2010-10-14

Evolution, creationism, civil discourse and “you know what”

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by Neil Godfrey

Yesterday I was browsing in a bookshop the many shelves of books about evolution (or “life sciences” — but most books were about evolution). I was slightly amazed how many of those books were scholarly publications that their cover blurbs explained were addressing Creationists or Intelligent Design proponents. Every one of those that I opened up was a serious, respectful, direct and fact-based book explaining the evidence for evolution and addressing Creationist’s objections and arguments. All were written by scientists.

Not one was a ridiculing or derisively putting down Creationists or their arguments.

Now I believe that Creationist arguments should not be taught in public schools. I am sure most of those scientist authors would believe the same. But it was obvious that they also believed that those arguments “deserved to be heard”. Why else would they write respectful books about them?

It is one thing to exclude certain arguments and speech from forums marked off for certain purposes that exclude that form of speech for justifiable reasons. It is quite another to say someone who is not inciting harm or invading privacy and such does not deserve to be heard. (It is also obviously legitimate to speak out strongly against ideas that we do believe to be harmful.)

Having just caught up with McGrath’s recent post, I should be clear and let it be known that I am very sure that not all scientists are always so tolerant and civil in their approach to Creationism. But fortunately in the “free market of books and ideas”, the jerks were not published and on the shelf for sale. At least not in Borders’ Singapore’s Orchard Road branch.

At the same time I have no reason to think that even those who publish respectful books are always the model of decorum, even in private company, when the topic is raised. But that’s fine. Farting is always best kept private.

I can’t speak for others, but one reason I think that even arguments, for example, about alien abductions and Atlantis and even Christianity “deserve to be heard” is because they are very often sincerely entertained by my brothers and sisters, fellow humans. It’s about respect and simply trying to be a decent human getting along with others as vulnerable as myself. I was introduced to Enlightenment literature when quite young and I still feel attached to the idea of hearing people out and sharing what I can with them and respecting them enough to continue with their own journey. And always — literally always — in the back of my mind is how wrong I have been before when I was so sure I was right, and how tentative human knowledge and understanding have always been.

Thus when people bring up the topic of alien abductions I am able to share with them my experience with sleep paralysis, and how during those years, being religious, I then understood the experience described today by some “alien abductees” to be demonic. In the case of the talk of Atlantis, I am able to share my knowledge of the history of the idea itself and origin as a myth.

Probably most of us who have had the benefit of more education than others, or some experiences that have enabled insights from uncommon perspectives, feel our lives are more worthwhile if we can give back to the community, to others, something of what we have gained. It’s all about sharing experiences and ideas and trusting enough people to make the more justifiable choices and responses.

I tend to think of creationists as being the ones who do the ridiculing and play the avoidance games and latch on to side-irrelevancies (sophistry), and of the scientists being the ones who engage in a serious, direct, respectful, evidence-based argument.

 

Street sign for Orchard Road in Singapore.

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  • Hjalti
    2010-10-14 17:35:49 UTC - 17:35 | Permalink

    What I find strange is that the uncivil discourse that I see from McGrath is not very likely to impress of persuade people who are on the fence. People like me!

    I’ve read Doherty’s book, and I found it interesting but with some flaws. But what I don’t get is this: if his ideas are so ridiculous that they don’t “deserve to be heard”, why not just refute them? :S

    • 2010-10-14 19:27:18 UTC - 19:27 | Permalink

      Thinking back on what I wrote here I realize I confuse two different things at a point or two — the message and the way it is delivered. Where real people are involved it’s easy to conflate the two.

      But McGrath is an academic and I would have expected academics, as guardians of free thought, would insist all ideas deserve at least a hearing. If they can stand up to scrutiny then great; if not, that’s also a positive.

      But McGrath, while it is nice to see some sort of public apology, has yet to demonstrate a willingness to actually do what he has said several times he sincerely wants to do: understand mythicist arguments. I have yet to see a single post where he eschews sophistry and actually engages the substance of a single mythicist argument.

      And his protesting that such a statement of mine as this one here is itself a “mythicist denial” of what he has already addressed so many times just won’t cut it, IMHO.

  • GakuseiDon
    2010-10-14 20:15:11 UTC - 20:15 | Permalink

    Neil, I think that when we talk about “creationism”, there is generally only one over-arching creationist argument: an earth around 10,000 years old. Similarly with “Intelligent Design”. So they are much easier to address. If there were dozens of creationist theories floating around, each with their own proponents who think their theory is THE ONE that needs addressing, it would be a different situation.

    There are quite a few mythicist theories floating around. I suspect that you, like me, aren’t interested in most of them. I only tend to be interested in the ones dealing with how ancient people handled myths (Doherty and Acharya S), but there are quite a few others (Caesar as Jesus, Titus as Jesus, Judas the Galilean as Jesus, Constantine forged all Christian literature, GA Wells). I haven’t looked at the others myself, and don’t intend to. I’m sure each proponent believes their particular theory is THE ONE that needs to be addressed, and perhaps they should be; but they don’t interest me personally.

    In his blog, McGrath asked you: “My impression, Neil, is that you try to distance yourself from views when they are criticized. But since you suggested asking an author for clarification, let me ask you to clarify what you actually think. Do you find Doherty’s reconstruction of Christian origins and his interpretation of the meaning of early Christian texts persuasive? if not, why not? On what points do you agree or disagree?”

    Surely those are valid questions? I hardly think it fair to ask someone to look into mythicism, when there are a large number of mythicist theories around. What is the mythicist theory that needs to be addressed? What is the one that convinces you? If Doherty doesn’t convince you, what problems do you have with him? Which are the mythicist theories that shouldn’t be looked into, and why?

    • 2010-10-15 01:37:20 UTC - 01:37 | Permalink

      GDon: “…there is generally only one over-arching creationist argument: an earth around 10,000 years old.”

      The Young Earth Creationist (YEC) adherents are the only ones who are stuck on the age issue. The over-arching argument (or perhaps “assumption” is the better word) is that the universe was created and did not form on its own through natural processes. It boils down to the belief that the natural world could only have come about through supernatural means.

      GDon: “If there were dozens of creationist theories floating around, each with their own proponents who think their theory is THE ONE that needs addressing, it would be a different situation.”

      Actually, among the YEC fans, there are numerous bizarre theories to explain phenomena that clearly show the age of the universe. For example, we observe that we star light from galaxies that are millions of light-years away. The standard cosmological model says that it’s reasonable to assume that C is constant in all places at all times, and that the light from a star that’s two million light-years away is two million years old. It’s amusing to read all the convoluted YEC theories that try to explain light that is apparently older than the universe. And it’s instructive and useful for real scientists to debunk each one.

      GDon: “I hardly think it fair to ask someone to look into mythicism, when there are a large number of mythicist theories around.”

      I hear ya, brother. That’s certainly true of the countless historicist theories for Jesus. Was he divine or wasn’t he? Did he think he was the messiah, or was that added on later? Was he a cynic sage? A failed prophet? Was there only one historical Jesus or was he a composite of several people? Was he a proto-socialist? Was he a failed revolutionary? Did he die under Pilate, or did it happen much earlier (i.e., was he the Teacher of Righteousness)? Did he die on the cross or was he tied to a stake and stoned for blasphemy? Did he survive the crucifixion and go teach in India?

      Oh deary me! Which one should I focus on?

      • GakuseiDon
        2010-10-15 04:49:24 UTC - 04:49 | Permalink

        Haha! Yes, true, though your response is a nice use of the “tu quoque” fallacy. If it’s true for investigating the “historicism” position then it is true for “mythicism”, surely?

        Let me repeat the question from McGrath’s blog: “My impression, Neil, is that you try to distance yourself from views when they are criticized. But since you suggested asking an author for clarification, let me ask you to clarify what you actually think. Do you find Doherty’s reconstruction of Christian origins and his interpretation of the meaning of early Christian texts persuasive? if not, why not? On what points do you agree or disagree?”

        • 2010-10-15 06:34:29 UTC - 06:34 | Permalink

          I meant the response as a tongue-in-cheek way of saying I don’t find the number of hypotheses to be a burden either from the mythicist or historicist side. Let a thousand flowers bloom!

          Actually, it’s probably a fallacy for me to use these terms as if they are exclusive, since I know of no serious scholar (non-apologist, that is) who doesn’t think that some aspects of Jesus are mythical. The question is not whether Jesus is a myth, but how much of Jesus is myth. It seems that many NT scholars think they’re in the Goldilocks zone where 50% is myth and 50% is fact. They point to either end of the spectrum and say, “Look at those nut jobs who aren’t sophisticated enough to follow the golden mean.”

          • GakuseiDon
            2010-10-15 13:08:40 UTC - 13:08 | Permalink

            Oops! I thought that was Neil commenting. Apologies to Neil there. The Jesus story is myth, no doubt about it. I believe personally that the Gospels and Paul provide prima facie evidence for a historical person at the origin of Christianity, but we can know nothing about that person for certain, so in some ways he may as well be ahistorical.

    • 2010-10-15 08:27:53 UTC - 08:27 | Permalink

      GDon, as for McGrath’s question he has asked me, I confess I have not seen it — I only occasionally go to his blog when I see a new link to mine from his. Maybe I should return there and see what he has written, but he has demonstrated to my satisfaction over a long time that his protestations about sincerely wanting to understand my or mythicist views are not sincere. He is only playing cat and mouse when he talks like that as he has so often demonstrated.

      If McGrath wants to understand Doherty’s view, then he would do well to study Doherty and engage with Doherty, don’t you think? McGrath is being mischievous when he says I back off when my views are criticized. He ought to know very well — and so should you — that I am not backing off at all. I am merely pointing out that his criticisms are straw men. Or he is accusing me of arguing something I have never argued. This accusation that I back off when criticized is just McGrath being typical McGrath. I sent him a list of questions to answer, and it was instructive that he chose to answer certain ones but not others. He is not a historian, has no historical background, and avoids my discussions of method and principles of historical method and evidence consistently. His claims to being a historian are, as far as I can tell, fraudulent.

      Recently I addressed the point of multiple and external/indepdendent attestation and used a philosopher and a playwright as an illustration. His response? To accuse me of arguing that I would believe a philosopher and a playwright but not a Christian source!!!! Now tell me, is not this man either completely out of his depth when discussing principles and methods, or is he just bigoted against me and looking for any excuse to attack anything I say?

      There is a thing called “understanding another point of view” and I explained quite clearly that this was the point of one of my posts on Doherty. It’s not point I think McGrath should attempt to understand since it could cause him too much conceptual disorientation.

      I find Doherty presents a plausible case, and so do some other academics who have had the courage to express this even in the U.S. academic environment.

      • GakuseiDon
        2010-10-15 13:05:04 UTC - 13:05 | Permalink

        If McGrath wants to understand Doherty’s view, then he would do well to study Doherty and engage with Doherty, don’t you think?

        True, but aren’t you the one recommending Doherty to McGrath? What you are saying isn’t far from “read the book!”, which is what the Acharya S acolytes do. They say her astrotheological theories are compelling, but when pressed for details they just point to her books.

        McGrath is being mischievous when he says I back off when my views are criticized.

        I think it is more like: you back off when **Doherty’s** views are criticized. On the one hand, you find that Doherty presents a plausible case and you are appear to be pushing people to look into it, but on the other hand, you have noted that you have problems with his theories yourself and you don’t (at least to me) want to go into them. Of course, they are not mutually incompatible positions, but it is confusing. An outline on where you see the strengths and weaknesses in Doherty’s theories might be useful and avoid some of that confusion.

        Or he is accusing me of arguing something I have never argued. This accusation that I back off when criticized is just McGrath being typical McGrath…

        As for the rest: having been in a lot of these types of debates myself, I know how easy it is for two sides to talk past each other, with consequent escalating frictions and accusations. I don’t see either of you as being unreasonable people, so hopefully things will settle down. However, a lot of your recent posts seem to be pot-shots at McGrath specifically. You are questioning the field of biblical studies, aren’t you, rather than just McGrath? Perhaps it might help de-escalate things if you go back to your criticisms of the field (which I think has been very interesting and food for thought) rather than on the individual, even if you feel yourself the aggrieved party. Just my 2 cents.

        To end on a positive note, I’ve been meaning to comment: I’ve really enjoyed your series on comparing ancient Greek literature with the Old Testament. It’s an interesting perspective that I’ve never considered before, and I’m still going through the ramifications in my mind. Good stuff!

        • 2010-10-15 16:51:24 UTC - 16:51 | Permalink

          I was doing nothing more than pointing out McGrath’s nonsense by turning once again to request blog comments to help him “understand Doherty”. I responded by suggesting that (if anyone were sincere in wanting to understand D’s arguments) then they would read Doherty himself. If anyone wants to take that as my recommending Doherty to him then so be it. I am not the one presenting or arguing Doherty’s case. So no, I am not doing what you say “Acharya S acolytes” do. It would not at all surprise me if McGrath is trying to turn my comment into being of this kind.

          People can read my blog and the comments I made on his site if they want my views. If I don’t go into a question in depth often the reason is simply because I have not examined it as deeply as I wish before commenting. If the other party has a long history demonstrating that they regularly distort what I write then I will be even more reluctant to bother giving them the time of day.

          As I said on McGrath’s site, if he wants to know why I posted that article referencing Doherty, then simply read it. I explain it quite directly in the article. There is nothing sly or hidden about my reasons. But people like McGrath can’t accept them. He is not satisfied till he can find some way to paint me and my views in a nice frame that he wants to see. Why should a scholar even bother with my thoughts? I used to get along with him when I said nice things about one of his books, and he used to include vridar in his blog survey, all until the day he discovered I was partial to mythicism, and questioned some of his points. Then he went on the attack.

          I have posted many articles about certain ideas of different authors, and about certain issues that relate to what they have written. But no-one has pushed me to say exactly where I stand on Pervo or Tyson or Barker or Ashton or Clines or Crossan or DeConick or Engberg-Pedersen or Hoffmann or Kee or Kelber or MacDonald or Riley or Schweitzer or Spong or Thompson or Wells or Price or Wright. So when I do the same kind of post on Doherty why all this nonsense about “where I stand” and “backing off” and “what I seem to be saying”?

          I simply can’t see the point why anyone insists on knowing where I stand on Doherty. What is all this about? What’s behind it? Sometimes I am asked for my views of this or that or someone else, and it is clear from the context they are just wanting to see one more perspective among many for whatever it is worth, so I tell them. But the attitudes and manner in which I am pushed for where I stand on Doherty’s mythicist argument are clearly hostile and I have no interest in playing those games. If and when I have anything to say about Doherty and his views I post them, or express them informally in discussion, but I will not jump to McGrath’s bully-boy tactics.

          If any one wants to avoid confusion, as you put it, then let them read the post exactly as I have explained it in the post itself. McGrath seems to have some vendetta against Doherty and me also for some reason and is determined to nail me whenever he can and if I don’t cooperate he plays the same game I first experienced with J.P. Holding on this blog, taunting me with all sorts of accusations of backing off, cowardice, etc, just to get me to fall into his agenda. McGrath’s tactics are the same as Holding’s.

          I used to say I’m not a mythicist and what I meant was that I am not interested in pushing or arguing for a mythicist agenda or belief. That’s simply not where I am at. I have since realized that it is probably more confusing to express myself that way, so though I might accept others calling me a “mythicist”, my interest is not in mythicism per se. It is in Christian origins. My posts are much broader than mythicism. The views of Doherty have a lot to offer in respect to the whole question of Christian origins, both directly and in many side avenues.

          One of the reasons for this blog was to find an opportunity to share stuff I had the chance to read and found interesting and wish I had been exposed to long ago. Doherty is a part of that. If I see misunderstanding or outright ignorance being pushed then I will sometimes jump in and do my bit to try to correct that. If others see me as siding with the views of that person, well, I can’t help that. I try to explain my purpose and they can accept it or not worry about it.

          Thanks for the positive note. That’s something I’ve been wanting to write up from my notes ever since I began this blog. I am glad you found them interesting. My stats showed me someone was reading them now I know who. 🙂

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