Cold Case Christianity For Kids Review, with actual kid. Introduction.

For a long time now, I’ve been meaning to do a chapter-by-chapter book review and discussion, following in the footsteps of such illustrious bloggers as Libby Ann, Ana Mardoll, Jenny Trout, and many others. I had a couple of possible books in mind, and indeed still have them in mind, but then… I saw that J. Warner Wallace’s Cold Case Christianity For Kids was available pretty cheaply on Kindle, and had a sudden brainwave. Since I happen to have a non-Christian child with an interest in the whole idea of doing reviews of stuff, why not go through it and write a review together with her?

I wasn’t sure how Katie would feel about the idea, but in fact she jumped at it and decided we should do this as her bedtime story each night. (Which may commit me to a rather faster schedule of typing up posts than I actually have a hope of managing. Oh, well. Bridge, cross, when, etc.) “It’ll probably make me change my mind about some things,” she told me, “but probably not about the main thing.”

I decided that I’d make my notes on a file on my laptop word processor as we went through. This has the advantage of speed (my typing’s a lot faster than my writing) but the drawback that Katie leans in and types whatever random things take her fancy, so my notes on her thoughts are somewhat interspersed with random interjections such as ‘Mooo! Sorry, unexpected cow interruption’ or ‘Wednesdays are explosive’. (My daughter has a somewhat surrealist turn of mind.)

“This review,” I told her, “is going to end up sounding like that time we were at your Auntie Ruth’s wedding and the rabbi was starting to say “So, here is the explanation of why it’s a Jewish custom for the groom to smash a glass with his heel…” and you randomly shouted out “Rory the racing car!”

She giggled at that one. “What was wrong with me?”

“Well, you were two and a half at the time. So fair enough. But maybe we could aim for something a bit more serious here…”

So, I’m planning to filter out those interjections before writing up the blog posts, but, you never know, if the primary subject matter gets boring…

Anyway, since not much happens in the book’s introduction, I’ll start out by using this post to fill in some background.

 

Dramatis Personae (OK, that is actually meant to refer to a book’s characters so I’m totally misusing it here. Dramatis Personae for this blog series, I mean.)

J. Warner Wallace

J. Warner Wallace, the author of this book, is a detective who became famous for applying investigative principles to Christianity, deciding it was all true and he should convert, and writing several books about it why he thinks this. These are called the ‘Cold Case Christianity’ series, since he aimed to crack the what-happened-to-Jesus mystery in the same way he cracks cold cases at work. He also has a blog, in case you want to read more.

Katie

My daughter is nearly ten, an intense, imaginative live wire of a child who loves art, computer games, maths, and science, and has recently adopted a bunch of teasels and stuck eyes on them to turn them into pets.

I’ve never tried to dictate the religious beliefs of either of my children, believing that it’s something they need to decide for themselves; I tell them my beliefs when the subject comes up, but also tell them that other people have different beliefs. Katie in fact told me shortly before she turned six that she didn’t believe in God. In more recent years, she moved on to a rather interesting and complex belief system that involved God being an evil god from an alternate universe who had taken this universe over; all this praying people did, she believed, was only encouraging him and really ought to be stopped. It was an intriguing and quite well worked-out belief system, but, when I asked for an update prior to starting this review, I found out she’d moved back to atheism again.

“Just stuff,” she told me, when I inquired as to what had changed her mind. “Sometimes I might want an Oreo for pudding and then change my mind and want something else. Sometimes I just change my mind about stuff.”

I asked her again the following day, and got a more substantive response: “Science explains things better,” she told me (though without being able to specify any examples). “And God doesn’t seem very nice. For one thing, he’s anti-gay. If Christians are wrong about him being so amazing, there’s more chance they’re wrong about the rest of that malarkey. I don’t know what malarkey means, actually – what does it mean? Meh. Whatever.”

Me

Longstanding atheist/general skeptic. I do actually have one thing in common with J. Warner Wallace in that I also spent a lot of time investigating Christianity’s claims; from the fact that I’m here on this site, you can probably deduce that I came to a different conclusion from him. And, yes, I totally want to write a series of posts on that investigation at some point. Someday I will have time. Someday…

At some point I’m sure I’ll get round to figuring out how to put up my sidebar bio, but since I haven’t done that yet I’ll add here that I’m also a British GP, mother of two, and bookworm.

 

OK, that’s us. On to the book’s introduction, which is in two parts: ‘A Quick Hello’, and ‘Wanted: A Few Good Detectives’. All that’s happening at this point is the setting up of the story, so nothing too unmissably thrilling. If Katie did make comments on these bits, I didn’t write them down and can’t remember them, so for this bit it’s just the summary and my thoughts.

A Quick Hello

J. Warner Wallace introduces himself as a police detective specialising in ‘cold cases’, which he defines for the reader. We also learn the following pieces of information about his background:

  • As a boy, wanting to become a policeman like his dad, he learned a lot from attending the Police Explorer Academy (which he doesn’t describe, but it seems fair to assume it’s some sort of programme for children interested in learning more about police work).
  • As a newly-qualified police officer, he was mentored by a senior officer called Alan Jeffries, whom he came to admire and respect greatly.
  • Later on, he used his detective skills to investigate the story of Jesus, and concluded that ‘the evidence was overwhelming’ and that the Biblical accounts were true.

His aim here, apparently, is to combine all three of the above for this book; the readers will ‘enter the Detective Cadet Academy’, be trained by Alan Jeffries, and, as well as learning how to be good detectives, will learn ‘how to investigate the case for Jesus’. Also, the reader’s family can get involved and do this with them (so Katie and I are obviously on the right track here). Also, there’s a webpage.

Wanted – A Few Good Detectives

This is the introductory part of the story proper, which is told in second person present tense, like those ‘choose your own adventure’ books (though without all the ‘if you choose to fight the dragon, go to page 75’ bits).

We’re told that the local police department is starting a new detective training academy for student cadets (i.e. schoolchildren) which ‘you’ and ‘your friends, Daniel and Hannah’ jump at the chance of attending. At the first session, you get introduced to Alan Jeffries, who is going to be running the sessions, which apparently consist of these three and ‘some students from other schools in the area’. Jeffries gets impatient when you want to look at the exciting stuff actually going on in the police station, because apparently you’re all meant to spend the time sitting in the briefing room hearing about police work rather than getting to see any, or something. Which… I have to say doesn’t sound like a wildly successful and well-planned police academy cadet course to me, but what do I know.

So, Jeffries shows you through to the briefing room and asks what part of investigation interests the cadets most, and Daniel eagerly replies that he’s interested in gadgets/high-tech stuff he’s seen in movies, and asks if Jeffries can show them some of that stuff. Jeffries smirks at Daniel… wait, what the hell? Smirks? That is just such an unpleasant way to treat someone. Is this a ‘I do not think that word means what you think it means’ moment on Wallace’s part, or did he seriously mean to portray Jeffries as acting like a git?

Anyway, Jeffries tells Daniel that actually they solve most cases by ‘learning how to think’, because ‘[t]he brain is more reliable’ than gadgets/computers. Wait, what? Brains are actually not that reliable. Of course, they do have the huge advantage of being able to put facts together into patterns in a way that computers and gadgets can’t, but surely the data that the police get from the high-tech stuff is of crucial importance in giving their brains as many facts as possible to work on? I get that this is all a set-up for the whole ‘you’re going to use your brain to investigate Christianity’, but is it actually accurate as a description of what works for solving crimes?

Anyway, it seems the answer to Daniel’s excited request to be allowed to see high-tech police stuff is, in effect, a ‘no’. Poor Daniel. I’m not too impressed with this police cadet course so far, but nonetheless we are assured that ‘[y]ou can hardly wait for the next session!’ Maybe because almost nothing seems to have happened in this one and you feel it can only get better?

The one other thing to mention about this section is that we get an insert titled ‘CSI Assignment’, apparently the first of several such repeated through the book, in which the reader has to fill in blanks in Bible verses. Unfortunately Wallace doesn’t, as far as I can see, tell us anywhere which translation he’s using, which can be kind of a problem when you’re filling in blanks. Anyway, this assignment says:

God also wants you to use your brain to investigate the truth. Read Matthew 22:37-38. God tells us to love Him with all our heart, our soul, and our _______.

Read 1 Thessalonians 5:19-21. God tells us to examine everything _________.

So, as long as you assure children that they’re supposed to investigate the truth, it’s fine to declare the things you’re supposed to be proving as though they’re proved facts. Something tells me that Wallace didn’t spot the irony in that one.

Anyway, determined to do the thing properly, I found the BibleGateway site and looked up those verses for Katie to do the fill-in-the-blank thing (for those verses, the default translations are close enough to the one Wallace was using that it was easily doable). And that’s it for the introduction. I’ll link further chapter reviews back here as I do them.

Chapter reviews – links

Chapter One: Don’t Be a “Know-It-All”: Start Every Investigation Like a Detective!

Chapter Two: Learn How To Infer: Learn How Detectives Find The Truth! Part 1

Chapter Two: Part 2

 

Friday the 13th: Why I disagree with Julie Bindel about prostitution and the Nordic Model.

Friday the 13ths (Fridays the 13th?) are days on which I speak out in favour of decriminalising prostitution and abolishing laws that harm sex workers. For details of why, please read this post and the links, which will give you more detail than I’ll be able to manage on this particular Friday 13th. Today, what I want to do is write some comments about Julie Bindel’s article Why prostitution should never be legalised in Wednesday’s Guardian.

As you can probably gather from the article’s title and URL, Bindel takes a very different stance from me on prostitution; she believes all sex work to be inherently exploitative and non-consensual, and believes that buying of sex should be criminalised, a position known as the Nordic (or Swedish) Model on which I’ve previously expressed concerns. Here, rather briefly, are my concerns about Bindel’s beliefs, and why I, although also a feminist, do not feel able to agree with her:

  • I do not believe that it is possible to say of any form of sexual experience amongst adults that this is something to which no-one could or would give consent under any circumstance. I simply don’t believe it’s possible to be that reductionist. Any form of sexual activity can be done forcibly, or coercively – or consensually. I don’t see any reason why selling sex should be the one exception.
  • I believe that the best person to assess an individual’s own experience and how s/he feels about it is that individual. When I read the accounts of women who were forced into sex work or experienced coercion, I believe them. Likewise, when I read the accounts of women who chose sex work (whether as the least of the available evils or as something they actually enjoyed and wanted to do), I believe them. When a woman says that she hated sex work and that it was horribly wrong for her, I believe her. When a woman says that she enjoyed sex work and was happy in her profession, I believe her. It makes my hackles rise when people’s own experiences and emotions are denied because they don’t fit with dogma. Bindel wants to erase the experiences and voices of women whose experience of prostitution doesn’t match her own beliefs on the subject. I do not – I cannot – accept or agree with this.
  • Bindel, in this article, is completely ignoring all of the evidence that the legal solution she proposes will be harmful to sex workers themselves. Quite simply, criminalising the buying of sex does nothing whatsoever to address the many reasons why women sell sex or to change the various situations that lead to women doing this, while doing quite a lot to make it harder for them to make the money they need or to do so safely. This means that it does not help sex workers, but does harm them. I would urge anyone considering supporting the Nordic model to please read the articles at the links in the first sentence of this paragraph. Several were written by sex workers or former sex workers who have seen, first-hand, the harm this law can do; others are about the research showing problems with these laws.

And all of that is why – as a feminist – I cannot support Bindel’s position on prostitution.

From agnosticism to atheism

In my last post, I wrote of how – as the culmination of much reading and thought on the issue – I became an agnostic. I’m now going to jump forward twelve years from that decision and explain how I eventually moved on to atheism.

I was somewhere around seventeen (I can’t remember exactly) when I became an agnostic. It was a decision I was happy with, but never something I regarded as a ‘that’s it, case closed’ moment in life – I retained my keen interest in the whole topic and continued to read and think a lot about it, open to new arguments I hadn’t come across before. While I did in fact find one – C.S. Lewis’s moral argument – and found it quite intriguing, that one didn’t stand up under examination either (another topic I need to post about!) and I remained agnostic.

That was fine by me, but I’d also have been happy to find a convincing reason to believe in God (as long as it wasn’t the tyrant version of God that supposedly sent people of the wrong beliefs to eternal torture). I didn’t, however, think seriously about becoming an atheist, because that always seemed fairly silly to me. Sure, we couldn’t prove that God existed, but how could anyone prove that he didn’t? Surely agnosticism was a far more sensible option?

Fast-forward….

I was twenty-nine, and I was chatting to the boyfriend with whom I’d recently got together. (Who would, in fact, go on to become my husband, but that’s also a different story.) He was (and still is, for that matter) an atheist. Curious, I asked him why. How could he be an atheist when he couldn’t be sure that God didn’t exist?

And he asked me “Well, do you believe in fairies?”

Lightbulb moment. As silly as it sounds now, this way of looking at things had honestly, at the time, never occurred to me. No, of course I didn’t believe in fairies. Or ghosts, or vampires, or werewolves, or…. well, name your mythological being, really. And for none of those things did I feel the need to hedge my disbelief with disclaimers about how of course they might exist, since we couldn’t really know for sure that they didn’t and surely it was important to keep an open mind… No-one would expect me to. There was no good evidence for the existence of fairies, so my response to that was not to believe in them. Simple as, end of.

When I clung to my agnosticism about God, when I tried to tell myself I was right to be open-minded about the matter… I was actually cutting the notion of a deity a level of slack that I wouldn’t have cut for any other theoretical creature.

I rapidly realised two things:

  1. Logically, I really should be an atheist.
  2. While my commitment to open-mindedness and fairness was quite genuine… it hadn’t actually been my only reason for wanting to remain an agnostic, rather than an atheist.

Being an agnostic, you see, also allowed me to continue with the hope that maybe – just maybe – there was a God of the non-horrible type out there. (The kind of God traditionally believed in by Christians was a rather different matter, but that is yet another whole other issue for yet another of the increasing number of blog posts I totally mean to get round to writing sometime.) I liked the idea that, at the end of the day, the universe might be in charge of someone wise and kind and powerful who would a) make sure that nothing went too disastrously wrong for humanity and b) give us some kind of afterlife in which some kind of justice was done.

(That, I can see, may be misinterpreted. There seems to be a widespread belief among Christians – and among other religions too, for all I know, but Christianity is where I’ve encountered it – that we unbelievers all lead meaningless lives without God and just don’t want to admit it. My life has never felt meaningless in the slightest; I’ve been very happy and fulfilled in the here-and-now without belief. My discomfort came from the feeling of being without a safety net if things went wrong.)

However, the facts remained. Despite years of searching, I had been able to find absolutely no good reason to believe such a being existed. And I’d always striven to be as honest as I could about where my exploration of the issue led me. So… it wasn’t the kind of rapid shift that my shift to agnosticism had been, and took some months of gradually coming round to the idea, but I did eventually identify as an atheist. And, eighteen years on, I still do.

How I became an agnostic

This is – very belatedly and with apologies for the long gap – the fifth in a short series of posts I’m writing about the subject of why, after investigating reasons for theism, I ultimately became a non-believer (first an agnostic, ultimately an atheist).

For background: These investigations were in my childhood/teenage years. I grew up in a non-religious household, but was intensely interested in the whole subject from an early age. I regarded the whole question of whether or not there was a God, and, if so, what religion he wanted us to follow, as being an extremely important one; so I put a lot of time into reading and thinking seriously about the subject. These are, as best as I can remember after a thirty-year gap, my reactions at the time to the arguments I found in my reading, and my thoughts on the matter.

I wasn’t originally going to include either this or a post about how I moved from agnosticism to atheism, since I did write both those posts on my old blog, but then I decided that it would be good to have the whole story together in one place.

For those who haven’t read the previous posts, here’s the story so far: I’d spent a lot of time reading about why I should/shouldn’t believe in God, trying to make up my mind, but the arguments I read ranged from ‘inconclusive’ to ‘absolute rubbish’ and I was left feeling unable to reach any kind of sensible conclusion. This didn’t, as some believers would have it, mean that I was desperately searching to fill a God-shaped hole; I would have liked to be able to conclude that God existed (apart from any other considerations, it would have meant I could join a religion, which seemed to my lonely introverted teenage self to be a great way of finding instant community and the sense of belonging I craved), but I certainly didn’t feel my life would be meaningless without reaching that conclusion. I just felt it was something I ought to decide one way or the other. But none of the arguments I read were helping me do so.

And that’s where I was in my life when, browsing the shelves of the local library, I came across Yvonne Stevenson’s ‘The Hot-House Plant‘.

As I recall, it was in the biography section, not the religious section; I can’t remember why I looked at it. I guess the title must have caught my eye. The description, however, certainly did; Yvonne Stevenson was a vicar’s daughter who had written about her experience of converting from Christianity to atheism. That intrigued me, all right. Something had obviously led her to that decision; would her reasons be any help to me in my own?

No, as it turned out. But this book would still be the turning point in my search; my definitive ‘How I became an unbeliever’ moment.

Before I get to that, I’m going to switch genres for a moment into Book Review Mode, because, regardless of how it was to end up impacting my beliefs, this book was a joy to read. Yvonne Stevenson was a lively, irrepressible, strong-minded woman who threw herself into life and into her search for answers with engaging enthusiasm. It was quite an old book even then – Stevenson had been born in 1915, and was describing events in the first twenty-one years of her life, leading up to and following her conversion – but it was one of those delightful books that are timeless.

If Stevenson had lived a century later, she’d have become one of many bloggers telling similar deconversion stories. She grew up in a loving but strict Christian (Church of England) family, with a controlling father who encouraged her to think about her faith… as long as she was reaching the same conclusions as him. While she was happy with this situation for a long time, she came increasingly to question it as she grew older – and her questions weren’t getting satisfactory answers. Lost and seeking, she arrived at university and was initially shocked to meet an atheist for the first time. However, she was increasingly won over to her new friend’s worldview (which included Marxism as well as atheism) in a series of late evening discussion sessions. Eventually – to the fury of her family and her own great relief – she converted to those beliefs herself.

I loved the book (years later, I ordered a second-hand copy online just to have one for myself) but I also took its subject matter seriously and read it with the same careful analysis that I’d tried to bring to all the arguments I’d read – both pro and con – on the subject of belief. The questions Stevenson raised, the points her friend made – did they stand up? Or were there valid alternative ways to look at the issues?

In each case, unfortunately, the answers were ‘No’ and ‘Yes’ respectively. The pro-atheism arguments were interesting to read, but ultimately just as unconvincing to me as everything else I’d read. For one thing, a lot of them weren’t even directly about theism or Christianity as such -they were about the very rigid and classist form of Christianity with which she’d grown up, and, even as a teenager, I understood that I shouldn’t judge a whole religion by some of its participants and that her points, while very valid in their way, had nothing to do with the overall truth of Christianity. Even where the book did deal directly with the question of God’s existence, though, I didn’t feel any of her arguments were conclusive; I had little difficulty in thinking of counter-arguments. As much as I loved the book, I finished it feeling I had no more hard evidence for or against God’s existence than I’d had before I started it.

So, the book didn’t give me the Final Conclusive Argument on the matter for which I’d hoped. What it did, however, was to deal a knockout blow to the one teetering prop that had so far propped up my shaky such-as-it-was theism.

A key part of the book, you see, was Stevenson’s account of her actual conversion experience. As conversion accounts go, it was a good one. It was vivid, it was dramatic, it involved actual visions – including one of being born again – and it left her with a new, glorious sense of purpose and a life so joyously changed that she actually described her experience as seeing the world in colour and in three dimensions for the first time in her life. It was a conversion account so marvellously convincing that it would have done any apologetics book proud. Except, of course, for one little detail… this was her conversion to atheism. Her vision of being reborn (which she herself fully understood to be hallucinatory) was of being reborn as a child of nature and evolution, not of God; her joy and purpose were those of a person who has finally resolved a stressful dilemma and found a meaning that makes sense for their own life.

On top of that, there was her atheist friend’s excited comment on hearing the news: “It’s the most marvellous feeling, isn’t it, when you shake off Christianity? Everything comes alive! It’s indescribable. Like springing free from a great, heavy, black cloak that’s weighed you down.” (pp 157 – 8) Different vivid simile; same sentiment. Another person whose life had been left vastly happier and more positive by conversion… to atheism.

Under the circumstances, I felt it seemed quite fair to say that neither of these experiences could have been the work of God… which answered a key question for me. To recap something I wrote in the previous post in this series:

[T]here was still one category of evidence that… well, that still wasn’t conclusive, but that did seem to have more to it than the various ineffective arguments I was reading. This was the fact that so many people reported personal experiences of psychologically encountering God, often in compelling and life-changing ways.
As I said, I didn’t find this conclusive. There seemed to be other plausible explanations; after all, if someone really believed God was speaking to them or that God loved them, surely that could lead to the kinds of experiences of bliss and comfort and changed lives that I was reading about. Still, could this be enough to account for the experiences I was reading about? (This wasn’t a rhetorical question; I genuinely wanted to know the answer.)
And there, at last, was the answer: Yes, it could. This book had just given me clearcut, categorical evidence that it was perfectly possible to have a dramatic and utterly life-changing conversion experience for purely innate psychosocial reasons, without a deity being involved in it at all. I still couldn’t prove that God didn’t exist; but I’d just been left without any convincing remaining evidence that He did.
So I took the obvious route and started seriously considering atheism.
I rapidly realised something. During all the time I’d been considering the matter, while my conscious mind had been unable to decide, another and unrecognised level of my mind had always taken belief in God for granted. This had nothing to do with any genuine feeling of my own; it was the result of having grown up in a society where the prevailing message was that there was some sort of God out there, and of having internalised this and taken it for granted. While the logical part of my mind was analysing the matter, the part that went along unthinkingly with what I was told had accepted God as unquestioningly as it had accepted other beliefs. I found myself unable to look at the world around me without taking it for granted that there was a God behind it, like a presence behind a painted image. Trying to see the world another way felt not so much like an emotional wrench as like looking at an optical illusion and trying to make the mental shift from seeing it as two faces to seeing it as a candlestick.
So, I started focusing on trying to make that shift. Throughout my day, I practiced looking at the world and replacing my mental picture of a God behind it all with a mental picture of an absence behind it all; in what subtle ways would the world look and feel different if I believed there was nobody out there? It didn’t take very long; within a few days I felt I’d made the mental shift to seeing the world as one without a god behind it. The only thing was, this didn’t give me any more of a sense of ‘Aha! This way of looking at things is correct! I have found the right answer!’ than the background assumption that God was there.
Was there a god or wasn’t there? I thought over all the reading I’d been doing. All the inconclusive arguments, each one of which seemed to have its possible counter-argument. (The world must have been created by God – but what if it was actually created by some natural process that we didn’t yet know about? There was no sign of any Supreme Being directing human lives – but what if there was a Supreme Being who just didn’t direct human lives, for whatever reason? Round and round, on and on and on.) How long had these arguments been going on between humans? Centuries? Surely, if there actually was conclusive evidence on either side, the whole question would long since have been settled by now?
Finally I faced facts: If there was such a thing as conclusive proof that God did or didn’t exist, by this time I would have found it. We didn’t have such proof. I certainly didn’t rule out the possibility of it showing up at some unspecified time in the future, but what we had right then was what we had right then. Right then, we simply couldn’t prove the matter either way. There was, in short, only one sensible recourse; to become an agnostic.
And thus, with a sense of considerable relief at having resolved this, I became an agnostic. I would keep on actively searching for new arguments or evidence – but, in the absence of same, agnosticism seemed by far the most fair and sensible conclusion to draw on the matter. I was an agnostic, I was happy with that, and, although I didn’t know it at the time, I would continue to define myself as an agnostic for the next twelve years.
To be continued…