Saturday, June 21, 2008

A theistic psychologists's letter to skeptics and atheists

I just learned via psychologist of religion Michael Nielsen that later this year psychologist David Myers' new book, A Friendly Letter to Skeptics and Atheists: Musings on Why God is Good and Faith Isn't Evil, will be coming out.

The subtitle "Why God is Good" already makes me uneasy. It sounds as if Myers has already decided that the entity "God" exists and he will now just be providing arguments to establish its goodness. Pray he hasn't done so or he gets an immediate thumbs down from atheists.

From the looks of the pdf files of the preface and first two chapters it's going be a small format work and, given it runs only 160 pages, quite a slim one at that. Shouldn't take more than a day or two to go through it all. And if the substance of the excerpts provided is a preview of what is to come, there might not be much meat and food for thought. Sorry to say but my appetite isn't at all whetted. In fact I'm disappointed. I was anticipating much more from a psychologist, particularly good science.

Moreover, I'm bugged by what he says about his theism. In Chapter 2 he declares that among his assumptions is "there is a God." Perhaps he does so later in the book, but I don't know which entity he's referring to. He doesn't describe this "God" in any meaningful detail. Given his "biblical understanding" we can surmise he's talking of the Judeo-Christian deity. But is it that of the Catholic, fundamentalist, liberal, ... or his own trimmed down / souped up version?

Right after stating his assumptions Myers tells us that he believes "we should hold our own untested beliefs tentatively, assess others’ ideas with open - minded skepticism, and when appropriate, use observation and experimentation to winnow error from truth." Moreover, he tells us he "enjoy[s] casting a critical eye on intriguing claims by asking 'What do you mean?' and 'How do you know?'" Well and good. Those are what skeptics, including religious skeptics, would want everyone to learn to do. But has Myers cast a critical eye on his own theological beliefs? Hopefully he addresses that matter.

I also have a problem with his use of "faith." This early, he seems to be already using the word in at least two senses: religious/spiritual inclination and belief. If faith is understood to be belief without justification or belief highly disproportionate to the available evidence, then I for one find faith and reason irreconcilable. In such a context faith isn't reasonable.

I get the impression that Myers gives us thumbs up to the human activity we call religion including the belief in deities (although not all kinds of gods). The problem of course--and I think Myers is aware of it--is that even if being religious (in the Western world) is associated with goodness and happiness, it doesn't imply that the proposed supernatural entities believed in actually exist. Given the lack of any good evidence for them, it would be delusional to believe that they in fact are real, i.e., having faith in their existence isn't warranted.

I may be prejudging Myers. Hopefully there is more intellectually rigorous material in the rest of the book.


vjack said...

I am familiar with David Myers and his work. It is sad to see him coming out with a pro-faith book like this because he has written some excellent material on critical thinking for his introductory psychology text. I would love to know how he reconciles belief in things without evidence and critical thinking. I suppose he could end up being just another hypocrite, but I really hope not. I guess we'll see.

bruce hood said...

Hmmm I am really surprised too.

Anyway, I am doing the rounds of the skeptic (and paranorma) blogs to shamelessly promote the site and book. Take a peek if you have time.