I've just finished reading three books on a common theme: losing one's (Christian) religion and becoming an atheist. All three are excellent, but each approaches the topic from a very different perspective. I thought I might review them all together, and post the combined review on each book at Amazon. I don't know if this is consistent with the Amazon review policy, but never mind.
The first book is Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America's Leading Atheists by Dan Barker. I was slightly put off by the subtitle: "How an evangelical preacher became one of America's leading atheists." After all, one of the key points about atheism - and one that we have to keep reminding theists about - is that atheism is not an organized body of belief, it's no more a religion than "bald" is a hair colour. So how can anyone be a "leading atheist"? Who's being led? However if one substitutes "prominent" or "influential" for "leading", we can let that pass. And Barker is certainly influential: he's co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which is one of the most active groups working to uphold the Constitutional prohibition on church-state entanglement, and seeking to counteract the negative image of atheism in this country.
The second book that I considered was William Lobdell's Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America-and Found Unexpected Peace. Lobdell is an award-winning journalist who covered religion for the Los Angeles Times. After writing about many aspects of religion for many years, he finally decided to write about his own journey.
The last volume in this trilogy was Why I Became an Atheist: A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity, by John Loftus. Like Barker, Loftus was also an evangelical preacher, but although the arc of his experience was similar to Barker's, the result is a very different kind of book.
Let me begin by saying that each of these books is really good, and deserves a place in the library of anyone who is interested in the contemporary debate between religion and atheism. I hesitate to rank them, or recommend one over another; nevertheless I find myself compelled to do so. Of the three, Lobdell's "Losing My Religion" is the most essential, for two reasons. First, he is an excellent writer, and his prose is simply a delight to read. Secondly, he concentrates on his personal experience in a way that I haven't encountered before in books by atheists. Both Loftus and Barker set out to tell their story and argue their case, albeit in different ways, and each draws on writers as diverse as Dennett, Wells, Price, Martin, Shermer, Carrier and Nielsen in setting forth their arguments. Lobdell just wants to recount his own story, and what he has learned from it. He's not interested in converting anyone, or scoring debating points. As he writes, "To borrow Buddha's analogy, I've just spent eight years crossing a river in a raft of my own construction, and now I'm standing on a new shore. My raft was made not of dharma, like Buddhism's, but of things I gathered along the way: knowledge, maturity, humility, critical thinking and the willingness to face the world as it is, and not how I wish it to be. I don't knopw what the future holds in this new land. I don't see myself crossing the river back to Christianity... [or] adopting a new religion. My disbelief in a personal God now seems cemented to my soul. Other kinds of spirituality seem equally improbable. Besides, I like my life on this unexplored shore."
For Lobdell, the thing which provoked his crisis of faith was people: the yawning gulf between the ideals of a religion and the lives of those who practice and - especially - lead it. The horrific abuse of young people by Catholic priests, and the way it was covered up, refutes the claims of religion in many different ways. In particular, it challenges believers to justify theodicy (the "problem of evil"), as well as the Dostoievskian idea of religion as a bastion against the chaos of amorality. In contrast, for Barker and Loftus, the unravelling of their fundamentalist faiths was due to ideas: to the incoherence of religious dogma, and its incompatibility with science and reason.
Both Loftus and Barker were preachers. There are many distinct aspects to being a preacher: the performance artist, leading a collective act of worship; the scribe and teacher, explaining and interpreting the texts and practices of the faith; and the counsellor and confessor. All of these roles have roots in the shamanic and magical. As a believer, Barker was a performance artist, and he remains so in his newly found unbelief. He encourages the closeted skeptic, and fights fiercely for the rights of the non-religious. Loftus is a scribe: the apologist, the teacher. He was the defender of faith against its critics, and with the detailed knowledge that he acquired in this role, he has become the sharpest critic of religious apology.. Each of their books reflects the way that they interpreted the role of preacher.
Both Barker and Loftus seek to encourage those who seek affirmation of their skepticism or unbelief. Barker concentrates on the emotional, the social: "you are not alone", "you are not a bad person". Loftus focuses on the ideas, the dogma: the Bible is riddled with inconsistencies, the supposedly biographical accounts in the New Testament are demonstrably fictitious, the attempts by contemporary theologians to construct a coherent interpretation of the contradictory mess are failures, and so forth. If you have read some of the authorities that Loftus cites - Mackie, Martin, et al - I would still recommend his book, because he pulls all of the threads together in a compact and accessible manner. If you are unfamiliar with the literature, Loftus may be all you need. (Add Hitchens for spice, of course!)
I recommend all three books.