Book Review: Why I Became An Atheist: A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity (2008).
John W. Loftus’ Why I Became an Atheist: a Former Preacher Rejects Christianity doesn't really blaze new ground, but it does cover a lot of it.
In fact, this comprehensiveness is a key distinctive that separates it from the work of the "New Atheist" trio, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris (the "Trio"). The other two distinctives are its author's credentials and candor.
Why I Became an Atheist is a serious, comprehensive critique of Christianity (especially conservative Protestantism [see, e.g., p. 12]). Loftus writes, "In it I present a cumulative case argument against Christianity." (p. 12.) Exhibiting its expansive scope, it includes chapters or lengthy discussions on “the problem of evil” (theodicy), philosophical arguments about the existence of God, the origin of life, textual criticism, prayer, the historicity of the biblical record, prophesy, the existence of hell, and living as an atheist, among many other topics.
I’ve read works from today’s big four religion critics: the Trio, plus Bart D. Ehrman—whom I’ve heard amusingly referred to collectively as the “Four Horsemen”. Loftus' book explores topics found in their works, which emphasize certain critiques of religion.
For example, Ehrman recently published a book on theodicy, God’s Problem, and Dawkins largely advocates for an evolutionary rather than theistic explanation for the origin of life in numerous books, such as The God Delusion. Ehrman also has authored books closely examining the New Testament record, such as Misquoting Jesus and Jesus, Interrupted, covering material far beyond anything in Dawkins, Hitchens or Harris'. Uniquely, Loftus provides a taste of all these critiques in his over 400-page, densely-packed tome. In other words, if one were look for a recent survey text for atheistic argumentation, this book would more than suffice. Then, if one wanted to drill down into areas of the other author's expertise, then one could follow up with the respective expert, say Ehrman on New Testament critical scholarship or Dawkins on Darwinism.
I have read that Loftus posits that his "Outsider Test for Faith" (Chapter 4) constitutes an innovation, but I found it just another challenge to employ critical thinking, which a serious Christian should do in any event, and perhaps a recasting of the burden of proof--placing it on the believer.
Unlike the Trio, Loftus holds credentials from within the evangelical academic community. He obtained M.A. and M.Div. degrees from Lincoln Christian Seminary in Lincoln, Illinois. (p. 13.) Thereafter, he received a Th.M. from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School ("TEDS") under the mentoring of Dr. William Lane Craig (p. 13), now a professor at Biola University. Additionally, Loftus "spent a year and a half in a Ph.D. program at Marquette University with a double major in theology and ethics... and taught classes for several Christian colleges...." (p. 13.)
However, this Dr. Craig connection leads to a critique. The book seems largely personalized to refute Dr. Craig--his former mentor, even though Loftus denies it at the outset. (p. 14.) Loftus curiously includes incidents occurring in class with Dr. Craig (his former professor) and personal interactions with him. A picture with Dr. Craig at Loftus' graduation from TEDS is even reproduced. (p. 14.) Moreover, large swaths of text are disproportionately dedicated to setting forth Dr. Craig's apologetic argumentations, only to endeavor to knock them down. While I recognize that Dr. Craig is a leading Christian apologist, he is far from the only one now or before. For example, Loftus does not similarly attack prominent evangelical apologist Dr. Norman L. Geisler's arguments with the same frequency or ferocity as directed to Dr. Craig's. This omission is underscored by Loftus' observation that Dr. Geisler has produced "more than sixty apologetics books, including The Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics." (p. 11.)
Loftus interestingly points out that Dr. Geisler "is recommending this book of mine to his students." (p. 11.) Loftus also quotes Dr. Geisler's review of Why I Became An Atheist, which review I endorse: "[I]t 'is an honest and open account of how a Christian became an atheist. Seldom are unbelievers so candid and open. Second, every Christian--let alone Christian apologists--can learn some valuable lessons from it on how to treat wayward believers. Third, it is a thoughtful and intellectually challenging work, presenting arguments that every honest theist and Christian should face.'" (p. 11.)
As Dr. Geisler observed, this book is remarkably "candid and open" (p. 11). To Loftus' credit, and perhaps discredit, he provides the impetus for his "de-conversion." (Chapter 1). Contrasting his de-conversion from one based solely upon a rejection of the evidence itself, Loftus candidly admits "there were three major circumstances that happened in [his] life that changed his thinking." (p. 24.) At its locus was a moral failure followed by mistreatment by the church. (pp. 24-30.)
He tries to answer anticipated critiques by writing, "While the things I have just written [about his personal experiences] might explain to some degree why my thinking has changed, I want to stress the fact that my thinking has indeed changed. You cannot explain away my present thinking by pointing to these experiences I've had in my life." (pp. 31-32.) Despite Loftus' protestations, I couldn't help but conclude that much of Loftus' book that follows Chapter 1's personal story constitutes post-hoc rationalizations for his rejection of Christianity. Nevertheless, I do concur with Loftus that his arguments must be dealt with on their merits--regardless of how Loftus got there. (p. 32.)