Randal Rauser’s and Justin Schieber’s new book (released tomorrow), An Atheist and a Christian Walk into a Bar…: Talking about God, the Universe, and Everything (Prometheus, $18), is a welcome entry into the field of Christian/Atheist dialogue. Formatted as a series of back and forth exchanges between the authors, An Atheist and a Christian Walk into a Bar sets out to model productive, irenic, and substantive conversation between these two opposing worldviews.
Inspired by the format of the book and its commitment to “pursuing and knowing the truth” by means of a conversation that is “friendly, rigorous, honest, and directed at the truth,” I asked my friend Nick Bradford, an atheist and Christopher Hitchens devotee, to read the book along with me and discuss our thoughts about it.
Dan: So tell me Nick, did the airtight logic and vivid philosophical illustrations provided by Randal persuade you to jump ship and become a theist?
Nick: Well Dan, it seems we might have read two different books. I will say it was a good read, but I am not so sure “airtight” is the word I would use. “God-of-the-gaps” is really what comes to mind.
Dan: God-of-the-Gaps, huh? Care to elaborate on what you mean by that?
Nick: Sure! The chapter on morality was where this problem was most noticeable. Randal inserted the possibility of a god into every gap, nook, cranny, and blank space there was in that chapter. He did a good job of poking small holes in Justin’s arguments, but all he did with those holes was try and fill them with god. I was impressed with his ability to poke the holes, but not so much with his assumption that those gaps must have a god in them.
Dan: I actually thought the chapter on morality was Justin’s weakest. It seems to me that the moral position Justin defends (desirism) simply doesn’t offer a substantive grounding for moral obligation. And while you saw Randal finding God in every gap in Justin’s arguments, I saw plenty of deference to things like mystery and the unknown propping up those same arguments.
Nick: I don’t consider mystery and the unknown as things that move me closer to believing in a god. For me, the vast amount we don’t know about the universe merely serves as a reminder that I can’t prove that there isn’t god.
Dan: I don’t know anyone who claims they can prove there is or isn’t a God. At best, we hope to show that some features of our world are a better fit with theism or atheism.
By the way, my cat seemed to really like the book:
Nick: My dog enjoyed it too:
Dan: Randal and Justin have been criticized for debating about the God of classical theism, rather than a conception of God that might align with a more popular view. Do you have a problem with that definition of God, that is: “a necessarily existent non-physical agent who is omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly good”?
Nick: Their definition of god did catch my attention. I don’t really know if they debated the proper god. I think it was a reasonable definition to stick with, since it’s what’s consistent with Christianity. It’s the “non-physical” part that I take issue with. I think pantheism is a more logical position, but that moves the debate in an entirely different direction.
Dan: I suppose any definition of God is open to critique, especially from those who don’t believe God, by any definition, exists. You raise a good point about pantheism though, or other non-atheistic worldviews. Maybe someone will write a booked called “An Atheist, a Christian and a Pantheist Walk into a Bar.” Why do you think Pantheism is more logical than Christianity?Nick: That’s simple: there is no reason to believe in the supernatural. If you or Randal are perceiving a god, we have no evidence that this god isn’t just sending out vibes on a physical level. I have a problem with treating the idea of god like Christians have treated the mentally ill: that if we don’t understand how something works, it must be magic. Why do Christians who believe in the possibility of string theory, dark matter, or even just in the existence of the cosmos think that we must invent the supernatural in order to explain religious feelings? Everything we know about is part of the physical word, so why is god different? As a non-believer, it feels like it’s just another way to try and make religion feel more special than it is.
But despite these disagreements, it’s important to remember that the intent of the book is to show that two people with different views really can have an adult conversation that is intellectual and entertaining. Though I have to say, the title is a bit deceptive: I didn’t see a defense of Christianity. What’s the point of an atheist and Christian walking into a bar if the Christian part is never really dealt with?
Dan: You’re right that the book doesn’t deal with specifically Christians issues, but I think the discussion about the broader metaphysical issues surrounding the existence of God is still an important one. You have to start somewhere–if the very idea of God is thought to be incoherent, irrational, or implausible, then debating Christianity becomes irrelevant.
Nick: I pointed out the title because I thought I was going to get to channel my inner Christopher Hitchens and deliver a rhetorical smackdown. What I got instead was a book that was far more restrained in its approach. That isn’t bad, it’s just not what I expected.
Dan: All of the debates in the book ended in an amicable stalemate—and it seems our discussion here likely will too. Do you think there’s anything productive to be gained from a book like this, or from atheist/Christian debates in general, when, more often than not, each side walks away unpersuaded?
Nick: The value of this book, at least for people who have already reached a reasonable conclusion about the existence of god, is that it reminds us to keep looking around and keep being friends. For readers on the fence about these issues, the book won’t give them answers, but it does provide tools to move forward. Randal and Justin do a good job debating faith in a way that shows it’s a subject worthy of serious intellectual pursuit. If someone’s only ever been exposed to Richard Dawkins or a crazed evangelical, then it might come as a surprise that two people on opposite sides of such contentious issues can engage with each other so thoughtfully. Our debates about God and Christianity are one of the reasons I haven’t joined the militant atheist team. Hopefully this book will help others stay similarly grounded.
Dan: Great summary of the book … in that regard we agree completely!
Update: Randal responds here: An Atheist and a Christian Dialogue Review of An Atheist and a Christian Walk into a Bar.
Nick lives in Northwestern Montana. He likes 80s and 90s hip hop, well filtered vodka, and hiking with his dog.