Randal Rauser: Is the Atheist My Neighbor?


(S. Joshua Swamidass) #1

On August 25 - August 26, we will be holding office hours with the theologian Randal Rauser. You can read about Rauser here:


He is a friend of @T.j_Runyon, and I was sucked in by several of his blog posts, which are both kind and wise. For example, he defends atheists from the misapplication of Scripture: A Fool Says in His Heart. He also encourages steel-manning rather than straw-manning other’s arguments: Steelman Instead of Strawman.

A central goal of Peaceful Science is to bridge between factions in the origins debate. One overlooked faction are atheists and secular scientists. This is why we care to understand their stories: Seven Atheist Archetypes. Still The Rift Between Atheists and Christians is difficult to bridge, which is why I appreciated so much his book:

Do atheists hate God? Many Christians seem to think so. For the last three centuries Christians have widely assumed that atheism is always a result of a rebellious, sinful rejection of God. According to this view, at some level atheists really do know there is a God, but they sinfully suppress this knowledge because they want to live independently of God. But what if that is not correct? What if some folks are atheists not because they’re sinful and foolish but because they’ve thought hard, they’ve looked carefully, and they have simply not found God? What if the common Christian assumptions about atheism are little more than an indefensible prejudice? What if the atheist really is our neighbor?

Is the atheist our neighbor? Of course he (or she) is our neighbor. We are called to love them just as much as we are called to love the ID proponent, the YEC scientist, the OEC advocate, and the Christian who affirms evolutionary science.

I’m really pleased to have Randall join us. I have a few questions to get us started.

  1. What got you interested in this topic? What sort of response has your book garnered?

  2. For a community like ours, seeking meaningful peace, what advice can you give us?

  3. What the most important ways atheists and Christians can understand each other better?

I hope we will be joined by many of the atheists/agnostics on these boards (e.g. @nwrickert, @AlanFox, @John_Dalton, @Patrick, @Argon) along with many of the Christians (e.g. @sygarte, @T.j_Runyon, @gbrooks9, @theman8469, @Michael_Callen, @Philosurfer).

George and Patrick Come to Terms?
(S. Joshua Swamidass) #4

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(Randal Rauser) #5

Hi all! Thanks for the opportunity to join your forum. And thanks, Dr. Swamidass, for the opening questions.

So let me address the first question in this initial post. I have been interested in apologetics since high school (the late 1980s). In 1994, William Lane Craig visited my apologetics class in university and I was really impressed. Soon my friends and I were spending Friday nights drinking beer, eating pizza, and watching Bill Craig debate videos we got out of the library.

In the wake of 9/11, the new atheism became a cultural force. Suddenly, atheists were entering the public square and a lot of them were angry. While I found most of the new atheist arguments to be weak, I had to concede that many had a good reason to be angry. They were simply returning fire on the Christian prejudice and social marginalization that they’d experienced for years.

Eventually, I decided that I needed to get to the root of the Christian antipathy toward atheists which had helped fuel the new atheism. The result was Is the Atheist my Neighbor? As I saw it, Christians widely assumed that atheism is always the result of a sinful rebellion against God’s clear revelation. I called this idea the Rebellion Thesis, and in the book, I set out to demonstrate why it is untenable. My hope was that by identifying and calling out such prejudiced ideas, we could elevate the conversation.

In terms of the response, I can say that atheists and Christians who read the book really appreciate it. The back cover includes a glowing endorsement from one of the world’s leading atheist philosophers of religion: J.L. Schellenberg. I have also heard from atheist philosopher Louise Antony. And the book has been reviewed positively by some leading atheists. For example, Richard Carrier begins his review like this:

“Christian apologist Randal Rauser has written a book every atheist should be ready to cite** . Not only because it’s important to keep on hand examples of Christians acting like actual Christians (why can’t there be more of that??). But also because, on one important point, it makes a better argument in defense of atheists than you might ever muster yourself.”

That’s very encouraging. At the same time, I have surprisingly experienced apathy and some hostility. I suspect there are many complicated reasons for that (I talk about some here). But the bottom line is that it takes time to redeem a conversation that has long been poisoned by antipathy and misunderstanding.

(Randal Rauser) #6

One of the most important things we can do is give people the space to be heard. Listening is hard, but it is essential. Indeed, as Henri Nouwen says, listening is the highest form of hospitality. One of the smartest things a good politician can do when starting a new term in office is to go on a listening tour of her constituency. Go out, meet people, and hear what their concerns are. Christians should go on our listening tour. One of the problems with apologetics as it is often practiced is that the apologist gets so focused on always having an answer that he forgets to listen to the question – and the story behind the question.

I sought to embody this principle in Is the Atheist my Neighbor? by inviting one very intelligent and thoughtful atheist, Jeff Lowder, to share his reasons for being an atheist. It’s important to note that in the chapter I didn’t seek to rebut him. I simply tried to understand his position as best I could. I think we need more of that.

(Randal Rauser) #7

As I said in my previous comment, listening is essential. This brings me to another frustration I have with contemporary apologetics. It is typically centered on the medium of the formal debate. The problem with a debate is that it is set up as a zero-sum game competition: the more successful I am at arguing my points and rebutting yours, the less successful you are.

Debates have their place, but the primary medium of exchange should be conversation in which we seek to listen to one another and learn from one another. The great thing about this mode of exchange is that it isn’t a zero-sum game: both parties can benefit equally through a journey to greater understanding.

One more point on debates: I am a big advocate of devil’s advocate debates in which each side argues the position they do not actually hold. Nothing helps you learn your interlocutor’s position better than defending it. That’s what I did in a debate on the radio show Unbelievable with atheist Michael Ruse in which I defended atheism and Ruse defended Christianity.

Unfortunately, I find that most folks are not interested in debating the other side. They want to maintain their party loyalties. That’s short-sighted, however. If we are really concerned with truth and hospitality we should be willing and able to enter into the deepest understanding of our interlocutor’s position, perhaps to argue their position even better than they can, and to show why, at the end of the day, we still retain our own convictions.

(The Honest Skeptic) #8

I hope to listen to this debate this weekend. I’m so impressed by this effort from both of you. Did you have an opportunity to debrief with Michael Ruse afterward? I would imagine that this was a cathartic experience for both. Not that either one changed positions, but that there would have been a greater degree of empathy for both of you.

(Randal Rauser) #9

We each offered our reflections at the end of the program on the exchange. Michael is one of the most charming and affable atheists I have met. (Not surprisingly, he is also among the most incisive critics of the new atheism.) One thing that became evident in the exchange was that he was more comfortable defending a minimal theism rather than full-blooded, historic Christian belief. In part, I think this is due to the fact that Michael’s Quaker background was itself very minimal on doctrinal details, so he found it difficult to defend claims like incarnation, Trinity, and atonement.

(The Honest Skeptic) #10

First, do you find that atheism is typically a response to Christianity rather than a stand-alone philosophical choice? If so, what do you have to say to Christians (vs any other belief group) who complain that they are being unfairly juxtaposed to atheism? I, for one, think that it is a good thing, because we are able to engage in significant conversations with atheists. Apologies if that doesn’t make sense.

(Randal Rauser) #11

It would be important at this point to distinguish between “atheism” and “naturalism”. Atheism is traditionally the belief that God does not exist. (More recently, some people are defining the term as being “without” belief in God in a way that aligns atheism with agnosticism. This is a confusing, and to my mind, unhelpful innovation.)

However, if we say we don’t believe in God, we need to specify what kind of god it is that we don’t believe in. Consequently, atheism as we encounter it in the West is usually a denial of the concept of God that is shared in the western monotheisms: i.e. a self-existent benevolent and all-powerful creator and sustainer of the universe.

Often, however, the atheist will go further by saying something like this: “I don’t believe in God, ghosts, spirits, crystals, souls, or magic.” When they say that, they are probably aligning themselves with “naturalism”. Naturalism is the claim that only nature exists. There is no “spiritual” or “supernatural” realm. However, there is a lot of controversy about whether that claim makes sense. How is nature being defined? What if, for example, science provides reason to believe that irreducible non-physical mental substances (i.e. souls) exist? Would that falsify naturalism? What if a future science dispenses with material extension and explains all reality in terms of wave relations or some other mystifying concept? Would that falsify naturalism?

One way to deal with this is to define naturalism with respect to a hypothetically completed future science: whatever science ultimately describes as existing is what exists. At this point, naturalism backs into scientism.

To sum up, in most cases, the self-described atheist is denying the existence of God as defined in the western monotheisms, and this denial may be embedded in a richer naturalistic framework.

(Randal Rauser) #12

But the best way to figure out what a person believes is to ask them. We should be careful not to presume we already know what a person believes. In my experience, a few pointed questions often reveals that the individual has not actually taken the time to sort out their beliefs. So hopefully an exchange could be the catalyst for the atheist to gain greater self-awareness regarding what it is that they do and don’t believe in.

(S. Joshua Swamidass) #13

Thanks for joining us here @Randal_Rauser.

Much if your approach is being set up in contrast with apologetics. Do you call your works a different type of apologetics? Or something else?

I imagine you have been following your own advice and listening to people. What have you been hearing that the rest of us should know?

You are a Christian too. Why are you a Christian?

Also, @Philosurfer to was one of Mike Ruses students. Hopefully he can jump in.

(Randal Rauser) #14

Apologetics is commonly defined in accord with 1 Peter 3:15 as the provision of reasons for the hope within. Unfortunately, people often think of apologetics in too narrow a fashion. For example, the influence of William Lane Craig and the Biola school of apologetics has led many people to think of apologetics primarily in terms of formal debates, the employment of formal deductive, inductive, and abductive arguments, and the primacy of a limited set of topics such as the cosmological argument for God’s existence and the historicity of the resurrection.

But apologetics is a far broader discipline than that. The person who shares their personal testimony is offering a kind of apologetic, but it is an apologetic based in narrative rather than formal arguments.

My concern in apologetics has focused on challenging overly narrow conceptions of Christianity. So, for example, criticizing young earth creationism and a simplistic conception of biblical inerrancy is every bit as important to a culturally relevant contemporary apologetic as is defending the existence of God or the historicity of the resurrection.

I made the point in this short video:

(S. Joshua Swamidass) #15

I want to go into this deeper with you @Randal_Rauser. For reference…

But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the apologia for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, (1 Peter 3:15)

Apologia can be translated as reason, defense, or explanation. The apologetics movement has a preference for choosing “defense”, but is this really coherent? It seems that “explanation” is a better choice that would include things like narrative and testimony.

Moreover, apologetics seem to insert philosophical (or even scientific) arguments as the “reason.” Is that really coherent with the original context? It seems that Paul encouraging his readers to hold that Jesus is Lord, rebelling against the command to hold Caesar as Lord on pain of death. Risking their lives with integrity provoked questions about why they would do such a thing. The hope there were to offer was not a mystery, or to be worked out by philosophers thousands of years later. No, it was the hope that Jesus had Risen from the dead. That was the reason for the hope they had within them.

Now, I am no theologian or exegete, but this seems to place much higher emphasis on the apologetic that you are putting forward here. It is an incarnate apologetic too, rooted in the strange confidence of Christians that call Jesus Lord. It is a confidence required, for example, to follow your advice to carefully listen to atheists.

Can you teach me where I am going wrong or right here?

If that reading is right, it seems that we should probably slice out the historicity of the Resurrection here, and perhaps grow it from merely a claim of historicity to something more. Would you agree with that?

(S. Joshua Swamidass) #16

I think this is very true. If we cannot clean intellectual (and moral) house in the Church, why should anyone trust us? This might put you at odds with other Christians. How have they responded to your work?

This is really good. The way we are describing this here is to engage for the purpose of “understanding and to be understood”. From a Christian point of view I am motivated to this in part by Proverbs, which teaches “to seek understanding above all else.” This, it seems, is wise.

I notice you connect your ethos to a notion of “hospitality” too. What other values, imperatives, or theology is driving your approach? It is great if it “works” in the end, but I wonder if there is deeper rational than mere pragmatics at the root of this. This is more than just responding to our current moment, right?

(Randal Rauser) #17

Not surprisingly, it’s been a mixed response. Some Christians welcome what I’m doing, but others seem to view me with suspicion and/or hostility. When I point out that a particular objection to Christianity is difficult and not easily refuted, they are not sure what I’m doing. Occasionally, I then get labelled as a liberal or a skeptic. Labels can be useful, but in a case like this, they often focus as a way to marginalize: “Oh, okay, you’re obviously a liberal Christian so I don’t have to listen to you.”

In cases like that, I try to point out that terms like “liberal” are relative: one person’s liberal is another person’s fundamentalist. And so we need to move beyond labels to consider arguments.

(Randal Rauser) #18

As for the question of what other values or imperatives drive my approach, at the risk of sounding cliched, I’d want to say: the pursuit of truth. Dallas Willard once observed that if Jesus were not the truth, he’d be the first person to tell you. The lesson, I think, is that we should all strive to be people of virtue who want to know what is true more deeply than we want our own beliefs to be vindicated. And that means that rather than respond to challenges to our beliefs by circling the wagons (e.g. by way of the confirmation bias and motivated reasoning), we should instead seek to deal with challenges to our beliefs honestly and rigorously and to make the necessary alterations to our beliefs where required.

As for theology, in my book What’s So Confusing About Grace? I describe my own journey from the Pentecostal fundagelicalism of my youth to a progressive evangelical theology in the free church tradition.

(S. Joshua Swamidass) #19

You are in Canada, and I sense a possible gap in language here. What exactly do you mean by “progressive evangelical theology?”

Personal disclosure: I am very much in the conservative evangelical tradition here in USA, but find very high agreement with you. Perhaps we just have a lot of disagreement on theology in addition to our common ground. That is okay. If that is the case, it might be worth emphasizing even stronger that the liberal-conservative distinction is really the wrong way to divide the world.

(Randal Rauser) #20

Apologetic explanation includes (1) defense of one’s views against objections, (2) positive grounds/reasons in support of one’s views, and (3) critiques of alternative views inconsistent with one’s own.

As for Peter’s understanding of apologia, I think we always need to contextualize it. Consider Acts 17. Paul begins by giving an apologia in the synagogues of Thessalonica and Berea in which he reasons from the Scriptures. But when he moves to Athens he gives an apologia which appeals to the status to an unknown God and to Stoic philosophers. The lesson is that he is fine-tuning his apologetic method to the audience.

My problem with contemporary Biola apologetics is that it is often directed to those who have minds like engineers or philosophers. The poets among us will be attracted to a different approach.

(S. Joshua Swamidass) #21

True. However at no point does it resemble the Biola apologetic. Now, there still may be a place for philosophical arguments, especially engaging the philosophers, for example. Nonetheless, I wonder if it is better understood as an explanation, not a defense. After all, in the case of our faith, we might not be able to bring all the evidence into public. Much of our confidence rests in private experience too.

How do you bring personal experience into the conversation?

This is striking. I wonder if it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. It seems that most Christians have focused on defending minimal theism for a while now. However, Jesus is not reducible to theism, and (for me at least) he is the best apologetic for theism. I’ve come to understand Jesus as logically prior to confident theism, and much greater than theism too.

We’ve been discussing this on another thread: Jesus and Theism. I might share a story in a moment, but I’ve seen high interest in a secular contexts in Jesus, rather than “God”, and that He becomes the way to understanding the father. This is so salient a reality in my context that I’m not even comfortable calling myself a “theist” any more, even though I certainly do believe in God.

This leads to two questions:

  1. How do you see the relationship between theism and Jesus?

  2. I fully admit that I am a poor incoherent scientist, with no philosophical training. Is there a clearer way to explain this than I am doing so here?

(S. Joshua Swamidass) #22

Adding more fuel to the fire, here is what I write about how I left theism…

I still affirm evolutionary science, but I no longer am a theistic evolutionist . Since I first became public in my work, I have never been intent on evangelizing evolution. For this reason, I am not well defined as an “ evolutionist .” My worldview does not rest on evolution; it rests on Jesus, the one who rose from the dead. I am not well defined as a “ theist ” either, because I see great evil in this world justified by generic (and specific) theism; and I follow Jesus, who is much greater than theism.