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Exposing the Indefensible (2003)

A review of S.T. Joshi's, God's Defenders: What They Believe and why They are Wrong
(Amherst: Prometheus, 2003)

Taner Edis

 

Many infidels will enjoy this book, which skewers some of the more popular (rather than scholarly) defenders of religious faith. Joshi has a sharp tongue, which he uses to good effect in deflating some pompous and ill-conceived apologetic arguments which have found a large audience. Exploring the veracity of religious fact-claims can be a frustrating experience, since finding the better cases for theism often requires a struggle to get through much that is plain nonsense. It is good to encounter a book that gets hold of some of these more inane arguments--including some which command a great deal of popular respect--and ridicules them mercilessly.

Joshi did not intend to produce a compelling case for an atheistic view, or attempt to answer the best of what theists have to offer. His focus is on popular writers and intellectuals: William James, G.K. Chesterton, T.S. Eliot, C.S. Lewis, William F. Buckley Jr., Stephen L. Carter, Jerry Falwell, Reynolds Price, Annie Dillard, Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, Neale Donald Walsch, and Guenter Lewy. These are figures who are famous for intellectual accomplishments (if we stretch to include Falwell and Walsch) other than their advocacy of religion, but all have also become known for publicly making a case for God. They are by no means the best representatives of God, but they have reached an audience much larger than any of the philosophical big-guns on the theistic side.

Consider C.S. Lewis. Undoubtedly a brilliant critic and polished writer, today Lewis enjoys considerable fame in conservative Christian circles as a leading intellectual defender of the faith. This is in spite of the fact that few theologians take his case for God seriously, let alone philosophers and scientists interested in examining religious claims. Though much of his apologetics is little more than a bad joke, Lewis is an influential figure, and anyone who engages in popular debate about religion will encounter his arguments or closely similar versions. So for infidels it pays to look at the sort of things those popular defenders of God covered by Joshi are apt to say, and this book generally does a good job in outlining such arguments and their absurdities.

That being said, the book will enjoy only a limited audience. Right at the beginning, Joshi makes his acerbic approach clear; for example, he explains the persistence of religion by declaring "people are stupid." This may be perceived as refreshing by infidels who are frustrated by social conventions which force us to show respect to even the most idiotic claim as long as it comes with the label "religious" attached, but the overwhelming majority of the population would immediately think of this as arrogant or worse. This is not a book to hand to anyone who is sympathetic to the sort of attractive but low-quality apologetics which Joshi targets. The tone of the book ensures that its appeal will be limited to those who already disbelieve in gods.

A more serious problem is that Joshi sometimes gets careless in his criticism. Explaining religion through human stupidity, for example, is simply a mistake. And in many occasions he demands that the author in question should prove the existence of their God before proceeding further in their argument. This, however, is often an unreasonable demand. Much of the literature Joshi blasts is addressed to religious believers; in this context it is no sin to take certain things for granted--they can be defended elsewhere. Since he does not approach his targets with any sympathy, he is liable to interpret them uncharitably, without acknowledging any real intellectual substance that might come mixed in with the bad reasoning. Again, this would make Joshi's work ineffectual outside of an audience of already convinced unbelievers.

God's Defenders is a book worth reading. It addresses an important issue that infidels should be aware of. It is flawed, however, and its tone and approach limit it to preaching to the already deconverted.

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