I am about to fly off for my talk and conference about the Star of Bethlehem, but before that I have received a review copy of a new book on something quite biblical as well. Those that have been following what is often labeled “New Atheism” know it’s biggest names: Dawkins, Harris, & Hitchens. Dan Dennett is often included to create the Four Horsemen of the Atheist Apocalypse, but that analogy is weak given the untimely passing of Hitchens.
Nonetheless, other names in the growing atheism movement have tried to carry on the mantle, especially those with greater specialization in areas that these authors may not be well-versed in. Be that professional moral philosophy, theological history, political policy and religious influence, and so on. Dawkins is often criticized about his lack of philosophical prowess in his The God Delusion, and similar things could be said, among other things, about Harris and Hitchens. But when those with expertise come in, the case that these authors have made becomes overwhelmingly rational.
The main thesis of the book and its various authors is that the Christian religion, when it has had power, has shown some of its most virulent strains and caused monstrous damage to people. This isn’t to say that all Christians or forms of Christianity are bad or dangerous; but you will get the impression from the book that the goods in Christian denominations are often forced onto it from outside, that the good can sometimes be to spite itself.
Some chapters may be expected from any critique of Christian history: the Inquisition, the Crusades, the witch hunts, the treatment of women and the larger LGBTQI community. However, those chapters document these things well, perhaps more clinically than you think someone would without having to use some profanity from time to time given some of the horrors that are documented. In addition, there are other major issues that you may not consider so much, such as the psychological damage the teachings of conservative or fundamentalist versions of the faith have on children. There are also the adverse health effects from so-called faith healing (quite the misnomer since it “heals” with at best the placebo effect). Each chapter is written by someone with expertise and has done their homework to demonstrate their chapter’s point beyond reasonable doubt.
There are also counters to alleged goods from the religion, such as it giving us our modern democratic society and republican government. The chapter on how the American experiment in democracy was inspired and built upon almost completely pagan foundations, in many ways in spite of Christian beliefs and values. All this against Christian reconstructionists that want a good ol’ theocracy. In fact, the author of this chapter, Richard Carrier, also shows how it is the case that sticking to the original forms of orthodox Christianity gave us the Dark Ages. He has to argue that there really were such a thing in the Latin West between ~500 to ~1000 CE, but his case is conclusive. As for why the Dark Ages stayed so dark, he points out how those in charge did so much to prevent the light that kindles enlightenment and science was not fed, but if anything obscured.
One might think the entire volume is a history book, and there is nothing wrong with that, but there are several more philosophical chapters as well. Peter Boghossian argues about the failing that is faith as a an epistemology. Perhaps one of the most interesting chapters is by Jonathan Pearce who summarizes a lot on meta-ethics, argues that even God is a consequentialist (that is, what’s good to God isn’t simply him but the consequences of his actions, contra divine command theory), and morality implies there is no God. I would only have added to this chapter with talk of skeptical theism, an apologetic that says we can’t understand God’s ways, so we can’t say what he does is bad. That would lead to moral paralysis because you can never know if the suffering of a child from cholera has some higher purpose. In effect, morality shows God doesn’t exist, and we need to have God not exist if we want to do anything moral.
I am happy to have a copy of this book on my shelf. In fact, I can say that generally about the published works of Loftus and his fellow authors. I don’t necessarily agree with everything, and some things are mistaken. For example, when Loftus talks about the use of the iron maiden; that was not a medieval device but a late-18th century myth. There are plenty of other torture devices used by inquisitors and the like that are awful beyond what I can imagine, but the iron maiden wasn’t one of them. Nonetheless, my read-through didn’t catch any errors that undermined any of the primary theses.
As for the conclusion to the book, what the reader should take away, I think it is this: it seems every good that can be found in the Christian religion can be had at by other means, such as secular humanism. Conversely, there are evils that only organized religions seem to be capable of, and Christianity has had some of the most terrible forms of that belief system. This does not make all Christians bad, not at all. But what it means is that the religion, Christianity, is not great. Give this book a read and see if you agree, and if not, consider why.
**I have been informed by Loftus that this may not be the last book he edits together. There is talk about building on the work of the late Victor Stenger (who has a chapter in the current volume). Hope that doesn’t mean Loftus goes all Star Wars prequel. 😉