Thursday, November 10, 2011

Arguing About Gods

Graham Oppy's book, Arguing About Gods, is an odd one. Oppy, an atheist, says his aim is to survey the arguments for and against the existence of an "orthodoxly conceived monotheistic god," which I'm going to call OCMOG for short. He says right at the outset that he thinks it is not irrational to be theist, agnostic, or atheist. Not surprisingly, by the end of the book he has concluded that there are no really convincing arguments either for or against OCMOG.

Oppy spends most of the book on arguments for OCMOG. These he ably dismantles. (Anyone planning on debating William Lane Craig ought to memorize this book.) Why, then, does he think it is not irrational for a theist to remain theist or an agnostic to remain agnostic? The basic idea is that people start from different "priors" and have access to different evidence, so it is by no means surprising that they will come to different, and even incompatible, beliefs. And they can do so in a completely rational manner. (Not that they always do, of course.)
A rational agent will persist with the views she has until she is shown that she can improve her view by changing it.
So the question for the atheist is whether he has arguments that are rationally compelling to the theist, just as the question for the theist is whether he has arguments that are rationally compelling to the atheist. And Oppy thinks the answer is "no."

Although I agree that people can differ without being irrational, and I am willing to entertain the idea that that might even be true about the existence of God, I think Oppy sets the bar for rationality too low. I wonder if he would insist that astrology believers, UFO enthusiasts, and Bigfoot hunters make no mistakes of rationality.


  1. Sounds like it should be sold in a boxed set with Plantinga's God and Other Minds. Of course that was before he started claiming naturalism is untenable since it doesn't guarantee things that he can imagine a God might be driven by its nature to do.

    Anyway, I think "rational" and "irrational" are often used in a non-complementary way so that "rational" and "not irrational" end up not always meaning the same thing. This happens when there's some leeway between what a right thinking person must believe and what she may believe.

    rational - What a right thinking person must believe
    not rational - What a right thinking person merely may believe or may not believe

    irrational - What a right thinking person may not believe
    not irrational - What a right thinking person must believe or merely may believe

    Oppy appears to be starting with the 'irrational' above and calling anything not irrational 'rational.' Meanwhile, you might be starting with the 'rational' above which doesn't include 'merely may believe.'

  2. I think Oppy's position is one that leans toward Theological Noncognitivism.

    He doesn't believe the term "God," as believers define it, holds any meaning--so it becomes an irrelevant term, and categorically wrong, to ask what does God mean, is there a God, and so on.

    For the Theological Noncognitivist, the very description of God is without meaning, because the definitions are either all to vague (being restricted to metaphor) or else are in conflict with other prior definitions (in direct disagreement), leaving only confusion as to what it is we are even meant to be thinking about.

    Making the mistake theists often do--by affirming a claim about the quality or nature of God based off of an irrelevant term--is non-productive.

    Likewise, atheists would be making the same mistake to refute the God in which the term God has no valid meaning.

  3. Garren - Curiously, I got God and Other Minds from the library at the same time I got Oppy. Haven't read much of it yet.

    Tristan - It seems to me that an atheist would pretty much be an error theorist, by definition. I can see some very liberal Christians could be classified as non-cognitivists, though: God as love, or as some kind of vague feeling of interconnectedness with the universe.