It’s a good thing I wrote “A Primer to my Reader’s Journey Through God or Godless” because otherwise it would be tough to make sense of John Loftus’ first choice of debate topic which appears in chapter 2: “the Hebrew concept of God evolved from polytheism to monotheism.” What does this have to do with whether God exists? Not much, it would seem.
However, things begin to make sense if we keep in mind that Loftus is directing his energies not only at theism simpliciter but at Judeo-Christian theism. If he can undermine the Bible as a revelation of God, he seems to think, he will remove a basis to think God exists.
This strikes me as a failed project from the outset. As I point out in my opening statement, just as the evolution of our understanding of the world progressed from geocentrism to heliocentrism, so our understanding of God evolved from polytheism to monotheism. And the Bible itself provides a record of that development, a record that the Christian also accepts as in some sense a revealed record. So what’s the problem?
Loftus summarizes his thinking in the concluding question to his opening statement: “No one believes in Baal today. Why should we believe in Yahweh?” (23) This reminds me of H.L. Mencken’s wonderful little rhetorical essay “Memorial Service” which ruminates on the many dead gods of history. The essay is basically “Ozymandias” for deities.
In my opening statement I offer the following speculation on the underlying assumptions that might have led Loftus to propose this as an argument:
“I suspect the perceived problem depends on the dual assumption that the biblical understanding of God is supposed to be revelation, and revelation is supposed to have been given in big leaps rather than little steps.” (25)
Since the biblical writers developed over time toward monotheism, it would follow in Loftus’ mind that the Bible is not a revelation of God and thus provides no basis to accept God’s existence.
But as I note, this is a fundamentally flawed notion:
“the theologian makes at least as many little steps as big leaps including the countless modest steps in which the biblical writers from Abram to Isaiah moved the Hebrews from the chaotic welter of ancient polytheism to the austere grandeur of one Creator, Yahweh.” (25)
[Before moving on let me note that I should have written “biblical characters” rather than “biblical writers” since Abram was not a biblical writer. Moreover, Isaiah is not widely accepted to be the author of Isaiah 40 ff., but from a literary perspective he functions as the author of the unified work we identify as Isaiah.]
It seems to me important to identify and refute these kinds of assumptions that revelation occurs in leaps rather than small steps. I presume Loftus derived that assumption from his own conservative religious background, but it is indeed a flawed assumption.
That said, one might still come back and insist that the sheer number of defunct deities of the past — many of which are memorialized in Mencken’s great essay — suggest a general skepticism about deities. That would seem to be the assumption behind Loftus’ closing appeal to Baal. This line of argument prompts two replies.
First, at most this type of argument provides support for agnosticism, not atheism. By analogy, the fact that scientific theories continually change (e.g. geocentrism-heliocentrism) only provides evidence to be agnostic about our current theories. But it doesn’t provide a basis to deny that there is some way the world is, irrespective of whatever any postmodernist may try to tell you.
Second, if Loftus’ argument accomplishes anything then it accomplishes too much. You see, if we are supposed to be generally skeptical of historically conditioned theological claims, then we should likewise be skeptical of Loftus’ own historically conditioned theological claims. In other words, Loftus shoots himself in the foot, cuts off the branch he sits on, and is unwittingly hoist with his own petard.