Thursday, June 6, 2013

Book Review: God or Godless

I've been interacting with Randal Rauser a good bit on his blog recently, and I've been a fan of John Loftus's counter apologetics for a while.  These two guys have a bit of an admirable history together as a textbook case of "Frenemies". They're on opposite sides of the issue but treat each other with respect, despite the fact that they trade effective rhetorical blows.

So when the two of them released a book debating various topics on god's existence I went ahead and picked up a copy.  I was not disappointed.

Here's the quick version of my review:

If you like following competent debates between theists and atheists then you should read God or Godless.

The book is immediately accessible to folks who are new to the issue, but it also has value for those of us who've been engaged in the debate for some time.  It also has the benefit of being entertaining to read.

If you'd like to see the full review, keep on reading below.

The Format

The book is centered around 20 individual questions related to the debate on whether or not god exists, with each person picking 10 of the questions.  Each question follows the same format of opening statements, rebuttals, and closing remarks by both John and Randal. 

Each man picked half the questions which allowed for both of them to play at offense and defense, and the format works well.

Each question is its own self-contained section, and the debaters intentionally limited the word count for each part.  This forced them each to be concise in making their points at the expense of a much more detailed debate.

On one hand, I’m the type of guy that can really get into the minutia of detailed debate, but on the other hand I realize that these types of things can go on forever and not really end decisively. In the end, I think the decision that both John and Randal made was the correct one editorially.  The best part was that at the end of the book they each gave a section for further reading, and they have an extensive list of citations that give any reader interested in the details a good place to go.

That all said, the end result of their formatting decisions is that the book can easily be read in chunks.  As a father with a six month old who needs to be held/rocked to go to sleep at night, the book was absolutely fantastic in this regard (I had the Kindle version on my smartphone).   

So who won?
This is a question that will inevitably come up with a book like this, but because of the format I’m not sure it can be answered.  I don’t think either side made any major mistakes or failed to address any of each other’s points. This means it’s not a clear case of a winner like in some of the more embarrassing debates we can find online where one person is clearly outmatched.  Besides, if one person felt they truly were outmatched, I’m not sure they’d have agreed to publish the book! 

This means that if you’re on one side or the other of the debate, you’re probably going to think that “your side” won.  It’s largely a case of your biases showing through.

The trick with books like this is that it’s not so much about there being a clear winner; it’s about each side making their case as strongly as they can.  The goal is to get people on the fence over to their side, or to convince people opposed to them to reconsider their position.

That all said, I'm an atheist, of course I think Loftus won!

I’m firmly in one camp, why bother to read it then?

I think that even if one is firmly convinced on the subject, we should always search for the truth no matter what side you’re on.  That means listening to what the other side has to say, especially if you’ve not heard it before.

As an atheist I think Randal is pretty good in terms of apologists specifically because he has such nuanced views on traditional objections that would cause a lot of doubts with Christianity.  Similarly, in “God or Godless” he doesn’t go for the “standard” arguments you’re likely to hear if you watch formal debates with the usual apologists.  Sure he’s got some version of the cosmological argument in there, but his presentation of it is not what you’d expect.  I still think he’s wrong in these cases, but it’s nice to see a few new things thrown out there.

Loftus is similarly in very good form, he hits the major issues that should cause Christians to doubt their faith, which forces Randal to espouse his more nuanced views.  In my opinion, if all we atheists could achieve was to move mainstream Christianity in line with Randal’s interpretations of hell, biblical slavery, and commandments of genocide, then the world will be better off for it.  

Still, Loftus’s stated goal was to drive a wedge between what Christians believe versus what the bible actually says and he does a great job there. Randal is forced to provide rationalizations to square some basic version of Christianity with the problematic areas of the bible in terms of atrocities and failed prophecies.   

Randal patches the theological holes admirably, but Loftus’s goal is to introduce enough doubt to get the believer to take the “OutsiderTest for Faith” which I think is a great way to convince believers to become an atheist. 


Both men do their side proud, which means God or Godless is worth reading. It’s entertaining. It’s got intellectual muscle without being long or confusing. It’s also pretty cheap, which is always nice.

Kudos to the authors.  


  1. Randal is forced to provide rationalizations to square some basic version of Christianity with the problematic areas of the bible in terms of atrocities and failed prophecies.

    Nothing like that pesky Bible to get in the way of a reasonable theological position. This isn't just a problem for Rauser, of course. It's a problem for just about any Christian that considers the Bible a source text.

    Nice review. I just may have to pick this one up after I finish the backlog of stuff I'm currently working through. I enjoyed The Christian Delusion because I could process it in small chunks, so it's nice to know this one is similarly digestible even though it's not the same format, obviously.

    I agree that pulling Christianity in Rauser's direction is desirable because I think his version is much more benign and may not even survive that long. The problem I see with the more benign forms of Christianity is that constantly lurking beneath the surface are the seeds of fundamentalism just waiting for some charismatic nutcase to start ranting about taking "God's Word" seriously.

    1. Nothing like that pesky Bible to get in the way of a reasonable theological position. This isn't just a problem for Rauser, of course. It's a problem for just about any Christian that considers the Bible a source text.

      That's a pretty good line about theological positions, I may have to steal it.

      The issue here is that from a philosophical perspective, Randal can indeed rationalize away the issues. The problem is that for me, even when I was a believer, such re-interpretations struck me as wildly implausible. If I was to infer to the best explanation, it seems to weigh in on the idea that "This is really just a bunch of stories put together by people 2k+ years ago that has nothing to do with a god."

      Randal's "out" from that problem is that he starts with the assumption that Christianity is true and that the Bible is inspired. He can do that, but it's up to individuals as to whether that's convincing or not.

      In terms of Rauser's brand of Christianity, I'm not sure I agree that it will not "survive long". If anything the fundamentalist readings/versions are what will die off at a tremendous pace, they're so easy to disprove. At some point when growing up, kids become adults and need jobs - they go to college, they learn science and critical thinking, because we generally need those kinds of things to get the kinds of jobs that are in demand today. That will undermine fundamentalism.

      Randal's version lets them harmonize the two, but at the cost of becoming, I think, irrelevant for the purposes that most atheists care about. Will that brand of Christian rail against same sex marriage? Contraceptives being made freely/cheaply available? If anything they'll probably be active on the pro-life front, but that's just one issue compared to the wide berth they're fighting against now.

    2. My comment about not surviving long was based on the idea that Christianity and Islam have outlasted other religions due in part to their doctrines of eternal punishment. They've come up with the most fearful thing imaginable and used it's threat to both spread their religion and retain adherents.

      In nearly all of my interactions with rank and file Christians, when pressed, it always seems to come back to fear of hell (read: Pascal's Wager). I realize that's anecdotal, and your mileage may vary, but that's where the comment was coming from, anyway. It seems to me that a Christianity without a real hell has no teeth, no relevance and little motivation.

      I'm also not as convinced that education will undermine fundamentalism at a tremendous pace. For one, I know too many educated fundamentalists. I used to be one [more anecdotal evidence, I know]. I do hope you're right, though. I live in the Southeast US, so it's hard for me to see anything but growing fundamentalist religious influence everywhere around me. Perhaps much of the resurgence I'm witnessing is just the beast crying out in the throes of death.

  2. Hi CA, great job on these blog posts. I have a question regarding the problem of evil: does the following "happiness cannot exist without suffering" theodicy undermine the PoE?

    It's from a Muslim source, so you won't get any of that "free-will" nonsense.

    1. Thanks for the kind words.

      I'm not sure how to respond to the link you mentioned in ways that would counteract the Islamic doctrines, since I'm not well versed in Islam like I am in Christianity. My first instinct is to reject the dichotomy that is proposed between "happiness can't exist without suffering". The immediate theologicla question is to ask if that is the case then is Allah suffering at times or is he unhappy? I don't know if answering that Allah suffers is theologically objectionable or not however, so that may not work.

      The only other thing is to ask about the Muslim heaven and paradise, if there will be no suffering there, then the same problems of heaven and hell come up for them.