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.

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