The Christian Delusion

Since Richard Dawkins’ landmark book, The God Delusion, was published in 2006, one frequent criticism that has been levied against it is that the treatment of Christianity is insufficient and too naive. Professor Dawkins has very little of a religious background, and I would agree that it shows in his book. The same may be said for Christopher Hitchens and god is not Great or Sam Harris and Letter to a Christian Nation. While there is still plenty to appreciate about each of those books, they have not offered a thorough refutation of Christianity. Although several other authors have produced wonderful works criticizing Christianity, this ex-Evangelical minister, John Loftus, has compiled an outstanding anthology of scholarly essays that strive to expose The Christian Delusion.

With only one exception, all of the contributors to the book are former conservative Christians. The nine authors featured in The Christian Delusion are anthropologist David Eller, psychologist Valerie Tarico, pharmacist Jason Long, librarian Ed Babinski, author Paul Tobin (of the site Rejection of Pascal’s Wager), biblical scholar Hector Avalos, New Testament scholar Robert M. Price, historian Richard Carrier, and ex-minister John Loftus. A companion website has also been set up, where the book’s contributors respond to critics and offer ‘bonus chapters.’ As of 2011, a second anthology of this sort, The End of Christianity, has been published.

I. Revealing the Delusion

The Christian Delusion reminds me of how the apologist William Lane Craig begins most of his debates. Craig attempts to hit his opponent with a volley of arguments, each involving multiple premises and spanning different subjects. In similar fashion, Loftus has assembled his own volley of arguments that critique Christianity from various angles such as sociology, psychology, science, history, ethics, literature, and theology. Since Loftus is a former student of Craig, the similarity in technique is not all that surprising. But where Craig tends to offer unverifiable explanations of facts and overzealous presumptions in his premises, the authors in The Christian Delusion provide verifiable information, tight logic, and a wealth of sources to confirm their arguments.

Although some may wince at the use of “delusion” in the title, as I admittedly did at first, it is not employed to give the impression that Christians are stupid or that they suffer from some psychiatric disorder. Loftus explains in the introduction that the colloquial use of the word simply means a belief that is false or mistaken (p. 20). Thus, the title means that Christianity is a false belief, and the book’s contributors endeavor to demonstrate this thesis.

The book is comprised of five parts, each focusing on a different aspect of the Christian religion. The first part, “Why Faith Fails,” looks at the different cultural versions of Christianity, what cognitive science can say about faith, the impressionable nature of the human mind, and Loftus’ Outsider Test for Faith. Part two, “Why the Bible is Not God’s Word,” discusses bible scholarship and the scientific inaccuracies of scripture. The third part, “Why the Christian God is Not Perfectly Good,” deals with the immorality of god in the bible and the evolutionary context of the problem of evil. Part four, “Why Jesus is Not the Risen Son of God,” argues against the resurrection and divinity of Jesus, as well as advancing the idea that Jewish apocalypticism was Jesus’ central focus. Finally, part five, “Why Society Does Not Depend on Christian Faith,” refutes the notions that Christianity is necessary for morality, that it was responsible for science, and that atheism caused the holocaust.

II. The Great, the Good, and the Decent

If you choose to selectively read chapters from this book, I highly recommend “Christian Belief through the Lens of Cognitive Science”, “The Bible and Modern Scholarship”, “Yahweh is a Moral Monster”, and “Why the Resurrection is Unbelievable.” These chapters make very significant contributions to the case against Christianity, raising such points as (i) the irrational ways we tend to think on matters of faith, (ii) the unreliable nature of the bible, (iii) the horrid examples of moral behavior dictated by god in scripture, and (iv) the fallacious reasoning apologists use in arguing for the resurrection. Valerie Tarico gives a fascinating psychological perspective on the “born again” experience, something I have not seen in many other critiques of Christianity. Paul Tobin lays biblical inerrancy to waste by revealing the inconsistencies, failed prophecies, forgeries, mythical stories, and archaeological inaccuracies in the bible. Richard Carrier brilliantly uses Herodotus to explain why the gospels are not reliable sources for a miracle claim like resurrection.

Yet I have to say that the most entertaining read for me was Hector Avalos’ absolute evisceration of Paul Copan’s defense for Yahweh’s moral decrees and behavior. Written as a refutation of Copan’s essay, “Is Yahweh a Moral Monster?”, the chapter calls Copan to task in stunning clarity and factual accuracy, using the Code of Hammurabi to defeat the ‘superiority’ of biblical morality. The apologetic excuses for biblical slavery being ‘an advancement’ over secular slavery are effectively demolished. Cases of special pleading and cherry picking are noted and denounced, and factual distortions are illuminated too. But Copan seals his undoing without help from Avalos when he remarks on infanticide, saying that:

Death would be a mercy, as they would be ushered into the presence of God and spared the corrupting influences of a morally decadent culture. (p. 224)

What can be more morally decadent than a culture that uses religion to justify the slaughter of children and infants? Copan’s view is identical to the reason cited by Andrea Yates for drowning her five children.1 Yates ‘mercifully’ murdered her children so that they would be saved from the influence of evil. Christians were not as accepting of her excuse as they are of statements like Copan’s, but there is no real difference between the two. The Israelites claimed that god commanded them to commit infanticide and Yates claims that god commanded her to do the same. Copan could have easily weaseled out of the problem by simply saying, like many apologists, that the Israelites were mistaken in thinking that god had given his approval. Instead, he chooses to justify infanticide in a way that has also been used to defend the actions of Andrea Yates. Paul Copan appears to be a moral monster just like his god.

The Christian Delusion is well worth reading in its entirety, but certain chapters did not grab me as much as the others. Those written by Robert Price and David Ellers are decent and informative contributions, though not as gripping or memorable as I had become accustomed to from the remaining chapters. Loftus’ Outsider Test for Faith is well defended, yet the summary may seem incomplete to those who did not read Why I Became an Atheist (as I did not). Nonetheless, the OTF is understandable from the book, and Loftus’ response to the backlash helps to demonstrate the unwillingness of Christians to hold their beliefs to the same standards by which they reject other religious beliefs. Consistency and objectivity are too much to ask of many believers.

III. Upsetting the Flock

A little over a year has passed since publication of The Christian Delusion, and the response from Christians and apologists has been nothing short of vicious. Much like believers wrote scathing attacks on Dawkins’ book after its release, The Infidel Delusion, The Loftus Delusion, and other cleverly-titled (sarcasm) Christian replies have begun circulating the internet. As is often the case, the common focus in these critiques seems to be accusing the authors of hypocrisy, misunderstanding, and bias, with little demonstration of any of it and much ignorance of statements in the book that actually resolved the accusations before they were even made. Loftus’ Outsider Test for Faith is denounced as something that he would fail himself, yet this is addressed and settled in chapter four, under objection six.

When you stir up the hive, reactions will not be friendly, but a rational person is able to tell when emotion drives a critique instead of reason. The Christian Delusion is the most comprehensive, well-written, and entertaining refutation of conservative Christian beliefs that I have come across yet. It pulls no punches and sugarcoats nothing in dealing with Christianity, and because of this it may seem to some believers that it carries an arrogant tone, but there is a lot here of substantial challenge to the claims of Evangelical Christians.

 

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Sources:

1. (2002) Trial of Texas Mother Begins Third Week. CNN.com. Retrieved July 20, 2011.