Is God a Delusion? A Reply to Religion’s Cultured Despisers

10 Questions for Eric Reitan on Is God a Delusion?: A Reply to Religion’s Cultured Despisers (Wiley-Blackwell, December, 2008)

What inspired you to write Is God a Delusion? What sparked your interest?

Back in January of 2007, a colleague gave me a photocopied page from a book and asked me to evaluate it as if it were a student paper. The page contained a summary and cursory criticism of the first three of Aquinas’ “Five Ways” (arguments for proving the existence of a transcendent being). As I looked it over, I noticed that the author got Aquinas’ arguments wrong… and then criticized them at precisely those points where he got them wrong.

As it turned out, the page was taken from Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. And so I bought the book, and as I was reading it I thought that one could write an entire introduction to the philosophy of religion just by correcting all of Dawkins’ philosophical mistakes.

The idea quickly turned into a book proposal, which I sent to Blackwell (now Wiley-Blackwell). But in subsequent conversations with the acquisitions editor, my focus expanded to include the entire slate of “new atheist” bestsellers, and it became increasingly clear that I wanted to do something more than just write a textbook on the philosophy of religion.

What I really wanted was to share with a wider, educated readership the ideas and arguments from my discipline—the philosophy of religion—that could help expose the inadequacies of the “new atheist” attacks on religion. I wanted to write a book of “popular philosophy” in the best sense: philosophy that engages with contemporary issues in a way that can help the wider public think more clearly about them.

What’s the most important take-home message for readers?

A number of years ago, I was in a conversation with a conservative preacher who insisted that the existence of God was obvious and that atheists weren’t just in a state of denial, but were in that state because of profound character defects. His view, in short, was that atheists are both intellectually and morally defective—a judgment fairly typical in the most conservative religious communities.

The new atheists are really making the very same charges, but in reverse: If you’re religious, if you believe in God, it’s because you’re too weak-willed to think carefully for yourself in light of the evidence. And then you treat this vice as if it were a virtue, calling it “faith,” and in the process open the door to all kinds of dangerous views, which now can be legitimately embraced “on faith”—in other words, for no good reason.

To be blunt, I am frustrated with this tendency to identify the line between good and evil (or rational and irrational) with the line between theism and atheism, whether this is done in religion’s favor or against it. If readers come away convinced that this tendency is a mistake, I’ll consider the book a success.

Is there anything you had to leave out?

When my book contract arrived, I saw I’d been given a word limit of 95,000 words. Since I’d already written 130,000 words with two chapters still to write, panic ensued. What would I need to cut? Could I do it?

In fact, I could. And with far less loss of substance than I’d feared. But I had to make some tough choices. My aim in writing the book was to find a balance between intellectual substance and accessibility, and the word limits forced me to pursue that balancing act with more earnestness than I’d done in earlier drafts.

For example, in earlier drafts I offered a detailed examination of different versions of the “principle of sufficient reason.” As I read through it, I decided this would only interest philosophical specialists, and so I cut it.

On the other extreme, there were the rhetorical asides whose sole purpose was to entertain. At one point I spent a good two pages looking at an atheist children’s book from the 1970s, a book that basically made the same key claims Dawkins makes in The God Delusion, except far more briefly and with pictures. On review, I decided this discussion was fun but didn’t advance my argument.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions about your topic?

There’s a tendency to think that philosophical arguments for God’s existence have to be all-or-nothing. Either they prove once and for all the existence of the Judeo-Christian God of Love, or they’re failures that should be tossed in the trash heap of bad ideas.

The truth is much more involved. First of all, even if the traditional arguments for God’s existence fail to show that a personal loving creator exists, they might show something more modest—for example, that in order to explain the universe we encounter in ordinary experience, we need to posit the existence of a fundamentally mysterious reality beyond the empirical world. Just because an argument doesn’t take us all the way to God doesn’t mean it’s irrelevant to the case for theism.

Secondly, sometimes an argument relies on premises that some reasonable people will intuitively accept and others won’t. When that’s the case, the argument doesn’t prove its conclusion, but it still reveals something important: it shows that reasonable people can accept the conclusion, even if they needn’t. I think the arguments for God tend to be like that: they show us that reasonable people can believe in a fundamental reality that transcends the empirical world, even if the arguments don’t prove that such a transcendent reality exists.

Did you have a specific audience in mind when writing?

I wanted the book to appeal to a general readership of educated people who were interested in the questions raised by the new atheists. And I wanted both theists and atheists to find the book challenging and thought-provoking. Some recent responses to the new atheists are full of rhetorical jabs and belligerent verbal attacks clearly meant to appeal to a loyal following of believers, readers who want to cheer and pump their fists as “their guy” strikes back against the opponent.

People who are primarily looking for that kind of book should probably read something else. While I do sometimes lose patience with the bad arguments of the new atheists, and while I sometimes supplement more careful philosophical reflection with a blunter assessment of what’s going on, I think my most belligerent moments are reserved, not for the new atheists, but for biblical fundamentalists and Young Earth Creationists.

Are you hoping to just inform readers? Give them pleasure? Piss them off?

I’m hoping to get readers to think more deeply about these issues than they did before. And I’m hoping they’ll apply the ideas raised in my book to their own beliefs, whatever those happen to be.

Something I try to do in the book is show that there are parameters that reason and morality impose on all of us when we form our worldviews. Contrary to the strident claims of the new atheists, I think theistic religion can and often does fall within these parameters. But I think the same can be said for atheism. And on both sides of the atheistic/theistic divide, one can also find irrational and morally dangerous views.

In fact, most of us occasionally tread outside these parameters, whether we’re religious or not. So I hope readers will reflect on their own convictions, asking themselves how they can better stay within the parameters that help to make a worldview and associated way of life both intellectually respectable and morally benign.

What alternative title would you give the book?

“Is God a Delusion?” was the first title suggested by my editor, and it ended up winning the day. For me, the chief rival was “The Piety that Lies Between,” a reference to Plutarch’s essay “On Superstition” (an essay that became an important template for organizing the book). That title has now become the name of my blog.

How do you feel about the cover?

I love the cover. It’s an image of a rainbow corona around a setting sun. The sun itself is partially obscured by clouds, but still high enough in the sky that it would hurt your eyes to look at it directly. The corona itself, of course, is a visual effect produced by refraction on the camera lens. It isn’t “really there,” but of course it’s produced by things that are “really there” (the sun and the camera lens).

In any event, the symbolic resonance of the image fits well with the themes I’m exploring in the book, and so I’m very happy with it.

Is there a book out there you wish you had written? Which one? Why?

Marilyn McCord Adams’ Christ and Horrors: The Coherence of Christology is an extraordinary response to the problem of horrendous evil. It’s influenced me greatly, as a careful reader of my book will see. Adams, in her book, makes the problem of evil central to Christian theology, and represents the incarnation and crucifixion as God’s solution to the problem. It’s written in an academic style and sometimes gets a bit heavy with the technical language of theology and philosophy of religion, but for anyone interested in really engaging with the problem of evil from within the context of Christian theology, this book is indispensable.

What’s your next book?

A colleague and I have been working for several years on a book that critically assesses the Christian doctrine of Hell and offers a comparative defense of Christian Universalism (the doctrine that ultimately all of God’s creatures will be saved).

We argue that, given core Christian teachings about God and the Atonement, Universalism is a more defensible doctrine than any version of the doctrine of Hell. Most of the arguments for the book have already been published in various academic anthologies and philosophy of religion journals, but we still need to put the pieces together into a unified whole. We are tentatively titling the book, God’s Final Victory.