The books by the new atheists were widely read and eye opening for those raised in the prior decades of religious certainty but they garnered little praise from professional philosophers. Everyone has heard the arguments before in Bertram Russel’s “Why I am not a Christian” Tom Paine’s delightful Age of Reason, and the Joseph Lewis’ less delightful The Bible Unmasked. Most of the cultured responses were snarky or dismissive to the atheists as not knowing the history of ideas.
But now we have an interesting new volume that answers the new atheists as part of a book designed for an undergraduate introduction to philosophy course or introduction to religion, God a Delusion? A Reply to Religion’s Cultured Despisers by Eric Reitan. The book won an award as an outstanding academic work. It does not refute the atheists as much as use them to open the discussion about Anselm, Aquinas, and Schleiermacher. I am always on the lookout for good “teaching” books. This one looks like it would be appropriate for the right class, bothered by these problems. It would be a good introduction for those who only know the popular literature. It would also be useful for someone trying to explain Saadya and Maimonidean theism to a contemporary fideist.
Is God a Delusion? A Reply to Religion’s Cultured Despisers
Eric Reitan’s latest book, Is God a Delusion? A Reply to Religion’s Cultured Despisers was named an Outstanding Academic Title of 2009. Here he tells us how he was motivated to write the book partly in response to the misrepresentations of religious thought he discovered in Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, but also by a very personal desire to reconcile his deep intuitions about ultimate reality with open intellectual inquiry.
Why did you decide to write Is God a Delusion?
Eric Reitan: One day a few years ago, a colleague of mine handed me a photocopied page from a book, without any identifying information, and asked me to evaluate it as I would a student paper. On that page the unknown author attempted to summarize and then critique the first three of Aquinas’ “Five Ways” for proving God’s existence. I say “attempted” because the author got the arguments wrong and then critiqued them at precisely the points of misunderstanding.
As it turns out, that page was taken from Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. And so I became curious about the book and bought a copy. By the time I was finished I found myself thinking, “You know, I could write an entire introduction to the philosophy of religion just by noting what Dawkins has to say about classic questions in the field, pointing out his oversights and errors, and then introducing the reader to the more developed ideas of great thinkers.
What’s the central concern of the book, and why is it important?
ER: Is God a Delusion? addresses the range of new atheist challenges to religion, not for the purely negative aim of exposing their shortcomings, but for the more productive purpose of trying to identify the parameters within which religion can be both intellectually respectable and morally benign. I’m surprised at how often the book has been mistakenly dubbed an apologetic response to the new atheists…and then criticized as a poor example of apologetics because it fails to defend the kind of religion that the new atheists are attacking. But my aim in the book was never to defend what the new atheists attack, but rather to show that their objections to theistic religion are not as sweeping as the new atheists present them as being. That is, there is a way to believe in God, a way to live a life of religious faith, that does not fall prey to new atheist objections.
To a lesser extent, I also wanted to explore where and how religion goes wrong. Why is it that religion as we encounter it in the world so regularly strays outside the parameters of reasonableness and moral decency? Unlike the new atheists, I don’t think the answer lies in something essential to religion itself. Rather, I think it is the result of certain common human failings—such things as the need for certainty even where certainty can’t be had, and the propensity to find meaning and self-worth through membership in groups that define themselves against opposing groups.
And what is it that draws you to this topic?
This juxtaposition led me on a personal struggle of sorts—the struggle to find religion characterized not only by a sincere desire to live in connection with the transcendent but also by the values I couldn’t set aside: intellectual openness and honesty, compassion, and a respect for fellow humanity that reaches across the differences that so often separate us. My search for the former brought me first into a deep flirtation with modes of religion that challenged the latter—which isn’t surprising, since my most powerful religious influence during childhood had been my mother’s father, with whom I shared a special bond but who was a preacher in a tradition that tended towards exclusivism and suspicion of free thought.
In any event, that personal struggle has made me deeply interested in the issues I explore in the book. I’ve experienced first hand and struggled personally with the notion, so characteristic of much of the contemporary public discourse on religion, that we must choose between masters: religion or science, faith or reason, God or our fallible human conscience. In my personal life I traced out in intuitive terms a path between these false dichotomies. In Is God a Delusion?, my aim is to trace out that same path on a more intellectual level.
What sort of reaction do you hope it will get?
ER: At this point, it’s hard to separate my hopes from the actual reactions the book has already generated. I was deeply gratified, of course, that Is God a Delusion? was named a Choice Outstanding Academic Title of 2009, and I’ve been thrilled every time a philosopher or theologian in some other part of the world contacted me to express appreciation for the book. This kind of response from the academic world is in many ways more than I could have hoped for.
The response from atheist readers has been mixed, but in many ways pretty well tracks what I was hoping to do with the book in relation to that audience. Some atheist readers have found in the book a development of a species of religion they can respect even if they don’t agree with it—and then engaged me in stimulating discussions about key points of disagreement.
What sort of audience did you have in mind when you wrote it?
But I also hope that the book can be profitably used in undergraduate philosophy of religion courses. Although it’s no longer the introduction to the philosophy of religion I had originally intended to write, much of that original idea still shapes the book. I suspect that philosophy of religion teachers will notice very quickly that the topics I cover are some of the staple issues in the field, as are many of the thinkers I discuss. In fact, in my own philosophy of religion course I’ve been pairing my book with The God Delusion and a traditional philosophy of religion anthology, basically with the aim of doing what I’d originally thought to do in the book—and it has proved to be very successful in getting students to see the relevance of philosophical work to issues of contemporary significance. Also, it just makes the course more fun.
Is there another book you wish you could claim credit for?
I also find so much to admire in Charles Taylor’s short and accessible treatment of William James’ religious thought, Varieties of Religion Today, that I’d love to claim credit for it.
Read the whole interview here.