An Atheist and a Christian Walk into a Bar - the review, part 1

Note: I'm blogging remotely from the sunny shores of Jamaica, using the Blogger app on my phone. The app kind of sucks, so unfortunately my first few posts on this book will likely have some formatting issues until I can get back to my desktop later this weekend. Til then, enjoy!

An Atheist and a Christian Walk into a Bar is a bit of a challenge to "review" in the conventional sense. It's not a polemic, and because of its unique format in which propositions are immediately challenged on both sides, trotting through the book and offering point by point rebuttals would be largely redundant. To the extent that I can review the book broadly, I'm satisfied to summarize that it is, by and large, a refreshing take on a stale genre. It's all too easy for theists and atheists alike to read and/or write within their own echo chamber, so Walk into a Bar (as I'll refer to it for the sake of brevity) provides ample opportunity for readers on both sides of the pew to challenge their biases as they progress through the book. If the book has any weaknesses, it's that the conversational format can both leave substantive topics underdeveloped (for the pragmatic sake of expediency, since any of the major topics covered could themselves comprise an entire book), and - as is human nature - the interlocutors have a tendency to get a bit sidetracked from time to time before said pragmatism nudges them to refocus. But this is a minor complaint in what is, generally speaking, a very refreshing and illuminating take on well-trodden religious and theological debate.

For my commentary, I'm going to divide my posts according to its seven chapters. Instead of taking the easy and perhaps obvious route, which would just be to side with Justin Schieber and pile on objections to Randal Rauser's arguments, my goal is to interject my own thoughts into the discussion while offering constructive criticism on where I think both interlocutors could have offered better arguments. I can confidently say that while I find Schieber to be an eloquent, educated, and cordial interlocutor to Rauser, I certainly find myself disagreeing either with his arguments or his approach from time to time. Likewise, while I unsurprisingly disagree with Rauser's theistic beliefs, I think he presents some strong arguments that ought to, at the very least, cause any intellectually honest atheist to more carefully consider the scope and implications of their arguments. And of course, I want to take care to limit my scope of analysis, if only because I don't want my commentary to be perceived as an excuse for dismissing the book entirely. In case I haven't made it clear enough already, let me state it unequivocally: with its brisk pace and provocative content, this book is well worth reading for yourself.
So, without further ado, let's dive into the first chapter: Why God Matters.

Chapter 1: Why God Matters

The fact that this discussion began with the interlocutors establishing the definition of God they would be discussing (that of classical theism - a necessarily existent, omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient, maximally good, and non-physical being) shows, to my point of view, the difficulty facing the theist here. Rauser wants to persuade the skeptic that the God-concept is one that should be taken seriously. But Schieber could have more or less stopped the conversation here and thoroughly challenged Rauser on the conceptual coherency of things like non-physical minds, necessary existence, morality divorced from the interests of interdependent conscious creatures, transcendent causation, and omni-paradoxes. Perhaps that was simply beyond the intended scope of the dialogue, but as a staunch advocate of ignosticism, I think a heavy burden lies upon theists to coherently define the God-concept well before any dialogue about its relevance to our daily lives can take place. 

A possibly silly example of conceptual incoherency pops up when Rauser recalls the old joke about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin; Schieber responds, lightheartedly, "twelve", to which Rauser replies, "since angels have no spatial extension, the correct answer is an infinite number!" But since the concept of dancing entails the movement of a body in space, what does it even mean to describe the "movement" of a non-spatial being? This type of paradox is echoed by Schieber when he mulls over the conceptual ambiguity of an invisible pink unicorn ("I'm always left puzzling over exactly what shade of pink is compatible with being invisible").

Both authors seem eager to move beyond what they perceive as caricatures of theism that compare belief in God to fairies and invisible pink unicorns, agreeing that such rhetoric is simplistic and unsophisticated. And while I agree, broadly, that such rhetoric can be and often is used to dismiss theistic belief in a cavalier and condescending manner, I'm not quite ready to concede that the comparison is as off the mark as the authors indicate. That's because, like invisible pink unicorns and fairies and ghosts and Santa Claus, the greatest problem with theistic belief is not evidential, but rather conceptual. Be it an intellectual failing on my part or not, I can no more make sense of a non-physical mind that exists beyond the confines of space-time (whatever "beyond" can mean when untethered from spatio-temporal meaning) having casual influence over the physical world than I can an immortal fat man telepathically knowing the deeds of children and traveling the world house by house in his flying, reindeer-powered sleigh. To me, it's not that the God-concept is infantile, the way belief in Santa might be; rather, it's that both concepts appear to me to be fundamentally absurd - the Santa concept being fanciful, and the God-concept contingent upon equivocal use of human language. I'm not inherently hostile to the notion that the existence of a God could matter; but without a clear conceptual underpinning of the concept, it's hard to pinpoint what is even being discussed, much less why I (or anyone) ought to care.

Having said all this, I'm forced to set my objections aside and concede the definition of God as given in classical theism for the sake of further discussion. 

Hoping that God exists

Schieber concedes that, granted the assumptions they agreed upon about what God is (however loaded and ambiguous they may be, in my view), it's reasonable to hope that God exists. Schieber suggests that this might allow us access to moral enlightenment and "life-changing experiences" that might not otherwise be possible. Rauser suggests that God's existence would also be "a good in itself", but I fail to see the relevance of that statement to the central question being explored - whether God's existence ought to matter to us.

I can't quite get on board with Schieber so readily, though. Again, I'm not inherently opposed to the idea that I should hope God exists; but even if I'm so generous as to set aside my many challenges to the conceptual coherency of classical theism,  I still think there are reasons to be skeptical of God's relevance to our lives.

The first is that it's not clear that God's morality aligns with our own understanding of the concept. Indeed, while Rauser himself rejects divine command theory, the popular theological notion that morality follows from God's commands - which in turn follow from his own maximally good nature - challenges our moral intuitions when holy books are rife with God commanding his followers to commit atrocities. It could be that our limited, mortal understanding of morality fails to capture, in some crucial way, the true nature of morality. It could follow that God's interests do not necessarily align with our own. Schieber is also vague in his use of "profoundly spiritual and life-changing experiences". Profound how? Life-changing in what way? I'll touch more on this topic later when the authors discuss the problem of suffering, but suffice to say for the time being that before I can accept that I ought to hope for God's existence, it'd be nice to know precisely what I'm hoping for.

On Hitchens

One point both authors agree on is that the late Christopher Hitchens' description of God as a tyrannical despot is a bit over the top. Schieber thinks the master/slave rhetoric obscures a real issue with the existence of God - our lack of privacy, since God knows our thoughts - but Rauser views this as stemming from a hastily anthropomorphic conceptualization of God.

I think Rauser is right, but only partly so. If we accept his claim that "God simply knows all true statements from eternity" (it's hard for me to see how Rauser would escape a free will paradox in this circumstance), then it's true that God is not quite like a "celestial North Korea", as Hitchens deadpanned. But this is a prime example of a common problem: the God of theologians being divorced from the God of the common believer. Christians present God as a being who watches over us and, in the afterlife, will judge us according to our deeds; and given scriptures like "any man who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart", it's difficult to conclude that Hitchens' rhetoric about "thought crimes" is off the mark.

This raises an important question. Should I hope that the vaguely defined God of classical theism exists? Or should I hope that one of the more anthropomorphic conceptualizations of God put forth by various religions (including Christianity) exists? The former leaves me confused as to what I should be hoping for; the later leaves me sympathizing with Hitchens' desire for autonomy and liberty.

An Atheist and a Christian Walk into a Bar — review index


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