Over the past ten months the New York Times philosophy blog, “The Stone,” hosted an interview series on religion. It was conducted by Notre Dame philosophy professor Gary Gutting, whose parochial interests are such that most of the questions were narrowly God-centric. Throughout the series Gutting seemed flummoxed by the fact that the philosophers he interviewed were not much interested in metaphysical arguments for the existence of God, and were not particularly concerned about the rationality or logic of such arguments. These are of course major concerns among a tiny subset of philosophers or theologians, such as those found at Notre Dame and the Vatican.
In his penultimate interview with Princeton philosopher Daniel Garber, Gutting posed the scholastic kind of question that has been the dreary hallmark of the series. Garber’s answer, while not quite dismissive, is deflationary:
G.G.: So are you saying that the philosophical books are closed on the traditional theistic arguments? Have atheistic philosophers decisively shown that the arguments fail, or have they merely ceased thinking seriously about them?
D.G.: Certainly there are serious philosophers who would deny that the arguments for the existence of God have been decisively refuted. But even so, my impression is that proofs for the existence of God have ceased to be a matter of serious discussion outside of the domain of professional philosophy of religion. And even there, my sense is that the discussions are largely a matter of academic interest: The real passion has gone out of the question.
This would have been a fitting conclusion to the series had not Gutting wrapped the whole, with a thirteen installment, by interviewing himself. It is interesting primarily as a psychological exhibit: when one wants to believe in God, or feels the need for a false binary (theist-atheist) position on God, then all manner of intellectual gymnastics and normative conclusions are bound to follow.
Perhaps the best that can be said of all this, and Gutting’s interview series, is that belief in God can be considered “rational.” But when making this claim, it is important to remember that “rationality” is an historically situated, philosophically technical, and ideologically loaded concept developed over the last four centuries by (mostly Christian) philosophers in the West. For nearly everyone else, which is to say the 99.9 percent of the people who have ever lived or are now living, these arguments and considerations simply are not relevant, however “rational” they may be.