The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology (brief review)

by Luke Muehlhauser on May 17, 2009 in Reviews

My Amazon.com review of The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology:

As an atheist, I recognize this as the single greatest defense of theism ever assembled. Craig and Moreland basically made a list of the most compelling contemporary arguments for the existence of God, tracked down their foremost living defenders, and gave them 50-100 pages to make their case. The result is awe-inspiring, even for the atheist.

I do not expect the book to succeed in demonstrating theism, but it might take a full decade for me to fully analyze its meaty arguments and come to some conclusions.

Even if Earth’s universities are emptied of theists by the year 2400, we may look then look back and see ‘The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology’ as the high-point in the philosophical defense of theism. So I give this book 5 stars not because it convinced me that a magical super-being spoke the universe into existence and revealed himself to ancient, ignorant people through the virgin birth of a man-god who did party tricks, got killed, then rose from the dead and flew off into the sky. No, I give this book 5 stars because it’s the best defense of such a myth that can possibly be mustered.

High points include Robin Collins’ defense of the teleological argument and McGrew & McGrew’s astounding Bayesian defense of the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus.

Also, readers may be surprised to learn that the modal ontological argument has progressed a great deal since Plantinga. To my knowledge, atheists have yet to show what might be wrong with Robert Maydole’s latest ontological argument, printed within.

Because I hold this book in such high esteem, I will be writing hundreds of pages in response to its arguments, starting with Craig’s kalam argument and Linville’s moral argument. You can track my progress at CommonSenseAtheism.com.

‘The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology’ is a tour-de-force of analytic philosophy. If the world is just, it will shape the theistic side of the debate over the existence of God for at least a decade. In my opinion, it has no equal among atheistic literature – yet.

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{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

cartesian May 17, 2009 at 2:55 pm

Luke, though I’ve noticed that this is a habit of yours, I think you’re better than painting such crude caricatures of your opponents:

“a magical super-being spoke the universe into existence and revealed himself to ancient, ignorant people through the virgin birth of a man-god who did party tricks, got killed, then rose from the dead and flew off into the sky.”

This sort of rhetoric may score you points with people who already agree with you, but it doesn’t advance the discussion. I suppose that’s why you find this kind of rhetoric in the writings of the “new” atheists (and their theist responders), but not among serious academic philosophers of religion.

Did you intend this blog to start serious philosophical discussions? Then please refrain from the demeaning rhetoric and caricatures.

Did you intend this blog to get you high-fives from village atheists? Then by all means continue with the rhetoric.

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Teleprompter May 17, 2009 at 3:43 pm

Cartesian,

I respect your comments and mostly I find them insightful and revealing.  However, I disagree with you on your criticism of Luke’s rhetoric here.  I think there are two points in contention.  First, is Luke’s caricature a crude one? Is it accurate? Second, even if Luke’s caricature can be said to be accurate, is it still appropriate? Was it a good decision for Luke to include what could be seen as a possibly demeaning stereotype on his blog?
“a magical super-being spoke the universe into existence and revealed himself to ancient, ignorant people through the virgin birth of a man-god who did party tricks, got killed, then rose from the dead and flew off into the sky.”

Magical: possessing or using or characteristic of or appropriate to supernatural powers. Check. Super-being: Commonly seen as all-present, all-powerful, and all-loving. Check. Spoke the universe into existence: See Genesis Chapter One. Check. Revealed himself: See the OT, Gospels. Check. Ancient: happened thousands of years ago. Check. Ignorant: understood considerably less than we do today about the workings of the natural world. Check. Virgin birth: See the Gospels. Check. Man-god: Widely considered to be both god and man. Check. Did party tricks: Performed miracles which have also been performed by professional magicians. Check. (However, if any of them are a cheap shot, this one is the closest. Resurrecting someone from the dead is hardly a party trick.) Got killed: Crucified. Check. Rose from the dead: See the Gospels. Check. Flew off into the sky: Is said to have descended into the sky. Check.
What’s wrong with the technical explanation of this characterization?  It’s largely accurate, isn’t it?
Second, is it appropriate for Luke to use this example on his blog? I believe that it is appropriate. I believe that philosophy is not the only approach to confronting religion. Many people refuse to reconsider religious ideas –  many refuse to doubt their beliefs. Prodding of this nature seems entirely appropriate in this context.  I believe in a mixed approach. There should be a variety of methods to argue these positions — yes, it is debatable which methods should be used. If you believe that philosophy is the best and only worthwhile approach, I respect that view. However, I believe that it is not enough. People are intimidated too much by religion. I see Luke’s characterization as mild — if a mild enough reformulation such as this one shakes peoples’ beliefs, then I see that as necessary and welcome, and people should be suspicious if mere repetition of their beliefs evokes anxiety.

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Jason Creighton May 17, 2009 at 3:44 pm

@cartesian:

Interesting comments. I’m still trying to think through how much validity they have, so if I seem dismissive of your points, please bear with me.

You say that Luke’s statement is a “crude caricature of [his] opponents”. But is it really? To the best of my understanding, Craig (don’t know about Moreland) really does believe that his god created the universe, really does believe that he revealed himself to ancient people, really does believe in the virgin birth, really does believe Jesus performed miracles, really does believe  that he rose from the dead, and really does believe that he ascended to Heaven thereafter. What part of Luke’s (albiet polemical) summary is actually inaccurate?

Or do you just object to the tone, perhaps feeling that everyone would be  better served if he made the same points using more reserved language?

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Lorkas May 17, 2009 at 3:49 pm

I agree with the point made by cartesian, actually.

I don’t support stopping an valid argument because it hurts someone’s feelings, but rhetoric like this reminds me of the caricatures that demagogues like Kent Hovind and Ray Comfort put forth about atheism rather than the reasoned discussion that you would expect from someone like Craig. I really hate it when I hear Ray Comfort say something like, “Atheists believe that in the beginning there was nothing, and nothing exploded and created everything, [...]” I immediately think that Ray Comfort doesn’t even understand what he’s arguing against. I know this is not true for you, but it is an association that I wouldn’t prefer to have, and I’m sure you wouldn’t either.

I agree with the spirit of the ridicule (and all of the points made therein)–there’s no good reason that I see to believe in Christianity or any particular religion (although there are good reasons to declare belief in them)–but I’m not sure this kind of rhetoric contributes to the big conversation much.

Let’s hope we see the Blackwell Companion to Atheism soon.

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Lorkas May 17, 2009 at 3:54 pm

Actually, the more I read the passage, the more unsure I am about what to think.

What I describe in the post above is my gut reaction, but I suppose even that is a valid consideration, even if not a very important one.

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Jason Creighton May 17, 2009 at 4:06 pm

As I read Lorkas’s response, I began to think about how you would tell what would constitute a caricature of someone’s views. And I had this thought that I’d just like to throw out there. I don’t know if this is valid, but it’s a place to start:

You know you are summarizing someone’s views unfairly if were you to give your summary in their presence, they would interrupt and say “No, that’s not what I believe.”

What do you guys think? Is this a valid rule? And if so, how does it apply here?

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lukeprog May 17, 2009 at 4:41 pm

Jason,

The problem with such a definition is that somebody can weasel out of it. For example, they can deny that they believe in magic, and then explain that they believe in something identical to magic but never use the word “magic.” So it is objectively true that they believe in magic, even though they say, “No, that’s not what I believe” because they prefer to use different words that mean the same thing.

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Facilis May 18, 2009 at 1:47 pm

I personally thought Robin Collin’s defense of fine-tuning and his criticism of Victor Stenger is one of the best parts of the book.

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Lorkas May 18, 2009 at 4:45 pm

I haven’t read it, but I’m glad that Victor Stenger gets some rebuttal.

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danielg May 19, 2009 at 4:16 pm

I wish it cost more like $40 than $200!  Argh!

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Steven Carr May 20, 2009 at 4:04 am

‘Craig and Moreland basically made a list of the most compelling contemporary arguments for the existence of God…’
 
So no attempt whatever by the authors or publishers to pretend this is anything but the most one-sided book they could possible publish and that they made every effort to make it as one sided as possible?

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Steven Carr May 20, 2009 at 4:11 am

But the Christian answer to everything is magic!
They believe in libertarian free will – the doctrine that people’s actions are not determined by rational thought and people choose to do things for no reason at all, and that their god creates things by sheer will-power.
 
They also believe that parts of the New Testament were literally dreamed up – that a real angel appeared to Joseph in a dream.
 
But dreams aren’t real, and people who believe that real angels appear in dreams are delusional.
 
How exactly is it a ‘caricature’ to say that Jesus flew off into the sky?
 
‘After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.  They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going….’
 
Jesus took off into the sky, and people write hundreds of pages defending this religion, as though it was not a silly thing to do.
 
The world is very strange…

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Lorkas May 20, 2009 at 5:23 am

Steven Carr: So no attempt whatever by the authors or publishers to pretend this is anything but the most one-sided book they could possible publish and that they made every effort to make it as one sided as possible?

So what? It’s not as though The God Delusion goes out of its way to evaluate the best arguments from both sides. So long as they aren’t pretending to present all sides of the issue, there’s no problem with them presenting the case for their own position as strongly as they possibly can.

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Steven Carr May 21, 2009 at 1:56 am

The God Delusion is not titled as a ‘Companion to Natural Theology’ is as though it was an even-handed round up of the state of natural theology in the world today.
I wouldn’t expect a work entitled  ‘Companion to the NHL’ to be exclusively devoted to praise of the Packers and how the other franchises are just not as good.
 

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Lorkas May 21, 2009 at 6:07 am

Are you complaining because they didn’t present the arguments for other systems of theology, or because they didn’t include the naturalist position? It doesn’t seem to me that they claim to examine all sides of the issue, so I don’t see what the problem is.

I do agree with you that it would be puzzling for a Companion to the NHL to be dedicated to the Packers, a football team ;) I’m not sure this analogy is apt, though, because they don’t claim to be producing a volume looking at all “teams”, but one specific team: Christian theism.

I don’t see any obligation for a Companion of Natural Theology to include the opinion that theology is a made-up discipline any more than A Brief History of Time is obligate to include the opinion that the universe was created by a Middle-Eastern tribal deity 6,000 years ago.

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Sabio May 22, 2009 at 1:45 am

May I ask, what argument using software you use?

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Sabio May 22, 2009 at 1:51 am

There are thousands of ways to take a piece of rope and tie it into a large knot.  So it is with arguments.  Untying knots is a long noble task, as is weaving a straight strong rope so others may tie knots.

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Kris June 6, 2009 at 9:28 pm

Quick thought Steven

If the book was as you wanted it how huge would it be and how much more would it cost. The idea you want is price and size restrictive.

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NathanielFisher July 7, 2009 at 12:37 pm

You didn’t spend $150 on that book did you Luke?

You just funded Creationists. :O!

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lulun November 9, 2011 at 2:44 pm

The book is available for around $40 if you select the paperback version…………..

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