Sunday, October 17, 2010

Book Review: Road Out of Eden

Road out of eden I usually enjoy books that describe the spiritual/religious journeys of people. But LouAnne White’s Out of Eden – From Adventist to Atheist doesn’t quite achieve the qualities it needs to make it worth the price. I will approach this review by addressing two aspects of the book: the personal journey of the author; and the quality of the book.

The Personal Journey

Out of Eden tells the story of LouAnne White as she journeyed from Seventh-day Adventism to her current position of atheism. Her story is deeply  moving as she recounts experiencing what she labels child abuse. She writes:
Growing up in Adventism or in many religions where a religion is pushed upon a child’s mind to be absolute truth is in my experience a form of emotional and psychological child abuse. (p. 14)
White describes how, for example, her father would tell his children, when they were young kids, ‘that there were bears under our bed in order to keep us from getting out of bed at nighttime.’ (p. 15) She was taught that God’s love is conditional on being good. For White, her upbringing occurred in
… a very controlled and legalistic environment. Besides feeling guilt and shame from believing that God was judging me on a constant basis and determining my salvation based on my performance there was also the threat of judgment and hell fire that was used to control our actions. It was emotional blackmail. (p. 16)
White also describes how some of the unique doctrines of Adventism, such as the endtime scenarios arguing that Sunday laws would come in and persecution and death could result by not keeping Sunday as the Sabbath, led to a fearful relationship to God and religion.
After exploring the ideas and experiences that provided her with a very negative view of God and religion, White tells us how she went ‘from one extreme to another’ and, like the prodigal son, sewed her wild oats in the ‘”sinful world”’. Her “rebellion”, however, resulted in mounting feelings of guilt which led her to intermittently return to church, be rebaptised, only to leave again. Guilt and perfectionism sent her from bad to worse as she returned to the writings of Ellen White, Adventism’s prophetess. On the basis of her writings, she joined an extreme, cultic offshoot of Adventism that emphasised perfectionism and the keeping of a long list of rules derived from Ellen White’s writings. LouAnne documents about 43 of these rules covering just about every aspect of life — eating, drinking, dressing, sex, and on and on.
Her marriage to a member of this cultish form of Adventism, initially believed to be an “equally yoked” marriage, turned out to be hell as her husband emotionally abused her under the guise of religious piety.
LouAnne  always had a desire to find the truth. And so she begins to study into the early history of Adventism and discovers what many had before her — the tendency of Ellen White to use her authority to control people and discourage them from questioning her writings. Quotes from Ellen White were read to LouAnne such as:
It is Satan’s plan to weaken the faith of God’s people in the Testimonies (the “testimonies” were her [Ellen White’s] writings (sic) Next follows skepticism in regard to the vital points of our faith, the pillars of our position, then doubt as to the Holy Scriptures and then the downward march to perdition.”
Quotations like this clearly strike fear into the heart of someone who wishes to think and question their faith. But LouAnne persisted in her search, discovering the many Adventist leaders and theologians who have been evicted from the denomination or defrocked of ministerial credentials for their questioning of official doctrine, including Desmond Ford in the 1970s and ‘80s.
Finally, she leaves Adventism and then, as she continues to explore and discover, she realises, at age 50, she has moved away from religion altogether and adopted atheism. LouAnne describes how she struggles with old emotions and, in particular, the difficulties dealing with family members and others who are intolerant of her thinking and deciding for herself.
LouAnne’s journey is an interesting one and many who have travelled a similar journey will no doubt relate to her story. And it certainly raises issues about the nature of some forms of religion that are fundamentalist, sectarian, legalistic, and cultic in their approaches. Her story also shows how a person may experience severe emotional consequences, such as depression, for many, many years.
For all these reasons, there are many worthwhile aspects to this book.

The Quality of the Book

While the above positive aspects of the book can be identified, overall, the book is of a very poor quality and standard. Essentially, it needs a good editor to guide the writing and publication. It is full of grammatical and formatting errors that make the book irritating to read. It is clearly self-published and suffers for it. The presentation of the book is amateurish.
More seriously, in those places where White discusses the information she based her decisions on, much of the text is either a direct copying of source material or “dot-pointed” noting. While all of this material is acknowledged, it means the personal dimension of the journey is lost, apart from a few comments here and there by White herself. In the chapter on ‘The Origin and History of Religion’, the major source is D M Murdoch’s (aka Acharya S) Origins of Christianity and the Quest for the Historical Jesus. There are pages of material uncritically excerpted and presented as dot points to the reader.
Acharya S believes that Jesus was not a historical figure and that Christianity’s construction of Jesus is based on a range of pagan myths from various cultures. Nothing new in that. However, relying on Acharya S to make decisions about factual matters may not be very wise. She has been widely criticised, even by skeptics like Richard Carrier and Robert M Price (who also, by the way, believes that Christ was a mythological figure). So her ideas and theories are, to say the least, contentious, even from the point of view of those who agree with the idea of a mythological Christ.
The point here is that the material offered by White as evidence she considered in her move from Christianity to atheism is highly questionable. At least, to be fair minded, White should offer a critical view of this material.
White also cursorily surveys various reasons to abandon Christianity. Rather than articulate her own reasons, however, she summarises a pamphlet by Chaz Bufe, a contemporary anarchist author (according to Wikipedia). The summarised criticisms of Christianity are sweeping generalisations with no careful distinction or criticism made about them. For example, ‘Christianity is based on fear.’ Well… certainly, much of Christian theology is certainly based on fear. But not all of it. And one could argue, for example, that the New Testament specifically emphasises love as the basis and motivation of true religion. Not only that, much contemporary scholarship in Christianity itself criticises a fear-based approach to religion.
Or, ‘Christianity is anti-intellectual, anti-scientific.” Yes, fundamentalist brands of Christianity are; but any well-informed person will be able to easily identify many, many segments of Christianity that value intellectual activity and scientific enterprise.
In a remarkable irony, after citing all this material on the mythological Christ, White writes:
In light of this entire ridiculous repeating of fables down through history that has obviously been used to create all the different criteria for a deity for all the different cultures including the Christian deity and the fact that the few mentions of Jesus from historians came about during a time of rampant forgeries by the early church I must conclude that Pope Leo X hit the nail on the head when he said:
What profit has not that fable of Christ brought us!” – Pope Leo X (p. 96, emphasis in original)
The irony? This alleged quote from Pope Leo X is completely inauthentic! For a detailed account demonstrating how this quote is derived from a satirical, anti-Catholic work by John Bale (1495-1563) click here. So one must ask the question: How well did White critically examine what she accepted as she read these works critiquing Christianity?


So Road Out of Eden is a mixed bag. The best parts are where White focuses specifically on her own experience, in particular, the emotional dimensions of her upbringing and the impact of that on the rest of her life. Her struggle to come to terms with her belief system and the confinement of legalistic, perfectionistic religion convey a sense of frustration, pain, and courage, as she tries to make sense out of her experiences. If the whole book had focused on this and had the benefit of a good editor, there would be a great book here. But the poor writing and presentation, and the uncritical repeating of secondhand ideas of others, reduces its value and makes it an unreliable guide for anyone else to follow the same intellectual journey.
— Steve Parker