Sunday, June 6, 2010

A More Reasonable Naturalist...

For a far more reasonable approach to the question of how much atheists need to know about theology than is offered by PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins and the like, check out this brief post by a naturalist philosopher and secular humanist (and a friend and former colleague of mine) John Shook--a far more astute mind than Myers.

I obviously don't agree with everything in the post--I certainly don't think theistic worldviews can be disproved in 10,000 words, let alone that John has done so (but that's an issue for another time). And I think there's something missing from the life of anyone--atheist or theist--who blissfully lives out their worldview, comfortable in how eminently rational it is, without taking some time out once in awhile to seriously wrestle with thoughtful exponents of the opposing views.

While John doesn't directly state otherwise, it is suggested by the following: "If you don't like arguing over God, then you don't need to know anything about theology. Your non-religious worldview is amply justified by common-sense, reason, and science. Relax and let others do any needed arguing." I hear Christian apologists saying the same kind of thing to believers ("Just live out your faith life, which is amply justified, and we'll go out there and defend it against these atheist challengers"), and while there's something to it (not everyone has to be or can be expected to be an expert in theology and philosophy), I'm uneasy with the precise wording of it.

What I'd say, instead, would be something more along the following lines: "If you happen not to believe in God but don't like to spend time studying theology, then it is better just to live out your atheist worldview and admit you haven't done enough to assess its merits than to adopt a false confidence about your own superior rationality or insight into the truth. Not everyone can spend their lives wrestling with these questions, and some people are more suited to designing airplanes or dancing ballet--pursuits which take up so much time if done well that little energy is left to engage in depth with theological and philosophical questions in the way that academics do. But in the spirit of Socrates' famous dictum about the unexamined life, your life would be enriched to the extent that, at some point or another, you seriously wrestle with core elements of the worldview that drives it." I'd say the same basic thing to theists.

But these quibbles aside, I think John offers a far more sensible template for atheists to follow, when considering how much theology they need to know, than does someone like Myers. In general, it shows intellectual integrity to say to others, "Listen to my ideas, but if you care enough to do so then you might also want to listen to those who seriously develop an alternative view," than it does to say to others, "Listen to me and ignore those who disagree with me."


  1. Did you see Shook's debate against William Lane Craig? It was interesting. I think Shook did a better job overall.

  2. I watched it awhile back, and I'd agree with your overall assessment. Of course, in terms of personal sympathies I was rooting for John (he's a friend, whereas Craig just grates on me like nails on chalkboard). Philosophically I disagree with both.

  3. This may not be the best place to ask you, but what are your thoughts on Craig's kalam argument? Do you think that it demonstrates or suggests the *sentience* of whatever caused the universe?

  4. Patrick:

    Let me say, first, that the Kalam argument is not my favorite version of the cosmological argument--but that it is a version that deserves more careful critical attention than I have so far afforded it.

    But the move in the argument you emphasize--roughly, from "necessary being as first cause" to "sentient being"--is not unique to the Kalam argument. Timothy O'Connor makes a similar move, developed with care, in THEISM AND ULTIMATE EXPLANATION: THE NECESSARY SHAPE OF CONTINGENCY--but he does so from the Leibnizian version of the cosmological argument that I find most compelling. In doing so, he's really following in the footsteps of Leibniz himself, who thought that an ultimate explanation could not be a conventional causal one of the sort science offers (since that wouldn't end the regress) and so must explain in a different way--and the other basic model we have for explaining why something happens is agency.

    O'Connor recognizes that this reasoning is inconclusive (he proposes a third species of explanation which MIGHT be ultimate--what he dubs "chaos"), and so thinks we need more to get from a necessary being to the conclusion that it's a conscious agent. He tries to offer more through the invocation of fine tuning (which he agrees doesn't provide an argument for God on its own).

    In any event, I'm not sure what I think of all this. I need to dig into it more deeply before I decide.