Tag Archives: atheism and mythicism

Response #1 to the Non Sequitur program with Tim O’Neill: MOTIVES

Last weekend I watched Tim O’Neill present his arguments against the idea that there was no historical Jesus. I said I would respond in a post to his points and expected to cover it all in one or two sessions. But time is getting away from me this evening so here I will address just one point, Tim’s opening claims.

Tim begins by arguing that mythicism is appealing because it pulls the rug out from Christianity.

My response:

I am not interested in and do not refer in my comments to conspiracy theorists and cult-like following of a certain kind of mythicism that I equate more with interest in aliens, UFOs, Holy Grail, type theories. I am referring to the serious scholarly stuff led by the likes of Wells, Doherty, Price, Brodie and Carrier who ground their research and arguments in the publication of biblical and other recognized scholars.
  • I don’t know of any evidence to support that claim, the claim that, in general, people who are attracted to the mythicist viewpoint do so because they are motivated by some anti-Christian animus. No doubt. In fact, the evidence that I have been able to collate suggests that this is not true.  Some mythicist authors have in fact expressed the deepest respect for Christianity (e.g. Francesco Carotta, Paul-Louis Couchoud, Hermann Detering, Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy, Tom Harpur, Edward van der Kaaij, Robert M. Price).
  • Some mythicists have even remained Christians after embracing mythicism and it is through acknowledgement of Jesus as a “mythical” creation they find deeper meaning in their faith (e.g. Thomas Brodie, Tom Harpur, Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy).
  • I do not recall reading a single scholarly mythicist work that attacks Christianity as a faith. One of the most prominent warriors against Christianity is John Loftus and he has said that arguing mythicism would be the worst way to try to turn someone away from Christianity. I have posted the same thoughts here. Tim O’Neill tells us that Richard Carrier has said the same. So I don’t know if anyone is seriously attempting to attack Christianity by means of arguing that Jesus did not even exist. (No doubt there are some less well informed people who do this sort of thing, or I assume there must be in a universe as vast as ours, but I am speaking throughout of those who are focused on the scholarly arguments for mythicism by such authors as Brodie, Carrier, Doherty, RM Price and RG Price, Detering, Lataster, Fitzgerald, Ellegard, Wells, Parvus, Onfray and such.)
  • Further, if many who are attracted to mythicism are already atheists, then it hardly seems likely that they are motivated by a desire to find pretexts to undermine Christianity. I suppose some atheists are on a vendetta against Christianity, but not even the New Atheists like Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens used mythicism as a deadly cudgel. They did nothing more than refer to its possibility in passing and with some diffidence. They certainly held back from using it as serious weapon.

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Atheist Hostility to Jesus Mythicism … making sense of it

I’ve been thinking through how best to complete the second part of my post, Atheists Do Not Understand Religion, trying to figure out the clearest way to present the results of the anthropological research which means trying to get them ever more clear in my own mind first. At the same time I have found myself attempting to apply these particular ways humans work to understanding the answer to the question of why some atheists are so hostile towards Jesus mythicism.

I was working towards an understanding back in March this year but what I have read again in Boyer’s book I think has helped crystallize my understanding with a theoretical or research backing.

We “essentialize” things. Or the words used by Boyer are “essentialist” thinking and “essences”. So in many cultures there is something about, say, blacksmiths that makes them essentially different from “respectable society”. There is some indefinable internal quality about blacksmiths that make them different from everyone else, that makes it unthinkable that your daughter would ever marry one (unless you yourself are a blacksmith). Boyer speaks of an “essentialist inference system” that applies to the way we recognized different classes of objects and even groups of people.

One of the “essences” that many atheists see characterizes their “group identity” as atheists is a sense that they are smarter, more intelligent, more reasonable, than other groups of people who believe in angels and miracles. One essential difference perceived between the two is that the atheist sees himself accepting of the world’s scientific heritage while others either reject much of it outright (young earth creationists) or at least accept it only with qualifications (evolution but with God’s guiding finger).

Other groups that contain the same essential quality of rejecting established scientific and scholarly wisdom are holocaust deniers, flat-earthers, moon-landing deniers, anti-vaccers.

What they all have in common, or the “essential” difference between them all and the atheist, is that they all reject some plank of the scholarly wisdom as established in the trusted centers of learning, public universities and research centres.

One constant that has come through loud and clear from atheists who scoff at the very idea that anyone would claim Jesus did not exist is their pointing to “what the scholars say”. They appeal, always, to the mainstream intellectual academy, and its “consensus”. That appeal, I think, is a constant. We even see some biblical scholar comparing the rejection of the beliefs marking their field of study with the rejection of evolution among biologists or paleontologists.

I think what is happening when certain atheists ridicule or deplore Jesus mythicists is they are intuitively “essentializing” them with the same classes of people who reject the mainstream scholarly institutions in favour of their own idiosyncratic views about the shape of the earth or how old it is and how life got here.

We know they do equate mythicists with such people because they say so openly. But I think many others of us have never understood quite why they do and we have tended to think that if only they heard the arguments they would see things our way. But it doesn’t work like that, does it.

We know they will sometimes listen to the arguments but then reject them outright, often misrepresenting some of them in return. What is going on here?

Boyer also speaks of “coalitional” intuitions. We seek out coalitions that bring likely reward and reduce likely costs in our lives. And sometimes this means that we have to rationalize away certain assumptions about our “essentialist” thinking with other groups:

Now Fang lineages span territories so huge that everybody has lineage “cousins” they seldom interact with. In these rare cases, essentialist understandings of lineage would suggest that you can trust them anyway (these people are the same substance as you are, you know their personality type and therefore their reactions) whereas coalitional intuitions would recommend caution (since this is a first-time interaction and will probably remain a one-time event, why should they do you any favors?). People in such cases generally follow their coalitional intuitions but then reconcile this with their essentialist concepts by saying that they are not in fact certain that these people really belong to their lineage.

(Boyer, Religion Explained, p. 289)

We find ad hoc reasons to reject evidence that contradicts our interests. Atheists who see themselves as “bright” or at least intelligent enough to know God is not real and that genuine knowledge is found in the halls of academic and research institutions will as a rule side with those institutions to maintain their self-image or identity. Evidence that would otherwise lead them to challenge such a position is rationalized away.

Yet there are indeed a good many academics themselves who do indeed question the historical existence of Jesus, or are at least open to the possibility that there was no such figure. We have seen most recently PZ Myers “come out” here; others we know of are Jerry Coyne, Hector Avalos, Philip R. Davies, Paul Hopper, Burton Mack, Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Greta Christina, Michel Onfrey, Thomas Brodie, Kurt Knoll, Arthur Droge…. and others. I believe what is happening here is that a good number of people long embedded within the institutions of academe know full well just how flakey some scholarship can be and they do not hold the same unqualified reverence for all its branches and persons as many outsiders do.

 

Discovering Why “Even Atheists” Deplore Jesus Mythicism. (Or, Thoughts on “Cult Atheism”)

This is an exploratory essay, not much more than a diary of disorganized thoughts on my recent experience with an atheist discussion forum.

After much delay I finally enrolled as a member of the Atheist Foundation of Australia (AFA) Forums to contribute to a discussion on the historicity of Jesus. I had been encouraged by the report that a growing number of members there appeared to be open to the view that Jesus possibly had no historical existence but I still should have done my own homework on the nature of the site and character of its members before submitting my first comment there. After thinking over my time there and doing some rather belated review of the forum (or congregation of forums) I believe that the best comparison I can make to that “atheist community” is that it is very like a religious cult. It is certainly a form of a religious or church substitute for the newly faithless or for the long-time faithless who have never managed to outgrow their childish level of thrill at discovering they can break rules and social norms (like, ooh, so very naughtily using offensive words as often as they feel like it) without the fear of hell hanging over them.

I also think I finally understand why so many atheists viciously attack the Christ Myth theory.

Before continuing let me list a little of the distant and immediate background to my thoughts. Firstly, I spent too many years in a religious cult in addition to a number of years doing a lot of reading of works by psychologists and others who explained the cult experience and provided assistance in recovery. (See the links in the side bar to Vridar profiles for a few details.) I know a little about cults and the cult experience. Secondly, I have recently read the following and these have no doubt more immediately helped crystallize certain thoughts on the AFA experience:

  • Do intelligent people realize that they are smarter than anyone else surrounding them?
  • Herwig, Holger H. 1987. “Clio Deceived: Patriotic Self-Censorship in Germany after the Great War.” International Security 12 (2): 5–44. https://doi.org/10.2307/2538811.
  • Benda, Julien. 2006. The Treason of the Intellectuals. Translated by Roger Kimball. New Brunswick, NJ: Routledge. (Originally published 1928 by William Morrow, NY.) 
    • —  I took up the Benda book in pursuing an argument made some time ago by Noam Chomsky. The Treason of the Intellectuals foreshadows Chomsky’s criticisms of today’s liberal intellegentsia. It was the Herwig article on German intellectuals that reminded me to finish reading Benda at last.

When I became an atheist I don’t recall ever having the slightest interest in searching for and associating with “an atheist community”. When I heard that such communities did exist I was perplexed. What could they possibly have in common? Atheism simply means not believing in the existence of supernatural powers. That’s hardly a basis for a club of any sort. Haven’t atheists been responsible for historic crimes against humanity? I am sure many atheists are as burdened with ugly prejudices and bigotries as anyone else. And one hardly needs to be a Stephen Hawking to come to the conclusion that “there is no god” so I squirmed in some pain when I read Richard Dawkins’ suggesting that atheists should call themselves “Brights”.

But look at the AFA Forums site. It’s like a church or cult website, a place where all the converted (or de-converted) can go to find “like-minded” people, others with presumably an accommodating perspective, to discuss any problem in life:

There is a place where you can introduce yourself and be welcomed; just like a church group where all new members are welcomed, or screened.

Then there is a “Getting Started” room for those “new to the [faith or lack thereof]” can find mutual assistance.

But I love the “conversion stories” page. “Coming Out Stories”, its called, and I am reminded of so many church gatherings where people stand up and share their stories about how they came to Christ.

Next we see a space where one can learn about an “atheists’ viewpoints on things . . . . to better understand the atheist worldview”! Do you see what is happening here? Atheism is being presented as a group identity that sets apart its members as different from others. How many atheists have really needed to consult a community or “nonspiritual” guides to learn the “atheist viewpoint or worldview” on things?

I should at this point backtrack to the site’s banner: AFA Forums is identified as “a celebration of reason”.

Ah yes, the place for the Brights. I will return to the irony of that banner’s logo.

And just like so many fundamentalist type churches we have community-run places where members can share and learn how to resolve

  • Family matters
  • Educational issues
  • Ethics and justice
  • Women’s issues
  • Sexuality issues
  • Mental health issues
  • Political issues . . .

How convenient. It sure helps to have a place to go to relieve one of the anxiety of having to think through such questions truly independently and with one’s own research and reflection. Safety, security, nurturing, … all in the group.

Again just as cults and evangelicals have literature and go-to persons for information on science questions (how do we answer this or that question, for example) AFA helpfully provides forums to share that sort of knowledge, too.

Of course there is also the obligatory magazine. Presumably this is in part meant to evangelize and in part meant to support existing members.

Nor, of course, is the enemy forgotten. There are places one can discuss the enemies of the Brights and the Free: places bearing signs such as read more »

Why even nonbeliever historians may still need a historical Jesus

iconoclasm
Iconoclasm: Image by ambery via Flickr

I have not been able to fully grasp why some nonbeliever historians are so strident in their insistence that there is strong evidence for a historical Jesus and refuse to even contemplate for a moment, along with their believing peers, that they might be violating the simple foundational basics of practical historical enquiry. These basics, and the failure of historical Jesus historians to use them or even be aware of them are discussed in my earlier post:

  1. the nature of historical facts and the contrast between nonbiblical and historical Jesus historical methods
  2. and in a follow-up post discussing Scot McKnight’s discussion of biblical historiography.

But the reason has hit me. It came from reading follow-up works cited by Warsaw University lecturer, Dr Lukasz Niesiolowski-Spano (Primeval History in the Persian Period? 2007). These were Intellectuals and Tradition by S. N. Eisenstadt (Daedalus, vol. 101, no. 2, Spring 1972, pp.1-19) and Intellectuals, Tradition, and the Traditions of Intellectuals: Some Preliminary Considerations by Edward Shils (Daedalus, vol. 101, no. 2, Spring 1972, pp.21-34).

And the reason is now so obvious I am kicking myself for not seeing it earlier. If I did see it earlier it was only murkily.

History is always necessarily created by a society’s intellectuals. They shape the images that a society sees about itself and its past — its identity.

The sociological study of tradition has argued . . . that the formation of traditions is the activity of an intellectual elite, not the work of the community as a whole. This runs counter to a position often expressed or presumed in biblical studies. Yet S. N. Eisenstadt specifically identifies society’s intellectuals as the “creators and carriers of traditions.” This is true for many different kinds of tradition, including that of the historical traditions. The historian, as an intellectual, is the creator and maintainer of historical tradition. E. Shils makes the statement:

Images about the past of one’s own society, of other societies, and of mankind as a whole are also traditions. At this point, tradition and historiography come very close to each other. The establishment and improvement of images of the past are the tasks of historiography. Thus historiography creates images for transmission as tradition.

Of course, there may be a great many inherited images of the past — traditions of almost infinite variety. But their selective collection and organization according to chronological and thematic or “causal” relationships is the intellectual activity of historiography. (pp. 34-35 of Primeval History)

What has modern historical Jesus research been about if not an attempt by different scholars to establish and improve our culture’s most central iconic image? read more »

Even an atheist finds an historical Jesus in his own image

The shallow and contradictory foundations for “scholarly” assumptions and beliefs in “the historical Jesus”, by both Christian and atheist scholars, are brought out in this recent remark forwarded to me by someone who found it on Exploring Our Matrix:

I think this is my #1 reason for not being a mythicist. I consider it appropriate to create and/or adopt a theory that fits the evidence, rather than vice versa, whenever possible and to the greatest extent possible. This is also, I suspect, the #1 reason that I’ve compared mythicism and creationism. It is not that history and the natural sciences function in precisely the same way or offer comparable levels of certainty. They don’t. But in the case of both mythicism and creationism (both of which have many permutations and varieties) I see a deliberate attempt to reinterpret evidence to fit an already-adopted theory, when that evidence can be explained in a straightforward and persuasive matter by another theory.

The first sentence is a truism. It is a motherhood statement that any and everyone will claim they believe and follow. So we can move on to the next point:

This is also, I suspect, the #1 reason that I’ve compared mythicism and creationism. It is not that history and the natural sciences function in precisely the same way or offer comparable levels of certainty. They don’t. But in the case of both mythicism and creationism (both of which have many permutations and varieties) . . . .

I demonstrated (Creationist slurs) how Associate Professor of Religion, James McGrath, posits his own idiosyncratic self-serving definitions of “creationism”. His new point of comparison is that mythicism is like creationism because both have “many permutations and varieties”. I am not sure if he is serious or joking or having a late night.

One can count as many as 4 mythical Jesus varieties to 20 historical Jesus permutations on this eight year old page alone: Historical Jesus Theories.

Accusing the majority of historians of being the minority

It is also interesting that in the same passage James takes the chance to include his own area of biblical studies under the general class of “history” — as if the historical tools and methodologies of Jesus scholars are in any way comparable to the tools and methodologies found among what is usually thought of as History in academia. When I have pointed out to him that “minimalists” who have finally had some measure of success in bringing the study of the biblical kingdom of Israel up to the same standard of normal historical analysis and enquiry found in historical studies generally, his reply has been to suggest that it is their methodology as the minority one!!!! (See here where James writes: “I’m willing to listen if you want to explain why the minimalist historians working on ancient Israel should be the standard for the entire discipline of history.” In fact the so-called “minimalists” are actually arguing that secondary evidence should be interpreted through the lens of primary evidence and avoid all pre-suppositions about the historicity or otherwise of the secondary evidence.)

Finding the “Historical Jesus” who fits our own image

I see a deliberate attempt to reinterpret evidence to fit an already-adopted theory . . . .

This is another somewhat unscholarly claim. James knows Albert Schweitzer’s famous remark that each historical Jesus scholar has tended to find in the evidence a Jesus who turns out to be the very image of the scholar! And it has been no different since then.

  • The Irish Catholic John Dominic Crossan found a Jesus who was an anti-imperialist revolutionary.
  • Rabbi Hyam Maccoby finds a Jesus who was a rabbi.
  • There is even the “mystical” John Shelby Spong’s Jesus who is not to be found in flesh, but who is yet historical but can only be found in some mystical experience.
  • And more recently existentialist philosopher John Carroll’s existentialist Jesus.

And a recent commenter on this page in Exploring Our Matrix was popular atheist and Christian debunker, ex-evangelical preacher John W. Loftus himself, coming out and arguing for his own historical Jesus. He has argued the same again here.

Guess what John’s historical Jesus looks like . . . .

  • It’s a cultic charismatic Jesus who was a failed apocalyptic preacher.

John Loftus has also argued elsewhere (on FRDB) that his particular historical Jesus is the one that attracts his audiences and that his motive is to change “the religious landscape”. So we can be have some justification for thinking that John’s particular type of historical Jesus is no accident or disinterested outcome of objective research.

So from Christian Schweitzer to Christian debunking atheist Loftus, one can see the evidence for the “deliberate reinterpretation of the evidence to fit already adopted historical Jesus theories”.

Blinded by our cultural icons

. . . . when that evidence can be explained in a straightforward and persuasive matter by another theory.

Our deep seated cultural heritage makes it impossible for some of us to see just how nonstraightforward and unpersuasive the gospel narratives are as attempts to write real history. The fact is (as I have been discussing recently) that leading historical Jesus scholars such as E. P. Sanders assume from start to finish the historicity of Jesus, and never go further than discussing plot details to decide which bits are more plausible than others (e.g. Jesus going to a synagogue is more plausible than him walking on water) and work with nothing more than the self-serving and contradictory “tools” of “criteria of authenticity”. (See my comment and reply by Steven Carr here on the contradictory and self-serving nature of these tools.)

I wonder if the tendency to see the historical Jesus who supports our own place and identity within our wider culture should be seen as instructive about the real significance of the the hostility of many biblical scholars against “Jesus mythicism”.

A spectrum of Jesus mythicists and mythers

First, a lesson in lexicology for some who wish to advertise their contempt  for the mythicist position. (Presumably a display of contempt serves as an excuse for neither understanding nor taking up the mythicist challenges.)

Myther is an alternative spelling of mither. Its meaning has nothing to do with one who thinks Jesus originated as a mythical character that was later historicized. It means nagger, whiner, annoying pesterer, irritator. I am reminded of Socrates seeing himself as a gadfly to the establishment. Maybe mythicists should embrace the label ‘myther’ after all, and keep up their Socratic challenges — the way WW2’s British Desert Rats embraced with pride Rommel’s contemptuous label for them.

Anyway, to continue a thought train begun in my last post and responding thoughts, maybe one can divide the mythicists into 4 broad categories:

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The Real Battle in debates over the bible among non-believers

updated . . . .

Recently I quoted René Salm’s summary of the deeper psychological issues that believers of the bible often bring to the fore when engaging sceptical arguments — in the Real Battle in debates over the bible with believers.

What I am still trying to understand is why the same “group think”, the same “circling of the wagons”, the same intestinal reactions bedevil the responses of so many nonbelievers, scholars included, when “engaging” arguments and critiques of Jesus mythicists. “Engaging” in quotation marks because 99% of the time the responses of the “historicists” are red-herrings, ad-hominems, straw-men, whatever — anything but what the central arguments of those mythicists so often are.

Strange. I have never been able to bring myself to read a whole page of anything written by the fatuous reasoningsof the likes of Acharya S, but I do know that the best and well-known mythicist arguments are grounded in cultural and exegetical biblical studies, and are far more cogent, devoid of fatuous circularity and inconsistencies, than just about anything I have read by historicists about “the historical Jesus”.

A little while ago I wrote a detailed critique of Bauckham’s betrayal of true scholarship and logical and historical enquiry, and did so because of the astonishing popularity such a book was winning. I could have written as damning a critique of almost any other book on the historical Jesus. I have so many marginal notes of points to make in quite a number of prominent scholars — I may yet do this, when retired maybe.

It is easy to understand the knee jerk nonsense of committed apologists. I like to think I avoid going out of my way to debate them. They feel a need for their faith. That’s their business. Live and let live.

Maybe the irrational but nonetheless deeply meaningful needs of nonbelieving scholars who ridicule and scarcely hide their contempt for those they like to call “mythers”,  as if their position is not even deserving of a proper noun, have something to do with self-actualization, ego-needs from a certain academic circle, I don’t know. Strange.

For the curious, the above musings were prompted by a depressing series of exchanges among academic ‘historicists’ and those they contemptuously denigrate as mythers – even though it is patently obvious to anyone who has read the better “mythicist” arguments that such historicists have never bothered to apprise themselves of the basis of mythicist arguments in the first place. I can imagine if some of them tried, they’d find the books they hold as repulsive as a socialist tract might be in the hands of a Rockefeller. Got carried away in there with long winded sentences — the occasion of the above musings are the exchanges found in The Forbidden Gospels Blog posts, My decision about the Jesus project, and The Jesus Seminar Jesus project is bankrupt, part 4. Steven Carr’s basic questions that went to the core of the sham behind the historicists’ arguments were simply ridiculed or ignored — not once engaged seriously.

When confronted with the mythicist position, it seems erudite scholars and untrained fundamentalists respond as one.

Strange.

But maybe not really. Peer pressure is a powerful thing, especially when one’s livelihood and professional reputation depends on a certain base acceptance by one’s professional peers.

Depressing.

Not least because not so long ago I encountered historicists declaring as absolute fact that there is as much evidence for the existence of Jesus as for Julius Caesar or such. Now — and maybe it is a sign of some progress — scholars actually admit there is no real “evidence” to “prove” the existence of Jesus. Or even more depressing, when the flimsiest threads (a verse in Galatians open to several meanings and a debated passage in Josephus) serve as “bedrock” evidence for historicity.

I’m reminded of the intellectual dishonesty of the Catholic Church and its hired scholars to proclaim “proof” for the historical existence of Nazareth. I think I need to start hitting harder again so much of the nonsense that passes for “scholarship” in biblical studies – and not just the Bauckham fringe.