There is a memorable scene early in the classic book, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, during which Arthur Dent is told that his house is to be demolished to make way for a freeway. Arthur is upset, though he is told the plans have been on file for quite a while had he wanted to travel to the correct office to see. Shortly after this aliens, the Vogons, appear over the planet and announce to all humanity that the entire planet is to be destroyed to make way for a galactic freeway. When the humans protest, the aliens respond that the order has been on file a mere few light-years away so they should have been ready!
Ah, the hilarious irony.
This scene popped into my head as I read God or Godless: One Atheist. One Christian. Twenty Controversial Questions. In this book Christian Randal Rauser and Atheist John Loftus debate a variety of questions. Each one chose ten topics and the book proceeds in an easy-to-read debate format. This format is one of the best parts of the book, as a lot of ground is covered and both sides offer their thoughts on all twenty questions. Though there are a variety of questions, as you read a few common themes emerge. One of the early chapters is titled, “If There is No God, Everything is Permitted.” Here Randal, obviously, argues the positive. John responds saying a God is not needed:
“Therefore, the ones doing the permitting are those of us on earth in our respective cultures. We do not permit just anything either. In every society we come up with moral rules just as we do when it comes to speed limits on our highways, regulations for food preparation, protocols for approaching different people, or criminal acts we consider harmful to the common good” (32).
John argues that morality is arbitrary, created by cultures. I find this argument extremely unsatisfying. This is why I thought of the scene from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. What happens when another culture, more powerful then humanity, shows up? If truth is merely what has helped us adapt and survive, what happens if this more powerful culture needs to eliminate us to survive (perhaps for their galactic freeway)? The morality John offers gives us no ground to say why this would be wrong. We are left merely with a might-makes-right morality.
Of course, using an invading alien civilization as an example may seem a bit far-fetched. But other illustrations of the shortcoming of this view could be found. Later in the book John talks of how cats will toy with their prey because that’s just what cats do. Yet if all there is is nature, what separates us from cats? We don’t think cats are “immoral”, so what makes humans immoral who commit vile crimes? If one society or civilization needs to exterminate another to ensure their survival, on what ground is this wrong?
Immediately after the cat comment, John writes that, “morality evolves, and it finally caught up to judge what we see in God’s Bible as barbaric” (106). This sheds light on what, I think, is the assumption in John’s arguments, though he never clearly (at least not as I recall) illustrates it – the myth of progress. John believes that humans are getting better and better over the ages. This begs the question: if humanity is progressing from lesser moralities to higher ones, then the current morality we have now will be seen as lesser (barbaric? evil?) by future civilizations. With that in mind, how could we confidently call anything immoral today?
Whatever the future morality of humanity holds, John is very confident that the morality of the Bible is basically evil, a relic of an ancient, vile past culture. The vast majority of topics chosen by John are meant to show the faultiness of the Bible. I think John does a good job here. Am I allowed, as a Christian, to say that? After completing this book I perused a few reviews on Goodreads and, predictably, atheist readers thought John emerged victorious while Christian readers saw Randal as the champion. Perhaps this says more about us as readers (we’re not so open-minded as we think) then it does about the book. Of course, we’re all biased to some degree. A large reason I found myself more in tune with Randal’s arguments is because I am a Christian. The arguments he makes are part of the reason I remain a Christian.
But I will admit that John does do a great job. A lot of his points ultimately go back to the problem of evil. For example, John argues that God is an incompetent Creator, listing many flaws in the human body as well as a (nearly page long) list of diseases and ailments we are susceptible to. If there was a good God, shouldn’t we expect the world to be a bit less painful? Randal responds by suggesting that God could possibly have a reason to allow such suffering. Yet any reader’s visceral reaction to this is to wonder what sort of purpose that could be, in light of the horrific suffering.
In the same way, when John talks of how the Biblical God commanded genocide and does not care much about women or slaves, he makes good points. The honest Christian ought to admit this is a huge difficulty. If there really were a good God, wouldn’t God command people not to have slaves? Wouldn’t God command people in patriarchal societies to treat women much better? What good is a God who can’t command the heights of morality? Randal does admit that this is a difficulty and presents as decent an answer as can be expected.
Such challenges as John brings up ought to cause any Christian to pause. Whatever answers we give are tentative and a bit less than satisfying: I may believe progressive revelation, but it’d be nice if the Bible just outright condemned slavery from the beginning. At any rate, what this shows me is that no matter which path you choose – God or Godless – there are difficulties. Neither option presents kn0ck-down, full-proof answers.
In the last word John ends with a complaint that this was “Christian vs. Atheist”. Who gives Christians the right to represent all religions versus atheism? Whatever merit there is in such a question, I found it curious in light of the chosen topics. The majority of Randal’s topics were generally theistic. The only specifically Christian one was the final one, on Jesus’ resurrection. Randal seemed to approach many of the topics with a more philosophical bent (“Is there meaning and morality without a God?”). On the other hand, John’s topics, for the most part, were attacks on the Bible. He approached it from a more historical or religious bent (“The Bible is flawed and thus shows it is not from God”).
To some extent, this makes me think that even were John to convince me with his arguments, I would not join him in atheism. Perhaps I would move to a more liberal Christian perspective, or at most become some sort of Deist. In the same way, if I were already an atheist, Randal might not convince me to become a Christian, but his arguments go far in showing the shortcomings of a godless world and might lead me to think there is something out there. In other words, my (certainly not unbiased) verdict would be that this book is convincing in pointing to a God while offering enough flaws in the Bible to stop short of it being the Biblical God.
Overall, I found this to be an excellent book. Its brevity could earn it readers who would not want to slog through larger tomes. Likewise, the debate format is inviting and makes for informal reading. Both authors know their stuff and manage to pack a lot in to the space allotted. I could see this book being used for discussions, whether in churches or coffeehouses. I work in campus ministry and I plan to highly encourage my students, Christian students that is, to read this book along with their peers.