Monday, October 26, 2015

John W. Loftus on How to Defend the Christian Faith, a book review

Four years ago I wrote in my first book about what I called The Problem of Apologetics, making the case that the very existence of apologetics--lawyerly defenses of religious faith--is a major strike against the believability of the contents of any faith tradition employing them. In considering and formulating that set of ideas, I rapidly concluded that religious apologetics don't deserve serious consideration, and as a result I thought it wasn't possible for me to take them any less seriously. I was wrong. In his new book, How to Defend the Christian Faith: Advice from an Atheist, John W. Loftus managed to convince me that the amount of respect I should give to religious apologetic arguments isn't zero, as I had concluded; it is less than zero.

How to Defend the Christian Faith is truly a clever book. Its intended audience is young, would-be Christian apologists, and Loftus's goal is to present them with a hard choice and convince them that they really must make it. On the one hand, the young minds for which Loftus is writing can choose to follow his advice as it is given and become the only kinds of apologists that could have a hope of defending the Christian faith, if it can be defended at all (and I don't think it can or that many would-be apologists would persist after taking his advice). On the other hand, they could be reasonable and abandon all such hope, recognizing the dragons that lie in wait along that path.

Loftus expertly guides these minds, unless they're simply too thick to realize it, to see that the awful choice they have can be summarized by the refrain of the whole book: "If you want to be a good apologist, you shouldn't do these things at all. But then if you didn't do them at all, you wouldn't be an apologist at all." By implication, then, however skilled or brilliant an apologist may be, Loftus neatly demonstrates that he is necessarily a bad apologist. Aspiring faith-defenders who read this book are thereby left with no good options, and Loftus makes it clear that clinging to a desire to rationalize the Christian faith is precisely what binds them.

His thesis is presented in three parts. In the first part, he indicates what any would-be good apologist must do to prepare for the task, and unsurprisingly, all of his forthright and accurate advice would leave the hopeful defender of the faith struggling to hold on to his own belief. He admonishes that good apologists must be open-minded, must think scientifically, must evaluate their religious beliefs from the outside, must get a proper secular education, must attempt the impossible by defending Christian belief solely on evidential grounds, and must learn the relevant sciences--like evolutionary biology--that overwhelmingly undercut the rational capacity to believe. The picture it paints is grim to anyone hoping to argue for Christianity.

The second part of How to Defend the Christian Faith is, in my opinion, cleverer and more interesting. It tells any hopeful apologist exactly the kinds of things she must do in order to be a successful defender of Christian belief, and each and every one of them is something that should cause her to recoil in intellectual horror. Loftus expertly explains in this delightful middle of the text that the only way to apologize for the Christian faith is to abandon one's intellectual honesty. To read these fifty or so pages as a would-be defender of Christian belief must be to be left aghast at the undeniable need to forswear academic scruples to do the job. And so bites the refrain: if you want to be a good apologist, don't do it, but if you don't, you won't be an apologist at all.

The last of the three parts of the book focuses particularly on the problems presented to belief in any Christian faith by the fact that ours is, indeed and for whatever else, a "world of pain." This section brings up the famous Problem of Evil--sometimes rightly called the "rock of atheism"--and gives aspiring apologists the best possible advice for dealing with it, and all of that advice is bad. Avoid, lie, blame, punt, or ignore: these form the backbone of what any Christian apologist must do to handle the full weight that this problem presents to the rationality of Christian belief. Yet again, sincere hopeful apologists will be left dumbfounded at the sheer impossibility of doing their task well.

That all of this artillery against the capacity to defend the Christian faith is headed by a witty and insightful foreword by Peter Boghossian, of A Manual for Creating Atheists fame, only increases its potency. Boghossian, like Loftus, rightly insists that any would-be apologists must engage this kind of material or be prepared to be marginalized out of serious consideration. The foreword sets a tone of cruciality for any aspiring apologists, and then Loftus delivers the bad news for them in chapter after hard-to-dispute chapter.

To that, I add my own insistence. Those who wish to defend the Christian faith should read How to Defend the Christian Faith with utmost seriousness, ponder its contents, and ultimately find something better to do with their time as a result. Others should read it to get a full sense of just how bad the case for Christianity really is. As I argue extensively in my newest book, Everybody Is Wrong About God, the time has come to give no serious consideration to the entire theistic enterprise, and How to Defend the Christian Faith shows us exactly why. The case is hopeless; it's time to move on.

John Loftus's How to Defend the Christian Faith is available for pre-order on Amazon, and it is due to be released in a few days, on November 1.

In the interest of full disclosure, John provided me with a review copy of the book and requested that I blog my thoughts about it, if I would.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Questions anticipating Everybody Is Wrong About God

As many of you will already know, I have a new book coming out this December 1, and it's called Everybody Is Wrong About God, which should have gone to print today or is going tomorrow. An early version of the preface (a few very minor changes have been made in the final editing since putting it up) and the table of contents are already available on this blog with a short introduction to the book.

Between the commentary of some of the people who kindly offered to read it in advance and in various avenues after announcing it, it occurred to me that it would be of some interest to answer some questions people have about the book, and so I solicited even more of them on Twitter. I figure I can keep taking these at least until the book comes out in December, and when I have enough since the last time to make it worth doing (so at least five or six new ones), I'll address them here on the blog. So, keep the questions coming if you have them--in comments, email, on Twitter, or whatever.

Here's a first installment, then, of your questions about the book and my answers to them. I'll start with questions that aren't about content and go from there.

Question: Will the book be available on Kindle?

Easy enough. To quote my publisher: Yes, there definitely will be an ebook edition (for pretty much all readers/retailers -- Kindle, Nook, iBook, Kobo, etc.). Purchase buttons for ebooks might not post for another few weeks. 

Question: Will there be an audiobook?

Maybe. It can be done, and if there's enough interest, either I can record a reading of it or have someone else do it. Currently, I'm open to the possibility and optimistic about it but haven't settled on it. Definitely don't count it out, though!

Question: How many pages is the book?

The paperback will run 248 pages, or for those that know how word counts go, roughly 80,000 words.

Question, adapted from a concern of fellow author John W. Loftus, who very kindly blurbed the book for me (NB: I thank Loftus for voicing these concerns and include them here for that reason): Does this book, in calling for the end of "atheism" and the philosophy of religion, advocate silence in the face of theistic arguments?

Not exactly, no, it doesn't. It advocates refusing to take theism seriously on its own terms, and it advises against beating the same dead horses over and over and over again (who wants yet another argument against the Kalam Cosmological Nonsense? Right, nobody). In Everybody Is Wrong About God, I am making a call to start a post-theistic turn, one where we treat theistic arguments with decreasing seriousness. I think it's time to turn the corner and start heading down the street to where we treat theistic arguments on the same intellectual level as we do astrological ones, for example.

Everybody Is Wrong About God is calling for a new and different way to handle theistic arguments, one that requires a finer touch than reflexively trying to rebut them. Rebuttals lend seriousness to the arguments that they do not deserve. Sometimes there is a need to answer the arguments, but at other times it's better to ignore them. In the book, I try to give some suggestions, using a good example or two, to give a sense of when different approaches are worth taking.

Generally, though, I do make the case that elaborate philosophical-ish arguments for and against theism are not a good use of time, and that our time could be better spent dismissing the arguments than engaging with them--even explaining why arguments for theism work against theistic religious beliefs.

Question, adapted from a concern of Loftus again: Won't these suggestions (specifically an end of "atheism" and disengagement from theistic arguments) let theism take back the ground it has lost in the last decade?

I have to say, yet again, no, I do not think they will, at least not if I'm right in thinking that the arguments for theism have resoundingly lost the intellectual, but not the cultural, fight. It is for this reason, though, that I encourage compiling useful, accessible resources that rebut the majority of common theistic arguments, like the Secular Web.

I'm certainly not advocating that we give up the fight, I'm really just arguing that we engage in it more appropriately, addressing what's really at stake and what really matters. In a way, I'm saying we should stop treating the symptoms and start treating the cause.

Question, another adapted from John Loftus's concerns: Why do you think we need an argument for the end of "atheism"? Won't it be readily apparent because believers aren't making the arguments any longer?

I'm not as optimistic, I'm afraid, as John is here. From all of the reading I've done of religious psychology and other psychology, I think the arguments come after the beliefs, meaning I think people only make the arguments because they hold the beliefs for other reasons and yet feel like they need to be intellectually defended against the many challenges that evidence and better sense reliably present. In other words, I think that theistic arguments will come about for as long as there are serious and devout believers. I also think the ongoing debate--attempts to answer those arguments--maintains the attitude that the debate has more merit than it does, and thus maintains reasons to believe and thus beliefs.

In the book, I try to make a solid case for the connection between the ideas called "God" and the reasons that people believe in such a notion in the first place. In doing so, I undermine the entire notion of "belief" in the first place.

Question: What does the "end of atheism" mean?

I cover this point rather thoroughly in the book, so I won't get too deeply into it here, but when I say the end of atheism, I mean it's time to stop calling ourselves atheists with pride and to move past the label. I mean it's time to do as I've outlined in the above paragraphs. I mean, especially, that anything that can be taken as "my atheism" or "her atheism" or "being an atheist" or "doing atheism" or "being good at atheism" is something we'd all do better without.

When we really understand that theism is totally bankrupt, that it's mythology, there's no reason to be an "atheist" anymore, and the "philosopher's" term is pointless. Belief itself is the wrong way to think about "God," and understanding that is one avenue to getting post-theistic in a hurry. When we're post-theistic, nobody will be an atheist because that word is, itself, pointless.

Question: What do you mean by post-theistic?

The term explains itself: after theistic, after the phase in which we treat the theistic enterprise with serious consideration. When we look at belief in God the same way that we currently look at astrology (which says very little about how many people subscribe to it), we will be post-theistic. Being post-theistic means realizing that theism is not a mature way to make sense of anything, and not much more. Going post-theistic is leaving theism, and the religious beliefs predicated upon it, in the superstitious past, in the childhood of our species, as it has been called.

Question: If "everybody" is wrong about God, aren't you wrong about God too?

On one level, yes. I wrote this book specifically to begin a more fruitful conversation about religious belief than the one we're currently mired in. I've certainly not been completely comprehensive or perfect in my account, though I do think I've made a pretty good stab at it.

More importantly, "everybody" is rhetorical here. Everyone, though, who thinks about God in the terms of theism, though, is thinking about God the wrong way, and so in a sense, that's pretty much everyone who tries to talk about God. Theism has completely monopolized that conversation, and it's time for that to end.

If you happen to already think rightly about God, good for you. Don't take it hard. It's just the title of a book.

Comment: If God does not exist, then atheists aren't "wrong" about God.

Well, kind of. If people feel the need to identify as atheists, they're still talking about God in terms of belief and nonbelief, which is to say in the terms of theism. If they're thinking about God in the terms of theism, they're wrong about God. They're not wrong about God's existence, but they are wrong about God. 

Question: Will this book prove there is no God?

No, of course not. It argues instead that it's a waste of time to bother with fussing with such a thing, now that enough of the theistic edifice has been smashed, primarily by New Atheism, though "old" atheism did much of the heavy lifting. The goal of the book is to illustrate that God, the theistic concept, is the wrong way to think about the ideas called "God," and when we think about them in the right way, belief becomes nonsensical (in the sense of a category error--"God" isn't a thing to be believed in or not believed in).

Question: Do you think God means nothing more than "my values"? That is, are most believers not making an ontological claim at all?

No, I do not think that, on two levels, and I do think most believers are making an ontological (existence) claim--just not one we need to take seriously. I think believers really do believe what they say they believe, and that means they really do believe that there is a deity that exists in some way or another. I certainly believed exactly that kind of thing when I believed in God. I merely think they're wrong in that claim and that I expose what I think is really going on in Everybody Is Wrong About God.

Also, I think the "my values" part, mentioned in the preface, is a large and significant part of what people mean by the word "God," although there are other facets as well. As just indicated, these aspects all underlie the fact that believers also believe there really is a deity, a belief that defines theism. The book's primary thrust is that the term "God" can be accounted for more successfully without theism than with it.

Question: Could valuing of objective truth be an individual difference variable accounting for some difference between believers and nones?

Yes, it could, but I think it's important to remember that most conservative believers (if not most believers) think not only that they believe the objective truth but that their religion alone accounts for the objective truth. That is, I think most believers do value objective truth, even if they're not evaluating it very well.

Much of the book is dedicated to a discussion of religious psychology, and in that capacity, it discusses some ways in which people evaluate "truth," many of which cause them to diverge directly from what Enlightenment thinkers would call "objective truth."

Question: If people believe in "God" rather than God, do they also believe in "Hell," not Hell? It takes a real God to make a real Hell.

I'm really glad this question came up. In the preface, I say God doesn't exist, but "God" does, but that's not a statement about what people believe. People very much and definitely believe in God; they're just wrong about what the word "God" means. I think anyone who really believes in "God" is probably already post-theistic. Those who are theistic believe in God.

Comment: The biggest mistake we "atheists" do is to assume that religious people actually take their faiths seriously.

I see exactly what is meant by this comment, but it's very important to point out that religious believers, even the very liberal ones in my experience, most certainly do take their faiths seriously--way too seriously, like sacred seriously. The thing is that believers usually seem not to behave in ways that would indicate taking their faiths seriously, meaning that they're relatively casual about which parts they believe and act in ways in outright defiance of the things they profess to believe.

This is exactly the kind of confusing situation that Everybody Is Wrong About God was written to address. When we understand that religious beliefs, including in God, do things for those who believe them on a psychological and social level; when we understand that religious beliefs, including in God, act to amplify the sense of importance and realism of the moral attitudes of the moral communities that define the religious sects; only then do we start to see exactly why religious believers simultaneously take their faiths--their sets of beliefs--very seriously and yet do not agree with all of the pronouncements of their faiths, often explicitly and often by deeds that contradict their professions of belief.

Question: Won't this only be realized in the far-distant future? (NB: This was a concern also voiced by John W. Loftus.)

Maybe? And if so, so what? I don't think so, though, and I try to make the case for why now is the right time to start making the turn toward post-theism. People are getting ansy for a change, at least in the conversation, for one thing, and I'd rather they turn this way than some other ways, like ideological atheism or whatever the hell the Regressive Left is doing right now. Also, people are already turning post-theistic on their own. I am happy to listen to dissent, but I really do think that the time is upon us, here, at least.

That "here" is important too. This turn isn't about to  happen in Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh, or a lot of anywhere outside of advanced democracies. And of course it won't happen all at once, but it has to happen somewhere first. From there, it can spread.

Still, I think it is of enormous importance to realize that if I am right about the term "God," then belief and nonbelief become the wrong way to think about the thing, like a category mistake. If it doesn't make sense to believe at all, if the terms of belief are inappropriate to the question, people coming to understand that point of view should only hasten the goals of "atheism" (here really meaning antitheism, secularism, and humanism, which often get conflated with "atheism" because they are so often embraced by those lacking belief) where they still progress.

Question: To what degree is the conversation [about God] still relevant?

It is obviously still relevant, and will be for some time, everywhere religious belief is common, especially where it is societally privileged. The cultural fight is going to continue for a long time yet in a lot of places, although that doesn't mean the intellectual fight retains any merit. We don't have to keep having the conversation, however, in the same tired and damaging terms. We can talk about belief differently, and Everybody Is Wrong About God is an attempt to start that new, better direction of conversation.

Final word, for now:
Thanks, everyone, for your questions, and I look forward to more of them, so keep them coming! Everybody Is Wrong About God is a conversation-changer, and it is to be released on December first this year. It is available for pre-orders now and, at the time of this writing, fairly significantly discounted by Amazon, so you can do that now and connect yourself to a new, better way to think about "God" and religious belief today.