At this point I have read the first four chapters of Loftus’ book. I started off the book with a fair degree of enthusiasm: it looked like a formidable and engaging work and one that could provide a good primer for debate. Unfortunately, a closer look reveals significant problems that call into question Loftus’ ability to engage fairly with others and represent their views accurately. In this installment of the review I’m going to provide some examples.
Loftus accuses Christian apologists of fabricating their conversion stories
I begin with a passage that comes at the end of chapter one where Loftus writes:
“With my personal story out on the table it’s time to begin. As I have said, I can only wish that Christian apologists would share their stories with the same level of honesty. In response to stories by people like me, several of them, like Lee Strobel and David Wood, are now claiming that they were former atheists who converted to Christianity. I’d like to know what kind of atheists they were.” (36)
We need to pause here for a moment. Look closely at that third sentence, the one where Loftus claims that apostasy narratives like his are the reason why Christian apologists like Lee Strobel “are now claiming that they were former atheists who converted to Christianity.”
This is an extraordinary claim. Loftus is clearly suggesting that apologists like Strobel manufactured or embellished their conversion narratives and moreover that they did so in response to the testimony of atheists like Loftus. In other words, Loftus is accusing them of lying.
These are extraordinarily serious charges. What evidence does Loftus have that they are true? Which atheistic testimonies in particular does he allege provided the catalyst for these men to lie about their own testimonies? One thing is clear: it certainly wasn’t Loftus’ book since Lee Strobel shared his testimony in The Case for Christ an entire decade before the first edition of Loftus’ book was ever published.
If Loftus has evidence that Strobel and Wood did in fact fabricate their conversion stories in direct response to atheistic testimonies, he needs to make that evidence public. Otherwise, he is guilty of defamation and should publicly retract these slanderous accusations. Needless to say, if the charges are not defended then Loftus’ own credibility as a reliable witness is left in shambles.
Loftus engages in proof-texting
For my second example, I’m going to provide four instances where Loftus engages in the practice of proof-texting. According to dictionary.com:
Prooftexting is the practice of using decontextualised quotations from a document (often, but not always, a book of the Bible) to establish a proposition rhetorically through an appeal to authority. Critics of the technique note that often the document, when read as a whole, may not in fact support the proposition.” (source)
Loftus proof-texts Christian writers on multiple occasions. That is, he uses decontextualized quotes from their works for his own rhetorical ends, often in a way that is in sharp opposition to the actual content of the quotation. To give the reader a sense of just how frequently he engages in this behavior, I’m going to draw several examples from just two pages of the book. The section begins on page 39 where Loftus claims that “Many Christians have taken an unenthusiastic view of philosophy because there are dangers in it for their faith.” (39) Loftus then provides several quotations from Christian theologians as evidence for this claim. Let’s take a look at four examples.
Loftus’ first example is drawn from Colossians 2:8 where Paul writes: “See no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy.” (39) Loftus cites this as evidence that Paul repudiates philosophy. But Paul does not condemn philosophy here; he only condemns bad arguments. And he is surely correct to do so. Every philosophy student should be warned about being taken in by bad arguments (including those provided by John Loftus).
Second, Loftus then quotes from Paul’s famous passages in 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 where the apostle memorably pits God’s foolishness against man’s wisdom. Loftus clearly has a tin ear for the subtlety of Paul’s argument, and I’m not surprised given his fundamentalist leanings and hostile, prosecutorial demeanor. But make no mistake, 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 is an argument that draws on both rhetoric and logic. And Paul’s argument about cognitive limitations here is not unlike that offered by atheistic philosopher Colin McGinn when he offers a philosophical defense of mysterianism. What is more, keep in mind that this Paul is the same man who is described in Acts 17 as speaking to a pagan audience at Mars Hill while quoting Stoic philosophers favorably to further his argument. Paul never repudiates philosophical argumentation. Rather, he freely uses it to defend his position just as Loftus tries to use philosophy to defend his.
It gets worse. Moments later, Loftus writes: “Tertullian wrote of the incarnation of Jesus by saying ‘Just because it is absurd, it is to be believed …. it is certain because it is impossible.” (40) Loftus’ intention here is clear: he wants us to believe that Tertullian is some kind of anti-philosophical, irrational fideist.
In case you were wondering, this is the same Tertullian who was deeply influenced by Stoic philosophy in his own carefully reasoned philosophical arguments. It is clear that Loftus cares nothing for understanding what Tertullian is saying here. Once again, he merely latches onto a popular atheist proof-text with complete disregard for the historical meaning of the phrase.
Recently I offered a rebuttal to Peter Boghossian for proof-texting this same passage. And so I will quote the passage here because it is relevant for Loftus as well:
Boghossian’s quotation of Tertullian is little more than ignorant proof-texting. The passage (which appears in Tertullian’s book On the Flesh of Christ, a polemical response to Marcion), reads as follows:
“The Son of God was crucified; I am not ashamed because men must be needs be ashamed of it. And the Son of God died; it is by all means to be believed because it is absurd. And he was buried and rose again; the fact is certain, because it is impossible. But how will all this be true of Him, if He was not Himself true—if He really had not in Himself that which might be crucified…”
The first thing that should be obvious to any marginally literate person is that Tertullian is invoking rhetoric to make a point. Indeed, it is a sharp invocation of hyperbole. Does Boghossian really not know this?
Imagine the absurdity of proceeding the way Boghossian does. A man sits down to dinner and declares that he is so hungry he “could eat a horse”. If we are to adopt Boghossian’s method, then we should conclude that the man is an inexcusable glutton with a peculiar penchant for equine flesh.
The fact is that Tertullian is skillfully employing the rhetoric of hyperbole to make a perfectly valid point, namely that the plausibility of some truth claims is increased to the extent that they do not conform to commonly held assumptions. As Tertullian points out, the Christian story of incarnation and atonement confounds common Greco-Roman assumptions about deity and thus suggests that the genesis of the belief cannot be explained merely by appeal to the familiar tropes that circulated in the ancient world. Sometimes truth, as they say, is stranger than fiction. And the very strangeness of a claim can testify to its truth.
To be sure, whether you agree with Tertullian or not is really beside the point. The real issue is that Boghossian ignores the context of the quote, thereby distorting its meaning and proof-texting it in an indefensible attempt to broad-brush the entire Christian tradition.
Loftus behaves just like Boghossian as each of them disregards context in their quest to fill their ideological arsenals.
Now for our fourth example. Loftus writes:
“Martin Luther called reason ‘the Devil’s Whore.’ As such, reason ‘can do nothing but slander and harm all that God says and does.'” (40)
Note that Loftus completely ignores what Luther means when he says “reason”. Clearly Loftus has no interest in understanding Luther. He merely wants to quote the man to further his own ideologically driven ends.
So what does Luther mean? When Luther spoke out against “reason” he was referring to a particular kind of philosophy, i.e. the medieval scholastic method. Note as well that Luther critiqued this method using the very tools of philosophy, including the late medieval nominalism in which he was educated. And note finally that when you get beyond the rhetorical punch of Luther’s language, there is abundant evidence that he too continued to draw upon scholasticism in his own philosophy. Is it any surprise that already within Luther’s own lifetime, Lutheran scholasticism was already taking shape?
I want to emphasize again that these examples of proof-texting are all drawn from two pages. This begins to give the reader a sense of just how prone Loftus is to disregard context in his quest to score rhetorical points and bolster his case.
Is it time to look in the mirror?
I have much more to say. But I’m going to conclude here with another quote from Loftus’ book which occurs just a page after he proof-texts from those various theologians. Here he writes:
“since we are all prone to believe that which we prefer to be true, we should demand sufficient evidence along with reasonable answers to basic questions for that which we accept as true.” (41)
This is reasonable advice. Too bad Loftus doesn’t apply it to himself. Just look at the examples I briefly surveyed here: slanderous accusations leveled with no evidence and multiple instances of proof-texting. All this despite the fact that Loftus frequently responds to criticism of his own writing by protesting that the critics didn’t interpret him charitably.
Well Mr. Loftus, as with so many other things, charity begins at home.