I was very excited to begin reading Jeremiah Johnston’s book Unimaginable: What Our World Would be Like Without Christianity. I enjoy reading apologetics and have spent time teaching this material. The evils of the church throughout history comes up at points and I was excited to dive into this work. Johnston is a lucid and accessible writer, making this a pretty easy read.
World Before Christianity
As I began reading the first section regarding the world prior to Christianity my hopes grew higher. Generally, Johnston’s work on the first century was his strongest portion (that’s what his degree is in), however even there I noticed a tendency to overemphasize the evil, darkness and despair of the ancient world. He paints a picture of the entire ancient world being completely racist and hating women. While we’ve come a long way in these areas and Christianity has led the charge for sure, he seems to take the approach of a critical theorist in analyzing the ancient world.
World Without Christianity
The second portion of the book where he seeks to demonstrate the world without Christianity, by showing the lives and fallout of prominent post-enlightenment atheists is where I struggled the most with this book. A lot can and should be said about the implications of atheism on our worldview and even its fallout through the centuries, but Johnston makes some arguments that delegitimize his credibility.
First (though not necessarily a major point) he seems to engage in Bulverism, when he psychologically explains why some major thinkers reject Christianity. When discussing Feuerbach he ends the section telling the story of his father running off with his mistress and concluding “the experience of rejection of this nature…may well have contributed to Feuerbach’s cynicism and atheism” (77). Similar fallacious argumentation is given to Freud and even Christopher Hitchens as he writes, “A weak father, a faithless mother, and an immoral, lapsed clergyman primed Hitches to reject God and [posit] religious faith ‘poisons everything’” (105). Knowing the Hitchen’s brother Peter is a devout Christian, makes this a peculiarly curious case.
At some level this book is the flip side of those from the new atheists. Both make the different sides into monoliths, picking and choosing only good things for their side and just the negatives of the other. While Johnston’s tone is generally a bit more charitable he doesn’t seem to deal with any evidence against his thesis. While the new atheists often try to demonstrate (as referenced before) “religious faith poisons everything” Johnston presents the Church with completely clean hands and all the evils post-Enlightenment are produced from the emergence of atheism.
What I would have liked to see was a positive case for Christianity. Going in depth how it was the Christian values at work that drove the abolitionist movement (touched on in the book), how Christianity was central to developments like public education, hospitals, charities, behind Martin Luther King’s call for justice, and a host of other great accomplishments due to implementing Christian values. Rather than treating the participants as monoliths, take samples of the greatest change-makers of society who were propelled by their Christian faith. It seems more space was spent trying to tear down the opposition, with some dubious methods than making the positive case.
I received this copy for free from Crossed Focused Reviews. I was not required to write a positive review.