Welcome to the seventh installment of my ever-expanding review of John Loftus’ book Why I Became an Atheist. For part six click here.
In this section we’re going to review pages 48-58 of chapter two.
After discussing Plantinga, Loftus then turns to Pascal’s famous wager. Loftus’ introductory description of Pascal is peculiar. He writes that the goal of the great Jansenist “was to shock these people [deists, atheists and skeptics] out of their complacency and deal a blow to the skepticism of his time.” (48) This is a strangely triumphalistic description for a man known for anticipating the humility and fallibilism of contemporary postmodern philosophy. Indeed, the description sounds more at home describing Descartes’ project than Pascal’s. (Contrast Descartes’ magisterial “I think, therefore I am” with Pascal’s fumbling “Man is a reed, the feeblest thing in nature, but he is a thinking reed.”)
Regardless, Loftus gives a serviceable description of the Wager and a few good criticisms. In particular, he notes the diversity of options for God belief which gives rise to the obvious problem: on which God shall one wager? He also very briefly mentions bad faith and divine justice objections to the wager, though these comments are underdeveloped and largely consist of quotes from others.
Unfortunately, Loftus considers none of the contemporary defenses of Pascal’s wager which offer rejoinders to his criticisms. Needless to say, this is a thoroughly one-sided case against the wager. Time and again when reading this book, one has the experience of listening to the prosecution present his case while wondering, “And when are we to hear a word from the defense?” My point is not that Loftus was obliged to include a Christian coauthor. But he at least could have acknowledged the fact that for each point he raises there are already well developed rebuttals in the literature.
Loftus’ presentation of Kierkegaard is summarized in the section title, “An Irrational Leap of Faith Beyond the Evidence.” (51) However, Loftus’ suggestion that Kierkegaard was some sort of irrational fideist has been discredited by Kierkegaardean scholarship. See, for example, the monographs on Kierkegaard by Merold Westphal (e.g Kierkegaard’s Concept of Faith) and C. Stephen Evans (Passionate Reason: Making Sense of Kierkegaard’s Philosophical Fragments).
Loftus seems to have some awareness of the problem here for he admits: “Many Christian scholars think some of these criticisms are based on a distortion of Kierkegaard’s views.” But then, incredibly, he adds: “Whether or not they are right doesn’t change much of anything.” (52) I find Loftus to be extraordinarily flippant here regarding the historical accuracy of his analysis. No doubt, he would want folks to represent his work accurately. So why does he show so little regard for the importance of extending that same minimal courtesy to others?
Worldviews and Cumulative Case Apologetics
Next, Loftus introduces the concept of worldview which, he rightly notes, is not the same thing as one’s religion. This is important to keep in mind. I make the point to my students in worldview class by describing three individuals:
Cletus: a Kentucky redneck who is a Christian.
Buzz: a Kentucky redneck who is an agnostic.
Aadita: an Indian woman living in Mumbai who is a Christian.
If Christianity is a worldview then it would follow that Cletus and Aadita share the same worldview. But of course, this is not the case. They do share the same religion, but in a multiplicity of areas Cletus’ worldview shares far more with that of his compatriot Buzz than a Christian woman living in India. Consequently, worldviews are about far more than one’s explicit religious commitments.
At this point Loftus introduces the concept of control beliefs, that is, beliefs that serve as interpretive controls for other beliefs. Loftus then claims that Christians shouldn’t examine Christianity from their Christian control beliefs.
“Why? Because the set of control beliefs we start with when looking at the Bible is usually the same set we will come away with.” (57)
While he doesn’t explain his reasoning here, it would seem that Loftus is reasoning like this: “If a control belief held at the beginning of an enquiry is likely to be maintained at the end of the enquiry, then one ought not hold that control belief.”
But that’s crazy. The very nature of a control belief is such that it is likely to sustain critical enquiry. That’s why it’s a control belief. One of my control beliefs when it comes to ethical reflection is the venerable “Good is to be done and evil to be avoided.” Should I abandon this control belief because it is likely to survive any ethical enquiry? Of course not.
Loftus then goes on to claim that really everybody ought to adopt his control beliefs at the beginning of enquiry:
“We should all start off with an agnostic skepticism that requires sufficient evidence before we will accept any claim. We should approach the Christian faith, or any religious faith at all, as if it carries the burden of proof.” (57)
Ahhh, so that’s what this is about. Remember back in part one of this review I quoted Loftus’ quotation of “exbeliever” who described Christians as blind and deluded, contrasted with atheists like Loftus who now understand the truth and see reality as it is. I noted that the sharp binary opposition of this conversionist language was fundamentalist in nature. And this is an excellent place where you see Loftus trying to make it work for him with his claim that the only acceptable control beliefs are the ones he holds because he has seen the light. Amen! (Cue organ music in preparation for atheistic altar call.)
But Loftus has not achieved a position of neutrality or objectivity and he’s simply deluded to think otherwise. Remember in part five of my review when I quoted from Fitz James Stephen:
“We stand on a mountain pass in the midst of whirling snow and blinding mist through which we get glimpses now and then of paths which may be deceptive. If we stand still, we shall be frozen to death. If we take the wrong road we shall be dashed to pieces. We do not certainly know whether there is any right one. What must we do? ‘Be strong and of a good courage.’ Act for the best, hope for the best, and take what comes. . . . If death ends all, we cannot meet death better.”
Stephen’s point is that we are all on the mountain pass, dealing with our limitations and human finitude. There is no objective God’s eye view of the situation, no view-from-nowhere that allows us to comfortably assay the situation. We all start with our control beliefs and must assess the evidence coming at us.
Loftus likes to think he’s no longer drinking from the fountain and thus can see the delusions of all those around him. But in fact, he’s standing on the mountainside along with the rest of us. Like the rest of us, he too sees through a glass darkly. And he doesn’t win the argument by fiat.