Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Book Review: "An Atheist and a Christian Walk Into a Bar..."

“An Atheist and a Christian Walk Into a Bar..” is a collaborative work between atheist Justin Schieber and Christian theologian and apologist Randal Rauser

If you’re familiar with my work, you’ll know I’m a big fan of Justin’s work on the Reasonable Doubts Podcast and his new ventures in the Real Atheology YouTube channel which just transitioned into its own podcast.  I also happen to have a bit of a soft spot for Randal.  Randal is one of those apologists that strikes me as quite very honest about how arguments and the like work out, even if we disagree about the conclusions.  If I had to pick an apologist to go have beers with, Randal is one of the few I’d be happy to do so with. 

So those are my biases, coming in I happen to like both authors. Spoiler Alert: This is a positive review. 

This isn’t Randal’s first go at a collaborative “debate” book.  I’ve reviewed Randal’s book withJohn Loftus: God or Godless, which I also happened to enjoy and would still recommend for theists and atheists alike. 

An Atheist and a Christian Walk into a Bar has an extremely different feel to it, despite at first glance being the same kind of debate book between a Christian and an Atheist who are both well versed in the Philosophy of Religion. 

This is because while “God or Godless” had a respectful exchange over arguments, “An Atheist and a Christian Walk Into a Bar” is downright cordial.  The corny dad jokes fly fairly often in the book, which I actually enjoyed.  

Overall if you like interfaith exchanges and the kind of cordial atmosphere that comes with it, you’ll find a lot to like in this book. 

This is not to say that the book lacks any intellectual heft, or even some innovation that you’d not normally see in a book aimed at laypeople. Both Randal and Justin are quite thorough in laying out the exact terms of their debate, making sure to define the kind of god they think does or does not exist.  This is good because far too often debaters end up talking past each other. 

The innovation comes by way of the types of arguments offered in the book. Each person brings three main arguments to the proverbial bar:

For the existence of a god:

  1. Faith and Testimony
  2. God and Moral Obligation
  3. God, Mathematics, and Reason
Against the existence of a god:
  1. Problem of massive theological disagreement
  2. Problem of the hostility of the universe
  3. Evolution and the biological role of pain

While 6 arguments may not sound like a lot for a debate book, both Randal and Justin engage with each other’s rebuttals in good detail. As a reader you’re not really left feeling as if one person hasn’t tried to address the others points.

In the last debate book review I did, I asked “So who won?” which is the kind of inevitable question you get with these kinds of books.  I’m sure some theists will read it and say Randal clearly came out a head, and atheists would say Justin had the better of the exchange.  Biases going into this kind of work are going to be a major part of what makes you think there was a “winner” at the end. 

However the idea that there was a winner doesn’t even feel like an appropriate question to ask after reading this book.  I feel that this is a testament to both the skill of the authors and to the very nature of the question being debated.  In each case, they’re arguing about metaphysical principles. These are the kinds of things that when you run the argument aground it eventually boils down to competing intuitions.  Unsurprisingly the theist’s intuitions lead them to accept the metaphysical assumptions that build towards theism, and the atheist’s intuitions lead them to metaphysical assumptions that lead towards atheism.  In fact, both authors are refreshingly frank about the fact that this happens.

It’s the kind of stalemate that makes an engineer like me go crazy, but that’s the nature of metaphysical debates in general. 

While frustrating, it does allow two fine people like Randal and Justin to make a very enjoyable book, and a decent amount of follow up content. In fact if you wanted to get a taste for what you get in the book, you could read or listen to Justin and Randal have a debate about the existence of god and finite creatures on Episode 3 of Justin’s Real Atheology podcast.
Furthermore, Randal and Justin will be doing two live debates that I believe will be recorded and made available.  If you’re in Edmonton, Alberta Canada you can see the two of them at Taylor College & Seminary on March 10th and on March 11th at the Greenfield Community Church in Edmonton.

To sum things up, I recommend this book. It’s both entertaining as well as intellectually stimulating, which is exactly what you want to get in a book like this. I gladly purchased the Kindle version myself (ie. I didn’t get a copy just for a review) and I feel my money was well spent.

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