When people ask me why I became an atheist, the answer is always the same - I was born that way. The truth is I've never believed in a god, and it's only through television, my peers and the oddly cultural-relativistic public school system in Australia that I even came to know god. When I was 9 I changed schools where I was asked what religion I was, I said Christian because I went to scripture at my old school. At further pressing they asked me if I was catholic or Anglican, I didn't know the difference and said catholic. Needless to say my Mother got me out of that nutty cult room pretty quickly. When I was 12 and finally old enough to understand the question, I rejected the concept of God and have since been an outspoken atheist. So why am I mentioning this? Because my background matters when reviewing John W. Loftus' book Why I Became An Atheist: A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity.
It matters for me to make the case for my atheism because unlike a lot of people in western society, I was not brought up Christian. In scripture at school, we weren't taught from the bible, but were taught of the nature of God and the power of faith through parables. It wasn't a literal reading, it was very liberal, very much about selling a personal relationship with Jesus. So to read a book criticising fundamentalism is not even attacking the Christianity I know, to me it's attacking the extreme right who have no basis in reality to begin with.
To me, a criticism of biblical literacy should begin and end with science. We know the world is more than 6000 years old, we know that life evolved - both these facts have been known for more than 100 years now. Yet there are still those who take mythic storytelling and think of it as history? No wonder my scripture teachers focused on the power of belief instead of trying to warn me of the dangers of talking snakes. That to want a personal relationship with Christ is better than selling children on the dangers of Hell.
I have been an avid reader of Loftus' blog, Debunking Christianity, for some time now and find him to be a reasonable and level-headed man. Which is why the first thing that shocked me about the book was the way he would talk about what he used to believe, that it is so obviously absurd. And as I went on through the book, what stood out was how poor the intellectual reconciliation between the modern understanding of the world and the bible actually is. The reconciliations take an absurdity and make it sound even more absurd. To preserve the notion that the bible is the word (in some sense) of an omniscient deity, the most asinine explanations are presented. The book didn't even need Loftus' debunking those claims - they could not stand up on their own.
This is not to say I hated the book, Loftus is an excellent writer and wrote a mostly engaging argument. I say mostly engaging because I found the excessive quoting of scripture to be tedious. But then again, I keep getting scripture quoted at me so it must mean something to somebody - I'm really not the target audience for this. There were some parts that made the book worth getting - the outsider test for faith is possibly the best argument against religion, and that goes for all religion. The philosophy and explanation of the control beliefs was also really thorough and well presented. And finally at the end, the way he tackled the idea of ultimate meaning was done very well.
I was asked if I were to recommend an atheist book to theists, would it be this or Dawkins' book The God Delusion. I answered this book, and I do thoroughly recommend it. But at the same time I found Dawkins' book to be a lot more intellectually satisfying. It gave reasons to do away with superstition, this book attacked what is in my mind a straw-man of Christianity. But what I've fast come to realise over the last 5 years or so, what I perceive as a straw-man is the intellectual and moral foundations for hundreds of millions of people. Apparently some people still believe we are magic dirt who ate some bad fruit on the advice of a talking snake. Thankfully it's now the 21st century and J.K. Rowling has written a much better tale warning of the dangers of listening to talking snakes, and we don't even have to believe that there's a platform 9 3/4 at Kings Cross station to heed this advice.