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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Monday, August 08, 2011

From Atheism: The Case Against God by George H. Smith (1979)

I've often said things like this, forgetting that Smith said it and said it well. He may not have been the first, either, but it's a clear, concise formulation:

Unlike the philosopher, the theologian adopts a position, a dogma, and then commits himself to a defense of that position come what may. While he may display a willingness to defend this dogma, closer examination reveals this to be a farce. His defense consists of distorting and rationalizing all contrary evidence to meet his desired specifications. In the case of divine benevolence, the theologian will grasp onto any explanation, no matter how implausible, before he will abandon his dogma. And when finally pushed into a corner, he will argue that man cannot understand the true meaning of this dogma.

Pity about the old-fashioned use of masculine pronouns and the word "man" as an expression for humankind. This kind of thing jars these days (though given the historical and continuing degree to which religions tend to be patriarchal it is not entirely out of place to use "he" for a generic theologian). That aside, it seems to me one of the most powerful points that should be made - so often, theologians, in trying to preserve some non-negotiable dogma or another, will end up adopting claims that may not be logically inconsistent but are just wildly implausible for anyone who is not already committed to the dogma. And indeed, even they may find that what is required is just not believable.

10 comments:

Mike Haubrich said...

I like this quote, it fits with my own dogman (haha). What was the original source of it, Russell?

Russell Blackford said...

From the book cited in the title of the post. Pages 86-87.

Ron said...

This quote fits William Lane Craig to a Tee. I was listening to a debate today where WLC was saying that it is not inconsistent that god is all loving, and he also sends people to hell. It takes tortured logic to make it work, but WLC is a master at tortured logic.

RoBe said...

I got so much out of this book, I'd heard what a good author he was, but due to the age of the book, I for some reason thought it was going to be out of date (aside from the pronoun usage), I was wrong..

Kel said...

"In the case of divine benevolence, the theologian will grasp onto any explanation, no matter how implausible, before he will abandon his dogma."
On that note, did you happen to see WLC's latest defence of God's ordered slaughter of the Canaanites? Apparently the Canaanites had a chance to turn and run so they didn't need to get slaughtered...

thefloatinglantern said...

Yes, well "man" does mean humankind, doesn't it? Nothing wrong with using it where appropriate. Substituting any other word in "One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind" would have ruined the poetry of it.

Tim Martin

Badger3k said...

A quote with many uses, but his book was one of the more influential ones in helping me towards my atheism. He had a lot of good arguments in there. I think I need to go looking and get that book for my iPad.

Russell Blackford said...

Yes, it's a thorough and useful book. Althoug it came out back in the late 1970s, it's very pertinent to the arguments that we're having with the John Haughts and so on today. He has a long discussion of the way that modern-day religious apologists typically offer theism as a kind of cure for extreme, universal scepticism. That's very much their favourite argument these days, but Smith was right onto it back then, over 30 years ago.

Anonymous said...

It is unfortunate that people feed a need to apologize over the use of a pronoun that in context plainly (and under the historically well understood grammatical construct) included all humankind. Sure it is nice to be gender neutral where practical, but the only time one should question this material was if it were, in meaning, specifically excluding women.

Otherwise this genuflecting to 'correct speak' is absurd.

Verbose Stoic said...

Well, first, this actually sounds a lot like what Kuhn says scientists do, so there may not be much reason to be smug (unless you're a philosopher, I suppose [grin]).

Second, I'm not sure how true it is. I suppose that theologians start with the idea of a God (maybe) and do write to defend that, but it doesn't seem that they're any more committed to that than philosophers are to Utilitarian views or Error Theory views or materialist views of mind or dualist views of mind or whatever. Which means that they do examine all contrary evidence to see either if it really counts as contrary evidence, or to see if their view can be changed to accommodate it. If they really had a strong disproof, they'd seem to change their view just as quickly -- or, perhaps, slowly -- as philosophers and scientists will.

Of course, most of my exposure to theology is through philosophy of religion, so I might not have the best view here.

I also don't find the benevolence question as strong as Smith seems to think here, but would also point out that that sort of thing can be seen in moral philosophy, such as examples of, say, the consequences of utilitarianism, that some philosophers simply bite.