(book review) "The Christian Delusion" - John Loftus' Intro

Intro:

This series is an atheist review of an important anti-Christian apologetics book, "The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails" (TCD), that is likely to be popularly discussed across the web. My review focuses explicitly on the weaknesses of the esteemed skeptical anthology and should be seen as supplementing the positive reviews from folks like Ken Pulliam, Jim Walker and the many 5 star reviews on Amazon. With all the hype there needs to be a range of internet contributions and sober assessment. How is the substance of the book framed? Is the polemical strategy a success? Have the most typical Christian objections to certain skeptical themes been addressed or ignored and amplified carelessly? Have well known inflammatory hot spots in the debate been dealt with tactfully? Have common atheist biases and prejudices been checked or are they overwhelming the actual arguments? Have the same standards that apply to Christians equally applied to the authors? Are the arguments in the book persuasive to outsiders or do they merely reinforce atheist group-think? Are weaker arguments distractingly in the mix with stronger arguments? Has an adult conversation been started/continued or have the ugly age old political cycles been perpetuated? Are mainstream Christian readers treated with respect as though they could be smart, informed people who think their worldview stands a chance in the debate? Would I recommend this book to a Christian friend or family member without having to apologize for its contents? Etc. Those are some of the important questions I'll be addressing. I may briefly summarize the strong points of each chapter and add my comments if that helps readers understand whatever issues come up. Occasionally I'll point out things that I just think are interesting in their own right (or things I don't understand and need help with). Also, I'll be reviewing the book in light of just about every other response to TCD on the web (as sort of informal post-market research) and responding to Christian objections I find. I think this will be the best that I personally can contribute to advancing our collective conversation about these important roadblocks to solidarity in our culture.


Introduction, by John Loftus:

[note: Loftus' responses have been rolled into the post so you don't have to fish through all the comments]


Contents of My Review (the "CliffNote" version):

Loftus fails at diplomacy: Is the title, "The Christian Delusion" an ad hominem attack?
I would tolerate a sensational title if the authors took more responsibility for the internal presentation of the information and arguments. Unfortunately that didn't happen enough.

Loftus fails to frame his introduction to TCD: Are there no mainstream Christians?
Loftus attempts to shuffle mainstream Christianity out of the deck to make it look like skepticism has made much more headway than it actually has.

I respond to Christian sensibilities: Has Christianity stood the test of time?
Presumably Loftus is attempting to counter the claim that Christianity always persists despite its most ardent critics, but that doesn't mean it does so because it is true.

Loftus is pretentious and cynical: Will TCD change Christian beliefs?
Loftus imagines that Christianity will mutate into yet another form because of the contents of TCD. No offense, and I hope the book has impact, but I doubt that'll be the case to a significant enough degree to warrant Loftus' claim.

Loftus fails to prove his point: How significant are the versions of Christianities that concede to ...
Loftus could potentially save his point if he could show just how significant the demographics of arbitrarily rational Christian groups really are. He doesn't do this.

I respond to Christian sensibilities: Do atheists need new arguments?
Many of the old arguments still apply. Theists just think they got over them.

Random:

Understanding TCD: Do we need to read "Why I became an Atheist" before we read TCD?
Short answer: Loftus trips over his own words, but reading WIBA would help a bit more than Loftus lets on, unfortunately.

Loftus is unclear: Are Christian presuppositionalism and fideism new?
Loftus seems to think these ideas came about in his lifetime. Perhaps they were more developed in his lifetime?

Loftus' imagination fails: Should annihilationists fear hell?
Loftus demonstrates his failure of imagination since there is plenty of reason to fear non-existence if you have the chance to live in bliss for eternity. It would also be especially humiliating to be singled out on Judgment Day, and there be a brief period where you are burned up into non-existence in front of everyone else who is on their way to heaven.

Loftus fails to prove his case: Can modern exegetes get it right with so much historical fail?
Loftus tries to play different Christian exegetical conclusions against each other, but fails to give good examples.

Outro: Not rated.
The introduction amounts to sloppy, educated sh*t talk. Loftus wants to intimidate and overwhelm average Christian readers, but is probably going to cause himself more problems than it's worth.


John Loftus, the editor of the book, very cleverly says:

You see, I never play Devil's advocate. The Devil can do that for himself.

Translation: I never look at things from someone else's perspective. Little surprise there. That's too bad.

Christian reviewer, Anne B., on Amazon says:

...the very title of the book contains an ad hominem, "delusion". To paint an opposing world view as a delusion is intended to be perjorative and poison the well...

Oh, but atheist contributor, Ed Babinski tells us:

As for the title of the book John edited, "The Christian Delusion," [...it...] was not even John's first choice. Some of the other titles suggested were pretty dull. But titles with "delusion" sell, including one you might like, "The Atheist Delusion." Though I don't imagine you liked the original bestselling book with "delusion" in the title, "The God Delusion." At any rate, the old adage applies, don't judge a book by its cover.

And beneath the cover, in the introduction we learn from Loftus that there is "no such thing as Christianity," "faith gives believers [...] a psychological malaise," "humans beings are often irrational and gullible," the Bible "contains fairy tales," and that Christians are "brainwashed," but that the title of the book "...is not meant to convey that believers have any psychiatric disorders because of their faith." *sigh* That's a relief. At least Loftus was true to his word and took a moment to explain how he uses the term "delusion." Unfortunately, (as I pointed out above) the balance of loaded rhetoric is not quite in our favor here. I think I would have introed with something like this from Jim Walker right off the bat:

The "Delusion" in the title should not offend anyone, nor should it be taken as an ad hominem against Christians. A delusion, in a colloquial sense, describes a belief that is either false, mythical, or derived from deception. Since this is a book about the Christian delusion, it aims to show the false, mythical beliefs of the Bible (believed by Christians), and the deceptive practices by Christian apologists to deceive the public through falsehoods and unreliable scholarship.

Although it seems Walker still manages to offend all the Christians who don't think apologists are in the business of intentionally lying. Is any of that proven in this book? We atheists just can't help ourselves, can we?

So sure, Loftus' introduction was just a set up for later when each of these things will hopefully be broken down from just inflammatory rhetoric and justified to the proper conclusion, but we gotta wait all that time, and lots of readers are probably forming their premature value judgments WAY ahead of time. Note, the guy in that last link didn't even read the book and concludes:

From what I can gather, through a variety of approaches (from different contributors) it seeks to prove that those who believe in Jesus (are Christians) are delusional, stupid, and dangerous.

And how! You've heard of confirmation bias, right John? I'm know you have since Jason Long informed you of this (page 69):

People are motivated to defend their beliefs from attacks, particularly when they are forewarned of a speaker's intent.

Apparently we don't see the need to actually apply the contents of the book to the actual presentation of the book. *sigh* I can already hear the angry pens of many irritated Christians scrambling to figure out what title to label their books since "The Loftus Delusion" and "The Atheist Delusion" have already been taken. (Babinski's take on alternate soothing titles is a trip. I sympathize.)

That's not as bad though as Loftus' attempt to frame the rest of the introduction (that is otherwise a good inventory of Christian diversity of opinion in confrontation with rational criticism). Loftus appears to want to show us that Christianity hasn't really stood the test of time, but instead mutates to accommodate valid skeptical obstacles. I'm not sure that most Christians are going to see it that way, since there are plenty of them not making any of the concessions Loftus is rattling off. Hence it is easy to blow off the point. That's bad since it's an important element to the structure of the chapter.

I can imagine that tons of Christians over the years since the publishing of "Why I Became an Atheist" (WIBA) have told Loftus over and over again on his blog (and in other venues) that no matter what Christianity always triumphs over every generation of skeptical attack. It's a great superficial talking point on their part that avoids dealing with whatever the actual issues are or how specifically Christianity managed to triumph. Is every ancient religion out there surviving critical scrutiny with an amazing case? Uh no.

It's no surprise that Loftus wants to address this given the aim of the book. Perhaps he should. However it appears that Loftus cynically attempts to predict the effect this specific book will have on Christianity. That's just odd since most Christians are probably never even going to hear about it, much less change their minds based on it. Will Christianity simply reinvent itself in response as Loftus supposes? Loftus has already made the point that Christianity isn't a single entity anyway so his rhetoric seems a bit simplistic and overstated. Maybe some Christians will shift some positions. I don't know. There is also the steady infiltration of secular sensibilities into subjective Christian thinking (where they actually tend to call doctors rather than exorcists), but the implication that the mainstream doctrinal (as opposed to practical) fundamentalism is going to radically change in some way (there are plenty who do still believe in the existence of demons and that Jesus performed exorcisms) doesn't make a lot of sense. Maybe that's not what Loftus means, but that's really what it seems like he must be trying to say.

So granted, Paul's congregations of prophets and people who speak in tongues probably wouldn't have a lot in common with a modern congregation of Missouri Synod Lutherans (other than they both agree Paul's congregations spoke in angelic languages), but we really haven't left hardly any of the original religious ideas completely behind as Loftus seems to imply (there are churches that still think they have prophets and holy languages). There's just a lot of dithering and the renegotiation of the same elements over and over again from culture to culture. You can make something of that (as obviously I have here), but you can't pretend like you have as strong a perspective in the way Loftus would like to portray it. Also granted, I don't know how much of Christian demographics are actually at the mercy of the many concessions to logic various Christian schools of thought have made. I imagine if the numbers are significant, then Loftus might be able to hold his point. However, he never demonstrated that the ratios were significant. For all we know the annihilation proponents, the open theists, process theists, maltheists, Satan deniers, preterists, and spiritual resurrection enthusiasts might represent just one congregation each. Obviously that's not quite true, but Loftus needs to stick his point. I seem to be able to find plenty of the "mainstream" everywhere I go.

It is sufficient to point out that it doesn't really mean anything if a religion persists despite ages of skeptical attacks if the original criticisms still obviously apply. As I understand it, the first anti-Christian critic that we have on record, named Celsus, claimed that Christians were gullible and just believed made up stories. That's not very different than what Loftus would have us believe today. His version is just more informed, sophisticated, and less pagan. hehe You don't have to go beyond pointing out the subjective success fallacy and you shouldn't go beyond that if you are just opening yourself up to criticism. I'm probably not going to be the only one pointing this out.

Random:

From the get go, Loftus tries to have something both ways. His previous book, WIBA, is "important background knowledge" but you "don't need to read it in order to understand and benefit from this present book." I'm sorry, if it's "important" then you probably do. Perhaps a better word to use would have been "helpful" instead of "important" if you want to look like you're not contradicting yourself. I'm sure Loftus is trying to avoid making everyone go, "Damn it! I have to go read some other book now?!?!" But seriously, you probably should go read Loftus' other book. It's helpful. :) And actually, given that David Eller completely blows off all Christian intellectual arguments in chapter 1, it seems we really do need to go read WIBA.

Loftus seems to be saying on page 17 that fideism and presuppositionalism were Christian epistemological mutations invented in his lifetime? You can find fideism in the epistles since God's testimony weighs more than everyone else's (1 John 5:6-12). It seems to be a similar story for presuppositional apologetics, so I don't really know what Loftus is getting at if he intends to have an argument.

Loftus asks why we should fear hell if the new doctrine of annihilationism is true (where people cease to exist rather than having eternal torment in hell). Um...because people want to exist if they have the opportunity to do so? Let's stick to your grade A incredulity, John. Didn't you listen to Jason Long (page 68):

Petty and Cacioppo have found that providing a person with a few strong arguments provokes more attitude change than providing these arguments along with a number of moderate ones.

*sigh* I suppose delusional Christians are expected to be especially unbiased when reading TCD.

In reference to the relative reinterpretation of a range of issues like homosexuality, slavery, women, democracy, science, the environment, and animal rights, Loftus asks, "...if the Bible is this malleable, capable of being interpreted differently in every generation, how can exegetes really think they have the correct interpretation of it all?" Obviously modern Christians don't think the Bible is "this malleable" in reality. They think the other Christians have gotten it wrong and that if they are careful enough as responsible spiritual exegetes, they can get it right. And since the history of Christianity is so diverse on every issue Loftus brings up as plastic, they're bound to always have forebears no matter what they settle on. In other words, they are going to get away with their interpretation since it hasn't been directly addressed. Remember Richard Carrier claimed there'd be no where to run, right?

It doesn't cover every subject it could have, but the subjects it does cover it covers thoroughly, leaving nowhere left to run. [emphasis mine]

Yeah, not by a long shot so far. Perhaps Loftus should have left a point like this to be more developed in his chapter 7 on divine miscommunication. As it is, it is a weak attempt to play different Christian conclusions against each other. Certainly that kind of thing can be done, but it needs to be done much more carefully (for instance, Christian presuppositionalist criticisms of Christian evidentialism and Christian evidentialist criticisms of Christian presuppositionalism is a classic example). We'll see if that's what he did.


Outro:

Next up, Chapter 1, "The Cultures of Christianities" by David Eller.

Ben

Views: 7

Tags: David Eller, Jason Long, Jim Walker, John Loftus, The Christian Delusion, Valerie Tarico

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