I have ten pages left of How to Defend the Christian Faith: advice from an atheist, but I doubt they’ll change the opinion I’ve formulated already. The book certainly accomplished what it set out to do: it made me think.
John Loftus writes in the introduction that many conservative Christians will bristle at the title and fear what a book like this will do to their faith, so I pride myself a little bit on not being one of “those” Christians – I like being challenged (well, to a point). The writing style itself though is pretty abrasive, and it’s a big turnoff when an author plugs his other books multiple times before the second chapter. Still, I think it’s worth reading and discussing.
This idea isn’t unique to Loftus, but he mentions that adult converts to the Christian faith are most often seeking ways to find meaning after life-altering events, not so much because they find the evidence in favor of Christianity compelling. I’ll agree with him there. I was nineteen years old when I “prayed the prayer” for the first time, though my fascination with Jesus started long before that. I was moved primarily by the doctrine of grace and redemption: that God can make broken things new, which is much more appealing than the old trope “everything happens for a reason.”
Furthermore, a god in human form was just more accessible than the distant father God of the Old Testament who, let’s face it, was kind of violent and angry. My conversion makes even more sense considering the abusive relationship I was in at the time, in which my boyfriend’s actions and words convinced me I was worthless. Jesus dying on the cross for my sins was an extreme act that proved I had value. So yes, my reasons were emotional.
But Loftus also makes criticisms of Christianity that even other Christians might agree with, and that has to do with the issue of cherry-picking. He argues that there’s no way the Jesus story makes sense without a literal Adam and Eve, and science has proved that the human gene pool is too diverse for all of humanity to have descended from just two ancestors (who, it is assumed, arrived to earth in full homosapien form, bypassing all the earlier Neanderthal developments). No evolution means no Fall in the garden of Eden, meaning no original sin. This is something I have thought about a lot, and while I agree that there’s a lot of reorganizing theology happening in light of scientific discoveries, I still don’t agree that evolution being true = Jesus didn’t rise from the dead. Even theologian Timothy Keller agrees with this viewpoint.
But Loftus’ larger point is that Christians are quick to reinterpret the Bible in light of both scientific discoveries and cultural reformations, such as the abolition of slavery and, most recently, the legalization of gay marriage. They’ll argue that Scripture was meant to be interpreted this way all along, we just didn’t figure it out until now. I agree with Loftus that these “revelations” are rather convenient, and I suspect my friend Neil Carter, blogger at Godless in Dixie, is right in his prediction that fifty years from now, when gay marriage is widely accepted, Christians will say they were the champions of equal rights all along.
That’s a lot to take in for such a short book. Loftus’ best achievement, as I’m sure was his goal, was in making me think on why I became a Christian in the first place, and why I still call myself one today. I’ve written before that there’s a lot about Christianity I don’t understand, and don’t even like: hell being the biggest stumbling block. But if I don’t understand something, I read everything I can about it. I bristle at the accusation that I’m just another Cafeteria Christian, so saying “I don’t know” or “I don’t get it, either,” feels like a safer place to land than “This feels wrong to me, I’ll just cut it out.”
But the list of things I don’t understand keeps growing, which means I say “I don’t know” an awful lot. And if I’m so uncertain, then why bother continuing this journey? What’s the point?
Thinking back to college, I can say that the Christian faith enabled me to make brave and unpopular choices I might not have made otherwise. It would have been much easier to cave to peer pressure without a backbone of faith: pressure to drink underage, pressure to go further with a boy than I was ready to. Faith enabled me to be strong and confident in my refusal to do those things. Faith enabled me to stand up for myself when it was necessary; when a date took me home early when it was clear I wasn’t going to sleep with him. Faith made it easier for me to move past that disappointment, to believe I was worth more than what he saw in me.
Certainly there are people who are not Christian who have made similar choices, and didn’t need God to back them up. Where that kind of strength comes from, I don’t know. I can only say with the authority of my own experiences that without faith, I’d have been weak. Without faith, I’d have had no bigger picture to make any pain and discomfort more bearable.
And to be honest, I miss that certainty; that security. But just wishing I could be that person again doesn’t make it so. I have too many questions now that make it difficult to go back to that place. I’ve never had any reservations about Jesus – he is definitely someone worth following, worth aspiring to. But the God he answers to scares me sometimes. Can you have one without the other? While Christians bicker all the time, and even split churches over doctrinal disagreements, I still think there have to be some distinguishing characteristics that define this faith, and the trinity is one of them. The Gospel, certainly, is the core of it.
Evangelicals will, if nothing else, appreciate Loftus’ insistence that the pickers and choosers are fooling themselves. Once upon a time, I would have agreed. But now I understand that, hey, faith is complicated. Journeys are complicated. Life is complicated! Like Loftus, I’ll always have my judgmental opinions. But reading this book helped me realize that writing people off simply for disagreeing with me only makes the journey more complicated than it needs to be. Being open-minded means being willing to listen. It doesn’t require me to agree and believe in everything I hear.