Sunday, October 17, 2010

The God Dialogues

I think I'm going to be using this book in my Philosophy of Religion course next semester. Here's the product description from amazon:
The God Dialogues is an intriguing and extensive philosophical debate about the existence of God. Engaging and accessible, it covers all the main arguments for and against God's existence, from traditional philosophical "proofs" to arguments that involve the latest developments in biology and physics. Three main characters represent the principal views: Theodore Logan, the theist; Eva Lucien, the atheist; and Gene Sesquois, the agnostic. Their debate takes place during a post-college cross-country road trip during which Gene expresses dismay over his future. He wants to do something meaningful with his life but is at a loss as to how to proceed, despite having just earned a degree in engineering. Gene's quandary precipitates a discussion of the meaning of life and its connection to God's existence. This in turn leads to vigorous debates about morality and theism, evidence for and against God's existence, probability and the rationality of belief, and the relationship between faith and reason. The strongest arguments from all three perspectives are fairly represented. An annotated list of suggested readings directs readers to relevant and helpful primary sources.

Assuming no background knowledge, The God Dialogues is ideal for courses in the philosophy of religion, an excellent supplement for introduction to philosophy courses, and a compelling introduction for anyone with an interest in the subject.
And here's Clayton Littlejohn's review from the same site (he gives it five stars):
This book does a number of things very well. It serves as an introduction to the philosophy of religion that covers a significant amount of territory while at the same time dealing with issues in some depth. While it does introduce the reader to issues and arguments, it is challenging without being impenetrable and accessible without insulting the reader's intelligence. If you work through this book (something that is easy to do, by the way, because the dialogues are fun to read), you come to see how things look from very different perspectives. If you want to know why reasonable and thoughtful people come to believe that God exists, this book shows that it is not just by some "leap of faith" that you can end up a believer. There are rational arguments for God's existence. Are they successful? It is hard to say. The atheists and agnostics get to offer their responses and the reader can decide who has the upper hand in this debate. The authors show that there is a difference between atheism and "new atheism". If you want to know why some reasonable and thoughtful people believe there is no God, you can see that there are actual reasons that could lead someone to conclude that there is no God. It's nice to see atheism get a fair hearing and atheistic arguments offered that show that there is more to the atheist's perspective than is captured in Hitchens or Harris. There is also a nice discussion of the significance of religious belief (or lack thereof) in a person's life.

While this book is written by philosophers, I imagine that non-philosophers will really enjoy this book. It would make an excellent gift for the literate theist, atheist, or agnostic in your life.

I find this slightly strange. Of course you want atheism to get a fair hearing in a book like this, but is it at all surprising? Littlejohn doesn't say it is, but I read his review as implying this. I also don't think it would make a good gift for a literate theist that you don't want to annoy.

Anyway, it's basically a good book, but here are my complaints:

1. The characters are not really characters at all but two-dimensional representatives of their respective positions (a theist named Theo--ho ho--an agnostic, and an atheist). They all lapse as often as possible into generic philosopher-speak: "One would hardly endorse the third premise of that argument in light of our previous discussion," etc. This is not a real quotation, but I'm confident there are even worse examples in the book.

2. The book is meant to be light-hearted, but the humour is all of the same kind. I think the word for it is nerdy, and it's probably as likely to put readers off as it is to lure them on into the book.

3. Ethics is treated in a way that I find odd. Pain is described as morally bad, because doing things that cause pain is (other things being equal) morally bad. Causing pain to people or animals is certainly bad (ceteris paribus), but this seems like a somewhat crude conception of what evil might be, showing no concern for aesthetic value or the importance of reality (as in the experience machine case--is this "ontological value"?).

4. Experience is also treated a little oddly, I think. People are supposed to evaluate their experiences in a sort of Humean way, so that if you have what you take to be a religious experience you should reconsider and think "What are the odds?" Sometimes this makes sense. But I'm not sure that it always does. It is characteristic of religious experiences that they present themselves as very important. How easy, or even possible, is it to give up a belief that is important to you? It can be done, but not always, and not without cost. This is not explored in the book.

5. The final chapter addresses the idea that belief in God might be a kind of metaphor. It is then criticized on the grounds that people ought to say what they mean and avoid metaphors that are potentially misleading or dangerous. But one of the origins of this idea is Wittgenstein's work, and he explicitly says that religious uses of language, although metaphor-like, are not actually metaphorical, precisely because they cannot be expressed in any other way. This might be problematic in various ways, but, once again, it isn't addressed in the book.

So the book seems to have a kind of empiricist bias and would not, I think, be enjoyed by many theists. It could be a good introduction to the subject, though, especially if followed by something more sophisticated and with a different bias. Stephen Mulhall's book might be good, but it seems to be out of print, and it's not easy reading.


  1. it seems to have become a trope that the 'new atheists' discredit atheism, and alongside that, that a more balanced consideration of the arguments pro and con is again necessary.

    is it just me or is it weird to weigh 'evidence' for the existence of god?

    apart from considerations of contemporariness it kind of sounds like it would be preferable to read hume!

    ted logan = ted 'theodore' logan = half of bill and ted
    eva lucien = evil, luciferian
    gene sesquois = je ne sais quoi = dude with some ambivalent feelings who can be persuaded by the right argument

  2. I like your translation of Eva's name! She basically wins every argument, it seems to me. But partly because the others let her.

    I was going to have my students read Hume as well. Maybe there'll be too much repetition that way, but I'd like to try it.

    And yes, weighing evidence for and against the existence of God is a strange exercise. This is a problem with Hume's essay on miracles, isn't it? You're supposed to proportion your belief to the evidence, but how is that done? What is the inherent likelihood of God's existing? It's a problem also for people who argue from the way the universe is (hospitable to life, etc.) to the existence of God. You can't say "What are the odds?! Therefore, God" unless you can get the odds on God right (can you?). And the weirdness of trying to put a bookmaker's price on God's existence suggests that there is something wrong with this whole approach.

  3. if i knew better i would try to trace late-academic skepticism-cum-probabilism forward to the modern period to try to get a better understanding of how such a weird turn of thought could have occurred. i assume that prior to appropriation by modern science, empiricists, lawyers, detectives, and so on, it was a little less unnatural to employ evidence-talk in some extra-evidential settings.

  4. That's probably right. It seems very much part of the early modern, empiricist view. But I don't know the history well enough to be sure either. I wonder if I could blame Locke.