Wednesday, October 14, 2009

'Why I Became an Atheist: A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity' by John Loftus

Firstly a warning, a confession and a thankyou. Warning: This is a long review, don't feel bad if you don't read it all, this is a blog after all. Confession: I didn't read the entire book, I read several chapters carefully. Thankyou: Thanks to my reader David for providing a copy of the book to review.

First up, it's good to ask questions and its good to think of answers. Loftus provides page after page of questions Christians should generally consider. However as eager as I am to be challenged and to challenge, I found the amount of material overwhelming and not in a death-by-silver-bullet sort of way. Loftus desperately needed an editor, for example there is no index and a couple obvious typos. Loftus has written such a massive volume (428 pages!) because his method of Atheistic apologetics is "cumulative case" (57) where he builds, layer upon layer, question upon challenge, anecdote upon apparent contradiction, evidence upon argument until by sheer exhaustion you throw up your hands and declare yourself an Atheist. On the other hand I, unlike Loftus, am a 'presuppositionlist'. I assume/trust/have faith that God exists and then build on that foundation. I see everything and everyone as biased and want to know how people moved from their fundamental assumption to their current arguments or evidence. For me there is no neutral evidence or reason to decide between Atheism and Theism, since even they are colored by one's particular fundamental assumptions. So early on I was frustrated by Loftus when he wrote:

"Anyone who investigates religion in general, or Christianity in specific, must begin with skepticism. ... This best expresses my set of control beliefs from which I derive two others: 1. There is a strong probability that every event has a natural cause; and 2. the scientific method is the best (and probably the only) reliable guide we have for gaining the truth, even though I realize there is a fair amount of debate on just what that is." (59)

Loftus never explains, (maybe there is an explanation buried later in the book, but this would be the natural place) why we must start with skepticism, and why it should determine his (our) investigation. Neither are his control beliefs adequately justified and shown to be objectively neutral forms of determining the truth, whatever that may be. If Christianity is untrue I want to know the standard of truth it is being measured against explained and defended. Now to be fair to Loftus he concedes he has a "antidogma, antisupersitious bias" (59) but doesn't defend them or show how they might effect his argument. So I found everything after that difficult to read because I had to proceed on his assumptions. Later Loftus describes that the reasons against Christianity can be grouped into several categories. This is a fair observation and the reverse is true, people become Christians for philosophical, spiritual and historical reasons to name just a few.

As just about every single argument an atheist could corral is gathered in this monograph, I'll zoom in for a little on the chapter about the resurrection of Jesus and his chapter about life as an atheist. Loftus relies heavily in this chapter on the corruption/modification of the Scriptural record and on the argument of pseudepigrapha (354-355). Briefly this is case where someone writes a book in the name of someone else, for example the Gospel of Judas. Apparently according to Loftus, this occurs enough in Scripture for us to doubt its veracity (170-172). Apparently "People in the ancient world did not appreciate forgeries any more than people do today." (172) This is extraordinarily odd given that Christianity presupposes the danger and problem of falsehood (e.g. Deuteronomy 5:20). Loftus combines this dubious use of pseudepigrapha with consistently late authorship for the gospel accounts (360), which is convenient for his argument. Loftus requires skepticism to be exercised in regard to miracles, falsely assuming that accepting the possibility of a supernatural explanation means a lack of intellectual inquiry (352). This chapter also represents a strange feature of Loftus's writing, his use of Scripture and scholarly sources. As a former minister I expected from Loftus an un-Dawkins like familiarity with the way theology and biblical scholarship works. However he'll clump scholars together who are in complete opposition to each other ("N.T. Wright and Crossan"! 355) and introduce clumsy readings of verses (357). Loftus strongest argument is questioning why the gospel accounts are arranged in their own peculiar ways and pointing out apparent inconsistencies. On this point I wish I had more time, but with extended time and energy one could reconstruct a plausible account of the resurrection. For example, Loftus argues, the guards, whoever they belonged to, wouldn't want to incriminate themselves. The temple guards (authorized by Pilate but run by the Council) could have cooked up a story to save their own skins and the face of their rulers (Matthew 28:11). However this won't do us much good if we can't agree on the reliability and age of the manuscripts or on the interpretation of evidence. Loftus concedes, after reconstructing his version of resurrection theology as an elaborate embellishment, that "with my control beliefs I've made my choice." (364) It's telling that at this point Loftus alternative argument requires an equal amount of extensive reconstruction. (365-367)

Lastly Loftus' chapter about life as an atheist. It gets off to a good start with this quote: "That is, our lives have no significant ultimate purpose beyond this life, much like an animal or insect." (407) Finally, I thought, an atheist, ready to clearly explain what living that out looks like. However I was disappointed, Loftus goes on "Yet this simply does not mean I shouldn't go on living my life as a good person who seeks to be good to other people." (407) But why should he love his wife? In fact what meaning is there to do good, write this book or debunk Christianity if there are no ultimates? Loftus either can't or declines to explain. In some ways we need to be thankful Loftus remains inconsistent, people who act outside of God's morality are frighteningly dangerous to themselves and others around them. Thank God for his "common grace" that holds the evil of this world back from totally consuming us all. Loftus concludes by saying that "The Christian life is ultimately in vain, because it is built on a false hope." (414) Bringing us back to my original frustration, against what standard Loftus? It seems the alternative to live a life of atheist-hypocrisy is just as vain and false.

(I can't wait to hear Hitchen's simpler, sharper and shorter arguments in Collision, when it reaches Australia.)