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The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails

John W. Loftus (2010)


It is obvious—and many students confirm it—that the Internet has been a real "blessing" for free inquiry. It is now impossible for religious leaders and apologists to hide the embarrassing facts of biblical scholarship.

If you have admired a book since childhood because it says that your lost loved ones are waiting for you in heaven when you die, it's going to take an extraordinary amount of work to convince you that the talking donkey also found in the book might mean that the book is not proper evidence for such an optimistic idea.

The Christian Delusion

Psychologist Drew Westen was among those who empirically demonstrated, using MRI scanning, that people who were strongly loyal to one candidate in presidential elections did not use areas of the brain associated with reasoning to resolve contradictory statements made by their candidate. The supporters instead relied upon regions of the brain associated with emotion to justify their personal allegiances.

It's hard to argue Christians out of their faith because they were never argued into it in the first place.

That's why they're called control beliefs. They are like blinders. From the moment they are put on, we pretty much see only what our blinders will let us see. What else can best explain why there is still a Mormon church even though DNA evidence now shows us that Native Americans did not come from the Middle East, as the Mormon Bible claims?

Which evangelist will objectively tell the ugly side of the Bible and of the church while preaching the good news? None that I know of. Which evangelist will tell a prospect about the innumerable problems Christian scholars must solve? None that I know of. Which evangelist will give potential prospects a copy of a book like this one to read along with a copy of a Christian apologetics book and ask them to truly examine it before deciding? Again, none that I know of. Only if they do will I sit up and take notice. Until then I am not impressed.

Prior to the 1970s one can be forgiven for thinking that archaeology is the handmaid of the Bible-for one archaeological dig after another seemed to confirm it. But this is no longer true. Scholars are questioning the whole paradigm of "biblical archaeology," which starts with the assumption that the Bible is a reliable guide for field research. Indeed, there is now so much contrary evidence against the historical accuracy of the Bible that the term "biblical archaeology" has been discarded by professional archaeologists and Syro-Palestinian archaeology has been suggested by some practicing in the field as a more appropriate term.

Most of the liberal interpretation involves accepting the resurrection as some kind of internal revelation of the disciples. This experience, they proclaim, is what really matters, not the actual historical fact of resurrection. But why should it, we ask? Why should the visions or dreams of a few ill-educated, first-century Galilean peasants be of any significance and be treated any differently from others all over the world and throughout history? Because it is about Jesus? But take away the historical claims about his supposed supernatural powers, his miracles, and his bodily resurrection, and what do we have? A first-century, xenophobic, ignorant Galilean peasant who thought the world was going to end (as Loftus proves in chapter 12). If this is so, why not just dispense with it altogether? It's high time they did. As Hector Avalos has argued very effectively in The End of Biblical Studies, it's time that biblical studies as we know them should end.

Christians continually want to talk about what is possible rather than what is probable, and they resort to this standard far too many times in defense of their faith to make their faith probable.

They follow Bruce Metzger (p. 136, 140), Edwin Yamauchi (p. 144) and other apologists in arguing, absurdly, that the Mystery Religions borrowed the dying and rising god mytheme from Christianity—even though early Christian apologists like Tertullian, Firmicus Maternus, and Justin Martyr admit the pagan versions were earlier (even insisting the devil fabricated the Gospel events long before they happened with Jesus)! Some dying and rising god cults we know for a fact were earlier, so this borrowing can't have gone the other way around as they pretend anyway.

Another case of transforming agnosticism into fideism concerns the Mythic Hero Archetype to which the life of Jesus in the Gospels conforms in its entirety, with no incidental, "secular," or genuine biographical detail left over. Boyd and Eddy point out the obvious: that sometimes known historical figures actually live up to the archetype (p. 149). Of course: that is why Joseph Campbell and others have made so much of it. The problem is that the more completely people's life stories conform to the mythic-literary form, the less likely it becomes that their stories are genuinely historical. At such a point they risk becoming lost behind the stained glass curtain, unless they have left a trail of historical "bread crumbs." Augustus Caesar did; Jesus did not. It is especially ironic that Boyd's favorite example of a real-live archetypal hero is Scot William Wallace, whose exploits came to the screen in the film Braveheart. Boyd likes to make Wallace a real-life Jesus, implying that the Gospel Jesus could have been just as real (p. 149). It does not occur to Boyd that we actually have a great deal more historical evidence for Wallace, including actual documents of the period, thus proving my point: like Augustus Caesar, but unlike Jesus, we can independently confirm some historical facts about him from more reliable, nonmythical information. We have no such information about Jesus. All we have are the myths. And as every Wallace historian agrees, the mythical narratives about Wallace, which come closest in form and content to the Gospels, are often wildly inaccurate and invent a great deal, such that if we didn't have any independent way to check their claims, we would have no idea what to trust in them. That's exactly our situation for Jesus.

But these are weird times. We live in an age of science and reason, and yet millions of people still seriously believe the world's dead will rise again when an immortal superman flies down from outer space to destroy the earth.

I'll be honest with you: people who believe things like that scare me. But I have to deal with them every day, and one thing I've learned is that they get very angry and indignant when we close the door on them, telling them to go away without having examined all their many papers and books. Then they pontificate proudly that because we didn't give their bizarre claims a fair shake, clearly we're just biased, and we deserve the worst of all eternal tortures as punishment for our lazy audacity, and thank goodness superman will kill us from outer space soon. (Did I mention scary?) To put an end to this pompous rhetoric, I've given them far more than they're due, extensively researching their claims to the very core, learning the ancient languages, studying the relevant histories and cultures and documents, and examining their best arguments. Which is all generally more than they ever do in return. Now, with all that, and a PhD in ancient history to boot, they can't say I don't know what I'm talking about.

When Mark says the Roman governor Pontius Pilate had a custom of releasing a prisoner on the annual holiday, and the Jews cried for Barabbas, and to crucify Jesus in his place (Mark 15:6-15), what we surely have is myth, not fact. No Roman magistrate (least of all the infamously ruthless Pilate), would let a murderous rebel go free, and no such Roman ceremony is attested as ever having existed. But the ceremony so obviously emulates the Jewish ritual of the scapegoat and atonement, in a story that is actually about atonement, that its status as myth is hard to deny. Barabbas means "Son of the Father" in Aramaic, yet we know Jesus was deliberately styled the "Son of the Father" himself. Hence we have two sons of the father, one is released into the wild mob bearing the sins of Israel (murder and insurrection), while the other is sacrificed so his blood may atone for the sins of Israel. This is an obvious imitation of the Yom Kippur ceremony of Leviticus 16, when two goats were chosen each year, and one was released into the wild bearing the sins of Israel, while the other's blood was shed to atone for the sins of Israel. Conclusion? Mark crafted a mythical narrative to convey what Hebrews 9-10 says about Jesus as the final Yom Kippur, thus telling us, with his own parable, to reject the sins of the Jews (especially violence and rebellion) and embrace instead the eternal salvation of atonement offered in Christ. Had this story appeared in any other book, we would readily identify it as myth and not historical fact. As fact, it's hopelessly implausible. As myth, it makes perfect sense.

The apostle Paul was the first person to reinterpret the failed prophecy gradually in his own lifetime. He had expected to see an immediate apocalyptic eschaton, as already noted in his earlier letters. So how did Paul sustain such a belief through twenty-five years of preaching? Fredriksen makes a plausible case that he did so because he came to believe that through his ministry to the Gentiles he was helping to bring in the eschaton. When he completes his ministry the end will come when God will save "all Israel" by "an eschatological miracle." Thus, "The interim before the Kingdom came would last as long as Paul's mission itself." Only when the "full number of the Gentiles" came into God's kingdom through Paul's ministry would the End come (Romans 11:25). Paul's view came about during the debates he had with the "circumcision party" over the fact that there were "Too many Gentiles, too few Jews, and no End in sight." The circumcision party argued that only after the Kingdom came "would Gentiles as such be redeemed." So they blamed Paul for the fact that the Kingdom had not yet appeared because he was not reaching out to Israel. Paul came to see this problem differently. The reason why the End had not come and the reason why the Jews were not responsive to the Gospel was because this was all part of God's plan. God hardened the hearts of the Jews so that through Paul's ministry God would save the full number of Gentiles, and then the End would come (Romans 9-11). But Paul died and the End didn't come.

[There is] a new delusion creeping around the halls of conservative academia: the belief that Christianity not only caused modern science, but was necessary for modern science even to exist. As the story now goes, not only has Christianity never been at odds with science and never impeded it in any way, but it was actually the savior of science, the only worldview that could ever make science possible. And that's why the Scientific Revolution only ever sparked in one place: a thoroughly Christian society.
This is not only false in every conceivable detail but so egregiously false that anyone with even the slightest academic competence and responsibility should have known it was false. Which means its advocates, all of whom claim to be scholars, must either be embarrassingly incompetent, perversely dishonest, or wildly deluded. That so many scholars would be so incompetent seems improbable. That they are all lying, even more so.

Yet medieval Christians showed such disinterest in these mathematical achievements that some were barely preserved at all, while others were literally erased from books so they could be replaced with hymns to God. In fact, under Christian tenure almost all the scientific achievements of the ancients were forgotten in the West and ignored in the East, or survived only in simplistic caricatures. The few books that got copied enough to survive were rarely or barely copied at all, often not understood, and never substantially improved upon for nearly a thousand years.

Had Christianity not interrupted the intellectual advance of mankind and put the progress of science on hold for a thousand years, the Scientific Revolution might have occurred a thousand years ago, and our science and technology today would be a thousand years more advanced. This is a painful truth that some Christians simply don't want to hear or accept. Hence they flee into the delusion that it isn't true, that Christianity was instead so wonderful it not only caused modern science, but was essential to it. But, as the facts prove, that simply isn't true.

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