Friday, April 17, 2009

Eric Reitan: Is God a Delusion?

I don't normally deal with issues related to atheism on this blog because the focus is on varieties of belief and engagement between adherents of these belief and ritual systems, but a recent couple of articles at religion dispatches caught my eye for a few reasons.

An article touches on the "new atheism," that brand of very vocal atheism now found in various expressions in pop culture, particularly through authors like Richard Dawkins. Eric Reitan is the author of Is God a Delusion? A Reply to Religion's Cultured Despisers (Wiley-Blackwell, 208) and in an interview at religion dispatches he makes a few points that demonstrate problems on both sides of belief and disbelief. For example, his research into the misrepresentation of Thomas Aquinas' arguments for God's existence by Richard Dawkins, and the development of his arguments for atheism from these misrepresentations, led him to the writing of his book. Interestingly, Reitan points out that both Christians and atheists frequently allege that the natural result of either atheism or theism is immorality and irrationality. Reitan is careful to point out flaws in both sides of this debate, and he calls for representatives of these belief systems to move beyond this problematic rhetoric.

Reitan also reminds us that arguments for "a fundamentally mysterious reality beyond the empirical world" do not have to be all or nothing, either proving God's existence beyond a reasonable doubt or tossed aside as of no value. Reitan states that "Just because an argument doesn’t take us all the way to God doesn’t mean it’s irrelevant to the case for theism." Christians, especially apologists, need this helpful reminder, along with a dose of epistemic and sociological humility in the process of developing arguments for theism.

Finally, in the interview Reitan mentions the influence of Marilyn McCord Adams through her book Christ and Horrors: The Coherence of Christology (Cambridge University Press, 2006). Adams develops the thesis that evil is central to Christian theology and that "incarnation and crucifixion as God’s solution to the problem." The title and topic are intriguing, and I've added it to my "to be purchased" list.

I applaud the efforts of writers like Reitan who seek to move representatives of belief and unbelief beyond the rhetoric which preaches to the choir so that individual constituencies can cheer for their heroes and takes us to more promising attempts at understanding and engagement.


Matt Stone said...

I agree that Christians and Atheists frequently end up talking past each other on morality. Personally I think everyone has a moral system of some sorts, including Atheists. What I find problematic though is their flip flopping between moral relativism on one hand, and their condemnation of Christian morality on the other. If morality is what we make it, on what basis do they criticise other systems.

Burk Braun said...

The reason they criticize other systems such as Christianity is because such systems try to raise themselves above the hurly-burly of mutual debate and discussion by claiming special sanction.. "god told us to not kill embryos", or "Pope X told us infallibly that condoms are bad, so they are".

The hypocrisy in such positions is eye-popping, and lack of >humility< is both galling and philosophically unsound. Atheists have no problem discussing morals and moral issues, but to have theists play their faith cards and think that moral philosophy somehow boils down to scriptural exegesis or discernment through prayer is debasing to any such discussion.

John W. Morehead said...

Burk, I appreciate your thoughts but don't think it paints the whole picture, or necessarily the most accurate one. On a popular level Christians may quote Scripture and use this as a leading or sole authority in moral matters, but there are also Christian and other theistic scholars who base their case on ethical and philosophical arguments.

Burk Braun said...

Yes, I was loose in my depiction. But there is no way for scholars to base their cases theistically without pulling rank in the way I pointed to above, whether it is through some kind of prayerful discernment, or the magical corpus of body of the church, or the principles handed down by scripture, etc. The entire point of theism is to claim a special relationship (private in the cases of prayer, mysticism, etc., or public in the case of Catholicism, the church fathers and their authority, etc.).

Reitan is an outstanding example of this kind of thinking, preserving in the face of all evidence and reason a proclaimed "open-ness" to true cognition through transcendent experience, whatever that means. No special transcendent discernment equals no theism and no god, and thus also no theistic moral arguments. Even the simplest postulate of absolute morals demands some source or certifier for those morals, staked once again on the same dubious premises.

For all of Reitan's virtues, he is still not facing up squarely to the new atheist arguments by his tactics of weaseling an openness to the possibility of supernatural mumbo jumbo. The extraordinary claims of theism, even in this watered-down version of possibility and "hope" of deeper realms, sources of all being, etc. go far, far beyond the evidence of what our brains can supply when they are, in essence, day-dreaming. I have a parting critique here.

John W. Morehead said...

Burk, you missed my point. Not all theists argue or rest their case in the way in which you state. Case in point: Alister McGrath, who has interacted extensively with one of the key New Atheists in Richard Dawkins, and has provided substantial critique and counter-argument in favor of theism based upon various forms of argument, not citation of theistic authority or experience. I'm afraid your comments illustrate exactly what Reitan spoke of in the tendency of atheists and Christians to talk past each other.

Sketch Sepahi said...

Matt Stone, very few atheists actually subscribe to moral relativism. It's a misconception at best - if not a blatant lie - purported by the New Theists that morality is non-relativistic if and only if one subscribes to Divine Command Theory and that atheism necessarily requires that "morality is what we make it."

Burk Braun said...

John- It escapes me how one can rest a case for theistic ethics without referring to a god about which we really know little or nothing, other than by scriptures, mystical experiences, and the like. "Various forms of argument" sounds like normal philosophy, possibly even common sense, which would then turn out to be non-theistic.

It is great if theistic philosophers argue such cases, but what that has to do with their belief, religion, or what Eric Reitan is talking about is somewhat mysterious.

Sketch- This may depend on what you mean by moral relativism. If your criteria do not refer to god or some other imaginary totem with supposedly absolute demands/teachings, I think many would accuse you of selling relativism. I see morals as arising from our inborn and cultivated human natures (especially desires), combined with out reasoning about how to get to desired outcomes. Some would call that relativistic, since while human nature may be relatively stable, it is not uniform either across individuals or groups.

John W. Morehead said...

Burk, I don't think that the metaethical arguments presented by theistic philosophers can be so casually dismissed because you want to restrict knowledge and experience of the divine to forms that atheists might be more comfortable with.

And why must various forms of argument, philosophy, or common sense, be construed as atheistic? Surely they can also be forms of reasoning engaged in by creatures produced by a deity, depending upon one's assumptions.

At any rate, in my view Reitan does a good job at occupying a middle ground that is open to and challenges viewpoints on either side of the metaphysical divide.

Sketch Sepahi said...

Burk, I agree that many would accuse me of selling so-called moral relativism (though what they really mean is moral subjectivism, but that's a whole different kettle of fish). However, that's primarily a reflection on their limited framework, isn't it? As for your imaginary totems with absolute demands/teachings, I have three points. 1. Such an imaginary totem isn't necessarily a god and hence would be perfectly consistent with atheism, 2. You don't have to refer to any imaginary totem inasmuch as you can arrive at moral universalism by appeals to rational reasoning alone (I'm not saying you can, I'm just saying that I haven't seen any justification for why it would be a priori inconceivable). And 3. To insist upon the actual existence of the "imaginary totem" as a necessary requirement for meta-ethics seems to me as suspiciously close to an Is/ought fallacy. Surely adherence to an ideal of what we ought to do is not hinged upon the actual existence - physical or otherwise - of this ideal. A goal doesn't have to be an actual location, or even attainable. It can very well be an imagined state of affairs to strive toward.

Burk Braun said...

Hi, John-

Here is a sample quote from McGrath I dug up with minimal effort:

I want to suggest that a recovery of Christian doctrine is fundamental to a recovery of Christian ethics. In other words, Christian doctrine is what sets Christian ethics apart from the ethics of the world around us. It defines what is distinctive, what is Christian, about Christian ethics. To lose sight of the importance of doctrine is to lose the backbone of faith and to open the way to a spineless ethic.


It is doctrine that explains why and how Jesus' words and deeds have divine rather than purely human authority. It is doctrine that singles out Jesus Christ, and none other, as being God incarnate.

I think that neatly makes my case.