“I Just Believe in One Less God Than You Do”–Or Not

atheism-believing-in-one-less-god-than-you-age-quoteIn the spirit of recycling (and nostalgia), I’ve rifled through old conversations I’ve saved from my pre-blogging, internet correspondence to see if there’s anything serviceable. One dialogue in particular found me channeling Tim Keller on the subject of idolatry. One chap, an aggressive atheist of the Dawkinsian sort, was challenging me on my juvenile belief in God and trotted out the now-famous quote among the New Atheist set:

“I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.”

–Stephen H. Roberts

After giving a lengthy list of reasons I have for believing in God, I addressed the quote (grammar:

At this point, I would like to address your quote. I think the question is not whether or not you believe in one less god than I do. I think the reality of the situation is that irrespective of the particular propositions we affirm, we both worship gods. The difference between you and I is that I’ve chosen the Christian one and that in all likelihood, you remain oblivious to the nature of yours.

Let me explain what I mean.

Functionally-speaking, everybody has a “god”, even if they don’t have a “religion.” You have something that you’ve placed at the center of your life that gives it direction, meaning, purpose, and value. You devote your time, energy, love, and affection to this thing as if it were the most central thing in the universe. That, in the monotheistic traditions, is what is called an idol. It is a god-substitute. The point isn’t whether or not you will worship a god. The point is “which god will you worship?”

The Christian claim is that if you match Jesus up with any other god, he wins all day, every day, and (of course) twice on Sundays. So, if you match Jesus up with the most common American god, Money, Jesus wins. Jesus is totally better than money. Money never satisfies. It never delivers what it promises. You can work for it, slave for it, sacrifice everything at the altar for (like your time, relationships, children, marriage, health) and in the end, even when you get it, it lets you down. You keep needing more and more and it never fills that gap. Also, if you don’t get it, if you fail your god, the crushing despair you feel can’t be relieved. Money doesn’t forgive you. When money is your god, being poor is a sin and you’re gonna have a hard time working that off of your soul.

In any case, money can be devalued, can be lost (think market crash in 2008), and, in the end, will distort your soul if you make it the ultimate thing in your life. Jesus ,on the other hand, well, he’s not going anywhere. He doesn’t accept you based on your performance, but by grace, loving you despite all your flaws. He forgives you when you fail. He delivers on what he promises. I could go on of hours, but you kinda get the point. Jesus > Money. Name anything else, even really good things, (Jesus > relationships, Jesus > your personal freedom, Jesus > sex, Jesus > power, Jesus > fame, Jesus > stuff, Jesus > a career, Jesus > status, Jesus > being a rockstar, etc.), and Jesus wins every time.

And remember, you already worship something. You build your sense of self on something. Something is already your god. I don’t know what your particular god is, but I know you have one. The question is whether or not you recognize it, and how well does it match up against the God revealed in Jesus Christ. That is why I think Mr. Robert’s quote, while being trivially true at the purely propositional level, is fundamentally wrong.

A few years on, I would probably adjust tone and my specific elaboration, and yet the fundamental point still holds. The world isn’t divided up between believers and non-believers, worshippers and non-worshippers–we all believe and we all worship. The fundamental difference is the object of our belief and worship–Jesus, or something else.

Soli Deo Gloria

On Making Key Distinctions in Polemics (Or, Richard Dawkins Isn’t the Only Atheist Out There)

Why? Because Tigers, that's why. Also, no good images for 'polemics.'

Why? Because Tigers, that’s why. Also, no good images for ‘polemics.’

I’ve written about intellectual honesty in polemics before over at Mere Orthodoxy where I argued that as Christians we ought to be principled in our engagement with positions with which we disagree:

We should strive to deal honorably, speak honestly, and actively avoid unfair caricatures and cheap shots in our polemical engagements. Whenever arguing against a position we ought to represent our interlocutors accurately, fairly, and charitably. In other words, don’t purposely take the dumbest interpretation of any statement they make and argue against that. That’s just dishonest.

Later, in a post on the issue of self-criticism within the Reformed tradition, I noted the sad fact that sometimes you will find pastors and theologians who actually fit the caricatures that are often criticized. When that happens, the distorted, unfaithful, sub-biblical versions of doctrines and teachings need to be corrected directly and forthrightly:

For instance, not every Calvinistic or Reformed pastor reads Kevin Vanhoozer, or preaches like Tim Keller, or articulates doctrine with the care and sensitivity of a Michael Horton. My own experience of the Reformed world has taken place in the context of a gently conservative Presbyterian church with caring, faithful, and sensitive pastors, but much as I hate to admit it, the reality is that some Reformed bodies are real-life, walking caricatures of the tradition I hold dear. Just as Wesleyan or Baptistic theologies can go off the rails in serious ways, so can churches and theologies with putatively Reformed roots. When that is the only expression of Reformed faith someone encounters, distaste for the whole stream is quite understandable. Sometimes the caricatures have human faces.

That said, I wanted to briefly return to the issue of polemics and caricatures formalize a couple of suggestions on how to criticize in a careful, intellectually-honest fashion. In essences, it’s a matter of establishing what you’re trying to do:

Inherently Bad Doctrines – There will be those instances when you undertake the task of criticizing a doctrine which you find inherently bad and utterly irredeemable in all its forms. In that case, your job is not to simply find the easiest, dumbest version of the doctrine to criticize, but the best, most nuanced, and persuasive version that doctrine that you can. When I read Thomas Weinandy’s defense of impassibility in Does God Suffer? I was impressed by his early chapter laying out the arguments against impassibility. By the end of it, I was wondering how he was going to dig himself out because he’d presented the case of his opponents better than most of them had (he did, though.) In the same way, strive to present the arguments of your opponents in terms they would be prepared to recognize and own, before you proceed to criticize it.

Distorted Versions – In the second case, there will be times when you’re not attempting to take down a doctrine wholesale, but particular versions, possibly popular and prevalent understandings, that you find inadequate. In those cases, as I noted above, add some caveats such as “in some versions”, “in this rendering”, “in it’s popular form”, “while not all proponents would frame it this way”, and then criticize away. If I launch off on “pacifists” in general, or “dispensationalists”, or “atheists”, (not that these are at all in the same category) when in fact it is only some, or the worst forms, that are guilty of whatever mistake I’m talking about, I’ve been deeply uncharitable towards those who are not. In other words, Richard Dawkins is not the only atheist out there. While it’s fine and important to criticize him, especially given the weight so many pop atheist fanboys give him, it’s unfair to all the very thoughtful, intellectually serious ones out there. 

This may all seem a bit nit-picky, but honesty and charity in our criticisms is a practical way we can work towards unity in the body, as well as put into practice Jesus’ commands to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Soli Deo Gloria

Book Review- A Shot of Faith (to the Head): Be a Confident Believer in an Age of Cranky Atheists by Mitch Stokes

Mitch Stokes. A Shot of Faith (to the Head): Be a Confident Believer in an Age of Cranky Atheists. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2012. 252 pp. $16.99. ($11.35 on Amazon)

In the last few years, with the rise of the New Atheism, authors like Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens have made popular Christian apologetics popular again. A veritable cottage industry of “responses” and rejoinders have been churned out by top-notch scholars (and some hacks too) either presenting arguments for Christianity or attempting to dismantle the claims of the New Atheists. While a number of these books are well-written and quite valuable, none of them quite accomplish what Mitch Stokes’ has in his recent work, A Shot of Faith to the Head: Be A Confident Believer in an Age of Cranky Atheists.  

He Knows What He’s Doing

What makes this book different? The key is that Stokes knows what he’s doing and, more importantly, what he isn’t. So often works of apologetics try to cover everything and don’t end up adequately covering anything.  Stokes knows better. He’s narrowed his focus, honed in on the key issues, and goes to work on them in a humorous, engaging, and readable fashion. What are those issues? The relationship between faith and reason, science, and the problem of evil.

Stokes is particularly qualified to tackle these. Before taking up his position as the Senior Fellow of Philosophy at New St. Andrews in Moscow, Idaho he got his MA in religion at Yale under Nicholas Wolterstorff, then went on to get his Ph.D. at Notre Dame under Alvin Plantinga and Peter Van Inwagen. No big deal–just three of the foremost philosophers of religion alive. And, if that weren’t enough,  prior to entering the philosophy game, he got an MS in mechanical engineering. The man knows what he’s talking about.

Introducing Reformed Epistemology–You’re Welcome

One way of describing Stokes’ project is translating Alvin Plantinga for everybody. Plantinga, while being, in my opinion, the most brilliant Christian philosopher working in the analytic tradition today, has not gone out of his way to make his philosophical genius widely accessible to the general reader. Don’t get me wrong, I think he’s hilarious and pretty clear as far as analytic philosophers go. Let’s be honest though, the average layman or pastor won’t take the time to read all 500 pages of Warranted Christian Belief  even if it’s worth it (which it is). Stokes takes the best of the Reformed epistemological approach developed by Plantinga and Wolterstorff (don’t worry, you don’t have to be a Calvinist to buy into it) applied to various issues in philosophy over the last 40 years and condenses it into short, winsome, witty, and clearly laid-out chapters uncluttered with small print or symbolic logic.  He also includes helpful “For Your Arsenal” summary points at the back of each chapter for easy recall of the information.

This isn’t to say that he merely repeats Plantinga, or offers nothing new–he does, especially the way he frames the discussion historically, concretely grounding these ideas in conversation with Hume and Locke on down to W.V.O. Quine. Still, even if translating Plantinga were all he did, this would be crucial because in engaging with both believers and unbelievers with the Gospel over the last couple of years, I’ve come to realize that the issue of epistemology is one that is too often ignored, or simply botched in most popular works on apologetics even though it lies at the root of so many of these discussions. By focusing his sights on the epistemological questions, Stokes really is aiming to give readers a “shot of faith to the head.”

So how does he actually do it? Stokes starts out by explaining and debunking the evidentialist objection to belief in God, that there isn’t sufficient evidence to “prove” he exists. He shows that, in fact, evidentialism is self-defeating–some beliefs must be basic, taken without reasons or evidence, otherwise reasoning itself cannot get off the ground. In fact, he pushes on to show that a demand for arguments and “reasons” for all of our beliefs, actually leads us to the conclusion that atheism itself is self-defeating. In place of the rationalism and evidentialism so commonly assumed by skeptics, Stokes proposes an alternative definition for what it means for a belief to be rational, that it is the product of “properly-functioning cognitive faculty operating in the appropriate environment” (read as good thinking equipment), like sense-perception, memory, and reason; this is a Reidian, reliabilist approach to epistemology as recovered and retooled by Plantinga and others. Stokes goes on to show that belief by way of testimony, or faith, is actually another valid way of coming by our beliefs, and that it is perfectly rational to believe in God by way faith, testimony, or “taking God at his word.”  Pressing a bit further, Stokes makes the very Plantingan point that if the “Christian epistemic story” is true, then the Christian can believe in God in a way that is basic and rational. Basically, in order to show that faith is irrational, you have to prove Christianity false first.

Now, none of these considerations means that he discounts reason or even the arguments for the existence of God–he actually has a very helpful “intermission” section dealing with the nature of the arguments and the problem of the burden of proof. Instead, Stokes shows that these arguments are helpful in supplementing faith and in dealing with “defeater” beliefs.

Defeaters and Highlights

What’s a “defeater”? A defeater is basically a reason to ditch a belief we gained previously in light of new evidence to the contrary, or that casts suspicion on the way we arrived at our belief. This is why Stokes moves on from his general discussion on faith and reason to consider the two main defeater beliefs for God out there today: science and the problem of evil.

I won’t review these two sections extensively, but some highlights include:

  • Helpful corrections of the historical record when it comes to the “history of the warfare between science and religion.” (Stokes has written short biographies of both Galileo and Newton so he’s well-equipped to handle this.)
  • A good discussion of the difference between the unnecessary “god of the Gaps” who intervenes from time to time to fix things that science can’t figure out and the God of the Bible who supervenes over and upholds the created order.
  • A much-needed guide to distinguishing between methodological naturalism, philosophical naturalism, and the scientific provincialism that convinces so many that accepting the former is predicated by the latter.
  • A fascinating historical and philosophical analysis of the rise of science, the way science actually proceeds, and how theism gives us confidence to engage in scientific study given belief in the Image of God and the rationality of a universe created by God.
  • Numbers. Stokes has an absorbing discussion on the nature of numbers that made even a math-hater like me wonder at the beauty of a mathematically-ordered universe–and how bizarre the existence of such a one truly is unless the world was created by a rational God.
  • A clean introduction into the “problem of evil” discussion that’s been going on in academic philosophy since the 1960s.
  • Short, but clear, Plantingan responses to both the logical and the probabilistic versions of the problem of evil, using both the Free Will Defense with respect to the logical, and a sober reflection on the epistemological limitations of finite thinkers in relation to the probabilistic.
  • A theistic turning of the tables, using the insights of the moral argument to point out that, without God, there is no absolute, moral standard, in which case the objection from evil can’t even get off the ground.
  • A bold statement of the uncommon yet undeniably appealing O Felix Culpa (Happy Fault) theodicy. (I won’t blow the surprise for you.)

Conclusions 

To sum up: Mitch Stokes has done the church a great service with this book.  By making available some of the best insights of the Christian community’s academic philosophers, believers who read this can be humbly confident that their faith in the Gospel is not blind, irrational, or illegitimate. Rather, it is in fact capable of standing up to the fiercest intellectual objections. I highly recommend this book to doubting believers, inquisitive skeptics, and especially pastors who want to be able to lovingly and persuasively commend the Gospel to the both groups.

Soli Deo Gloria

I’m an Unbeliever

Atheist biologist Richard Dawkins is fond of pointing out that Christians are all atheists of sorts. We are atheists with respect to Zeus, Thor, Marduk, and a whole host of other gods. At that point he likes to quote Stephen Roberts to the effect that he just believes in one less god than we do. One of the main points of this observation is that once you realize how silly believing in Zeus is, you’ll realize the silliness of believing in Jesus. Cute.

The other point I see being made is that the atheism/theism debate is about belief in a certain proposition: does God exist. The theist does and the atheist just doesn’t. There’s just a proposition’s difference between them and the theist is the one who has to justify his acceptance of said proposition. The problem is that this picture is too simple. Rarely do we simply “disbelieve” in something. Atheist’s minds do not have a blank space where the “theism” belief supposedly resides in the mind of the believer. No, it is filled–with something else. It’s not just believing in Christianity or disbelieving it. It’s believing something else instead.

See, in a sense, we all live by creeds.  A creed is a summary statement that encapsulates our deepest-held, foundational beliefs about reality and the world. We all have them, even if we’ve never made them explicit. Put another way, sociologists tell us that we tell ourselves stories, understand ourselves at very deep levels as actors in some drama, starting with the small, personal ones like “I am Derek, son of Arliett and Tino, born such and such, grew up in so and so, now married, living in Orange, and working towards future X”.  This is a short narrative understanding of myself. We usually fit these into broader narrative understandings such as Buddhism, Islam, Marxism, or Christianity that tell us big-picture stories about who we are, how we got here, and where were going. It’s inevitable.

Because of this, we are all living according to alternative creeds. The Christian recites the Apostles’ Creed, but she doesn’t do so in a vacuum. Rather, she does so in contrast with the other creeds on offer. It is those creeds which I find incredible and in particular, the dominant, competing creed that has been offered up as a substitute–that of the Enlightenment.

A Unbelievable Creed

Philosopher Peter Van Inwagen’s delightful essay outlining his journey from atheism to Christianity, Quam Dilecta has a very helpful description of the creed of the Enlightenment.

There is, I believe, an identifiable and cohesive historical phenomenon that named itself the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, and which, although it long ago abandoned the name, still exists. Like the Church, it does not speak with one voice. Like the Church, it has no central government. Like the Church, it is made up of many groups some of which heartily detest many of the others–some of which, indeed, regard themselves as its sole true representatives and all others who claim to be its representatives as wolves in sheep’s clothing. Like the Church, it has a creed, although, unlike the Church’s creeds, its creed has never received an official formulation. But that is a minor point. Its creed can be written down, and here it is:

There is no God. There is, in fact, nothing besides the physical cosmos that science investigates. Human beings, since they are a part of this cosmos, are physical things and therefore do not survive death. Human beings are, in fact, animals among other animals, and differ from other animals only in being more complex. Like other animals, they are a product of uncaring and unconscious physical processes that did not have them, or anything else, in mind. There is, therefore, nothing external to humanity that is capable of conferring meaning or purpose on human existence. In the end, the only evil is pain and the only good is pleasure. The only purpose of morality and politics is the minimization of pain and the maximization of pleasure. Human beings, however, have an unfortunate tendency to wish to deny these facts and to believe comforting myths according to which they have an eternal purpose. This irrational component in the psyches of most human beings–it is the great good fortune of the species that there are a few strong-minded progressives who can see through the comforting myths–encourages the confidence-game called religion. Religions invent complicated and arbitrary moral codes and fantastic future rewards and punishments in order to consolidate their own power. Fortunately, they are gradually but steadily being exposed as frauds by the progress of science (which was invented by strong-minded progressives), and they will gradually disappear through the agency of scientific education and enlightened journalism.”

Van Inwagen goes on to concede that there are various Enlightenment denominations (Marxist, Positivist, New Atheist) who would object that he’s left something crucial out. At its core though, this complex is central to all of them.

It is this creed that I find myself unable to subscribe to for a number of reasons too large to expound here. I will simply point out that any sort of optimism about the human condition in light of the history of the 20th Century has always struck me as farcical. The idea that science and reason (whatever that last term actually means) can actually deliver anything close to a utopia, or even a decent place to live is a fairy tale. Studying almost entirely secular moral philosophy in college had the interesting effect of convincing me that prospects of finding any sort of viable, normative moral system connected with naturalism, (ie. absent the divine, or a transcendent order), is similarly risible. Once again, I commend Van Inwagen’s essay, the second half of which is devoted to showing why he finds this creed untenable.

Where am I going with this? 

I’d be lying if I were to tell you that I never find Christianity difficult and hard to accept. It has moral codes that are uncomfortable, both because they are personally hard to follow, as well as because they are socially unacceptable. Reading the Bible is weird sometimes. I mean, really? Bears? (2 Kings 2:23-25) I look out at the world filled with evil and horror, and even though I’ve read a lot of good answers on the subject, it’s still hard to stomach that God is good while he allows these things. I could go on for a while listing the difficulties. I’m sure you have a number of your own.

Still, when I look to the alternatives I find that while Christianity is tough sometimes, the competing options on offer are just impossible to swallow. At those times, I feel like Winston Churchill when speaking of democracy in the House of Commons:

“Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

Please don’t misunderstand me–I think there are good, positive reasons to believe in Jesus. I have to admit though, one of the main ones is the fact I find the other options simply unbelievable.

Update and clarification: There apparently has been some confusion as to the point of his post. Please do not take this as a denigration of either reason or science. As a Christian I believe as humans made in the Image of the Creator God have been endowed with reason and given an impulse towards the exploration and study of nature. Rather, it is a rejection of a rationalism and scientism. Those are two different things. I have a healthy respect for and appreciation of the deliverances of reason and the advances of science while recognizing their limits and the dangers of misunderstanding their role and function in human life.