Lance's Reviews > Letters from a Skeptic: A Son Wrestles with His Father's Questions about Christianity

Letters from a Skeptic by Gregory A. Boyd
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Nov 21, 11

Read on July 24, 2011

I first read this book in the 90s when I was a fresh atheist and someone gave it to me. What I remember is that it seemed to make some decent points (and some bad ones), but the dad flipped out of nowhere, on what I didn't think was a very interesting claim.

Almost 15 years later, I saw it again, so I was curious how it would seem after I've spent the last few years becoming a much more involved and informed atheist and skeptic.

Since "Skeptic" is in the title, I expected that sets of concerns to be the main perspective - answering the epistemological question of evidence and the means of knowing. Here are instead my reactions to some of the chapters:

#1 Harm of Christianity
Hmmm... Not epistemology. That's fine, it wasn't the first thing on the dad's mind. The answer, of course, relies on free will and the "No True Scotsman" defense. Lame, but predictable.

#2-3 The problem of evil
More free will. This is pretty annoying. Greg's just taking the existence of free will for granted.

Gee, you're a nice son, taking advantage of the likelihood that your salesman father wouldn't know about neuroscientific and philosophical advances, wouldn't know about determinism, and wouldn't know that the appearance of free will isn't good evidence for the assertions Greg makes about the existence of free will. Way to take advantage of your Dad's ignorance.

#4 God's omniscience
Greg's going out on a limb here that I see others call heretical. For a skeptic like me, this of course just brings out the epistemological problem of theology - there's no empirical way to know if Greg or orthodoxy is right, even assuming the rest. Such fun.

#5 Problem of suffering (natural causes)
This is ridiculous. Why are there earthquakes and famines? Why, it's demons, of course!

Does Greg not know about Plate Tectonics and meteorology? Or does he for some reason think there are more demons in California and Haiti than in Quebec and Kansas?

Utterly, utterly embarrassing. And for the dad to let this slide makes me question what type of skeptic he was.

And no epistemology yet.

#6 Satan
Here we get the obligatory appeal to quantum mechanics. Apologists, please stop this. Just because you don't understand a complex scientific idea doesn't mean you can assume it means that anything is plausible. It's not a magic band-aid for a bad argument.

Also, yes, it's amazing that there are radio waves that we can't see. However, we have physical evidence such things exist (radios, tv, etc.). There's nothing equivalent for supernatural entities, so it's an invalid analogy.

#7 God's Omnipotence
Not a very interesting chapter, but this brings up something interesting.

Greg sure seems to know God's mind. God wants this. God controls that. God allowed this. How does Greg know?

#8 Why believe?
I guess Papa had the same problem I did, because he finally asked for a reason to accept all the theology, asking what evidence Greg has. Let's get some epistemology on!!!

And Greg's answer is appallingly bad:
A. Humans are in three parts (mind, heart, and soul) that make us persons.
B. Our environment must be compatible with us:
we hunger, and behold, there is food. We thirst, and behold, there is water. We have sex drives, and behold, there is sex.

C. Since the universe satisfies those needs, then it must also be like us and be personal:
unless our environment is ultimately itself personal, unless the ultimate context in which we live is self-aware, rational, loving, moral, and purposeful, the our cosmic environment does not at all answer to our personhood... (w)e are the product of a cruel, sick, cosmic joke.


Each of these assertions are horribly illogical and/or unsupported by evidence:
A. We know minds and hearts exist, but there's no evidence for the soul. And all the actions he attributes to the heart and soul are actions of the mind. This is actually a minor point in his argument, but it's completely wrong.
B. Food and water do not exist because we are hungry and thirsty - we are hungry and thirsty because we need energy and hydration. Sex does not exist because we're horny - we're horny because we evolved as sexual beings. We are who and what we are because we're adapted to the environment, not the other way around.

This reminds me of the old saying by Douglas Adams:

. . . imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, `This is an interesting world I find myself in, an interesting hole I find myself in, fits me rather neatly, doesn't it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!' This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it's still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything's going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for.


Madness.
C. Even if Greg were right about part B that some of our needs being met proves that the universe is suited to us, there's no reason to extend this to our other needs. None whatsoever.

That he assumes our universe must be personal because we are is called the Fallacy of Composition. It's like saying that I must be invisible because the atoms that make me up are.

And the end of it really just ends up as wishful thinking - since Greg doesn't like the implications that come to mind for a God-free universe, there has to be a God.

That's bad logic, not evidence.

In fact, there's not a shred of anything anything that a skeptic would consider empirical evidence to answer a question of epistemology. Just sloppy ideas and wishful thinking.

I almost stopped reading, this was so painful.

#9 Life by chance
Papa called him on the wishful thinking - good job!

Unfortunately, something came next from the "skeptic and atheist" that invalidated the whole premise of the book:
But again, I'm not denying some kind of force greater than outsides lying behind the universe. I've always though there is too much design in the cosmos to be all by accident.


What???

The "atheist" and "skeptic" targeted by all this, whose conversion was supposed to be a model of how to convert me, came into all of this believing in a higher power and accepting the Argument from Design? He wasn't an atheist - he was a deist or a weak theist or something like that (there's not enough detail to know for sure).

I guess to Greg it's all the same (his dad's heading to hell either way), but it makes a big difference if it's to be a model for addressing people like me.

I guess this just means it's another book By Christians, For Christians, because it's useless as an evangelical tool for someone like me.

Oh well.

Anyway, the point of this chapter was that everything couldn't come by chance. Since Papa already accepted this argument, the burden's really low for Greg, but Greg still really messed this up.

1. He makes bold assertions that have no basis:
the only way we can understand why our minds can understand physical reality in the first place is by believing that the physical universe is "mind-like".


Really? Why? Who says? I know he asserted this in the previous train wreck of a chapter, but there's nothing to support this claim. Something this broad needs to be a conclusion built to, but he just throws it out as truth. And there are millions of scientists and secularists out here who prove it wrong.

2.
chance can't produce organisms like our minds that can know and work out mathematical formulas


Again, why not? But separately, this exposes that he either doesn't understand or lies about evolution. Evolution isn't a process working by just chance. Yes, randomness is an input to the system in the form of mutations, but evolution is guided by natural selection. It is not a process that works just by random chance.

There's a fitness that comes from being capable of the abstract thought necessary to produce mathematical formulas. That fitness wasn't directly for math (it was probably for problem-solving in the savanna), but descent with modification and selection pressures drove us to intelligence.

3. Later, he just asserts that having moral standards against genocide and rape requires that there is a moral law in the universe. Of course, this is a standard Christian belief, but Greg has provided no evidence for it.

This chapter is full of this sort of nonsense. Greg uses the word "must" many times, and usually it means "this had better be true in order to support my conclusion" instead of "this conclusion is forced by the evidence and logic".

Ugly.

He also pushes back on the observation that the previous chapter was wishful thinking by... providing more wishful thinking.

#10 Prayer
The question was about the general impotency of prayer that specifically mentioned Greg's mom. Greg ignored the general question and essentially said "as much as it hurt us to lose Mom, it must have hurt the perfect God more."

Completely not answering the question while assuming characteristics and feelings of God.

#11 More prayer
Now Greg says that of course we can't tell that prayer works, because that would turn God into a vending machine. But prayer works anyway.

Oh, and if your prayer not to be slaughtered isn't answered, it just shows that your vision of the universe is myopic.

Eleven letters, and still not one answer based on anything useful.

#12 Aren't we ants
More bald assertions about the perfect nature of God. Still no reason to believe it.

#13 The Gospels
Here Papa sorta asks about the validity of the Gospels as a way of tackling the circular nature of belief (I accept the Bible because God told me so, and I accept God because the Bible tells me so).

Greg's response is to go into the critical-historical analysis, and he says that it validates the Gospel.

Riiight.

It looks like someone was really glad his dad hadn't read any Bart Ehrman or Robert Price or Thomas Altizer. He's playing incredibly fast and loose with historical analysis. It takes careful reading to see that he admits that the Gospels aren't known to be written by eyewitnesses, but he's happy to leave that impression, etc.

Too bad Papa didn't know that this letter was full of it.

#14 Gospel Contradictions
Greg brushes aside contradictions (which are legion) without addressing them. He also brushes aside Papa's question about liberal scholarship by mischaracterizing his question and laughing at it.

Sorry, Greg, there are real contradictions and real scholarship that disagrees with you.

Of course, none of these details matter to a skeptic who hasn't first seen evidence that God exists.

#15 Gospel authors
Greg here says that the Gospels would still be credible if written decades after Jesus' death by non-eyewitness forgers. That's a convenient position to take, but it's not true - being forgeries would be really bad for credibility.

Otherwise, in this chapter he says a lot about biblical authorship that other scholars credibly disagree with. He's forcing authorship of the Gospels into the 60s (which is not consensus) and then says that 30 years isn't enough time for legendary accretion. That's a ludicrous claim for belief systems in a barely literate society.

Papa really needs to read some Ehrman to get another perspective, but even a quick look at wikipedia will show that Greg's exagerrating his case.

A lot.

Also, at this point, Greg says
Dad, you and I have gotten to the point in our discussion where we've agreed that God does exist, and that He is a personal being who knows, loves, and cares about us more than we could care ourselves
I think Greg is again exagerrating his case, but it's an effective emotional ploy. Unfortunately, he's probably right that he's made a lot of progress without actually demonstrating his case at all yet.

#16-17 Resurrection and Jesus' Divinity
Papa brings up a good skeptical point: everyone who dies stays dead, so any explanation other than resurrection is more plausible (confusion, theft, prank, etc.). What's the response?

Greg massively changes the burden of proof. Since Papa accepts (for whatever reason) that the Gospels are "generally reliable", Greg says that the burden of proof is now on a resurrection denier disprove it. Sorry, no. A resurrection is an extraordinary claim, and thus it requires extraordinary evidence.

Imagine I wrote a truthful story about my senior year in college, but then I inserted a fanciful UFO abduction tale involving unicorns. Would the verifiability of the rest of the book change the burden of proof on the part that's extraordinary? No, not at all.

He then repeats the bizarre notion that decades wasn't enough time to create legends (to see how silly this is, look how quickly Scientology grew even today), and he repeats his mischaracterization of the state of historical-critical analysis.

Greg says that the resurrection was testified to by independent sources, but this is problematic given that the non-eyewitness authors aren't known, and that three of the Gospels are based on one previous account! He says dissenters could have produced a body if it weren't true, but that ignores that the Gospels came out decades later.

I could go on, but it's more of the same that Richard Carrier amply demolishes.

At this point, we're in the realm of theology and not apologetics. They might as well be debating whether the invisible pink unicorn likes oats or hay for all the relevance it has at this point - Greg never makes a solid evidence-based argument that his nonsense is worth considering, but they're its fine points. It's useless for me.

So, I'm going to skip ahead now to the last chapter, because that's the only other time that anything like a skeptical question is brought up again.

#29 How to know for sure
After 65 more pages of unsupported Theological speculation, we're back to a real question: How can I know for sure?

How will Greg respond? Will this evoke evidence? Will we have a good story of epistemology now, finally?

Of course not.

Greg tells his Dad to accept it on faith.

He says they agree that Greg had demonstrated that Christianity is the worldview best supported by evidence, and that should be some solace. But it's no solace for me since I see no evidence in this book whatsoever.

Greg says that not believing is a leap of faith, too, which is a common but silly claim. Is it a leap of faith to demand more evidence before accepting the existence of the Easter Bunny? Or Santa? Or a dragon in my garage? Or Thor? Of course not. To an atheist, Christianity isn't unique or special, it's just another claim, and the proper position without sufficient supporting evidence is rejection.

There's a bit of Pascal's Wager here, and that's just pathetic, too. Should I accept Islam instead because its hell is worse? What if God rewards with heaven those who used logic to come to doubt her? I could come up with any number of other heavens and hells, and there's no reason to play it safe to avoid the Christian hell.

Conclusion

This book is a way Christians convince themselves that they have rational, evidence-based arguments that work. Perhaps the arguments presented here worked on one unprepared non-atheist, but they aren't going to work on an informed skeptic or atheist. There's nothing interesting here, and there are no arguments that an informed atheist hasn't heard and defeated a hundred times before.

Don't waste your money.
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by James (new)

James Piper Impressive review.


Jason Caldwell This review is great, and I agree with most everything. The only thing I think is missing, is that it seemed like the author wrote all of the letters, and his dad never had any involvement. It wasn't published until after his dad died, and nothing is ever said about his mother being involved in the notes with them, so who would have known the truth but those two?

This book made me sick to my stomach.


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