SmartLX www

On the advice of an evangelical with whom I was discussing online whether chance can produce information (short answer is yes) I bought and read More Than a Carpenter by Josh McDowell. It argues that Jesus was and is God, the New Testament is the most credible document in all of antiquity and Christianity is the only path to heaven, bar none.

I can review the book in four words: I’m still an atheist.

It uses a number of devices. The first explicit one is “Lewis’s (false) Trilemma”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lewis%27s_trilemma, which doesn’t bode well for what follows.

It may be that McDowell simply went too far sacrificing substance for brevity, but the meat of his case for such things as the credibility of the New Testament is almost entirely a long string of quotations from other apologists. It’s like he took the concluding paragraph of a whole pile of “evidence” chapters from apologetic works and chained them together. I have to say, collectively it’s a really powerful statement to read through.

When you look at it again, though, and look up some of the people quoted (one doozy is Lionel Luckhoo, the lawyer who defended Jim Jones before the Jonestown massacre), you realise that he’s picked the most fervent believers at their respective moments of triumph, and barely mentioned the names of any skeptics. Furthermore the “evidence” either assumes the NT is accurate, or concerns appraisals of the text’s credibility as a historical document (again, by apologists). There’s not a shred of physical evidence for any of the events involved, or it would sure as heck have been included here.

The penultimate chapter is downright insulting if the preceding hasn’t already convinced you. It lists a few possible and quite indefensible reasons why you might still not believe, and stresses that there is no other way to Heaven – other religions, good works, nothing. It almost seems like an attempt to shame you into believing. It’s certainly an attempt to scare you into it.

Finally there’s a quick autobiographical chapter on how faith changed the author’s life for the better. I don’t doubt that the guy solved some problems with his faith, but it’s not like that was the only way. Atheists patch up their relationships with their fathers too, if need be.

More Than a Carpenter was the first printed apologetic piece I’ve read right through since realising I’m an atheist. I was waiting for a believer to recommend me one in the genuine belief that it would bring me back to the fold. No good reading one the faithful themselves don’t like.

This book not only came highly recommended, but the random guy behind me at the bookstore checkout praised it as I bought it. It’s right up there among evangelicals. And yet it was completely ineffective in its stated purpose.

This is the important thing for proselytisers to remember: just because you don’t see a reason not to believe as you do doesn’t mean there aren’t any good reasons out there. You can declare and declare, and join in the declarations of others, and it may net you some converts by sheer peer pressure. Sooner or later, though, those who have thought their nonbelief through will likely subject your claims to more scrutiny than you yourself have ever given them. You need to be ready for this.

Posted: July 3rd 2008

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flagellant www

Last year, I read Darwin’s Angel by John Cornwell, the alleged Cambridge Christian scholar, which purports to be an 'answer’ to The God Delusion. Darwin’s Angel is a nasty, intellectually dishonest book that frequently attributes views to Richard Dawkins, printed in The God Delusion that are clearly those of other people. Moreover, they are views to which, it is clear to anyone other than a careless or prejudiced reader, that Richard does not subscribe.

Here is an edited conclusion to a review of Darwin’s Angel, that I wrote with both DA and TGD to hand:

In his preface, Cornwell is explicit that he intends '…not so much to pick a fight…as to offer a few 'grace notes'…and…glosses in the interests of sharper logic, closer insight, and factual accuracy’ (DA, p. 18). Well, phooey! If logic equals caprice, insight equals obfuscation and factual accuracy equals wilful misrepresentation, then he’s on target. His seraph is facile, ethereal and dishonest. If you read Darwin’s Angel, you will find a travesty of Dawkins’s views and, if you accept Cornwell’s misrepresentations, you will find yourself very badly informed by his perversions.

Recently, I looked on Amazon.uk to see if the book was still being sold. It wasn’t. Perhaps someone has thought better of publishing, what is, in effect, lying propaganda…

During the last few months, I have been reading two recent books by more honest Christian Scholars. The first is The Stillborn God by Mark Lilla. This is a discursive work with which it is difficult to disagree because it doesn’t have an evangelical agenda.

Earlier in the year, I was in Australia and I was interested to hear a broadcast interview with Bishop John Shelby Spong. While he spoke enthusiastically about the Episcopalian (Anglican) Church, he denied very much of its dogma. (I think he debunked the Nicean Creed completely.)

Consequently, I bought his book: Jesus for the non-religious. It is fascinating. Spong has gone back to the very earliest biblical documents and their 'best’ translations and demonstrated mistakes galore. He also ingeniously explains how much of the silliness came about. I have discussed some of his comments elsewhere on asktheatheists .

My thoughts on the book are that, if all Christians were as realistic and non-superstitious as Spong, atheists would criticise them much less. I can envisage Richard Dawkins and Jack Spong getting on really well. They would agree on most things.

Posted: May 12th 2008

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brian thomson www

I recently had such a book recommended to me, and considered buying it: The Drama of Atheist Humanism, by Henri de Lubac. However, I was able to read the first few pages, using Amazon’s “Search Inside” facility, and it was clear that I would not get far beyond those few pages.

Let me start by quoting the Wikipedia article on the author:

His Eminence Henri-Marie Cardinal de Lubac, SJ was a French Jesuit priest of the Roman Catholic Church, and is considered to be one of the most influential theologians of the 20th Century. His writings and doctrinal research played a key role in the shaping of the Second Vatican Council.

This immediately raises questions about the author’s ability to discuss real-world atheism at all. The cover carries the names of other authors, atheists or theists, but asking a Catholic cardinal about atheism is about as helpful as asking him* about sex: what little experience he will have will be warped by his* predilections. Yes, him – this is the Catholic Church, women need not apply.

How current is the book? Amazon says 1995, but the author died in 1991, so I looked inside the book, on the Amazon website: written in 1943, translated in to English in 1949. In other words, not remotely up to date on current Catholic thinking, never mind humanist philosophy.

Does the book have anything useful to say? Here are a couple of quotes from the first few pages:

Philosophers have told man that he is a “microcosm”, a little world made of the same elements, given the same structure, subject to the same rhythms as the great universe; they have reminded him that he is made in its image and is subject to its laws; they have made him into part of the mechanism or, at most, into an epitome of the cosmic machine. Nor were they completely mistaken. Of man’s body and all that, in man, can be called “nature”, it is true.

So far, so reasonable, he’s talking about a naturalistic, materialistic worldview.

But if man digs deeper, and if his reflection is illuminated by what is said in Sacred Scripture, he will be amazed at the depths opening up within him.

What? OK, he talks about depths “within” man, not actual depths that exist in the same universe he was describing, earlier in the same paragraph. That someone can see something in himself is not evidence of, well, anything, is it? The rest of the extract goes off on a discussion of Origen, souls, Thomas Aquinas and, of course, God, as if the “seeing within” has turned those thoughts in to reality.

Do you see the problem here? Like other Christian authors whose work I have browsed, there is no real effort at objectivity – or where there is such an attempt, it is nevertheless founded on a priori assumptions about the validity of Christian theology. They treat their religious concepts as facts; but, to atheists, none of their theology is factual, because there is no objective evidence to back it up—just testimony, which is far-too-often confused with evidence.

I could suggest that these authors do not know their potential audience, but a more charitable explanation would be that atheists are not the target audience for books such as these. They are aimed at readers who share the underlying assumption that Christianity is reality-based. If I was to buy that book and carry on reading it, I would get funny looks from other people on the bus, who would hear me muttering: “no… no… how can you say that?... no… what?... no… O RLY?” 8-/

Posted: May 11th 2008

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logicel

I am very selective in what I read, partly because there is not enough time to read everything in which I am interested, partly because of the expense, and partly because I want to add to my knowledge base and not just keep it stagnant. With that slant in mind, I focus on reading evolutionary biology (at present I am reading about the long-time simmering controversy regarding group selection versus gene selection), evolutionary and cognitive psychology, neuroscience, art, history, finance, and international politics (I particularly focus on the conservative perspective as it is the perspective with which I am least familiar).

Being born to Christian parents and having been educated at Christian schools, I am quite knowledgeable about Christianity. Often my newsreader will throw up reviews for books written by Christian writers, and I will note that their knowledge base has remained the same—no breakthroughs in Christianity, it is the same old same old.

I encourage myself to be decisive, and as I know in what I want to improve my knowledge base, I doubt that I will read a book written by a Christian focusing on Christianity.

I am nearly sixty, and I am looking forward in expanding my knowledge base, adding information that I do not yet know (my husband just shown me how to adapt a bit of hose to function as a syphon in order to drain a huge stockpot of chicken stock, and now I will be digging stuff up on how that works, something to do with surface pressure, very intriquing!). If Christianity comes up with something that I don’t already know about it, I am sure my newsreader will pick up that new bit of info, and I would than pursue it further.

As Islam is quite unfamiliar to me, I do read about that particular religious brand from time to time.

To sum up my perspective, I will emphasize what I was taught in my journalism class: if you want to captivate your reading audience, do not tell them what they already know.

Posted: May 11th 2008

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