On the first page of his introduction, Loftus insists, “Unlike some skeptics who think that Christianity has been debunked so many times before that it’s now time to ridicule it, I still treat it respectfully.” (11) Despite this promise, Why I Became an Atheist is permeated by a condescending attitude toward the faith of his youth. For example, Loftus writes,”Christians are in denial and live with guilt because they cannot be honest about themselves outside of the private counseling room.” (34) Note, that Loftus offers no qualification of his statement.
Lest you think that was a mere slip-up, a page later we find perhaps the most revealing moment in the whole book. At this point Loftus quotes at length from a fellow named “exbeliever” who “best described” how Loftus now views matters. In the passage, exbeliever begins by talking about the days when he was a Christian and follower of John Piper. He recalls that Piper would refer to God as a sweet, nourishing fountain, “Taste and see that the LORD is good….” (Psalm 34:8). That worked for a time, but then something began to change for exbeliever and his fellow doubters:
“The fountain became foul to us. We tried to ignore the taste. We went back to it again and again hoping something would change. We opened the Bible and, instead of finding wisdom, we found violence and the justification of immoral acts. We found anti-intellectualism and backward thinking. We found oppression. Our prayers returned to us void. They bounced off of the ceiling…
“We realized that the fountain wasn’t a being; it was a religion. It was just dogma. It is like we had been drinking from it with our eyes closed and noses plugged. Somehow, though, we opened our eyes and unplugged our noses and discovered that we had been enjoying filth. The fountain was a fountain of blood and other foul things. We realized that we had spent most of our lives consuming a vile concoction.
“We would have been happy to have simply left, but we couldn’t help but want to pull others away from such a cesspool.” (36)
This piece of rhetoric is powerfully effective and deeply revealing. Loftus, the same man who insists he can treat Christianity “respectfully”, views Christians as akin to poor blind and anosmic wretches obliviously slurping at a filthy “fountain of blood and other foul things”. As for Loftus? Having achieved enlightenment, he now envisions himself as akin to the selfless Bodhisattva who is benevolently attempting to open the eyes and unstop the noses of those pathetic creatures who are feeding at this filthy cesspool.
This is what Loftus thinks it means to treat Christians “respectfully”. Can you imagine what things would look like if he ever decided to be rude?
Let this be a warning to the reader. The absolute binary opposition, the conversionist language, the images of blindness and enlightenment, these are all the trademarks of the black and white world of fundamentalist Christianity. This is how Loftus learned to process the world and engage with intellectual difference in his Christian youth. While he left Christianity long ago, he has retained these same fundamentalist categories intact, albeit with a simple reversal of roles.
Just consider how problematic this would be in any other field of enquiry. Imagine, for example, that somebody writes a book called “Why I Became a Democrat” and in the introduction the author describes everybody in the Republican party — every last one of ’em — as blind, anosmic, and drinking at the fountain of Republican filth. You’d probably think to yourself: “Gee, that doesn’t seem to be a very balanced view of the matter. I question this individual’s ability to treat the arguments of his interlocutor fairly.” Surely you’d be right in that supposition.
The same applies in the present case. Loftus’ continued use of the same binary oppositions from his fundamentalist background call into question his ability to treat his interlocutor fairly. Perhaps before writing about why he became atheist he should have considered why he remained a fundamentalist.