The book begins by introducing the characters. There's you (the reader, who is apparently a believer), Randal, and an atheist named "Sheridan". Why anyone would name their kid Sheridan is beyond me. Now, Randal says in the book that he wants to make this conversation as balanced as possible; it's not meant to be about him just kicking the argumentative crap out of some naive atheist:
I've tried to write an authentic conversation in which my interlocutor hits pretty hard and I don't always have satisfactory answers. My goal is not to compose an essay rubbed to a fine burnish but rather to chronicle the living, breathing reality of real, extended truth-seeking.That's cool and all, but when we meet Sheridan, Sheridan turns out to be kind of a dick. He's wearing a shirt with a thumbs-up Jesus that's captioned "There's a sucker born again every minute". Not that I have anything against some good-natured ribbing of religion, but Sheridan seems like he may have an axe to grind about one religion in particular, and he just conducts himself in fairly dickish ways. Upon realizing that Randal may be Christian, he asks, "You're not a sucker, are you?" Moments later he calls Randal a "faith-head" and says that Bill Maher showed in Religulous that there's no evidence Jesus existed. I'm already wondering if this is how Randal, or evangelical Christians in general, really perceive 'new atheists'.
But after the mention of Religulous, Randal touches, ever so softly, on a theological issue:
"Here's a question for you, Sheridan. How many tenured professors of ancient history doubt the existence of Jesus?"Well, that's actually a thorny question. Because I'm sure that if you asked most 'tenured professors of ancient history' whether they thought some sort of historical Jesus existed, I think most would say yes. There are exceptions, like Robert Price, but even he wouldn't take a firm stance on whether we could know there was some sort of historical Jesus. The relevant question, I have always thought, is whether historians agree that Jesus existed as he is described in the Gospels. In other words, did the Biblical Jesus exist? It's not even remotely difficult to find tenured professors of ancient history who do not believe in the Biblical Jesus. Speaking personally, I have argued extensively on this blog that there is absolutely no reason at all to believe in the Biblical Jesus and plenty of reasons not to. I think my most thorough critique is in my three-part review of Lee Strobel's film The Case for Christ, but a quick search for "historical Jesus" in the sidebar will bring up plenty of related posts.
But, back to the book. Sheridan continues, dickishly:
"Okay, I'm getting the vibe that you don't like being called a `sucker.' So then what should I call religious people like you? You believe in a sky God who sits on a throne above and governs the world like a petty potentate. You can believe that if you want to, but if it doesn't make you a sucker, then what does it make you? Why not believe in Zeus or Thor instead? There are countless gods of the ancient world. The Christian God just happens to have a following. No doubt that's just good luck."Sigh. Really? Now, maybe Sheridan is an exaggerated caricature of new atheists on purpose. I can only hope so, because no atheist I know or have read would talk like this. Apparently, Randal perceives new atheists as being people who have absolutely no grasp of nuance. But Sheridan, despite his clumsiness, stumbles on to a relevant issue:
"Here's something even more interesting. Imagine for a minute that you're walking down the street and a man approaches you proclaiming the religion of the `sacred four-leaf clover.' [....] "You wouldn't take this guy seriously for one second. Heck, you'd be doing well not to burst out laughing after his earnest little theology lesson. But is Christianity really any less fantastic than this?It is true that religious people tend to take the weirdness of their own dogmas for granted. When you're culturally indoctrinated into a complex belief system, you tend not to perceive your own beliefs as being unusual; but to outsiders, your beliefs are perceived as bizarre as any other. Christians may think that Hindu beliefs are weird, but it's a safe bet that Hindus perceive the Holy Trinity and the salvation of mankind though the blood sacrament of a god in human form as equally strange.
Such ethnocentric biases are important to acknowledge, because they can blind us from critical self-examination. I recall reading a book on world religions in my Christian days that was written by a Christian for Christians. It gave an overview of various world religions and then argued why they are wrong. Years later, when I decided to study world religions from a less obviously biased viewpoint, I came away with a starkly different impression and had to ask myself some tough questions about my own beliefs.
It's here where Randal invites Sheridan to join him for coffee, and the conversation really begins. But that'll have to wait until the next part of this review.