Desire Matters, Truth Matters More – Alex Gabriel and Jeff Cook on “Unbelievable?”

Alex Gabriel of The Heresy Club, one of my favorite online atheists, was a thoughtful and precise presence on Christian radio show Unbelievable? - a show which “gets Christians and non-Christians talking”.

Listen to Alex discuss God with Jeff Cook, author of Everything New, and elucidate some of the strange holes in Cook’s (I thought rather weak) arguments. Cook is right when he argues that many emotional factors come into play when we determine the truth of various beliefs we are considering. He is right, too, that we all look at evidence through our current frameworks of understanding – indeed, that what counts as evidence can sometimes be affects by the frame through which we look. But he’s on rather slippery ground when he argues, as he seemed to in the program, that therefore the primary task of apologetics should be to provide emotionally-compelling ‘reasons’ to believe in God, almost as if the fact of the matter is of no consequence.

Intriguingly, Cook’s writing has appeared on Patheos, where he argues that “much of Christian apologetics and evangelism in general are often misguided because right thinking is held up as a more valuable target than one’s hopes or desires.”

Now, I’m not someone who looks askance at emotional appeals and intelligent angling of an argument toward a particular audience. Much of my work with atheist groups concerns convincing them to be more strategic in their presentation of Humanist values. As Cook says, “the way truth is presented matters”, and we should pay much more attention to the emotional impact of our arguments. Indeed, I find Cook’s persuasive strategy quite astute:

It seems then that enticing the passions and wills of those who do not follow Christ is far more important than targeting their intellect with arguments for God’s existence. Showing that God is desirable will be the primary target of the successful 21st century apologist, for wanting God to exist opens highways for subpar apologetics; yet a closed heart will not here the voice of wisdom.

If we remain chained to the modern idolization of reason, and fail to see human beings as composed of body, mind and soul, we will lose both the rational arguments in our culture and our opportunity to promote sanctified bodies, minds and souls. Such mistakes must stop.

True: forget that people aren’t reasoning-machines and you aren’t likely to persuade them of anything much. You have to appeal to Pathos and Ethos as well as Logos.

However, if you are to be an ethical apologist, it is absolutely necessary, before developing a persuasive campaign, for the would-be persuader to be sure of the solidity of their arguments. It is not enough to simply paint a rosy picture of a God people might like to believe in: it’s incumbent on the apologist, from an ethical perspective, to be sure their Logos is sturdy enough to rebut criticism  The fact that your emotional campaign works better is no evidence that what you’re selling is a good product. Furthermore, it would be highly unethical to hide from scrutiny aspects of your “product” which are less appealing simply because you want people to desire it – and there are lots of aspects of the Christian God which many have good reason to find unappealing. In the show I was not always convinced Cook was as scrupulous as he might be about these matters.

In any case, listen to Gabriel debate Cook here. You can listen to my three appearances on the show here, here, and here.

About James Croft

James Croft is a Humanist activist and public speaker who has swiftly become one of the best-known new faces in Humanism today. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently studying for his Doctorate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. As a leader in training in the Ethical Culture movement – a national movement of Humanist congregations – he is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist. His upcoming book "The Godless Congregation", co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Greg Epstein, is being published by Simon & Schuster.

  • smrnda

    I’m unable to get sound at present so I haven’t been able to view the debates, but the phrase ‘idolization of reason’ is a bit troubling to me. It’s like encouraging people to ‘go with your gut’ rather than thinking things through, which seems more like a sales pitch to me. People tend to go with their impulses more than their reason, which is why when making serious decisions or evaluating truth claims it helps to put our emotions in check and focus on actually using reason, something that we don’t always do automatically.

    I also don’t get the idea that emotion and reason are separate. There are ideas that upset me because those ideas cause tangible harm. I mean, the idea that gay people should have second-class citizenship bothers me for both rational and emotional reasons. It hurts people that I know, but that requires me using reason to understand the consequences of discrimination.

    My own exposure to contemporary Christianity was that it was an idolization of unreason, the idea that subjective, emotional experiences were the indicators of the truth of the belief , that implausible theories that felt right should be accepted over saner interpretations ,like when demons are used to explain about everything that might go wrong in the life of a believer. Could a Christian man just be addicted to porn because he has both sexual desires and has an internet connection and is bored? Why bring in the supernatural when it isn’t necessary?

  • Alan Slipp

    This was an increasingly frustrating discussion to listen to. I was hoping for something substantial from a professor of philosophy, instead I got presuppositionalism. Wanting something to be true (say, wanting your feelings of love to somehow be significant on a cosmic level rather than “simply” a product of a deterministic process), even if you really want it a lot, should never be considered justification for belief by honest, critical people. It really doesn’t matter what “lens” you use to look at a set of facts, those facts don’t alter because of how they are perceived. Likewise, an bad argument for the existence of God should not suddenly convince someone because they find the conclusion appealing. I did appreciate Jeff’s thesis, though, as it illuminated one of the reasons I became an atheist in the first place: I stopped wanting my religious beliefs to be true.

    • James Croft

      I also found it frustrating in the sense that I thought Cook could have brought more game. The linked article is better, I think, in trying to articulate what he meant.

      • ctcss

        The linked article is quite good. I think he makes a rather nice point, although people may seem to get their backs up by making the assumption that he is trying to tell them not to use reason. He actually isn’t. Reasoning is quite necessary to grow closer to God, but reasoning isn’t likely to start that process of growth until the person wants God more than anything else. (The parable of the merchant seems relevant here.)

        Reason doesn’t necessarily work to impel this growth at first because the basis of most people’s reason is the framework of their current thinking. And if one’s framework is not centered around God (it’s usually centered around the things and viewpoints of the world) then reason will not lead to God, it will just lead back to worldly conclusions.

        Basically, worldly premises lead to worldly conclusions. Godly premises lead to Godly conclusions. God’s view and the world’s view are vastly different. One either chooses God or the world.

        “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.”

        Like it or not, a choice needs to be made. If a person finds the concept of God to be loving, good, and desirable, choosing God works quite well as a choice. For those who don’t, the world works quite well as a choice.

        As I understand it, there actually is no middle ground.

        • Laurence

          Good reasoning simply does not get you to god. If your reasoning leads you to god, then you are reasoning poorly. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you are irrational, but it means that you are reasoning poorly in regards to this one question. There is only the world and no reason to think otherwise. If emotional games are required to get people to believe in god, then it’s a worthless position.

        • smrnda

          Here’s the problem, you’re using ‘worldly’ versus ‘Godly’ in the sense of ‘sensual versus spiritual’ which is just a fancy way of saying ‘good and bad.’ You’re not providing a judgment-free look at the reasoning process, and your not accurately representing the point of view of skeptics at all. Nobody is ‘serving the world’ as a master, they’re just taking the physical world to be what exists and using empirical evidence they find there. Your phrase ‘the world’ isn’t using the world in the sense of the impersonal physical universe, but the Christian-ese view of ‘the world’ as ‘something that isn’t spiritual.’

          If I take the physical universe and investigate it, I will not find god any more than I will find god in my coffee cup. (If I was a mystic and could find god in my coffee cup, then I could find anything there, and we might as well abandon all rational thought then and there.)

          Also, whether a concept is desirable or not has no bearing on whether or not it is valid, true, or possible, and honest reasoning is going to lead you to realize that many desirable things are not feasible. Internal combustion engines don’t operate at 100% efficiency. You can’t use just three colors and guarantee that no two adjacent zones in a map will not be the same color. So far, you can’t turn lead into gold (at least not to my knowledge.)

      • http://everythingnew.org Jeff Cook

        Truth.

  • http://everythingnew.org Jeff Cook

    James. Thanks for commenting on this.

    You wrote, “It is not enough to simply paint a rosy picture of a God people might like to believe in: it’s incumbent on the apologist, from an ethical perspective, to be sure their Logos is sturdy enough to rebut criticism.”

    The primary problem I have in advancing arguments like this, both in that debate and online, is that I am advancing ideas at the meta-level. I think that God-belief (or non-belief) is absolutely intwined with one’s on epistemology and metaphysical conclusions. As such, thinking begins with faith seeking understanding. I don’t know how you can possibly avoid this. If you then begin with “Logos” you have already either assumed or rejected God belief.

    You wrote, “The fact that your emotional campaign works better is no evidence that what you’re selling is a good product.”

    Of course. I am following the same strategy as Jesus (see the beginning of Sermon on the Mount) and painting a God worth believing in first, so that others might see that God as a worthy metaphysical starting point. It may be that intellectually–once assumed–there are anomalies that disprove that God, but if one doesn’t assume God-belief first, I find it doubtful they will ever be persuaded from a vantage point without God. What say you?

    You wrote, ” Furthermore, it would be highly unethical to hide from scrutiny aspects of your “product” which are less appealing simply because you want people to desire it – and there are lots of aspects of the Christian God which many have good reason to find unappealing.”

    And that is where the real ground of debate is.

    You wrote, “In the show I was not always convinced Cook was as scrupulous as he might be about these matters.”

    True. I performed badly. Not used to doing philosophy at 4am. :)
    Grace and Peace.

    • James Croft

      Hi Jeff! Thanks for stopping by! This might be worth exploring more fully sometime, because I don’t agree that one has to begin with either accepting or rejecting the God assumption. If you did have to do that, you would also have to see if you can make the opposite assumption (no God) and compare the outcome of the two world views. If you can’t do that you have no grounds for preferring your view over others. It would even be good to assume various polytheisms etc. and see how they turn out.

      I’m also, as a philosophical principle, very wary of basing my epistemology on unknowns when we have so many knows to draw from. I would suggest that it’s wiser to start with those elements of our experience which seem undeniable and work back to God, if possible, rather than found our epistemic exercise on what are essentially games of logic. If we can do without metaphysics entirely, so much the better.

      As for whether or not I can be convinced to take up God belief when I’m working currently without it, I doubt it. But that says little about my belief system and more about the absurdity of God: it is possible to construct beliefs so ridiculous that reasonable people will never accept them. I rather think God is one of those.

  • http://everythingnew.org Jeff Cook

    Hey James,

    You wrote, “I don’t agree that one has to begin with either accepting or rejecting the God assumption. If you did have to do that, you would also have to see if you can make the opposite assumption (no God) and compare the outcome of the two world views. If you can’t do that you have no grounds for preferring your view over others. It would even be good to assume various polytheisms etc. and see how they turn out.”

    I agree. I think God belief is one of many assumptions, but the practical benefits of God-belief–over other systems–I find favorable to things I care about (which is pretty much the only assessment mechanism we have at such levels).

    You wrote, “I’m also, as a philosophical principle, very wary of basing my epistemology on unknowns when we have so many knows to draw from.”

    What counts as “knowns” cannot help but be based on the epistemology you employ, ya?

    You wrote, “I would suggest that it’s wiser to start with those elements of our experience which seem undeniable and work back to God, if possible, rather than found our epistemic exercise on what are essentially games of logic. If we can do without metaphysics entirely, so much the better.”

    Note the presupposition–metaphysics is less valuable and ought to be cut. It seems to me, one cannot avoid metaphysics. Any claim about how knowledge is gained will be a claim that presupposes truths about reality itself.

    You wrote, “As for whether or not I can be convinced to take up God belief when I’m working currently without it, I doubt it.”

    Yep. Exactly my point in the debate, ya.

    You wrote, “But that says little about my belief system and more about the absurdity of God: it is possible to construct beliefs so ridiculous that reasonable people will never accept them. I rather think God is one of those.”

    So how do you establish such value judgments as “absurdity”, “ridiculousness” and “reasonable” if all that exists is matter in motion? (I’m assuming that’s where you are at. Correct me if you move beyond that).

    Much love.


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