The honorable associate professor of Butler has once again posted mischievous assertions that I wrote things I did not at all write in my recent post, When “Trusting the Expert Consensus” is Wrong. It makes perfect sense that James McGrath would want to misrepresent this post of mine since in it I explain why the sorts of appeals to authority that the theologian himself is fond of making are fallacious. (This is a common tactic of McGrath, Larry Hurtado, Maurice Casey, Bart Ehrman, Rabbi Joseph Hoffmann, and a handful of others.)
So there is no rule against calling McGrath a mendacious idiot?
But academic credentials are neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for having your ideas taken seriously. If a famous professor repeatedly says stupid things, then tries to claim he never said them [see, for example, the “McGrath Wisely pretends he never said that” refrain in Carrier’s post], there’s no rule against calling him a mendacious idiot — and no special qualifications required to make that pronouncement other than doing your own homework.
Conversely, if someone without formal credentials consistently makes trenchant, insightful observations, he or she has earned the right to be taken seriously, regardless of background.
If only the honorable theologian had taken time out from watching Dr Who to listen to the occasional address of Tim Minchin that he gave on the day he was awarded an honorary doctorate of letters [See the video clip at this post]. He would surely have come to his senses and grasped what I actually wrote and never have ventured to resort, yet once again, to blatant falsehoods.
5. Be Hard On Your Opinions
A famous bon mot asserts that opinions are like arse-holes, in that everyone has one. There is great wisdom in this… but I would add that opinions differ significantly from arse-holes, in that yours should be constantly and thoroughly examined.
We must think critically, and not just about the ideas of others. Be hard on your beliefs. Take them out onto the verandah and beat them with a cricket bat. Be intellectually rigorous. Identify your biases, your prejudices, your privilege.
Most of society’s arguments are kept alive by a failure to acknowledge nuance. We tend to generate false dichotomies, then try to argue one point using two entirely different sets of assumptions, like two tennis players trying to win a match by hitting beautifully executed shots from either end of separate tennis courts.
Note again that last paragraph about nuance.
So when I wrote in the conclusion to my post:
If I were associated with a blog called LessWrong and were devoted to refining the art of human rationality I would counsel that non-experts should adopt an agnostic position on the historicity of Jesus.
McGrath distorted that into my saying:
Interestingly, even Neil Godfrey agrees with Mehta on one point, that if you aren’t an expert in the field of historical Jesus studies, then it is better to be agnostic about it rather than hold firmly to a view you cannot defend.
Perhaps the section where Mehta actually said that in the video has since been wiped because I can’t find it. I don’t hear Mehta at any point saying that if you aren’t an expert in this field that it is better to be an agnostic. I hear him say over and over that the question of Jesus’ historical existence is unimportant and that atheists he personally knows are divided on the question. That’s all.
McGrath might well be interested to read here that I do indeed agree with Mehta when he says that the question of the historicity of Jesus does not matter for any of us personally today. To me the only interesting question is how Christianity originated, and whether an historical person or not is needed for that answer is what the debate is about. It’s about what makes the best sense of the evidence; it’s not about proving or disproving the historicity of a certain historical figure.
McGrath would appear not to agree. For him proving Jesus is the most important thing; for me, I don’t care. What interests me is the best explanation for the evidence. When scholars like Ehrman write completely contradictory things about the evidence then I know they are trying to do more than one thing. They are probably trying to do contradictory things.
So, for example, when Ehrman insists that the reference in Galatians to the James being the brother of the Lord proves the historicity of Jesus, and then elsewhere says we can’t rely on the authenticity of our text of Galatians [thanks to vinnyjh57's comment], I have reasonable grounds for thinking he has contradictory agendas. He wants to be a genuine scholar but that conflicts with his desire to prove the historicity of Jesus.
This sort of thing does not give us lay folk reason to “defer to the authority of the consensus” among bible scholars on the question of Jesus’ historicity.
Next, McGrath fails to grasp the nuance implicit in my conditional clause, “If I were associated with a blog called LessWrong and were devoted to refining the art of human rationality . . .” That conditional clause, coming as it did to introduce my conclusion, should have alerted McGrath to realizing I was not making a blanket statement about all non-professional scholars. He knows very well that I believe that it is quite possible for amateurs to become even more expert in some aspects of the question than many theologians who have never stopped to address seriously or in depth all the arguments related to Jesus’ existence. The nuance would have informed him that I was referring in my conclusion to the same people addressed in the original blog post — anyone who has not studied the question seriously.
So already McGrath has failed to grasp nuance. He has failed to grasp the point Mehta was making and the one I was addressing from the start of my own post. He wants to extrapolate from what each of us says or writes in order to make us say what suits his own agenda.
The real howler
If I was perplexed at McG’s opening reference to what I wrote, I was reminded I was dealing with a “Krugman idiot” when I read the following:
Of course, Godfrey is wrong about Ehrman’s book being the first tackling of mythicism in the field, just as he tends to be wrong about most things related to this topic.
Here is what I actually wrote about Ehrman’s book being the supposed “first” of something:
Besides, even the non-expert (who reads Bart Ehrman, say) can see at a glance that scholars have not sat down to thrash out the question of Jesus’ historicity.
Ehrman even says his own book is the first attempt in his entire field to do anything like that.
So we have the admission from the expert that Jesus’ historicity has been assumed. Other experts (e.g. Thomas Thompson) say the same thing.
The following day I added this comment:
Early twentieth century also saw questionings of the historicity of Jesus and there were scholarly rebuttals (e.g. Shirley Jackson Case). Those few responses by scholars have been held up as the final word. There has been no debate, no scholarly critique or engagement with those works. So Ehrman can even say he never knew anyone questioned Jesus’ historicity till recently. In other words, he is telling us that scholars as a whole at no time engaged with, or took any notice of, those few who did attempt responses to the Christ Myth theory.
McGrath, who has apparently not yet been exposed to the wisdom of Tim Minchin, interpreted my words as saying that Ehrman’s book was the first to tackle mythicism!
He missed the nuance that should have made him see that I was, in fact, criticizing Ehrman for thinking his book was the first!
And he missed the nuance that should have informed him that Ehrman’s error actually stands as evidence for the mythicist complaint (and mine) that scholars have always assumed the historicity of Jesus and never seriously engaged the questions to which Ehrman (and Shirley Jackson Case and others) have claimed to address.
Given the track record, I expect McGrath to deny he wrote what he did or to simply ignore this post or find more ways of ignoring nuance in his obsession with having others truly believe that God acted in history through a historical Jesus and that certain scholars have not built their careers on a groundless assumption.