Justin Schieber has recently announced that he’s retiring, perhaps permanently, from atheist activism, outreach and podcasting. As a Christian philosopher, I regard it as a privilege to have known Justin and benefitted hugely from his work, and I speak not merely for myself but for many others within the apologetics community when expressing my admiration for him
Over time, I’ve been on his podcast, chatted with him personally, spoken with him at length in Facebook threads and listened to many hours of his debates, talks and videos, so I’d identify myself as a fanboy of the infamous teen pop sensation (as I’m writing on Cameron’s blog, I’ll also mention Cameron’s fun debate with him about the Problem of Evil). Aside from his unbeatable dress sense, which mere mortals like me can only dream of rivaling, and a very fine musical taste and prowess, I think Justin has been a paragon of intellectual virtue, and so I thought the best tribute to him is to see what we can learn from his work, and seek to model as we go forward.
It’s common for apologists to complain about the standard of intellectual responses to Christianity, and some of this is fair. It is very refreshing to see Justin as providing an example of how popular work can be combined with intellectual credibility.
There is a clearly a rigour in his work–absent are references to Dawkins or Hitchens, but instead to the best of atheist philosophy–Paul Draper, Erik Wielenberg, Wes Morriston, and so many more. Justin has been aware of the best, and shows his understanding of this material by communicating it clearly and engagingly to others in his podcasts, videos and debates. He has continually looked to articulate the best philosophy of religion so that others can understand it, avoiding both obscure presentation and shallow thinking.
Not only has he shown a respect for previous thinkers, but he has further displayed great originality. He has often developed arguments in new forms, and put forward original objections to these arguments–interesting objections to the Kalam Cosmological argument; new development of the argument from Religious Disagreement; and wholly new arguments, such as from the hostility of the universe and his totally bizarre argument from non-God objects. This isn’t to say these are all successful arguments, but really that’s beside the point–many of these are interesting, and where they fail, they fail in interesting ways that advance the debate. Much of the most interesting work in Christian philosophy at the moment is highly innovative–undesigned coincidences and rediscoveries of the wealth of historical apologetics; new forms of skeptical theism; Joshua Rasmussen’s work on the cosmological argument; and new defences of Pascal’s Wager. I think this innovative spirit is incredibly underrated, and the creativity of Justin’s work can provide a model for the innovation which we should all strive to achieve.
Ernest Hemingway wrote that “Most people never listen. Nor do they observe.” In fact there’s research arguing that conversations might be more about signaling our own worth rather than learning from others. By contrast, Justin is a rare instance of one who listens well. Many comment on how Justin has been a grand example of “charitable engagement”–often what this means is that Justin listens carefully to those he agrees with and disagrees, with, and when interacting with the points they make, he represents what they say fairly and responds in a way that interacts with those points.
This improved the quality of his thinking a huge amount, and can do much the same for us, in many, many areas. One of the reasons he has been an excellent debater is that he listened better than others to what Christians actually say, in their best possible form, and is therefore better prepared to interact with their opinions. When people rehash the arguments of William Lane Craig without development, he’s been more than ready for their responses, and engages carefully and brilliantly with them. He knows top Christian philosophy well, such as The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, and is happy to interact with its points–even quoting it to make his own points against people who don’t know it as well as he does! In all intellectual arenas, improvement often comes through this process of engaging with the very best opposition to your opinion, and then reflecting upon it. Sometimes contrary opinions will be good points, and you ought to revise your opinion accordingly. If they aren’t, then you’ll understand more deeply why your opinion is right–a win-win situation. This means that Justin had a prepared, thoughtful response to Christian ideas–and improved his arguments greatly, and likewise improves the ideas of those who listen carefully to Justin’s own arguments.
Finally, he’s just really, really nice. This is a highly underrated quality–the standard of online discourse is often extremely low, and there is a large amount of anger and rudeness which is fueled by the anonymity and emotional distance that the internet encourages. On both Christian and atheist sides, it is remarkable how much hostility is present. It can be a very draining thing for all which causes people to retreat from discussions.
Opposite to this, Justin is just exceedingly nice, and has been a model of gentility and respectful discussion. In fact he’s often been clear to criticize low-quality and mean atheism–expressing embarrassment with pop-atheist references to the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and being sure to criticize dismissive attitudes to Christians which lacked nuance or compassion. By being so damn nice, he raised the quality of debate and was a pleasure to interact with at every opportunity.
It is great news that Benjamin Watkins, a brilliantly clever and respectful individual, is looking to continue the Real Atheology podcast in Justin’s stead, and I have no doubt that its quality of output will remain extremely high, as will the output of the Real Atheology page as a whole. Nonetheless, I remain very grateful for Justin Schieber, for an impressive body of work, for many great and interesting conversations, and for his model of intellectual engagement. I wish him the very best in whatever he applies his considerable ability towards in the future.