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The God DebatesReview - The God Debates
A 21st Century Guide for Atheists and Believers (and Everyone in Between)
by John R. Shook
Wiley-Blackwell, 2010
Review by Tuomas Manninen
Feb 22nd 2011 (Volume 15, Issue 8)

One of the goals of theology is to provide reasons for accepting the particular religion's claims.  In contrast, atheology offers a critique of those reasons.  Given how theology is necessarily connected to a specific religion, so is atheology; there is no such thing as theology in the abstract and, for the same reason, atheology is always aimed at a particular religion.  The arguments that John Shook discusses in The God Debates pertain almost exclusively to Christian theology (and atheology), although he submits that they could be applied to other religions.

Per the title, Shook presents the book as a guide to believers and atheists alike (as well as to those in-between).  Chapter 1 lays out the rationale behind this.  Shook asks: "If religions benefit from comparison and discussion, why can't the nonreligious join the ecumenical conversation?  Surely, 'belief in god' cannot be a prerequisite for getting a seat in the table.  What god would a participant have to accept first?" (p.2).  In short, what makes interfaith dialogue possible is that each party recognizes that the opponents have reasons for their beliefs, even if they don't subscribe to those reasons.  Shook approaches the 'god debates' from this perspective: the prerequisite for the conversation seems to be friendly theism -- or friendly atheism (these terms, as well as their unfriendly counterparts, were coined by William Rowe [1979]; they are further explicated in Rowe [2010]).  In short, as long as all the parties to the conversation acknowledge that the opponents' positions are rational, one could proceed with a reasoned discussion. 

In chapter 1, Shook outlines the different meanings that 'religious debate' can have.  Shook wants to separate his contribution -- an overview on philosophical theology and philosophical atheology -- from religious criticism.  As Shook submits, questions of theology are independent of the conduct of believers and nonbelievers alike.  In taking this approach, Shook is able to sidestep the status quo of much of the contemporary debates about religion, which tend to digress into a shouting match about whose belief system has caused more human casualties in the history.

In Chapter 2, Shook reviews the traditional arguments common in Christian theology -- ontological, cosmological, teleological, and revelation arguments -- and submits that they are in dire need of updating.  This is not just due to the advances in sciences, but also to the changing nature of religious practices since the initial formulation of the arguments.  In redrawing the landscape, Shook draws from the general tasks of Christian theology, which he identifies as "explain scripture, rival science, explain creation, secure religious knowledge, explore religious experience" (p.32).  Corresponding to these tasks, Shook proposes a tentative taxonomy of five categories: Theology from the Scripture, Theology from the World, Theology Beyond the World, Theology in the Know, and Theology Into the Myst.  The arguments that fit in each of these categories, as well as the distinct aims of each type of theology, are explored in the subsequent chapters (Chapters 3-7), where each argument is paired with the atheological rebuttals.  The arguments that Shook analyzes are mostly generic (with minimal exceptions); one reason for this is simply their ubiquitous nature.  Due to space constraints, I will limit my discussion just the broader themes of the arguments.

          Chapter 3 focuses on the significance of the scripture.  For a scriptural religion like Christianity, the scriptures clearly play a crucial role in apologetics.  However, if the scripture is approached with the methods of scientific history, the case for Jesus' divinity can be seen as inconclusive.  Shook is painstakingly careful to establish scientific history as a neutral critic, which is biased neither in favor of nor in opposition to Christian gospel.    Focusing on the history of the gospels, Shook details the composition of the Christian Bible, showing that the claims it presents cannot meet the standards which we demand of other historical writings.  The chapter concludes with a critical assessment of theological pseudo-history, or an attempt to give the gospel account an air of legitimacy.  Ultimately, Shook submits, just because the scripture does not amount to historical evidence, it does not follow that it is utterly without value.  At this junction, Shook brings up Liberal Modernism as a viable alternative for revising Christian theology, but this discussion gets deferred until the final chapter.

          The next two chapters deal with Theology From the World (Chapter 4) and Theology Beyond the World (Chapter 5).  Here Shook reviews the arguments that purport to show that scientific mysteries are best accounted for by theological explanations.  Nevertheless, these arguments falter: replacing one mystery (about the natural world) by another, religious one, does not amount to an explanation.  Likewise, the advances in the sciences have pushed theology into retreat; employing the god-of-the-gaps argument (which posits god as the explanation for something that science presently cannot explain) puts the believer in a pernicious situation: what happens when science advances and finds the answer?  Similar considerations cannot be avoided when the focus is shifted from particular aspects of the world to the world (or, Universe) as a whole.

The atheological rebuttals show that the three types of theology -- On the Scripture, From the World, and Beyond the World -- are less than conclusive.  If one accepts the principles of evidence, reason, and logic -- which, Shook argues, are neutral -- then theological arguments can seemingly degenerate into pseudo-history, pseudo-science, or pseudo-cosmology.  One response to this predicament takes the form of Theology in the Know, which purports to inoculate Christian theology against all atheological rebuttals.  But in its attempt, it subverts the principles of rationality; if one of the goals of theology is to offer reasons for theistic beliefs, Theology in the Know (especially in its presuppositional form) fails to do so.  A close analysis shows that the closed system of presuppositionalism may be impervious to criticism, but only because it is question-begging: one would first have to accept the core concepts of Christian theology, which are precisely at the heart of the debate.  As such, Theology in the Know has become pseudo-theology, which bears only superficial similarity to the goals of Christian theology of providing reasons for one's belief. 

In the penultimate chapter, on Theology Into the Myst, Shook moves away from theology that offers epistemic reasons for theism, and focuses on the role of religious experience and faith.  Again, through the atheological responses, Shook shows that the mystical theology is of little help to Christianity.  Although it may be a defensible position for a believer, it does not provide anything specifically Christian.  

After discussing each five types of theologies, and challenging their arguments with the respective atheological responses, Shook moves on to assess the status of the god debates.  The preceding chapters, according to Shook, show that each theology is matched by atheology -- as expected of "two well-designed intellectual systems" (p.204).  Each of the five theologies is shown to be less than conclusive at best, or to digress into pseudo-history, pseudo-science, pseudo-cosmology, pseudo-theology, or pseudo-faith at worst.  A believer who has reached the final chapter may find herself questioning whether Shook's arguments have betrayed his earlier apparent commitment to friendly atheism.  However, this question is thoroughly answered as Shook explores ways of revising theology.  Shook is careful not to betray his stance of friendly atheism, even though his skepticism towards the traditional theological arguments is noticeable.  At the same time, it would be unfair to consider Shook entirely siding with, e.g., the New Atheists.  Shook does point to Richard Dawkins' responses to the argument from design (ch.4.3), but he is quick to note how Dawkins' charge is limited in its scope.

Shook begins the final chapter by outlining Liberal Modernism as a serious contender to more traditional theology.  Next, he moves to introduce no fewer than twelve world views and their interrelations, and ends by reflecting on challenges that face individuals -- both believers and nonbelievers alike.  Granted, this set of twelve views could be further clarified when mapped onto the world religions.  Moreover, Shook's basic picture could no doubt be challenged, but the full panoply Shook offers undoubtedly provides fertile ground for developing the god debates well into the 21st century.  

Admittedly, not all of the sections of the book are of even quality; in particular, the discussion on problem of evil (chapter 5.4) stood out in its brevity.  However, given the ground covered by Shook, this is not a devastating flaw.  Another -- and seemingly more significant -- drawback is the treatment that Shook gives to the traditional theological arguments and to the atheological responses to them.  As an example, consider the well-known (and well-worn) watchmaker argument formulated by William Paley; Shook's discussion of this argument presents only the generic structure, and the rebuttal he presents can be traced back to David Hume's (in)famous criticism.  However, this is nowhere made explicit.  As said, Shook's focus is on the generic form of the arguments.  Now, it is one thing to argue -- as Shook does -- that the god debates need to be brought up to speed so that they reflect our contemporary understanding of the sciences, and the contemporary religious practices.  Here my concern is that Shook overplays the significance of this at the cost of divorcing the arguments from their historical roots. 

          Here, consider J. S. Mill's point, that in order to thoroughly learn the justification for one's views, one needs to hear the objections from the opposite side -- and here it won't do to just hear the generic arguments.  In Mill's own words:

Nor is it enough that he should hear the arguments of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they state them, and accompanied by what they offer as refutations. This is not the way to do justice to the arguments, or bring them into real contact with his own mind. He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them (Mill [1869: Ch.2, para.23]).

Shook is admirably even-handed and judicious in his assessment of the theological arguments, but it is clear that he finds them less than conclusive.  In this respect, Shook's contribution to the god debates would have improved, had he provided a more detailed guide to the history of the arguments and their sources.

As a philosophy instructor (who frequently teaches philosophy of religion), I find Shook's book to be comprehensive in its coverage.  The theological arguments, as well as the atheological responses to them, are presented in accessible terms, and analyzed perspicuously.  At the same time, Shook does not come across as a champion to atheism.  In the first chapter, Shook urges the reader to dispense with the notion of debate as competition where a concession amounts to admitting defeat.  Thus, someone looking for an up-to-date version of B.C. Johnson's The Atheist Debater's Handbook [1983] would be best served elsewhere.  Rather, as the goal of the book is to educate both believers and nonbelievers in the contemporary god debates, it can be commended for fulfilling it -- with the following caveat.  The generic nature of the arguments Shook discusses amounts to a trade-off: the discussion is informative enough for the general audiences interested in the god debates.  However, someone with a more scholarly interest, or with an eye to studying the arguments and their rebuttals in further detail would have benefited from more substantial resources than Shook provides.    

 

References:

Johnson, B.C.  1983.  The Atheist Debater's Handbook.  Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

Mill, John Stuart.  1869.  On Liberty.  London: Longman, Roberts & Green.  Available online at: http://www.bartleby.com/130/

Rowe, William.  1979.  "The problem of evil and some varieties of atheism," American Philosophical Quarterly 16, 335-341.

Rowe, William.  2010.  "Friendly atheism revisited," International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 68, 7-13.

 

© 2011 Tuomas Manninen

 

Tuomas Manninen is a Lecturer in Philosophy at the Arizona State University at the West Campus.  He wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on the metaphysics of personhood at the University of Iowa in 2007.

 


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