Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Book Review: On the Existence of Gods by Dominic Saltarelli and Vox Day

At this point in my life I try to confine my book reading to fiction, in part because there is so much interesting  non-fiction reading available on various blogs, and in part because I firmly believe that fiction shapes our society much more reliably and effectively than most other influences short of cataclysmic events. Nevertheless, when On the Existence of Gods--to be abbreviated for the rest of the post as OTEOG to save space--came up on my radar, I was intrigued enough to take a break from fiction and give it a try.

It is true that the impasse between those of us who believe in Higher Power of some kind and those commonly identified as non-believers will not be resolved through conversation and argument. Anyone who doubts me is welcome to pick a current hot-topic political issue and try to bring an opponent over to their side. (Don't do it now. I want you to keep reading, not to start a flame war on social media or  tick off family members. But if you haven't tried it yet and are up for a challenge, just see how it goes for you.)

However, just because we can't talk each other into or out of faith, does not mean that one of the central questions of human existence cannot be examined in a proper manner. Dominic Saltarelli, an atheist, and Vox Day, a Christian, took up the challenge (originally presented by PZ Meyers, who declared it impossible to present a rational argument for the existence of gods, refusing Vox Day's offer of debate back in 2008). Considering the current state of discourse in this country, you will be well advised to read Dominic's Introduction chapter of OTEOG where he describes his decision process in taking his place opposite Vox in the debate. Suffice it to say that Dominic behaved as a proper intellectual in the matter and even called out those nominally on his side for often refusing to do so. Vox, in his own Introduction, similarly points out that many believers are just as guilty of repeating tired, flawed arguments without applying the proper intellectual rigor to the process.

The book presents a three-round debate, with three anonymous judges (a Christian, an agnostic and an atheist) examining each round in detail before declaring the winner. The interesting part, of course, is not the competition itself, and frankly, I enjoyed the innovative arguments and rebuttals from both sides equally. Even the ones that did not work for the judges made me see the most basic assumptions in a different light. Without giving the arguments themselves, since that would be a sin equivalent to posting spoilers in a fiction review, I will only say that both sides quickly and thoroughly dismissed the one-liner attacks and defenses we know so well from social media fights. Unless you are very familiar with the subject, you will find plenty of surprises, both from the debate participants and the judges.

One thing that surprised me most was the difficulty of making the atheist case, or rather separating atheism from agnosticism. Many people make the mistake of conflating the two in everyday conversation, but casting doubt is one thing while taking it to the level of logically defending the non-existence of something is completely different. I almost wished at times for a three-way debate with an agnostic because I suspect that under the conditions of the debate such a person would have been most likely to win. Both sides, for example, used the "we don't know everything" argument to one extent or another, and the "not enough information for a decision" could have followed very logically from there. Perhaps, in the spirit of the trends in today's fiction, we might someday expect a sequel with just such a twist.

Not that the argument for gods (small g) was particularly easy to make. In a way the extra broad definition kept working against Vox in many cases because at some point the line between a "god" and a purely materialistic alternative becomes so blurred as to lend more credence to the negative side. The most fascinating example for me was a discussion of whether our moral code is externally pre-determined by some form of Creator or simply a by-product of our biology. That required further discussion on whether moral codes are universal--something often dismissed offhand by atheists and taken too freely for granted by believers--and it made for an interesting follow up section.

Who won? Dominic for some reason decided to give the final result in the Introduction, but at the risk of sounding as a "trophy-for-everyone" schoolmarm, I'll say that in this case it truly all was about how you play the game. If you're looking for a break from the Internet-style debates and want to see how the Big Issues should be discussed, check this book out. Twitter will still be there when you return.

Purchase On the Existence of Gods on Amazon