(book review) "The Christian Delusion" - The Cultures of Christianities


This series is an atheist review of an important anti-Christian apologetics book, "The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails" (TCD), that is likely to be popularly discussed across the web. My review focuses explicitly on the weaknesses of the esteemed skeptical anthology and should be seen as supplementing the positive reviews from folks like Ken Pulliam, Jim Walker and the many 5 star reviews on Amazon. With all the hype there needs to be a range of internet contributions and sober assessment. How is the substance of the book framed? Is the polemical strategy a success? Have the most typical Christian objections to certain skeptical themes been addressed or ignored and amplified carelessly? Have well known inflammatory hot spots in the debate been dealt with tactfully? Have common atheist biases and prejudices been checked or are they overwhelming the actual arguments? Have the same standards that apply to Christians equally applied to the authors? Are the arguments in the book persuasive to outsiders or do they merely reinforce atheist group-think? Are weaker arguments distractingly in the mix with stronger arguments? Has an adult conversation been started/continued or have the ugly age old political cycles been perpetuated? Are mainstream Christian readers treated with respect as though they could be smart, informed people who think their worldview stands a chance in the debate? Would I recommend this book to a Christian friend or family member without having to apologize for its contents? Etc. Those are some of the important questions I'll be addressing. I may briefly summarize the strong points of each chapter and add my comments if that helps readers understand whatever issues come up. Occasionally I'll point out things that I just think are interesting in their own right (or things I don't understand and need help with). Also, I'll be reviewing the book in light of just about every other response to TCD on the web (as sort of informal post-market research) and responding to Christian objections I find. I think this will be the best that I personally can contribute to advancing our collective conversation about these important roadblocks to solidarity in our culture.

Chapter 1, "The Cultures of Christianities," by David Eller:

[note: Eller and Loftus' responses have been rolled into the post so you don't have to fish through all the comments]

Unfortunately I have to agree with one reviewer, Greg Peterson, on Amazon about chapter 1:

It doesn't help that perhaps the book's weakest chapter is its first chapter. David Eller's sociological discussion didn't exactly start off the book with sparks a-flying. Just trading places with the second chapter, a very engaging and well-written piece by Valerie Tarico, would have helped matters in terms of pulling the reader in and getting her excited by the material that was to come.

That's actually good news, since I was a little disgruntled. I knew there were great chapters ahead, but I didn't know how many weak chapters there would be. Apparently it's all up and up from here (see chapter 2, for instance)!

Contents of My Review (the "CliffNote" version):

Eller's Overstates Argument: Is religion all culture?
I guide the readers over the journey to figure out what exactly Eller's argument even is. Then we realize his argument is outright fallacious.

Eller Asserts Conclusion: Are all religious arguments bogus?
Turns out, Eller declares premature victory over all Christian arguments and evidence with sentence two of chapter one of TCD. Christians are not impressed.

Eller Misses the Mark: Should atheists be excusing themselves for failing to convert Chris...
Eller's chapter seems to be more about explaining to atheists why they fail to convince Christians with logic and evidence rather than about persuading Christians that they are delusional.

I respond to Eller's response to my review: Should "openly atheistic" books pass their own outsider test for fa...
Loftus emailed the original version of my review to Eller who clearly didn't get the point.

I respond to Loftus' response to my review: Are atheists obligated to agree with Eller's logic?
Loftus fails to tell the difference between disagreeing with fallacious arguments and disagreeing with conclusions.

I agree with Christian reviewer, Looney: Can there be a true religion after all?
Despite the hype for TCD, there is in fact a very obvious and typical "somewhere to run" for Christians.

The Point of Eller's Chapter: Should we be aware of the influence of culture in generating religi...
The tragedy of this chapter is that Eller didn't even need to include his fallacious reasoning.

Eller Overstates Point: Are the religious aspects of our culture a conspiracy?
Atheists accuse Christians of being deluded for seeing demons behind every bush, and perhaps the same should apply to anthropologists who see Jesus behind every sneeze.


I counter-link Christian reviewer, jayman777's link: What do the smart people among us tend to conclude about religion?
Jayman777 points out that most philosophers of religion believe God exists, but it seems most philosophers in general don't.

I chastise the atheist movement: Should secular humanists be developing a well-rounded culture to sa...
I use the arguments from Eller's chapter on the influence of enculturalization to show that atheists should be working on their own cultural paradigm. Eller might actually agree.

Eller abuses a common atheist metaphor: Would religious people be feeble without their "crutch"?
Eller says we shouldn't use the "religion is a crutch" metaphor, and I point out it doesn't have to be an insult. A wide range of "strong" and "weak" people are bound to be equally encultured by religion, so many people are simply unnecessarily letting religion rob them of things they could just as easily be doing themselves.

Eller is "one of those" philosophers: If years aren't real, does time even exist?
Obviously the idea that the delineation of time is arbitrary makes perfect sense, but after a painful chapter, one does not wish to see things stated so badly in "philosopherese."

Outro: 3 out of 5 stars
Important content for a book like this, but poorly presented. Bad start for the book.

So what's the problem with the main argument of this chapter? From one positive review, from Jim Walker, there hardly even seems to be an argument:

Professor of Anthropology, David Eller, contributed two chapters and starts out by showing that there is no such thing as "Christian Culture" but rather many different Christian cultures, each one "permeated with Christian assumptions and premises," and each one differing from the next.

So what? I think most Christians wouldn't have that big a problem with that statement (other than perhaps with some semantics). You almost have to go to a negative review, written by Looney, to figure out what the heck you are supposed to think:

The unspoken conclusion is that at most, only one of these can be true Christianities, and it is just simpler to assume none.

That might be close to accurate. In his overview of the book, one of the contributors, Richard Carrier explains what this chapter is actually supposed to demonstrate:

...Dr. David Eller (an expert in the anthropology of religion) exposes how Christian missionaries use the science of anthropology to market the gospel in other cultures, and how they acknowledge how culturally relative religion is, even their own religion, yet irrationally fail to see how this actually makes their religion no more credible than the ones they seek to displace.

Um...right. I don't think the subjective things they have to do to sell Christianity constitute what they think is the "credible" part. Carrier's fallacy is therefore equivocation.

I'm not exactly the only person to notice this. J. P. Holding points out the obvious:

Something smells bad here. Eller may be confusing "relativity" with "relevance". I of all people know how important it is to contextualize the Gospel message, but that's not making the message "relative," it is trying to order the absolutes. Beyond that, it is a non sequitur to say that this makes any religion more or less credible.

It's great being on the same page with Holding... *sigh*

Anyway, here's more specifically how Eller pulled it off (or rather failed to pull it off):

...the writers urge missionaries to "recontextualize" Christianity in such a way as to fit it into the local cultures without rejecting every aspect of those local cultures but without losing the core of the religion. [emphasis mine]

Yup, so there's still no argument yet. How do we contrive one? Eller continues:

Other cultures are cultures, you see, but Christian culture is "reality"--which betrays their actual intention and in so doing betrays the message of anthropology.

Obviously the Christian missionaries think the core mentioned above is the reality and Eller just seems to be imposing his anthropologist sensibilities uncharitably on what he says missionaries have been telling him. The equation "culture = religion" is Eller's construct. Not theirs.

Anyway, there is no argument in Eller's chapter that a mainstream Christianity is actually false. A reader would have to take for granted sentence two of the chapter:

After all, every argument in support of religion has been shown to be inconclusive or demonstrably false...

Let's just end the entire book there (on sentence two of chapter 1) if that's enough. It's one thing to mention this and then get into those arguments. It is no crime to believe in your conclusions and tell us. However, when we review the chapter and realize your argument is actually hinged explicitly on this assertion just being true...that's a whole new ballgame of WTF.

Liberal Christian reviewer, jayman777, certainly noticed:

Given the fact that these Christians recognize the diversity, plasticity, and relativity of their own religion and yet still fervently proselytize, it is strange that Eller expects this recognition to result in such Christians leaving Christianity behind. Eller notes that some Christian missionaries believe that other cultures are false but Christian culture is reality (p. 29). This should have made him aware that Christians are interested in the truth.

Bu-but Eller disagrees with those arguments! Therefore Christians are not interested in truth. And therefore Christianity is all culture. And therefore missiologists are inconsistent with themselves! Gosh...Christian thinking is so twisted, isn't it? [/sarcasm] I'll bet Loftus doesn't like it when Christians claim that he is only an atheist for subjective emo..., because they disagree with his arguments. Perhaps we shouldn't return the favor? It's a thought.

Loftus is worried by my critical review that Christians will get the wrong impression. Apparently he is oblivious that Christians will get the wrong impression from actually reading the chapter. I don't think it helps at all if every atheist online is equally oblivious. For instance, Christians like element771 have noticed Eller's persuasive failure (in reference to the above Eller quote) already:

I really cannot comprehend this type of statement. This, IMHO, shows that there seems to be a commitment to atheism that is beyond argument, critical thinking, etc. I am a Christian that understands that all of the arguments for atheism are not complete crap and some are definitely worth thinking about.

And I just can't blame him that much for coming to that conclusion. Likely, he won't be the only one. Most will probably just be silently offended and give the book back to their concerned atheist friend who lent it to them.

Eller tells us:

This will also explain, finally, why the efforts to debunk and displace Christianity through evidence and logic--the atheist's stock in trade--have been and will continue to be largely futile.

Is this book called why skeptics fail? Or why faith fails? Because it seems like Eller (given the main shortcoming of the chapter that I've pointed out above) is more concerned with apologizing for why skepticism fails to refute Christianity than making sure he really sticks it to the faith community.

Eller defends himself in response to this post of mine:

I mean, if he thinks it is a valid point of criticism that the book is openly atheistic, then he is missing the whole point of the book: it IS openly atheistic.

Apparently Eller thinks it's cool to not be openly persuasive.

In response Loftus insists though that:

Christianity is emphatically not a unified sets of beliefs or actions or organizations, as Eller convincingly shows. [emphasis mine]

Perhaps he should have read Valerie Tarico's chapter where she says (page 48):

Certainty is a feeling, not proof of knowing.

Apparently Loftus genuinely thinks that after one takes a college level course in critical thinking (as though I haven't already) equivocation and assuming your conclusion will be logical. Loftus also thinks that one would get a different impression if they'd just go read Eller's books. Will that make equivocation and assuming your conclusion logical? Incidentally I do know someone that has read Eller's book, Atheism Advanced, and apparently Eller assumes atheism there, too, in order to take us on the cultural tour. So no, equivocation and assuming your conclusion will still not be logical or persuasive after I go read Eller's books.

Valerie Tarico knows how to handle her case (pages 62-63):

Understanding the psychology of religion doesn't tell us whether any specific set of beliefs is true. I might believe in a pantheon of supernatural beings for all the wrong reasons [...] and they still might exist...

Jason Long pretty much knows how to handle his case, too (page 66):

Explaining the various thought processes that place people in a certain religion is not intend to serve as proof that the belief system is wrong...

Why doesn't Eller know how to handle his?

Nevertheless, Loftus seems completely unwilling to accept this obvious criticism. Perhaps Jason Long's chapter explains why this might be (page 73):

Impression management theory suggests that people increasingly stick by their decisions because consistency leads to social reward and inconsistency leads to social punishment.

*shrug* Loftus has to sell books I guess. Hope that works out for him. Loftus was at least kind enough to send Eller my review and Eller apparently completely agrees with Loftus' assessment. Perhaps Jason Long shouldn't have armed me with this (page 73):

...people are often incapable of rational thinking due to the effects of cognitive dissonance, they will often fall back to utilizing the arguments from experts who agree with them.


Loftus, in response to this review, even goes to crazy lengths to cover for Eller's polemical failure:

[Your review is] ...inconsistent with what you must believe as an atheist [...] Dr. Eller is explaining what you as an atheist must accept about religion. Religion is a human invention within different geographical locations on the globe, and as such, each one represents and reflects a particular culture. They merge into one another when they make contact with each other. Christianity is therefore a culture which changes and morphs into different things as it makes contact with different cultures. All religions share something though, and that is they are made by human beings. So they all have a core based in human need and values, and that's the core of religion. Bart Ehrman in his book "Lost Christianities" argues there were more different early Christianities than we see today and that the Christianities of today would think those other Christianities were bizarre. If there is a core to Christianity then why did the Office of the Inquisition kill other professing Christians, and why did eight million of them die in the Christian wars of the late 16th to early 17th centuries? There is no equivocation here at all.

Loftus needs to point out where I denied Eller's conclusion or evidence (or Bart Ehrman's for that matter) if he doesn't want to be called delusional. One can embrace all the anthropology Eller presents, and agree that religion is only a product of culture, but disagree with the specific logic applied to get there. Anyone who took that college level critical thinking course would know that.

Anyway, as I expected, it's not very hard for a Christian like Looney to sidestep the entire chapter's thesis:

Christianity is a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. It was multicultural from the start as the Grecian and Jewish Christians worked things out, followed immediately afterward by Greek and Latin Christians, yet the commonality of the relationship is with Jesus Christ. As we look at the large number of Christian "sects", it is quite clear that the cultural differences are a key factor in the multiplication of organizations, yet at the same time the underlying church still remains unified on the basis of Jesus.

I predict Looney's response will be typical. I'd be happy to be wrong, but I'm fairly confident that I'm not.

The most charitable thing I can say about Eller's chapter is that it makes for an incredibly mediocre warm up for readers who simply have no clue that there's a such thing as another religion. But, are we really aiming that low? Do we have to only aim that low? Surely we can hit multiple levels of audience as we go along. One can address the beginners as well as making sure the moderate and advanced folks are not going, "WTF?" If you are a parent, just think of the huge difference that there is between kids' movies you have to sit through that only aim at your kids, and kids' movies that are sophisticated enough to have something for everyone.

I think the great Tony Stark said, "Is it too much to ask for both?"

So anyway, that's the main criticism of the opening chapter. It's a rough start. Eller winds down with the point he actually does have to offer:

Religions may think they are universal and eternal, but they are not. Religions may think they are special, but they are not.


With the information presented in this chapter, and in this book, it is impossible for Christians to remain unaware of their own religion or of the differences between religions. The hope, and the obligation, is that once people recognize the diversity, plasticity, and the relativity of religion, they will see little merit in it: that which is no longer taken for granted is often not taken at all.

That's fair. There are plenty of Christians who need a little guided tour of the crazy circus that is the religious world. I would agree with that. It can burst some bubbles. But they don't need a bad argument underpinning it all. There are tons of atheist/theist arguments that haven't been addressed and many Christians who will feel shorted if chapters like this jump the gun. It would be very easy to say something like, "Hey, btw, religion is really plastic. I know you might have lots of arguments and evidence that you think justifies your particular religion, but we'll get to that in later chapters. For now, we need to appreciate that the vast majority of religion transmits itself arbitrarily through subjective cultural means. At the very least, it's a great reason to reassess your tradition."

Liberal Christian reviewer, jayman777, agrees:

At best [Eller] can hope that this chapter will lead Christians to ask: is my religion true? But then it will become a matter of intellectual arguments.

It seems we really do need Loftus' first book, "Why I Became an Atheist" after all to justify the logic of this first chapter. If Christians are going to ad hoc the Holy Spirit into the single strain of denomination they can trace all the way back to Jesus, then we don't need to be competing with them with our own fallacies.

The great Leonidas said, "Give them nothing. Take from them EVERYTHING." Just sayin.

A sub-theme to the main shortcoming of Eller's case is the unnecessary conspiratorial nature of a lot of the chapter:

If the presentation above has not awakened them to the multiple mundane ways in which religion pervades their lives...

Whether or not they know it--and it is more insidious if they do not know it--non-Christians living in Christian-dominated societies live a life permeated with Christian assumptions and premises.

Most atheists use most of these phrases without any thought for their source--and how the use serves the source.

Religion may even show up when you sneeze ("God bless you").

One of the most overlooked ways that religion replicates itself in the everyday is in personal names.

*looks around for waiter* Check please. This is only good if we want to reinforce the stereotype that atheists think religion literally poisons everything.

Even a favorable reviewer didn't have to overstate the claims to the conspiratorial extreme:

[Eller's] point that culture is so wrapped up in religion, and vice-versa, is well taken. With a global culture so diverse, it’s no wonder there are something like 38,000 different varieties of Christianity integrated into that culture.

I’d never thought of it this way before, but it’s so clear how religion intrudes into and takes over all aspects of life, from our habits of speech (“God Bless You” when you sneeze), to critical life events such as birth, death and marriage (even creating artificial events like christenings), to our bodily habits and dress (“circumcision” and “burkha”), institutions, art, even our concepts of time and dates (this is the year 2010 A.D. “Anno Domini”, after the birth of Christ). Religion so permeates our culture, that it’s well nigh impossible to divorce our attitudes about it to look at it objectively.

I still wouldn't call it "well nigh impossible" but perhaps, "subjectively difficult."


jayman777 points out:

Despite his confidence that all intellectual arguments for religion fail or are inconclusive, about 72% of philosophy of religion faculty members describe themselves a....

I'll see your link and raise you a link from over on Common Sense Atheism: "What Do Most Philosophers Believe?"

Eller says:

Those who want to "win" the contest and to influence society must heed--namely, culture.


This, we believe, is why recasting mundane, routine practices has been so vital to all manner of social reformers...

I'm going to do a little plug here for Ethical Societies. They are basically atheist churches. You take out god and replace it with humanist values with community support. I happen to go to the main one in St. Louis. They get a lot of ideological flack for being "too churchie" or rip off reactions to Christianity, but if we are to be expected to think that enculturing people is the way to win, why in the heck are atheists so often all against it? Here we have an authoritative source sticking it to religion supposedly telling us how religion insidiously co-opts culture and yet we take that same science and dismiss it for the sake of remaining lone wolfs. I know too many atheists who do that. So, I'd like to take whatever momentum is supposed to be in this chapter and redirect it against the egotism of the atheist community that says it doesn't need to be a community and stand together with common values and provide a hollistic way of living to help win the culture war. Just sayin.

I was pleased to discover that in one of Eller's books, Atheism Advanced, Eller does actually push a vision for the atheism of the future. Perhaps we could be on the same page there.

Eller abuses a metaphor, imo:

Some atheists and other critics of religion like to use the analogy of a crutch for religion [...] But you cannot pull a crutch from underneath a cripple and expect him or her to walk.

This will be a nitpicking point. It's an analogy and analogies have their limitations. I've always interpreted it as though religious people are using a crutch they don't actually need. They can walk upright, but they are just encultured to think they can't. "But what would I do without God telling me not to murder people?" Ten seconds later, after losing touch with their god feelings, "Oh, there are obvious mental and social consequences I'd really like to avoid." So I don't think we have to discard the metaphor since I arrive at the same conclusion Eller does using it.

No wait, I have an even worse nitpicking point:

...it is the year 2010 according to the Christian calendar, but it is not "really" 2010 or any other year.

Dude...we're not really here at all. Eller! Geez. That's it! I'm becoming a Christian!

Loftus, in the comment section below, hastily chooses to attack my last statement as though it is the most important thing I've said here. He doesn't see the irony in light of what Jason Long says in another chapter (page 68):

Petty and Cacioppo have found that providing a person with a few strong arguments provokes more attitude change than providing these arguments along with a number of moderate ones.

So Loftus can't address the fact that Eller assumes his conclusion (and then Loftus says crazy stuff about me not being an atheist when he finally gets around to it, as I pointed out above), and so attacks literally the weakest zebra in the herd of criticism. *sigh*


I give this chapter 3 stars. It uses a logical fallacy at the heart its argument, overstates some of its claims in distasteful ways, and fails to take into consideration the most likely reactions of its intended audience. However, if you strip out those aspects, leave the modest intentions that surface at the end of the chapter, and look at it through the lens of the rest of book, it still deserves 3 stars for the array of information it presents the reader.

Next up, Valerie Tarico's "Christian Belief Through the Lens of Cognitive Science."


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