Editor: John Loftus
Bibliographic Info: 435 pp.
Publisher: Prometheus, 2011.
Buy it at Amazon
This collection of 14 essays, edited by John Loftus, is another volume in trilogy of polemical diatribes against the Christian faith. The previous two volumes are Why I Became an Atheist, and The Christian Delusion. This volume aims to show that Christianity is completely untenable to believe in and thus should end. Though considering that is what The Christian Delusion was meant to demonstrate, I wonder why this sequel had to be released. Perhaps not enough people were leaving Christianity after reading The Christian Delusion?
This review will consist of four or five parts in which I shall provide brief overviews of each essay, as well as an overall assessment of the book and how it impacts Christianity. Does this book live up to its contentious title of ending Christianity? We shall see.
The introduction, by the editor John Loftus, is not really an introduction to the book as such, but is basically just an apologetic for Loftus’ prized “Outsider Test for Faith” (OTF). This is apparently a “hotly contested” concept and Loftus seems rather sure it is some sort of bunker buster that can demolish a person’s religious faith once they take the test. I won’t rehearse the OTF here, but head on over to his blog and I am sure you can read all about it.
The essays in this volume are divided up into four sections, the first of which is called “Why Two Thousand Years are Enough.” It is composed of three essays which are what this first part of the review will tackle.
The first essay of the book is titled “Christianity Evolving” and is written by Dr. David Euller. I will provide the following quote from this chapter which I think aptly sums it up:
… there is no such thing as the religion of Christianity; at best it is a multitude of related but distinct and often-enough opposed traditions, shifting and swaying with the winds of local culture and passing history. (23)
Euller provides a brief overview of Christianity from its beginnings to the reformation, then the many adaptations of the Christian faith that have occurred in America, and lastly, the global Christianities that have been emerging in Latin American, Asia, and Africa.
Euller’s essay was actually one of my favorites of the entire book, partly because it is generally an accurate assessment on the evolution of Christianity, and also because there were a lot of nice soundbites, such as the following:
Even more, the evolution of Christianity follows exactly the same processes as biological evolution such as speciation, radiation, competition, extinction, and so on. (24)
With that said, there were a few mistakes in the essay. For instance, on page 34, Euller refers to the Council of Chalcedon as occurring in 380. For those unaware, that is not even in the correct century (it was in 451). Maybe he meant the Council of Constantinople in 381?
Also, in discussing the shaping of the Christian scriptures, Euller gives the erroneous impression that there was some sort of decisive council and vote that decided on whether to include or exclude certain scriptures from the new canon: “Worse, as the scriptures of the movement gradually came into shape, many candidates for inclusion were voted out, such as…” (29)
I particularly enjoyed the brief section at the end where Euller pondered on whether Christianity would end if we discovered extraterrestrial life. I have also contemplated that before, and like Euller, I came to the conclusion that Christianity would adapt to such a discovery. It would necessitate some theological changes for sure, but it would adapt. I mean, after all, Christianity adapted to the discovery that the universe didn’t revolve around the earth (as it was believed for a long time), so it would also adapt to the discovery that our planet isn’t the only inhabited one in the universe.
While I did enjoy this essay overall, I really can’t see how it is supposed to contribute to the end of Christianity. I mean, are we really meant to think that the information provided in this chapter is so shocking that it proves Christianity is a fraudulent religion based upon mere superstitions and lies? Apparently so, but it just simply doesn’t provide any impetus for the demise of Christianity, or for that matter, the superiority of the atheistic worldview.
The next essay is by Dr. Richard Carrier and is called “Christianity’s Success Was Not Incredible.” The opening paragraph gives the overall gist of the chapter, but also shows why I thought this chapter was rather pointless:
…it’s often claimed that Christianity could never have begun or succeeded unless the people of its first three centuries had overwhelming evidence that it was true. Therefore we should conclude there was overwhelming evidence it was true, even if that evidence doesn’t survive for us to see it now, and since we should believe anything for which there is overwhelming evidence, we should believe Christianity is true. (53)
I have never ever heard any Christian layperson or apologist say that the reason Christianity was so successful in the early centuries was because there was overwhelming evidence it was true. I don’t even remember popcorn apologists like Josh McDowell making that claim (yes, unfortunately I was a fan of McDowell and similar people back in my teenage years). Obviously I can not claim to have read all Christian apologetic books, so maybe there are people out there who use the argument that Christianity’s early success means it is true. If that is the case, then I have to make up a new category for them, because they are not even worthy to be place in the “popcorn apologist” category.
There was one redeeming feature of this essay by Carrier in that he tried to go on the offensive. He said that Christianity’s conception and growth were standard and that Christianity arose naturally like every other religion, and that this means that Christianity is an entirely natural religion and thus, false. Carrier says:
[Christianity's] rate of development was entirely natural. Since that rate was natural, we should expect its cause was natural, which alone closes the book on Christianity having any supernatural evidence or guidance. Had it had such, its rate of success would reflect that. It does not. (54)
Naturally, Carrier provides no reasoning why Christianity would need to have had some unnatural rate of development for it to be considered a valid truth claim. Why on earth should we accept Carrier’s claims to know what we should have expected to happen if Christianity’s claims were true or false?!
Essentially, this chapter is filled with a bunch of supposed claims that Christians make that Carrier then proceeds to tear down. For example, one claim that Christians supposedly make is that Christians being tortured, hunted, and killed would have made their success impossible except for divine intervention. I have never heard a Christian make such a lame claim before. This essay was perhaps the most disappointing of the book as Carrier just sets up straw men and tears them down.
Carrier makes some other claims which are untrue as far as I know (or perhaps he just isn’t being too careful with his language). He says:
[Resurrection] was already a common Jewish staple, with past resurrections in its sacred stories and future resurrections in its imagined plan of salvation.
Even the claim that Jews would never have bought the idea of a singular resurrection before the general resurrection of all Jews is false: such special resurrection already appeared in their own Bible and were readily believed to still be occurring. (59-60)
I can not for the life of me think of a story in Second Temple Literature in which someone is resurrected. Resuscitated back to life? Sure. But that is not the same thing as resurrection (not in Jewish parlance anyway). Perhaps he is referring to the stories of figures being exalted and taken up into the heavens. But again, this is not resurrection. I think Carrier is just not being precise enough with his language. Proclaiming Jesus had been resurrected from the dead is not the same as saying that Jesus had been brought back to life (e.g. like the Shulamite woman’s son), nor is it the same as the concept of someone undergoing apotheosis and exaltation (e.g. Enoch). As far as I know, the idea of a singular person achieving resurrection before the general resurrection at the eschaton, was indeed quite a novelty in Judaism at that point in time.
Another point Carrier tries to drive home is the parallelism between the story about Jesus’ death and resurrection with that of various other figures throughout history. One example he latches onto in particular is that of Inanna. He says that the Sumerians believed in a religion centered on a crucified goddess, Inanna, who was “stripped naked and crucified, yet she rose from the dead and, triumphant, condemned to hell her lover, the shepherd-god Dumuzi.” (55)
Again, Carrier is being far too sloppy with his words to say that Inanna was “crucified”. I would have loved if Carrier had provided references to primary source material on Inanna to support his claims, because from what I know about the Sumerian account is that it simply states Inanna is killed and then her body was hung on a hook in the underworld. To say that Inanna was crucified is not just being far too loose and sloppy with words, it is dishonest (besides, I think crucifixion wasn’t used until about a millenium after Inanna’s story developed, by a completely different culture nonetheless). Also, to equate Inanna’s ascending from the underworld as being similar to the resurrection of Jesus is again being too sloppy with words and concepts.
The third essay in this book, by editor John Loftus, is titled “Christianity is Wildly Improbable.” Loftus lists ten propositions of protestant evangelicalism that he finds to be utterly implausible to adhere to. At one point Loftus states:
If in our world miracles do not happen, then they did not happen in first-century Palestine, either. And that should be the end of it. (80)
Just because Loftus has never witnessed a genuine miracle does not mean they do not occur. Just because Loftus has never witnessed something truly supernatural, does not mean such things do not exist. (And by “supernatural” I do not mean a nice warm feeling you get when you worship at Church).
The chapter ends with an attempt by Loftus to tackle some philosophical and theological questions relating to some key Christian doctrines. For instance, he asks:
Many humans have been eaten by cannibals, bears, sharks, and parasites. Others have been lost at sea or cremated. How can there be a bodily resurrection for these bodies if they no longer exist? (88)
A good and proper question. But does Loftus think that just because Christians couldn’t provide a compelling answer, that we should then just abandon this belief? I don’t see why we should abandon beliefs that do not have completely adequate answers.
Loftus also takes a look at prominent Christian apologists Alvin Plantinga, William Lane Craig, and Richard Swinburne. Not much to complain about there because I pretty much agree with him in his criticisms of them. The chapter ends with Loftus presenting 15 points on what it takes to believe and defend Christianity.
As with the previous chapters, I just don’t see how this chapter is meant to contribute to the demise of Christianity. It may do so against the uncritical fundamentalist strain of Christianity, but not Christianity in general. The type of Christianity that Loftus argues against can be clearly seen in the following quote:
The evidence is simply not there to believe in a three-headed, eternally existing god who became one of us to die on a cross for our sins in one lone part of the ancient world; a god who bodily resurrected from the grave but was only seen by a small number of people, which forces the rest of us to believe their word on it or else spend an eternity in hell because we were not there to see it for ourselves. (99)
Read Part II here.