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Does Atheist Julian Baggini Consider the Strongest Counter Evidence? :: Book Review of Julian Baggini’s book Atheism: A Very Short Introduction

I have so far offered mostly praise and appreciation for Julian Baggini’s book Atheism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2003), 119 pp.  In my last post I offered my first critical remarks of the book.  I argued that atheism is negative by its modern definition, even though Baggini argues that atheism is positive.  This was more-or-less a quibbling over terms.  In this post, however, I will be offering my most critical remarks about the book by exploring its most crucial oversights.
Julian Baggini__Atheism_A Very Short Introduction
The Burden of Making Sweeping Claims

Whenever making general claims that a position has no good arguments or supporting evidence, one must be willing to consider the strongest possible evidence and arguments for such a position as defended by its most able proponents, not just cherry pick the weaker evidence and less careful arguments made by rash or inept proponents. The best way to make a rationally persuasive case against a position is to first accurately represent the strongest arguments for that position before deconstructing them.   This is always risky, since it could turn the audience–especially if they fail to keep reading the subsequent critique.  It seems counter-intuitive, but the first step to attacking or debunking a view is to first argue in favor of it—that is, to do one’s best to take on the mindset of its most able proponents and state the strongest possible case for their position.  This (by the way) is also risky for the one making the arguments against it (not just for the audience they are trying to persuade) since often when one goes to such great lengths to fairly represent one’s interlocutor, not only can one’s critique be more transparently assessed by judging whether any part of the argument hinges on a misunderstanding or misrepresentation, but it has the potential to alleviate ignorance, misunderstandings, and (the best part) dogmatism.  It’s always easier to make a case against a view one has not studied very carefully from its most able proponents.  All too often the exchanges between those holding contrary positions are more like lobbed grenades or dumb bombs than accurate sniper fire or smart bombs.

An expositional prelude of the kind I am advocating for here demands patience, good-will, virtue, and a lot of time, but it adds maximum credibility to the subsequent critique.  Such a strategy also has the greatest potential to convince the very audience that isn’t already persuaded because it assures them first that their views have been well understood.  It’s the best method for meeting the preconditions for genuine dialogue and exchange.  If you can explain your philosophical/theological opponents view or argument in detail as well or better than even they can, your arguments against it are much more likely to be both appreciated and respected by the target audience you wish to engage and persuade.  Sometimes it seems as if the goal of those who argue against other positions is not to persuade at all, but to shore up the confidence of those who already agree, which seems to imply a bit of insecurity.

Unfortunately, most people who go to the trouble of arguing against a position have a strong incentive to not make the counter view sound as persuasive as it could possibly sound in the hands of its most able defenders.  Instead, distortions of a position and how it’s argued for are the norm—-even among academicians.  Straw-man fallacies are often unintentional: the result of a blind spot or a disconnect in perspectives.  Throw into this a lot of ignorance and rhetoric and you have a recipe for dogmatism and unproductive polemics.

Does Baggini Consider the Strongest Counter Evidence?

Thankfully Baggini is well educated and appears to do a decent job throughout most of his book in achieving a fair representation of the views he’s arguing against, but there are some serious oversights in the book.  For example, when he considers the “counter-evidence” on the question of life after death, he mentions only 1) the testimony of mediums, 2) supposed appearances of ghosts, and 3) near-death experiences. Then he concludes “there really isn’t any stronger evidence” (19).  Just mentioning the types of counter evidence, Baggini figures, is enough to make his case. He doesn’t care to unpack the supposed ghosts sightings or analyze the testimony of mediums. He doesn’t take these types of evidence very seriously.

Unfortunately, it just happens to be that the cornerstone of Christian apologetics does not fit any of these “counter-evidence” categories he lists, but bases its argument on the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. Christian scholars have often put together rather impressive historical arguments that would appear to construe the known evidence in such a way that the resurrection hypothesis best fits the historical data. This does not mean the hypothesis is true or that critiques of such historical arguments are not available, but it remains the strongest type of evidence (historical) for the Christian position, yet Baggini fails to even consider it. [NOTE: Christian’s do not believe Jesus was a “ghost” so the second item on his list does not cover this type of argument.]  In fact, nowhere in his book does he ever tackle what is treated by Christians as the strongest evidence for their position, yet the overall argument of the book is that only the “weaker” types of counter-evidence can be found against naturalism, making this oversight problematic for his entire strategy. If one says only weak arguments can be found for a position, one had better consider what the most able proponents who hold that position think are the strongest arguments for it.  (I could also bring up Intelligent Design theory which I would consider as far better of an argument than the testimony of mediums, supposed appearances of ghosts, and near-death experiences, but I’m going to stick with the resurrection hypothesis here since I’m not as familiar with the ID literature).

For example, on this topic one would have to offer good counter arguments to the arguments of respected scholars like Larry W. Hurtado, Richard Bauckham and N.T. Wright to name a few.  These are scholars who are respected by collegues in their secular fields of historical work, not just the Christian community.  Since Baggini is not a historian but a philosopher, his best counter argument move for this would be to appeal to other historians who have expert critiques for these arguments. His argument would only be as good as the historical experts he would be forced to rely on, which could be a good or a bad thing depending on how soundly the arguments of the likes of Bauckham and Hurtado have been represented and critiqued in those sources.  To be truly on top of things, one would also want to see what counter-arguments have been made by these authors to their critics.  All too often defenders of a position respond: “I’ve already answered that objection in chapter X of my book.”  If nobody is taking the time to carefully read where their opponents have already answered their objections, no real dialogue or fruitful exchange can even get off the ground.

If you are thinking, “That sounds like a ton of work,” your right, but when making a sweeping claim that no good arguments exist for a position, this is the type of “homework” that would make such a claim credible—especially to those who are familiar with the best proponents of such a position. To put it another way, Christians who are steeped in the historical literature of the scholars I mentioned (or others with the same pedigree) would find it easy to dismiss Baggini’s claim that no good arguments exist for life after death, since the arguments they stand on don’t even seem to be on Baggini’s radar. And this just so happens to be the case with Christianity.

Does Baggini Fairly Represent Opposing Arguments?

This is not the only place Baggini appears to lack a familiarity with the strongest counterpositions. Another major oversight in his book can be found in his representation of the idea that divine authority or divine law is somehow required to “uphold” ethics.  How he understands the position he argues against can be seen in the summary statement of his position at the beginning of the chapter:

Morality is more than possible without God, it is entirely independent of him. That means atheists are not only more than capable of leading moral lives, they may even be able to lead more moral lives than religious believers who confuse divine law and punishment with right and wrong. (37)

The rest of the chapter mainly establishes that (1) people have to always make their own subjective decisions on what moral codes to adopt or not adopt and (2) atheists have plenty of resources to draw from for ethics and can even be more ethical than religious believers.  [NOTE: The best part of this chapter is his engagement with the Euthyphro Dilemma where he considers a common counter-argument to his critique.]

As to (1), Baggini is mistaken that the “inescapability of personal choice” means that “the atheist and the believer are therefore in the same boat” (41, 43).  It’s true that personal choice is inevitable, but I’ve never met a theist who argued that divine law and personal choice were incompatible.  The theist perspective is about better aligning one’s subjective decisions with the objective moral code. The theists argue that in the atheist scenario there is no possibility for an ultimately objective moral standard or code, so one’s personal choices about what morality to adopt have no potential to ever be objectively right or wrong.  With religious morality it is possible in theory (even if not in practice) for the theist to attain to a subjective adoption of what is objectively right. “Objective” in this sense transcends any type of objectivity that is possible with an atheist morality, for the divine moral code transcends national and cultural morality. It also transcends the evolution of practiced morality across time. Baggini thinks that establishing that subjective decisions are inevitable when it comes to morality somehow makes the type of objective morality claimed by theists impossible, but this does not follow, since if the theist perspective is true, the subjective attainment of an objective moral code is at least possible. Various religions supposedly provide the “true” path to attaining such objective morality. That’s what makes them very different from any type of morality possible in an atheist worldview.

As for (2) Baggini appears to miss the thrust of the argument made in the most respected Christian literature, which isn’t that atheists cannot be moral or ethical in practice.  I’ve never heard or read any such claims in even the least sophisticated of religious literature.  The argument put forth is that without a divine moral code in theory one cannot ground their morality or ethics objectively in a way that transcends one’s personal preference, culture or time. In fact, part of the theistic argument’s bite is supposed to come from the fact that atheists actually do adhere to and expect others to treat as objective certain moral principles. As the argument goes, atheists therefore are a walking contradiction because they have no philosophical grounds for saying anything is objectively right or wrong, but only right or wrong for them or perhaps for a particular group of people at a particular time in the evolution of the human species.  They have no right or grounds to judge the moral actions of others.  One may be able to ground atheist morality so that it is not restricted to only oneself by appeal to evolution, which opens up the possibility for a certain moral code to (in theory) hold for a tribe or group of people at a particular time in the evolution of human history, but this still grounds morality in subjective and changing circumstances.

Murder and rape of humans, for example (as the argument goes), cannot be objectively wrong in the atheist perspective. In theory, at some point in the development of human history a unanimous consensus could potentially accept it as wrong, but this would only be a limited and fragile consensus based on the changing circumstances of an ever-evolving species. One might try to argue based on Aristotelean teleology, for example, that murder and rape of humans is a counter productive practice to the ultimate telos of human happiness as we now know it, but what makes people happy could change from person to person, and culture to culture, and generation to generation. Furthermore, is happiness really the ultimate telos for humans anyway? Can one know simply based on the fact that all humans want to be happy? If a desire for happiness is currently an inescapable part of human nature, this does not mean it’s the only inescapable part of human nature or the most important one.  Furthermore, we must remember that because of evolution human nature is always in flux.  It has changed in the past, it’s changing now, and it will change in the future. Basing morality in human nature appears to fallaciously ground what ought to be on what is the case. In the Aristotelian morality described by Baggini, one bases what he or she ought to do on what humans appear to inescapably desire. We are still a long way from the type of objective morality possible within a theist view, especially one where God writes these moral codes on stone tablets to make them clear as in Judaism or Christianity.

One of the bonuses of this book comes from the fact that although Baggini is familiar with streams of philosophical and theological literature, he makes a decision to leave out footnotes (for the most part) “to avoid scholastic sterility.” This works to his advantage for most of the book. However, when one fails to follow this “strict academic” guideline, one’s writing becomes vulnerable to the flaws that remind us why it’s such a “strict academic” guideline. His arguments portray a lack of familiarity and misunderstanding with the most able proponents of the counter-evidence to his position. Reading and carefully citing these proponents would’ve been a better move here for Baggini, and would lessen one of the most regrettable gaps in academia—the one where people speak past each other when they hold disparate views on a topic. Closing the gap requires not only good will (which I believe Baggini has) but also a copious amount of reading in books written by those who hold views directly opposed to the one you seek to defend. This is why the road is very, very rarely traveled.

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