Answers for The Swedish Atheist

The first time the rationality of my Christian belief was challenged was in high school; I was ill-equipped to handle the objections. Flustered by being unable to answer the hard questions posed by my exceedingly clever friends, my dad took me to the local Christian bookstore to buy an apologetics book. “Apologetics” was a new word in my limited vocabulary, and all I really knew about it was an ostensive definition–CS Lewis did something like that. I don’t remember why, but I didn’t buy Mere Christianity, a book that had a profound effect on my father and my grandfather before him. Instead, I bought Answers for Atheists, Agnostics, and Other Thoughtful Skeptics by E. Calvin Beisner. The big red-lettered words ANSWERS grabbed my attention: “Hey! That’s just what I’m looking for,” I thought!

I was not a savvy book buyer then (why didn’t I read the first chapter before buying it, I don’t know), but when I got it home, I was sorely disappointed (you can read the Amazon reviews to get a sense of why). The book was written as an imaginary dialogue between two friends, one a believer, the other a “skeptic”–if you could call him that–which was supposed to model how certain knock-down, drag-out arguments for the Christian faith were supposed to go. It was awful. First, the sorts of answers I was looking for weren’t there; second, I felt as though I had to learn how to manipulate a conversation to go the way the author did and then remember how to deploy a form of reasoning I did not fully understand; third, I realized that if I was ever going to learn how to talk confidently with smart friends, I would have to learn some philosophy, something I thought would be impossible.

Nearly twenty years later, with a freshly earned Master’s degree in philosophy in hand, I am faced with reviewing a book that is of the same genre: Randal Rauser’s The Swedish Atheist, the Scuba Diver and Other Apologetic Rabbit Trails. Reading it brought back all the memories rehearsed above, and I kept wondering if it would have helped me if I had picked it up then. I think it probably would have faced the same challenges from my clumsy, immature self–but this book is much, much better.

Swedish Atheist is an imaginary dialogue between Rauser and a skeptic named Sheridan in a coffeehouse called Beatnik Bean. Sheridan is well-versed in the popular arguments atheists use to challenge Christianity; it is clear that he is the sum of many conversations Rauser has entertained on his blog. The first half of the book consists of a protracted discussion over religious epistemology, which is one of the best ‘introductions’ to the topics I’ve read (if it could be called that). In a very short amount of space, Rauser takes on such topics as scientism, the ethics of belief, the nature of faith, Reformed epistemology, theology and falsification, God as a “hypothesis,” Ockham’s razor, and the “outsider test of faith.” If you haven’t heard of any of those things, don’t worry: Rauser paints a vivid picture of how they are deployed in the mouths of their proponents and how they matter (or not) in our beliefs about God. In the short space of a casual conversation, the uninitiated can be introduced to some of the larger, more complex discussions about how belief in God can be rationally justified. (His treatment of John Loftus’ outsider test of faith is worth the price of the book, in my opinion).

Another feature of  Swedish Atheist that I found superior to books like Answers is that Sheridan remains skeptical. While his reasoning certainly comes across as simple-minded at points, some of his reasons are not. Sheridan cannot bring himself to believe in a God who torments someone like his deceased father in hell forever or commands his followers to exterminate another people-group like we see in Joshua. Just about everyone who has faith or not is puzzled by these long standing theological difficulties, and Rauser is no exception. Surely, Rauser’s treatment of these topics will be disappointing to many, and would probably have been disappointing to me as a teenager. But there is something refreshing about Rauser’s own skepticism towards apologetic projects that try to justify such violence. Whatever theories we might spin or arguments we might formulate, we cannot escape our brute moral intuitions that judge such things as unbecoming of the Being than which none greater can be conceived. We seem to know these particular judgments better than we know any of the premises of arguments to the contrary. Again many Christian apologists will not be happy, because Rauser is willing to countenance evidence that counts against Christian belief. To be sure, he offers some strategies for undermining that evidence (annihilationism, hopeful universalism, re-imagining the intent behind Joshua, and suspending judgment about interpretation are explored), but in the end he remains tentative and shows how this may be a virtuous posture to take when talking with skeptics.Rauser also explains how there can be outweighing evidence for Christian belief from the cosmological argument and an argument from the resurrection of Jesus. He saves the discussion about what to do with the Bible for another day, though he clearly affirms its authority.

At times the discussion becomes a bit prosaic, especially near the end. I am not sure why, but I had trouble finishing the book’s sections on prayer and God’s guidance. I think the reason for this is because I had already read a similar sort of argument in God or Godless? (Loftus & Rauser, 2013), so this is no knock on the book.

So can I recommend it? I most certainly can, but I am not sure I would want my teenaged-self to read it as his first apologetics book. I’m still not sure what that would be, and perhaps there is no such thing. What is needed, I think, is a friend like Rauser who would invite you to Beatnik Bean for some coffee and let you fire away.

Thanks to InterVaristy Press for the complimentary copy for review.


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