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Comments open

by Neil Godfrey

Comments have been reopened on my latest past on Plato and the Bible — Thanks to E.Harding for alerting me to their locked status. Have no idea what happened there, why or how the option was turned off for a while.


Where the New Atheists Have Let Us Down

by Neil Godfrey

EndofFaithPaper_thumbFreelance science writer Dan Jones recently responded to a supporter of Sam Harris outraged over Dan’s criticism of Harris’s popular writings on the role religion plays in terrorist violence. Dan Jones’ concluding remarks strike a chord with me:

(One final thing: I’ve been reading atheists like Dawkins, and older, more philosophical ones like Bertrand Russell and AJ Ayer, since the early 1990s. I’ve also read a lot of Dan Dennett and Christopher Hitchens, and welcomed the rise of the New Atheists in the mid-2000s. However, over time I had to come to accept that on some really important issues, Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens simply had no real grasp of the relevant sciences of human behaviour to engage with them in any serious way. It’s been a major disappointment for me – I had hoped that these would be the voices of rational and empirical enquiry into things like religious extremism, but they’ve become like populist columnists, rather than scientifically informed intellectuals. It’s a painful truth to come to recognise that you’ve invested a lot of time and emotional energy in their ideas – I used to be like a one-man PR firm for hard-core atheism until I realised that, when it came to explaining human behaviour (rather than just criticising the emptiness of theology), these guys had nothing to offer, and what they did say was just so wrong that I felt embarrassed to have thought so highly of them in the first place. It took me a good 5 years to shake off this feeling, so maybe you’ll have had a change of mind by 2020.)

I copy here the commentary that led to that conclusion.  read more »


Recovering From Religion

by Neil Godfrey

Recovering From Religion

From the Overview page:

If you are one of the many people who have determined that religion no longer has a place in their life, but are still dealing with the after-effects in some way or another, Recovering From Religion (RR) may be just the right spot for you.  Many people come to a point that they no longer accept the supernatural explanations for the world around them, or they realize just how much conflict religious belief creates. It can be difficult to leave religion because family and culture put so much pressure on us to stay and pretend to believe the unbelievable.  If this is you, we want to help you find your way out.  Don’t let people convince you that you just didn’t have ‘enough’ faith, or that you just haven’t found the “right” religion. RR has support groups that meet monthly all over the US, with groups starting in Canada, the UK, and Australia, and new faces are always welcomed. . . . .




The futility of teaching moderation to young extremists

by Neil Godfrey

From Scott Atran’s Talking to the Enemy, pp. 482. 484

Besides, the data show that most young people who join the jihad had a moderate and mostly secular education to begin with, rather than a radical religious one. And where in modern society do you find young people who hang on the words of older educators and “moderates”? Youth generally favors actions, not words, and challenge, not calm. That’s a big reason so many who are bored, underemployed, overqualified, and underwhelmed by hopes for the future turn on to jihad with their friends. Jihad is an egalitarian, equal-opportunity employer (well, at least for boys, but girls are Web-surfing into the act): fraternal, fast-breaking, thrilling, glorious, and cool. Anyone is welcome to try his hand at slicing off the head of Goliath with a paper cutter. . . .

If we can discredit their vicious idols (show how these bring murder and mayhem to their own people) and give these youth new heroes who speak to their hopes rather than just to ours, then we’ve got a much better shot at slowing the spread of jihad to the next generation than we do just with bullets and bombs. And if we can desensationalize terrorist actions, like suicide bombings, and reduce their fame (don’t help advertise them or broadcast our hysterical response, for publicity is the oxygen of terrorism), the thrill will die down. Then the terrorist agenda will likely extinguish itself altogether, doused by its own cold raw truth: It has no life to offer. This path to glory leads only to ashes and rot.

I highlighted the need to discredit their vicious idols because that ties in neatly with a 2014 article by Neil Van Leeuwen, Religious credence is not factual belief, that sets out the differences between religious beliefs and other kinds of beliefs. “Vulnerability to special authority” is one of the significant characteristics of religious belief systems. Hope to discuss in a future post.



Exploring the Links between Beliefs and Behaviour

by Neil Godfrey

Recent discussions here arising from responses to Dan Jones’ article, “On how to be completely wrong about radicalisation: the curious case of Jerry Coyne” and another post Who are the true Muslims in these scenarios? I have been spurred into fast tracking and updating reading on the psychology of religious belief, extremism, ISIS in particular, terrorism more generally, and the background articles to the current exchange between Coyne, Maarten Boudry and Neil Van Leeuwen as well as refreshing old reading that had become a little faded over recent years. It’s a most interesting little exercise. Here is one small snippet that I choose to post here for no reason other than it is easy to copy and makes sense apart from its larger context.

Opinions and attitudes are not always good predictors of action. Of all those who might say they want to help starving children, how many would actually donate to UNICEF or work in a local soup kitchen? But for the Russian students of the 1870s, radicalization in opinion was often associated with radicalization in action. How are we to understand this unusually high consistency between opinion and behavior?

McCauley, Clark; Moskalenko, Sophia (2011-02-02). Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us (Kindle Locations 2217-2219). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

One answer is offered:

Social psychologist Robert Abelson advanced a similar perspective in relation to student activism in the United States. Abelson reviewed evidence that beliefs are not automatically translated into feelings, and feelings are not automatically translated into behavior. He then identified three kinds of encouragement for acting on beliefs: seeing a model perform the behavior; seeing oneself as a “doer,” the kind of person who translates feelings into action; and unusual emotional investment that overcomes uncertainties about what to do and fear of looking foolish. Abelson brought these ideas to focus on 1970s student activism in the United States:

. . . it is interesting to note that certain forms of activism, for example, campus activism, combine all three of the above types of encouragement cues. Typically, the campus activist has at least a vague ideology that pictures the student as aggrieved, and provides both social support and self-images as doers to the participants in the group. A great deal of the zest and excitement accompanying the activities of student radicals, whether or not such activities are misplaced, thus may be due to the satisfaction provided the participants in uniting a set of attitudes with a set of behaviors.3

McCauley, Clark; Moskalenko, Sophia (2011-02-02). Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us (Kindle Locations 2222-2231). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

That led me to find Abelsons’ chapter online. It’s an early chapter in Attitudes, Conflict, and Social Change, ed by King and McGinnies (see bookzz). Obviously such statements need unpacking and Abelson’s chapter is indeed only an introduction. That’s the sort of question I hope to delve further into in the coming weeks.


Jesus Mythicist/Historicist discussion of Daniel Gullotta and David Fitzgerald

by Neil Godfrey

A few days ago I posted If you’re as sick of the Jesus Mythicist/Historicist debate as I am . . .

That discussion has come and gone and is now found on the Miami Valley Skeptics podcast.

H/t the Otagosh blog — Fitzgerald vs Gullotta – Discussing Jesus

I haven’t heard more than a few snippets of it so far.


About an hour after the above: concur with Gavin Rumney (Otagosh) that it ended on a skewed note — with Tom Harpur, Thomas Brodie, van der Kaalj and others (not counting Buddhists) it is a mistake to think that mythicism is the preserve of atheists. (Check the Who’s Who page.)


Possible Discovery of Mary Magdalene’s House

by Neil Godfrey
Wikimedia Commons

Wikimedia Commons

A Catholic priest decided to build a Christian retreat in Galilee and was required by Israeli law to check for remains of archaeological interest first. By pure chance (but we know God was the one behind it, of course) Father Juan Solana then unearthed the first synagogue in that region to be discovered from the first century period. We are not told how it was dated to the first century or whether it was closer to the second century end or the BCE end, or how we know it was a synagogue, but no doubt such details will quickly follow.

Some sceptical scholars till now had argued that the absence of synagogue buildings in the Galilee from the time of Jesus was easily explained by simply understanding that when the gospels tell us of Jesus preaching in synagogues they meant he was preaching in group gatherings in homes and other private dwellings. This discovery finally puts well-deserved dirt on the faces of those sceptics.

And there’s a bowl they discovered, too, 2000 years old so of course we must seriously accept the very real possibility that Jesus himself washed his hands in it. Accordingly it is now a holy relic.

The volunteers on the dig all pray before they start work so we can be confident they have divine guidance in all that they find and interpret.

They’ve even discovered what sounds very much like a veritable Jesus-miracle-working well: read more »


Various readings and random thoughts

by Neil Godfrey

A few remarks on a small slice of what I’ve been reading lately…..

A most positive blog-post appeared on James McGrath’s Exploring Our Matrix a little while ago: Temper Your Criticism With Kindness. Perhaps this is a sign of a welcome rapprochement up ahead. :-) (But sadly not everyone in the field of biblical studies seems to have taken this advice to heart.)

I found myself welcoming the title of a blog post by Peter Leithart, All Theology is Public Theology, and was hopeful of finding arguments to engage the public more openly with the full gamut of the biblical studies field. Unfortunately, the post limited itself to engaging with the sheep well secured within in the fold.  read more »


Miscellaneous and (a very few) updates

by Neil Godfrey

Many who follow Richard Carrier’s blog will know by now that D.M. Murdock/Acharya S is facing a very serious cancer diagnosis and has appealed for help.

Ben Smith (a fellow amateur) has written a lengthy essay on gospel genre at the Biblical Criticism and History Forum. In off-line discussions a little while ago I got the impression we had similar ideas on the topic. I have sometimes wondered if there was a “Scripture genre” to which the Gospels sought to conform. Ben appears to have explored this question in depth. I look forward to reading his essay and responding.

Scholar Gary Habermas has made the electronic copy of his updated book open access. Evidence for the Historical Jesus can be downloaded on his site. Another work by Habermas (one written in conjunction with Michael Licona) sets out The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus. Only a few days ago I received my hard copy of Licona’s 700 page tome, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical ApproachThe reason I ordered it was because I was blown away by reviews informing me that Licona was on top of the standard historical methods used by mainsteream historians in history (non-biblical) departments and had applied these normative methods to argue that Jesus really was resurrected. I could not resist a peak at the introduction and opening chapter (I cannot afford to break my promise to myself to finish Pinker’s Better Angels before undertaking another major read.) Licona cites several works on historical method I have fortunately read and still have with me, so I was able to confirm that he seems at times to fall into a trap of semantic confusion — or maybe I will find out I was mistaken when I give it my full attention.

Speaking of Pinker’s book, I have almost completed it now and am intrigued by his point about the different relationships between highly abstract/more concrete thinking on moral reasoning. I am wondering if there is any applicability to the less nuanced understandings of some of the New Atheists (for example) of religion — and this returns us to Hector Avalos and his anticipation of a “second wave” of “new atheists” from the field of biblical studies. (Sure, biblical scholars are better placed to offer informed criticisms of the Bible but there is a real social divide over attitudes towards religion and faith more generally that transcends a need for literacy in any particular holy book.)

For those interested in the Creationist or Intelligent Design phenomenon and who love to read enjoyable prose you will not regret checking out the new post at Otagosh: Red in Claw and (von) Fange.

Tim has added a plugin to check for broken links on Vridar and I’ve been pretty horrified to see how bad the site has been in that respect. I’ve finally got the number of broken links in actual posts down to 40 — I think. Most of those are (only) images for illustration and links to the now moved Internet Infidels forum. Someone at the II forum is looking into the possibility of finding a solution for my old links. Their new site is

But something weird is happening as I try to fix some of these links. At times it seems the entire post goes into “draft” mode or even the “trash”. When I retrieve it it gets sent out to Facebook and other sites as if it’s a new post when in fact it’s usually several years old!


More to follow.



Smile: It’s Only a Bible and Religion Discussion

by Neil Godfrey

For a refreshing perspective read Tom Dykstra’s post on his reflections after reviewing books by Thomas Brodie and Bart Ehrman: Humor in Biblical Studies.

the very best biblical scholars are those that maintain a sense of humor toward their subject matter and toward those who disagree with them

Dykstra’s post begins. . . . .

Almost a year ago I finished expanding my posts on Brodie’s Jesus-didn’t-exist book and Ehrman’s yes-he-did book into an article for an academic peer-reviewed journal, to be published later this year.  As I did more research on this controversy, one aspect of it struck me forcefully: many or most people on both sides of the fence were remarkably intolerant and contemptuous of the other side.

In what you might think of as an “academic” debate why should people get so incensed at and abusive toward those who disagree? . . .

In reading and thinking about this issue I reached a conclusion that may sound counter-intuitive:  the very best biblical scholars are those that maintain a sense of humor toward their subject matter and toward those who disagree with them. . . . The issue is this:  I see contemptuous and abusive language as evidence that the perpetrator likely has some kind of vested interest in a particular belief about the subject. . . . (my bolding)

He then discusses another one of my favourite scholars, Michael Goulder. Read the thing in full and forward it to anyone you think gets a bit too cranky: Humor in Biblical Studies — and maybe not just to biblical scholars. I’m thinking of course of my recent slap down by a certain evolutionist for my question asking him why he shunned the scholarly approach of his peers towards Islamic terrorism.

Speaking of humour and the “which belief is right” debate, this has just appeared on John Loftus’s Debunking Christianity site:







The Risks of Understanding and Explaining Evil

by Neil Godfrey

Terrorism is evil. Murder is evil. Torture is evil. Hate crimes are evil. War is evil. Attempt to seriously understand why they happen, however, and one risks being accused of supporting evil.

On this blog I have attempted to share some insights of scholarly research into terrorism and the background to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and have in consequence mistakenly been thought to be justifying terrorism, of being an apologist for Islam, of anti-semitism and of hatred towards Israel. All of those things are completely untrue but the accusations persist because some readers view my explanations as taking the evil-doer’s side.

Steven Pinker (Wikipedia)

Steven Pinker (Wikipedia)

Why does this happen? Steven Pinker offers a cogent explanation in The Better Angel of Our Nature:

Baumeister notes that in the attempt to understand harm-doing, the viewpoint of the scientist or scholar overlaps with the viewpoint of the perpetrator.

Both take a detached, amoral stance toward the harmful act. Both are contextualizers, always attentive to the complexities of the situation and how they contributed to the causation of the harm. And both believe that the harm is ultimately explicable.

The viewpoint of the moralist, in contrast, is the viewpoint of the victim. The harm is treated with reverence and awe. It continues to evoke sadness and anger long after it was perpetrated. And for all the feeble ratiocination we mortals throw at it, it remains a cosmic mystery, a manifestation of the irreducible and inexplicable existence of evil in the universe. Many chroniclers of the Holocaust consider it immoral even to try to explain it.

Pinker, Steven (2011-10-06). The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence In History And Its Causes (pp. 495-496). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

The Myth of Pure Evil

Baumeister, with psychological spectacles still affixed, calls this the myth of pure evil. The mindset that we adopt when we don moral spectacles is the mindset of the victim. Evil is the intentional and gratuitous infliction of harm for its own sake, perpetrated by a villain who is malevolent to the bone, inflicted on a victim who is innocent and good. The reason that this is a myth (when seen through psychological spectacles) is that evil in fact is perpetrated by people who are mostly ordinary, and who respond to their circumstances, including provocations by the victim, in ways they feel are reasonable and just.

The myth of pure evil gives rise to an archetype that is common in religions, horror movies, children’s literature, nationalist mythologies, and sensationalist news coverage. read more »


Miscellaneous News and Links Updates

by Neil Godfrey


  • I’m not sure what the current status of the Kickstarter for a debate between Bart Ehrman and Robert M. Price is. I have been slow to post on this in part because I did not like the idea of paying Ehrman $5000 (even if he does give the money to charities — I’d rather he be assured by receipts others have already donated to charities of their own or better still just speak for no other motive than the public interest). My other part reason was that from what I have read by Ehrman on the subject and from what I have seen of his manner in some videos when addressing the topic, I really can’t see him making any genuine effort to bring due diligence or seriousness to the debate. I’d rather see a debate with a scholar who undertakes a more professional approach vis a vis the public interest.  Others may disagree, however. 
  • Tim Hendrix published on Scribd a review of Richard Carrier’s earlier book, Proving History, in which he questions Carrier’s use of Bayes’ theorem for historical argument. (I understand that Tim’s research field is Bayesian methods for machine learning.)
  • Jerrel Arkes, a 30 year old atheist from the Netherlands, has opened a new site,, on which people can vote (with social shares) for Science or Religion. The intent (as I understand it) is to start conversation through social media.




De-Radicalising Muhammad

by Neil Godfrey

Tom Holland

What do the Charlie Hebdo murders and the rise of the Islamic State owe to Islam? It would be comforting to insist, as many have done, that they owe nothing at all; but Holland, in the inaugural Christopher Hitchens Lecture, argues that the truth is more complex. The best way to combat jihadism, he proposes, is to recognise the centrality of Muhammad to Islam – and that he comes in many forms. There is the moral leader who swallowed abuse peaceably; and there is the war leader who ordered people who insulted him put to death. How best, then, to de-radicalise the Prophet? Tom Holland is author of In The Shadow of the Sword, Rubicon, Persian Fire, Millenniumand the new translation of The Histories by Herodotus. Chaired by Katrin Bennhold of the New York Times.” — from the Hay Festival program.

Denouncing Islamic State as not representing “true Islam” is a well-intentioned declaration but counterproductive and seriously problematic, according to historian Tom Holland in the inaugural Christopher Hitchens Lecture at the May 2015 Hay Festival. The title of his talk is De-Radicalising Muhummad (available online).

What is wrong with these well-meaning efforts to defuse anti-Islamic tensions?

What it does is imply that there is a normative, authentic Islam, one that embodies ideals that are perfectly compatible with liberal, secular Britain, and then there are misinterpretations of it, distortions of it, that are not really Islam at all. . . . .

Playing the same lethal game as Islamic State

By denying the title of Muslims to Islamic State Western governments are actually playing the same lethal game as the Islamic State themselves. Because what the Islamic State do is to condemn other Muslims as either apostates or heretics — the better then to justify their elimination.

I really don’t think it is for Prime Ministers or Home Secretaries to play that game. Because once you take it on yourself to define what is or isn’t authentic Islam then you are buying into the notion that such a thing as authentic Islam actually exists. 

Now if you’re a believer of course that’s fine. You will accept that indeed Islam was given to you by God and therefore it does have some absolute Platonic essence.

But if you’re not a believer then a religion is just like any other manifestation of human culture. It’s something that is porous, variable, forever mutating, and evolving. It’s a dialogue between people in the present and an inheritance of texts and traditions and people can choose what of those texts and traditions they wish to emphasise. 

So it’s not like religion is the equivalent of a radio station set with a dial and you can definitely find it. It’s a whole series of points on a bandwidth. 

That understanding ought to give us hope, however long-term it may have to be. It certainly ought to contribute to a lessening of social prejudice and a promotion of constructive ways of addressing the problem of violent Islamic groups and individuals.

And obviously what a definition of an extremist is, what a radical is, will depend where you stand on that bandwidth. Because it cannot be emphasised enough that jihadists do not think of themselves as extremists. To them, it’s us, the comfortably secular and liberal kind of people . . . who are the extremists. Jihadists see themselves as models of righteous behaviour. They see themselves as doing God’s will as expressed in the pages of his holy book the Koran and the sayings of his prophet Muhammad. And they also see themselves as obedient to something else — to the example of Muhammad. The Koran is absolutely explicit about this. In the Messenger of God it says you have a beautiful example, an example to follow. 

And so it does matter then, to jihadis no less than to the vast majority of Muslims who would never in a million years set about destroying the antiquities of the Near East, or taking sex slaves, or murdering those who mock the Prophet. But sanction for what they do is indeed to be found within the various biographies and traditions that are associated with the Prophet. 

So what does Tom Holland see as the appropriate response? read more »


What Is Vridar?

by Tim Widowfield

When I started writing for Vridar, Neil pointed out that in one of my book references I had linked to a Google Books page. He said he preferred to use LibraryThing instead. I grumbled to myself, but dutifully created an account and complied with his request.


Vridar — pronounced “VREE-dar”

Why are we here?

Eventually, I came to understand that he wasn’t making an arbitrary demand. Vridar doesn’t funnel people to Amazon hoping to collect a small fee. We don’t show ads — at least not deliberately. From LibraryThing, you can go to whichever online store you want. We don’t make that choice for you.

We’re not looking for Vridar generate income, even if it’s just to break even. Sometime back, when a certain fool nuked our blog and forced us to move to a different host, we deliberately chose a “dot-org” address to show that we mean business, or rather that we don’t mean business. We stand instead for the free and open flow of ideas.

But if that “free and open flow” means anything at all, then you need to know that we aren’t motivated by something else. You should know, for example, that we don’t take kickbacks for reviewing books or for linking to somebody else’s site. Nor will you ever see us block links to other biblioblogs, even when they routinely block us and assiduously pretend that we don’t exist. There are blogs out there whose moderators routinely delete or heavily edit Neil’s comments. We won’t do that here.

No adverts here

Recently, I received an email that was part of a PR campaign for celebrating 50th anniversary of the New International Version (NIV). This translation of the Bible began with a meeting of the Committee on Bible Translation (CBT) back in 1965. The lady who wrote the form letter encouraged us to share certain stories with our readers to help or enlighten them. Obviously, the PR firm who got our email addresses hadn’t read the countless times in posts wherein we’ve slammed the NIV as one of the worst English translations available, if you care about what the text actually says. She wrote: read more »