Recently Richard Carrier reviewed my book Is the Atheist My Neighbor? Let’s start with the good news: Carrier liked the book which he described as “packed full of facts and arguments” and a “brief but thorough and well-studied book”. (That’s two fine endorsements for the back cover of the second edition which will never be printed due to lack of demand.)
That said, reading accolades is like eating candy: enjoyable but not very nourishing. All the protein, fiber, and antioxidants are found in chewing on the criticisms. With that in mind, I’m going to bypass the positive first part of the review for the critical second part which Carrier devotes to a “Survey of Qualms”. Carrier does not hold back in his qualms, so I won’t hold back in my rebuttal. I have divided my critical response into four parts to parallel the four main qualms that Carrier raises.
One more thing: before we jump in, let me underscore that I really enjoyed this stimulating and provocative review and I am grateful to Carrier for the effort he put into such a careful and extensive critical engagement.
The Rhetorical Force and Function of Anti-Atheist Memes
In the book I argue that Christians often have a prejudicial hostility toward the atheist outgroup. Carrier does not dispute the point, but he does believe I’ve missed an important dimension of these anti-atheist memes:
“While Rauser wants to call Christians to task for bigotry, and that’s indeed a worthy point, I think we also need to be calling Christians out for something that’s more sinister here: these memes exist in a matrix of control doctrines designed to scare Christians away from even contemplating, much less accepting nagging doubts. Repeating these memes, and checking to see who laughs at them or assents to them, is intended as a threat—not to atheists, but to fellow Christians. There are countless analogs in other social movements, where certain memes are designed to shut down questioning and shore-up a feeling of in-group superiority that aims to prevent or discourage insiders from even contemplating agreeing with outsiders, much less leaving the in-group to join them.”
Later Carrier explains further:
“Their function is not conversion, but defense against defection. And the more you see Christians doing this, the more they are retooling their religion into a cult.”
I agree that the anti-atheist memes can have this kind of indoctrinational function. I never suggested otherwise. In fact, I addressed this topic previously in my 2011 book You’re not as Crazy as I Think (see chapter four, “Not everything is black and white”). However, when I addressed the problem of indoctrination (i.e. what Carrier dramatically describes as a “cult”) within Christian communities, I pointed out that it also arises within atheist communities. The more that atheists denounce religious believers as irrational “faithheads”, the more they question the emotional stability of the religious, the more they accuse them of retaining an infantilized belief of childhood, the more they are retooling their irreligion into a cult. I am of the opinion that when you identify this problem in an outgroup, you should devote equal time to identifying it within your particular ingroup.
As for Carrier’s claim that I should have analyzed the way anti-atheist rhetoric serves an indoctrinational function in the present book, well, maybe. There’s always more one can include in a book. But I don’t agree that the book’s force is critically weakened by the absence of this material, nor has the feedback I’ve received from others supported that conclusion.
Conveniently reinterpreting the Bible?
Next, Carrier suggests that I engage in an overly fanciful and arbitrary reading of the Bible. There is some thought-provoking commentary here, but I’m going to skip to the essence of the charge:
“Rauser still builds a good contextual case for his reading that’s worth considering. But there is a reason Hector Avalos lambastes these kinds of exegetical tricks in The End of Biblical Studies. They are often aimed at “saving” the Bible, from being the vomit of primitive and savage minds, by turning it into some sort of miraculously prescient treatise on 20th century science and logic that it’s not. As a matter of historical fact, the Bible wasn’t written by people that well informed or that wise or that nice. And we have to interpret it realistically accordingly.”
Carrier is apparently drawing a contrast here between Christians who engage in “exegetical tricks” to “save” the Bible and those more sober-minded, objective critics like Avalos and Carrier himself who instead “interpret it realistically”.
I question the contrast. Let’s start with the fact that Carrier chooses to refer to the Bible as “the vomit of primitive and savage minds”. Does that sound like the language of a dispassionate and wholly objective critic with no personal investment?
Let me be blunt: If I read the Bible as an orthodox Christian with the interest of “saving” it, the evidence suggests that Carrier reads the Bible as an atheistic skeptic with the interest of “damning” it … or at least damning Christian readings of it. Put another way, Carrier and I both have a particular way of reading the Bible that we’re interested in saving … and competing readings that we’re keen to damn.
Moreover, if my orthodox-friendly readings of the Bible attract their share of criticism, the same can surely be said for Carrier’s own mythicist reading of the New Testament. Which reminds me of the old saying: he who lives in a glass house shouldn’t throw stones.
Don’t get me wrong: Carrier has every right to approach the Bible with a particular set of presuppositions and to develop and defend a particular reading of the text based on those presuppositions. But believe it or not, the same courtesy that is enjoyed by the atheistic mythicist is also extended to the orthodox Christian.
Atheism in the ancient world
Carrier’s third qualm concerns a historical matter: he challenges my claim that atheism (as it is understood today) is a modern phenomenon. He cites several putative examples of atheism in the ancient world and he also refers to Tim Whitmarsh’s book Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World (a book that, by the way, was published after my book was released so I did not have the benefit of reading it).
This is an interesting and complicated topic. Unfortunately, I haven’t yet read Whitmarsh’s book so I won’t comment on his argument. However, I will reiterate a point I made in the book that we need to be careful about reading later concepts of atheism or theism back into earlier uses of the term. Just because a person affirms (or denies) belief in an entity called “God” does not automatically qualify her as a theist (or atheist). One must also consider the various concepts of God at play to know what exactly is being affirmed (or denied).
Next Carrier addresses what he calls “The problem of which God.” He begins:
“Rauser struggles to both explain the intelligibility and reasonableness of the modern atheist rejection of God on the basis of arguments from evil, and at the same time not admit that the argument is correct.”
Um, no, I don’t “struggle.” I’m perfectly comfortable recognizing that rational people can defend reasonable arguments for opposing conclusions. In fact, I believe it is just good scholarly practice (as well as neighborly charity) to seek to present the strongest versions of your opponent’s argument. And I’ve done that in the past with atheism and the problem of evil. (See, for example, my book You’re not as Crazy as I Think, 47-50.)
I’m going to cite the next paragraph in its entirety and then respond to a couple different points raised therein:
“Here he almost but doesn’t quite work out that contextually we aren’t talking about just any God; that as far as generic gods go, Rauser himself has no belief in them and would be an atheist himself, were they the only thing on offer. For example, in his admirably sympathetic treatment of Hitchens (and his famous treatment of God as a monster we ought to rebel against rather than worship), I don’t think Rauser makes clear enough that Hitchens is not arguing against or ever even talking about “just any god,” but specifically a God who is claimed to be morally admirable, after in turn looking at the evidence before our eyes. Once you limit the conversation to that specific kind of God, theodicy is a universal acid. There is no empirical room left for any god like that. Instead, the sort of God who would allow the things that happen in this world, must necessarily be the most horrible person imaginable (a fact Rauser does eloquently describe and explain, so he definitely gets this much).”
Let’s consider Carrier’s claim that the “empirical” evidence of evil entails that “necessarily” God (if he exists) is “the most horrible person imaginable” (i.e. that which none worse can be conceived).
To begin with, this statement overlooks the fact that the definition of God I use in the book includes the property of perfect goodness. It is incoherent to say that an entity could simultaneously exemplify the properties of perfect goodness and perfect horribleness. Thus, if God, as defined, exists then it follows that God has a morally sufficient reason to allow the evils that do occur.
This brings me to the second point. Has Carrier demonstrated that the empirical evidence necessarily precludes the existence of God? No, this is nothing more than a bald assertion. Carrier simply assumes, without argument, that God could not have morally sufficient reasons for allowing evil in the world. Consider the following two propositions:
(1) Richard can see that God cannot have morally sufficient reasons for allowing the evils we observe.
(2) Richard cannot see that God can have morally sufficient reasons for allowing the evils we observe.
Richard accepts (1) and I accept (2). If he wants to present a defeater to God’s existence, if he wants to persuade me of (1), he needs to work his intuition — an intuition that I do not share — into an argument that can persuade a skeptic like myself. And I should add that I’m not the only one who is a skeptic of Carrier’s intuition. His intuition is not widely shared among academic philosophers of religion (including atheist philosophers of religion). This is important given that these are the people most familiar with the subject matter.
“That is why atheists say God is a horrible person: not because they think there is a God or because they wish to insult the Christian construct of God or because “they just want to sin” or are just “rebellious” or whatever, but because that horrid God is the only kind of God compatible with the evidence; and surely no one, not even the Christian, should wish such a God would exist, nor praise it.”
Once again, Carrier has provided no argument to show that the existence of evil negates the existence of God. He simply asserts it. Such declarations may fly with the Carrierites, but they are woefully underwhelming to those not predisposed to defer to Carrier’s opinions.
Note as well that while Carrier opines that atheists generally reject God as “a horrible person”, that is not true of Jeff Lowder, the atheist that I interview in the book. Nor is it true of many other atheists I know. It is unfortunate that Carrier doesn’t acknowledge the many atheists like Lowder who reject his reasoning.
Later in his review, Carrier makes a comment about Christopher Hitchens:
“Certainly, atheists would be delighted to discover a God existed who was actually a supremely moral person, someone who was always honest and compassionate and never abandoned or betrayed or tortured anyone and always helped everyone. But that’s not the God atheists like Hitchens were ever talking about when they spoke of rejecting God.”
While this is a relatively minor point, I should note that this is not how I read Hitchens. On my reading, he doesn’t simply object to the idea of God as a tyrant who does terrible things to hapless creatures. Hitchens also rejects the mere notion of an omniscient being, a state of affairs which he decries as tantamount to living in a celestial North Korea.
Carrier then continues with his rhetorical broadside:
“That is not the God Christians like Rauser claim exists. It is not the God they want there to be. But it is, alas, the only God there can be. Unless you intend to insist no children were ever raped, that they were all mindless holograms placed on earth to test the flock. Otherwise, you have no logical option left: your God is okay with mass child rape. And such a God is simply depraved. And only the depraved would worship so depraved a God as that. Rauser gives the usual apologetic reply that there could still be some logically possible reason unknown to us that, were we to discover it, we would understand it wasn’t depraved, that allowing the mass rape of children was actually the best thing ever. But that’s not even remotely probable. It is, in fact, even more ridiculous than my mindless hologram theory. Because we know how to make better worlds without the mass rape of children. And surely we can’t be better at this than God. Rauser means well. But he isn’t seeing the truth here.”
I’m going to wrap up my critical rejoinder by noting three things from this passage.
First, Carrier continues to rattle his saber with a healthy dose of rhetorical bluster on the problem of evil. For example, he opines that the only “logical option left” for the theist is that “God is okay with mass child rape”. Note how Carrier chooses to level his charge with the hopelessly imprecise and ambiguous word “okay”. What does he mean by saying God is “okay” with “child rape”? Does he mean to say God likes child rape? That God approves of child rape? Or merely that God permits child rape for some reason? Such ambiguous and imprecise phrasing of a charge is quite out of place in serious philosophical analysis, all the more so when the topic being discussed is highly emotional.
Second, I need to highlight Carrier’s comment on the morality of theists. As he puts it, “such a God is simply depraved. And only the depraved would worship so depraved a God as that.” (emphasis added) Did you get that? Apparently theists are “depraved”. I wrote a book critiquing Christians for launching broadside moral indictments of atheists, and now an atheist reviewing the book returns the favor by launching a broadside moral indictment of Christians.
And this brings me to the third and final point. Not only are Christians “depraved”, but in Carrier’s estimation we are clearly also irrational. He’s already suggested as much in his claim that any God would necessarily be “horrible”. Consider as well how Carrier dismisses my brief treatment of theodicy in the book as “ridiculous” and “not even remotely probable”. (Don’t hold back Richard. Tell me what you really think!) Once again, this amounts to nothing more than Carrier sharing his personal opinions. By that standard, all parties to the discussion can win by just labeling the views of their interlocutors as ridiculous. And what’s next? Yo momma jokes?
To sum up, I wrote a book criticizing Christians for dismissing atheists as depraved and irrational. And that book has now been critiqued by an atheist who believes that Christians are depraved and irrational. But the irony doesn’t stop there. Remember that in his first objection Carrier worried that the rhetorical denunciation of atheists as immoral and irrational left Christians in danger of “retooling their religion into a cult.” So what, do you suppose, is the effect of Carrier’s rhetorical denunciation of the Christian?