2020-11-16

Bad History for Atheists (4) — Psychoanalyzing Dissenters

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by Neil Godfrey

Dnipropetrovsk special psychiatric hospital

This is the final post covering my response to Tim O’Neill’s interview on MythVision. For other posts, parts one, two, three.

In 1959 Khrushchev declared that there were no political prisoners in the USSR, only mentally ill people (Bukovsky).

Arrests and trials became their last resort . . . . The authorities preferred other means, from psychiatric confinement and defamatory campaigns . . . .

Publicly branding dissidents as having some psychological issue had the desired effect:

I remember how, emerging from the psychiatric hospital in 1965, I suddenly discovered that all my “thaw-time” friends had disappeared somewhere, as if they had melted away. When we met by chance in the street, they would hurry away, clutching folders or briefcases or, even better, wheeling a pram. Sorry, old man, they would mutter without stopping, eyes lowered, I have to defend my diploma, dissertation, get my candidate’s application approved. Or I need to raise my children first. Then they would speed off, looking neither left nor right.  . . . 

(Bukovsky, Judgment in Moscow)

In the US, by contrast, political power is not necessary. The mainstream merely needs to publicly shame dissidents in the free press:

In this respect, America is an amazing country. On the one hand, publishing slander is recognized as the sacred right of the press, protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution of the USA. On the other hand, America is a country of extreme conformists, where any criticism in the press, even if it is genuinely slanderous, renders a person unacceptable . . . . Note that it is the victim of slander who becomes “controversial and not the slanderer

(ibid)

From Wikimedia Commons

Recall from the previous post one biblical scholar’s observation of the conservative mainstream in his field of study:

There are several kinds of name-calling, but in the end, they all tend to impress a readership in such a way that it will simply abstain from reading material written by members of the group characterized by the name-calling. . . . 

What is the aim of this labeling? . . . The advice to the novice in biblical studies is never engage in any serious way in a discussion with non-conservative scholars. You should just denounce them as incompetent and not worth reading and continue this tactic until people believe you

For original citation references see The Tactics of Conservative Scholarship (according to J. Barr & N-P. Lemche)

One biblical scholar who was viscerally hostile against Christ mythicists, Maurice Casey, was very willing to employ the above tactics to discredit anyone who dared disagree with his views or those of his doctoral student and partner at the time. I responded to Casey’s assertions with the Who’s Who page of anyone identifying with or merely open-minded towards the Christ myth theory in order to demonstrate that his accusations were without foundation. His psychological analyses of mythicists — they were by and large disturbed ex-fundamentalists — was baseless slander.

Tim O’Neill in his MythVision interview resorted once more to the same tawdry psychoanalysis of mythicists (he allowed for a “few” exceptions). In his online statements he has added outright character defamation and some of the ugliest humiliation to his characterization of Christ mythicists. I have invited O’Neill several times to engage with my criticisms of his work but only on condition that he refrain from verbal abuse and he has declined. Rather, he has written that he finds my criticisms too petty to bother with. That’s another way of telling his followers to stay clear of my responses to his posts or to read them with a condescension that guarantees they will be dismissed from the outset.

Psychoanalyzing and humiliating mythicists 

Here is O’Neill’s psychoanalysis of mythicists as stated in the MythVision interview:

At about the 14 to 15 minute mark, O’Neill says that mythicists let emotion sway them towards bad arguments, the same way Holocaust deniers are swayed by emotion to a contrarian viewpoint.

At around 20 minutes he draws a generalizing parallel with “fervent fundamentalist Christians” and says that this parallel is “not a coincidence”. Why? Because (allowing for some paraphrasing)

mythicism is very comforting to those who have come from the opposite position. It appeals to people with a certain type of psychology, to those who don’t like ambiguity, who want absolutes, who shun ambiguity and shades of grey. Mythicism takes ambiguity away. So there is a lot of psychological stuff to explain mythicism.

Have a look at that Who’s Who table and assess for yourself how valid you think such a sweeping generalization is. Look back over the history of mythicism before this century (including, especially, those mythicists addressed by Albert Schweitzer) and ask how true O’Neill’s characterization is. For that matter, compare Schweitzer’s methods of addressing mythicist arguments with those deployed by O’Neill.

There is one more character flaw O’Neill finds among mythicists:

also it’s a measure of laziness. It means you can brush it [the question of Christian origins] all aside and we can ignore it and get on with our anti-christian views. (paraphrasing in part)

O’Neill does not explain how concluding Jesus did not exist is any more “lazy” than concluding he did exist. But again, this assertion is nothing more than fabrication. Sure, no doubt there are many people who are hostile towards Christianity and no doubt some of those like to jump on the idea that there was no Jesus, but I think we can make better use of our time addressing the serious arguments of serious people who are not in that league, or whose views of Christianity have little to do with mythicism. After all, it is far easier and far more common to findi anti-Christian diatribes that condemn real failings of Christianity and that reduce Jesus to a mere mortal. As one anti-Chrisitan, John Loftus, has rightly said, surely the worst way to undermine Christianity is to tell believers Jesus did not exist!

Further, O’Neill “gets the impression”, he says, that people like Doherty, Carrier and Price get some sort of psychological “hit” from being right while everyone else is wrong, from being contrarian.

There is a pattern there. Price endorsed a new version of Atwill’s book about Caesar even though he does not believe in Atwill’s theory. He’s just being contrarian and against Christianity.

(in part paraphrasing O’Neill)

He continued,

Yes, they are sincere, some maybe are too sincere. . . There is this binary. . . . 

What of those scholars who are open to the idea?

A tiny handful of scholars accept it but most think it is a bad thesis. 

So presumably we are left to think it would be a waste of time to look into a thesis that is not accepted by “most”. It’s rejection by the mainstream is sufficient justification.

Mythicism is as “Factually False” as any other false idea about history

Although O’Neill began his interview saying he is open to ambiguity and mythicism is “valid” as a hypothesis, towards the end he states that the idea is as factually false as popular myths about the destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria and as the “popular idea” that the Church opposed science in the “Dark Ages”.

What I find somewhat odd here is that O’Neill directs his concern that it is “atheists” who have inherited such “popular ideas”. I had always thought that certain misconceptions about the “Dark Ages” were more likely to be found among Protestant Christians who have inherited anti-Catholic traditions. But O’Neill confines his concern to atheists alone. Hence his blog is not History for All, or History for Protestants and Atheists, or simply, Debunking Myths about History, but it’s History for Atheists. Why?

I’m often rude — deal with it

Justifying his rudeness comes in around 1 hour 28 minutes. And he does justify it:

That’s because I’m Australian and that’s who we are. That’s because it’s who I am. 

(again, in part paraphrasing)

He’s also of Irish descent and has red hair, he says, so that’s who he is.

From Mail & Guardian

I’m also Australian and can say that most Australians are not rude in any way like O’Neill is. Yes, there is a national myth, partly true, about Australian larrikinism and “taking the mickey out of” tall poppies, something even children learn was the way Australian soldiers treated British officers in the First World War. Punching up is always funny. But punching down never is, and O’Neill is known to target those whom he says are less successful than he is and who have in no way challenged him — no matter, O’Neill has gone out of his way to utterly humiliate them.

O’Neill in the interview admits he comes across as “aggressive” when he’s really expressing nothing more than a bit of “sarcastic humour”. The problem is an American one. Deal with it, he tells Americans. He says he is “quite sarcastic towards some mythicists”, and that he is only “rude” to those mythicists who are “rude to him”. O’Neill’s definition of sarcasm stretches beyond the dictionary definition. And it is far from true that he only attacks those who are rude to him, as the record shows (see the previous post for but one notable example). Nor is it an “American” problem. Most Australians are not like O’Neill by any means and I know many Australians who find O’Neill’s online manner to be repulsive.

But he does have his followers, certainly. So does a certain American political figure whose insults are justified by his followers as “merely being honest”. Knowing how to insult others like that is a way to get lots of laughs and a good following from a certain type of audience.

But why?

I don’t know. It is tempting to compare other personalities who make themselves known through social media. But who knows!

Many of us have wondered why O’Neill behaves so “rudely” the way he does online. Being Australian doesn’t explain it.

We are not asking why he believes or argues the points he does but why he does so in such a demeaning and offensive way. We cannot help but seek to understand that behaviour when it so often appears unnecessary at best and harmful at worst.

I did one time suggest an explanation: O’Neill is very preoccupied with not looking like a fool. Fools and failures are how he characterizes those he despises. Adhering to mainstream scholarly thought is essential for not looking like some kook.

Around the 1 hours 23 minute mark or soon afterwards he said

If you are going to use arguments from history, get it right. And don’t go for fringe stuff that isn’t accepted by mainstream historians. Because you just make us look stupid.

I heard O’Neill say something very similar years back but he seemed to deny it when I asked him about it a little while ago. But he has repeated it here: as an atheist he is very concerned about other atheists making him look stupid. He does not want to be associated with them, it would seem.

Hence, History for Atheists?

O’Neill informs listeners that he was one of the founding members of the Atheist Foundation of Australia. So it is clear he takes some pride in identifying as an atheist. In the same interview we hear him repeating little boasts about himself that he has made in other online venues: that he has had a history of success in sexual activity, that he has had a very successful professional career, that he is very busy and has to treat his interest in history as a hobby, that he writes very lengthy blog posts so therefore they are “very in-depth”.

In the interview O’Neill makes it clear that mythicism has been an interest since the 1990s. He flatly accuses mythicists of letting emotions sway them into bad arguments. Carrier is a loser, a failure, in O’Neill’s words, and that is how he depicts all he opposes. They are the opposite of him. He is successful, very much so, he repeatedly lets it drop to anyone who reads his work an listens to him.

But he does not want to be associated with anyone who makes him look stupid. Hence he insists that mythicism belongs to “the online” brigade. He, on the other hand, offers his followers the fruits of his efforts to digest hard, scholarly books and to argue mainstream scholarship “in-depth”.

We have seen in this little series of posts that O’Neill is often careless with his arguments, confused in some of his thinking and even careless with his facts. It is easy to get away with such failings in a field like relatively conservative biblical studies because, sad to say, too many (certainly by no means all!!!) scholars in that field are themselves careless with their research, with their citations, with their logic. The point is that O’Neill is plainly not as “in-depth” or even very good at doing history as he tries to present himself. One may suspect a vulnerable core that his public persona is desperate to hide behind a confident presence and professional looking website. But he has told us that he does fear looking stupid against the mainstream scholarship.

I pointed out above that O’Neill has declined to engage me (or anyone else that I am aware of) in a discussion in which he will be required to defend his views and in which he must agree beforehand to avoid any abusive language. Surely the reason he refuses that invitation is that he knows it will mean him having to risk appearing defeated, wrong, “stupid” (as he would put it). His way is to ridicule opponents with sarcasm and insult, like that American political figure we know too well. His only means of defence is attack: lay down his argument and then belittle or ridicule or abuse anyone who challenges it. Declare his argument is that of the majority among New Testament scholars and he thus avoids looking stupid.

It is easy to see a somewhat toned down image of a political figure in the United States when one looks over what O’Neill reveals about himself. Besides, we all (or most of us, I suspect) have some measure of narcissism in us. But we are better off letting his attacks drip off us like water off ducks’ backs — he is never going to become anything different from what he has been — and focusing on the arguments themselves.

 


Bukovsky, Vladimir. “Back to the Future (i-Ii).” 2017. The Bukovsky Archives (blog). May 16, 2017. https://bukovsky-archive.com/back-to-the-future-1/.

Bukovsky, Vladimir, and Edward Lucas. 2019. Judgment in Moscow: Soviet Crimes and Western Complicity. Translated by Alyona Kojevnikov. Ninth of November.

Lambert, Derek. 2020. The Problems With Jesus Mythicism – Tim O’Neill. Youtube Video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TkZTiLacoks&feature=youtu.be.


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Neil Godfrey

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21 thoughts on “Bad History for Atheists (4) — Psychoanalyzing Dissenters”

  1. This is one of those posts to which I keep returning to add another phrase, another line, another paragraph, as afterthoughts keep coming to me. With this comment I give notice that as of now I will not modify the post any further.

  2. What has amused me is when in discussion with Christians online how quite a number of them suggest, that along with reading Wallace and Strobel, I should read O’Neill, hence my intial comment on one of the other posts wondering if he is paid some sort of secret financial retainer!
    🙂

    1. A little while ago Salm and I visited the forum of the atheist org that O’Neill apparently co-founded. They are not nice people. Dare to question the mainstream scholarly views on their arguments for the historicity of Jesus and you will be hounded out quick smart. They are atheists and fully behind the biblical mainstream academy — and they are crude and insulting to boot. A worthy child of Tim O’Neill.

      O’Neill appears to take pride in those on the side of the New Testament mainstream praising his efforts. I can only assume he feels honoured as part of the majority view yet standing up against the “stupid” atheists who would embarrass him. I find it hard to imagine O’Neill ever digging deeply enough into the roots of any question or topic in order to arrive at a single critical-cum-radical thought. He looks for ways to justify the mainstream so they can justify and validate and honour him. And as an atheist he knows how to do it in a way that he won’t be lost in an overcrowded field. Think that n-word.

    2. I’ve had the same issue.

      In an extended to and fro discussion with a theist over on Cross Examined many moons ago, a theist kept boasting about O’Neill’s articles like they were silver bullets to Carrier’s thesis. The theist was repeatedly calling Carriers career a failure because of employment and lack of citations. Sometimes it really is easier to nail jello to a wall.

  3. I guess we are just going to ignore that Carrier, Lataster, Price, Doherty, Salm, Zindler and more are all a bunch of inflammatory immature children, who run their mouths insulting academics and taking pride in upsetting consensus academics purely to upset them? For instance, Carrier’s apparent incapability of representing anything anyone says honestly or fully without misconstruing it (most recent example being Blom); Lataster’s antireligious tirades that pervades throughout all of his work; Price’s deliberate misrepresentations of Weberian types, J. Z. Smith, and all of his critics; Doherty on Ehrman; Salm on anyone who dares challenge him; Zindler on… literally anyone who isn’t an atheist because he is just a dick, clearly in the same bad behavior mindset as Murray-O’Hair (someone well known for doing things like scamming speakers at conferences, like John Allegro, see the biography by his daughter).

    I could also talk about how you misrepresented him in the YouTube comments, and how you also misrepresented Chris Hansen through cherry picked quotes that you excised from context, and then tried defending it by “context doesn’t really matter here” even though it does because he actually contradicts the point you claim he was making.

    You are just as rude and insulting as the lot of them. You just do it by slandering and misrepresenting people you don’t like. Also, pardon because I have yet to see you have a single critical thing to offer at all. Practically everything you’ve offered seems to just parroting of any minimalist you can find.

    Also, why would he engage in discussions with petty people who spend their time misrepresenting anyone they don’t like on their wordpress blogs?

    1. The reason I am allowing this comment to appear despite the crude name the author self-assigns is because it illustrates an interesting type of critic and — wait for it — the IP address is the same as the one Chris Hansen’s past comments use.

      So unless Chris Hansen will like to offer a plausible explanation as to how his IP address appears here then I think it is in the interest of exchanges in this context that we all know what Chris Hansen is like.

      1. Readers of this blog may find interesting the fact that on Reddit, recently a user named “Chrissy_H_”, who four days ago claimed, “I’m literally writing an entire book on mythicism”, has been temporarily banned from the Academic Biblical subreddit for some rather insulting language used when disputing with another historicist the other historicist’s claim that only mythicists believe that both passages from Josephus which mention Jesus are interpolations. “Chrissy_H_”, among other phrases, wrote, “Why would I bother engaging with the arguments of someone who has so little to say that they couldn’t be bothered to even read the scholarship, and are just repeating Tim O’Neill, whom I’ve already have tussled with elsewhere? You don’t offer a single thing worth actually thinking about. At this point you are just an entertaining child running around here complaining because how dare I hold you accountable to the fact that you don’t know the first thing about any of this, and are just a troglodyte.”

        You may read these words here: https://old.reddit.com/user/Chrissy_H_, although they may be deleted in time.

        I wish that people on all side of this discussion would be politer and that more people would realize that a heavenly Jesus makes Christianity stronger – because the earthly Jesus was so inferior to Shakyamuni Buddha and other sages.

          1. Or assemblage of aggregates, as the Buddhist teachings say. But I understand your point. You are very temperate in your criticism, when you give it – unlike so many others in this discussion.

        1. “Chrissy_H_” has deleted their reddit account. But as a correction, the person whom “Chrissy_H_” was debating was not saying that only mythicists believe that both passages in Josephus were interpolations; rather, the other person was saying that only Mythicists’ efforts ensure that mythicists’ and non-mythicists’ arguments that both passages in Josephus were interpolations receive any notability instead of being completely condemned and ignored.

          Which is, I confess, a strange argument in its own right.

          1. Censorship, heresy-hunting, treating dissidents as insane or morally flawed — the mentality is still out there. Intellectual freedom can never be taken for granted.

          2. both passages in Josephus…completely condemned and ignored

            They have no relevance to applicable historical methodology per the question of the historicity of Jesus. They are dismissed.

            Carrier again makes this clear in his new pop book JFOS.

            • Per Carrier

            There is no independent evidence of Jesus’s existence outside the New Testament. All external evidence for his existence, even if it were fully authentic (though much of it isn’t), cannot be shown to be independent of the Gospels, or Christian informants relying on the Gospels. None of it can be shown to independently corroborate the Gospels as to the historicity of Jesus. Not one single item of evidence. Regardless of why no independent evidence survives (it does not matter the reason), no such evidence survives. [“Afterword by Richard Carrier”. ap. Lataster, Raphael (2015). Jesus Did Not Exist: A Debate Among Atheists. p. 418. ISBN 1514814420.]

        2. People who are interested in the debate which “Chrissy_H_” was engaged in (which involves discussion of Ken Olson and of the idea that the Dialogue with Trypho suggested that some people thought that Jesus never existed) may find the following archived link to be useful: https://snew.notabug.io/r/AcademicBiblical/comments/jryxj1/leaving_aside_its_use_by_mythicists_how_reputable/

          Neil, if this break the rules of this blog for any reason (related to, for example, posting deleted content), then I apologize.

          1. Thank you for the link, even though it makes me nauseous to read it. I am reminded why I spend so little time on forums discussing anything like this at those places. I sometimes venture into one, usually the earlychristian discussion forum, but it generally becomes very quickly apparent that one is engaging with attitudes more than reasoned arguments. Investing most of my time on the blog here allows me the time to learn more things of interest to me and to share what I think appropriate with others. No getting tangled up with people who want to engage in games of verbal bullying.

            I note with interest that Chris Hansen is “an ardent” historicist. What sort of attitude is that for any serious historical inquirer?

    2. I could also talk about how you … misrepresented Chris Hansen through cherry picked quotes that you excised from context, and then tried defending it by “context doesn’t really matter here” even though it does because he actually contradicts the point you claim he was making.

      It’s called being double-tongued, Chris. Say one thing clearly and unambiguously on one page and then something else on another page and hey, presto, just like a politician who says different things at different times, be able to claim, when challenged, Hey, I didn’t mean what you accuse me of, because look, over here I said something else! It’s called “plausible deniability”, or worse things, in the trade.

      Sam Harris is another example of one who uses that “trick”. Trump uses the same method to “plausibly deny” his racism and sympathy with racists.

    3. For anyone not in the know who is curious, Christopher Hansen has been mentioned on this blog twice before in posts:

      Robert Price and Christopher Hansen Discussion — this post includes a video of Hansen in discussion about mythicism with Price. In that video Chris gives a totally opposite impression of his attitudes towards Price from the one he introduces in the above comment. “Two-faced” comes to mind.

      Fundamentalists Don’t Become Mythicists

  4. Re “Many of us have wondered why O’Neill behaves so “rudely” the way he does online. Being Australian doesn’t explain it.” Ah, but being an asshole does!

    Anyone who resorts to ad hominum attacks should have to wear a sign which says “My arguments do not have any merit, so …”

  5. It does seem to be a regular resort for many defending an orthodoxy to portray critics as having some sort of personal flaw which renders the criticism moot – I suppose it saves the trouble of addressing the issues involved.

    1. It extends beyond pop psychoanalysis, as I am sure you know, too. I can name several biblical scholars of good reputation among their peers who even go so far as to draw attention even to what they interpret as personality or behavioral flaws in those they brand as “mythicists”. X arrives late at a venue in a new city after a long journey and that is advertized as a culpable personal rudeness. I post a photograph of library books scattered on the floor as the result of an earthquake and add a half-humorous comment and suddenly I am branded as a cynical mocker who likes to make fun of difficulties librarians can have, and on and on it goes. To some, mythicists are not normal people, they are people who are not only captured by “idiotic” ideas but they have none of the normal civil or personal graces, they are flawed through and through. Such comments ought, by rights, reflect on those who can find no redeeming quality of any kind in their opponents.

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