Reviewing Randal Rauser’s “The Swedish Atheist…” Chapters 4-6

Chapter 4: “Reasonable” Scientists. “Deluded” Believers and the Quest for Objectivity.
I begin reading this chapter with the strange feeling of anticipation, like I’m idling at the traffic light waiting for it to turn green, but suddenly having the feeling that I’ve been waiting at the light for too long—even though it’s been the standard amount of time. Ever have that feeling?

Anyway, Sheridan seems to be a young atheist, and uses a polemical language calling Randal’s beliefs “weird” to his face and then informs him that the reason he prescribes to these so-called weird beliefs is because he isn’t being entirely objective.

It seems that either Sheridan hasn’t had much experience talking to believers in person, or else, Randal has had too much experience talking with online atheists. Either way, Sheridan comes off as a rather unrefined atheist. Which is fine, there are such types, but in my experience well educated atheists, especially those who have their Masters or PhD, tend to be much more sympathetic—at least insofar as tone is concerned—when dealing with believers.

But at the same time, Sheridan’s criticism isn’t entirely wrong. Most religious people do hold a plethora of weird and strange beliefs because they didn’t come to these beliefs in any objective fashion. Sheridan then starts up again and basically resigns Christians to being unstable suckers, which Randal rightly contends. But the more I read it seems Sheridan’s rather ascerbic tone is merely a tool for which Randal can bounce sarcastic quips off of. Although some might find the banter entertaining, it borders on the mundane, and I can’t help but feel the same was when I hear a group of chatty Nancies gossiping about someone I know better than they do. I always get the same feeling in such situations; the feeling that I need to let out a big sigh to relieve the stress, let loose an eye roll, and the sudden urge to leave the room.

And again I feel like I’m stuck in traffic, as the dialog hasn’t progressed very much in chapter four. It’s just more of Sheridan’s ranting and, although the points raised so far do represent some common criticisms of religious belief on average, Randal is taking his sweet time getting to them.

Sheridan informs, “Some beliefs are reasonable because they’re open to evidence and confirmation. But others are not. Those are the ones you need to worry about.”

After a bit of biographical background (as it turns out Sheridan is an ex-Christian) Randal finally begins to address some of Sheridan’s criticisms.

Before I get into Randal’s rebuttals to Sheridan, I can’t help but wonder what happened to the discussion about the meaning of life. Such discussions typically begin with talk about meaning and purpose. So far we’ve only heard Sheridan rant some more. But Randal launches into talking about subjectivism and plausibility frame works and says “there’s no neutral way to judge whose beliefs are ‘weird’” in such a situation.

Although I personally feel that if we could eliminate our pesky biases, as best as possible, we could then objectively say certain beliefs are more or less weird because they would more or less be founded on our innate biases. A belief that rests on an unfounded bias would undoubtedly be more in danger of being genuinely strange or weird than a belief that is not. And biases are something we can account for, since there are certain biases everyone shares in certain categories, so it wouldn’t be difficult to find a baseline to test our beliefs against the biases we hold. Much of experimental and behavior psychology already does this, and modern neuroscience has joined the band wagon in seeing how certain beliefs affect the brain on the physical level. So it’s not out of the realm of possibility that we may one day be able to state that this or that belief is or less objectively weird than this other one.

But this is a book on philosophy by a theologian, so we can forgive Randal for not being concerned with the psychological effects of belief.

Our friendly, not so friendly, seemingly bi-polar atheist, Sheridan, closes with a challenge for Randal to, essentially, take the Outside Test of Faith (see John W. Loftus’ book by the same title, which is a strong compelling argument for our acquired beliefs being largely the accident of our birth—and the only way to realize this is to put ourselves in the mindset of the outsider).

Chapter 5: What Must You Do to See a Buffalo or Cast a Vote?
Speak of the Devil and he shall appear, the old Christian superstition goes. I anticipated Loftus and low and behold Sheridan produces the book The Christian Delusion, edited by none other than, you guessed it, John W. Loftus.

Randal proceeds to “apply some critical thinking” to the outsider test of faith (his words not mine) and raises the objection to the second premise of the challenge, asking, “What makes the level of a religion’s causal dependence on culture ‘overwhelming’?”

Randal then asserts that the second premise cannot simply be assumed, that one must defend it, before he is willing to accept such a claim.

I’ll pause here to mention that I find this a bit disingenuous. The second premise isn’t so much that religion is exclusively dependent on culture, but that culture influences religion to an overwhelming degree. This assumption seems to be a common sense one based off of observation of how religion incorporates culture and vise versa. The area of study known as the philosophy of religion is dedicated to investigating the relationship between culture and religion within human society, and to a more nuanced degree, the psychology of religion investigates the casual relationships of these relationships even further. But I see what Randal is getting at. He wants us to purse out which influences are strictly cultural and which are strictly religious, but in most cases I do not think we need to delineate the two, because religion is simply another form of manmade culture. The fact that cultures are organic, and can influence each other to, often times, overwhelming degrees is well documented throughout human history and experience.

So I do not see why Randal objects, or why he thinks we need to draw a line down the middle between religious influence and cultural influence, especially since we can reverse the claim to say that religion influences culture as much as culture influences religion. Unless that's his point? But then he's simply mistaken how most atheists view it.

I feel it helps us to think about being born into an Islamic society that practices Sharia law. This is a prime example of religion directing and influencing the course of culture to a domineering degree. But the assumption that if you were born into a predominantly Muslim society then you’d have the overwhelming chance of being born Muslim is not a radical proposition. In fact, studies have shown time and again that the majority of people acquire their beliefs through their parents and local cultures (see Michael Shermer's The Believing Brain, where he touches on this fact in detail).

Randal’s reaction is to open a psychology book to prove that our perceptions are shaped by culture and environment. Although this is quite true, it seems beside the point. Why bring it up now? Well, Randal wants us to understand that “our perceptual judgments are not free of context.”

Here I had to do a double take. Because that is exactly what the second claim of the outsider test of faith is getting at! Our perception of the world is not free of context, such as the context of being born inside a predominantly Muslim society. Being born and raised in the context of an Islamic country means you’d have the overwhelming chance of being raised Muslim. That’s the whole point of asking someone to step out of the context for a bit to try and gain a new perspective, and perhaps see the bigger picture, if you will.

Continuing on, Randal informs, “But even though we know that perception is shaped by our culture and experience, we don’t thereby cast doubt on all our perception.”

Well, this is true. But it seems to only reinforce Sheridan’s point that Loftus’s challenge is worth considering. Randal doesn’t seem to be aware that he’s arguing against himself here, and asks, “Couldn’t they [religious beliefs] be generally trustworthy even though they too are shaped by culture and environment?”

No. Not really. You see, the problem arises when we are born into cultures and religious belief systems where certain ubiquitous beliefs are deemed generally trustworthy, but totally aren’t. Slavery is a prime example of a belief, namely the ownership of other human beings, was morally okay and even justifiable—even though it totally isn’t. Eugenics as practiced in Nazi Germany and the United States is another example of this. At the time everyone taken by the novelty of breeding genetically superior human beings thought it might be a good idea to attempt to weed out what they perceived to be the genetically inferior human beings, because their perspective was thus limited to the general trustworthiness of the belief given the cultural context.

In order to realize that slavery and eugenics were not good ideas, humans had to step back and take a look at the larger whole. In other words, we had to account for other contexts.

Randal switches gears and begins discussing Thomas Kuhn, in this case to demonstrate to Sheridan how even the scientific consensus is contextual, i.e. that “the scientist’s perception of data is conditioned by the paradigm or model by which she interprets the data.” I’m not going to argue against Randal’s usage of Kuhn other than to say it is a needless tangent, but going along with Randal’s tangent for now I recommend you watch the series of YouTube lectures put out by SisyphusRedeemed in which he covers Thomas Kuhn, extensively (you know, if you don't have the time to actually sit down and read Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions).

Randal then states “…if you’re going to apply a skeptical outsider test to a person’s religion, you should apply it to their other beliefs, too.”

Well, I for the most part agree. Accept to say most people do not have the luxury or time, and asking them to examine their religious beliefs is much easier because most religious beliefs are easily distinguishable from regular everyday beliefs. For this reason its easier to consider the context within which to think about and examine religious beliefs, whereas considering all our beliefs becomes many magnitudes more difficult due to the fact that our everyday beliefs tend to overlap, blend together, piggy back one another, and so on and so forth—without the convenience of being able to easily categorize them or necessarily identify any perceived context.

It still seems like Randal is arguing for the outsider test of faith on a more general level, so I do not see why he contends it when asked to apply it to his religion.

Randal has Sheridan dogmatically affirm that anyone who “submitted their religion to the outsider test would become an atheist,” to which Randal responds, “That sounds reasonable… just like the assumption that anybody who truly submitted their favorite type of music to the outsider test would eventually be converted to polka, because obviously music just doesn’t get better than America’s polka king Frankie Yankovic.”

Here we stumble on Randal’s first really horrible analogy and, dare I say it, poor reasoning. The reason the analogy is incorrect is that music is strictly a subjective matter of taste. A person fancies this kind of music or that. But to equate all beliefs to a matter of taste is simplifying things too much. I do not mean to dismiss the possibility that many of our beliefs may be dependent on nothing more complicated than preference, but where truth matters are concerned, it stems to reason that certain beliefs will prove true, others false, and some indeterminate.

The problem I have with Randal’s reasoning in this instance is twofold. First off, Randal’s Sheridan is prone to making overly emphatic doxastic statements, but I do not think most atheists are as dogmatic as Randal is pretending them to be. Some certainly are, I’m not denying that, but I think many atheists, especially those who have come out of religion and are quite familiar with it, would realize that the outsider test of faith isn’t meant to deconvert anyone, per se. Rather, it is simply designed to broaden their worldview, and have them contend with competing beliefs and belief systems which they may have previously dismissed or taken completely for granted. Whether or not they gradually lose faith is beside the point, but it exists as one possible outcome of their investigation of such questions. I don’t see why that would necessarily pose a problem. I mean, assuming the analogy was sound (which it’s not) so what if everyone happened to come to the rational conclusion that Polka music is the best kind of music?

The second reason I feel Randal’s reasoning isn’t up to par here is that he meandered too much, raising numerous points, but he never tied them back to anything. He never formulated an argument. He only raised more questions, then didn’t answer any of those either. Granted, he may be doing this intentionally, as he might be more concerned with getting us (the reader) to think about these issues than supplying any definitive answers either way. But regardless, the problem is that by raising so many various points—he is deliberately confusing his reader. Instead of staying on point, the reader is now juggling all of these heavy handed philosophical concepts, and it makes it rather difficult to guess at what Randal, or his alter ego Sheridan, might be getting at. With so many balls up in the air, the conversation could land anywhere. Here, there, maybe over there. It could continue on in a straight fashion or unexpectedly take a u-turn. It might go off on other tangents. Hell, for all we know it might get stuck and, like rush-hour traffic on the bloody 405, come to a screeching halt.

But this needn’t be. If Randal had a point worth making he could simply make it, without all the unnecessary sophistry. Because at this point it is clear that Randal still needs to make a point.

Chapter 6: God, Matter and Other Astonishing Hypotheses
What ever happened to Randal answer Sheridan’s question relating to Bill Maher? When are we going to start talking about the meaning of life? Will Randal eventually explain why he thinks the outsider test of faith isn’t adequate for testing religious belief but then turn right around and explain why he thinks we should apply it to all our beliefs?

Probably not. It seems that much of the dialog thus far has fallen into the predictable pattern of simply raising points of inquiry, for the sake of argument, but then abandon them at the first chance and shift to other topics.

Those familiar with the way Randal thinks will recognize this disorganized, meandering, mess of ideas and questions as one of his trademark features. I do not mean it to be taken disparagingly, but only wish to point out this personality quirk as a way to explain to those less familiar with Randal why his book is suddenly starting to feel like it’s falling apart. I’m sure that in Randal’s mind he is making the connections and keeping everything straight, but the way it comes out on paper it’s rather cluttered and, sorry to say, confusing. The points aren’t confusing, in and of themselves, but Randal’s intended meaning, or his choice to raise this issue over that one, or ignore this tangent he started in favor of going down this different one, can become a little bit distracting to the reader.

If I were Randal’s editor I would have asked him to go back and make sure each chapter had a short premise, a thesis, and a conclusion of that thesis, or conversely, that each subject discussed would support the next subject discussed, so that the conversation would daisy-chain together in a way that reaffirms Randal’s key points. From a publishing perspective this would have made the book much more reader friendly and certainly more accessible to the layman. When I write and edit books my goal is always to make them as accessible as possible to the reader, and the feeling I have at this moment is that this book is growing more and more cluttered and convoluted, as conversations often tend to do, isn’t going anywhere in particular. Instead of a grande conversation we are merely getting a decadent one, and there is a subtle difference.

That’s the danger of writing this type of imagined dialog. Unless you have something very specific to say, such as C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters or David Hume’s The Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, it often becomes bogged down by unstructured freestyle verse of unspecified conversation. Who knows, maybe I’m being too hard on Randal? Maybe there are people that feel satisfied reading pages after pages of dialog that goes nowhere, but if I put down the book now, six chapters in, I can honestly say I still wouldn’t have gained anything here. Hopefully Randal will find something worth talking about in the next few pages. So, moving along…

Suddenly our discussion shifts to the Big Bang Theory and the atheist physicist and author Victor J. Stenger. Randal contends Victor Stenger’s claim that God is an astonishing hypothesis, saying it is “doubly flawed.”

“Stenger gets the nature of Christian belief about God all wrong,” Randal informs. “for Christians, God isn’t a hypothesis; he’s a living, experienced reality.”

Of course, I can’t help but point out one small thing—as far as Christians are concerned, yes, that’s what Christians tend to believe, but it doesn’t mean it is true. How would they know that God really was how they experienced him if they never contrasted such beliefs and experiences with that of other equally viable religious beliefs and experiences? See, I do not think Stenger is wrong in assuming the Christian God is an astonishing hypothesis, because any hypothesis which is taken on a matter of faith and not thoroughly vetted could certainly be described as astonishing.

Randal complains, “Stenger’s labeling of belief in God as ‘astonishing’ is just self-serving.”

Well, unless it’s not. Victor Stenger may simply be pointing out what I have above, mainly that Christianity is largely a faith-based proposition, and belief in God is so too one taken as a matter of faith, not tested. Randal’s right that it’s not an argument against Christianity, but it’s not intended as one. It is merely raising the point that in order to buy into the Christian claims that one has to accept certain astonishing beliefs. What’s not astonishing about belief in God—something which is thus far empirically unjustified, logically incoherent, and so complicated as to leave most serious thinkers dumbfounded? What’s not astonishing about that?

Meanwhile, Sheridan is turning more and more into a caricature of angry, or militant, atheists. He is now throwing out insults on a regular basis and smirking much more than is typical—unless you’re a cartoon villain.

I must say that in my experiences of atheists, most of them have been much more cordial and sympathetic than Sheridan is depicted here. Of course, this comes back to my point that I think Randal might be formulating a biased impression of atheists based on his online experiences with certain firebrands, which do not accurately reflect all atheists, I’m glad to report. Firebrands of the Internet variety tend to be a lot more dogmatic in their language, a lot more argumentative, and certainly represent the mirrored reflection of the religious Fundamentalist they so love to deride. But there are reasons which explain why firebrands choose to use these familiar “religious” tactics against the religious. Does it make it excusable? Well, I think it depends on the context. But my point is that not all atheists behave like firebrands. So either Randal is under a misconception, and is guilty of some stereotyping (something which is unavoidable when you’re playing Devil’s advocate), or he is deliberately making his Sheridan character more militant to remind us (the reader) as his role as lead antagonist so that Randal may, later on, take the high horse and come out the shining example of an intellectual hero.

Either way, it seems there is an ulterior motive behind increasing Sheridan’s obstinacy, and that also stems from not having anything particular interesting to say. When I read The Screwtape Letters I was captivated from beginning to end. That’s because Lewis had something worth saying, and he used his characters to make his point for him. So far, Randal seems to be stuck in rapid fire mode, where he just rattles off one idea after another, and instead of offering real rebuttals to atheistic criticisms he offers mere deflections.

Bringing up idealism, Randal gives a short lecture on the subject before shifting onto a brief discussion of realism. All this is to raise the point why Randal disagrees with Victor J. Stenger. But really, we don’t learn much else that that, Randal disagrees with Victor Stenger. So what?

After shifting focus, again, Randal describes what properly basic beliefs and defeaters are. At this point it seems he may be trying to formulate a more coherent argument against atheism, as his comparison between atheism and idealism suggested. But then Sheridan says something genuinely important, stating, “atheism is simpler than theism. We can explain everything in the world without positing the existence of a magic sky God.”

To which Randal replies, “And I don’t accept that.”

Randal goes on to give an example how simpler explanations aren’t always preferable, and of course, there are exceptions, I’m sure. But simpler explanations aren’t preferable because they are simple, they are preferable because they assume less but explain the same amount as other more complicated explanations.

Sheridan is not wrong when he states atheism is simpler, as it certainly assumes less. God belief is already more complicated because, unlike atheism, it assumes a God in order to explain the natural universe. But under a rigid naturalism, no such explanatory device is necessary. So what we can say now is not only is atheism simpler, but it appears to be compatible with naturalism ad the material world as we view it. Theism is not. And in order to harmonize theistic belief with the natural world, well, that takes more theology and more apologetics.

I should say the simpler explanation is to be preferred, a few exceptions notwithstanding.

I’m going to end my discussion of chapter six here. Next time I will look at chapter 7 which is simply titled: Faith.


Popular posts from this blog

The Imperfect and Immoral Teachings of Jesus Christ

Conflating Atheism and Agnosticism is a Mistake

Discussing the Historicity of Jesus with a Christian Agnostic