Friday, February 28, 2014

Book Review: True Reason

“True Reason,” a collection of essays edited by Tom Gilson and Carson Weitnauer, is an excellent, must-read book on the popular level. Directed against New Atheism, this collection has several highlights. There are 19 essays, and I don’t plan to review each one individually. Gilson and Weitnauer take the first two essays, respectively, to frame the issue. The mission of the book, they say, is to open the reader’s eyes in the arena of rationality. The New Atheists often use “reason” as a buzzword, or some kind of synonym for “atheism,” but this usage is often inappropriate. Further, the implicit (and sometimes explicit) claim is that Christians (and other theists) are operating irrationally, acting only on an unexamined faith which is, by definition, contrary to all logical thought. I think Gilson and Weitnauer here are largely successful; the reader will understand precisely the aim of the book.

There is a now-famous essay by William Lane Craig that has been reprinted, with permission, from another work. Craig makes short work of the “best” of New Atheist guru Richard Dawkins’ arguments against God. If one is already familiar with Craig’s essay, then she can skip on to the next: otherwise, it’s highly recommended.

Gilson takes the time to answer the question, “Are theistic arguments logical?”, and he does so in a case-study format. Examining the Craig-Sam Harris debate concerning the “moral landscape” and the foundations of morality, Gilson skillfully (and fairly) shows that, whatever one thinks of the truth of Craig’s contentions, it was Craig, not Harris, engaging in rational discourse (more than once, Gilson took pains to point out that Craig might be entirely wrong and Harris correct—his only point was to show Craig was being rational, while Harris refused to engage the argument).

One of the essays I found to be most fascinating was David Marshall’s on John Loftus’ “Outsider Test for Faith” (hereafter OTF). OTF is as follows:

1.     “People who are located in distinct geographical areas . . . overwhelmingly adopt and justify a wide diversity of religious faith due to their particular upbringing and shared cultural heritage, and most of these faiths are mutually exclusive.
2.     To an overwhelming degree, one’s religious faith is causally dependent on brain processes, cultural conditions, and irrational thinking patterns.
3.     Therefore, it is highly likely that any given religious faith is false.
4.     In practice, one should hence test one’s religion ‘from the perspective of an outsider, a nonbeliever, with the same level of reasonable skepticism believers already use when examining the other religious faiths they reject.’” (p. 77)

Now, the point of Marshall’s essay is to show that Loftus’ contention that OTF is opposed by Christians because they know Christianity will fail is demonstrably false, historically. This we will return to in a moment. First, Marshall casually mentions that (3) doesn’t follow from (1-2); I think, however, we can rescue OTF pretty easily from this malady. Consider:

OTF1. If, to an overwhelming degree, one’s religious faith is causally dependent on brain processes, cultural conditions, and irrational thinking patterns, then it is highly likely their religious belief is false.

It’s worth noting Loftus might resent this oversimplification, because he wants to include all other religions as live options for complete pictures. So let’s include that fact in our consideration of (OTF1). Marshall mentions that (OTF1) is nonetheless an example of the genetic fallacy (p. 78). I think this is less than clear. Why? Because Loftus includes, in (OTF1), that irrational thinking patterns have helped causally inform particular religious beliefs. Surely we wouldn’t want to say, given that such-and-such a belief is formed in an irrational manner, that it is just as likely true as false? If I bang my head into the wall four times, and announce that on this basis I now am a devotee of the Easter Bunny, you’re just as likely to suspect I have a concussion as anything else—but surely you (nor I) don’t thereby gain some support for the premise that the Easter Bunny is real. I think that, all things being equal, if a belief is formed for irrational reasons, we can safely say, epistemologically, that there’s no reason to regard it as true, and even some reason to say it is false.

The crucial question then becomes two-fold: Are all things equal?, and Do people form their belief in God in an irrational thinking pattern? The latter question demands that we see reason to think that we have been irrational in our thinking about God. That will require an account of rationality and that our belief in God has arisen from something contrary to rationality (or irrationality). As Alvin Plantinga has argued, it’s not even clear this can be done without appealing to the de facto question of whether or not God exists. The former question is evidential: we can only conclude that our religious beliefs are false or very likely false if we don’t have countervailing evidence (of course, if we already have these evidences, it’s very unlikely we meet condition [2] of Loftus’ argument, and so [OTF] doesn’t really have any application for us).

The rest of Marshall’s essay, however, is an excellent discussion on other world religions and conversions. I was especially happy to see his reference of the great African scholar John Mbiti. One should charitably read Marshall at this point in saying that other world religions do in fact contain shadows of truth; the true God’s witness of Himself in the real world, even if it has been diluted and perverted.

Lenny Esposito has an excellent work on the argument from reason. Recent conversations I have had with believers indicate that many Christians are now viewing the argument from reason as one of the most powerful for confirming their faith and using in conversations. Referencing Victor Reppert and C.S. Lewis before him, Esposito carefully explains why he thinks that God is the ultimate foundation for reasoning and logical rationality. The idea is that naturalism is purported to account for reasoning, but naturalism doesn’t seem to be able to get us the ability to actually reason, just something approximating it (like a laptop computer or a smartphone, for example). He asks an important question: “In a universe where only physics and chance are at play in shaping its inhabitants, why should we believe that we can discover truth by reason?” (p. 101) It’s a question that must be answered by the naturalist.

David Wood continues, discussing the explanatory bereft-ness of atheism. Some people may see this as a scandalous claim, but Wood thinks it follows using the issues of the cosmological argument, the teleological argument, the argument from consciousness, the arguments from reason and logic, the argument from induction, and the argument from value. Essentially, naturalism has no explanation for any of these things.

Marhsall later has another essay, this time with Tim McGrew, on a historical perspective on faith and reason. Anything with Tim McGrew in it is going to be good. They infer, “Faith, in this sense, is not irrational, but it does involve trust . . . trust in other people” (p. 150). In McGrew’s typical style, it is a true historical investigation into what believers have said and thought about faith—and they show it’s not a blind leap in the dark. Additionally, they show that early Christian figures, like Origen, were all too ready to appeal to available evidences and reasoning to show or to defend what they believed (p. 156).

Chapter 13 is perhaps the most relevant essay to the popular level today. It is on whether or not there is a true conflict between science and Christianity. Sean McDowell attempts to tackle this issue. After listing several Christians in a historical survey who supported and furthered science to great effect, he addresses the issue of Galileo, and how that has been misrepresented to a degree (p. 193). McDowell correctly identified the root of the argument/problem: it’s not science vs. religion, but theism vs. naturalism (p. 195). He then turns, a la Plantinga, to showing that there is a conflict, after all: the conflict of the religious view of naturalism with science itself (pp. 196-97). At the very least, it will raise questions that true seekers cannot merely brush aside. The next essay involves Gilson triumphantly declaring that McDowell “demonstrated” that there is no conflict, but I don’t really think that’s an overstatement of the case!

The essay by Matthew Flannagan on the purported genocide of the Canaanites was brilliantly done. Essentially, Flannagan argues that there is some reason to think that, in the ancient near east, hyperbolic language was employed. This is because Joshua and Judged are to be taken as one unit, and if one does that, he will discover that “Joshua conquered the whole land and yet Judges states that much of the land was unconquered” (p. 258). The idea is not that there’s a contradiction, but that it disappears when we understand the literary devices and intent that the authors had.

Glenn Sunshine provides a much-needed look at Christianity and slavery, and Weitnauer finishes off with concluding thoughts in an epilogue. I thought they achieved their objective very well: exposing the arguments of the New Atheists as generally shallow (as they stand), and that Christians do engage in reasonable debate, even if it should turn out that Christian belief is false. I heartily recommend it to every reader, Christian or not. One thing that bothered me: I hate endnotes. I am the kind of guy who wants to read the (sometimes key) insights revealed in a footnote, or to see the source of the note. I’m not going to go back and forth on the endnotes, and I’ve often forgotten how a note relates to the text if it’s at the end. I know it’s a popular-level book, but hey. J

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