Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Atheist John W. Loftus and His "Deconversion" Story: The Bizarre Saga Continues

By Dave Armstrong (12-6-06)

Will this silliness ever end? John W. Loftus of Debunking Christianity fame just won't let it rest. With relentless irrationality and hypersensitivity, he keeps calling me names and misrepresenting our past interactions. His latest tirade resulted from one (undeniable) half-sentence I wrote yesterday on his blog, in the midst of commenting on someone else's deconversion story:
I make no claims on either your sincerity or the state of your soul or moral character. None whatsoever. I simply critiqued the reasons you gave for your deconversion. I don't see why that would be insulting to anyone (as it is merely entering into the arena of competing ideas), yet John Loftus blew a gasket when I examined his story.
John then responded with his usual irrational vehemence:

You are an idiot! You never critiqued my whole deconversion story. Deconversion stories are piecemeal. They cannot give a full explanation for why someone left the faith. They only give hints at why they left the faith. It requires writing a whole book about why someone left the faith to understand why they did, and few people do that. I did. If you truly want to critique my deconversion story then critique my book. Other than that, you can critique a few brief paragraphs or a brief testimony, if you want to, but that says very little about why someone left the faith. You walk away thinking you have completely analysed someone's story. But from where I sit, that's just stupid. That's S-T-U-P-I-D! If you truly want to critique a deconversion story, then critique mine in my book. I wrote a complete story there.

And (three minutes later):

Dave, I can only tolerate stupidity so long.

I challenge you to really critique the one deconversion story that has been published in a book. It's a complete story. A whole story. It's mine.

And (some hours later):

Do you accept my challenge?

I replied:

1) First of all, why would you even want to have your book critiqued by someone whom you routinely call an "idiot," an "arrogant idiot," a "joke," a "know-it-all," and so forth? I've never understood this. I have four published books (soon to be five). The last thing in the world I would want (on amazon or anywhere else) is for a blithering idiot to either praise or bash one of my books. I want respectable people to do so.

I have less than no desire in any of my dialogues to interact with the worst examples of opposing views. I want the best. Of course, if someone has a personal ax to grind, that's different, isn't it, John? If your goal is to embarrass and belittle someone who disagrees, then this would explain the big desire to wrangle with so-called "idiots."

2) It is a hyper-ludicrous implication to maintain that deconversiopn stories are immune to all criticism simply because they are not exhaustive. It's embarrassing to even have to point this out, but there it is.

3) I have already long since taken up your "challenge." I said many weeks ago that if you sent me your book in an e-file for free, I'd be more than happy to critique it. I won't buy it, and I refuse to type long portions of it when it is possible to cut-and-paste. That is an important factor since my methodology is Socratic and point-by-point. I actually try to comprehensively answer opposing arguments, not just talk about them or do a mutual monologue.

You railed against that, saying that it was a "handout." I responded that you could have any of my (14 completed) books in e-book form for free.

4) One wonders, however, with your manifest "gnashing teeth" attitude towards me, what would be accomplished by such a critique? You've already shown that you can't or won't offer any rational counter-reply when I analyze any of your arguments. You didn't with the deconversion thing and refused again when I wrote about God and time. On both occasions you simply made personal insults. There is no doubt about that. It's all a matter of record.

Why should I think it would be any different if I were to spend a month writing a detailed critique of your book? Maybe then you would get so mad you would sue me for libel or hire a hit man? LOL
John's original "Cliff Notes version" of his deconversion story, posted on his blog (2-19-06), ran 2701 words. That's a pretty hefty article. Yet John claims that a summary of this length "says very little about why someone left the faith" and calls it "a few brief paragraphs or a brief testimony." He implies that it is improper to critique such a thing because it is so incomplete; people ought to read his book (nice sales pitch there, by the way; how ingenious).

Why, then, post it at all? Are we supposed to believe that it was posted with no possibility that anyone should respond with any critique of it? Is it merely a sermon; preaching to the atheist choir and rah-rah sis-boom-bah cheerleading "amen" brigade (John used to be a Church of Christ preacher)? What's the point? Why have comments capability if no one is supposed to interact with posts at Debunking Christianity? If I am told that this is a version which offers far less detail compared to his book, then I readily accept that as a truism (DUH!). But there is no reason to think that it should be immune to all criticisms simply because he has a longer version elsewhere.

My own conversion story to Catholicism, that was published in the bestseller Surprised by Truth and read by (literally) several hundred thousand people, is available online in my original draft. It runs 3,469 pages (only 1.3 times larger than John's; his is 78% as long as mine). I have never stated that no one should ever reply to that because it is so short, or that I have 375 pages somewhere else (actually, all the various arguments I have made in the course of my apologetics, that would be the "full and exhaustive" account as to why I am a Catholic) that anyone would have to read in order to issue any analysis at all: critical or otherwise. To do so would be (how did John put it?): rather S-T-U-P-I-D.

His posting of his story drew 33 comments, including many lengthy ones from Christians. But John nowhere hinted that this was improper, or that anyone would have to read his entire book in order to intelligently make a critique of his odyssey into apostasy. He apparently saves that irrational ire, for some reason, for me. But what was so terribly different about my own critique? I just don't see it. Was it hard-hitting? Yes, for sure; absolutely, like most of my critiques. I don't mince words. But on the other hand, I don't personally insult. I stick strictly to the subject and don't cast aspersions on either motives or intelligence.

Remember, too, that John is arguing against the truth of the Christian faith. This is a very serious charge, and it deserves to be firmly dealt with. A Christian has every good reason to respond. This is a public attack; hence open to public examination and scrutiny. He thinks I was very personal. I deny this (and I have noted that even fellow atheists on his blog have understood that it was not personal, or intended to be so, at all).

A recent critique, strictly on the subject matter of God and time, was even less "personal", yet John got mad about that, too, and called me more names, rather than simply respond and make some semblance of a counter-argument. Pretty impressive showing for a guy who has the "equivalent" of a Ph.D. and "several" master's degrees, isn't it?

But there is more insight we can glean concerning this fiasco, by looking at another stink having to do with his deconversion. This time the person (Protestant apologist and frequent critic of atheism, Steve Hays) actually read his book. Did it matter? Not much. John replied according to his usual modus operandi (even granting that Steve can be quite acerbic and insulting far too often: I know from his anti-Catholic critiques of some of my writing). Nevertheless, granting all that, it is another instance of John not being able to handle at all, any serious critique of his fabled odyssey from Christian to atheist.

Steve Hays wrote a remarkably comprehensive, detailed critique of John's book (whatever one thinks of it). It often makes very humorous reading. Here is an exchange (from another related article) that apparently originally took place in the comboxes of Steve's blog (John in blue, Steve in black):

Steve, you have just proved that you are not just a biased reviewer of my book. You are a dishonest one too. You never quoted what I said about this, did you?

I didn't quote what he said about what?

"You only quoted what you wanted to quote, and that's dishonest."

Oh, so I did quote him after all.

Notice that he doesn't document the charge of dishonesty. Is he suggesting that I [am] quoting him out of context?

If so, the customary way of showing that someone quoted you out of context is to quote a larger sample of the surrounding text to demonstrate that when the original quote in put in context, it casts the whole thing in a different light.

Now, Loftus wrote this book. I assume he wrote it on computer. So it would be very easy for him to copy/paste whatever addition material he thinks would document his charge.

People who have read my book know differently.

All three of them, you mean?

"Tell me this, does your faith require that you be dishonest with those who object to your faith? If that's the case, then you are is a desperation mode."

Once again, why doesn't he back up his claim by actually illustrating how I supposedly quoted him out of context?

"Three other things here: 1) You cannot confess your own shortcomings because if you did then it would undercut your own claim to have been cleansed by the blood of Jesus."

This reflects the very defective state of Loftus' theological understanding. What comes through in his account is not contrition, but angry finger-pointing.

"Tell us this Steve, in the interest of full disclosure, do you look at pornography on the you you yell at or hit your you you pray like you think you you pay your taxes....have you ever been divorced...are you secretly you hate you desire another woman.... 2)"

. . . As to whether I have a secret sex life, well…if I told him about it, then it wouldn't be a secret anymore - which would spoil all the fun.

. . . "I am free from the guilt trip that Christians throw on other people."

If he's guilt-free, then why does he sound so defensive?

"3) Such a review as yours does not undercut my case. It's an ad hominem of the worst sort."

. . . It's very revealing that when I quote his own words back to him, he accuses me of launching an ad hominem attack of the worst sort.

Consider the source. If he thinks that quoting directly from his own book is some form of character assassination, then this could only be a form of self-inflicted character assassination - which is far more damning that any charge I could level.

Earlier, John had made a "challenge" to Steve, similar to the one he made to me, complete with prognostications of inevitable loss of faith upon completeion of his profound and unanswerable tome and Pascal's wager-like clever sales pitches:

I'm saying the case I make in my new book is overwhelmingly better.

Again, are you going to read it and critique it for yourself? Hey, I dare you! I bet you think you're that smart, don't ya, or that your faith is that strong - that you can read something like my book and not have it affect your faith.

If Christianity is true, then you have nothing to fear. But if Christianity is false, then you owe it to yourself to get the book. Either way you win.

And even if you blast my book after reading it here on this Blog, I'll know that you read it, and just like poison takes time to work, all I have to do from then on is to wait for a personal crisis to kill your faith.

Want to give it a go? The way I see you reason here makes me think it'll make your head spin with so many unanswerable questions that you won't know what to do.

But that's just me. I couldn't answer these questions, so if you can, you're a smarter man than I am, and that could well be. Are you? I think not, but that's just me.

Yet one of John's droning complaints about me is that I am way too confident! I never claimed that someone would inevitably become a Christian or a Catholic Christian upon reading any of my books or many online papers! Steve responded with a delightfully humorous retort:
I'm sorry to disappoint him, but reading his book, Why I Rejected Christianity, didn't have the desired effect.

Trying to review his book presents something of a dilemma. For there's almost nothing he says that hasn't been said before, said better, said by others.

Indeed, there's precious little he says here that he and his fellow debunkers haven't already said, either at DC or in the combox at T-blog, and, by that same token, precious little that my colleagues and I at T-blog haven't already responded to at one time or another.

That's what I expected before I read his book, and reading his book merely confirmed my expectations.

If this sort of thing is deadly poison, then all I can say is that it's a very slow-acting poison, for I've been reading this stuff for years, and it hasn't killed my faith or precipitated a crisis of faith or even raised a flicker of doubt.

Like small, incremental doses of venom, administered over time, the effect of this stuff is not to kill the patient, but to build up an immunity.

If it's had any impact, the effect is rather the reverse. I've read books like this before. I always come away thinking to myself, "Gee, if this is the best they do, then they must be pretty hard up for excuses!" So, no, the encounter with his book did not precipitate any Exorcist-inspired head-twirling.

. . . Before he gets to his "cumulative case," he tells his deconversion story. This reads like one of those talk-show confessionals in which the objective is for a motherly interviewer to ask her guest a series of touchy-feely questions about his abusive boyhood, until [he] breaks down and has a nice cry on national television, at which point her live, female audience breaks out in sympathetic applause and has a nice cry along with the weepy guest. Wacko Jacko meets Baba Wawa. At this point we have a commercial break for Kleenex.

But being the callous, uncaring guy that I am, I'll skip over the three-hanky softening-up exercise and go straight for the "meat" of his case.

Well, "meat" may be the wrong word for what we find. More like soy substitute or Hamburger helper minus the ground beef.
Steve then proceeds to an extremely in-depth critique, complete with dozens of links to his or others' past papers that give answer to John's various sketpical assertions. I want to cite one part that offers profound insight into the epistemology of religious belief (and is very much the way I view these things):
The larger issue is the argument from religious experience. Here we need to distinguish between defensive and offensive apologetics. In doing offensive apologetics, we generally trying to find common ground with the unbeliever, or challenge his methods and assumptions.

But the reasons we give in offensive apologetics are not the only reasons, or even, of necessity, the primary reasons for why we believe.

They are simply the reasons that lie above the surface of Christian experience, within public view.

Yet there are also a number of reasons that lie below the surface. To which only an insider is privy - which involve the privileged access of B individual. Personal experience is just that - personal. A largely unique, private, and - on that account - intransmissible experience.

. . . The formation of belief is a relation between a predisposition to believe the evidence and exposure to the relevant evidence. When presented with suitable evidence, belief is involuntary and automatic as long as our cognitive faculties are functioning properly, as they were designed to perform.

Second, what is the evidence? Here I'd draw a distinction common to Cardinal Newman, Michael Polyanyi, and Basil Mitchell. As Mitchell expresses the issue:
The conception of reason presupposed by the familiar contrast between reason and faith is made explicit in the well-known statement by W. K. Clifford: "It is wrong, always, everywhere and for everyone to believe anything upon insufficient evidence." It follows that, in order to be rationale, one must:

* have sufficient evidence for what one believes

* be prepared to produce the evidence on demand

* proportion one's confidence in the truth of the belief to the evidence as it stands at the time of speaking.

We are so used to this conception of reason that we often fail to notice how remote it is from the way people actually think. No one was more aware of this or criticized it more effectively than John Henry Newman. Newman had encountered it in Locke and had commented: "He (Locke) consults his own idea of how the mind ought to act, instead of investigating human nature as an existing thing, or as it is found in the world." When he examined the way we actually think, Newman noticed a number of things:

Much of our reasoning is tacit and informal. It cannot be neatly displayed as a set of conclusions derived by a straightforward process of inference from clear-cut premises. Rather: "it is the cumulation of probabilities, independent of each other, arising out of the nature and circumstances of the particular case which is under review; probabilities too fine to avail separately, too subtle and circuitous to be convertible into syllogisms, too numerous and various for such conversion, even were they convertible."

B. Mitchell, Faith & Criticism (Oxford 1994), 10-12.
This is what lies below the surface. Some of that evidence can be brought to the surface. But the more we formalize the evidence, the less evidence we have to formalize. So there's something of an inverse relation between reflective and prereflective knowledge.

Not only is our pretheoretical knowledge far more extensive than our efforts to prove it, but the very effort to prove it, to turn the intuitive insight into analytical hindsight, is a reductionistic process which filters out a lot of probative evidence. What comes out is a fraction of what went in.

That is why it's possible for a Christian layman, who may not be terribly articulate or intellectual, to have a rationally compelling faith. He simply knows a lot more than he can ever put into words. And this is still the case, to a lesser extent, for a Christian philosopher.

It's a mistake to confuse proof with knowledge. Proof presupposes knowledge, but knowledge need not presuppose proof - although a process of proof can be a way of learning something which one did not know before.
Great stuff. But our present concern is to examine how John reacted to this critique, to see if it provides some clue as to the odd mystery of his present behavior. He started complaining, offering little of substance (sounds very familiar). Another funny exchange occurred:
"FYI: I have read several reviews of my book now. Most all of them aren't written very well at all. Two of them proceeded to argue with it chapter by chapter. A couple others went hodgepodge through it, pointing out things they liked and didn't like. But good reviews will first summarize the book"

Fine. Always happy to accommodate.

John Loftus' book is string [of] oft-refuted, reheated leftovers from the maggoty dumpster of infidelity, which he is attempting to serve up for the umpteenth time as something new and special by shamelessly riding on the coattails of William Lane Craig.

How's that for a summary?

"Tell what the author is attempting to do"

Having committed spiritual suicide by jumping from the lifeboat of Christianity into the shark-invested waters of atheism, Loftus is spitefully attempting to punch holes in the lifeboat so that all his fellow passengers will share his same, sorry fate - while making a little ill-gotten gain on the side.

"Tell who would benefit the most from reading the book"


"Compare it to other books he's seen on the same topic"

A second-rate popularization of other men's flea-bitten objections to the faith.

"And offer a generalized statement about how effective his book is in attaining his stated goals."


"Then at that point the reviewer can speak about some specifics in the book as examples that support his generalized statement by arguing with them or supporting them."

See my review.

"his is High School stuff here."

If so, then we're merely answering him at his own, sophomoric level.

Satisfied now?
John responded in comments:

Thank you. This lets the reader know the perspective of the reviewer. Now you should probably also explain why others have reviewed my book differently. The question is whether or not you've read the same book they have. Is everyone stupid who disagrees with you? Such a biased reviewer should not be taken to offer an objective review at all, and that's why it's important to provide what I had asked you to do. You've shown that you are clearly not objective.

So I see little here that would suggest to me that it is worth my while to critique John's entire book, or the 40-page "deconversion story" portion of it. Steve did a great deal of work in his reply. He may not have been perfectly charitable (who is, anyway?), but if not, it was certainly no worse than the treatment I've received from John, which is mirrored in Steve's experience with him. Here are some of the silly accusations John made towards him:

You are a dishonest [reviewer] . . .. . . you are is a desperation mode.

You cannot confess your own shortcomings . . .. . . an ad hominem of the worst sort.Is everyone stupid who disagrees with you?

Such a biased reviewer should not be taken to offer an objective review at all, . . .
Sounds like the same old same old from John! What possible reason could be given that would convince me that it would be any different even if I took up his chest-puffing challenge to read his whole book, have my faith inevitably "poisoned" and to write a critique?

Even fellow atheists can see that John is acting like an ass. One ("amber") wrote on John's own blog:

Dave, as a bystander with no axe to grind, I agree John was being a jerk. I don't know where he gets off ragging on you.

And for the record, I'm an atheist.
Another atheist wrote to me privately (today), and said that I was one of the few polite theists that he had come across. To top it off, in John's latest insult-post, he makes it clear that he has no interest in dialogue with me (after previously almost begging me to interact with his material; on the problem of evil). All the more reason not to do a critique of his blessed apostate story:

Dave, there are just some people I don't care to dialogue with and you are one of them, for various reasons I'll not state. People can come to their own conclusions about why this is so. To me you are the Catholic mirror image of JP Holding [a Protestant apologist that John and his friends intensely dislike]. I can't hear what you say because you offend me too much with your attitude.

Why you mentioned me at all in response to what Theresa said is beyond me. This is her Blog entry. DO NOT SIDETRACK IT ANYMORE WITH ANY MORE OFF-TOPIC COMMENTS! I'll delete them if it's not on topic.

I replied:

I'll say whatever I want, as long as it is relevant to the subject matter, and/or factual (as that statement was). This is what free speech entails. If you don't like it, then ban me. I won't be muzzled by anyone (nor do I muzzle anyone on my blog). If I have insulted you at all, it is one-tenth as bad as all the crap you have thrown my way.

If you keep abiding by a double standard, I will be more than happy to keep pointing it out.

So tell me John: what is the purpose of my critiquing your book if you have no desire to dialogue? I couldn't care less about the book (just as I imagine you care nothing about any of mine). If you refuse to interact with me about it (big surprise there!), you take away practically the only reason I would have to justify spending my time dealing with it.

[this post was promptly removed by John; so the censoring has already begun; perhaps he'll reply here, where we allow free speech]
How personal insults against me are on-topic, either, is a great mystery: just one of many where John is concerned. His own "policy paper" on discussion on his blog states:

I invite people on as Team Members who have passion and who wish to test and defend their arguments in a public forum.

. . . Any intelligent comment that is relevant will be allowed here, so long as it's not disrespectful of us as persons. . . . we reserve the right to ban anyone who abuses this forum by willfully mischaracterizing what we say in order to belittle us, or by personally attacking us.

. . . This Blog is an intelligent and friendly place to debate ideas in a mutually respectful environment.

We think that educated people can disagree agreeably. Only people not fully exposed to alternative ways of thinking will claim their opponents are stupid merely because they disagree.

. . . But we have no animosity toward Christian believers as people.

. . .
We will do our best to treat our opponents with some dignity and respect, even if we do not believe what they are claiming. We choose to follow the Golden Rule, for the most part, . . .

All of this high and noble rhetoric about discussion ethics, yet John is on record describing me as all of the following (none yet retracted in the slightest):

You're a joke. I'm surprised you have an audience. You're also a psychologist, eh? Wow! . . . Again, you're a joke.

To think you could pompously proclaim you are better than me is beyond me when you don't know me. It's a defensive mechanism you have with people like me.

It's called respecting people as people, and Dave's Christianity does not do that with people who don't agree with him.

I'm just tired of pompous asses on the internet who go around claiming they are superior to me in terms of intelligence and faith. Such arrogance makes me vomit.

. . . self-assured arrogant idiots out there, like Dave, who prefer to proclaim off of my personal experience that they are better than I.

(all on 10-16-06)

You are ignorant

you present your uninformed arguments as if everyone should agree with you

Any educated person would not state the things you do with such arrogance.

with you there is no discussion to be had for any topic you write about.

You are the answer man. Everyone else is ignoring the obvious. And that's the hallmark of an ignorant and uneducated man.

I am annoyed by people like you, . . . pompous self-righteous know-it-all's

Now you are attempting to defend the arrogant way you argue.

You're just right about everything, or, at least you always come across that way.

you are an uneducated, ignorant, arrogant know-it-all.

(all on 11-30-06)

1 comment:

Ismael said...

Loftus really went crazy... anyway I do not think you quoted him out of context at all.

Reading Loftus story I noticed one thing: it's a standard, run-of-the-mill deconversion story as I have heard from others.

Also I did not see any reply from him to your arguments (except ad hominems).