One of the less silly-sounding criticisms made of popular atheists is that we don’t deal with the best arguments for religion out there. That criticism was one of the main reasons Michael Ruse gave, in his review of The God Delusion in the academic journal Isis, for claiming the quality of popular atheist writing is “downright awful.” Similarly, the New York Times review of Dawkins’ book accuses Dawkins of not knowing that the ontological argument “comes in sophisticated modern versions that are not at all easy to refute.”
And as a blogger, I know that if I write a blog post criticizing one religious apologist, there’s a good chance I’ll get comments complaining that the person whose arguments I should be answering is really someone else, and until I’ve dealt with that someone else, my work is worthless. Here’s an example from an actual blog comment: “Remember, if N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God isn’t in your references then you haven’t really engaged with anything.”
I think this criticism is wrong because I don’t think there’s any such thing as “the best defenses of religion.” That’s because I don’t think any arguments for religion come anywhere close to being good. And by that I mean I don’t think any arguments for religion come anywhere close to giving a good reason to think any religious claim is actually true.
You may have noticed that this criticism of popular atheism is very similar to a criticism I already dealt with in chapter 2. There, I pointed out that it’s reasonable to ask creationists to deal with the version of the theory of evolution that modern scientists actually accept, because there’s a fair amount of agreement among scientists about evolution, but you can’t demand the same of critics of religion because there isn’t similar agreement among theologians about God.
A similar point applies here: it’s reasonable to insist that creationists deal with the evidence for evolution, as most evolutionary biologists understand it, because biologists basically agree on what the evidence for evolution is. That’s true even for creationists who think there’s no remotely good evidence for evolution. Similarly, if theologians basically agreed on what the evidence for the existence of God is, you could insist I deal with that evidence, even if I thought the evidence was rubbish.
But in fact, theologians don’t agree on what the evidence for the existence of God is. Ask ten religious thinkers what the best arguments for the existence of God are, and one will give you Aquinas’ five ways, another will tell you about his cutting-edge formulation(s) of the ontological argument, a third will claim the Quran is so perfect that God must be the author, and so on, until you get to the handful saying the arguments don’t matter. So no matter what arguments an author like me or Dawkins decides to deal with, someone will think he didn’t choose the “best” ones.
That does not mean we can’t argue about which arguments for the existence of God are most worth dealing with. I’ve made different decisions about that issue than other atheists. But it rarely makes any sense to use another person’s decisions about that issue to dismiss their work as “downright awful.”
What do I wish were different in Dawkins’ book? The same thing I wish were different in mine. Sometimes he just cannot conceal his mounting impatience with the arguments he has obliged himself to consider, and when his disrespect, or even contempt, shines through in spite of his strenuous efforts–I know just what he’s going through–he must surely lose many readers. Good riddance to them? Well, no, this is a problem…
However, Dennett notes, a fully respectful treatment of the arguments on the other side, “is well nigh impossible when the arguments you wish to rebut are too flimsy,” which Dennett thinks the arguments for the existence of God are. Then Dennett asks a question:
Still, what are we to say to those who, not being experts on the arguments themselves, have often heard them spoken of highly, and may well feel entitled to a more patient account? I think I can imagine mustering the good will, the humor, and the pedagogical doggedness to satisfy them, but I certainly couldn’t find the strength to do it now, and on present showing, Dawkins couldn’t either.
Dennett finally says that, “Perhaps some claims should just be laughed out of court.” I have a different solution to this problem. Over the next several weeks, I’ll be writing a series of posts which won’t give the patient account of the arguments for the existence of that many may feel entitled to. What I will do, though, is explain in as carefully as carefully as I can without boring anyone why I don’t think any arguments for the existence of God come anywhere close to being good.