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.)


Mikey Lynch said...

Great review Luke, thanks.

Couple of thoughts:

1. There does feel to a be a strong intuitive argument in favour of naturalistic scepticism, to the atheist. That is because it seems simpler. We need to find a way, as Christians for countering the intuitive strength of atheist presuppoistions.

2. We need to thrash out further what other non-ultimate bases people have for morality. For the atheist they perceive that they can form, metaphysically groundless ethics. Why is this? Perhaps there is an implicit metaphysical belief in there, which stops them from being entirely inconsistent?

Andrew Bowles said...

I would like to read a kind of 'pure' apologetic from an atheist, where the philosophical framework and principles for living are laid out in a clear and thorough way without the need to engage in minor tussles with Christianity in this manner (once you've started arguing about the historicity of the resurrection, you've moved away from 'atheism' to 'anti-Christianity', a very different beast). If anyone knows of such a book, please let me know.

Radagast said...

Christian to atheist is a very odd transition. Christian to Hegelian I've heard of, but this is a total reversal, and raises questions about how sincere he was in the first place.

According to his blog, Loftus has "three master's degrees in the area of the Philosophy of Religion" along with "some Ph.D. work" (whatever that means); and received a Th.M. degree at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in 1985.

He was with the Churches of Christ as a minister, it seems, for 18 years. He claims he lost his faith when he found holes in Creationism.

It's clear his theology was always very shonky, and his faith as well. Which shows (1) how terrible parts of US theological education are, and (2) that people who seem to be devout Christians (even ministers) may in fact be no such thing.

Radagast said...

And, I must say, speaking as a professional mathematician, that "the scientific method is the best (and probably the only) reliable guide we have for gaining the truth" is an astonishingly stupid statement.

Radagast said...

Having read up on this guy a bit more, he seems to have been one of those "Christians" whose beliefs are primarily about morality, with little or no supernatural content. Having fallen into some rather tawdry sexual misconduct, his faith in his own moral excellence seems to have been shattered, so that he was forced to reinvent himself. And, since he was never all that far from outright materialism, his transition to atheism makes a bit more sense.

And, Luke, since the book reflects Loftus' attempt to rationalise his moral failure, the discussion of life as an atheist you're looking for is unlikely to be found here. He seems to retain a belief in "democratic capitalism," for example, but without any philosophical justification.

Luke said...

Thanks all for commenting!

Mikey: I agree, that personally skepticism seems a more natural stance. I also agree that we need to figure out what non-ultimate bases people have for their philosophy. However I'm loath to generalize about non-Christians because often the reasons people hold things are as varied as there numbers of people.

Andrew: Amen! (I'm hoping Hitchens will be that.)

Radagast: I'm glad you've joined the conversation. Your probably right my expectations might have been woefully misguided. It's also interesting about Loftus' religious education. Either his handling of Christianity has got rusty with time or he was never part of the same thinking Christian world.

David: My mystery Melbourne reader, thanks for the gift of the book. I hope (and pray) you find Christians both on the blogsphere and in the real world who can graciously direct you to Jesus.

Radagast said...

Luke: That statement "the scientific method is the best (and probably the only) reliable guide we have for gaining the truth" is clearly nonsense unless we add the words "about the physical universe." Which immediately tells us what science can't do.

Mikey: you said "they perceive that they can form metaphysically groundless ethics." That's because they usually inherit most of their ethics from the surrounding culture. Sometimes atheists do have metaphysics (as in the old-school Soviets), but that is increasingly less true.

Andrew: the closest thing I've seen to what you ask for is Lucretius' On the Nature of the Universe. But it's more than 2000 years old.

Mikey Lynch said...

Luke/Radagast - I think we need to be do our best to discern (not speculate) the grounds for ethics in the world of atheist thought, rather than just demand of it what we think is obvious and logical - a metaphysical ground.

It is possible that atheists 'just inherit morals from the culture', but that may not be a fair generalisation. Two possibilities I can think of:

1. An implicit metaphysical belief - atheists believe that certain values (perhaps life or freedom) are metaphysically self-justifying (just as we believe God is self-justifying). They just don't have the vocabulary to articulate this and so satisfy Christian apologists.

2. They see moral values, as determined by society as important, even though they are not ultimate. They embrace their role as social creatures and recognise that although they have no ultimate ground for morals, they have a limited ground for it and as creatures, that is enough.

Radagast said...

Mikey: I'm not sure "atheist thought" is at all uniform. Loftus is certainly astonishingly naive -- his philosophical starting point doesn't allow for mathematics (and hence not for most science either, so it all falls over at the starting gate). His moral position, as I understand it from skimming the book, is that he chooses to engage in "moral" actions. So he chooses to love his wife (his current one, not the last one). He doesn't recognise a binding morality which he's obliged to follow against his personal wishes.

As I said, the old-school Marxists had more of a metaphysical grounding for their ethical positions, but they're fairly rare nowadays, although many of their ideas still influence the Left. Many New Age followers derive an environmental ethic from what's essentially a religious position (respect for Gaia, for example), so they're not atheists.

You said that perhaps "atheists believe that certain values (perhaps life or freedom) are metaphysically self-justifying." That is probably true (it's true of Loftus), but I think that's largely true of values inherited from the culture. So Loftus believes that "democratic capitalism" is self-justifying, but only, I think, because he's an American. People who propose values not inherited from their culture always seem to see the need to justify them.

Perhaps the best example of a coherently articulated atheist ethics comes from Peter Singer, who derives an inherent value for cooperation from a utilitarian basis. This does lead him in directions that differ from his surrounding culture -- he has a strong animal-rights position, for example, while viewing the killing of newborn babies as accceptable.

Luke said...

(I think Loftus didn't whether to be anecdotal, polemical or focused within a particular field. The result was just frustrating, although I had told David I'd review it. But I realize he's not a the best example of modern atheism.)

The uniformity or otherwise of atheist thought:

It's hard to find a pure atheist, maybe this is because the diversity of the semi to non-religious world is in contrast to the relative homogeneity of the Christian world. The demarcation of ideas is so much clearer within the Christian world, for example even Spong knows he's reacting against an orthodoxy. However outside of communist North Korea there is no clear atheist orthodoxy. Instead, a large wash of semi-religious such as the new ecology or ex-religious like Loftus. People assemble ideas picked up here and there and unless they are relentlessly focused like Singer, don't have a coherent underlying world view.

Radagast said...

"People assemble ideas picked up here and there" -- indeed, which is why it's always helpful to encourage people to think about where their ideas come from. But only if one has gone through the same experince oneself.

Andrew Bowles said...

'the relative homogeneity of the Christian world' - One of the more ironic phrases used this millenium. :)

Anonymous said...

Relating to Mikey's first point, i agree that it is very frustrating that the weight of argument always seems to inexorably shift to the christian apologist. Loftus is not alone in his "antidogma, antisuperstitious bias". A friend and I were chatting once and it was apparently obvious that I as a christian endeavour to prove MY point against the "default, dogma-free" skeptical position (apparently held by all normal people) and not the other way around. Must this necessarily be the case?


Anonymous said...

Luke, unfortunately your plea for Loftus' standard of truth against which he is measuring christianity to be explained and defended doesn't in fact need to be explained or defended at all. This "standard of truth" is the vast impenetrable bastion of all sensible human thought rising far above the vain clutching hopes of christian apologetics

Radagast said...

It does seem to be the case, though, that Loftus thinks that an overwhelmingly large of poor arguments is better than a concise list of good ones. This seems to be what he means by "cumulative case." It doesn't impress me whoever does it.