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 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.