(book review) "The Christian Delusion" - The Malleability of the Human Mind


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 3: "The Malleability of the Human Mind," by Jason Long:

Ken Pulliam's review covers the strength's of Long's chapter pretty well for those interested.

I think Jason Long himself summarizes his chapter the best:

I attempt to show that human beings are far too passionate, gullible, subjective, irrational, and emotionally involved to be right about something as far-fetched as speculative religious beliefs. I cite a number of studies performed by persuasive psychologists that show how malleable and unreliable the human mind is.

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

Long's rhetoric is too high strung: Are skeptics unbiased and believers delusional?
I spend quite a bit of time pointing out how overblown a lot of Long's rhetoric is and what the consequences will likely be for the average Christian reader who may be looking for something to react to.

Christian apologist, William Lane Craig: Can the infamous "Holy Spirit defeater defeater" be defeated after ...
Despite Long's portrayal, I argue that Craig has listened to his critics and changed his tune: He specifically tells atheists how we might try to defeat the Holy Spirit.

Credentials: Is Long qualified to write this chapter?
Short answer: Despite the online tug-o-war, I don't see why not. He's reporting the science of others competently enough. Anyone is free to show otherwise.

Standards: How might we avoid conventional Christian objections in the future?
I lay out some common sense guidelines for avoiding political bs in the future and demonstrate why atheist writers should listen.


Random question (for my information): Aren't Scientologists less trusted than atheists?
Inquiring Infidel actually corrects me on how to understand the discrepancy.

I make a request: Are there studies that show which parts of the brain Christians use...
Long gives the example of how people use the emotional part of their brain to reconcile the statements of political figures they agree with. I just wonder if there is something that specifically targets Christians.

Long "goes there":

Can't we just let talking donkeys lie?
Long brings up the Bible's talking donkey three times. He almost gets away with it, but not quite.

Have Bible scholars never considered alternative viewpoints?
This just opens up the Pandora's box of every "former atheist" turned educated Bible believer.

Doesn't arrogance also correlate well with IQ?
Long promotes the studies that seem to show that IQ correlates well with atheism (assuming those studies are being interpreted properly), but seems to not recognize how this fits right into how Christians profile atheists.

3 out of 5 stars.
I almost gave Long 4 stars initially, but was ultimately overwhelmed by how inappropriate much of his rhetoric is.

Long reminds me of myself from a few years ago. I think he has some good things to say, but I do have a few moderate criticisms to offer. Long's chapter is a bit high strung (and that's mostly what I'm covering here) and unfortunately reflects the presumptuous aspect of Dan Barker's foreword that I pointed out before. It is almost assumed that atheists must have no bias when evaluating the validity of religion. This is most disturbing, since it is blatantly untrue. Religion can be very intimidating and being against it can be just as subjective and a-rationally contrived as being for it. Certainly Christians have noticed:

...they attempt to throw around armchair psychoanalysis and ad hominem (which could just as easily be applied to their side)...

Long almost seems to think there is a category of "non-biased" person or that atheists have no emotional problems that might inhibit their ability to evaluate a religion dispassionately. There's some stark language here (page 73-74):

...or would you ask a secular scholar with no emotional investment in Islam...

...choose the unbiased scholar to help evaluate that position...

People who study a concept in which they have no emotional investment...

Scholars who begin with no emotional investment in Christianity...

Etc. Although in fairness to Long, intro to that paragraph does contain tempered words like "often," "often," "often," and "wiser" which does help characterize the above quotes (if we want to be charitable), but it seems we need to delete the term "unbiased" from our atheist lexicon altogether in favor of "less biased" or something similar. It is really easy to get the wrong idea. Aren't skeptics often guilty of just looking to find out why something is fake rather than bothering to ever ask the question, "Is it fake?" I'm pretty sure both Long (and every other atheist author in this book) knows atheists are just as susceptible to all the cognitive biases presented in the first few chapters of the book. But you can't make Christians work for that conclusion, especially when finding overblown themes like this plug directly into their narrative of arrogantly, unaware atheists.

Maybe atheists don't think this matters. But a major theme of my criticism of this book so far has been that the sciences of human subjectivity have direct and obvious applications to the very presentation of evidence itself. And this shouldn't be surprising in the least. Long relays information like this (page 70):

...Cialdini reports that people are more likely to buy unusual items when they are priced higher, buy items with coupons despite no price advantage, respond to requests when empty reasons are given, agree to absurd requests if they are preceded by ones of greater absurdity, and consider people intelligent and persuasive if they are attractive.

Atheists may gladly accept the information if they think it makes believers look bad, but then they might seem hard-pressed to apply it in functional ways. Every time I don't apply my own advice here, I get the typical negative results everyone else does, and just about every time I do apply my advice here (as I was explaining to Ed Babinski) I tend to get pretty good results I don't see happening anywhere else. And it's not just the superficial effect. I feel better about what I'm doing as well. It is improvement all the way around.

Long seems to portray all serious believers as having some extreme form of cognitive dissonance when approaching their doubts about belief in God (page 71):

It naturally follows that questions on the issue of God's existence provoke the most cognitive dissonance within those who are deeply involved in the issue. As this debate generates the greatest amount of cognitive dissonance, it naturally follows that people are increasingly willing to accept explanations that alleviate the uncomfortable feelings and are decreasing willing to consider disconfirming arguments.

A wide range of Christians are going to be reading that and we don't want to be lumping everyone into a single category. Long says (page 72):

The Christian is interested in feeling comfortable with his beliefs, not in dispassionately evaluating them.

THE Christian? C'mon. How about "Many Christians..."? Or, "Most Christians in my experience..." Etc.

It seems equally inappropriate of Long to seem to insist that all believers necessarily have low self-esteem (page 77):

Such ideas are no doubt appealing to those with little or no self-esteem, but they carry less weight with someone confident of his own abilities and intelligence.

This is not good PR and more importantly it's probably not even indicative of the norm for believers. Long even goes so far as to point to the studies that show that intelligence and religiosity have a negative correlation, but similar studies show that religiosity and emotional intelligence have a positive correlation. Again, maybe that's not what Long really meant. I'm assuming it's not. He may just be focusing on one demographic and not at the expense of the rest. But it would be very difficult to fault a less sympathetic reader for concluding otherwise. The careless rhetoric and even the overall structure of the chapter lends to way too strict a conclusion.

So, it's not hard to see how all of this snowballs into what I would think a typical Christian reaction would be. Looney responds in turn:

The main idea is that we do not believe Christianity because we logically choose it, but because we are indoctrinated when we are young. While this is true, it also ignores the power of atheist indoctrination in our society: Atheism is the established ideology of academia so we are bombarded by these messages from when we are young. I loved reading Rupyard Kipling and Mark Twain, yet they were both skeptics and this filtered through much of their writing. Atheists and skeptics have hijacked seminaries, invaded pulpits and spent billions of taxpayer dollars indoctrinating the minds of children in schools - myself included. Then there is Hollywood, which is atheist except when it is mystic, but very rarely Christian. WE HEARD THE ATHEIST MESSAGE!!! In communist countries, the situation was even worse, yet religion is on the rise, especially in places like China where the children NEVER RECEIVED CHRISTIAN INDOCTRINATION FROM YOUTH! If we are going to simply say that humans are doomed to make irrational decisions, than what can the atheists do about it without coercion and government establishment? Furthermore, why should we believe that an atheist is in the slightest more rational, given that we all come from human DNA?

It doesn't even matter if Looney is blowing his examples of "atheist indoctrination" out of proportion. Notice, he didn't start the exaggeration merry-go-round. And I didn't need to go looking for reviews to know that the standard Christian reply to the idea would be: "I know you are, but what am I?" I don't see how the authors could pretend they didn't see this coming, that there was no way to avoid it, or that it wouldn't grossly characterize the book for typical Christian readers.

Loftus explains what he wanted to happen:

I am so happy that Eller, Tarico and Long wrote their chapters. Combined, they have a crushing effect on the believer's sense of self-certainty, which is the point. Like well shot cannon balls they break through the walls of the Christian castle so that the rest of the troops can march in.

Reminds me of Monty Python and the Holy Grail when they forget to actually get in their Trojan Bunny. You actually have to apply your own psychological understanding to your audience. Their biases don't click off just because you are attempting to inform them about their biases. Tarico seems to be the only one (so far) who managed to squeak out statements like this (page 54-55):

...how can anybody claim to know anything? We can't, with certainty. Those of us who are not religious could do with a little more humility on this point.

Unfortuantely we can juxtapose this sentiment with dozens of abrasive "cannon ball" statements from the two dudes her chapter is sandwiched in (and Loftus and Barker before all of them). Given this senselessness, it will be no surprise if the vast majority of TCD's audience walk away with something like this (from Looney again):

To summarize, the argument of this chapter is that Christians can't be trusted, therefore Atheists should be trusted...because they say they should be trusted. So there!

*sigh* Yup.

Looney won't be the only one. I'm sure Holding's response to these first "crushing" chapters in TCD will look exactly like this:

In other words, it's just a red herring argument that proves and says nothing about the validity or truth of the system, and in any event, has no application to someone like me who was raised in an environment essentially hostile or indifferent to Christianity, and who grew up thinking Christians were arrogant fools. It would be just as easy (and just as fallacious) for us to "psychoanalyze" Long and make up stories about the reasons for his apostasy -- but they wouldn't in the least serve to validate or invalidate his beliefs. Indeed, we could just as easily say that he included this superfluous chapter on psychology as an expression of his own insecurities with his presentation of the facts. Why not? It proves as much as his whole chapter here does.

Perhaps this might even be applicable:

...in summation it's only a chapter on faulty reasoning processes used by Christians (ones Long has encountered) and which by his own admission and warning, "freethinkers" are not immune to either.

So that confirms that Long certainly knows better. And Holding has his own biases of course. He only quotes part of Long's response to him:

Does it come as any surprise, however, that Holding just happened to pick the one religion out of hundreds that was widely practiced and accepted in his society? Is there any reasonable doubt that if Holding had been born in, say, Iraq under similar conditions, he would have chosen Islam and been just as confident about the Qur’an (through the use of equally effective self-convincing apologetics) as he is now about the Bible?

At first it would appear that Long is incapable of dropping the rule of thumb that Holding wishes to distance himself from entirely, but if we read the surrounding context of Long's quote, it appears this is not the case (Turkel is Holding, btw):

The first part of the paragraph is, I assume, Turkel’s way of sidestepping the issue that children almost always follow the religious beliefs of their parents. He calls this a red herring, but he misunderstands the purpose of the chapter. It was not written to serve as proof that the belief system is wrong, but rather to demonstrate that the belief system is being observed with virtually zero independent thought. In other words, a particular religion will be a strong presence in an area where children are continuously taught that it cannot possibly be wrong. I would never deny that exceptions exist, as Turkel claims to be one, but I will always stand by my statement that the overwhelming majority do not join a religion this way. [...what Holding did quote was here...] The importance of this point is that it’s not a matter of which of the three or four major religions is the correct one. Circumstances independent of the major religions’ veracities created the current distribution of observation. Any of the ancient religions may be correct. [emphasis mine]

The most charitable way I can understand Holding's response is to think that he doesn't want to have to deal with the general point at all since he thinks he believes he has good arguments apart from subjective enculturalization. All in all, both parties aren't really disagreeing with each other, but it should be clear that once we get beyond the world of subjective persuasion and into the world of accountable arguments and evidence, this level of accusation needs to be left behind. To do otherwise becomes ad hominem in either direction.

William Lane Craig

In order to demonstrate that Christian defenders are too biased to even bother with, Long points to Answer in Genesis and another classic example:

Prominent apologist William Lane Craig declares, "[S]hould a conflict arise between the witness of the Holy Spirit to the fundamental truth of the Christian faith and beliefs based on argument and evidence, then it is the former which must take precedence over the latter, and not vice versa."

I would agree that there is an issue here and that this makes communicating and debating with Christians unfairly difficult. However, it seems that Craig has adjusted his position over the years since having infamously confessed to Mark Smith that if they traveled back in time to find Jesus' body still in the grave after three days Craig said that he'd still believe Jesus rose anyway. As I recall this incident has been thrown around in lots of debates to make Craig and other Christians like him look bad. It seems Craig has gotten the message:

Of course, anyone (or, at least any sort of theist) can claim to have a self-authenticating witness of God to the truth of his religion. But the reason you argue with them is because they really don't: either they've just had some emotional experience or else they've misinterpreted their religious experience. So you present arguments and evidence in favor of Christian theism and objections against their worldview in the hope that their false confidence will crack under the weight of the argument and they will come to know the truth. (This also is what the atheist should do with me.) Of course, in presenting such arguments, you are not working against or apart from the Holy Spirit. He is at work, too, testifying to their hearts of the truth of the Gospel and using your arguments, as you lovingly present them, to draw that person to saving faith in Christ. [emphasis mine]

Also, unless he's lying, on Lee Strobel's former show, Faith Under Fire, Craig clearly said that finding Jesus' body in the tomb would trump his self-authenticating Holy Spirit witnessing service. That's clearly a departure from his answer to Mark Smith. So, it's not very popular among atheists to point out, but there is not as clear a dichotomy between unbiased skeptic and innately credulous believer as Long seems to portray, especially when I'm sure someone can dig out some juicy atheist quotes who have confessed to similar hypothetical crazy denials in the face of overwhelming evidence. I think the Craig statement that Long quoted (and it is popular to quote) possibly lifts out of context the general rule of thumb that the authority of the Holy Spirit is to be recognized on the spot on any given item, since it is most probably correct (to a Christian), but that it is still possible in general, to make an overwhelming case against Christian belief despite its authority. That'd be my guess, anyway.


Christian internet apologist, J. P. Holding, claims Long is "not qualified" to write his two chapters and that he has "amauterish understanding." Atheist reviewer, Ken Pulliam, on the other hand, says:

Some critics have questioned Jason's credentials for writing against Christianity because he is a pharmacist and not a biblical or theological scholar. I think this is misguided. Jason is a bright young man whose mind has been sharpened through the study of scientific disciplines and he applies that sharp mind to the question of religious belief.

So we have a "nuh uh" and a "yuh huh." That's not very helpful. Granted, Holding's insistence that Richard Carrier couldn't possibly be able to learn from a non-PhD is equally unhelpful (especially since Long is reporting what the experts are saying on the topic), but oh well. I find it difficult to believe that Holding doesn't trust his experienced comrades when they relay information from experts he agrees with.

Holding reviewed Long's book "Biblical Nonsense" and this serves as a test run of the reaction this chapter will get. Holding's main criticism there seems to be that Long lacks qualifications and that he doesn't cite his sources. Perhaps Holding will be pleased to know that Long does cite his sources this time around. Long's perspective on his other writing goes like this:

As stated a number of times throughout the book, the purpose of Biblical Nonsense is to be my own “brief introduction to the facts we have and analyses we can make concerning pertinent biblical issues,” “occasionally accommodating some innovative philosophical questions that the findings should naturally provoke.” Furthermore, “by no means did I intend for this manuscript to be an exclusively novel, methodically referenced, meticulously comprehensive volume of perplexities plaguing the Bible.” My goal was to have the reader “investigate the points raised in this book by reviewing some of the recommended reading material and subsequently considering the arguments offered by both sides.”

Presumably from Holding's vantage point, failing to be PhD qualified or citing sources drastically effects the even the introductory contents. Perhaps. I suppose that would come down to actual examples, since skilled and experienced persons (outside an official setting) do exist. Isn't Holding like a librarian or something?

Although a rather potent example seems to be pointed out well by Long:

Turkel – very disturbingly – suggests that it would make just as much sense for us to expect that God should change the channels on our televisions as it would for him to not murder innocent people.

Yes, even if ordinary Christians have the exact same moral difficulty with a Biblical text, Holding will just about always frame it all as an "argument from outrage." It seems to me Holding is just outraged that atheists can be careless in their assessments and so he has given up bothering to distinguish between deserved and undeserved moral criticism.


In order to avoid the problems posed above, it seems pretty obvious these standards should apply to the first few chapter in TCD:

Find someone with a PhD in the field or have PhDs in the field peer review a chapter from a populist writer.

Avoid the insinuation that Christians reading the book have no arguments for their beliefs apart from enculturation, indoctrination, and idiocy.

Avoid the genetic fallacy by framing the content as something that applies to all (including atheists) as a call to self reassessment.

Leave it open-ended for subsequent chapters that will actually make arguments.

Ignore at your own risk. Why should you listen? Well, because the folks in this very book say so (page 73):

Psychological reactance theory suggests that people increasingly stick by their decisions when others threaten their freedom to express their ideas. It is my opinion that limited persecution in Rome during the infant years of Christianity may have dramatically increased its popularity. It's not difficult to imagine how people would become more dedicated to and firm in their beliefs when faced with opposition, especially when the opposition pushes a sharp reversal of current conditions.

Intellectual intimidation is a form of psychological persecution. If the authors of this book are interested in creating even more of what they would like to label delusion in their Christian readers, by all means, ignore what I'm saying. Clearly Loftus has. He will continue to say things like this:

The apologist doesn't care what happened. He only wants to defend the Holy Book at all costs, even if it means he must sacrifice his intellect to do so.

And not recognize that by doing so he is a participant in the process that creates this:

I could only wish Christian apologists didn't have their fingers in their ears, but they do.

John, you are helping them put their fingers in their ears and you are helping to keep them there indefinitely.

But maybe he doesn't think he has any options? Loftus says:

You cannot force a horse to drink even if you drag him to the water...

Well the problem was you have the "drag him there" mentality. Just think of the dramatic difference in reaction to these initial chapters if all of the content was framed with something like this: "We're all in the same boat. Let's systematically evaluate our subjective biases. And then we are more self-aware to evaluate the arguments and evidence in the follow up chapters. Even Christian apologists and responsible pastors would rather their flock be well informed about the realities of human psychology and culture. An informed faith is a better one. We happen to think that not a lot is left over with religious credibility when you correct for all the human cognitive biases. Perhaps you will conclude the same." Who can argue with that?

And now it's story time!

The North Wind boasted of great strength. The Sun argued that there was great power in gentleness.

"We shall have a contest," said the Sun.

Far below, a man traveled a winding road. He was wearing a warm winter coat.

"As a test of strength," said the Sun, "Let us see which of us can take the coat off of that man."

"It will be quite simple for me to force him to remove his coat," bragged the Wind.

The Wind blew so hard, the birds clung to the trees. The world was filled with dust and leaves. But the harder the wind blew down the road, the tighter the shivering man clung to his coat.

Then, the Sun came out from behind a cloud. Sun warmed the air and the frosty ground. The man on the road unbuttoned his coat.

The sun grew slowly brighter and brighter.

Soon the man felt so hot, he took off his coat and sat down in a shady spot.

"How did you do that?" said the Wind.

"It was easy," said the Sun, "I lit the day. Through gentleness I got my way."

Are you really going to argue with the Sun, John? :p


I thought Scientology was the new least trusted minority. Long claims it is atheism on page 69. I dunno. Maybe it fluctuated back again since 2008. We're still in the bottom two, regardless. [Note: InquiringInfidel pointed out to me that including Scientology in the poll is arbitrary.]

Long relays this example (page 74):

...people who were strongly loyal to one candidate in presidential elections did not use areas of the brain associated with reasoning to resolve contradictory statements made by their candidates.

That's really interesting and I can see how it might apply, but it would be a much better example if we could cite studies of religious people attempting to resolve classic Bible contradictions... Just saying.

Long brings up the Bible's infamous talking donkey three times. The first time was just "off" like it was a random jab, but then I forgave him because of how he used it the second time around (page 70):

If you have admired a book since childhood because it says that your lost loved ones are waiting for you in heaven when you die, it's going to take an extraordinary amount of work to convince you that the talking donkey also found in the book might mean that the book is not proper evidence for such an optimistic idea.

It seemed the the first time was a setup in that case. However, then the third time he "went there" just seemed overplayed. Just my opinion. I still think Loftus' opening to chapter 7 in WIBA ("The Strange and Superstitious World of the Bible") is possibly the best reminder I've ever come across that the Bible presents a completely foreign fairytale-scape. Whenever you pick out just one element though, it is easy for apologists to say, "Well technically God used his magic powers to make the donkey talk, so it's not like we just believe in talking donkeys randomly."

Moving on...

Long asks (page 75):

What good is a biblical scholar who refuses to consider that his point of view may simply be wrong?

That's why it is so popular for apologists like Lee Strobel to claim they used to be skeptics! This just drags up the issue of what a "real" skeptic (or atheist) is. Very tiresome. I wouldn't have gone there, but I do wonder if Long gets more into detail in his book (since this chapter is just a summary of it).

Long ignores (page 77) that Christians will also see a strong correlation with arrogance and lack of religious belief. Not just intelligence. I just hate playing right into their stereotypes.


After reading the first few pages, I thought I'd end up giving Long 4 stars. He seemed to have good content, but was only a little high strung in tone. But then after finishing the chapter I couldn't justify even that. It was just too prevalent. So again (similarly with Eller's chapter), we have some good content that needs to be in a book like this, but the presentation suffers too much, imo.

Next up, chapter 4, "The Outsider Test for Faith Revisited," by John Loftus, himself.


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