The Charge of Denialism and Cognitive Dissonance

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by Tim Widowfield

An argument to end all arguments

David Hillman recently commented:

Hangin' From Albert Einstein's Proof
[Dice] Hangin’ From Albert Einstein’s Proof (Photo credit: voteprime)

In real intellectual arguments the accusation of denialism does not help at all. In the argument for example over the philosophical foundations of quantum mechanics, was Einstein a dice denier, Bohr a reality denier. Such accusations would not have advanced the argument.

I do actually suspect that McGrath’s use of the term is an immoral smear to avoid addressing the arguments, and if I could ever work out what Hoffmann is attempting to communicate I might suspect the same of him.

Of course, advancing the argument is not the aim, is it? They charge mythicsts with denialism in order to terminate the argument. “There is nothing to argue about,” they mean to say. “Talk to the hand.”

Being lumped in with conspiracy theorists, climate-change hoaxers, birthers, and Holocaust-deniers isn’t some unfortunate afterthought or an unintended consequence; it’s the main reason they do it.

As far as what Hoffmann is attempting to communicate — well, it’s essentially this: He doesn’t like “Mythtics.” His tirade from 8 February makes it clear. His dislike seems to have gone well beyond any rational explanation. It has certainly dissolved all norms of polite social behavior. I, for one, would forgive his departure from normal, sane human discourse — if any of what he was saying were true.

A Godfrey of his own creation

Hoffmann has created his own mythical Godfrey who lives in the enchanted land of Vridar. Hoffy doesn’t like this Pseudo-Godrey.

I do not like that pseudo-Godfrey

He does not like his posts on Paul.

He does not like them, not at all.

Hoffy tells us all day long,

Pseudo-Godfrey is quite wrong.

He does not like his exegesis.

He does like his take on Jesus.

Even quoting Shelby Spong,

Pseudo-Godfrey’s very wrong.

He hates his manner, so uncouth.

He hates how he distorts the truth.

Hoffy ever sings this song,

Pseudo-Godfrey’s always wrong.

(He would forgive them all, you know,

If only they’d agree with Joe.)

However, you can’t blame Pseudo-Godfrey; he’s just like every other mythicist. They are all:

. . . belligerent yahoos who behave like sophomores at an all-city debating contest.

Yes, all mythicists are like this. To Hoffy, they are ill-informed fools. He hates them all because they:

. . . are fighting for a cause they don’t fully understand, based on evidence they can’t cipher for an objective they can’t reach.

But, he would explain, even if they could understand the things that only someone of Hoffy’s cranial capacity could understand, it wouldn’t matter. They don’t want to understand. They purposely ignore evidence. In short, they are not straight shooters. They obfuscate with malicious intent.

The mythtics [sic] don’t want history, they want a victory. They don’t want serious discussion or best interpretation, they want to score points. 

I said earlier that his fantasies about mythicists seem to have gone beyond rational explanation. However, there is a simple, psychological reason for Hoffmann’s behavior, and that’s cognitive dissonance.

Justifying behavior by reinventing your opponent

Leon Festinger, seminal theorist in the area o...
Leon Festinger, seminal theorist in the area of cognitive dissonance. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Gather ’round, now, and listen closely, because I’m about to say something nice about Doc Hoffmann. He is not a bad person. Anyone who isn’t a sociopath (and I don’t think Joe’s a sociopath) naturally feels some guilt when he or she engages in bad conduct. Confronting one’s own churlishness creates a state of tension known as cognitive dissonance. The greater the gap between what we have done and what we believe we should have done, the greater the dissonance. Dissonance causes anxiety, which often drives us to find some way to justify our behavior.

Creating Pseudo-Godfrey is Hoffmann’s way of dealing with cognitive dissonance. Consider the following:

What are the objects and intentions of the mythicists? Why do they regard what they are doing as important? Is it out of some desire for truth—to get to the bottom of a case and see historical justice done. That would qualify as idealism. Or is it simply to make their opponents look mean-spirited and wrong by pursuing immoderate ends in the rashest way. That wouldn’t.

Hoffmann is unhappy with his mean-spirited behavior, but cannot accept responsibility. He must deflect the accusation and place the blame on Pseudo-Godfrey for his pursuit of “immoderate ends in the rashest way.”

Unfortunately, I don’t expect things to improve here. The Godfrey that exists only in Hoffmann’s head will continue to become more nefarious in order to keep up with the escalating insults. So you should expect things to get worse before they get even worse.

The descending spiral

How will things get worse? How could they get worse? Well, right now Hoffmann is torn between excusing Pseudo-Godfrey — by citing his fictional biography (i.e., his conservative Christian roots), his pathetic credentials (i.e., just a simple librarian), and his low intelligence — and accusing him. I fully expect in the future that all will shift to the latter: to Pseudo-Godfrey’s malicious behavior, his willful intent. You can see that shift already occurring when he claims that mythicists need Jesus to be a myth, no doubt as a result of their corrupt nature.

At this point in an essay, the writer is supposed to present a solution to the problem. Unfortunately, I have none.

Fasten your seatbelts.

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Tim Widowfield

Tim is a retired vagabond who lives with his wife and multiple cats in a 20-year-old motor home. To read more about Tim, see our About page.

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17 thoughts on “The Charge of Denialism and Cognitive Dissonance”

  1. I’m pretty sure Hoffmann’s switch from mythicist neutrality to this outright hostility occurred around the same time as his falling out with Richard Carrier. And that happened during the pre-publication stage of the mythicist-neutral collection of essays Sources of the Jesus Tradition.

    1. I totally agree! It’s the only thing that makes sense of Hoffman’s anti-mythicist Jihad. And then in the midst of the Ehrman/Carrier historicity dispute, Ehrman refers to Hoffman and treats him as an ally in the debate… thus solidifying Hoffman’s new ideological alliances. That’s how it looks to me anyway.

  2. I’m one Mythtic who doesn’t care if a flesh and blood Jesus existed or not. I know and understand that NT Jesus is the personification of the suffering servant symbol of Isaiah 53 and the name, “Jesus” (Joshua), comes from Zech. 3 – which was/is thought to be a prophecy about the messiah. No flesh and blood Jesus is required for the origin of this belief at all. Educated people like Hoffman and Ehrman know that too…so, what’s their problem? Would they lose their academic positions and prestige? I don’t know but they must be afraid of something happening if they man up about what they know.

    1. I think the real key to understanding and then explaining the evidence is “taking seriously” the Jesus we find in it all — a literary and theological figure. (This goes without saying. Leave all questions of what might have lain behind that figure originally — whether a historical person or an idea that came to be personified) and just work with the Jesus we have, the literary one. That will open up the new possibilities for exploration. Leave the questions of historicity or mythicism fall where they may in the course of that journey.

  3. I’m not sure where comments like: “If the typical mythicist is someone like Godfrey, then you’re not being too harsh” come from. This one is Steven Bollinger. Why such hostility?

    1. This really does mystify me, too. I can understand (sort of) the hostility against Earl Doherty and others who really do argue directly for “mythicism”. (As Doherty has said, attacks on him make it sound like he has raped his grandmother.) I can understand the McGraths and Hoffmanns loathing me — they have proven themselves intellectually dishonest and outright buffoons. But I confess I was slightly surprised or disappointed at the way Crossley, Goodacre, S. Davies, Hurtado, Ehrman responded either to mythicism generally or critiques of their positions in particular. They demonstrated either an intolerance in the face of examining their core assumptions and/or a disappointing ignorance of the fundamentals of historical inquiry. (Crossley, for example, loves to write about historiography at a philosophical level but has failed to grasp the fundamental craft tools outside the field of biblical studies.)

      But who are all these other people who are only known by avatars who express such deep loathing and who mentally assign me to an asylum for the insane because I think differently from them?

      1. Here’s my most charitable explanation: the historicists really do have what they consider to be compelling evidence for a historical Jesus who was an apocalyptic prophet and faith healer, or whatever. Unfortunately for them, the nature of this evidence is such that beyond a handful of examples that, at best, point to “there was a guy” (“James, brother of the Lord,” etc.), it can’t be presented in less than book(ish) length, and it’s so technical by nature that non-scholars can’t really analyze it, much less provide arguments for or against. E.g., if you have to be able to read a Gospel in the original languages and tell, by the linguistic forms used, etc. which layer of Q each line or saying belongs to, or which layer of M or L, and note how the odd structure of the Greek of gMark indicates that the author was working from an Aramaic original, and the like to be able to see the evolution of the Gospel record from the original oral traditions about a human Jesus to the later theological developments, then you’re going to have a really hard time presenting your case to anyone who can’t do all that as well. Imagine a set of IKEA instructions, or maybe a scientific paper, translated (poorly) from Chinese into Russian. Anyone who only speaks English, or whose Russian is at a tourist-phrasebook level, would not be able to read the text and determine that it was a translation from Chinese. Likewise, for something like (IIRC) Casey’s theory that gMark (or parts of it?) is a clunky translation into Greek from Aramaic. At best, you and your historicist colleagues who can do this are kinda stuck with having to say to laypeople, “Just trust us, we know what we’re doing.”

        Then along come people like Doherty and Carrier (not to mention the low-quality mythicists like the makers of the Zeitgeist film, D.M. Murdoch, etc.). Even though they sometimes do delve into more serious levels of scholarship (Doherty, Carrier, Price), they can make their basic arguments on a level that laypersons can understand and evaluate just from reading English Bibles. A layperson can read the Epistles and note the near-total lack of references to The Man From Galilee, or (in the case of “astro-theological” type arguments), that Jesus and John the Baptist are described as being born 6 months apart, with Jesus (traditionally) born near the winter solstice, hence JtB near the summer solstice, the Sun is surrounded by 12 houses of the Zodiac, Jesus is the Sun of God, surrounded by 12 Disciples, etc.. As a historicist scholar, you’re quite confident of the validity of your evidence, but you can’t really present it to a lay audience very well. “See these squiggles in Greek? They show that this passage is from the earliest stratum of Q, and that it was translated from an Aramaic original. This in turn shows that it comes from an oral tradition dating to the historical Jesus and the followers who knew him personally.” Even if this evidence is completely compelling and indisputable to anyone with the training to understand it, it’s not going to persuade anyone without that training. So, as a historicist, you’re in a situation where you can’t really present your evidence to the audience your mythicist opponents are reaching. You’re stuck relying on “the Argument From Hah-RRRUMPH!” (“Those guys aren’t scholars, they don’t have credentials, all serious scholars are historicists like me,” etc.). When that doesn’t work (because “those guys” seem to the lay audience to be presenting a better case), all you can do is Hah-RRUMPH! even louder: “Those guys are like disease-carrying mosquitoes, spreading pseudo-scholarship because they’re atheist fundamentalists wanting to attack Christianity!” “Those guys are just like creationists, Moon landing conspiracy theorists and flat-earthers!” “Jesus-deniers!” etc.. As “the Argument From Hah-RRRUMPH!” continues to fail to be persuasive, frustration mounts, and with it, emotional aversion for the mythicists.

        1. ‘“See these squiggles in Greek? They show that this passage is from the earliest stratum of Q, and that it was translated from an Aramaic original. This in turn shows that it comes from an oral tradition dating to the historical Jesus and the followers who knew him personally.” Even if this evidence is completely compelling and indisputable to anyone with the training to understand it,….’

          In other words, you present evidence that you can’t even get other historicists to accept, as people like Goodacre don’t find the idea of Q ‘completely compelling’.

          Even people who believe in Q often doubt the idea of strata.

          And few people believe there was an Aramaic original.

          That’s the trouble with this ‘completely compelling and indisputable’ evidence – even other mainstream scholars write books explaining why the methods used are bankrupt.

      2. Neil,

        You hit the nail on the head when you say people get hostile when their core beliefs and life’s work come into question. They have invested so much of their life to it, and are now resting on their laurels. I am reminded what Eric Hoffner said in the True Believer, that artist (Scientist too) achieve success in youth, but when that creativity goes away they often are susceptible to the mass movement. (I am paraphrasing from memory, so it could be only in my head).

        Essentially once you think you know how things are, you stop thinking. Some of that is the brain is simply no longer working at warp speed like it was in college and grad school, voraciously ingesting every bit of knowledge you can consume. You are so busy learning that you have almost no beliefs which are anchored and so you are open to anything. That is why most scientific and mathematical breakthroughs (and musical compositions of value) are from relatively young people. As you age you calcify and become part of the old guard a young Einstein railed against. You no longer suspend belief, like in a movie, and let the parts rearrange themselves into a new model. You have your model, and now you compare and reject everything that contradicts it.

        And I think that is a key. We are talking about models here. The position of a mythical Christ, and we are talking about a literary character here – independent of confessions of faith -, is nothing more than an attempt to present a model which better explains the evidence (literary and physical).

        The reaction can be explained best by the recognition that the threat to the traditional model (and that includes the alternate liberal model) has had its foundations undercut from seemingly every direction. The attempts to shore up points against attacks fail to win back anyone (they do see it as a conversion battle). They have in short become political. And like we see in American politics it becomes a game of control and obstruction, not of working for solutions.

        The problem of course is many mythicists are just as ready to be political. And then the name calling flies and the civility is lost. So keep on point. We are looking for a better model, something closer to the truth about the history of Christianity.

        My only advise is that you tell Dr. Hoffman that you are no different than he, you are trying to explain the evidence and arrive at something closer to the truth. When he insults chide him, tell him he is better than that. You wont change his mind by trying to change his mind, any more than you could change your own mind. He will change it on his own time and for his own reason. That is not your job. Your job is to press civility and seek the truth, whatever that it.

  4. ” listen closely, because I’m about to say something nice about Doc Hoffmann. He is not a bad person.”

    Why would you say that? I have yet to read anything by or about the man that would make me anything but indisposed to make such a statement. There are plenty of bad people out there. There are plenty of sociopaths out there – 10% of the population with a concentration in the highly-successful, according to my psychiatrist friends. If the shoe fits…

    1. Why would I say that? Because the decent human thing to do is to assume people are good until proven otherwise. It’s the height of arrogance to presume that someone you disagree with believes the way he or she does out of malice.

    2. And just a quick follow-up . . . If we start assuming that our opponents have sinister motives, then discourse is pointless.

      It’s my sincere hope that at some point anti-mythicists will stop accusing Doherty, Price, Godfrey, et al. of having dark, personal reasons for “wanting” Jesus not to exist. Instead of wasting their time on amateur psychology, they should focus on that “mountain of evidence” they’re always crowing about.

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