Monday, December 15, 2008

Loftus & Paolos

I've been reading various books on the side, in odd places where I can't do anything else (like the eye doctor or local eatery). These are books fans have sent or bought for me, which can take my mind off the endless attention to all things Jesus. I appreciate that. I get to books that way that I'd never likely be able to read otherwise. Today I'm going to review two books together, because they have a similar aim yet entirely different background and approach.

I finally finished reading Why I Became an Atheist: A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity by John Loftus and Irreligion: A Mathematician Explains Why the Arguments for God Just Don't Add Up by John Paulos. Both were released in 2008, although Loftus' book is a substantially revised and altered edition of his 2006 book Why I Rejected Christianity (with new chapters added, some removed, others improved, but some still the same). I read Paolos all through, but I only read select sections of Loftus and skimmed the rest, because Paolos is brief, while Loftus is vast. The one is a renowned mathematician and atheist who finds religious belief simply illogical, and cuts right to the chase, with enjoyable humor and remarkable brevity, in dismissing twelve common arguments for God. The other is an ex-Evangelist (and William Lane Craig protege) who renounced his faith and now provides the complete guide to why, addressing almost every conceivable argument for Evangelical Christianity in extraordinary and sobering detail.

These books couldn't be more different, yet they aim at similar ends. Paolos explains as succinctly as he can why he finds the arguments for belief to be irrational (irrational, that is, insofar as anyone is actually convinced by them). He reduces them to the bare minimum of logical analysis and picks out some of the key errors they commit, all as one can expect from a mathematical mind. Yet he accomplishes this with much irreverent humor and little baggage (there are next to no footnotes, and no bibliographies, and no elaborations, just the bare essence of twelve common arguments--which he rightly regards as typical--followed by the least he needs to say to establish that they aren't logically sound). Which makes Irreligion a quick and entertaining read.

It's short. It's clever. It has funny bits. And he's almost always right. It's a good book to recommend to get someone started. But it won't end any arguments, as he just skims the surface. But, IMO, he often does this so resoundingly, there is hardly any actual reason to go any further (which is more or less his point). But everyone always insists on going further, especially believers who resist the conclusion, but even unbelievers who want every nail and joint in place and to have the matter completely settled. But if you know a seeker or undogmatic believer or uninitiated doubter who could do with a good start-up kit on why belief in God is illogical, this is a good book for the task.

Paolos also provides some novel ammo. Though most of it's old hat to experienced infidels like me (and so a bit 101), every once and a while Paolos' mathematical mind comes up with a hilarious yet rather spot-on new oddity to pick at. Like when he challenges creationism with a clever appeal to the incoherence of their inexplicable belief (inexplicable for a Christian, that is) in free market capitalism and their corresponding opposition to a centrally planned economy, by showing that biological systems are economies, and thus what many Christian Creationists argue for the American economy actually works exactly as they expect in biology, a fact we call evolution by natural selection. Though it won't end any arguments with Creationist Republicans, it's a funny and rather telling observation that (among much else) makes Irreligion worth reading. (As is, BTW, Paolos' more well-known book, Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences released around 2001, which I think should be required reading of every citizen, and certainly by education policy wonks nationwide.)

Loftus is radically different. His book is quite long, and dense with erudite references, endnotes, and bibliographies (making it a treasure trove of sources). He essentially turns the same leave-no-stone-unturned approach employed by the new apologetics movement (which he was trained in, by Craig no less) against that very movement. He has clearly read extensively and has a firm grasp of contemporary Christian apologetics. Unlike Paolos, there is little humor here, even less brevity, and the target is not belief in general, but Evangelical Christianity specifically. His intention is to treat Christian apologetics seriously (and comprehensively) in order to gain the attention of Christians who are serious about questioning the intellectual merits of their faith. As he puts it, this is a book written for Christians, explaining why he did (and they should) give it up.

Why I Became an Atheist is not thorough in depth. Some topics are treated in more depth than others, and few are treated to the absolute core. But his book is probably thorough in scope. Every important aspect of intellectual Evangelical Christian belief comes in for critique, and often in more depth than you'll find in any other pro-atheism tome. Indeed, unlike, say, Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins, Loftus is a fully-informed insider who knows what he's talking about. He was fully immersed in making the very case for Christianity that he now tears down. He was trained by the best, is well-read in the field, and gets all the nuances that apologists accuse pop atheists (like Harris and Dawkins) of missing. In this regard, Loftus is even more in-the-know than I am, tackling issues I know very little about (like contemporary Evangelical doctrines of hell or the trinity--topics that simply don't interest me, but that certainly interest believers and whose intellectual coherence is essential if Evangelical faith is to have any chance at credibility).

In a sense, Why I Became an Atheist is something like an ex-Christian version of J.P. Moreland's Scaling the Secular City. Where Moreland's aim was to tear down naturalism, Loftus' aim is to tear down Moreland's worldview. And yet, Loftus' work is denser and more erudite than Moreland's, by far. In fact, that may be its principal failing: it's so intellectual and thoroughgoing, I worry most Christians won't even be able to get through a fraction of it. On the other hand, for the more educated and intellectual, this is exactly what they need to read. Even though any Christian could pick at bits, the overall force of his case is, IMO, invincibly fatal.

But it isn't perfect. There is some disorganization in some of the chapters (where his topics are a bit wandering--e.g. chapter 9 on miracles meanders quite a bit--nevertheless, this book is notably improved over his last, in both organization and format) and his style of writing is not what I'd call pleasant or easy (by contrast, I sought a more readable, colloquial style in my own Sense and Goodness without God, but then some criticized me for exactly that, so there will be no pleasing everyone).

If you can get past that, one of the best things that Loftus contributes to the field of atheist philosophy, which I think is required reading for everyone, on both sides of the debate, is his Outsider Test (here in chapter 4). Given that, and his thorough scope and erudition, I doubt any honest, rational, informed Evangelical can remain in the fold after reading this book. I suspect few will ever read it. But those who do will be compelled to hide behind some measure of dishonesty, irrationality, or ignorance, or else abandon almost everything that distinguishes Evangelical Christianity (distinguishes it, that is, from far less dogmatic belief systems).

This is not to say Loftus does not err or drop the ball here and there. But even subtracting every such instance I saw, there still aren't any holes big enough to weasel through. For example:

  • On pp. 106-09 Loftus naively regurgitates what Christian apologists claim about ancient science and philosophy and as a result gets several basic facts wrong. For example, contrary to Loftus, the Copernican system was actually less accurate than Ptolemy's, which in fact did predict planetary positions remarkably well. This was one of the most convincing arguments against Copernicus at the time. In fact, as Kepler subsequently showed, Copernicus threw out all the conceptual advances made by Ptolemy that were actually correct (such as non-circular orbits and inconstant velocities). But even in general (apart from this fleeting reference to Ptolemy), here as elsewhere, there is a pernicious tendency to assume that ancient science and philosophy ended with Aristotle and Plato, a mistaken notion that began in the middle ages, when all the science and philosophy that had advanced far beyond Aristotle and Plato was mostly forgotten and remained lost until well into the Renaissance and even the Modern era. Yet a lot of Christians today still haven't gotten that memo. (Being my professional field, this is a drum I often beat.)

  • On p. 94 Loftus says Antony Flew suffers from Alzheimer's, but there is in fact no evidence of that particular condition. I would argue the evidence is resoundingly against it. His pathology, as best I can make out, does not match that but is closer to a more specific stroke-related memory disorder. And even that is speculative. The most we can say is that his mind does not appear to be functioning properly, for whatever reason. (I've discussed this before.)
But none of these errors actually affect his case. Once corrected, his conclusion still follows. In addition to occasional things like that, a purely technical defect is that (unlike Paolos) there is no index, and the margins are narrow, a trend in publishing I abhor, making it impossible to write notes (yes, I know my own book suffers this defect, but that was done by my publisher before I was aware of it, when it was too late--live and learn). And there are a mess of minor typos and mistakes in endnoting (e.g. some of his notes on p. 266 are mixed up, and he quotes me on p. 116 but his endnote fails to mention where those quotes come from).

But despite their various defects, both books can be worth having for different reasons--Loftus, if you want a good extensive response to contemporary Christian apologetics to consult; Paolos, if you want a fun, brief, logical rant against godism (with some nifty mathematical observations thrown in). And both books can be worth recommending for different reasons. Loftus is exactly the opposite of Paolos. Paolos is too succint and flippant (though delightfully). Loftus is too elaborate and serious (though admirably). But in a sense, those are also their respective virtues. Some people need the one and not the other. Loftus will be offputtingly scholarly, except to those who demand a serious scholarly treatment of Christian apologetics, while Paolos will be offputtingly unscholarly, except to those who haven't the time, patience, or interest to read what isn't brief, entertaining, and just-to-the-point. But then again, one can start with Paolos, then graduate to Loftus--although I recommend bridging the gap with Carrier. Those who complete my book and still want a more detailed treatment of contemporary Christian apologetical arguments (just to make sure the last nail is in the coffin), precisely because those arguments have now become so elaborate and sophisticated, will want to read Loftus.

11 comments:

John W. Loftus said...

Thanks Richard! I don't disagree with your criticisms of my book but I sure appreciate your high recommedation of it. Thanks my friend.

Timothy said...

A joy as always to read your reflections -- I'll be reading both books soon!

AIGBusted said...

I'm reading Irreligion right now, and I will probably read John's book in the near future.

Richard, I've read your book and I was very impressed with it. It's so thorough and easy to understand. I do have one question though: In your book, you state that Space is "probably the fundamental ground of all being" since matter and energy just seem to be distortions of space. But how did space come to be?

yunshui said...

Thanks Richard. By pure coincidence I started reading Why I Became An Atheist yesterday. It is, as you say, not exactly a light-hearted romp for reading in one's tea-break. In fact (and my apologies to John) I was on the verge of putting it to one side and picking up a hefty sci-fi novel instead, but having read your review I feel inspired to plunge back into the fray and wrestle my brain around some anti-apologetics. Thanks.

unBeguiled said...

Spot on reviews. Paolos is a hoot. I did read Loftus, although I read the first half carefully and the second half not so much.

Have you read David Ramsay Steeles's Atheism Explained? He presents an interesting 2 page sidebar which emasculates any cosmological/first cause/contingency argument. His approach is unique and powerful.

Richard Carrier said...

AIGBusted said... In your book, you state that Space is "probably the fundamental ground of all being" since matter and energy just seem to be distortions of space. But how did space come to be?

Reminds me of a joke in academia. A philosophy student takes a test. Gets to the essay portion. The test question says "Explain why the universe exists in under 1000 words. Show your work."

In my book I discuss origins (and what we don't know and can only speculate) in Ch. 3.3. If everything is just a product of the distortion of space-time, then everything stated in Ch. 3.3 relates to the origins (if any) of space-time and its structure (everything else following therefrom).

Yunshui said... I was on the verge of putting it to one side and picking up a hefty sci-fi novel instead, but having read your review I feel inspired to plunge back into the fray...

I recommend even skipping sections that don't interest you. I usually hate that. I like to read a book all through. But Loftus' book is something like an encyclopedia, there's stuff in there on everything, for everyone. And since he's not building a system, but tearing one down, it's not necessary to read every bit to grasp and benefit from the others (except some are fundamental, but you can figure that out as you go, or even revisit skipped sections later). Some things are going to be more interesting (or more pressing) to some people than others, so just reading the whole thing cover to cover is admirable but not necessary.

unBeguiled said... Have you read David Ramsay Steeles's Atheism Explained?

No, but I've heard good things. I haven't enough time to read all these new books on atheism. Much of it is 101, so finding the novel gems is harder for me. If you give a lengthier review of Ramsay anywhere (or know of a good one already), let me know.

Paul Crowley said...

Thanks for these reviews! What book would you recommend to sophisticated liberal, Universalist Christians with enough knowledge of theology, history of the Bible and such to apply the Courtier's Response to many polemics? None of the Four Horsemen books appear to be suitable.

Richard Carrier said...

Paul Crowley said... What book would you recommend to sophisticated liberal, Universalist Christians with enough knowledge of theology, history of the Bible and such to apply the Courtier's Response to many polemics? None of the Four Horsemen books appear to be suitable.

Indeed, certainly not. So yes, for that, Loftus will provide a far better mine of useful stuff against Evangelicals. There isn't any other one-stop-shop like that. Everything else is scattered among specialized topics (e.g. Bible Unearthed on OT textual and historical criticism, my own Sense and Goodness without God against anti-naturalist polemics, etc.).

Andrew said...

Richard, you sure have a high opinion of yourself, I'll grant you that. (And you are pretty free witht he ad hominems too, sport!)

But Loftus takes the cake with his constant comments in his book about how "honest" he is.

Of course, from is own description of his life in his book, he lied to his family, his wife, his congregation (by continuing to preach when he no longer believed) and he clearly states in his first chapter that his two of his three reasons for abandoning Christianity were emotional, not intellectual at all.

And we all know about the Holding fake site that he owned up to...oh so honestly...AFTER he got caught.

His book is superficial in that it deals with over thirty arguments in a little over 400 pages, and thus leaves as little as 14 or 15 pages to subjects that deserve whole volumes.

And then he has to gall to say that someone who has read his book can not remain a Christian...as if he supposedly covered both sides of the issues...and will be "well informed".

That is the greatest dishonesty.

Who ya kiddin?

Besides yourself?

John W. Loftus said...

It amazes me that Andrew thinks he can tell Richard something about my book when Richard has read it and Andrew has not. Full disclosure is in order here: Andrew is banned from my blog. Because he is banned he told me he would go around spreading slander about me.

Sour grapes is what it is. Too bad he doesn't place the blame where it belongs; on himself for not wanting to have a decent and respectable discussion of the ideas that separate us. He goes by KC_James on Amazon, and if you bother to look he comments negatively on almost every review of my book and on every book I recommend.

They say you know how famous a person is by how many stalkers he has. Well, I have one!

Wooooo Hooooo!

Richard Carrier said...

John W. Loftus said... Full disclosure is in order here: Andrew is banned from my blog. Because he is banned he told me he would go around spreading slander about me.

Thanks for the heads up. This is always the kind of information we can use. Puts things in perspective--and prevents people like Andrew from escaping the consequences of their sins by simply moving somewhere else where no one knows what they've done.

Andrew said... Of course, from is own description of his life in his book, he lied to his family, his wife, his congregation (by continuing to preach when he no longer believed)...

Curious how you fail to notice that this was all when he was a Christian, and it was only when he finally escaped it that he decided to live honestly instead. I know numerous Christians with the same story: they got so tired of having to lie to remain a Christian, they decided it was just easier to be an honest atheist instead. Amen.

...and he clearly states in his first chapter that his two of his three reasons for abandoning Christianity were emotional, not intellectual at all.

Oh, nice! That's a classic classroom example of rhetoric over truth. I'll have to use that one sometime. His entire book catalogues countless intellectual reasons, which you collectively reduce to one, then you count the other two things he said as equal, and thus give the bogus impression that his conversion was mostly caused by non-intellectual reasons, when in actual fact, if you erase the intellectual reasons (which you count as one reason though in fact there are countless of them surveyed in the book) and he wouldn't be an atheist.

You also convert a story about the historical causation of his change of mind, into "reasons for abandoning Christianity," a very clever rhetorical trick. This is like saying one of my reasons for becoming an atheist was having been a Taoist. Though in a roundabout way that's true, it's hardly a significant cause and certainly wasn't a sufficient cause. Certainly, saying "one of my three reasons for being an atheist was Taoism" would be dishonest.

Finally, only one of the two things you refer to was emotional (a crisis that led him to re-examine his faith, which itself was hardly a reason for his deconversion, just what led him to start thinking about the intellectual merits of his faith which did lead to his deconversion--a self-critical self-reflection most Christians avoid like the plague). The other was actually a legitimate intellectual reason: the failure of Christian communities to behave more morally than non-Christian communities is a sound intellectual indictment of the Christian claim to be imbued with the supernatural spirit of Christ. If having Jesus in your hearts has no statistically significant effect on your moral character, then scientifically it is neither a real nor efficacious remedy for anything. Since Christianity cannot then be true, well...