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Review of The Impossibility of God (2005)

Julian Baggini


 Review: Michael Martin and Ricki Monnier (eds). 2003. The Impossibility of God. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books. 438 pp.

Let's get the well-deserved praise over and done with and move swiftly on to more interesting matters. All infidels (Infidel, noun, 1: one who is not a Christian or who opposes Christianity; 2 a: an unbeliever with respect to a particular religion b: one who acknowledges no religious belief) have several reasons to welcome the publication of this definitive anthology of arguments from the past fifty years for the impossibility of God. Over the course of 33 tightly argued articles, leading atheologians and atheist philosophers such as Anthony Kenny, Hugh LaFollette, J. L. Mackie, Michael Martin and James Rachels take it in turns to show that God, as defined by many theists, simply cannot exist, on pain of contradiction. Targets are invariably hit, if not always right on the bull's-eye. To have these articles together in one volume for the first time is an invaluable service to anyone interested in understanding why the very concept of God is a nonsense.

That said, I still found the book faintly dispiriting, futile even. Rather than finding myself standing on the metaphorical touchline cheering my team as it chalked up point after point, it seemed to me that everyone on the pitch was engaged in a useless game that no-one was ever going to win. This was a bravura performance, but who was it for?

Thus I found myself in the position of a different kind of infidel (3: a disbeliever in something specified or understood). There is something I disbelieve which certain fellow atheists take as understood, if not entirely specified. This book helped me put my finger on what that was: I just don't believe that detailed and sophisticated arguments make any significant difference to the beliefs of the religious or atheists. To explain why I think this, I need to return to the question of who this book is for.

The potential readership can be roughly divided up into the intellectual and the unintellectual. These are not euphemisms for smart and dumb: there are plenty of stupid people who delight in intellectual arguments and plenty of intelligent people who are just not interested in them.

The unintellectual will obviously have no interest in over four hundred pages of carefully argued philosophy. That may seem obvious, but it is a point rationalists often forget. We value reason and argument and obviously think others should too. But if they don't, how are to persuade them otherwise? With reason and argument? You can see the flaw in that plan. The sad truth is that trying to enter into intellectual battle with such people is like trying to use semaphore to lead the blind. The fight against unthinking religion must be fought in terms unthinking believers can relate to. Discovering Angelina Jolie is an atheist is much more likely to make the unintellectual doubt their belief than the arguments of Patrick Grim.

So, our potential readership can be narrowed down to the intellectual, who are, after all, open to reasoned argument. However, I suspect that a statistically insignificant number of them will switch sides on the basis of the kinds of arguments contained here. It may be true that, even though the thinking classes overestimate the extent to which people's basic commitments--even their own--are informed by reason, it is a common experience for people to lose their faith because of intellectual doubts. However, these doubts usually concern fundamentals, not details.

A wonderful comic example of this comes in an episode of the Irish sitcom Father Ted. Bishop O'Neill asks the dim-witted Father Dougal whether he has had any doubts about the religious life. "Well, you know the way God made us all right and eh, he's looking down on us from heaven and everything. And then his son came down and saved everyone and all that," says Dougal. "And when we die we're all going to go to heaven."

"Yes. What about it?" asks the bishop?

"Well that's the part I have trouble with."

Dougal then proceeds to list all the elementary (one might say obvious) flaws with orthodox Christianity: the problem of evil, the nonsense of the virgin birth, the infallibility of the Pope and so on. The joke, however, is that despite Dougal's lack of sophistication, these doubts persuade the bishop that he has been wrong after all, and he leaves the clergy to join a band of travelling hippies.The Impossibility of God, however, is far more sophisticated than Dougal. Employing the arguments it contains against someone who has never seriously considered the basic problem of evil is like using a surgeon's knife to chop down a tree. This is a book of careful piecemeal dissections, not large-scale demolitions.

Yet this is exactly why the Father Ted skit is so absurd and funny. Dougal's doubts may rub off on people for whom they are new and challenging, in particular the young. But a man who has been a believer long enough to become a bishop is made of sterner stuff.However, it is not that more sophisticated arguments are needed against the bishop (or theologian) than against the naïve believer. People in that deep just don't change their minds very often. The recent furore over Antony Flew's apparent volte farce was so frenzied precisely because it is so rare for anyone deeply involved in these issues to switch allegiance. The contributors to The Impossibility of God take issue with Alvin Plantinga, for example, but does anyone seriously hope, let alone expect, Plantinga to lose his faith? No more than we expect Michael Martin to find his.

And that is why I find the book troubling. We're pretending that belief or disbelief in God can and should be a result of following the arguments wherever they lead, if necessary into very deep waters. But if belief really did boil down to the strength of high-level arguments, we'd expect people who studied them to flip-flop all the time. What would happen, for example, if you read an argument by Plantinga for the existence of God that you could not find a rebuttal to? Follow the argument where it leads and start believing, until a rebuttal came along? Certainly not. Rather, you would assume there must be something wrong with the argument, even though you can't yet see what it is. And this of course will be the mirror image of the response of the theist when confronted with an argument for the impossibility of God that he cannot refute.

So when we get to this level of detail and sophistication, the war has become phoney. Converts are won at the more general level. Here, it's about scoring points and having the satisfaction of having the best and most up-to-date arguments on your side.

The position is even worse for atheists than it is for believers. For few people of faith would claim that, at the end of the day, the arguments they offer form the basis of their convictions anyway. They would happily admit that they are engaged in apologetics. They know, through faith, that their God exists. What's more, they also know that the human intellect is frail and finite. All they are doing is trying to show that reason is compatible with this faith, and might even support it more than it does unbelief. It is thus no concern at all that our conception of God throws up paradoxes and contradictions. It is simply another reason to ponder anew how inadequate our human intellects are for conceiving of him. That's why the atheological attempt to show the believer must be wrong is futile. The Plantingas of this world are ingenious enough to be able to revise their positions to accommodate even the most damning of critiques, and secure enough in their faith not to lose it while they do the necessary metaphysical re-engineering.

Indeed, it's possible to see these arguments as serving the interests of theists more than anyone. For atheists, they at best provide confirmation that they are indeed right, in spite of the attempts by smart theists to show otherwise. But for believers, all they do is provide fresh challenges to faith, which can only ultimately show its strength. That which does not kill faith usually makes it stronger, and as a matter of empirical fact these arguments aren't just not lethal, they barely injure.

If the book is useless for the unintellectual and won't change the minds of the intellectual believer or atheist, do intelligent agnostics provide the ideal readership? Sadly not. Again, those who do not make up their minds on the basis of more general considerations are usually chronic agnostics. Indeed, if you are tempted to think these issues are uncertain, then the fact that very intelligent people can debate them in such detail is only likely to confirm that view. Can you imagine anyone saying, "For years I couldn't make up my mind about God, until I read Richard R. La Croix's rebuttal of chapter five of Plantinga's God and Other Minds. That settled it!" Of course, I'm prepared to accept that one or two counterexamples can be found. Maybe you do know someone who was indeed swayed by just the article I mentioned. But such defections are rare. For the most part, this exchange of proof and rebuttal is for the already committed who won't change their minds, but crave intellectual credibility for their views.

Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily. I'm generally sceptical of arguments that aim to show something is useless because it doesn't serve a wide interest. I think it's perfectly respectable for theologians and atheolgians to try and come up with better and stronger arguments, even if it is largely for its own, or their own, sake. It's just that I hope they realise that the battles they are fighting are only of local interest.

There is, however, one sense in which I think the contributors to this volume may be performing a public service. There is a need to maintain a kind of balance of intellectual power. If no atheist philosophers engaged with the issue of God's existence, then the field would be left to the believers. We would then have the impression that only the religious deal with these issues with intelligence and sophistication. That would give succour to the legions of believers who have no interest in theology, but like to know others are taking care of it for them. We need books like this, therefore, not to win the battle--for it can't be won--but simply to show the enemy isn't off the hook.

The contributors to this volume have the almost Sisyphean task of rolling the boulder of belief back up the hill, only to see it come hurtling down again as Alvin Plantinga (it always seems to be him) finds something new for them to get to work on. If I have failed to show them enough gratitude for that task, I am sorry. But to feel some sorrow at the plight of Sisyphus and to recognise its futility is surely a more reasonable reaction than to cheer him on as though he were a conquering hero capable of ultimate victory.

"Review of The Impossibility of God" is copyright © 2005 by Julian Baggini. All rights reserved.
The electronic version is copyright © 2005 by Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of Julian Baggini. All rights reserved.