Review: An Atheist and a Christian Walk into a Bar

Note: This review will also be posted on Amazon. I was given this book by the publishers as a review copy.

If you’ve ever attempted any sort of discussion concerning a “serious” subject (politics, religion, ethics, etc.), you’re probably aware of how frustrating such an endeavor tends to be. Sure, the conversation can usually start out politely enough, but as things get on they (seem) to almost always rapidly deteriorate to heated emotionalism, unchecked biases, ungrounded assertions, flagrant name-calling, unwillingness to actually engage, etc., etc., with the result that both participants go home feeling a good deal more self-superior, and a good deal more dismissive of the other, but nowhere nearer to the actual truth.

The human propensity for rational inquiry is quite astounding. So, however, is its corollary: the human propensity for disagreement. Part of the whole dilemma of the process of human reasoning is how to come to grips with the fact that very often, very many people disagree with us about topics which are extremely significant. Even more, very often the people who do disagree with us are people who are very intelligent in their own right, and seem to have very good reasons for disagreeing with us. Is rationality thus futile, if it leads us to such wildly disparate conclusions?

This, it seems to me, is really the central question of An Atheist and a Christian Walk into a Bar, although it is contextualized here specifically in the question of the existence of God, which, both authors note, is perhaps one of the most important questions a human being can ask. In this book, the co-authors Randal Rauser and Justin Schieber have taken upon themselves a monumental task: to move beyond simplistic, dismissive, rhetoric to real, substantive dialogue between two people who very much disagree with each other, but who also very much care about the truth about which they disagree.

This book is really quite unique, and, I’d suggest, it has the potential to open up new pathways into how people approach “debating” such topics. It is written, in many ways, like one of Plato’s dialogues, but very much between equals. And, as an ardent fan of Plato’s writings, I couldn’t have enjoyed it more. The actual content of the book consists of several arguments for and against the existence of God, hashed out between two very philosophically competent thinkers who are well versed in philosophy of religion, and who are equally as impressive in their writing abilities as in their metaphysical rigor. But, for me, the content itself almost seems secondary in importance to the structure of the book. In other words, the primary significance of the book seems to be how they argue, rather than merely what they argue. Don’t get me wrong, this latter aspect is extremely significant as well, in its own right (as should hardly have to be explained). But one can find hundreds and thousands of books, articles, presentations, lectures, debates, etc. on just about every single little minuscule facet of the topic of God’s existence from both perspectives–but the number of treatments of the issue in the format of this book are, I’d say, quite rare, which makes this book a gem. Schieber and Rauser, above all, have nearly perfectly modeled for the readers the way in which dialogue about God (and really all serious intellectual controversies) between people with conflicting worldviews ought to be conducted. They are polite, cordial, kind, humble and respectful, not just of each other as persons, but of each other’s views. There is no “love the person, mock the idea” attitude here. They take the position of the other seriously, so seriously, in fact, that they are willing to allow it to challenge their own position, to see which stands up in the face of the evidence, all in pursuit of truth. They are polite, but they are not passive. They are generous, but also heated–because they are each passionate about what they’re discussing. They deeply care about the question at hand and about their respective beliefs concerning the answer thereof.

As I said, this book is quite unique in its format, and, as such, I think there are both pros and cons associated with it. The book reads much less like a formal debate or presentation of arguments, and much more like a conversation, casual yet purposeful, informal yet not succumbing to laziness or flippancy. It reads quickly and is quite accessible to laypeople and those unfamiliar or uninitiated into philosophy of religion technicalities. One immediate benefit is that both sides are presented of every issue, by advocates of those positions, and are directly subjected to critique by the opponent. It isn’t like a normal debate format, however, where one person offers an opening statement, then the other does as well, then the first person offers a rebuttal, and so on. Rather, it is a real discussion, with all the intricacies and messiness that goes along therewith. There are interruptions, digressions, rabbit trails, backtracking, side notes, etc. In short, it feels very human. One possible con with this style, however, is that the arguments are not given as a whole, all at once (at least not in every case). Instead, the arguments develop naturally, following along with the general rhythm and flow of the conversation. Some might find this a bit difficult to keep track of at times, but it is an inherent limitation of the type of discourse being undertaken here, and I think it is well worth it. To be clear, I don’t think that this “dialogue” format ought to replace regular formal debates or other methods of presenting arguments, but I do think it is quite a welcome, fruitful supplement to those standard approaches.

Most of the arguments considered are not exactly new or unique in themselves–those with a general knowledge of philosophy of religion literature should find them fairly familiar–but popular level audiences who are used to “new atheist” or non-academic apologetics works should find the material here fresh and thought provoking. Schieber and Rauser, of course, hardly have room to offer anywhere near an exhaustive treatment of the arguments they’ve chosen to consider, but they do succeed in giving the reader an excellent introduction to relevant concepts, terms, ideas, and ways of thinking about things. Nearly every chapter ends in a sort of “stale mate” where both authors admit that they’ve reached a point where they just have to “agree to disagree”, if you will, and some might find this disappointing. Is there no way to reach any conclusive, definitive answers? Is it really impossible to persuade someone entrenched in a different view to admit they’re wrong and change their minds? To be sure, both authors at times do plenty of admitting they’re wrong, at least on some small points–which in itself is a mark of notable intellectual honesty. But I don’t think the primary purpose of the present book was to convince the other person to change positions. Rather, as has been said, the primary purpose is to model how two people might go about embarking on a long, extended, in depth journey into the depths of their beliefs, which might eventually lead to one or both parties altering their views on important points. But this book is just the beginning of such a journey, so we should hardly expect them to so readily forfeit their deeply held intellectual commitments, especially considering that both have obviously been thinking quite deeply about these things for a good amount of time. To come into any conversation with the direct aim of immediately changing the other person’s mind may be missing the point–and, more importantly, may actually be detrimental to the overall process of truth seeking. Schieber and Rauser recognize this and embody it in their dialogue.

In essence, whether or not you agree with Schieber or Rauser on their respective philosophical positions, whether or not you are generally interested in philosophical inquiry or rumination about God in the first place, you really ought to read this book and take its central message to heart: intelligent human beings can and (most of the time) do disagree on very important issues, and each side can have very good reasons for holding to their own and disagreeing with the other–but far from being an excuse for division or dismissiveness, this interesting fact of human nature is an invitation to radically engage with other humans in intellectual discourse.

With that having been said, what follows is a brief overview of each chapter:

1. Why God Matters:

Here Schieber and Rauser begin by asking why we should care whether or not God exists in the first place. What difference does it actually make to our lives? Is theism an inherently ridiculous proposition to begin with, or is it coherent and intellectually serious? Very importantly, it is in this chapter that they define their respective worldviews which they will be using in the following arguments. Interestingly, they also consider the possibility of an “evil-God” proposition.

2. God, Faith, and Testimony:

In this chapter they consider different understandings of faith, the relation of these understandings to reason, and various ways in which people come to form beliefs. I was quite pleased that they included both of these opening chapters before delving into the actual arguments, since it clears the air of some common false assumptions and lays a solid foundation for proceeding.

3. The Problem of Massive Theological Disagreement:

The first argument considered is presented by Schieber in support of atheism. It is the “Problem of Massive Theological Disagreement” and essentially contends that, if an all powerful, loving God did exist, we would expect Him to prevent confusion and massive disagreement in understanding concerning how best to live and relate to God. This is, admittedly, something that has given me trouble personally, so I found the discussion intriguing. I was, however, somewhat surprised that neither (especially Rauser) made any reference to John Hick’s work in religious pluralism, which would have added a new level to their discussion. (Not that I accept Hick’s pluralism, I just think it would’ve been a nice contribution).

4. God and Moral Obligation

This chapter was more than just another moral argument in support of God’s existence; it also contained a presentation of the authors’ respective metaethical stances in regards to moral value and obligation, as well as a discussion on moral ontology and epistemology and which worldview better accounts for these things. Here I found myself in disagreement with both writers on some key issues. I was interested in Schieber’s defense of the ethical position of “desirism”, but I felt that much of his use of it was somewhat vague and undeveloped (which is not necessarily a critique of it in itself. After all, I am personally a natural law theorist, so I find some common ground in our relative moral frameworks. I think Justin is right that actions are motivated by desires, but I think he would be much better suited in providing an objective basis for this if he grounds these desires in the natural ends posited in natural law theory). Rauser defended “moral perception” as a grounding of moral epistemology, but I thought overall he lacked satisfactory explanation of the ontological grounds. It was there, I just would’ve liked for it to have gone more in depth.

5. The Problem of the Hostility of the Universe

This argument for atheism contends that the overwhelming size of the universe, coupled with the fact that the exceedingly vast majority thereof is completely hostile to life, is surprising on theism but not so on atheism. Personally, I think this argument might be better suited as a response to certain fine tuning arguments, rather than a positive, independent argument in its own right (indeed, I think Schieber has used it as such before). Nevertheless, this chapter showcases some good back and forth on how hypotheses are used as explanations in typical evidential arguments.

6. God, Mathematics, and Reason

I find the topic of the mathematical applicability/descriptability of the universe fascinating, and in this chapter, Rauser uses this as an argument for theism. In addition, there’s some nice further discussion on explanations and using analogies in relation to God. My complaint here is that I just would’ve preferred more on this.

7. Evolution and the Biological Role of Pain

This final chapter begins in consideration of an argument for atheism which maintains that evolution in itself, but especially when coupled with the biological role of pain and pleasure and the lack of fine tuning of pain receptors, is strong evidence against theism. However, the chapter takes a turn and ends up debating skeptical theism, hidden reasons, and the explanatory power of theism, all of which are very important topics, but perhaps should have received their own chapter–or, at least, the main argument should have been given more attention before the conversation changed focus.

In conclusion, this was an excellent book which I highly recommend to everyone, not just those interested in philosophy of religion, as it is as a laudable example of intellectual engagement between disparate worldviews at its finest.

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4 thoughts on “Review: An Atheist and a Christian Walk into a Bar

  1. Well written review. I completely agree that often we do not know how to engage properly in discussions and dialogues on such subject matter. I have been discussing the existence of God with a friend on Facebook and I had to realize that at no point will this person abandon their beliefs. So my aim has changed, engage, offer thoughtful responses and give the person things to think about. Well written review once again.

    Liked by 1 person

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