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Review - John W. Loftus: Why I Rejected Christianity

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This article originally appeared in the SSA eMpirical No. 15 - Student Voice, Part I.

Chris Hallquist is president of Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics at UW-Madison and the owner of the blog The Uncredible Hallq. Here, he reviews John W. Loftus' recent book Why I Rejected Christianity.

Loftus


John W. Loftus' book Why I Rejected Christianity, is, much like Dan Barker's Losing Faith in Faith before it, a combination of personal testimonial and critical examination of the tenets of Christianity. Unlike Losing Faith in Faith, its author is not just a former minister but also a former apologist who studied under William Lane Craig.

Every bit of ex-Christian testimonial produced is, in my view, important to have. Witnessing has for some reason become a standard item in the arsenal of Evangelical Christianity, but in truth Evangelicalism's critics have far more to gain from the practice. Once you are committed to believing that "whoever does not believe stands condemned (John 3:18)," the existence of honest, informed people who think Christianity false becomes difficult to cope with.

Loftus' specific report of his deconversion is notable for some of the insights into the world of fundamentalist Christianity. For example, he explains that he could not honestly pursue his doubts until he adopted an "annihilationist" theology which taught that Hell is simply the soul winking out of existence; before that, the fear of Hell was too great for intellectual honesty. Loftus is not the only ex-Christian who has mentioned such problems; reports of them are a crucial reminder of what lies beneath attempts of media-savvy fundamentalists who have worked hard recently to get in touch with the modern world.

In an e-mail to me, Loftus compared his book to a Josh McDowell book, given the large number of quotes from other sources that he uses. Though there is some resemblance to McDowell, the book also reminded me of his mentor Craig's Reasonable Faith in it's text-bookish format, perhaps not surprising given that Loftus has 20 years of experience teaching philosophy. He covers the standard issues of philosophy of religion (faith and reason, "proofs" of the existence of God, the problem of evil), apologetic claims not covered in most philosophy texts (such as the historicity of the resurrection), and important issues in Christianity too rarely held up to critical scrutiny (such as theories of the atonement). As I was familiar with most of these issues, it's a little hard for me to judge how well it works as an introduction, but where I'm not familiar with the material, I have found Loftus' book quite helpful. I also have no trouble saying the section on the problem of evil was top-notch.

In addition to given the basics of each subtopic in the field, some unique material. For example, Loftus spends several pages on the pre-scientific worldview of the Old Testament. It's something many philosophers of religion see no need to debunk. However, it helps to have Loftus' perspective as someone who once took it seriously. Reading this section, I was also reminded of Dan Barker's story of leaving fundamentalism, which began with questioning the existence of Adam and Eve. The Old Testament provides a nice "soft target" for getting fundamentalists to question the Bible.

The discussion of the Old Testament leads right in to another gem, the discussion of the superstitious mindset of the time. In a way it seems obvious, but it is something I had never seen discussed in depth before. I had seen, of course, Richard Carrier's "Kooks and Quacks of the Roman Empire," but Loftus hits both Old and New Testaments, and uses them alone as his sources. Loftus notes the willingness of ancient Israelites to go back and forth between gods, leading to the conclusion that perhaps they weren't so different, as well as raising the question of "How could they so easily reject their 'history,' unless there was no real history to reject?"

The highlight of the book, though, is probably the section titled "The Outsider Test." Loftus observes that people's religious opinions are largely determined by accidents of birth. He proposes the following solution for believers: "Test your beliefs as if you were an outsider to the faith you are evaluating." Here, Loftus solidifies an idea that has floated around in much skeptical rhetoric for some time. He opens up the possibility of consistently applying an idea that has so far only been applied haphazardly. When this is done, the effect is utterly devastating to religious belief. The Outsider Test should earn Loftus a permanent place in the history of critiques of religion.

The section on the resurrection struck me as a little too cursory, though this is undoubtedly a result of my distorted perspective; I am more familiar with attempts to prove the resurrection as an historical event than any other area of Christian apologetics. Here, though, is where one of the book's strengths comes in. Because citations for other books come in the course of the text rather than footnotes or endnotes, the book is a very good guide to further reading. I do wish, though, that he had plugged Richard Carrier's online writings a little harder and the book The Empty Tomb a little bit less. The book has some interesting material, but the online essays do a better job of cutting to the core issues.

One last thing: I didn't immediately catch the significance of the cover art, but John, you couldn't have made a better choice! I'll let readers figure it out for themselves, but it's a nice summary of the entire book.

This article originally appeared in the SSA eMpirical No. 15 - Student Voice, Part I.

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