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Customer Review

on 11 May 2010
This book is a collection of related essays by multiple authors, which has advantages (many of the authors are qualified experts writing in their own fields) and disadvantages (a certain degree of inconsistency in style and approach). The diverse topics also have the advantage that there is likely to be something new here for many readers even if they are familiar with the common arguments for and against Christianity.

The first essay, from anthropologist David Eller, looks at religion and culture; while there are probably no big surprises here, I found it very effective at putting religion in context and addressing how it is spread and established and, in turn, how religion is itself influenced by culture. Then follows an excellent piece by psychologist Valerie Tarico, looking at what modern cognitive science has to say about our inherent irrationality (with a nice sideswipe at philosophy along the way) and the nature of religious experiences. Next up is Jason Long with more on the psychology of belief; then John Loftus closes out the first part with a defense of his "Outsider Test of Faith" (expounded in his earlier book but presented perhaps too briefly here).

Part two addresses the Bible, first with Edward Babinski comparing the Bible's view of cosmology with other ancient sources. Then Paul Tobin writes on what modern scholarship has to say about the Bible, giving a quick (possibly too quick) overview of some of the problems with it such as the discrepancies between the OT and the archaeological evidence, the internal contradictions, the inclusion of forgeries in the NT canon, and so on. (An addendum specifically addresses the problem of liberal or modernist theology.) Loftus then argues that the interpretation, mis-interpretation and re-interpretation of the Bible throughout history represents a "failure to communicate" on a scale which should be impossible for an omniscient deity.

Obviously, parts of part two are specifically aimed at the more evangelical/conservative/literalist branches of Christianity and are thus possibly a bit less relevant outside the USA, but I found them still worth reading for all that.

Part three addresses the question of the goodness, or otherwise, of the Christian conception of God. First up here is Hector Avalos, with an essay which suffers somewhat from being a rebuttal to a specific article by a Christian apologist; I think this approach to the topic would have been better avoided. This is followed by Loftus discussing the "Darwinian Problem of Evil", i.e. why is there so much suffering amongst nonhuman animals; this variant of the Problem of Evil has the advantage of neatly sidestepping all the arguments about free will etc. which are usually deployed in response to arguments about human evils.

Part four addresses the issue of Jesus. Robert Price contributes an essay "Jesus: Myth and Method" which is largely an attack on two evangelical apologists (Greg Boyd and Paul Eddy) for their attempts to argue for the historical accuracy of the Gospels. While Price obviously has some good arguments, the fact that this is a response to a specific other book really detracts quite a bit from the overall result. This is followed, though, by an excellent piece by historian Richard Carrier, reviewing the purported evidence for the resurrection and arguing that it is entirely inadequate to support a rational belief. Then Loftus argues "at best Jesus was a failed apocalyptic prophet".

Part five is aimed at the relationship between Christianity and modern society. David Eller addresses why religion in general and Christianity in particular is not a basis for morality. Hector Avalos takes on the attempts of some Christian apologists to blame the Holocaust on atheism. Finally, Richard Carrier soundly debunks the claim that Christianity was responsible for modern science.

Overall, I'm deducting one star for the extent to which some of the essays (especially the ones from Price and Avalos) are rebutting specific apologists or positions from the conservative/evangelical side, making the book a bit US-centric (probably inevitable given the authors). However, the book still has a lot to say even against the moderate/liberal churches.

As an atheist since childhood the book obviously wasn't going to change any of my beliefs; but I found it a useful read, especially Valerie Tarico's and Richard Carrier's contributions.
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