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62 of 86 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars comprehensive, informative, and entertaining, March 31, 2010
This review is from: The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails (Paperback)
I wish to apologize for the brevity of this review, but I am in the middle of a few different unrelated projects that are consuming most of my free time. I suppose that I should start with a disclosure that I am a pro bono contributing author to The Christian Delusion. Still, I will try to be as objective as possible. The book begins with a standard forward by Dan Barker and goes straight to the heart of faith with a blistering introduction by John W. Loftus. Within, Loftus demonstrates how rational inquiry has repeatedly defeated the Christian faith, causing generations of believers to reinterpret and reinvent what their predecessors once held sacred. Instead of dispassionate analysis, Loftus shows that apologists simply grasp at straws in tunnel-vision defense. Quite right. One is almost prone to dismiss apologies based solely on the record of their creators.

In chapter one, anthropologist David Eller explains how missionaries unknowingly grasp the concept of replacing targeted beliefs with differing versions of their own. What follows is a brief but entertaining history lesson on how past proselytizers have created many aspects of Western culture that are often taking for granted by many. A large portion of the chapter is spent pointing out how religions have penetrated silently into society. While nothing in this section is convincing anyone to abandon religion, nor should it, it serves as a good warning to the anti-religious that we are more enveloped than we think. Eller then returns the point raised by Loftus on how different forms of Christianity are constantly retreating and reforming, pointing out how unlikely it would be for any given form to be the correct one - if there even were a correct one. This will of course eventually lead to Loftus' Outsider Test.

In chapter two, psychologist Valerie Tarico mirrors my own topic of choice - the formation of beliefs. Tarico successfully argues that confirmation bias renders complete objectivity impossible for human beings. In one of the greatest single sentence summations I have come across, "Arriving at belief in an infallible God by way of an inerrant Bible requires an unwarranted belief in yourself." Tarico shows that religious beliefs are partially attributed to an innate tendency to see patterns and form simple hypotheses. As she points out, cognitive research has established a sufficient explanation for religious beliefs, and that God (while not disproved) is no longer necessary. And we all know whose Razor should apply.

Chapter three is my own, which echoes many of the objections that Tarico and Loftus raise. In it, I attempt to show that human beings are far too passionate, gullible, subjective, irrational, and emotionally involved to be right about something as far-fetched as speculative religious beliefs. I cite a number of studies performed by persuasive psychologists that show how malleable and unreliable the human mind is. The chapter is a fifteen-page summation of a ninety-five page section in my previous book entitled The Religious Condition. As it is my own, I will offer no opinion on it. I will merely state that one is best served by reading my argument in its entirety, but the summation included in this book is a suitable alternative. I am honored beyond words for the opportunity to be included in this collection.

Loftus revisits his Outsider Test in chapter four. He reminds believers that the odds are very slim that you were born into the proper religion - if there even is a correct one. Any given culture chooses the individual, not vice-versa. Thus skepticism is the proper starting point for individuals to examine their beliefs. Loftus' argument here is beautiful, simple, and correct. He then turns to answering variations of the same tired `genetic fallacy' objections that others raise against the Outsider Test. Number six is of particular interest since it takes William Lane Craig and others to task for claiming that skepticism is its own worldview. Apologists would have skeptics believe that our own lack of evidence for not being in a Matrix is a failure of the Outsider Test, but once the apologists admit its absurdity, Loftus cunningly uses that admission against them to show the absurdity of believing in their deity of choice. Again, the Outsider Test is best appreciated by reading his original work, Why I Became an Atheist.

Edward Babinski's chapter five shifts gears and begins a specific examination on why the Bible is not divine by illustrating the Bible's similarities to ancient, incorrect cosmologies. There is a lot to digest here (his notes alone run almost as long as my entire chapter), but Genesis is clearly taken to task for being inaccurate. In fact, I believe it to be the largest intellectual thrashing anyone has given Hebrew cosmology in a single chapter. Babinski repeatedly points out when different words the authors could have used different words to convey the ideas that proponents of a figurative Genesis argue for. The Bible is simply wrong on the topic, and nothing more needs to be said.

In chapter six, Paul Tobin gets straight to the point by declaring that modern scholarship shows that the Bible contains fairy tales. Like myself, Tobin finds no need to mince words. He continues where Babinski leaves off by taking Genesis to task for its erroneous claims before continuing on to the remainder of the Old Testament. In short, Tobin's analysis demonstrates that "modern archaeology is no friend of the Bible." Tobin then shifts to textual analysis of the virgin birth story, pointing out its unoriginal nature, and other New Testament forgeries. Again, there is a lot to digest for one chapter, but it is a very entertaining and informative read.

Loftus returns in chapter seven and effectively deals with God's failures to communicate clearly and accurately varieties of events, laws, decrees, etc. He correctly points out that an omniscient, omnipotent god could have made everything clear and eliminated any possibility of harmful misinterpretation. Instead, what we have had are a number of societies citing textual support to carry out cruel and inhumane actions. The list is far too long to deal with here, but even so, skeptics never spend enough time here! Of even greater interest are Loftus' replies to the tired excuses that apologists have offered in response to what God said instead of what he could have said. Loftus clearly shows that he, or anyone else in this age, could do a better job of developing a moral guideline. This shows the Bible is a book of ancient ignorance, not timeless divinity.

In chapter eight, Hector Avalos, with his excellent grasp of Ancient Near East history, takes apologist Paul Copan to task for attempting to argue that God's laws are more ethical than other contemporaneous codes. Avalos demonstrates how an apologist will spin the laws, point out only the positive aspects, and refuse to deal with simple modifications that skeptics offer to make the laws humane. In other words, touting the good, forgetting the bad, and ignoring common sense. Avalos rightly points out that God "lacks the foresight to see that genocide will not work." Most unfortunate for the victims. The chapter closes with an unfortunately short argument that atheistic moral systems are superior to moral systems. I find this to be the most enjoyable chapter in the book.

Loftus returns again in chapter nine, citing animal suffering as evidence for a missing god. Clearly, he is well read on the issue, referencing countless philosophers who have dealt with the issue previously. I was never too interested in this argument, but I did find the speculative apologetic desperation quite amusing. Religious defenders are left with only guesswork, and "a religion that can only stand on such dubious guesswork is not a religion we have any epistemic right to accept." In short, Loftus is convincing of his position and does not let anyone get away with baseless speculations.

Prominent believer-turn-skeptic Robert Price takes chapter ten and uses it to respond to criticisms from apologists Eddy and Boyd that he ignores the historical method to deny the resurrection. I am not familiar with the original criticisms so I cannot comment on them. However there is one moment where apparently Price catches them trying to making two contrasting arguments to suit two exclusive points. Since the material covered is beyond my personal knowledge on the historical era of the resurrection, I cannot say how well Price has performed. I can however say that his feet seem well grounded, even going so far as to not rule out supernatural explanations, provided that one can successfully argue a reason to believe in them.

Richard Carrier is up next in chapter eleven and returns to the often neglected reason for discounting the Bible: common sense. The claims are ridiculous, and they would require no more attention than any other far-fetched claims from antiquity if they were not ingrained into our culture (echoing a similar sentiment from the early portions of the book). This is a similar approach to what I take, except that Carrier is much more entertaining when he does so. Echoes of Sagan abound, and I imagine that had he studied the Ancient Near East in this much depth, Sagan's writings might not have sounded all that different. Among Carrier's many suggestions for why educated apologists accept and repeat the varieties of extraordinary claims in the canonized and non-canonized books are that some people are simply "liars for Christ." I think I know whom he has in mind.

Loftus returns yet again in chapter twelve to discuss the failed apocalyptic prophecies from Jesus. Clearly, Loftus is well read on the issue again, citing a number of scholarly works. It is undeniable upon reading the Gospels that Jesus prophesied an end in the immediate future, and that many of his followers believed that this end was near. This chapter serves to collect all of that evidence and to show what believers, even ones who were early enough to have their works canonized, did in order to hedge their bets. Loftus also elaborates on a phenomenon that I myself spoke on in my chapter: failed doomsday cults rationalizing and reinventing in order to remain internally consistent and immune to defeat.

Chapter thirteen is Eller's argument that morality does not require Christianity. It is extremely sad that a chapter like this has to be written because it is clear from the onset to any rational person that Eller's premise is correct. He rightly points out that there are other religions and moral outlooks that stress the need to behave properly, some of which I find to be far superior to anything that the best of Christianity (ignoring the barbarity, of course) has to offer. Personally, I feel that my maxim of what decreases suffering, serves the greater good, and harms no one else - all with the expectation of no reward - is a much better place to start than a book of ancient superstitions. Eller also argues for the growing evidence that rudimentary versions of morality even exist in nonhuman species. So how can a human concept like Christianity be responsible for the behavior of animals? "Let the silly and biased claim never be uttered again."

Avalos returns in chapter fourteen to humiliate Dinesh D'Souza and his ignorant ramblings on how atheism is responsible for the greatest evils in history. Avalos clearly shows how Nazism was much more akin to biblical and/or religious principles than atheistic ones. Darwinist books were banned in Nazi Germany, and Hitler even admitted that his policy was an extension of Catholic policy. Perhaps D'Souza can get together with Ben Stein to form a rebuttal. I find it amazing that anyone can be this stupid, but I digress from my goal of objectivity! The chapter concludes with a chart that can only be described as one of the best pieces of humor I have ever come across in serious literature. You must see it for yourself.

Carrier's chapter fifteen closes the book with a look at the relationship (or lack thereof) between Christianity and scientific advancement. "Christianity fully dominated the Western world from the fifth to the fifteenth century, and yet in all those thousand years there was no Scientific Revolution. A cause that fails to have its predicted effect despite being continually in action for a thousand years is usually considered refuted, not confirmed." Yes, it is that simple. Again, it is a shame that such a chapter must be written in this era, but with apologists like Rodney Stark apparently making the claims that Carrier says they do, it becomes a necessity. Again, Carrier demonstrates his skills as a writer and debater well.

In conclusion, I feel (aside from my own work) this is an extraordinary collection of viewpoints that adequately cover skeptical objections to Christianity. The primary issues held by mainstream skeptics are covered here: psychological reasons that drive belief and the resistance to attitude change, historical and scientific absurdities within the Bible, dubious Gospel authorship and other Gospel-related problems, and the moral outrage against Christian values. This pattern is actually very close to my first work, Biblical Nonsense, but it is a hundred times more successful because the authors are a hundred times more qualified to speak on their topics. At four hundred plus pages, it may seem absurd to argue that Loftus had to omit pertinent issues due to space constraints, but I do in fact feel that way - and I am confident that he does as well. I would like to have seen more on the editing and redaction of the New Testament canon (from Carrier, who already has an excellent essay on the topic), psychological reasons for belief, textual inconsistencies, and the cruelty of the Old Testament God. Shermer, Ehrman, and Dawkins come to mind, but one can only wish for so much.
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Tracked by 6 customers

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Showing 1-10 of 44 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Apr 1, 2010 8:56:01 AM PDT
J. Brewster says:
Mr. Long, I wonder if your review would have been any shorter if your name was Short, you can remove your tongue from your cheek now. Very in depth review, I now feel that I have a good sense of what to expect from the book and look forward to reading it. Only hope that it fleshes out the topics well with good supporting data and an interesting writing style; although your being associated with it, I would discount the number of stars that you assigned.

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 1, 2010 3:19:18 PM PDT
KC James says:
[Customers don't think this post adds to the discussion. Show post anyway. Show all unhelpful posts.]

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 2, 2010 2:01:50 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Apr 2, 2010 10:49:24 AM PDT
Gee whiz. I was thinking about buying this book, but then I came across this scathing response from KC James, and now I just don't know. I mean, he brings up an excellent point:

>>>as far as unwarranted beliefs are concerned, your own belief that existence, life, mind, and reason itself can be explained as a product of mindless forces is both undemonstrated and irrational.

Good one. Obviously existence, life, mind and reason require an explanation, and that explanation must be a God....who would likewise "exist" as an advanced form of "life," possessing a "mind" and applying "reason." Uh oh. Oh dear. Um. Er. Hmmm.

Well, I suppose that's the kind of faulty reasoning that results from being plugged into a primitive, apocalyptic mystery cult. Guess I'll buy the book, after all!

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 2, 2010 4:57:00 AM PDT
Ashley Ray says:
And let me take a stab in the dark Mr. KC James: that obvious existence, life, mind and reason that requires an explanation, in which that explanation must be god....its name must be Yahweh, right? And let me also guess further....because the bible says so, correct?

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 2, 2010 8:30:15 AM PDT
Mr. Ray-

Were you there that day when Yahweh created the earth before the sun, and then set the universal laws of nature in motion such that our scientific discoveries would bear no resemblance to this? I'll bet he did that just to test our faith. What a cosmic prankster! Gotta love him!

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 2, 2010 9:29:21 AM PDT
KC James says:
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In reply to an earlier post on Apr 2, 2010 9:58:46 AM PDT
Ashley Ray says:
Science is (and had been) working quite diligently to demonstrate that, and has quite a lot of good evidence in its favor. You, on the other hand, contend divine intervention by supernatural agents using unprovable magical forces. It is you that needs to provide the proof since your claims go against all form of rationality, logic and reason. Nothing in nature points to supernatural agents. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, so you have quite a lot of work ahead of you. And at the same time, you must also 'prove' that Yahweh is the deity who did the creating, and not one of countless other deities/creation stories that have abounded throughout the course of human history. You can 'LOL' all you wish, but it is you who looks more like the fool than me. The Universe does not at all need to correspond to what us human beings 'believe' it should be or how we 'think' it should work.

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 2, 2010 10:43:09 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Apr 2, 2010 5:07:45 PM PDT
So, you suggest that existence, life, reason and MIND are the products of a supernatural, transcendent and complex MIND? Great! You solved the invoking another one!

"I know the answer to X! It's XX!"

Uh, except that you can't demonstrate it. But I eagerly await your attempt at proof! ROTMFFLMMFAO!

Posted on Apr 2, 2010 8:41:37 PM PDT
I can't wait to read this book. John Loftus is a beacon of light in a world festering in the mire and muck of superstition.

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 3, 2010 3:00:36 AM PDT
KC James says:
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