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13 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A model of clarity, January 2, 2011
This review is from: The God Debates: A 21st Century Guide for Atheists and Believers (and Everyone in Between) (Paperback)
John Shook is a professional philosopher and atheist but his real aim in The God Debates is to expose sloppy thinking advanced as knowledge of God. His intended audience is college level and above readers who are interested in whether God can be proved by argument, but he keeps philosophical jargon to a minimum and takes care to make his ideas easy to follow. I was impressed by the sheer clarity of Shook's thought which reminded me of philosopher Malcolm Murray's The Moral Wager: Evolution and Contract (Philosophical Studies Series) and The Atheist's Primer.

Shook casts his net over all theologies generally but focuses most on Christianity. That he has sympathy for spirituality and what lies behind religious sentiment is shown in his final chapter 'Reason and Faith' where he summarizes 12 prevailing religious worldviews, fairly characterizing their theses. Of these, Shook ultimately advocates either liberal modernism - which he defines as "faith in god's transformations through symbolism adaptable with reason", or religious humanism - humanism which gains "inspirational wisdom from religious traditions, spiritual leaders, communal rituals, nature's wonders and extraordinary personal experiences". Shook makes the point that genuine Christian theology cannot stray beyond the boundaries of the proposition: "ITM1: A religious belief about God should not attempt to accurately describe the way God objectively is, so it can't be true or false" (p.187).

Before this, Shook divides his project into an examination of five types of theology: 'Theology From The Scripture'; 'Theology From The World'; 'Theology In The Know'; and 'Theology Into The Myst". These convenient mnemonics cover the principal ways about how God and religion are thought about and justified, and Shook condenses the essential ideas into clearly expressed, numbered propositions which he then analyzes. This was a feature of the book I really liked. He then proceeds to counter the theological arguments with rebutting critiques from atheology.

'Theology From The Scripture' centers on justification taken from scriptual sources in light of the fact that Christians claim that Jesus was God and that the Bible taken by itself is justification for that claim. To begin his analysis Shook advances 12 principles of scientific history/forensic detection - he wants to find out if scripture alone can furnish proof of God from an accepted, reliable methodology. He goes on to examine how far first hand evidence is removed from the textual sources, the credibility of arguments from divine signs, arguments about apostolic faith, the divine character of Jesus and pseudo history - i.e. the Bible as an accurate and uncontroversial account of divine events associated with Jesus. Against the divine claims Shook puts forward a plausible naturalistic account for the start of Christianity, taking care to emphasize he is not giving a definitive alternative. Shook concludes that of themselves the scriptual sources are not up to task of concluding Jesus was god and that it is reasonable to be skeptical.

In 'Theology From The World' Shook examines whether God can be known from a study of nature. Again, as he did in 'Theology From The Scripture' Shook puts forward a set of analytical principles, this time based on scientific methodology. What piqued my interest was Shook's claim that most religious arguments from nature are actually pseudo science: while scientific explanations are cumulatively built upon reliably established background knowledge, observations and theory - and have predictive potential - pseudo scientific explanations insert a mystery God as a universal explanans which lacks such a bridged grounding and has no predictive power. Real cosmologists have the authority to theorize on what preceded the Big Bang, not theologians. Defining God into being through The Ontological Argument is also no answer because it says nothing particular about that God, and does not point out if such a being exists outside of nature. A minor quibble, I would have liked to have seen Shook take on the arguments of 'intelligent design' and 'irreducible complexity' in a little more detail.

In 'Theology Beyond The World' Shook explores justifications for God that arise out of ultimate cause arguments. He highlights the artificiality by which the theologian exempts God from causation by making him the sole 'uncaused cause' and a 'necessary being'. He asks why couldn't nature as a whole be "postulated as a necessary being", removing the need for a supernatural explanation. Again, Shook questions why theologians should be trying their hand at cosmology when in most cases they are not qualified to do so. He notes that the 'fine tuning argument' is based on current scientific knowledge, which is fluid. He points out that "calculations of the 'probability' of our universe are highly speculative and revisable". As an amusing aside he quotes Stenger (2007) as saying if Michael Jordan had been 1 part in 10 to the 16th of a light year shorter he wouldn't have been as great a basketballer (he would have instead been 1 meter tall)! Shook also asks of the theologian, why did God create the universe?, calling for a satisfyingly full explanation, but notes that there are only unsatisfactory possible answers - e.g. "because God is so spiritual God would want to create more spirits and we are just these kinds of spirits", or "god means to create life because creating us is the best way to achieve something god must want". All beg the question.

Shook cites the problem of evil as a defect of design that would not be expected of a perfect designer, and which can only be explained away through theodicy as a means to serve a greater good. He points out the tension in accepting, on the one hand, evil as 'all for the best according to God's plan' and using religious motivation to actively fight against it on the other. Shook also turns the traditional principle of sufficient reason against the theist who provide explanations for God's actions, pointing out these explanations themselves can't pass the test of reason.

In his section 'Theology In The Know' Shook takes on 'anti arguments' for God which insist that nothing about the natural world makes belief in God unreasonable, and therefore, that it is reasonable. He examines the presuppositionalist idea that unless god exists the universe could not be intelligible to anyone, and that knowledge of god is known to Christians, by asking if Christians and other theists give consistent answers about the truth of God - and finds out that they don't. In fact, to avoid the problem of believers having individualistic and possibly conflicting epistemologies of god, religious communities have needed to create social epistemologies to get their facts straight. However, in acceding to the Greek tradition of epistemic inquiry theologians ironically draw attention to the fact that Theology In The Know has assumed what it set out to prove: God's existence.

Shook wraps up his inquiry into theologies by considering one final type: 'Theology Into The Myst'. Theology Into The Myst' draws together theologies that don't appeal to reason for their justification, but rather to faith and mystery inspired by non-intellectual dimensions of human experience. Shook in this section alludes to theologies and philosophies of 'being' advanced by such figures as William James, Heidegger, Buber, Bath, Tillich and Küng. Shook draws attention to the fact that such theologies strip away propositional and conceptual knowledge about God in favor of a transcendental focus that moves uncomfortably away from scripture and traditional doctrine. This kind of move has more in common with eastern faiths such as Sufi Islam, Buddhism and Zen. Within Christianity mysticism is held with a degree of reserve and ambiguity - revelation has always featured in Church teachings but its often individual messages can be at variance with orthodox doctrine.

While steadfast believers may remain unconvinced, anyone open to examining the cogency of traditional and contemporary arguments for God will have much food for thought. Highly recommended.
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Showing 1-1 of 1 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jan 31, 2011 7:29:25 PM PST
Gordon says:
I agree with you on Shook's clarity - very clear and convincing writer. This is the first book of his that I have read but it won't be the last. Thanks for your clear and concise summary as well (and from a fellow Sydney-sider!).
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