This book fails to deliver on its promise. While it most certainly does describe why Richard Carrier is not a Christian it fails to give any “conclusive reasons” for rejecting the Christian faith, let alone four of them! In this review I will explain why.
Richard Carrier begins by pointing out that he is a “world renowned atheist” and that he is noted for his work in history and philosophy. For those who doubt Carrier encourages them to google! So I did. After just a few minutes of research I discovered that Carrier holds a Ph.D. in ancient history from Columbia University, is notorious for his doubts over the historicity of Jesus, writes lots of articles for online atheist websites and “is a world-renowned author and speaker” (according to his own website no less) although I cannot find any quotes to that effect from anyone other than himself. The blurb for this book claims Carrier is a “world renowned philosopher and historian”. It appears he is well qualified in ancient history but it is more difficult to ascertain whether he has any formal qualifications in philosophy.
Carrier makes fleeting references to genuine atheist philosophers at the beginning of his book but, without telling anyone he’s doing it, changes the force of their arguments to suggest they constitute disproofs. Not only that but his version of these atheist arguments are nowhere near as academically rigorous. He oversimplifies complicated atheist probabilistic arguments (such as Schellenberg’s argument from God’s hiddenness) and then requires us to accept he has offered some deductive disproof. He therefore does atheist philosophers as much injustice as he does theistic ones (whom he rarely ever even bothers engaging with). All of this is very curious as a writing style for someone who claims to be such a noted philosopher!
Here are a couple of summaries of arguments he uses in the first chapter (I have written them as syllogisms even though Carrier expresses them as analogies in narrative form):
1. If God existed everyone would know he existed.
2. Not everyone knows God exists.
3. Therefore God does not exist.
1. If God exists he would display all the same characteristics of our fathers and friends.
2. We do not observe God demonstrating all the characteristics of our fathers and friends.
3. Therefore God does not exist.
I hope it’s not necessary to point out just how sophomoric such arguments are since there are clearly premises in these ‘arguments’ which can be rationally denied by any theist.
Unfortunately things go from bad to worse, as the book goes on, as he then decides to appeal to the logical problem of evil as a disproof for the existence of God! This is most curious since early on in the book he highly recommended a book by the atheist philosopher Nicholas Everitt called ‘The Non-existence of God’ but Everitt, in his book, makes it very clear that almost all philosophers have now agreed that the logical problem of evil has been defeated. In fact, Everitt even confesses, of the logical problem of evil, that the argument
“… does not form an explicitly contradictory set; and it would be difficult to find any atheist who thought that they did.” p.230
Carrier fails to inform the reader that the vast majority of atheist philosophers have abandoned the logical form of the argument and he gives no good reasons why it should be adopted. This is hardly surprising as it would mean having to refute Alvin Plantinga’s defeator of the problem and, as I’ve already noted, Carrier does not make a habit of engaging with professional philosophers who are theists. Actually – it’s something he never does in the book.
Carrier further ignores the advice of Everitt on his analysis of the concept of omnipotence as well. Everitt interacts with monotheistic doctines of God and by doing so points out that:
“… it may be that God’s omnipotence does not require him to be able to do everything.” p.230
Instead of interacting with monotheism, as Everitt does, Carrier merely asserts that his notion of omnipotence must be the one which religious people must accept and if they don’t then they are not being rational. He declares, with great confidence:
“The Christian God is an Almighty Creator, capable of creating or destroying anything…”
Even Descartes would not have accepted such an idea of omnipotence (and he had quite extreme views on omnipotence). Rather than interact with Christian philosophers, such as Richard Swinburne of Oxford, he merely declares this even though most Christian philosophers reject this definition of omnipotence completely. Swinburne points out (in his ‘Existence of God’) that God’s omnipotence is usually constrained by both his moral goodness and his rational character. Therefore creating free and absolutely not free creatures is not within God’s ability to do.
In addition to all this he appears to not know what an ‘ad hoc’ fallacy really is since he calls any reply to criticisms of God ‘ad hoc’s! If Carrier were right it would mean that merely replying to an accusation would make you guilty of a logical fallacy! At least Carrier would have a hard time responding to my book review without committing it! However, in philosophy, one is only guilty of arguing ad hoc if one introduces an assumption for which there is no other good reason for believing (other than that it aids your other argument) or some new assumption is added which did not previously exist. Carrier repeatedly misuses this accusation in almost every chapter.
In his chapter on ‘God is inert’ we see more of his philosophical ineptitude as he formulates this argument:
1. If God exists he would do things in the world.
2. God does nothing in the world.
3. Therefore God does not exist.
It appears Carrier feels no burden of proof for the veracity of premise 2! Instead he would rather be permitted to merely assert it.
In the chapter ‘A Digression on Method’ Carrier, in very non-technical language (which we can forgive him for since it is quite clear he is not an epistemologist) tries to explain why a Christian must prove Christianity true before it can be believed. This allows him to conveniently sideline evidence such as the fine-tuning of the universe (which many philosophers and scientists find so fascinating). Carrier’s ‘method’ sounds very much like the type of strong evidentialism which almost all modern philosophers (and scientists too for that matter) have rejected in favour of falsification and making theories based on probability. Carrier compares the claim ‘God exists’ as being analogous to claiming ‘I have a car’. Perhaps he would do well to learn what a category error is?
Furthermore, Carrier makes some pretty grandiose claims such as that: “We have no good evidence that we have death-surviving souls or that anyone can or will resurrect our bodies.” It would be noteworthy that he does not bother to interact with the arguments commonly given for the resurrection of Jesus. He does not even interact with the common forms of this argument let alone go anywhere near the probabilistic argument as outlined by Timothy and Lydia McGrew (in the Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology).
In terms of arguments from personal experience Carrier makes quite an extraordinary claim. He says:
“As for those who claim to have “seen” or “spoken” to God, it turns out on close examination that they are lying, insane, or only imagining what they saw or heard.”
What an extraordinary claim! Carrier had previously alluded to the principle of ‘extraordinary claims requiring extraordinary evidence’ but it’s interesting that Carrier now offers no evidence whatsoever for this epistemologically extraordinary assertion. Frankly, I was rather looking forward to his proof that Martin Luther King Jr. was either lying, insane or having delusions when he believed God had spoken to him with such force that he continued to lead the struggle against racism in North America despite the threat this put on his life and the lives of his family because he believed God had told him he would be with him. Alas – it appears we simply have to take Carrier’s word for it!
Instead his ‘evidence’ is to argue that because it is logically possible for these experiences to be delusions that they must therefore be delusions! This, I have to admit, is one of the weirdest and weakest arguments against personal experiences of God being genuine I have ever heard. Let me give you one quick reason why so. Philosophers, from antiquity to the present day, have pointed out that it is logically possible that all of our experiences could be delusions. It is possible we could be brains-in-a-vat for all we know or in some computer-generated dream world. If we subscribe to Carrier’s argument we would have to concede that the mere logical possibility of this hypothesis makes it true. As a consequence, luckily for Carrier, this must mean he does not think this review is written by a real person!
Carrier’s methodology throughout is profoundly unscholarly. He tells us what he thinks should be evident if God existed in every chapter of his book ad nauseum but the problem is he does not demonstrate why those expectations are the correct ones. He fails to interact with Christian philosophers who have written a great deal of work in these areas and he even creates a concept of God which is a straw man on more than one occasion.
This is part 2 of my analysis of Richard Carrier’s book ‘Why I am not a Christian’. In this post I will focus on his second main chapter entitled ‘God is Inert’.
The Christian philosopher Keith Yandell once wrote:
“Objections to the consistency of the notion of omnipotence rarely make the effort to understand what the term means within any specific religious tradition.”
[‘The Epistemology of Religious Experience’ p. 334]
Perhaps I should not be surprised that Carrier fails to make any serious attempt to understand what Christians mean when they attribute omnipotence to God. What is surprising is that Carrier also ignores the advice of Nicholas Everitt (the atheist philosopher he recommended so highly at the beginning of his book) on his analysis of the concept of omnipotence as well. Everitt makes the effort to interact with specific monotheistic doctrines of God and by doing so points out that,
“… it may be that God’s omnipotence does not require him to be able to do everything.” [‘The Non-existence of God’ p.230]
Instead of interacting with traditional Christian theism, as Everitt does, Carrier merely asserts that his notion of omnipotence must be the one which Christians should accept (if you read my first post you should be feeling some degree of déjà vu!). He declares, with great confidence:
“The Christian God is an Almighty Creator, capable of creating or destroying anything, capable of suspending or rewriting the laws of nature, capable of anything we can imagine. He can certainly do any and every moral thing you or I can do…” p. 18
Even René Descartes would not have accepted such an idea of omnipotence (and he had unusually extreme views on omnipotence which meant he accepted the idea of God doing irrational things due to his having so little restriction to his power). However, rather than interact with Christian philosophers he merely declares this definition of omnipotence even though no Christian philosophers I know of has held to it. Even Descartes thought God could not sin but this was still seen by him as consistent with God being all-powerful. So where are these supposed Christian philosophers arguing God can use his omnipotence to override his moral perfection? I have not read any such arguments by serious Christian thinkers and Carrier fails to cite any whatsoever which is not surprising. Christian philosopher Richard Swinburne points out the standard idea (in his classic book ‘Existence of God’) that God’s omnipotence is constrained by both his moral goodness and his rational character. Therefore, for example, creating morally free and not morally free creatures is not within God’s ability to do simultaneously in the same creatures at the same time. At the beginning of the book Carrier boasted that he was “well informed” about Christianity but by this point in his book I am beginning to have serious doubts about that boast. I am increasingly asking myself why Carrier is failing to interact with modern (or ancient for that matter) leading Christian philosophers in favour of creating philosophical straw men.
Carrier should have read some Christian thinkers on this or even just a section on the incommunicable attributes of God in any decent systematic theology before making such a gross misrepresentation. Someone like Augustine could have set him straight:
“We do not put the life of God and the foreknowledge of God under any necessity when we say that God must live an eternal life and must know all things. Neither do we lessen His power when we say He cannot die or be deceived. This is the kind of inability which, if removed, would make God less powerful than He is. God is rightly called omnipotent, even though he is unable to die or be deceived. We call him omnipotent because He does whatever He wills to do and suffers nothing that He does not will to suffer. He would not, of course, be omnipotent, if He had to suffer anything against his will. It is precisely because he is omnipotent that for Him some things are impossible.”
Augustine – ‘The City of God’, 5.10
Immediately after claiming that the Christian doctrine of God is of a God who can do any moral thing human beings can, and who is capable of anything we imagine, we find this extremely bizarre comment:
“All this follows necessarily from the definition of even “mere” Christianity, and therefore cannot be denied without denying Christianity itself.” p.18
I would sincerely like to know what definition of Christianity Richard Carrier is working with here since it appears to be one quite at odds with two thousand years of Christian thinking. Once again there is no evidence offered for this weird claim only Carrier’s insistence that he has defined Christianity to be committed to this doctrine and therefore to reject what he is saying about Christianity is to reject Christianity itself.
I’m sorry to say that I think Carrier is losing the plot here. Since the Bible and Christian thinkers have never defined God in the terms Carrier does there is absolutely no requirement to view the Christian God as being anything like Carrier insists.
Carrier then descends, once again, into his personal testimony and appears to assume everyone else on the planet is having the same experience of life he is having! On page 20 he asserts:
“For now, it’s enough to note that we do not observe God doing good deeds, therefore there is no God who can or wants to do good deeds – which means Christianity is false.”
There he goes reassuring himself once again that Christianity must be false because he has declared it false. I’m forced to ask myself who the “we” is? He does not appear to mean his family or his local community but rather humanity en masse. But how on earth can Richard Carrier be telling me, or anybody else for that matter, what our experiences of God are? I have heard numerous stories of God being good to other people in the last week alone. The only way for Carrier to ignore these experiences is to have dismissed them out of hand a priori (which is not terribly convincing).
Unfortunately things go from bad to worse as Carrier then decides to appeal to the logical problem of evil as a disproof for the existence of God! He thinks the qualities of omnipotence (and I have already shown Carrier to be confused over what Christians generally contend this to mean) and his benevolence (he has similar conceptual problems with this too) toward humanity are not possible to be reconciled with the mere existence of evil and that this constitutes a defeator for Christian theism. This is most curious since early on in his book he highly recommended a book by the atheist philosopher Nicholas Everitt called ‘The Non-existence of God’ but Everitt, in this very same book, makes it very clear that almost all philosophers (including atheists) have now agreed that the logical problem of evil has been defeated. In fact, Everitt even confesses, of the logical problem of evil, that the argument:
“… does not form an explicitly contradictory set; and it would be difficult to find any atheist who thought that they did.” p.230.
Everitt is talking about atheist philosophers of course. He thinks it would be difficult to find any atheist philosophers using this argument today. There are, of course, many atheists who are not philosophers of religion who still regularly appeal to it and apparently Carrier is one such example. But Carrier fails to inform the reader that the vast majority of atheist philosophers have abandoned the logical form of the argument and he gives no good reasons why it should be resurrected. This is hardly surprising as it would mean having to refute Alvin Plantinga’s defeator of the problem and Carrier does not make a habit of engaging with professional philosophers who are theists.
As in the first chapter Carrier continues into a long diatribe of assertions as to why he thinks God does nothing to help human suffering. You will not find arguments and evidence but just bold declarations that God does nothing in our world. Then he compares God’s supposed inaction with the actions humans would ‘surely’ perform when he states:
“In fact, all the ad hoc excuses for God’s total and utter inaction amount to the same thing: claiming that different rules apply to God than to us. But this is not allowed by the terms of the theory, which hold that God is good – which must necessarily mean that God is “good” in the same sense that God expects us to be good. Otherwise calling God “good” is essentially meaningless. If God can legitimately be called “good”, this must mean exactly the same thing when you or I are called “good”. p. 22
“…there cannot be any limitations on God greater than the limitations upon us. So God must necessarily desire and have the unimpeded means to do everything you and I can do, and therefore the Christian God would at least do everything you and I do. The fact that he doesn’t proves he doesn’t exist.” p.23
Here goes Carrier pontificating yet again about what the Christian doctrine of God must be and yet again what it must be is something Christians simply do not hold to. It is actually an integral aspect of Christian theology that God’s goodness is qualitatively better than ours. It is good and proper that God should judge people and yet that is something Jesus advises his followers not to do. Once more Carrier makes assertions about what God’s goodness must be but he nowhere gives justification for why this must be so. The evidence and argumentation are both sorely lacking. It also simply does not follow that if God’s goodness is, in some ways, very different to human goodness that this makes God’s goodness “meaningless”. That’s an absurd conclusion to come to. It simply means the definition of goodness for God is somewhat different.
I have already commented on the ‘limitations’ Christian thinkers place on God’s omnipotence so I will not mention that issue again. The most problematic words in the latter passage, I would argue, are “God must necessarily desire…”. Why? Why must God necessarily desire to do everything I can do? Even if we take this generously to mean the noble and good things I desire to do it makes no sense for God to also desire many of them. I desire to be a better father to my children but if God does that for me I cannot achieve the noble thing I wish to do. If God did all noble, good and virtuous actions in our world there would be no opportunity for human beings to grow morally whatsoever. Therefore it makes complete sense that God does not desire and do all possible good moral actions. In his Summa Theologiae Thomas Aquinas argued that without virtue human beings can only be bad. If this is even partially true then Carrier’s insistence that God ought to do all virtuous actions on our behalf leads to a world where God would leave us impotent to be anything other than bad. Most Christian theodicies have insisted that God allows suffering for some purpose and the opportunity for humans to do good actions which can only rationally take place where there is suffering is a response which quite plausibly answers Carrier’s objection to why God does not do all possible good actions on our behalf. What is greatly disappointing is that Carrier fails to interact with such theodicies in favour of claiming his supposed problem is a solid defeator of Christian theology. Carrier’s insistence that this (rather trite) complaint proves God does not exist is entirely misplaced. Such objections against God have been articulated for millennia and for millennia Christians have been responding to them.
(At this stage I would also like to point out that Carrier appears to not know what an ‘ad hoc’ fallacy really is since he calls any reply to criticisms of God ‘ad hoc’s. If Carrier were right it would mean that merely replying to an accusation would make you guilty of a logical fallacy. At least Carrier would have a hard time responding to my book review without committing his version of it! However, in philosophy, one is only guilty of arguing ad hoc if one introduces an assumption for which there is no other good reason for believing (other than that it aids your other argument) or some new assumption is added which did not previously exist. Carrier repeatedly misuses this accusation in almost every chapter of his book which gets rather nauseating I have to say. If only all atheist philosophers had spotted that a theodicy must be an ad hoc argument how much time they would have saved themselves discussing them! (Please excuse my sarcasm.)
On page 23 he cites the teaching of loving your neighbour:
“Therefore, for God to be “good” entails that God must have the desire to do all these things – and there is no possible doubt whether he lacks the means to do all these things. And anyone with the means and the desire to act, will act. Therefore, that God does none of these things entails either that he lacks the means or the desire. Once again, either way, Christianity is false.”
Think about that for a moment. If God did meet all the needs of his “neighbour”, as in the command, there would be no need for such a command in the first place since there would never be anyone in need. The whole point of the requirement upon humans presupposes that God allows human beings opportunities to do it. To give humans this chance to do greater goods he must not do them himself. Once again Carrier states that which is beyond his ability to know in claiming God never does any such thing and he also infers incorrectly that is means either God cannot help or does not care. It is overly simplistic to think those are the only two logical possibilities. It can quite easily be that he cares and has provided human beings with the means to do it by his grace. Thus God’s way of working in the world is through the actions of human beings in most ordinary circumstances.
Shortly after this Carrier makes another woeful attempt at a logical inference. He says:
“Conversely, any excuse that could ever be imagined for God’s inaction must necessarily apply to us as well.” p.25
Why? Sorry to be so awkward but – why? Perhaps God’s ‘inaction’ is due to his knowledge that such space created for human kindness and compassion will bring about greater goods and more people who are saved in the long term. No human being can claim to have such knowledge. Therefore they do not have that ‘excuse’ (I would prefer to call it a reason rather than excuse).
Ironically Carrier alludes to another possible solution to this supposed problem of God’s inaction soon after on p.26 where he even concedes that if his own children were to tell him to “butt out” he would do so. He certainly does not appear to consider himself an evil father by acquiescing to their request for space and yet he appears to require God to be evil for doing such a thing.
Carrier ends the chapter by stating:
“… God’s inaction alone refutes Christianity.” p. 27
The sheer amount of times Carrier claims to have refuted Christianity in this one small book does get quite laughable and one begins to wonder if he keeps saying it to convince himself he is managing it. However, nothing Carrier raised in this chapter even begins to scratch the surface of the depths which can be found in Christian scholarship on the issue of God’s action in human history.
The substance of chapter two is essentially this:
1. If God exists he would do things in the world.
2. God does nothing in the world.
3. Therefore God does not exist.
It appears Carrier feels no burden of proof for the veracity of premise 2. Instead he would rather be permitted to merely assert it. No wonder he refuses to apply the levels of verification he requires of Christians when it comes to his own grandiose claims.
Contrary to Richard Carrier’s poor parody of Christian teachings, the Christian narrative tells of a God who has constantly been active in human history. The Bible tells of a God who loved the world so much that he gave up his glory and entered the world as a human being and died a horrible death on a Roman cross because of his love for them. The God of the Bible is a God of action. Unfortunately it is humanity that has so often been inactive in seeking God.
Carrier appears to have read this piece and has claimed that his arguments have been misrepresented by myself. Since he does not even give one example it’s difficult to know if he really read my piece carefully enough. If Carrier could show that any misrepresentation took place I will happily amend my review and respond to the actual argument but I am not convinced I have misrepresented him anywhere in this piece. Instead, I think it’s more likely that Carrier himself can now see how lame these arguments are now they are laid out clearly and in less of a story format.
You can see his brief response here: