God or Godless?

Many thanks to Baker Books for supplying a copy to review!

As the subtitle explains, God or Godless? is the product of one atheist, John W. Loftus, and one Christian, Randal Rauser, taking on “twenty controversial questions.” Both Loftus and Rauser are popular bloggers who inspire vigorous disagreement among their respective readers, and it appears their book is the result of a friendship that was formed through occasionally sparring with one another. While both have published book-length arguments in the past, this volume exhibits a pattern only bloggers can appreciate. Each author submits ten theses, which they either affirm or deny with 800 words of prose. They are then allowed 150 words of rebuttal, which is then followed by another 50 words of closing statements. Every exchange reads like a blog post with two follow-up comments. The skill of each author is on display as they both jam a lot of content into a short space, and for that I can appreciate how much I have to learn about the art of dialoguing with few words to spare (sadly, this introduction is already over 200 words).

Instead of giving a blow by blow account of each argument, I want to make a few observations about the general strategy of the contenders along with some commendations and criticisms of what I took be the heart of their main arguments.

I got the impression that Loftus had Christianity, and not so much God, in his sights. This is understandable, because he is a former Christian debating another Christian in a book put out by a Christian publisher; hence, all ten of his theses begin as criticisms of “the Biblical God…” No doubt, Christians as myself have a lot to account for when reading Loftus’ criticisms of Yahweh, Jesus, and the New Testament writers, but at most, his arguments drive a wedge between the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and the Being than which none greater can be conceived. While this is a compelling strategy to take against Christians, it doesn’t really get him to godlessness. As I understand him, Loftus’ argument goes like this:

[1] If the God of the Bible is not worthy of worship, then God probably doesn’t exist.

[2] The God of the Bible is not worthy of worship.

[3] Therefore, God probably doesn’t exist.

Assuming he is right about premise 2, is the argument sound? Well, following Loftus’ favorite sort of response, premise 1 is possible but not probable, and a more probable inference would be that not everything in Scripture is God’s revelation. That is to say, a weaker conclusion is more probable: regardless of whether or not God exists, the Bible is not inerrant. This is not to say that Loftus doesn’t make any arguments against theism in general. To be sure, he hints at the problem of evil throughout the book when engaging Rauser’s positive theses, but he doesn’t formally spell it out anywhere in any great detail (the most articulate reference to it is found on page 145—a bit late to bring out atheism’s biggest gun in my opinion). Thus, the bulk of Loftus’ arguments will threaten only those who maintain a strong tie between the existence of God and biblical inerrancy; perhaps this explains why his most vociferous critics hail from the Reformed tradition and follow the apologetic method of Cornelius Van Til or Gordon Clark. Of course, Rauser is not among their number as he seems willing to concede that there are genuine conflicts between what the Old Testament says about the killing of children and our widely shared moral intuitions. Rauser maintains biblical authority by suggesting that Old Testament violence should be read as ironically condemning such behavior, but in any event, it seems clear enough that he (rightly) doesn’t accept the premise that God probably exists only if inerrancy is true.

So how does Randall make his case for God? By appealing to the so-called ‘transcendentals’ of  truth, goodness and beauty, none of which we would know about without the existence of God. Broadly, Rauser makes a cosmological argument to explain why there is something rather than nothing, and then makes a design argument from the fact that creatures like us exist with the cognitive capacities to know truth, perceive beauty, and be subject to moral properties. While many of these arguments can come across as tired and well-worn, Rauser deftly weaves their major claims into little stories or examples a middle school student could understand. That’s no knock, and this reviewer, who has spent too many hours reading William Lane Craig, Alvin Plantinga, and William Dembski, benefited greatly in seeing how their arguments could be boiled down to their essentials and elegantly deployed for apologetic purposes. Through his argumentation, Rauser is able to show that Loftus is left with an impoverished worldview where truth, beauty, and goodness are relative to the whims and wiles of an unguided and random process that can only induce cosmic despair. Intuitively assuming atheism’s outcome has no existential fit, Rauser’s arguments roughly go like this:

[1] If God does not exist, then there is no truth, goodness, or beauty that could be objectively known.

[2] There is truth, goodness, and beauty that can be objectively known.

[3] Therefore, God exists.

But what about the Bible? Rauser’s defenses of Scripture are sure to leave some Christians dissatisfied. While it is true that he makes an effort to disabuse Loftus of his severely critical interpretations, his concessions with respect to the problem of Old Testament violence and biological evolution give the impression that there is something strange about holding to the authority of Scripture in this day of age. Why not just jettison it and search for a more adequate revelation of God? Rauser maintains that despite Scripture’s oddities, God is a supremely competent author, but if Loftus has achieved anything in this book, it is that he creates some prima facie reasonable doubt for this claim.

All in all this is a breezy read that feels like being hit with a scatter gun of truncated arguments. As a reviewer, I am used to reading longer, more sustained arguments, so I wasn’t disposed to like this sort of format and I can’t say I did (To their credit, the authors realize the shortcomings of their format and offer a nice “for further reading” section with excellent recommendations.). But if you are wanting to expose middle and high school aged kids to some of the challenges Christians and atheists face in making their respective cases, this book may be of some value. The atheists will appreciate Loftus’ simple, if not blustery writing style, and the Christians will enjoy Rauser’s snarky sense of humor and vivid storytelling.

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