This is part of an ongoing series of reviews here at GPS. These will be (to the best of my ability) spoiler-free, so as not to ruin the fiction ones I do, as well as relatively brief. I won’t just be reviewing “skeptical” works, but instead a large portion of what I read. I’m a voracious reader, even when I am swamped with other work (it’s what I tend to do instead of watch television), so I’ll probably put out one every couple of weeks. If you’re interested, I’ve actually been tracking exactly what I’ve read (book and GN-wise, anyway) for over the past four years on LibraryThing.
GPS Review: “Christianity is NOT Great” edited by John W. Loftus
The fine folks at Prometheus Books were kind enough to send me a review copy of the newest anthology that John Loftus (co-founder of the Skeptic Ink Network, author, and blogger) has edited. If you don’t know Loftus, here’s a brief bio from the book:
John W. Loftus earned M.A. and M.Div. degrees in theology and philosophy from Lincoln Christian Seminary under the guidance of Dr. James D. Strauss. He then attended Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, where he studied under Dr. William Lane Craig and received a Th.M. degree in philosophy of religion. Before leaving the church, he had ministries in Michigan, Illinois, and Indiana, and taught at several Christian and secular colleges. Loftus is the author of Why I Became an Atheist: A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity and The Outsider Test of Faith: How to Know Which Religion Is True; and the coauthor with Randal Rauser of God or Godless? One Theist. One Christian. Twenty Controversial Questions. He is also the editor of The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails and The End of Christianity. He is the founder of the Debunking Christianity blog, found at debunkingchristianity.blogspot.com.
I had previously reviewed Loftus’ last book (quite positively), and know a good many of the chapter authors in this one, so I was quite interested to give it a read. First things first – it’s a big damn book! Clocking in over 550 pages, with very dense chapters for the most part, this is not a light read. Loftus did a good job into breaking it apart into cohesive sections, though, so that if one is more interested in historical versus modern problems, or more philosophical issues, you can just read those chapters. The five parts are:
- How Faith Fails (including chapters by Victor Stenger and Peter Boghossian and an Ingersoll reprint)
- Political / Institutional Harms (including two chapters by Loftus, as well as Richard Carrier)
- Scientific Harms (including Carrier and Loftus again, as well as Ronald Lindsay and William Patterson)
- Social and Moral Harms (Ed Brayton, Annie Laurie Gaylor, Darrel Ray, and more)
- Morality, Atheism, and a Good Life (featuring my SIN colleagues Jonathan Pearce, James Lindsay, and Russell Blackford)
My overall review is that this a well-sourced, well-researched book that collectively makes a strong argument that the Christian institution has not been “great” for human civilization over the past 2000 years. For me, the most difficult to argue against sections of the book are certain chapters in Parts Three and Four, detailing the social and moral harms that Christianity (particularly the evangelical, ultra-conservative wings) has caused in terms of educational harms, scientific advancement, women’s rights, sexuality, and the acceptance of LGBTI people. Each of these chapters provide very real, current issues that aren’t easily explained away by saying “Well, that was in the past, not today.”
I particularly found Veronica Drantz’s chapter on the impact of the “Adam and Eve” story, with it’s strict gender binary, an enlightening read, even for someone familiar with these issues (and will likely use it in my college courses, as it contains a very well written overview of the science on sexuality and gender). William Patterson’s expose of the environmental impact of certain types of Christianity was something I was less familiar with, but found equally fascinating. Ed Brayton’s concise summary of the “culture wars” happening in the United States (and, although less covered, abroad) is a great introduction to this topic for those new to the struggle. My colleague Darrel Ray’s chapter on sexuality is a highly readable summary of his two most recent books (God Virus, The: How Religion Infects Our Lives and Culture and Sex & God: How Religion Distorts Sexuality, which I recommend reading in full) detailing how certain religious ideals have taken something quite natural (sexuality) and distorted it. Marlene Winell‘s chapter outlines the very real emotional and psychological damage that can occur in fundamentalist religious faiths, including a discussion of what she calls “Religious Trauma Syndrome” (an issue that’s a major force behind the creation of the Secular Therapy Project).
The last three chapters shift in tone considerably, moving from the harms of extreme Christianity to a “what now?” section. Jonathan Pearce’s chapter, although very dense, is a great defense of exactly why non-theists can (and should) feel comfortable criticizing theistic-based morals and shows there are many reasonable alternatives to a “god-given” ethics. James Lindsay’s chapter is a brief take on his longer works, expounding on why humanity must look into itself for guidance on how to live life, not rely on some external lawgiver. Finally, the book ends on an extremely strong note, as Russell Blackford neatly outlines how secularist ethics or morals are not just an alternative to religiously-based ethics, but instead are a better alternative.
I do, though, feel that some of the chapters could easily come off as arrogant or haughty if read by someone who did not already agree with their overall conclusions…like a Christian. As I have talked and written about numerous times, the confirmation bias is an extremely strong mechanism, and if given the smallest reason will cause us (and by us, I mean humans) to completely ignore anything we disagree with out of hand, rather than evaluate it on it’s own merits. For this reason, I think to the tone of Boghossian’s chapter on faith as an unreliable form of knowledge (the core idea behind his recent book A Manual for Creating Atheists and one that I agree with) will make it more easily dismissed than the chapters in sections Three and Four that I discussed above.
The same thing goes for Loftus’ chapters on the witch hunts and slavery, which are spot on in their linking of the Biblical text and (at that time) mainstream Christian beliefs to those hideous episodes in history. They will, though, be unfairly dismissed by apologists as not being representative of what Christianity “really is” (aka, the No True Scottsman fallacy). Likewise is Harriet Hall’s chapter on medical harms from extreme ideology, which read more like just a list of bad things people who are religious happen to have done, rather than really laying out a persuasive case for exactly how these people’s underlying religious ideology were harmful.
Again, overall I think this is an important text that makes a very strong case for the the vast array of harms that have come about as a result of certain types of Christian beliefs. I would greatly enjoy seeing some debates between the chapter authors and apologists that are focused on these particular topics, rather than the wide-ranging debates on the existence of nonexistence of god(s) that we too often see (maybe a group of apologists should write a counter-book called Christianity is Great!).
Get Christianity Is Not Great: How Faith Fails from Amazon and other retailers.