It's not everyday that I get to befriend a fellow apostate and freethinker who left the Christian faith but also one who has a sharp theolgoical mind such as John W. Loftus. A divinity school graduate with three masters degrees, a former student of William Lane Craig, and an academic star in his school days, Loftus has a formidable resume. That's why I was eager to purchase and read Loftus' book Why I Rejected Christianity. This book is one of the best introductory texts on the philosophical problems with Christianity.
As a way of introducing himself, Loftus begins with the story of how he got involved with and came to reject Christianity. Like myself, he adopted his faith because it was the only thing he really knew and had no exposures to anything that would challenge his faith. I was sorry to hear of the trials he went through with the Restorationist movement (which, ironically, is what denomination my mother grew up in- so I have some familiarity with the mind-frame), his experience with Linda, and his experience with Jeff. All I can say is that I am pleased that he got out of all of that. I am particularly pleased that John has found new happiness with Gwen. For someone constantly wrestles with grave doubts on whether he will ever meet the love of his life or not, it sort of sparked new hope in me. I just hope my newfound hope lasts.
I have to say that I agree with many of Loftus' philosophical arguments. His argument called the Outsider Test , based on the presumption of agnosticism, I very much agree, is the best way of approaching all supernaturalist claims of revealed religion. His chapter on prayer is particularly excellent! Though brief, he states the chief problems with prayer, especially petitionary prayer. I loved his chapter on "Historical Evidence and Christianity"- that was superb! These were some of the best chapters of the entire book! I would like to focus on other chapters, while good throughout, or having some good points, could've been argued better. There is a chapter "On the lessons of Galileo, Science, and Religion". I wasn't sure what Loftus was getting at until I read that science was divorcing itself from the religious community and that methodological naturalism was probably the best way to conduct science. I agree but I also think that there is something that is overlooked by many Christians and nonChristians. The point was driven home to me after reading an essay of considerable length by Robert M Price and Reginald Finley on biblical cosmology. Many Christians point out that Galileo's approach to science and religion is best. The problem is that Galileo started the whole conflict between science and religion in my opinion. Loftus correctly notes what the Hebrew universe is like on pgs. 104-5, but as far as I can see, Galileo refuted the biblical cosmology by verifying the cosmology of Copernicus. When Scriptural references to primitive-sounding cosmology are pointed out in the Bible, Christians will say "Well, that's because the Bible is using a language of "appearance". Thus when the Psalmist says that the sun rises, or when the pillars of the earth are spoken of by Isaiah, or there is spoken of water above the firmament, modern fundamentalists, often with a straight face, will say that the Bible is speaking of a language of "appearance", describing events of the natural world using a language of how things "appear" to someone stationed on earth. But then, again, one can use this kind of rationalization to "explain" away obvious geo-centric, flat-earth cosmological references in just about any literature in antiquity. To argue that it's langauge of "appearance" is gross special pleading. You can make any ancient text scientifically inerrant by invoking such nonsense. The problem, I see, is that this nonsense about "appearances" started with Galileo.
Martin Luther, whom I regard as a antiscience, antireason, antiintellectual rube, condemned Copernicus for espousing a view that was contrary to Scripture. Yet it was Martin Luther who understood the Bible better than Copernicus and Galileo did! Luther may be an antiscientific ignoramous in every sense of the word imaginable, but Luther was biblically justified! It was Galileo, in my opinion, started the whole war with Christianity. Copernicus and Galileo were Christians who started the whole enterprise of "compromise" of the Bible with science that creationist organizations like Answers in Genesis are so fond of whining about! The geologists who gave us the geological system of earth's history and an ancient earth, older than James Ussher would've thought concievable, were Christians who went about trying to compromise Genesis with long periods of time. All of this is borne out of attempts to reconcile the Bible with science. Even Kenneth Miller, a respectable cell biologist believes that God wasn't being literal with Genesis as he explains in Finding Darwin's God. God used evolution but couldn't accurately communicate these truths about evolution, DNA, and the Big Bang. Right, and my life is just some mad scientist's experiments and my brain is in a vat somewhere with electrodes in it only making me think I was typing this review and making me think that Loftus and others would read it for comments.
I am glad that Loftus tackled the question of God's existence in a chapter, critiquing some of the well-known arguments for the existence of God, such as the cosmological argument, the teleological argument, and the ontological argument. Although I see deep problems with all of these arguments, I will, for the sake of space constraints, limit myself to the cosmological argument, particularly the Kalam cosmological argument. I was particulary delighted by the critique offered by one Blogger who argued what applies in our universe may not apply in a "yniverse", a universe bigger than ours which contains ours, yet the same laws and rules do not apply there as they do here (pg. 76). That's a good point! I think the chief problems with the 'kalam' cosmological argument, that I didn't see addressed in the book (Loftus is more than welcome to use these observations in a future edition if he pleases), are 1.) the argument self-destructs on inductive grounds, and 2.) the argument is necessarily scientifically incomplete and therefore, one cannot logically argue the conclusion from the premises. The argument assumes that a.) that which begins to exist must have a cause. Fine and good...until you consider that, inductively speaking, everything which is caused to come into existence, does so being assembled from preexisting materials! A house began to exist at one point and its existence was caused, but it just didn't pop into existence ex nihilo! No, it was assembled from preexisting materials; lumber, metal, glass, wiring, concrete, bricks, etc. If we apply this to the universe, it leads us to a conclusion that is bound to give William Lane Craig a hernia: the universe began to exist because it was constructed out of preexisting materials. Another problem: not everything began to exist at once! The earth, life, and us humans are some of the last things that evolved in this cosmos. Stars are constantly coming into existance. Red giants, existing for millions of years, explode as supernovas; they have been around for a long time. Not everything began to exist simultaneously. Furthermore, we can break things down quite a bit. A house can be broken down into smaller parts. And some of these smaller parts into even smaller parts. Did these parts began to exist simultaneously? No. Do they comprise our physical "universe"? Yes.
We can break things down physically until we get to the point where we can break them down no further. Scientists believe that this point of irreducibility is where we break down all matter into elementary particles. So the argument should be that elementary particles began to exist at one point: the rest of the cosmos evolved out of these elementary particles as they combined into more complex systems; protons, atoms, molecules, elements, compounds, gasses, metals, etc. None of these necessarily originated simultaneously, yet they all comprise our existing universe. Rather than argue that the universe came into existence, Kalamers (as I like to call them) such as Bill Craig, need to argue that elementary particles began to exist. Many cosmologists will argue that elements are generated by thermonuclear fusion in stars. Atoms, elements, etc, and that these materials get pushed out when the stars explode as supernovas-they need no supernatural cause for their existence, especially protons, neutrons, and atoms. But wait, a number of quantum physicists believe that elementary particles pop into and out of existence with no apparent cause! Oooh, that's got to throw a huge monkey wrench into the whole argument! Why believe that God had anything to do with the origin of such particles, many eons ago, when many scientists believe they originate on the subatomic level acausally, even as we speak? The second problem is that the argument is necessarily incomplete. The problem? The problem is that we haven't synthesized Einsteins' theories of relativity and quantum mechanics into a quantum theory of gravitation. We will never know, for sure, how the universe originated and whether it had a cause for its existence unless we have this much needed and badly desired quantum theory of gravitation. Craig argues that the universe began to exist at the moment there was a singularity in the Big Bang and that God caused the universe's origin with the singularity. Um, okay, but many quantum physicists believe that the singularities result from imperfections of our theories and that they are mathematically incomplete. A mathematically complete may well yield quantum gravity theories lacking singularities.
In fact, some physicists, like Lee Smolin, argue that singularities do not exist in nature and that time didn't begin with the Big Bang but extends eternally into the past. He makes a brilliant argument for this in his book Life of the Cosmos. Smolin argues that our universe originated in a black hole from another universe. Black holes, you see (yes, those mystical things that are the stuff of science fiction and fantasy) can give birth to baby universes! Smolin also argues that the fine-tuning of the universe is no accident; the fine-tuning of the universe is one that makes it possible to have many black holes and that the more black holes there are, the better are the chances that black holes can produce more baby universes like ours. I personally agree with Smolin's theory here. Smolin believes that this is what a quantum theory of gravity will show, or what it may well show! I personally don't buy that singularities exist! So much for the cosmological argument! (Even if Smolin's theory proves flawed; there are other cosmologies that eliminate singularities and allow time to extend indefinitely into the past as well as explaining the apparent fine-tuning of the cosmos!) Loftus can use an argument like these to really blow the Kalam cosmological argument to smithreens!
I particularly enjoyed Loftus' chapter on the Incarnation. I thought his arguments were very good! There is only a bit of tidying up as far as this argument goes and I wish to explore it in a future blog on Loftus' website "Debunking Christianity" of which I am a proud member! Loftus's argument against Jesus being born in Bethelhem is good, but there are some problems I believe Loftus may not have considered that would've made his case better. I agree with Sander's criticism of the problems inherent in Luke and the census! But a bigger problem is that Matthew and Luke contradict each other as well! Luke has Joseph take the Holy Family from Bethelhem to Jerusalem for up to 40 days and from there straight into Nazarenth. Matthew has the Holy Family in Bethelhem for up to two years, and then after the wise men leave, Joseph is warned to take the Family to Egypt until Herod dies. The Family is on its way to return to Bethelhem when Jospeh is warned again not to go to Galilee, so Joseph settles in Nazarenth (for the first time!). Thus there is a big, disasterous contradiction in the two stories! This is not only argued cogently by Ed Sanders but also by Richard Carrier in an essay designed to show that Luke made an error in claiming the census during the reign of Quirinius!
Loftus has a chapter on the devil and concludes by saying that "The bottom line is that if Satan was the brightest creature in all of creation, and he knew of God's immediate presence and omnipotent power like no one else, then to rebel against God makes him dumber than a box of rocks!" Perhaps so! A bigger problem, however, that would make the chapter even better, is to point out how paradoxal the concept of Satan is! Think about it: according to the Bible, we sin because we are tempted to rebel against God. It's impossible for God to be tempted, sure, but it seems that we cannot be tempted to sin apart from Satan tempting us to sin. Alrighty, but who tempted Satan then? What? Satan doesn't need a tempter? Then, how did the concept of sin, of rebellion, of going against the will of God, enter into Satan's mind? Why would Satan want to? I recall being told on a number of occasions that it was pure and sheer pride that Satan wound up the way he did. Oh? But where did the pride come from? Well, God put Satan in charge of some awesome responsibilities, it went to his head, he wanted to be God, and thus it happened. If that's the case then, it was God who was responsible for Satan to get the idea of sinning. It was God who was responsible for putting Satan into a position, knowing that the devil would become prideful. However the devil wound up the way that he did, it was God who put the devil into the position, however directly or indirectly so. Any rebellion or sin, or what-have-you, is ultimately God's fault; he was the one who either directly put it into Satan's mind or it was he who put Satan into a position where the concept of sin, pride, rebellion, etc, would be planted and sprout forth!
I read with great interest Loftus's chapter on the resurrection, and its the last one that I wish to review before closing this review. First I agree with criticisms that the resurrection are not based on eyewitness accounts in the gospels. I agree that they are also impossibly inconsistent and contradict each other. I think that Loftus' objections and incredulty of the account of doubting Thomas are reasonable (pg. 210) but I do think that Loftus may be missing the larger picture. The account of doubting Thomas was written as an apologetic against various heretics, especially some Gnostics who had docetic views of Jesus. Docetic heretics believed that Jesus never really had a body of flesh, he only appeared to have one! This is why Jesus eats fish in the presence of his disciples in Luke. These accounts were written as apologetics against heresies of Gnostics, especially docetic ones. This also explains the fact that in Luke's account, all Eleven disciples (except Judas Iscariot) were present on the first Easter Eve. In John's account, only ten are present! Notice the contradiction? Loftus is right to criticize the presence of doubt (which, in these apologies, it was usually a foil against which the miraculously risen Jesus performs the deed that convinces them that he's no ghost and that he can really eat and drink like the rest of them!) This seems to be the verdict of many critical New Testament scholars ranging from Robert Price, to Gerd Ludemann, to Charles Talbert!
Loftus does good to notice that Christian scholars engage in double-talk regarding the discrepancies. They will try to rationalize them away by trying to make contradictions evidence of their reliability. No collusion among the authors? You mean the authors were writing independently of each other and had no clue as to what the authors other authors were writing? Yeah, sure. I guess then that Josephus was wrong when he argued that the greatest evidence of veracity was when two or more historians agree on the same event that they are narrating. Josephus charged the Greek historians of his time to be in error because they would contradict each other when narrating the same event! Silly Josephus. Poor bastard didn't realize that the Greek historians were right; it just goes to prove that they didn't collude with each other when writing about the same narrative. Sure. That said, I move to the problems I have with the chapter on the resurrection though. First, of all, even though I am an advocate of the theory that the earliest Christians started out with a spiritual resurrection, I believe that Loftus is in error when he states that "...Paul didn't think of resurrection in terms of a physical body" (pg. 216). Actually, Paul would've thought of it as a physical body. I believe that Robert Gundry has demonstrated this point thoroughly in his book Soma in Biblical Theology. I don't believe that the ancients would've thought of the spiritual as "nonphysical". That is a later conception. In fact, I am convinced that people in antiquity wouldn't have concieved of anything as "nonphysical" and certainly would've have thought to equate anything spiritual as being "nonphysical". Rather, the most important thing about the spiritual resurrection, was that the spiritual body, being necessarily physical, was something lacking in flesh! It was lacking in flesh for the same reason that the sun, moon, and stars are lacking in flesh! They are all made of the same substance! This is why flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God in Paul's mind. Natural bodies consist of flesh and it is flesh that is perishable. Spiritual bodies must be made of incorruptible substance to survive in the realm of the heavenly bodies and must be lacking of corruptible, perishable substances such as flesh! Notice in 1st Corinthians 15, with its distinction between the natural and physical, how the contrast is between things containing flesh and those which lack flesh! So the spiritual resurrection must not be thought of as "physical vs. nonphysical" but, rather, "flesh vs. nonflesh".
Loftus follows this discussion with a greater discussion about Paul's vision in Acts. However, in Galatians, Paul seems to recount his Damascus experience and uses a word for "reveal" that is used chiefly of visions. Putting two and two together, we can see, then, that in 1st Corinthians 15:8, then, that his Damascus experience was a vision and since, as Loftus points out correctly, that the Greek word is ophthe, this necessarily means that since Paul is using the same word to describe the Christophany he experienced, that he is using to describe the other appearances, it necessarily follows, that they, too, must have been visions! Next is the section on the empty tomb. Loftus has what I consider to be an bad argument from silence, quoting Uta Ranke-Heinemann. I don't exactly agree that the empty tomb is a legend just because Paul fails to mention it. If Paul didn't know about any empty tomb, I can only agree because it's a symbolic creation of later gospel writers as Richard Carrier argues for in his essay "The Spiritual Body of Christ and the Legend of the Empty Tomb". Loftus also uses the arguments of Peter Kirby in his essay "The Case Against the Empty Tomb", especially in regards to a lack of tomb veneration (both essays appear in the anthology The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave). However, I believe that Kirby's case against the empty tomb has been invalidated completely by the research of Byron McCane. He has written a book called Roll Back the Stone. McCane argues, persuasively, that the burial of Jesus by Joseph of Arimethea would've been dishonorable. The difference between an honorable burial and an dishonorable one was that honorable burials involved burial in a family tomb and ritual mourning. In the gospels, Jesus is not buried in a family tomb nor is there ritual mourning; Jesus was given a dishonorable burial. This is why there was no tomb veneration; the empty tomb would've been regarded as a place of shame for some time, not because, as Kirby maintains that "the earliest Christians did not know the location of the tomb of Jesus, neither of an empty tomb nor of an occupied tomb." There would've been no tomb veneration regardless of whether the tomb was occupied or empty.
This means that there are two possibilities: the tomb story is a symbolic fiction as argued for by Richard Carrier or that it is a core historical fact, argued for by McCane. I do agree with Stephen Davis that the empty tomb is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for the resurrection of Jesus" but for reasons he doesn't consider (Loftus quotes Davis here, pg. 221). I believe that if there was an empty tomb, Jesus was simply reburied elsewhere, giving rise to visions that he was alive. I agree with Davis and Flew for the reasons stated and I am glad that Loftus quoted them. I do believe, however, that Loftus could've made his case much stronger. Cultural anthropologists know how such visions occur. Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, in their excellent Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels point out that the "appearances" of Jesus to his followers, as narrated in the gospel resurrection stories, are examples of visionary experiences involving altered-states-of-conciousness. These kind of ASC visions were so common in antiquity that they were considered to be normal, thus the case can be made that the resurrection "appearance" visions were just as common as any other visions were, whether to individual people or to groups of people at a time, and were therefore caused by the same psychodynamic forces that caused just about every other visionary experience involving ASC.
To summarize, I believe that John Loftus has written a good introductory book on the philosphical problems with Christianity. I would best recommend his book for those who are new to the philosophical problems of Christianity and may be wrestling with doubts. Loftus was more than just another Christian, just another face one saw in Church. This book, written by a former apologist, is a good introduction to the problems of Christianity from a philosophical viewpoint. I would recommend his book as food for thought and for those who are wrestling with problems to see that there are others who go through the same struggle, have the same doubts, and leave for the same reasons. I tip my hat to John! He had some very good reasons for rejecting Christianity and I share many of those same reasons myself!