Book Plunge: Sense And Goodness Without God Part 1

Does Carrier really provide a good defense of metaphysical naturalism? Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.

Carrier’s book is Sense and Goodness Without God, but it looks like it doesn’t deliver on either account. Going through this book will in fact be extremely laborious for anyone else who tries to do so. (I think of Allie’s repeated question of “You’re not finished with that yet?!” No love, I’m not.) The writing is entirely dry. There is apologies for that saying it will apply at the start, but it never picks up.

Of course, the real meat of a book is found in the arguments that it gives, and in this case, they’re not good at all. We get the sound of one-hand clapping largely, meaning there is often total neglect of arguments for the other side. For instance, in the long chapter on why there is no God, I was hoping I’d see the Thomistic arguments, my favorite ones, interacted with since so many people leave those out. Indeed, they weren’t. In fact, no theistic arguments were interacted with.

Another problem is that Carrier is too much of a polymath. He wants to write a little bit on everything, some of which the reader wonders what it has to do with metaphysical naturalism. Do I really need to know what Carrier’s views are on politics in order to defend metaphysical naturalism? Does it really matter what he thinks about abstract art?

If I’m to take what’s in this book seriously, I am to believe that Carrier is an authority on linguistics, philosophy, morality, free-will debates, cosmology, evolution, theistic arguments, history, economics, art, interpretation of court cases, etc.

We could grant for the sake of argument that Carrier should be seen as an authority on one or two of the issues perhaps, but on all of them? Not a chance. Now there could be some basic study in other issues, but not enough to really be taken as an authority.

No problem! That’s what footnotes are for!

Except there aren’t any.

In fact, he explicitly says there aren’t any! On page 5 he says “I use no footnotes or endnotes.”

Hardly ever will you find a book and page number as a claim for where an argument came from. Instead, at the end of a section Carrier will list books you can read on the topic with the idea that if you read these books, somewhere in there you will find what backs what is being argued. Excuse me if I don’t want to order a dozen books and read through them to verify one claim that will be found somewhere in all of that.

When he does also mention someone he is arguing against, it is a wonder why he thinks that person should take him seriously. Why should Moreland or Plantinga really be interacting with what Carrier says? Does anyone think these credentialed philosophers are going to be listening to the words of someone like Carrier at this point? Now he’s free to make critiques of them, but if anyone will get the benefit of the doubt in this case, it will certainly be these credentialed philosophers. Of course they could be wrong, but I highly doubt that Carrier has shown the case from what I’ve read. For those wanting to see more on the philosophical issues, I recommend reading David Wood’s review.

Because there is so much problematic with this book then, I am not going to have a full review in one post. I am going to handle this as a multi-part process.

Carrier starts with the praise of philosophy. No problem with that! Yet too often in this book one will often find philosophy somehow morphs into science. That is something indeed problematic, but we will cross that bridge when we get to it.

Of course, I wonder if he has a right understanding of philosophy. Philosophy is not just thinking about stuff. It’s a rigorous process which is why one needs to be interacting with those who have best shown themselves to be authorities and to interact with those who have studied it on an academic level. Hence, while I am a Thomist, I will give a basic defense of my position, but then point to others who know far better than I do, like Edward Feser.

Carrier describes his religion as philosophy and says the following:

“Every hour that devout believers spend praying, reading Scripture, attending sermons and masses, I spend reading, thinking, honing my skill at getting at the truth and rooting out error. I imagine by most standards I have been far more devout than your average churchgoer. For I have spent over an hour every day of my life, since I began my teenage years, on this serious task of inquiry and reflection.” (page 4)

It’s nice to begin a book with a bit of hubris. Readers of Carrier’s book will not learn much about metaphysical naturalism, but they will learn much about Carrier.

On page 5, we find that he says “For all readers, I ask that my work be approached with the same intellectual charity you would expect from anyone else.”

I want readers to keep this in the back of their minds for now. If this is so, then when we get to Scriptural interpretation, we should see this intellectual charity. We won’t. He goes on along these lines on the same page and the following page to say:

“If what I say anywhere in this book appears to contradict, directly or indirectly, something else I say here, the principle of interpretive charity should be applied: assume you are misreading the meaning of what I said in each or either case. Whatever interpretation would eliminate the contradiction and produce agreement is probably correct. So you are encouraged in every problem that may trouble you to find that interpretation.”

I have no problem with this kind of idea. I have a problem with it not being consistent. Again, when we come to Scripture, will we find the same thing? Will we find a desire to try to work out supposed contradictions between events, or will we find there is not even an attempt. You don’t need a crystal ball (Which Carrier doesn’t believe in any way) to know the answer to that.

So since that was short and all of that in the first chapter, I’ll move on to the second for today as well.

This one deals with how Carrier got where he was. Carrier grew up in a background that had this idea that the text should clearly say something. Granted his church was not conservative. Still, there is this hang-up in most American churches today that the Bible should be clear to modern-day Americans. I always wonder why clear to us? Why not clear to 16th century Japanese or 19th century Germans or 13th century Chinese or 11th century Frenchmen or 9th century Italians or 1st century Jews?

You get the picture.

What hubris our culture has!

Carrier also asks why the Bible wasn’t saying much that seemed to be about what was on his mind. Why does it not talk about science or about Democracy? It never seems to register that these were not issues the biblical writers were wanting to talk about. That does not mean they’re unimportant to them. You won’t read hardly anything on my blog about nutrition or medical care, but that does not mean I find them more important. It simply means the focus is elsewhere.

On the other hand, gender equality was there as well to which I can’t help but wonder why Carrier wasn’t paying attention to the first chapter of Genesis? Man and woman are both created in the image of God.

On page 15, we read Carrier say that “In general, no divinely inspired text would be so long and rambling and hard to understand.” He goes on to say:

“The Bible is full of the superfluous–extensive genealogies of no relevance to the meaning of life or the nature of the universe, long digressions on barbaric rituals of bloodletting and taboo that have nothing to do with being a good person or advancing society toward greater happiness, lengthy diatribes against long-dead nations and constant harping on a coming doom and gloom, I asked myself: Would any wise compassionate being even allow this book to be attributed to him, much less be its author? Certainly not. How could Lao Tzu, a mere moral, who never claimed any superior powers or status, write better, more thoroughly, more concisely, about so much more than the Inspired Prophets of God.”

This boils down to an argument one sees repeated often in the book.

I would not do X if I was God.
God does X.
Therefore, this claim cannot be a claim of God.

Never does it occur to Carrier that the Bible is the story of the people of Israel and all of this information is indeed relevant to Israel. The genealogies matter greatly as for the ancient mindset, who you came from spoke volumes about who you were and your history. The judgments against nations that were long-dead would remind the Israelites of God’s faithfulness in doing what He said He would do, which would mean He could also be trusted in to do what He promised He would do through them. Finally, if the Christian claim is true, it means God has interacted to deal ultimately with the problem of evil in Christ. How can that not be towards the advancing of society?

Of course, I would not deny that one should read the great philosophers. I certainly think so. They comment on many issues the biblical writers did not comment on. I happen to enjoy going through the Golden Sayings of Epictetus for instance. Yet why should I think the Bible is written largely with the idea of telling me how to be a good person? That is in there, but that is not the main point of Christianity. The main point is how God is dealing with the problem of evil in Christ. Being a good person is part of that, but not the whole of the situation.

It’s not a shock also to find on page 16 the complaints about the God of the Bible. The picking up of sticks in Numbers 15, the idea of judgment through war on those who were opposed to Israel, genocide and fascism, slavery, etc. All of these have been seen numerous times before, but it’s nice to see that intellectual charity disappeared so quickly. No. You won’t find Carrier responding to responses to these. They’re just asserted.

Be wary always of the sound of one-hand clapping.

Carrier in fact on page 16 says “It does not good to try in desperation to make excuses for it. A good and wise man’s message would not need such excuses. It follows that the Bible was written neither by the wise nor the good.”

So let’s see what we have here.

A good and wise man’s message does not need excuses. (I’m sure Socrates would have liked to have known this when he was on trial. However, we see no defense of Carrier’s claim whatsoever.)
The message of the Bible needs defending. (No problem here.)
It follows then that the Bible is not from a good and wise man and certainly not God.

But it doesn’t! The first claim is not backed at all! How many good and wise men in history have had to give account for their actions? How many have written defenses of their own message? If Carrier ever has to defend himself from his critics, does that mean that he is not good and wise since if he had a good and wise message, it would not need defense?

It’s furthermore just a way of saying to avoid looking at the evidence on the other side. Why should someone not want to do that? Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do, especially if we are to follow the path of intellectual charity?

On page 17, Carrier says when he finished reading the Bible, that he declared that he was an atheist.

Really? The most you could declare is you think the Bible’s message is false. You certainly can’t get to atheism! There are so many more arguments for theism than just the Bible. Did Carrier not interact with them?

On page 18, Carrier talks about what the experience was of declaring himself an atheist in the society around him.

“For the first time, rather than being merely consistently pestered, I was being called names, and having hellfire wished upon me. It was a rude awakening.”

I am sure right now Christians in Sudan faced with death constantly are thankful they do not have it so rough. There’s real persecution. Carrier was called names and had hellfire wished on him.

This is amusing considering how just before he talked about the awful history of Christianity. He talks about the terrible things they’ve done and are still doing such as “trying to pass blasphemy laws to murdering doctors, from throwing eggs at atheists to killing their cats, from trying to dumb-down science education to acting holier-than-thou in pushing their skewed moral agenda upon government and industry alike.”

For murdering doctors, I suppose he’s talking about abortion doctors. If so, the huge huge huge majority of Christians stand outside abortion clinics and protest and offer help to those considering an abortion. This is entirely within their legal rights to do. For those who are bombing clinics and murdering doctors, we certainly condemn those, but this is the rare rare rare exception to the rule.

Of course, there’s always the great danger of having eggs thrown at someone and having their cats killed. I know I regularly go out and meet with my evangelical brethren. We get together at the grocery store and buy a mass of egg cartons and look for atheist houses and let loose! When we find their cats, we kill them and bring the corpse to church giving thanks that we tormented the atheist.

Of course, there are some legitimate problems in all of this. I have no desire to dumb down science education for instance and think Christians make a mistake when they treat the Bible as if teaching about science. At the same time, if someone wants to present evidence for a view like ID, for instance, a view I’m somewhat skeptical of as a Thomist, then let them do so. I’m open to it. As for holier-than-thou types, I have zero patience whatsoever with them. If Carrier thinks he finds Christians annoying, he’s not the only one.

Well Carrier certainly does show how he views the opposition. As he says on page 19 when writing about the Christianity he faces, “So great is the threat of this superstition against individuals, against society, against knowledge, against general human happiness, that it would be immoral to not fight it.” He later describes it as a crusade. (So apparently Carrier doesn’t condemn all Crusades.)

Sometimes people wonder why I speak in the language of battle. This is why. I believe the stakes are high and ironically, I see holding to an atheist system as a threat to society. Of course, to be sure, my idea of combat is only intellectual though I do use physical metaphors to explain the picture. I don’t doubt that Carrier has no desire to use physical violence either in this kind of debate, but I wonder if atheists in history have thought the same way.

We’ve only gone about 20 pages through and already there’s a lot to deal with. We’ll deal with even more next time.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

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11 Responses to “Book Plunge: Sense And Goodness Without God Part 1”

  1. Toasty McGrath Says:

    Mr. Peters, I’m not sure that you’re qualified to critique a book of this caliber. You don’t have any real education, unlike Dr. Carrier whom you are trying to criticize, and the poor quality of your writing reflects this. Your sophomoric style in particular stands out. Rather than comprehend a cohesive argument, you instead nitpick an individual sentence and then write a paragraph complaining about it, which is very amateurish and juvenile, and frankly just comes off as cheap and whiny. This “quote and complain” tactic is not how you succeed in scholarship.

    Now, if you go to college this is one of the first things you are taught. Rather than superficially scrutinizing individual sentences as their own separate arguments, you learn to view the whole of a thesis and its support cohesively. Basically, it will help you “see the forest through the trees,” so to speak. I’ve perused some of your other articles, and I see that you behave this way all the time. I have to say that learning this would really help your writing and indeed probably your whole outlook on life in general.

    With this in mind, I think it is better that you steer clear of issues of actual scholarship until you have put in the time, money, and effort to get an education like the people you try to criticize. They’ve done the work, they’ve earned their positions. You have not. Learn some critical thinking skills, learn to write professionally, and then try again when you’re actually ready to confront scholars. I am confident that if you work hard and earn it, you will succeed.

    • mike Says:

      Good job on answering Nick’s critique point by point. No really, there is a lot of substance in those three paragraphs you wrote, you’ve contributed a lot by posting that.

    • Soyeong Says:

      I’m sorry to have to inform you of this, but there is nothing about Carrier’s PhD in ancient history that makes anyone else unqualified to critique him when he speaks on topics outside of that field. In those areas he’s no better than your average layman.

      If you prefer a different style of review, that’s fine, but there’s nothing wrong with Peters taking a comb through the book and critiquing things as he comes across them. A forest is made of trees, and if you knock down all the trees, there is a forest left to see. If premises are wrong, the conclusion doesn’t follow, so it does you no good to hide them under the rug and complain about not looking at the big picture.

      • Jeff Says:

        While I don’t really agree with “Toasty’s” estimation of Carrier’s competence, there is something to his criticisms of the “point by point” critique that Nick and J.P. employ. It doesn’t read well, it’s not particularly useful to those who haven’t read the work being reviewed, and it doesn’t really give a big picture sense for the overall argument that the piece under review is advancing. Direct quotes should be introduced as /evidence/ that the reviewer’s interpretation of the original writer’s position is accurate; they shouldn’t be used as an opportunity to tee off with mocking and sarcasm. (Sarcasm and mocking can of course be useful rhetorical devices, but they must be used judiciously and sparingly to be effective).

    • michaelstheology Says:

      What formal qualifications does Carrier have in philosophy of religion? Other than that – well said Mike and Soyeong!

  2. Bunto Skiffler Says:

    Nick, happy holidays & hope you are doing well. Why not try a radically different approach to your book reviews? Just pick the 1 thing/point that strikes you about Carrier’s book, and then deconstruct it. No sentimentality or bias, just MEAT. Save the anecdotes for church, save the ‘what I wish he’d done’ eyerolling for fruitcake & tea.

    This book is easy to criticise, and not because of Carrier’s honesty (give him that much). Aim for “what is his point and was it achieved?”

    -b

    ps. less is more, try it :)

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