Monday, November 18, 2013

Reviewing Randal Rauser’s “The Swedish Atheist…” Chapter 16

Chapter 16: God as a Simple Answer
No reason to pull our punches when we’re dealing with a title like this. God is not an answer for anything—and anyone who thinks otherwise doesn’t understand the meaning of the word “answer.”

Starting off this chapter, Sheridan confronts Randal by pointing out that Randal still hasn’t made any attempt to defend the proposition that “belief in the Christian God is any more reasonable than belief in Zeus” or any other deity for that matter.

Randal fires back:

“Okay, so you want to know what justifies a Christian in choosing one particular definition of God over another? …. God enables us to maintain much more of our common sense than we would be able to do otherwise. We already talked about consciousness and free will. God also provides a powerful explanation for other dimensions of our experience, including the objective nature of morality and meaning.”

With a comment like that, I’m going to have to take off the padded gloves, wrap some additional tape, and then slip on the spiked brass-knuckles.

First off, Randal never officially talked about consciousness and free will. He didn’t examine the various opinions, he didn’t cite any relevant research, he didn’t even reference any professional opinion on the subjects. All Randal did was merely assert that things like free will and consciousness exist, and what’s more, they exist, coincidently enough, exactly how his preferred metaphysics allows for. Technically speaking, that’s not a conversation at all. That’s a statement of belief. More accurately, it’s an unfounded statement of belief, and amounts to little more than one’s own conviction in their own certitude.

Second of all, seriously? Objective morality and meaning can only exist because of God? This doesn’t sound anything like genuine philosophy. A philosopher is interested in the question of things like whether or not objective morality and meaning can exist. They don’t just assert it is so. But let’s pause here to let Randal explain himself.

“I’m saying that one complete narrative is true and others are false. That’s no more arbitrary than a scientist accepting one theory and rejecting another.”

Of course, Randal couldn’t be more mistaken. All he has done is simply push back the goal posts. It’s not one God, or character, I am arguing for, it’s the whole narrative. But this begs the question, does it not? How does he select the narrative which is more or less true? What’s his criteria for selecting the Christian narrative, say, over the Hindu narrative?

His answer is simply that

“There is good evidence for the resurrection of Jesus…”

That’s right folks. The Christian story is true, because there’s “good” evidence for the resurrection of Christ.

Now this is simply not an assertion any serious scholar of history can take serious. Anyone who has studied the question regarding Jesus Christ’s historicity knows quite well that it’s not clear as to whether or not the Gospel Jesus even existed as described in the New Testament. It is far more likely the Gospel Jesus is a highly stylized legend based of a historical figure lurking in the penumbra of ancient history, much like Robin Hood and King Arthur are legendized figures with little resemblance to the real life persons they were loosely based on.

But more importantly than this, as the historian Richard Carrier reminds us:

“Christian apologists will often insist we have to explain the “fact” of the empty tomb. But…the evidence is not the discovery of an empty tomb but the existence of a story about the discovery of an empty tomb. That there was an actual empty tomb is only a theory… to explain the production of the story.... But this theory must be compared with other possible explanations of how and why that story came to exist… and these must be compared on the total examination of the evidence…. Hence, a common mistake is to confuse hypotheses about the evidence with the actual evidence itself.”[1]

That’s the rub, isn’t it? We're, strictly speaking, dealing with a story which has at its center the story about a man who resurrected, but this is only known through the specious account of the "empty tomb", discover by his followers, according to the story (or worse still, never discovered at all--according to the story as reported in the Gospel of Mark).

So it seems Carrier is right, all we have is the theory about a resurrection, but without adequate support, the theory itself cannot be considered evidence. Furthermore, any extemporaneous, extrabibilcal support is almost entirely lacking. I’ve written at great length about the lack of extemporaneous, extrabibilcal support before; which you can read in my online essay “Extrabiblical Christ (On the Historicity of Jesus)”.[2]

After Randal's reitteration of what Christians believe, Sheridan challenges Randal, mentioning that it seems to be a case of wishful thinking on the Christians part. Randal responds:

“[I]t doesn’t matter how many people want something to be true. Either the historical evidence is there or it isn’t, and in this case it is.”

Actually, no it’s not. But before Sheridan can object, Randal informs:

“Rather than talk vaguely about ‘shreds of evidence’ I think you should read up in New Testament scholarship.”

I think maybe Randal should follow his own advice.

Randal then swings the conversation back to talking about God as an explanation, which is what the chapter was initially supposed to be about. I’m glad he remembered a dozen or so pages into this chapter, what it was supposed to be about. But as always, Randal likes to take the long way around.

As such, Randal gives the analogy of putting keys on the table and then coming back later only to find they have mysteriously been transported to the floor. He tells us there are lots of possible explanations which may account for how they got on the floor, but that

“[U]ltimately there are only two basic types of explanation: a non-intelligent cause and an intelligent cause.”

He concludes the thought experiment by informing us that the two possible ways were either they fell on the floor from a seismic tremor (non-intelligent agent) or someone put them there (intelligent agent).

“So distilled down to its essence, seeking an explanation for events in the world is first of all seeking to answer whether there is an agent involved.”

Okay, so Randal doesn’t actually explain how God is an explanation, for we have come to the end of the chapter. Sheridan responds, “Sure, but how do you get from an agent moving your keys to God?”

So it seems the answer to how God is an explanation has been pushed back to chapter 17, “A Giant Mickey Mouse Balloon and the Keebler Elves.”

A couple things before I bring this section to a close. I must admit I am fond of Randal’s chapter titles. They are both fun and original. But at the same time, I continually find it aggravating that the chapters are frequently not about what Randal sets them up to be about. All too often Randal seems to get side tracked going down different tangents that he forgets to wind his way back to what he was talking about in the first place. This adds to a disorganized feel, not only in the writing, but in our own minds as we have to grapple with all the loose threads that Randal starts but neglects to tie up. 

Once again, I can’t help but feel the book could have benefited from either a stricter editor or a few brutally honest beta-readers who would have called Randal on his seemingly attention deficit disorder style of writing. With a little added structure the book might have been readable, but as it is, it’s a headache at best.

The good news though, is that we're now officially 50% through the book.

[1] Richard Carrier, “Bayes’s Theorem for Beginners,” in Sources of the Jesus Tradition, pp. 104-5.

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