Let’s get two things on the table right at the top: Before this, I had never read any of the 70-plus books written by Peter Kreeft; also, I don’t have a doctorate in philosophy. While the first wasn’t a hindrance in reading Kreeft’s “Letters to an Atheist,” the second certainly was.
The book makes amazing and convincing points on possibly the most important topic of all time: Does God exist? As Kreeft writes in the introduction, “It makes a difference in everything. If God does not exist, then religion is the biggest hoax, the biggest myth, the biggest lie in the history of the world. If God does exist, then religion ... is the biggest truth, the biggest relationship in life: the relationship with the creator and designer of our existence, our identity, and our end.”
Here’s the premise, outlined in the book’s first letter: Kreeft, a professor of philosophy at Boston College and a renowned author and speaker on Catholicism and the philosophy of religion, meets a young woman at a conference. She mentions to him that her brother is a smart, caring, compassionate atheist, and she is looking for resources that will better explain religion to him. This sparks Kreeft to send a letter to the brother, Michael, with the hope of engaging him in an ongoing debate about the reality of God and, if there is a God, his omnipotence and motives.
Kreeft says Michael is a real person and that the letters are real as well. The entirety of the book is made up of these letters — 45 in all — to Michael. Each letter builds off the previous one and is written as though Kreeft is responding to Michael’s return letters (which, Kreeft acknowledges, are fictitious). While that might sound confusing, it’s a great way to structure a book, as Kreeft expertly walks Michael (and the reader) point-by-point through the philosophy of religion, starting with Michael’s main contention, which is this: all things that exist are provable by science, which God is not; therefore, God does not exist.
In the book, Kreeft comes across as genuinely caring and open to dialogue, although it’s quite clear that, to use an analogy, he’s a major-leaguer sharing the field with a T-ball player. Being a professor of philosophy since 1962, he seems to have all the answers. That being said, his answers often lead to more questions, such as: “Huh?”
Here is an actual sentence from the book: “I am tempted to do a philosophical analysis of the question, but I’m resisting that temptation (1) because we already discussed that under the label of ‘scientism’ and (2) because it would involve us in technical questions of epistemology, especially your presuppositions of nominalism and empiricism, and that would take a long time, for the clearest way to do that is by a tour through the history of modern philosophy to see the natural development and consequences of nominalism through the six centuries from Ockham to logical positivism.”
See what I’m saying? (Obviously the book isn’t all like that.)
That being said, I really did like this book (which won’t be released until September, but is available to preorder on Amazon.com) and learned a tremendous amount from Kreeft (and from Googling all the words I didn’t know) on how to dialogue with an atheist. Formatting the book in written letters was brilliant; the book is short to begin with (only 171 pages) and the conversational tone made it not only a quick read, but it really got me invested in the relationship between Kreeft and Michael and Michael’s progress from atheism.
I’d love to read a follow-up from Kreeft called “Letters to a Deist” focusing on bringing Michael all the way home to Catholicism.
Scott Warden is associate editor of OSV Newsweekly.
For more summer book reviews: Swing into summer reads