God or Godless: a review

God or Godless is a book presenting a series of short written debates between Christian apologist Randal Rauser and former Christian apologist, current atheist, John W. Loftus. When I asked Randal for a review copy the book, I expected to be frustrated by his arguments. I didn’t expect to be frustrated by the format of the book–but that’s what happened.

The book consists of 20 chapters, each presenting a mini-debate between Randal and John, with 800 word opening statements, 150 word rebuttals, and 50 word closing statements. Each chose half the topics, with “Randal’s” chapters (tending to focus on arguments for the existence of a generic God (though the last of them is about the resurection) with “John’s” all framed in terms of “the Biblical concept of God” or “the Biblical God” (though the last of two essentially deal with the argument from (natural) evil and the argument from nonbelief).

In each chapter, the opening statement of whoever chose the chapter’s topic appears first, but Randal tells me–and here is where I think the authors made a real mistake in the formatting–neither read the other’s opening statement before writing their own. This means that each author only had 200 words per chapter to interact with his opponent, and it just isn’t enough.

Randal’s Arguments

To give you an idea of the kind of problems this causes, one of Randal’s chapters is titled “God Is the Best Explanation of the Whole Shebang.” This is obviously meant to refer to some version/versions of the cosmological and/or design arguments, but those arguments come in many varieties, and John ends up spending most of his opening statement arguing against God as an explanation in very general terms, with one short paragraph of criticism specifically about Aquinas’ First Way.

Randal’s focus, however, was on a particular version of the cosmological argument involving a distinction between “event causation” and “agent causation,” which goes totally unaddressed in John’s opening statement. John’s rebuttal is mostly a series of rhetorical questions aimed at further attacking the usefulness of God as an explanation. In his closing statement, Randal complains that John didn’t address one of his key claims. Well, okay, I guess I understand Randal’s annoyance there, but then John had only 150 words, not enough to say everything he might’ve liked to say given more space.

If Randal insists on a detailed response to his claims about event causation and agent causation, it might run as follows: there’s very little reason to think there’s a deep distinction there. It makes little sense outside of a dualistic view of the mind and an incompatiblist view of free will. Even ignoring the broader philosophical issues, commonsensically it’s not at all clear that agent causation avoids infinite regress while event causation does. The agents we know for sure about do have causes for their existence, and it generally seems that our actions are caused at least in part, if not fully determined, by prior events.

Even ignoring this issue, a couple of Randal’s sub-arguments blatantly beg the question. He writes that an infinite regress of event causes is unacceptable because, “it is wholly ad hoc since we have no experience of infinite causal regress.” But it’s controversial to say the least whether we have experience of uncaused gods–and if Randal is going to respond that we do, he’s no longer presenting the cosmological argument, but the argument from religious experience.

Similarly, he writes, “it offers no explanation of what caused this mysterious, infinite, causal series, and this it is really a pseudo-explanation.” But I could just as well complain that Randal offers no explanation of what caused this mysterious all-powerful creator.

I could explain more, but oh look! I’ve already run over two hundred words, not trying to go on for very long, just doing what felt natural in a medium-length blog post. This, I think, illustrates just how tight a 150 word limit is. At the same time, knowing about the word limit makes me inclined to be a little more forgiving of the weaknesses in Randal’s argument. I don’t know whether he’s to blame for them, or the word limit is.

I could go through how the issues with the format play out in most if not all of Randal’s chapters, but I’ll limit myself to one more chapter, the chapter on the resurrection. Here, it might have been expected that the opening statements would match up better, because the apologists’ options for defending the historicity of the resurrection are quite limited. John, sensibly, focuses on Paul, because “Paul is the only New Testament writer who claimed he saw the risen Jesus.”

However, Randal’s opening statement focused not on Paul but on James! Randal uses the argument, also used by Gary Habermas, that the reported appearance to James is strong evidence for the resurrection because James had been a skeptic during Jesus’ life. The weakness in this argument is obvious: we neither have James’ testimony that he saw the risen Jesus, nor that he was a skeptic. What’s more, the two claims come from different sources, so that the image of James as a converted skeptic comes only by combining multiple (quite brief) references from different parts of the New Testament.

But again, maybe I should be forgiving of Randal here. With only 800 words to work with, he had to make some kind of decision about what to focus on and what to leave out. Randal’s rebuttal in this chapter is less understandable. Less than half of it actually addresses John’s points about Paul; Randal emphasizes that his main argument is about James. Well yes, but John had no way of knowing that, so it seems pointless to keep hammering on points John hadn’t yet gotten a chance to address.

Randal on the God of the Bible

The chapters where John chose the topic have one virtue: John gave himself a series of very straightforward jobs to do. Because of this, I don’t have much to say about John’s contributions to those chapters. But it also means that in most of those chapters, Randal’s opening statements manage to more or less address the arguments John was going to make. Randals contributions to these chapters, in fact, end up being some of the more interesting material in the book.

In the chapter titled, “The Biblical Concept of God Evolved from Polytheism to Monotheism,” Randal surprised me by agreeing with the proposition contained in the chapter title. But, he argues, that’s not a problem for Christianity. Abraham, on his account, practiced monolatry, the worship of one god. Then, when God freed the Israelites from Egypt, they moved to henotheism, the belief that one god is far superior to all the other gods. By the time of Isaiah, though, the Israelites had moved to full monotheism.

There are two problems with this account. First, there’s very good reason to doubt the historicity of Abraham and the Exodus from Egypt. I’m sure Randal is aware of the evidence to the effect that, at very least, the Exodus couldn’t have happened on the scale that the Bible reports. What exactly does he make of that evidence?

Second, there are hints in the Bible that even monolatry was a somewhat later development than Randal would like to believe. In the Bible, the Israelites do so much backsliding that one suspects monolatry was never dominant before the time of Josiah. Solomon may well have been a lifelong idolater, rather a faithful servant of Yahweh alone who was merely corrupted by foreign wives late in life.

Even more surprising than his acceptance of Israelite polytheism, though, is Randal’s acceptance that there’s at least a strong prima facie case that the God of the Bible commanded human sacrifice and genocide, and that these commands–if they are really in the Bible–cannot be morally justified. In the case of human sacrifice, Randal says that “this leaves me with a bit of a puzzle” and then insists there must be some solution, because after all God wrote the Bible. This is hardly satisfying, but once again perhaps Randal should be forgiven given the space constraints.

Most interesting of all is what he says about the issue of genocide in the Old Testament, where he suggests that the apparent commands to commit genocide may be “an ironic depiction of evil similar to Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal.” An interesting idea, though Randal gives no positive support for it aside from his assumption that God is the author of the Bible. Furthermore, it’s unclear how his proposal would fit with Christian theology: it is one thing to say that the God of the Old Testament is an incompletely revealed god, but does Randal really want to say that perhaps He was intended to be a parody of a god?

One other point to mention is that, both when dealing with human sacrifice in the Bible and genocide in the Bible, Randal appeals to the claim that the Bible is a literary classic. Well, so are the Homeric epics, but that doesn’t stop them from being products of a culture with values wildly different than our own, especially when Homer portrays his “heroes” raping and pillaging. The same applies to the Bible.

Conclusion

Let me end by talking about one thing about God or Godless that I was quite happy to see, which I haven’t mentioned yet: it was published by Baker Books, a major evangelical publishing house. In spite of my issues with the format, I’m happy to see a book like this published by a publisher like Baker at all.

Hopefully, being published by Baker will mean this book will make its way onto assigned reading lists at evangelical colleges and universities. When it does, students will get to hear atheist arguments as presented by an actual atheist, rather than having to get them second-hand from some apologist. And they’ll see a fellow evangelical doing things like accepting the Bible’s polytheistic roots, and accepting that, prima facie, there are some serious moral problems with some of what the Bible commands.

It’s easy to imagine a world where major evangelical publishers would simply refuse to publish such a book. So the fact that they did publish it, I take to be a good sign.

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