John W. Loftus, ed. The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails. Prometheus Books, 2010. 419 pp. ISBN: 978-1616141684.
Just a few years ago you'd have to cruise the streets of Portland, Oregon for at least half an hour before spotting a Darwin fish bumper sticker. But these days you just need to drive around the parking lot of the Tulsa Walmart to find bumpers proudly declaring "In No God I Trust" and "I think. Therefore, I'm an Atheist." So what changed?
At the pop cultural level the much touted "new atheists" get a lot of the credit. With their fierce rhetoric and attractive silver and banana-colored book covers, these secular soldiers have sent atheist stock soaring. (Apologies for the mixed metaphors.) But alas, the rigor of their arguments has rarely equaled the heat of their rhetoric.
Enter The Christian Delusion. Edited by former Christian John Loftus (who also recently published his own autobiographical Why I Became an Atheist [Prometheus, 2008]), the aim of CD is to put some intellectual fuel in the engines pulling all those secular bumpers. Loftus and his motley crew are not really a kinder, gentler atheism. They agree with Dawkins that Christianity is a delusion. But they seek to deal with that illusion with a high degree of analytic rigor and cumulative evidence, so high in fact that they would expect to empty all Tulsa churches of every rational Christian who honestly considers their arguments.
Overreaching? This is how Michael Martin puts it in that coveted blurb space at the top of the back cover:
"John Loftus and his distinguished colleagues have produced arguably the best critique of the Christian faith the world has ever known. Using sociological, biblical, scientific, historical, philosophical, theological, and ethical criticisms, this book completely destroys Christianity. All but the most fanatical believers who read it should be moved to have profound doubts."
Wow. That's high praise indeed. A book that "completely destroys Christianity" and ought to leave every non-fanatic with "profound doubts".
I have now read about 70% of CD and when I have finished it (in the next day or two) I will begin an in-depth, essay by essay, review. At the outset let me say this.
1. I don't think I'm a fanatic.
2. I am suspicious of the value of terms like "fanatic" to begin with. They are too slippery, too apt for abuse, too subjective in nature. [Circle: a plane figure in which every point on the perimeter is equidistant from the center. Fanatic: someone who disagrees strongly with me.]
3. I am not sure what constitutes a "profound doubt" so I'm not sure if I have any.
4. I think it is healthy for people to have doubts about their basic worldview commitments just like they have doubts about their other beliefs, although I would not stipulate that intellectually healthy people who are doing their epistemic duty (whatever that might mean) are obliged to have doubts or they are somehow epistemically derelict.
This is not just a problem with the back cover. The kind of confidence expressed by Martin in his blurb pops up here and there in the book as well and this strikes me as unfortunate.
In a review of Peter Unger's All the Power in the World philosopher John Heil comments: "in philosophy, there are no default views, no heavyweight champs. To think otherwise is to mistake fashion for serious philosophy." Part of the context is Heil's recognition of the relative metaphysical richness of Unger's metaphysic which admits substance dualism (a view of the mind/body problem about as unfashionable today as paisley trousers) whilst hammering on a very trendy form of naturalism.
Heil's right. Philosophers and other intellectuals should be careful about sweeping statements. Let's say that you wrote a book on universals in which you argued for nominalism. Any blurb would be highly suspect which declared "this book completely destroys platonic realism. All but the most fanatical believers who read it should be moved to have profound doubts."
You can repeat that exercise by slotting in any major position. Indeed, I would have the same incredulity toward a blurb on a Christian apologist's book which read:
"this book completely destroys atheism. All but the most fanatical believers who read it should be moved to have profound doubts."
"this book completely destroys naturalism. All but the most fanatical believers who read it should be moved to have profound doubts."
Sadly, it seems like people often lose their critical composure, nuance and restraint when matters appear even in a broad sense to abut organized religion. Hence, the very dubious but trendy dismissal of substance dualism that has characterized academic philosophy in the last thirty years. (The children and grandchildren of philosophers may buy Webkinz and Beanie Babies but their intellectual parents and grandparents are just as susceptible to fads. The only difference: the intellectual fads aren't necessarily made in China.)
Fortunately, this misbegotten bravado which is so often directed against religion need not undermine the value of CD. We just need to lower our expectations (not of CD but of what it can reasonably hope to accomplish in 400 pages). A book doesn't have to destroy a position to be worthwhile reading. It just needs to provide some good reasons in support of its thesis. And this brings me to my final point:
5. CD is an engaging read. The essays are generally of a high caliber and it provides a strong, comprehensive case against Christianity. I am grateful to Loftus and the other essayists for putting this volume together and very much looking forward to engaging it in the weeks to come.