Edited by John W. Loftus
In a book much shorter than the Bible itself, Loftus has marshalled all the key arguments to prove that people should seriously doubt all religious miracle claims. This book should be required reading in all seminaries.
By Karen L. Garst, PhD, Editor of Women Beyond Belief: Discovering Life without Religion and Women v. Religion: The Case Against Faith – and for Freedom.
The advantage of an anthology, a book with a series of essays written by different authors, allows Loftus to present a wide-ranging set of arguments by experts in a variety of fields of religious criticism. Authors such as Loftus himself, a former minister and a prolific writer debunking the tenets of his former faith; Valerie Tarico, a psychologist whose expertise in the stories contained in the Bible is unparalleled; Abby Hafer, a professor of biology and one of the most interesting experts on how science trumps the beliefs of all religions; and Robert Price, who focuses on the impossibility of the incarnate virgin birth of Jesus, are just a few of the excellent authors of The Case Against Miracles.
In this review, I have decided to cherry pick a few of my favorite arguments that are contained in this book. It would be impossible to list all of the well-developed points made by the authors. Hopefully, this will be enough to entice you to purchase and read the book in order to explore them all.
My first course in Religion 101 in my alma mater, Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota (yes, I was raised as a Lutheran), was mind-boggling. The professor taught us that by analyzing the different uses of language in the earliest Hebrew texts, four different strains or “authors” appear. The first or earliest one is J, named after the first letter of the Hebrew word for god, YHWH and how it is spelled in German. It is associated with the Southern Kingdom perhaps around 1000 BCE. The second is E for Elohim, another name for god and very similar to the pagan deity El, is a bit later and originates in the Northern Kingdom a century or so later. D is for the Deuteronomist and is seen mostly in the book of Deuteronomy, perhaps in the seventh century BCE. Finally, P stands for Priestly and is assumed to be the final “editor” of the first five books of the bible, likely during the exile in Babylonia. For me, this teaching was probably the first chink in the armor of my beliefs. For how could a book supposedly written by an omnipotent god have differing stories for the Garden of Eden, the Exodus from Egypt, etc.? And if there is such inaccuracy in the bible, how could one possibly believe everything that is written there, perhaps most of all the miracles? (Essay by Randall Heskett)
When I was in ninth grade science class, we learned about evolution. I wrote a paper about early hominids and was fascinated. In another age, I would probably have become an anthropologist. To the best of my knowledge, I never heard any rebuke of evolution either by students in my class or by the pastors in my church. However, the theory of “Intelligent Design” has now become popular and some are arguing that evolution should be counter posed with a religious account in schools. It seems we are going backward rather than forward.
However, there is so much evidence for evolution, it is ridiculous. My favorite is why child birth is painful. Other than this proves that god must have been a man, it is the result of taking a pelvis made for walking on all fours into an upright walking position that requires a narrower pelvis. Oops. That also makes for a smaller pathway for a child, now with the bigger brain than other ancestors. It also is why I got an epidural when I gave birth. It was painful!
Another interesting example is that whales have hips and vestiges of legs. What? Why would a whale swimming in the ocean need hips and legs? Because they evolved earlier as land animals with the necessary of appendages to walk and then they returned to the sea where they were no longer needed. Science alone can debunk most of the miracles mentioned in the bible. (Essay by Abby Hafer)
Even fervent Christian leaders in the first few centuries after this religion became more established were confused. They summoned bishops from throughout Christendom to come together to make decisions about such weird doctrines as the Trinity. Judaism was the first lasting monotheistic religion, but Christianity had to struggle with the presence of a son of god and a holy spirit, thus the notion of the Trinity. There were councils in Nicea in 325 CE, Constantinople in 381 CE, Ephesus in 431 CE and Chalcedon in 451 CE. I often think that Emperor Constantine, who saw in Christianity a powerful ally in expanding his empire, told the bishops the following, “OK. You guys go in and pretend to debate the issue, but you need to come out with a rationale for the Trinity that still makes Christian a monotheistic religion. We cannot have multiple gods like those pagans.” If there is ever time travel, maybe we can test my point, although I would first go back to 25 CE and try to find this Jesus guy. (Essay by Robert Price)
David Hume was a Scottish philosopher during the Enlightenment. He is now best known for his theories of empiricism and skepticism. Several of the authors of this anthology explore different aspects of his teachings. A quote made popular by Carl Sagan, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” is based, in part, on a saying of Hume’s – “No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish.” Both of these points require that the testimony of the person making a statement be scrutinized. Is the person intelligent, have they been sufficiently educated in the field to make the statement? Are there observations by other people that would corroborate the person’s testimony? Are there similar events that happen today? And finally, why do religions have competing miracles? If a religious person refutes miracles of a competing religion, why shouldn’t his or her own belief in miracles be refuted in the same manner? And I find it very interesting in the days of video cameras how fewer and fewer people are leaving their crutches at Lourdes.
One of the most convincing arguments to show that the bible stories including its miracles are written by man and not inspired by a supernatural entity is the presence of similar stories abounding in myths that the writers of the bible were very familiar with. I once wrote an essay on the similarities between the Babylonian myth of Gilgamesh and the Noah and the flood story. I simply quoted from one and then the other throughout the story. Amazing similarities. The Babylonian myth of Marduk and Tiamet is also paralleled in the story of god and the Leviathan.
Perhaps the most common part of myths at the time of early Christianity was that of a dying and rising god narrative. These began appearing in Jewish and Hellenistic literature right before the writings of the New Testament. N. T. Wright acknowledged that there were ”too many variations even to list.” (cited in the essay by Loftus) Wright contends that the idea of a future resurrection of a god came from Zoroastriansim, the Persian state religion. I once visited the Cathedral of San Clemente in Rome. In the basement is a Mithraic temple, another cult that had a rising and dying god. Churches were often built over earlier religious buildings. Hey, you don’t even have to learn a new address!
Loftus writes an essay about the Christian apologists. These are people who try to defend the Christian faith. Because using reasoning usually leads to a rejection of Christianity, most apologists reject that strategy. William Lane Craig, one of the leading apologists, asserts that “reason is a tool to help us better understand our faith. Should faith and reason conflict, it is reason that must submit to faith, not vice versa” thereby acknowledging the lack of objective evidence for not only the miracles in the bible but pretty much everything else that is supernatural.
Tarico explores why we cling to beliefs such as the miracles in the bible. It is deeply embedded in us to try to explain things in our lives. We seek patterns and often make them up even when we have insufficient information to see the whole picture. She also explains that people long for meaning in their lives, especially ideas about a future after death. Life after death is one of the most powerful weapons in the religious arsenal. Recently someone told me they believe because they want to see their family in heaven.
This review just scratches the surface of the many ideas that are explored and examined in Loftus’ latest book, The Case Against Miracles. It will be published sometime this fall. Be sure to add it to your list of must-reads.
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