The God Debates: A 21st Century Guide for Atheists and Believers

Does god exist? This question, deceptively simple in its brevity, has formed the basis for countless debates both written and oral in the last few dozen decades. All too often such exchanges proceed on little to no discussion of what exactly either side means by “god.” Even narrowing down the scope to the Christian god invites the further question of whose denomination and doctrines are being assumed. Richard Dawkins and the other New Atheists became quite familiar with this problem after numerous critics drew attention to their broad generalizations about religious faith. Lurking behind the god debates is the issue of theology, and while it may seem to some unbelievers like the product of overactive imaginations, there is nonetheless an importance to it in how it reveals the diverse landscape of belief in god. Though accusations of straw-manning one’s opponent are not always justified, something must be said for the value in understanding the positions of others, particularly when it comes to as personal a topic as this, where it can become ever so easy to slide into tribalism and wagon-circling.

It isn’t too difficult to get lost in the language of the god debates, especially on the occasions where things like possible worlds and quantum physics come up. Navigating the landscape can quickly turn frustrating when so many of the foundational texts of theology rival the Bible itself in terms of length. Thankfully, there are books like The God Debates that accurately and elegantly break down these sorts of subjects for a lay audience. Its author, John Shook, is research associate in philosophy and instructor in science education for the University at Buffalo, where he also earned his Ph.D. He has served as professor of philosophy at Oklahoma State University, has worked for several secular and humanist organizations, and is the author and editor of numerous other books, such as The Essential William James and The Future of Naturalism. Additionally, Dr. Shook has been a guest on the Armchair Atheism podcast.

I. Whose God is It Anyway?

The term “theology” comes from two Greek words: theos for god, and logos for reason. So theology is what people are doing when they reason about god and about whatever relationships they believe human beings have with god. The purpose is to explain and understand a certain theistic worldview. Christian theology explains the Christian worldview, Muslim theology explains the Muslim worldview, Mormon theology explains the Mormon worldview, and so forth. Atheology, then, is the opposite of this. Its purpose is to explain why one’s worldview needs no god, or why it should not include a god.

Following some introductory remarks on the history of the god debates and their present place in the Western social climate, Dr. Shook distinguishes five categories of theology that form the bedrock of discussion in the book. Theology From the Scripture appeals to written revelation and apologetics. Theology From the World infers design, a moral law-giver, and other such aspects from the natural features of the world. Theology Beyond the World takes it a step further with cosmological arguments, arguments about the laws of nature, and similar claims that try to reach past the natural features of the world to some underlying foundation. Theology in the Know draws on its own theories of knowledge and justification in defense of religious faith. Finally, Theology Into the Myst emphasizes personal revelation and experience, embracing a more mystical and existentialist brand of belief.

Each of these divisions gets its own chapter-length treatment in The God Debates. Together, they constitute an impressive and fairly comprehensive survey of the major approaches to theology of the last several centuries. This survey catalogs important differences that help Shook construct a powerful case for doubt utilizing some of the very same issues which provoke these separations in theological thought. Is the proper way to approach these subjects in the tradition of ancient Greek philosophical thought, or should Christians and theists of other persuasions reject the Greeks in favor of their own unique philosophical styles? Challenging arguments exist on both sides and play critical roles in the various kinds of cases that are often made for the existence of god. Things are a bit more complicated than first determining a god exists, and filling in the precise details later.

II. God in Scripture

A gospel author’s ordinary ability to correctly spell the name of an obscure town is irrelevant to whether that author is correct about an astonishing miracle.1

Historians have certain standards of evidence for the claims in the historical record that they will consider as credible. Some examples of these standards are that a claim be attested by multiple independent sources, that it be relatively close in time to the events it describes, that any source for it is reliable and trustworthy, and that the claim in question fits well with other known facts from the time. While it is not necessary that every historical claim have these specific criteria, its credibility diminishes the more it falls outside of the standards.

The New Testament, Shook observes, has numerous problems when it comes to the claims it makes about Jesus’ divinity. Although the writings of Paul are seen by scholars as the earliest texts in the Christian canon, they contain very little in the way of testimony for Christ’s miracles. Paul was not himself an eyewitness to Jesus’ ministry, so much of what he says comes from second-hand accounts. Of course, the gospels do have many miracle stories, but we have no original manuscripts for comparison, the three synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke) share a significant amount of verbatim material – which shows they were not independent sources – and only John’s gospel, the latest gospel written, suggests the author was an eyewitness to Jesus’ miracles. Further, the gospels exhibit disagreements and have variations among each other, not just in minor instances but in how they portray Jesus, the Torah, the kingdom of god, etc. Dr. Shook elaborates on some of these troubling passages to drive home the point that historical method does not vindicate the divinity of Jesus as proclaimed in the New Testament.

Three other scriptural arguments are also considered in chapter 3, one dealing with biblical prophecies, one with the apostolic faith of the disciples, and another looking at the character of Jesus. On the first argument, our author makes brief use of textual exegesis to deflate some common prophetic claims, like Isaiah 7:14, and he notes that the miracles performed in the gospels were performed around rural crowds known for circulating such stories without much instigation. With the second argument, which is sometimes rephrased as the question, Did the Disciples Die for a Lie, Shook takes the punch out of it by explaining just how few of the disciples die a martyr’s death in the Bible, and he points to apostolic hope and Paul’s Gentile mission as key factors in the growth of the early Christian movement. In terms of Jesus’ character, he says, the New Testament actually gives us a very vague picture, presenting a figure whose commands and actions were at times inconsistent.

Surprisingly, the chapter on Theology From the Scripture provides practically no citations for any of the references to the conclusions of biblical scholarship. The information itself is correct and it is easy to find sources online and in almost any New Testament literature, but this seems an odd juxtaposition with the careful citation of specific Bible passages in the rest of the chapter.

III. God in Nature

Appeals to scripture may be flawed, but they are perhaps not the best arguments for ministering to nonbelievers, anyway. Those who do not accept a religious community’s religious texts as authoritative will be understandably reluctant to go along with the hypotheses and claims of scriptural theology. Nature, on the other hand, is a more shared experience among human beings, and some of the great scientists of history have found room for god in the awe-inspiring beauty and complexity of the natural world. Yet there is another longstanding history of science explaining natural phenomena that were once attributed to gods, as Dr. Shook points out. Theologians have found themselves with an ever-shrinking pool of mysteries with which to credit god, who is an even greater mystery himself.

Design claims, especially the creationist variety, tend to fall into the camp of pseudoscience. Pseudosciences frequently make no predictions, make vague or untestable predictions, move the goal posts to declare victory after the fact, and provide accounts for phenomena that have not really been scientifically observed. Quantum physics, consciousness, and other mysterious avenues of scientific inquiry are sometimes defined specifically to deny rational explanation. Science has accounted for many natural features of the world that appear designed, and it has done so without invoking a deity. The nebular hypothesis explains the apparent orderliness of the celestial bodies in a solar system, Darwinian evolution explains the diversity of biological life, and they do so with no reference to any divine designer. It is commonly asserted by design advocates – explicitly or implicitly – that certain levels of complexity require us to go beyond nature itself for an explanation, but this simply begs the question.

A good scientific explanation makes testable predictions based on observed phenomena. Design arguments attempt to explain natural phenomena as conducive to the wishes of an intelligent agent. Some of these latter claims try to subvert scientific explanations to posit a greater mystery that seemingly needs a greater (read: divine) explanation. Defenses of religious experience often do much the same. Shook lays out four main doubts with religious experience: 1) Our brains can naturally generate many features of religious experiences, 2) our brains do not seem evolved for discerning supernatural experiences, 3) our minds cannot sort out which religious experiences are authentic, and 4) cultures do not converge on any practical/accurate kind of religion. While these doubts indicate the social and cultural elements of religious experience, believers object that there is more to it than this picture. There is some additional mystery that requires we suppose that at least some religious experiences access supernatural truths. However, as our author says, there is no real method for showing that a strange experience is an actual revelation of a god.

If order, complexity, and religious experiences do not demand a theological explanation, what about morality? Here is, in my humble opinion, one of the weakest sections of The God Debates. In keeping with his pragmatism, Dr. Shook focuses on how ethics contributes to our lives in both individual and sociological respects. He distinguishes objective truth from absolute truth in that while the former is culturally and relatively true independent of any single person, the latter is infallible and eternal. Thus, he advises that naturalists reject absolute moral truths in favor of objective moral truths. Where do these objective moral truths come from?

An objective moral truth is made true by the natural fact that a society of people share a common culture which includes that accepted truth among its social rules.2

If what makes a moral truth objective is just cultural agreement, then it seems less of an objective truth and more of an intersubjective or culturally relative moral truth. Although I think Shook is right to reject absolute moral truths in the eternal sense – what would such an absolute moral truth even matter in a universe with only one human being? – I believe he needs more than societal consensus to have objective moral truths. Something like an Aristotelian account of intrinsic value could help furnish a more meaningful foundation of social agreement without bringing in the weirdness of Platonic eternal forms of justice, compassion, and other goods. Of course, intrinsic moral values may seem strange in their own right, but they may also be the natural stopping point in ethical explanation. Why is the fact that a society shares certain values important? One could argue the values themselves are what are most important, and they are good for their own sake, rather than for any pragmatic reason.

Defending the significance of humans on his ethical landscape, Shook makes a couple excellent points about meaningfulness. Even for the religious, he says, there can be meaninglessness to some things, particularly those that are regarded as fleeting, unworthy distractions to be left behind on the way to eternity. If someone concentrates his or her life on these fleeting things, is that life not meaningless? The inclination of plenty of believers is to assume that meaningfulness is universal since god creates us each for a purpose, but what is implied when humans deviate from that purpose? Apologists like to attack naturalism by suggesting it reduces humans to ‘just atoms’ (with the implication that we are nothing else). As our author notes, however, examining just the material composition of something rarely gives the full image of its abilities and its nature. Scrutinizing the individual parts of a locomotive engine will not reveal the power or drive it has to pull a train. In the same way, we can be composed of atoms, with no supernatural additives, and yet be more than this fact alone appears to communicate.

IV. God Beyond Nature

We have looked at some of the reasons for why the natural features of the world cannot get us to a god, now what of nature as a whole? Do we need to explain natural laws or the existence of the universe by turning to a god?

Chapter five is refreshingly honest about the options and alternatives available to the atheist. Almost right off the bat, Shook questions the usefulness of the multiverse hypothesis in countering popular theological arguments. While somewhat of a stand-off can be reached between the multiverse and god, the science behind the multiverse hypothesis is sparse, and there are doubts that arise with the contingency of the multiverse depending on what reality might generate it. These problems could be comparatively small next to the problems involved in the god hypothesis, but we ought to be cautious about relying on unknowns and mysteries in the god debates, regardless of whether they are part of a theology or an atheology.

Fortunately, there are better ways of responding to an argument like the fine-tuning argument, which is balanced “precariously” on scientific reasoning drawn from our current model of the Big Bang and our understandings of laws of nature, which can change over time. Inflation occurs in some of the figures cited in fine-tuning arguments as well, Shook states, giving Victor Stenger’s example of changing the unit of measurement for a meter to be able to make the impressive and amusing claim: if Michael Jordan was 1 part in 10 to the 16th of a light year shorter, he would never have been a basketball player. Of further interest is the truism that can lie at the heart of fine-tuning arguments if god is merely assumed to be the sort of being that creates life. To escape this problem, the theologian must entertain some ideas about why god would create life. Dr. Shook narrows down several possibilities, delivered in three modes:

1. God necessarily creates life. Not to do so would logically contradict his essential nature.
2. God means to create life. It is the best way of achieving something he wants.
3. God might create life. It is a free gift from him to us.

Mode 3 does not really offer any probability for god creating life, which means the fine-tuning argument cannot even get off the ground with it. Mode 1 fails to account for the gap between god and ourselves. Why create us specifically, among all the life forms god could make? This poses a difficulty for inferring anything about god from the life he creates. An unstated premise behind the fine-tuning argument seems to be that intelligent life comes from intelligence, but if god creates necessarily, this minimizes the intentions god would otherwise have in creating a specific kind of life. Mode 2 has the same gap as Mode 1, but also makes god’s perfection questionable. Why would a perfect being have wants, desires or needs? To be perfect is to be complete, lacking in nothing essential. Why would such a being create anything at all if it is perfect on its own?

Closing out the chapter is some discussion of the problem of evil and theology’s unsuccessful responses to it. One of these responses, known as skeptical theism, argues that we finite beings are in no position to imagine why god allows some evils. This view not only fails to show how the god explanation accounts for the evils in the world, but it creates a challenge for believers in figuring out how they ought to react to the apparent evils they encounter. If a particular evil might be part of god’s good design, should a Christian resist it, eliminate it, tolerate it, or possibly approve of it? Skeptical theism would seem to yank the proverbial rug out from under the theist’s feet when it comes to facing the problem of evil.

V. Knowledge and Mystery

What is it that justifies our beliefs? According to Theology in the Know, we have certain basic beliefs that serve as the foundations of our knowledge, and these beliefs admit of no defeaters. This approach attempts to inoculate theology against all atheological criticism, yet it does so at a substantial cost. In shedding the philosophy of the Greeks for their own distinctly religious epistemology, in-the-know theologians water down standards of reasonable belief to simplistic measures such as not conflicting with other beliefs, or not conflicting with anything in nature. The problem here becomes one of explaining how these religious beliefs are justified, rather than just being strongly-held convictions or beliefs endowed with certainty. Presuppositionalism and the philosophical work of Alvin Plantinga are well known examples of this isolationist brand of theology.

The PKG (Personal Knower of God) faces the problem of explaining the disagreements among believers. It cannot be that he has inadequate access to divine truths, because they just are directly revealed to him. The only course for the PKG seems to be a kind of smug judgment of who the ‘true Christians’ are, since anything outside of this opens the door to evidentialism and other ways of justifying knowledge. Likewise, the PKG can only defend the acceptance of a specific epistemology by associating basic beliefs with a community. An open community would admit evidentialism and alternate ways of justifying knowledge, and so a closed community is the only consistent kind of community for the PKG. Even so, what kind of criterion could this community come up with for establishing which beliefs are basic? Again, this returns to little else but a feeling of certainty.

In the end, then, Dr. Shook observes that Theology in the Know is exposed as pseudo-theology, begging the question in proposing that the universe is created intelligible to us, and rendering the special knowledge of a closed community or an individual believer – given by no less than god himself – immune to challenge from any outside knowledge. The only place left for theology to go is to retreat fully into mystery.

Theology Into the Myst tries to get away from the idea that religion is all about the beliefs you hold, saying instead that experiences or practices are the key. However, these notions still express beliefs about the purpose and value of religion, for instance. As experiential and existentialist as Theology Into the Myst makes itself out to be, it nonetheless posits a number of beliefs about god, human beings, how we can or cannot relate to god, etc. It strives to avoid error and arrogance by recognizing human fallibility, but the more insistent it is about not applying limited human concepts to god, the less able it is to say much of anything about god. No theologies are possible, and interpretation of any sort becomes exceedingly problematic. Symbols derive their meaning from other objects, but if the point of mysticism is to see the divine in a ‘deeper’ sense and not as an object, it becomes unclear what exactly is symbolized.

Dr. Shook covers an argument he terms the argument from pseudo-faith. This argument attempts to secure Christian faith by exempting it from contrast with other earthly experiences, with other religions, and by emphasizing its own experiential component. Yet this seems too hastily dismissive of competing beliefs that could construct an almost identical argument for their own faith. Thinkers like Paul Tillich have tried taking theology out of the fog of metaphysical speculations about first causes and prime movers, seeking to reunite it with the life experience of ordinary human beings. Unfortunately, though, this project has been paired with a vision of god that is so far removed from human language and from the popular image of god as a divine person that it winds up either looking entirely alien, or it looks so open to interpretation that there’s no real reason to prefer one religious tradition over any other.

With scripture, nature, ontology, and epistemology unable to deliver a solid rational foundation for belief in god, Theology Into the Myst endeavors to simplify and protect faith by going back to its roots in religious experience. But this inward turn nevertheless finds itself with a number of assumptions, some still familiar to the old theologies, and some posing unique problems. Theology Into the Myst loses itself in its fascination with mystery.

VI. The Future of the God Debates

Theologies and atheologies have been carrying on now for quite some time, continuously critiquing one another and shoring up their own defenses. After all this time, where do we find the god debates? Dr. Shook paints a historical picture that is ancient even while his discussions reference contemporary thinkers. This is in large part the strength of the classification of theologies in the book, as it succeeds in getting at the core of long-standing divergences in human conceptions of god and faith. On the other hand, if these god debates have been going on so long without much accomplished, how should we react to them? Are people so entrenched in their own positions that the debates themselves are fruitless? Certainly, there are plenty of people today who feel this way.

In the very first chapter, our author explains that the god debates will not be for everyone. They can often seem unpleasant and confrontational, but, he urges, we should not think of debate as being solely about winning. The point ought to be to learn from one another and to seek knowledge. In the last chapter, twelve worldviews of the current climate are outlined and considered, as Shook brings us up to date on the debate field. Diverse versions of naturalism, supernaturalism, secularism, and humanism now exist and call for distinction. Some naturalisms, like those of Dewey, Santayana, and Whitehead, avoid the reductive materialism that characterized many naturalistic views in the 20th century. Religious humanisms challenge Secular Humanism to acknowledge the debts it owes to its predecessors, and to take a less restrictive approach towards religion. Liberal Modernism has emerged on the scene as a serious contender with the aforementioned theologies and with skeptical atheism. Perhaps, then, things have evolved over the course of the god debates.

The future of the West, as well as the god debates within, rests mostly on the destiny of humanism, our author says. Western modernity’s present struggle is in ascertaining the relationship between reason and faith. A faith divorced from reason threatens to undermine the value of human beings just as much as an overly reductive materialism might. Ethical humanism is an option that places emphasis on reason and nature rather than on a faith divorced from these things. It offers a way forward that is not exclusively atheistic, but can be appreciated by religious individuals who also recognize the value of naturalism and reason. “A staunchly naturalistic yet faithfully ethical humanism might, in theory, supply the most powerful atheological counterbalance to mysticism and fundamentalism in the West,” as Dr. Shook puts it.3

If the god debates are to be more than just a sophistic quest for victory, they should likewise be about more than determining whose side the truth is on. They present an opportunity not only for logical dialogue but for ethical and sociological dialogue, too. The god debates have implications beyond the existence of god, implications that involve us and the people around us. The way in which we approach them – as theist, atheist, or someone in between – will make a difference in what we take away from them, in what others take away, and in how things go from hereon.

VII. A Closing Statement

The God Debates may not be what some would expect from the title. It is not an instruction manual for deconverting believers, nor is it a thorough analytical critique of the arguments for god. More true to its subtitle, the book is a guide to the current landscape of debate between the devout and the doubtful. Much of the work is survey, yet this gives it a depth of understanding practically unseen in any of the texts by Dawkins, Harris, or Hitchens. Believers will also appreciate the generally neutral tone of the author. Shook does not condescend to beliefs merely because they are religious, and he does not filter his discussion of the subject matter through an overtly atheistic lens. This indeed has something for everyone, and it serves as an excellent introduction to the main theological approaches and their atheological criticisms.

If you have found yourself lost in some of the god debates or even just want a fuller picture of what’s going on, this comes highly recommended. Of course, it has its limitations. Because of the great extent of the material surveyed here, individual arguments do not receive a lot of coverage by themselves, meaning that some discussions can feel incomplete. Many of the claims presented in the book are offered in a systematic and formal structure, which contributes to their clarity. However, certain readers may find this format uninviting or dry. I also noticed a large number of typos and spelling errors in the text that surprised me for a Wiley-Blackwell publication, although these mistakes are all very minor and do not detract from the material.

All that aside, there is much to enjoy and learn from in The God Debates, even for those already acquainted with its major areas of focus. The overview given throughout the book is thought-provoking and insightful on multiple fronts. The author’s awareness of so many domains of intersection with religion – the philosophical, the social, the personal, the ethical, etc. – and his attention to them sets a high standard for discourse that needs to be emulated in more of the god debates. Wherever you fall on the spectrum of belief, this book can help you understand your position, the history behind it, its relationship to alternative views, and the important options for moving forward in the modern world.

 
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Sources:
1. John Shook, The God Debates: A 21st Century Guide for Atheists and Believers (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), p. 53.
2. Ibid, p. 112.
3. Ibid, p. 221.