Monday, June 09, 2014

This book is not an argument for the existence of God.

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 Anthropologist Dave Stump

 This is by a friend of mine named Dave Stump. He is an anthropologist and has taught as an instructor at an eastern University. This review was on his blog, Peacefultermoil, June 5, 2014.

This is a review of my newly  released book. It's not a bunch of "Hey for Joe he's great." It had criticisms which I will attempt to answer, maybe on Wednesday. Please read it and buy the book.

There is a subtle distinction between saying that something ought to be or must be true because of some combination of evidence and logic and claiming that it is reasonable to believe that something is true. It is reasonable to believe that the person lurking outside of your neighbor's window at night is dangerous, even though there may be an innocent explanation for their presence. Who would think you were being irrational if you called the police to investigate the matter? Even if it was all a misunderstanding your actions, based on the circumstances, would seem reasonable.

This is the premise of Joe Hinman's first book, The Trace of God. In formal terms, the basis for such reasonable beliefs is described as a rational warrant. This is what Hinman seeks to offer as revealed in the subtitle, "a rational warrant for belief". To put it plainly: you don't have to be ignorant, stupid, or mentally incoherent to believe in God.

That message flies in the face of a popular depiction of those who do profess belief in God that has been perpetuated among some religious cynics and aggressive irreligionists. The image of the uneducated oaf who blindly accepts whatever his religion tells him is right no matter what. The image of a gloating imbecile who seems proud of his ignorance and whose pride in his anti-intellectual and anti-progressive stance is only matched by his inability to tolerate disagreement on matters of faith. To be fair, many who profess belief in God have helped to create and popularize this image and give those who deeply criticize religion increased credibility. This book is intended as a rebuttal to such an image and to those who professionally and casually capitalize on it.

The professional side includes individuals such as Wayne Proudfoot, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and others known to those involved in the debates over atheism. Hinman sees them as trying to lend their professional credentials to directly or indirectly support misrepresentations and negative images of those who believe in God. On the casual side there are self-professed skeptics and atheists on message forums such as those hosted by the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry (better known by its acronym CARM) or The Secular Web. Hinman refers in Trace to the latter as (the) internet atheists.

It was these internet atheists that helped to form the basis of this book as the arguments and references within its pages are largely gathered from arguments and debates posted on the aforementioned forums as well the author's blogs. The book itself is a polished and organized collection of those arguments presented as a refutation of the idea that an informed, thoughtful, honest, and intelligent person could never really believe in God. Or that if such a person does so believe, that is must be the result of habit or lack of adequate reflection.

Hinman attempts to dispel this notion by presenting evidence that there are similar or identical states of experience found in cultures around the world that are associated with spirituality as well as with religious expression and practice. The claim put forward regarding these states -- referred to as mystical or peak experiences -- is that they are positive, life-affirming, healing, and consistent with the idea of a loving God as portrayed in particular strands of various religions. Spirituality is equated with transcendence and seeking a higher power, and God is associated with that higher power, whose communion with humans creates the mystical state of experience offering the benefits mentioned.

The book cites study after study to show that there is unbiased, scholarly evidence for the reality of these experiences as well as their benefits. This is tied together with an argument for what might reasonably count as evidence for the existence of God, how arguments for the existence of God should be evaluated, and why the evidence offered makes belief in God a reasonable yet not incontrovertible position. This is cast against many common arguments, made more popular over the last decade, that suggest that there is in fact no reliable or compelling evidence for the existence of God -- arguments that dismiss the reality, value, or meaning of the peak or mystical experiences that are the centerpiece of Trace.

Going on the face value of Hinman's interpretation of the significance of the studies cited (which are all referenced for those who wish to investigate them further), a strength of Trace is the picture it offers of common core mysticism (the unity of peak/mystical experiences across religions and cultures) and its associated benefits. This approach may leave the reader to wonder how these experiences are associated with any but the most generic kind of "higher power". While that does bolster the universal aspect of the experience and avoids the difficulties of issues such as mutually exclusive religious claims by appealing to something that pre-dates and transcends religion, such claims are seriously undercut by this approach.

A weakness of the book is that is somewhat limited in offering a broader view of the evidence and its implications. The arguments are geared in many cases toward a model of "Here is what some people claim/think, here is a different way to see things/evidence that contradicts what those people say." This refutation style tends toward a false dichotomy of potential views. This style is understandable given the author's goals, but still those who don't fit well within either of the two sides presented will nod along in some sections and shrug at others. The potential criticism of Hthe author's position comes as you might expect primarily from the arguments of those he is refuting. That is, "Here is what someone who rejects a certain kind of data (or a particular analysis of that data) says and here is my rebuttal". Self-critique is not entirely absent in the book, however, and there are caveats included regarding the author's interpretations of the evidence he provides.

Does the book succeed in its goal?

As someone who has argued and debated various religious topics with Hinman for over a decade and a half, it is difficult for me to see the material presented in Trace outside of that context. Moreover, the question of whether the book succeeds at its goal of presenting a rational warrant for belief in God depends on how you measure success.

Neither the internet atheists whom Hinman debates nor the professional promoters of atheism will be convinced in the slightest by this book that belief in God is any more or less reasonable. Anyone who is settled in their conviction that belief in God is ridiculous or harmful will not be swayed by the even the most detailed and subtle lines of reasoning put forward in this book. Even though Hinman tries to make the case that his definitions of God, religion, and so on are more nuanced than their common usage allows, one can still choose to reject the significance Hinman gives to these words and to the human experiences Hinnan connects to them. As an argument for a rational warrant rather than conclusive proof, there is ample room to take an opposing view if one is committed to doing so. Trace offers an approach to defending the reasonableness of belief in God, but its arguments do not obviate a thoughtful and honest rejection of such belief.

Where the broader success of the book will be measured, aside from sales numbers, is the impact that it has on those who are true fence-sitters in the God debate as well as the reception by those looking for broadly accessible arguments and supporting evidence for the reality of God. To the extent that it can interest or persuade the fence-sitters and seekers or bolster the conviction of believers and provide them some measure of cover against the image of the gullible God-nut it will have had an impact on the current religious debates as construed via social media. Check the reviews and testimonials if you want some sense of this metric.

This book is already a personal triumph for Hinman, however, in terms of bringing to completion a long term project that saw a few setbacks and delays. It is also a way of validating his productivity and the time spent debating atheists by turning his passion for arguing for the value and feasibility of belief in God into a tangible product. Not everyone manages to make something real out of their passions or is willing to subject their creations to public scrutiny.

 The book emphasizes evidence and arguments pulled largely from history, philosophy, and psychology as well as a good dose of theology, and the structure of the book is one long semi-formal argument and its individual components, and this might be a distraction for some readers, so make sure to keep track of the point of each section and its significance to the larger picture as you go. Don't be afraid to skip around a bit to get a sense of what is being said but be wary of missing a key detail or point if you just skim through. If you want to leave direct feedback for the author or ask questions about the book, you can do so here.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in the contemporary atheism debate, especially as it is argued online. Whatever your position on the matter the book offers insight into how many commonly used arguments are formed and how they are framed and re-framed depending upon the worldview and goals of different participants in the debate. Whether or not you are convinced of the reasonableness of belief in God after reading this book, you will certainly be able to appreciate that intelligence and acuity is not anathema to such belief.

Interview I did on a message board about The Trace of God.

please see my book tralier on youtube so we can get the ratings up and get it in a higher level, seen by more people.

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