Tuesday, January 6, 2009

An Uncharitable Review

I won’t make a habit of this, but I’ve decided to comment on an uncharitable review of Is God a Delusion? that appeared recently on Amazon. I do so in case other readers have misunderstood my arguments in the same ways that this “Hande Z” has.

For ease of reference, I will refer to the reviewer as HZ. Let me walk through HZ’s main points one by one. HZ writes:

Reitan begins with an attack against people like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, calling them "New Atheists" without explaining why the adjective "new" was necessary and what he meant. Would he be a "New Apologist" then?

This is a minor point, but still deserves some reflection. Writing the kind of book I did, I needed a phrase to refer collectively to the authors of the atheist bestsellers I was addressing. Early on I borrowed Schleiermacher’s language and referred to them as “today’s cultured despisers of religion.” This proved to be an extremely clumsy phrase for repeated use. And so I chose “new atheists” for its brevity as well as for reasons mentioned on pp. 3-4 of the introduction.

It turns out I was hardly unique in finding this appellation appropriate. In fact, it’s become the common name for the species of atheism exemplified by Hitchens and Dawkins. Their kind of atheism is characterized by several features. First, it isn’t merely disdainful of religion, but hostile to it. Second, it’s not quietly hostile. In fact, Dawkins calls for atheists to “come out of the closet” and profess their atheism to the world, to express a kind of “atheist pride.” But the pride he advocates is not the sort that can comfortably coexist with respect for religious belief, because it involves taking pride in having avoided the supposed foolishness of religion. And this fact highlights the third distinctive feature of this species of atheism: it’s not just about disbelief in the supernatural. It asserts that to be religious is to exhibit a shortcoming in one’s intellect or moral character (or both). The view seems to be that, on this issue, reasonable people cannot disagree, because to disagree with atheism is unreasonable.

Is such atheism new? Not entirely. Bertrand Russell, for example, seemed to have been an atheist of this sort (at least in his more bellicose moments). But the prevalence of this species of “out” atheist hostility to religion appears to be on the rise in recent years. And so, to speak of the representatives of this brand of atheism as the “new” atheists seems apt.

Let’s move on to some of HZ’s more substantive criticisms. HZ writes:

He tried to garner support and sympathy by flattering people of all religions, but tripped up when he concluded his Introduction with this comment: "We must find ways, not to stamp out religion, but to let true religion loose upon the world." (Reitan's emphasis) Which was that true religion he had in mind? His own belief seems clearly to be Christian (but which model?); and that being so, was he then really empathetic to Sikhism, Islam, and all the other religions he fawned over? At page 61 he distinguishes "the god Hypothesis" from "the God Hypothesis". Who was his "God"? We won't find the answer in this book.

Here, HZ pounces on my use of the phrase “true religion,” but ignores the context which gives it meaning. In fact, two pages prior to the passage HZ quotes, I explicitly state what I mean by “true religion." It is religion that is “born out of a combination of rational insight, profound experiences of a distinctive kind, and morally laudable hope” and is then “refined and shaped by careful and humble reflection in open-minded discourse with others” (p. 9).

Throughout the book I develop these elements into an account of the parameters within which religion can be both intellectually respectable and morally benign, and I also discuss the corrupting forces that can push religion outside of these parameters. Any religion—Christian, Jewish, Sikh, Muslim, Hindu—that stays true to these parameters counts as “true religion” in my sense. Religion that loses touch with them is not.

And one way to lose touch with them is to lose touch with what Schleiermacher calls the “beautiful modesty” and “friendly, attractive forbearance” that naturally accompanies experience of the transcendent. Religion rooted in such experience cannot help but recognize that the subject matter of religion defies finite human efforts to describe it. This is why Schleiermacher insists that anyone whose religion is rooted in such experience “must be conscious that his religion is only part of the whole; that about the same circumstances there may be views and sentiments quite different from his, yet just as pious.”

In short, far from belying my propensity for religious inclusivism, my reference to letting true religion “loose upon the world” is an expression of that inclusivism. By “true religion,” I mean religion that (among other things) views other religious traditions as having something of value to say about the mysteries of the transcendent. Such inclusivism is not uncritical, but the criteria by which religions are judged are not those of doctrinal orthodoxy or allegiance to a single tradition or holy text, etc.

As for the reviewer’s mention of my distinction between “the god of superstition” and “the God of religion,” it is astonishing when he says that “we won’t find any answers in this book”—since developing and discussing the significance of this distinction is one of the book's chief aims.

In briefest terms, my point (piggy-backing on Plutarch) is this: There is a profound difference between believing in a supernatural tyrant who needs to be appeased on pain of harsh retribution, and living in the hope that the universe is fundamentally on the side of goodness. Religions that affirm the supernatural tyrant are what Plutarch called superstition. And belief in this god of superstition inspires the same kind of frenzied efforts at appeasement that an abusive spouse so often inspires, producing a supernatural variant of battered wife syndrome. Such belief is harmful—and atheism in the face of such a god is like a healthy divorce with a lifetime restraining order attached.

But it doesn’t follow that it is likewise harmful to live in the hope that the universe is fundamentally on the side of goodness, that when we act with moral integrity we are aligning ourselves with the most basic truth about reality. I call this “the ethico-religious hope,” and I define the God of religion as that which, if it existed, would fulfill this hope. Such a definition is what I call “functional,” in that it doesn’t specify God in terms of a list of properties (although it implies benevolence) but rather in terms of the role that God serves in the psychological economy of the devout theist—that is, the theist who loves and trusts God. Tyrants inspire neither love nor trust, but only fear and servile obedience.

HZ is unhappy with this kind of functional definition, perceiving it as my attempt to define God so vaguely that the theist can “evade, hide, and shift his ground every time he gets cornered.” HZ wants me to offer what, in my book, I call a “substantive definition” of God—that is, a definition in terms of a list of precise properties.

This is an issue I have discussed in other posts, and so I won’t beat a dead horse here. Suffice it to say that early scientists wouldn’t have gotten very far if they hadn’t left room for non-substantive definitions. Image a Copernican-era scientist who insisted that “star” be defined in terms of the old substantive conception of it as a “pinhole in the firmament,” who then concluded on the basis of the evidence that stars do not exist, and finally accused those who defined “star” by pointing upward, and who offered new conceptualizations in light of new evidence, as being guilty of “evading, hiding, and shifting the ground every time they get cornered.”

HZ writes:

Can he justify his claim that the "cause of the trouble is a fundamentalist insistence that one ought to accept without question that some text or institution or prophetic leader (is perfectly) articulating the very will of God?" (The reviewer leaves out of the quote what I have re-inserted in parentheses for the sake of clarity). Isn't this a circular argument? Who is a fundamentalist? It seems that he would be someone who disagrees with Reitan.

In the passage quoted (found on p. 71), I am discussing ways in which belief in God’s goodness can be stripped of meaning. One issue I focus on is the idea that you “ought to accept without question that some text or institution or prophetic leader” perfectly represents God’s will. For ease of reference I call this way of thinking “fundamentalist,” and I argue that it strips all meaning from the claim that God is good, leaving us with a supernatural being whose will must be followed, but who isn’t good in any meaningful sense. In short: a supernatural tyrant. Fundamentalism in the indicated sense leads to belief in the god of superstition. There is no circularity here, and the meaning of “fundamentalist” is far more substantive than just “anyone who disagrees with me.”

HZ writes:

Reitan called Dawkins a philosophical novice because (or so Reitan believed) he did not understand Aquinas. Reitan and Aquinas believed in God (and since Aquinas was Christian, Reitan's belief must be Christian) because everything in the universe must have a cause except the first cause. They realise d that if they don't put a stop to this then they are stuck in an infinite regress - turtles all the way down. So why is this first cause so personal that he needs and wants to be worshipped? Why not just a bang from a bag of gas? Reitan would believe that a bag of gas must have a first cause. So, can he explain why a bag of gas can't be the first cause that he believed must exist; a cause that had no cause? How does he differentiate his idea of the first cause (his "god") from a bag of gas?

I set aside the invalid argument that since Aquinas and I both believe in God, and Aquinas was a Christian, I must be Christian too. I’ll simply refer HZ on this matter to any introductory logic book. What I want to point out is that HZ is simply repeating the very interpretive errors that Dawkins falls into, and which I discuss in Chapter 5.

Let me put this as simply as I can. It is one thing to argue that everything must have a cause, notice that this leads to an infinite regress, and then try to escape the regress by arbitrarily positing a first cause which, in defiance of the first premise, doesn’t need a cause after all. It is something else entirely to argue that everything which possesses some property P (e.g., the property of coming into existence) requires a cause, notice that if everything possessed property P there would be an infinite regress, and therefore conclude that to avoid such a regress we must suppose there exists something which lacks property P. Aquinas argues along the latter lines, not the former. And, arguing along these lines, Aquinas concludes that there must exist some fundamental reality that never came to be (that is, exists eternally), that does not change but is capable of bringing about change in other things, and that exists necessarily. If HZ wants to make the case that a bag of gas could be eternal, unchanging, and necessarily existent, I’d be very interested to see the argument. However, it would have to be a bag of gas radically unlike anything in the empirical world—including bags of gas.

HZ goes on:

(I)n defending theodicy, he placed the blame(as most theists do) on man (the victim) and not god, the presumed almighty and all good. It is man's free will, he stated, when referring to the evil caused by man. What of the evil caused in natural disasters like Hurricane Katarina? Such evil if caused by god, would be redeemed by god. How? And how does Reitan know that? Perhaps we were not mean to question him on this either.

In the chapter that HZ references here, I provide an overview of a number of different ways in which theists have attempted to respond to the problem of evil. I seek to identify both the merits and the weaknesses of these responses. For example, on p. 192 I critique the appeal to free will by noting that “not all evils result from wicked choices. Some of the worst suffering is brought on by disease, famine, and natural disaster…(and) it isn’t reasonable to trace all the harms from natural evils back to human negligence.” I likewise critically discuss the so-called “soul-making theodicy,” noting among other things that it does not take into proper account the suffering in the non-human world. My aim in this chapter is not to resolve the problem of evil. Rather, my aim is to argue that even if the problem hasn’t been resolved, it doesn’t constitute such a decisive case against theism that it becomes unreasonable for someone to live in the hope that the evils of the world will be redeemed by a transcendent good.

And, just for the sake of clarity, living in the hope that evil will be redeemed is not the same as knowing that it will. I do not know that it will. No one does. Anyone who claims to know this is lying—probably first and foremost to themselves. Likewise for anyone who claims to know that evil will not be redeemed.

Last but not least, HZ writes:

I would not say don't read this book, but I would say read it but also read the counter-arguments (Amazon has a list of books on atheism); in both cases, read all the arguments critically.

Finally, something we can agree on.


  1. The only issue I have here is that your God seems a rather ineffable one. While that may suit the temperament and inclination of some, others like myself will be wondering, is there really any practical difference between an ineffable God and a nonexistent one?

  2. "Is there really any practical difference between an ineffable God and a nonexistent one?" To answer this question, I think we need to make a few distinctions. First, we should distinguish between possible senses of "ineffable." Second, we should distinguish between the practical implications of belief in an ineffable God that is the object of immediate personal experience, and the practical implications of belief in an ineffable God that has not be experienced but is simply posited as an object of belief.

    I begin with the first distinction. Sometimes "ineffable" is taken to mean "beyond all possible description, such that anything one might say of it is false." Let's call this STRONG ineffability. Sometimes, however, "ineffable" is taken to mean "incapable of being adequately described in any literal sense using human concepts, and hence admitting only of analogical or metaphorical description." We can call this WEAK ineffability.

    Belief in a God who is weakly ineffable might very well make a practical difference for one's life, insofar as certain non-literal or (in my case) functional accounts of what God is like, and hence what the universe is like at a fundamental level, might orient one towards life differently than other accounts (literal or not) might do. If you believe that there is a God who fulfills the hope that the universe is fundamentally on the side of goodness, you will live your life differently than you would if you thought that the universe is as Dawkins and other reductive naturalists describe the universe--as a place of "pitiless indifference" to the good. Among other things, you will believe that when you live your life in a way that respects what it good, you are more in tune with reality at its deepest level than you would be otherwise. This is practically significant, even if a God who fulfills this hope cannot be DESCRIBED in an literal way using human concepts.

    But even if you think that God is strongly ineffable, belief in God might have practical significance if that belief is based on a direct, personal experience of SOMETHING that you cannot even begin to describe, but which for some reason strikes you as an encounter with the divine (for reasons you can't put into words, but which are an immediate part of the experience). After all, to say you believe in God in this case is to say that you find this ineffable experience to be veridical, to be an encounter with something real. And even if you cannot put the experience into words, you might very well be transformed by the experience in ways that you wouldn't be were you to dismiss it as delusional. So. to believe in God in this case is to treat a profound but indescribable experience as veridical rather than delusional, and thus to allow oneself to be moved in the ways that one feels the impulse to be moved on account of the experience (towards greater optimism, perhaps, or a tendency to prioritize morality over material goods), rather than to resist the tug of those impulses.

  3. Hi,

    regarding the problem of evil, may I have your thoughts on the following article by Greg Boyd?


  4. bump...

    Eric, I would still love to hear (well, read) your thoughts on Boyd's essay about the problem of "natural evils".

    best wishes

    - Pat

  5. Patrick: Boyd's argument--that we cannot account adequately for natural evil without invoking the activities of nefarious spiritual powers (Satan or demons, etc.)--is obviously not new. In fact, it may well be the very oldest theodicy of all, going back to the prophet Zoroaster.

    Zoroaster believed that one could not make sense of evil without invoking an original evil principle, distinct from God but co-eternal will God, whose essence drove it to corrupt God's creation.

    A friend and fellow philosopher of religion, John Kronen, takes this idea very seriously and has written an article (hopefully forthcoming soon) defending the plausibility (if not the truth) of this kind of dualistic approach to theodicy.

    What Boyd proposes is a bit less dualistic than what we find in Zoroaster. He doesnt' commit himself to an eternal uncreated source of evil. It would be sufficient for his purposes if there were spiritual beings who have exercized their freedom in ways at odds with God's creative purposes. Then the free will approach to theodicy can be extended to encompass natural evils.

    In fact Alvin Plantinga proposes exactly this in his "free will defense"--although not as a theodicy (an explanation for why evil exists), but only as a "defense" (a just-so story that shows the logical compossibility of God and the evils of the world).

    My own feelings towards this general approach are mixed. I think evil has a substantiality to it that can operate in the world, especially on the psyches of finite creatures, as a real demonic power (see my blog entry on Zoroastrian Dualism and Barthian Nothingness). I think we need to EXPLAIN why free creatures would choose evil in terms of some principle of evil that is NOT created by God but which has real power. This need to explain the choice of evil would also (perhaps especially) extend to fallen spirits or angels, and hence I don't think such fallen spirits could be the ULTIMATE explanation of evil.

    But I see no reason why there couldn't be finite spiritual beings who are subject to the corrupting influence of this fundamental source of evil. And I see no reason why a free will theodicy couldn't be invoked to explain why God would permit such beings to operate in the world in ways that are deeply damaging.

    What I question is a theodicy that seeks to fully account for natural evil in terms of the operation of such "fallen spirits." Here, I am particularly thinking about the process of evolution and the suffering that is an ineradicable part of that process. If you accept, as I do, that life as we know it (including human life) emerged through this process which is essentially driven by differential susceptibility to predation, disease, injury, and starvation, then you accept that life as we know it came about through a process that depended in an essential way for its efficacy on the presence of predation, disease, injury, and starvation.

    If you accept Boyd's view, then Satan has compromised the created order at the very root: in the engine that drives the development of life. And so the process that gives rise to life as we know it, including ourselves, is as much a product of demonic powers as it is a product of God.

    This outcome makes me uneasy on many fronts, not least of which is the impact it would have on my aesthetic appreciation of the natural world. One of the books I'm working my way through now--Haught's GOD AFTER DARWIN: A THEOLOGY OF EVOLUTION--proposes an alternative that I really want to wrestle with before I accept the implications of Boyd's view. Perhaps, once I'm finished with that book, I will devote a blog post to the topic.