On April 15th God or Godless, a book of twenty short debates that I wrote with atheist John W. Loftus, will be released on an unsuspecting population. In recognition of the book’s impending release — and the cataclysmic social impact that is sure to follow — I decided to invite John into a brief conversation. I have included the conversation below and, in keeping with my tradition, I have rendered my guest’s comments in red.
Randal: “John, thanks for agreeing to do this interview. Let me jump to the first question everybody is asking: what would lead you to take on such a formidable opponent as Randal Rauser? Didn’t you worry that his acumen would destroy your reputation or were you banking on the assumption that he would show you mercy?”
John: Well, you’re funny that’s for sure. I figured I could at least be the straight man in your comedian routine. I’m happy to report you lived up to your role too. I found myself shaking my head as I was chuckling at your arguments many times. One time it was so funny I even fell off my chair.
Randal: “Ouch. I hope you didn’t hurt yourself. Anyway, this book is a fascinating exchange of twenty short debates. What I like about it (apart from the fact that I wrote half of it) is that it can be read in short bursts with sharp and to-the-point exchanges. But how about you give an even briefer exchange for us here. Imagine that you’ve got two minutes in an elevator with a Christian. What would you say to them to try and dissuade them from their Christian convictions?”
John: My head is still hurting. What would I say? I think your idea of twenty short debates was ingenious, something unique when compared to other debate books. I’d tell them the book is like a bathroom reader, you know, the kind where one short debate can be read while on the pot. It’s also like a suppository. While sitting there and reading it their faith will ooze out of them at the same time. So I merely have to tell them to read it. That’s good enough.
Let me return the favor with a question of my own. I hear you don’t think non-believers are crazy so risking a dialogue with them is worth it. Why do you think that? Do you still think that after co-writing this book?
Randal: I must admit that I’m taken aback by the question. Imagine if my response to disagreements in politics or economics or sports was to refuse to engage in dialogue with those who held differing opinions. That would be the perfect way to become an insular dogmatist. The danger is no less when it comes to one’s philosophical and theological views. The Christian or atheist who never engages in serious dialogue with people of very different convictions is in danger of ending up with a closed and insular worldview. And when that happens people often end up dismissing others who disagree with them as being either cognitively deficient (i.e. stupid or ignorant) or morally deficient (i.e. wicked). So dismissing others in this way can be a way to restore equilibrium by reassuring oneself “I really am right after all.”
Admittedly it can be disconcerting to recognize that intelligent and thoughtful people can reach different conclusions about the nature of reality, but that’s just the way things are, so we might as well get used to it. And that means engaging in honest dialogue and debate.
Now even as I say all this I recognize that you have a track record of dismissing the Christians who disagree with you as delusional. Do you still hold that view or can you recognize that reasonable people can disagree with you on the question of God?
John: The question is a good one since, as I think you would agree, many Christians think atheists are crazy perverts. You are the exception and that’s a good thing. I wanted you to speak to them about this.
Actually I think anyone who disagrees with me is wrong, and sometimes even delusional when the evidence is overwhelming against what they believe. When I say Christians are delusional on some occasions it’s actually part of the dialogue since it does have its minimal effects. Other times it’s due to my frustration at trying to penetrate the believer’s impenetrable mind. Surely it can’t be because my arguments aren’t persuasive, so they must have the problem.
In any case, when I say this I’m not saying that Christians have any psychological malaise. They most emphatically do think rationally most of the time, even when it comes to their faith. Having accepted their faith as a foundation, it’s rational to conclude, as Pat Robertson does, that national disasters are God’s judgment for our sins. The problem isn’t that his utterly ignorant conclusion isn’t rational. The problem is his faith. His faith is irrational. It’s also rational for Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church to argue that “God hates fags.” The problem isn’t that their utterly ignorant conclusion isn’t rational. The problem is their faith. Their faith is irrational. The establishment of the Inquisition was a rational action taken by the Catholic Church. The Church believed heresy was a leavening influence in society and, as such, was the worst crime of all. It could send others to hell. So they concluded that heretics must die. The problem wasn’t that their utterly ignorant conclusion wasn’t rational. It was their faith. Their faith is irrational. Once you agree with me about these examples then you can see why this is what I see in other cases of faith.
Tell me, was there any time in our book where something I wrote produced any doubt in you at all? If not, why not? If so, what was it? What would you say are the most troubling issues I wrote about?
Randal: I’ve taught at a seminary for a decade and I’ve grown up in the church, and while there is no doubt that Christians often view atheists derisively (as atheists do Christians), I can’t recall hearing the charge that atheists are “crazy perverts”. This is not to say that you can’t find Christians who might say such a thing, just like you can find atheists who say horrid things about Christians. There is more than enough name-calling to go around.
You say you think anybody who disagrees with you is wrong. Fair enough. I think the same about the beliefs I hold (which is why I hold them, namely because I think they’re true). But I also recognize that of the many things I believe an indeterminate number of them are false. And that is as true of my theological and philosophical beliefs as it is of my economic and political beliefs. We are fallible beings after all. This recognition should create a degree of humility in me and a recognition for the value of ongoing dialogue as a means through which I can begin to discern some of those errors. I hope you have the same humility about your beliefs, including your beliefs about atheism.
You mention frustration at failing to “penetrate the believer’s impenetrable mind”. Here’s a great example of a point where you might begin to use the occasion of dialogue as a spotlight to illumine the inner recesses of your own belief. Is it at least possible that people aren’t persuaded by a claim you’re making because your arguments are not that good? Is this even an option? I worry that you don’t seriously consider it an option, but you should. There are many Christians much brighter than you (as there are atheists brighter than me) and that recognition should, at the very least, inculcate in the both of us a sense of humility about our grip on things.
Once you get to the point of granting a little more charity to the starting points of your interlocutor, perhaps you can then recognize that people might not only be reasonable internally with respect to a set of starting assumptions (assumptions which you consider to be absurd), but maybe even those starting assumptions are not unreasonable based on all the other things a person knows and believes. Of course this would place you in the fearsome position of having to set aside your protectionist rhetoric that attributes sweeping cognitive delusion and irrationality to your interlocutor. But the trade-off you gain of greater understanding is worth it.
Now let’s turn to your question. Did your arguments produce any doubt in me? No, sorry, you failed in that regard. But don’t take it too hard. After all, I spend a significant portion of my waking hours thinking about these very issues, so it should not be too surprising that you are not going to come up with any devastating zingers in the short compass of a book like this.
This is not to say that you didn’t put on a good show. Indeed, you did. As I said in the conclusion to the book, you presented a deflationary atheistic view of the world with admirable clarity, verve, and a willingness to bite the existential bullet of your own beliefs. If people want to get a breezy and suitably punchy introduction to atheism they could do no better than your arguments in God or Godless.
But wait a minute, I thought this was my interview. So let me reassert my prerogative with one final question. You sidestepped my question above about the elevator speech. So let me pose the question again differently. What is the one thing, above all else, that you think should keep thoughtful Christians up at night?
John: First, thanks for the kudos. I appreciate that. I’m glad I didn’t let you down. Let me echo what you said of me. If people want to get a breezy and suitably punchy introduction to the best that Christianity has to offer they could do no better than your arguments in God or Godless.
I can answer your last question by giving our readers a little of what they can expect to find in our book, healthy, robust, intelligent disagreement.
I know I accept some propositions that are false, just as you do. There is a difference that makes all the difference between us though. Precisely because I know this I need sufficient evidence and sound reasoning about said evidence whenever consciously examining them, before I’ll assent to them. So I am the more humble person here. I think doubt is the adult attitude, the humble attitude, when examining any proposition. I am an atheist precisely because I’ve adopted this humble attitude. So as a non-believer I don’t have any beliefs about ultimate reality at all, for to have them I must positively assent to a proposition about ultimate reality. I try to think exclusively in terms of the probabilities about such matters. Faith goes beyond them in every case.
What I’m doing in our book is simply expressing doubt about the things you believe. The reason I accepted your proposal to co-write it was to help convince believers who think they have the truth, the whole truth, to doubt their certainties. I didn’t expect to convince you. My focus is on the problem of massive ubiquitous suffering for the God of the Bible, and the God that evolved out of it down though the centuries in the hands of theologians like yourself. So if anything, what should keep Christians up at night? As Christian philosopher Dr. James F. Sennett said before me, it is this particular problem. I think it is about as close to an empirical refutation of Christianity as is possible.
Randal: Interesting. Well I guess folks can read what I think of your views of faith and the problem of evil in God or Godless. For now let me just observe that your claim that you don’t have any beliefs about “ultimate reality” is itself a belief about ultimate reality, and thus the claim is self-defeating.
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You can order God or Godless on the right of your screen, and at just over 7 bucks at Amazon that is a lot of book for your money!
This interview is cross-posted at John Loftus’ blog here.