• Missing the Mark: David Marshall on Grayling’s The God Argument, Part 2

    In the first part of this two-part series, I looked at Marshall’s introduction. In this second part I’m going to continue to critique David Marshall’s review of A.C. Grayling’s newest book titled The God Argument: The Case against Religion and for Humanism.

    Marshall begins,

    In the second half of this book, A.C. Grayling sets out to describe his moral principles, and those he thinks he shares with the humanist community in general. Among these are “magnanimity,” which Grayling takes the trouble to give in both Latin and Greek (154), and being “informed, reflective, alert, responsive, eager for understanding . . . a good guest at the dinner table.” This includes means acting towards those one disagrees with, paraphrasing Plutarch, as “a good listener, who hears what his interlocutors say (not what he thinks they have said) . . . ”

    Sounds reasonable.

    After this brief paragraph Marshall begins with a few of his complaints,

    Now let us see how Dr. Grayling actually deals with Christianity, and those who espouse it (and other theistic faiths) in the first half of this book. First people, then ideas.

    In his introduction, Grayling thanks a number of “colleagues and fellows in the cause” of secular humanism, including the New Atheist barbershop quartet (Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens [DDHH}) along with Paul Kurtz and others, and naming Victor Stenger as another valued ally. He then explains that his first task in this book will be “to deal with what religious apologists say in defending themselves from the arguments of those just listed.”

    I happen to be the author of one of the first, and I do think among the best, rebuttals of DDHH. So naturally I turned to the back of the book to see if Grayling mentioned me, or more likely, on which of the bigger-name Christian writers he concentrated his fire.

    Marshall? No. John Lennox? Nope. Alister McGrath? Nyety. Dinesh D’Souza? Tim Keller? David Hart? No, no, heck, no.

    So with whom does Grayling argue? Page after page, he keeps mentioning these “religious apologetics,” as if they surrounded him like the ether, and he could read their minds. So who are these people, and what do they say? Where are the quotes? Which books has he read? Grayling is a philosopher, so maybe he wants to argue with philosophers. And indeed, Grayling does promise to deal with two well-known Christian philosophers, Blaise Pascal and Alvin Plantinga.

    After 90-odd pages of painful nonsense (details later), we finally get to arguments from actual “apologists.” But there are few quotes, and one has to wonder if he has actually read even Plantinga or Pascal!

    Here, Marshall has wasted several paragraphs complaining about how Grayling fails to engage any specific Christian apologist and reiterates much of his first blog post, which I already exposed as sloppy in the first part of this series. As far as Marshall’s complaints I don’t know why he focused on such a pointless argument because it doesn’t matter whose arguments one engages with since most Christians make use of the same arguments. Does it really matter what emphasis a particular apologist puts on each particular argument? They’re all poorly thought out anyway.

    Before I continue, I had a little chuckle at Marshall’s expense when he actually says that his response to the New Atheism (The Truth Behind the New Atheism, Harvest House, 2007) is “among the best.” Yeah, sure… and Jesus was truly resurrected.

    Plantinga, he accurately notes, argues that faith in God is warranted, even without evidence. (Though I think blowing off the fine shades of Plantinga’s argument.) But then Grayling makes this statement: “It would seem that Alvin Plantinga has abandoned attempts to show by argument that it is rational to hold theistic beliefs, because he now argues that there is no need to provide such arguments . . . ”

    I can imagine Plantinga’s wry response to that gross non sequitur. This is like saying, “Marshall argues that peaches are not necessary for human health, so there must be no peach trees on his property.” Well they are not absolutely necessary, but I do have them anyway. Of course the fact that evidence is not necessary (to Plantinga), in no way means there is no evidence. Plantinga thinks there is lots of it, and says so, as his actual readers know. A professional philosopher should not be so sloppy.

    Pascal gets treated even worse. “The most celebrated such argument is Pascal’s wager. Pascal said that because the existence of a deity can be neither proved nor disproved . . . by rational argument . . . ” Again, “Pascal says that as long as the probability of a god’s existence is non-zero . . . ”

    This is rubbish. Has Grayling actually read Pensees? In fact, Pascal offers several lines of rational argument for Christianity, which he thinks (and I generally agree) is compelling. The Wager in no way concedes that the evidence for Christianity is weak. In fact, it is addressed to practical issues: even given all this positive evidence for Christianity, that Pascal has been discussing, what if one still suffers doubts? How in practice should one deal with those doubts?

    Dawkins made the same mistake about Pascal. One would hope that, as a professional philosopher espousing the values of listening well, Grayling would correct his ally and say “No, Pascal does not at all concede that the evidence against Christianity is either irrelevant or poor.” Instead, Grayling falls into exactly the same trap, with less excuse.

    Regarding Pascal, after reading a few paragraphs in his Pensees in the chapter titled “The Wager” (Penguin Books, 1995; 121-122) he is clearly implying that we cannot know god exists. In fact he writes, “But we do not know either the existence or the nature of God […]” and continues to argue that “[r]eason cannot decide this question [whether god exists]. Infinite chaos separates us. At the far end of this infinite distance a coin is being spun which will come down heads or tails. How will you wager? Reason cannot make you choose either, reason cannot prove either wrong.” It sure sounds as if this is what Pascal was arguing when he developed his Wager.

    As for Marshall’s claims of “rational evidence” for Christianity I found the following line interesting. Pascal wrote, “We know God only through Jesus Christ. Without this mediator all communication with God is broken off. Through Jesus we know God. All those who have claimed to know God and prove his existence without Jesus Christ have only had futile proofs to offer. But to prove Christ we have the prophesies which are solid and palpable proofs. By being fulfilled and proved true by the event, these prophesies show that these truths are certain and thus prove that Jesus is divine.” (Ibid.; 56) Prophesies? This is Pascal’s “rational evidence” for Christianity??? I think Marshall may want to rethink his position.

    Regarding Plantinga, while reading Warranted Christian Belief he writes, “My aim is to show how it can be that Christians can be justified, rational (both internally and externally), and warranted in holding full-blooded Christian belief […] Justification and internal rationality are easy enough: just as for theistic belief, I’ll argue that many or most Christians not only can be but also are both justified and internally rational in holding their characteristic beliefs. External rationality and warrant are harder. The only way I can see to argue that Christian belief has these virtues is to argue that Christian belief is, indeed, true. I don’t propose to offer such an argument. That is because I don’t know of an argument for Christian belief that seems very likely to convince one who doesn’t already accept its conclusion. That is nothing against Christian belief, however, and indeed I shall argue that if Christian beliefs are true, then the standard and most satisfactory way to hold them will not be as the conclusions of argument.” (Oxford, 2000; 200-201)

    This passage sure sounds identical to how Grayling explained Plantinga’s argument. From my current understanding of what “external” and “internal” justifications are, he is arguing that one’s personal justifications can count as a form of reasoning, even if they do not conform to the outside realities, the “external” facts about the world, which even Plantinga seems to admit is a problem for Christian belief. Read the sentence after the one in bold: That is nothing against Christian belief, however, and indeed I shall argue that if Christian beliefs are true, then the standard and most satisfactory way to hold them will not be as the conclusions of argument. This is not a logical position whatsoever. He is essentially saying here that reasons don’t matter. ‘You either believe or you don’t. If you do, this book I’ve written is full of irrational justifications for your weak faith.’

    Marshall continues,

    Now let’s go back to Grayling’s moral values, again. He praises magnanimity, but he is seldom magnanimous towards Christians. He almost never praises those he disagrees with or gives their arguments the benefit of the doubt. He generally doesn’t even bother to read them. In fact, if anything, Grayling appears to have read even less of those he purports to be disproving than Dawkins — Dawkins at least quoted McGrath and Swinburne, and pretended to argue with them.

    So how is Grayling “informed, reflective, alert, responsive, eager for understanding,” such that even towards those he disagrees with, he proves himself “a good listener, who hears what his interlocutors say (not what he thinks they have said) . . . ?”

    In fact, Grayling is just the opposite. He gets almost nothing about Christianity right, because he has not bothered to read or tried to understand what we really believe about practically anything. He doesn’t quote actual Christian thinkers, he quotes nebulous “religious apologists” who appear to be little fairies roaming around the inside of his own thick skull. (Pardon the heat, I am feeling it after wading through this junk.)

    I think Marshall might want to take his own advice here as his tone is overbearing and inconsiderate, especially when Grayling’s tone throughout the entire book was polite and considerate; he simply stated the facts of his case.

    Want more examples? I’ll give some, but bare in mind that Grayling is here repeating common cliches in the skeptical community. If you’re a skeptic, you’ll probably nod your head at times, because responsible parties like Dawkins and Grayling are too intellectually lazy to do their homework, and even let you know what we say is the other side of the story — whether we’re right or not. So even if you think these cliches are true, you should recognize that it is Grayling’s self-confessed responsibility to listen, as he promises, and as his own best moral values commend, to what we actually say, not to what he imagines we say, and to get our arguments right.

    Yes, as a skeptic I nodded my head a lot, but on occasion I didn’t agree with Grayling, but this rarely happened, and only on minor points. Despite Marshall’s statements to the contrary I didn’t find any problems with his Grayling’s presentation of theistic arguments (and Marshall has been thus far unable to point any out as I’ve demonstrated). In fact, I was somewhat hesitant to read this book because I’ve read so many books about religion and atheism that the subject has begun to bore me. But Grayling’s writing style, and in particular the unconventional ways in which he explained several concepts and arguments I was very impressed with, and made me think.

    * “By ‘faith’ is meant believe held independently of whether there is a testable evidence in its favour, or indeed even in the face of counter-evidence.” (19)

    Heavens, no. That is almost never what Christians have meant by faith. I have given long strings of quotes, from the 1st Century to the 21st, and am collaborating with other scholars on a book on this very subject coming out next year, showing that this is NOT at all what Christians mean by “faith.”

    Not this canard again. Many of these issues I’ve previously addressed in my response to Marshall’s essay titled ‘Faith and Reason’ so I will save time and space by not rehashing all the reasons why his argument fails and refer the reader there.

    * “When the evidence is not merely insufficient but absent or contrary, how much more wrong to do as Doubting Thomas was criticized for not doing . . . to believe nonetheless.” (102)

    Thomas was not criticized for believing without evidence. He was criticized for, having witnessed Jesus’ many miracles, heard Jesus predict his resurrection, and then heard multiple reports of that resurrection from people he had known and presumably trusted for years, refusing to believe in the face of that already excellent evidence.

    This understanding of the Thomas story is assumed throughout John especially, who is attentive to such evidence, and throughout the narrative parts of the New Testament.

    It is not apparent who or what Grayling is referring to when he mentions the criticism of Thomas, so I’m not sure what Marshall is referring to. However, Grayling is correct in that “Doubting” Thomas didn’t actually doubt anything. If you read the story of Doubting Thomas Jesus first appeared to his disciples and they all believed without a hint of doubt. However, Thomas, who was not there during this event, remained skeptical. A week later Jesus appeared again and this time Thomas was present but he did not take a true skeptical view of the situation. He did not first eliminate other possibilities, such as a potential hoax, but believed after seeing Jesus, the same as the other disciples. A single individual having a little doubt is not a good argument against the claim that Christians do not rely on evidence. They don’t as this story illustrates.

    Marshall writes,

    * “Most religious people do not, of course, subscribe to their religion because of arguments in favor of it . . . In the great majority of cases, people belong to their religion because it is the religion of their parents.”

    The word “because” is tricky here. One might be a Christian “because” one was raised a Christian, but also “because” it makes sense, you have examined and tried to live it, perhaps listened to its opponents and found their arguments unpersuasive. Ironically, Grayling speaks of believing without evidence, but gives no actual evidence to back up his claim about why people believe. A survey by the skeptic Michael Shermer shows that most believers do seem to cite rational reasons for their faith. (I did a similiar survey, and found experienced Christians cite evidence even more often.) So Grayling is asking us to “just believe,” not only without evidence, but in the teeth of the evidence, on why Christians believe.

    Not another one! Marshall has just repeated yet another one of his arguments that he loves to spout, even after I’ve blown it out of the water on several occasions during discussions with him and in my review of his book, The Truth Behind the New Atheism. Despite these multiple attempts at getting Marshall to understand how he took Shermer horribly out of context, he continues to parade around this study.

    For evidence in favor of Grayling’s claim Marshall may want to take a look at my review…. Oh wait. He already has and he entirely ignored that evidence!

    * “Explaining something by something unexplained amounts, obviously, to no explanation at all.” (77)

    Obviously not. “Where did my dolly go?” “The dog took it.” “Well where do doggies come from?” “I don’t know!” “But that’s no explanation at all!”

    Sure it is. One does not need to understand precisely how God is constituted, for “God did it” to be a rational explanation. Ultimately, none of our explanations are complete, and explanations of entities greater than ourselves will naturally be most tenous of all. As a philosopher, Grayling should be explaining such distinctions to his readers, not ignoring them.

    I’m sorry but Marshall really needs to take a few critical thinking courses. It is not at all logical to respond to the question of where my bike went by responding, “Faeries flew off with it!” How does this explain anything? It doesn’t. It leaves more questions than it answers. Where did the faeries come from? How did they manage to grab a hold of such a large and heavy object (as compared to themselves) and defy gravity with their tiny wings? The same issue occurs when a Christian attempts to invoke god. Rational explanations take these things into account.

    * Grayling tries to flip the Ontological Argument on page 88 to disprove the Devil. “There is a being which is the least perfect of all beings; such a being which does not exist is — since existence is a perfection — less perfect than one that does; therefore the least perfect being necessarily does not exist.”

    Grayling doesn’t seem to know he’s refuting a heresy, here. The Devil is not God’s opposite. He is not defined as “the least perfect being,” but rather as the greatest angel, gone bad. Lewis says, “The greater something is, the worse it can become.” Lewis is the most-read Christian writer of modern times, but Grayling evidently has never heard of him, certainly not bothered to read him.

    Marshall has misunderstood Grayling’s point it seems. I believe he was trying to demonstrate that nearly anything can be argued for, given the Ontological argument, and it doesn’t come anywhere close to providing a logical nor factual basis for believing in god, regardless of whether or not Grayling allegedly got all of the historical details about the devil right (assuming for the time being that Marshall is even correct).

    * Grayling’s caricature of the Moral Argument (which I do not make) is a farce.

    This objection is pathetic. He doesn’t bother to explain why he believes Grayling’s description of the moral argument is a “farce.” Having just reread it, I can assure anyone it is not. It is simplified by a great degree, but that’s because this is a popular level book and Grayling even stated prior to his explanation about the argument that he was presenting the argument in the “simplest” way. Stating something simply does not automatically make it wrong.

    * From the 5th to the 17th Centuries, “Religion took the view that it was right and science was wrong, and anyone who disagreed might be killed (for example, Giordano Bruno) . . . ” (107)

    This history is rubbish, as many historians of science have shown. (Most recently, Dr. Allan Chapman of Oxford’s Wadham College.) And “magnanimous” Grayling never bothers even to mention the many historians who tie the rise of modern science directly to Christian theology.

    And always the same example. If there were so many examples of Christians killing scientists, why always name the same one? This one is mistaken, though. Bruno was killed, wrongly of course, for heresy, not for espousing science.

    I agree this is a bit of a simplification on the part of Grayling but the facts of the case are mostly true. Religion has not always gotten along with science because religious leaders didn’t like their truth claims being questioned. I’d recommend Richard Carrier’s essay on the subject of the rise of science in relation to Christianity in the book The Christian Delusion titled “Christianity Was Not Responsible for Modern Science” (which Marshall laughingly tries to (mis)use to bolster his own case later).

    Regarding Giordano Bruno, according to William Boulting, author of Giordano Bruno: His Life, Thought, and Martyrdom (Routledge, 2013; 294), the surviving church documents describing the charges in Bruno’s trial do not detail the exact nature of his so-called crimes. However, according to Hilary Gatti, author of Giordano Bruno and Renaissance Science: Broken Lives and Organizational Power (Cornell, 1999; 46), Bruno said the following according to a transcript of the trial, responding to the evidence against him when he defined his work as “divided into five dialogues which treat of the movements of the earth.” According to this account, one of Bruno’s charges against him were at least partially about a speech he gave referring to the Copernican model.

    * The “major if not sole endevour” of Discovery Institute in Seattle “is to promote ID theory.”

    All Grayling had to do was check the DI website to find that they have several other major arms, including (my favorite, since I live in the Seattle area) their useful work on promoting better transportation options in the Northwest.

    This is blatantly false. I not only prove this in detail in my review of The Truth Behind the New Atheism, but this video by the NCSE does an excellent job of proving this fact.

    * Grayling conflates Intelligent Design with creationists who argue that “nuclear decay rates were billions of times greater” in the past, concluding, “Such is the quality of thought in Creationism-ID ‘science.'”

    Whether you like ID or hate it, that is not magnanimous, that is just sleazy. Grayling should quote the specific person who made that claim, and not try to blame everyone in the ID movement for a claim some unnamed numbskull outside that movement made.

    What’s sleazy is Marshall’s attitude towards Grayling here, and throughout his “review” (I apologize for the quotes but they are badly needed in this case), since it’s pretty common knowledge what the Creationist/Intelligent Design proponents argue to anyone who has spent at least a small amount of time studying the subject. In fact, had Marshall done the slightest hint of research he would have easily found reference to this Creationist/I.D. argument on the internet in a Creationist/I.D. book titled Thousands, Not Billions: Challenging an Icon of Evolution: Questioning the Age of the Earth, by Donald Deyoung. On page 42 the author writes, “As the following chapters explain in detail, RATE research as obtained multiple lines of objective physical evidence that nuclear decay rates have been much higher in the past than we measure today.” That wasn’t so hard was it?

    What’s even worse is the fact that Grayling did cite a source (the same source as the above Creationist author)! He wrote, “This quotation is from a publication by a creationist group calling itself RATE – Radioisotopes and the Age of the Earth.” This group was even featured in a creationist newsletter, Creation Answers Newsletter where they write, “A research project called RATE (for Radioactivity and the Age of the Earth) has generated much interest among creationists in the past few years. This project undertook to do both theoretical and experimental research on radioactive age dating techniques. In particular, the project focused on the question of whether radioactive decay rates have been much higher in the past. The general idea is that there may have been special periods of rapid radioactive decay in the past, such as during the creation week, the period prior to the Noahic Flood, and during the Flood. It is being proposed that radioactive decay rates were hundreds of thousands to billions of times greater during these periods. This is a radical concept. How creationists came to propose this idea is an interesting story.” (emphasis mine)

    * “The Greek thinkers premised their views on the recognition that Creationist accounts are projections from the human experience of agency.”

    Yet Richard Carrier, a radical atheist who happens to be an expert on the origins of Greco-Roman science, points out that many ancient scientists actually did their science in honor of the Creator God. He even credits the rise of ancient science in part to the rise of Greek philosophical theism.

    I’ve seen Marshall claim this before on his blog but how he can argue that Carrier actually supports this theory is at the height of lunacy. In fact, Carrier argues the complete opposite in The Christian Delusion! The first sentence of the second paragraph makes this abundantly clear. Carrier wrote this about the view that Christianity birthed science: “This is not only false in every conceivable detail but so egregiously false that anyone with even the slightest academic competence and responsibility should have known it was false.” That’s a pretty harsh condemnation of this theory that Marshall says Carrier supports.

    Regarding Marshall’s (ab)use of Carrier’s essay, Marshall’s lapse in logic is easy to spot. The claim is that Christianity was responsible for science, not the Romans or pagans, and Carrier stomped that thesis into the ground.

    * Grayling tries to credit the Enlightenment, somehow, for the scientific revolution, as well as for everything else good in the modern world, even though the scientific revolution began long before most of the heroes of the Enlightenment were even born. He also downplays the fantastic early scientific revolution of the 13th Century — check that, he hasn’t mentioned it in the first two thirds of the book, anyway — or the rich and important Medieval precidents for modern science, that historians have so explored. (Recently, James Hannam.) Grayling fails to breath a word of all this.

    I’m dumbfounded by this sentence. Did Marshall even read the book? Where did Grayling try to “credit the Enlightenment, somehow, for the scientific revolution, as well as for everything else good in the modern world?” Yes, he says that during the time of the Enlightenment many “advances” were made in science, education, technology, etc. but he no where says anything like what Marshall imparts to him.

    As far as Grayling arguing that the Enlightenment caused the Scientific Revolution this is patently false. In fact, the words “Enlightenment” and “Scientific Revolution” do not even appear on the same page together anywhere in the book! Marshall must have been deluding himself again, just as he’s deluded himself into believing this “review” of his was any kind of a successful rebuttal.

    I could go on and on. Grayling misunderstands Confucian theology. (Which I wrote my dissertation on.) He tries to claim the Stoics for atheism, which they were not. He praises Epictetus, one of my favorites, too, but has he really read him? See my article last year in Touchstone Magazine, comparing Epictetus and Zhuang Zi. Epictetus not only believed in God, but was pious and zealous in his faith — it permeates his teaching.

    I am being harsher with Grayling, perhaps, than I would be with a popular writer, because he ought to know better. He espouses humanistic values. He ought to live by them. He ought to have read and fairly considered his opponents’ actual arguments, rather than pretend to argue with nebulous “religious apologists” whom he cannot name or quote because (it seems) he heard about them second hand, and chooses to believe every disreputable rumor about those he disagrees with.

    This is thus an illiberal and (in the most literal sense) inhumane book. I know atheists who really do embrace humanity, by remaining aware of the good in those they disagree with, by appreciating love, kindness, beauty, and excellence wherever they find it. But the fanatics seem to have the numbers, unfortunately. So do as Grayling says (sometimes, anyway), but not as(in this book) he does. And don’t believe one part in five of what he says about “religion.” (A word he defines rather tendentiously, by the way — but that is the norm.)

    As I’ve shown, Grayling did understand each of his opponents’ arguments and this last paragraph of Marshall’s just shows his hypocrisy. He hurls insults and false accusations against a man who is aspiring to and promoting Humanist values, while Marshall continues to perpetuate anti-Humanist values. Perhaps Grayling’s book ought to be a warning against men like Marshall.

    Not only did David Marshall fail to grasp a single line in the book, but if one were to read only Marshall’s review of it, I’m afraid the reader would not even begin to grasp the subject matter of the book since Marshall so badly mangled Grayling’s message (not to mention the very text itself). It’s a real shame that rather than trying to read and absorb these virtuous values imparted, he instead decides to defy them and proceeds to write a badly distorted caricature of Graylig’s latest book.

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    Article by: Arizona Atheist