(book review) "The Christian Delusion" - Dan Barker's Foreword


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.

Foreword, by Dan Barker:

[note: Editor, John Loftus' responses have been rolled into the post so you don't have to fish through all the comments.]

Overall, Dan Barker gives an adequate foreword.

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

I respond to John Loftus on Dan Barker's reputation: Is Dan Barker a dick?
Loftus believes I've insulted Barker with my original review. I point out that Barker deserves the criticism.

Barker tells instead of shows: Are atheists really that interested in the facts?
In a contentious context, no one listens when you tell them what to think. You have to show them why they should think it. Barker goes way overboard trying to tell us just how desperately interested in the facts the contributors of this book are.

There might yet be hope for the book: Is TCD intellectually challenging and respectful in tone?
Christian reviewer, James McGrath gives me some confidence that perhaps Christians won't be terribly offended by the contents of TCD. Although he's an overly tolerant guy.

Barker is careless with his praise: Does TCD defend the mythicist position?
Barker bothers to bring up mythicism (the idea that Jesus never existed as a historical person) in a book that does not defend mythicism. I demonstrate what a horrible misstep this is in terms of our Christian audience.


Not rated.
Barker sets a fairly bad precedent that is unfortunately continued so far throughout TCD (I'm only on chapter 5 at this point) of "telling" instead of "showing." Ultimately that means an underlying tone of the book is "us vs. them" when we could have been all in the same boat reasoning together.

John Loftus says:

...I do not have the patience with what I consider such ignorance coming from an atheist.

I agree. That is difficult. I'm working on that myself. Nevertheless we do have to police our ranks. I've been unimpressed with Barker for a couple reasons from my general experience. His performance in the two debates (here and here) I've watched him in struck me as arrogant and condescending (and way too easy for apologists to make sport of). His secular holiday sign thing was a PR disaster in my opinion. It should have had a positive alternative message and instead took a moment to insult religious belief. I had a slight sadistic chuckle, but that was quickly overridden by what a horrible foot forward for the atheist movement it was. It did get attention...by throwing red meat to FOX news. At Skepticon 2, Barker bored us to death by prattling on about the size of ancient Hebrew bathtubs for about 10 minutes or so (I don't know the exact time, I'd have to go back and count. It was brutal.). Next time I'm desperately in need of an argument to confront the KJV only crowd I'll schedule it shortly after my lobotomy. Thanks, but no thanks.

So when I saw Barker get skewered on the Daily Show about making a stink about a Mother Teresa stamp, I said to myself, "He had it coming." Even though I think he's probably right about Mother Teresa, I still think he deserved it on balance. A postage stamp is not an important battle. Although, I did see a post on Friendly Atheist giving Barker's side of that story, and if what he says is true, it does seem upsetting that his comments were forced into the frame of their joke. I don't like seeing people misrepresented (even people I don't care for). I'm not surprised that they would think he would fit that bill though. I'm assuming they just went with it anyway (whether that is right or wrong). Barker does occasionally come across as quite reasonable (but then again, so does Bill O'Reilly).

Loftus responds:

Do you not have respect for what Dan Barker has done for the atheist cause? Respect. I don't see it here. That's a great atheist ethic, isn't it?

Respect? Is that what Dan Barker exemplifies? Does he get a free pass on everything he does and says because of his success in the movement? Um, no. Conscientious laity have to put up with his crap. And he gets to put up with criticism. I think fairness is a great "atheist" ethic, too. I have the same standards that I apply to Dawkins and P. Z. Myers and any other PR disaster. Obviously Barker isn't all bad. Plenty of folks stick up for him and I tolerate him. Doesn't mean I have to be happy about everything he says and doesn't mean I'm not going to point it out. Atheists need to publicly promote good behavior and condemn bad behavior in their own ranks. Not be cowed by group-think. Isn't that what we criticize religious people for doing with their leaders? So why should we be unprincipled hypocrites?

Loftus seems quite hypocritical in response to my criticisms of the book so far despite the overwhelmingly positive feedback from virtually every other commenter (see godgone, musterion99, Fletch_F_Fletch, zerowing21, Livingsword, and LooneyFundamentalist) . He's practically in bed with Luke Muehlhauser over on Common Sense Atheism and Luke's aims in general are very similar to what I will be doing here with my review. I suppose you have to be a more heavily trafficked blog to get that kind of response? Luke recently wrote:

I have been critical of the New Atheists before for their lack of clarity and philosophical rigor. My main point is that they say lots of great things, and quite eloquently, but they also make lots of mistakes, especially when discussing the arguments for and against God's existence, on which none of them are trained.

One of my goals on this blog is to reveal that nearly all of the issues typical of internet and interpersonal debate about theism and atheism have been discussed with much greater clarity, precision, and care by analytic philosophers. Soooooooo much of the popular discussion on these issues is badly confused or misguided, and I'm not so much trying to win the debate as to clarify it by summarizing what more careful thinkers have already written about it.

Why shouldn't Loftus expect others to be doing something similar with his books? If Loftus doesn't want to take the time to clarify issues with Christian reviewers, it seems he should recognize that I'm doing him a favor (as he does here), rather than undermining his general efforts. I guess that's his problem, though. There are definitely Christians much more likely to take my opinion seriously if Loftus can't stand it. Either way works for me.

Anyway, I don't have a lot to say about the foreword (it is just a foreword), but it tripped some of my pet peeves about atheist books (not unlike Robert Price's unfortunate intro to "The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave"). Rather than telling us the contributors are so darned interested in "just the facts" this needs to be shown. If you find yourself communicating the equivalent of, "I don't want my ideologically hostile audience to think of us as revenge craved hyper-skeptics just because I say so," you're doing it wrong. There's some hardcore overemphasis on page eleven in just one paragraph:

...a burning desire for actual facts.

...the mental hunger, the intense craving to truly fill in the blanks of knowledge.

...the searing human drive to understand.

Uh huh. Aside from the fact many Christians are probably thinking this obsessive need to understand things is just some form of psychosis, it seems to me that many others are much more likely to double down with their prejudices rather than actually listen to you tell them how objective you and your friends are. It's practically reverse psychology against your favor. Do you listen when Christians tell you in their intros how obviously not faith based they are? Of course you don't, Dan (I read page 10, after all).

Maybe instead of uncharitably interpreting comments about Christianity being the best evidenced faith out there (quoting from a Lee Strobel book), you could reframe the discussion with something like this: "Which provisional explanation of reality fits the evidence the best? There is uncertainty in any worldview and ultimately what can be called faith is involved to one degree or another. We'd like to set aside accusations of motive and other personal insults [and the whole rest of the book damn well better set aside accusations of motive and personal insults] and stick to what we think are the facts and the best explanation. We are confident of our conclusions, but ultimately it is up to the reader to decide." Then you move on, leaving things delectably open-ended. No one is unnecessarily insulted, and if you've done your job right, you'll be the one who loviedovies cold hard reality the mostest. And maybe that'll even happen in their brains. Not just yours, Dan.

From what Richard Carrier and John Loftus have been saying, it appears they've patrolled the content pretty hard to make sure it is up to specs. We'll see how well they did or what they their idea of quality control actually amounts to. I'm hopeful. James McGrath, the awesome Christian theologian from "Exploring our Matrix," says the material is "presented respectfully (for the most part)" so that does help Barker's case (given the blurb appears among others on the first few pages of the book).

I'm a little perplexed that Robert Price is given the mantle of "a towering expert on the (non)historicity of Jesus," but maybe I'm just biased in favor of how epic Carrier's forthcoming book, "On the Historicity of Jesus" will likely be. Although, if we are concerned with the subjective impact on random Christian audiences, Barker might as well have called Price a "towering expert on crap" since mythicism is virtually the Scientology of skepticism to typical Christian sensibilities. If you aren't arguing for mythicism in the book (which they aren't), I'd recommend leaving Price's skeptical merit badge out. It's an unnecessary drag on the aims of the rest of the book and thematically links the contents to an unproven, controversial, scholarly non-consensus position. I can practically write the irate Christian responses myself just based on those 8 words alone. But you know, w/e. What do I know?

element771 on theologyweb puts it pretty well from the Christian perspective:

You don't believe in the resurrection...fine. You don't believe that Jesus was God...fine. You don't believe that Jesus performed miracles....fine. But to deny the very existence of one of the most documented people in the ancient world as well as to try and posit that Jesus was invented from paganism when these ideas have been repeatedly been shown to be false (as per the experts in their respective fields) leads me to question the sincerity and honesty to which they approach a subject.

Does anyone take the views or thoughts of Michael Behe or William Demski seriously in the field? Answer: No. Why? Because they are on the fringe, they seem to have an agenda, they target their criticism towards particular areas that have become more recently established but they ignore the data, they pick and choose which data they believe with seemingly very little consistency, etc. Their reputation has suffered because of their commitment to a certain ideology whether the data supports it or not.....never mind the vast majority of other scientists (theistic or atheistic alike). They are lampooned and mocked severely by the skeptical crowd for their views because they go against the vast majority. How can they be so stupid as to not see what everyone sees?

Now let us look at Carrier and Price. Are they not the Behe and Demski of the historical evidence for Jesus? Behe and Price are both PhDs, employed by universities and have a publication record that is poor to mediocre but at least it is there. Demski and Carrier don't have positions and have a virtually nonexistent publication record...I am not counting publications in the Discovery Institute sponsored periodicals and certainly not articles in the Skeptical Enquirer or Internet Infidels. Yet the atheist / skeptical community applauds them. They think it is admirable to stand up to the vast majority of scholars who think that Jesus actually existed. It is a badge of honor and a mark of their high intelligence that they see things differently than the main stream scholarship.

Back to the topic....reading this would be like a Christian promoting a book that definitively proves the existence of God with the intro written by Kirk Cameron and contributing articles by the late Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson.

Granted, one can certainly point out how many more fringe views on balance your average conservative Christian has to hold to be loyal to Christian doctrine. If there is to be any debate at all, obviously we all have to set that aside to have a civil discussion (seriously, by this logic, there'd be no reason whatsoever ((times ten)) to read any Christian book elemental771 thinks is great). My point here in reposting elemental771's quote is to remind the Dan Barkers of the world that they need to be a little more sensible. Maybe they should even take a moment in a foreword of a book like this to step up to addressing this typical academic posture of informed Christians, rather than mindlessly celebrating what otherwise looks like crankery to your ideologically hostile audience. Just sayin.

One reviewer, Jim Walker, may have the right idea:

If anything, these are the new atheists (non-pejoratively), if only because they offer factual information about history and religion that has never been presented in such a way before to debunk Christianity (at least not to my knowledge). Nor do I praise them because of their Ph.Ds, or their experience (I know all too well many Ph.Ds that I've worked with that don't merit a hill of beans), but because they present verifiable information and sound logic. The end notes and citations from the authors is worth the price of the book alone.

It's not like it can't (or shouldn't) be done. Barker just didn't do it.


I'm not sure that calling Carrier a "deconvert" from nominal Christianity is even worth saying. That's like calling calling someone a deconvert from a preschool. Although, presumably Carrier gave the thumbs up, so w/e.

This isn't a criticism, but it is funny how Barker gives a random shout out to his wife as the best critic of religion ever. And yet, for some reason she didn't write the entire book? C'mon, Dan! What kind of brownie points did that get you at home?!? hehe

Just curious: Are churches in Europe really known for being literally empty? I know church attendance is low and there are probably some unused, elaborate churches open for tours, but is that like a dominant thing? Is that hyperbole on Barker's part or my ignorance?


If you are a Barker fan, maybe this foreword did it for you. I wasn't too enthused, but that's okay. It is unfortunate though that David Eller, Jason Long, and John Loftus (so far) continued some of the unfortunate precedents here.

Next up, John Loftus' intro.


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Comment by lOS`AMIGOS on May 6, 2010 at 6:55pm
Ben ill leave it at that,we are maybe not so far from agreeing on many things.I will just say my thoughts are that if everyone displayed the same self control,my opinion is slavery would have likely hung around like a bad smell for very much longer than it actually did.And without some anger and pro active happenings at sea, i doubt the act of the slaughter of whales would have been brought forward and forced into the media and the attention of the general public. So no personally im against the idea of us all having the same level of control.And in my opinion even though the vast majority of priests are not child molestors,maybe a vast majority are not yet being very pro active in helping do much in seeing that these matters do get fast tracked forward and finally sorted.And i feel thats also played a big part of the reason the abuse was able to continue as long as it did.

By the way i should say i dont really know about this fellow Barker.I dont follow the happenings of all these atheists.

Comment by Ben on May 6, 2010 at 8:09am

I do understand the very human need to just react. And I do recognize that not everyone can be expected to have the same level of self control as everyone else. We can promote all the best behavior that we want, and at the end of the day, we still have to put up with our fellow human beings just as they are.

And I also understand that Christians have a measure of it coming to them. It's not like they don't deserve it.

However I also know something about the politics of war. Specifically the politics of a culture war where both sides have an infinite regress of "justifications" for sticking it to the other side. And that when no one proactively takes the highroad things stay in the gutter for a very long time and get extremely stinky.

Not all oppression and injustice is created equal. We're not slaves and we haven't all been molested by priests. And the vast majority of priests are not even child molesters. So, I wouldn't expect a person to be very "contained" in front of the very priest who molested them when they were younger. And I wouldn't expect slaves to necessarily not conspire to even assassinate their slave holder. But in a civil society, primarily we are engaged in a war of ideas. And when those ideas are not communicated diplomatically, they might as well not even be communicated at all. The jaded rhetoric of Barker's secular Christmas sign (for example) simply does not compare to your examples. We do have some room to breath here and think things through. And public atheists especially have little right to not put their best foot forward on behalf of us all to promote understanding.

It's really only then when Christians, culturally speaking, will even be able to respect us as human beings so that when we are angrily venting (justifiably), they actually have the empathetic foundation to appreciate it. Otherwise, right now, even when there are signs that shouldn't be insulting at all (like, "Don't Believe in God? You're not Alone.") they are still construed as an attack. Why is that? Because the entrenched politics are that messed up and the Christian worldview as a rule does not have very nice things to say about non-believers.

I certainly don't know of another way to start the process of fixing things other than taking the highroad regardless of how offended I may be. And I've had a great deal of success communicating with Christians when I set my negative feelings aside, and work to serve the conversation.

Comment by lOS`AMIGOS on May 6, 2010 at 5:16am
Great, i think it likely your book will do well.

Yes i did notice what you mentioned about Barker and think you hit the nail on the head talking about tolerance.And i wasnt trying to suggest you were being intolerant either.

I understand what you say about PR,but this tolerance cant become just a one way street.And whether theists really like to face it or not, i think they need to learn some tolerence themselves, and when there is actually some very good reason for anger.We dont have any need to simply bow down once again,and allow them the right to simply impose the status of non believers just being intolerant.That wouldnt be very honest of them at all,because the actual truth is maybe they have actually been afforded far to much tolerence for far to long already.I suggest for instance children molested by Chatholic preists might be very much inclined to agree with me.

Maybe in days gone past slave owners might have liked to try to also suggest and impose on dark skinned slaves,that maybe the action and anger of some slaves was out of line and disgusting.Some people back then might have argued their action and anger was bad PR and only bound to make the oppression worse.

But this thinking is not factual unless their action and anger is actually honestly disgusting and totally out of line .And if its not then how can it be honestly argued as only being in the business of perpetuating dysfunctional cultural cycles.

Ben im very much also all for having level headed people such as yourself,i would never ever try to argue that all atheists should be angry and intolerant.I do honestly feel its very important to have level headed very tolerant people as well,because these people can often best explain why some non believers actually have very valid reasons for being somewhat angry and intolerant.These people can best explain to theists,look how about they stop feeling sorry for themselves for a moment, to considder the wrongful lenght of tollerence thats allowed for molested children to have to wait far to long for the Chatholic church to face up to the damage done to molested children.

No i agree promoting good behavior and condemning bad behavior doesnt makes us a religion.I never meant to suggest that.Im more saying that maybe expecting everyone to always all react and behave the same could be slightly religious and lacking in understanding of why people do behave and react differently.We know we dont need religion to understand that people have a right to be angry when harm has been caused,we only need the golden rule.And in keeping with the golden rule if harm has been caused and metered out by the church,then in keeping with do unto others as you would have them do unto you.The church needs to learn to understand and accept a little maybe why some of the heats returning back.We cannot simply let them wrongfully try claiming the title of being the little white lamb .Thats a lot like letting children simply stamp their feet, and keep on getting away with continuing on misbehaving.

Ben like you im against mindless yell and scrape.But i cant honestly see that thats all this ammounts to.

Im glad there is people like you bringing this stuff up though because i do think its very important it gets discussed.The level headed and the angry need to discuss this matter more ,so when the matter gets discussed with theists we can hopefully move faster to getting things a little more sorted.

Comment by Ben on May 6, 2010 at 4:47am

Thanks for sharing your opinion.

I should point out though that I also said, "Obviously Barker isn't all bad. Plenty of folks stick up for him and I tolerate him. Doesn't mean I have to be happy about everything he says and doesn't mean I'm not going to point it out."

So, he hasn't been excommunicated.

We don't have a Pope, but we do have representatives in the culture that are helping Christians to form value judgments about the rest of us. Do atheists have something to be angry about? Sure. But bad PR moves actually make the oppression worse since they reinforce Christian prejudices. So, unless we are in the business of perpetuating dysfunctional cultural cycles, it seems prudent to find more constructive outlets for venting our justified anger.

And I don't think that promoting good behavior and condemning bad behavior makes us a religion. It's also hypocritical since why are we even mad at religion in the first place if there is no right and wrong? How can we even coherently vent? So instead of creating a false dichotomy between "moral advocacy = religion" and "no moral advocacy" we should ask ourselves questions like these: "How can we do moral advocacy correctly? How can we learn from the mistakes of religious institutions? How can we avoid just becoming another mindless tribe on the yell-scape?" Etc.

Yes, I'm writing my own book. And graphic novel. And too many other projects to even name. :D

Comment by lOS`AMIGOS on May 6, 2010 at 3:16am
"Atheists need to publicly promote good behavior and condemn bad behavior in their own ranks. Not be cowed by group-think. Isn't that what we criticize religious people for doing with their leaders? So why should be we unprincipled hypocrites? "

Sounds kind of like just forming another faith to me.Sort of like if you belong to this group then this is how you will all be expected to behave and act to be accepted in the brotherhood.

Im not so keen on it even though at the same time i do also welcome you to having your personal views.I do so because that to me is what its all about,celebrating the fact that people can still have differences and learn to get along without feeling a need to separate ,subdivide and excommunicate like faiths often did.

I think people have personal differences.Many have had very different experiences with regards to religion and faith and have a right to express how they personally feel about it.Naturally faithful folk will try and use the tactic of trying to impose need of another faith type denominational aspect on atheists and agnostics,which i personally feel will be quite helpful in aiding their cause of trying to prove non belief is actually just another faith.

Why should i agree to accept Dawkins or P. Z. Myers or John Loftus or Dan Barker or anyone else as being a general reflection on nonbelievers as a whole ,are we looking to agree with theist that we have actually delegated somebody as the non believers pope ?.

Long ago i left a strict christian fundamentalist church where the rules were conform and comply or you have no place here, and need to get out.

I welcome other peoples opinions on how they personally feel groups do need to be run.But personally im prepared to passionately defend peoples rights their differences and not to need to always become clones

Just my opinion Ben, hopefully you dont necessarily see it as me suggesting your opinion is infact wrong.I dont actually think your opinion is wrong at all, its more im suggesting i feel maybe there is room for non faithful to have many differences within the group, and to celebrate and make good use of the diversity.

Anyway i do think your review was well written,will you be considdering writing a book yourself ?

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