a book review of
The Illusion of Christianity:
How the Flaw of Beliefs of Religion Harm Our Culture
by James T. Houk
This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 41, number 3 (2018). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
James T. Houk, professor of anthropology at Our Lady of the Lake College (Baton Rouge, LA), reinforces the theme of Christopher Hitchens’s argument that “religion poisons everything.” Houk rejects the “faith-based epistemology” of the world’s more than ten thousand religions, which have “generated fantasies, fallacies, falsehoods, and misinformation in our cultural ideology” (p. 13).
Houk challenges religion’s “illusion of certainty.” According to Houk’s three “laws,” religion (1) cannot be empirically substantiated, (2) does not spread outside its area of origin, and (3) is a culture-bound belief system (66). Religious beliefs also are associated with bigotry and racism.
Houk’s book takes aim at the “irrationality” of “religion.” One big target of his is young-Earth creationism, where I think he makes some good points. I do think that the scientific evidence for an old Earth/universe is very strong. Houk also trots out the common arguments against the Bible’s alleged homophobia, slavery, racism, tribalistic favoritism (God elects Israel), “literal” and “inerrant” interpretations, and biblical “contradictions” and “absurdities.” Houk criticizes other “holy books” such as the Qur’an and Book of Mormon.
The latter portion of his book briefly reviews and challenges “four different instruments” responsible for spreading religious thinking: natural theology (arguments for God’s existence), revelation, subjective experiences, and “overt instruction” — that is, the mechanisms or processes that serve as “sources of religious information,” including the indoctrination of children (157, 170). He then attempts to undercut various arguments for God’s existence — the moral, design, and cosmological arguments. He proposes that the problem of evil presents a weighty defeater to belief in God. What’s more, theists bear the burden of proof when it comes to making their case for God. As we’ll see, the blanket use of “religion” is misleading and even harmful. Such dismissals strike me as that of the village atheist who doesn’t take care to offer nuance to his argument. That would, after all, diminish his case against “religion.”
Houk’s treatment of Scripture-related issues is often superficial, characteristic of a left-wing fundamentalism that ignores ancient genres and literary conventions and that superimposes modern standards on ancient literature. Here I simply refer readers to Craig Blomberg’s Can We Still Believe the Bible? (Baker Books, 2014). Other works to check out are my Is God a Moral Monster? (Baker Books, 2011) and Did God Really Command Genocide? (Baker Books, 2014) as well as Blomberg’s Historical Reliability of the Gospels (InterVarsity Press, 2007).
As to Genesis 1, Houk assumes it to be a “scientific” account of creation. In fact, it is primarily a literary, theological account — with much symbolism — that frequently challenges other ancient Near Eastern “creation” stories within their frame of reference.
Shoddy Philosophical Arguments. C. S. Lewis said good philosophy is needed if only because bad philosophy needs answering. Unfortunately, Houk — an anthropologist — engages in the sort of half-baked village-atheist philosophy that leaves one wanting for more of that “good philosophy” intimated by Lewis.
First, Houk is much too anecdotal and far less engaging with the scholarly opposition to be persuasive. Why not engage Christian scholars such as Alvin Plantinga and Francis Collins over Jerry Falwell or John Hagee?
Give Me That Old Term “Religion.” Houk’s book criticizes “religion,” but his use of this term is typically so vague as to be unhelpful. Religion scholar Martin Marty notes that there are at least seventeen different definitions for the word “religion,” and scholars will never agree on one. First, if religion involves an inherently unfalsifiable “faith-based epistemology,” this stands in opposition to the Christian faith — a knowledge tradition that is uniquely checkable (cf. 1 Cor. 15). Furthermore, religion’s being inherently geographically and culturally limited is an odd claim, as though this negates the truth of a belief. (Houk’s own belief system is largely restricted to the Western world, but so what?) Furthermore, the Christian faith has been quite culturally adaptable and is exploding in the Global South (“Third World”), as Baylor historian Philip Jenkins has argued. Another point is that the Christian faith has been a powerful influence for much good in the West. It has brought us democracy, human rights, the abolition of slavery, and other moral reforms, public education, and, not to mention, modern science. The gospel’s penetration of non-Western regions has produced similar democratizing gains, as sociologists Rodney Stark and Robert Woodberry have aptly documented. Even New Atheist Richard Dawkins has come a long way to acknowledge “religious” distinctions. Christians don’t blow up buildings or engage in suicide bombings, he notes, and “I have mixed feelings about the decline of Christianity, in so far as Christianity might be a bulwark against something worse.”1
Houk assumes atheism’s default position, the claim that “religion” produces “fantasies, fallacies, falsehoods, and misinformation in our cultural ideology” (13). Yet atheism isn’t off the moral hook. Consider the atrocities of Stalin, Mao Tse-Tung, and Pol Pot. Some of Houk’s own heroes — Charles Darwin and David Hume — themselves held racist attitudes, and Enlightenment heroes such as Voltaire, Hume, Hobbes, Locke, and Burke, favored slavery and/or did not promote abolition (see Stark’s book For the Glory of God [Princeton University Press, 2004]).
Unnatural Natural Theology. Houk admits he isn’t a philosopher. Unfortunately, this is painfully evident as one reads his work, especially his “critiques” on the arguments for God’s existence. These arguments of “natural theology” do not presuppose special revelation (e.g., Scripture) but are accessible to all human beings through general revelation (e.g., creation, conscience, reason, human experience). On the cosmological argument, Houk confuses two versions of it — the kalm (infinite temporal regress) and Leibnizian (contingency [284–85]). For one thing, Leibniz wasn’t trying to argue against an infinite regress of events but to show that contingency by itself is problematic. If all the entities in the universe are contingent, adding them all together doesn’t make them self-sufficient. The question is: what accounts for the whole of these dependent, contingent entities? Among his many sophomoric utterances, Houk says, “God may have been created by something else” (287). If God came into existence, we’re not talking about God. And isn’t the suggestion of “something else” implying something greater and more permanent — perhaps something more like the real God Himself?
Houk wonders why God’s existence is so privileged that His existence doesn’t need an explanation. To claim God’s essential self-sufficiency is “presumptive.” Yet, Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle didn’t think necessary existence was self-contradictory. Furthermore, Houk’s question assumes everything needs a cause, which would require God (who is by definition self-existent and cannot not exist) to have a cause; so God cannot exist. He assumes what he wants to prove (committing the fallacy of “question-begging”). In addition, two hundred years ago, atheists themselves claimed the universe doesn’t need any divine explanation; it is self-sufficient and self-explanatory, which sounds a lot like the “presumptive” claim Houk says theists make. But now we know the universe began to exist; thus, a cause that is independent of the universe makes excellent sense. Too, unless Houk thinks something can pop into existence uncaused out of nothing, he’ll still have to affirm that something independent of the finite universe is responsible for its emergence. We don’t have to call this the God of the Bible, but we can at least say that the universe is “ontologically haunted,” as Dallas Willard once put it.
As for the design argument, Houk claims that certain “qualities” generally attributed to God (e.g., omnibenevolence) cannot logically be inferred from the design argument (293). But no right-thinking theist argues this way. This argument concludes with a designer — not that this designer must be good. That’s the job of the moral argument. (Houk engages in some unnatural natural theology here.) This isn’t to say the conclusions of the design and moral arguments are incompatible, however.
Houk also claims mistakenly that the moral argument insists that “only an omniscient and omnipotent God” is the source of objective moral values (266). It actually argues for a supremely valuable being — the source of goodness — even if that being isn’t necessarily all-knowing and all-powerful. Again, we have more unnatural natural theology.
Houk considers the “Euthyphro dilemma” a “(potentially) devastating philosophical critique” (266). This “dilemma” claims God either arbitrarily commands what is good or bad or bases His commands on an autonomous standard. This isn’t a dilemma. God’s own character serves as that nonarbitrary standard. Atheists may not like this alternative, but they shouldn’t call the Euthyphro argument a “dilemma.” As an alternative to theism, Houk presents Immanuel Kant’s duty-based ethical system (271). Yet this still doesn’t tell us why human beings have intrinsic value or moral responsibility if we have emerged from valueless, deterministic processes. Kant’s Lutheran background assumes this, however.
Also, Houk takes as decisive the logical problem of evil (i.e., evil cannot coexist with an all-powerful, all-good God ). Yet even the late atheist philosopher William Rowe called this claim “extravagant”; philosopher Daniel Howard-Snyder has said that this argument has been consigned to “the dustbin of philosophical fashion.” Houk’s further argument against God from “the sheer intensity, ubiquity, and extent of evil present in our world” (307) is also problematic: how could naturalism even begin to make sense of the existence of evil, let alone horrendous evils? After all, evil presupposes a way things ought to be, but why think that anything ought to be a certain way if nature is all there is? Atheist Richard Dawkins correctly notes (in River out of Eden) that in a world of “selfish genes and electrons,” there’s no good or evil — nothing but “blind, pitiless indifference.”
Being a True Freethinker. In certain ways, “freethinkers” such as Houk have their own “faith-based epistemology,” not just traditional religionists. They close themselves off from many possibilities: the miraculous; a noncontingent cause for the world’s beginning or intelligent cause for its bio-friendliness; a good being as the foundation of objective moral values and human dignity.
Houk’s book raises interesting questions but fails todeliver. While certain atheistic critics have made a more solid, sophisticated case for their position, Houk’s book does not stand in that tradition. —Paul Copan
Paul Copan (PhD, Marquette University) is the Pledger Family Chair of Philosophy and Ethics at Palm Beach Atlantic University. He is author or editor of over thirty books including An Introduction to Biblical Ethics: Walking in the Way of Wisdom (IVP Academic, 2014).
- In Ruth Gledhill, “Scandal and Schism Leave Christians Praying for a ‘New Reformation,’” The Times, April 6, 2010, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/scandal-and-schism-leavechristians-praying-for-a-new-reformation-lflgv79r7js.