Wednesday, 11 April 2012
To the anonymous person who bought me a Christian book
Since I don't know who sent the book to me despite my enquiries, I can't respond to that person directly. Instead, here's my response to my anonymous book donor in the form of an open letter.
An open letter to the anonymous person who bought me a Christian book
I don't know who you are, but clearly you are a Christian who believes that I, as an atheist, am in the wrong. It is also clear that you want me to come back to Christianity because the book you sent me, Nothing But The Truth by Brian H. Edwards, is meant to explain and defend the inspiration, authority and history of the Bible.
I don't blame you for wanting me to return to Christianity, because your religion asserts that unless I do, I will be damned for eternity. If our roles were reversed, I'd probably want the same thing. However, sending me a book anonymously isn't necessarily the best way to go about it.
First, let's look at the kind of book it is. This book is clearly written for a Christian audience. Its aim is to strengthen the faith of those who already believe. As such, it takes the same things for granted that most Christians take for granted. That won't work with me, I'm afraid, since I am not a Christian and do not share those pre-assumptions.
In conversation with several Christians lately I have had the feeling that they think I abandoned my former Christian faith and became an atheist because I was taught wrongly, or didn't understand something. It's almost as though they are saying, "If only you knew Christ like I do, or experienced the kind of Christianity that I have, you'd believe." I get that same impression when someone sends me a book like this (especially when that person remains anonymous). That idea is, however, completely wrong. To assume that all I need is the correct explanation or interpretation of Christian beliefs, or that I was somehow "led astray" by reading books that promote a message contrary to that of Christianity, is to insult my intelligence. I do not take books at face value, nor am I swayed by every argument that I see in print. I am quite capable of thinking things through for myself. In fact, it was the process of weighing various teachings up against the real world I see around me and finding them wanting that put me on the path that ultimately led to atheism. Nor was that a short path; it took me several years of wrestling with the Bible, with what I believed, and with the cognitive dissonance that resulted when what I believed contradicted what I saw in the real world, before I reached the point of abandoning Christianity. This was not a step I took lightly, but it was a step I had to take because following the evidence wherever it led was the only intellectually honest thing I could do. In the end the evidence led me firmly in the direction of atheism.
Edwards' book is basically an apologetics work. Christian believers tend to think of apologetics as arguments to use to bring unbelievers into the fold, but in reality apologetics achieve nothing more than to give those who already believe an excuse to suppress their doubts and keep on believing. To an outsider, particularly one who used to be a Christian and has a good understanding of Christian beliefs, they are pretty much universally unconvincing.
And yes, I do have a good understanding of Christian beliefs. After all, I was a "born again" Christian for over twenty years and I have a degree in Theology and a Diploma in Evangelism. I have studied both the Bible (in its original languages as well as in English and Welsh), and the historical background to its contents and its composition, for many years. That process neither began nor ended while I was in theological seminary. I was constantly striving to know and understand the Bible - and through it, God - more fully.
The Edwards book is a popular-level work. In other words, it is aimed at the interested layman. The problem is, I am not a layman. I have a far more in-depth knowledge of the Bible and the history surrounding it than the average Christian does. Heck, I'd go so far as to say that I have a better knowledge of both the Bible and theology than most ministers I have known. The simplistic arguments contained in a popular-level book simply don't cut any ice with me. The problem isn't that I don't understand them; the "problem" from your perspective is that I understand them too well and can see the flaws in them.
Much of the book seems to try to prove the Bible using the Bible. The average believer would think that made sense; after all, what better way could there be to interpret God's Word than in the light of God's Word itself? To the outsider, though, this technique is utterly ridiculous. It's the exact equivalent of trying to prove that, say, The Lord of the Rings is the Word of God by quoting The Lord of the Rings. It doesn't matter how many times I quote Gandalf, or interpret the sayings of Elrond in the light of what is written in The Lay of Leithian, the fact remains that all I am doing is using circular logic, i.e. assuming the conclusion to prove my premise. That, in essence, is what Edwards does in his book. In trying to prove the Bible by using the Bible, he is using circular logic. In so doing, he fails spectacularly to convince me, or any other educated atheist.
When I received the book I resolved to read the whole thing as an intellectual exercise, with an open mind, even though I knew I was under no compulsion to do so. It is good to read and understand the arguments of those whose perspectives differ from one's own. However, I hadn't even got past the first chapter before half-truths, mischaracterisations of opposing positions and even blatant untruths began to raise their ugly heads. A skim-reading of the rest of the book only confirmed my suspicions that this book is not only written in order to preach to the converted, but it is badly written at that. I have decided to go back on my original intention to read the whole book in detail, as I would probably end up throwing it at the wall in frustration.
I'm sorry, but your intentions in sending me the book have backfired badly. Not only am I just as unconvinced of the truth claims of the Bible as I was before, but you have managed to confirm my suspicions as to the weakness of my opponents' arguments.
In closing, let me say this. If you want to convince me of the truth of your religion, you need to show me the evidence. Don't send me any more books anonymously; if they are anything like this one I simply won't waste my time reading them. Rather, talk to me in person and if you think a particular book will help illustrate a point you have made, by all means offer to lend me the book or buy it for me. I will happily reciprocate by lending or giving you some books that illustrate my own point of view. However, if the book is written for a lay audience and/or it reiterates an argument that you have made that didn't work, don't bother. The bottom line is evidence. Show me actual evidence for the truth of your religion's claims, not books filled with half-truths and propaganda. Should there be no direct evidence ("faith" and subjective personal experience do not count as evidence), perhaps it is you who should reconsider what you believe.