The Impossible Faith by James Patrick Holding, Xulon Press, 2007
Christianity is often wrongly labeled a baseless faith, believed in the absence of evidence. Richard Dawkins and other peddlers of tomfoolery have made that claim for years, so it's excellent to see books available like The Impossible Faith (TIF), which convincingly argues that Christianity succeeded primarily because of the overwhelming evidence - mainly the resurrection - that backed up the teachings of Jesus and his disciples.
The book serves essentially as a primer on the social world of the Bible and it's aimed at an audience badly in need of understanding - average American Christians. After finishing TIF readers will have an easier time contextualizing difficult passages, for example, Jesus' teaching in Matthew 12:49-50 to forsake family if necessary. To the modern mindset such a command doesn't make much sense, but in light of the fact that identity in the ancient world was determined by which social groups individuals belonged to, the significance isn't as difficult to see. And as I mentioned recently, understanding events in context is an important part of fending off bad skeptical arguments.
My favorite chapter, however, consists of a discussion about Christianity's uniqueness. Skeptics have an irritating habit of treating all religions as if they are equal and easily dismissed. "What makes Christianity so special?" is the typical cry, and in my teenage years I couldn't give a good answer, which is probably the case for many new Christians. Holding answers by succinctly comparing Christianity with three of it's major competitors, Mithraism, Mormonism and Islam, illustrating just what makes the faith so special. Parenthetically, Holding's comparison does much to debunk the idea that Jesus was somehow copied from another ancient deity.
The online version of the book contains an argument that I find particularly interesting. Potential converts to Christianity in the first century were encouraged to test its claims. Why would the founders of a fledgling religion encourage people to try to debunk it's claims if they were making things up? As Holding puts it,
As if the apostles weren't making things hard enough for themselves by making extraordinary and testable claims in a social environment where it was difficult to keep secrets, they increased the odds significantly by actively encouraging people to check out their claims. Encouraging people to verify claims and seek proof is a guaranteed way of ensuring that your fledgling cult is a flop - unless, of course, those claims hold up under the scrutiny that your encouragement will undoubtedly generate.
But perhaps the best thing about TIF is the response it has elicited from critics. They would undoubtedly deny the strength of Holding's argument, but the fact that the brains of the modern atheist movement have responded since the book's initial release in 2004 says a lot. I don't think the rebuttals count for much, since they amount to "well, other ancient religions had a tough time too!" But I think reading TIF and the rebuttals, particularly Richard Carrier's book-length attempt, is well worth it.