An Atheist and a Christian Walk into a Bar - the review, part 3

The third chapter finds our authors discussing the problem of "massive theological disagreement", or mtd - why does such a multiplicity of religious faiths exist, and why is faith plagued by such deep disagreements often over fundamental conceptual issues, if God desires us to be in a sartorial relationship with Him? Following some tangential discussions about what constitutes religiously motivated violence, Schieber formalizes his argument:

· Premise 1: On the denial of theism, the observation of mtd is likely.
· Premise 2: On the affirmation of theism, the observation of mtd is unlikely (or less likely).
· Conclusion: the fact of mtd supports atheism more than it supports theism.

The discussion, after a time, begins to fall into somewhat repetitive trappings: Rauser or Schieber constructs an analogy to explain why massive theological disagreement either conflicts or comports with the God of classical theism; they spar a bit over the analogies, then shift focus to another explanation in hopes of refining their argument. Schieber generally maintains that the widespread theological disagreement we observe in the world — particularly considering that it may contribute to inter-religious violence — appears to conflict with the classical theism conceptualization of God as a maximally loving being who desires his creations to enter into meaningful, sartorial relationships with Him; Rauser's approach is to suggest that we can't understand the motivations or reasoning of an infinitely living and wise being — that God may have justifiable reasons for allowing, or even facilitating, massive theological disagreement (in coming chapters, Rauser will use variations of this argument on several different topics). The stock each of the authors places in real-world analogies is directly proportional to the stock each places in the underlying conceptual framework the analogy is meant to illuminate.

Schieber, in my view, misses a crucial opportunity here. Rauser is correct to suggest that God's motivations may lie beyond our epistemic horizon, which is why he employs weak language like "there are many reasons God may have for allowing doctrinal disagreements". However, this is because of a crucial weakness in Rauser's fundamental conceptualization of God, which I touched on in the first part of this book review. Essentially, the only reason Rauser can maintain that God could have sufficient reasons to allow for widespread theological disagreement is because the core concept of God he presented relies on equivocal use of language — we don't know about the reasoning and motivations of an omni-deity because it's a vaguely defined concept in the first place, so much so that it's not even clear what it means for God to have "reasons" at all.

To understand my argument here, I'll use the concept of motivation in itself. When we humans talk about motivations, we generally are directed toward goal-oriented behavior that will lead to some desirable outcome The outcomes we seek have complex desires behind them, many of which we are likely not even consciously aware of (such as culturally conditioned desires to seek certain types of physical beauty). We incur a high degree of uncertainty (since our desires may prove misguided, or out behavior will not realize them) and generally believe that the outcome we seek will fulfill our desires more effectively than some alternative outcome.
But what could it mean for a perfect, all-knowing, all-powerful, timeless and changeless being to have "motivations"? Such a being has no unconscious desires (or, quite arguably, no desires at all - for what else could "perfection" entail?), no uncertainty, cannot alter its behaviour to seek better outcomes, and faces no possibility of failure.  The very concept of motivations, whatever it precisely means when tethered to such a being, is certainly different in crucial ways from our common understanding and usage of the concept. This makes Rauser's claims insurmountably problematic, in my view. Contention over God's reasons and motivations are meaningless unless those concepts are being employed unequivocally.

Schieber does attempt to push Rauser toward what is, in my view, a more intellectually honest approach: we should clearly lay out what we ought to expect to observe given theism or atheism, then test those expectations against reality. Of course, since God is never defined in unequivocal terms, there's always plenty of room to retreat to conjecture. What Rauser will never be ableto offer on a presumption of theism, which Schieber can offer on a presumption of atheism, is precisely what Schieber lays out over the course of the chapter: what specific observations we ought to expect given those competing assumptions. While Schieber can confidently describe what we might reasonably expect to observe in the world if there is no God, Rauser is forced to rely on ad hoc rationalizations. He spends most of the chapter trying to poke holes in Schieber's analogies rather than offering a clear set of expectations regarding what we should observe given theism, and I believe that goes right back to the problem of classical theism's inherent ambiguity. A God so vaguely defined that it can fit into any possible world only serves to bolster Schieber's point of view.

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


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