150 Renowned Secular Academics & 20 Christian Thinkers Talking About the Existence of God

Of the many books released over the past cou­ple decades about the exis­tence or nonex­is­tence of God (and there were a lot) one of the best comes from philoso­pher and nov­el­ist Rebec­ca Gold­stein. Her 2010 36 Argu­ments for the Exis­tence of God is not, how­ev­er, a work of pop­u­lar the­ol­o­gy or anti-the­ol­o­gy; it is fic­tion, a satire of acad­e­mia, the pub­lish­ing world, the Judaism she left behind, and the bub­ble of hype that once inflat­ed around so-called “new athe­ism.”

In a book with­in the book, Goldstein’s hero, Cass Seltzer strikes it big with his own pop­u­lar knock­down of reli­gion, The Vari­eties of Reli­gious Illu­sion, which ends with 36 refu­ta­tions of argu­ments for God in the appen­dix, which itself pro­vides the appen­dix for Goldstein’s book. If this sounds com­pli­cat­ed, there’s no rea­son it shouldn’t be. Con­ver­sa­tions about God, for hun­dreds of years the biggest top­ic in West­ern phi­los­o­phy, should not be reduced to syl­lo­gisms and stereo­types.

Yet over­sim­pli­fy­ing the big ques­tions is what many pop athe­ist books do, Gold­stein sug­gests. Seltzer’s book arrives when there is “a glut of god­less­ness” in book­stores. Such books “were sell­ing well,” writes Gold­stein, “some­times edg­ing out cook­books and mem­oirs writ­ten by house­hold pets to rise to the top of the best-sell­er list.” The two deep thinkers and reli­gious crit­ics Seltzer self-con­scious­ly draws on in his title make his project seem all the more iron­i­cal­ly triv­ial:

First had come the book, which he had enti­tled The Vari­eties of Reli­gious Illu­sion, a nod to both William James’s The Vari­eties of Reli­gious Expe­ri­ence and to Sig­mund Freud’s The Future of An Illu­sion. The book had brought Cass an inde­cent amount of atten­tion. Time Mag­a­zine, in a cov­er sto­ry on the so-called new athe­ists, had end­ed by dub­bing him “the athe­ist with a soul.” 

By embed­ding argu­ments for the exis­tence of God in each of the books 36 chap­ters, Gold­stein implies “the joke—or sort of joke,” as Janet Maslin writes at The New York Times, “is that Cass’s conun­drum-filled life illus­trates and affirms thoughts of the divine even as his appen­dix repu­di­ates them.” Dwelling per­sis­tent­ly on an idea grants it the very valid­i­ty one argues it should not have, per­haps.

This does seem to be an effect of cer­tain hard-nosed athe­ist writ­ing, as Niet­zsche rec­og­nized very well. “I am afraid we are not rid of God,” he once lament­ed, “because we still have faith in gram­mar.” Reli­gious ideas are embed­ded in the struc­ture of the lan­guage; lan­guage itself seems to have meta­phys­i­cal prop­er­ties. It is like ecto­plasm, slip­pery, opaque, made of metaphors both liv­ing and dead. It both enables and thwarts all attempts at cer­tain­ty.

Goldstein’s cre­ative approach to the God debate stands out for its ambiva­lence and humor. (See her dis­cuss faith, fic­tion, and rea­son with her part­ner, Har­vard psy­chol­o­gist Steven Pinker, in the video at the top of the post.) In the com­pi­la­tions here, Gold­stein and 149 more renowned aca­d­e­mics offer their agnos­tic or athe­ist thoughts on God. Some are less nuanced, some lean more heav­i­ly on sta­tis­tics, physics, and math; many come from the the­o­ret­i­cal sci­ences and from ana­lyt­ic and moral phi­los­o­phy. Some are sym­pa­thet­ic to reli­gion, some are con­temp­tu­ous. A wide breadth of intel­lec­tu­al per­spec­tives is rep­re­sent­ed here.

Yet oth­er than Gold­stein and a hand­ful of oth­er promi­nent women, the selec­tions skew almost entire­ly male (rather like the char­ac­ters in most reli­gious scrip­tures), and skew almost entire­ly white Euro­pean and North Amer­i­can. We can do what we like with this infor­ma­tion. It should not prej­u­dice us against the finest thinkers in the com­pi­la­tion, which includes sev­er­al Nobel Prize win­ning sci­en­tists, famous philoso­phers, Richard Feyn­man, Oliv­er Sacks, and Noam Chom­sky, as well as a few fig­ures who have recent­ly become infa­mous for alleged sex­u­al harass­ment, racism, and far worse.

But we might wish the less engag­ing con­trib­u­tors to this dis­cus­sion had giv­en way to a greater diver­si­ty of per­spec­tives, not only from oth­er cul­tures, but from the arts and human­i­ties. On the oth­er side of the coin, we have a small­er list of 20 Chris­t­ian aca­d­e­mics address­ing the ques­tion of God, below. These include respect­ed sci­en­tists like Fran­cis Collins and John Polk­ing­horne and many well-regard­ed (and some not so) Chris­t­ian philoso­phers. The line­up is entire­ly male, and also includes an apol­o­gist accused of fak­ing his aca­d­e­m­ic cre­den­tials and an apol­o­gist turned right-wing pro­pa­gan­dist who was con­vict­ed and jailed for fraud. At the very least, these details might call into ques­tion their intel­lec­tu­al hon­esty.

Here again, maybe some of these selec­tions should have been bet­ter vet­ted in favor of the many women in phi­los­o­phy, the­ol­o­gy, sci­ence, etc. But there are voic­es worth hear­ing here, from pro­fess­ing intel­lec­tu­als who can keep the ques­tions open even while in a state of belief, a skill even rar­er in the world than in this col­lec­tion of Chris­t­ian sci­en­tists, schol­ars, and apol­o­gists.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Athe­ism: A Rough His­to­ry of Dis­be­lief, with Jonathan Miller

Does God Exist? Christo­pher Hitchens Debates Chris­t­ian Philoso­pher William Lane Craig

In His Lat­est Film, Slavoj Žižek Claims “The Only Way to Be an Athe­ist is Through Chris­tian­i­ty”

Athe­ist Ira Glass Believes Chris­tians Get the Short End of the Media Stick

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness


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