My first smile this morning occurred as I walked past a looking glass and caught a glimpse of my handsome visage peering back at me. My second smile came when I read the comment of Curt Cameron (not to be confused with Kirk Cameron) in response to my discussion of protest atheism. Let’s begin by citing Curt’s comment in full:
Here’s a hypothetical conversation:
Curt: My sister died of cancer last week.
Mauser: Yes, the leprechauns gave her cancer.
Curt: You really believe that? I don’t think leprechauns are real.
Mauser: But if you did believe in leprechauns and believed that they gave her cancer, would you worship them?
Curt: Uhh, no, of course not. If I believed that I would hate them.
Mauser: You’re a “protest a-leprechaunist”!
Curt: You say that like it’s a bad thing.
Mauser: What’s the source of your anger? You protest a-leprechaunists — you don’t believe leprechauns exist, but if they do, you’d refuse to worship them and would hate them.
Curt: [backs away slowly]…
So what shall we say?
Analogies are enormously useful for clarifying and evaluating concepts, claims and arguments. But analogies can also be very problematic, for if the analogy is a poor one it can obscure the nature of that which it purports to illumine. It can, in short, do much more damage than good. And there’s the rub.
Let me give you an analogy to illumine this quality of analogies. Think of a paint sprayer. In the right hands it can greatly reduce the labor-intensive nature of painting. It is efficient and effective. But in the wrong hands, a paint sprayer can make a huge mess of things.
Enter Curt, although now he’s the starring role in my analogy as a five year old with the nozzle of a paint sprayer in hand and delusions of grandeur. He had good fun, he thought he improved the situation, but alas he left the living room a complete mess. And now I have to come in and clean up.
To begin with, I’m left scratching my head. What is the actual point of Curt’s analogy? Perhaps it is to ridicule by comparing the concept of God to the concept of a leprechaun. But if Curt thinks the two are relevantly analogous then he’s the one opening himself up to ridicule.
The concept at issue in protest atheism demands of us something very simple: our ability to distinguish between events that are the result of intentional agency and events that are not the result of intentional agency. Nothing flashy. No characters of folklore involved. No mythologies or pots of gold at the end of rainbows. The basic issue is whether you can understand the difference between events that are the result of intentional agency and those that are not.
If Curt can’t tell the difference then all bets are off, but I think he can.
So now let’s move on to the next step. For any particular event or state of affairs we can meaningfully ask whether it is the result of intentional agency or not. Was that fire the result of intentional agency? Better call in the arson investigator. What about the destruction of that Kansas town? Call the meteorologists, the FBI, the CIA and Homeland Security.
The issue for the protest atheist is as follows. If the universe on the whole, and all the events and states of affairs within it are in some sense (in any sense) the result of an intentional agent, then we should have nothing to do with that intentional agent because the events and states of affairs that he, she or it is (at least in some sense) responsible for include many horrible things. So the protest atheist believes there isn’t such a superintending intentional agent, but if there is we ought to reject that agent.
This is a serious issue and protest atheists offer a serious response, even if it is one with which I strenuously disagree. But as we weigh the many issues at stake here, the last thing we need is an uncontrolled paint sprayer obscuring the whole discussion with forty shades of Sherwin Williams brand green.