A Reflection On Randal Rauser: Some Final Thoughts On An Interesting and Paradoxical Personality, Guest Post Written by Tristan Vick aka The Advocatus Atheist
Way back in October of 2013 I sat down and read Randal Rauser’s book The Swedish Atheist the Scuba Diver and Other Apologetic Rabbit Trails and then, as is my habit, wrote a series of brief reviews about my impressions on my philosophy of religion blog The Advocatus Atheist.
Initially, I think the thing that struck a chord with me about Randal was that he didn't seem like he was rehashing all the same old Christian apologetic fanfare. Rather, there seemed to be some genuine thought behind his arguments, and I found that rather refreshing (for a religious apologist). Randal is articulate and approaches perceived problems in Christianity differently than other apologists (heck, he even admits there ARE theological problems in Christianity that need addressing – so kudos to him).
It all started when my friend, the philosopher Jonathan M.S. Pearce, suggested I familiarized myself with some of Randal’s work and engage with him on a deeper level. Mainly, I think Jon wanted to do so himself but simply was too busy, and he knew that my intellectual curiosity with religion and philosophy would be a good match for Randal’s own credentials in religion and theology. After reading some rather insightful blogs by Randal, I got excited and decided to try reading some of his published works as well.
Needless to say, after reading Randal’s abysmal book on Heaven (sorry Randal, I have to be honest here), I thought to myself, was this really the same Randal Rauser? Did the one apologist I might actually admire for having an original thought write this unoriginal apologetic tripe? Where was the original, thought provoking, Randal of the Interwebs? Where did this impostor come from, I thought. I felt entirely let down by Randal, and that may have been reflected a bit in my online tone with him in our exchanges – which grew impatient and terse rather fast. But I still wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt. So I picked up his book where he challenges atheism head on, The Swedish Atheist and read it.
At the outset, I was attracted to hearing him out on his Christian views regarding atheism since I was myself a former Christian turned atheist. A little additional perspective never hurt anyone, after all, and I was determined to make sure that my beliefs were as sound as I felt they were.
As I got into the The Swedish Atheist, I really had to keep on my toes. Randal offers so many subjects and ideas to reflect upon that it sometimes was a little daunting. I also found that some things he discussed were expressed more clearly than others. Other times it seemed as though Randal actually wanted his readers to think through the confusion. And, still, other times it didn’t seem like Randal knew what he was talking about (this especially rang true regarding the parts on science and psychology—granted, these aren’t Randal’s area of expertise, but a little research prior to the writing couldn’t have hurt him any). But I pushed through it. The good news is that, even though the topics can get pretty esoteric at times as Randal jumps from one theological concept to the next, Randal’s writing style is easy to read and it plugs along at a reasonable pace.
Having been an Evangelical Christian for over 30 years, I felt that I was in a unique position where I could see where Randal was coming from with many of his points about atheism’s criticism of religion and I could fairly adjudicate both side’s arguments as presented in his book. Which is why I felt that The Swedish Atheist would be the perfect conversation starter.
Soon after getting into the thick of Randal’s book, however, I began to feel let down just as I had with his other book. What I thought to be an original apologist suddenly appeared to me to be more and more the same old peddler of apologetic tricks playing the same old routine of religious defenses, just dressed up in a fancier vocabulary. By this time, it seems to me, Randal the Christian theologian had nothing original to say. He was still stuck in the apologetic mode of defending the faith. There was nothing novel to his arguments. He merely stated the same old apologetic arguments in a much more flowery manner, and once I found that was his style, I could cut out all the fat and get to brass tacks (to mix some metaphors).
Don’t get me wrong, Randal has quite a knack for rephrasing age old apologetic questions, and a nice way of illustrating anecdotal stories to help flesh out his points, but ultimately he really doesn’t cover any new ground. It’s clear to me that he likes to play it safe and stays in the confines classical theism and props it up using the Evangelical brand of apologetics that has retarded good theology ever since C.S. Lewis espoused there was such a thing as “Mere Christianity” and that atheism was a mere boy’s philosophy. Which C.K. Chesterton seemed to agree with when he infamously said that, “If there were no God, there would be no atheists.”
It seems that this confused understanding of what atheistic thought entails, the same confusion which plagued great apologetic giants like Lewis and Chesterton, is where Randal chooses to wage war. From the comfort of riding on the backs of intellectual giants greater than he. But whom, sadly enough, seem not to be heading into the theological trenches with their eyes open.
Eventually, I began to hear the echo of the same old arguments which every religious apologist keeps in their bag of apologetic tricks, and I let out a deep sigh of disappointment. What I had hoped to be an intellectually challenging apologist turned into another bout of boredom filled with an unlimited supply of eye rolling and face-palms. The same old, same old when it came to the bland fruit of religious apologetics.
After reading Randal’s The Swedish Atheist I realized he was merely writing a shorthand form of apologetics to make Christian faith more accessible to younger people – a new generation who would get excited by the fanciful way Randal excites by supplying a tired and worn out subject matter with a new vocabulary and way of seeing things. That in itself is impressive, but it didn’t do anything for me, a real world atheist, who was a little disappointed by Randal’s barely passable caricature of atheists and atheism in his book. It seems he understands the atheistic arguments against his faith and his God well enough, but then instead of grappling with them on a case by case basis he merely throws back the same old apologetic arguments atheists have grown so weary of (and, ironically, were compelled to create such counter-arguments in the first place to address).
Sure, by sounding erudite and always besting the fictional atheist of his book, Sheridan, Randal made himself into the stereotypical heroic apologist battling the forces of the evil atheist nincompoop. It seems to be a time honored tradition of Christian apologists to always best their atheist interlocutor and show how their faith prevails over the forces of darkness (or dimwittedness as the caricature so often seems to be).
To me, however, it was all a big whatever. If cheeky anecdotes were enough to prove the existence of God, I’m sure some apologist somewhere would have the Nobel Prize for, well, whatever it is they’d award to a person who proved the existence of God. Although, if I had to wage a bet I’m pretty certain that honor would probably go to a scientist, not a religious apologist who only ever studies one terribly flawed, man-made book and then pretends it is the most perfectly divine revelation ever conceived. But I digress.
Needless to say, I wasn’t at all impressed with Randal’s rather crude portrayal of atheists and atheism His Sheridan character frequently comes off as impertinent, puerile, and often times belligerent. It often makes you pause to wonder what Randal’s impression of atheists really is. Whatever the case may be, I personally found Randal’s straw-man atheist Sheridan so far off the mark that the character became laughable. Yet the thing that is no laughing matter is that there will be religious readers, many who may not have encountered a genuine real-world atheist, who will believe Randal’s crude portrayal as the real deal. In other words, they will think that’s how all atheists act and are, and it’s no surprise then that Randal paints a rather lackluster picture of atheists and how they think and behave.
In my brief time as an atheist, most of the atheists I have known have been soft spoken, articulate, and thoughtful specimens. That’s not to say that there aren’t your stereotypical axe grinding, obnoxious village atheists out there as well, but I like to think I keep good company and personally have no time for insufferable people – regardless of what side of the theological fence they reside.
In my frustration with Randal’s misrepresentation of atheists (and atheism in general), I wrote a book length response to Randal's book, mine being called The Swedish Fish, Deflating the Scuba Diver and Working the Rabbit's Foot (edited by the one and only Robert M. Price – The Bible Geek himself) where I tackle Randal’s apologetic arguments head on, addressing the full range of topics discussed in his book, plus a few additional ones, while giving his arguments a critical examination as to where I think he gets things wrong.
Please don’t misunderstand me, whatever personal beef I have with Randal and his somewhat deceptive portrayal of atheists, one thing is for sure, he is a great writer. But ultimately his ideas fall flat and are easily rebutted. Randal often loves to bring up the epistemological term “defeater” as it relates to belief. Well, I found more than enough defeaters to Randal’s professed beliefs as he presents them in his book, and I think given a charitable understanding of my arguments as I detail them in my book The Swedish Fish, any theist would have more than enough to chew on. And any atheist who might be struggling to articulate a defense against the twice-baked apologetics of their religious family and friends might having something to sling back at them the next time they offer an apologetics book for them to read.
And that was basically the point of the whole exercise. I don’t care so much whether Randal ever responds to my critique of his arguments so much as I wanted to provide a direct challenge to the idea that Christianity can do no wrong and atheists are just a bunch of stubborn, wrong-headed folk, who can’t possibly fathom the deeper side of Christian apologetics because we don’t have PhDs in sophistry (e.g., Christian theology – no offense to all the truly thoughtful theologians out there who are genuinely fascinated by systematic theology and the history of theology. All I mean to say here is that the theology of the religious apologist is a distorted version that deliberately bends the question surrounding the investigation of God’s existence into an infinite loop of circular logic – which would make any genuine theologian cringe with revulsion—which is why, in my opinion, the best theologians has rarely ever been apologists).
My point is, Randal doesn’t need to accept every type of atheist’s personal brand of atheism to talk about your everyday generic form of atheism just as I don’t need to understand every form of personal faith of the Christian to speak about your everyday kind of Christianity. In the grand scheme of things, Randal Rauser’s opinion matters very little. One might say, we at least have that in common. Which is why I felt we were equally qualified to talk about the existence of God. After all, we both are beginning with the same amount of paltry evidence, and the only thing Randal could claim that I couldn’t when it comes to the question of God’s existence is that he’s given that paltry evidence a much more thorough consideration than I have. Personally, I find the entire theological pursuit a waste of time. But there is a practical side that I think needs to be addressed in setting the record straight anytime a religious apologist tries to distort the facts, and then either denigrates or devalues atheists and atheism because they view us as the antithesis of their whole endeavor.
At any rate, I figured that, as a layman, if I could provide strong arguments that challenge, if not complicate Randal’s position, then Randal would need to work that much harder to convince real atheists like me of the worthiness of his position. After all, minus a system of demonstration that can fully account for the existence of God, Randal still has all his work ahead of him. I merely have a reasonable position that would be easily amended should anything in the way of a genuine proof for God’s existence arise. And even then, the skeptic in me would still be asking, “Are you sure you’ve given it your best consideration?”
If Randal, and those theists who side with him, were proved wrong tomorrow – they’d lose everything. Or think of it this way, the atheist isn’t in any danger of losing anything they didn’t already have to begin with.
Should God turn out to be real, which is highly unlikely, the atheist only has a single belief to be gained (maybe some knowledge). Meanwhile, a religious apologist like Randal has much more to lose should his beliefs prove to be false, yet relatively little to gain should they actually be true. Which may explain why religious apologists like Randal so vehemently wish for it all to be true – if only as a means to justify the sheer amount of time and energy they have wasted dedicating themselves to the cause of proving it so when there wasn’t a single inkling of evidence or a good enough argument to erase all doubt from their minds.
All things being equal, I am happy to report that I do not see any immediate danger of being convinced of the theistic position any time soon. After all, I didn’t just quit my three decade long stint of religious faith cold turkey. It was only after a long and drawn out process of intense reflection and questioning that I let it go. It wasn’t that I ever gave up on my faith so much as my faith simply failed me. It failed to provide any meaningful answers. It failed to explain itself in a way that made any kind of sense. If failed to be pertinent to the way I wished to live my life, and in many ways gave rise to complications rather than solutions to real world problems, and that’s why I let my faith fall by the wayside.
I don't think there is anything more I can say that I haven’t already said in my own book (The Swedish Fish) responding to Randal's form of Christian apologetics. You either will find reasons to be skeptical of Randal's brand of apologetics or you won't. That's really the whole of it.
And when it comes to the question about God’s existence, it is my firm belief that there just aren’t any worthy facts to be had that would support a positive belief. At least, none that I am personally aware of. Until that time when I find that there is, I feel more than justified in my form of atheism.
And contrary to what C.K. Chesterton espoused, if there were no God, then atheism would be justified. The very fact that so many people think God is real, minus any sort of convincing evidence or demonstration, is enough to justify the need for atheistic arguments and counter-arguments. That’s really why I decided to write The Swedish Fish. And, at the end of the day, I hope that I have contributed in some small way to the ongoing religious conversation.
Thank you, and as always, live well and be wise.
--Tristan Vick aka The Advocatus Atheist.
Tristan Vick is an author signed with Permuted Press and Winlock Press and is author of the exciting post-apocalyptic zombie Resurrection Virus saga BITTEN: Resurrection, BITTEN: Land of the Rising Dead, and BITTEN: Kingdom of the Living Dead. His paranormal comedic noir series The Scarecrow & Lady Kingston has received rave reviews and you can learn more about Tristan Vick and his writing projects by following his official author website at: www.tristanvick.com
In his spare time Tristan researches the history of religion and psychology and is the author and editor of numerous other non-fiction works including:
The Amazon.com best seller Ignosticism
Beyond An Absence of Faith: Stories About the Loss of Faith and the Discovery of Self co-edited with Jonathan M.S. Pearce.
Advocatus Atheist: Seeing the World through the eyes of an Atheist.
Reason Against Blasphemy: G.W. Foote and Robert G. Ingersoll on Blasphemy.
Seasons of Freethought: The Collected Works of G.W. Foote.