The Elusive God, Chapter 2, Sections 1-4
July 6, 2009 — 9:44

Author: Andrew Moon  Category: Books of Interest Christian Theology Concept of God Existence of God Religious Belief  Comments: 2

This is the third weekly post on Moser’s book The Elusive God.
There are many things Moser says, and I will not provide a comprehensive summary. Many of the things he says can be personally challenging if one takes them to heart.
In 3.1, I took Moser to be presenting an interesting argument that belief in naturalism is not rational. (It’s not obvious that he’s doing this, but see below.) In 3.2, I took him to be emphasizing that it is God who decides how we should come to believe in God. In 3.3, I took him to be talking about how we should have filial knowledge of God, which is not something one gains by way of spectator evidence or natural theology. It is knowledge of God as loving Father and as a moral authority in our lives. In 3.4, I took him to be explaining what is involved in “cognitive idolatry”, and how God should be the supreme cognitive authority in our lives.

Moser’s Argument in 3.1
It was in 3.1 that I saw an interesting thesis and a clearly stated argument behind it. Here is the conclusion of this argument:
“Of course, we might be just a surprise of unintelligent, uncaring nature… Seeking refuge in physical variation unguided by intelligence, such nontheists as Russell show their willingness to make a significantly risky commitment (some might say a “faith” commitment) to the world-making efficacy of such physical variation thereby avoiding acknowledgment of God’s existence. So, popular opinion about theism notwithstanding, the risky leap of “faith” may actually be on the other foot, on the foot of theorists invoking physical variation unguided by intelligence as world-making. This point doesn’t settle any controversy, but it does indicate that an appeal to physical variation unguided by intelligence here may be highly risky indeed, perhaps even more risky than theism or at least as risky as theism” (90).
Here, I take Moser to be affirming the following thesis:
Thesis: It is a significant risk to believe in naturalism.
What sort of risk is Moser talking about? It may be pragmatic; but I take it to be a sort of epistemic risk. This would make sense of Moser’s discussion of the believer parallel who takes a “risky leap of “faith””. But then I take a corollary of the Thesis to be that it is not epistemically rational to believe in naturalism. If something is “significantly risky” for you to believe, then it’s not rational for you to believe it. (Or, taking the last sentence from the Moser quote, if p is as risky to believe as ~p, then it is not rational to believe p.)
Here’s my reconstruction of Moser’s argument.

1) A decent explanation of “(a) why there is a material world rather than no such world at all and (b) why there is the present law-governed material world, hospitable to some extent to the emergence of human persons, rather than a significantly different world” (88) and of (c) why there are “such remarkable beings as free, self-determining (to some extent) human agents at all” (89) is that God exists.
2) If (1), then it is a significant risk to believe in naturalism.
Thesis) So, it is a significant risk to believe in naturalism.

And if Thesis is true, then, I think, it follows that it is not rational to believe in naturalism. The support for this argument can be found in the page references made above.
There are two qualifications that need to be made. First, the argument would apply to only those who have considered Moser’s argument. Naturalists who have never heard the argument might be rational in their belief. Secondly, there might be other arguments for naturalism that would defeat this argument.
Other interesting things
p. 87
Moser takes Psalms 5:5 and 11:5 to be confused and to attribute false things of God. I took this to be rather quick. Furthermore, he takes Matt. 5:43 to be a correction. I wonder if Moser is here departing from his continual “Jewish or Christian” conception of God and moving to a just “Christian” conception of God (at least with respect to the scriptures)?
p. 92
Moser describes volitionally thin theism as “the view that it is epistemically rational, for people with suitable undefeated evidence, to believe that God exists” and volitionally robust theism as “the view that, given suitable undefeated evidence of God’s reality, we epistemically should lovingly believe in, or trust God as the authoritative Lord of our lives.” Note that these two views are not versions of theism, the view that God exists. The former two views could be true and God not exist (assuming that rational belief does not entail true belief; not everybody agrees with this). They are views about the epistemic status of certain beliefs, given that they are undefeated.
So it’s odd when Moser says on the next page that “volitionally robust theism acknowledges that a perfectly loving God would call us to moral transformation…”. I don’t see how that follows.
p. 98
Moser says that “natural theology tends to domesticate and even to trivialize God.” I still don’t see why he thinks so negatively of natural theology. I wonder if he’s experienced many philosophers who have domesticated and trivialized God because of their interest in natural theology, but I can’t think of any examples. Actually, many people I know of who take great interest in natural theology have done just the opposite of domesticating and trivializing God. (Of course, Moser’s been around a lot longer than me, so I may not have met enough people.)
p. 99
Moser says that there is an “alleged spectator evidence of God’s existence associated with thin theism, deism, or traditional natural theology.” I wonder if the sort of evidence traditional natural theology provides is spectator evidence. Moser’s been assuming so. But this does not seem to me to be necessarily so. It seems to me that many humans have been confronted with natural theological arguments, and then been challenged volitionally as a result. Actually, it’s not clear to me that natural theology is, in principle, any less volitionally challenging than knowledge of God by way of religious experience (where “religious experience” is interpreted broadly to include the ways Moser thinks that we should come to know God). The evidence provided by both could be interpreted to come from a more tame God. What’s the difference between the two?
p. 104
Moser calls the following the “typical attitude”: “I will live life my way, to get what I want, when I want it.”
Is this really so? Any adult who needs to get a job or raise a family won’t have this attitude. I think that Moser might be overstating his point here. Perhaps there’s a better way to interpret Moser here.

  • One big problem that I see with Moser’s argument as you have reconstructed it is (c); it presupposes that humans are remarkable beings and free, self-determining agents, which a naturalist will (naturally) deny. I suspect that most naturalists will be little bothered by (a) or (b), either, because they think that they do have an equally “decent explanation” for them and/or believe that such questions are meaningless. That there is a material world hospitable to humans is deemed unremarkable, because if this were not the case, then we would not be here at all to contemplate it.
    I am concerned about Moser’s apparent cherry-picking of Scripture to support his views. Surely there is a better way to reconcile Psalm 5:5 and Psalm 11:5 with Matthew 5:43 than simply dismissing David as “confused” and accusing him of attributing false things to God.
    I agree that embracing Moser’s “volitionally robust theism” need not entail that we discard traditional natural theology. In fact, I find the two approaches to be complementary. Some nontheists may need solid evidence for the mere existence of God as a stepping stone toward full commitment to a filial relationship; others may respond directly to “authoritative evidence” and not require anything else.

    July 6, 2009 — 12:59
  • Andrew Moon

    Looks like we agree on most points. Suppose we drop (c), and suppose naturalists have an equally good explanation (though I think the one you gave has been responded to pretty thoroughly). It still seems to follow that the naturalist is taking a significant risk in believing naturalism. Suppose that an arrangement of sticks you find on the ground is equally well explained by the presence of a person who arranged them, or natural causes. It is risky (and I say irrational) to conclude that the sticks were NOT arranged by the presence of a person.

    July 14, 2009 — 9:43