Philosophical Atheism: Responding to a Bad Review

With some hesitation, I am choosing to respond to Geek From the East’s review of my book Philosophical Atheism: Counter Apologetics and Arguments For Atheism. The reason I hesitate is because though the blogger refers to himself as an “Agnostic seeker,” a brief skimming of his blog will convince anyone that he has a clear bias in favor of theism. I also hesitate because he’s an uninformed layman falling victim to a bit of Dunning-Kruger effect. His book reviews and blog posts have consisted of responses to atheists. He seems to have a vested interest in defending theism whilst pretending to safeguard academic writing from sloppy scholarship. Had he actually read my book, rather than skimmed, he would realize that the book was never intended to be a serious academic work! Serious academic work often intimidates readers and makes them feel incapable of fully grasping what’s being conveyed. In my book’s introduction, I state the following:

I’ve done my best to ensure that the book is accessible to the casual reader who has, at the very least, a faint interest in atheism, religion, philosophy, and science. My hope is that this work will light the dim flame of such a casual reader so as to get them more interested in philosophy and science. Despite this goal, there are places that are quite esoteric. These portions of the work might be difficult to follow, but these portions are not included for sake of discouraging any member of the audience. My hope, with regards to esoteric material, is that the mind of the reader is elevated, that within such an individual a will is awakened to learn more about these topics and get a better understanding of what at the moment appears difficult.

p.14, Print Edition

This adequately deals with his concern that the references and sources I use aren’t used in professional works that are meant to be taken seriously. The purpose of this book wasn’t to enter the discussion on the philosophy of religion. My intent wasn’t to get into a dialogue with William Lane Craig, John Lennox, or any of the other apologists mentioned in my book. While I would welcome such dialogue, assuming it takes the shape of actual dialogue rather than someone obstinately trying their darnedest to convert me, I didn’t write my book for sake of starting such a dialogue. My book is aimed at atheists, particularly atheists who are new to atheism; as such, they likely won’t know how to respond to these arguments.

This brings me to my next issue with this reviewer who unabashedly goes out of his way to misrepresent my work. He states that my book doesn’t “describe a current landscape of the topic accurately” and that, particularly in the chapter on the Moral Argument, I use a net-based reference — as though William Lane Craig’s own Q&A response somehow misrepresents his Moral Argument. If my reader were suspicious of my formulation of Craig’s Moral Argument, they can readily consult dozens of internet sources — including tons of YouTube debates in where he formulates the Moral Argument in the same exact manner. It always sounds like this:

P1 If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.

P2 Objective moral values and duties do exist.

C Therefore, god exists.

That is precisely the argument I addressed and it is precisely the argument Craig puts forward. My concern isn’t whether there are other versions of the Moral Argument. There most certainly are. My intent is to address the most known version, the version that atheists will encounter the most. Given that Craig has plenty of admirers here in the US, over in the UK, in Australia, and in parts of Asia, it is only fitting that I address his argument and not Leibniz’s, for example. Most Christians with apologetic bents aren’t even familiar with Leibniz’s Moral Argument, so why address it? If it’s stronger than Craig’s then it stands to reason that they would employ it more often. Since they do not, my book didn’t address it. If it were to ever become more commonplace, then perhaps I will address it in future editions of my book.

Given my target audience (wannabe apologist Christians and atheists new to atheism, but most especially this latter group), I use accessible sources. Those accessible sources usually have further sources should any of my readers choose to consider them. I am not going to fill my book with journal publications that are inaccessible because they’re hard to get copies of or because they’re blocked by a paywall. Furthermore, I am not going to fill my book with sources that will obligate my reader to buy a ton of books. If they choose to consider the books and journal publications I did include, that’s entirely up to them. The point, once again, was to write a book that doesn’t scare the reader away.

Now to the biggest complaint. He talks about the current landscape and accuses me of dishonesty and yet fails to give an example of this so-called current landscape. Moreover and much more importantly, he neglects to mention that apologists like Craig, Licona, Lennox, and so on are guilty of this. I am not guilty of failing to update the discussion. They are most certainly guilty of that. William Lane Craig, who is only the most well-known apologist in both Catholic and Protestant circles, has trotted out the same five or six arguments in debate after debate after debate for about 30 years. That’s three decades of stale arguments and unmentioned objections, talking points, and amendments (assuming there are any) to any of the arguments he employs.

My purpose, I reiterate, is to address the arguments as they are usually offered. You can’t fault a response for basically quoting verbatim. If Craig’s Moral Argument differed today from a version offered twenty years ago, I would have addressed the new version of the argument. More importantly, I address this very point in my book, so had the reviewer sat on his hands a bit rather than prematurely review a book he didn’t read closely, he would have encountered the following:

The first half of this work dealt with as many theistic arguments as possible. There are others and variants of some of the ones discussed, but a theist will acknowledge that some of the arguments that rank as the best were included. Whether they will admit that the arguments were adequately refuted is doubtful. Despite this work, one that attempts to treat the case for theism charitably, I am of the persuasion that theism, most specifically monotheism, is held up by obstinacy rather than reasonable belief. This is to say that belief in god cannot be shown to be reasonable as proponents of apologetic arguments often claim. When their arguments are defeated, the believer will double down and often with no attempt to, at the very least, amend the argument.

C.S. Lewis, for example, offered an Argument Against Naturalism that met bitter defeat in the objections of Elizabeth Anscombe. Briefly, Lewis argued that since all thoughts are the result of irrational causes assuming naturalism is true, then either naturalism is unreasonable or false. Lewis used the example of atoms, which he considered to be irrational. Anscombe corrected Lewis and said that atoms are not irrational, but rather non-rational. Lewis accepted this distinction and attempted to revise his argument by replacing irrational with non-rational. The new conclusion is not the one he intended to arrive at, since a system of thought — which is what he considered naturalism to be — cannot be non-rational.

My intention isn’t to proceed as though I wish to address Lewis’ argument. Instead, I want to suggest that Lewis should serve as an example of how to proceed should one’s argument prove flawed. Lewis revised his argument, but upon realizing that Anscombe’s objection proved fatal to the argument, he abandoned it. The fact that one argument turns out to fail doesn’t mean that the world view has failed. Given theism’s catalog of arguments, this shouldn’t be much of a problem. Unfortunately, the opposition appears to confuse quantity with quality. Over thirty arguments are sometimes offered to make the case for theism, e.g., Peter Kreft. A few good arguments should suffice.

Aside from that, defeaters like the ones presented in the first half of this work aren’t enough to compel the theist to revise their argument, let alone abandon it entirely. The case for theism rests on the stilts of obduracy, the belief that theistic arguments can’t possibly be proven wrong. William Lane Craig offers the same five arguments in one debate after another. Four of the arguments he has employed have been adequately addressed in the first half of this work. What’s more is that I’m far from the first philosopher to refute these arguments. Yet these arguments have not been revised or abandoned.

Once again, I mention Craig’s penchant to trot out the same, tired arguments. I also mention that there are other variants, variants I didn’t consider because atheists won’t encounter them as often — if ever. What I also mention is that apologetics rests on obstinacy; apologists often proceed without amending arguments or abandoning them. I further suggest, as other philosophers have, that apologetics is pseudo-philosophy and pseudo-scholarship. It’s paradoxical in nature because it pretends to be something it isn’t. The field proceeds as though it’s scholarly and yet, it fails to showcase any of the hallmarks of actual scholarship. This is most pronounced in Craig’s refusal to abandon his arguments.

Now, a closet theist, like this reviewer, will no doubt claim that Craig has no reason to change his arguments because they haven’t been defeated. I outline plenty defeaters ranging from Mackie’s to Nielsen’s to Carroll’s and others. In Chapter 3, which this reviewer mentions in passing, I develop an accessible overview of Christine Korsgaard’s procedural realism — to my mind, one of the more viable non-theistic theories of morality. I could have also mentioned Kagan’s No Harm principle or Scanlon’s contractualism. I could have mentioned Carrier’s Goal Theory or the more modern pluralist theory offered by some psychologists. But again, that can be a work all its own and would involve more scholarship than my target audience cares for.

His claim is that popular apologetic arguments are straw mans and yet, he fails to provide even one example. He fails to mention that the Kalam Cosmological Argument isn’t original to William Lane Craig. How is that argument a straw man? Which argument is the real, stronger version? The Moral Argument isn’t a straw man. Again, I offered it, word for word, the same way Craig does. What argument is the Moral Argument a straw man of? How about Aquinas’ arguments — which I carefully formulated using Aquinas’ own words? What are they straw mans of? He actually said that “those popular arguments are mostly just weaker form of those strongest arguments for God. In other words, they are actually straw-manned form of those arguments.” This is the most dubious part of his review and yet he says that I don’t know what I’m talking about. It appears that the shoe fits his foot perfectly.

What’s also golden is that he accuses me of being uncharitable to theistic arguments because I supposedly didn’t include refutations to my refutations or refutations to my arguments for atheism. My arguments for atheism have been on the web for about two years and aside from the one objection discussed in Chapter 12, I have encountered no refutations. This doesn’t mean there aren’t any. It certainly doesn’t mean that I didn’t consider any. In fact, my Argument from Cosmology receives much attention because it runs into a number of difficulties, the biggest of which is one of its pillars, namely mathematical antirealism. I spend much time in Chapter 11 discussing this difficulty, a difficulty that can no doubt be raised in objection to the argument. Craig and most apologists are mathematical realists, so my argument will no doubt strike them as off — hence why I carefully address such an issue. But what can be said about a reviewer who didn’t even get that far or one who didn’t care to read my book carefully?

Had he read Chapter 7, he would have seen a clinical treatment of Aquinas’ notion of privation, which attempts to refute the notion of a perfectly evil being or, using his terminology, a being that is evil to the utmost degree. Had he read Chapter 6, he would have seen that I updated the theist’s philosophy of mind. I replaced the outmoded Cartesian dualism with Chalmer’s property dualism. In Chapter 8, I am most careful in my treatment of Van Tillian presuppositionalism. I make my best attempt to convey what Van Til tried to argue without degrading his language. The entire book is an exercise in charitable presentations of what theists have offered. The fact that I ultimately am not persuaded by any of these arguments or systems of thought is by no means an indication of a secret desire to misrepresent theistic arguments. To the contrary, my intention is to be as charitable as possible so as to increase the strength of my refutations. The first step in any successful refutation is a clear comprehension of the argument or system of thought.

Perhaps he should, once again, fault apologists. Craig does not change his favored arguments. Licona follows his lead. Lennox doesn’t really present arguments in that form. His approach is more informal. I briefly mention Peter Kreft who has as many as 30+ arguments — each receiving adequate refutation. The fault is on the apologist who thinks his argument(s) so ironclad that the discussion never moves forward. My book is a handbook of sorts for people new to atheism, but it is also an indictment of apologetics. I entered a stale discussion if only to inform people new to atheism and cocksure Christians who put too much stock in these arguments. I never intended to move the discussion forward because my opponents don’t think that’s warranted; if they thought so, they would have already done that.

One apologist that attempts to do that is Alvin Plantinga. He has amended his ontological argument a few times. The one presented in my book is considered the strongest version by a vast majority of Christians. It is, after all, the version I encounter the most and the one that is labelled the “Victorious” Ontological Argument. The reviewer may disagree and might offer a slightly different version, but that version will fall victim to the same objections. Plantinga’s god is maximally excellent, which means perfect in a particular world. His god is also maximally great, which means perfect in every world. My refutation is simple, so simple it can be stated in a sentence: if we can find a world lacking a maximally excellent being, then a maximally great being (a being who is maximally excellent in all worlds) doesn’t exist. Given that, I suggest we consider the only world we can access, i.e., the one we find ourselves in. I focus on the idea that he’s perfectly good and ask whether a perfectly good god can exist in this world, ala Problem of Evil. My conclusion is the same as many a philosopher’s conclusion: the natural evil in this world is gratuitous to such an extent that a perfectly good being cannot possibly exist. Therefore, a maximally excellent being fails to exist in this world and by extension, a maximally great being fails to exist.

This is a fatal defeater to Plantinga’s argument in any form unless he chooses to abandon the maximally excellent and maximally great qualifiers. In recent scholarship, Plantinga has not done that. His admirers most certainly haven’t when considering that the version appearing in Chapter 4 of my book is precisely the version presented by wannabe apologists. The reviewer may disagree and offer another, a “stronger” version. What argument can be better than the so-called “Victorious” Ontological Argument? If he were to present one, I will carefully pick it apart as well.

Now I turn to the minor problems he has with “my book” as though these problems are pervasive. I briefly mention a distinction in scientism. That distinction is not important to my book. I mention it for sake of condemning the maximal scientistic attitudes of New Atheists. Despite that, I am not opposed to science informing philosophy and other disciplines. The reviewer says minimal scientism is meaningless to argue and/or indefensible. On minimal scientism, science can inform philosophy. Science has done exactly that in many cases. Any brief consideration of philosophy of mind or of time or of mathematics will prove this quite conclusively. I wanted to be sure to say that I am not opposed to a philosopher mentioning cognitive and neuroscience. I am not opposed to a philosopher talking about cosmology and quantum mechanics with respect to time. I wholeheartedly believe science should inform other disciplines whenever it is deemed relevant and/or necessary. The same applies to history. I suggest a scientism along Pinker’s lines of thinking (see here). If it’s so indefensible, the author has to tell us why cognitive and neuroscience are inapplicable to philosophy of mind. He has to argue against the use of science in philosophy, history, and other disciplines. What’s untenable is his position.

The other minor quibble he has with my book is my discussion on atheism. Yet he has no grasp of the normative-analytic distinction, a distinction I borrowed from the philosophy of law. On natural law, answering the question of normative jurisprudence, namely what should law be, also answers the question of analytic jurisprudence, what is the law. So, if we answer what atheism should be we arrive at what atheism actually is. He alludes to a non-naturalistic atheism, but fails to qualify it. He is all too content with saying that he doesn’t get why atheism should be defined as strictly as I define it. Following Kai Nielsen, I argue that “naturalism, where consistent, is an atheism” (Nielsen, 2001 p.30). I further argue that atheism, where consistent, is a naturalism. That’s why I contrast atheism with Buddhism, a religion that obligates its adherents to believe in metaphysical beings and realities. Should an atheist believe in such things, they are not a naturalist and arguably, not an atheist. So if we answer the question of what atheism should be, we answer the question of what it actually is.

The dictionary tells us that atheism is the lack of belief in gods. Common sense tells us it’s a bit more involved than that. Do atheists lack belief in gods, but still believe in what the holy text(s) convey? They do not. Do they stop believing that there’s a god and continue to believe in angels and demons? They do not. Along with god, atheists lack belief in the efficacy of religious rituals, the divine authority of religious texts, and metaphysical beings and realities. This is precisely why Buddhists, though they don’t worship a god, are not atheists. They revere the Buddha to an extent and attempt to imitate his ways; they also take his words and deeds seriously and believe in the efficacy of their rituals, most especially meditation. On meditation, some forms have proven effective, but Buddhists go beyond a version like Transcendental Meditation and continue to believe that meditation results in samadhi or what the ancient Hindus referred to as moksha. Along with that, some continue to believe in the cycle of death and rebirth, i.e, reincarnation. Atheists cannot and very often do not believe in any of these things. By their own admission, they are naturalists; all that exists is what is sensible, measurable, and quantifiable in the universe. There are no astral planes, heavens, or portals to metaphysical dimensions.

Lastly, my discussion in Chapter 1 is prefaced by much discussion between other philosophers. Atheists make use of the approaches I discussed. They employ naturalism, fallibilism, and deductive and inductive atheology. The best use of atheism, philosophically speaking, is an approach that employs those approaches and more. I also suggested that one approach may work better in one case but not others. We can indict a theist’s conclusion because his knowledge isn’t complete, i.e., fallibilism, in a given case. In another case, however, it might be more useful to employ naturalism. Where one person argues that prayers can be answered, an atheist might be better suited in addressing that conclusion via naturalism rather than waving away the conclusion because the theist’s knowledge is faulty. It is faulty in this case as well, but there are ways to disabuse the theist of such a conclusion that prove more effective. One can, for instance, allude to the Problem of Evil.

Theist: “God answered my prayer! I got the job!”

Atheist: “Why would he give you a job and fail to answer the cries of the little boy being sexually abused by his priest or the cries of a girl being molested by a family friend? Also, plenty of research has been done on this and it has been proven conclusively that prayer doesn’t work. For one, there are psychological biases people have. In other words, you want to see things a certain way. What you’re neglecting in your case is that you interviewed for the position, you worked your butt off to attain all the necessary qualifications, and you ultimately impressed them with your charm and the depth of your answers. You want god to take the credit for something you did. Some cases are like that. Other cases attribute causation from mere correlation or outright coincidence.”

It should occur to anyone that atheists proceed in both ways. Sometimes they’ll go with fallibilism and sometimes they’ll go with naturalism. Other times, as I did in the second half of my book, they’ll platform on naturalism and use actual deductive or inductive arguments. I am not suggesting, as the reviewer thought I did, that we can jump from an ought to an is. What I’m suggesting is that the way atheism is is as it should be. In other words, what atheism ought to be is precisely the form it takes wherever it retains consistency. An atheist who believes in astrology is mildly inconsistent and should address that if they care for the project of making their atheism more consistent. An atheist who believes in astral realms is extremely inconsistent and hasn’t fully come to terms with the conclusion that there’s no god. Perhaps some aspect(s) of religious thinking still appeals to this individual and that’s fine, but a consistent atheist s/he is not. The form it has taken in the likes of Mackie, Ayer, Grayling, Dennett, Russell, Smith, and others is precisely as it should be. So it isn’t that we answer the normative question to get the answer to the analytic question, but rather that in answering the former  we simultaneously answer the latter. That point I made absolutely clear.

As for the other parts of his review, I’ll be sure to read them, but given this rough start, I’m not sure I’ll be responding to anything else this particular reviewer has to say. It’s clear to me and should be clear to anyone else — given his blog’s content — that he has a clearly defined bias for theism, almost certainly Christianity. He resides in South Korea, a country with a burgeoning Christian population. He may not be sure that god exists, but it’s clear that he believes in god. He is, to put it another way, an agnostic theist. He believes in god, but doesn’t know or claim to know that he exists. That’s fine so long as he doesn’t pretend otherwise. He may want to give people the impression that he’s impartial and doesn’t care either way, but given his reviews and posts, it is crystal clear that he is opposed to atheism. This review is rife with problems, each of its own creation. Had he read my book more thoroughly or read it in its entirety before reviewing, he may have fared better. What’s more is that he seems to have missed one of the central focuses of my book; this book is written to interested laymen, them who are, in particular, new to atheism. Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, and other new atheists will not give them any segue into addressing these arguments; I have attempted to provide that in a brief, mostly accessible manner and despite these uncharitable complaints, I strongly believe that I have accomplished that.

I’ll let new readers decide for themselves. My book is available for purchase here. Read, write a review on Amazon or on your blog, or approach me with questions over on Tumblr. Happy reading!

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