Book Review: The End of Christianity
By James Zimmerman
The End of Christianity
by John Loftus, et al, ©2011
Prometheus Books, 438 pages
The first thing you will notice when picking up Prometheus Books’ latest anthology The End of Christianity is the blurry cross dominating the cover. Whether the book is sitting on your desk or in your hand at a coffee shop, one thing is certain: everyone around is going to think you’re reading some Christian devotional. When reading the book in public, I folded over the cover, trying to hide the bold image.
John Loftus assembles a bevy of scholars noted for debunking Christianity in this 2011 release, including Drs. Hector Avalos, David Eller, Robert Price, and Victor Stenger. In the introduction, Loftus informs readers that this is “the third book in a series.” His biography is the first book in the series, followed by the 2010 anthology The Christian Delusion. Having read neither of these two books will put the reader at an immediate disadvantage. The protracted introduction, in which Loftus both directly addresses Christians and refers to them in third-person, includes frequent references to the OTF. Loftus claims this is his “signature argument” and under the heading “Getting on Board with the OTF,” Loftus states that this argument will play an “important role” in the book (page 9). For the next eleven pages, he defends the OTF using various arguments but, unfortunately, he never bothers to inform readers what the OTF is. Apart from defining the abbreviation (“Outsider Test for Faith”), the specifics of the test are, it would seem, left up to the readers’ imagination. Perhaps Loftus introduces and explains the OTF in the earlier books in the series. But if that’s the case, readers are not directed back to them in order to familiarize themselves with what is, evidently, going to play “an important role” in the next 400 pages. It is an enormous mark against this anthology, then, that the introduction – far from establishing the topic at hand – simply serves to leave readers feeling like Outsiders.
Loftus also wrote chapter three: “Christianity is Wildly Impossible.” Here he again makes readers feel they’re missing something. After a brief aside that an all-powerful god could have created the universe to “all but eliminate both human and animal suffering,” Loftus parenthetically notes “sorry, no room to revisit this here – after all, this is the third book in a series” (97). This is frustrating to say the least.
Though it’s Loftus’ goal to have Christians read this book, his chapter might be the one that prevents them from completing it. One subheading, for example, is titled “Defending the Faith Makes Brilliant People Look Stupid” (92). And on page 99 he states that what follows will be his attempts to throw cold water in the faces of believers “to wake them up from their dogmatic slumbers.” Even if doubting Christians are willing to ignore or laugh along with such inciting phraseology, they are likely to be put off by halfway arguments, such as Loftus’ claim that “if in our world miracles do not happen, then they did not happen in first-century Palestine, either. And that should be the end of it” (80). Sorry, Loftus, that’s not the end of it. Dinosaurs don’t happen in our world either, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t happen in 75 million B.C.
Other contributors make similarly weak arguments. In his chapter “The Absurdity of the Atonement,” Dr. Ken Pulliam introduces his polemic by asserting, “unlike the doctrine of the Trinity or the Person of Christ, there has never been a consensus among Christians as to what the cross means and how it saves” (181). While I agree that there’s little agreement in Christendom on the redemptive power of their favorite phallic symbol, I’m not quite certain how this contrasts to the trinity. Pulliam starts on shaky ground if he believes all Christian denominations agree on the trinity or Jesus’ personhood.
Chapter five – “Can God Exist if Yahweh Doesn’t?” – begins well. Dr. Jaco Gericke writes unambiguously as he delineates the nature of the Old Testament’s god. In a piercing statement, Gericke notes, “in trying to be even more biblical, we all discovered what the Bible actually says and as a result lost our faith” (137). This terse sentence is sure to give believers pause. Soon after, however, Gericky asks, “how can God speak ‘Let there be light,’ when there’s no Hebrew language yet? Did he speak classical Hebrew for all eternity?” (139). As in the above Pulliam examples, Christians of all flavors would surely jump on this – the bible doesn’t state that Yahweh spoke in classical Hebrew; the bible writer simply wrote it in the language of the time, much as Gericky rewrote the famous words in English.
Another example appears on page 312, where Dr. Victor Stenger explains the problems with life after death phenomena. He notes the anecdotal nature of paranormal claims and then asserts “until the skeptics are convinced, the hypothesis will remain unproven.” By this logic, the hypotheses of the moon landing and Obama’s birth certificate likewise remain “unproven.”
The weakest links in the book are Dr. Keith Parson’s “Hell” and Dr. David Eller’s “Is Religion Compatible with Science?” (chapters 10 and 11). Since this is specifically a book focusing on Christianity, it’s unclear why Eller spends over four pages defining religion in general (258-262). And since many Christian denominations have long since dispensed with hell, Parson’s chapter will be entirely irrelevant to them. For those stalwart bible-literalists, Parson wastes three pages offering descriptions of hell from extra-biblical sources (such as Dante, Jonathan Edward, and James Joyce). Any honest Christian – and they are the target audience (20) – who sloughs through those pages, is sure to be put off by Parson comparing former Vice President Dick Cheney to Hitler and Stalin (238) and calling Sarah Palin a fool (246). Such mud-slinging is needless, even hypocritical; Parson’s later decries apologist Jerry Walls as “insufferably arrogant” for saying “only the irremediably wicked” reject Christ (253).
The rest of the book fares somewhat better. The preeminent chapter appears in section two: “Putting an Ancient Myth to Rest.” Valerie Tarico devotes 24 pages to explaining why the god of the bible is “hopelessly human” (155). She’s definitely the right person for the task: she’s a psychologist, and she writes with wit and humanity, supplying examples from her personal life to show how ancient Israel’s god was a mirror of their emotions. This is a god, she says, who throws a fuss in the form of mice and hemorrhoids (see 1 Samuel 6). He’s bellicose, homophobic, and capricious – just like his ‘creators.’ For an omnipotent being, anger is unnecessary, Tarico argues. She asks why He would need it: “To make him more powerful? More able to focus? To break through inhibitions or fear?” (169). Even more indicting, Tarico astutely notes that emotions have a physical component and evolved to give social creatures the ability to navigate among members of their species. She writes, “it is a testament to our narcissism as a species that so few humans are embarrassed to assign to divinity the attributes of a male alpha primate” (176-7). Tarico’s perceptive conclusion is that the bible writers simply looked at their world and made “their best guesses” (177).
Philosopher and historian Richard Carrier wrote two of the final chapters. Chapter 12 begins promising, but quickly gets bogged-down in the mathematics of Bayes’ Theorum. Here, again, we see statements that are sure to fall flat with Christians, especially on page 284 where Carrier declares that Christians can not assert that the physics that caused the universe were a product of intelligent design because “that has not yet been demonstrated.” In the final chapter, Carrier presents his case for the natural existence of morality. The chapter has an intriguing title – “Moral Facts Naturally Exist (And Science Could Find Them)” – but likewise gets weighed down in algebraic statements, including an appendix that further breaks down the arguments into esoteric equations. Nevertheless, Carrier does write the best paragraph in the book. Summing up his arguments, Carrier says that the “threats of hell and the bribery of heaven stunt moral growth by ensuring believers remain emotional children.” He remarks that mature adults are good people, and
they don’t need religion to convince them to be good. Being good is what they already want to be. In contrast, naïve Christianity is a perfect vehicle for manipulating masses of people toward any wicked end for which a Christian purpose can be conceived. The Holocaust, the Inquisition, antebellum slavery, and the genocide of American Indians are the most notorious examples. But war (of any sort) is the most common example, as well as (presently) the use of Christianity to turn the American people against helping the poor and instead toward promoting the libertine policies of the rich (a more blatant perversion of the teachings of Christ can hardly be imagined, yet behold its success). (339)
Coming at the end of the book, Carrier’s indictment is a fitting climax.
Following the appendix are copious notes. The book, however, fails to include an index, making it difficult to use as a reference. The last page is a “Commitment Page” offering readers the chance to put their newfound disbelief into writing. Loftus acknowledges that this echoes the commitments found in Christian books (20). Overall, The End of Christianity is an uneven mix and readers will get the feeling it’s trying to shove too much into its 400 pages. Loftus proclaims, “with this book Christianity has been debunked…The case is now closed” (9). Time will tell if Loftus is correct, or if he expands his trilogy to a tetrology.