[Paperback] by John Loftus & Randal Rauser
Review by Mike Robinson
Is it necessary to bring in William Lane Craig (debate victor over numerous atheists)? Nope! As he has proved on his blog, and proves once again in a new book, God or Godless? Randal Rauser (MCS, Regent College; PhD, King’s College London; professor theology at Taylor Seminary) is one of those scholars who merit a dedicated readership. As a professor and blogger, he brings along that uncommon but still uncanny ability to make even the most tedious philosophical notions sound both attention-grabbing and comprehensible, while making an inherently difficult, incredibly unreceptive interlocutor seem somehow cordial (in contrast to Loftus’ well-earned reputation).
Unfortunately, what John Loftus (founder of the blog Debunking Christianity and author of Why I Became an Atheist) seems to be proving is that he’s not up to writing reasoned and sound responses to a scholar of Rauser’s education. What few blows Loftus lands represent a triumph of unremarkable skill over formatting space in a book that is more intellectual than his development permits (although Rauser in an interview said, “John does a good job presenting a deflationary picture of atheism”). Nonetheless, the mini-debates are not dull or trivial. Loftus’ words of bluster and pugnacity are often amusing and fun to read for both atheist and theist.
Each writer chose ten issues to present in the affirmative and his interlocutor responds in a counterpoint. A brief comeback is then offered in the affirmative followed by an even shorter reply. Every chapter ends with a petite conclusion. This makes for some gratifying reading. Never mind topics found in the most profound corridors of philosophy, the two combatants swing punch after punch—including some roundhouses—from its potent topics to its readable style God or Godless? reads like a discussion between two disagreeing associates. And no part of that comparison is meant as a slight. The short fluid chapters are engaging and easy to comprehend. The ten subjects from each writer (20 total) are written in clear text and this helps make God or Godless? unique among debate books—it covers a very extensive range of questions regarding the existence of God. This is one reason that it is great for the busy apologist or the atheistic non-specialist.
In this inventive volume, theistic philosopher Randal Rauser and self-styled atheist John Loftus participate in twenty brief debates including subjects such as:
- Christianity and Redemption
- Women and the Bible
- The Resurrection of Christ
- Moral Values
- The existence of God
- Significance and Purpose
- And more
Early on Rauser presses Loftus on the problem of arbitrary moral principles: “Interestingly, John’s own comments confirm this worry for he writes, ‘In every society we come up with the moral rules just as we do when it comes to speed limits on our highways [or] regulations for food preparation.’ So our moral principles are selected with the same arbitrariness as highway speed limits or modes of food preparation? ‘Sixty miles per hour on this stretch, oh, and no gang rape or murder for the next hundred miles please.’ Really? That’s it? John may not like divine command theory (though given his criticisms, I have to wonder how well he understands it), but he surely needs some transcendent source of moral valuation to avoid the moral relativism that even now is wrapping its tentacles around his oblivious appendages. … I believe moral values are objective and rooted in the necessity of the divine nature. John believes they are rooted in our subjective whims—whatever gets you through the night, it’s all right. On that point John and our retiring serial killer are in hearty agreement. Spot of tea anyone?” (pp. 30-34). Here Rauser straightforwardly rebuts Loftus’ position on moral principles, yet the reader can also enjoy a sense of humor which the combatants comingle with their argumentation throughout the pages.
Due to his own engrained precommitments Loftus offers a response that appears to miss the heart of Rauser’s argument: “Christians use this canard so often it’s nauseating. It seems self-evident to them, that is until they come to disbelieve. Then they will see things differently. The claim of Randal’s in this chapter presupposes that a supernatural being is doing the permitting. But which one? There are other conceptions of gods with their own moralities. And how does this being communicate to us what is permitted? Isn’t it evident that the Christian God has not effectively done so, given the biblical record and the history of the church? There is no evidence that a Christian God is needed for morality since many non-Christian cultures have done very well for themselves in their own time periods with no Christian influence at all, such as Greece during the Golden Age, the Roman Empire, China, and Japan. This is nothing but a parochial, narrow-minded, and uniformed claim. I think all a believer has to do is travel the globe to see this” (p. 31-32).
In contrast to Rauser’s perdurable reasons for theistic morality Loftus often posits rough assertions with little reasoned justification. Typical of his forceful assertions is the following: “…morality evolves. That’s what we know. That’s what we see in the Bible and the church too” (p. 34-35). Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but I would have liked a bit more systematic discourse from the atheist side.
Both contestants offer numerous illustrations to support their positions. This will help the reader understand and remember the arguments. Rauser observes: “I once heard of a women who was so enamored with her Harley Davidson that she decided to marry it. Unfortunately, while a motorcycle provides a great mode of transportation, it was never intended to serve as a marital partner. I think of that as I consider secularists who have become so enamored with science that they have elevated it to be the source of transcendent meaning and purpose. While science provides a great mode of enquiry into the natural world, it was never intended to provide transcendent meaning and purpose. … Of course, John doesn’t think these secularists are worshiping science or the natural world because he defines worship as ‘an act of religious devotion directed to one or more deities.’ But worship doesn’t require a deity. Worship is simply honor or deference paid to anything one regards as sacred, worthy of veneration, or one’s ultimate concern. As a result, while God can be the object of worship, so can the scientific method, the natural world, or even super-aliens. Needless to say, the fact that you can worship the universe doesn’t mean you should any more than the willingness of a magistrate to officiate at unconventional weddings means you should ride your Harley Fat Boy down the aisle” (pp. 50-51).
Rauser then offers this challenge: “Does John disagree with Wilson and Raymo’s panegyrics to science and the natural world? Does he eschew Sagan’s existential longing for little green men? He doesn’t say. John is right; worship is directed to something specific. And Wilson, Raymo, and Sagan all have very specific objects to which they ascribe maximal worth-ship” (p. 52).
The atheist responds: “Randal is playing a meaningless language game over the word worship, but it changes nothing. We don’t build cathedrals for people to congregate for prayer to long-dead scientists, nor are their words authoritative unless we can verify them. Nor do we do this for the universe science has discovered” (p. 52). I’m not sure if Loftus fully understood the main thrust of Rauser’s argument, but the exchange is worth reading more than once.
In one of my favorite sections the theist offers the following word-picture to help the reader firmly grasp an argument from causation: “If you spend any time listening to golden oldies radio, you’ve probably heard Tony Orlando’s seventies hit, ‘Knock Three Times.’ The song is sung from the perspective of a lonely fellow who hears a knocking sound on the water wipes in his wall. Most of us, if we hear a knocking sound on our pipes, will probably assume that it is just produced by the changing temperature of hot water running through the pipes. But when this lonely fellow hears the knocking, he concludes that it is produced by the pretty girl living in the apartment below, presumably as some sort of flirtatious Morse code. Emboldened by this belief, the lonely fellow sings back to the girl to knock three times if she’d like him to come down and visit. Gosh, I hope for his sake that it wasn’t just the hot water. In addition to being a fine introduction to the creepy side of seventies pop music ‘Knock Three Times’ is also a great way to introduce two kinds of causation much discussed by philosophers:
Event causation: the process in which one event causally contributes to another event.
Agent causation: the process in which an agent undertakes to cause an event and this undertaking does cause that event.”
Rauser then proceeds to his detailed supposition vis-à-vis agent causation: “Interestingly, these definitions are sufficiently broad that every event can be explained as the result of one or the other. That is, it was either caused by another event or by an agent. If we heard those pipes knocking, we’d probably conclude that a mere event cause (e.g., hot water) was at play. But our lonely fellow believes that an agent cause (i.e., the pretty girl) created the knock as a way to say hello. Note the reference to undertaking in the definition of agent causation. This signals a key difference between event and agent causes. If you attribute something to an event, then it begs the question of a prior cause for that event. For example, if you explain the knocking pipes with recourse to the hot water flow, then you require another cause to explain the hot water flow. This may lead you back to the boiler, but then you need yet another cause to explain the boilers function, and so on. Agent causes are different since the explanation for their effects is rooted not in the prior event cause but rather in a reason, intention or desired outcome. Thus agents can act to initiate new events without any prior determining event cause: they can choose to act. And in that sense they act as a sui generis cause. Given the exhaustive nature of these two explanations, any particular event is the result either of a prior event or an agent. In the same way that we inquire about the cause of particular events in the universe like the knocking of pipes, so we can inquire about that truly stupendous event that happened 13.7 billion years ago when, according to the cosmologists, the universe sprang into existence out of nothing. As we seek cause to explain events in our experience, so we reasonably seek a cause to understand this grandest of all events. But which type of cause is the most plausible? The prospects of appealing to an event cause to explain the universe’s origin are bleak for the reason already noted: event causes beg the question of prior causes. As a result, if we appeal to an event then we have to explain all the events prior to that event, and this leads to an infinite regress of causes that ultimately explains nothing. In addition, it is wholly ad hoc since we have no experience of infinite casual regresses. Finally, it offers no explanation of what caused this mysterious, infinite, casual series, and thus it is really a pseudo-explanation. This dilemma recalls the father who explains to his son that the earth rests on a turtle (an event cause). Then when his son asks what the turtle rests on, the father replies that it is turtles all the way down. Even if appealing to an infinite series of event causes manages to satisfy the curiosity of a child, it is not adequate as a metaphysical explanation of the universe” (pp. 61-63).
Regarding agent causation he concludes: “This leaves us with one remaining option: an agent cause who can simply act out of will to bring about a novel event. This is exactly the kind of causation we require to explain the universe, one that is sui generis and thus can avoid the fatal infinite regress. Once we recognize that the only viable causal explanation is an agent, we can inquire about its identity. Not surprisingly, when the event to be explained is the absolute origination of the material universe (the whole shebang) there is only one viable agent cause, and that is God” (p. 61-63). For the Christian, this segment of the book is particularly helpful.
Loftus of course rejects God as the agent of causation. The theist replies to Loftus’ abjuration: “John thinks we should wait for science to explain the universe’s origin. He suggests, for example, that the ‘concept of inertia’ (that is, Newton’s first law of motion) does away with the need for an ‘unmoved mover’ (that is, an agent cause). But this reflects a fundamental failure to understand the problem. The entire universe including all its energy and matter—Newton’s first law of motion—and even time itself sprang into existence out of nothing 13.7 billion years ago. Science can study the universe once it exists, but it can never explain what brought it into existence. To do that you reason not from a gap of ignorance but rather from the only type of cause known to be capable of producing the observed effect: an agent of great power. If that looks a lot like God, then so be it” (p. 66).
Loftus then offers a heart-felt denial: “With Randal’s God explanation there is no reason to investigate why the universe exists, since he says science can’t do this. This is the standard theistic response to the unsolved mysteries of the past. Why keeping betting on faith to solve them when it has solved nothing so far?”
God or Godless? discusses various philosophical notions, but the two authors also explore many concrete and evidential disputes as well. Concerning the historical claims of the New Testament Rauser offers some judicious thoughts: “Any testimony that is embarrassing to one’s cause is more likely to be true because it would not have been included otherwise. So it seems highly unlikely that the general incredulity of the brothers of Jesus toward his teaching and ministry would have been included if it had not been true. As a result, the evidence supports the fact that James was not a disciple of Jesus during his brother’s life and ministry. This makes it all the more incredible that after the death of Jesus, James emerged as the de facto leader of the Jerusalem Christians (see Acts 15:13; 21:18; Gal. 1:19; 2:9, 12). This testimony is confirmed in Jewish historian Josephus’ work Antiquities where he observes that James was martyred in Jerusalem in AD 62. But how did this happen? How did an intelligent man (you don’t become a leader of the Jerusalem Christians without being intelligent) become persuaded that his crucified brother was the Messiah? Deuteronomy 21:23 teaches that ‘anyone hung on a tree is under God’s course’ (NRSV). If anything, James would have viewed the crucifixion as a confirmation of his suspicions. And yet inexplicably, he became a leader of the Christians.”
Rauser lingers as he defends the reliability of the Resurrection witnesses: “Paul explains why in 1 Corinthians 15 (written ca. AD 50-51), where he recounts a teaching he had received from others: ‘For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance’ (1 Cor. 15:3). This is technical, rabbinic phrasing. One does not innovate or embellish rabbinic teaching but instead passes in on faithfully. What was it that Paul received? He explains: Christ died, was buried, and was raised. And ‘raised’ here is clearly a bodily resurrection, which is made abundantly clear in the rest of the chapter (as well as in the background Jewish worldview of the time). Next, Paul lists in this teaching several names of those who witnessed the risen Jesus and thereby became converts to him, including James, the brother of Jesus.”
Rauser continues to press his resurrection apologia: “What is the best explanation for James’ belief that he had seen his brother raised? Obviously legend is not a plausible explanation. There simply is no time for a legend to develop here, and James’ own leadership in the church and martyrdom attests to his belief. One may think that James saw a vision, but remember, he believed his brother died under God’s curse. Visions come within a climate of background expectation. A hypnotist or magician doesn’t call the scowling skeptic in the audience up on stage. He chooses the fawning fan on the edge of her seat, ready to be manipulated. So James was definitely not susceptible to seeing a vision. So then what? Did James get pulled into an elaborate conspiracy? To what end? So that he could be martyred? The historian who seeks to reconstruct past events based on available evidence needs something to work with here. If you want to posit a non-miraculous reconstruction of the events you can do so, but it has to work with all the available data and be plausible. For those not closed a priori to the invocation of miraculous causes, the bodily resurrection of Jesus remains the most plausible explanation for the transformation of James. Consider it this way: My brother is a fine chap. But to believe he’s the Messiah? That would take nothing short of a miracle” (p. 158-159).
As the volume nears an end Rauser offers this challenge: “Live as if Christianity is true. Begin exploring the rich intellectual and spiritual resources of the Christian tradition. Find a community of Christians with whom you can relate openly and honestly by sharing your beliefs and your doubts. Seek to live out the faith you do not yet fully possess through works of mercy and righteousness as you study, reflect, and learn. And then just see what happens. Most of all, never give up your tireless pursuit of that which none greater can be conceived” (p. 177).
Loftus pushes his conclusion with force in the following entreaty: “If they refuse to do this [critical religious self-examination], I merely ask them why the double standard? Why treat other religions differently than you do your own? Believers should be skeptical of what they were taught to accept given the proliferation of so many other religions and sects separated into distinct regions on the planet who learned their religion in the same way—on their mama’s knee” (p. 182). Not me. I was raised irreligious. I came to Christ when I was nineteen. I gave my whole life to Jesus after I researched and studied countless religions and atheism. I found that Christianity alone was true inasmuch as it had substantial quantities of evidence. Moreover, by God’s grace I discovered that Jesus is not only merciful, He’s wonderful.
It’s obvious that this reviewer is biased and holds robust Christian presuppositions. I do not apologize for this since Christianity is true and atheism is false. Furthermore, I owe it to my readers to offer my opinion on this important volume and not merely furnish a dry arcane review. During a memorable scene in the movie Quiz Show, a character queries, “If you look around the table and you can’t tell who the sucker is, it’s you.” That flick was about the scandal surrounding a long-forgotten game show. Might as well make a flick about the militant atheists of the 2000s. Sometimes people are suckers. Despite the beauty of the transcendent, objective moral values, the grace and mercy of Christ, there remains a pervasive threat from professional skeptics and e-atheists. And many of their followers not only miss the hope and glory, they get suckered into anti-theism. I hope this book assists numerous people—people who may have been hoodwinked into antitheism and after reading this volume seek the truth found in Christ.
Because Loftus makes up for his lack of sound argumentation with stimulating rhetoric, firm bravado, and undiminished confidence neo-atheists will enjoy much of what he stipulates and the style of his presentation. This, together with Rauser’s well-reasoned and often witty argumentation, makes for an enjoyable read.
This volume is not without flaws. Sometimes it teeters close to an oversimplification of perplexing theoretical and theological issues (due to space limitations and Loftus’ lack of philosophical gravitas). Though not consummately trained, Loftus roams happily in unfamiliar fields—amid the erudition and epistemic nimbleness of a skilled academic. But the honesty of the exchanges, the significance of the topics and Rauser’s ability to convey the truth of God in Christ overshadow those inconsequential elements. Even though I maintain a different apologetic methodology and a dissimilar theological approach than Rauser, I truly enjoyed this book. God or Godless? is a work I recommend to apologists and atheists.