Randal Rauser’s Review of The Making of an Atheist

In his book, The Making of an Atheist, James Spiegel argues that immorality leads to unbelief. On his blog, Randal Rauser provides a thoughtful review and critique. Check it out.

About Jeffery Jay Lowder

Jeffery Jay Lowder is President Emeritus of Internet Infidels, Inc., which he co-founded in 1995. He is also co-editor of the book, The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave.

  • http://notnotaphilosopher.wordpress.com/ Jason Thibodeau

    I have not read the book, but I did read Randal’s review. If his review is accurate, then the book does not deserve a thoughtful review. What it probably deserves is for thoughtful experts to declare it to be unfit for professional review.

    • http://counterapologist.blogspot.com/ Counter Apologist

      I’m loathe to disagree with you here, but I think Randal has the right of it.

      There is a decent amount of liberal leaning Christians and they’re fighting their own internal war against the kind of Christian that Spiegel is writing for. For that segment of people (the liberals), Randal’s approach is what gets respect, they want the “loving correction from a brother in Christ” kind of thing.

      Quite frankly, for those who would largely see appeal in Spiegel’s book, they’d not give Randal’s dismissal of the book any more note than Dawkins dismissing it as trash. He’s too liberal for most of them. In this case the best Randal can hope to do in order to convince someone is to go with the loving route that he’s taking in hopes that they’ll find theological merit to his approach, worst case he’s not going to reach them anyway.

      From this kind of calculus, Randal engaging in a review of an otherwise disdainful piece of work costs him nothing and only has the potential for gain.

      • http://notnotaphilosopher.wordpress.com/ Jason Thibodeau

        I disagree. But I appreciate your argument, it is a powerful one. Let’s think of an analogy:

        Suppose an atheist wrote a book with the following title: “The Making of a Christian: How ignorance and stupidity lead to faith in Christ” Suppose that CA or Jeff Lowder or Jonathan Pearce or Jason Thibodeau were asked to review it. What should we do?

        If it were me, I would either refuse because I find the thesis to be transparently ridiculous and offensive or I would write the following:

        “This book is, from my perspective, obviously absurd. The subtitle suggests that Christians are uncritical and stupid. That is offensive and proven false by my own experience and I can’t imagine that it isn’t equally proven false by the experience of the author. We get nowhere throwing around such wildly hyperbolic statements. The claim is also dangerous to the extent that it might incline people to dismiss a whole group of people as less intelligent and potentially unworthy just on the basis of their religious beliefs. The book is not worthy of any more substantial review that what I have provided. If any one disagrees, they are welcome to provide convincing arguments to the contrary.”

        That is entirely appropriate and it sends the message that these kinds of claims really have no academic or scholarly value. To provide a thoughtful review sends the opposite message: that the thesis is something that is worthy of due consideration. It is not.

        Spiegel is getting plenty of mileage from his book. It goes on his cv and I am sure that he uses it as evidence of engagement with the academic community. Thoughtful reviews like Randal’s bolster that assessment. I don’t think that Spiegel deserves anything whatsoever from this book except scorn.

        • http://counterapologist.blogspot.com/ Counter Apologist

          Depends on who you’re writing for I think, and also your perspective.

          I admit to being an amateur when it comes to philosophy, I’m an engineer and my professional focus is more along those lines. The idea that this sort of review “adds to Spiegel’s CV” doesn’t really seem to carry much weight with me. He’s got the book published, he gets the notch in his proverbial CV belt for anyone that would evaluate the worth of a CV by the number of publications versus the quality of what was done. EDIT: I guess I don’t understand what Spiegel would gain or lose professionally speaking regardless of whether or not Randal reviewed it or panned it. But then I’m not a philosopher and I don’t work in academic circles, so what’s important in that context wouldn’t seem to be important to me.

          I would imagine that Randal is (as I am) probably more concerned with the popular audience for this kind of book. I’d imagine primarily he’s concerned with correcting bad theology in Christian circles, and correcting it with good theology rather than pure argument. The liberals vs conservatives in Christianity are fighting their own struggle as much as they are competing with us atheists. Plus to be fair, if I recall from my evangelical days where I paid attention to these things, the liberals need as much academics as they can get. The conservatives are comparably better funded and are more outspoken, or at least they were from the view I had of it in a more conservative church.

          Now I’m sure Randal’s also got an eye towards removing the popular perception that “Christians are ignorant and think all atheists are that way because they want to sin”. From my reading of his opinions, he not only finds that view incorrect, but counter productive for converting people.

          In terms of your analogy, I’d probably take the approach Randal did, although I would likely be able to afford to be a bit more scathing in tone. I do think we should correct “our own” when they go off. If I come across the popular kind of atheism on Twitter or Reddit that dismisses belief in god a priori because they’ve defined the possibility of the supernatural out of existence, well that’s a bad argument that I don’t think does us much good.

          • http://notnotaphilosopher.wordpress.com/ Jason Thibodeau

            A couple things:

            In terms of Randal’s interests and motivations, I think that this is mostly irrelevant. But it might be worth mentioning that his review of Spiegel’s book appeared immediately following his review of Jason Long’s article, “The Malleability of the Human Mind”, a review that was entirely satirical in nature, very dismissive and did not amount to the kind of thoughtful review Randal gave Spiegel’s book. Randal felt that Long’s essay was deserving of such treatment because of its indefensible sweeping claims such as, ““Since most staunch Bible defenders have already declared that nothing is going to change their minds (and the solutions to presented biblical complications often reflect this disposition), we must be highly suspicious of the intellectual honesty put forth toward apologetic solutions.”

            If Long’s essay is deserving of satire, then surely Spiegel’s book is deserving of equal derision. Randal did not heap any such scorn on Spiegel’s book, did not subject it to satire, did not point out the contemptible nature of its thesis. So, I don’t think that we can assume that Randal is being consistent.

            But, again, I think that this point is mostly irrelevant. I don’t care that Randal was inconsistent in this instance. What I care about is that thoughtful people point out offensive and contemptible arguments when they see them.

            Another point: You say, “I do think we should correct “our own” when they go off.” I don’t think that this kind of in-group/out-group thinking is productive. The fact is that we (you, me, Randal, most of the people who comment here and at Randal’s blog) are all searching for the truth. That is what we have in common and that is what matters. Let’s think of ourselves as part of the same group looking for the same thing (albeit sometimes from different perspectives) rather than as enemies.

            Finally, the question is what counts as “correcting” people when they go off? I think a response like the one I have recommended several times (here and at Randal’s blog) sends a powerful message that such claims have little or no value and there is no point in debating them. There is more interesting and more important work to be done.

          • http://counterapologist.blogspot.com/ Counter Apologist

            The point on consistency is noted, but I consider his treatment of Long (in addition to similar “satire” takes on other positions) to be his weaker work. That’s why I largely don’t even bother commenting on those sorts of posts. Personally, I’d rather he treated Long like he treated Spiegel.

            I also do count intent a bit more when I weigh evaluations on this sort of stuff, so that’s coloring my perspective a bit more.

            Your point on in-group/out-group thinking is also well noted, and while I agree in principle that the important thing is to have an area for dialog among people of different opinions but are united in a search for truth – I think we’d be amiss to not account for the fact that there very much are “sides” to this. That brings up a very large issue I’ve been thinking on, but describing it here would probably be a giant rabbit hole.

            I do agree that we need to hold truth above all else. I’d be a theist or even a liberal Chrsitian if I thought there were good arguments for it. The issue is that while we’re all aiming for the truth, we’ve come to contradictory conclusions and both sides think we have moral reasons to try and convince others.

            Like it or not, that means the group we identify with (Christian, atheist, etc) has a reputation that will impact whether or not people will even listen to what we’re saying. The most solid argument in the world doesn’t mean shit if no one is going to listen to it in the first place. Perceptions are unfortunately important, so I think “correcting our own” does hold merits. The key is that we still keep the truth as a goal over partisanship, but we shouldn’t pretend that we’re not partisan. Again, there’s a lot here, but I’d rather not write a book on this hard topic in a comment.

            As for the type of correction, yours is one way to do it. If you’re educated and have been in “the game” for a while, that’s all we need. That said, I don’t see Randal losing much by what he’s doing.

            But as someone who’s still learning, I think it’s extremely important that we always be able to show “why” something is wrong. That’s why in some cases I’d want to do an explicit take down of the example you mentioned in terms of reasoning.

            Still I think perspective is really important here, which is why I’m defending Randal. For us, Spiegel is wrong and comes off as an asshole. For Randal, Spiegel isn’t just “wrong”, he’s being counter productive as a witness and doing bad theology. So showing why Spiegel is wrong theologically is going to be of a higher importance to Randal vs. dismissing yet another atheist argument. While he has a surprising number of atheists who read and comment on his blog, I believe he still writes primarily for evangelicals and given his views I can agree that should be his focus.

          • RonH

            The difference in the case of Long is that he’s on the other side of the theism debate. A thorough treatment of Long by Randal will mean nothing to Long, because his sweeping premise already dismisses Randal. The same holds for anyone who already agrees with Long. Meanwhile, I find Long’s position as self-evidently false (and contemptible) as Spiegel’s, as I’m sure do most other Christian readers of Randal’s blog. A thorough treatment by Randal won’t sway Long’s followers, and Randal’s Christian readers already disagree with Long anyways. He has nothing to gain. A satirical treatment, on the other hand, highlights what Randal sees as the egregious aspects of Long’s position. It serves to illustrate an example of an offensive and non-productive contribution to the theism/atheism discussion, the quality of which Randal is ostensibly trying to improve.

            As CA points out, a Christian refuting Spiegel carries more weight with Christians than an atheist doing it. The atheist is better off ignoring Spiegel or (if they have a sense of humor) satirizing him. By the same token, an atheist refuting Long would carry more weight with other atheists than a Christian doing it (I’d be curious to see such a refutation…). The Christian is better off ignoring Long or satirizing.

            It actually is consistent, when you think about it. Remember, these aren’t purely philosophical debates. There are “politics” in play.

          • http://notnotaphilosopher.wordpress.com/ Jason Thibodeau

            It is a fine point. Like CA’s arguments, I find your comments compelling. But.

            Spiegel’s position is vile. And I really think that Randal should have more forcefully said that. We really shouldn’t be arguing, in a serious way, about whether some segment of the population is immoral just in virtue of their religious beliefs; at least not without pointing out the dangerous implications of such thinking

            In addition, as I said to CA, I am not very fond of the in-group/out-group thinking. Any seeker of the truth (I apologize for the horrible term, I can’t think of a better one) should not pick sides. I guess that is naive and idealistic. But I would rather believe that we are all cooperating in our search for knowledge than that we are competing in a war for hearts and minds.

          • RonH

            Well, Randal’s style is his style. He seems to either engage thoughtfully or satirize humorously. I find him enjoyable in both modes, either of which I find more interesting to read than indignation.

            I, too, find in/out-group thinking obnoxious and counterproductive (though it’s impossible to escape — we’ve just defined ourselves as an in-group which excludes, say, Spiegel…). In critiquing Spiegel, Randal is saying “Hey, fellow Christians, it’s not right to make claims about the morality of a population because they don’t hold your religious views.” This is an attempt to chip away at a tribal barrier.

            Now, if I can be permitted a potentially inflammatory observation: where is a similar response to Long in the atheist community? Long is declaring that by virtue of my religious beliefs, I’m indoctrinated, that I don’t question my beliefs, or have “smart” reasons for them. I am informed quite regularly that, on the basis of my being a Christian, I am deluded and irrational (on a good day). I probably find that about as vile as you find being branded as immoral on the basis of your atheism. But where in the atheist world are people writing books titled “You’re Not as Irrational as I Think”?

            In the “atheists are evil; Christians are irrational” split, I’m happy to say “Hey! Atheists aren’t evil!” What I hear back from the atheist camp is “Damn straight! Now if you’d just admit Christians are irrational we’d be getting somewhere…” Am I just being taken for a ride?

          • http://notnotaphilosopher.wordpress.com/ Jason Thibodeau

            Well, for my part, I don’t have much of a platform (and I haven’t read Long’s essay; but nor am I inclined to). But, for what it’s worth, I have said, on Randal’s blog and other places, that it is transparently ridiculous to say that all Christians are ignorant or irrational. The Christian intellectual tradition has much that is to be admired. Thomas Aquinas, Anselm, Augustine, Descartes, these are some of the finest minds in history, all of them Christian. I think of them as intellectual heros. Tolstoy and Dostoevsky are two of my favorite authors. Tolstoy really was a genius and an incredible person.

            Richard Swinburne and Alvin Plantinga are just two examples of incredibly gifted and first-rate contemporary philosophers.

            I disagree with all of them about many things (though I agree with all of them about other things), but I admire them greatly. Randal, too, is an incredibly smart and thoughtful person. So, the suggestion that Christianity depends on irrationality and/or stupidity is obviously absurd, it is contemptible and is to be ridiculed.

          • RonH

            Well, thanks for that. I think at this point we go out for beers and commiserate about how the world would be a better place if more folks thought like we did, eh? ;-)

          • http://notnotaphilosopher.wordpress.com/ Jason Thibodeau

            Sounds good to me. You buying?

          • RonH

            That all depends on if it scores me more points with God. I’ll have to check with my local religious hierarchy (I’m not allowed to make these decisions for myself, you know).

            Naaah. What the heck. Yeah, I’ll buy. We’re probably pretty far apart though. Your blog has pictures of mountains on it. I’m in the Dallas area. Ain’t nowhere near any mountains…

          • http://notnotaphilosopher.wordpress.com/ Jason Thibodeau

            Those mountains are in California. But I have become a Georgian. Next time I’m in Dallas I’ll know I have a free beer waiting.

  • L.Long

    If by immorality he means being against the morality as seen in the buyBull?!? He’s right. The only morality the buyBull got right is what the writers stole from others–ie the golden rule, Do not murder or steal, or bare false witness.
    Strangely as an atheist I find I’m more moral than most xtians.

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