James McGrath and I Finally Agree on Mythicism

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by Neil Godfrey

A week ago James McGrath posted Earl Doherty as Christian Reformer in which he expressed a point I have been making for some years now and especially since Thomas Brodie “came out” as not believing that there was a historical Jesus. Approvingly citing Matthew Green, McGrath writes

if mythicism did turn out to be true, all that would likely happen would be a shift to focusing on learning what the celestial Jesus rather than the historical one taught. Indeed, for many Christians Jesus is a celestial figure who still speaks to them in the present day. For atheists to try to use mythicism as though it were an argument against Christianity makes no sense.

Exactly! And the point has been most clearly demonstrated by Thomas Brodie who has continued to be a Christian believer. See posts #22, 23 and 24 linked in Vridar’s Brodie Files for Brodie’s explanation of why he believes the Christ Myth theory is not incompatible with Christianity.

I have for some years even been quoting Albert Schweitzer who indicated a very similar possibility when he wrote that Christians needed to get away from their focus on the historical Jesus:

[S]trictly speaking absolutely nothing can be proved by evidence from the past, but can only be shown to be more or less probable. Moreover, in the case of Jesus, the theoretical reservations are even greater because all the reports about him go back to the one source of tradition, early Christianity itself, and there are no data available in Jewish or Gentile secular history which could be used as controls. Thus the degree of certainty cannot even by raised so high as positive probability.

. . . . Seen from a purely logical viewpoint, whether Jesus existed or did not exist must always remain hypothetical. . . .

. . . Modern Christianity must always reckon with the possibility of having to abandon the historical figure of Jesus. Hence it must not artificially increase his importance by referring all theological knowledge to him and developing a ‘christocentric’ religion: the Lord may always be a mere element in ‘religion’, but he should never be considered its foundation.

To put it differently: religion must avail itself of a metaphysic, that is, a basic view of the nature and significance of being which is entirely independent of history and of knowledge transmitted from the past . . .

Schweitzer was not a Jesus mythicist and that is all the more reason Christians ought to seriously think about what he said here (from pages 401f in The Quest of the Historical Jesus).


Part of the problem in some circles seems to be a fear or ignorance of atheists and atheism. There seems to be an assumption among some believers that atheists are programmed to seek to attack and destroy Christianity.

McGrath is by no means the only one to dismiss “mythicists” because they are atheists and therefore have a motive to find Jesus did not exist. The point is thought to be to undermine Christianity.

That is nonsense. No doubt some atheists somewhere do scoff at Christianity and claim they don’t believe Jesus existed anyway. But at least among the serious writings I have read arguing for a mythical origin of Jesus not a single one has expressed a hostile or subversive Christian agenda.

Indeed, atheist John Loftus (of Debunking Christianity) made the point I myself had also expressed: the worst possible way to undermine Christianity and turn people away from being believers is to try to say Jesus did not exist. See Is the Christ Myth a Threat to the Christian Faith? (If not, what is?)

But atheists also believe

I have posted about several Christ Myth advocates from past years who have even been very pro-Christian, expressing admiration for the faith, despite not being Christians themselves. Paul-Louis Couchoud was one, if memory serves.

Today there are a number of mythicists who are also favourably disposed towards Christianity. Consult the Who’s Who table for details.

I can see no reason why an atheist would “want” to believe Jesus did not exist. The Jesus atheists believe existed was just another Jewish prophet or miracle worker or whatever. The only reason I could imagine an atheist might want to believe that there was no Jess is if he or she thought Jesus really was god, too. But that makes no sense!

So I am very mystified to learn that another atheist would write the following in her review of Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus:

What did surprise me was Carrier’s claims to indifference as to the historicity of Jesus and his professed lack of vested interest in the matter, which in my opinion rests somewhat uneasily with his confessed atheism . . . . 

Yet I am assured today that the reviewer, Christina Petterson, is indeed an atheist. That makes no sense to me, either.


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98 thoughts on “James McGrath and I Finally Agree on Mythicism”

  1. Neil, excellent post. Small note – third para under “Atheophobia?” – you have “do scoff and Christianity”, I think you meant to say “do scoff at Christianity”.

    1. Thanks. And I spotted another stuffup, too. This time I blame the distractions of a new keyboard that kept either sticking or rushing in reverse delete mode.

  2. The issue of Christ historicity among church affiliated Christians should not be underestimated. The several sectarian variants of the Apostles’ Creed (all of them derived from the simpler Nicene Creed of 325) affirm the historical Incarnate Christ as expressed in the most significant pericopes of the gospel narrative. These are the core articles of faith for Church liturgy.

    Sure, Christians could more thoroughly embrace a celestial Christ more clearly demonstrated in the usually earlier Epistles, but ecclesiastically this would be a major almost tectonic shift in faith paradigm.

    Just sayin’ !

    1. Of course. No doubt. I fully agree. The loathing of a number of Christian scholars for any hint of mythicism is palpable. They won’t engage with it and look for the slightest pretext to throw mud on it and its exponents. I happened to find McGrath’s concession on the particular point he addressed quite ironic. He has poured loathing on the work of Thomas Brodie for his mythicist views and simply failed to respond to any of the good number of times I attempted to point out to him that there is no need to fear some anti-Christian agenda at work. It’s not what is said but who says it that counts the most, as we know.

        1. I don’t think there is any sinister intent. I don’t think McG takes too much notice of what any mythicist ever says and had forgotten (or it never registered in the first place) what I had been trying to point out to him. He also seems to have forgotten about Brodie for whom he had some very unsavory comments, not being the least impressed by his holding fast to his Christian faith. This time, however, he heard a sympathetic voice use the same idea to “attack” those “anti-Christ atheists with 666 branded on their foreheads” that it sounded like an entirely new idea to him and one useful, he thought, for kicking “Jesus-hating” atheists and mythicists with the one boot.

          1. What I meant is that since none of them obviously pay any attention, shouting down mythicists while conceding the point may indicate something changing on the side we don’t see which signs their paychecks.

            Sooner or later genuine credibility hinges on acceptance of facts, but not in Christian circles. You can’t very well concede the point while arguing against the people making it. In my experience, Christians do tend to shift positions when they no longer feel comfortable defending it. So what I suspect is that McGrath is trying to squeeze out some arguments before switching to some version of “high road” denying that he was ever against the mythicist position itself, just the poor, unconvincing atheist mythicist arguments.

      1. I only have posted a reminder of the position of orthodox Christianity institutionally. The creeds do not speak of the location of God, but they do speak of anecdotes of a historical Jesus. The opinions of the “flock”, individual congregants and parishioners, may have started to sway from the centuries-old core articles of the Churches, but pushing those same Churches from abandoning those same sacred foundations would be the equivalent of some artifice that could move mountains.

        Mat. 21:21 LOL!

  3. There are surprisingly many atheists who are fond of religion.
    For example the YT star Jordan Peterson, who fears without christianity people will start behaving like animals.
    Or Scott Atran, who believes some form of nonsense religious belief is necessary for a society not to fall apart.

    I wonder which atheists should believers fear the most.
    Those who would like to see religion in decline,
    or those who see them as cattle that needs to be fed with bullshit in order to behave.

    1. Religion exploits mental health issues. This can on one hand herd such people into pointless, meaningless endeavors that harmless religion is known for, but it can also herd them into terrorist cells.

    2. That I believe that “some sort of nonsense religious belief is necessary for society not to fall a part” is nonsense. What is a fact is that unfalsifiable and unverifiable notions of community elicit greater self-sacrifice and longevity of polities than societies on negotiated contracts of convenience or instrumental responsibility. For that, the empirical evidence is pretty overwhelming.

      1. Not much different, is it?
        Except you tried to broaden the “unfalsifiable and unverifiable notions” to include concepts other than religion, like human rights, which you called “a crackpot idea”, but I don’t buy it, these are not even similar categories.
        You also said “religion is the best thing that human history has come up with”.

        Anyway, this is the same kind of position, and has similar implications.
        If you think the fact that people believe “unfalsifiable and unverifiable notions” whch you don’t believe yourself is somehow beneficial, that implies at least approval for bullshitting the credulous with these notions.

        1. If you think the fact that people believe “unfalsifiable and unverifiable notions” whch you don’t believe yourself is somehow beneficial, that implies at least approval for bullshitting the credulous with these notions.

          Woah there! I don’t believe in Buddhism but I can see the clear benefits it offers communities and individuals when I visit south east Asian countries where Buddhism is a prominent part of society. People find communal happiness and individual comfort from it. Like my mother who believes in God. She also finds solace and comfort in that belief and though I am an atheist I would never think of trying to talk her out of her belief.

          An anthropologist can make assessments about customs and belief systems in different communities and evaluate the social effects of their functions without believing in those systems him or herself.

          1. Sure, who said lies can’t bring comfort and happiness on occasion.

            Thing is, in case of religion, the credulous who are fed with bullshit are primarily the kids. This is essential to religion’s survival.
            Take childhood indoctrination out of the equation,
            and religion is gone in one generation.
            You can’t have one without the other. Do you approve bullshitting kids into religion? I don’t.

            Another question, how do we want to see people, as hosts carrying a brain worm making them behave in specific ways and stimulating their reward neural systems in return? Are we good with it?

            Is artificial happiness of some even worth it all?

            1. I am interested in studying the scholarly research into the origins and nature of religion from psychological and anthropological perspectives. I think beliefs in the supernatural are inevitable in human societies and there are “natural” reasons for that. I think we do better trying to understand the nature of religion, why people are religious, and how the more toxic forms of it emerge, than simply calling it all bullshit. It’s a part of all human societies and the collective human experience. Some forms are destructive; others positive. It is something we need to understand — based on the research.

              I once began blogging on Boyer’s Religion Explained and then I met along the way a science writer who introduced me to several other recent perspectives. I have too many topics I want to write about.

              1. Origins of religion is a very interesting topic. But whatever they are it does not affect what religion does today to societies and individuals in any way.
                These are separate issues.

                Sure religion is natural, just as is crime.

              2. I return to Scott Atran’s comment: the research does not support your feelings about religion and what it does to societies. The whole point of research is to avoid the too often inhuman, cruel errors that arise when we act on ill-informed prejudices and subjective observations.

              3. ” I return to Scott Atran’s comment: the research does not support your feelings about religion and what it does to societies.”

                It doesn’t follow from his comment.

                Who cares about polity’s longevity,
                if the polity is shitty?
                What’s so great about self sacrifice on false premises?

                Where’s that successful society where religion goes strong? Which one is it? One of the Islamic countries, Hungary, Poland maybe?

              4. I’d forget.
                Can’t blame you for trusting an authority, everybody does on occasion. But…

                Don’t you think it’s a little bit problematic, trusting somebody who implies deceiving people is kinda okay?
                Told you, his position has some funny implications.
                Atran doesn’t seem to be aware of them, but Peterson surely is, that’s why he’s been trying to redefine “truth” to include false factual claims which inspire desirable social behavior.
                Nice try, but redefining truth to include bullshit introduces some more funny implications.

              5. I have read much of the research studies, including several works and articles by Scott Atran. It’s nothing to do with “trust” but with fact-finding. You are hung up about the mythical belief systems, the baseless stories, the fictions. When you do some studies into the psychological bases for such concepts and are prepared to have a rational and informed discussion then we can continue. But please don’t become a troll with your ill-informed prejudices.

              6. How emotional.
                Thought you were interested in this issue, since you replied, but from the looks of the above there’s nothing more to say.
                I’m shutting up now.

  4. How would you envisage Christianity surviving if and when all senior Jewish Rabbis along with archaeologists and Zionists came out officially and stated the fundamental religious core of Judaism has absolutely no basis in fact?

      1. Christians don’t listen to anything Jews say, and antisemitism is really peaking right now so there isn’t much room to be more openly antisemitic.

          1. This is something I know more about. Germany was a relative monoculture. People who were not obviously German were less common and stood out more. Most Germans did not know what happened to the Jews, and they didn’t want to know enough to overcome the fear of asking under that style of government. It was the highest level of the German government which ramped up action against the Jews out of desperation as they were losing to the Russians. There was a long period of time between when the Jews disappeared from Germany and when the extermination gained momentum. Also during the time Jews were rounded up in Germany, lots of other people were also rounded up, gypsies, disabled people, political radicals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, gays. In the beginning only limited numbers of people were executed based on perceived threat.

            Western countries are too multicultural today to get away with targeting any one specific group and the groups which are targeted ares ones easier to spot, meaning darker skinned people.

            Fear of Jews specifically in modern culture is more about the unseen enemy. Jews are few in number and blend in with white people easily, but it’s more about who’s behind the scenes of power, Deep State and all that paranoid nonsense.

  5. ‘I can see no reason why an atheist would “want” to believe Jesus did not exist.’

    I can see no _rational_ reason, but I can sure see an _emotional_ reason. And we humans make our decisions primarily with our feelings, especially when we’re talking about the “enemy tribe” and its “sacred totem”.

    1. They are committed to not changing their theology in spite of their theology having been very flexible over the millennia. It strikes the same note that science has struck for the past several centuries. Christians internally define which ones of them are the “crazies” based on which facets of reality are acceptable to their theology. This is why I suspect eventually the Christians who distance themselves from the “crazies” must eventually accept mythicism/gnosticism as the original version of Christianity.

    2. Jonathan, I watched your debate with Carrier.
      You said you think historical Jesus theologians are smart guys and you trust their judgement.

    3. Jesus apocalyptic ideology is an existential threat to the survival of the human species viz. fulfillment via nuclear holocaust.

      McGrath holds that mythicists are in some ways dullards with an ideological goal to save the world acting primarily from emotional reasons as Jonathan Tweet points out. Per McGrath, said mythicists believe that a new world order can be fulfilled through mythicism.

      McGrath is thus criticizing the stupidly of mythicists who think that mythicism will sove the world’s problems.

    4. Your commentary here and elsewhere is extremely superficial and itself emotional. On your blog you say “In brief, someone had a vision (or claimed to have a vision) of an angel being crucified in outer space to free Jews from the Temple, and soon enough the allegorical stories about this celestial angel were misunderstood as historical stories about an actual historical figure.” http://jonathan-tweet.blogspot.com.au/2017/11/bad-jesus-scholarship-for-atheists.html

      You ignore many things. You ignore the many many angel stories in Judaism before the 2nd century a.d./c.e. You ignore the nature of the angels in these stories. Read the first several verses in the first few chapters of the book of Zechariah: angel describes as a man and called Lord, yet speaking for the Lord Almighty. Carrier’s commentary on Philo’s archangel reveals but one written contemplation of various aspects of Jewish ‘angelology’.


      “The study of angels or the doctrine of angelology is one of the ten major categories of theology developed in many systematic theological works. The tendency, however, has been to neglect it …

      Though the doctrine of angels holds an important place in ‘the Word of God’, it is often viewed as a difficult subject because, while there is abundant mention of angels in the Bible, the nature of this revelation is without the same kind of explicit description we often find with other subjects developed in the Bible:

      Every reference to angels is incidental to some other topic. They are not treated in themselves. ‘God’s revelation’ never aims at informing us regarding the nature of angels [ie. it is largely ignored by biblical scholars, probably b/c they don’t want to draw attention to the fact the NT might be a collection of stories about Jesus having been perceived to be an angel]. When they are mentioned, it is always in order to inform us further about God, what he does, and how he does it. Since details about angels are not significant for that purpose, they tend to be omitted ..

      While many details about angels are omitted, it is important to keep in mind three important elements about the biblical revelation God has given us about angels.

      (1) The mention of angels is inclusive in Scripture. In the NASB translation these celestial beings are referred to 196 times, 103 times in the Old Testament and 93 times in the New Testament.

      (2) Further, these many references are scattered throughout the Bible being found in at least 34 books from the very earliest books (whether Job or Genesis) to the last book of the Bible (Revelation).

      (3) … Paul wrote, “For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities [a reference to angels]—all things have been created by Him and for Him.” [Col 1.16]


    5. What would be the basis of such an “emotional reason”? Jesus is part of our culture; he has been a figurehead in many social movements seeking reforms and justice.

      How would any atheist be “emotionally satisfied” by Jesus not existing any more than Buddha or Zoroaster or Moses might be said not to exist?

      Sure some would get a chuckle over the baselessness of Christianity, but that’s a consequence, not a reason for wanting such a belief.

      What is the evidence in atheist speeches or writings that they “want” to get rid of Jesus for any emotional or other reason? Who are these atheists who display this evidence?

      1. How would any atheist be “emotionally satisfied” by Jesus not existing any more than Buddha or Zoroaster or Moses might be said not to exist?
        should be
        How would any atheist be “emotionally satisfied” by Jesus not existing any more than Shakyamuni Buddha or Zoroaster or Moses might be said not to exist?

        As a Buddhist, I have thought that Christianity might be strengthened if Jesus Christ were a purely heavenly figure. If Jesus be conceived of as a historical preacher, than one has to deal with the fantastical, implausible, or unpleasant aspects off that narrative (such as the attack on moneychangers in the Temple or the fact that his family tried to seize him as a lunatic). Yet if Jesus be conceived of as a heavenly revealed figure, he becomes the equal of many other deities or saviour figures, such as as Amitabha Buddha (the Lord and Creator of Sukhavati). Even the most literalistic reading of the Sutras describing Amitabha Buddha (a reading that I and many other Buddhists do not hold) denies that he has ever been upon Earth, yet millions of Buddhists have faith in him, his vows, and the salvation that he offers to all who have faith in him and recite his name: Namo Amitabha Buddha!

  6. According to mythicism, the very first Christians, the founders of the religion, were mythicists. Why a mythicist would therefore expect a mythical Jesus to be a major problem is a mystery to me.

    Perhaps from a Christian view, there is some difference between Jesus dying on earth so that sins can be forgiven and Jesus dying in the heavens so that sins can be forgiven, but I’d be surprised if many atheists thought the second version made Christianity in any way less likely. Whether there was a historical founder or not, atheists agree that the Jesus of the bible didn’t exist.

    1. Mythicism is really two questions, not one. The first is whether the character Jesus from the Bible maps to a real historical person and the second is whether the character Jesus from the Bible is intended to historically represent such a person.

      Take “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” as an example of one way of looking at it. The character Abraham Lincoln is intended to map to the real historical person, and there are lots of historical contextual details which historicists would try to claim are nuggets of true history, but the work is intended to be fictional and has supernatural elements.

      If the only thing to survive 1000 years from now referring to Abraham Lincoln was that film, could you justify a claim that Abraham Lincoln was a historical person? You would have to say in fairness no, even though right now we know he was real.

      1. Wouldn’t that also be the case for historicism? Even if there was a historical Jesus, couldn’t we ask if the character in the bible was meant to historically represent him?
        Take the story of Jesus withering a fig tree because it didn’t produce figs when it wasn’t fig season for example. Clearly did not happen. I would think the explanation I have seen- that it is some sort of metaphor/analogy for the temple cult holds true under historicity or mythicism. Would how it have been understood at the time be different depending on whether Jesus was believed to have physically been on earth? If people thought he had been, would they think this some sort of bizarre thing that Jesus did, or would they still see it the same metaphorical way?
        It’s a bit like identifying which stories derive from oral tradition and which were just made up to help tell the story/theological reasons. There may be good methods, but the people arguing historicity generally seem to assume that at least some of them came from oral tradition, so it is not particularly important.
        I don’t know if there is any way to answer – I believe we have some decent evidence that by the mid-late second century, Jesus was viewed as a historical figure on earth, and the gospels as a biography of sorts, but I have no idea if they thought it all literally happened in the same way many do today

        1. The supernatural and symbolic content weighs against it being a historical account. Real historical people didn’t do symbolic things, they did real, relevant things. What’s the difference between symbolically ending slavery and actually ending slavery? It was the Romans, not Jesus, who put an end to the temple cult. And as much as it pains Christians, there are still Jews. Christians scarcely seem to be able to understand Judaism either way, so Jewish symbolism is still effectively lost on Christians reading it.

          Post-Christian scholarship has put to bed the notion of oral tradition. If there was any oral tradition, that’s what’s been lost. Anything important to the Christianity which survived was written down. If we start where the written tradition starts, with Paul, that’s where all the question begging is. If someone had written down the oral tradition preceding Paul’s writing, there would be no mythicist/historicist debate.

          Paul is answering someone we can’t hear and he’s not telling us anything about a real person Jesus, so whatever the oral tradition did say, it didn’t say anything about a real person Jesus either. The presumption that some lost oral tradition supports historicity isn’t tenable.

          Paul would have to come off as a person with some gall to assert himself as an apostle with no knowledge of the real Jesus unless no one else had either. It’s only after the Gospel tradition emerged that Paul both seems like a greater man for being able to accomplish that and also falls to a much lesser role than the “real” apostles. The existence of “real” apostles is what makes it difficult for historicists to recognize that Paul is the real founder of what became Christianity, in the sense there was no doctrine before he wrote it down. This is not to say the real apostles weren’t real, but that they had no more contact with a real Jesus than Paul did, and that is the secret of Paul’s success.

          The Gospel tradition of a “historical” Jesus could not have emerged until Paul in particular was dead because for sure he would have fought tooth and nail against it.

          1. I have said this elsewhere, but I wish that the people who are defending history and oral tradition would (better) explain how they can tell which stories come down virtually unchanged, which have an actual basis and which were just made up.
            My suspicion is that they avoid the issue entirely and are content just to assume there is a historical basis.
            I don’t know that we can argue the gospel tradition didn’t arise until after Paul, as so much is lost, that if he had argued against it we wouldn’t necessarily know. It’s also possible that it was not widespread enough for him to notice, that it was known to be allegorical, or that it was some sort of mystery religion where the higher ups knew the truth, but the lowly recruits accepted the history version.
            It seems to me at least, that the historicists think they have a couple of “gotcha” passages that look really odd under mythicism, so they have no need to consider the passages (such as Paul’s insistance he learned everything spiritually rather from people) that look odd under a historical Jesus, or if they do, just offer some glib and unconvincing explanation.

            1. Christian scholars are the ones who are being torn between the demands of the faith and the demands of honest scholarship. For people of faith, the Word comes directly from God and the Power of God prevents it from being distorted over time. There is simply nothing that scholars can say or do about this, but people with this specific view sign their paychecks. Ordinary Christians hold Christian scholars at arms length, with a large degree of suspicion, simply because they can’t simply affirm what they believe without supporting substance. If an True Christian wants to know the Truth he won’t reach for the work of a scholar, but their local pastor, or
              a televangelist or radio announcer with no qualifications whatsoever.

              1. I do’t know that it is just Christian scholars, though they the strongest reasons for not openly considering all the evidence. Ehrman is a non believer and I doubt he has read any of the major mythicists works, or understands the arguments

  7. I doubt about the historicity and I am happy with that.

    Because even Doherty said something of similar (I go to memory): the modern Christians are so involved in their historicist belief about Jesus, that is impossible for them to return to their old ‘mythicist’ belief and still to remain Christians.

  8. Petterson’s comments are very strange. Does she believe she, as an atheist, cannot approach the question of historicity without bias? Maybe her comments come from a kind of a “vestigial” fundamentalism, where she is an atheist who has, unconsciously at least, never stopped thinking like a Christian. In “God’s Problem,” Bart Ehrman talks about waking up in cold sweats after leaving his faith. I have seen “vestigial fundamentalism” in myself at times even, though thankfully not to the terrible extremes that Bart has experienced it.

    1. Agreed, they are very strange. I am trying to imagine her as an atheist feeling tempted to want to believe Jesus was not historical. There is something awry with either one of her claims.

    2. “Vestigial” fundamentalism would be difficult for someone who was never Christian, no?

      Your comment is interesting, though, how much you *want* to believe that Petterson speaks from some Christian bias, despite never being one.

      1. I cannot speak for Nicholas or defend Carrier, but is it not just a little presumptuous to apparently assume others might actually “want to believe” she speaks from some Christian bias? This seems to imply that atheists are by nature little devils who always are looking for ways to do the dirty on Christians or Christianity.

        As I pointed out in the post, Christina did write something very odd for an atheist critical of Carrier to say:

        What did surprise me was Carrier’s claims to indifference as to the historicity of Jesus and his professed lack of vested interest in the matter, which in my opinion rests somewhat uneasily with his confessed atheism . . . .

        Is Christina herself as an atheist harboring some latent emotional bias against the historicity of Jesus? I find that hard to imagine.

        John Loftus, atheist premier one might say, attacks Christianity passionately and consistently and is on record as saying mythicism would be counter-productive for his efforts. Other anti-theists like Hitchens and Dawkins, iirc, have merely expressed passing interest in the possibility of mythicism and nothing more. None of those atheists indicate a “vested interest” in the mythicist case. How is it that an atheist critical of mythicism can suggest that being a confessed atheist gives one a “vested interest” against the historicity of Jesus? I can not think of any reason why any atheist would have such a “vested interest” because of their atheism — unless they were some irrational lunatic who was simply out to be a pain in the neck to everyone by bashing Christianity in any and every way imaginable.

        One defence of Christina that I can imagine is that she was writing as a devil’s advocate. But if so, it would have been helpful to have said so. Besides, there is nothing wrong with being cautious about any claims in the absence of evidence, is there not? We all know the simple miscommunications that arise and even the byzantine depths of difficulties, confusions, and even well-meaning half-truths in human communications. If she were writing as a devil’s advocate then the next question would be “why?” Of course I have no idea. I simply do not understand her comment as coming from an atheist who is opposed to mythicism. As I said in the post, it makes no sense to me.

        1. In fact, I thought the reason Christina had for writing what she did was quite clear. So I am puzzled why you think no atheist scholar could write that.

          Carrier’s book is filled with repeated claims of objectivity and neutrality toward the issue of Jesus’ historicity. Moreover, his discussion of the issues involves an extended use of mathematics, which provides a further veneer of claimed objectivity. It kind of seems as though he doth protest his interest in Jesus mythicism a little too much. The posture starts to seem more than a bit unlikely — historiographically naive if not disingenuous — given that his book was paid for by advocates of internet popular-atheism, the very forum in which mythicism has its most ardent supporters. That was my initial understanding of what Christina wrote, anyway.

          Whether or not you agree that this particular tension exists between Carrier’s posture of neutrality and his more partisan sponsorship and audience, hopefully you can see why I understood Christina wrote such a thing. And it is a tension that I would have thought might seem apparent to either an atheist or a Christian scholar.

          1. Christina certainly did imply in her review that she believes atheism has a vested interest in arguing Jesus was not historical. So if she has since told you she is an atheist then obviously there is question to be clarified for some of us.

            It is clear to you but not to me. What is it about being a confessed atheist that gives one a “vested interest” in Jesus not being historical? I am completely mystified by such a claim. What evidence is there that atheism somehow is invested with an interest in the nonhistoricity of Jesus? As I have pointed out there is ample evidence to falsify this assumption. Christina’s claim would imply that she herself as an atheist has such a vested interest but of course that makes no sense. A good number of atheists actually are some of the strongest critics of mythicism. So I really am confused.

            Are you suggesting that Carrier’s studies were paid for by people wanting him to find Jesus ahistorical?

            You seem to be saying that the real problem is that Carrier protested his “neutrality” too much. But Christina said more than that. (I have my own disagreements with Carrier in many areas, including some of his arguments in OHJ, but I also think that some of the criticisms Carrier has faced have been motivated by less than objective criteria. The implied ad hominem about “atheists” is one piece of evidence I submit in support of that claim.)

          2. If atheists have a vested interest in the nonhistoricity of Jesus, are we to think that the only people who can study the question of Jesus’ historicity without any vested interest baggage to the contrary are Christians? That is what Christina’s statement certainly implies.

            1. I strongly disagree. There is certainly no implication that only Christians can study Jesus’ historicity without vested interest.

              Rather, it was Carrier’s insistence that he had no vested interest that, as far as I can see, caused the tension with his atheism. Christina’s statement does not contest vested interests per se, and I would suppose from Christina’s other work that she would affirm that all historical work is situated rather than neutral. So it was rather Carrier’s strong *profession* of lacking any vested interest, not the vested interest itself, that was the point of Christina’s criticism.

              And that leads to rather different implications. But I think I am beginning to understand why you could not understand why an atheist scholar would write what she did.

              1. I think there is a difference between having/not having a vested interest in a certain outcome and arriving at a certain view after new information and questions bring one to see a question in a new light. (It seems that the latter option is not to be granted to Carrier — perhaps to any mythicist — for some reason. It strikes me as part of the general assumption that mythicists are ‘bent’ in various ways.)

                I really don’t know what is the actual “vested interest” that Carrier is supposed to have (or is supposed to have denied overmuch) in the question. It makes no sense to say it is his “confessed atheism”. Atheism per se (not even the strident New Atheism) has any vested interest in the question — as ample evidence testifies.

              2. Well, I see my explanation above as accounting for all this, and I guess you don’t. So as I’ve provided my explanation, I’ll leave it there.

      2. Her statement is very weird, I was cautious about putting out a “maybe” but if it isn’t that then I’m stumped. For instance, In “The Historical Jesus: Five Views” John Dominic Crossan responds to Robert M. Price’s mythicist essay by saying that it would destroy the very heart of Christianity if Jesus didn’t exist. Let’s not kid ourselves: there’s bias everywhere in NT studies. Not to mention that it is logically invalid to dismiss someone’s views simply because it does or even might arise from bias (that is called the genetic fallacy). So BOTH John Dominic Crossan and Richard Carrier ought to be considered on their own merits.

        Deane, your mistake is to tell yourself speculative and highly uncharitable stories about why people do what they do, and then assume those speculative, uncharitable stories are true without any genuine consideration of what the person is saying. Let’s take Bayes theorem. Philosophical journals and books commonly use this to model the logic of their arguments. Carrier has a philosophical background in addition to ancient history. Here’s an idea: maybe, just maybe, his background in philosophy has given him a great idea for history. After all, history is really about facts and reasoning from those facts, philosophers are experts in the latter, and philosophers find Bayes’ theorem excellent for the latter (science, too, is becoming more and more Bayesian, and it is likewise just a form of empirical reasoning). You seem to treat Bayes theorem as if it were some mysterious thing that could easily be abused to fool people who don’t understand it. Here’s an idea: how about learn it. It’s not hard. But if you insist on not learning it, then Carrier’s arguments could be seamlessly translated over to inference to the best explanation (or essentially any other reasonable historical method you care to use). After all, Carrier did argue that Inference to the Best Explanation is essentially just an approximation of Bayes’ theorem anyway. This is also the reason people are wrong to suppose that Jesus mythicism is in some sense dependent on a Bayesian view of history: it’s not. I wish Richard had included an Inference to the Best Explanation “Scorecard” that simply listed facts he believed supported both historicity and mythicism. But nonetheless, anyone could construct such a scorecard from the content of the book, even modifying it to reflect disagreements of theirs with Carrier.

        In short, I have been deeply unimpressed with the incredibly superificial criticisms from both yourself and those who are supposed to be experts. It smacks of desperation to me. Likewise for your latest attempts to push forward yet another “bias theory” about Carrier, which is totally wrong (Just look at his post from several years ago “Calling All Benefactors” to see why).

        1. I still remember the days when Carrier was very critical (dismissive) of mythicism in the same way some other outspoken atheists are today.

          I also find it difficult discussing criticisms of Carrier because I find I dislike the kind of person Carrier comes across as in some of his blog writings. He has made himself, I think, an unnecessarily large target. At the same time, I find some of the criticisms of Carrier’s work to be somewhat short, let’s say, of the highest professional standards.

  9. I am an atheist. And an anti-theist. I am happy that the historicity of Jesus is rightfully now being challenged, and opinion is beginning favor mythicism. I would be thrilled to see this shake the faith of billions of Christians – I would like to see more atheists.

    And I do not apologize for any of this. Why should I?

    Because the only relevant question of anyone, of any stripe, interested in the question of historicity is not whether they like Christianity, or practice it, or respect it – it is whether they can fairly evaluate the evidence. There is no need to dance around this issue of bias – assess the evidence objectively or go home.

    And, I really gotta say, that someone like McGrath, who publishes critiques without even reading the source, projecting ideological bias onto atheists should shatter all the irony meters in this arm of the galaxy.

        1. Yes, as much disdain as I have for Christianity, mythicism is not the battlefield Christianity was ever going to die on. I am not interested in the subject for any effect it has on Christians. It does on the other hand have a terrible effect on the credibility of Christian scholars, whether they have personal faith or not, especially if they do not.

          I still remember many years ago when Star Trek VI came out, I watched it in a theater with Christian friends, and there was a chuckle when Spock said Christianity was a myth. It was that awkward chuckle.

      1. I think both of you are far more sophisticated than the vast majority of Christians. 75% of American Christians have never entered or completed college. There has been a fair amount of polling data generated, and it tells us that the bedrock beliefs of Christians are:

        * The Bible is the word of God, either word for word or in the words of his representatives

        * belief in an afterlife, heaven, and hell

        * Jesus was a human man born in Bethlehem who sacrificed himself on the cross in this world so mankind could have its sins forgiven, allowing them then to enter heaven for the afterlife.

        * Angels and demons exist in this world

        * On the third day after his crucifixion, Jesus arose from the dead. His resurrection is celebrated on Easter, which is considered Christianity’s most important holiday.

        * After Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, God’s presence remained on earth in the form of the Holy Spirit to be a comforter to all.

        The demographics of Christianity are already changing rapidly, with younger generations leaving in droves. And the reason they give is a lack of good answers by the clergy in explanation of conflicts with reason and science. If the Jesus story itself is exposed as yet another lie, and the bedrock rationalizations for faith in forgiveness of sins and the afterlife shatters to pieces on the anvil of rational thought, I think (and hope) it will be a devastating blow to the masses. I can’t imagine that they are going to react well to the idea that their salvation, and the fellow they pray to for guidance has been just another myth all along.




        1. No doubt my experience is different from the majority of average Christians. I’m from a major, liberal Canadian city and almost all of my Christian peers are college educated. Being college educated adult does not preclude one from accepting and maintaining irrational beliefs such as those. I went to engineering school and me and most of my Christian friends were fans of scifi and fantasy. Most of my peers were indoctrinated in college even after thinking religion was stupid in our youth.

          The real truth is people become Christians to cope with their personal struggles. Often it’s finding a scapegoat, the real bedrock of “Judeo-Christianity”. Even in a liberal, multicultural church, racism is a major scapegoat. More often than not individuals have some black mark in their lives which *new* faith helps them wash off. They are usually still that awful jerk who did those things, plus now also Christian jerks also.

        2. Roger,
          I suspect that some people are never gonna budge. After all, if they don’t budge now because of Christianity’s obvious apocalypticism, what would move them? On the other hand, people who have open minds can certainly be changed without mythicism: simply point out the false prophecies, mistakes, and apocalypticism, etc. in the bible and they are on our team.

          I worry about invoking mythicism for the atheist cause for a few reasons: (1) it may be wrong (I myself lean towards it but admit uncertainty) (2) it requires positing interpolations, beyond-face-value-interpretations, etc. which can appear like denialism to others even though a deeper look shows all of that is very plausible, whereas apocalypticism is likely prima and secunda facie.

    1. “There is no need to dance around this issue of bias – assess the evidence objectively or go home.”

      This is far more likely to raise emotions in us atheists than some specific dogma, whatever it is. Those of us who have had to shed theology usually did so by learning to respect rational process and historical methodology.

  10. Doesn’t seem all that surprising to me that people might imagine that atheists would have an agenda to disprove that Jesus existed. The popularity of the so-called “New Atheist” movement and the way it’s self-appointed leaders and their fans have tried to redefine atheism as an aggressively anti-theistic movement aiming to debunk and destroy all religion shapes people’s assumptions about atheists.

    I agree that whether or not there ever were an historical Jesus shouldn’t make any difference to a skeptical thinker (even if there were an historical Jesus, it’s certain that most of what has been written about him is a mix of legends), but that more neutral, objective position seems to be out of style these days. (Or at least it’s a position that’s not as vocal and headline-grabbing as this other, crusader-atheist mentality is.) Rightly or wrongly, fairly or unfairly, I think people in our current cultural climate will assume that all atheists have an ulterior motive for making any argument that would undermine people’s religious beliefs.

    1. Yes, the New Atheist “movement” did not do a lot of good of the image of atheism. But even Hitchens and Dawkins, if I recall, merely expressed the mere possibility that Jesus might not have existed as asides in their books. They were certainly not hung up about the idea or expressing any wish for him not to exist.

      I myself don’t like religion. But some of the people I know to be religious are really not somehow possessed by a mind-bending force but are merely seeking comfort and hope in a world they find often frightening. I can’t really accuse them of anything bad for that.

      1. I guess I’m just surprised that you would be surprised that people would adopt these kind of hostile, suspicious reactions. That’s all I was really saying. (Maybe I’m simply a more cynical person.) When certain atheists have been very loudly trying to rattle fundamentalist cages in the public square, it’s a reaction to expect. I’m not at all trying to defend these reactionary accusations against and suspicions of atheists as either right or fair. I’m simply acknowledging how this is the way it always goes.

        The question of the existence or non-existence of Jesus is a very emotionally charged issue for many people, people who are not going to closely read what people like Hitchens or Dawkins actually wrote in careful manner (they’ll most likely form their opinions without reading what they say at all). When atheists start asking the wrong questions, there’s going to be lots of people who feel threatened who will start blanketly demonizing the motives of atheists and skeptics. They’re not going to approach their kind of questioning with a rational, open POV.

        To me this seems like simply a retread of what I’ve seen before. I remember how in the 90’s many people were losing their minds and freaking out about the Jesus Seminar (who were coming up with much milder alternative ideas about the historical Jesus and Christian origins). The Jesus Seminar became a favorite target of many devout people. Many people denounced anyone connected with the Jesus Seminar as trying to destroy Christianity without giving their questions and arguments a fair hearing.

        Anyway, love the site. I’ve learned quite a bit from some of the posts on here, and find the whole mythicist discussion to be fascinating, fruitful, and likely the best explanation of what actually happened.

        1. The Four Horsemen of New Atheism didn’t rise to prominence until about six years after I left the faith, and while I didn’t pay any attention to them for a long time, the reaction to those men was little different from the reaction I got from Christians I had known before. I didn’t ask any “wrong” questions (if there is such a thing), the very fact that I couldn’t confess the faith was enough for me to be demonized. Lots of things have been said about me, but I’ve actually said very little because there didn’t seem to be a point.

          I have a lot of difficulty tolerating anyone going around accusing New Atheists of being troublemakers and upstarts. Again, look at George W. Bush, two wars in the middle east, Donald Trump, these are all products of the kind of people who drove me away from the faith. The New Atheists have been demonized by the people responsible for those. You’re screwed up if you don’t see that.

          1. Dude, chill. My post was not a personal attack on you. Not being able to tolerate anybody who has an opinion about the New Atheists other than your own seems like the kind of close-minded mentality that religious fundamentalists have anybody expressing an opinion other than their cherished dogmas. Shouldn’t rational skeptics be better than that? I’m certainly not going to forbid people to express opinions other than my own.

            1. I beg your pardon? How can you talk out of both sides of your mouth like that?

              I told you straight out my own experiences and you just ignored me, you just kept going with this classic Christian bullshit. If an atheist complimented a Christian’s shirt, the Christian would have responded shouting WHY ARE YOU SO STRIDENT, and the whole audience would come away thinking, damn, that New Atheist is so strident! It’s a fucking delusion. There’s no substance or truth to anything you said.

              1. Sir, I am not a Christian, and I am not trying to advocate for Christianity. I am a skeptic who happens to not be a fan of the so-called New Atheists.

                I find it ironic that I try and post an innocent observation on here and then find myself attacked and my motives maligned in the same way people are doing this to atheists who try and express their ideas.

              2. “New Atheism” is a slur, created and intended to be offensive. If you are using any other slurs, racial, ethnic, and saying you’re “not a fan” of “those people”, what sort of reaction are you expecting? No, you are not innocent, you are stirring this up deliberately.

                It isn’t enough for people like me to have to deal with crap from Christians, non-Christians ignore the way Christians have treated us and rush to their defense attacking us. Christians have been the dominant ones, the ones with power and the ability to ruin other people’s lives. You are defending them just by using the expression “New Atheists”.

                Early in my atheism I found that self-identified skeptics and feminists were resistant to allow themselves to be associated with atheists even though we all work against Christians for the same reason, but this isn’t an attitude I’ve seen from anyone in years. For the past several years I’ve considered myself a feminist first as a result of the progress we’ve made collectively, the sort of people who self-identify as skeptic can’t be trusted to support issues protecting people from Christian bigotry. Feminism has actually been the front line defender of LGBTQ rights and abortion rights and also minority rights (anti-racism). If you prefer to think of yourself as a skeptic and use slurs casually, it tells us you don’t care about any of those Christian-generated issues.

    2. I disagree that a ‘New Atheist’ movement or its leaders or many of their fans have tried to redefine atheism as an aggressively anti-theistic movement aiming to debunk and destroy all religion.

      That is a caricature created by its detractors and its other interlocutors. Sure, there has been perception of a movement established around the so-called ‘Four Horsemen of the Non-Apocolypse’ based on a taped unmoderated discussion b/w Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris, and Dennett in Sept 2007, but it only has prominence b/c it was established relatively recently and is current.

      The issue of style or position is a reflection of several things: changing perceptions and changing dynamics around those perceptions; much of it is push-back against religious organisations and their proponents trying to hold onto their positions.

      1. I don’t know what you’ve been reading, but the rhetoric I’ve read by so-called New Atheists sounds pretty hostile to religion. Dawkins has likened it to a virus, and writes as if it is an irredeemable evil thing and a root cause of what’s wrong in the world. I’ve read their disparaging remarks about the kind of atheists who adopt a more live-and-let live neutral stance towards religious belief. It wasn’t my intention to try and caricature the New Atheists, the hostility seems to be plain and apparent, and they seem to be proud of it. From my POV I was simply stating a non-controversial observation of fact by describing their stated beliefs and attitudes.

        1. There were better books about that sort of thing before Richard Dawkins became a rockstar to Christians. As far as I can tell, he’s a much more popular target by Christians than he is popular with atheists.

          Richard Dawkins isn’t a psychologist, he’s a biologist, so he’s going to see faith in that context (a biological virus, rather than a software virus, which is still fairly inaccurate), and neither he nor any of the other “Horsemen” had any person experience of the faith to genuinely argue from. For Christians who left the faith, their position has a crucial weakness.

          Objectively speaking, the neutrals aren’t the good guys. When someone threatens neutral people, they take the side of those attacking them, and they will become hostile in defense of their attacker. All sorts of different psychological studies prove this out in many different contexts. Real world situations abound.

          If you are hurt on the side of the road, the neutrals are the ones not helping you. Even the parable of the “Good” Samaritan is more of an ethnic slur than it is a statement against the bystander effect.

          After WWII, many Germans were interviewed about what they knew about the Holocaust. They often claimed they did not know, but of course they did know something, how could they not? They were neutrals, bystanders, but the Holocaust was only able to happen because of them.

          What New Atheists have done is made it safe to be honest about the weaknesses of the Christian faith. If someone could have made it “safe” for Germans to ask what happened to the Jews before 1942, many lives could have been saved.

          The problem is people like me pay a price to make it seem safe for others.

            1. I find it a very odd question. If you know the history, in the beginning, the people who opposed it were also arrested. The arrest of tens of thousands of critics of the state was never followed by any sort of mass protest. Only a small underground resistance ever existed in Nazi Germany.

              Meanwhile after 9/11, the American government was similarly able to do a lot of terrible things which until now have faced little serious criticism or resistance. “Resistance” is a very popular word today, almost two decades after 9/11, against a man who has only begun to debase himself.

              Average people are cowards who do not wish to make themselves targets when the state is able to do terrible things to its critics. It does not mean that they can’t do anything, only that they won’t.

        2. Sure, Richard Dawkins has been pretty strident, gratingly so at times. But he doesn’t represent a movement other than one that had formed around his blog, discussion forum, or whatever, before it folded (I never got directly involved). As an evolutionary biologist Dawkins had to deal with anti-evolution Christians constantly putting spokes in his wheels. He first accelerated his anti-theism phase with this Guardian article on 15 Sept 2001 https://www.theguardian.com/world/2001/sep/15/september11.politicsphilosophyandsociety1 And of course he published The God Delusion 5 yrs later.

          Christopher Hitchen’s was always fairly strident, but generally fair, I thought. And most Christian commentators seemed to respect him. Sam Harris has been a bit of a mixed bag (I have not read his book ,i>The End of faith and I don’t follow him). Daniel Dennett hardly seems to say boo, and, if he does, he seems pretty measured (I may have seen a tv or video clip of him talking, at some point).

          So, there is no formal movement that I am aware of. Nothing of note from doing an internet search (other tha articles about the term or the four so-called figureheads) and nothing on facebook (there is a facebook page called ‘The New Atheist’, singular).

          In my previous post I referred to the concept as “a caricature created by its detractors and its other interlocutors.”

          The Internet Encylopaedia of Philosophy says the same thing -viz. –

          ‘The “New Atheist” label for these critics of religion and religious belief emerged out of journalistic commentary on the contents and impacts of their books.’ – http://www.iep.utm.edu/n-atheis/

          1. I didn’t pay attention to these “New Atheists” until Christians I know lumped me with them and forced me to defend them. I couldn’t very well defend people I didn’t even know about.

    3. Is it supposed to be ironic to talk about New Atheists as if the dominant evangelicals who gave us George W. Bush and Donald Trump, as well as their real and imagined Muslim adversaries, can say or do anything with no effect on society. In real terms the Christian religion has been losing a lot of ground, it didn’t lose any of that ground because of people who kept their mouths shut.

  11. Atheist is an umbrella term. In this context we’re dealing with the kind that rejects Christianity due to lack of evidence. Thus, their position on the origins of the religion tends to be fraud or schizophrenia.

    If earthly Jesus were to be shown to be a work of fiction, it’d be one more act of fraud. The more acts of fraud you can demonstrate, the easier it gets to convince people that their faith is false. In an ideal world, even a perfectly consistent scripture and historic development couldn’t stop you from rejecting Christianity due to lack of evidence, but we’re not living in an ideal world.

    So, as an atheist you cannot wish myhticism to be true or rely on it, but if it is true, it will be very useful to anti-theists. Even if it doesn’t help deconvert a single person directly, it will be extremely damaging to multiple denominations (how did we get /this/ so wrong???)

    1. Atheism simply means ‘without theism’. It usually means a lack of belief in God or gods.

      In a ‘western’ Christian sense it usually means a lack of belief in the supernatural claims about the Christian god: perhaps lack of belief in just two of the three ‘aspects’ of the Trinity. Most people believe Jesus was a deified human. If he wasn’t, he would have to be a humanised entity, perhaps a humanised angel. But that might not have been a fraud per se. It might have come about because people believed what they had seen written about him or what they had been told about him.

  12. Oddly my Firefox homepage displays the following image for the link to James McGrath’s post that I discussed here. Yet that image is not on McGrath’s blog. I wonder if it was somehow originally added by McG and then subsequently deleted. If it had been added by McG himself (how else might it turn up on my recent pages visited list?) it is a colorful illustration of his problematic view of atheists in general, and his defensive need to somehow have Christian faith claim the high ground of true scepticism. It is such a hopelessly biased view of people who do not believe in god and a hopelessly bizarre defensive view of Christianity…

    1. Such a meme only emphasizes the sexual hangups that Christians are hamstrung by, that they really do view backsliding from the faith as sexual adultery.

      1. The image is used for:
        1) Thumbnail image for the list of posts.
        2) Social media posts

        The image is not embedded for display in the actual 18 DECEMBER 2017 post.

        1. Skepticism doesn’t look the least sceptical. The only one of the three figures I think would have the most reason to be sceptical is the woman in red. Though in the pic she looks to be blissfully unaware.

  13. James McGrath seems to be a bit late to the party.

    From a blog explicitly about debunking Christianity, written FIVE years ago (forever in Internet time):

    I am a focused, passionate man, who is single mindedly intent on debunking Christianity. This issue [the idea that Jesus didn’t exist] will not do the job for the simple fact of what evangelicals like David Marshall think of such a claim. It’s too far removed from what they will consider a possibility. I’d like to hear of the vast numbers of Christians who abandoned their faith because they were convinced Jesus didn’t exist. I just don’t see that happening at all.

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