Eric Reitan’s latest book, Is God a Delusion? A Reply to Religion’s Cultured Despisers was named an Outstanding Academic Title of 2009. Here he tells us how he was motivated to write the book partly in response to the misrepresentations of religious thought he discovered in Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, but also by a very personal desire to reconcile his deep intuitions about ultimate reality with open intellectual inquiry.
Philosopher’s Eye: Why did you decide to write Is God a Delusion?
Eric Reitan: One day a few years ago, a colleague of mine handed me a photocopied page from a book, without any identifying information, and asked me to evaluate it as I would a student paper. On that page the unknown author attempted to summarize and then critique the first three of Aquinas’ “Five Ways” for proving God’s existence. I say “attempted” because the author got the arguments wrong and then critiqued them at precisely the points of misunderstanding.
As it turns out, that page was taken from Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. And so I became curious about the book and bought a copy. By the time I was finished I found myself thinking, “You know, I could write an entire introduction to the philosophy of religion just by noting what Dawkins has to say about classic questions in the field, pointing out his oversights and errors, and then introducing the reader to the more developed ideas of great thinkers.”
But as I got to writing (and with some helpful nudging from the acquisitions editor I contacted at Wiley-Blackwell), it became clear that I wanted to do something more than just create a response to Dawkins that doubled as an introduction to the philosophy of religion. Dawkins’ book was just one of a recent crop of atheist bestsellers that not only tried to make a case against God’s existence but tried to show that theistic religion was both unreasonable and pernicious. But my own experience with religious faith taught me that while theistic religion could be both of these things, it needn’t be. And I wanted to make that case. Ultimately, my passion for making that case was what drove me to write the book I did.
PE: What’s the central concern of the book, and why is it important?
ER: Is God a Delusion? addresses the range of new atheist challenges to religion, not for the purely negative aim of exposing their shortcomings, but for the more productive purpose of trying to identify the parameters within which religion can be both intellectually respectable and morally benign. I’m surprised at how often the book has been mistakenly dubbed an apologetic response to the new atheists…and then criticized as a poor example of apologetics because it fails to defend the kind of religion that the new atheists are attacking. But my aim in the book was never to defend what the new atheists attack, but rather to show that their objections to theistic religion are not as sweeping as the new atheists present them as being. That is, there is a way to believe in God, a way to live a life of religious faith, that does not fall prey to new atheist objections. To a lesser extent, I also wanted to explore where and how religion goes wrong. Why is it that religion as we encounter it in the world so regularly strays outside the parameters of reasonableness and moral decency? Unlike the new atheists, I don’t think the answer lies in something essential to religion itself. Rather, I think it is the result of certain common human failings—such things as the need for certainty even where certainty can’t be had, and the propensity to find meaning and self-worth through membership in groups that define themselves against opposing groups.
PE: And what is it that draws you to this topic?
ER: I grew up the child of two agnostic preacher’s kids. That is, my extended family was religious—Lutheran and Baptist—but my immediate family was thoroughly secular. Furthermore, my mother’s break with her fundamentalist background took the form of a repudiation of something she found both intellectually stifling and morally repugnant (especially its exclusivist view of salvation, according to which people of other faiths were doomed to damnation). As a young adult, I found myself embracing the value of open intellectual inquiry and respect for human diversity, but I also found myself sensing in religion an effort to connect with an ultimate reality lurking beneath the surface of our ordinary experience. And the sense that seemed to drive and motivate religion was a sense that, for whatever reason, I shared: the sense that the deepest and most important truths lie behind and beyond ordinary experience but can still shape our lives.
This juxtaposition led me on a personal struggle of sorts—the struggle to find religion characterized not only by a sincere desire to live in connection with the transcendent but also by the values I couldn’t set aside: intellectual openness and honesty, compassion, and a respect for fellow humanity that reaches across the differences that so often separate us. My search for the former brought me first into a deep flirtation with modes of religion that challenged the latter—which isn’t surprising, since my most powerful religious influence during childhood had been my mother’s father, with whom I shared a special bond but who was a preacher in a tradition that tended towards exclusivism and suspicion of free thought.
In any event, that personal struggle has made me deeply interested in the issues I explore in the book. I’ve experienced first hand and struggled personally with the notion, so characteristic of much of the contemporary public discourse on religion, that we must choose between masters: religion or science, faith or reason, God or our fallible human conscience. In my personal life I traced out in intuitive terms a path between these false dichotomies. In Is God a Delusion?, my aim is to trace out that same path on a more intellectual level.
PE: What sort of reaction do you hope it will get?
ER: At this point, it’s hard to separate my hopes from the actual reactions the book has already generated. I was deeply gratified, of course, that Is God a Delusion? was named a Choice Outstanding Academic Title of 2009, and I’ve been thrilled every time a philosopher or theologian in some other part of the world contacted me to express appreciation for the book. This kind of response from the academic world is in many ways more than I could have hoped for.
As one might have expected, progressive religious readers have tended to find the book stimulating, helping to shape and refine their own thinking about religion. I know that a number of more progressive churches have used the book in adult book studies and other education activities—which is especially good to know, since this had always been part of my hope.
I had also hoped, however, that the book would challenge the thinking of religious conservatives. So far I’ve seen some of this—mostly very locally—but on a broader scale it seems as if the more conservative religious audiences have largely ignored the book.
The response from atheist readers has been mixed, but in many ways pretty well tracks what I was hoping to do with the book in relation to that audience. Some atheist readers have found in the book a development of a species of religion they can respect even if they don’t agree with it—and then engaged me in stimulating discussions about key points of disagreement. Others have been more aggressive in their response—in effect treating it as a threat, even though it was never my aim to argue that atheism as such is irrational or incompatible with a good life (but instead to argue that theism as such needn’t be either of these things). But I like to think that this response is, at least sometimes, arising because I’ve achieved something else I was hoping to do: namely, to challenge the false certainty that seems to characterize so much of the new atheist movement.
PE: What sort of audience did you have in mind when you wrote it?
ER: To a large extent I’ve already implicitly addressed this question, but let me be a little more specific. As I was writing the book, I was pitching it not to specialists in philosophy but to any educated general reader with an interest in the contemporary “God debates.” I hoped that theists of various sorts, atheists, and interested agnostics would be able to pick it up, read it, and have their own thinking on these important issues challenged or refined.
But I also hope that the book can be profitably used in undergraduate philosophy of religion courses. Although it’s no longer the introduction to the philosophy of religion I had originally intended to write, much of that original idea still shapes the book. I suspect that philosophy of religion teachers will notice very quickly that the topics I cover are some of the staple issues in the field, as are many of the thinkers I discuss. In fact, in my own philosophy of religion course I’ve been pairing my book with The God Delusion and a traditional philosophy of religion anthology, basically with the aim of doing what I’d originally thought to do in the book—and it has proved to be very successful in getting students to see the relevance of philosophical work to issues of contemporary significance. Also, it just makes the course more fun.
PE: Is there another book you wish you could claim credit for?
ER: That would be plagiarism! Well, I suppose merely wishing I could claim credit wouldn’t be. One book that comes to mind whenever I’m asked this kind of question is Marilyn McCord Adams’ Christ and Horrors, which (along with her earlier work on the problem of evil) has deeply shaped my thinking. I also find so much to admire in Charles Taylor’s short and accessible treatment of William James’ religious thought, Varieties of Religion Today, that I’d love to claim credit for it.
Not to mention the entire Harry Potter series.
PE: What’s your current project? What’s next?
ER: I’m in the process of composing a book proposal for a co-authored critique of the Christian doctrine of hell. Much of the book is already written, but some final sections remain along with a fair bit of editing. After that, I’m thinking of a book with the provocative working title, God and Gays. I’ve written a fair bit about the traditional condemnation of homosexuality within the Christian tradition, and my aim in the book would be to develop with philosophical rigor the progressive Christian case for rejecting that condemnation.