First, for those who don't know, Josh McDowell is an Evangelical Christian who made his career as a traveling speaker for Campus Crusade for Christ, and boasts of a mind-boggling running total for college students spoken to (I think I read somewhere that he has a record for that, but am not sure). In 1972 he was involved in the creation of the book The Evidence That Demands a Verdict, put out by Campus Crusade's publishing arm, Here's Life Publications. The ambiguity in my "he was involved" phrasing is deliberate. The cover of the first edition says "by Josh McDowell," but the title page says "complied by Josh McDowell," and later editions just say "Josh McDowell." What he was "compiling" was quotations collected by a team of eleven college students (and more for later expansions), and the book consists almost entirely quotations that kinda sound like they support the credibility of Christianity, presented with a painful disregard for logical flow of argument. The names of the college students are listed prominently in early editions, but the billing is less prominent in recent ones.
Despite the rather odd nature of the work, it's been enormously influential. It's one of the first books Evangelicals have turned to when trying to claim rational support for their beliefs. As Jeff Lowder once said, "We remember the old alt.atheism days when every other refutation to a post was 'read McDowell.'" A year ago the book was listed as #13 out of the top 50 most influential Evangelical books. McDowell has been cited as a foundational influence by such apologists as William Lane Craig, Lee Strobel, and J. P. Moreland.
One of his main selling points, at least in recent years, is his claim to be a former atheist who set out to investigate the evidence for Christianity, thinking he would discredit it, and was compelled to convert by overwhelming evidence. It seems like half the Campus Crusaders I talk to here in Madison know that and little else about him. When I first encountered this claim I had only a vague idea of it. Then, one day (it must have been nearly a year ago) I was paging through my copy of The Evidence that Demands a Verdict (1999 edition--the date is important) and noticed what struck me as a rather odd claim:
I left the university and traveled throughout the United States and Europe to gather evidence to prove that Christianity is a sham.This immediately struck me as at odds with what I knew generally about McDowell from other sources, such as Ed Babinski's comments on McDowell's conversion. I contacted Ed about it, and with his help I eventually compiled a list of places where McDowell had given a testimonial of some kind:
One day while I was sitting in a library in London, England, I sensed a voice within me saying, "Josh, you don't have a leg to stand on." I immediately surpressed it. But just about every day after that I heard the same inner voice. The more I researched, the more I head this voice. I returned to the United States and to the university, but I couldn't sleep at night."
*Kucharsky, David. "Josh McDowell Apologizing is his Calling." (interview with Josh McDowell) Christian Herald. Feb. 1981.
*McDowell, Josh. The Evidence That Demands a Verdict. n.p. 1972.
*McDowell, Josh. More Than a Carpenter. 1976.
*McDowell, Josh. The Resurrection Factor. San Bernardino: Here's Life Publishers, 1981.
*McDowell, Josh. The Evidence That Demands a Verdict: Volume 1. San Bernardino: Here's Life Publishers, Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1992
*McDowell, Josh. The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999.
*McDowell, Josh. More Than a Carpenter. 2004
*McDowell, Josh. Evidence for Christianity. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2006.
*McDowell, Josh, and Bob Hostetler. Beyond Belief to Convictions. Tyndale House Publishers, 2002.
*McDowell, Josh. "A Skeptic's Quest: Josh McDowell's Testimony." in Geisler, Norman L. and Paul K. Hoffman, eds. Why I Am a Christian. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2001.
*McDowell, Josh (interview with). "It's No Hoax." Moody Magazine. April 1983.
*McDowell, Josh (interview with). "New Evidence." SBC Life. May 2000.
In the course of this work, an interesting pattern emerged: In every source 1999 and later, McDowell makes basically the same claim about traveling to Europe. However, in every source before 1999, no mention of Europe is made; McDowell still claims to have investigated Christianity but the claims are much less extravagant in nature. As an aside, I found nothing written by McDowell that did not give some kind of testimonial, with the exception of the 1981 book Reasons Skeptics should Consider Christianity, coauthored with a Don Stewart. The kicker is that I also found a full length biography of McDowell written in 1981 by Evangelical writer Joe Musser. In spite of being quite detailed, the book said nothing about McDowell's alleged travels to Europe, and described him as having done his research as part of a term paper and having attended a local church during the process of his conversion. I also noticed a handful of other red flags: the way the 1999 edition of McDowell's book awkwardly inserted the Eurotrip stuff into what was otherwise mostly the same exact version of his story that had appeared a few years earlier, the fact that his "leaving the university" did not keep him from graduating on time from the two-year college he was attending, and the fact that McDowell's background as described by Musser (family suffering financially because of an intrafamilial lawsuit, college funded by work and military) wouldn't have given him much in the way of resources to use traveling.
I sent an e-mail to McDowell's organization, and after a little under two months got McDowell on the phone. The first thing he did was to insist that Joe Musser had gotten his story wrong, specifically emphasizing that he had written no such term paper. Various questions on my part yielded a handful of interesting bits: he said he did not take time off from school but rather traveled to Europe in the summer, he specifically went to England, France, Germany, and Switzerland, he could not name any early sources that mentioned the Europe story, and he insisted that the matter was not important (try telling that to some of McDowell's fans...)
From there I tried to get in touch with people I knew had known McDowell and might have useful information about. One such person was Glenn Morton, author of the excellent essay "Morton's Demon," about his time as a Young Earth Creationist and explaining the creationist mindset. He's described himself as having ghostwritten the section defending creationism in McDowell's book Reasons Skeptics should Consider Christianity (in the book he gets a much vaguer mention in the "acknowledgments"). Morton said he really didn't know much about that part of McDowell's life, though he had "watched controversies swirl about his story" and also made a rather skeptical mention of McDowell's claim to have been "son of the town drunk" (for what it's worth, I haven't myself seen much reason to doubt the "town drunk" part of McDowell's story, but who knows).
I had gotten a response from Morton pretty quickly, but it took much longer to get a response from Joe Musser. My first letter got no response, as did the second, only on the third try did I provoke an annoyed response. Musser said he would take McDowell's word for it, saying "Mr. McDowell has an unquestioned character and integrity [comment: Glenn Morton seems to question it], whose ministry has been endorsed by Billy Graham and other major evangelical leaders," but it was clear he had no real information. The letter ended by telling me not to contact him again.
Those are the facts. What to make of them? The obvious conclusion is that McDowell lied about having traveled to Europe. A somewhat more complicated possibility is that the story is false but McDowell has managed to convince himself of it. As Bertrand Russell once said:
More distant memories are more doubtful, particularly if there is some strong emotional reason for remembering falsely, such, for instance, as made George IV remember being at the battle of Waterloo.On this hypothesis, McDowell is not guilty of lying, but the falsification is not entirely innocent, either: it was probably not made at random, but as the result of wanting to remember and being pressured to remember things a certain way. The possibility of being pressured is worth emphasizing, as McDowell joined Campus Crusade at a young age and I've seen signs that the organization occasionally behaves in a quite manipulative manner.
For a long time, I had great difficulty conceiving of a plausible scenario on which the story is true. However, I did eventually come up with a decent shot at doing so, and here it goes: McDowell traveled to Europe, but learned almost nothing from it, wasted a lot of time and money and at the end felt rather foolish. The feeling foolish kept him from talking about it much, but after many years he finally realized he could tell the story and most people would never realize how foolish he had been.
To explain this possibility, I need to point out one thing I've left out so far: McDowell's story as given displays an imbecilic approach to library research. I say this as one who has done extensive library research for classes, for a summer apprenticeship in the history of science department, and for personal interests. If I want to learn about a subject, I go first to the university library (mostly) and to the public library (sometimes). There's an excellent selection of introductory texts available on every subject you can imagine. Even as I get deeper in to a subject, any given book I need is going to be there at least half the time. Once I'm far enough in to really badly want a specific title, accepting no substitutes, the library has a miraculous service called Inter Library Loan, which can get even the most obscure titles most of the time. Want a book by an obscure 1950's UFO cultist who's been almost entirely forgotten today? No problem--I've done that. If I'm not satisfied by the ILL for some reason (usually it will be because I want the book to refer back to over a period of more than a month) Amazon.com will probably come through for me: even if the book's out of print, they do a very good job of working with used book sellers to get you almost anything you want.
In order for it to be necessary to travel, you generally have to be looking for the sort of book that they never let out of its climate-controlled building wing and which even professors are only allowed to look at under supervision. For example, my history of science class has spent the last week and a half on the top floor of the main UW-Madison library, looking at manuscripts of an astronomical text produced c. 1500 (and "c. 1500" refers to the manuscripts, not the original text, which was older). During the preliminaries, our guide for the exercise explained to us that scholars from other universities do come to use the collections stored in that part of the building. Obviously, that kind of work is at a much higher level than the kind you do during your first semester of self-education.
Of course, McDowell's situation would have been somewhat different. The internet was not around to support bookselling and ILL systems, but they were definitely around. I've checked a couple librarianship encyclopedias, which have indicated that ILL systems got started well before McDowell was in college. Before Amazon.com, books could be ordered directly from publishers, and if you look closely in many older books and magazines, you'll find advertisements instructing readers to do exactly that. I don't know what the state of the used book market was in McDowell's youth, but that's hardly an essential resource for library research (called "library research" for a reason). McDowell would have been disadvantaged by the fact that he was a two-year community college rather than the main university for his state, but that could have been remedied by a summer trip to a larger library within his home state, or just maybe in an adjacent state (and with a good ILL system, even that would be entirely unnecessary). None of these disadvantages would have provided the basis for taking a trip to Switzerland.
Speaking of Switzerland: can you say language barrier? French, German, and Swiss universities would have had English texts, but almost all of those would be of the sort important enough to also be widely available in the Anglophone world. The main resource of the foreign libraries would have been texts by French, German, and Swiss scholars in the original languages. Academic reading fluency in a foreign language is not easy to attain. I don't have it after seven years of Spanish classes. Immersion teaches you a language a lot faster than classes do, and I can almost-barely-not-really believe a summer of immersion could have given McDowell academic reading abilities in one foreign language. But French, German, and maybe a third (several languages are spoken in Switzerland)? Come on.
So maybe McDowell did something stupid and didn't tell anyone about it for a long time. I'm not really convinced--though college students are often naive, and McDowell doesn't come across as the sort of guy who has such an amazing intellect that he definitely would have known better, I'm not sure he could have really screwed up in such an extravagantly expensive and wasteful way. I suppose it's possible, though. As I said in the introduction, I don't really have a definite answer to these questions. Perhaps someone else will get them--we'll see.