Reviewing Randal Rauser’s “The Swedish Atheist...” Chapters 30-33 [finis]
Chapter 30: The Taliban and the Serenity Prayer
Unable to simply accept things on faith, Sheridan launches his attack and challenges Randal to make a valid connection between any faith-based experience and his brand of faith. Sheridan says:
“How can you really know all the claims of Christianity are true? The kinds of evidence that apologists provide—like the historicity of the resurrection or religious experience—that may be nice for you, since you’re predisposed to believe it, but it seems to me to be a very slim reed on which to build a whole system of faith.”
Randal responds in a strange way, by informing:
“If we want absolutely secure, irrefutable proofs that establish as true only one set of beliefs about reality, we are bound to be disappointed. All of us.”
So if we have irrefutable proofs in things about reality that support our beliefs, we’re bound to be disappointed. What?
Gravity works. The equation for gravity was written in a proof demonstrated by Isaac Newton, hence the term 'Newton’s law of universal gravitation', which is written as:
- F = Gm1m2/r2
- F is the force between the masses,
- G is the gravitational constant,
- m1 is the first mass,
- m2 is the second mass, and
- r is the distance between the centers of the masses.
So here we have an irrefutable proof that establishes our beliefs about one aspect of reality as being true. Now let me ask you, how disappointed do you feel right now?
What’s that? You don’t feel in the least bit disappointed? You don’t say?
When Randal says things like this, it seems to me that he might have a specific example in mind. But finding a counter-example to his claim before he can present any examples of what he possibly could mean just shows that his claim is refuted before it has ever had time to be considered. That's just bad argumentation.
In my experience, having demonstrable proofs that support my beliefs by demonstrating how my beliefs comport to reality gives me a greater confidence in my beliefs, not less. When I can establish such strong beliefs, I don’t have to rely on faith, and in turn I don’t have to live in a state of uncertainty and constantly check my faith against the real world.
Do you know why Christians have to always go to church every week? (Notice I say have to, as a necessary condition, not because they enjoy social gatherings so choose to). To remind themselves that their faith is true. When you have a solid belief in something based on demonstrable proofs, you don’t need such constant reassurance. After all, you don't see me jumping up and down every ten minutes to make sure gravity is still functioning as we hope it will. You can simply accept your beliefs as being founded on brute facts.
As for those who say we need to have "faith" that gravity will keep on keeping on, or that the sun will continue to come up as always, this faith is more akin to a confidence in knowing how something functions and its relationship is to us. Yes, we also must have confidence that it will continue to function, but this is why things like gravity are called "physical laws" in the first place. They've been established as an immutable property of the actual physical universe, and there is no reason to doubt they would cease to be so. The same cannot be said of belief in God or other supernatural conjectures that are not supported by brute facts.
So the question really should be, who should be feeling disappointed here? The person with a ton of facts and a strong belief, or the person with no facts who has to constantly reinforce their beliefs with other like-minded beliefs in order to keep believing it all?
Randal goes on to inform that he accepts doubt as a sign of spiritual health. He adds that
“Doubt forces us to keep thinking through our beliefs.”
I strongly agree with Randal’s statement about doubt being beneficial to how we go about thinking through our beliefs. In fact, it’s the first thing Randal has said that I’ve agreed with in a long time.
But at the same time, I can’t help but feel Randal is just saying this to try and sound somewhat more scholarly than he actually is. After all, earlier he was making the case about the necessity to have faith in knowing God’s signs, having faith in the type of God who’d create hell as a punishment, and making faith overall sound like a virtue. If there’s one thing I know, it’s that faith and doubt are antithetical to one another.
Allow me to explain.
Faith is believing in something regardless of whether or not your belief in that thing is fully justifiable, let alone demonstrable. Faith amounts to making the choice to positively believe one way and not the other, and based on no real evidence but for your sense of certitude, and so in your faith based conviction you feel confident that you’re beliefs are right (or true).
If you had evidence, then it wouldn’t be faith. It would be knowing.
Not knowing, however, is where doubt creeps in.
Doubt is the opposite of faith. Because you don’t know for certain, you are reluctant to make any choice, since the fact of the matter could go either way. You’d rather not commit to a faith based assumption, but if you are forced to do so, you’d rather assume you have a greater chance of being wrong than not.
Theologians who claim doubt is important to their faith only do so disingenuously. Of course, they may admit that they have to have a certain amount of doubt in God’s existence in order to ask the question “Does God exist?” in the first place, but of course they instantly go about consoling themselves by giving themselves the answer they like best, usually a wholehearted, “Yes, he does.”
But that’s all the doubt they require. They only require enough doubt to allow them to ask the question. After that, doubt turns into a powerful acid that only seeks to corrode their cherished faith. If they had more doubt than the bare minimum required to ask the question in the first place, they’d instantly be placed in danger of teetering over to the other side and becoming atheists and agnostics—which is why they place so much emphasis on faith being a virtue and doubt being a detriment. Faith is the soothing balm which diminishes that painful revelation that always accompanies a strong doubt—that horrible realization that they have a greater chance of being wrong than not.
In that sense, faith and doubt are always working against one another. It’s a lot like a grand ole game of tug of war, and our beliefs may fall anywhere along the full range of that well-worn rope, faith constantly pulling us one way and doubt pulling us the other.
The question believers like Randal need to ask themselves is, if God really were real, would they have to “wrestle with doubt” at all? Wouldn't God be more like a brute fact, like gravity is?
Randal closes the chapter by warning Sheridan that sitting on the fence isn’t a risk-free position.
Chapter 31: Feel Free to Sit on the Fence, but Don’t Get Caught in the Lava Flow
Opening chapter 31, Randal begins by telling a story about a man trapped on an island with a volcano about to explode. The only way off the island is to jump into a boat and paddle to a safe distance away from the volatile island. But there’s a catch. Randal explains that according to the strange property customs of this man’s tribe, there is a serious dilemma to be considered. He expounds:
“If you leave the island and there is an eruption you’ll save your life, but if you leave and there is no eruption, you’ll lose your home. Conversely, if you stay and there is no eruption, then you’re just fine, but if you stay and there is an eruption, then you lose your home and your life.”
Sheridan informs that setting up this obvious dichotomy seems simply like a tactic to force someone to choose one of two options, when there in fact might be other options worth considering. I agree with this criticism, but Randal denies the accusation and says that
“Whether you go forward, turn back or stay where you are, you are making a decision.”
Once again, it seems we are in danger of Randal beginning to make sense. So before you get your hopes up that Randal will prove himself reasonable, just listen to what follows.
“That doesn’t mean you need to let anyone pressure you into a new decision, but it does mean that it’s wrong to think you can just ‘sit on the sidelines’ until you reach whatever level of certainty you’re after.”
Really? So agnosticism isn’t a valid position?
Furthermore, Randal may say we needn’t let anyone pressure us into making a decision, but then goes right on to say we’re wrong if we don’t hurry up and make one, thereby pressuring us into making a decision. I know what you’re probably thinking, but too bad, Randal doesn’t care about things like reason—obviously.
Taking the time to sit on the sidelines and deliberate (a quite reasonable response to uncertainty, I might add) on important decisions just isn’t allowed! There’s no time to sit around reasoning about things. And if you reason the wrong way! Well, then! Randal doesn’t like it. So just hurry up and make a decision already!
No pressure or anything.
Randal finishes his little anecdote by affirming:
“We should be wary of the dangers of doubt no less than of belief.”
Randal then informs that we can still believe certain things for which the evidence is not as strong, just not with the same degree of conviction. Of course, this goes without saying. But what strikes me as peculiar is, now that Randal has admitted that belief propositions are basically probabilistic, how does he sustain such a high rate of conviction based on what appears to be such low rate of probability?
What's more, does Randal actually realize what it would require in terms of support to get a genuine high rate of probability? I don’t think he does. In fact, I don’t think many believers realize this, which is why probability of existence often gets simplified into daft fifty-fifty arguments like Pascal’s wager. Math for simpletons--or apologists. Not that there is much of a difference.
Low there! We interrupt your programming special to bring you some theological insights by Randal Rauser. Speaking about degrees of conviction, Randal informs us:
“[A] Christian could say that his belief in God is quite strong, but his belief that God is triune is less so… He could accept that proposition ‘God is three persons.’ He just wouldn’t accept it with the same degree of certainty that he accepts some other propositions of the faith like ‘God is the most perfect being’ and ‘God is love.’ Remember, Jews were in a covenantal relationship with God without ever believing that God is three persons. This means that at one point in history God revealed himself as one but not yet three. Christians believe that later revelation expanded and in some sense corrected the Israelites’ belief. With that in mind, it would seem possible that in the future God might expand and correct Christian beliefs in similar respects.”
Only an Evangelical Christian would dare to write the phrase “Jews were in a covenantal relationship with God.” They were, were they? They weren’t just obeying and worshipping their God as was custom? But they were in a relationship with him? Upholding a covenant is much like honoring an agreement. If Abraham, Moses, and David didn’t agree to follow God’s dictates to the law, they’d be breaking their agreement. But following a ruler’s laws isn’t necessarily a “relationship.” Just because you follow the speed limit doesn’t mean you have a “covenantal relationship” with your government’s lawmakers who enacted those laws. All you have in terms of a “relationship” is the agreement to follow those laws. That’s it. There’s nothing more to it.
Another thing that strikes me as odd is that God chose to depict himself one way, then suddenly, depicts himself another way. And Christians wonder why outsiders are perplexed by the confusing beliefs of Christians? Worse still, Randal flat out says that Christian beliefs corrected the Israelite beliefs. Does this mean Jewish beliefs are wrong? Is Randal claiming all modern practicing Jews who believe in Yahweh as the one true God, are wrong? Really? Because that seems to be the implication. If not, then couldn’t he have merely said ‘updated’ their beliefs rather than ‘corrected’ them?
But Randal isn’t entirely wrong either. Christians might very well be wrong about God, too. After all, we could imagine God revealing himself another way to another people of faith, and so it’s not just Jews who are “wrong” but also Christians. But that’s obviously me speaking nonsense, right? I mean, it’s not like we actually have any examples of a final revelation given to a chosen prophet by the one true God. That would be, like, staring an entire new religion, right? The next thing you know they’d be declaring all the infidels who didn’t agree with them “wrong” and, well, you get the point. Praise be to Allah!
As fun as it is to roast Randal up a bit of humble crow pie, he does edge in one decent point. Randal states that he feels that
“[I]t’s a big mistake to think you need to hold all Christian beliefs with the same level of conviction, as if it’s 100 percent certainty or not at all.”
I’m sure the Fundamentalist variety of Christians would have a field day with this, but Randal’s point is well taken. Fundamental Christianity makes a huge mistake putting things into black and white terms.
In fact, I would say that this ebb and flow of Christian belief conviction in specific doctrinal claims has allowed Christianity to thrive. The English philosopher A.C. Grayling suggests it's a lot like trying to box with jelly. Christianity always changes its shape and form to accommodate the biggest threats attacking it. And then it sticks to everything.
This has essentially allowed Christians to pick the best their faith has to offer and leave the rest. After all, slavery didn’t turn out to be all that good. Evolution has forced Christians to rethink the conviction they once had in the literal truth of the Genesis origin story of man. If they held to 100% conviction in these obviously falsified beliefs, they’d go the way of the dinosaur. (The reason fundies haven't gone the way of the dinosaur, however, is because, as Richard Dawkins has rightly observed, they flat out deny science and history.)
At the same time, however, this success that Christianity has enjoyed by growing more pliable, and more accommodating, has also made it more prolific and, ultimately, a greater nuisance. Gone is the day of Christian orthodoxy—now all you have is the heretical views of the individual.
Personally I find this wishy-washy kind of faith sort of annoying. It could just be my preference for systematic thinking, but I feel that this pliability perhaps allows Christians to change their minds on what they belief far too much to be reliable in anyway, and far too uncertain to be able to talk about their beliefs in a comprehensible fashion.
Which is why, I think you’ll find, many atheists prefer to take the easy bait and rail against Fundamentalists. It’s just so much more fun to get a reaction out of them than have to listen at length to a liberal Christian’s existential spiritual crisis.
Chapter 32: Adieu
Sheridan informs that he has to get going and Randal bids him adieu. That’s the whole of the chapter.
One thing I will say that I can’t complain about is the fact that Randal allowed Sheridan to maintain his reasonable doubts and didn’t have the character be converted. That would have been an obviously silly ending and little more than an apologist’s fantasy. But to his credit, Randal left Sheridan an atheist and a skeptic.
Chapter 33: A Love Supreme
Randal opens by recounting Sheridan’s journey, then informs “He’s beginning to see that the ‘skeptic’ bears a burden of proof surely as the believer.”
Well, actually, that’s not how it works. The burden of proof depends on the positive claim being made and whether or not the state of evidence warrants it. If not, then the burden of proof is surely on the claimant. If so, then, and only then, would the burden of proof be on the skeptic.
Closing the book, Randal repeats his favorite bit of wisdom:
“Remember, the conversation isn’t about winning a debate. It’s about moving toward the truth.”
It’s a sentiment I can get on board with, although I didn’t expect to find any more things to agree with in this book. But what can I say? I’m feeling agreeable.
With that said, we have come to the end of The Swedish Atheist, the Scuba Diver, and Other Apologetic Rabbit Trails. It was anything but a smooth ride, but I think I will forgo closing thoughts as I feel I've said everything I need to about the nature of this book and Randal's reasoning.
Ladies and gentlemen, you’ll be pleased to learn that the ride is over. Now, stop reading this. Seriously, I’m sure you all have better things to do. So go do them already.
The Advocatus Atheist