Robert helpfully supplied a link to Paul Copan’s much anticipated response to Thom Stark’s three hundred page review of Is God a Moral Monster? Having read Paul’s book, the first hundred pages of Thom’s review, and the entirety of Paul Copan’s response (which, thankfully, was much shorter), I have some initial thoughts.
First, I think Thom Stark deserves recognition for his achievement. A three hundred page review of a two hundred page book is an extraordinary thing. I always thought there was an unwritten rule that book reviews should not exceed the length of the books they are reviewing, but Stark has boldly challenged that rule. Indeed, he sent it packing. But the accolade is about much more than word count. After all, a schizophrenic can produce volumes of discordant, incoherent ramblings but that would hardly be a cause of celebration. Fortunately Thom’s review is written with an impressive literary quality. It is often engaging, witty, and conversant in the relevant literature and as a bonus it defends me! (See pp. 58-60).
At the same time, I have to raise a concern about the review. Thom seems to suffer from Finkelstein Syndrome:
Finkelstein Syndrome: named after Norman Finkelstein, the symptom of FS is an impressive scholarly acumen which is short-circuited by unduly aggressive and acerbic expression.
For a vivid example of the chilling effects of FS on the scholar who is so afflicted consider the infamous Finkelstein/Dershowitz debate as it initially erupted on “Democracy Now“. Finkelstein made some excellent points against Dershowitz but the debate was really knocked off the rails — and many of those points lost in the shuffle — by the symptoms of FS that Finkelstein demonstrated including shrill expression and a focus on Dershowitz’s character rather than his argument.
In the first hundred pages of Is God a Moral Compromiser? Thom Stark presents a number of powerful criticisms of Paul Copan’s book. However, the effect of the argument is often muffled by an unduly aggressive and acerbic tone (the classic symptoms of FS). And this is the real problem with FS: It tends to limit the effectiveness of the legitimate arguments one makes because it is unduly alienating to a significant portion of one’s intended audience.
That this is the case here seems evident in the opening to Copan’s review of Stark’s review. Copan writes: “When a book [that is Stark’s book review] is laden with sarcasm, distortions, and ad hominem attacks, genuine dialogue and cordial exchange—the stuff of genuine scholarship—become difficult, if not preempted.”
I don’t know about the distortion bit, but one can certainly find evidence of unnecessarily sarcastic, inflammatory expression in the review. For example, Thom writes:
“Copan’s judgment is so clouded by his presuppositions that the Bible is pure divine revelation that it [“it” being a particular reading of the Mosaic law code over-against other ANE law codes] just didn’t occur to him. As I’ve often said, this is your brain, and this is your brain on apologetics.” (52)
For those who don’t know, this final reference is an allusion to this classic anti-drug commercial. This is problematic. To begin with, to criticize apologetics based on a particular example of apologetics is like criticizing science based on a particular example of science. That’s hardly fair. As for the sarcasm, the reader is left here with an image of Paul Copan as something like an ineffective apologetic drug addict. Many readers will find that to be an unnecessary personal attack which detracts from the legitimate points Thom is making.
As for the charge of ad hominem attacks, we can consider the following passage where Thom writes:
“I know not a few former-Christians-turned-atheists who expressly credit Christian apologists like Copan for their loss of faith. These Christians, who are genuinely struggling with these texts, see right through these hollow, ad hoc, incoherent and inconsistent “answers” and recognize these “answer men” for what they are. And this is why I’m so critical of apologists like Paul Copan–not just because their arguments are frequently absurd and usually, at the very least, untenable, but because they are doing real damage to real people, all because they’re more concerned to protect their insular, fideistic doctrines than they are to speak the truth. They are sophists, in a world crying out for prophets.” (2-3)
Whoa! This is strong stuff! Alas, it seems way too strong.
To begin with, while there may indeed be atheists who credit the work of apologists like Copan with providing a rung or two on their ladder to atheism, it is not clear that this is relevant to anything. After all, I know of atheists who would say that Thom has provided a rung or two for them on their climb up to (or descent down into, depending on one’s perspective) atheism.
But the real point here is that Thom launches his project with a direct attack on Paul Copan’s character. A “sophist” is, as you know, a person who argues with great skill (at least on the surface) but without concern for the truth. They are bullshitters in the sense identified by philosopher Harry Frankfurt. So Thom begins his review by charging Copan with being a sophist unconcerned with the truth. I hope you can appreciate that this is not the most conciliatory of notes on which to begin a review.
I suspect Thom is not interested in conciliation and has no desire to be on Paul Copan’s Christmas card list. Fine, I get that. But if you believe a particular scholar is a sophist, restrict yourself to analyzing the arguments and let the reader draw the conclusion about your interlocutor’s character. Otherwise you merely create another road block to other people hearing and processing your legitimate arguments.
To sum up, I appreciate the prophetic indignation that runs through Thom’s writing. These are important issues. But peppering his analysis with this kind of inflammatory expression is like offering your guests tabasco-soaked hors d’oeuvres which leave them incapable of tasting, let alone digesting, the main course.