2011-08-08

Leaving creationism, meeting a new authority or learning to think for oneself

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by Neil Godfrey

There’s an interesting response to McGrath’s recent post. It traces one person’s evolution from a belief in creationism to belief in evolution — and, I think, ironically identifies something that went “wrong” in the process. No, of course I don’t think creationism is right and evolution wrong. So let me explain. First, here is the key part of the comment:

Maybe you had this experience too; but I remember reading a book arguing for creationism, it was well-written, finessed, and aid out all this data, had charts and figures, asked thoroughly compelling questions, and well, just seemed to reveal that the whole academy of science was just wrong- demonstrably wrong. Thankfully, through reading peer-reviewed, academic scientific studies I am no longer a creationist. I realized the lines they were given me were rhetorical, the gaping holes they pointed out that seemed just so persuasive and ground breaking were, once I became more scientifically literate, a chimera of rhetorical making. The questions they strung together just did not make sense once you realized the field,-and I noticed that I would need to read several books just to reveal a error in one dot in their whole join-the-dots technique spread across a chapter.

At the end of it I felt rather embarrassed that I listened to self-published, amateur scholarship, that I didn’t spot that despite the thousands of scientists there were in the world, it seemed to be only those with marginal nor tentative qualifications in the field though this was ground-breaking and became fawning enthusiastic devotees of pseudo-science.

That journey was a little different from mine and I am sure from many others who left creationism.

On my pathway there was a time when I was misguidedly looking for someone with a doctorate in psychology who also believed in a literal physical resurrection of Jesus. I think I must have been thinking that no-one so educated could possibly believe anything like that, and that this would somehow lend some weight to the case against the resurrection story in the Gospels. (As I said, it was a misguided quest.) When I mentioned this to someone (I think someone with a research doctorate in psychology) they asked me, “What would it prove if you did find one who did believe in the resurrection?” Of course, it would prove nothing.

I think that was one of a few stepping stones assisting me towards accepting responsibility for my own beliefs and thinking for myself.

I was a cataloguing librarian in an academic library at the time and encountered a regular stream of donated books about intelligent design. I enquired where they came from and discovered they were from a campus group that included a number of mathematics and (I think) science doctors. This was publicly funded university.

But there is one detail in which I do relate to in the above experience. Embarrassment. I know many of us have felt that over our past intellectual indiscretions.

There was a difference, though. What embarrassed me was that I could have been so screwed up in my thinking while being so sure I was right. I don’t know if it ever crossed my mind to think I was embarrassed over listening to “self-published” as opposed to “peer-reviewed” writings. What I was embarrassed over was my own inability to recognize the fallacies in my belief system.

I was determined to do all I could to avoid ever again falling in to that sort of self-deception, and one of the tools (there were/are a few) was endeavouring to become more conscious of basic logical fallacies. (Of course there is no guarantee for any of us against self-deception. How can there be? One always has to live with doubts.)

So I went over all the stuff I used to believe and tried to retrace my thinking about it and identify the fallacies that had blinded me. And I tried to be alert to all ideas with the same consciousness regardless of their source. After all, even politicians lie and people do tend to believe what is advantageous to them.

It was not a question of where ideas came from, but a question of the validity of the ideas themselves. And even in books that are very sound in every important way, one will sometimes encounter a claim that lacks substance or is logically flawed, or rests on foundations that are fine as far as they go but always open to revision.

It is easy to identify and see through the fallacies in the literature of alien abductionists and Atlantis believers. It is rewarding to read literature whose authors are also well aware of the fallacies and express information in a manner relatively short of them. There would be something seriously wrong if most of that did not come from the most educated people, and that, of course, means academics.

Where a piece of writing comes from, who publishes it, whether it is possessed by only one person in the entire world or has the backing of all the king’s horses and all the king’s men, is entirely beside the point when it comes to its validity.

If it is logically flawed it is logically flawed. Occasionally in some disciplines (let’s pick one at random — say biblical studies) a practitioner comes along conceding the logical flaws at the heart of a particular inquiry (to pick one at random — let’s say historical Jesus studies). That, I admit, is a little reassuring to one who has found the very same flaws in his own reading of that topic’s publications. (I have not found cause for the same admissions from the few paleontologists whose works I have read. I have read a lot of history, and that is a mixed bag.

I can’t say I have managed to avoid fallacies or self-deception, but at least this way I like to think I have avoided the trap of arguing from authority or “consensus” (whatever that means).

It is great to keep meeting others — mostly online — who have enjoyed a similar liberating journey.

 

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Neil Godfrey

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15 thoughts on “Leaving creationism, meeting a new authority or learning to think for oneself”

  1. The Quest for the Historical Jesus has crashed and burned so badly that the failures are now documented.

    As far as I am aware there is not a single fact about Jesus that historical Jesus scholars all agree on other than that Jesus was Jewish and was crucified. (It says so in the Bible)

    So much for scholarship in the field, Especially when the scholars are the likes of Bauckham and Casey.

    These Biblical criteria work on the principle that 2 leaky buckets hold more water than one leaky bucket.

  2. Defering to peer-reviewed literature is what amateurs should do, since in most contexts an amateur does not have the time nor the prior knowledge base to reach an informed conclusion on the subject. An appeal to authority or consensus is still an appeal to authority/consensus; whether it is fallacious or not depends, again, on the context.

    The peer-review process is the best method we have for weening out bad ideas, but this by no means implies that it is perfect. To think that it is perfect would be to subscribe to a subset of scientism. Not only that, but not all peer-reviewed fields are created equally. Some are more ideologically charged than others or have other entrenched problems that make the process less reliable.

    Essentially, the quoted post hasn’t really improved their situation, they just chose a more acceptable authority. They haven’t actually corrected the process that led them to their initial “embarrassment”. Again, this might be a quick and dirty way to settle a debate that’s outside of one’s purview but in a more involved dialogue the real punch of argument comes from the strength of the logic and evidence presented, not an appeal to authority/consensus.

    It’s the difference between giving someone a fish for a day or teaching someone how to fish. The quoted post just got their fish from a different source (appealing to authority), they haven’t actually learned how to fish (learned how to debate logically).

  3. Why didn’t Philo write about Josephus? Not a problem…

    More evolutionists explaining to creationists why they should not expect to be shown any evidence….

    There seems to be an awful lot of patiently explaining why nobody should expect evidence of the existence of Jesus of Nazareth, the radiance of God’s being and the agent through whom the world was created,

    I guess we shouldn’t expect to be shown evidence of any Holocaust either, and nobody should expect evidence of global warming.

    1. Somewhat off topic, but I felt like jumping in on the question of why Philo doesn’t write about Jesus (which I assume you meant and not Josephus, Steven).

      This is just my honest thought. I certainly don’t care if Jesus existed, as I’ve said a number of times here before. Since I agree with the idea that the Dead Sea Scrolls group were Jewish Christians, I take into account the fact that they practiced “faithful concealment of the mysteries of truth” from all outsiders (1QS 4.6). This is also a rule in the Clementine literature, which, however late, are arguably based on earlier Jewish Christian sources.

      These “mysteries of truth” are probably the interpretations of the Righteous Teacher, “to whom God made known all the mysteries of His servants the prophets” (1QpHab 7.4-5), which is also similar to James in the Recognitions of Clement.

      I think this explains why the NT epistles are so “silent” on Jesus, which are all written either by or to outsiders, even if Jesus is baseed solely on scripture, and why someone like Philo in Alexandria would not have known about Jesus.

      And the “fact” (if such it is) that Jesus was crucified doesn’t mean it would have been known to Philo, any more than other cucifixions that Josephus says were to numerous to count. And there are other people that Philo could have mentioned but didn’t, such as Judas the Galilean, but we don’t take this as evidence that they didn’t exist.

      Just explaining my thoughts, and I’m fine if anyone feels differently.

  4. Thanks for highlighting my reply Neil.

    I would like to point out though my comments weren’t making the argument that, if I can put it like this: ‘ side x has the most scholars’ so I wont look at the evidence, its enough to see who has the most PhD’s on their side.’ I was, as I am sure you understand, always aware of the fact that creationism or intelligent design was a marginal position. The change in my position came when I did try reacquaint myself with the field in more depth; using the openess that you say should mark our intellectual enquiries. I never, ever said this change was came through a totalling of scholarly consensus, or an increasingly feeling of needing to align with a dominant worldview. Indeed, I recorded exactly why- and it was through reading, and evaluating the evidence as you recommended. My second paragraph does highlight why I thought I should have been more judicious in giving my support to what was a marginal viewpoint, and it is part of my argument that we need to realize that in every field there will be arguments that, to novices, look amazing, but to those involved in the field turn to be nothing more than bluster (i.e. wow why haven’t all monkeys evolved if evolution is true, or, wow why didn’t Philo write about Jesus if he existed). It am not advocating an academic form of ‘Rome has spoken, the matter is closed.’ So while your post is a useful reminder on the need to evaluate evidence regardless of peer-pressure or scowls from the academia, I do think trying to use my comments as a foil to make them is a little bit unfair. And, as I prefaced my comments with, I would like to reiterate that I am not suggesting that all arguments for mythicism are unconvincing or bogus- even Fitzgerald’s book, whose books these comments were initially structured around, was insightful in parts (e.g. his section on Josephus).

  5. J Quinton,

    If you could read my original post in its entirety and my comments immediately above your posting, and return to consider the accuracy of your comments I would be grateful.

  6. Steve,

    I presume your comment was meant to be intentionally blunt, but please don’t attempt to bring my statements about Philo into the broader question of why historians from the time did not mention Jesus. I have said nothing about that, and said nothing about the persuasive value that this historical lacunae holds for the mythicists’ cause.

    I realize that on the blogosphere the issue of mythicism can draw a lot of frenetic energy but It is getting a bit tiring have to keep check on people and holding them to comment on what I have actually said/argued, and refraining them from going off on tangents on what I haven’t…

    1. ERLEND
      but to those involved in the field turn to be nothing more than bluster (i.e. wow why haven’t all monkeys evolved if evolution is true, or, wow why didn’t Philo write about Jesus if he existed).

      CARR
      My apologies for misunderstanding you when you implied that only the bit about Philo was ‘bluster’ on the part of mythicists, and that had nothing to do with the general question of why historians did not write about Jesus, which presumably is not bluster on the part of mythicists.

      The fact remains that not one person in history has written a document naming himself as ever having seen Jesus, Judas, Thomas, Lazarus, Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus, Barabbas, Mary Magdaelebe, Bartimaeus etc etc.

      They only appear in unprovenanced, anonymous works which can easily be shown to produce episodes in the life of Jesus by turning to the Old Testament but cannot be shown to produce episodes in the life of Jesus by writing down memories from people who knew him.

  7. Thanks to Neil for this spot-on rebuttal of the “argument” that the success of Darwin’s theory can be cited as evidence for Jesus’ historicity. This argument is tantamount to postulating that a fringe position on a scholarly issue can be rejected by referring to a fringe position on a scientific issue.

    Consider for a moment the reciprocal argument, namely, that a fringe position on a scientific (or mathematical) issue can be rejected by referring to a fringe position on a scholarly issue. A consensus view among scholars of theology is that Jesus rose from the dead on the first Easter morning. There can be no doubt that theologians who argue against the Resurrection belong to the despicable tradition of “self-published, amateur scholarship.” To realize this, simply remember that Prof. Gerd Lüdemann was fired from his teaching post at the University of Göttingen when he told his students that early Christian belief in Jesus’ resurrection may have been the product of hallucinatory experiences. Now, the standard view among mathematicians is that the Riemann Hypothesis (RH) requires a proof. There is however a very tiny group of mathematicians who argue that the RH should rather be taken as a new axiom because, fundamentally speaking, there is no proof. How should the dispute over the RH be settled?

    According to the above argument, mathematicians holding the fringe position should be treated in the same manner as Prof. Lüdemann: They should be branded as amateurs and fired. Luckily, they are not. Instead, the need to add the RH as a new axiom is recognized as what it really is: a matter of faith.

    1. Michael,

      Again read my comments in their totality, and my comments above, and please get back to me and let me know if you still think this is a ‘spot on’ response, and why you attributed to me arguments that I never made.

      I was not arguing that ‘oh its not peer reviewed, therefore ignore it…its embarrassing.’ As I said: “I realized the lines they were given me were rhetorical, the gaping holes they pointed out that seemed just so persuasive and ground breaking were, once I became more scientifically literate, a chimera of rhetorical making. The questions they strung together just did not make sense once you realized the field’ The point is that the arguments were poorly constructed and rhetorical; that they can look convincing if you have little understanding of the scope of the field, but when you realize the evidence it becomes apparent that many of the arguments don’t make sense. That is the point of my argument. Its a perfectly simple concept to grasp, and its one I would have thought everyone would sympathize with.

      The fact that I mentioned the phrase ‘peer-review’ within this statement doesn’t mean someone can jump on this and claim ‘oh you are saying that it needs to be peer-reviewed or…’, or because I mentioned ‘creationism’ that ‘oh you are obviously saying that mythicism equates to creationism…’ and go on an extended discussion on why I am being logically flawed, and not following evidence, all for something I never said! I in no way made this argument, nor would I ever make this argument. I even outlined at the start that I enjoy Neil’s posts, so why that wouldn’t put a red flag up for Neil to think he misunderstood me and how I research and look at evidence I am not sure. I am sure the post, or at least with reference to me, will be removed.

  8. Steven Carr wrote: “As far as I am aware there is not a single fact about Jesus that historical Jesus scholars all agree on other than that Jesus was Jewish and was crucified. (It says so in the Bible)”

    On March 30, 2004 Dr. Paul Maier (www.wmich.edu/wmu/news/2011/04/062.html)
    was interviewed on the “100 Huntley Street” telecast:

    David Mainse: My guest, Dr. Paul Maier, will be on ABC Television this coming Monday evening with Peter Jennings who is doing a special “Jesus and Paul.” Dr. Maier is Professor of Ancient History at Western Michigan University, and also, he is a Harvard graduate. He was awarded a full scholarships for post graduate study at the University of Heidelberg, Germany, and also Basel, Switzerland. After studying at the latter under the famed scholars Karl Barth and Oscar Cullman, he received a Doctor of Philosophy degree “Summa Cum Laude,” the first American ever to win highest honours at the Swiss university. And of course, in ‘68 with Doubleday he has published many scholarly books. Pontius Pilate was one of the first ones. He is the definitive modern translator of the History written by Josephus. Dr. Maier is also the modern translator of Eusebius, the first ever Christian who wrote a history of the first three centuries of Christianity. He was named Professor of the Year, and one of America’s 25 finest educators by the Washington
    based Council for Advancement and Support of Education This is secular stuff, this isn’t religious stuff, you know. Please ladies and gentlemen, welcome Paul Maier. What are you doing in connection with The DaVinci Code?

    Paul Maier: The book will be called the “DaVinci Code Fact Or Fiction” and it is coming out next month.

    David Mainse: You are being asked to come on TV by ABC’s Peter Jennings as a guest, next Monday night and obviously they’re pulling together scholars and you are such a scholar. Now we have here in Canada, a book that’s just come out by a man whom I love. Tom, I have called you on the phone and congratulated you on articles in the Toronto Star. And we have been together on a number of occasions. But this book has come out. “The Pagan Christ – Rediscovering the Lost Light.” I asked you to read it specifically. I sent a copy to you down to Western Michigan University. What is his
    main thesis?

    Paul Maier: Basically Tom said that Christianity is really nothing new. And that there are references to Jesus in every aspect of his life already in the Egyptian records 18,000 years ago, and that the gospels really offer nothing fresh. They traced Jesus’ life from infancy to the visit of the Magi, to a star involved, to miracle working, to healing the sick, giving sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, crucified, resurrected three days later. Supposedly, every aspect of Jesus life has been already written in past myths. And again he defines myth in a very positive sense. He uses Joseph Campbell’s definition, “myth is what never was but always is.” And in the sense that although it is not history, nevertheless the timeless truths that are taught in myths are the things that really count. And the problem is that as an historian, I don’t find Jesus mentioned in Egyptian records 18,000 years ago. There were no Egyptian records 18,000 years ago, and there wasn’t even an Egypt at that time. I don’t find any of these things that he is claiming. It is one thing to say I
    don’t believe the present gospels but it’s another thing to say there is nothing new in those gospels, and all of this material was from primitive and such humanity on, timeless truths will continue, even after Christianity quits.

    David Mainse: You were raised in this. Your Dad was a PhD of Ancient Semitic languages– (shades of rosetta stone). So you were raised in this milieu. And in fact one of the reasons I understand you took the path that you took was in order to verify from secular sources for your own mind your father’s faith.

    Paul Maier: Well, I was always concerned that if these marvellous extraordinary events as reported in Scripture really happened, that we ought to be able to find fall-out, as it were, in the secular sources.

    David Mainse: Tom, no attack on the personal level. I love you. Remember that. Is Tom’s research according to you, Dr. Maier, most eminent professor of ancient history, is his research reliable?

    Paul Maier: I would like to say “yes” to a fellow colleague in Academe, but I must say “no”. I am quite surprised at how he footnotes things. In fact, I found the first problem in a paragraph on page 28 of his book in which he is talking about Eusebius, the person that I translated. He says that Eusebius claims that the gospels of the New Testament were really the old dramatic books of the Esenes from pre-Christian days. Now I knew that not to be true. So I immediately looked up his foot note number one. Instead of providing any documentation for that statement, as you should do in a footnote, instead all he does is add additional argument or material that does not prove what he is stating. And this is really not the way you do footnotes or endnotes. This is really the wrong way to do historical methodology, and that really bothered me because you find this again and again. When I am trying to pin him down to some primary source to see where he gets this, we don’t get the primary source. All we usually get is a reference to Alvin Boyd Kuhn, a scholar that died back in 1963, I believe, and who is hardly known but, evidently, was very influential for Tom Harpur, and that’s not the way you do research.

    David Mainse: All right. Let me go on. How does Tom view the gospel of Jesus?

    Paul Maier: What bothers me is that Tom, first of all, has a very outmoded view of when the gospels were written. He again and again says that the four gospels received their definitive form about 175 A.D. Now that’s almost a hundred years too late. That’s the view of the old Tübiugen school in Germany as to when the gospel of John came along, and they said probably 175 A.D., that is, until they found parts of the gospel of John way up the Nile in the famous Ryland Papyrus from around 110 A.D. And so, nearly all Biblical scholars today say that all four gospels had to be written before the year 100. So really he is using rather outmoded research here. What bothers me is that while disdaining the Gospels, he will accept so many of the same supposedly faux names that show up in gospels. Then he will find a parallel word from thousands of years back that supposedly shows that this is nothing new. For example, Abraham, Father of the faith– said Abraham is composed of “A” as in the alpha privative which means as “Amoral,” not “Moral.” Thus Abraham
    means “Not Brahma.” Trying to relate this, of course, to Indian religion does not work. Obviously, Abraham is the Semitic meaning “Exalted father.” You just shouldn’t play those tricks. Another one is “Jesus”, for example. He is supposedly found back in ancient Egyptian records (I will read from page 39), “According to the historian, Herodotus, “the father of history,” the Egyptian Jesus was known as Iu-em-hetep.” Now, of course, Herodotus does not mention Jesus. Tom implies that he does. Tom claims that Iusu, “was one of the eight great gods who were described in the papyri almost 20,000 years ago,” Folks, they didn’t have writing 20,000 years ago. There was no Egypt 20,000 years ago. The art of writing was invented about 4,000 BC at the earliest. So right there you have an impossible situation. Tom, why did you do that? I don’t quite understand that. In future editions do some emendations, if you please.

    David Mainse: All right. Tom many years ago, probably 25 years ago was on “100 Huntley Street.” He and his wife had taken a donkey from Nazareth and travelled down to Bethlehem, and I thought it was so unique that I called Tom up and said you got to come on and tell that story which he did. And so, Tom, I thank you for being willing to do that. But, in this book, does it come out that Tom at least believes that there is historical personality named Jesus?

    Paul Maier: Well, I was shocked. He devotes a whole chapter to this. And you realize that 99.9% of scholars across the world will acknowledge that Jesus is an historical person. They may not say that Jesus is the Son of God, but they will say there was an historical figure named Jesus of Nazareth. But Tom has very grave doubts about this, so he claims. Now that floored me right there. Because, we have copious evidence for Jesus’ existence. If you don’t like the gospels, go to the Roman historian, Tacitus, who talks about the great fire of Rome and how Nero got blamed for it. To save himself, he blames the Christians. This Roman historian says that they are named for a Christus, who was crucified by one of our governors, Pontius Pilate. What more do you need? That quote alone would establish the historicity of Jesus. Suetonius mentions Christ in connection with the riot of those for or against Jesus across the Tiber. Pliny, the younger, Governor of Asia Minor, says that these Christians get up on Sunday morning and sing hymns to Christ as to a God.
    The Jewish rabbinic traditions mention Jesus of Nazareth in their own language. What more do we need of witnesses? Josephus mentions Jesus twice. I want to point out that Christian faith is based upon fact and not on fiction. The problem nowadays is that so many people are trying to turn fact into fiction.

    David Mainse: Not on “100 Huntley Street”, and don’t forget I love you Tom. God bless.

    1. “… until they found parts of the gospel of John way up the Nile in the famous Ryland Papyrus [P52] from around 110 A.D.”

      A.D. 110?

      Brent Nongbri: “What I have done is to show that any serious consideration of the window of possible dates for P52 must include dates in the later second and early third centuries. Thus, P52 cannot be used as evidence to silence other debates about the existence (or non-existence) of the Gospel of John in the first half of the second century…” (Brent Nongbri, Harvard Theological Review, vol. 98, pp. 23-52).

    2. David: “Because, we have copious evidence for Jesus’ existence.”

      You must have a different definition of “copious.”

      Tacitus, Suetonius, and Pliny relate stories of Christians, not Christ. We have no reason to believe Tacitus was doing anything more than telling us when Christians believed. Apologists like to imagine that he double-checked those meticulous crucifixion records from the Roman archives, but seriously, do you really think Rome kept records of the names and dates of all the people executed out in the provinces? For what purpose?

  9. http://www.orthodoxchristianity.net/forum/index.php?action=printpage;topic=7430.0

    “The story in St Mark about Jesus healing a blind man has two parts. Newly sighted people cannot make sense of what they see right away, and Jesus
    recognized this and performed the miracle of helping the man readjust his brain patterns. A true miracle occurred.

    The Bethsaida Miracle
    D. Keith Mano, National Review, 21 April 1997.

    Note: Oliver Sacks makes a cameo appearence in the 1999 film, At First Sight:
    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0132512/

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