Some pesky delusions

Book review: The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails, editors John W. Loftus and Dan Barker

US$14.28; NZ$44.97

Paperback: 422 pages
Prometheus Books (March 31, 2010)

As the title indicates this book is about delusions often promoted by Christians. These are many and varied. The show up in areas such as the history of science, cosmology, morality/ethics, history, culture and anthropology, the nature of the mind and consciousness, ideas of gods, the Christian bible and the historically authenticity of biblical history. Religious leaders and theologians promote them and congregations uncritically accept them. That is the nature of faith and is Why Faith Fails, as the book’s subtitle says.

It is a collection of articles by nine different authors. The advantage – most readers will find some articles which specifically interest them. The disadvantage – few readers will have the same interest in all the articles.

Another advantage of different authors is that they are all experts in their own fields and write authoritatively on the subjects of their articles.

So I should declare my interests.  Part I: Why Faith Fails and Part 5: Why Society Does not depend on Christian Faith specifically interested me. Part 3: Why the Christian God is not Perfectly Good and Part 4: Why Jesus is not the Risen Son of God would interest those with a background or interest in theology. Readers interested in biblical history and analysis might prefer Part 2: Why the Bible is not God’s Word.

History of science

A common delusion is that Christianity was a precondition of science. One could pass this off as simple hubris, arrogantly ignoring the contributions to science made by medieval Islam, the ancient Greeks and Romans, the Indians, Chinese, Egyptians, Babylonians, etc.  However, I think it is more serious than this because theologians and many philosophers of religion (who just love to pontificate on the history and epistemology of science) promote the delusion. Other conservative philosophers and op-ed writers sometimes uncritically pick this up. Particularly these days when some feel obligated to take the side of religion in the current science-religion debates. This delusion should not go unchallenged.

This delusion gets some mileage because few people have much knowledge of the history of science. There is a real need for popular books and articles on this.  Richard Carrier is an expert in this field. He has researched the intellectual history of ancient Greece and Rome. His forthcoming books “The Scientist in the Early Roman Empire” and “Science Education in the Early Roman Empire” are an expansion of his Ph D Dissertation. Meanwhile Carrier’s article in this collection “Christianity was not responsible for Modern science” provides a useful preview.

He argues that while some proponents of this Christian fallacy may be consciously lying “delusion seems a more likely explanation for how so many can repeat a claim so demonstrably false without ever being corrected by their peers.” Because, “Christianity fully dominated the whole of the western world from the fifth to the fifteenth century, and yet in all those thousand years there was no Scientific Revolution. A cause that fails to have its predicted effect despite being continually in action for a thousand years is usually considered refuted, not confirmed.”

Apologists claim that scientific investigation needed the Christian idea of a rational creator before it could occur and laws of nature could be discovered.  Carrier points our “that the universe is rational is observed. So it doesn’t have to be proved. Such a belief requires no faith or theology because it rests entirely on evidence.”

And these apologists are silent about the common medieval theme that religion was more worthy of study than natural phenomena. In 1277 the idea that nature followed laws was included in a list of heresies published by Bishop Tempier of Paris, on Pope Pius XXI’s instructions, because it conflicted with God’s omnipotence.

Carrier speculates on the idea that scientific thinking was a by-product of early pagan theology. And he provides many examples of advances made in science and mathematics by the ancients. Examples which apologist theologians usually erase from their histories.

This chapter agreess the pagans “set the stage for the end of ancient science – just not for any of the reasons Christians now claim.” The Roman Empire collapsed under the weight of civil war and disastrous economic policy. “Pagan society responded to this collapse by retreating from the scientific values of its past and fleeing to increasingly mystical and fantastical ways of viewing the world and its wonders.” Christianity profited from this. “Only with considerable ingenuity, and against considerable resistance, did some Christians eventually figure out a way to reintegrate these pagan values into a thoroughly Christianised culture, and then only after many centuries of nearly complete disinterest.”

So, history also shows that Christianity could be made compatible with science and scientific values. The scientific revolution occurred “in spite of Christianity’s original values and ideals.” “Christianity only had to adapt to embrace those old pagan values that once drove scientific progress.”

Obviously this process is not finally settled. We only have to consider today’s attacks on evolutionary science by a significant section of Christians, and the hostile theological reaction to Hawking’s and Mlodinow’s new book The Grand Design to realise this. (See The Grand Design – neither God nor 42 and  Hawking’s grand design – lessons for apologists?).


David Eller’s chapter “Christianity does not provide the Basis for Morality” debunks a common Christian delusion actively promoted in the public sphere.

Eller is an anthropologist. He says “the person who utters a statement like ‘Christianity provides the only basis for morality’ either understands very little about Christianity (or religion in general), or the person is expressing his or her partisanship about religion (i.e., pro-Christianity) – or, more likely, the speaker is doing both.”

He compares this delusion to the claim “that English provided the only basis for grammar.” A claim that would shock most people.

This chapter answers the questions “What is Religion? What is Morality?” with an anthropological description of how these have arisen. He uses Kai Nelsons short description: “morality functions to guide conduct and alter behaviour or attitudes.” And in his own words “morality is nothing more than a special case of the more general human predilection to appraise behaviour and to erect systems and standards of appraisal.” Humans – hopelessly social creatures that we are – do and must engage in the appraisal of each other’s actions. Morality is one form of such appraisal.”

Ellor also considers “Morality without Christianity” and “Morality without Religion.” Another section, entitled “Morality without Humanity” considers morality in non-human species. The work he describes shows that “’morality’ is not unique to humans but has its historical/evolutionary antecedents and its biological bases. ‘Morality’ does not appear suddenly out of nowhere in humans but emerges gradually with the emergence of certain kinds of beings living certain kinds of lives.”

I found this chapter a useful, brief (20 pages) outline of current anthropological understanding of morality. But I would have liked to see here, or in a separate chapter, some discussion of how today the non-religious person goes about setting up their own moral system. He recommends Richard Carrier (Sense and Goodness Without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism), Gary Drescher (Good and Real: Demystifying Paradoxes from Physics to Ethics) and Sam Harris (his talk Can we ever be right about right and wrong”) for defence of the notions of an “objective”, “natural” or “real” morality but doesn’t support this himself. He says “morality is too diverse and contradictory to be natural or real or objective, and the total lack of agreement on moral answers – or even moral questions – contradicts the notion of a single ‘real’ morality.

All well and good. But as someone who often argues for an objective basis to human morality I would have loved to see this discussion presented somewhere in more detail.

As for the delusional claim that Christianity is the only basis for morality, Ellor concludes “Let the silly and biased claim never be uttered again.” I would add “insulting” to  “silly and biased “- and then Amen.


David Ellor also has a chapter “The Cultures of Christianity.” He argues there is no such thing as a “Christian culture.” Rather there are “Christian cultures.” And in fact there is “no such thing as Christianity but rather Christianities.

Rather than being a set of logical propositions and collections of evidence open to discussion and debate, religion, and specifically Christianity, is part of culture. “Christians are not easily argued out of their religion because, since it is culture, they are not argued into it in the first place.”

This chapter discusses how religions can co-opt and penetrate other cultures. Christian missionaries acting as an arm of colonialism and imperialism are a classic example. Future generations of the indigenous people often have to find their own culture and history through the filter imposed by missionaries. Similarly the colonial Christian culture modifies and co-opts the indigenous folk religions. We have seen this in New Zealand.

Even within a society Christianity tries to penetrate the lives and culture of all members of the population, whatever their beliefs. Especially at times of stress the Christian religion tries to incorporate itself into, and dominate the work of, relief organisations and public expressions of concern and grief. Even promoting messages of thanks to their god and expressions of “it’s a miracle.” The rescue of the Chilean miners is just one recent example.

And even our language is replete with words of religious origin (although often these also work as swear words). Our art, symbols and every day habits often have religious content. Many names have a religious origin.

In day-to-day life religious ceremonies are often imposed on the secular sphere. This is a constant battle for secularists who object to such invasion.

The need for Chrsitian dominance of culture is so strong that when they don’t get their way some will withdraw and create their own societies. Home schooling is their alternative to secular schools when these don’t succumb to demands for control over curriculums and ceremony. Some groups will withdraw into separate societies or cults rather than engage in a secular society.

Cognitive science

Valerie Tarico, a psychologist, has an interesting chapter “Christian Belief through the Lens of Cognitive Science.” Jason Long’s chapter “The Malleability of the Human Mind” supplements this. These are useful summaries of our current understanding in cognitive science and its relevancy to religious belief. They are sure to shatter a few illusions people hold about themselves and their beliefs.

These chapters challenge the idea that we are rational. Bias is our default setting and we naturally indulge in confirmation bias and cherry-picking of evidence. Most of this distortion occurs well below the level of consciousness – we easily delude ouselves into thinking we are objective and rational.

Tarico points out “the success of the scientific endeavour can be attributed to one factor: it pits itself against our natural leanings, erects barriers across the openings to rabbit trails, and systematically exposes faulty thinking to public critique. In fact, the scientific method has been called ‘what we know about how not to fool ourselves.’

Taric’s discussion of how we have a feeling of “knowing” specifically interested me. We “know” we are right. These feelings inhibit further exploration of evidence and ideas. No doubt these feelings provide emotional support to the theological claims of “properly basic beliefs.” The Editor, John Loftus, sees this as a defensive response. “Because of the onslaught of sceptical arguments, more and more Christians are claiming that their faith is a “properly basic belief,” and as such, it doesn’t need any evidence to support it. . . .In effect, Christians have insulated their faith from contrary evidence. But this also means the external evidence does not have to support their faith, so why bother with apologetics at all.”

Yes, why bother indeed?

I have only discussed those areas that interest me. In contrast, others may go straight to “The Cosmology of the Bible,” “The Bible and Modern Scholarship,” “Yahweh Is a Moral Monster,” “The Darwinian Problem of Evil,” “Jesus: Myth and Method,” or “Why the resurrection is Unbelievable”. The ability to pick and choose is the advantage of a collection like this. The only disadvantage I found, with this book, is that some of the chapters are part of a continuing debate with other protagonists. This is OK for the reader who has a specialist interest and is closely following the debate. But it is a bit frustrating for readers who don’t have the background.

So most readers will find something of interest to them in this book. It’s well referenced for those who want to dig deeper. You don’t have to start at the beginning. And it’s probably a book readers will come back to as their interests change or they wish to check out ideas and writers in an unfamiliar field.

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5 responses to “Some pesky delusions

  1. Nice review, Ken.

    Faith evolved along with the brain and to offset the current pathology of it in the short term we need something to replace it with. I just don’t think the scientific method as an idea is enough. We need some cognitive re-engineering (scientific brainwashing). People easily create all kinds of cults around crazy ideas–we need to create a cult of reality.

    Addiction to Irrationality


  2. This is utterly risible:
    Especially at times of stress the Christian religion tries to incorporate itself into, and dominate the work of, relief organisations and public expressions of concern and grief. Even promoting messages of thanks to their god and expressions of “it’s a miracle.” The rescue of the Chilean miners is just one recent example.

    What a strange and twisted perception of Christian charity! How idiotic to imply that some amorphous entity of “christianity” insinuates itself into tragic situations. Do you not comprehend that people naturally seek spiritual answers and meaning for questions of life and death? Yet you arrogantly judge public expressions of gratitude as some kind of conspiracy.

    No doubt there is error in some forms of Christianity and it needs to be corrected. But a collection of highly questionable essays by militant atheists whose solution seems to be “scientific brainwashing” is not the way to do it.


  3. The Chilean miners situation was a classic example. Prayers and talk Of miracles while ignoring the massive effort by engineers and scientists around the world.

    We should give thanks where thanks are due. It is rude to do otherwise.

    But then again religion is rude.


  4. Pingback: Belief depends on who gets to you first «

  5. Pingback: Early history of science | Open Parachute

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