Reviewing Randal Rauser’s “The Swedish Atheist…” Chapters 1-3
Chapter 1: The Sacramental Properties of Caffeine
After several pages of, well, talking about how great coffee shops are, Randal decides to hold his fictional dialog in, well, a coffee shop. I felt this whole introductory bit ran a bit long. It’s well written, and is good world building, but quite unnecessary for a book of this sort, in my opinion.
Randal then likens his readers to Avatars, and invites the reader to actively take part in the imaginative exercise of make-believing along with him that we are in the coffee shop. Again, I felt it was an unnecessary, since any well written dialog would have the natural effect of drawing the reader in. Then suddenly there is a secret hidden chapter, the chapter between chapters 1 and 2, for no explainable reason.
In the literary world this is what is called imaginative non-fiction writing. And I’m fine with imaginative non-fiction, but we’re already a dozen or so pages into the book (forgive me is I do not know the exact page count as I am reading it on my Kindle) and so far nothing has happened. We haven’t even been introduced to anything substantial let alone been given our characters.
The Chapter between Chapters 1 and 2
The hidden chapter was inserted as something of an afterthought, according to Randal, who is addressing a later criticism he received after having sent out the finished manuscript. Apparently one reader felt that “a fictional narrative in which you write yourself in as the main character” felt too much like a vanity project. It’s Randal combating the evil atheist, so to speak, and it sets himself up to be the champion and therefore brings a less objective sounding tone to the narrative. But where imaginative non-fiction is concerned, it really doesn’t bother me so much, whether it is a memoir or a book of this sort, although I do agree with the beta-reader’s suggestion that Randal might have opted to make the protagonist a generic Christian voice—instead of a personal one—but then again it’s not my book, and besides, Randal addresses this concern informing, “I want this book to provide an example of how I might engage in an extended grande conversation.”
Really, although I find the book well written (thus far), this material probably should have been designated as front matter, since that’s technically what it is, and it’s like having a secondary introduction placed halfway into chapter one—for no apparent reason—and that bothers me. As an editor of several volumes, I find sticking to the traditional format of a book aids in making the book accessible to new readers. Trying artistic things like hidden chapters is fine, but at the same time I can’t help but feel the book is dragging on and we still haven’t gotten to any real content.
That’s it for chapters 1 and 1.5. After getting to chapter 2 I couldn’t help but have the slight feeling of being let down. After all, we didn’t even get to talk about our cast—that is, the secret chapter was merely an extend introduction where Randal talked mostly about himself. I was waiting for the antagonist to arrive. But still no sign of him (or her).
Chapter 2: Why a Good Argument Ain’t Such a Bad Thing
In this extremely brief chapter Randal engages in more world building and fleshes out the coffee shop in detailed fashion while inviting us to take a seat next to him as he scans the room for someone to engage in the grande conversation with. It seems Randal’s only real goal here is to establish that argumentation is, technically speaking, a good thing when engaging in the “dogged pursuit of truth.”
Chapter 3: The Grande Conversation Begins
In chapter 3, The Grande Conversation Begins, Randal informs “I think today we should look for an atheist-skeptic type since the secular worldview constitutes the most serious challenge to Christianity in the West.”
The next scene was genuinely funny, and I practically laughed out loud, when Randal pulls out a copy of Richard Dawkins “The God Delusion” and uses is as atheist bait.
Soon enough Randal manages to snag a grad-student, who introduces himself as Sheridan. Randal comments on it being an interesting name and we learn that Sheridan means ‘seeker’ in Irish.
The conversation quickly heats up as our atheist brings up Bill Maher’s film Religulous and if you have any experience with Randal, well, Randal does what Randal always does and instantly calls into question the credentials of Bill Mayer, citing, “Bill Maher is a—say it with me—a comedian, an entertainer, not a historian. You don’t exactly see him going head to head with leading scholars, do you?”
Well, no, no we don’t Randal. But that wasn’t the intent or purpose of Riligulous now, was it? No, it wasn’t. –Of course, don’t mistake me, I only employ this patronizing tone because Randal invoked it first, and whether or not you’re religious or not, the whole “say it with me” thing sounds rather condescending—as if Randal has to talk to us like halfwit illiterates. The voice in the back of my head instantly screamed, “Don’t tell me what to say!” Then after a two second pause, it screamed again, “Don’t tell Sheridan what to say!”
What we find here is the tone of the rhetorician disguised as a lecturer interested in the dialectic, and I think this is perhaps where Randal’s apologetic training gets the better of him. It’s clear that he wants to impress and persuade us, the reader, with his contention of Maher’s credentials, but really, it does nothing for the conversation. It certainly doesn’t address the atheist’s question.
Randal continues needlessly raging on Maher for a few more paragraphs when Sheridan finally asks him the stereotypical question “Why not believe in Zeus or Thor instead?”
Sheridan likes to talk apparently, and suddenly raises far too many issues than can be adequately answered all at once (although I find this to be the tendency of Christian apologists more than philosophical minded atheists, in my experience).
I don’t know if Randal actually thinks most atheists are this scatter brained or if he’s just projecting, but regardless it seems like Randal is just packing on the stereotypical atheist contra-arguments for the invalidity of Christianity. It’s not that the issues are unimportant, as Sheridan raises some fine atheistic points. The ubiquity of Christianity being based largely on luck (but mostly based on Constantine’s adoption of it into the Roman Empire) and how Christian Trinitarianism reeks of the same old, same old superstitious religious blather (and it mainly does), and then contends the obviously fictitious elements of the Bible.
Yeah, it’s a lot all at once, and I kept feeling like the conversation felt rushed all of a sudden—as if Randal was making up for lost time after having spent two and a half chapters and an introduction wasting our time. Apart from this nitpick, it doesn’t seem that Randal has misrepresented the standard fair atheist arguments any--although Sheridan's candor can be a bit prickly. Still, Randal's portrayal is better than most apologists, as most cannot resist but to horrible distort and straw-man everything atheists say.
Sheridan finally cools down enough to share his real concern. “I just want religious people to be a bit more rational about their beliefs every once in a while.”
I’m with Sheridan here, or rather Randal’s alter-ego, but I would go one further and say that I just want people (in general) to be a bit more rational about their beliefs. But that’s because I am a rationalist at heart, and I always think better rationalism leads to better decision making and life choices, regardless of whether or not you’re religious.
Chapter 3 finishes with Randal inviting Sheridan to have a discussion on the meaning of life, which will be the subject of Chapter 4: “Reasonable” Scientists. “Deluded” Believers and the Quest for Objectivity. Chapter four promises to be interesting, even with the ominous quotation marks looming overhead.