In an Open Thread comment beriukay mentioned that he's reading C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity. I've been reading it too, for interesting reasons.

In my case it so happened that I started discussing faith with a long-time online friend whose spiritual views I didn't yet know, and he turned out to be a Christian with a high regard for the Bible, who also has an interest in science. As our discussion turned to our readings on spirituality, I acknowledged (I think it was me) that I probably spent more time on books that reinforce my point of view than on books that challenge it, perhaps a case of confirmation bias. (I've been exposed to many poor arguments for Christianity, and dismissed them; but possibly that was largely a function of having started out with that bottom line already written and picking arguments I wouldn't have much trouble refuting.)

In the spirit of experiment we agreed to a "trade" - he would read (thoughtfully and with an open mind) a book of my choosing on reasons to doubt faith, and I'd do the same with a book he chose on Christianity.

So the idea here is to pick a book that's the "best argument from the other side" (as in quote 3 here).

I recommended The God Delusion - I'm not sure if that's the best choice given the above intent, but it's what came to mind on the spot.

Would you make a different choice? If so, what?

New Comment
70 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 11:43 AM

I would strongly recommend against the God Delusion. It's an extremely frustrating book to read as a theist: you start swearing at the book before you get out of the prologue.

Incidentally, I think that Mere Christianity is a bit outdated. Its whole argument from metaethics has kinda died with the advent of evolutionary psychology. The Screwtape Letters is far superior.

How can you use evolutionary psychology to refute metaethical arguments without employing the genetic fallacy?
There's still no shortage of Christians making metaethical arguments for Christianity, or at least for theism. Sure, such arguments should be dead -- they should always have been dead, evo psych or no evo psych -- but alas, what should be and what is are quite different things.
The argument from metaethics was outdated from the beginning, at least for Christian apologetic purposes. Moral laws of all tribes and civilizations are compatible and are completely opposed to message of Jesus. Natural law says: love your family. Jesus says: abandon them and follow me. Natural law: love your friends, hate your enemies. Jesus: love everyone. Natural law: defend yourself. Jesus: do not resist. Natural law: defend your property. Jesus: give up everything etc, etc....
Without evo psych, they're flawed. With evo psych, they're entirely destroyed.

I recommended The God Delusion - I'm not sure if that's the best choice given the above intent, but it's what came to mind on the spot.

The problem with that book is not just that it will activate people's defense mechanisms, as some people have already noted, but that these defense mechanisms will often be, on the whole, a largely correct reaction. Significant parts of that book are nothing but ideological propaganda that attacks some metaphysical systems in favor of others, and when people get a visceral reaction that they're being propagandized and not enlightened by the writer, it's a correct intuition, even if it proceeds from spontaneous mental heuristics and not a rigorous logical analysis.

Even setting aside the issue that Dawkins is selling his own metaphysics in an underhanded way, as writers in this genre typically do, many of his arguments are full of errors of both logic and fact that clearly betray his ideological biases. (This is especially cringe-inducing when he takes a superficial and caricatured knowledge of history and colors it with his ideological preconceptions.)

(For full disclosure, I haven't read all of that book, but even if the remainder is much better, what I saw is enough to draw the above conclusions.)

Because of these considerations I'd suggest Pinker's "Blank Slate" - it does undermine religion, but in a much subtler way. It's well argued and less (but not entirely un-) political.

I had good results with The Moral Animal (a good intro to evo psych). It might be easier to challenge some of the foundations upon which theism rests and let them draw their own conclusions than to attack theism directly and activate defense mechanisms.

The thing about books like The God Delusion is that they activate his mental defense mechanisms to prepare himself for any well-thought out, logical arguments. You need to start with something which isn't as blatantly screaming "this book wants to destroy everything you care about because it merely happens to be right!" So I'm somewhat surprised people haven't realized this and gone with the following option:

Gödel, Escher, Bach (by Douglas Hofstadter)

The brilliant thing about this book is that it subtly changes people's worldview without them eve... (read more)

In retrospect, that was really what did it for me. I held on to various forms of wishful thinking for a long time, because it seemed to me that minds and matter were fundamentally separate things, I couldn't see how it could be any other way--though I knew at that point that religious claims tended to be laughable, so I had some kind of vaguely half-assed do-it-yourself wishing-makes-it-so I believed in--and that implied the whole universe of dualism. Somehow I came away from it having relinquished that idea, and it, more than any other one book I'd read by that age, set the course for my intellectual journey. And indeed, I was reading the twentieth anniversary edition, which even warned me up front: "In a word, GEB is a very personal attempt to say how it is that animate beings can come out of inanimate matter. What is a self, and how can a self come out of stuff that is as selfless as a stone or a puddle?" (Also, come to think of it, I'd have skipped ahead a long way on the philosophy of uploading if I'd read A Conversation with Einstein's Brain a few years earlier.)
I haven't read that book but I up-voted because I like your approach. What is important to show a theist is why they don't need a god for everything to make sense; and indeed that there isn't much of anything left for a god to do.

As someone who has done more reading in this space than I should have, I recommend Loftus et al - The Christian Delusion or Ehrman - Jesus, Interrupted.

Ehrman's books are all good. Is Loftus's second book better than "Why I Became An Atheist"? I read that and came out thinking: (a) he is an unsympathetic character, (b) he spends his time in intellectual gutters for no reason, and (c) my goodness these sophisticated arguments for Christianity that he thoroughly engages are stupid.
Anything for the jews? :)
Different things are appropriate for different people. Is the mesorah an issue to this person? The problem of suffering? Logical problems of omniscience? Here) are things on the integrity of the tradition. That's something unique to Judaism, so I mention it here; I don't mention it because I think the same writings would be most recommended to everyone. There is a principle in laws relating to being kosher, a utensil is cleansed by the same process that got it contaminated with unkosher contamination. I think there is wisdom in this principle. To the extent one believes in a religion for social reasons, it is worthwhile to introduce countervailing social forces, no more and no less force. Likewise for those who believe in religion because they believe in the integrity of the tradition, confronting them with the problem of evil is probably not too productive. Help: how do I create a hyperlink to an address ending in a closing parenthesis?
You can escape the parenthesis by placing a backslash in front, like so: Link.)

How about Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World ? IMO it is written better than The God Delusion, and it's more fun to read.

Julia Sweeny's Letting Go of God was also very entertaining, though perhaps it's best to get it in audio format. She reads it extremely well.

On the other hand, I'd can not recommend using Sam Harris's The End of Faith. It just reads like an angry Internet rant... I'm kind of surprised that the book is so popular.

And if you're looking for something subversive, there's always fiction ! C.S.Lewis isn't the only one with tricks up his sleeve. I'd recommend Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light, which is one of my favorite books of all time.

Upvoted for The Demon-Haunted World.

I found The God Delusion to be incredibly overrated. It's horribly organized, much of the material is uninteresting to people already familiar with standard anti-Christianity slogans, and its main argument for the non-existence of God (The Ultimate Boeing 747), while valid, lacks the punch of Occam's Razor or The Problem of Evil.

If I was going to recommend a book I would recommend Why Won't God Heal Amputees?, which has got to be the most accessible text arguing for the non-existence of God I have ever read. The last two chapters are annoying as hell, thou... (read more)

If by "high regard for the Bible" he means inerrancy, I recommend The Human Faces of God as a first step.

It covers disturbing passages that I believe damage the credibility of the Bible as a whole. Biblical genocide, slavery, propaganda, early Israelite polytheism, contradictions, and failed prophesies of Jesus are all discussed with footnotes to additional literature. Most of this material is "standard fare" among critical scholars - even the idea that Jesus was a failed prophet - but church-going people are still in the dark on most... (read more)

If you are looking for the "best argument from the other side", then The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology by William Lane Craig and James Porter Moreland is probably the best place to start.

As far as atheism goes, I don't think The God Delusion is the best way to go since much of it involves arguments showing how religious beliefs are bad for society rather than false (which, in this context, is mostly a distraction). Instead, I would recommend Atheism: A Philosophical Justification by Michael Martin.

But, basically nobody will read these huge and technical works. For atheism, I prefer Oppy's Arguing About Gods (2006) to Martin's 1989 book.
I can't see Oppy or Martin (or Mackie, or Sobel, or Everitt, any of the many other kinda-similar books) being the best recommendation for someone whose choice of Christian book is "Mere Christianity". (One can do much, much worse than "Mere Christianity", but it's not exactly a work of rigorous philosophical investigation.) ... At least, that's if M.C. really was intended to convince rather than merely to describe. Incidentally, there's a paperback edition of the Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology coming out real soon now, at something like 1/4 of the (eyewateringly high) price of the hardback.
It is highly probable that there is an electronic copy floating around somewhere. EDIT: I got rid of the link in this comment, since it is now broken...I mean, this comment does not and never did contain any kind of link whatsoever.
True enough. My comment might still be of interest to hypothetical readers who (1) have scruples about copyright violation, (2) worry about the risks of malware when downloading illegally-copied stuff, and/or (3) like physical books and prefer to get interesting things in that form. (I happen to be in group 1 on this issue but not for all, in group 2 on some other issues but not this one, and in group 3.)

I'm just curious, have you taken any of the suggested book choices and redacted The God Delusion as your recommendation? Are there any other rules in your reading exchange, like say meeting once for each book and discussing it together? Or timelines for completion?

My friend already has TGD on his bookshelf, unread as yet, so I'm following this thread with attention but not taking any action based on it. There were no rules agreed - just sympathetic reading, and some kind of follow-up afterwards. We're both fairly conscientious - our acquaintance goes back to belonging to an online book study group a few years back, so there's sort of a tacit agreement that while this is a back-burner project, we're being deliberate about it.

In the spirit of experiment we agreed to a "trade" - he would read (thoughtfully and with an open mind) a book of my choosing on reasons to doubt faith, and I'd do the same with a book he chose on Christianity.

Can that really be worth it? It seems disproportionally too costly for small expected gain.

Exchanging books with a random theist - probably not worth it. In context of a specific social relationship, might be worth it.

I don't see where you're getting a huge cost.
Reading a book.

I think Dallas is going in the right direction here. It's not enough to convince someone that God is impossible- you need to give them a replacement. (And convincing someone that the Church is a harmful force- when they don't get the impression their local church is- is difficult and probably not worthwhile.) For example, as mentioned elsewhere the primary argument of Mere Christianity is probably "Christianity is an optimized meme for getting humans to believe it- that's evidence for humanity being built around the meme." The counterargument is ... (read more)

This may be true in places like the US where creationism is strong, but not everywhere. For instance, for decades Christians in the UK have almost all accepted evolution, and most varieties of Christianity (even quite conservative ones) have no problem with it. That doesn't mean that there isn't any tension between evolution and those varieties of Christianity, but because Everyone Knows that the two are compatible, reading a good explanation of evolution won't necessarily make a Christian rethink his or her religious beliefs. (I was a Christian for years and years, and so far as I can recall I never found creationism at all tempting. And when I finally got out of religion, evolution had very little to do with it.)
Seconded. Heck, even the Catholic Church says there is no conflict.
I think that if you understand how evolution works on a really intuitive level — how blind it is — it's very difficult to believe both in human evolution and a guiding divinity. "Genes which promote their own replication become more common over time" is not a principle which admits of purpose. Vaguer understandings of evolution's actual mechanism probably contribute to the apparent reasonableness of "theistic evolution".
Sorry, but that sounds like motivated stopping to me. Coming up with ways by which blind evolution and guiding divinity might be compatible isn't really hard at all. For one, a gene mutation can only be selected for once it exists. Whether a mutation comes into existence or not is a random process. God could influence the mutations that come into existence. Secondly, the course of evolution is determined by the environment. Put life in a cold environment, and it will evolve to have adaptations for the cold. God could manipulate the environment to select for the adaptations He wants. There are a lot of papers arguing that the evolution of intelligent, tool-using life requires a very specific environment, which God could have helped arrange. Thirdly, in addition to choosing the environment, God could influence what happens in the environment, for instance by causing catastrophes that lead to population bottlenecks, helping select specific traits by influencing who survives. Fourthly, there's genetic drift, again essentially a random process. ...and these were just ones I could come up with off the top of my head.
What is hard is to make compatible evolution and all-loving divinity. To watch how ones creations torment and devour each other for hundreds of millions of years is not exactly my idea of love.
Ok. That doesn't matter though- my point is it's no good to try and make God vanish in a poof of logic. What seems far more effective is getting people to the point where they can say "I have no need of that hypothesis." Apologists have spent a long time making the logical basis of the church difficult to attack- which can be subverted by pointing out an alternative to the church.
I agree with that, but I would note that this is a highly intellectual route which won't work on people whose reasons are non-intellectual. I was a theist once: less so because of any intellectual issues, but because of the emotional comfort and feeling of safety that it provided. I've also talked to religious people who acknowledge that on an intellectual level, there's no reason to believe, but on an emotional level there is. I often get the feeling that LW focuses exceedingly on the intellectual reasons, while not always realizing that the emotional reasons can by themselves be enough for someone to believe. (On the other hand, purely emotional belief tends to be compartmentalized and harmless, so focusing solely on the intellectual belief is probably a good thing. But it does risk creating an incorrect model of the psychology of the believers.)
Right. I've said elsewhere that most people choose religions based on who their fellow worshipers will be, and that needs to come up in any conversation about conversion.
I understand what you are saying here, but I think it's phrased a bit inaptly. The only choice that most people make about religion is the choice to continue practicing the religion they were raised with. Limiting the discussion to converts, you are, of course, correct.
Evolution is no threat to religion. Natural selection, explaining and predicting evolution is a threat to religion. Indeed, one can usefully define any belief system as quasi religious if it finds natural selection threatening. If that belief system piously proclaims its admiration for Darwin while evasively burying his ideas, attributing to him common descent, rather than the explanation of common descent, then that belief system is religious, or serves the same functions and has the same problems as religion. The trouble is that natural selection implies not the lovely harmonious nature of the environmentalists and Gaea worshipers, but a ruthless and bloody nature, red in tooth and claw, that is apt to be markedly improved by a bit of clear cutting, a few extinctions, and a couple of genocides, and of course converting the swamps into sharply differentiated dry land with few trees, and lakes with decent fishing, by massive bulldozing. And a few more genocides. Recall Darwin's cheerful comments about extinction and genocide. It is all progress. Well, if not all progress, on average it will be progress.
Evolution, paleontology and geology and biology in general are definitely threat to religion in both forms most popular today - strict Bible/Koran conservative literalist faith and fluffy liberal one. The first is simply proven wrong - the world was not created in six days, there was no worldwide flood, etc. And the case for all-loving, all-forgiving god or "spiritual force" is refuted even more decisively. What is left open is the case for the supreme bastard of the universe, the obssesive-compulsive psychopathic sadist who painstakingly designs 500,000 species of beetles and then watches how they devour each other. ;-)
I think Evil had the right idea.
Firstly, looks to me that the predominant religion is environmentalism, and evolution is no threat to environmentalism, but natural selection is. Secondly, if you insist on religion strictly defined, religions that frankly admit that they are religious, these days most of them propose theistic evolution. Only a minority of believers propose that the world was created a few thousand years ago. What the Fish and Wildlife service attempts to enforce, looks very much like theistic evolution also. Consider, for example, the red wolf controversy and the Californian spotted owl controversy. If you believe in natural selection, they should not attempt to enforce their official government species definitions on nature, when the creatures concerned keep having sex with each other regardless of official species boundaries. The barred owl is superior to the spotted owl, which may well be the reason why female spotted owls like to have sex with barred owls. If you believe that nature should take its course, let nature take its course. Natural selection refutes the case for a nice god. However, the Fish and Wildlife service is attempting to enforce a concept of nature and evolution that owes more to Disney films such as "Bambi", which version of evolution is entirely compatible with a nice guy god.
My understanding is that wetlands are massively useful from an ecological point of view, particularly when it comes to absorbing large amounts of water (like you get during floods or other extreme weather events).
The idea that destroying the environment will make the remaining species "better" by making sure that only the "fittest" survive betrays a near-total misunderstanding of evolution. Evolution is just the name we give to the fact that organisms (or, more precisely, genes) which survive and reproduce effectively in a given set of conditions become more frequent over time. If you clear-cut the forest, you're not eliminating "weak" species and making room for the "strong" — you're getting rid of species that were well-adapted to the forest and increasing the numbers of whatever organisms can survive in the resulting waste.
Even if ignore all problems ofderiving ought from is, there is problem which parts of nature we are supposed to follow. If Darwin says "kill them all, the strongest will survive", then Kelvin would say "kill yourself, why bother waiting to heat death of the universe?"
And if you massacre coyotes and deport grey wolves so that the alleged red wolf "species" will not have sex with other canids, what are you doing? If you slaughter barred owls so that they will not compete with or have sex with spotted owls what are you doing? We are preserving dead wood so that spotted owls will have suitable nests, but due to fire prevention, there is a lot more dead wood in forests than would ever happen naturally, a lot more dead wood than there ever has been in the history of the earth. The spotted owl really is an inferior species to the barred owl - and female spotted owls don't seem to think it is a species at all.

hmm... god delusion generally wouldn't be at the top for "best arguments" for atheism. I'd go with something like the Atheism: the case against god or if he'll read a tome you have Atheism:a philosophical justification, the impossibility of god, the improbability of god. These are all pretty high level philosophy books but they are the best and strongest books out there. Did your friend really recommend mere Christianity for best argument on his side?

Yeah. Then again that was probably "best" in the same sense that TGD was "best" for me: what came to mind on the spot. He's probably read a bunch of other books (and obviously, the Bible), MC was his answer to "which work is most likely to get an open-minded atheist to take one step in my direction". In fact there were plenty of things in Mere Christianity that I agreed with, it just didn't make much of an impression on me as an argument for the existence of God. It boils down to "we have a strong intuition that there is an objective morality, therefore God". (ETA: now that I think of it, though, he may have recommended the book also as an answer to the question "what is it exactly that you believe in". Looking back, there may have been some ambiguity to our agreement.)
I would have picked something by william lane craig,richard swinburne or alvin plantinga. I mean mere christanity if i remember right is the book where he brings up the triliema argument for the jesus being god.

Lewis doesn't argue that the trilemma proves Jesus was God - he uses it to dismiss the wishy-washy agnostic position of "Well, Jesus was a great moral teacher, and worthy of respect, so whether he was God or not doesn't matter."

Lewis' position is "No, hang on a minute, this is someone who's spouting moral platitudes that everyone already agrees with, not anything new as far as the morals go. But he's also claiming to be God - he's saying, over and over again, that he is God. That leaves only three options, really - either he's actually God, or he's a liar, or he's deluded. Whatever he was, he wasn't an exceptionally decent human being, so get off the fence."

I just want to say thank you for pointing this out. I used to think the trilemma was a terrible argument, but your interpretation reduces my criticism. Still it's worth noting that Lewis assumed the gospels accurate. He missed an obvious fourth alternative: That Jesus was misquoted and misunderstood. Lord, Liar, Lunatic, Legend. I'm not a full-blown mythicist, but I think it's very likely Jesus life and sayings were embellished by others.
3Rob Bensinger11y
A fifth alternative: Lord, Liar, Lunatic, Legend, or Just Plain Wrong. It's amazing that the simplest explanations -- that someone might simply be mistaken, that they might have sanely and honestly misinterpreted the data -- gets so completely ignored and erased.
Yeah, but 'Just Plain Wrong' is how I would describe thinking Hawaii is in the Caribbean; It's not how I would describe having followers that think you are God in flesh.
1Rob Bensinger11y
The question is whether it's possible to simply be mistaken about having divine powers, without having an underlying mental disorder. And clearly the answer is 'yes;' and clearly this possibility has a higher prior probability than 'Jesus is Lord.' So neglecting the option is unconscionable, and is where the trilemma gets nearly all of its plausibility as an argument for Christianity. Suppose a few really unlikely events happened, and caused everyone around you to think you were the messiah and/or divine. Would it be inconceivable, barring true insanity or deliberate deception, to come to think oneself the messiah and/or divine? Do you think that every psychic, every cult leader, is either (independently) insane or deliberately lying? It just ain't so; self-deception is stronger than that.
That reminds me of Yvain's 'The Last Temptation of Christ'
True, but again that works for Lewis' argument - if our only sources on him are incorrect, then you still have no basis for saying "Well, he was a specially decent human who did good things..." Lewis is one of the few religious apologists for whom I have any time, because he at least tried to make decent arguments, and wasn't interested in convincing people by fraud.
Perhaps it's my own philosophical upbringing coming to rear its ugly head, but Plantinga is practically worthless as a true defense of Christianity. "Basic beliefs" in particular are such an obviously nasty hack, and the resulting epistemological relativism is frightening to behold.
Well he does have other arguments such as the evolutionary argument against naturalism but generally he is considered one of the more rigorous of christian philosophers. oh and btw yea the basic belief argument seems absolutely horrible to me.

I just ran across a comprehensive list of resources pertaining to this question.

Does anyone have an opinion on Dennett's Breaking the Spell?

I read it a while ago. It's good at justifying taking a reductionist approach to religion as a social phenomenon- if religion actually is good for you, we should be able to test that, and the religious should want us to test that. I don't remember being impressed by it, though- the book is riddled with disclaimers and pacifying statements, trying to ensure that no religious person is offended by any section of it. This gets tiresome, because, really, someone's going to get offended nine chapters in? I also don't recall thinking anything in it was truly revolutionary, or likely to change the mind of a theist who reads it- though it may be a good book to get a toe in the door, by making them more willing to consider ancillary paths of their faith critically, and then eventually they'll find a crack which leads to the core.

Judging by lukeprog's account here, and the video he links here, and also accounts by several people on LessWrong, a grounding in rationality and science seems effective in dissolving theistic beliefs without even paying them any attention. On that basis I would recommend the Sequences, or Eliezer's books in preparation, or rationalistic sensawunda material like Carl Sagan or Feynman explaining not just how the universe works but how we know it.

I'd like to quote one of the comments on lukeprog's post: That seems right to me. I have been reading the sequences for a few months now, and I see how the God question could fade away, but where is the argument that shows it must fade away? If someone has a formal argument based on the Kolmogorov complexity of God or whatever, I could better decide if I agree with the priors.
Questions about deities must fade away just like any other issue fades away after it's been dissolved. Compartmentalization is the last refuge for religious beliefs for an educated person. Once compartmentalization is outlawed there is no defense left. The religious beliefs just have to face a confrontation of the rational part of the brain and then the religious beliefs will evaporate. If somebody has internalized the sequences they must (at least): 1. be adapt at reductionism, 2. be comfortable with Bayes and MML, Kolmogorov complexity, 3. be acutely aware of which cognitive processes are running. If you habitually ask yourself "Why am I feeling this way?", "Am I rationalizing right now?", "Am I letting my ego get in the way of admitting I'm wrong?", "Did I just shift the goal post?", "Did I make the fundamental attribution error?", "Is this a cached thought?" and all those other questions you become very good at telling which feeling corresponds to which of those cognitive mistakes. So, let's assume that for these reasons the theist at least comes to this point where he realizes his earlier reasoning was unsound and decides to honestly re-evaluate his position. A typical educated person who likes a belief he will continue to believe it until he's proven wrong (he's a reasonable person after all). If he doesn't like a belief he will reject it until the evidence is so overwhelming he has no choice but to accept it (he's open minded after all!). This is a double standard where the things you believe are dominated by whichever information enters your brain first. The next step is to realize that religious beliefs are essentially just an exercise in privileging the hypothesis. If you take a step back and look at the data and try to go from there to the best hypothesis that conforms to the data there's just no way you're going to arrive at Hinduism, Taoism, Christianity or any other form of spirituality. All those holy books contain thousands of claims each o
I'm not making an argument that it must, just an empirical observation that sometimes it does.

If someone does not believe in evolution, I would recommend they learn (and by extension I recommend to you that you give them a book that teaches) how to program BoxCar 2D.

I haven't read through it, but based on the description, Why I Became an Atheist by John W. Loftus may be a good choice.