Why I Am Not a Christian
A Summary of My Case Against Christianity (2008)
John W. Loftus
My Case Against the Christian Faith
As a former student of James D. Strauss at Lincoln Christian Seminary inLincoln,Illinois, I credit much of my approach to Christianity to three things that Strauss drilled into us as students, but in reverse. When doing apologetics, he said, “if you don’t start with God, you’ll never get to God.” Strauss is not a Van Tillian presuppositionalist because he doesn’t start with the Bible as God’s revelation, but he does start “from above” by presupposing that God exists and then argues that God’s existence makes better sense of the Bible and the world than the alternatives. Again, “if you don’t start with God, you’ll never get to God.” Since this is such an important, central issue, I’ll focus on why we should not start “from above” with a belief in God, but rather “from below” beginning with the world in which we find ourselves. If successful, my argument should lead us to reject the existence of the sort of God thought to confirm the biblical revelation.
The second thing that Strauss underscored was his notion that “we don’t need more data, we need better interpretive schema.” What he meant was that we evaluate the details of the historical and archaeological evidence through interpretive schema. The need to come up with more data or evidence, while important, isn’t as important as the need to better evaluate the available data through the lens of an adequate worldview, unless there is overwhelming noncontroversial evidence to the contrary (in which case there would be no believers). While the data are indeed important, the big worldview picture provides the necessary rational support to the available data. We need to be specialists in the big picture, not the minutia, he argued. I agreed then, as I agree now, but have since concluded that the better interpretive schema that supports the data is not Christianity, but atheism.
Strauss’ final emphasis was that “all truth is God’s truth,” by which he meant that if something is true, it’s of God, no matter where we find it, whether through science, philosophy, psychology, history, or experience itself. All truth comes from God wherever we find it. There is no secular-sacred dichotomy when it comes to truth; in fact, there is no such thing as secular “knowledge” at all, if by this we mean beliefs that are justifiably true. There is no sinful, carnal, or secular “knowledge” because such “knowledge” isn’t true. All truth is sacred and comes from God alone, whether we learn it inside of the pages of the Bible, or outside of them in the various disciplines of learning. Therefore, since not all truth is found in the Bible, the Christian apologist must try to harmonize all knowledge, since it all comes from God. Strauss argued “from above” that the Christian worldview is what best interprets these other truths—something that I now deny. In this paper I will argue that the lessons learned outside of the Bible in other areas of learning, debunk the Bible, by continually forcing believers to reinterpret the Bible over and over again until there is no longer any basis for believing in the Christian worldview. In short, my thesis is that the Christian faith should be rejected by modern, civilized, educated, and scientifically literate persons, even though I know that many Christians will still disagree.
Many Christian professors have probably had some serious doubts about the Christian faith. In her book Walking Away from Faith: Unraveling the Mystery of Belief and Unbelief, Ruth A. Tucker shares her own doubt and how she overcomes it, hoping to challenge unbelievers to reconsider what they are missing. But when contemplating her own doubt, she candidly confesses what has sometimes crossed her mind. As a seminary professor she wrote: “There are moments when I doubt all. It is then that I sometimes ask myself as I’m looking out my office window, ‘What on earth am I doing here? They’d fire me if they only knew.'”
My friend James F. Sennett, a former student of Strauss, has also seriously struggled with his faith. In his as yet unpublished book The Reluctant Disciple: A Postmodern Apologetic, he not only confesses to having undergone a crisis of faith, but in fact wrote the book as a “first-person apologetic” to answer his own faith crisis. In his first chapter, “The Reluctant Disciple: Anatomy of a Faith Crisis,” he wrote: “Once I had no doubt that God was there, but I resented him for it; now I desperately want him to be there, and am terrified that he might not be.”
Prompted by a study of the mind-body problem, he wrote: “Sometimes I believed. Sometimes I didn’t. And it seemed to me that the latter condition was definitely on the ascendancy.”
In my own case, I simply stopped struggling, because it required too much intellectual gerrymandering to continue to believe. It was as if I had several plates spinning on several sticks; there were too many individual problems that I had to balance in order to keep my faith. At some point they just all came crashing down.
Let me begin by talking about “control beliefs”—beliefs that control how one views the evidence. Everyone has them, especially in metaphysical belief systems where there isn’t a mutually agreed upon scientific test to decide between alternatives. While we are largely unaware of them, they color how we see the world. Whether regarded as assumptions, presuppositions, or biases (depending on the context), they form the basis for the way we “see” things. As Alfred North Whitehead noted, “Some assumptions appear so obvious that people do not know that they are assuming because no other way of putting things has ever occurred to them.”
Having the right control beliefs is essential to grasping the truth about our existence in the universe. Psychologist Valerie Tarico explains that “it doesn’t take very many false assumptions to send us on a long goose chase.” To illustrate the point, she describes the mental world of a paranoid schizophrenic, where the perceived persecution by others sounds real:
You can sit, as a psychiatrist, with a diagnostic manual next to you, and think: as bizarre as it sounds, the CIA really is bugging this guy. The arguments are tight, the logic persuasive, the evidence organized into neat files. All that is needed to build such an impressive house of illusion is a clear, well-organized mind and a few false assumptions. Paranoid individuals can be very credible.
Since control beliefs alone cannot tell one what to make of Christian miracle claims, one must examine the specific evidence for such claims. I don’t have the space to develop my analysis here, but interested readers can consult the second part of my book to see my evaluation of them. There I treat the biblical claims of miracles as the historical claims that they are, and examine the biblical texts themselves to scrutinize the internal consistency of these biblical miracle accounts. Wherever relevant, I also consider whether the Old Testament actually predicts some of these events. These claims are also examined in light of the external evidence, such as whether there is any independent confirmation of the claimed events outside of the biblical texts. Finally, I review the plausibility of these claims in light of the control beliefs that I will argue for here.
From all of this I conclude that Christianity is a delusion that should be rejected. More specifically, Christianity makes a very large truth claim that cannot be reasonably defended on the basis of the available evidence. In addition, I describe why I am an atheist and what it means to live life without God. My entire case is a fairly comprehensive one, a complete case, from start to finish, from a former insider to the Christian faith.
It is my view that everyone should approach religion in general, and Christianity in particular, from the default position of skepticism. Anyone who subsequently moves away from that default position has the burden of proof, for to accept a religious set of beliefs is to accept a positive truth claim. This best expresses my set of control beliefs, from which I derive two others:
- There is a strong probability that every event is a natural one to be explained by natural forces alone.
- The scientific method is the most reliable (and probably the only) guide we have for determining the truth about the world.
The fact that I must have sufficient reasons or evidence before accepting truth claims certainly biases me against dogma and superstition. No “inspired” book will ever tell me what I should believe. My first question will always be: “Why should I believe what this writer has said?” In the end, I might yet conclude that there is a supernatural realm, but I should always start out with these assumptions.
I have little doubt that Christians will bristle at these control beliefs and cry foul, contending that they amount to a predisposition “from below” to reject their religious faith, and they are right. They do. Christians claim that with a different predisposition “from above,” I would undoubtedly be more likely to accept the Christian faith, and that too is correct, although there are still other supernaturalistic worldviews to consider. Nonetheless, since this is such a crucial point, this paper will present several strong reasons why it is best to begin with a skeptical rather than believing set of control beliefs in the first place.
When it comes to the following reasons for adopting my control beliefs, in every case the Christian response has been pretty much the same. In response to the following reasons for adopting my control beliefs, Christians retreat from what is likely to be true to what is merely possibly true. But the more frequently Christians make this strategic withdrawal, the weaker the grounds for their faith, since this move amounts to a tacit admission that the evidence supporting Christianity is weak, and that any contrary evidence must be explained away rather than taken for what it is.
1. Sociological Reasons
It is a simple sociological fact that particular religions dominate in distinguishable geographical regions, as John Hick has noted:
[I]t is evident that in some ninety-nine percent of the cases the religion which an individual professes and to which he or she adheres depends upon the accidents of birth. Someone born to Buddhist parents in Thailand is very likely to be a Buddhist, someone born to Muslim parents in Saudi Arabia to be a Muslim, someone born to Christian parents in Mexico to be a Christian, and so on.
The best explanation for this pattern of affiliation is that an individual’s religion is almost invariably determined by “when and where one was born.” And since there are no mutually agreed upon tests for evaluating religious claims, it is little wonder that social, cultural, and political forces overwhelmingly determine what individuals believe.
Because of this sociological fact, I propose “the outsider test for faith”: Test your religious beliefs as if you were an outsider, subjecting them to the same sort of skeptical evaluation that you would give to the beliefs of the followers of other religions. If you don’t approach your own religious beliefs with the same dose of skepticism that you apply to others’ religious beliefs, then you are using a double standard. The outsider test is no different than the strategy of the prince from the Cinderella story, who might question 45,000 girls, all of whom claim to be the girl who lost the glass slipper at the ball last night, to determine which one (if any) of them really is that girl.
William Lane Craig handles geographical religious diversity by arguing that “it is possible that God has created a world having an optimal balance between saved and lost and that God has so providentially ordered the world that those who fail to hear the gospel and be saved would not have freely responded affirmatively to it even if they had heard it.” According to Craig, if this scenario is even possible, “it proves that it is entirely consistent to affirm that God is all-powerful and all-loving and yet that some people never hear the gospel and are lost.” Of course, by retreating to what is merely possible, Craig is effectively ‘explaining away’ the evidence of global religious diversity. The probability that at least some of the billions of people who never heard the gospel would’ve embraced it had it been presented to them could probably be calculated—if missionaries kept records of their efforts. In light of the overwhelming evidence of missionary efforts, Craig’s scenario for the billions of people who have never been given a chance to be “saved” because of when and where they were born is at best implausible.
2. Philosophical Reasons (1)
Standard arguments for God’s existence are not only inconclusive, but unpersuasive. Moreover, at most they entail ‘absentee landlord’ deism, belief in an impersonal God who created nature but does not miraculously intervene into it, and who has not revealed himself to humanity. While I might happily concede deism, a distant God is hardly distinguishable from no God at all. Moving from the deism implied by arguments for the existence of God to full-blown Christianity is like trying to fly a plane to the moon: there is simply no way to get there. And the theistic arguments don’t lead us to any particular kind of theism, whether Judaism, Christianity, or Islam, let alone to any particular branch of these religions.
When it comes to God’s existence, our choices can be reduced to these:
- Something has always existed—always.
- Something popped into existence out of absolutely nothing.
- Our existence in the universe is absurd to the core.
Either of the first two possibilities seems extremely unlikely, if not absurd, as nothing in our experience can help us grasp them. Barring giving up on an answer with the third option, one of the two must be correct while the other is false. We either start with the brute fact that something has always existed, or with the brute fact that something popped into existence out of nothing.
William Lane Craig describes the problem as bizarre: “I well recall thinking, as I began to study the Kalam Cosmological Argument, that all of the alternatives with respect to the universe’s existence were so bizarre that the most reasonable option seemed to be that nothing exists!” Since we really don’t know why something exists rather than nothing at all, agnosticism is the default position, and thus anyone moving away from it has the burden of proof. Nevertheless, moving from agnosticism to atheism is a much smaller step than moving toward full-blown Christianity. The latter entails a greater number of claims and thus is inherently more difficult to defend, giving Christianity a huge, nearly impossible to meet burden of proof.
For instance, Christianity claims that God is a triune God, though no simultaneously orthodox and reasonable understanding of the Trinity seems possible. Though Christians usually think of God as a free agent, God is not free to decide his own nature. Though conceived of as a “spiritual” being that created matter, no known “point of contact” between spirit and matter can be found. Though Christians take it as a brute fact that God never began to exist, if we apply Ockham’s razor a simpler brute fact is to presume that nature itself never began to exist. God evidently never learned any new truths and cannot think, since thinking demands weighing temporal alternatives. This God is everywhere, yet could not even know what time it is since time is a function of placement and acceleration in the universe; or if timeless, this God cannot act in time. He evidently allows intense suffering in this world and does not follow the same moral code that he commands his believers to follow. And so on.
3. Philosophical Reasons (2)
The Christian defender of miracles has a double burden of proof that is nearly impossible to meet. The late J.L. Mackie wrote:
Where there is some plausible testimony about the occurrence of what would appear to be a miracle, those who accept this as a miracle have the double burden of showing both that the event took place and that it violated the laws of nature. But it will be very hard to sustain this double burden. For whatever tends to show that it would have been a violation of a natural law tends for that very reason to make it most unlikely that is actually happened.
Part 2 of Douglass Geivett and Gary Habermas’ anthology In Defense of Miracles is titled “The Possibility of Miracles.” Notice how the editors retreat to what is merely possible, not what is probable. Of course miracles are possible if there is a creator God, but what is really crucial is whether they are probable. We are asked to believe in the Christian God on the grounds that biblical miracles supposedly took place, yet by definition miracles are particularly improbable. To justify belief in the God of the Bible we must first believe that those miracles took place, but we cannot bring ourselves to believe in those miracles because they are inherently very improbable.
John King-Farlow and William Niels Christensen argue that just because we don’t experience miracles today doesn’t mean that God has not performed a plethora of them throughout human history, or that he will not perform many more when the time is right. They ask us to believe, against the overwhelming present-day experience of nearly all modern persons, that things might turn out differently than what is suggested by our present experience. Is this impossible? Of course not. But it’s not particularly likely.
Consider the biblical story that Balaam’s ass spoke to him. Confronted by a tale like this today, many modern Christians wouldn’t believe that it happened unless there was very good evidence for it. But when they read something like this in a supposedly inspired book, they “shut off” their critical faculties and accept it. If somehow they could be unknowingly transported back in time to Balaam’s day, however, they would evidently doubt such a report unless Balaam made his ass talk in their presence.
Today’s Christians operate by what Harvard-trained biblical scholar Hector Avalos describes as “selective supernaturalism.” They believe the biblical miracles because they accept the Christian faith, but they are skeptical of the miracles of other religions. Why the double standard? At least general skepticism of all miracle claims lacking compelling evidence is consistent, and I have yet to see any evidence that requires a supernatural explanation for any such reports.
4. Scientific Reasons (1)
Science proceeds according to methodological naturalism, an approach which presumes for the sake of empirical inquiry that everything we experience, if it has a cause at all, has a natural cause. Paul Kurtz defined it as well as anyone when he wrote that it is a “principle within the context of scientific inquiry; i.e., all hypotheses and events are to be explained and tested by reference to natural causes and events. To introduce a supernatural or transcendental cause within science is to depart from naturalistic explanations.”
This is what defines us as modern people. In the modern world all educated people apply methodological naturalism in a vast number of areas. Before the advent of science, most people either praised gods for the good things that happened to them, or tried to appease them when bad things happened. Many believed that sickness was caused by sin, that rain was the result of a god becoming pleased with their efforts, that drought indicated when a god was displeased, and so on. Science wasn’t content to accept the notion that demonic possession caused epilepsy, that sickness was a punishment from God, that God alone opens the womb of a woman, or that God sends rain. We now have a scientific explanation for all of these things and benefit tremendously from those who assumed that all caused phenomena have natural causes. We can predict rain, understand how babies are born, and prevent a host of illnesses. Such progress cannot be reverted and is ongoing. Indeed, Christians today typically assume that there is a natural explanation when they hear a noise in the night, have a stillborn baby, witness a train wreck, or fall ill.
Christians like Alvin Plantinga object to the use of methodological naturalism in many areas related to their faith. Plantinga argues that the Christian scientific community should “pursue science in its own way, starting from and taking for granted what we know as Christians.” But see what he’s doing here? When establishing the background factors in a Bayesian analysis, he recommends that Christians simply assume their most contentious conclusions as their starting point. This is merely trying to explain the evidence of methodological naturalism’s success away by retreating to what is merely possible: while methodological naturalism has worked very well in understanding our world, it’s possible that it doesn’t apply across the board, particularly concerning matters impacting his Christian beliefs. And he’s right—it is possible. But again, how likely is it that a methodology that has worked so well in every other area of investigation would not shed light on the truth or falsehood of his background beliefs as well?
5. Scientific Reasons (2)
Astronomy has established that the universe is about 13.7 billion years old and arose out of a cosmic singularity. No account of the development of our universe can be harmonized with the creation accounts in Genesis, as the latter are pure folklore. Archaeology has found no evidence of 400 years of Israelite slavery inEgypt, Israelites who wandered in the wilderness for 40 years, or an Israelite conquest ofCanaan. Geological evidence in the sedimentary rock layers of a roughly 4.5 billion year old planet confirms the slow evolutionary development of life, just as astronomical evidence confirms the slow evolutionary development of galaxies, stars, and planets. Geology also falsifies that at any point in human history there was a universal flood which covered the Earth. Neurological evidence from strokes, seizures, and other brain malfunctions falsifies that human beings possess any immaterial mind or soul. If there is an immaterial mind, where is it located? As Sam Harris has pointed out, if God had created us with an immaterial mind, then there is no reason to expect that he would have also created a brain for us. The astounding results of modern medicine have all but eliminated such superstitious and ineffective practices as exorcisms, blood letting, and supernatural healing. As the late Carl Sagan noted:
We can pray over the cholera victim, or we can give her 500 milligrams of tetracycline every twelve hours…. [T]he scientific treatments are hundreds or thousands of times more effective than the alternatives (like prayer). Even when the alternatives seem to work, we don’t actually know that they played any role.
Voltaire said: “Prayer and arsenic will kill a cow.” Psychology confirms that who we are and how we behave are determined to an overwhelming degree before we reach the age of accountability. People are not evil so much as much they are sick. There is no rebellion against God. If God is omniscient, then like the ultimate psychotherapist he knows why we do everything that we do. There can be no wrathful God.
6. Biblical Reasons (1)
The Bible prescribes a host of detestable ‘moral’ guidelines. For example, if an Israelite man desires a female captive from war, he is permitted to force her to be his wife (Deuteronomy 21:10-14). If a virgin who is pledged to be married is raped but fails to cry out, she is to be stoned along with her rapist (Deuteronomy 22:23-24), while if a virgin who is not pledged to be married is raped and does not cry out, she must marry her attacker (Deuteronomy 22:28-29). Psalm 137:9 touts the pleasure of dashing children against rocks (Psalm 137:9), and full-scale genocide is proscribed throughout the Old Testament (e.g., Deuteronomy 7:1-2, 20:16).
The Judeo-Christian God is clearly a hateful, racist, and sexist divinity. Though Christians rightly criticize militant Islamists for aiming to kill innocent bystanders, the only difference between these extremists and the biblical God is the desired target of murder. As Sam Harris notes, “it is only by ignoring such barbarisms that the Good Book can be reconciled with life in the modern world.”
7. Biblical Reasons (2)
The Bible is filled with superstitious beliefs that modern people rightly reject. It describes a world where a snake and a donkey communicated with human beings in a human language, where people could reach upward of 900 years old, where a woman instantaneously transformed into a pillar of salt, where a pillar of fire could lead people by night, and where the sun stopped moving across the sky or could even back up. In this imaginary world an ax head could float on water, a star could point down to a specific home, people could instantly speak in unlearned foreign languages, and one’s shadow or handkerchief could heal people. It is a world where a flood can cover the whole earth, and a man can walk on water, calm a stormy sea, change water into wine, or be swallowed by a “great fish” and live to tell about it. This world is populated by demons that can wreak havoc on Earth and make people very sick. It is a world of idol worship, where human and animal sacrifices please God. Visions, inspired dreams, prophetic utterances, miracle workers, magicians, diviners, and sorcerers also populate this world. It is a world where God lived in the sky (Heaven), and the dead “lived” on in the dark recesses of the Earth (Sheol).
This is a strange world when compared to our world, but Christians believe that this world was real in the past. My contention is not that ancient people were stupid, but that they were very superstitious. As Christopher Hitchens puts it: “One must state it plainly. Religion comes from the period of human prehistory where nobody had the smallest idea what was going on. It comes from the bawling and fearful infancy of our species, and is a babyish attempt to meet our inescapable demand for knowledge.”
One can perform scientific tests for what I consider superstitious beliefs. One can compare what a meteorologist says about the weather with what someone who plans to do a rain dance says about it, and then test to see who’s right more often. Testing and comparing results is science. The results of reason and science have jettisoned a great many superstitions. One can also test the superstitious practice of blood-letting, exorcisms, people who claim to predict things based on palm reading or tea leaves, and the effects of walking under a ladder, breaking a mirror, or stepping on a sidewalk crack. One can also test the efficacy of a shot of penicillin in providing recovery from sickness against the efficacy of prayer alone among those who refuse medicine for religious reasons. And we modern people are indebted to science for the advances in quality of life brought about by modern medicine. Science is what makes us different from ancient people.
Voltaire said: “Every man is a creature of the age in which he lives, and few are able to raise themselves above the ideas of their time.” The Bible describes so many prevalent superstitious beliefs within Gentile nations that there is little doubt that superstition reigned during biblical times. Moreover, these beliefs were so prevalent that the Bible even portrays God’s “chosen people” regularly participating in foreign religious rituals and worshipping other nations’ gods and goddesses. Evidently, then, the beliefs of the Israelites themselves—and later their Christian successors—were collectively forged within a highly superstitious cultural mindset.
In the modern world we no longer believe in a god of the sun, the moon, the harvest, fertility, rain, or the sea. We don’t see omens in an eclipse, a flood, a storm, a snakebite, or a drought. This falling away is due to our better understanding of nature than that of our ancestors, made possible only by the advance of science. Thoughtful, educated people today do not see sickness as the result of possession by demons, nor do we believe that astrology can provide us with insight into the future. We do not think that we are physically any closer to God whether we’re up on a mountaintop or down in a valley. But the citizens of ancient nations nearly universally believed such things. While it is conceivable that ancient Jews and Christians where unlike all of their neighbors and formed their beliefs on the basis of the evidence available to them, it is not very likely.
8. Historical Reasons (1)
If God revealed himself in history, then he chose a poor medium (limiting his revelation to the past) and a poor era (the superstitious ancient past) to do so. The historian is dealing with a past known to contain many frauds and forgeries. This justifies a skeptical outlook about reports of historical events. Almost anything can be rationally denied in history, even if the event happened.
Consider the following historical questions. How were the Egyptian pyramids made? Who made them? Why? Was Shakespeare a fictitious name for Francis Bacon? Exactly how was theGettysburgbattle fought and won? What was the true motivation forLincolnto emancipate the slaves? What happened at Custer’s last stand? Who killed President John F. Kennedy? Why? Who knew what and when during the Watergate scandal that eventually led to President Nixon resigning? Why didAmericalose the “war” inVietnam? Did George W. Bush legitimately win the 2000 election? Did President Bush knowingly lead us into a war withIraqon false pretenses? What about some high profile criminal cases? Is O.J. Simpson a murderer? Who killed Jon Bene Ramsey? Is Michael Jackson a pedophile? Can we say that we know the answer to any one of these questions with so much confidence that we’d be willing to go to Hell if we got it wrong?
Hector Avalos argues that historical studies are fraught with serious problems. Regarding the nonsupernatural claim that Caesar was assassinated by Brutus inRomein 44 A. D., he write: “We cannot verify such an occurrence ourselves directly and so we cannot claim to ‘know’ it occurred.” When it comes to whether or not King Arthur actually existed, he argues, “our contemporary textual evidence … is nearly nil.” If this is the case with nonsupernatural historical investigations, then it is compounded so much more when it comes to the so-called supernatural events of history.
This is compounded much further when we consider Gotthold Lessing’s “ugly broad ditch”:
Miracles, which I see with my own eyes, and which I have opportunity to verify for myself, are one thing; miracles, of which I know only from history that others say they have seen them and verified them, are another….
But … I live in the 18th century, in which miracles no longer happen. The problem is that reports of miracles are not miracles…. [they] have to work through a medium which takes away all their force….
Or is it invariably the case, that what I read in reputable historians is just as certain for me as what I myself experience?
When dealing with the problems of the historian, William Lane Craig argues that, “first, a common core of indisputable historical events exists; second, it is possible to distinguish between history and propaganda; and third, it is possible to criticize poor history.” Craig concludes that “neither the supposed problem of lack of direct access to the past nor the supposed problem of the lack of neutrality can prevent us from learning something from history.”
Notice again how the argument of a Christian apologist centers around what is merely possible. That knowledge of the past is possible is certainly a reasonable conclusion, but a rather meager one, and it does nothing to remove reasonable doubts concerning any supposed historical event, especially momentous and miraculous ones.
9. Historical Reasons (2)
The history of the Christian Church undermines the veracity of Christianity. Consider the examples below.
9.1 The Crusades and Other Holy Wars
For centuries, beginning in the eleventh century, the Church sanctioned the slaughtering of various peoples (“infidels”) in the name of their God. The major goal of the First Crusade was to recaptureJerusalemfrom the Muslims. The history of the Crusades and the deeds done in the name of Jesus are atrocious.
Many other wars have been waged in the name of Jesus and the Church—too many to list. When the Spanish Conquistadors conducted a holy war against the inhabitants of theAmericas, they demanded that the inhabitants “acknowledge the Church as the Ruler andSuperiorof the whole world, and the high priest called Pope,” or else face the consequences of noncompliance:
[W]e shall powerfully enter into your country, and shall make war against you in all ways and manners that we can, and shall subject you to the yoke and obedience of the Church and of their Highnesses; we shall take you and your wives and your children, and shall make slaves of them, and as such shall sell and dispose of them as their Highnesses may command; and we shall take away your goods, and shall do you all the mischief and damage that we can, as to vassals who do not obey, and refuse to receive their lord…
9.2 The Inquisition
The angelic doctor Thomas Aquinas argued, on the basis of explicit directives from the Bible, that heresy was a “leavening influence” upon the minds of the weak, and thus heretics should be killed. Since heretical ideas could inflict the greatest possible harm upon other human beings—consignment to an eternally conscious torment in Hell—it was the greatest crime of all, and Church logic demanded the elimination of this leavening influence. Hence beginning with the 12th century, the rallying cry for over two centuries was “convert or die!”
9.3 The Witch Hunts
Christians once widely believed that witches flew threw the night, met with others, and had sex with the Devil, who then left a mark on them. Once accused, it was extremely difficult to be found innocent. Any testimony on an alleged witch’s behalf could be discounted on the grounds that the witch may have cast a spell on others to vouch for her innocence. In most cases, no evidence of witchcraft was ever found, or even sought. Torture was sufficient to extract confessions, and it was especially harsh against accused witches because it was believed that their magic enabled them to withstand greater pain. Once forced to confess, they were tortured to find out who their accomplices were, implicating other innocents. Witch-hunters were primarily paid by confiscating the property of convicted witches, so they had a vested interest in finding them guilty. Convicted witches were then killed by strangulation, or by being burned alive.
9.4 “Manifest Destiny” and Slavery in the American South
The territorial expansion of theUnited Statesduring the 1800s was motivated by the general belief that God had given European settlers the divine mission to spread democracy on the North American continent. It was supposedly both obvious (“manifest”) and certain (“destiny”), and provided a rationale for the justification of western expansion and the concomitant rape, pillage, and slaughter of Native Americans.
The brutality of slavery in the American antebellum South was revealed quite adequately by former slave Frederick Douglass, and recounted too many times for anyone to be ignorant about this horrendous period in “Christian” America. Douglass is said to have written: “I prayed for twenty years but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.” Enough said.
What possible justification could there be for God to have allowed his followers to think they were pleasing him by acting in such terrible ways? The revelation of a perfectly good God would have clearly prohibited engaging in religiously motivated wars to spread the faith, stealing land, killing witches and heretics, and buying, beating, or owning slaves, preventing an opportunity for the Church to justify all of this horrible violence.
Even if we grant that human beings are “wicked,” God would know this about us, so why wouldn’t God be crystal clear about what he wants believers to do? If the Christian God exists, surely he bears some degree of responsibility for the misery and suffering brought about by Christians who failed to understand his directives. And the Holy Spirit, which is supposed to guide Christians by “illumination,” seems to have failed to do so in the history of the Church. This is one of the reasons why I reject Christianity.
How would Christians feel if they were the ones being burned at the stake for heresy, or beaten within an inch of their lives by a slave master? Arguments that previous generations of Christians simply misunderstood what God wanted them to do would fly away in the wind with the smoke of their flesh, and with the drops of their blood.
10. Empirical Reasons
The problem of evil is as clear of an empirical refutation of the existence of the Christian God as we get. As James Sennett has said:
By far the most important objection to the faith is the so-called problem of evil—the alleged incompatibility between the existence or extent of evil in the world and the existence of God. I tell my philosophy of religion students that, if they are Christians and the problem of evil does not keep them up at night, then they don’t understand it.
If God is perfectly good, all-knowing, and all-powerful, then the issue of why there is so much suffering in the world requires an explanation. A perfectly good God would oppose it, an all-powerful God could eliminate it, and an all-knowing God would know what to do about it. For the theist, the extent of intense suffering in the world implies that either God is not powerful enough to eliminate it, God does not care enough to eliminate it, or God is just not smart enough to know what to do about it. If God exists, the reality of intense suffering is a stubborn fact indicating that something is wrong with God’s ability, goodness, or knowledge.
Christians believe that God freed the Israelites from slavery, yet allowed multitudes to be born into slavery and die as slaves in the antebellum American South. They believe that God parted theRed Sea, but refrained from holding back the waters when an Indonesian tsunami killed a quarter of a million people in 2004. God provided manna from Heaven, so the story goes, but does nothing to prevent the deaths of over 40,000 people around the world who starve every single day, nor anything to alleviate the hunger pains and malnutrition that the starving face throughout their short lives. God is said to have made an axe head to float, yet allowed the Titanic to sink. He is said to have added 15 years to King Hezekiah’s life, but does nothing for children whose lives are cut short by leukemia. God allegedly restored sanity to Nebuchadnezzar, but does nothing for those suffering from schizophrenia and dementia today. While alive Jesus is said to have healed the sick, but does nothing today to stop pandemics which have destroyed whole populations of people. The handicapped and those born with birth defects are untouched by divine healing. As God sat idly by, well over 100 million people were slaughtered in the 20th century due to genocide and war. Well over 100 million animals are slaughtered every year for American consumption alone, while other animals continue to viciously prey on each other.
Consider the 2004 Indonesian tsunami. If God had prevented it, none of us would ever know that he had prevented it precisely because it didn’t happen. A good person who knew that it would happen and who could easily prevent it would be morally obligated to prevent it, and God said to be capable of preventing such a thing with the “snap” of his fingers, so to speak.
Stephen Wykstra argues that it’s possible that we cannot see the good reasons why an omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly good God allows so much suffering. Because God is omniscient while our knowledge is limited, we are told, we can’t understand God’s purposes, and thus can’t begin to grasp why there is so much evil in the world if God exists. But if God is omniscient as claimed, then he should know how to create a better world, especially since we do have a good idea how God could’ve created differently. The most probable reason that we find so much apparently gratuitous suffering in the world is that there simply is no perfectly good, all-powerful, and omniscient God of Christian theology.
10.1 Most Christians Do Not Believe in the God of the Bible Anyway
After centuries of theological gerrymandering, Christian theology has settled upon the concept of God as a perfect being as envisioned by St. Anselm in the 11th century. But the Bible itself isn’t consistent in describing its God. One probable biblical description casts God not as the creator of the universe ex nihilo, but as a god who fashioned the Earth to rise out of the seas in divine conflict with the dragon sea god, sometimes called Rahab, as in Job 26:9-12. This biblical God is merely the “god of the gods,” who like the other gods had a body that needed to rest on the seventh day, and was found walking in the “cool of the day” in the Garden of Eden.
Yahweh, the god ofIsrael, probably emerged out of a polytheistic amalgamation of the prebiblical gods of the ancient Near East. All prebiblical pantheons were organized as families, and Yahweh was likely simply one of the members of that family. Some biblical authors consider Yahweh to be one of many gods fathered by Elyon, whose wife Asherah received the people andlandofIsraelto rule over (Deuteronomy 32:8). Yahweh was thought responsible for doing both good and evil, sending evil spirits to do his will, and commanding genocide. As time went on, Yahweh was believed to be the only God that existed. Still later, Satan emerged as an evil rival in order to exonerate Yahweh from being the creator of evil. Further still, in the New Testament the biblical God was stripped of physical characteristics and known as a spiritual being. As theologians reflected on their God, they came to believe that he created the universe ex nihilo. Anselm finally defined him as the “greatest conceivable being.” But Anselm’s God is at odds with what we find in most of the Bible.
The Bible we know today, the central source of Christian beliefs, underwent a long process of formation and of borrowing material from others. Through it, God is said to have revealed himself, though it is a poor medium (the past) composed in a poor era (the ancient superstitious past). According to the Bible, God condemns all of humanity for the sins of the first human pair; God commanded genocide, the extermination of witches and heretics, and honor killings; and God places the impossible demand of a perfect moral life on fleshly creatures kept ignorant of God’s purported love and power by an unreasonable “epistemic distance.” Additionally, we are told, God became incarnate in Jesus (the second person of the Trinity), even though no reasonable sense can be made of a being who is both 100% God and 100% human; this incarnate God found it necessary to die on the cross for our sins, even though no sense can be made of so-called atonement; and God incarnate subsequently arose bodily from the dead, even though the credibility of such a miraculous event requires that an almost impossible double burden of proof be met (i.e., in some sense resurrection is highly improbable in virtue of being a miracle, and in some sense it must be highly probable in order to warrant belief.) This incarnate God supposedly chose to live embodied, forever, in a human resurrected body (yet many formidable personal identity objections arise in such a resurrected state), so as to return in the future, despite the fact that New Testament writers are clear that “the end of all kingdoms” and the establishment of God’s kingdom was to be in their generation. And the divine incarnate will return where every eye will see him, a possibility presuming an ancient prescientific cosmology now known to be false. This God-man, who sent the third person of the Trinity to lead his followers into “all truth,” fails to accomplish this in every generation, and yet will judge us for the conclusions we reach about the existence of this God, exemplifying a barbaric “thought police” mentality completely alien to democratic societies. Finally, this divinity will reward the “saints” in Heaven by presumably taking away their free will to do wrong, while punishing sincere doubters to Hell by leaving their free will intact so that they can continue to rebel.
10.2 What Would Convince Me That Christianity is True?
Suppose that, although Christianity must punt to mystery and retreat into the realm of mere possibility to be credible, it is nevertheless true. What would it take to convince me of its truth?
When it comes to sufficient reasons, I need to be able to understand more of the mysteries of Christianity in order to believe it. If everything about Christianity makes rational sense to an omniscient God, then God could’ve created human beings with enough intelligence to resolve the problems of Christianity which are intractable to the finite minds with which we have actually been equipped.
Moreover, short of granting us more intelligence, God could’ve explained his ways to us. He could’ve written the “mother of all philosophical papers” explaining “why there is something rather than nothing at all,” why anyone deserves a fate like Hell, and providing some answers about the atonement, the Trinity, divine simplicity, the incarnation, the relationship of free will and foreknowledge, and how it’s possible for a spiritual being to interact with a material world. If he exists, God could’ve explained why there is so much suffering in this world. He could’ve explained why he remains hidden, and yet condemns us for not finding him in this life. He could’ve helped us understand how it’s possible to want all people to be saved, and yet not help people come knowledge which would ensure salvation.
Short of helping us to understand these “mysteries,” the only thing left that could convince me of the truth of Christianity would be the presentation of more evidence to believe, and less evidence to disbelieve. Let me offer some examples of what I mean.
10.2.1 Present-Day Evidence
God could reveal himself to us in every generation in a myriad of ways. What better way to show us that he exists, than what the book of Acts says he did for Saul of Tarsus on the road toDamascus? He could become incarnate in every generation, and do miracles for all to see. If people wanted to kill him again when he didn’t need to die again, he could simply vanish before their eyes. He could spontaneously appear and heal people, end a famine, stop a war, or settle an important question like slavery. God could raise up John F. Kennedy from the dead for all to see. He could restore an amputated limb in full sight of a crowd that included all of the best magicians, along with the Mythbusters and James Randi, who would all find fault if fault could be found. He could do any and all of the miracles that he purportedly did in the Bible from time to time, including miraculously feeding 5000 men and their families. The list of things that God could do to make his existence undeniable in each generation is endless.
Furthermore, compared to non-Christians, Christians could be overwhelmingly better people, by far. And God could answer their prayers in such distinctive ways that even those who don’t believe would seek out a Christian to pray for them and their illness or problem. The world’s current division into distinct geographical locations determining the distribution of predominant religions, where religions are by and large adopted by individuals based upon when and where they were born, would not exist.
10.2.2 Prophetic Evidence
If God didn’t have the ability to create a better world which lacked natural disasters, he could’ve nevertheless foretold any number of them. He could’ve predicted whenMt.St. Helenswould erupt, or when the Indonesian tsunami or hurricane Katrina would hit. Such information would save lives and confirm his existence and status as God. To merely establish his status, he could’ve predicted the rise of the Internet, or the inventions of the incandescent light bulb, television, or atomic bomb; and he could’ve done it with nonambiguous language that would be seen by all as a prophetic fulfillment. God could’ve predicted several things that would take place in each generation, in each region of the Earth, so that each generation and each region could confirm that he exists through prophecy. God could’ve revealed the vastness and complexity of the universe before humans would have been able to confirm it. He could have predicted the discovery of penicillin, which has saved so many lives, and through having prophesied it speeded up its discovery.
10.2.3 Scientific Evidence
God could’ve made this universe and its creatures absolutely unexplainable by science, especially since science has been a major obstacle to belief for many people. Our universe could have been one in which there never had been evidence leading scientists to accept a Big Bang, or that galaxies, solar systems, and planets had formed through entirely natural processes. An omnipotent God could’ve created the universe instantaneously by fiat, placing the planets haphazardly around the Sun, perhaps some revolving counterclockwise and in haphazard orbits. The galaxies themselves could display no consistent pattern explicable by formation through natural processes. All the creatures of the Earth could’ve been created without any connection whatsoever to each other, with each species so distinct that natural selection couldn’t possible account for their emergence. There could be no hierarchy of the species in gradual increments. God could’ve created fish and mammals, for example, but no reptiles and no amphibians, making evolutionary mechanisms incapable of explaining the gap. There could be rock formations inconsistent with an evolutionary process. Human beings could be so distinct from other creatures that no scientist would ever conclude that they evolved from lower primates. The world could contain no evidence of unintelligent design, since signs of unintelligent design tend to cancel out arguments from design to the existence of God. God could’ve even created us with minds without brains. This conceivable universe could never be explained scientifically, and would require God or something like God to explain it.
10.2.4 Biblical Evidence
A surviving monument to the biblical Abraham, dated to the era to which his life is ascribed, could have verified his existence. Overwhelming evidence of a universal flood covering “all” mountains could’ve been uncovered. Noah’s ark could have been found exactly where the Bible says it would be found, and it could be exactly as described in the Bible.Lot’s wife, miraculously preserved as a pillar of salt, could have been found, and discovered through scientific testing to have traces of human DNA in it. Noncontroversial evidence that the Israelites lived as slaves inEgyptfor four hundred years could have been uncovered. Conclusive evidence that they wandered in the wilderness for forty years, and that they conquered thelandofCanaanexactly as the Bible depicts, could have been found. The biblical difficulties which Gleason Archer felt compelled to explain away in 450 pages could have never have existed.
10.2.5 Evidence Specific to Jesus
Clear and specific Old Testament prophecies about the virgin birth, life, nature, mission, death, resurrection, ascension, and return of Jesus could not be denied by even the most hardened skeptic. As it is, no Old Testament prophecy points to any of these things in any nonambiguous way. The Gospel accounts of the Resurrection could all be the same, showing no evidence of growing incrementally over the years. The Gospels could’ve been written only months after Jesus rose from the dead, without difficulties concerning women not telling others, or soldiers guarding a tomb from which they somehow knew Jesus arose despite having been asleep at the time. Herod and Pilate could’ve converted in the presence of conclusive evidence that Jesus arose from the grave, becoming missionaries or declaring Christianity the new territorial religion. A shroud, like the Shroud of Turin, could have been found which dated to first-centuryJerusalemand contained an image that could not be explained except by a crucified man miraculously returning to life.
I wouldn’t require all of this to believe, and I cannot say exactly how much of this I might need to believe. I certainly need some of it. But if I was given more of this kind of evidence, then it’s more likely I would believe. As it stands though, in the world that presently exists, the reasons and evidence just aren’t there, period.
 Ruth Tucker, Walking Away from Faith: Unraveling the Mystery of Belief and Unbelief (Downers Grove,IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002), p. 133.
 Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (New York, NY: Macmillan Company, 1925), p. 49.
 Valerie Tarico, The Dark Side: How Evangelical Teachings Corrupt Love and Truth (Seattle,WA: Dea Press, 2006), pp. 221-222.
 John W. Loftus, Why I Became An Atheist: A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity (Amherst,NY: Prometheus Books, 2008), pp. 265-395.
 John Hick, An Interpretation of Religion: Human Responses to the Transcendent (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), p. 2.
 William Lane Craig, “Politically Incorrect Salvation.” In Christian Apologetics in the Post-Modern World, eds. T. P. Phillips and D. Ockholm (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995): 75-97.
 William Lane Craig, “Must the Beginning of the Universe Have a Personal Cause? A Rejoinder.” Faith and Philosophy, Vol. 19, No. 2 (April 2002): 94-105.
 J. L. Mackie, The Miracle of Theism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), pp. 18-29.
 Douglas Geivett and Gary Habermas, eds., In Defense of Miracles: A Comprehensive Case for God’s Action in History (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997).
 John King-Farlow and William Niels Christensen, Faith and the Life of Reason (Dordrecht-Holland: D. Reidel, 1972), p. 50.
 Hector Avalos, The End of Biblical Studies (Amherst,NY: Prometheus Books, 2007), p. 194.
 Paul Kurtz, “DarwinRe-Crucified: Why Are So Many Afraid of Naturalism?” Free Inquiry, Vol. 18, No. 2 (Spring 1998): 15-17, p. 17.
 Alvin Plantinga, “Methodological Naturalism?” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, Vol. 49, No. 3 (September 1997): 143-154.
 Sam Harris, Beyond Belief Conference: Science, Religion, Reason and Survival, Salk Institute for Biological Studies,La Jolla,CA, November 7, 2006.
 Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (New York, NY: Random House, 1995), p. 13.
 Voltaire, “Of Other Sorceries” — “It is unquestionable that certain words and ceremonies will effectually destroy a flock of sheep, if administered with a sufficient portion of arsenic.”<http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/v/voltaire/dictionary/chapter179.html>
 Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (New York,NY: W. W. Norton, 2004), p. 18.
 Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (New York,NY: Twelve Books, 2007), p. 64.
 Voltaire, Essai sur les Moeurs et l’Esprit des Nations (1756), p. 46.
 Hector Avalos, The End of Biblical Studies, pp. 117-120; 154-162.
 Gotthold Lessing, “On the Proof of the Spirit and of Power.” In Lessing’s Theological Writings, trans. Henry Chadwick (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1956), pp. 51-55.
 William Lane Craig, Apologetics: An Introduction (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1984), pp. 145-149.
 From the Requerimiento (1510 CE), written by jurist Palacios Rubios of the Council of Castile.
 James Sennett, The Reluctant Disciple: A Postmodern Apologetic. Unpublished manuscript.
 Stephen Wykstra, In The Evidential Argument From Evil, ed. Daniel Howard-Snyder (Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press, 1996): 126-150.