A Case Study in Apostasy
I had planned to write a chapter-by-chapter critical review of prominent atheist John Loftus’ book, Why I Am an Atheist; however, upon reading the book I believed that such an analysis was overkill and unnecessary in refuting Loftus’ claims. Providentially, shortly after I finished reading Loftus’ three books the fellas over at Triablogue released their collaboration, The Infidel Delusion, in response to Loftus, et al. So I thought my little collection of posts might just be blogospheric white noise in the flurry of responses exchanged.
So I reworked the bit that I had written in response to Loftus as a brief case study in apostasy, viewed from an apologetic perspective. I hope that some might find it useful in recognizing and avoiding some of the pitfalls which may lead to apostasy. Some may object that doing a case study in apostasy is too critical or harsh. They would prefer to speak merely in categories or generalities about such issues. However, since he believes this chapter contains salient facts related to his cumulative case argument against Christianity, Loftus opens up his experience for critical analysis, which I will cautiously provide. Ad hominem fallacies will be consciously avoided, since the truth value of Loftus’ argumentation should be considered independently from his biographical data.
They were sad chapters to read, in many ways and for many reasons. It’s always sad to read of the failures of others. And these chapters were full of failures of many kinds.
Loftus begins the book with a challenge for Christians: “Anyway, Christian, for once in your life, you need to seriously examine your faith. By virtue of the fact that your faith is something you prefer to be true, you should subject it to critical analysis at least once in your life. If you laid aside the fact that you think Christianity is true and merely asked yourself if you prefer that it’s true, you’ll see quite plainly that you do. How do you know you don’t believe what you prefer to be true?” (12)
In the above quote, take out the words “Christian/ity” and replace it with “atheist/atheism.” It makes equal sense. This is what’s called a double-edged criticism. There’s no reason to grant presumptively that any given instance of atheism involves more examination than any given instance of Christianity; this is the author simply projecting his own experience onto his audience. If the criticism that “beliefs are based on preference” applies to Christianity, it applies equally to atheism, polytheism, and fern worship. Either Loftus’ criticism above is valid and he is an atheist because he prefers to believe atheism is true or he’s guilty of granting atheism a special status that he doesn’t grant to Christianity without providing any argumentation supporting that position. This is tendentious from the outset; however, no apologist familiar with the non-neutrality principle of covenantal apologetics should be surprised by this (for those unfamiliar read this, particularly pp. 447-448).
The problem is not that Loftus is not neutral in his statements; it’s that he thinks he is and he purports to be while he is not. This is especially worth noting since many of his readers (regardless of their varied theistic commitments) will tend to grant that neutrality is possible, even desirable at times, and that many of Loftus’ statements exemplify such neutrality. But neutrality is impossible; if Christ is Lord of all, nothing is neutral.
“…I consider part 1, “The Basis for My Control Beliefs,” to be the most significant part of my whole case… But since my skeptical control beliefs don’t tell me what to think about the specific evidence itself, I’ll also examine the biblical evidence in part 2, and then conclude with what I believe today in part 3.” (emphasis added, 12)
It seems like it should be too early in the book for the author to have made such a complete blunder. Loftus asserts that his “skeptical control beliefs don’t tell (him) what to think about the specific evidence itself,” essentially stating that his control beliefs don’t control his beliefs about evidence. Either the beliefs control or they don’t. This is flagrantly self-contradictory and demonstrates a deep lack of epistemological self-consciousness. This is further exemplified by simply citing the author’s own definition of “control beliefs” given later in the book: “Control beliefs are those beliefs that control how we view the evidence… Since how we each look at the evidence is controlled to a large degree by certain control beliefs of ours, I want to know how to justify those control beliefs themselves.” (emphasis added, 59)
This error reflects the same problem of non-neutrality mentioned above. Loftus wishes to present himself as objective and neutral regarding the biblical evidence he surveys in part 2 of the book, but this contradicts his stated recognition that control beliefs exert control over other beliefs. Skeptical control beliefs control his view of the biblical evidence; to admit this is to admit that part 2 of the book is entirely question-begging (and little worth reading, therefore). It’s either dishonest or naive to recognize the role “control beliefs” or presuppositions play in examining evidence, then to declare the opposite when it is convenient for one’s own position.
Loftus then gives us his bona fides as a Christian apologist, having (among other things) earned a Th.M. under William Lane Craig at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in ’85. “I was a Christian apologist with the equivalent of a PhD degree in the philosophy of religion, set for the express purpose of defending Christianity from intellectual attacks. I was not afraid of any idea because I was convinced that Christianity was true and could withstand all attacks.” (13)
The reader should recognize that Loftus failed in his “express purpose of defending Christianity from intellectual attacks,” and is in this very significant respect nothing like “us.” He was “convinced that Christianity was true”… until he wasn’t. He proved that, in fact, he wasn’t just like “us,” and no Christian should be tricked by such attempts at short-circuiting our critical thinking with biographical narratives.
Loftus imports many biographical tidbits into his argumentation, attempting subversive persuasion based on his superficial once-Christian credentials. How can I call a Th.M from TEDS a superficial mark of Christianity? Well, quite easily, actually, since, the most significant Christian credential is persevering faith, which Loftus never had, and his Christian readers would do well to keep that in mind. “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.” (1 Jn 2:19)
Loftus was “a problem teenager” (20), who came to Christianity through a Pentecostal ministry in Ft. Wayne, IN, where his life was “radically changed” (20). Shortly thereafter he was introduced to the evidentialism of Josh McDowell’s Evidence That Demands a Verdict, Hal Lindsey’s predictive dispensational premillennialism, the pragmatistic presuppositionalism of Francis Schaeffer, and the ubiquitous works of C.S. Lewis. Sounds like a fairly standard 20th century evangelical experience. Loftus is briefly critical of each author and footnotes various criticisms he believes conclusively demonstrate problems with each. Apart from the varied merits (or lack of merits, as would apply) of each theologian mentioned, one could be critical of each and still remain a Christian. In fact, I would recommend it. Of those mentioned, I have benefited most from Schaeffer’s work, though I do recognize the validity of Thomas V. Morris’ criticisms (as cited by Loftus). So much the worse for Schaeffer’s particular methodology and so much the better for mine.
Loftus wants to look at some key initial questions: “…what bias or presumption is the correct one when approaching the Christian faith? None of us sets out to study Christianity without some bias one way or another.” (22)
This is a valid and important question for us all, and it appears to recognize the nature of the antithesis mentioned above. Briefly, I will propose that there are only two options: one will approach Christianity either presuming its claims to be true or false. This sounds a bit outlandish at first, doesn’t it? Can’t someone approach Christianity as possibly true or false? This is a very reasonable question.
There is no third option as the result of the all-encompassing nature of the claims of Christianity. The de jure question is not independent of the de facto question. To assume that one is “objectively” judging the claims of Christianity is to assume an autonomy from Christ which contradicts Christianity; meaning that one is assuming that Christianity is false in order to conclude that it is false.
But, if this is the case, musn’t the Christian be guilty of fallacious circular reasoning in assuming the truth of Christianity? For brevity’s sake, I’ll answer this question with an argument from the lesser to the greater by analogy. Imagine you are called upon to prove the existence of space or time to someone who doubts or denies their existence. How would you do it without assuming the existence of space or time? The short answer is, you couldn’t. Even more so regarding arguing for the existence of the Creator of space and time.
Loftus mentions that a professor of his “drummed into his students the perfectly reasonable Christian idea that ‘all truth is God’s truth’ – that all truth comes from God whether considered sacred or secular.” (23) I take note of this statement because the idea that “all truth is God’s truth” is as common as it is misbegotten. While it may have meant one thing when Augustine first said it (in book two of De Doctrina Christiana, “A person who is a good and a true Christian should realize that truth belongs to his Lord, wherever it is found, gathering and acknowledging it even in pagan literature.”), it has come to be something of a wax nose today, used to justify any anti-Christian position which one desires to synthesize with biblical Christianity.
We also see in Loftus’ quoted statement above an example of inconsistent thinking which is wide-spread in contemporary evangelical worldviews. If all truth really is God’s truth then a distinction between sacred and secular makes no sense, since it would clearly follow that all truth is sacred truth. Loftus’ sacred-secular dualism was anti-biblical and a philosophical wedge in his thinking, waiting to be driven home, separating him from Christ. Where has dualism crept into your worldview?
Loftus’ stated deconversion story begins when he commits adultery with a woman, Linda, with whom he worked in ministry. Immediately, Loftus shifts the blame to Linda, stating that “she had it in for preachers, and she took out her wrath on me… There are mitigating factors here, even if I did do wrong. And I did do wrong. But until you experience something like this you will never understand.” (25) Even if he did do wrong? Why must I commit adultery and take no responsibility for it in order to understand that adultery is a sin and the fallout from sin is horrendously undesirable? It requires a hardened, irrational heart to admit guilt and provide self-justification in the same breath.
Loftus even blames God for his sin: “The biggest question of all was why God tested me by allowing her to come into my life when she did if he knew in advance I would fail the test?”(26) Loftus portrays himself as a cosmic victim. However, an even bigger question might be, since Loftus was a highly-educated Christian minister, why hadn’t he thought about such matters (God’s sovereignty over sin) before this, maybe when he had committed other (albeit less consequentially painful) sins? Finding a biblical answer to questions of this nature is one major step toward apostasy-proofing one’s self. Fleeing adultery would be another aid. “Can a man carry fire next to his chest and his clothes not be burned? Or can one walk on hot coals and his feet not be scorched? So is he who goes in to his neighbor’s wife; none who touches her will go unpunished.” (Pr 6:27-29)
It appears that after the adultery, at a time when resolving marital issues might have wisely been a top priority, Loftus chose rather to investigate the theological implications of the age of the universe, engaging in a correspondence debate with his biochemist cousin. It’s hard to imagine a subject which has less to do with repenting from adultery and restoring a gutted marriage than academically investigating the age of the universe for the first time. A word for theologians and students: repentance must always precede research. You cannot move directly from bickering with your spouse or slandering an associate to unrepentantly studying God’s word without consequences on your heart and mind.
Loftus recognized that the biblical pattern for creation “doesn’t square with astronomy,” (26) as its been most recently formulated and adopts the position that the early chapters of Genesis are myth. He then projects onto the sky various intuitions about what he would do if he created the universe, and “nearly two years later, (he) came to deny the Christian faith.” He states that “it required too much intellectual gerrymandering to believe.” (27)
For those interested in the age of the universe controversy, see Harvard PhD geologist Kurt Wise’s article here. It’s a “gerrymandering”-free article, which presents the consistent antithesis between Christianity and unbelief.
It appears that Loftus remained in the pulpit of his church and various other ministries during this period; this was an utter failure of church discipline, which is ultimately a failure of love. It’s sad to read a story of such thorough faithlessness on so many levels, involving so many people. He outlines various “he said – she said” situations of small church and broader denominational politics which led him to eventually leave the church altogether. “I often ask myself why Christians don’t seem to act any better than others when they alone claim to have the power, wisdom, and guidance of God right there within them.” (30) Intellectually, that sinners (even redeemed ones) still act like sinners is not problematic, but it can produce some of the greatest suffering in life; and sin and suffering combine well to short-circuit reason.
Loftus’ story presents a “sincere and honest” picture of apostasy. It shows clearly the irrationality of sin and the inextricable link between moral and theological failure. It is a cautionary tale for all Christians, and the Bible is not silent on matters such as these either. 1 Timothy 1 closes with these words, “This charge I entrust to you, Timothy, my child, in accordance with the prophecies previously made about you, that by them you may wage the good warfare, holding faith and a good conscience. By rejecting this, some have made shipwreck of their faith, among whom are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme.”
By rejecting faith and a good conscience some have made shipwreck of their faith. A characteristic of Christian ministry is waging good warfare, “fighting the good fight.” It is a struggle, a battle, a way of life; and the weapons of this good warfare are holding faith and a good conscience. Faith is never an end in itself, it doesn’t mean anything by itself. When the NT refers to “faith” it is referring to more than mere belief, because belief in itself is nothing. It is inseparable from its object: Christ. Paul is telling Timothy to hold on to Christ. A “good conscience” is not merely finding peace with one’s self by appealing to universal guilt or the specific guilt of others (as Loftus does), but results from a careful, sensitive application of the Gospel to our lives, to our sins. Christ bears our guilt and produces in us a good conscience, so that we can have hope and begin to act like who we are in Him.
Paul goes on and shows the opposite of this good warfare, those who have not kept faith and a good conscience. The rejection, the shipwreck of the faith begins with a certain carelessness or indifference in Christian living and in applying the Gospel to ourselves. It begins with a careless conscience and it ends with a “seared conscience” (1 Tim 4:2). The result of stifling one’s conscience produces a moral derailment which more and more eats away at our sensitivity to truth. Violating one’s conscience in one way or another undermines our ability to discern true from false, right from wrong, through a process of self-justification (e.g. Loftus’ blame-shifting or his sudden desire to investigate the age of the universe, etc.), rather than seeking justification in Christ.
This violation persists until it is as if the conscience were seared with a hot iron, so that one can blaspheme openly and unabashedly in a “good conscience” (e.g. Loftus’ entire book).
Moral and theological decline go together. We need to recognize there is no such thing as a purely theological controversy. And we must not underestimate the centrality of the Gospel in all of life, including our philosophy and apologetics. Moral decay breeds rational decline. “Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling.” (Ps 2:11)