John Loftus is the author of Why I Became an Atheist: A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity; he’s the founder of www.debunkingchristianity.blogspot.com and the general editor of The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails. I haven’t read his other books, but one quickly gets the sense that Loftus is on a crusade of his own.
In the Introduction he makes a surprise assertion:
“We can already predict the effect this book will have. What typically happens in every generation as Christians are forced to confront skeptical arguments against their beliefs is that instead of giving up their faith, they reinvent it.”
Immediately I get the sense that the ethos of the book is set according to the tone of reverse psychology. The writers of the book quite naturally hope their book will succeed and that Christians will read it and “give up their faith.” But the idea that has been strategically planted in the believers mind is this: Christianity cannot stand up against the arguments of the skeptics, so it reinvents itself (i.e. it clasps at any loose straws it can) in order to survive, if for another generation. In other words, either accept the infallible proofs offered up in this book or bow to the whims of blind faith like the psychics, ghosts hunters and superstitious peoples of the world. And what Christian wants to fall in that category?
The author goes on, then, to offer many examples of how Christianity has reinvented itself to survive against the “onslaught of skeptical arguments.” Here are some of the ways Christianity has reinvented itself to survive:
- Some like William Lane Craig argue that “the witness of the Holy Spirit trumps all other evidence.”
- Christians have long abandoned the horrible and barbaric view of an eternal fire-and-brimstone hell.
- Christians are also embracing “Open Theism” in light of the problems with time, relativity, and the notion of a timeless God (Clark Pinnock).
- Some go a step further and embrace “Process Theism” (David Ray Graffin).
- Others are arguing that Satan is the reason why animals have suffered for millions of years on this planet before the advent of human beings (Greg Boyd).
- Others deny the existence of Satan and the historicity of the Garden story altogether (Conrad Hyers). Loftus adds, “But once Christians admit there are nonhistorical myths in the Bible, the floodgates are open to consider it may all be mythical.”
- Christians are adopting Preterism (or partial Preterism), which is a view of eschatology attempting to answer the problem of Jesus’ failed prophesy (N.T. Wright).
- Many Christians are now claiming Jesus did not bodily rise from the grave (John Spong).
- “Many professing Christians are even embracing the homosexual by arguing that a homosexual lifestyle is not a sin.”
- “Christians have repeatedly reinterpreted the Bible on slavery, women, democracy, science, the environment, and animal rights, as we become socially and scientifically enlightened.
The punchline to Loftus’ list:
“The Christianity of the past was different than today’s Christianity. Nearly all modern Christians would have suffered under the Office of the Inquisition with what they believe, it’s so far removed. And the Christianity of the future will be just as different as the presently accepted one. Shouldn’t Christians just walk away from their faith and recognize it as the delusion that it is…?” (p.19 Bold mine)
While the list itself is fairly unintimidating (I’ll get to it in a moment), it’s that punchline that knocked the wind out of me. Not because it’s new and I had never considered it before, but precisely the opposite. It strikes at the heart of my struggle. I’ll one up Loftus: there are “Christian” pastors who don’t even believe in a God! Where do we draw the line? What exactly are the “essentials”? Ask ten Christians from different traditions and you’ll likely get ten different answers? Ten different answers as to what makes a Christian?! How is that possible and how do we determine who’s right? And when we determine an answer, who’s the “we” and haven’t we just taken a stand on yet another answer, different from the others?
The evangelical answer is to go back to the Bible and let it be our final authority on the matter. The problem there is that some ultra-evangelical traditions have done just that, and by their standards I’m already lost! I’m already on the outs. I’m not even a Christian by many Calvinists reckoning (after all, I’m not a Calvinist). For others the answer aligns itself with Tradition. Consider the Eastern Orthodox. More than a few Orthodox have made it clear that I’m not even a Christian, and some Orthodox reject other Orthodox as being illegitimate brothers and sisters in Christ because they are not of the exact Orthodox tradition with one another. Or consider the Emergent and Liberal Christians. By many of their reckonings, anything goes. Maybe not everyone’s a Christian, but that’s just a religious designation. If someone just “does the social justice things that Jesus did,” well, we all (or most!) are going to be saved. And between these Emergent and Liberal streams are diverse opinions on the matter.
Sigh. At this realization, shouldn’t Christians just walk away from their faith and recognize it as the delusion that it is?
And embrace what, Atheism? Is that Loftus’ answer? All he’s pointed out is that Christianity is diverse. That there seems to be no “litmus test.” No consensus as to what even makes a Christian. But what this argument doesn’t prove is that Christianity is wrong. At the very best it could make me consider agnosticism since there’s no way to know that there is not a God either.
And then if I begin with the premise of agnosticism and were to pick up C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity again it would surely lead me right back into the Christian faith.
Many of Loftus’ audience will be people who already agree with him and are looking for good arguments against the Christian faith to take back to their Christian friends. Those people will be generally unfamiliar with the views Loftus brings up such as “Open Theism”, “Preterism” and the such. All they will hear when reading that list is “yada, yada, reinvent itself here” and “yada, yada, reinvent itself here”. The list does not distinguish between “liberal scholars” like Spong and evangelical scholars like Wright. It fails to take into account that nothing on that list, save perhaps the resurrection, comes even remotely close to the heart of the Christian faith. And the number of “Christians” who deny the resurrection is so minuscule when considering the global Christian community that it’s hardly worth consideration as a claim to “Christianity reinventing itself.”
And understanding that some of the scriptures contains mythical elements and untrue accounts (such as Jesus’ parables) hardly “opens the floodgates” to consider that it may all be myth. In fact, the very use of the term is designed to intimidate young Christian readers since in common usage a “myth” is contrasted with “truth”. But in academic vernacular a myth is a story that is shared by a collective group and may be true.
In sum, the Introduction hits hard at the heart of my struggle, but the route it takes to get there is clearly designed with the unreflective Christian in mind. I’ve not been intimidated by the approach the author takes, nor convinced of anything I didn’t already know.
The one challenge I took away from this chapter is summed up in this quote:
“If the BIble is this malleable, capable of being interpreted differently in every generation, how can exegetes really think they have the correct interpretation of it at all? (p.19)