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Thursday, January 31, 2013

Book Review: "The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails," ed. by John W. Loftus

The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails
Ed. John W. Loftus
Prometheus Books
59 John Glenn Drive
Amherst, NY 14228-2119
Copyright: 2010
ISBN: 978-1-61614-168-4; $21.00
Reviewed by: Rev. Dr. Michael Philliber

Doubtful Deliberations - 1 star out of 5

Not too many years ago the heat of fundamentalist-like frenzy swept through various media, endeavoring to persuade many that the end was near; the end of Christianity especially. Carried on the crest of this foamy wave came the 414 page paperback book edited by John W. Loftus, “The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails.” Loftus declares that the book is written for the “honest believer” (21). It becomes quickly apparent that by “honest” the editor doesn’t mean someone who is convinced and investigative, as much as one who is doubtful or uncertain about their faith. And to this audience most of the authors write with a rather pugnacious design and deportment that is intended to reinforce and intensify that doubt and uncertainty.

After the feisty Forward by Dan Baker and the spirited introduction by John Loftus, the book breaks down into five thematic sections. In the first section, “Why Faith Fails”, the authors attempt to undergird what Loftus calls the Outsider Test for Faith (OTF). David Eller begins by laying out the idea that Christianity is not a monolithic religion, per se, but a culture of Christianities. He expects that once readers recognize “the diversity, plasticity, and relativity of religion” (45), they will feel an obligation to discount Christianity. Valerie Tarico then takes up the baton and runs her part of the relay with evidence from brain science. She works hard to make the case that certitude, cognition, and faith are simply mechanical processes which call into question the concept of certainty. In doing this, she appears to recognize how she has painted herself into a bit of a corner and summons her fellow skeptics to have some humility because, “there is a realm in which all any of us can do is to make our own best guesses about what is real and important” (55). Hard on Tarico’s heels comes Jason Long, emitting vituperations for 14 pages about believers being irrational, as well as “highly illogical, intellectually dishonest, and potentially dangerous” (68). In multiple ways Long repeatedly asserts, loudly declares, and stridently pronounces that the skeptic is the truly intelligent person who can be “confident of his own abilities and intelligence” (77). In the midst of all of his erudite “unbiased” conclusions, he obsesses on the story of Balaam and the talking donkey, bringing it up several times as if it is the lynchpin that once pulled, will bring the Christian house down. In the fourth leg of the race is John Loftus unpacking his OTF, supposing that the previous three authors have given irrefutable reasons to embrace it. In throwing down the challenge to take the OTF he sets up some ground rules that satisfy his own suppositions. He assumes that stand-alone reason is the sole criteria for gauging the truth of any religious claim. This reason leans on, and draws from, a new infallible rule of life, science; “The only thing we can and should trust is the sciences” (89). Based on these presumptions, Loftus thinks the believer then ought to set aside the Bible altogether and try to prove what she believes from reason-built-on-science alone.

Section two, “Why the Bible is not the Word of God”, takes up explanations intended to cast serious doubt on the Christian Scriptures. Edward Babinski starts off with “proof” that the Bible writers were flat-earthers, and drew their cosmology from Egyptians, Mesopotamians, Akkadians and other Near Eastern mythologies. Most of the chapter is a very flat literary approach that seems to have no room for metaphor or the use of common perceptions to get across ideas. One hopes he doesn’t apply his method to his weather forecaster, when the forecaster mentions the times for sunrise and sunset. Next, Paul Tobin recounts what he sees as a glut of inconsistencies in the Bible, how there is no support for the Scriptures from archeology, that the Old and New Testaments are filled with fairy tales, failed prophecies and forgeries. Finally, Loftus returns to declare that if the Bible is God’s word then God is a horrible communicator. To prove his point he narrates the many ways people have misused this passage and that throughout the centuries. He also takes on “Christian Attempts to Explain God’s Failure to Communicate” by setting out eight of the more “serious” (195) arguments. His responses often rely on other skeptics, are offhandedly dismissive, or outright misrepresentations (e.g., the seventh argument from Calvinism).

The book then moves into the third section, “Why the Christian God is not Perfectly Good” with only two chapters. The inaugural chapter is written by Hector Avalos, who explains why Yahweh is a moral monster. He pulls together evidences from the Bible that Yahweh supported slavery, senseless genocide, and child sacrifice, while flip-flopping on ethical mandates; “Yahweh is the biggest moral relativist of all” (228). Besides being rather duplicitous at times, especially with assertions as to what specific passages mean, he puts words in peoples’ mouths and won’t allow them a fair hearing. Interesting enough, his contention that slavery ended because of the rise western secularization (219), was earlier debunked by others, like David Bentley Hart in his “Atheist Delusions.” Loftus returns in this section to address the problem of evil, especially animal suffering. This was quite an interesting chapter dealing with the issue. But after all the moral-high-ground fuming and foaming, Loftus snuffs out his own spark when he declares that animal suffering is consistent with his own agreement of evolutionary natural selection, “where nature is red in tooth and claw, precisely because this is how the fittest survive” (264). Mr. Loftus, if it’s not an issue for you, why should it be an issue for me?

Lurching into the fourth section, “Why Jesus is Not the Risen Son of God”, the book refocuses on the Gospel accounts. Robert Price blasts off into a debate with Paul Rhodes Eddy and Gregory Boyd, taking them apart section by section. Interestingly, he dismisses out of hand “the pompous N.T. Wright” (274) instead of seriously taking on Wright’s works. This seems rather crafty on Price’s part seeing how N.T. Wright has clearly and resoundingly walloped the Jesus Seminar of which Price is a fellow. The reader then comes to the next two chapters, by Richard Carrier and John Loftus respectively. In both chapters it is the same mantra almost hypnotically drumming throughout book; believe nothing, question everything, accept our “scholarly” rantings with unquestioning certitude. I found Price’s and Carrier’s approaches rather dull and petty, especially after all of their pompous pontifications about the Gospel accounts not being eyewitness documents or from eyewitness accounts, etc., and then utterly snubbing the likes of Richard Bauckham and his “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony.” Similarly, Loftus’s almost complete reliance on skeptical “scholars” and excluding any serious New Testament Scholars makes his chapter rather bankrupt.

The final section, “Why Society Does Not Need the Christian Faith” includes three chapters. David Eller tries to make a case that morality doesn’t need religion or any divinity, but is our human responsibility. There is no other grounding for an ethical structure other than the “evolutionary theory of morality” (362). Here social beings are inclined to “develop interests in the behavior of others and capacities to determine and to influence that behavior” (Loc. cit.). Hector Avalos returns to tackle Dinesh D’Souza, and show that Atheism was not responsible for the Holocaust. And finally, Richard Carrier comes back onto the stage to discount any notion that Christianity was responsible for modern science, and to think otherwise is delusional (412).

A reader will recognize rather quickly that “The Christian Delusion” is not so much a scholarly book, as a diatribe. The overuse of “bias,” “brainwashed,” along with the repeated slights about blind tradition and unreasonableness when referring to Christians, and then the almost mind-numbing repetitions about “rational thought,” “reasoned arguments,” and so forth, when used of the Skeptics, shows this throughout the book. All of the arguments and rationale that Loftus and crew flaunt about have been answered repeatedly, in thoughtful, honest works, but are either ignored or flippantly dismissed in this volume.

A second item that becomes noticeable is that the authors are working from a priori presuppositions. Reason, which appears to be eviscerated down to logical equations (310, fn 4), and evidence of the senses (97), are what is needed to verify skepticism “for ourselves” (100) against Christianity. To begin with, reason is not a stand-alone achievement. It grows and thrives within a culture, and is worked by minds fully encased and influenced by bodies and the historical moment. As Thomas Kuhn has helped us see in his seminal work “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”, reason is not based on bare, brute facts alone. They are seen and perceived from within a culture with all of its prejudices and perceptions. Therefore Loftus and his fellow authors need to get down off their rational high-horse and realize they can’t defend the fortress walls of bare-bones reason standing on brute facts.

As for the evidence of the senses, even here things are not as easy as “The Christian Delusion” authors pretend. To use a rather simple illustration, my senses see the sun “rise” every morning, and “set” every evening. But against all of my senses, empirical facts recognized by my eyes and perceptions, someone comes and tells me to believe what is contrary to all my senses. That though I will likely never be able to perceive with my senses the truth, this specialist tells me to believe what I can’t see nor in any way gauge by my perceptions; that the earth revolves around the sun. If I accept this position, I will end up doing so by relying on someone else’s testimony and against all see-able evidence.

In the end, “The Christian Delusion” is something of a letdown for its lack of serious scholarship and civility. If a Christian reader wants an easy resource for “hearing” skepticism in its own voice for the purpose of practicing their apologetic tools, this will be useful. But if a searching, questioning reader is looking for a thoughtful, level-headed source by which to help them think through Christian claims, they might be better served elsewhere.

{N.B. A copy of the book was kindly provided by the publisher for review purposes}


Melanchthon said...

Thanks for reading this so I don't have to! It's meaningful to engage with others who are willing to tackle honest disagreement. The sad thing is that athiests can be as dogmatic as they believe Christians to be.

Brunhilde Marie "Brunie" Hudson said...

Very good review. A couple of things occur: 1) A look at N.T. reveals an excellent scholar, Christian or otherwise, who carefully builds his own argument while just as carefully dismantling others' with whom he disagrees -- all without namecalling, which in his world is not necessary and only diminishes a man. 2) I pose, as I have many times, my question about why atheists are so bent on attacking Christians while exclusive other religion that must be just as dishonest. Why do not see "The Muslim Delusion" (now that would be a fascinating book that I'd happily read)? Or "The Buddhist Delusion"? Related to this, Why such venom? Where is the Christian fatwa on atheists? (My own answer, briefly, is that truth, when it shines its light in the dark corners, makes the inhabitants very angry and threatened; and that light is much more than the making of arguments -- it is the light of divine revelation. On the opposite pole, they fear Islam because some from that religion are perfectly willing to kill for it, and they would do it. So I renew my question: What are atheists afraid of?)
Thanks for the review. Thank you for sacrificing some precious time that you never will regain in order that others will not have to waste their own time with it.

Beth Myers said...

Thank you for a thoughtful review. As the others have said, I appreciate your time reading this so that I don't have to! Sounds like this book was exactly what I expected it would be. 1 Cor 1:18 comes to mind "For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God."