Last week, I introduced you to John W. Loftus and Randal Rauser’s new debate-style book, God or Godless? I am now going to furnish you with a review. I commend Baker Books for sending me a review copy.
The book takes on twenty subjects and presents them in debate format, meaning that each author presents an opening case for their position (obviously atheism vs theism and vice versa). John presented ten cases designed to undermine theism and Randal presented ten cases to undermine atheism. The proposer’s opening statements for the twenty subjects each ran to about 800 words. This was followed by the defender’s 800 word opening statement. The rebuttal’s followed – both writers producing around 150 words. Finally, a very short 50 word closing statement concisely concluded each of their arguments. The two authors alternated their arguments, theist then atheist and so on.
I will, for purposes of being concise myself, list the pros and cons of the book:
The topics were varied and interesting, ranging from evidential ones (concerning, say, exegesis) to purely metaphysical ones (which thesis best explains beauty and love?).
The book is short. When you have a reading list as long as mine, this is a godsend (sorry, cosmosend).
Each section / argument stands on its own. This means that the book can be picked up and put down with ease, and read in any order.
It has made me think a bit more deeply about some Christian positions, one of which I have detailed below.
The author’s voices are obvious and peronalised. John is clear, forthright and to the point. Randal is more flowery, uses analogies and ‘parables’ (for want of a better term), and using cultural references. I enjoyed both voices.
The rebuttal was too short. Although this sounds like a contradiction since I admire its brevity, there was not enough opportunity to properly defend their own points whilst further examining and critiquing their opponents’. The best way to have dealt with this would have been to choose a dozen topics and give them double the depth. This would move the book from a 4 star to a 5 star.
As ever, and considering the brevity, a good number of the arguments created an impasse. There were some arguments where I found myself getting angry with Randal’s position and its presuppositional qualities. In a sense, it makes it almost pointless to argue with Randal, and I think John came to realise this. This is what I will concentrate on now. One further note – it is difficult to differentiate assessing the authors and the arguments that they bring to the table when you know so much about each argument themselves, and know the claims and responses almost in advance. I hope I do justice to their positions without straw manning either in light of what I know about atheist positions and theistic defences and vice versa.
John was often taking the evidentialist tack. This means that he was dealing with the evidence of the world around us, and more pertinently, the evidence of the Bible. This was the case in John’s chapters, which were:
The Biblical Concept of God Evolved from Polytheism to Monotheism
The Biblical God Required Child Sacrifices for His Pleasure
The Biblical God Commanded Genocide
The Biblical God Does Not Care Much about Slaves
The Biblical God Does Not Care Much about Women
The Biblical God Does Not Care Much about Animals
The Biblical God Is Ignorant about Science
The Biblical God Is Ignorant about the Future
The Biblical God Is an Incompetent Creator
The Biblical God Is an Incompetent Redeemer
John was at great pains to point out the inconsistencies in the Bible; the internal contradictions and problematic claims which make particularly the Old Testament impossible to adhere to and remain morally praiseworthy. As John rightly pointed out in virtually all of these sections, Randal punts to possibility not probability. This has LONG been an issue of mine. What it effectively means is that no matter what the evidence, the empirical data, there could still be a reason that God might act so, or allow such and such to happen. So Randal could be the last person on Earth, could have seen his whole family tortured over a 50 year period. Seen all the animals and plants of the world around him die, and still, God might have a reason for these horrors to promote a greater good. As long as this logical notion exists, there is apparently good reason to believe. Which entails that there is NO evidence that could ever contradict the existence of God. Randal has, as John points out, made his position unfalsifiable. It might be worth checking on my essay theorising that these instances of action or inaction leading to suffering in order to allow for a greater good makes God a moral consequentialist.
With regard to the biblical inconsistencies pointed out by John, Randal will more happily drop the Bible as a literal and accurate source of scriptural revelation than drop the idea of the Christian God. Here is a selection of quotes from the Rauser’s defence of the argument about child sacrifice:
“The question here isn’t whether God exists but rather whether Yahweh, the God of the Bible, has engaged in behaviors, or approved others doing so, that exclude him from being the one true God.” (p. 40)
“I am convinced that God could not have commanded a loving mother to perform such an evil action. Needless to say, I am more convinced of that than I am convinced that 1 Samuel 15:3 correctly narrates what God in fact commanded of Saul.
So I don’t give up my commitment to the claim that Yahweh is God. Nor do I surrender my intuition that the devotional killing of children, be they American or Amelekite, is always evil. But I do reject the straight and inerrant reading of passage like 1 Samuel 15:3.
Admittedly this leaves me with a bit of a puzzle. If God is ultimately the primary author of Scripture, then why did he include in his revealed text passages that incorrectly depict him as demanding herem killings? That’s a great question. But the general dilemma is hardly unique to the Bible since interpretive controversies swirl around the classic texts of all the great authors. Why did the author include this statement, this situation, this character, this ending? Let us simply note that when the author is very capable and the text is widely recognized as a classic, the wiser course for the reader is to keep wrestling with the puzzling section rather rejecting its place in the text. Given that God is a maximally competent author and the Bible a supreme classic, such a course would certainly seem advisable here” (p. 41-42)
There is so much wrong here, it will take a lot to unpick. The basis of Randal’s argument is the ontological argument. In other words, he has rational, epistemic right to believe that a maximal God exists. Once this has been established, then anything follows. I mean by this that any evidence, as mentioned before, becomes fair game. Due to humanity’s apparent stupidity (despite getting to grips with quantum mechanics and computers), we are unable to understand God’s reasoning, or our ignorance is necessary for some greater good, such that God fails to let us know why there are these apparent evils and sufferings in the world and within the biblical narrative.
Randal, in this book, however, fails to ontologically establish God’s existence. It is an implicit given. And this does undermine his position. It is a problematic argument at best, otherwise every philosopher would be a theist. We are not. Therefore, it probably isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
So Randal drops the Bible when problems are found. But hang on, he is a Christian, and the source evidence for this belief is the Bible. Jesus is fulfilling every jot and title of the Law. Is Randal a Marcionite? A heretic who would drop the immoral Old Testament for its vengeful demiurge deity ruling parochial Israel with a vicious iron fist? He jumps from implying a maximal God to believing in Yahweh. But he only cherry-picks the good bits. Any bad bits are rejected as errant. So what epistemic right does he have to believe the good bits? Why are they more historically sound than the bad bits that John points out with aplomb? Double standards, methinks.
Randal has a hermeneutic which appears to give epistemic priority to the New Testament over and above the Old Testament, particularly when the two appear to contradict. The other option is something Justin Schieber of the Reasonable Doubts podcast calls Covenantal Moral Relativism. If it was OK in the OT, but suddenly a new covenant in the NT with Jesus disavowed the morality of those atrocious acts of Yahweh, then the historical and cultural contexts of the acts defines the moral value, giving the Christian a morally relativistic value system of the type they so often accuse atheists of.
So on what foundation does Randal’s Christian faith sit? Here is part of a post I wrote recently called The circularity of believing the New Testament:
You see, the accounts are written by unknown people, in unknown times and places, with utterly unknown sources and with pro-Jesus ex post facto agendas! This we know. We can guess at some of these, but we are pretty much in the dark. We also know there are interpolations (casting the first stone in John, the end of John based on recent MS findings). So what epistemic right does the believer have? Well, it usually comes down to faith. But here’s the rub. That faith is derived primarily from the Bible (for without that, what is Christianity?). But if you need faith in the Bible to believe the Bible (as opposed to evidentialist approaches) then you have a circular argument.
Randal eschews the use of evidence in favour of relying on the logical possibility of an ad hoc excuse for making sense of the seemingly bizarre revelation that is the Bible. But that Christian faith must have, at its core, biblical claims, otherwise the faith exists in a vacuum. People who have no knowledge of the Bible or Biblical characters and claims have, as far as I know, never had visions of biblical figures. Even personal revelation supervenes on at least some knowledge of the text. And given Loftus’ exposition of the Outsider Test For Faith, we have even less reason to believe the personal revelations of believers since they appear to rather starkly coincide with their geographical location.
So the Bible itself must offer the Christian the competitive religious advantage over other holy books in order to overcome this OTF scenario. The problem is, as soon as it comes up against problems, Randal appears to be more inclined to drop the Bible, or particular verses. But when the Bible does seem to contain ‘unproblematic’ verses, Randal has no real way of knowing whether they are any more historically reliable than the verses he has dropped.
And deferring to the omniscience escape clause (the appeal to “we just don’t know the mind of God” etc) to explain away why God would have such a mottled biblical track record, both morally and historically, is simply not good enough. The horrors of the OT are claims of God – that he said or ordered things directly. Genocide, sacrifice and other untold nasties. But it seems that these claims should be seen in the light of the nice God in Jesus. As the Reasonable Doubts podcast states (actually in response to Rauser’s hermeneutics), it is actually more appropriate to see the nice Jesus stuff through the lens of the vicious OT and the apocalyptic claims and diatribes of Jesus himself.
So it seems that Randal has faith in Jesus (through the Bible and personal revelation, perhaps) which allows him to have faith that the New Testament is reliable and accurate. But the knowledge of Jesus comes from the New Testament, about which he had to have faith in Jesus in order to give epistemic scope and power. The whole venture cannot escape circularity. Even if one allows Randal the truth of an ontological argument (OA) for the existence of God, it seems rather a different matter to allowing him good reason to believe the claims about Jesus. But of course, he doesn’t (in this book) show that the OA works and that it grants him that presuppositional assumption.
There is much more to be said about this approach and about some of the other defences which Randal uses. I found that, on balance, John’s arguments were stronger and they really were, as he claims, more probably true. It is about probabilities, particularly if the OA is not a given. Which it isn’t.
Out of interest, I will be tackling Randal’s chapter on prayer in another post as I found his chapter and anecdote woefully underwhelming. Stay tuned.