Book Review: UFOs, Ghosts, and a Rising God

(Editor’s Note: This review was solicited and is written in accordance with this site’s policy for such reviews.)

If you’ve been around the atheist blogosphere, you probably know the name Christopher Hallquist, author of the blog The Uncredible Hallq (I’ve always wondered, does he get more skeptical when he gets angry?).

Well, it seems he’s come into his own, because last month in the mail I got a copy of his new book, UFOs, Ghosts, and a Rising God: Debunking the Resurrection of Jesus, which was published earlier this year by Reasonable Press. Here follows a short summary of the book and my review.

The book begins with a brief history of skepticism, from the Roman con-artist Alexander and his nemesis the satirist Lucian, to Franz Mesmer and the spiritualism craze of the 18th century, complete with mediums who could levitate, summon ghosts on command, or communicate using psychic powers. Since most of us rightly consider these claims to be dubious, Hallquist argues, we should apply David Hume’s criteria for judging miracle tales and conclude that the Christian resurrection story, which is much longer ago and even less well documented, is even less likely to be true.

There are some great nuggets of information in here, particularly Hallquist’s account of an e-mail conversation with Craig Blomberg, one of the experts interviewed in Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ. Blomberg complains that Strobel’s book “heavily paraphrased” [p.50] and oversimplified their actual conversation, and that he ultimately gave up on trying to correct all the inaccuracies that Strobel introduced. There follow discussions of textual evolution in the New Testament, of the way legends tend to grow and mutate in the retelling, and the general lack of skepticism or a tradition of critical inquiry in the ancient world. Another bit I particularly liked: to drive the point home, Hallquist quotes a Christian magician, Andre Kole, who defends the historicity of Jesus’ miracles even while complaining that people tend to misremember his shows and believe he performed far more impressive tricks than he actually did! [p.75]

Building on this argument, Hallquist argues that Jesus may have been similar to a modern faith healer, performing “miracles” that relied mainly on the placebo effect and his devotees’ faith in him. These stories then grew in the telling, becoming far more impressive than they originally were.

As for the alleged resurrection and post-death experiences, Hallquist notes that even the Gospels portray the risen Jesus as a strangely ethereal phenomenon, appearing and disappearing without warning depending on who seems to be looking, and often describes his glorified body in mystical, visionary terms. He discusses the modern parallel of UFO abductions, pointing out their similar dreamlike and hallucinatory qualities, and brings up the nice point that stress – such as at the death of a loved one – can make such visions more likely to occur. The closing chapters ably dismantle some common apologist arguments relating to biblical prophecy, the Shroud of Turin, and religious attitudes toward skepticism and doubt.

Having finished the book, I have just two complaints, one small, one large. First, the minor: There were a lot of typos in this book – grammatical missteps, missing letters, missing words or incorrect punctuation. On average, I counted one such every few pages at least. It obviously doesn’t detract from the soundness of the arguments, but it was distracting. I imagine Reasonable Press, a fairly small printing house by the look of it, doesn’t have a great deal of money to invest in proofreading, but still.

Second: The one hypothesis that this book doesn’t consider, and that I found conspicuous by its absence, was that Jesus was an entirely mythical figure who was gradually “historicized” into a real human being. All the arguments Hallquist presents about legendary development, exaggeration of rumors and the like would apply equally well, maybe even better, to this hypothesis. This is an alternative that I think deserves serious consideration, and if there’s a future edition, perhaps it will address it.

With those caveats, this is a short, smart book, one that’s worth your while to pick up and read. Most of the skeptical material on Jesus’ resurrection was not new to me, but if you haven’t read extensively on the topic, it’s a useful and fairly comprehensive primer on how an atheist can best respond to these apologetic claims. What I personally found most illuminating was actually the background material – the mediums and spiritualists of past eras who claimed supernatural powers, and the skeptics, like Harry Houdini, who took them on. This is material that I think will be new to most readers, and there are some powerful lessons to draw on here. Hallquist cleverly points out that plenty of spiritualist “miracles”, like the alleged levitation of one D.D. Home (which was supported by three signed eyewitness testimonies) are backed by evidence as good as or better than the evidence for anything in the Bible.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://bridgingschisms.org Eshu

    I’d certainly consider reading this, mostly for the spiritualist background material. I think it’s an especially clever tactic to introduce these skeptical debunkings first before moving on to Christianity.

    Can anyone suggest a book which covers (only) these mediums and spiritualist investigations by the skeptics of yesteryear?

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Another bit I particularly liked: to drive the point home, Hallquist quotes a Christian magician, Andre Kole, who defends the historicity of Jesus’ miracles even while complaining that people tend to misremember his shows and believe he performed far more impressive tricks than he actually did! [p.75]

    Have I got a book recommendation for you! In the early chapters of The Fakers by Danny Korem and Paul D. Meier (1980, ISBN-10: 0800711300), magician Danny Korem skeptically covers various topics (dowsing, psychics, etc) with each chapter ending in a variation of “it’s a pity that people fall in with this phony cr*p because it distracts them from the real magic of God.” The last few chapters are dedicated to wacky theories about the preservation of the Old Testament being supernaturally guided. It’s a hilarious combination.

  • http://www.biblecritic.com Qohelet

    @Ebon,

    Thanks for the review. I’ll wait for the 2nd edition, when all the typos have been fixed. As for the mythicist snub, I think it’s refreshing to find a recent atheist book on the historical Jesus which does not endorse Jesus mythicism. For all the merits I find in Doherty’s book (and website), I am not convinced he’s made his case.

    @Eshu
    James Randi’s Flim-Flam and Martin Gardner’s books on skepticism would be what you’re looking for.

  • Alex, FCD

    (I’ve always wondered, does he get more skeptical when he gets angry?).

    And, if so, did he become a solipsist when Fox canceled Firefly?

  • jtradke

    He discusses the modern parallel of UFO abductions,

    One interesting point in Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World was about how modern UFO abduction stories closely mirror older stories of incubi and succubi visiting various horrors upon dreamers.

  • http://she-who-chatters.blogspot.com D

    I was barely able to read this. I kept getting mental pictures of a big green philosopher sitting in an armchair, shouting, “HALLQ DOUBT,” at the very top of his lungs between calm, reflective puffs on his mother-of-pearl inlaid meerschaum.

    Not crazy, I promise!

    I’m reminded of Penn & Teller’s bit on Elvis, stating how we’ve got a full autopsy report, news articles including obituaries, and yet there are people who refuse to believe that Elvis is dead. Even in cookbooks published in the same century, there is profound disagreement on how precisely to prepare the King’s beloved fried chicken. In the twenty-first century, we can’t even tell the King’s true chicken from false chicken, less than a hundred years later – imagine trying to discover the true recipe for Elvis’ fried chicken two thousand years later!

  • http://www.uncrediblehallq.net Chris Hallquist

    Thanks, Adam, for the review. You’re right that the press is too small to be able to afford a proofreader. The upshot of the small press, though, is that they’re using a print-on-demand system, meaning there are no “editions” of the book and errors can be corrected as they’re found. So Qohelet, if you just wait a while before buying a copy of the book, say until you’ve polished off whatever’s currently on your reading list, a good chunk of the errors will have been corrected by then, even though we won’t have announced an official “second edition.”

  • David Ellis

    A small bit of advice for people wanting to publish their work at a small press that cannot afford a lot in the way of proofreading.

    Install text-to-speech software on your computer (there are many free ones you can download, I use Natural Voice) and listen to your book spoken aloud. It won’t catch every mistake but many of them you would tend to miss with a visual inspection are glaringly obvious.

  • Paul

    Thanks for the review. I’ll wait for the 2nd edition, when all the typos have been fixed. As for the mythicist snub, I think it’s refreshing to find a recent atheist book on the historical Jesus which does not endorse Jesus mythicism. For all the merits I find in Doherty’s book (and website), I am not convinced he’s made his case.

    How is one supposed to make a case against an event where there are no corroborating, contemporary primary sources? The lack of first century CE extra-biblical mention of such a ground-shaking figure as Jesus is a weakness for the historical Jesus, not for the myth hypothesis. The burden of proof you are trying to place seems backwards.

  • Pingback: Some disappointing bigotry from Adam Lee : The Uncredible Hallq

  • http://www.uncrediblehallq.net/ Chris Hallquist

    Okay, first of all, MOST OF THE TYPOS HAVE NOW BEEN FIXED. Also, David, thanks for the tip on text-to-speech software.


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