Christianity Is Not Great: How Faith Fails

Christianity Is Not Great: How Faith Fails

by John W. Loftus, Hector Avalos

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Christianity Is Not Great: How Faith Fails by John W. Loftus

In this new anthology critiquing Christianity, John Loftus—a former minister and now a leading atheist—has brought together an outstanding group of respected scholars who focus on the harms caused by the world’s leading religion. 

The contributors begin by dissecting the many problematic aspects of religious faith generally. They repeatedly demonstrate that, with faith as a foundation, almost anything can be believed or denied. And almost any horrific deed can be committed. The authors then take a good hard look at many of the most important political, institutional, scientific, social, and moral harms committed in the name of Christianity. These range from the historical persecutions of the Inquisition and witch hunts to the current health hazards of faith healing.

Finally, the authors answer three common Christian retorts to criticisms from nonbelievers: (1) that atheists cannot judge a harmful action without an objective moral standard; (2) that atheists need faith to solve the world’s problems; and (3) that atheists cannot live a good life without faith.

Loftus and the contributors generally conclude that, given both the well-documented historical record and ongoing problems raised by the faith, Christianity decisively fails empirical tests of its usefulness to humanity.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781616149574
Publisher: Prometheus Books
Publication date: 10/21/2014
Sold by: Penguin Random House Publisher Services
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 555
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Editor John W. Loftus earned M.A. and M.Div. degrees in theology and philosophy from Lincoln Christian Seminary under the guidance of Dr. James D. Strauss. He then attended Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, where he studied under Dr. William Lane Craig and received a Th.M. degree in philosophy of religion. Before leaving the church, he had ministries in Michigan, Illinois, and Indiana, and taught at several Christian and secular colleges. Loftus is the author of Why I Became an Atheist:  A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity;The Outsider Test for Faith: How to Know Which Religion Is True; and the coauthor with Randal Rauser of God or Godless? One Theist. One Christian. Twenty Controversial Questions. In addition, he is the editor of The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails, and The End of Christianity.

Read an Excerpt

Christianity is Not Great

How Faith Fails

By John W. Loftus

Prometheus Books

Copyright © 2014 John W. Loftus
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61614-957-4



John W. Loftus

Even in as big a book as this one is, we could not have chapters on all the harms of Christianity. Nor could we include chapters on many of the other relevant issues having to do with the topic of this book. So in what follows I'll briefly address seven of these important issues. I'll do so by using a question-and-answer format leading up to the biggest question readers of this book will want answered: What do we hope to show by publishing it?

(1) What is it about religion that instigates violence like nothing else?

Jack David Eller has created what I consider essential reading when it comes to religion and violence in his book Cruel Creeds, Virtuous Violence: Religious Violence across Culture and History. He presents six levels (or degrees) of violent-prone conditions that make it increasingly possible for human beings to commit acts of violence against others, irrespective of religion. They are all described with words that begin with the capital letter I. The first level is one's individual nature or Instincts. At this level human beings are prone to violence, just like the animal predecessors we evolved from. Much of nature is red in tooth and claw. Human beings are a mixture of both violent and nonviolent behavior, depending on our nature and environment. The second level is Integration into groups. "If humans have violent potential as individuals, that potential is multiplied in groups.... Groups seem to have their own dynamics, which increases violence exponentially." The third level is our Identity as members of a particular group. Membership has its privileges, and with it comes the responsibility to support and defend the group, especially by keeping insiders in and outsiders out. The fourth level is Institutions. Says Eller: "What is important about institutions is that they embody the beliefs and values of the group or society and that they regularize the behavior of members of the group or society." The fifth level is Interests, which sums up Eller's first five levels like this: "Individually, humans have a capacity for violence. Groups unleash or exacerbate that capacity, and institutions regularize and legitimize it. But interests are what largely motivate it.... At any rate when interests enter the picture, the cleavages between groups become more concrete and sometimes more intractable. The out-group is not just different, not just strange, but now 'in our way.'" The sixth level is Ideology, which is "simply the 'contents' of a worldview or belief system, the ideas and beliefs and values shared by a group or movement." "Certain kinds of ideologies," Eller writes, "are more prone to violence than others." Those that allow people to think of themselves as being under threat, or to see the world as a battleground, or to desire a perfect world devoid of any trace of evil can instill violence.

Eller argues that these six independent conditions for violence against the out-group "converge on a single point." Increasingly they provide the grounds for the lack of empathy toward other people. Empathy, or feeling the pain of others, is "a powerful restraint against violence." But when it is not there "one of the most powerful restraints against violence has been withdrawn." And "evidence suggests that a lack of empathy is a highly dangerous thing."

A person does not have to be a sociopath to feel good about causing harm and suffering—or to feel little or nothing at all about it. Rather what we have discovered is that a human needs only a belief system that teaches that he or she is acting for a good reason (even a "higher cause"), under someone else's authority, as a member of a (threatened) group, in pursuit of interests. Along the way, if the individual can learn, by way of gradual escalation, to commit violence against someone who is worth less—or completely worthless, less than a human being—then violence becomes not only possible but likely, if not certain."

Although political movements can satisfy all six of these conditions, when it comes to religion, or a certain kind of religion, Eller claims that "no other form of human organization and mobilization is so shaped by its ideology." In fact, he argues, "religion may be the ultimate ideology, since its framework is so totally external (i.e., supematurally ordained or given), its rules and standards so obligatory, its bonds unbreakable, and its legitimization so absolute ... no other social force observed in human history can meet those conditions as well as religion." Religion, then, "can actually be the reason and the justification for actions that, without the religion, people would either condemn or would never contemplate in the first place" [Eller's emphasis]. Continuing, Eller says, "In situations of authority, especially 'ultimate' authority like divine command, the normal human empathetic responses that prevent us from perpetrating injury are overridden. Individuals may not even 'want' to commit crimes and abuses, but they are commanded, and religious orders tend to trump individual objections." While Eller candidly admits "not all religions are equally violent, and not all violent ones are violent in identical ways ... without the religious ideology, some forms of violence and crime would be not only undoable but also unthinkable."

(2) Is religious violence worse than other kinds of violence?

Hector Avalos has also written what I consider essential reading about religious violence, using examples from the three Abrahamic monotheisms—Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. In his book Fighting Words: The Origins of Religious Violence he doesn't claim religion is the root of all violence, since people, for religious motives or not, fight over what they consider scarce resources. They fight over many things other than religion, like food, shelter, money, and property. It's just that religion manufactures scarce resources to fight over (such as divine salvation) that are not really scarce, since they don't exist. His thesis is that religions are "prone to violence" because "unlike many non-religious sources of conflict, religious conflict relies solely on resources whose scarcity is wholly manufactured by, or reliant on, unverifiable premises." His argument is this:

(1) Most violence is due to scare resources, real or perceived. Whenever people perceive that there is not enough of something they value, conflict may ensue to maintain or acquire that resource. This can range from love in a family to oil on a global scale.

(2) When religion causes violence, it often does so because it has created new scarce resources.

Avalos has discovered from a careful analysis of the fundamental texts of the three Abrahamic religions how four "scarce" resources have figured repeatedly in creating religious violence among them: sacred space (churches, temples, holy cities), the creation of holy scriptures (exclusive revelations), group privilege (chosen people, the predestined select few), and salvation (only our faith saves us). Since there is no verifiable sacred space, or holy scriptures, or group privileges, or exclusive salvation, believers in the three Abrahamic religions have been killing each other for nothing. We fight over everything it seems, but by taking these religions out of the mix we would have fewer things to fight about.

If you want to see Avalos's thesis illustrated in the City of Jerusalem you need only look as far as Simon Sebag Montefiore's book Jerusalem: The Biography. One reviewer on wrote of his book:

The amount of murder, massacre, etc. for 2,000 years is appalling. Religious madness is the theme. Christians murdering Jews and being murdered and both murdering Muslims and being murdered in their turn. WHY? Because Christ was crucified here, Abraham was willing to sacrifice Isaac here, and Mohammed rode a horse with a human face aerially around the city, receiving insights as he went. So the murders and massacres are about the places where religious events are believed to have taken place.

This leads to Avalos's main argument. In his words:

Although we focus on how scarce resources cause religious violence, an overarching theme of our thesis is that the lack of verifiability in religious belief differentiates ethically the violence attributed to religion from the violence attributed to non-religious factors. This distinction will lead to our main argument, which is that religious violence is always ethically reprehensible, while the same cannot be said of nonreligious violence.... We argue that the quality of the scarcity created by religion is fundamentally different: If any acts of violence caused by actual scarcities are judged as immoral, then acts of violence caused by resources that are not actually scare should be judged as even more immoral. We further develop the argument that any act of violence predicated on the acquisition or loss of a non-existent entity is always immoral and needless because bodily well-being or life is being traded for a nonexistent gain.

Atheist author Greta Christina is a great writer. She has encapsulated for many of us why we argue against the Christian faith in her book Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless. Maybe angry is too strong a word for some of us, but most of us are appalled, disgusted, dismayed, sickened, and even horrified by what we have seen in the world, especially coming from the Christian religious right. In an online essay Christina discusses the problem of religious faith, which amplifies what both Eller and Avalos have argued:

Why is religion special—and specially troubling? What makes religion different from any other ideology, community, system of morality, hypothesis about how the world works? And why does that difference makes it uniquely prone to cause damage?

I'm realizing that everything I've ever written about religion's harm boils down to one thing. It's this: Religion is ultimately dependent on belief in invisible beings, inaudible voices, intangible entities, undetectable forces, and events and judgments that happen after we die.

It therefore has no reality check.

And it is therefore uniquely armored against criticism, questioning, and self-correction. It is uniquely armored against anything that might stop it from spinning into extreme absurdity, extreme denial of reality ... and extreme, grotesque immorality.

The thing that uniquely defines religion, the thing that sets it apart from every other ideology or hypothesis or social network, is the belief in unverifiable supernatural entities. Of course it has other elements—community, charity, philosophy, inspiration for art, etc. But those things exist in the secular world, too. They're not specific to religion. The thing that uniquely defines religion is belief in supernatural entities. Without that belief, it's not religion.

And with that belief, the capacity for religion to do harm gets cranked up to an alarmingly high level—because there's no reality check.

Any other ideology or philosophy or hypothesis about the world is eventually expected to pony up. It's expected to prove itself true and/or useful, or else correct itself, or else fall by the wayside. With religion, that is emphatically not the case. Because religion is a belief in the invisible and unknowable—and it's therefore never expected to prove that it's right, or even show good evidence for why it's right—its capacity to do harm can spin into the stratosphere.

(3) What other factors lead to religious violence?

Charles Kimball, a liberal Christian scholar, argues in his book When Religion Becomes Evil that there are five tendencies within religion that cause evil. First, religion becomes evil whenever it requires uniform assent to rigid, absolute doctrinal truths. In a different context he illustrates this, saying, "I've always been puzzled and saddened by people who make clear that they couldn't be very happy in heaven unless hell was full to overflowing with people who disagree." Second, religion becomes evil when it requires believers to blindly obey the authority of a church or a charismatic leader's teachings. Third, religion becomes evil whenever it attempts to establish the ideal society, a theocracy. Fourth, religion becomes evil whenever it uses any means possible to justify the ends of defending its group identity, institutions, and sacred spaces from outsiders. Fifth, religion becomes evil when it views its wars as holy wars in support of divine causes. Kimball writes that

more wars have been waged, more people killed, and more evil perpetrated in the name of religion than by any other institutional force in human history. The sad truth continues in our present day. In somewhat different ways, leaders and combatants continue to depict their war as a holy cause. ... Declaring war "holy" is a sure sign of a corrupt religion.

Retired bishop John Shelby Spong additionally contends in his book The Sins of Scripture that "the moment any religious tradition claims certainty, it turns demonic." More specifically, "when certainty combines with zeal in religious matters, horror always results." Spong echoes Kimball, saying:

Embarrassing as it may be to those of us who call ourselves Christians, the fact is that more people have been killed in the history of the world in conflicts over and about religion than over any other single factor. Religion has so often been the source of the cruelest evil. Its darkest and most brutal side becomes visible at the moment when the adherents of any religious system identify their understanding of God with God.25

Bertrand Russell, probably the premier atheist of the last century, previously wrote about the evils of certainty, saying, "one of the most interesting and harmful delusions to which men and nations can be subjected is that of imagining themselves special instruments of the Divine Will." And he gave some examples: "Cromwell was persuaded that he was the Divinely appointed instrument of justice for suppressing Catholics and malignants. Andrew Jackson was the agent of Manifest Destiny in freeing North America from the incubus of Sabbath-breaking Spaniards." Such a political program "assumes a knowledge of the Divine purposes to which no rational man can lay claim, and that in the execution of them it justifies a ruthless cruelty which would be condemned if our program had a merely mundane origin. It is good to know that God is on our side, but a little confusing when you find the enemy equally convinced of the opposite." He concludes, "Most of the greatest evils that man has afflicted upon man have come through people feeling quite certain about something which, in fact, was false."

Peter Boghossian in our own day wrote of the evils of certainty as well, saying, "The moment we're unshakably convinced we possess immutable truth, we become our own enemy.... Few things are more dangerous than people who think they're in possession of absolute truth. Honest inquiry with sincere questions and an open mind rarely contribute to the misery of the world."


Excerpted from Christianity is Not Great by John W. Loftus. Copyright © 2014 John W. Loftus. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books.
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Table of Contents


Foreword Hector Avalos, 13,
Introduction, 15,
1. Religious Violence and the Harms of Christianity John W. Loftus, 21,
Part One: How Faith Fails,
2. The Failure of the Church and the Triumph of Reason Robert G. Ingersoll, 43,
3. The Folly of Faith: The Incompatibility of Science and Christianity Victor J. Stenger, 57,
4. Faith, Epistemology, and Answering Socrates' Question by Translation Peter Boghossian, 75,
Part Two: Political/Institutional Harms,
5. Love Your Enemy, Kill Your Enemy: Crusades, Inquisitions, and Centuries of Christian Violence David Eller, 87,
6. Thou Shalt Not Suffer a Witch to Live:The Wicked Christian Witch Hunts John W. Loftus, 108,
7. They Will Make Good Slaves and Christians: Christianity, Colonialism, and the Destruction of Indigenous People David Eller, 133,
8. The Slave Is the Owner's Property: Christianity and the Savagery of Slavery John W. Loftus, 158,
9. Christianity and the Rise of American Democracy Richard Carrier, 180,
Part Three: Scientific Harms,
10. The Dark Ages Richard Carrier, 209,
11. The Christian Abuse of the Sanctity of Life Ronald A. Lindsay, 222,
12. The Gender Binary and LGBTI People: Religious Myth and Medical Malpractice Veronica Drantz, 242,
13. Christianity Can Be Hazardous to Your Health Harriet Hall, MD, 264,
14. Christianity and the Environment William R. Patterson, 286,
15. Doth God Take Care for Oxen?: Christianity's Acrimony against Animals John W. Loftus, 303,
Part Four: Social and Moral Harms,
16. The Christian Right and the Culture Wars Ed Brayton, 323,
17. Woman, What Have I to Do with Thee?: Christianity's War against Women Annie Laurie Gaylor, 343,
18. Secular Sexuality: A Direct Challenge to Christianity Darrel W. Ray, 360,
19. The Crazy-Making in Christianity: A Look at Real Psychological Harm Marlene Winell and Valerie Tarico, 376,
20. Abusive Pastors and Churches Nathan Phelps, 402,
Part Five: Morality, Atheism, and a Good Life,
21. "Tu Quoque, Atheism?"—Our Right to Judge Jonathan MS Pearce, 421,
22. Only Humans Can Solve the Problems of the World James A. Lindsay, 445,
23. Living without God Russell Blackford, 462,
Notes, 485,
About the Contributors, 551,

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