2011-10-11

Is there a sceptic among the theologians?

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by Neil Godfrey

This afternoon I listened to an interview with some scientists and one vital message came through. Scientists are the biggest sceptics of the lot. A good scientist is always trying to disprove his own hypothesis or results. He wants to be the one to disprove his own thesis rather than having the embarrassment of someone else doing it. A story was told of an astronomer who gave a public lecture before hundreds of his peers explaining not how he had discovered planets around other suns but all the mistakes that led him to realize he had discovered nothing: he was given a standing ovation.

Interviewer: I don’t know if many theologians do that.

I have never heard a scientist warn a layperson against being “too sceptical” though I have heard the warning often from theologian-historians.

One would think that theologians who describe themselves as “critical historians” would welcome certain challenges from mythicism as an opportunity to attempt to disprove their own models. That’s what good scientists seek to do.

It’s one reason I have several times now said that I am not “a mythicist” in the sense that I am interested in defending or proving mythicism as “a plain fact” or as “the right” interpretation. That would make me a polemicist simply because I would be forced to cherry pick facts and arguments to support my case rather than engage in a serious open-ended investigation.

If I had time to do the research as extensively as I would like I may well then be in a position argue a case of my own, having examined and tested (and investigated ways to disprove) it. Till then, it is all too easy to fend off theologian arguments against mythicism simply because it is clear most of them have not taken time to seriously explore the weaknesses of their own position or the strengths of the mythicist one.

It’s so easy to establish the historicity of so many ancient and medieval figures. Literary evidence is as strong as you ever need when it is tested against independent witnesses of valid provenance and nature. It is also easy to assume the historicity of some for whom there is no real evidence, but I don’t know of a single case where that matters — except for the case of Jesus.

Theologians have on the whole resisted the challenge of mythicism. Mythicism is in sore need of serious challenges itself.

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Neil Godfrey

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0 thoughts on “Is there a sceptic among the theologians?”

    1. Fair enough given that scepticism has two meanings: there is a colloquial meaning that indicates an irrational foolishness and there is a more scientific or scholarly meaning that is something much more positive. I discussed this at http://vridar.wordpress.com/2010/12/01/two-misunderstandings-in-biblical-studies-the-nature-of-scepticism-and-evidence/

      Scientists I have heard advising lay people to accept the science of climate change are encouraging them to accept the data — to accept the evidence. And they point to the evidence. At least in my experience. I have yet to hear them advise others to accept the conclusions or their argument apart from the evidence — whether climate change, evolution, stem-cell research, whatever. The scepticism they are opposing is a scepticism that is probably more colloquially called silliness.

      The interview I listened to and link to also discusses the issues surrounding the science of climate change, and also reminds us that there are some not so good scientists, too, who do cherry pick their data. But that is all shown up easily enough for what it is. And it is by no means restricted to climate change debates. My point stands given the scientific/scholarly meaning of the word.

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