Originally published 12/9/2005. Links were valid at the time of publication.
I’ve spent nearly 6 months straight pouring over books by Crabb, C.S. Lewis, Strobel, Gonzalez, and of course Geisler and Turek regarding Christianity. The latter authors of “I don’t have enough faith to be an Atheist” I’ve written about in my commentaries have been the ones who have had the most recent, although not most important, impact on my own views. After reading through 8 chapters and 217 pages I’ve finally decided that it is no longer worth the energy or effort trying to decipher or contextualize some of the worst and disingenuous writings on the Christianity/Atheism debate I’ve ever read.
These are pretty strong words, but I feel remarkably let down by the authors. I also feel particularly let down by the people they got to support their book, David Limbaugh (who wrote the foreword), Strobel (who wrote The Case for Christ, among others), and Cal Thomas (a columnist I also respect).
With respect to the commentaries, I only managed to write 4 of them. I had fully intended to go back and write commentaries for the first four chapters, as well as complete the remainder of the book. It was when I realized that I was no longer even attempting to glean anything from the authors that I knew that I needed to put the book down permanently.
Malfeasance? Or Just Disappointing?
Part of my disappointment is due to the high hopes I had with regards to the supposed purpose of the book. My understanding was that the book was an honest attempt to reconcile the differences between atheists and Christians on issues that could stand clarification. The authors made it sound that some of the arguments that atheists make were misleading or, as a worst-case scenario, outright deceptive.
Imagine an atheist making the statement: “Christians are so crazy; they believe that Moses is the Son of God,” and then proceeds to build a case against such a premise. Any Christian would look upon such a person with radical disdain, and dismiss them for being either ignorant, stupid, or attempting to mislead people. These authors do the exact same thing, but from the other side.
I took the authors at face value in the preface when they said, “if you’re a skeptic, please keep in mind you should believe or disbelieve what we say because of the evidence we present, not because we have a certain set of religious beliefs.” Much of my initial excitement, and subsequent disappointment, has stemmed directly from this seemingly genuine statement.
Anecdotes, Not Evidence
The problem has been, though, that where the authors promised to point out inaccuracies in atheistic logic, they instead mis-identified, mis-interpreted, or mis-understood the arguments themselves. The book is absolutely chock-full of anecdotes where the authors “defeat” atheists in arguments, boast about debates where the other side doesn’t even show up, or otherwise fall victim to the sin of hubris in congratulating themselves on their own superior ability to reason and deduce.
The problems come from the fact that the anecdotes are just that – anecdotes. They’re one-sided, they rarely actually further the points they are trying to make, and more often than not they merely set up straw-men arguments which they can easily knock down.
While they’re busy writing these anecdotes, however, they conveniently forget to argue a point. The first eight chapters rarely put forward any ideas of their own; instead they prefer to shoot holes in other philosophies or theories (and not very effectively, more often than not). Their arguments fall into a classic logical fallacy: if our opponent’s argument is incorrect, then ours must be correct. However, they don’t actually state what their argument is. The reader is merely left to assume that their argument – whatever it may be – is correct because they’ve managed to argue against something else.
Now, I’m not saying that anecdotes don’t have a place in telling a story, which is ultimately what needs to be done when attempting to tackle a subject such as this. But is it too much to ask to do it honestly?
Isn’t Honesty and Integrity A Christian Value?
After all, that’s what brought me to begin re-examining my own views in the first place. I have the same problem with some atheists as well. Often I find myself taking the other side of the debate when talking to atheists because they make the exact same mistakes. They begin showering the debate with anecdotes about how a particular Christian couldn’t answer specific examples or questions that are put before them. That is, of course, no different than what I’m accusing Geisler and Turek of doing.
But Geisler and Turek wrote a book about “the other side.” And they filled it with lies. There’s no other way to put it, what they wrote about an “atheistic” view of things are, in many ways, outright deception. I’ve illustrated many of these in some of the commentaries, but the basic point is clear: the authors do not hesitate to be disingenuous about their opponents’ arguments in order to make themselves look good by comparison.
The final straw came as a result of something I wrote about with regards to Chapter 8: the dismissal of other theistic views with the flimsiest logic I’d ever seen. They based their entire argument about whether or not Hinduism or Buddhism or Taoism could be correct, for instance, on the misapplication of the definition of the word “infinity.” Without realizing it, they actually made a very solid, profound argument for pantheistic religion and against their own!
Perhaps this meant that they didn’t understand pantheistic arguments as well as they needed to. They had certainly showed a profound ignorance of atheistic arguments, after all. While this type of ignorance can be dismissed in a pub debate, these people wrote a book. It is their duty to ensure that they take that responsibly seriously if the reader is to take them seriously. In short, if they don’t understand the arguments, they shouldn’t write a book about it. If they understand the arguments but refuse to discuss them honestly, they shouldn’t write a book about it!
Since they apparently don’t take that responsibility with any integrity (217 pages is long enough to give authors the chance to show some element of good faith – pun intended), there’s absolutely no reason to believe that they will take their own arguments any more seriously. Look at it this way: for over 200 pages the authors have been more concerned with making themselves look good through anecdotal stories than spending time focusing on accuracy. Why should we believe that this will be any different later on in the book, when they have an even greater vested interest in convincing the reader in Christianity?
Geisler is the author of over sixty books, according to the bio in the back cover of the book. I’m told that he’s not considered a “whacko,” so I guess it’s a good thing for his reputation that this book came so late in his career. However, having seen first-hand the kind of tripe that he puts out I do not care to waste any more time on anything he’s written. Evidently he is not above outright dissembling in order to con his readers into seeing his point of view.
This is, of course, all I wanted in the first place. I just wanted an honest presentation of arguments. If the authors had managed to find atheistic arguments that they could correctly identify and then address them honestly, there would have been no problems with having a contrary viewpoint. But when you spend all your time trying to correct what they say the arguments are, you never actually get to evaluate the merits of their own points.
If the authors had spent half the time getting their facts straight on what the other side actually says as they had patting themselves on the back, the book would have had much greater value.
Who Is The Book Really For, Then?
As it is, though, the only value for this book is for people who already believe in Christianity and already have disdain for atheists. As someone (a Christian) told me when I was attempting to explain some of the inaccuracies in the book, “Most atheists don’t have your depth of knowledge or your command of the facts, J,” she said. “This book is for Christians to be able to understand how to converse with most Atheists. We don’t need to know the specifics.” Or the facts, apparently. “We don’t need to know the Atheist arguments, we just need to know how to confront them with these arguments.”
Now, it’s difficult to fault the authors for attitudes like this, but I cannot help but think that this was precisely the authors’ intention to provide otherwise willfully-ignorant people with ammunition against arguments that not only do they not understand but have no desire to learn.
This same Christian told me later, “I really wanted to say I understood your position, but I honestly didn’t.” The reason was – though I didn’t say this to her – because she was so busy trying to “catch me out” that she never even attempted to listen to my position, much less understand it. This, I believe, was not only the lesson to be learned from Geisler and Turek’s book, but also the intention. It would have been much more honest for them to have written an introduction that went like this:
The truth of the matter is that atheists – true atheists – say some things that we disagree with, but we don’t really want to take the time to understand what they’re saying. We’ve found that it’s much more effective to either attack them personally (e.g., ad hominem), or try to twist their logic to avoid listening at all. We’re going to tell you some of the things that they will say, and what you can say in response. You won’t actually be able to respond to the content of their message, but you can certainly take apart the way they present it. Most importantly, you can feel good about yourself for “out-thinking” an atheist and your own belief system will be safely protected from challenge.One word of warning, however: occasionally you will come up with someone who not only understands the arguments but can communicate them better than you can take it apart. But they’re few and far between, so you really don’t have to worry about it too much. After all, we all lose arguments from time to time? You should focus on the majority of the population you can bully… er, defeat in a debate with these tricks. Let’s begin, shall we?
There we are. Much shorter, sweeter, and by far more honest.
So Why Read So Much?
Many people – Christians included – have asked me why I continued to read the book for as long as I did. I think part of it was because I didn’t want to be accused of not giving the book “a fair chance.” Once I started realizing that, at about Chapter 6, there was no hope for an honest examination of the arguments, I probably should have stopped reading.
The other reason was that I held out hope that perhaps the authors were going to provide me – as a reader attempting to sort out this question of the existence of God – something that I could get that I hadn’t already thought about. I was hoping for something, a single gem amongst the rubble, that would give me a boost in a direction of inquiry. I was hoping that maybe the authors would have actually stumbled across some argument with regards to atheism that would help modify my way of thinking, help me see something that I missed. Since they never actually addressed the arguments properly, though, there was no way to determine if I had missed anything.
Another reason was that I was willing to subsume my own confidence in understanding the issues at hand to consider the possibility that I didn’t know everything. After all, that’s why I was exploring these questions in the first place! There’s a certain pedigree here, too. Geisler has written more than 60 books, which is impressive to say the least. I’ve written books, but none of them have been published. 🙂 Books are not peer-reviewed, of course (as this one desperately needed to be), but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have considerable clout.
Then there’s the recommendations that I mentioned: David Limbaugh and Cal Thomas all recommend the book highly. No, I don’t agree with everything they say (in fact, there’s a lot of things I don’t agree with), but I respect their dedication to honest debate. I figured that if people that I respect (you can respect people you disagree with) put their names behind the book, then perhaps maybe it was I who was missing something.
Ultimately, though, when it became obvious that this was just a book to provide Christians with ammunition, a cheat-sheet of logical arguments rather than any real understanding of the issues at hand, I continued reading so that I would be better prepared when faced with someone who had read the book and decided to try their new “tactics” on me.
That much is easy. I’ve got enough on my reading list to keep me very busy. C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity has been the best book so far of any of the Christian books. On the other side of the equation, I’m reading a book on the debate between evolution and creationism (it’s an older book, written before the concept of Intelligent Design took hold of the nation). Of course, evolution is not the same thing as atheism (one of the things that drove me crazy about Geisler and Turek’s book), but apparently the arguments are often considered to be atheistic.
The big questions will remain, and perhaps will always remain. I’m more thorough than the average bear. I’m not afraid to challenge my basic assumptions and re-examine my belief systems at their core. I only want to do it honestly and with a modicum of integrity. Ultimately, I am going to have to live with my beliefs and I need to be able to say to myself that I came to them honestly and as best as I could. If I know that I took any shortcuts, lied to myself for the sake of convenience, avoided things just because they were “hard,” then I will always wonder if my beliefs – whatever they may wind up being – were based on false premises.