On An Atheist and a Christian… and the Stretch of Good Dialogue

On An Atheist and a Christian… and the Stretch of Good Dialogue January 12, 2017

Photo by Tim Willson (via Randal Rauser)

Last month, I had the chance to do an interview with Justin Schieber and Randal Rauser, co-authors of the book An Atheist and a Christian Walk into a Bar. Doing the interview was very illuminating for me because it gave me a chance to see how Justin and Randal conduct their dialogues,¹ but I hadn’t then had the opportunity to read the book itself to see how they handle it in book form.

I’m happy to report that I’ve finally gotten to remedy that, and in many ways, the dialogue that Randal, Justin, and I had around their reasons for writing the book was a great introduction to the book. (If you haven’t read the book, I recommend going to the interview for a very small taste before continuing.)

Atheist-Christian-BookA brief caveat first: This is my review of the book as a whole, including a fair amount of commentary on the nature of the discussion itself rather than the particulars of the arguments put forth by each co-author. Most of the chapters involve a detailed back-and-forth around a specific topic, but I’m going to resist too much discussion of my personal opinion of those arguments and try to stick to general impressions. (I also want to be fair to both because I think there are high points for both in terms of putting forth strong arguments for their respective positions. I didn’t change my mind significantly, which is I think to be expected, but I also have no desire to be overly partisan in my evaluation.)

Readable, Rigorous, and A Bit Ridiculous

From a standpoint of accessibility, I think this book actually does quite a good job of making sure that the arguments don’t go too far into the weeds for a general audience. I consider myself sort of somewhere in the middle here between a complete layperson with no philosophical background and someone who is quite knowledgeable about the specific philosophical topics that Randal and Justin cover, but I think that someone with less familiarity with the issues wouldn’t be completely lost by the discussion. There is also helpful discussion at the beginning on the terms of the dialogue, especially how both would be treating theism (as classical theism, which is further defined in an early chapter).

At the same time, one important aspect of the dialogue is that it tries exceptionally hard to balance that accessibility, both in terms of writing and the specific arguments, with a rigor befitting the issues. (In fact, as I will argue below, that pressure to tackle these subjects rigorously created an interesting sort of tension in the dialogue.) Individuals who are familiar with some of the issues will be pleased to find that the book includes references to philosophers like Paul Draper and J.L. Schellenberg, as well as to a variety of other texts that help bolster various evidential arguments.

All of this was punctuated by a variety of witty (and not-so-witty) quips meant to keep the discussion from getting too serious or intense. (Both Justin and Randal stressed the importance of this approach to me in the aforementioned interview, and the book bears out their commitment to the dad joke.) There were even plenty of callbacks to previous quips and inside jokes; an analogy about faith involving a Sherpa resulted in Justin later exclaiming to Randal, “The Sherpa commands it!” (Like many inside jokes, it’s funnier in the right context.)

They even scandalously sneak a “your mom” joke into the repartee, to my shock.

As a result, I found much of the book very easy to get through, albeit harder to push through the further I got.

More Analogies Than You Can Shake a Stick At

One of the ways Randal and Justin were able to make semi-technical discussions of philosophical (and sometimes theological) issues accessible was through copious use of analogies. As longtime readers will know, I have a thing about metaphors, so I mostly enjoyed this.

Many of these were helpful, like the aforementioned Sherpa analogy put forth by Randal to illustrate when faith (in this case, trust) would be rationally justified or an extended landlord-tenant metaphor used by Justin to introduce his argument from massive theological disagreement. At other times, the discussion seemed to show the limitation of analogies to clarify points.

This was particularly clear in Chapter 5, in which Justin put forth an argument based on the hostility of the universe and the discussion for some time became a battle of analogies, with both participants concocting their own house-and-inhabitant metaphors to make their own points about whether the universe is really hospitable or inhospitable to life in ways that would make better sense on either theism or atheism (respectively).

The approach works in general, though, despite these pitfalls.

Better Remember to Stretch First

There’s one last point I want to make about the book that isn’t just about the book.

After our discussion about the book last month, Randal invited me to have a separate discussion about my work as a secular celebrant, I think in part out of a curiosity for what I do in that capacity. It gave me a chance to put myself a tiny bit in Justin’s shoes for the dialogues he continues to do with Randal, even since the book’s publication.

What I found very illuminating from that perspective is that Randal treated our discussion with a high degree of rigor as well, questioning me on how secular celebrants handle our functions in various life events and specifically whether or not our work could be fairly considered “religious.” (You can read my longer answer at the above link, but I argued that it isn’t, at least not in any strict sense.)

At times, I felt a certain sort of tension in the questions. In other contexts, I might even have interpreted some of the questions as more hostile than I think they were intended. Randal clearly wanted to explore the topic from a philosophical perspective, and had I expected anything else from the exchange — say, if I thought that Randal had a penchant for “gotcha” questions or had an ulterior motive to expose the idea of secular celebrants as philosophically vacuous — then I think that I might have been tempted to respond more tersely.

There are moments in …Walk into a Bar that feel a bit this way, especially as the book progresses, but they are generally fleeting and both Justin and Randal manage to pull back from them fairly quickly. The tension is there, and it’s even possible that there might be the occasional reader who sees in these moments a sort of animus that I don’t believe exists between the two.

I don’t think this is a bug. Serious dialogue requires us to stretch ourselves, both in terms of our understanding of deep subjects and our ability to entertain positions or arguments which might evoke strong feelings. This stretching contains the very real possibility of tension, since these disagreements are often quite profound. The ability to engage in rigorous argument requires intellectual discipline, but just the act of tackling deep-seated convictions demands a sort of flexibility that is seemingly becoming harder to find. It also requires trust — the “faith” of a good faith discussion.

Real dialogue isn’t just difficult because of our increasing polarization and divergences in identity and belief. It’s also difficult because of the habits and mindset that we must cultivate in order to do so.

To that effect, I think that the dialogue that Randal and Justin model in this book is a reflection of their commitment to open dialogue and intellectual engagement. Even if you think that the question at the core of classical theism is boring or think you’ve heard all the arguments — and the book does endeavor to tackle some less conventional ones — seeing how Big Ideas can be tackled without devolving into an intellectual fist-fight is worth the price of admission. If that’s a goal you share, I highly recommend this book for you.

And if you don’t yet share that goal, maybe this book will help convince you of the value of dialogue.

Photo by Tim Willson (via Randal Rauser)

¹ Given that Justin and I have met in person and Randal interviewed me about my secular celebrant work for his blog, it seems silly for me to refer to them by their last names, so I will abandon that convention for this post. ^

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