I am starting a series of posts to review and share my thoughts on the Christian apologetics literature Letters from a Skeptic: A Son Wrestles With His Father’s Questions About Christianity by Gregory A. Boyd, and my views of the reasoning therein. I wanted to try out this book review format as a new way to address the arguments for various religions, hoping to demonstrate the strength of apologetics literature in their natural habitat, and give better context to the arguments as they are made rather than make an essay per claim.
My plan is to do this review for about five or six examples of what I find to be the strongest apologetics literature, write a few more essays I’ve always wanted to write that advance arguments for atheism I haven’t seen made elsewhere, then summarize why I find atheism compelling and then leave it there for philosophy of religion unless asked to respond to something or I find my work inadequate.
Why this Book?
…Anyways, the actual book at hand. Given that the book starts out with a Preface, I’d like to start out with a Preface of my own:
Why pick this book to review? It’s a long story, but I’ll tell it to you anyway. Not too many people know this, but back in November of 2010, I was nowhere close to the staunch atheist that I am today. Then, I knew very little of what I know now on philosophy, and I was on the verge of becoming a Christian. However, I was encouraged to be intellectually honest, which I felt meant that I should read the best books that both sides. (At the time, I had ignored all the other religions and mistakenly framed the debate between just Christianity and atheism.)
So, I asked for recommendations. An adult member of what was then called the Campus Crusade for Christ, now called Cru, had persuaded me to read Letters from a Skeptic, saying that it was the definitive book that convinced him to become a Christian believer after many years living as a relatively uncommitted atheist.
The book details a series of letters between the author, Gregory Boyd, and his father, Edward Boyd, in which the son convinces his father over a series of 29 back-and-forth letters spanning three years to become a born-again Christian. The book was started as a series of letters with the following goals in mind:
I had in mind a long-term dialogue in which all of our cards would be laid on the table. I would give him the opportunity to raise all his objections to the truth of Christianity, and he would give me the opportunity to answer these objections as well as give positive grounds for holding to the Christian faith.
What is this Book?
The titles of all the letters gave full detail of the questions that would be answered:
- Why has Christianity done so much harm?
- Why is the world so full of suffering?
- Is the risk of freedom worth all the suffering?
- Does God know the future?
- Why does God create earthquakes and famines?
- Why did God create Satan?
- Is your God all-powerful?
- Why believe in God in the first place?
- Couldn’t it all be by chance?
- Why didn’t God spare your mother?
- Why would an all-powerful God need prayer?
- Why would God care about us little humans?
- Why trust the Gospel accounts?
- Aren’t the Gospels full of contradictions?
- Who wrote the Gospels and when were they written?
- How can you believe that a man rose from the dead?
- How can you believe that a man was God?
- Why does God make believing in Him so difficult?
- Why do you think the Bible is inspired?
- Isn’t the Bible full of myths and God’s vengeance?
- Didn’t the Catholic Church put the Bible together?
- Why are there so many differing interpretations of the Bible?
- What about the “holy books” of other religions?
- Do all non-Christians go to hell?
- How could an all-loving God torture people in an eternal hell?
- Isn’t the Christian life impossible to live?
- How can another man’s death pardon me?
- How can I be holy and sinful at the same time?
- How can I be sure it’s all true?
Given the strong recommendation, the fact that I wondered many of these questions myself, and that I thought the “all the cards on the table from both sides” thing was pretty neat, I was immediately intrigued and bought a copy. While I may have had unknown biases at the time, I felt like I had a good shot at converting from my default position of weak atheism, and wanted to see if this book would do it.
Yet, this was not the case — while this book was definitely one of the more understandable, more readable, more civil, more thorough, more balanced pro-Christianity books I’ve read, it really didn’t persuade me when I read it. Instead, I was frustrated by even more questions that I felt like not only went completely unanswered, but weren’t even noticed by the correspondents.
Why I Appreciate Gregory Boyd
But I must say I really do appreciate Gregory Boyd’s candor. Unlike most apologists, including William Lane “No one in the final analysis really fails to become a Christian because of lack of arguments; he fails to become a Christian because he loves darkness rather than light and wants nothing to do with God” Craig — Boyd acknowledges right in the preface that non-believers have intellectual doubts and that sinners do need reasons for belief, not just preaching (14).
Of course Boyd also says there is a spiritual component to our resistance and of course constant prayer and spiritual warfare is always necessary for a successful conversion, but this is a step in the right direction. And I genuinely mean that, with no sarcasm intended — it’s refreshing to see an apologist acknowledge that atheists aren’t the scum of the earth. No part of the book makes me think Gregory Boyd is anything but a nice, sincere guy who means well.
I also strongly admire Boyd’s commitment to defending the Christian faith rationally. Too many professional apologists these days seem to argue that Christianity is true because we need to assume certain things to be true, and one of these things is the authority of the Bible. Likewise, I see far too many arguments that reason needs a backseat to faith. So to see someone argue from the perspective of using reason first and being committed to opening one’s reason to free-for-all objections is further refreshing.
But I still don’t think his defense stacks up. Now that I am far more trained in philosophy and it’s been more than a year since I’ve read the book, I really want to analyze his claims on my blog. But right away in the preface and introductory letter to father, I notice two problems:
Initial Problem #1: The Father is Seriously Outgunned
While Gregory Boyd certainly does a great job of talking about how “[e]xceptionally intelligent” and “intensely skeptical” his father is (13), the fact remains that his father doesn’t stand much of a chance in any theological or philosophical debate. Gregory Boyd is a professional theologian with a PhD from Princeton Theological Seminary, has spent over a decade teaching people how to defend the Christian faith …even to the point where he will be engaging in a debate with another professional scholar (17). On the other hand, his Dad is seventy years old, is “not at all firm on what [he] personally believe[s]“, is “not a trained philosopher” and asks his son to “keep it simple” (22).
So the fight definitely seems a bit slanted in favor of the Christian; definitely not the kind of fairer fight you might see in God?: A Debate between a Christian and an Atheist between William Lane Craig and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, both of which are famous, well-credentialed philosophers of religion (a debate which now that I think about it, could be fun to also review…).
As the book progresses, we’ll see this slant get the better of the argument and leave the book a bit wanting and incomplete in several key places. Though, for his credit, the Dad doesn’t really do that bad of a job. …Even though he did give up and become a Christian.
Initial Problem #2: Too Many Rebuttals, Not Enough Positive Reasons
Secondly and lastly for now, this book is full of objections where the father tries his hardest to point out why Christianity is false. Gregory Boyd acknowledges this indirectly, noting that “[i]t’s always easier to prove a false theory false than it is to prove a true one true”. Thus this book starts on an objection from the dad and a response from the son.
While responding to objections is very important and Christianity does need to be able to survive all these objections to not be rendered false, it also needs to present positive reasons for belief. With the notable exception of the eighth correspondence and a bit of the stuff on the Bible, this book is very short in these positive reasons. Answering objections is not enough, and Christianity is not proven true even if all the objections are answered — we still need positive reasons to accept the claim.
I look forward to a further analysis of what goes on in this book.
Continued in: Comments on Letters From a Skeptic, 2: Evil
I now blog at EverydayUtilitarian.com. I hope you'll join me at my new blog! This page has been left as an archive.