rights, and whether support for them can be found in the philosophy of naturalism. Switching ground, the third essay asks if science can settle the question of God’s existence, while the fourth essay asks if human beings are ‘naturally’ religious. Smith’s object in each case is to show that atheists cannot fully support their claims, and thus are overreaching. Intellectual honesty, Smith claims, requires atheists to take more modest positions, e.g., not claiming to support ethical positions for which one lacks good reason (4).
To make good on these charges, Smith begins by explaining that good reasons for being good “must entail both an explanation and a motivation for why people should be [good]” (12-13). Ethical theory, to be effective, must explain why something is valuable, and also motivate the agent to care about, and act upon, this value. He next distinguishes between ‘modest’ or ‘moderate’ and ‘high’ or ‘strong’ moral standards (10). Different standards make different demands on the moral agent. Being good to people you like is one thing, but what drives caring about distant strangers when there’s nothing to be gained? Atheism might be able to justify a modest standard of goodness but cannot give satisfactory reasons to justify holding strong standards, such as universal human rights. But why are ‘good reasons’ so important? Smith claims that, while good reasons are no guarantee of good behavior, they do increase its likelihood (12). They also support cultural norms and shore up institutions in the long run, which would otherwise be “vulnerable to delegitimization and possibly breakdown” (28). Without a convincing rationale to anchor them, a society’s values may ‘drift,’ altering over time to become something very different from their originals.
The actual demonstration of atheist ethical overreach consists in running through a series of basic problems in ethical theory. As Smith tells it, atheist moralists are unable to convince a ‘reasonable skeptic’ and Hume’s ‘sensible knave’ to be good, or to resolve conflicts between individuals’ and society’s interests. The atheist moralists, Smith charges, seem naively credulous in their expectations of native human goodness. Given humanity’s ‘dark side,’ atheists overestimate how well reason can motivate good behavior, especially demanding behavior requiring sacrifices. Smith continues his critique in the second essay, examining how normativity might be derived from the philosophy of naturalism. Can there really be a naturalistic ethics? Smith sketches out a series of attempts to derive norms from natural selection, survival, or social contract, and remarks in each case that ‘he can’t see how this would work.’ The major ethical theories of Utilitarianism and Kantianism are included in this critique, lumped under the heading “Other Deficient Accounts” (74). But even if there were a naturalistic basis for ethics, Smith claims, it wouldn’t last in the long run, owing again to the likelihood of ‘values-drift’ (82-4).
In the third essay, Smith invokes something like Gould’s ‘non-overlapping magisteria’ to deal with the conflict between science and religion. Science attempting to disprove God comes down to “vulgar imperialistic scientism” (93): science has gotten ‘uppity’ and no longer knows its proper place. Both science and religion have their own, separate, legitimate domains, and should respect the other’s territory. Perhaps it is worth noting that historically, this is a fall-back position, since in the past, religion commonly claimed all this territory for itself, suppressing and persecuting any rival views.
Smith approaches the fourth question by identifying a number of natural human tendencies toward religion, which he believes demonstrate a ‘natural religiousness.’ If humans are naturally religious, he claims, atheist hopes for a religion-free future are in vain. However, why believers might think natural religiousness a good thing is baffling. After all, if humans are naturally religious, doesn’t that mean that humans will develop religion whether or not there is a god? Hence, religious sentiments would need no non-natural explanation, thus undermining any requirement of the divine. But this goes unmentioned.
As a good academic, Smith begins the book and each essay by issuing a number of disclaimers intended to clarify and focus his project. A couple of these are note-worthy. Smith says that he does not intend to do apologetics for either religion or atheism in these essays (3). I beg to differ. As one works through each essay, a number of the canards favored by apologists become evident. ‘Atheists are hyper-rationalistic and think reason solves all problems’ (4; 138 n.31). (And since they fail to be as rational as they claim, they are also hypocrites.) ‘Secular ethics could only possibly be based on self-interest and subjective preferences’ (15; 137 n.23). ‘All real ethics belong to religion, and without it, society will collapse’ (51; 143 n.66). ‘All means of knowing the world are rooted in faith’ (94). Smith can’t even refrain from diagnosing atheists’ ‘ulterior motives’ in their texts. He claims to find signs that they try to hide the weakness of their positions from themselves (34). If this does not make Smith an apologist by intention or name, it does in any other terms. Apologist is as apologist does.
Despite appearances, Smith is not addressing his arguments to atheists at all, but rather to believers. This seems to be common practice: apologists tend to retain the assumptions of their own worldview and interpret atheist arguments through that lens, so inevitably, the arguments fail. Were he not preaching to the choir, Smith would have to subject these assumptions to critical scrutiny and justify them. Whatever else they require, good reasons must also be acceptable to one’s critics as much as to one’s supporters. To fail that is hardly to bother arguing a case at all.
In a second disclaimer, Smith excuses himself from doing for religious moral claims what he does here for atheistic claims (5). He explains this choice, saying that he “only engages the atheist authors most relevant to the concerns [he] raise[s]” (4). He later introduces the texts he intends to examine as “a representative sampling of what today are presented in popular culture as the best arguments” (11). Ignore the question of what standard of excellence governs the content of popular culture. Smith is scrutinizing atheist moral philosophy, and considering that less than 15% of professional philosophers believe in theism, while nearly 73% declare themselves atheists (the remainder being ‘other’)2

, it is hard to believe that the authors he examines are really the most relevant to his concerns. Most of moral philosophy is atheistic. Ethics is a huge segment of academic philosophy, and a highly active publishing industry. But to judge by the ease with which Smith dismisses Utilitarianism and Kantianism, he finds little of relevance there at all.
Still, Smith is free to examine what texts he likes and focus his project as he pleases, assuming he limits his conclusions accordingly. This, however, raises another matter. ‘Atheism’ is the target of his critique throughout the book, but as a negative term, it groups together only those without belief in a theistic god. Atheists are a heterogenous group, who need not necessarily have anything else in common (which Smith seems to recognize, p.46), let alone ethical philosophies. A more apt identification of his target would be ‘humanism’ or even ‘secularism.’ Yet despite his limited scope, Smith wishes to conclude that atheism in itself lacks sufficient intellectual resources to support higher moral demands. Why he thinks to generalize beyond the four authors he examines is not clear, and one might think this meets his own definition of overreach.
As he dismisses reason after reason offered by the atheist moralists, the reader starts to wonder what Smith would accept as a ‘good reason.’ Before long, the absence of any comparative assessment of religious ethics becomes glaring. Perhaps Smith senses this himself, for eventually he does offer up sample good reasons. The motivation to be good, in Smith’s view, is adequately handled by a) God’s love and guidance, on the one hand, and b) God’s ultimate judgement and reward or punishment, on the other (31). God is the cosmic ‘elf on the shelf,’ whose omniscience allows him precise knowledge of who is naughty and who is nice. Yet Smith feels that even this good reason needs a qualifier. These reasons are effective, he says, “if their premises are granted” (31). Previously, Smith admitted that even good reasons are not always effective, but here he seems to concede that these good reasons may be good only for believers.
In sum, what is to be said of Smith’s case for atheist overreach? Essentially, Smith simply asserts that he doesn’t find any of the reasons offered by atheists convincing. Initially, he presents this assessment through the ‘reasonable skeptic,’ but soon it becomes clear that this is only a mouthpiece and even this pretense is shortly dropped. In spite of Smith’s conclusion against atheism, the reader is left wondering whether there is any winner here, given his admission of the ineffectiveness of his own good reasons. The most Smith can offer seems to be the weak (and unsupported) claim that good reasons make moral behavior more likely (12). Not much with which to shore up society against moral collapse. ♦


  1. Listed here for reference’s sake:
    • Philip Kitcher. Life After Faith. and The Ethical Project.
    • Sam Harris. The Moral Landscape.
    • Greg Epstein. Good Without God.
    • Lex Bayer and John Figdor. Atheist Mind, Humanist Heart.
    Smith also occasionally references a number of other works, by such as Ronald Lindsay, Kai Nielsen and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong.
  2. According to Bourget, David, and David J. Chalmers. “What Do Philosophers Believe?” Philosophical Studies, vol. 170, no. 3, 2014, pp. 465–500.