Book Review: The God Debates: A 21st Century Guide for Atheists and Believers (and Everyone in Between)

By John R. Shook

Review by Carol Everly Floyd

John Shook is Director of Education and Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Inquiry. His book The God Debates provides a rigorous overview of the reasoning, logic and evidence regarding existence of gods, especially the existence of the Christian God. 

The treatment of philosophical Christian theology and philosophical Christian atheology

steers clear of religious criticism. Shook wishes to sidestep the tendency of many contemporary god debates to turn into a shouting match not about theology but rather about under whose banner more human atrocities have been perpetrated.

He views the debating process as a learning process for both sides and advises both atheists and believers that there are no shortcuts. There is neither a theological shortcut to dismiss atheism nor an atheological shortcut to dismiss god concepts. 

Shook cautions atheists to require that debates focus on the existence of God to make clear that the burden of proof lies with those who assert that existence. Advocates of Christian theology must be able to present arguments which are subject to examination by reason, logic and evidence. Although Shook is an advocate of naturalist philosophy, he advises atheists to debate evidence for and against God rather than making naturalism the starting premise for atheism. His contention is that the naturalist perspective is where atheists will end up by a series of steps, but it is not where they start.

In the second chapter, he proposes a tentative taxonomy of five theological categories in which to place the principal ways that the Christian God and religion are thought about and justified. He identifies distinct aims of theology in each category and how each should be questioned. In the five chapters that follow, addressing one theological category per chapter, Shook breaks down the essential Christian theological ideas into numbered propositions which he then analyzes and develops rebutting critiques from atheology. The chart below is a simplification of the overall pattern of the book. 

Category of Theology

Basic Question Which Should Be Asked of the Theology 

Core Atheology Critique Leveled at the Theology

Theology From The Scripture 

Can we trust its accounts of Jesus’s life?


Theology From The World

Should science be supplemented with acts of God?


Theology Beyond The World

Does cosmology require a supernatural explanation for the universe?


Theology In The Know

Should we place religious certainties before any other knowledge?


Theology Into The Myst

Are religious experiences of God rather than creeds what is important?

unknowability makes reasoned theology impossible

His approach on two of the categories—the first, Theology From The Scripture and the last, Theology Into The Myst—are key to understanding the book. 

Christian theologians and laypeople most often emphasize Theology From The Scripture

as their proof of God. In his analysis of this theological category, Shook focuses on the history of the four gospels and,  using twelve principles of scientific history/forensic detection, concludes that the claims that the Christian Bible presents cannot meet the standards that are regularly demanded of other historical writings. Continuing on Theology From The Scripture, Shook examines additional arguments from divine signs, apostolic faith, and divine character. 

The chapter on Theology Into The Myst recognizes the non-intellectual dimensions of human experience. Shook draws together theologies that appeal to faith and mystery, rather than to reason for their justification. These stress the unknowability of God and are transcendental in focus. In some ways, Shook argues, these theologies help make skeptical atheists’ case about the Christian God’s nonexistence. Shook asserts that he cannot address this theology in an atheological fashion because it does not present itself as a reasoned theology. Although skeptics are uncomfortable with its mysticism, and Christians dislike the bypassing of scripture and thus the absence of a creed, Shook observes that Theology Into The Myst might include a path for people who feel somehow “in between” god concepts and atheism.

The final chapter entitled “Faith and Reason” describes, with broad brush, twelve worldviews attempting to balance reason and faith and thus serve the social and moral functions that religion has served. Shook provides brief explanations and comments on possible interrelationships. He suggests presentation of the twelve worldviews in a circular diagram to better capture the relationships–both the close sharing with neighbors and sharp disagreements with those on the opposite side. Shook acknowledges that there are a variety of ways the cake could be cut and that divisions will not be along the lines of religion versus non-religion. This interesting and wide ranging preliminary sketch introduces directions for possible future consideration.

Shook’s assessment of the historic strengths and limitations of the worldviews of religious humanism (including its connection with naturalism) and of secular humanism provide some interesting insights. He makes the historical observation that secular humanism owes the development of both the principles of secularism and of separation between church and state to religious humanism. 

Neither militant atheists nor religious believers are very interested in or prepared for such a broad theological landscape. Shook believes both sides needs a better education on the core concepts of the god debates. If atheists are going to produce a rational worldview that can genuinely replace religion, they must take religion and theology more seriously. If religious believers wish to defend a sensible faith they must develop more reasoned theologies. 

Hearing atheists too quickly dismiss theology as “about nothing,” Shook keeps a respectful tone in this book because he is convinced that ridiculing religion is not the key to replacing it. Understanding and taking seriously how believers live their lives are important.

This overview of the god debates will interest nontheists with a variety of worldviews.

Shook’s own worldview is a combination of atheism, humanism as a way of life, and democratic ideals. Having completed this book, he is working on one about humanism as a way of life that can serve social and moral functions that religion has served for many people.

Carol Everly Floyd is a retired university academic administrator and public policy analyst. She is a member of the Board of the Association of Unitarian Universalist Humanists and coordinator of the Humanist Discussion Group of the Abraham Lincoln Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Springfield, Illinois.