The title of the book deliberately nods to Dawkins's 'The God Delusion' (which I still haven't read) but this book is more focused in its aim - to demonstrate that (specifically) the Christian faith is unreasonable and irrational, rather than Dawkins's attack on religious belief in general - and is written by a number of different authors, with different viewpoints and specialities, the majority of whom once were bible-believing Christians, but for various reasons have now rejected their former beliefs. I'm far more interested in their opinions on Christianity than on Dawkins's as he never saw Christianity (or any other religion, for that matter) from the inside.
The collection is edited by John Loftus, who used to be an evangelical preacher and church pastor. The foreword is by Dan Barker, who also used to be an evangelical preacher and church pastor. What drives such people out of the church? What causes them to reject a belief in God? Could it be that belief in God is really a delusion?
This seems to have, unintentionally, turned into a very long blog post, sorry about that. Below you'll find comments on all of the chapters individually, but I think I'll summarise the main points and my conclusions here. So, if you want to read the whole thing you can, but if not, you'll get the gist here and can skip the remainder.
So, in conclusion:
This book is a very mixed bag. It contains a few chapters of really fascinating and thought provoking stuff, a few chapters of responses to Christian/Apologetics stuff which does not make for great reading if you haven't read the original books or articles, a few chapters on interesting but largely irrelevant topics and a few chapters which have clearly just been added to bulk the book up. As I read the Kindle edition, I couldn't see how thick the book looked anyway.
So, is this a Christianity killer? Well, if anyone in Churches (other than me, of course) actually reads it, it could do some damage. In the midst of this there are a couple of excellent anti-Christian arguments that I don't think have decent pro-Christian rebuttals. I'm specifically thinking of chapters 6 & 7 (see my comments below). Between them they do a pretty good job of demonstrating to the reader that (a) the bible is flawed, contains errors and fabrications and is certainly not inspired, and (b) that the history of Christianity demonstrates that if there is a God then he cannot communicate to his people at all.
The weight of all the other chapters certainly adds to the overall case that the Christian worldview is not consistent with the actual world in which we live, and so, I suppose that this is strong evidence that Christianity actually is a 'delusion'. No proof here, of course, but some of the arguments are compelling.
So where does this leave me? Well, it leaves me confused (as ever) and even less sure who Jesus was than I was before I started reading this. The writers of this collection of chapters have all gone the whole hog, departing Christianity and turning to atheism. I'm not there. This book does nothing to convince me that there is no God. However, it does go a long way to convincing me that if there is a God, then he isn't Yahweh/Jesus, at least not as presented in the Bible. (Interestingly enough, in Loftus's follow up collection of writings "The End of Christianity" there is a chapter called "Can God exist if Yahweh doesn't?" - I suspect the author comes to the answer 'no' but I'll be interested to read it anyway.)
So should I give up calling myself a 'Christian'? I'm not sure. Should I stop going to church? Likewise undecided. There's more to read on both sides of the debate, and a lot of thinking to be done, before I make any big life changing decisions. I have to 'count the cost', again. But I am not the sort of person who can choose to believe things that are contrary to the evidence. I need reasons to believe. I'm still looking for those reasons. Keep reading the blog to find out what happens...
And now the full review:
Chapter 1: The Cultures of Christianities by David Eller, PhD
The first thing to say is that most of the chapter authors in this book have 'PhD' after their names. This is quite unnecessary and is only there to say "look, atheism is an intelligent position, we have doctorates here, you should be impressed". I have a PhD too, and know just how little that can mean regarding intelligence... but anyway.
This chapter sets out to demonstrate a few things:
- That Christianity is just a culture like any other.
- That Christianity itself is aware of this and uses it to its own advantage in mission / evangelism.
- That actually it is not one culture, but a collective name for a widely diverse collection of cultures, many of whom would not include some of the others under the same collective umbrella as themselves. i.e. there is no such thing as Christianity, there are only Christianities.
- That Christianity, much like other religions in other pars of the world, has such power over culture because it is institutionalised and has cultural dominance over birth, death, marriage, sexual practice, etc.
The chapter concludes with an interesting quote which is the most memorable thing in it, and which I'll repeat here:
"Christians are not easily reasoned out of religion, since they are not usually reasoned into it."Chapter 2: Christian belief through the lens of cognitive science by Valerie Tarico, PhD.
Yes, another PhD, I'm still not impressed. This one is a psychologist. She makes a case that humans are not rational and that certainty is a feeling which is independent of truth or facts. She also demonstrates that the 'born again' experience is not unique to Christianity and actually is replicated in many other religious and non-religious contexts. I found this chapter more interesting than the previous one and more compelling in its reasoning against the case for faith. I don't really have much to say on the issue though, so I'll just give a few interesting quotes from the chapter:
- "Arriving at belief in an infallible God by way of an inerrant Bible requires an unwarranted belief in yourself."
- "Certainty is a confession of ignorance about our ability to be passionately mistaken."
- "it is not enough to be well intentioned - even joyfully, generously so. We also have to be right."
Chapter 3: The malleability of the human mind by Jason Long, PhD
I really have to add 'PhD' to the end of my name on all things I write, it would give them such gravitas. Anyway, this is more psychology. The chapter starts with this quote, which is quite parochial in its scope:
"Why do the majority of Americans believe in the ability to predict specific details in the distant future, the existence of winged messengers living in the sky, the worldwide flood as told in genesis, and the resurrection of a man who had been dead for over a day? How can these people believe they are enlightened enough to insist upon the veracity of these outlandish beliefs when studies show they know so little about them? They believe simply because they want to believe, they believe because they always have believed, and they believe because others around them believe. The vast majority of those who believe such things will stick to those beliefs throughout life despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary"Hmmm. This chapter basically claims that the majority of believers of any variety are indoctrinated into it, usually in childhood, then have the belief reinforced, so that when the belief is eventually challenged, the default position is to defend the belief rather than question it:
"If the Christian were genuinely interested in the truth, he would analyze the argument critically and thoroughly to see if it adequately addressed the points of the skeptical objection. But he is not questioning, he is defending."The chapter goes into cognitive dissonance and that sort of thing and shows, once more, how reasonable people can believe weird things. He even quotes Michael Shermer's well known line:
"Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons."This chapter by itself is nothing astounding, but this book is clearly aiming for a collective impact from all the different strands tied together.
Chapter 4: The outsider test for faith revisited by John W. Loftus
No PhD? This chapter must be worthless then. This is where you realise this book is not intended to be a stand-along work. This chapter does not really present the 'Outsider test for faith' (OTF), which comes from Loftus's earlier book, but seeks to defend it from the attacks made after the earlier book. It would really help at this point if I'd read Loftus's previous book, which I haven't.
The basic point of the OTF is that if you seriously want to question the Christian faith (or any other faith, for that matter) then you must do this from outside of the preconceptions of the faith itself. That is, view it as an outsider would. If you do this, then you start to see some doctrines, etc. as entirely arbitrary and start to see the holes in some pieces of reasoning.
I don't really have much to say here, except that this is pretty much what I am doing on this blog at the moment. However, the way the chapter is constructed makes it seem like it is part of an ongoing debate, of which I haven't heard all the earlier bits. Which is slightly a shame. I'd have preferred it if this was a presentation of the OTF, taking the earlier criticism into account. Nice quote in here, in passing is: "If atheism is a religion, then not collecting stamps is a hobby" (David Eller).
Chapter 5: The Cosmology of the Bible by Edward T. Babinski
Another with no PhD, sigh. This is an odd chapter. It makes its point clearly, but I think the majority of Christians out there would think "so what?" about this. The point being made is that the view of cosmology is entirely contrary to modern science. Basically, the writers of the bible (both old and new testaments, but more clearly in the old) believe the earth to be flat, the sky to be something solid (the 'firmament'), which the stars are fixed onto, and above which are 'waters' (which sometimes leaks through, hence rain). The earth is supported upon pillars, and there are waters under this, and so on. God is presented as living in 'the heavens' which is up in the sky, hence the way the floor in heaven is presented as being sapphire (the sky is blue, after all).
The point is that the writers of the bible present the world in a way which is entirely consistent with the beliefs and views of the surrounding cultures, and there is noting 'inspired' here, and certainly nothing 'infallible'. By itself this argument will not achieve very much, but when heaped with all the other chapters it piles up to make the overall argument (that the bible has no divine author) seem more compelling.
Chapter 6: The bible and modern scholarship by Paul Tobin
This chapter sets out to demonstrate 5 points, that the Bible:
- is inconsistent with itself
- is not supported by archaeology
- contains fairy tales
- contains failed prophecies, and
- contains many forgeries
In part 2 he demonstrates that there is no evidence for the Israelites alleged stay in Egypt, or the subsequent exodus. Furthermore, while there are stories in the bible that can be tied to real places or events, the chronology from the bible is totally at odds with the chronology from archaeology. For example, Abram came from 'Ur of the Chaldees' about 800 years before there were any Chaldeans, as far as we can tell from archaeology. The point made seems to be that almost all of Israelite history before the return from exile is totally out of sequence, exaggerated, or just plain made up.
Parts 3, 4 and 5 all do their jobs very well as well, but I don't need to give details here. Suffice it to say that this chapter is a very strong case for the non-inspiration of the bible.
The chapter ends with an interesting and, again, fairly strong argument against liberal Christianity as well. I think the author feels that he has dealt a death blow to Evangelicals (to be fair, he pretty much has) and so might as well attack the other branch of Christianity as well.
This chapter is basically a summary of Tobin's book "The Rejection of Pascal's Wager", which I think I'll read sometime (although, it is the best part of £30, so I'm in no hurry to buy it). The summary is quite interesting, thought provoking, and challenging so the full book should be worth a look.
Chapter 7: What we've got here is a failure to communicate by John W. Loftus
This chapter is also pretty compelling. The basic idea is that the history of Christianity clearly demonstrates that Christians (as a collective, not necessarily as individuals) are generally unable to hear from God. If God were able to communicate clearly to his people, then there are certain events in history that simply would not have happened, for example the many wars and persecutions between Protestants, Catholics and Anabaptists in the aftermath of the reformation - if God's message had been clearly conveyed, none of this would have happened. Furthermore, what about things like polygamy or slavery - the bible is at best ambiguous on these issues and generally seems to be in favour of them, and yet most Christians today would be strongly against both practices. So is the inference in the bible the message from God or is the evolved modern practice which goes against it really what God wants? Of course, there is a lot more in this chapter, which only serves to strengthen the case.
The chapter also considers all the usual explanations used to explain away these observations, and shows why none of them is particularly compelling. In summary:
"Christian theologians cannot even come to a consensus on what the Bible requires them to believe - that's why there are so many denominations and 'cults'. They cannot even come to a consensus on how to interpret the Bible in the first place. What is the best explanation for this? In the light of such confusion and disagreement, can anyone take seriously the idea that God communicated his perfect will to his believers?"Chapters 6 and 7, by themselves, are the heart of this book. They make a very strong and compelling case against the inspiration of the bible, by using the bible itself. The rest of the book is just supporting evidence.
Chapter 8: Yahweh is a moral monster by Hector Avalos, PhD
This chapter is a response to something I haven't read written by Christian author Paul Copan. Avalos demonstrates that OT morality is not significantly different from, or superior to the morality expressed in the Code of Hammurabi (Summerian law code) or various Hittite law codes we know from the time of the OT and earlier. Indeed, Avalos contends that the Bible is actually inferior to the other codes. The bible (or at least parts of it) condones genocide, infanticide and child sacrifice amongst other immoral things. The chapter makes its points clearly and compellingly, and then degenerates into a direct criticism of Copan's writings, rather than promoting its own message. Which makes this chapter fairly pointless if you read it in isolation.
Chapter 9: The Darwinian Problem of Evil by John W. Loftus
I've heard this argument before. I've heard it responded to before. But this is a clear and compelling discussion of the issues around animal suffering. Basically the point is that animals, through no moral fault of their own, suffer and die, all the time, sometimes in pretty horrendous ways. The question posed is basically 'What sort of creator would design this?'
The chapter states and then refutes the eight main arguments used by theists to defend the creator for causing or allowing animal suffering. The theist arguments are basically as follows:
- Animals were herbivores before the fall. That is, man is morally responsible for animals eating each other.
- Satan corrupted the beasts before the fall of man.
- Animals have no souls and don't feel (much) pain.
- God doesn't care about animals, why do you think he should?
- God is indifferent to animals as he is much more interested in human soul making. Animals and their suffering are merely by-products of this process.
- Its OK, as animals will be resurrected to a heavenly afterlife.
- That animal predation and suffering is necessary to create the right environment for human development and moral decision making. (I'm not clear how this differs from number 5 above)
- We simply don't know.
All of these are discussed, taken apart and more or less refuted. Loftus makes a good case and I've not really heard a good response by a Christian (in debates, etc.) yet.
Chapter 10: Jesus, Myth and Method by Robert M. Price, PhD
This chapter is another response to something else that I haven't read. In this case, its "The Jesus Legend: A case for the historical reliability of the synoptic tradition" by Greg Boyd and Paul Eddy (which is on my 'to read; eventually' list...). The book is Boyd and Eddy's look at 'The Christ Myth Theory' (CMT) which, of course, they reject. Price is, of course, one of the most vocal proponents of the CMT and some of his reasoning is compelling. However, this chapter is mostly a response to Boyd and Eddy rather than a straight defense of the CMT.
As with the other 'responses' in this book, this would be much better if I had read the original book. As a stand alone it makes a few points, and makes then well, but is not -by itself- particularly a compelling case for anything much.
Chapter 11: Why the resurrection is unbelievable by Richard Carrier, PhD
This chapter basically expands the often repeated statement that 'extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence' and demonstrates (fairly well, I must say) that the evidence for the resurrection is actually rather mundane, and is not sufficient to warrant belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus.
He starts with discussing the story of the Persian Wars, written by Herodotus about 50 years after the event. Herodotus was well educated and claims to have consulted eye witnesses in compiling his accounts, and yet there are fantastic claims in there of magical things happening.
Compare this to the gospel accounts - written some decades after the events, by well educated men, who claim to have consulted eye witnesses, and containing fantastic claims of miraculous events, the greatest of which is, of course, the resurrection of Jesus.
If you dismiss the former stories, why do you still believe the latter ones?
Carrier lays out the evidence we have for the resurrection, in detail, and then demonstrates that this evidence is insufficient to be compelling. The implication being that if you believe this reasoning that you are a bit gullible and have been convinced of something that you shouldn't have been. He appears to have a point.
Chapter 12: At best, Jesus was a failed apocalyptic prophet by John W. Loftus
This chapter takes the surprising presupposition that the New Testament is historically reliable and that Jesus existed, pretty much as described. From there it shows that the NT presents Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet, who clearly predicted the end of the world was coming within his own generation. Given that we are looking at this nearly 2000 years later, it is clear that this didn't happen and therefore Jesus was (at best) a failed apocalyptic prophet.
Its a good point, well made, and certainly adds to the weight of the evidence of some of the other chapters in this book.
The problem with this chapter is that it treads on the 'historical Jesus' debate, which I've touched on in other posts, where only some of the main opinions of Jesus claim that he was an apocalyptic prophet. But this chapter is not written as part of that debate, this chapter was written to be read by Bible-believing Christians, and so - assuming any of them ever read it - it kind of works in that context.
Chapter 13: Christianity does not provide the basis for morality by David Eller, PhD
Finally we come to three chapters that feel a bit like a 'grab bag' of an appendix. The moral argument doesn't fit in anywhere else, so is thrown in here. The chapter explains how morality and religion are different and don't depend on each other. It also shows a few examples of immoral things done in the name of God/Christianity for good measure. But, for me at least, this is not that interesting.
Chapter 14: Atheism was not the cause of the Holocaust by Hector Avalos, PhD
Can I just say, I never thought it was? But the chapter makes a good case for the Holocaust being the end result of centuries of Christian antisemitism, not the end result of any form of atheism. Indeed, Hitler was not an atheist but a Catholic with some strange views. Other important figures in the Nazi party had other theistic viewpoints. This chapter is just here for bulking the book out.
Chapter 15: Christianity was not responsible for Modern Science by Richard Carrier, PhD
And finally, a chapter that does exactly what it says on the tin. It overturns the quite common Christian belief that the advances of science in the past two thousand years are in some way dependent on Christianity, without which they would never have happened. On the contrary, the chapter demonstrates that at certain points in history, Christianity has hindered scientific advances, meanwhile 'pagan' cultures have promoted scientific advances. Again, this is interesting stuff, and adds to the overall weight of the argument, but I'm not sure this chapter was particularly essential.
And there you have it. My conclusions were near the beginning of the post, if you can remember that long ago. Thanks for reading to the bottom. You really are a glutton for punishment! (Hello Mike!)