Awkward Holiday Present December 29, 2009

Awkward Holiday Present

by Jesse Galef –

When I came home today I saw a package from Amazon waiting for me. Not sure what to expect, I opened it eagerly. It turned out to have been from a Christian friend of mine in college. The book is “Atheist Delusions” by David Bentley Hart.  My friend must have known what my reaction would be…

Now, I’ve had people send me their random Christian books in hopes of convincing me of something. I tend to put those books aside (except the time I unleashed some snark on Conversations with an Atheist.) This is different, as it comes from a friend instead of a random stranger. I feel like I should at least make an effort to read it.

But the beginning is throwing up red flags, warning signs, and every possible metaphor for alarm. The very first words in the introduction are:

“This book is in no sense an impartial work of history. Perfect detachment is impossible for even the soberest of historians, since the writing of history necessarily demands some sort of narrative of causes and effects, and is thus necessarily an act of interpretation, which by its nature can never be wholly free of prejudice. But I am not really a historian, in any event, and I do not even aspire to detachment. “

Hoo boy. At least Hart got that out of the way to start, so I know to expect an unhinged attack.

What a straw man – who’s demanding absolute detachment?  It’s true that perfect detachment is impossible, but that’s no reason to stop trying to get closer.  When you start with “Perfect detachment is impossible for even the soberest of historians …”

  • Right way to finish the thought: “but I’ll do my best to be as impartial and accurate as I can.”
  • Wrong way to finish the thought: “so I won’t bother even trying, and instead revel in the fact that this book is in no sense an impartial work.”

Oh wait – we can trust him! He says so himself on the next page:

“I can, moreover, vouch for the honesty of my argument: I have not consciously distorted any aspect of the history I discuss or striven to conceal any of its more disheartening elements.” [emphasis mine]

Bias is typically an unconscious effect.  We rarely say to ourselves, “I have confirmation bias, so I’m only going to look at evidence that is likely to confirm my existing belief.”  That Hart didn’t make a conscious effort to distort history is good to know, but not fully comforting.  It means that instead of being intentionally misleading, he’ll be unintentionally misleading.  At least it’s due to intellectual laziness instead of malice?

Even scientists are prone to bias – but that’s precisely why they work so hard to minimize its effect! Much of the scientific method is an effort to work against the innate biases and sources of error that might skew results. Control groups, double-blind procedures, retesting and requiring peer review… instead of them resigning themselves to imperfection, they strive to at least get closer to the truth.

I’ve started reading the first chapter of Atheist Delusions and it’s exactly what I expected.  Ad hominem attacks, strawmen, and yes, an unabashedly biased view of events.  FSM, give me the strength to finish this book.

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  • I made an agreement with a Christian friend that if he would read The God Delusion, I would read I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist. I didn’t think he’d take me up on it, but he did, so now I have to read his book. *sigh* So many other ways I’d rather spend my vacation!

  • Ashley Moltzan

    I feel the same way too…for Christmas my aunt who I am really close to gave me the book The Case for Christ. I guess it’s about some journalism’s journey from atheism to Christianity. I promised myself I would get through it as well. I am pretty far in it and it’s so biased having the Bible back up the Bible and it’s very anecdotal. I am still waiting for some actual “evidence” for this case for Christ. I also need the strength to finish this book as well!!!!…

  • Stephen P

    May I suggest a perfect birthday present for your friend? A detailed review of the book, written by yourself. He/she will probably never receive a present in which the sender has invested so much loving care.

    And having glanced through a few reviews of this book I found online, it looks as if we could do with a good one.

  • I am reading Chuck Colson’s book The Faith for my mother, it is the same. It is supposed to be about Christianity but instead all I have read so far is straw man, ad hom, and biased history against “anti-theist”, he refuses to call atheists atheists.

  • I too was given The Case for Christ, several years ago. Not by a friend though, but a part-time coworker at a department store. However, he was polite and low-key about it, so I gave it a shot. Hogwash, of course.

    I think I came reeeal close to getting The Shack from my father-in-law this Christmas. They don’t know my beliefs/lack thereof, but I think they suspect. Can’t wait to have that conversation.

  • Peregrine

    Yeah. I don’t have the time to read a lot of things that I actually want or need to read, let alone more Christian propaganda. The response something like that is likely to get from me is to fester on the shelf.

    Or maybe get sold at a second-hand shop, or return it to the store, or something like that. Might as well get some value out of it.

  • Angie

    I can empathize with some of the commenters here. Christian apologist books nowadays are little more than bundles of ad hominem attacks, straw man fallacies, and false dichotomies. I suspect that the target audience for these books is not nonbelievers at all, but rather fellow Christians who want to have their beliefs reinforced.

  • lol that’s a fun gift to get! And at very least it gives you the opportunity to have a dialogue with a believing friend. I’ve been wanting to read one of those popular Christian books, but I’m too embarrassed to be seen taking one out from the library, and I don’t want to pay for one.

    It’s a way better gift than what I got from my Gramma…maybe in response to my atheistic letters to the editor, she made a donation in my honour to the Catholic Missions of Canada…I couldn’t even pretend to be happy about that one. Normally she buys a goat for a village in Africa, but not this year…I read what they do on their website quickly and it appears that all they do is promote religious education and rebuild Churches UGH!

  • littlejohn

    Good lord, you people need to learn to be more offensive and off-putting.
    Nobody gives me any pro-Christian stuff, as I have made it perfectly clear that to do so is to be beaten to death, instantly.
    It helps to be unusually large, with an ironic nickname.
    I’ve also started an entirely unfounded rumor that I once shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die. Where’s your god now, Mormon-boy?

  • Jer

    I suspect that the target audience for these books is not nonbelievers at all, but rather fellow Christians who want to have their beliefs reinforced.

    This is exactly the case. Books of apologetics are not for the non-believer – they’re for the believer who is in the process of questioning his or her faith. Some believers think that apologetics books are good for non-believers, but that’s because they have their faith and they can’t understand how anyone could possibly NOT believe and so they find apologetic arguments convincing and think everyone else will too.

    But faith transitions do not happen that way – you don’t get argued into a strong belief any more than you get argued out of a strong belief. You start with questions about your beliefs first and then then when they’ve weakened you can change them. And it works both ways – atheists can start doubting their unbelief and gravitate back toward a faith. You see it sometimes in older atheists – the fear of death causes them to doubt their unbelief and they become open to arguments that they would have laughed off in previous years. But they weren’t brought back into belief because of a convincing argument – even if that’s how they justify it to themselves – they’d already started questioning their unbelief and the arguments start to look more convincing because of that.

  • Eric Mattingly

    The title sounds stupid but I doubt it’s all meaningless pap– mainly because it was published by Yale University Press. I know, it’s just academic bias, but I don’t see Yale letting a Ray Comfort-like book getting through their filters. Anyway, I’m interested in reading the strongest case for any religion possible so this one might be on my list.

  • Tim Carroll

    I fail to see why you should even bother reading the book. I recently picked up a small book by a man named Lee Strobel. It was some sort of explanation and justification for “CHRISTmas” and I thought I might as well see what the man had to say. The book is an excerpt of a larger work.
    To make a long story short, I got through the introduction and part of the first chapter. I found quite enough errors in fact, erroneous premises, and faulty logic in the first few pages, that I could not justify going on to myself.
    Of course, there is no social aspect to consider, since the book was not proffered by a friend, and the money wasted was minimal.
    If I cannot make it past the beginning of a book without finding errors and stupidity, why would I continue to the end. I would have asked the friend for a gift receipt.

  • BlueRidgeLady

    Was this a gift exchange? I would never give a religious friend/family member something atheist-specific unless there were some sort of interest on their part.

    I think your friend is disrespectful. Maybe your relationship is different or there was some understanding beforehand. I certainly hope so. I would return it and ask for a cookbook instead, but that’s me.

  • Randy

    I can empathise. Three or four years ago, (which was a few years before i had read Hitchens, Dawkins or Harris), i attended my sister’s church on Easter sunday. At that time, i was an agnostic, and i attended that day in order to watch my nieces perform in the children’s Easter program. I was offered a free copy of Lee Strobel’s “The Case for Easter”, and it sat on my shelf for a good year or two. When i finally took the time to read it, i became even less convinced about Christ than i was before! Strobel’s book claimed to be from the perspective of a skeptic/atheist who had done lots of research about the resurrection, and had been convinced enough to become a devout Christian. Strobel eventually became a pastor and apologetics author. Strobel’s background is interesting. He was a legal reporter for a Chicago newspaper, and awoved atheist, when his wife accepted Christ. At first, he was angry and resistant that his wife had “joined a weird cult” in his words, but over time, he noticed such positive changes in her demeanor, that he felt compelled to investigate further. He later became a Christian, and he claims that while before, he was a distant father and husband, who drank too much, and was prone to emotional outbursts, Christ has changed him, and he is an emotionally stable, nondrinkiner who is a better husband and father. First of all, none of this proves the existence of a deity, let alone a caring, nurturing one. Plenty of believers in Buddhism, and Islam, or other religions can brag the same type of “transformation”. Strobel’s thesis in “The Case for Easter” basically consits of,a) Hey, a bunch of 1st century people believed in this stuff, many of them enought to be martyrs, so there must be something to it! Wrong. Once again, see: Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, etc. b)Let’s use a lot of circular reasoning where i quote the bible to prove other parts of the bible. Fail#2 c) Let’s trot out some prominent conservative Christian theologians and biblical scholars such as William Lane Craig who will back up my arguments. He pretends that this is the work of a skeptic, and will appeal to the skeptical/scientific mindset. No, if this were truly a skeptical work, Strobel would have consulted some actual skeptics and presented their arguments, and then had Craig and company seek to refute their arguments. By the way, one thing that believers usually don’t count on is that people like us are usually way more acquainted with arguments against Christianity and theism than they are. This is due to the fact that, they often assume that the reason we are atheists is a lack of exposure to the Bible and Christian theology, wnen usually, it is the opposite is true. Also, exposure to sites like this provide us nonbelievers to plenty of good ammo.

  • Tizzle

    Please read and review it so we (I) don’t have to.

  • Revyloution

    When I was given ‘Letters from a Skeptic’ it changed my life.

    I was always non-religious, and was raised in a non-religious family. I lived my life with no care if there were gods who watched my actions or decided my fate after I died. Then I ran into Vivian. She is a lovely woman who owned a coffee shop. I would often come by and get a cup, and a nice 15 minute conversation. After we had become friends, she began talking to me about religion.

    She was quite surprised that I was an atheist. And set about trying to convert me. One of her tools was the book ‘Letters from a Skeptic’ which was a collection of correspondence between a skeptical father, and his son who became a minister.

    I had never been pushed very hard when it came to my lack of faith. Usually, it was just a ‘arnt you worried about going to hell?’ or other similar questioning. The gentle yet relentless questioning was a tactic that had never been tried on me. So I decided to read the book, take notes, and get back to her.

    I was quite amazed by the things written in the book, and couldn’t wait to begin asking Vivian about it. It started a year long dialog that catalyzed great change in both of us. Eventually Vivian sold her coffee shop and moved out of town, but by the end of our talks she seriously doubted the existence of God and Jesus.

    Me? The book never gave me a glimmer of faith. It seemed ludicrous and the arguments were flimsy. What it changed in me was my attitude toward all the believers in the world. I realized it wasn’t hopeless, they can be fixed. I studied more, engaged theists more, became quite annoying to some, and changed the way many of them think.

    It’s a delicious irony that Vivian’s attempt at saving my soul ended with her seriously doubting her own faith, and turned me into an activist against religion. Almost as delicious as her mango smoothies.

  • muggle

    Wow, I’ll join littlejohn in saying that you’re too nice. I’d have immediately thrown the book in the trash and maybe the friend too.

    How horribly rude! And what’s he trying to say? That he can only accept you if you come around to his way of thinking?

    You know him and I don’t so maybe you have more regard for his intents but I’m having trouble seeing how they could possibly be honorable. Would you gift him “The God Delusion”?

    Now, if you had thrown out a challenge like Whore of all the Earth above or taken him up on one that he threw out to you, you’d be obligated to read it but I really don’t see why you feel obligated to in this circumstance, opening up a Christmas gift and finding an attempt to brainwash.

    Peregrine’s also right. There’s too little time for all that we want to read. Why on Earth would you waste precious time on this tome?

  • Eric Mattingly

    Forgive me for posting twice but I just read the book’s first few pages and would like to add that it most likely isn’t the strongest defense of religion out there. I guess even Yale sometimes lets through what amounts to a long one-star Amazon review. Oh well.

  • Alec

    My very religious aunt gave me “A Case for Christ” as well, but earlier in the year. I was currently reading “The God Delusion” and had (and still have) a long lineup of books to read, including “The Cosmic Landscape, String Theory and The Illusion of Intelligent Design” by Leonard Susskind (not necessarily that intelligent design, but more on a cosmic scale.)

    Anyways, I don’t have time to read it, and I probably won’t because I know that whatever argument Strobel puts forth, it can easily be debunked.

  • Revyloution

    Eric Mattingly, post often and with fervor! I always work on the assumption that the comments section is a conversation, not a place to drop one liners.

    I had another quick comment on Christian apologetics books.

    Don’t skip reading them because you think you don’t have enough time. Even the tombs that appear a bit thicker have quite large text and wide columns. They are quite light on substance and are very quick reads.

    Of course, that spells volumes about the quality of their content.

  • Amyable Atheist

    Funny you should mention this – on Christmas eve I received “The Catholic Thing” from my father, with whom I share many tastes in great fiction and non-fiction and have devoured many fabulous books. This book, which I haven’t had the stomach to do anything more with than begin to read the lengthy personal inscription inside the cover (it’s still sitting under the tree) is the only other one he’s given me with such an inscription besides Robert Caro’s ‘The Power Broker’ years ago, which changed my perception of New York City, politics, power, money, and the history of everything just as it did for him in the 1970s. It was not a happy feeling to unwrap this thing, and I actually joked “Are you sure this is for me?” to the collected family opening gifts, as the pit grew in my stomach.

    I received this book as we sat opening gifts after I had tolerantly grinned and born it through Christmas mass, albeit one of the extremely liberal variety. I know I should just read the inscription and investigate the book and not be as devastated as I am about this, but I can’t help feeling kind of betrayed, especially given our literary affinities. Neither of my parents are very devout and they’re not pressuring me on anything (particularly the wonderfully secular wedding I’m starting to plan – to be held only in a state with marriage equality, no exceptions), but I do feel like this is an uncharacteristically aggressive tack. I was always (and remain) the admittedly “stubborn” and independent child among my siblings, and my journey from kid bored by church to atheist had lengthy pitstops in cafeteria Catholicism and service trips/spiritual retreats at my Jesuit University. No one could ever accuse me of not trying on this “Catholic Thing” for size – it just really really didn’t fit.

    Not to mention, as others have, the goddamn GALL of giving a “gift” like this! Not only would I never give my dad The God Delusion (however much I’d like to), but I even ruled out giving it to my apathetically agnostic younger brother, who would be receptive to and benefit greatly from it, for Christmas, because I have this strange idea that gifts should be about, you know, making the giftee HAPPY by giving them something carefree and FUN, but what the hell does the (otherwise) happy atheist know about these things, right?

  • Jeff B

    littlejohn is my new best friend…email me

  • Magnifico Giganticus

    There is no virtue in suffering nonsense. Toss that book and read something you want to read.

  • Anonymouse

    It might be a good gift for someone who wants to exercise their skills in spotting logical fallacies?

  • Staceyjw

    Amyable Atheist-
    It’s OK to be bothered- it was RUDE to give you that gift. I understand, and was similarly offended by a “gift” from my biological mom- she gave me “The Shack” and a religious card with the comment “Hope you reconsider” (god). She knows I’m an atheist, but must have thought this would change my mind. Of course, all it did was make me irritated with her, and the book made me question the intelligence of anyone that believes it. There’s a post from “Ask Richard” about this from a few months ago. I couldn’t figure out why it bothered me so much, but he helped clear that up.

    It was rude to give you that book if he was trying to convert you. If he thought you would actually enjoy reading it, since you are open minded, that’s different. But don’t waste your time reading it, life is too short to spend it on CRAP.


  • David

    One book I would encourage atheists to read is “The Case For Christ” by Lee Strobel (former skeptic)

  • tcc

    You do realize that all he's saying is although he's dealing with history, it's not a work of historiography, right? Are you just unfamiliar with these kinds of arguments commonplace in philosophy?

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