Review of Deepest Differences: A Christian-Atheist Dialogue

Deepest Differences: A Christian-Atheist Dialogue is a transcript (edited and organized to aid readers of the book but otherwise left as it was) of an e-mail exchange between James Sire and Carl Peraino.

The book provides an opportunity to eavesdrop on a conversation between two educated individuals with many shared views and assumptions as well as a great many differences. Rather than offering an opportunity to settle disagreements between Christians and atheists, the book rather provides an opportunity to reflect on the nature of worldviews, the character of our assumptions and their openness or otherwise to being called into question, and what is involved in an attempt to dialogue with someone whose assumptions differ from one’s own.

It is interesting to note that the dialogue began with Jim quoting an “argument for the existence of God” that ran as follows:

There is the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.
Therefore there must be a God.
You either see this one or you don’t.

[p.17, quoting Catholic philosophers Peter Kreeft and Ron Tacelli of Boston College]

Jim more than once seemed to Carl to be too willing to appeal to divine inscrutibility. My own impression was similar and yet different. I often felt Jim was insufficiently willing to see the arbitrary point at which inscrutibility was invoked: it was inevitably where his own understanding of Biblical theism ran out of specifics (see pp.127-130). In my own view, just as Jim apologized for engaging in speculation, he ought to have acknowledged that some elements of the Biblical authors’ or classic Christian theology’s views are equally speclative, speaking with confidence where we today might better humbly acknowledge uncertainty (see pp.61-66).

Jim mentioned at times his confidence in the Bible’s essential historicity. Since that never became the focus of the conversation, differing assumptions on this matter were a hurdle which persisted throughout the exchange. But this is simply one facet of what was a conversation between one particular Christian and one particular atheist. Although some will read the book as though spectators at a boxing match, cheering for one side, I expect that many Christians and atheists who read the book will see places where they themselves would have argued the same point differently or even have agreed with their dialogue partner.

A key starting point to the dialogue was the question of the need for a supernatural ground for morality. This was one place where I would have disagreed with both sides. Against Carl, I would have said that morality for reflective humanity is no longer simply a matter of evolution and survival via natural processes. The is/ought problem Jim highlighted is an important one. Yet I disagree with Jim that one can simply resolve the matter by positing God, for two main reasons. First, such a move makes a problematic leap: there is a sense of absolute right and wrong, therefore an entity must exist that justifies such a moral sense. It is interesting that Christians have been known to invoke God as the basis for our moral sense while at the same time claiming our human moral sense is fundamentally skewed. Likewise, Biblical theism cannot justify precisely the kind of absolute morality that Jim claims it can, since the Bible depicts God demanding a child be sacrificed (in a story that makes no sense unless read with the assumption that God could indeed demand such a thing) and the slaughter of every last inhabitant of a city – precisely the sort of thing many Christians appeal to as an example of things that are “always absolutely wrong without exception” only if God exists (pp.57-58).

While reading the exchange I was struck by a paradoxical (at least to my mind) element of the Evangelical worldview. On the one hand, much is made of the inability of any system other than Biblical theism to ground morality. But then, ironically, Evangelicals turn around and respond to questions about moral atheists by asserting that morality is not ultimately what God is interested in when it comes to the salvation of human beings. There is a tension here that often remains unnoticed, whereas it deserves some serious thought and explanation.

In the course of the conversation many interesting questions come up. One example is the question of why God created, and whether, if in the afterlife it will be impossible for anyone to sin, it would not have made more sense for God to have made humans incapable of sin from the outset. Yet such creatures being created at all seems to have nothing desirable about it that might motivate God to create in the first place. Jim, as a conservative Christian, is unwilling to consider other options that are alternatives to both his view and Carl’s atheism, namely moderate and liberal Christian views that accept that some elements of the claims of Biblical authors and Christian tradition and theology may need to be rethought, and either revised or repudiated.

I highly recommend this book by Sire and Peraino to anyone who values dialogue with those whose views differ from their own. The book contains a study guide, but I would advise against the use of this volume by Christians or atheists, which might lead to precisely the sort of smug self-congratulatory outlook or opponent-bashing the book eschews. Rather, the book better serves as a starting point for other conversations similar to that between its two authors.

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  • Eruesso

    I love reading your blog especially when you mention interesting books like this one. My Amazon wishlist is overflowing with your book recommendations. Great post!Peace and blessings be upon you.

  • Chris

    Thanks for reviewing this book. Having read a couple of Sire's worldview books, this one was interesting to me too.I have a couple of questions…Your review seems harder on the conservative Christian worldview than on the atheist worldview. Do you find an atheist worldview more congenial to your thinking? Or at least less objectionable to the conservative Christian one? (I ask this, too, partly because whenever I dip into your blog, you seem to be taking aim at conservative Christians in some way. It's a recurring theme in your writing here.) To put the matter another way, does a liberal Christian have more in common with an atheist than with a conservative Christian? Here's the second question: you mention toward the end the need for revision and even repudiation of aspects of Christian thought. This is a 'revisionist' approach I'd associate with someone like Ron Allen down the road at CTS. What are the criteria on which such revisions and repudiations are made? What are the non-negotiable first principles that guide such an endeavor? I ask this second question because it seems to me that revisionists, having abandoned sola scriptura (which admittedly has its problems), have opted in its place for a sola ratione approach. Reason alone becomes the arbiter of what needs to be revised or repudiated in Christian thought. Anyway, good post. Thanks for writing. Peace to you today.

  • James F. McGrath

    As I was reading I often felt less happy with Sire's statements than Peraino's, and I wondered whether it was because one was trying harder than the other, or because of some presuppositions and/or biases of my own. I'm still not sure. I do think that those who acknowledge that beliefs may require revision do indeed use reason to ajudicate. My own view is that this ought to be balanced by an emphasis on community in the sense that one does not simply use one's own individual reason, but also seeks to get input from others to help counterbalance our own individual biases. I suppose Sire lost my sympathy when he started trying to defend intelligent design to Peraino, when the latter is a biologist. I doubt Sire would have taken kindly to Peraino trying to explain to him why the majority of experts in English don't know what they're talking about. :)Anyway, if you (or anyone else) read the book, I'd be delighted to hear other impressions!

  • Chris

    Thanks, James. The emphasis on community is an important one… and one that figures into orthodox as well as liberal interpretation.I'm a bit Sired out at this point, but if I read Deepest Differences, I'll post a review and let you know. Grace and peace to you.

  • Sabio Lantz

    Dr. McGrath, concerning your discussion of the ethical issue that both Theists and Atheist share, I don't know if you are familiar withAlonzo Fyfe at Atheist Ethicist who holds a objective theory of morals (as opposed to a relative theory of morals). Thought you might find it addresses some issues you discuss.