Missionary atheism, intellectual honesty and John Loftus

I recently had a short but interesting interaction with anti-Christian apologist John Loftus on the blog of progressive Evangelical theologian Randal Rauser.


John first wrote to Randal:

Randal, I look forward to your book. It’s really hard to write one from the other side of the fence and have it accurately represent one’s opponents. I think you’ll reject the “Rebellion Hypothesis,” which is needed. It’s too bad many Christians aren’t where you’re at on this, but they probably will be in a decade or more.Dr. James Sennett once told me that my book WIBA didn’t contain any straw man arguments as far as he could tell, for which I was pleased. I hope you can do the same.Just recently a guy said the same thing he did:

I was also afraid that the apologetic arguments mentioned in the book would be misrepresented and it was absolutely refreshing to see their arguments accurately presented and cited before thoroughly deconstructing them (many of which were quoted from the very same books I had read as a teen).

http://www.debunkingchristiani…Not everyone will think this, but I have repeatedly caught you doing what Christians on the other side on my fence say that I don’t do. You do mischaracterize the opposition, a lot, but also a lot less than most of them do.”

I responded:

While I once applauded you for your “advice to a Christian apologist”, I do believe your mischaracterize your opponents a lot too, at least much more than Randal does. Contrarily to your current conviction, there are many, many Christians who reject atrocities found in the Old Testament and who don’t view the Bible as necessarily more inspired than other Christian books, however difficult this might be to grasp for a former Protestant having been traumatized by fundamentalism. So I think you should rename your Blog “Debunking Evangelicalism” and try to really understand your opponents before criticizing them, because you seem to be much more interested to win new converts than having a friendly and respectful conversation about our beliefs concerning ultimate reality. This is very sad for polarized America (and more generally our polarized world) desperately needs nice discussions where people do not bully each other. Friendly greetings.

John wrote back

Lotharson, I try to debunk Christianity in all it’s forms. The problem is that Christianity is a many splintered thing. I quote from the authors who claim to represent Christianity so there are no straw men there. I co-authored a book with Randal, a progressive evangelical, and in it I took on his views. That you continue making this claim means you simply don’t understand. Yours is the correct Christianity, right? If I quote you and argue against you will you say the same thing?

To which I wrote back

Hello John, thank you very much for your answer.You spend the large majority of your time debunking Conservatism Evangelicalism, and I read only few things from you concerning <b> non-Evangelical </b> progressive Christianity.
Let me say I am in total agreement with many things you write, yet I don’t view them as a challenge against my own faith at all. You state there are many Christianities out there, and I agree with you. In oder to defeat Christianity (with a capital “C”) you ought to be able to demonstrate that they are all false or extremely implausible. So you have to develop <u> general </u> arguments showing that all forms of Christianity are equally false. Let me give you an analogy.
There are countless <b> conflicting </b> materialist theories of the mind out there.
I would be completely foolish if I were to conclude that materialism is false just because I could disprove <b> one </b> of them. Yet this is clearly the impression you all too often give. After having shown that inerrancy is an incoherent and silly teaching, you give to your reader the impression this shows that <b>C</b>hristianity has been refuted, losing track of the numerous Christians who reject this doctrine from the very start. Your writings about the problem of pain are far better in that they handle a troubling topic for ALL Christians. You are quite an intelligent guy, and I think you would be far more convincing if you stepped back from the culture war and started understanding your adversaries before criticizing them.
Until then you will remain an ideologist in opposition to Jeffrey Jay Lowder and Randal Rauser who are true scholars earnestly seeking the truth. Cheers.

John Loftus clearly shows by a behavior that he has remained a missionary fundamentalist, much more interested in winning new converts to his own sect of atheism than seeking the truth.I first realized this after having read his dispute with the nice and respect full atheistic philosopher Jefrfrey Jay Lowder.The latter took him to task for not caring about the validity of atheistic arguments used to deconvert people.Here is Loftus’s response:

I would no more spend time arguing against an ineffective atheist argument than I would spend time baking cookies I had no intention of doing anything with. Why bother? I’m not interested in a discussion for discussion’s sake. I have a warranted properly basic belief that there is no God, so all that’s left is to persuade believers otherwise, along the same lines as Stephen Law recently argued.”

I was truly dumbstruck after having read that. John Loftus keeps calling Christian theologians deceptive and delusional liars, and here he has clearly acknowledge he is not pursuing truth.In the past, I had a great respect for John and sincerely tried to engage a real conversation with him.Now I am strongly tempted to just say:”Why bother with him? Why should I waste my time with a self-proclaimed ideologist trying to win converts at all costs?”


18 thoughts on “Missionary atheism, intellectual honesty and John Loftus

  1. John’s language reminds me of creationists who are trying to use the vocabulary of scientists and those who understand science, and can’t quite manage it. On the one hand I want to be charitable and say that maybe he still grasps the core concepts, even though he doesn’t “sound like a native”. But on the other hand, his other behavior puts this charitable interpretation in deep question.

    It should be a red flag whenever an atheist starts wanting to know who is a “True Christian”. I do not believe one ever needs to know another person’s salvific status. This “True Christian” stuff is a strong indicator that you are talking to someone with a fundamentalist mindset, someone who is separating the world into people “for” him/her and “against” him/her, reminiscent of:

    Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. (Mt 12:30)

    Anyone with the “you’re either for me or against me” attitude is claiming to be Jesus or Satan. Every other human is an alloy, of good and evil. From Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, quoted by Ralph C. Wood:

    It was granted me to carry away from my prison years on my bent back, which nearly broke beneath its load, this essential experience: how a human being becomes evil and how good. In the intoxication of youthful successes I had felt myself to be infallible, and I was therefore cruel. In the surfeit of power I was a murderer, and an oppressor. In my most evil moments I was convinced that I was doing good, and I was well supplied with systematic arguments. And it was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains . . . an unuprooted small corner of evil.

    John Loftus, on the other hand is interested in scapegoating religious persons. It is the religious persons who are evil. Maybe they aren’t responsible for 100% of the evil, but it’s pretty darn close. See:

    Religious diversity stands in the way of achieving a moral and political global consensus. (The Outsider Test for Faith, 162)

    This echoes Jean-Jacques Rousseau:

    His assertion in the Social Contract that true followers of Jesus would not make good citizens may have been another reason for Rousseau’s condemnation in Geneva.

    Unlike many of the more radical Enlightenment philosophers, Rousseau affirmed the necessity of religion. But he repudiated the doctrine of original sin, which plays so large a part in Calvinism (in Émile, Rousseau writes “there is no original perversity in the human heart”).

    John Loftus believes that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is wrong and Jean-Jacques Rousseau is right. Given that Loftus has a decent following, this is scary. History is full of evidence of what happens when humans blame other humans for their own sins. The Jewish celebration of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is where we get “scapegoat” from. Sadly, the Jewish people learned what a scapegoat was through and through, from Jesus through Hitler to beyond. When will we humans learn to accept our own sinfulness instead of projecting them onto others? John Loftus is setting us backwards; hopefully his damage to the progress of humanity is not large.

    • Hello.

      I think that the teaching of a sinful nature is pretty harmful and cannot be found in the text of Genesis in the first place.

      “John Loftus is setting us backwards; hopefully his damage to the progress of humanity is not large.”
      He has a harmful effect in an American context where people are fed up with fundamentalism.
      I have no problem with atheists arguing for their position using rational arguments, such as Jeffrey Jay Lowder and many others do.

      But it infuriates me to see Loftus and his underlings trying to BULLY people out of their faith.
      This unfair and ignoble method deserves our scorn and disdain.

      • There are a lot of dumb ideas about original sin, Lotharson. This doesn’t mean that a meaningful form of Total Depravity is not true. My personal experience, growing up, is that people really do have brokenness in their emotions, intellect, and will, brokenness which actively harms other human beings as well as themselves. Call it what you want, but failure to recognize it exists and failure to deal with it will only let disease fester and cause even more damage than it causes already.

        • An alternative explanation is that God created us WEAK from the very beginning so that we can only be strong in him .
          This fits rather well the text of Genesis where we see no indication that resisting the temptation was harder for Cain than for Adam.

          This original weakness is the mainstream Jewish and Islamic view.

          • This weakness becomes a liability when arrogance seeps in, and it seeps in almost without fail. I agree that originally, God just wanted us humans to be in constant relationship with him. We refused. And we refuse, again and again. We refuse the grace he unconditionally extends to us. It is this tendency of refusing that I believe is “original sin” or “total depravity”. And this refusal ends up accruing false beliefs which damage ourselves and others, more and more.

  2. “Why bother with him? Why should I waste my time with a self-proclaimed ideologist trying to win converts at all costs?”

    Superficially, because the ideologist may be presenting (flawed) arguments that may or may not influence people incorrectly, and thus others benefit from the correction even if John himself doesn’t.

    The problem is that John isn’t even what one would call a ‘major atheist thinker’. Not in terms of popularity, not in terms of impact, and not in terms of intellect. So yes, focusing on him really is by and large a waste of time – point out the gaping holes in his arguments, and move on. About the only people John really appeals to is a very tiny subsection of atheists for whom anti-Christianity is an obsession, but who like the accessibility of a wannabe atheist apologist who isn’t very popular.

    • Crude, do you think John Loftus is so different from Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett (he’s probably the least bad)?

      • Crude, do you think John Loftus is so different from Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett (he’s probably the least bad)?

        It depends on how you mean. In terms of intellectual presence? Dennett is an accomplished philosophers. Hitchens was an accomplished writer. Harris has at least a neuroscience degree (which he doesn’t use) and has a commanding presence. Dawkins has writing skill and rose to fame on that.

        Loftus has been trying desperately to gain attention as an atheist thinker for longer, has been floundering longer, has very little to say that’s original or even well-put, and he collapses in the face of confrontation repeatedly. His main claim to fame is tenacity in his internet ghetto, which isn’t much.

        I really don’t get why some people say that Loftus is ‘the least bad’. I think it’s because now and then Loftus tries to set himself apart and say things like ‘I am more respectful of Christians than THOSE guys’. But it’s marketing. And he’ll say something like that, then turn around and say ‘Why is every single Christian so dumb!?’

        • Do you know specific examples of his misbehaviors which cannot be explained away by his followers?

          One of the purpose of this post is to expose him.

          I don’t do that with any sense of joy though.
          I would largely prefer him to adopt a more rational and balanced view even while remaining an atheist.

          But I tried several times to be very nice to him.
          He answered me as an enemy to be converted instead of a person worthy to discuss with.

        • I meant that Dennett was the “least bad”. He is the most educated in the areas relevant to what he talks about when it comes to atheism vs. Christianity. He is the most likely to loose the esteem from his peers by saying really stupid things about Christianity.

          As to why respond to Loftus? Because he happens to come across my radar repeatedly and because I invested quite a bit of time commenting on his blog before he banned me. I think Christians are called to deal with the problems they see, instead of, for example, always fighting “the biggest problems out there”. Furthermore, the similarity between Loftus and Boghossian is not coincidental. Thus dealing with one is almost like dealing with the other.

          Finally, dealing with Loftus makes me a better person. It forces me to understand what I believe better, and how what people like him believe will ultimately bring about death and destruction, of people’s inner lives and dreams if not flesh.

          • I’ll be brief, and will say more perhaps at a later time. John Loftus and crew do not understand that when two people of vastly different viewpoints attempt to communicate, each will badly model the other person repeatedly, which can look like intentional misrepresentation if one has a habit of assuming one’s own goodness (or godhood), over and above the other person’s possibly-correctness. The result is that I continually ‘misrepresented’ the positions of Loftus and others, and that this continually irked them, because they could not reprogram me to think and talk like them. This eventually became too much for them, due to my prolific commenting and refusal to just kowtow to their way of thinking. Thus came the ban-hammer, with John Loftus accusing me of not even purchasing his book The Outsider Test for Faith, despite my copious quoting of it, which my Kindle version makes easy. John has a deep-seated need to think that people who disagree with him are evil or mentally ill. This is a fundamentalist attitude, through and through. It creates terrible worlds. I hope he is given very restricted world-building power.

    • “Superficially, because the ideologist may be presenting (flawed) arguments that may or may not influence people incorrectly, and thus others benefit from the correction even if John himself doesn’t.”

      Excellent point.

    • If you consider atheism on a worldwide scale, you are entirely right. The majority of French or Chinese atheists don’t care about Christianity and won’t accord him much attention.

      But most anti-theists in America are resentful ex-Christians who have had terrible experiences with fundamentalism.

      So I think it is good to debunk Debunking Christianity from time to time.

      My final question was rather of a rhetorical nature and was meant to illustrate that John has no right to expect people to take him seriously if he acts in such a manner.

  3. I don’t think that any anti-Christian or anti-theist can step back from the “culture war”. As self proclaimed “antis” this shows a commitment to a destructive “ideology”. As the general thesis appears to be a rock solid, belted up, zipped up, sewn up, braced assurance that there is no God therefore all religious people are wrong, what is the point in discussion? They have no reason for discussion as “Christians have no reason, full stop”.

    If they can show that atheism leads to a good life of love and concern for others including their enemies, then maybe we should admire them and think again, if we cannot show the same in our lives then maybe they have a good point. The real issues aren’t those of knowledge, convincing sounding arguments and high sounding ideals, they are ones of practice.

    Personally, it’s taking me about a two weeks to realise I’d be wasting my breath in any form of rational argument with an anti-theist, as they have no rational arguments apart from one. There can be no reasoning with a monomaniac who’s raison d’ etre is negative, and who’s major impulse seems to be to destroy and pull down. What we should concentrate on is being positive and to build, build the kingdom of Heaven, with a weather eye out for the destroyers. If they cannot start coming out with positives and constructive comments, what is there to listen to? What sort of World are they going to build once they’ve torn down the one with “believers” in it. Why don’t they get on with that instead and convince us that their World is better than ours from example? If they feel all believers need to stop believing first, before this can happen, then they too are believing in something for which there is no evidence.

    • Great points Ross! This is why I compared them with far right groups.

      They are focused on an enemy to defeat instead of a positive goal.

      They pretend to be striving for a rational and just world but this is just a (more or less unconscious) ruse of their minds.

      They are utterly unable to make a difference between the harmfulness of the numerous religious confessions, in the same way a French or German racist is unable to distinguish between immigrants who vandalize everything and those who are perfectly integrated in society.

      I have also come to the realization it is a waste of time to expect reason from them.
      They should be handled like nasty religious fundamentalists.

      That said we can hope and pray they will find a more moderate position and eventually reconcile themselves, at least on the other side of the grave.


  4. Hi- found this by accident googling for something else and thought I’d add my $0.02 FWIW. I know what you mean by missionary atheism. I use the term ‘atheist proselytizing’ when describing some New Atheists. (There aren’t any Missions that I know of- although I’ve heard talk of secular humanist temples). My feeling is that proselytism is a bad thing regardless of whether it’s theistic, non-theistic, atheist or anti-theistic.

    By ‘bad,’ I don’t mean morally wrong. I’m a fervent believer in a free and open exchange in the marketplace of ideas and in the idea that competition between sets of ideas is what drives progress in culture. I think it’s bad because it’s rude and unproductive (usually counterproductive).

    People invest in belief systems and I think that it’s important for materialists/naturalists like myself to express our ideas and make them available and understandable to people who don’t share our beliefs, it’s just bad form to push them on others and try to ‘win over’ people who’re satisfied with their current belief system. It’s a really lunkheaded move to say (in essence), ‘hey, that thing you’ve invested yourself in and which you feel is working for you: it blows. Throw it in the garbage and invest in what I’m selling!’

    Now, there are people who are questioning their beliefs and are actually interested in learning about other belief systems (for clarity – I think metaphysical materialism fits that category whereas atheism doesn’t) and in those circumstances I think it’s right to try to win over the questioning person. That isn’t (IMO) proselytizing and I expect it’s not your idea of being a missionary either.

    • PS: I get that religious missionary activity may be motivated by some kind of altruism (and not just zeal and hubris) because of speculation about the afterlife. That doesn’t make me like it any more. I think it’s misguided altruism and it’s being used to justify rude and condescending behavior. Plus, typically New Atheists make a similar altruism-based argument that they’re doing people a great service if they get people to jettison a belief in god – just as they’d be doing them a service by explaining that the earth isn’t flat – because true beliefs serve people better and false beliefs impede success.

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