Monday, October 2, 2017

review of "Shadow Gods"

A buddy of mine (Ray Rieck) sent me a book to give a quick review (Shadow Gods by Daniel Jones). The book provides an argument against Christianity. 

[UPDATE: In the comments below, I was notified that the author is a deist, not an atheist as I had initially inferred. Looking back, I can see how that's the case-- and how I missed it. The author makes a number of references to atheism-- in particular, early-on, when he's explaining why he wrote the book. In the midst of those references, he says his book is not like "books of this ilk" and so, I assumed a connection to atheism. There are some clues in the text [e.g., p. 54-60's theism arguments as red herrings] and some late references to deism [196, 202]. I should have caught those; mea culpa. In any case, I've adjusted the review in a few places for this revelation.]

The author is generally thoughtful and respectful. He lays out his arguments in a clear and concise manner. He works to narrow the field and avoid tangents; he's careful with his terms; and his case is systematic (at least until he reaches its conclusions in chapter 6). And at 210 pages, with relatively large margins and a good-sized font, it makes for a relatively short read.

Of course, you can probably already see the general flaw and limits of the work. How do you narrow the field so far and draw an airtight set of inferences? How does one write a short book that effectively dismisses something so complicated, subjective, etc.? The answer, of course, is that you can't. Still, the book is worth a read/look for those interested in Christian apologetics. 

In Chapter 1, Jones describes different types of "believers"-- helpful in defining and narrowing the field. In Chapter 2, he starts into his thesis, as implied by the book's title-- that Christians are in Plato's cave, where we confuse the shadows with the related realities. Here, Jones makes a good point about the potential for circularity in Christian belief (p. 37-41). If one already has a belief well in hand, one might use reason to bolster those beliefs and then dismiss reason if it gets in the way. 

Of course, this is a big problem for anybody in any faith system-- whether Christian, Muslim, deist, or atheist; whether climate change, evolutionism, or Progressivism, whether free-marketism, environmentalism, or Statism. Later, Jones warns Christians about putting all of one's intellectual and faith eggs in one basket (152). But of course, this valid concern cuts in all directions, including Jones' views! There's nothing in his point that denies the truth of any belief system. But it is a good and fair warning-- to all of us-- about confirmation bias, the attraction of "just-so stories", and how we can fool ourselves into embracing error.

Jones is critical of William Craig here-- in pointing to the role of the Holy Spirit in theology and practice. This reminded me of Mormonism, which encourages a reliance on the "burning in the bosom". But my sense is that "the burning" is to be relied upon as one first receives the Mormon "revelation", rather than as an on-going, daily reliance on the Holy Spirit-- as prescribed in the New Testament. Of course, the NT also warns about "false spirits", so it's never a matter of simply relying on the Spirit. It's always to be interpreted in light of Scripture, godly counsel, etc.

Jones is careful to provide various applications of the term "faith", including its application to everyday life-- where one must routinely draw inferences, in faith, from limited information (41-43). To his credit, unlike many other atheists, he is not allergic to the term and he doesn't look to reduce it to "blind faith". Ultimately, he wants to describe this sort of faith with another term, to keep his argument cleaner, but I don't see any problem with this move. 

On a related matter, I wasn't clear on what Jones does with subjective evidences. All of us have experienced things in a manner that bolsters our "faith" in one thing or another. Of course, such evidences cannot have direct applicability to others and are of limited indirect use too. But one can't dismiss them either-- in religious faith or all sorts of other areas.

In Chapter 3, Jones is trying to clear the field to get to his primary argument, knocking out "dead ends" in terms of argument and apologetics. For example, he introduces "the problem of evil" and other common complaints about Christian theology. But he dismisses them as unhelpful to making his case-- or even, to making any good case (61-66). By the end of chapter 3, he's narrowed the field to his primary concern: the miraculous claims within Christianity (71). 

In Chapter 4, Jones describes four types of events: mundane, unusual, extraordinary, and outlandish (74-77). Not surprisingly, he believes that Christian belief in the "miraculous" fits in the outlandish category. A few things to say here. First, the distinction between extraordinary (E) and outlandish (O) is key-- and ultimately begs the question. If we assume X is E, we can reasonably believe it, but we would understand why others wouldn't join us. But if we assume X is O, then although logically possible, we probably shouldn't believe X and we will be pitied or scorned by others if we do so.

Second, as an economist, I'm obsessed with choices among alternatives. In Econ101, we talk about "opportunity costs"-- the value of the next-best alternative. In the context of a debate, the question becomes the credibility of the next-best argument. Jones isn't familiar with this line of logic or chooses not to engage it. Whether Christian beliefs about the miraculous are E or O, the question is really whether alternative explanations are even more E or O.

For the deist, if there's a Creator God, then why would it be O or even E to believe that God would intervene on occasion? For the atheist, it turns out that their beliefs about how the universe began, how life began, and especially, how life developed to what we see around us-- are also a series of E's or, to me and most other people, quite O. (The closest Jones comes to addressing this is in his coverage of the ontological argument for the existence of God [53-54].) In a word, if this were the only question at hand, it would take far more faith for me to believe in the atheist's broad narrative about the origins and development of life. Or in a word: you can't complain about my narrative if you're unwilling to lay out your narrative. And if you're narrative is in the E or O category, you'll want to be careful chucking rocks.

In Chapter 5, Jones provides brief arguments on the particulars claims for the miraculous in the Christian faith. But in chapter 6, things start to devolve: he claims that Christians have been fooled (comparing it to being "catfished") and are stuck in "GroupThink". From there, the argument unwinds dramatically in the last three (shorter) chapters. 

After effectively narrowing the field and drawing his inferences, Jones can't resist the temptation to widen the field again, without doing the necessary heavy lifting. (See: p. 176-182's on who was Jesus; and p. 182-186's on what's in the Bible, including his assumptions of very-late dating for the Gospels and an interesting understanding of the literature on "legends". FWIW, he doesn't deal at any length with one of my favorites to any degree-- the extraordinary post-resurrection reaction of the disciples.) The result is careless arguing and even some ad hominem (e.g., p. 196's "asinine"). In a word, the book would have been much better with a tight ending after he makes the rest of his substantive case in chapter 5 or 6.

Two sets of thoughts to close. First, Jones strongly dislikes Lee Strobel's book The Case for Christ. But if Strobel is not a liar (and Jones does not accuse him of this), then Strobel is the very model of what Jones advocates in terms of thinking. If Strobel was a believer writing a book like this, then Jones' critique would hold. But Strobel was firmly entrenched on the path of "skepticism". He was open to listening to people on the other side. He read liberally. He was convinced by the arguments and left his cave. This is exactly what Jones advocates! Even though Jones disagrees with Strobel's conclusion, he is a glowing example of Jones' supposed approach to truth. Jones' failure here is so strange that it necessarily causes one to have less faith in his arguments, credibility, etc.

If one ignores Jones' odd pokes at Strobel, we can recognize that Jones is correct and valuable on this point. Christians should read skeptics and skeptics should read Christian apologetics such as Strobel's Case for Christ. In fact, you can't really call yourself a skeptic unless you exercise your skepticism.

Jones wonders if God exists-- agnosticism and "the maybe game"
 (187-189) and references to deism (196, 202). If it's less outlandish to believe in His existence than not, then you have to wrestle with Christianity's particular revelation. In any case, the skeptic should read C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity and The Great Divorce, while believers should read Jones and others. Those with a particular interest in the miraculous should read Chesterton's Orthodoxy-- particularly "The Paradoxes' and "The Maniac" (which gets to Jones point about super-circular reasoning). And so on. 

Second, Jones seems convinced (and deeply troubled) that "eternal punishing" is the only reasonable manner to interpret the Scriptures on the question of what happens to those who don't want to be with God or who want to justify themselves to God by their works (2, 193-196). Although this is the most popular position within Christian doctrine, the doctrine is far from settled. Moreover, this omission is strange for someone who seems well-read. 

But there are other options here. For one thing, "inclusivism" is a reasonable possibility to expand the field of "those who will be saved"-- to all who are saved by Christ through faith and grace, rather than merely those who have a knowledge of (and faith in) the bearded God-Man from Galilee. More directly, the outcome could easily be "eternal punishment" (instead of "eternal punishing") in some form of "annihilationism". The Scriptures routinely speak to this in a few ways-- most notably, in terms of the "destruction" of the soul (e.g., Mt 10:28). One wonders if this dead end has taken him to the corner of his own cave.

In any case, this is a solid work from a little-known local author on a topic of great importance. If you're into apologetics for theism and particularly Christianity, it's worth a look.


At October 2, 2017 at 9:14 PM , Blogger TwistedNoggin said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At October 2, 2017 at 11:45 PM , Blogger Daniel Ionson said...

Thanks for the gentlemanly review.
Ray has my email if you'd like to discuss SG.


At October 4, 2017 at 11:00 AM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

Hello Daniel. My pleasure. Thanks for making the effort to write a book. No mean feat!

In the first comment, Twisted Noggin reported that you are a deist. Looking back at the book, it isn't entirely clear, but I can see that interpretation and I'll take TN's word for it. Mea culpa if so. And I've edited the review to accommodate TN's claim.

I'll send an email soon; I need to get through Fall break first.

At October 4, 2017 at 1:05 PM , Blogger Daniel said...

Hey Eric. Yes- I've never been an atheist.
I've written your email address listed in this blog.


At October 9, 2017 at 10:13 PM , Blogger Ray said...

Daniel, I really enjoyed your book as well as your dialog with Eric (which both of you have been gracious in allowing me to listen in). A civil and respectful debate/dialog, with even a sense of warmth, between people with divergent world views is so refreshing in a world of shouting, vitriol and grandstanding. - Ray Rieck

At October 10, 2017 at 2:15 PM , Blogger Daniel said...

Yep, it's hard to find people who care about the truth, and are willing to dialogue rather than fight. The 4 of us should hang sometime.


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