Monday, August 10, 2009

"The God Question" on tour

Much of the past week or so has been spent promoting my newly published book, The God Question: What famous thinkers from Plato to Dawkins have said about the divine. I've done a number of talks and signings at bookstores, churches, and synagogues, and, so far, about a dozen radio interviews -- with a bunch more scheduled, so check the website ( to see if my mellifluous voice can be heard in your city any time soon.

One thing I've learned from the experience is there are a lot if interesting and interested people out there -- people who want to think more carefully and deeply about the idea of God, both those who are inclined and those who are disinclined to believe in the existence of a being fitting their idea.

A second thing I've learned is that many of these people are truly surprised to discover that the idea of God can be pushed in a lot more directions than they have imagined -- those inclined to believe discover that their belief becomes richer and more sophisticated as they explore what famous thinkers have said about God, while those disinclined to believe discover that the thing they reject is a lot more resilient than they had realized.

A third thing I've learned is that it's awfully hard to get people to even know this book exists unless I pretty much tell them directly about it myself. That's worked fine for my immediate circle of family and friends, but it sure would be nice to get some word of mouth going. So if you're reading this -- go out and tell someone!

And finally I've learned that almost everyone -- at the talks and signings, and the radio hosts interviewing me -- inevitably asks me whether I believe in God.

Ought one to assume that I do believe in God because I wrote this book?

I find myself presenting the following response. Generally one of the first questions my students ask me at the start of the semester is whether I believe in God; and generally one of the last questions of the semester is the same one. That reveals two things: first, that I didn't answer the question the first time, and second, more importantly, that they were not able to tell what my views were throughout an entire semester of discussing the issues.

That seems to me to be exactly right. I see my role -- in this inquiry in particular, but as a philosophy teacher in general -- as one of a facilitator: I aim to lay out the most interesting or important ideas and arguments, objections, responses, and so on, bringing out what is best or strongest about them, and then to let the student (or the reader) make up his or her own mind. I wouldn't want anyone to be influenced by my own opinions -- either to agree with me or to disagree with me -- since the terrain is rich and interesting and, like all philosophical issues, not one which is close to generating any sort of consensus. So it's not my business to tell you what to think. It's only my business to help you sharpen your thoughts, and provide you with as much relevant information as possible, in the clearest way I can.

So no, one doesn't have to believe in God in order to carefully explore, in a productive way, what famous religious thinkers have said about God. Nor does one have to disbelieve in God to carefully explore, in a productive way, what famous non-religious or anti-religious thinkers have said. Reason-oriented believers and reason-oriented disbelievers can learn an awful lot from reason-governed conversations on the subject.

For this is indeed the ideal of a life of reason: one reaches one's conclusions on the basis of the ideas and arguments themselves. Just who is making them does not matter.


  1. So helpful. People ask me if I believe in G-d, too. And your answer is just right. I am stealing it. Or, more accurately, appending it to mine.
    Also, I tell everyone about your book.

  2. Thanks 'chagor' (whoever you are) -- steal away! and thanks too for spreading the word about the book (and the blog too, why not? I haven't had time to promote it yet, every little bit helps ...)

  3. Andy, This is something I've thought/worried about a fair bit myself, and I've reached a different conclusion. (Disclosure: I'm a former colleague of Andy's at an institution we both left long ago.)

    The problem I have in trying to adopt your stance in conversations outside the classroom is that it presumes that I've not left the classroom -- that I'm still teacher, with my interlocutor in the role of my student. That's fine when someone really is your student, but it impedes conversation when the person is not. The problem can be put like this: friends are not paradigmatically in the business of instructing each other in this way. When I talk with friends, I aim to engage them on the subject matter of our discussion (as I'm doing right now with you!). My attention is not directed, at least not paradigmatically or centrally, at the task of helping them to think better. My attention -- our joint attentions -- are directed at the reality of what we're discussing.

    Now we should perhaps make an exception for folks like us whose friendship is partly based in a shared love of philosophy. The problem I'm describing might go away if *everyone* pursued conversations in the way philosophers do, not caring as much about conclusions as about the quality of possible arguments. But that's not how any non-philosopher is likely to be approaching the question of theism. Someone interested in theism wants to know what position to take -- whether to change her or his life -- not merely how good various arguments are. And if you're going to engage such a person as a genuine conversation partner -- in that respect, as a friend -- you have to present yourself as someone with a similar aim.

    Of course, it makes good sense to resist giving a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down till the question at issue has been posed in terms that do justice to the complex subject matter. If someone asks me if I believe in God, I always begin by saying 'Well, it's complicated.... Let's first talk about what the question even means....'

    A parallel point applies to politics, by the way. People rightly resent the stance I'm inclined to take vis-a-vis the silly hyper-partisan political conversations people have nowadays. As I try to formulate good arguments on both sides of the issue, ignoring the fact that the political agents under discussion don't actually make or even understand those arguments, my would-be interlocutors rightly just roll their eyes. (It's why I think one simply cannot nowadays discuss politics. If you try to have a genuine conversation rather than a partisan rant-session, you're simply changing the subject.)

    Cheers, Ted H. (It says "D.S." because I'm signed in via my kid's blog.)