Monday, September 26, 2011

Zombie Attacks! The Intellectual Laziness of the New Atheism.

Zombie Attacks!

The Intellectual Laziness of the New Atheism

I recently posted a review of John Loftus' new anthology, The End of Christianity, on Amazon, entitled, "Intellectually Lazy."  Thinking about it since, and interacting with others of the same school, it occurs to me that this may be the defining vice of the New Atheism.

In some ways, almost any absolute claim about "what is not," in a cosmos that includes at least one universe as vast, unexplored, and perhaps unexplorable as our own, would seem premature.  There are no pink unicorns?  Did you check the meadow behind the hop shed?  OK, have you checked every meadow on every planet in all 200 billion visible galaxies?

Recently a skeptic told me, "miracles don't happen."  How does he know that?  This is an entirely different kind of claim from, "Jesus changed water to wine," for which there may be positive evidence.  By the nature of things, one can only know that miracles have never happened, either by being God, and knowing all that has or has not occurred, or having some "inside baseball" understanding of the nature of reality.   

The main texts of the New Atheism, books by Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens, are sometimes even lazier than Loftus' books.  At least many of Loftus' authors have studied the subjects they're writing on.  Dawkins scoffs at the very idea of learning about Christian theology -- and as I and others have demonstrated, his ignorance on a variety of topics, from the history of communism to Medieval philosophy and American society is, indeed, profound. 

In some ways, Truth Behind the New Atheism was the easiest book I've written so far. I didn't have to learn any new languages, or study ancient worldviews.  Nor did I need to wait for other contributors to send chapters in, as I am presently doing with our new book. 

The Four Horses of the New Atheism were inspiring, as a Hun invasion is inspiring, or the sudden appearance of any barbarians who trample centuries of civilization underfoot.  After plucking Dawkins' The God Delusion off the shelf in Oxford, a town replete with history of which Dawkins seemed oblivious, I wrote ninety pages of response in a few days.  Of course, the actual book required rustling old volumes, refreshing memories, checking facts, even some original research.  But on most of the questions Dawkins and the other the New Atheists address, we seemed to have the home court advantage.  Responding seemed as natural as rushing to the gates of one's own castle, and pouring oil on the savages carrying the battering ram Grond down below.  ("Grond" being Mirkwook orcish for "scientism," I believe.)     

Reviews by people I respect, and whose disapproval would hurt, Christian and skeptic, were, I was happy to see, quite positive.  But attacks on the book also taught me something about the nature of the New Atheism.

A mild example is Victor Stenger's critique of my chapter on faith, in his book The New Atheism.  Dr. Stenger's critique is not mean or unpleasant, but it seems distracted.  It is as if Stenger simply skimmed the chapter and picked out a dozen or so passages to quote for his own purposes.  Stenger apparently did not feel the need to really read the book, still less think through its arguments: when preaching to the choir, quote-mining is more than enough.

A more personally-motivated response came from Hector Avalos, which I discussed in earlier blogs, here and then here.

One cannot accuse Dr. Avalos of laziness in the normal sense: he studies his targets in detail.  But opposing arguments are things to be defeated, and opponents people to discredit: it is as if he were playing a game of ping-pong, in which every point that lands wrong is a point lost.  "Must storm castle!  Must conquer Gondor!"    

An ad hoc band of amateurs also attempted, some with great fervency, to discredit The Truth Behind the New Atheism.  These folks are well-represented in reviews on one critic posted some 14 one-star reviews under various names!  (Several since deleted.)  Most of these reviews give the impression that the "reader" has also simply gone through the book and looked for things to object too, often by taking the original quote badly out of context, or "paraphrasing" it to death.  Stronger critiques would have been more interesting.   


A few days ago, criticisms of my last book also appeared on P. Z. Myers' popular Pharyngula web site.  This was my fault -- I stuck my nose into the hornets' nest.  But again, most of the hornets seemed surprisingly indigent.   

PZ had compared the New Atheists favorably to their allegedly uncool, dim-witted critics:

"(Atheism) is not cool at all. It’s the domain of nerds and geeks and sciencey weirdos with beards and snarky women who are way smarter than the guys chasing them. It’s not the coolness of atheism. It’s the lameness of religion . . .

"Look at me. I’m moderately popular, and I’m a schlubby college professor at a small college. I’ve got a beard and I wear nerdy ties. I’m nobody. But stand me next to a priest, or a creationist, and the contrast makes me look white-hot and super-cool, even though I’m not. It’s been my cunning trick for years.

"So the problem for Williams isn’t that atheism is cool at all — it’s that our cool/lame quotient rockets to stratospheric heights whenever we’re in opposition to old geezy wankers who are chanting antique gobbledygook about magic rabbis and dead people. And those apologists trying break into our schtick? All they are doing is making us look cooler."

I responded in a tone to match:

"I think the true secret of your success is you’re FUNNIER than the opposition . . . Yeah, Lennox, Hart, and McGrath are real dim bulbs, so slow they can barely catch a cold.

"Dan Brown was mildly good-looking, but that doesn’t explain the popularity of his schtick, either.  The real difference between The God Delusion and The Truth Behind the New Atheism, is that I know what I’m talking about. When talking about religion, Dawkins is Dan Brown with a British accent.

"I know you’re really into this “cult of smart” thing . . . but what better explains your success, and that of Dawkins, is that you are good writers, and amuse people — sometimes, even when you mean to. That, and the fact that lies still make it half-way around the world, while the truth is putting its shoes on — we’ll win in the long run."

Most of the hundred or so responses were obscene and / or vacuous.  PZ called me a "moron," and many of his mob followed that trail to the castle wall.  Others accused me of "lying," even madness.  Obscenities and empty scoffing were about equally in evidence. 

These attacks are zombie-like becasue they do not attempt to find my real vulnerabilities. "Christians are stupid" is one of PZ's favorite conceits, and "liars for Jesus" is a default mode for many in the skeptical memosphere.  Of course scoffing and obscene remarks are even more predictable and lemming-like behavior: nor were many of the insults even a little bit witty. 

The movie only gets interesting when the zombies evolve beyond such predictable behavior -- and so, perhaps, will this blog. 

After the initial, failed assault, movie zombies tend to evolve.  Sure enough, several skeptics also roused themselves from dogmatic slumber, googled The Truth Behind the New Atheism, and were soon attempting to deconstruct my immodest claim that "I know what I'm talking about." 

I explained that I was referring to subjects other than science, where I admit Dawkins has the advantage.  But the attacks mostly focused there, anyway, no doubt in part because Pharyngula is a science web site, and in larger part because PZ hates anything that he thinks smacks of "creationism" with a passion, as do other members of his ashram.      

So that's the context.  Here are the critiques, and why, while a little research is probably better than no research, these responses remain intellectually lazy.  I'll then add a few concluding thoughts (still in the way of brain-storming, not yet fixed conclusions) about intellectual laziness and the New Atheism. 

The Critiques and What's Wrong with them

#1  Glen Davidson: "See especially chapter 4, where idiot David simply assumes that the liars of the DI are in fact good faith critics of evolution, rather than the frauds and charlatans that they have always proven to be."

I usually ignore Glen, who tends to talk like this.  But he did the initial googling in this case (like the first Borg to partially adapt), so let's begin with him. 

Davidson's claims are baldly false.  In fact, I cite people on both sides of the argument, without ever "simply assuming" ID proponents are right.  (Whether or not they argue in "good faith" is irrelevant to any scientific issue, and beyond Davidson's knowledge.)  I encourage readers to read BOTH sides, and make up their own minds:  "A better way to decide . . . is to read both sides of the debate.  (Kenneth) Miller and (Michael) Behe have dueling articles online as well as in the book Debating Design . . . " (75)

Glen goes on: 

"In that chapter, aside from attacking evolution over the matter of abiogenesis–when the two are only hazily connected . . . "

Nowhere in the book do I "attack" evolution.  In fact, in chapter three, I argue for common descent -- which is what "evolution" is commonly interpreted to mean.  Nor do I claim that difficulties with the origin of life in any way discredit, say, Natural Selection. 

So Glen's claims are simply wrong.  Skimming a few paragraphs from The Truth Behind the New Atheism, he was too lazy to read carefully and represent my arguments accurately, still less consider whether they might contain anything worth hearing. 

#2  Anteprepo (quoting TBNA): "Chapter 3, page 55: 'All humanity came from one man and one woman,' we read….'Genetics has settled the matter in favor of Moses.'

Kel: "I really hope you’ve taken David Marshall out of context on this, because if you haven’t…. woah!"

Nigel: "It’s not out of context . . . "

What does "woah" mean here?  Apparently Kel thinks I said something not only false, but ludicrous, among the words cited. 

The apparent assumption is that I mean genetics has proven that humanity passed through a bottleneck of exactly one man and one woman some time in remote antiquity.  Probably the name of that man was "Adam," and the woman, "Eve." 

But is that what I meant?  Not at all.  Read the whole paragraph, and it is clear that its clear meaning is that, contrary to many alternative theories, genetics shows Moses right in maintaining the genetic unity of the human race:

"The world has often quarreled with Genesis, and gotten the worst of it . . . "

"'All humanity came from one man and one woman,' we read.  Greek philosophers, Gnostics, Hindus, the Nation of Islam, and some Social Darwinists said no, people are a mixture of free and slave, of spiritual, psychic, and physical, different parts in the body of Brahma, or separately evolved species.  Genetics has settled the matter in favor of Moses.  Francis Collins . . . notes . . . all races on earth share 99.9% of their DNA .  . . We are, he concludes, 'truly part of one family.'"

Anteprepo has not casually misquoted me.  And Nigel is not just a little wrong.  Anteprepo deliberatedly chopped complete sentences out of the original, changing its meaning, to produce the "woah" effect on gullible skeptics.   

Such rearranging may look industrious, but like all cheating, is actually lazy.  My real argument -- that Genesis got a lot right, not that Adam and Eve can be proven genetically -- is bypassed, and serious argument avoided, by the misunderstanding. 

But to give him credit, at least Kel did ask.  Perhaps he, at least, is not yet an assimilated member of the collective. 

#3 Nigel is also one of three or four posters in the thread who do more than simply converge on the Christian fortress with bandaged forearms outstretched.  Early in the discussion, I challenged PZ to a debate.  Nigel offered (with good cheer) to take his place. 

In a sense, this blog is a (slightly convoluted) response to that offer, and his arguments.     

Nigel went on to offer the following valiant attempt to justify an obvious bit of hypocrisy on the part of Richard Dawkins:

"David Marshall and folks like him are stuck trying to reconcile their belief with their knowledge. Reading the bits of his book available linked above, he does seem to be an intelligent person. He’s just an intelligent person stuck in the unenviable position of reconciling fact and fiction.

"Take, for example, his analysis of Dawkins on intelligent design (beginning on page 63). He notes that Dawkins says in one breath, “An example of irreducible complexity would indeed be a blow to Darwin’s theories,” followed by, “A search for an irreducibly-complex organ would be unscientific.” From this, David Marshall concludes that Dawkins admits irreducible complexity is a potential threat, but then claims that Dawkins disallows irreducible complexity as unscientific."

"This is, of course, a strange interpretation. What Dawkins is saying is that, should we run across a demonstrable example of a liver evolving from nothing, evolution would be thrown into disarray. However, a search for a liver evolving from nothing is an unscientific way to approach this potential shortcoming of evolution. Which it is. And that’s essentially what Behe and his ilk attempt. This is no different than admitting finding a rabbit fossil in the cambrian would be a blow to evolution (an example David Marshall uses), vs actually searching for that rabbit fossil in the cambrian. The former is scientific; the later is ideology."

This is clever, but turns the adjective "strange" on its head, and stretches logic to its breaking point. 

Science is not just the process of "running across" evidence: it is the process of actively looking for evidence to confirm or disconfirm theories.  Darwin obviously saw nothing "unscientific" about searching for organs whose complexity might refute his theory.  Dawkins recognizes this logic from the Master, but then forgets it two paragraphs later, to sink his teeth more deeply into ID flesh. 

Did Michael Behe first notice organs that seemed anamalous within the NDE paradigm?  Or did he first doubt the paradigm, and then look for the organs?  Does it matter?  Is one scientific, and the other not? 

The assumption here seems to be that searching for evidence that Darwin himself challenged his opponents to find, would somehow be "unscientific."  It is hard to see why, and the claim contradicts the plain meaning of Darwin's words. 

The laziness here (of a much lesser degree) seems to involve the attempt to discredit ID as "unscientific" in some definitional way, so the evidence can be dismissed in advance. 

"This is a subtle distinction, one that David Marshall exploits (out of ignorance rather than malevolence, I think) for his own end — the rationalization of his beliefs. He would allow cherry-picking of data (like Behe does) rather than a rigorous application of the scientific method: follow the evidence, wherever it may lead, and whatever sacred cows it might tip. (SEE today’s faster-than-light particles for a specific example of real science in action.)"

It is unclear why the possibility of finding evidence that disconfirms Einstein, shows that a "real scientist" should not look for evidence that disconfirms Darwin.  One would think this shows just the opposite.  And Darwin, as a great scientist, managed to write calmly about such attempts.  Behe clearly thinks he is following the evidence. 

The Lazy A

Obviously, atheists are a diverse crew.  If intellectual laziness defines them as a whole (I'm still thinking this through, myself), it does so (as this discussions shows) in a variety of ways:

* If atheism is the claim that there is no God, there may be an element of intellectual laziness at its core.  The beginning of wisdom, along with the fear of God, is to know the limits of our knowledge.  Technically, even Richard Dawkins admits he cannot positively rule God out.  But in practice, an often remarkable arrogance often tends to creep in, and the turtle in the well claims to know all of heaven.   

* One can google almost anything, nowadays, which furnishes the illusion of knowing something about it.  This can be dangerous

* Skeptics are "bright," to use Daniel Dennett's term.  Often even the dimmest atheist seems to accept that theoretical advantage as his birthright.  This seems to make it hard for many atheists with the goo-goo-googling fingers to really listen and take seriously opposing arguments: having taken the stance that "religious" people are by definition cretinous fools, they think they can win arguments like Neil beats Mr. Smith, standing in place and lazily deflecting his blows. 

* It's always easier to dismiss an opponent as a liar, a fool, or lunatic, scoff, swear, and imagine his slow, painful death, than to do real research, think matters through honestly, and debate fairly. 

Is intellectual laziness the hallmark of the New Atheism?  It's a question worth keeping in mind, anyway.   

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Harrison Ford as a Christ figure? 

Human beings are often described as pattern-recognizing creatures.  We find faces in the clouds, Mother Mary in a peanut butter sandwich, lottery numbers in the New York Times crossword puzzle, a picture of Jesus in a vanilla wafer.  
Get thee behind me?

A well-known critic of Christianity recently made the absurd claim that "all" Christian apologists "lack the imagination of a child."  Right.  Think what C. S. Lewis, the most famous apologist of the 20th Century, could have written with a little imagination!  Or J. R. R. Tolkien, the "apologist" who brought him to faith.  Or G. K. Chesterton, the greatest Catholic apologist of the 20th Century -- why couldn't Lepanto or Ballad of the White Horse show just a little originality and romantic verve?  Let's not even talk about Blaise Pascal, or Augustine who invented and mastered the psychological autobiography with the same strokes of the pen . . .

A more plausible accusation against cultural apologists may be that we have too much imagination. 

Here, for example, a fellow named Daniel Mumby lists "50 Films that you wouldn't think are Christian, but actually are."

Some of these alleged parallels seem far-fetched, to put mildly.  As one person puts it, half the "Christian" films, are films a Christian shouldn't be watching.  Eyes Wide Shut?  Clockwork Orange?  And I think Mumby badly overrates Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, in which Johnny Depp channels Michael Jackson.  Skeptics on PZ Myers's page take this list as an example of the stifling Christian tendency to ruin good pagan fun by reading our redemption story into it ("I guess everything looks Christian to a Christian.")  Dune?  Isn't that full of Islamic motifs? 

And how about Bladerunner?  This Harrison Ford movie might be what we call “pre-evangelism:” repent, or LA will get the weather of Forks, Washington, you’ll have to order your lunch from holograms that speak garbled Japanese, and psychopathic robots will find novel ways of disembowling you after love-making.  (Or is that An Inconvenient Truth?)

And where on this list (I growl) is that great Christian parable, Groundhog Day?

All this points to an intellectual temptation to which fulfillment thinkers, like myself, are apt to succomb.  One can find hints and foreshadowings of anything, anywhere, if one looks hard enough. 
I find them in China, and wrote a book on "how Jesus fulfills the Chinese culture."  In some ways, it's still my favorite book, and it's probably sold the most copies, too. 

Are we guilty of too much imagination?  Is that where Christianity came from?  Did Jesus' first followers read too much into the Old Testament, and extract a long series of "prophecies" that were originally meant to be nothing of the sort? 

Yet there ARE such things as hints.  Actions can have symbolic meaning.  Promises can be made and kept. 

And alongside the ability to find patterns, humans also have a corresponding talent, sometimes, of overlooking them.  It is possible to be a hypochondriac, and it is also possible to ignore symptoms until one is half dead.  Scrooge didn't want to see Marlowe on his door knob.  Some people are too suspicious, and others too gullible.

In some ways, Christian theology is the search for a pattern that makes sense of human, and even cosmic, history. 

Atheists do the same thing -- they call it "evolution." 

We may agree that the slow unfolding of natural events is part of the creation pattern.  But we also recognize a deeper pattern of entering and transforming: "the divine Logos, the Word made flesh." 

One can see Harrison Ford as the product of 3.8 billion years of evolution, along with his brother the cobra hissing at him in Raiders of the Lost Ark

One can see him as an image of God, fallen, but who sometimes plays roles that remind us of our need for a Savior, for a divine, Herculean hero who risks his neck on behalf of the rest of us.  (And isn't the ark a symbol of God's presence?) 

It's easy to get carried away!  I don't see faces on vanilla wafers, and don't want to, anymore than Scrooge wanted to see Marlowe on his door knob.  But I think history does have meaning, and I think Isaiah did prophesy the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  (And so, perhaps, did Lao Zi.)  Fulfillment operates on different levels, with overt prophecies, implicit promises, accidental parallels, and even patterns of nature, like the rebirth of corn in the spring, that find new meaning not just in the long, slow story of creation, but in the story of Jesus, who changes the meaning of history.   

I was inclined at first to laugh, too, at some of the "parallels" in these movies -- kick back and enjoy them, or in some cases avoid them.  But "all truth is God's truth," and in the end, there really is no place to hide from His presence -- not even at the movies.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Where the world is young: Nugget Falls, Alaska

John is a senior in high school now, but he and James will never forget our visit to this spot -- one of the most magical places in the world.   

In the background is Mendenhall Glacier.  Like most of the two dozen or so glaciers that pour down from the Juneau Ice Cap (the main exception has been Taku Glacier), Mendenhall has been retreating for a long time.  When I was a boy, living a mile and a half to the west, the glacier partly obscured the waterfall.  You can still see signs posted every couple hundred yards, warning visitors to get no closer.  When we lived in Juneau, a woman was, in fact, crushed to death by falling ice, but that was in winter, I think, when Mendenhall Lake freezes over a couple feet.  You can't easily get that close in the summer.

John has been here twice.  The first time, he stood by the lake across from the big glacier and asked, "Is this the North Pole?"

The cliffs over which the water falls, are in places streaked with quartz.  Look closer at the rocks that the glacier has left in its retreat, and you can still find garnets in the scheist, and other beautiful stones. 

Follow the East Glacier Trail around the falls into a valley towards the backside of Thunder Mountain.  I never made it as far as I wanted -- some day I'll return. 

Go into the visitor's center, point the scope onto Boulder Mountain behind Nugget Creek, and sometimes you can find mountain goats, little white specks thousands of feet above. 

A magnificent stuffed timber wolf now also stands in the center -- hit by a car, they told me. 

There are plenty of live animals around, too.  As we walked up the ramp to the Visitor's Center, a small but adventurous bear was coming down.  He went over the rail, and clambered down the rocks to avoid us: the boys were deeply disappointed.  Beavers created a pond out of another little creek that flows into the river just beyond the parking lot.  Bright red sockeye salmon fight their way up the creek every fall, attracting bears.  Even the plants in Mendenhall Valley enchant: the freshly-washed cottonwoods, the deep mosses, the pink flowers establishing themselves in white sand when the glacier has past.  Of all the places in the greater Juneau area, hundreds of square miles of mountain and fjords, the smell here seems freshest, as if the world had been created this morning.  And who can deny it -- with mists rising off the mountains, water pouring down from deep mossy hills, many-colored mushrooms popping out of the green?  Here indeed, where the glacier passes, the world comes to life anew. 

Mom and Laurel on return to East Glacier trail:
Mendenhall glacier and lake,
Mt. McGinnis and Stroller White -- I still remember
the names of the mountains,  and the
lakes we foolishly slid across in 8th grade, when the
ice was still only an inch and a half thick. 
Tourists off big ships that tower over downtown Juneau climb out of big buses half a mile from this spot, but never get here.  They don't climb the rocks and bath unclothed in the little ponds up in the glacier-scoured hills, as we did when we were boys.  They don't chase the salmon.  They don't ski across the lake, because they don't come in winter.  They should do these things: here where the world is still young.

Friday, September 09, 2011

The End of Christianity?

Robert Price: "Explaining the Resurrection Without Recourse to Miracle" (Part IV)

I have never written for publication on the resurrection of Jesus, though I follow the debate with partisan interest. Gary Habermas tells me he is presently preparing a long, scholarly work on the subject.

I will not attempt anything so ambitious here, or even pretend to be enough of an expert to respond fully to Robert Price's argument in this chapter. Dr. Price and I have debated in the past, and I found him congenial. But some of the key assumptions in this chapter seem really far-fetched, and that is what I will focus on.

My own positive argument for the Resurrection begins with my argument for the Gospels, which I give in that admittedly eccentric book, Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus, and Grandma Marshall Could. In the anthology we're putting together now, I am trying to boil some of the best of that down to a single chapter.

In the chapter under discussion here, Dr. Price compares the Gospels to the Wizard of Oz.  I regard this as pure poppycock.  I offer a number of reasons in Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus why the Gospels are highly credible historical texts.  It is hard to believe the early disciples got many of the sayings of Jesus right, as Price's Jesus Seminar collegues rightly argue they did, yet were totally mistaken about what happened after he died.  Did Plato spirit Socrates away from his jail cell to Crete?  Did Joseph Smith retire to San Diego?  Disciples usually notice what happens to their master at the end of his life.

Dr. Price disagrees. He finds the Gospels so incredible, we can't even be sure Jesus ever lived at all, let alone came back to life.

Perhaps if we discuss early Christianity again, we can take up some of the issues that stand between us. Here, I'd merely like to question some of the assumptions Dr. Price brings to the table, so as to show why I did not find his argument persuasive.

(a) Do William Lane Craig "and his colleagues" simply "take for granted" that the Gospel stories are accurate?

"Keep in mind, though, that this is purely an exercise in analyzing the particular approach taken by William Lane Craig and his colleagues, not the approach taken by New Testament critics, who do not take for granted the accuracy of the Gospel stories. Craig and others prey on the naivite of their audiences . . . " (219)

This is not a fair description of the approach either Craig or "his colleagues" take to teh resurrection.

In a footnote here, Price cites as examples of Craig's colleagues, R. T. France, David Wenham, Michael Wilkins, J. P. Moreland, Gary Habermas, Michael Licona, Greg Boyd, and Paul Eddy.

In their arguments for the resurrection, do these men simply "take for granted" that the Gospels are accurate, unlike "New Testament critics?" (And who is that?) In fact, Habermas is best known for surveying thousands of works written in three European languages on the resurrection, and building his case for the Resurrection upon facts that a solid majority of scholars agree upon. This was the approach he took for his dissertation, and has built on in decades of work since. It is ludicrous to accuse Habermas of taking the Gospels for granted, and implying that his approach is somehow distinct from that of "NT critics" (unless he means by this term, "nihilistic historians") for his doing so.

Habermas and Licona justify their use of sources, in response to the objection, "The Resurrection Accounts are Biased," on page 124-8 of The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, among I think other places.

Craig follows the same methodology, also appealing to scholarly consensus on basic facts:

"Let me share with you, then, four facts which are established by the consensus of scholarship today. These provide adequate inductive grounds for inferring Jesus' resurrection." (Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up?, 24)

Nor, having disposed of the false charge that Craig & Co are "naive" about scholarship, should one accuse these scholars, on the other hand, of simply making appeals to authority. The facts, Habermas emphasized in a piece he recently sent me, stand on their own: that most scholars recognize those facts, helps to show that we're on the right track.

(b) Can we trust any ancient history?

At one juncture, Dr. Price quotes himself in a way that makes him sound like an historical nihilist himself, willing to believe almost nothing in his own field:

"This is why, if apologists like William Lane Craig can get an opponent as far as admitting that Joseph of Arimathea probably did have Jesus interred in his own tomb, and if the women did probably visit the tomb, and that the tomb was probably found to be empty, he can then press on to the conclusion that, Bingo! Jesus must have risen from the dead! What they somehow do not see is that to argue thus is like arguing that the Emerald City of Oz must actually exist since, otherwise, where would the Yellow Brick Road lead? . . . We simply have no reason to assume that anything an ancient narrative tells us is true." (219)

Matthew, Mark, Lucy,
and John?
The emphasis here is Price's own; I would have put it on the astounding final sentence instead! In fact, let's look at that astounding sentence again:

"We simply have no reason to assume that anything an ancient narrative tells us is true."

Is Price really comparing 1st Century Palestine, as depicted in the Gospels, to the land of Oz? One might suppose he is merely engaging in crude trash-talking -- an obscene cartoon on page also refers to Oz. But "we have no reason to assume that anything an ancient narrative tells us is true" sounds serious.

What does this mean? Does Price mean that, rather than simply assume some ancient document is accurate, we should double-check it with other sources, test its internal consistency, and use the tools of scholarly reconstruction to figure out what in it is accurate and what, uncertain? But that's what NT scholarship does all day long -- that's what his own Jesus Seminar does, it's what NT Wright does. And while Craig and Habermas may personally affirm inerrant theologies of Scripture, in their historical arguments, neither do they "assume" the truth of the Gospels, but argue for that truth in light of centuries of scholarship.

In context, it seems what Price really means here, is that we have no reason to BELIEVE what the Gospels, or other ancient narratives, say.

If so, we have to kiss off ancient history. Sorry, Thucydides, Caesar, Si Maqian, Tacitus. So long, ancient historians, biographers, writers of diaries and military chronicles and shopping lists and love notes. You're all in the same boat, and Dr. Price's skepticism seems to have sent it to the bottom.

But why stop at ancient history? Why not throw out Medieval history as well? And why privilege modern historians, biographers and journalists, tappers on the Internet, and the creators of scientific journal articles?

And how do we know John Loftus didn't write this chapter? Maybe the printer, a fundamentalist who wanted to discredit Price, inserted the sleezy cartoon! If we've established the principle that no one can be trusted, where does it stop?

You know where Price's skepticism is likely to end. Price will take this principle just far enough to exclude what he wishes to exclude. Then he'll promptly forget it, as every other historical nihilist I've encountered seems to, when he's making some other argument that equally depends on human testimony.

Doubt is rational. It is possible that this world is an illusion, and we are all stuck in a computer simulation, or a brain in vat. Such scenarios are not unique to modern philosophy: some brands of Asian mysticism explored the outer reaches of skepticsm millennia ago. But reasoned faith is that which allows civilization and learning. Price's apparent readiness to simply dismiss all ancient history reminds us that there are no rational principles by which we can excise the Gospels without taking more of civilization than we would like to see go, with them.

(c) Are the Gospel narratives like the stories of Romulus and Hercules?

"But modern New Testament scholars no longer take for granted that the Easter narratives are history at all. Why should they be? They are so much like similiar apothesis narratives of Hercules, Romulus, Apollonius, Empedocles, and others that the burden of proof is on anyone who would insist that, in the single case of Jesus, 'myth became fact.'"

Here I am tempted to simply quote C. S. Lewis, "After a man has said that, why must one attend to anything he says about any book in the world?" and close shop.

Here, perhaps, it is Dr. Price who is depending on the naivity of his reader, or on the fact that most do not know these stories.

One suspects Price may have cited Empedocles more for his obscurity than for any real relevance. Diogenes Laertius says, according to one report, Empedocles died in a chariot accident at age 77. Some say he drowned, some, he died at 60 or 109. A "jesting epigram" says he threw himself into Mount Etna:

"You too, Empedocles, essayed to purge
Your body in the rapid flames, and drank
The liquid fire from the restless crater;
I say not that you threw yourself at once
Into the stream of Aetna's fiery flood.
But seeking to conceal yourself you fell,
And so you met with unintended death."

Or else:

Lost ending to the
Gospel of Mark?
"'Tis said the wise Empedocles did fall
Out of his chariot, and so broke his thigh:
But if he leapt into the flames of Aetna,
How could his tomb be shown in Megara?"

One can only admire Dr. Price's vivid imagination, in finding here some sort of parallel to the resurrection stories.

Hercules is the story of a god-man who lived, no one knows when. He was sent out to fight man-eating birds with metal feathers, steal carnivorous mares, slay a nine-headed hydra, and impregnated fifty sisters in one busy night (all with boys!). Another of his exploits was to hold up the heavens so Atlas could go pick some apples for him.

In Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus, after analyzing the traits that define the Gospels, I set the story of Hercules side-by-side, and compared both sets of stories systematically.

One would be hard-pressed to point to any story less like the Gospels than that of Hercules. Of 41 non-theological characteristics, I found that Hercules shared only two with the Gospels in a significant way, and one more in a minor way. I found that it shared NO characteristic having to do with setting, NO styllistic or literary qualities, except that it is also a drama, NO trait having to do with character development, NO characteristic relevant to morality, except that vague moral notions (or just fate) may be imbedded in this, as in other myths, and that Hercules is expected to suffer to do his duty, and NOT A SINGLE social quality.

With all due respect, to compare the story of Hercules and the Gospels shows breathtaking obtuseness.

True, the Gospels do share a few characteristics typical of myth, and the overcoming of death is one of them.

What do these limited parallels mean? C. S. Lewis described the Gospel as "true myth;" in J. R. R. Tolkien's great essay, On Fairy-Stories, he tells how, the Gospels, "myth" has entered the "primary world."

That is the pattern I found by analyzing the Gospels and comparing them to other ancient writings. Some of the theological traits in the Gospels can indeed be compared to what you find in myth. But in dozens of other ways, these texts reveal a stark realism and historical credibility that no myth can match. The Gospels are loaded with qualities that only the most realistic narratives display -- and more than that.

No myth I examined, certainly not that of Hercules, is at all like the Gospels in those respects.

How did Hercules escape death? He was accidentally poisoned by a lover, ran into the woods, and constructed a pyre for himself, which someone lit. Just then a cloud descended, carrying Zeus, who lifted Hercules to the top of Olympus. He thus obtained immortality, and married the goddess Hebe.

The story of Romulus is told, respectively, by Plutarch and Livy, 800 or 700 years after the alleged facts. Romulus disappears in a storm or whirlwind, during or shortly after offering public sacrifice at or near the Quirinal Hill:

"And Proculus, a man of note, took oath that he saw Romulus caught up into heaven in his arms and vestments, and heard him, as he ascended, cry out that they should hereafter style him by the name of Quirinus."

Livy explained that the Senate actually offed him:

"Then a few voices began to proclaim Romulus's divinity; the cry was taken up, and at last every man present hailed him as a god and son of a god, and prayed to him to be forever gracious and to protect his children. However, even on this great occasion there were, I believe, a few dissenters who secretly maintained that the king had been torn to pieces by the senators . . . Proculus, aware of the prevalent temper, conceived the shrewd idea of addressing the Assembly. 'Romulus', he declared, 'the father of our city descended from heaven at dawn this morning and appeared to me . . . Go, he said, and tell the Romans that by heaven's will my Rome shall be capital of the world . . . Having spoken these words, he was taken up again into the sky."

Both are stories, and both share a few theological motifs with the Gospels -- the hint of violence, life (of some sort) after death, going up to heaven. (A pattern the great anthropologist Rene Girard shows the Gospels echo, but radically subvert and transform at the same time.)

I found that the Jesus Seminar recognizes a few of the historically-convincing traits found in the Gospels, while overlooking others. As skeptical as they are, as hostile to orthodox Christianity as they are, Funk, Borg, Crossan & Co are nevertheless forced by the facts to affirm a strong slice of historicity to Gospel story. They read him as a kind of social revolutionary.

At the same time, other skeptics, like Morton Smith, recognizes other sets of facts that force them to admit another aspect of the Gospel story -- Jesus as "magician."

Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, liberals, secular humanists, and communists also recognize other aspects of Jesus that are real, and tend to suppress the rest. We Christian are often guilty of doing the same.

The fact that well-read skeptics like Robert Price notice a few pale points of similarity, and leap to the conclusion that the Gospels ARE myth, missing these other remarkable characteristics, shows two things: (1) Myth does become reality, in the Gospels, but (2) unwillingness to accept that reality produces cognitive dissonance, creating the famous confusion of New Testament scholarship, which Crossan talks about.

C. S. Lewis described this, already, some 60 years ago. He wrote of the "restless fertility of bewilderment" with which skeptics wrote about the Gospels, even in his day.

G. Gresham Machen predicted, even earlier, that this cognitive dissonance would lead more and more skeptical scholars to accept what is today called the "Christ myth" hypothesis. His prediction may have been too dire -- facts are facts, and continue to force even most radical scholars to admit a great deal of historicity to the Gospels. But it is curious to observe the debate between those who recognize different parts of the elephant.

(4) Did Jesus swoon? Dr. Price then discusses several alternative theories about what "really" happened to Jesus, and explains why he finds them plausible. Most of this is like finding pictures of the Virgin Mary in a cookie. Why was Pontius Pilate surprised that Jesus expired so quickly? Aha! A clue! The Gospel writer is hinting that Jesus really didn't die at all -- never mind the details about blood and water gushing from his side as the sword went in. Details, shmetails.

Price does have an audience, so apparently some find this sort of thing interesting.

It does not interest me, though. It is a superficially clever game anyone can play with any set of historical evidence, to prove almost anything -- this is how most crack-pot theories get off the ground. Price ought to worry when he finds himself making common cause with a sect of heretical Muslims who think Jesus was taken down from the cross and lived out his final days in India.

(5) Much like Apollonius?

Dr. Price also compares the story of the Resurrection in the Gospels to the account of how Apollonius of Tyana appeared to his disciples after he had supposedly expired.

One wild and crazy peripatetic
He really ought to break this habit. In our debate, when Price brought up Apollonius in a similiar manner, I reminded him that the "biography" of Apollonius was written centuries after the life of Christ, when Gospels were already in circulation. Furthermore, the woman who sponsored the book's authorship was known to be anti-Christian -- the author, Philostratus, had motive as well as opportunity to "borrow" from the Gospels.

Not that I'm sure he did. As it happens, Apollonius of Tyana was also among the books I compared to the Gospels. Though it is placed in the category of "bioi" or biography by some scholars, rather than myth, I found that it shared very few of the characteristics that define the Gospels, and support their historicity. I compared it instead to a Saturday Night Live skit, which I think it much resembles -- the lead role could be played well by Steve Martin, in a suitably pompous voice.

Nor do I think the vague and late account of Apollonius' apotheosis has much in it worth commenting on.

As an element in many attempts to explain away the resurrection, mention of Apollonius of Tyana shows desperation. If they could find better parallels, they would. Apparently there are no serious parallels not only to the Gospels as a whole, or even to the ressurection accounts. Something new has entered the primary world -- the Word Made Flesh, dwelling among us.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

The End of Christianity? 

Richard Carrier: "Christianity's Success was not Incredible" (Part III)

Richard Carrier contributes three chapters to The End of Christianity.  Only one of those chapters is on a subject that he (or I) is qualified to say much about, though.  The other two are on the origin of life, and anthropic principles.  Might as well watch celebrity golf, as watch two historical philosophers, or philosophical historians, or whatever the heck we are, argue about nucleotides and black holes.  So I'll concentrate here on the chapter in which Carrier is supposed to know what he's talking about: ancient history. 

It's hard at first to figure out who Carrier is arguing with in this chapter, though.  (a) He begins by vaguely citing a cloud of Christian opponents who allegedly make the following argument:

"It's often claimed that Christianity could never have begun or succeeded unless the people of its first three centuries had overwhelming evidence that it was true."

He never gets around to quoting or naming anyone who actually says that, though.  Presumably the reader is supposed to know tons of people who do, but I don't know any.  I have heard it said that Jesus' direct followers would not have knowingly died for a lie.  But they only lived (at best) until about 100 AD, not 330 AD, which is when "three centuries" would take us to. 

Fortunately, Carrier also explains his own positive claim in the same paragraph, which he tries to support later:

"But when we look at the actual facts of that time and place, we find Christianity's conception and growth were not remarkable at all.  In fact, what happened is quite the contrary of what we should expect if it really did have the backing of a benevolent miracle-working God.  This evidence thus actually disconfirms Christianity." (53)

This paragraph promises two arguments: (b) a series of historical claims ("actual facts of that time and place"), that support (c) a theological claim ("what we should expect if it really did have the backing of a benevolent miracle-working God"). 

Since we don't know who he's debating (a) with, then, I'll try to deal with Carrier's negative argument fairly quickly.  I'll then (b) question some of Carrier's key (and less key) historical assumptions.  Finally, (c) I'll show why his theological argument against Christianity, which is the heart of the matter, does not work. 

A. "Wholly Unremarkable Growth?"

As Carrier I am sure realizes, his argument that the growth of Christianity mirrored that of other religions, like Mormonism, was popularized by the eminent sociologist of religion, Rodney Stark, in The Rise of Christianity (1996).  Stark argued that a 40% growth rate per decade, close to the Mormon rate of growth, was sufficient to make more than 10% of the population of the Roman Empire Christian by the year 300.  We do not need to posit miracles to explain that growth, he argued.   

Stark evidently didn't interpret this as much of an argument against Christianity, though, since he soon converted himself.  In my interview of Dr. Stark, which can be found at, he reaffirmed his old argument, but noted that it did not imply that miracles didn't happen.   

Carrier, however, leaps to bolder conclusions:

"Since that rate was natural, we should expect its cause was natural, which alone closes the book on Christianity having any supernatural evidence or guidance." 

That's quite a leap. 

First, on a minor point, the analogy Stark offered in 1996 is rather imperfect.  Mormonism has grown under conditions of religious freedom, during an era of quick travel, instant communication, and far better health for infants and mothers, making use of aggressive, highly systematic and quasi-militaristic missions campaigns.  None of these factors were true of Christianity during the Roman Empire.  All Christian males were not, like the Mormons, required to "go on a mission" for two years.  Mormons have seldom been liable to crucifixion or being fed to lions. 

Second, the phrase "this alone closes the door on" is one of many phrases that gives the impression Carrier is preaching to the choir, here. On the same page, Carrier insinuates that Christians in Rome were a "lunatic fringe." A few pages later, he describes Jesus as "a stupid, working-class hick." Later he describes witnesses to the Resurrection as "a few fanatics and a church community demonstrably full of regular hallucinators and fabricators."

These rather adolescent applause lines no doubt work, for a friendly audience. Reading the chapter as a whole, I sometimes get the feeling Dr. Carrier has been preaching to his choir too long, and might improve the quality of his argument by interacting with a more mature audience.

Third, in any case, Carrier's leap does not carry him over the canyon.  Is it true that if Christianity grew at a rate for which natural parallels can be found, miracles must be excluded from the history of its spread?  Carrier seems to be assuming that the only reason to believe those miracles is the raw increase in numbers.  But of course that is not true: I believe in them, because people I trust, like St. Luke and St. Augustine, tell about them happening to people they knew.  Direct evidence trumps mere sociological generalizations.   

But suppose Carrier is saying raw numbers ARE the issue, and the sociology should come first.  Does that mean, if the increase exceeds 40% a decade, Carrier himself will admit to miracles? 

I have met many people in China who claim to have seen God work in miraculous or remarkable ways.  In some cases, the growth rate of Christianity has far exceeded that 40% per decade.  In Anhui Province, for example (which has far more people than the Roman Empire did), the number of Christians seemed to grow, for several decades, at some 400% per decade. 

Does Carrier, then, concede that miracles occurred in Anhui?  If not, then perhaps it is time to dismiss this line of a priori reasoning entirely, and decide historical questions by looking at historical evidence.  The card he plays here, trumps his own hand. 

There is also a theological question: what growth rate Christianity actually predicts.  Carrier has not really thought this issue through, as we will see in section C.

B. Historical Problems

Richard Carrier's arguments often seem to sound convincing to smart people in other fields.  The biologist and radical skeptic P. Z. Myers has, as I recall, described Carrier as one of his favorite historians.  A young philosopher I have much respect cites him regularly.

My goal in this section, then, will not be so much to critique Carrier's historical argument (this is not necessary, since as I will show, his theological premises are completely mistaken).  My intent here is rather to show why I think even his historical claims should be accepted with great caution and scrutiny. 

I'll give four examples of sloppy historical arguments in this chapter, the first three of which are important to Carrier's argument. 

(1) When did Christians take over the Roman Empire?  On page 54, Carrier notes:

"Even after nearly three centuries of that entirely ordinary growth, only when Christianity acquired absolute despotic power (first in the hands of the Emperor Constantine . . . "

Later on the SAME PAGE he says:

"All of this came over a generation before Constantine, the first Christian emperor, seized power by force.  Even after that, it took a century for Christians to fully take over . . . "

This is perplexing.  How could Christianity have had "absolute despotic power" under Constantine, yet not "fully take over" for another century? 

The truth is, Constantine probably was not all that Christian, certainly not when he attained power.  And what he instituted was not "absolute despotic power" for Christians, but freedom to practice their religion, plus a bunch of handouts. 

Historians of ancient Rome should know better than to claim Christians had "absolute despotic power" under Constantine.  (Another popular version is that Christianity became the "official religion" at that time.)  Probably Carrier does know this, but is being sloppy, and just can't pass up a good applause line. 

(2) How did Christ conquer Caesar?  Carrier ascribes the victory of Christianity to political turmoil in the Roman Empire, especially a long civil war starting in the 230s, and an economic depression in the 270s.  Therefore, he concludes:

"The fall of the Roman Empire caused the triumph of Christianity." 

Did it really? 

Stark argues that by 300 AD, having grown steadily at a 40% rate per decade since the 1st Century, 10% of the people in the Roman Empire were Christians. 

In a graph on page 55, Carrier sets the percentage of Christians in the Roman Empire, for the same year, at 20%. 

Stark goes on to point at that GROWING AT EXACTLY THE SAME RATE, Christianity would have reached 56.5 % of the Roman populace by 350 AD.  This is independent of ANY new political advantages. 

Plug in Carrier's figure, and at the same growth rate, Rome would have attained a Christian majority by 330 AD.  (Though Carrier's graph arbitrarily suggests this happening maybe about 1900, for reasons to be explained below.) 

Given either figure, Carrier's explanations for why Christianity won the West are simply not needed.  It was clearly heading towards dominance, whatever Constantine decided to do. 

Carrier tries to make his argument more persuasive, by marking increases in the rate of conversion at the two periods he mentioned -- 230s and 270.  He does not offer any imperical evidence that there was, in fact, any increase in the rate of Christian growth during these two periods, however.  (Unlike Stark, who makes use of various sorts of demographic data to support his own, less complex, picture of the rise of Christianity.)  One gets the impression that Carrier is making the graph bend up where it needs to bend to support his argument -- forget about the evidence!

The graph is, in any case, unworthy of a serious historian.  What is Carrier claiming to graph?  The graph explains itself as showing the "percentage of population converting to Christianity."  Population of what?  Apparently he is referring to the Roman Empire, since the only historical or geographical referents given are "Constantine" and "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire."  It is all rather fuzzy.  But apparently he is graphing the percentage of Christians in the Roman Empire, or in the area once covered (when?) by that entity.

If that is the case, why does he show the percentage of Christians reaching 100% by 500 AD, and remaining at 100% until 700 AD, the last date on the graph?  Has he never heard of Jews?  Goths?  Huns?  Vikings?  Has the name "Mohammed" never crossed his desk, as an historian?  By 700 AD, much of the old Roman Empire, including many of its richest parts, was ruled by Muslims. 

Does Carrier not know how long it took Christianity to convert even the mildly Romanized parts of Europe, like the British Isles, let alone areas further north?  Or how many pagan invasions occurred during those years?

This careless, grossly misleading graph is as bad as Carrier's claim, in Sense and Goodness Without God, that Christianity usually "spread by the sword," a claim I rebutted with great relish, and some historical detail, about here.  (See "Response to Carrier," the second article.) 

I know Richard Carrier is a smart fellow, and widely read.  I know he has a doctorate in history from Columbia University.  No doubt he earned it.  But this kind of slip-shod, half-cocked, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants, back-of-the envelope pseudo-historical gibberish, does not, frankly, make me want to run out and make a contribution to Columbia University.  Nor does it make me at all confident in the many cock-sure claims he makes that I have not been able to check out, yet.

(3) Did Christians want any evidence?

Carrier repeats his claims, which he formerly made on-line, that early Christians didn't care about evidence, but believed on blind faith:

"You don't need evidence, you just need faith . . . We find no evidence that any Christian converts did any fact-checking before converting . . . Indeed, every Christian who actually tells us what convinced him explicitly say she didn't check any facts but merely believed upon hearing the story and reading the scriptures and just 'feeling' it was right." 

This, too, is nonsense.  I have rebutted Carrier's "The Early Christians were gullible dweebs" fuliminations before, more than once, and am happy to let my previous arguments do most of the work here. 

Carrier then issues the following detailed claims:

"Likewise, every early discussion we have from Christians regarding their methodology for resting claims either omits, rejects, or even denigrates rational, empirical methods and promotes instead faith-based methods of finding secrets hidden in scripture and relying on spiritual inspirations and revelations, and then verifying all this by whether their psychosomatic 'miracles' worked and their beloved leaders were willing to suffer for the cause." (63)

Let's look at a few of those "psychosomatic" illnesses described in the Acts of the Apostles, which supposedly demonstrate how early Christianity was an evidence-free zone:

* Tongues of fire descend from heaven and give the disciples the ability to preach in dozens of languages they have never studied. (Acts 2)

* Peter and John tell a man who has never taken a step in his life to walk, and he walks, praises God; on-lookers are impressed. (Acts 3)

* Ananias and Sapphira are struck dead without any human touch when they attempt to fool their fellow Christians.  (Acts 5)

* A murderer named Saul hears an audible voice, sees Jesus, and is struck blind, and converts to Christianity.  (Acts 9)

Peter escaping
from prison
* A Roman officer named Cornelius has a vision that causes him to send to Peter, while Peter has a vision that prepares him for Cornelius; conversions are made.  (Acts 10)

* Peter is in prison, wakes up with an angel shaking his shoulder, chains fall off his hands, and all the prison doors are found open.  (Acts 12)

* Another lame man who has never walked begins to, resulting in conversions, but also the stoning of Paul and Barnabas. (Acts 14)

And on it goes.  Apparently the word "psychosomatic" covers a lot of territory, these days.

The truth is, as I showed in those earlier rebuttals, conversion is almost always linked in Acts to strong and convincing evidence.  Furthermore, the earliest audiences for Jesus, in the Gospels, were generally models of skepticism and doubt. 

(4) "Even (Hitler's) Final Solution was really just the Final Failure to Have Any Effect at All."

This is a strange thing to say about the murder of half the world's Jews.  The Jewish people didn't disappear, but no serious historian doubts that Hitler's murders were devastating to the European Jewish community.

C. Theological Problems

But the biggest problem with Carrier's argument is his theological presumption.  He assumes he knows that if God were real, and favored Christianity, he would have had the Gospel spread by magic:

"He could even have flown to America . . . and even China, preaching in all the temples and courts of Asia.  In fact, being God, he could have appeared to everyone on earth.  He could visit me right now.  Or you!  And yet, instead, besides his already-fanatical followers, just one odd fellow ever saw him."  

"If Jesus was a God and really wanted to save the world, he would have appeared and delivered his Gospel personally to the whole world." (70)

Yes, and no doubt he would have written Richard Carrier's dissertation for him, so he didn't have to do the work himself.  And he would drop cash on all the poor.  And he would hover over the Atlantic ocean, and blow hurricanes harmlessly out to sea.  And he would cause fruit to ripen without any growing season, heh, presto! 

Exactly how far do we want to take this? 

Carrier misunderstands what a miracle is.  God does not "violate" the laws of nature in crass and ineligant ways.  God allows his creatures the dignity of causation, and I, for one, am glad that he does. 

Anyway, the question to ask is not, "How does Richard Carrier think God should do things," but "How did the Bible lead us to suppose God WOULD do things?"

To answer this latter question, we need to look at what sort of growth the Bible actually predicts for the Christian faith:

(a) Jesus says the Kingdom of Heaven is like a tree, that grows from a small seed, but in which birds come and nest.  This appears to imply that the growth is organic -- much as the universe itself grows from a small seed, and life begins with amino acids linking and forming chains.    

Carrier predicts the growth, not of a tree, but of something like a lawn, seed broadcast around the world out of an airplane, Jesus flying off to South America and China to preach. 

But the Gospels also show:

(b) Wise men traveling from afar to see the baby Jesus.  (Following a star, it is true.)  If we're going to do a miracle, why couldn't Jesus fly off to see them?  Or why couldn't they come on flying carpets? 

"Then you have never heard of the
easy road to world evangelism?"
(c) Jesus going from village to village on foot, preaching the Gospel -- sometimes with little success.   

(d) Jesus discouraging people who want to believe too easily: "Foxes have holes . . . the Son of Man has no place to rest his head."

(e) Jesus explaining that discipleship will be difficult and painful: "Take up your cross, and follow me!"  (The most frequently-repeated words of Jesus in the Gospels.)

(f) When offered the "kingdoms of this world" in a vision, what Honest John would call the "Easy Road to Success," Jesus says, "Get behind me, Satan!" 

(g) I also seem to recall an episode involving a cross.

(h) Jesus then tells his disciples, "Go into all the world, and preach the Gospel, making disciples."  He makes it clear that the disciples will be persecuted and arrested.

(i) Pentacost involves fire from heaven, yes, but also disciples preaching, and getting mocked, and rational argument, including the re-telling of Israel's story.  The Church then sets out not to conquer by the sword, nor to win easy spiritual successes, but advances largely by the work of a preacher who is beaten, spin on, ship-wrecked, attacked by wild animals, imprisoned, and finally killed.

I have to say, reading this chapter, I don't feel that Dr. Carrier much understands Christianity, yet.  He fails to fully take into account the doctrine and dignity of creation.  He also does not appear to understand the role of suffering in redemption.  His proposals remind me of Farrell Till's crass suggestion, at a debate at the Seattle Pacific University campus, which is shaded by beautiful, tall hardwoods, that he might believe in God if he suddenly created a tall skyscraper on the spot.

That might, rather, make a sane person believe in the devil. 

The Christian God seems to like organic growth.  As a former missionary, I for one am glad he allows his people to participate in the "dignity of creation," by taking the teaching of Jesus to the world, against obstacles.

At the same time, I believe God's truth has "not been without a witness" in the cultures of the world.  It is not that Jesus traveled the world by magic carpet or flying horse to do all the work himself, but that when missionaries arrived, they often found cultures prepared for the Gospel. 

But that Christianity has helped billions of people around the world, is I think a fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham: "in your seed all nations of the world will be blessed."  I can think of nothing in the Bible that leads us to expect the Good News of Jesus would spread by any method other than what was actually used -- whatever strange fantasies Richard Carrier might have about the matter.

That the Gospel has changed the world for the better, is I think real evidence for its truth, and a more interesting claim than that Christianity will grow faster than any religion ever, would have been.  That's more the mindset of Islam.

Monday, September 05, 2011

The End of Christianity? Contra Avalos

Hector Avalos: "The End of Biblical Studies" (II)

Like most sinners, I sometimes think the world revolves around me. Occasionally phenomena in the world seem almost to encourage the delusion.

The past week, I've been writing a chapter for our upcoming anthology, Faith Seeking Understanding, entitled "The Fingerprints of Jesus." My argument is that human nature and the gospels are such, that simple, uneducated people often come to know the "historical Jesus" better than eminent scholars who in theory have spent their entire lives trying to track him down. In part, the chapter is a condensed version of my earlier book, Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus, and Grandma Marshall Could.

No sooner outlined, than one of the best examples of scholarly miopia in reading the Gospels falls into my lap -- Hector Avalos' "The End of Biblical Studies," which constitutes chapter 4 of John Loftus' The End of Christianity. I know theologically that the world is not my oyster, and actually I don't much like oysters, but in this chapter, one finds a baroque pearl of great price.

Not that Avalos' chapter is weak in the secondary traits of effective argumentation. It's well-written, covers a multitude of subject areas with apparent competence, does not hit below the belt as often as some of his other writings (but sometimes it does, see below), and is copiously and informatively footnoted.  He even cracks a decent joke ("Biblical archeology lies in ruins.")

Nevertheless, to say Avalos misses the target, is like saying Douglas Corrigan landed at the wrong airport (in Ireland, rather than Long Beach, California!)

(Reader be warned: the two of us have a bit of "history."  See first posts in this blog. I'll try to be fair, though.) 

Avalos and The Bad Book

In a sense, the purpose of this chapter is to make a recommendation, rather than advance an historical argument. The historical premise on which that recommendation is based, is that several kinds of "biblical studies" have "failed," proven vacuous, misleading, or a waste of time. We should, therefore, choose between the following options, of which Avalos favors the third:

"1. Eliminate biblical studies completely from the modern world."

2. "Retain biblical studies as is, but admit that it is a religionist enterprise." (Note: Could we also elimitate words like "religionist?" --DM.)

3. "Retain biblical studies, but redefine its purpose so that it is tasked with eliminating completely the influence of the Bible in the modern world."

Why should the influence of the Bible be "completely eliminated?" Because, of course, that influence is pernicious, vile, evil, harmful, and nugatory. This is a persistent sub-theme of the chapter:

" . . . dependence on a text brought untold misery and stood as an obstacle to human progress." (110)

"Origen, the famous church father, is reported to have castrated himself in light of this verse." (113)

"Such efforts only expose the fact that scholars themselves know that 'the Bible' is a violent document that must be sanitized to keep it alive." (114)

"The Bible also has been detrimental to human beings. For every page of Hamlet that we might enjoy innocently, there is a passage of the Bible that prompted someone to kill another human being." (125)

(A strange comparison. Hamlet can be printed on 50 pages, all of which no doubt one can enjoy, let us say innocently. So is Avalos claiming that 50 out of, say, 1000 pages in the Bible have prompted killing? I suppose that's possible -- billions of people have read the thing -- but it's a rather roundabout way of making a point.  Could one also say the same, percentage-wise, about the US Constitution?)

"Why do we need an ancient book that endorses everything from genocide to slavery to be a prime authority on our public or private morality?" (128)

"Modern human beings have existed for tens of thousands of years without the Bible, and they don't seem to have been the worse for it." (128)

And one loud, last blast for the road:

"Total abolition of biblical authority becomes a moral obligation and a key to this world's survival. The letter can kill. That is why the only mission of biblical studies should be to end biblical studies as we know them." (129)

So the Bible brings "untold misery:" blocked progress, encouraged murder and self-castration, "endorsed" slavery, and apparently done the world no good at all.  In fact, the Bible threatens "this world's" very survival.

Perhaps I overlooked it, but I noticed no hint in this chapter of any other source of evil in life besides the Bible (lust?  greed?  whirlpools?  angry moose?).  I also found no hint that the Bible has ever done anyone any good. 

So the problem, in Avalos' view, is not that people study the Bible, but that anyone does so except between the crosshairs of a high-powered rifle.  Who would have thought Robert Funk should stand accused of reading the Bible with insufficient fear and loathing?

What's Wrong with Biblical Studies?

Avalos does, however, offer a litany of specific criticisms of six forms of biblical study: translation, textual criticism, archeology, the search for the historical Jesus, literary criticism, and biblical theology.

Avalos' discussion of biblical translation is the most unfair.  He seems to want to smear Bible tranlators as broadly as possible, but leave the boundaries of his critique fuzzy enough so as to plausibly deny injustice:

"Indeed, the Bible is such a foreign text that translators and scholars become assistants to the reader . . . But even more surprising is the assumption that the relevance of the Bible is best maintained by using translation to hide and distort the original meaning of the text in order to provide the illusion that the information and values conveyed by biblical authors are compatible with those of the modern world."

"In short, Bible translations 'lie' to keep the Bible alive." (emphasis added)

That's a serious charge.  As with his condemnation of the Bible, Avalos does not place clear boundaries around his allegation -- "some" translations, "Dr. So n So" -- no, the reader is encouraged to generalize, though also without clearly being told, "All translators" or "most translators" are guilty. 

Avalos does provide a few examples, but they seem far too weak to justify the word "dishonesty," which Avalos also uses, let alone "lie." 

For instance, Dr. Avalos disputes how the New American Bible renders Deuteronomy 32: 8-9 in English.  Even in his accusation, however, Avalos is forced to pull his punches: "probably," "so some scholars have argued that . . . " "probably,""appears to be."  In other words, he implicitly admits that his own interpretation of the passage is not that straightforward, but can reasonably be disputed. 

Translation is difficult, an art not a science.  Why question a fellow scholar's honesty, even accuse him of "lying," for offering a plausible but somewhat different interpretation of a Hebrew phrase?  And then extend the smear by implication to all his colleagues? 

It's not as if Avalos' own exegesis is impeccable.  In The Christian Delusion, Avalos offered a grossly misreading rendering of the story of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5:

"That Christian communist system also results in the killing of a married couple (Acts 5:1-11) that reneged on their promise to surrender their property.  Thus, the principle of killing those who did not conform to collectivation of property is already a biblical one." (Christian Delusion, 369)

In debate afterwards, I cited the original wording, numerous commentators, and translations in several languages, to show that Avalos' read of this passage (which he expanded on in discussion) was grossly misleading.  Avalos basically just ignored all contrary scholarship on the passage, or dismissed serious and even unbelieving scholars as apologists.  Nor did he admit how misleading his representation of it had been.  (Though his colleague Ed Babinski was honest enough to do so.) 

Was Avalos a "liar?"  I didn't call him that, though his abuse of that passage seems far more blatant than anything he cites by other scholars. 

Avalos vs. the Jesus Seminar

Some of Avalos' criticism of biblical studies suggests that he may have given up convincing those outside of his own skeptical choir. 

The longest section here is on the "unhistorical Jesus," in which he takes on, of all opponents, the Jesus Seminar: 

"The Jesus Seminar has predetermined what Jesus or the early church thought, and then they have simply selected those verses that accord with what the Jesus Seminar thinks that Jesus thought.  So despite no supernaturalism in their assumptions, the members of the Jesus Seminar are no different from fundamentalists who pick and choose texts to bolster their image of Jesus." (122)

As author of a book rebutting the Jesus Seminar, I'm sympathetic to Avalos' point, in this case.  For one thing, not only is there "no supernaturalism in their assumptions," but key Jesus Seminar scholars make anti-supernaturalism itself an assumption: no miracles allowed, end of story. 

But Avalos is being unfair even to the Jesus Seminar.  Funk, Borg, King, and Crossan are smart, educated scholars, and deal with concrete historical texts: they do not (often) just make stuff up out of thin air.  While the Seminar as a whole shares the faults of a committee, and the faults of radical skeptics, the individual works of these writers often deal in an interesting way with compelling bits of historical data, which Avalos glosses over, with the abolitionist arrogance of a Karl Marx, ready to end whole fields of study with a few glib "zingers."  (In fact, come to think of it, Marx' followers sometimes did burn the Bible.  Avalos' goal is similiar, though his own efforts do not have the laudible side-effect of warming anyone on a cold night.)

"New Gospels for Sale!"      

But even while he dismisses NT scholars "left and right," skeptic and Christian, in the most sweeping terms, I see little sign that Avalos is ready to do the serious work of figuring out the 1st Century himself.  He is, for example, at least as naive (or disenguous -- here the question really does arise) about fake "Gospels" as the Jesus Seminar scholars he criticizes:

"But there's more to consider, because the existence of other Gospels changes everything.  Charles W. Hedrick, who discovered a 'lost Gospel,' placed the number of Gospels at thirty-four in 2002.  According to him, we have four canonical Gospels, four complete noncanonical Gospels, seven fragmentary Gospels, four Gospels known only from early quotations, two hypothetical Gospels (Q and the Signs Gospels), and thirteen known only by a name mentioned in some ancient source."

Avalos goes on to ape the standard line that we can no longer "privilege" the canonical Gospels as the "earliest or best sources for depicting early Christianity."

This is sheer poppycock.  As I show in The Truth About Jesus and the 'Lost Gospels,' there ARE no other extant Gospels, besides the canonical four. 

Other books are called "Gospels," but that is just (now and then) a marketting ploy.  No other extant text can be plausibly called a "gospel" either etymologically, or by analogy to the four in the Bible.  (Which is the primary literary definition in most dictionaries.)  None of them.  The canonical Gospels stand out from the field in so many ways, it is ludicrous, and highly misleading, to pretend that any other discovered text belongs to the same genre. 

I go into particular detail on Thomas, which is the skeptics' favorite, a pathetic admission of failure in and of itself. 

I challenge anyone to rebut my arguments. 

Not only are none of these texts "Gospels." As I show, not even fans of the Gnostic texts, like Elaine Pagels or Karen King, or even the Jesus Seminar itself, really believe any of them, not even Thomas, is on the same level as an "early and best source" for the life of Jesus, as the real gospels.

The quotes and facts are all there.  Again, I defy anyone to justify these sloppy and misleading claims about other "gospels," and their supposed value for reconstructing the life of Jesus.   

Will the Bible Destroy the World?

Despite his learning and talent as a teacher, Hector Avalos runs the risk of making himself into a caricature of the village atheist. 

Throughout this chapter, we are told of the evils the Bible encourages.  Rather than acknowledging that it can also inspire good, Avalos folds a big tarp over any benefits the world might have also derived from the Good Book:

"Modern humans have existed for tens of thousands of years without the Bible, and they don't seem to have been the worse for it."

Is that so?  Are girls sold into prostitution, or burnt alive after their husbands died, or whose feet are crushed at age 6, none the worse for those customs?  If not, then how is it that people inspired by this evil book, have in fact began reform movements that ended foot-binding, human sacrifice, widow-burning, and slavery around the world?  How many tens of thousands of hospitals and schools have been founded by zealous Christians who thought they were following the example of Jesus?  Why was it that most of the founders of modern science were so entranced by this book?  Why did Francis Bacon and John Locke quote it, when instituting reforms that have benefited the whole world? 

Pardon while I gape in disbelief at Avalos' refusal to recognize vast historical facts. 

I argued, in a series of seven recent posts last month, more-or-less beginning here, that the Gospel has liberated billions of women.

The Bible doesn't matter, in a positive way?

It mattered to Mosab Hassan Yousee, the son of one of the founders of the terrorist organization Hamas:

"When I got to the Sermon on the Mount, I thought, Wow, this guy Jesus is really impressive! . . . Every verse seemed to touch a deep wound in my life . . . Then I read this: 'You have heard that it was said, "Love your neighbor and hate your enemy."  But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.' (Mt. 5: 43-45) . . .  Never before had I heard anything like things, but I knew that this was the message I had been searching for all my life.”

"Blow out the candles,
the sun has risen!"
It mattered to Yuan Zhiming, one of the leaders of the Democracy Movement in China, who writes how his "eyes filled with tears," reading the words of Jesus. 

It mattered to Lin Yutang, one of the greatest writers in 20th Century China, who after surveying the world of Chinese, European, and Indian thought, wrote of Jesus:

"Blow out the candles, the sun has risen." 

It mattered to the great reformers of India, one of whom (Ram Mohan Roy), wrote a book of Jesus' sayings, entitled "The Principles of Jesus, the Guide to Peace and Happiness."

But what do they know?  Hector Avalos has been given a pony, and is determined to look all the way up its rear end. 

And all he sees there, is darkness, the apocalyptic end of the world. 

I find a verse in this allegedly antiquated, venile text that seems, somehow, to matter more and more as I delve into the New Atheism:

"Where is the wise man?  Where is the scribe?  Where is the debater of this age?  Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?"