“New Atheists Are Bad Historians”

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by Neil Godfrey

Did you know that the “New Atheists and their online acolytes” have “a long list” of historical ideas that are “wildly wrong”? If this situation has been causing you sleepless nights then you will be relieved to learn that Tim O’Neill has started a new blog to bring these dimwits to their senses. It’s called . . . .


For those of us who had not realized the full extent of this problem, Tim explains that these New Atheists — and he names them: Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens (and also P.Z. Myers, Jerry Coyne and Richard Carrier) — happen to get wrong just about any and everything they ever say about history whenever they try to declare how bad religion has been for humanity.

Given that they are such historical ignoramuses it is not surprising that the one “cluster of fervid and contrived pseudo history” that comes in for special attention is the “elaborate fringe theory . . .  that is the Jesus Myth hypothesis”.

Tim proudly promises his readers plenty of sarcasm and scorn [meaning, if he continues with his past form, personal insults and abuse along with plenty of factual and logical fallacies], but his opening post, Why History for Atheists? An apologia for (yet) another blog, also promises some confusion of argument besides.

Before we address the promised confusion let’s understand more of Tim’s view of his new blog. Tim is pretty pleased the number of online hits to his earlier articles, laced as they are with “occasionally Irish-Australian atheist bastardry”, and has interpreted these clicks as “an appetite and a clear need for some level­ headed, carefully researched and objective fact checking and debunking of New Atheist Bad History”. Of course Tim is the one equipped and willing enough to meet that appetite and need.

He sincerely assures his readers that though his motives are dual they are not duplicitous. His two motives are

  • Firstly, I love history, including the history of religions, especially Christianity. . . .
  • Secondly, as a rationalist, I like to take rationalism seriously. So I go where the evidence takes me on history as with everything else. However much an idea may appeal to me emotionally, if the historical evidence doesn’t support it, I can’t accept it. Many New Atheists don’t seem capable of putting their emotions aside and looking at the evidence.

Little sign of the self-awareness and humility of a Daniel Boyarin here.

Thank God and Rationalism for Tim.

So what is all of this history that the New Atheists get wrong? Tim set it all out in “the long list”:

  1. Christians burned down the Great Library of Alexandria and Hypatia of Alexandria was murdered because of a Christian hatred of science
  2. Constantine was a crypto­pagan who adopted Christianity as a cynical political ploy (and personally created the Bible)
  3. Scientists were oppressed during the Middle Ages and science stagnated completely until “the Renaissance”
  4. “The Inquisition” was a kind of Europe­ wide medieval Gestapo and the medieval Church was an all­ powerful totalitarian theocracy
  5. Giordano Bruno was a wise and brave astronomer and cosmologist who was burned at the stake because the Church hated science
  6. The Galileo Affair was a straightforward case of religion ignoring evidence and trying to suppress scientific advancement
  7. Pope Pius XII was a friend and ally of the Nazis who turned a blind eye to the Holocaust and helped Nazis escape justice

I hadn’t realized Dawkins, Harris, Dennett and Hitchens, have been filling our sponge-brains with such dated prejudices.

So I tried to refresh my memory. A had originally felt a little uncomfortable with a number of aspects of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion but a quick refresher just now reassured me that historical gaffes did not stand out as particularly egregious. He makes no mention of #1,#2,#4,#5,#6 or#7. #3 is a little harder to search quickly and I can well imagine Dawkins suggesting somewhere that religious doctrines have tended to offer a little resistance to a few scientific findings in the past so I won’t deny Tim at least half a point on that one. 

Okay, not so much bad history in Dawkins. How about rechecking Sam Harris’s End of Faith. He has a lot to say about the Inquisition but a second glance brought nothing like Tim’s #4 (that the Inquisition had the organisational tightness we associate with the Gestapo) to view. Nor does Harris make any reference to any of the other “New Atheist Bad History factoids” in his list. Perhaps there’s something on #3 in there somewhere but I’ll leave it for others to find the exact citation and give Tim his point on that one.

A quick recheck of Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation likewise yielded negative results.

That leaves Hitchens and Dennett. Hitchens does say that Constantine “adopted” Christianity for political reasons and the context indicates he was using the religion as a political tool; he also makes the common technical error saying that Constantine made Christianity the “official” religion of the empire. But he does fall short of what Tim himself is suggesting in his “wildly wrong” #2. Nor does one find in the book’s index or via a digital word search any hint of #1, #4, #5, #6 . . . and where Tim would encourage us to expect Hitchens to be peddling “wildly wrong” bigotry about Pope Pius XII and the Nazis, we instead find this:

And to be fair again, Pope Pius XII had always harbored the most profound misgivings about the Hitler system and its evident capacity for radical evil. (During Hitler’s first visit to Rome, for example, the Holy Father rather ostentatiously took himself out of town to the papal retreat at Castelgandolfo.)   (God Is Not Great, p. 239)

Woops. Tim’s “bad history New Atheist” sounds like he is being very careful to get his history right and avoid recycling the popular antiCatholic prejudices about Pope Pius XII.

The same blanks turn up in searches for Tim’s “wildly wrong” factoids in Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell.

Perhaps Tim is bothered by “bad history” that has been peddled in other writings by these New Atheists. I have not followed them closely so I would appreciate being informed of where any of these New Atheists have been dragging their mindless acolytes into the cesspool of historical ignorance.

As for P.Z. Myers and Jerry Coyne I have no idea whether they have been the ones responsible for the historical ignorance of the atheists of the world, and I do find it very difficult to believe that Richard Carrier has gaffed on any of Tim’s “factoids”.

One name I know nix about is Neil Degrasse Tyson ­but Tim describes him as a tag-along afterthought, one who is not really a New Atheist mover and shaker but “an outlier on the fringe of this [New Atheist] movement” who sometimes speaks about history (and who “is sometimes referred to on matters historical” — though we are not told by whom). Tim accuses Tyson of some inaccurate factoids about Giordano Bruno and medieval science. Tim does not explain if Tyson upsets him so much because he failed to have read James Hannam’s God’s Philosophers. But since this Tyson is said by Tim to be just “an outlier on the fringe” of the New Atheist movement then surely Tim’s blog is not really going to be bothered too much with his views.

So what is the fuss all about really? Why does Tim write in a way to associate prominent New Atheists with historical ignorance when there appears to be scant evidence, at least in their best known publications, for his sweeping inferences?

No doubt Tim has come across a few people who have repeated some of his “wildly wrong” ideas (easy enough on the web!) but I would be interested to know the basis of his conviction that such ignorance is spawned by prominent intellectuals, that it has been mindlessly swallowed by their acolytes, and that his own gifts of rationality and historical training are clearly needed to restore atheists to sanity and respectability.

Why do New Atheists get their history so wrong?

Tim explains:

  • The first problem seems to be, in most cases (Carrier being the virtually lone exception) no training in historical analysis past high school level. Most of these people (and a majority of their followers and fans) come from a STEM background, which means few have done any historical study since their teens. They seem to work from a layman’s popular conception of history which, as anyone who has actually studied history knows, is substantially crap. Thus they accept popular factoids about the medieval belief in a flat earth or the dumbed down popular conception of the Galileo Affair without question.

Well, actually, that doesn’t “explain”. Tim’s logic and concepts here are confused and confusing. He begins by lamenting the lack of “training in historical analysis” among New Atheist’s intellectual leaders. Or rather, he begins by saying that writers with science backgrounds have had “no training in historical analysis” since “high school level”.

What does Tim mean by that, exactly? Historical analysis has to do with “research methods” and evaluations of primary sources etc. The closest some of us get to anything like that in junior high school is learning to go to a library and finding information in encyclopedias and copying it into essays in a way to answer simple questions like: What Were the Causes of World War One? I suggest that very few students in high school ever learn anything at all about genuine “historical analysis”. In the senior high school level some learn to debate ideas in history, but that is rarely the same thing as “historical analysis”.

We will see in future criticisms that our “sarcastic Irish-Australian bastard” is even more confused and at a loss when it comes to questions of “historical analysis” whenever he attempts to argue the case for the historicity of Jesus. “Historical analysis” truly does appear to be a concept that bears a very shallow imprint on his understanding of how to do history, as we shall see. 

Which is it?

Tim’s next part of his complaint does not follow from his complaint over not learning how to do “historical analysis”. All he is saying is that most high school history students (or those who have had a high school course in history) imbibe popular misconceptions about the past. If they all came to accept the same “wildly wrong” historical factoids that sounds to me as if they have been all taught the same information and has nothing to do with being taught or not taught how to do historical analysis.

In other words, school text books (junior level) are slow to catch up, apparently, on the latest research on the progress of science in the Middle Ages or the nuances of Galileo’s conflict with the Church. Maybe. But I also know from experience that lots of high school teachers of history are actually interested in history and do pass on latest tidbits of new ideas to their students.

So what seems to have happened then is not that Dawkins and Harris and company went astray on historical analysis but more simply that they were taught history as it was commonly understood in their day and never subsequently got around to updating themselves with what the higher specialists in the field knew or were learning. If that was the case then they were damn lucky not to have repeated any of their childhood ignorance in their more prominent books! Or another possibility is that after high school they heard enough of new ideas contradicting some of what they learned in high school and were careful not to repeat what they suspected was dubious history or simply chose to avoid writing about certain things of which they did not feel sure.

Stop thinking of that elephant

But wait a moment. Let’s not forget that the elephant in this room is the Jesus Myth hypothesis.

Now isn’t the historical existence of Jesus another one of the many “factoids” that has long been taught in those high schools attended by the New Atheists?

If Dawkins and Harris and Coyne and company were so unfortunate as to learn that the generations of the Middle Ages believed the earth was flat did they not also learn that Jesus was the founder of Christianity?

So if these New Atheists are Bad Historians because they have not learned anything about history since their high school days then how can Tim accuse them of being seduced by the Christ Myth Hypothesis?

Before exploring this apparent contradiction, however, let’s examine the basis of Tim’s accusation. What have these New Atheist Bad Historians actually said about the Christ Myth hypothesis that so appals Tim?

Here are the words of two New Atheists that Tim fears represent a “full blown conglomeration of elaborate fringe theory, like the cluster of fervid and contrived pseudo history that is the Jesus Myth hypothesis:

Richard Dawkins

It is even possible to mount a serious, though not widely supported, historical case that Jesus never lived at all, as has been done by, among others, Professor G. A. Wells of the University of London in a number of books, including Did Jesus Exist?.” The God Delusion, p. 97

Christopher Hitchens

The best argument I know for the highly questionable existence of Jesus is this. His illiterate living disciples left us no record and in any event could not have been “Christians,” since they were never to read those later books in which Christians must affirm belief, and in any case had no idea that anyone would ever found a church on their master’s announcements. (There is scarcely a word in any of the later-assembled Gospels to suggest that Jesus wanted to be the founder of a church, either.)  (God is not great, p. 114)

And Tim attributes to these writers a “fervid” attachment to “contrived pseudo-history”?

At the same time he faults them for ignorantly repeating the same old “factoids’ they learned in high school history classes? Tim leaves us wondering why they would at the same time be both unimaginatively repetitive of what they read long ago and fervidly into an elaborate fringe theory.

One does not need a mythical Jesus to mount arguments against Christianity. Recall Friedrich Nietzsche, and today Hector Avalos’s Bad Jesus and John Loftus’s Debunking Christianity. Loftus even believes, rightly I think, that the worst way to “attack” Christianity is to argue Jesus did not exist. Avalos’s Bad Jesus is probably far more potentially damaging to Christianity than a non-existent Jesus given that some highly qualified scholars have embraced the Christ Myth theory while remaining Christian or sympathetic to Christianity. See Who’s Who of Mythicism for some contemporary examples.)

What other New Atheists are fervidly peddling this “contrived pseudo-history” of the Christ Myth?

The “fringer” P.Z. Myers likes Carrier’s arguments. He wrote:

This is great: Richard Carrier Blogs totally destroys Bart Ehrman’s argument for the reality of a historical Jesus.

Jesus is a legend, like King Arthur or Robin Hood or Paul Bunyan. There may have been some individual in the past who inspired the stories, but he’s not part of the historical record, and the tall tales built around him almost certainly bear little resemblance to the long-lost reality. It’s simply bad history to invent rationalizations for an undocumented mystery figure from the distant past.

Greta Christina likes the book by David Fitzgerald:

“A must read for every new atheist”: David Fitzgerald’s Blurb for “Coming Out Atheist”

“Make the world a better place. Start living your life. Greta Christina shows you why and how (and how not) to escape the atheist closet. A must read for every new atheist and anyone who is considering becoming one.”
-David Fitzgerald, author of Nailed: Ten Christian Myths That Show Jesus Never Existed At All and The Complete Heretic’s Guide to Western Religion Book One: The Mormons

And Tim most definitely hates the work of David Fitzgerald and informs us:

I used the amateurish Nailed: Ten Christian Myths That Show Jesus Never Existed at All by David Fitzgerald to highlight the weakness, bias and general incompetence of many of the Jesus Myth arguments, and then responded to the author’s reply to go into these arguments in more detail, tackling Fitzgerald’s mentor ­ the notorious pseudo historian Richard Carrier ­ in the process.

Tim never has found time to reply to my own posts demonstrating the blatant misreadings of much of Tim’s amateurish and generally incompetent attempt to undermine the arguments in Nailed and I have heard on the grapevine that he walks off with some sarcastic remark when others ask him to do so.

Jerry Coyne

See his guest post by Ben Goren, “The Jesus Challenge”. In Once again: Was there a historical Jesus? he writes:

I have to say that I’m coming down on the “mythicist” side.

We could add here other New Atheists of various stripes (Avalos, Onfray) but those names sit alongside Christ Myth sympathizers who are also not atheists — some are even Christians, others Buddhist, a Panentheist …. so Tim’s framing of the Christ Myth Hypothesis as a distinctively bad idea of New Atheists somehow starts to look a bit forced.

The Second Problem

Here’s the second reason Tim believes leads the New Atheists astray:

  • The second problem is bias. Despite loud claims to be rational, objective and focused on evidence, when it comes to history the New Atheists seem happy to accept any interpretation that puts religion in the worst possible light without question. And their followers don’t simply do this but also resist and reject any correction to their pseudo historical fairy tales as “revisionism” or “apologism”. Confirmation bias is a powerful force and hard for even objective historians to resist. The New Atheist acolytes seem to have no inclination to do even try.

Well, we saw above that Hitchens took care to be fair to Pope Pius XII and not to falsely accuse him the way Tim O’Neill would have us believe New Atheists do treat him. We have also seen that none of the New Atheist authors that Tim singles out as leaders of the movement have written any of the “wildly ignorant factoids” in their main publications.  So I would be interested in any evidence at all that Tim can cite to justify his blog’s apologia.

And as for that Christ Myth Hypothesis, given that a number of Christians and atheists who have had the deepest respect for Christianity have subscribed to that hypothesis or expressed an open-minded respect for it, and given that a number of these are very well trained historians and theologians themselves, then we must also ask why Tim seems so bent on associating the Hypothesis with a desire to “put religion in the worst possible light”.

I am sure Tim will appreciate my own constructive criticisms of his new blog. I like the same history books he does and have also posted (though in brief) on one of his favourites, God’s Philosophers: how the medieval world laid the foundations of modern science by James Hannam. I have also taken a strong interest in historical methods, historical analysis and the philosophy of history and various historical schools of writing. See my archive on historiography for some of the relevant posts.


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Neil Godfrey

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21 thoughts on ““New Atheists Are Bad Historians””

  1. I’m not aware that PZed should a mythicist. I think he’s fairly standardly historicist on the subject of Jesus.

    As for deGrasse Tyson, he’s awful at history https://thonyc.wordpress.com/?s=tyson . Like most of us trained in the sciences he tends to subscribe to the cardboard cut-out version of the history of science (was that Feynman or Sagan?).

  2. I’ve still got some catching up to do on your other posts, but had to read this one straight away as a New Atheist who did history.

    I’ve only written a couple of bits of “proper history” on my blog (The Relationship between the Crusades and Pilgrimage and The Role of Churches of Europe during WWI), but I’d challenge anyone to say they have an atheist bias, let alone a New Atheist one. One incident I remember though when reading for the WWI post was an (obviously Christian) historian that wrote “this account cannot be trusted because it was written by an atheist.”

    One of those writers you mention above has made an historical error in a book, but I’m not going to say who. I’ve told that person, and tried to find them a reference, but the situation is glossed over in all the books I own and I no longer have access to a university library. The error is not the person’s fault, but the fault of those who want the public face of their religion to appear better than it is. They’ve done a pretty good job of hiding what happened.

    Thanks for this very fair post about the reality of the situation.

  3. (Sorry, yet another Tim!)
    He writes:
    The first problem seems to be, in most cases (Carrier being the virtually lone exception) no training in historical analysis past high school level.

    I searched in vain for some reference to any bona fides about his own training in history. Can someone help me here?

  4. Pius XII might have left town for safer regions when Hitler visited. But Pius lived for many years in Rome, Italy, along with Hitler’s closest fascist ally, Mussolini.

    1. Medieval literature and philosophy are note, overwhelmingly Christian and apologetic. Not to mention medieval.

      C S Lewis, fiction writer and apologist, was a medievalist scholar as well.
      Often parochial schools concentrated very, very heavily, on this very, very pious era. Cf. however, Chaucer, etc..

      Historians of the Modern era usually have a more modern perspective.

      1. Tim takes great offence at any suggestion he is a closet Christian apologist. I have no reason to doubt his word but I do find it curious that more than once now I’ve found him on the same discussion boards as some of the most rabid fundamentalists (e.g. Jonathan Burke) and getting along famously with them in his defence of mainstream theologians on the historicity of Jesus. No attempt to dissociate himself from their methods (or faith-methods of doing history).

        I confess I did once look up on the web something like “Tim O’Neill Christian apologist” to see if others had found his close association with fundamentalists strange. Not long afterwards I noticed Tim gaffawing over people on the internet searching for him by phrases like “Tim O’Neill Christian apologist” — and actually concluded that this demonstrated that people “out there” really believed he was a Christian apologist. He repeats the same point on his new blog’s opening post. What I find strange about this is that he is so quick to draw such a naive conclusion. Other possibilities do not cross his mind. And this is the person who boasts of his superior logical and analytical skills.

        1. It often happens that scholars of the Medieval era unconsciously absorb its Christian orientation or bias. Those who accept that era’s highly partial account of itself as ” facts,” are particularly vulnerable.

          We hope Tim will reconsider some of his statements.

          1. To be sure, no doubt atheists make some mistakes now and then. Calling Pius 12 “Hitler’s Pope” as one book did, might be impossible to prove historically, say. But here atheists just need to refine their historical argument.

            Call him Mussolini’s Pope instead. Mussolini and the Vatican signed a treaty called the Lateran Treaty c. 1929.

            Tim? Here you could make yourself useful to the atheism you support. Acknowledge historical errors – and generate a better atheist history. Feel free to use the above.

  5. Is #3 in the list historically inaccurate?

    “Scientists were oppressed during the Middle Ages and science stagnated completely until “the Renaissance”

    I mean the first part may be, partly because there weren’t any “scientists” during the Middle Ages. But I think it’s fair to say that Science almost completely stagnated during the Middle Ages. My impression is that people who object to this don’t realize how advanced ancient science was.

    For example, maybe some (most?) educated people knew that the Earth was round, but that was what Lucio Russo calls “fossilized” knoweledge, they knew the “fact” but they didn’t understand how to use it or what it’s consequences were. They didn’t know how to use that “fact” to draw accurate maps. It didn’t even occur to them. Science is not an accumulation of facts, it’s a methodology, a mind set.

    1. I’ve seen Richard Carrier talk about Ancient Roman science and Engineering and just a few if the things that were “lost” after the fall of Rome. Little things like how to calculate spring rates and make concrete. How do you lose the ability to make concrete? For over a thousand years? The apologists like to say that the Christians “maintained” this knowledge, because they copied the books, but a great deal of practical knowledge was operationally lost. Little things like anasthesia.

    2. Depends on the definition of the “Middle” ages to some extent. The studies by James Hannam, A. C Crombie, Sherwood Taylor &c would qualify the sweeping condemnation of European Christendom before Copernicus.

      1. From the Art-Historical point of view, there’s a visibly huge improvement in art around 1400, and the Renaissance. The Renaissance itself spoke of it as in part a revival of past Roman verisimilitude, or realism.

    1. It is intensely hypocritical for someone with no training in historical methods to refer to Carrier as a “pseudo-historian.” Not to mention the hypocrisy of denigrating anyone who is not a professional historian given O’Neill’s own lack of credentials. I’ve gone toe to toe with him on his Amazon review of Nailed. His ability to use sources is seriously flawed (and, yes, I at least have Master’s level training in historical methodology and historiography). He is completely unable to see any nuance or admit any doubt in his positions, which is the very mark of a polemicist rather than a critical scholar.

  6. One of Tim O’Neill’s favourite books is James Hannam’s God’s Philosophers — as mentioned in the post.

    I will be addressing Tim’s reliance on this popular (by its own admission not for scholarly audiences) book in future posts. Till then, note that the author, James Hannam, is also the owner of a reasonably well-known Christian and anti-mythicist blog, http://www.bede.org.uk/

    His bias and interest in exonerating the Church is set out at the top of his home page:

    Welcome to Bede’s Library – reasonable apologetics and other matters

    Here you will find my writings on faith, science, history and philosophy as well as loads of annotated links and book reviews. The aim of Bede’s Library is show how a person from a scientific background came to Christianity and has had his faith strengthened rather than weakened by argument and reason. It is intended for anyone who is interested in these subjects and wants to see how having faith does not mean sacrificing intellectual integrity.

    (My memory might be failing or the book might have been published before the blog — but I don’t recall any hint in the book that the author had such a blog where he sets out his personal bias so openly. Anyone who can correct me on this would be most welcome.)

  7. Tim O’Neill’s Master of Arts thesis (1992) was not in history but very much in literature. The abstract:

    The aim of this study is to demonstrate that John Gower’s Confessio Amantis is a work of great philosophical and poetic sophistication which is worthy of greater critical attention and esteem than it has so far received. It attempts to do this in a number of ways: firstly, it outlines some of the reasons that Gower’s poem has been somewhat neglected; secondly, it looks at Gower within his literary context; thirdly, it examines the poem in the context of the poet’s social, religious and political milieaux. By examining the poem from these perspectives, it is hoped that some critically useful indications of the intellectual breadth of Gower’s poem will have been delineated.

    And from the prefatory note:

    This study aims to examine the breadth of Gower’s poetic achievement by analysing it from what is, I trust, a broader perspective: to look at it as a confessional dialogue with a wide range of utilities rather than tales framed by a narrative device.

    The primary references he cites in his bibliography are all verse from the Middle Ages along with Boethius’s philosophical treatise.

    I think we can safely conclude that Tim has no post-graduate qualifications in history.

    1. Careful. Sounds like he does know something. Just not PhD-level stuff.

      It is true there are problems with nailing Pius XII as Hitler’s Pope. And recent history HAS tried to claim the Dark Ages weren’t so dark, etc.. Though here possibly historians have themselves been unduly influenced by apologists.

  8. (sorry for the bad English)
    As an atheist and someone curious in ancient history, I inevitably stumbled with the mythicist books, Vridar, O’Neill’s, Carrier’s and Ehrman’s blog, etc.
    There’s one thing I hate: Sometimes many (e.g. Carrier x O’Neill) engage too frequently in harsh name calling when defending their views.
    This distracts and annoys a lot. And bloats any text with lots of irrelevant material.
    An argumentation that would be otherwise good, detailed, careful and solid loses strength because of that and laymen like me, who don’t have the necessary scholarly knowledge to accurately judge which side is right or wrong (or neither/both/partially) becomes lost.
    Such discussions should be scholarly like good articles fit for peer-review (and as didactic as possible for the benefit of people like me, who are not even amateur researchers), no matter if such discussions are done in an internet blog or forum.

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