Last year I wrote a series of essays critiquing the book The End of Christianity edited by John Loftus. The series was called “The End of Christianity: A Skeptical Review” and it included more than fifteen installments (including sidebar essays). Sadly, John Loftus was largely absent in terms of providing a response, though he did quip dismissively that it is a “believing review“.
Having noted that it’s been a year since I wrote this almost book-length review and that John has yet to respond, I prodded him yesterday to do so. To John’s credit, he did respond to my prodding within twelve hours, the result being the rather blandly titled “My Response to Dr. Rauser’s Criticisms“. I’ll begin to offer a response to his essay here.
Is it unfair and prejudicial to read a book review without reading the book itself?
John begins with a complaint: “The problem is that most Christians will read reviews of my books without actually reading what I and other atheist authors actually said, which is unfair and prejudicial.” *Sputter* What? It is “unfair” to read a review of a book and not the book itself? Would John say it is likewise unfair to read an atheistic review of a Christian apologist’s book without reading the book? Doesn’t he know that the whole point of a review is to help busy readers select which books they’re going to read?
Presumably John’s principle applies to movies as well, in which case Roger Ebert is one of the nation’s great purveyors of the unfair and prejudicial. After all, he’s been writing about four film reviews a week for more than forty years, and untold millions of people have followed his advice, often meaning that they don’t go see a film. How terribly unfair of Ebert, or his readers, or both! I hope John doesn’t ever perpetuate that injustice by reading a film review without also going to see the film because if he did that’d make him a first class hypocrite.
John defends his use of exaggerated, slanted and/or misleading language
John then turns to address the first installment in my review of The End of Christianity in which I critique his introduction to the book. In my critique I started by noting that John’s introduction is hampered by “boxer-level rhetoric”. You know what I mean, when a boxer at the weigh-in starts shooting off his mouth before a gaggle of microphones and cameras, saying silly machismo things like “I’m gonna break that guy in too [sic]!” John begins similarly with silly, immodest statements that don’t belong in a book that purports to be a serious scholarly treatment of an issue.
Here’s the sample passage from John that I quoted in my critique:
“I honestly think that with this book (and certainly the series) Christianity has been debunked. The jury has returned its verdict. The gavel has come down. The case is now closed.” (9)
Imagine that kind of nonsense in a book critiquing utilitarian ethics or Keynesian economics:
“I honestly think that with this book (and certainly the series) utilitarianism has been debunked. The jury has returned its verdict. The gavel has come down. The case is now closed.”
“I honestly think that with this book (and certainly the series) Keynesian economics has been debunked. The jury has returned its verdict. The gavel has come down. The case is now closed.”
Academics don’t talk like this, especially about a perennial issue of debate like a theory in economics, ethics, or religion. John would be much better off saving that kind of rhetoric for his demonstration of the Amazing Ginsu Knives™ to passing shoppers at Sam’s Club.
I also pointed out in my critique that John neglects to summarize the essays of the book, saying instead “I think the chapters in this anthology speak for themselves, so I’ll not introduce them except to say I’m very pleased and honored to be a part of this work….” Does that mean that every time an editor goes through the effort to summarize the contents of the essays in the work he’s edited, that he was forced to do so because those essays didn’t “speak for themselves”? This is mere laziness on John’s part, for introductions to collections of essays standardly provide an introduction to the collected works.
So those were my opening two criticisms. This is how John responds: “Rauser irrelevantly objects to my “boxer-level rhetoric,” and “an ‘introduction’ that has no introduction.” These are not good criticisms at all.”
He then addresses my critique of his rhetoric:
When it comes to my so-called “self-congratulatory rhetoric” there is nothing problematic with it at all. In an easy to read but very insightful college textbook on critical thinking that I used in a community college class on the subject, the authors tell us quite plainly that “exaggerated, slanted, or misleading language is compatible with perfectly good reasoning. A claim or an argument that is couched in emotionally charged language is not necessarily a false claim or a bad argument. Slanted language should not be a reason for rejecting a claim or dismissing a piece of reasoning, but neither should it be a reason for accepting a position on an issue.” See Critical Thinking, Ninth Edition(Chapter 5 Persuasion Through Rhetoric: Common Devices and Techniques)
Wow! What a concession! Note that John’s very first response is to concede that his description of the book was, as the quote says, “exaggerated, slanted, or misleading”! That is a very telling concession.
Unfortunately for John, he bungles things up from there. You see, the authors John critiques are pointing out to the reader that the underlying reasoning of an argument should not be rejected because it employs exaggerated, slanted, or misleading language. Sure, I agree with that. Imagine a vacuum cleaner comes to your door and bellows “This vacuum sucks more than any vacuum in the history of man!” You should not let the hyperbole (and garlic breath) distract you from the underlying claim that the vacuum sucks extremely well. Assess that claim independently with the rhetoric stripped away.
But note that I never suggested we ought to reject the essays in The End of Christianity because of the rhetoric. I simply pointed out that the rhetoric didn’t belong in an academic book. I hope John is not going to argue that academic books ought to include “exaggerated, slanted, or misleading” language!
More bad news for John: this kind of “exaggerated, slanted, or misleading” language pervades his writing in The End of Christianity and (especially) “Debunking Christianity”. If he wants to be a serious critic rather than the equivalent of a door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman (with garlic breath) he really ought to seek to reign in the exaggeration, right the slanted, and redirect the misleading.
I’ll respond to the rest of John’s essay in one (or more) subsequent post(s).