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Response to John Loftus Review

First, I’d like to thank John Loftus for taking the time to write such a strong review (click here to read it), and for caring enough about the material to make the criticisms he’s made. Thanks, John.

But I’d like to respond to his criticisms, because I think many of them reflect a misunderstanding of my language or, in some cases potentially, a misrepresentation of my arguments. The easiest way for me to respond is piecemeal, so I’ll do it that way.

Because John Loftus shares a name with one of the Gospel writers, I’ll refer to him by his surname, rather than his Christian name. [insert laughter here]

Loftus said: Chapter eight argues that Jesus was wrong about the end of the world. It did not take place as he predicted. In this chapter Stark says of my chapter on this topic in “The Christian Delusion” that “the claims made [by] Loftus cannot be ignored by Christians.’” I liked that.

I just want to clarify that although I certainly do think every Christian should read Loftus’s chapter on Jesus’ apocalyptic expectations, that does not mean I endorse his overall conclusion. Loftus quotes my footnote from p. 168. But on p. 207, I ask whether Loftus is correct that, in his words, “at best Jesus was a failed apocalyptic prophet.” On that page, I do not offer an answer but I do offer my response in the final (tenth) chapter of my book, where I state clearly that I believe Jesus, while indeed a failed apocalyptic prophet, was much more than that, and that all of his teachings should not be dismissed just because some missed the mark. I am very critical of Jesus’ apocalypticism in that chapter, but I also highlight the aspects of his apocalypticism that are beneficial, in my estimation. I also point out that not all of Jesus’s teachings can be traced to apocalyptic roots, and that other facets of his teaching are valuable. So, while I agree with many of John’s conclusions about Jesus’ apocalyptic expectations and failed predictions, I disagree with John that Jesus was nothing more than a failed apocalyptic prophet and should be totally disregarded.

Loftus said: My problem is why such a god inserted these texts into his revelation if they are to be condemned? This just does not make sense to me at all. What’s more probable? That God did this, and along with it allowed believers for centuries to think they were pleasing him for these kinds of acts, or that the Bible is a man-made product written by ancient barbaric superstitious agency detectors? You know my choice.

I can easily explain why this doesn’t make sense to Loftus. It doesn’t make sense to him because what he thinks is my position isn’t my position at all. I never said that God inserted the condemned texts into the Bible to teach us about us. I fully concur with Loftus that these are manmade artifacts offered in Yahweh’s name. The title of my book is “the human faces of God” precisely because I argue that these texts don’t come from God at all. So when Loftus says that it doesn’t make sense for me to conclude that God inserted condemned texts into our scriptures, I fully concur—which is why that’s not my conclusion. When I say that these texts are revelatory, I do not mean that God put them there. I mean what I said: we put them there and therefore they reveal “us” to us. And “us” is something we all need to see. Thus, their scriptural value is not as revelations from God, but as (generally unwelcome) reminders to us about human nature and our perennial capacity to do evil in the name of good, or our tendency to wait for the big fix from above rather than work toward a solution together from below. These sorts of problems with the text are revelatory. When I speak of “God speaking through the text,” I do not mean that God put those texts there. We did. But I think that God can still speak through our bullshit if we’re willing to listen—and that requires a posture of self-criticism.

I also concur with Loftus that the ancient Israelites had barbaric superstitions, but (and I think he would agree) I don’t for a second think that the ancient Israelites and the Bible can be dismissed in such a fashion whole cloth. The Bible and Israelites aren’t special in that regard. Every culture has much to teach us, both through positive and negative example.

Loftus said: But if we have these resources what do we need faith for at all? What is faith at that point? He’s admitting he gets his beliefs from the same resources I do, except that I deny the Bible has any authority over me along with the Holy Spirit. 😉 He and I are in the same boat.

Here again is a misunderstanding. I think it stems from our different conceptions of what faith is. I don’t believe we need faith in order to figure out what’s moral. Secondly, I never claim that the Bible has or should have authority “over” Christians. I explain how the conception of biblical authority that places the Bible “over” Christians is immature and based in fear. Instead, I argue that, for Christians (not for atheists like John or Buddhists or what have you), the Bible is authoritative “from the ground up.” That is, it doesn’t dictate morality to us: it is our starting point for moral reflection; not necessarily our ending point. And that’s only because we are Christians. I value different traditions and think they all have value, and Christianity is especially valuable in a number of ways, despite its many flaws. So, he doesn’t differ from me in that I think the Bible has authority “over” me and he doesn’t. We agree on that.

Also, he includes the “Holy Spirit” here, but I never said anything about the Holy Spirit having “authority over” anyone; I never spoke of the Holy Spirit in connection to authority at all. I spoke of the Holy Spirit as the source of inspiration that helps us to discern truth as we are willing to look critically at ourselves and sympathetically at those who are different from us. To me, the Holy Spirit is a way of talking about the pursuit of truth and the pursuit of what is right. That doesn’t mean I don’t think there is an actual entity or force that helps us to do this; it also doesn’t mean that I do think there is such an entity or force. There might not be, and there could be, but it is a way of talking about that pursuit that I think is very powerful and affective, and resonates with me despite my profound awareness of the historical contingencies that gave rise to the idea of a “holy spirit” to begin with. As I’ve said many times before, the language of theology is evocative, not descriptive; metaphorical, not scientific. And this leads me to what I mean by “faith.”

To me, if a Christian is certain that God exists and that everything Christianity teaches (whatever brand of Christianity they think is truest) accurately describes metaphysical and physical reality, then they don’t have faith. To think that you can “know” that these things are true is by my definition of faith precisely to reject faith. What faith is by my definition is action based on hope, and hope is a direct response to profound uncertainty. Let’s put it this way. Loftus and I both agree on what resources we should utilize to figure out what the moral thing to do is in a given situation. But for me (and maybe Loftus doesn’t have this problem, and if not, more power to him), what I’m not sure about is whether being moral is itself morally significant. I see people suffering, I want to try and alleviate their suffering, but I struggle with the question of whether my doing so has any point, beyond the obvious one of the immediate alleviation of their suffering. Why is the alleviation of human suffering the right thing to do? If the universe is a cosmic accident (and it may very well be just that), I can’t figure out why human beings should have impetus to behave morally, other than when it helps us to preserve ourselves or our species or to make us happier in some way. When morality conflicts with self-preservation or self-gratification, I just don’t know why morality should win out.

I really don’t know. This isn’t a hypothetical or an argument for the existence of God from the undesirability of a morally absurd universe. The universe may well be completely amoral. I’m afraid it might be. And because I’m human, that troubles me. (I doubt it troubles raccoons.) That doesn’t mean I believe because I’m emotionally weak. Anyone who’s read my book will know, so it’s really no surprise, that I don’t by a longshot believe everything Christianity says is true. But the question is, when I am faced with human suffering, and I set out to alleviate that suffering, is there a point to it? Does it matter, not just in that moment, but in the long run? Does it ultimately matter whether human beings continue to exist or not? I don’t believe that it does. I don’t believe that it doesn’t. I really don’t know whether it does or not. But here’s the point: I earnestly hope that it matters; and when I act on that hope, that is, when I act as if human suffering matters, I am acting in faith. That to me is what faith is. It is action based on hope, which in turn is a direct response to profound uncertainty. If I weren’t profoundly uncertain, I couldn’t hope that our existence has a profound meaning; and if I didn’t have that hope, then I couldn’t have faith (which is action, not assent to metaphysical propositions).

So, I have faith because I really don’t know if any of this has any meaning. But I act like it does, because I hope that it does. I can’t be “wrong” (about this) because I haven’t made a claim one way or the other. And this isn’t Pascal’s Wager. Another thing I really don’t know about: I don’t know if there is a God that sends unbelievers to hell, but I hope that there isn’t. Not because I don’t want to go to hell, but because it would really suck if God turned out to be less just than most humans. I’m not talking about Pascal’s Wager. I’m simply saying that my uncertainty about the meaning of our existence goes so deep that any time I try to do what is right for right’s sake is an act of faith on my part. Maybe others (maybe Loftus) aren’t as profoundly uncertain as I am. Like I said, that’s great for them.

If somebody could show me beyond doubt that the universe is a cosmic accident and everything is ultimately meaningless, then I’ll accept that and find some way to go on, but it’ll be a different way, most likely. I’m not talking about needing a reason to live by rules. I’m not saying that if the cosmos has no meaning then I’d rather blow off my family and party till I’m dead. I’m not talking about that kind of morality. I’m talking about the very core of human endeavor itself.

It may well be that there is no meaning and that we can only create meaning for ourselves. But if that’s the case, then the best I can do is try to create the best meaning, and that’s what I’m already doing. I’m trying to find out what’s good and true and to pursue that. And I think that when it comes to such truths, the processes of “discovery” and the processes of “creativity” are virtually the same processes. All human beings can do is create their own meaning, and hope they got it right. The Bible is the product of such efforts, as are all cultural artifacts. To create meaning and believe in it is, I am convinced, what it means to be human. It’s when we refuse to acknowledge that our creativity is a response to profound uncertainty that it loses its human quality—that’s when we’re trying to be more than what we are, or rather, other than what we are. To be human is to have faith—to act on our hopes which arise consciously in response to our own ignorance and uncertainty.

Loftus said: Stark claims he is a Christian because he was born into that faith by Christian parents. And although he knows his parent’s flaws he is still their son and embraces them. “I am a Christian,” he writes, “because I chose to be a Christian. I am a Christian because I am a white male living in the West…Because I am a Christian, this book we call the ‘Holy Bible’ is uniquely my own. Whether I want it or not, I am stuck with it. Even if I were never to pick it up again, I could never put it down. It has shaped me in irrevocable ways.” (p. 242). He is right. The Bible has indeed shaped him and our culture. It has shaped me too. Should I be called a Christian merely because I’m an American who was born into this culture? What need then is the label Christian? According to his definition everyone born into a Christian culture is de facto a Christian, so long as they say that they are one.

Loftus is making a couple mistakes here. First, he misrepresents me when he suggests that I claim to be a Christian “merely because I’m an American who was born into this culture.” That is not at all the only reason I gave for why I continue to identify as a Christian. In my book, I also spoke of my continued affection for Jesus of Nazareth, despite his many flaws, and in some cases precisely because of his flaws. I have also, in other places, offered further reasons why I continue to identify as a Christian. It is not just because I was born one, and because my culture is predominantly Christian. Second, I never said that anyone born in a Christian culture is a de facto Christian, nor does my “definition” of Christian (as if I have only one definition) necessitate such a claim.

Loftus continues: This plays loose with words, although I have ceased telling people what or who is a Christian. If people like Stark claim to be a Christian who am I to say he isn’t one? It’s just that this stretches our use of language beyond the breaking point. That means I can be a Christian too if I just say that I am. But I deny that I am. So why should I allow such a definition of what it means to be a Christian at all?

I disagree emphatically with Loftus here. I am not at all playing loose with words, nor am I stretching the definition of Christian to the breaking point. Loftus can’t just call himself a Christian and thus become one. But he’s right that in an important sense it is up to each of us to determine how we self-identify. He is not a Christian precisely because, in his own words, he denies that he is a Christian. I am a Christian, in large part, because I choose to so identify. One of the reasons I am a Christian is because it is my cultural heritage; and that is a very important reason. But it’s not the only one. There is also the fact that I have a strong affection for the teachings and activities of Jesus, even if I appropriate his teachings critically. The fact that I am very critical of socialist-democratic literature doesn’t prevent me from identifying as a socialist-democrat. Moreover, just because I identify as a socialist-democrat doesn’t mean that I may not also be able to identify with some other political parties. Socialist-democrat defines me most fully, but I am also Green, Republican, Libertarian, Anarchist, and so on, in significant ways. In the same way, I am a Christian, but that doesn’t mean I don’t also identify as a secular humanist, as an agnostic, a bit as a Muslim, and a Buddhist, and so on, in very significant ways. I continue to identify as Christian because much of the vocabulary and many of the themes of Christianity continue to resonate with me in profound ways, and inspire hope, and therefore action. The fact that I’m aware that that vocabulary may not (and in many cases most probably doesn’t) correspond to an actual metaphysical reality doesn’t make it any less evocative and powerful for me. The way I see it, we have no access to the “right” way to speak about ultimate meaning, and so we are left with nothing but human attempts to do so—some of them helpful, some unhelpful, some of them beautiful, some grotesque. A lot of Christianity continues to resonate with me; but so does some of Islam, and Buddhism, and Native American religions, and so on. And humanism also resonates with me profoundly. But any attempt to attribute ultimate meaning to human endeavors (whether it comes from a televangelist or a secular humanist) is subject to the same intractable problem: we just don’t know that there is any. So rather than to stop talking and acting altogether, I choose to make the best of the vocabulary I know best, and to learn as many new words in as many new languages as I can. If Loftus thinks this makes me a strange candidate for a “Christian,” I’ll readily admit that fundamentalists won’t recognize me as such; but there have been scores of Christians throughout history who have understood very well what I’m articulating here. Despite my many disagreements with him, C.S. Lewis and I can at least agree on this: theological language is poetic. While he believed that Christianity was the best of the poetic expressions of ultimate meaning, he didn’t for a second think that Christian language was anything more than poetry—but it was poetry that strived to articulate a reality humans have no direct access to, if it exists at all.

It is not playing fast and loose with language to describe myself as an English speaker, even though I’m quite aware that “English” does no more to “accurately describe” reality than does Spanish, French, HTML or Binary. Languages are attempts to make sense of our worlds, or to function within them, and just as I can be primarily an English Speaker, but also have pretty good Spanish and be a student of six other languages, I can be predominantly a Christian but also an agnostic, a humanist, a Muslim and a Buddhist.

I’m not describing “pluralism.” I’m not saying that all religions (or non-religions) are ultimately saying the same thing. I’m saying they’re all saying different things (hell, Christianity alone says lots of different things and posits different answers to the same questions), but I have much to learn from what they all have to say. Some may be more right than others, or they may all be equally wrongheaded (I don’t think they are). But the truth is, when it comes to ultimate meaning, the only truth humans can come up with is poetic truth. It’s just like language: a banana isn’t a banana. There isn’t really a name for it. Naming things is what humans do; it’s a very human thing to do. And religion is a way to talk about those aspects of our existence that defy scientific explanation. I’m not talking about a God of the gaps; I’m talking about the sorts of questions that all good scientists acknowledge science can never answer. I think those questions are worth talking about, and there are lots of vocabularies that I find useful for doing so—that of Christianity being the first. Therefore, I am a Christian, among other things. I’m also a Hoosier, and an Aussie, and I wouldn’t be me if I couldn’t be both. But being an Aussie doesn’t commit me to approving of every bad move Australia has ever made geopolitically, any more than being a Christian commits me to approving of everything Christianity has ever said, done, or represented.

Loftus says that “it’s time people like Stark renounce not only the bad in the Bible but also the bad in his Christian culture.” Who says I haven’t renounced the bad in “my Christian culture”? I have, repeatedly, and continue to do so. And that’s part of the reason, as I’ve explained elsewhere, that I continue to identify as a Christian: precisely because I condemn so much that Christianity has done, I feel a moral responsibility and obligation not to pretend like I’m not connected to Christianity, just because I often want nothing further to do with it. That would be like the son of a slave-owner denying that he’s a son and pretending he never benefited from the institution of slavery. There are some positive reasons why I identify as a Christian, but there’re also reasons like this. I have to continue to identify as a Christian, if my condemnation of Christianity’s many sins is going to have any moral weight. At least, that’s how I see it. Loftus is free to have a different perspective. But he is mistaken if he thinks that in order to condemn the bad bits of “Christian culture” I must condemn it whole cloth.

But that’s what troubles me about his repeated calls for a “more democratic” society—they ring somewhat hollow to me because he doesn’t seem to have room in his mind for an approach to religion in which religion is open, democratic, and more about questions than answers. He says I need to be willing to condemn “my Christian culture,” as if I haven’t done so, but the truth is, I don’t think there should be a “Christian culture,” at least not a meta-culture. I think there should be various Christian sub-cultures, but I believe that societies should be pluralistic, and that is the only way that they will ever be democratic. If Loftus thinks there will ever be a human society that can be both atheistic and democratic at the same time, I think he’s gravely mistaken. To me, that’s like saying he wants a free society as long as society isn’t free.

Loftus and I both desire a society that is more tolerant, and we both desire a society where fundamentalism is a thing of the past. I think we should work toward that, but that is not the same thing as working toward a society in which there is no religion. And, I need to be quick to add, even though I think we should work toward a society in which fundamentalism doesn’t make sense, I do not believe such a society is humanly possible, and thus any attempt to actually implement such a society will be an act of inhumanity itself.

All of that said, I think that Loftus and I share substantial agreement about a number of issues, and I thank him sincerely for his engagement. I think it has been fruitful.