Like any good conversation, this one involves provocative arguments, amusing anecdotes, and some lively banter. Rauser and Schieber begin with the question of why debates about God still matter. They then delve into a number of important topics: the place of reason and faith, the radically different concepts of God in various cultures, morality and its traditional connection with religious beliefs, the problem of a universe that is overwhelmingly hostile to life as we know it, mathematical truths and what they may or may not say about the existence of God, the challenge of suffering and evil to belief in God, and more.
Refreshingly upbeat and amicable throughout, this stimulating conversation between two friends from opposing points of view is an ideal introduction to a perennial topic of debate.
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About the Author
Justin Schieber is founder and host of Real Atheology, a Youtube channel dedicated to presenting issues in contemporary philosophy of religion in easy-to-follow videos. As former cohost of the Reasonable Doubts Radio Show and Podcast (2011-2015), Justin enjoys promoting a friendly, yet firm, skepticism toward religious claims. He lectures on the philosophical arguments for and against the existence of God and has participated in many public debates at colleges and universities throughout the United States and Canada. He served on the board of the Grand Rapids chapter of the Center for Inquiry in 2014 and 2015.
Read an Excerpt
An Atheist and a Christian Walk into a Bar ...
Talking about GOD, the Universe, and Everything
By Randal Rauser, Justin Schieber
Prometheus BooksCopyright © 2016 Randal Rauser and Justin Schieber
All rights reserved.
WHY GOD MATTERS
Randal: Justin, thanks for agreeing to have this discussion on God, the universe, and everything.
Justin: Randal, you're very welcome. I'm always up for meaty conversations on big topics with interesting people.
SHOULD YOU CARE IF GOD EXISTS?
Randal: And I'm always up for meaty conversations with folks who think
I'm interesting, so this could definitely work!
As you can guess, since I'm a theologian I'm always interested in talking about God. But I admit that a lot of people don't share that interest. About a decade ago, Jonathan Rauch coined a new term, apatheism, in order to describe his attitude toward God. The word was a portmanteau of atheism and apathy. As you can guess, Rauch's point was basically that he doesn't care whether God exists or not.
Justin: Yes! I've heard that before and, well, I must admit to being a sucker for a good neologism.
Randal: Yeah, me too. (Although I admit that I was less impressed when Bill Maher came up with the term religulous, a portmanteau of ridiculous and religious.) Anyway, these days I find a growing number of people share Jonathan Rauch's attitude. They may call themselves atheists, but at an even deeper level they're apatheists. They may believe God doesn't exist, but more fundamentally they don't really care whether God exists or not.
Justin: I certainly have come across people with similar attitudes toward God and religion. One interesting thing about Rauch's concept of apatheism is that it can be found on all sides. Rauch writes that apatheism is "a disinclination to care all that much about one's own religion, and an even stronger disinclination to care about other people's."
Here he uses the word religion broadly to mean any belief system — theistic, atheistic, or other. For example, you can have a disinterested atheist who, for whatever reason, just doesn't care about the concept of God. You can also have a disinterested theist who, while believing in, say, Christianity, never bothers to read the Bible or attend church on any regular basis.
Randal: Good point. Apatheism is an attitude you can find across the spectrum of professed belief. In fact, I've met more than a few apatheists who attend church regularly. Apparently it's just what they do. But it doesn't seem to change anything in their lives. It's merely perfunctory, a matter of inertia. Those folks are sometimes called practical atheists. They may accept Christianity, but for practical purposes they might as well be atheists because they don't live out the beliefs they profess.
But apatheism isn't just a matter of failing to live out your beliefs. After all, no Christian fully lives out the beliefs they profess because no Christian is exactly like Jesus. At its core, apatheism within the church is found in a broad indifference to theological belief and spiritual discipleship. Within this context, apatheism might manifest itself in a religious commitment that reduces Christianity to a Sunday morning self-help seminar where God is a mere life coach who wants us to have (in the words ofJoel Osteen) our "best life now."
Justin: Right. For example, self-identified Christians might be less interested in the big points of their theology and more interested in the more common moralistic aspects. It could be seen as a kind of weekly moral therapy.
Randal: Yup, the First Church of Apatheism!
Justin: These churches resemble social clubs more than they do places of worship. It's an interesting phenomenon, to be sure. Though, if I might ask, what do you think lies behind the religious apatheism?
Randal: A good question, and a complicated one too. For starters, I think one must identify the growth of secularization. The word secular comes from a Latin word meaning world. So a process of secularization is a process by which folks become less focused on matters of God, religion, and spirituality, and more focused on everyday mundane matters. To be sure, this isn't necessarily a bad thing. After all, life is about balance. Not even the most spiritually attuned person can live 24/7 with her head in the clouds. But once your religion is limited to a Sunday morning pep talk, it's hardly surprising that religious indifference becomes the norm.
Justin: That makes sense to me. It's a kind of a reorienting of cultural priorities. As a secularist myself, this is just par for the course. Given that we are sharing the same planet, any reorienting of religious attitudes toward more practical, ground-level concerns is certainly something I endorse.
Randal: I hope you'll forgive me if I'm not quite as enthusiastic about secularization as you are! If you view secularization as clearing the air, I view it potentially as a build-up of smog that prevents us from seeing the sky.
Justin: Ah, I have to disagree with the implication that an increase in, or a reorientation toward, the world must serve as a kind of smog polluting our view of our proverbial sky, which I take to mean a sense of awe. In fact, learning the very real processes of science can be a huge source of awe and empowerment. For me personally, the notion that I am connected in a very real, biological way to every living being on this planet is capable of bringing with it a crippling sense of awe at times.
Randal: Cue "The Circle of Life" from The Lion King! But seriously, I share your awe at the natural world. I'd just say that my awe doesn't stop there.
Anyway, lest I get sidetracked, let me come back to your question about religious apatheism. There is another factor evident in my view. In fact, I think this factor drives both Christian and secular apatheism. I'm thinking here of the perceived irrelevance of theological questions for daily life. There's an old chestnut that describes the discourse of academic theology as equivalent to debating the absurd and irrelevant question, "How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?"
Randal: Huh? Twelve what?
Justin: That's how many angels are capable of dancing on the head of a pin at any given time! Try to keep up.
Randal: Ahh, I need to run to keep up with you! (Although I disagree with your answer: since angels have no spatial extension, the right answer is an infinite number!)
Justin: More seriously, I admit to viewing some theological questions similarly. I worry that those doing theology are too often building elaborate and detailed conceptual cathedrals to make their observations fit their basic theological commitments, but they so rarely question those core commitments in the first place. But I agree that this is no reason to dismiss considering the God question in a serious philosophical way.
Randal: Got it. However, many Christians will say the same thing about sophisticated accounts of naturalism, the philosophy most commonly associated with atheism these days. That is, they'll accuse the naturalists of building elaborate and detailed conceptual cathedrals to make their observations fit their basic metaphysical commitment, that is, the commitment that nature, whatever that turns out to be, is all that exists.
Justin: That's certainly fair.
Randal: Of course; I'm always fair!
Personally, I don't see a problem either way. It seems to me that we all start with a set of assumptions, and as we seek to understand the world in light of those assumptions we craft a theory that will accommodate all the data. To those who don't share our starting assumptions, the whole endeavor can look like an exercise in painting the target around the arrow. But the fact is that everybody needs to start somewhere. We all need to begin at a particular starting place and reason from there. And where we start will determine how we go forward.
Justin: I can agree with you here. I just don't think that this entails that all conceptual cathedrals are created equal. Some conceptual cathedrals really are much more ornate and detailed than others.
IS GOD AS RIDICULOUS AS AN INVISIBLE PINK UNICORN?
Randal: True. And by the way, some defenses of naturalism are very ornate, decked out with the metaphysical equivalent of Corinthian columns and flying buttresses.
But hey, I'm heartened that you agree theism is an intellectually serious position. If you didn't, this conversation would probably be a lot shorter!
At the same time, I regret to report that not all atheists agree with you. Indeed, these days I regularly find belief in God being dismissed as the intellectual equivalent of belief in an invisible pink unicorn or a flying spaghetti monster or garden fairies. Apparently the idea is that a Christian's belief in the Trinity is no different from a child's belief in Tinker Bell.
Justin: In the case of the unicorn, I'm always left puzzling over exactly what shade of pink is compatible with being invisible. I suppose that their point could be that the concept of God contains a contradiction, in which case their efforts would be better served by providing an argument to that end. Cartoonish assertions don't exactly deserve much by way of response.
Randal: Yea and amen to that. I can't count how many times I've met an atheist who thought merely comparing theism to something wacky like the flying spaghetti monster was some kind of rational trump card: "Bam! I win!"
So does that mean that you don't find any contradictions in theism?! (Fingers crossed!)
Justin: I suppose I should have been clearer here. I think there are some significant problems for the coherence of theism. Sophisticated incompatible-properties arguments are no small part of the literature in philosophy of religion, but I'm not yet convinced that an air-tight case against theism can be found among them. Often these properties (omniscience, omnipotence, omnibenevolence, etc.) just need a bit of tinkering in their definitions in order to get them to fit together conceptually. Whether or not these ad hoc defenses of theism's coherence are indicative of a less-than-noble approach to these issues is a different question.
Randal: Fair enough. Where the invisible pink unicorn is concerned, I agree that the surface target is the alleged contradictions involved in theological constructs. The Christian ponders how God can be one and three. And the devotee of the invisible pink unicorn ruminates on the mystery of a unicorn that is both invisible and pink.
Justin: Let's not forget Homer Simpson's famous knock-down theological challenge, "Could Jesus microwave a burrito so hot that he himself could not eat it?"
Randal: Yeah, that's a real brain buster! Believe it or not, I use Homer's question as an illustration when I lecture on the divine attribute of omnipotence to my seminary students.
But if apparent contradiction is the surface target of the invisible pink unicorn meme, I suspect that the ultimate or deep target is the credibility or intellectual seriousness of theological enquiry itself. Just as we would dismiss any sophisticated philosophical defense of an invisible pink unicorn or a flying spaghetti monster as absurd, so the objector dismisses any defense of the Judeo-Christian God.
Justin: Right. These points can seem rhetorically powerful but, in my opinion, fail to say anything interesting.
Randal: I do think these objections at least reveal something interesting about the objector's attitudes. It seems to me that the point of comparing God to whimsical beings like fairies, leprechauns, the Easter Bunny, and Santa Claus is more specific than merely poking at the alleged absurdity of theism. In the case of these particular comparisons, I suspect the point is to suggest the arrested intellectual development of theists by comparing God to a fanciful belief from childhood. So it goes like this: there was a time when most children believed in beings like Santa Claus, but when they grew up they put away childish things. Likewise, when people are ready to grow up intellectually, they put away the childish belief in God. So theists are like Linus still clutching onto his baby blanket.
Justin: Unfortunately, you're probably right about that. Some people actually believe that no intelligent adults are capable of holding theistic beliefs. And, well, let me be unequivocal in saying that, not only do these people have a profoundly simplistic understanding of human psychology and the ways we form beliefs, but their theory is pretty much destroyed by the evidence of many adult theists at all levels of intelligence.
Randal: That's for sure. Just to underscore that important point, consider the case of Aksel Hallin. Dr. Hallin is the Professor and Canada Research Chair for Astroparticle Physics at the University of Alberta. In the 1990s, he was on a team working at the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory, and the work of that team was recognized in 2015 with a Nobel Prize. As it turns out, Dr. Hallin is also a member of my church. I know many brilliant adult Christians like Dr. Hallin. But I've never met a brilliant adult who believed in Santa Claus, let alone an adult believer in Santa who occupied a research chair in physics.
So the differences are glaring. And that raises the question: why do you think these caricatures persist among atheists?
Justin: Hmm, good question. One reason for their persistence might be that unsophisticated ways of justifying theistic belief are popular and very much related to having an unsophisticated concept of theism. Atheists living among theists with unsophisticated methods and concepts will likely be addressing the same unsophisticated concepts.
Randal: So, if I understand you, the idea is first that people who have a simplistic understanding of God also tend to have a simplistic grasp on how to justify their belief in God. And second, when atheists are regularly exposed to those simplistic theists, they respond in kind with simplistic caricatures of their own making. Is that the idea?
Justin: Yes, I think that's right.
It seems to me that people in such situations are likely to place the implications of the existence of God on a par with the implications of the existence of Santa or anthropomorphic spaghetti dinners. Granted, this is more of a psychological explanation of these attitudes rather than an attempt to justify the reasoning that led to them, but I think that's what we're after.
Randal: Got it. I agree that some popular Christian conceptions of God are ripe for the parodies that one finds among some atheists. For example, picture the Christian who prays for a good parking spot at the shopping mall on Saturday. I can understand how the idea that God intervenes in the space-time continuum to secure parking spots at the Pottery Barn for his cherished bargain-seeking, upper-middleclass suburban followers leaves Christians ripe for some parody.
Justin: A target-rich environment to be sure. Though, to be fair, it's a bit more understandable if we're talking about finding a parking spot on Black Friday down here in the States.
Randal: Granted, that would be evidence of divine intervention.
Justin: But, more seriously, I think it also has to do with the literature of the tradition to which they belong. According to Matthew 7:7, a part of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is recorded as saying, "Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you."
You may disagree with their interpretation or that it applies to parking spots or football games, but we can hardly blame them for a straightforward reading.
Randal: Actually, I can blame folks for this kind of simplistic proof texting, this taking isolated verses out of context. In any case of interpretation, whether of the Bible or any other text, we should try to avoid extracting individual sentences from the contexts in which they are embedded. That said, I think a careful reading of Jesus's words in context precludes the common shallow and self-serving interpretations to which you refer. His promise applies to the selfless pursuit of God's kingdom, not the selfish pursuit of discounted material goods at suburban shopping malls.
Regardless, you're right to point out that this kind of simplistic, self-interested reading is not uncommon in the church. The problem, as I see it, is that too often atheists make the leap from parodying some crude form of Christianity or theism to parodying theism itself. And that's where the atheist gets into trouble because you don'tjudge an idea by its weakest examples. That's nothing more than the strawman fallacy, in which a position is rejected based on weak exemplars of the position.
Justin: It's certainly true that hasty generalizations are never wise.
Randal: Never ever? Wait a minute. Did you just make a hasty generalization? Heh heh.
Justin: I was wondering if you were going to catch that one. Well done.
Excerpted from An Atheist and a Christian Walk into a Bar ... by Randal Rauser, Justin Schieber. Copyright © 2016 Randal Rauser and Justin Schieber. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Why God Matters 17
Should You Care If God Exists? 17
Is God as Ridiculous as an Invisible Pink Unicorn? 20
How Do You Define God? 24
What about an Evil God? 28
A Debate about Mere (Classical) Theism 33
Should You Hope That God Exists? 36
Chapter 2 God, Faith, and Testimony 41
Good and Bad Faith 41
Defining Faith 44
Faith in the Messiness of Life 46
Faith in Your Sherpa 50
The Principle of Total Evidence 53
Faith in the Extraordinary 58
Chapter 3 The Problem of Massive Theological Disagreement 65
What Is Evidence? 65
Does Religion Lead to Violence? 68
Disagreement about Landlords, Parents, and God 70
The Argument from Massive Theological Disagreement (MTD) 76
Debating Premise One 79
Evaluating Premise Two 84
Relationship with God and Knowledge of God 87
Gould God Give Incompatible Revelations? 92
Doctrine and Salvation 96
Chapter 4 God and Moral Obligation 99
Setting Up the Moral Questions 99
Introducing Ethics and Desire 102
Debating Desirism 103
Unqualified Moral Judgments 106
Moral Perception 107
The Problem of Changing Moral Perception 109
The Faculty of Moral Perception and Desires 112
Moral Obligation and Moral Calling 115
Could God Command Something Morally Heinous? 120
Moral Knowledge and Skepticism 125
Chapter 5 The Problem of the Hostility of the Universe 133
A Most Unusual Birthday Gift 133
Theism, Anthropocentrism, and a Battle of Analogies 139
Why Would God Create a Hostile Universe? 142
Does Atheism Predict a Universe Less Hospitable to Life? 146
But Why Did God Create at All? 148
Chapter 6 God, Mathematics, and Reason 153
On the Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics 153
Numerical Patterns as Architectural Motifs 154
Debating the Architectural Motif Argument 158
Why Explanations Need Not Have Their Own Explanation 165
The Mathematical Blueprint Argument 167
Chapter 7 Evolution and the Biological Role of Pain 175
Preliminary Comments on God, Evil, and Suffering 175
Evolution and Atheism: A Match Made in Heaven? 176
Atheistic Alternatives to Evolution? 179
New and Improved Competitors 183
Consciousness and Material Creation: Which Is More Surprising? 187
God's Hidden Reasons? 190
Into the Icy Depths of God's Hidden Reasons 197