In case you’re new to this blog, I have a bit of a tendency to go on about dialogue.
So when I found out several months ago that atheist Justin Schieber (formerly of the excellent Reasonable Doubts podcast and currently of the also-excellent Real Atheology YouTube channel) and Christian theologian Randal Rauser (currently Professor of Historical Theology at Taylor Seminary in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada) were working on a book-length dialogue, I was immediately intrigued.
The book, cleverly entitled An Atheist and a Christian Walk Into a Bar: Talking About God, the Universe, and Everything, is already getting rave reviews, from topping the Amazon charts for philosophy and religion to being named one of December’s top 10 non-fiction new releases by Bustle.com.
Randal and Justin were kind enough to converse with me electronically about the book, their approach to dialogue, and the importance of bad jokes.
Galen: Randal, Justin, thanks for being willing to talk with me about your book. I’ve been fascinated by the project since I found out that you two were working together on it, and the reviews I’ve been hearing so far about it have been quite positive.
Let’s start from the beginning, though. The two of you have been both debate opponents and now, with this new book, partners in dialogue. What made you decide to approach this project as a conversation rather than a more formal exchange? Is there something to a dialogue that can’t be achieved as effectively in a more adversarial setting?
Randal: Galen, thanks for the opportunity to talk about this. I’ve done several formal debates in the past and they definitely have their place. That said, my perspective on them is decidedly mixed. As you may have heard, Oxford Dictionaries chose “post-truth” as their word of the year for 2016, and for good reason too. It seems like we’re in an age in which truth and evidence matter less than emotion and party loyalty. (For the evidence you need only look to this brutal election year.) In principle, a formal debate is supposed to cut through that by forcing opponents to present arguments and evidence in support of their views in a rigorously structured format. So you might think the debate format should be the arch-opponent of our post-truth culture.
But here’s the irony: over time I’ve come to the conclusion that more often than not, the formal debate has served to accelerate the drift toward a post-truth culture. And it does so precisely because it feeds the binary oppositions and blind party loyalties that have got us into this mess.
Justin: While I very much still enjoy a good formal debate, I can certainly see how formal debates can be interpreted as having contributed to the division. Much of the time, the participants entering formal debates do so with the same vigor as a sports team ready to publicly crush their opponent. While it’s something we’ve all been guilty of in some context or other, this attitude toward the exchange of ideas is toxic.
Randal: Entertaining, perhaps, but definitely toxic. Just consider the fact that by their nature debates discourage participants from admitting the weakness of their position or the strength of their opponent’s. Instead, a good debater is taught to use rhetorical methods in order to turn the debate around. And the audience typically goes away just thinking “their guy” won.
A friendly dialogue is very different. It is still concerned with arguments and evidence, very much so. But it sets aside the strait-jacket of a forced opposition in favor of an honest back-and-forth. And it reminds us that there is often truth to be found on both sides of an issue. It seems to me we need more of this perspective in an increasingly post-truth world.
Justin: With this book, Randal and I sought to have an honest, charitable and fair-minded conversation about the question of the very existence of the God of Western monotheism. I must admit that a real part of me sincerely believes that the degree to which we were successful (or unsuccessful) in achieving that end would have been largely unaltered had we chosen to write a more structured and formalized debate book.
It’s certainly true that an element of competitiveness seems baked right into the crust of most formally structured debates but I also think we’d be kidding ourselves if we were to suggest that even friendly dialogues beginning in the same profound disagreement don’t have a strong hue of competition. Unfortunately for us, human cognitive biases don’t go on vacation to Hawaii when we drop explicit competition in favor of a less-structured conversation on the same profound disagreement. As I see it, a greater determinant of the success of an exchange – formal or otherwise – is the ability or willingness of the participants to truly strive for fair-mindedness, charity, and good faith in their discourse. With all that said, I think writing the book in dialogue form allows a more authentic and ‘real-time’ reading experience than a book authored in essays to and fro.
Randal: Did you just commend good faith? Hey Justin, that’s awesome!
Justin: I did. Ironic wording aside, I think the sincerity and openness of the dialogue partners is essential for a successful and mutually-enjoyable exchange. Hopefully An Atheist and a Christian Walk into a Bar is seen as further attestation to that truth.
Randal: Amen to that.
Galen: Is something like this book then more about process than outcomes? It sounds to me like you both are realistic about the likelihood of swaying the other dramatically toward your respective positions.
Randal: I think it’s both. However, if the only acceptable outcome is changing your interlocutor’s position on the main question then you’re likely to be disappointed. It shouldn’t be surprising that there were no conversions or deconversions as a result of writing this book. However, there were still significant outcomes and I think we both changed in various ways through the exchange.
Justin: I think that’s correct, Galen. It’s less about the conclusions we reach or the minds we change and more about the quality of the inferences being employed and the sincerity of those involved. Sure, I’m still an atheist and Randal is still a theist. However, neither I nor Randal see this as a failure. In the book we discuss at length how rational disagreement is possible even on quite contentious issues. We also talk of the problems of judging the rationality of others based on the beliefs we hold. Issues in rationality and disagreement tend to be a bit more complicated than rank partisans care to learn.
Galen: I want to come back to the point you made, Randal, about our current “post-truth” landscape. Even though it would be difficult to argue that many of the underlying problems (like the cognitive biases you mention, Justin) are new, there does seem to be a sense of normalization to them, as though we aren’t even trying to collectively hold ourselves to higher standards. The solution that many people keep proposing is, of course, more and better dialogue.
As such, you must surely be aware that, as with any seemingly novel idea for the general public, there are going to be people looking for models for good dialogue. What aspects of the way you both handled the process do you think could be instructive, even if it may be more difficult for laypeople (so to speak) to engage in more rigorous or technical ways?
Randal: That’s a great question Galen. As I tell people, our goal was to write a book with good arguments and some bad jokes too. I take it the importance of good arguments is self-explanatory. As for including moments of levity, whether funny or not, the point is to remind us constantly that we can disagree without being disagreeable. You should be able to think another person is really wrong about something without getting defensive or angry or condescending.
Justin: In the heat of the conversation though, avoiding being disagreeable isn’t always easy. Given that we were attempting to model a successful real-world conversation, I’m glad we gave a nod to the utility of the occasional cheesy one-liner. Sometimes injecting the occasional dad-joke is a valuable strategy for those of us looking to keep tensions in check so that we can reorient ourselves toward the goal of the conversation.
Randal: A few years ago the late conservative Supreme Court judge Antonin Scalia was interviewed on 60 Minutes and he was asked about his famously warm relationship with his social progressive colleague on the court, Justice Ginsburg. Scalia explained: “I attack ideas. I don’t attack people. And some very good people have some very bad ideas. And if you can’t separate the two, you gotta get another day job. You don’t want to be a judge. At least not a judge on a multi-member panel.” That’s a good reminder for all of us. Whether you’re a judge on the Supreme Court or you’re in a bar debating the existence of God, limit your critique to the ideas. And if some bad puns help you do that, all the better!
Galen: Even if you each have no illusions about converting the other entirely, I would have to imagine that you are hoping that readers, despite their own biases, will be able to learn from the exchange. What do you each hope that readers from the “other side” will take away?
Randal: I’d say three things. First, reasonable people can disagree about all sorts of things, and the existence of God is one of them. Second, the question of God’s existence is an important one and it is well worth discussing. And finally, in light of my first two points, it’s worth your time to find another reasonable person with whom you disagree on this topic and having your own dialogue. In fact, I’ve already heard of atheists and Christians who are reading our book together and using it as a catalyst for their own dialogues and debates. I think that’s pretty cool.
Justin: I only have one addition to Randal’s three points and it has to do with the arguments themselves. While the arguments we discuss are not brand new, at least a few of them on each side are definitely not the standard arguments found in your usual introduction to the God debate. I think some readers will find that somewhat refreshing. That was an intentional move we made very early on and I’m glad we did so.
An Atheist and a Christian Walk Into a Bar will be out from Prometheus Books on December 6 (that’s tomorrow if you’re reading this today!). Be sure to check it out. Maybe it will inspire your own conversations.
Photo by Tim Willson (via Randal Rauser)