The six hours I spent today reading Why I Became an Atheist were an up and down experience. On balance, I feel like I’m happier having read the book than not, and on balance, I think its good parts are more good than its bad parts are bad. I’ll save my broad statements until the end, and approach the book in sections.
As part of the choir that doesn’t need to be preached to, I learned the most from the first chapter, which is an autobiographical account of John’s childhood, conversion, and subsequent deconversion. To be fair, there’s a lot more to it than just that, but I’m not going to put spoilers in the review. I will say that while I was reading, I felt suspiciously like I was reading a “Tell All Expose” from some disenfranchised sports star. I feel like I learned a lot about John’s personality, and I have to be honest. Some of it wasn’t flattering at all. John freely admits to posessing several rather serious character defects, and his writing style itself seems to betray a rather intense desire to justify certain of his actions in the past. To be perfectly honest, I was getting tired of the “dish the dirt” style testimony, and then he blindsided me by anticipating my discomfort and addressing it directly.
In my discussions with John, he’s often mentioned the need for more than epistemic approaches to deconversion. I wholeheartedly agree with him on this point. Most people are religious for emotional reasons, and logic doesn’t often trump emotions. John has laid his faults bare and presented himself as just another guy who was lucky enough to study logic in military school and catch a couple of fortuitous chance breaks later in life. I like this approach, and even if I think some of his presentation could be faulted for defensiveness, in the end, that adds reality and a certain charm to it. I feel like I know a lot more about John than I did before reading. He intends this book to be read by the “average Joe” who’s had at least some college, and he certainly does a good job of putting himself on a credible level with his audience. (If America’s current obsession with reality TV is any indication, he’s probably done a very good thing by dishing a little dirt on himself.)
From the beginning, I could feel the influence of Josh MacDowell, Hal Lindsay, Lee Strobel, and his mentor, William Lane Craig. His writing style is clearly influenced by these writers, much moreso than some of the science writers many atheists will be familiar with. Again, I think this is a good thing for his target audience, who is much more likely to have read Josh MacDowell than Richard Dawkins.
Formally, the first chapter can be thought of as a prequel. Chapter two jumps straight into one of the most common theist misconceptions — moral superiority. He deals with the standard issues of morality originating from God versus nature, and addresses several theist assertions about the nature of morality. The best moment, in my opinion, is when he turns the question of arbitrary morality against the theist by asking if she would love and obey God if he commanded her to commit horrible acts against her neighbor.
Chapters 3 through 6 deal with the philosophical issues inherent in the question of God’s existence and nature. As I’ve said, I don’t wish to spoil his book, so I will not treat this as a book report. Instead, I’m going to raise a stylistic issue. To be honest, it was all I could do to keep reading during these chapters. There were times when I felt like I was reading twenty books at once, each by a different author, and each from a different generation. In his presentation of philosophical ideas, John very frequently quotes various philosophers in midsentence, and the overall effect is very disconcerting. It was very hard to get into any kind of comfortable reading rhythm, and frankly, very hard to follow his train of thought from one paragraph to the next. I appreciate John’s thorough documentation of the originators of various ideas, and I understand his desire to let them speak in their own words, but in the end, I’d much rather have read his own words throughout and checked the endnotes if I wanted to read his sources.
Of particular note in these chapters is John’s Outsider Test of Faith, which he has claimed as a new argument for atheism. In all fairness, I do not think that it is. It is simply a well reasoned and very thorough explanation of the double standard applied by theists to their beliefs versus those of other faiths. I wish he had not claimed it as new, for if he had not, I could have unreservedly expressed praise for the idea.
Chapter five deals with the three main arguments for God, namely the ontological, the cosmological, and the teleological. Again, it feels more like John is interjecting comments into the quotes of previous philosophers. I wish he had done less quoting and written more of his own words. In my notebook, I have written the following: “This is like Atheism 101. It’s a survey that directs us to authors who will give us more complete answers and explanations. Yet, it still feels vaguely unsettling to take John’s word that these authorities are accurate.” In short, I do not feel that the space devoted to these arguments was sufficient to thoroughly address these issues.
Loftus has taken on a monumental task with this book, and to be fair to him, he’s done a very good job of at least addressing every issue that most Christians are likely to raise. Further, he has certainly made the reader familiar with a plethora of authors to whom they can turn if they wish to know more on a particular subject. I wonder, however, if the scope of the book has exceeded its reach in this area. If it sounds like I’m just harping on the negative, it’s because I feel like Part 1 had some problems. John has taken on so many topics that in order to limit the book to a readable length, he has had to provide explanations that are simply too short to feel fulfilling. Never fear, though. There are home runs to come.
Chapter Six deals with the dichotomy between science and religion, and while it is a strong presentation of the state of the “debate,” I felt somewhat disappointed that he did not spend more time discussing the epistemological foundation of strong empiricism and the absurdity of the concept of a non-scientific claim.
I’ll admit that I was feeling a creeping despair by this time. These are all topics that are near and dear to my heart, and I have opined on them at length for many years. If I judge them harshly, it’s because they are my forte, and I am a stickler for details. Thankfully, with Chapter Seven, things got much easier, and much more pleasant. John’s presentation of the absurdity and ubiquitousness of superstition in Biblical times is very elegant. I remember thinking somewhere in the middle of the chapter that this is what John is good at. Not only does he begin to rely less on the words of others, but his own words are less forced and much more compelling. Between details of flip-flopping polytheist beliefs, magic, divination, dreams, prophecies, contradictory stories, and errant science (the heart is most certainly not the seat of the mind!) John has made a nearly air tight case for the unreliability of Biblical authors due to their superstitious nature.
As if to add insult to injury, John proceeds to dismantle the concept of divine inspiration by detailing Pseudonymity across both the Old and New Testaments. Not surprisingly, Biblical discussions are where he shines, and I am happy to say that I was reading easily and enjoying myself. By the time he thoroughly dismantled the Biblical account of the Exodus and the conquest of Caanan, I had forgotten my earlier disquiet.
I have a note that I wrote to myself as I was reading Chapter 8: The Poor Evidence of Historical Evidence, in which Loftus is attacking the use of the Bible as evidence for the Bible by dismantling historical evidence as a basis for any epistemology. My note reads: “This book is good for fundamentalists, [but] not so good for liberal theists.” I remember thinking as I was reading that many liberal theists would probably put the book down at this point. The opening section was certainly not the best treatment of the philosophical arguments for God that I’ve ever read, and I doubt they would be convincing to a liberal theist. However, once John started ripping into the beliefs held by most fundamentalists, I found myself admiring his effort while wishing that he’d confined himself to a smaller target audience.
Chapter nine deals with miracles. Chapter ten with the self-reinforcing argument from the “Witness of the Holy Spirit.” (This, more than any other subject, seems to be a direct assault on his former mentor, Dr. Craig.) Chapter eleven is a short and concise attack on the concept of answered and unanswered prayers. All three chapters are consistently logical and convincingly straightforward.
Of particular interest to me were chapters twelve and thirteen, as I had been told by John himself that I was to find a brand new approach to the problem of evil. Sadly, I did not find it, but I was thoroughly impressed with his treatment of the problem. I was particularly happy with his repeated return to the suffering of animals and the philosophical problem inherent in environmental and inadvertant evil. These are, admittedly, aspects of the problem that have not been given much emphasis in previous treatises, and I was very glad to see them prominently displayed.
Beginning with Chapter Forteen and continuing through Chapter Twenty-two, John hit his stride again. Because I think these are his best chapters, I will refrain from detailed comment and let the reader enjoy them without giving away any secrets. Again, they are certainly best suited for fundamentalists, as they deal with such subjects as the virgin birth, the nature of a god-man duality, resurrection from the dead, and the Biblical account of the devil and hell.
Ok. In all fairness, I’ll tell you why I don’t care to comment on these chapters. Biblical argument is not my thing. John’s really very good at it, and unfortunately, I didn’t take a lot of notes in this section. It’s not that I wasn’t enjoying it. I was. That’s just it. I didn’t feel like taking any notes because I was just enjoying a good read. Like a runner who doesn’t hit his stride until halfway through a race, John saved his best writing for the last half of the book. I particularly like his method of quoting biblical stories and interjecting his own commentary to illustrate their absurdity, contradictory nature, and various other faults. In all fairness, if I had read only chapters seven through twenty two, I would have given this book very high praise. As I mentioned before, I wish John had confined himself to a smaller audience, specifically fundamentalists and Biblical literalists. That would have killed two birds with one stone — he would have put only his best writing foot forward, and he would have cut the length down by at least a third.
As an afterthought, I’m going to mention that his last section, Part 3, felt like an afterthought. I understand that the book needed some closure, and to be honest, it’s too long as it is, so I respect his decision to keep his final thoughts brief. In fact, I remember thinking that his book really is a fantastic precursor to my own writings, which deal largely with what a person is to do after leaving religion.
On the whole, I really do feel mixed emotions about the book. When he’s dealing with the Bible or Christian theology, Loftus is a rock star. I wish he’d written a book half as long that just dealt with those topics. I appreciated the autobiographical elements, and particularly appreciated his attempt (which I think is largely successful) to present himself as a fallible human being, not a lofty scholar. In short, I believe I will feel comfortable recommending this book to fundamentalist Christians, but for liberal theists, I will stick with Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris. I commend John for a very thorough, well researched, and generally enjoyable first writing effort.