Guest post: Accommodationists are halfway to crazy town

December 14, 2011 • 5:57 am

Today we have yet another guest post by reader Sigmund, who has bravely volunteered to keep a watch on matters accomodationist at both BioLogos and PuffHo.  Here he considers an accommodationist plea to judge scientific and religious “facts” by different standards.

Two scholars take on scientific “extremism”

by Sigmund

The Huffington Post continues its war on gnu atheism with a new piece, this time penned by Philip Clayton, a theologian, and Steven Knapp, professor of English and president of George Washington University. The article follows the theme of a previous Clayton HuffPo article that vainly attempted to claim new gaps in which to hide Jesus.

In the current piece, Clayton and Knapp praise the work of Christian apologists such as the Johns Polkinghorne and Haught:

Their numerous books and conferences have explored a wide range of approaches: sometimes isolating areas of science, such as quantum mechanics, that seemed to cry out for supernatural forms of causation (or at least leave an opening for them), and sometimes seeking methods for testing religious claims in ways that are analogous to the ways that scientific claims are tested by experimentation and critical feedback. Despite their often heroic efforts, this project has not given rise to a broadly compelling research program. In fact, it has come under attack by scientists as well as religious persons. Why is that? Why would both sides not welcome these attempts to establish harmony?

Why indeed?

As usual for HuffPo religion articles, the standard tactic is applied: dividing the science/religion world into a battle between two extremist armies—the religious fundamentalists and the New Atheists—and arguing that the ideal solution is to be found by adopting the middle ground.

Clayton’s personal bio, linked to the article, gives a clearer picture of the strategy:

Rejecting the scientism of Dawkins and friends, he argues, does not open the door to fundamentalism. Instead, a variety of complex and interesting positions are being obscured by the warring factions whose fight to the death is attracting such intense attention today.

As to which complex and interesting positions Clayton means, it’s helpful to note where, exactly, he finds compatibility between science and religion.

As a philosopher he works to show the compatibility of science with religious belief across the fields where the two may be integrated (e.g., emergence theory, evolution and religion, evolutionary psychology, neuroscience and consciousness).

The continued assault on the ‘scientism’ of the New Atheists forms the central argument of the current article.

Critics such as Richard Dawkins misunderstand how religious beliefs are formed and defended when they claim that religious reasoning is purely circular, or that all religious claims are equally true — and therefore equally false!

But most religions are partly historical systems, containing claims about both factual and supernatural events. Claiming an individual named Jesus entered Jerusalem while riding a donkey is at least physically plausible in terms of what we know of the common names of that time, the animals living in the region, and the evidence that Jerusalem has existed for thousands of years.

The claim that he died, rose from the dead after three days and later ascended into the heavens, defies all we know about the sciences of cell biology and cosmology (to name but two fields). Broadly speaking, it is only this second claim that is regarded by the gnus to be as ‘equally false’ (or more accurately as ‘equally improbable’) as every other supernatural religious claim about any deity from Allah to Zeus.

Yet for Clayton and Knapp it’s all about the failure of gnu atheists to understand things from a believer’s point of view:

That misunderstanding is no doubt part of what has been driving the indignant attacks on religion in recent years from certain scientists, philosophers, and journalists. It also helps to fuel the fires of the New Atheist attacks. But the fact that a traditional claim is hard to evaluate from outside that tradition does not show that the claim is false. It merely shows that the claim is hard for outsiders to evaluate.

But wouldn’t this mean that religious claims are incompatible with science, at least in terms of how science deals with every other type of hypothesis about the natural world?

The entire article appears to be an advertisement for Clayton and Knapp’s new book The Predicament of Belief, described as follows:

In eight probing chapters, the authors of The Predicament of Belief consider the most urgent reasons for doubting that religious claims – in particular, those embedded in the Christian tradition – are likely to be true. They develop a version of Christian faith that preserves the tradition’s core insights but also gauges the varying degrees of certainty with which those insights can still be affirmed. Along the way, they address such questions as the ultimate origin of the universe, the existence of innocent suffering, the challenge of religious plurality, and how to understand the extraordinary claim that an ancient teacher rose from the dead. They end with a discussion of what their conclusions imply about the present state and future structure of churches and other communities in which Christian affirmations are made.

“How to understand the extraordinary claim that an ancient teacher rose from the dead”?

Or how to understand the story of the red-coated elf with the white beard who visits every child’s house on Christmas Eve to deliver toys?

Strangely enough, ‘extremist’ interpretations of the Santa story, based on the scientific consensus about aerodynamics and reindeer biology, are acceptable. Using science to consider the factual claims of the zombie hypothesis are, however, deemed beyond the pale—at least amongst ‘the moderate majority’.

Not surprisingly, Clayton and Knapp end with a call for moderation, or as they put it, “minimalism”, hinting that their approved religious beliefs are of the ineffable variety.

We suggest that the humility of religious minimalism is the right stance for everyone, believers and non-believers alike, to adopt.

“The humility of religious minimalism” sounds curiously like a call for religious beliefs to be kept in the private realm and not imposed on others.

Isn’t that rather extreme?

92 thoughts on “Guest post: Accommodationists are halfway to crazy town

  1. Science can be like this: “Wow! Look at that weird phenomenon over there. Let’s go figure out what that is!”

    My question to the religious quacks: what is the phenomenon that they claim religion addresses that science doesn’t / can’t?

    We exclude physical phenomena, including cosmology, evolution, abiogenesis, and morality because they’ve already been demonstrated to be derivable without recourse to god.

    So what’s left? And when the answer turns out to be “nothing,” why should we want to combine religion with science at all?

  2. They “humbly” suggest that everybody should adopt their own theological position?

    “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

    Cheers,

    b&

  3. As soon as they mentioned “quantum” I thought of this.

    Yup, the usual you’re not a believer so you can’t see that it’s true. The only type of logical proof that I know of that is dependent on a person’s belief that it’s already true is assumption of truth, and that’s not a proof at all.

  4. quantum mechanics, that seemed to cry out for supernatural forms of causation

    Somebody doesn’t understand quantum mechanics…

    I’ll grant that this was immediately followed by a parenthetical remark “(or at least leave an opening for them)” which I think is just barely arguable. Quantum indeterminacy provides a sliver of a gap for our ever-shrinking God to hide in, where She could violate physical law, but in a way that would be undetectable by any experiment (as long as She didn’t do it too much).

    Despite the rather bizarre nature of quantum indeterminacy, the outcomes of a series of reactions better have a specific probability distribution, or else something is very wrong. You could just about argue that an omnipotent god could tweak the outcomes a bit here and there, and remain undetectable as long as the distribution of the outcomes did not deviate in a way that was statistically significant.

    An opening for supernatural forms of causation? Perhaps, but it’s a small one, and it pretty much bars any of the major miracles. “Crying out” for supernatural forms of causation? Doesn’t sound like it to me!

  5. Despite their often heroic efforts, this project has not given rise to a broadly compelling research program. In fact, it has come under attack by scientists as well as religious persons. Why is that?

    Um, your first sentence answers your second; scientists attack it because it has not lead to a fruitful research progam.

    This is an extremely common defense for all sorts of pseudoscience: claim that if no one is testing/using your new, unproven idea, they aren’t giving it a fair chance. But this completely misunderstands how science works. It is up to the proponent to show some progress – some value – before the general scientific community will take interest. The whole process is iterative; use a little resources to demonstrate some minor success or interesting result with you hypothesis. Use that minor success to gather more funding and interest. Use those resources to discover a greater finding/success, producing even more interest – and so on, and so on, and so on.

    Long story short; theologians are going to have to show some sort of interesting success (even if its minor) before scientists are going to take notice. You can’t simply put your idea out there and expect us to put our resources into testing it for you.

    1. If only because resources (money, time, people’s intellectual stamina, etc.) are limited, one has to use background knowledge to determine which hypotheses are worth pursuing. Religious hypotheses simply aren’t, and haven’t been for centuries.

  6. I write as someone without a supernatural bone in his body, yet one already condemned as “accommodationist” on these pages. Having admitted that, I don’t suppose my plea has much chance of being heard, but I’ll make it all the same.

    Please, take a step back and listen to yourselves. You’ve adopted the scorched-earth rhetoric of the religious right, and as ugly as it is on their tongues, from the mouths of rationalists it is especially hideous.

    Consider: you adopt the metaphor of war, which automatically makes those who disagree with your position the enemy. You deprive those who disagree of a fair hearing by stamping them with demeaning labels before hearing their arguments. Rather than consider their arguments on the merits (or lack of merits), you term them “the usual tactics” (implying both a lack of authentic argument and a conspiracy to deceive). And finally, you employ the good old absurd comparison to render their argument unworthy of serious consideration.

    The good you achieve by such rhetoric is, presumably, to build solidarity within what you call “gnu atheism.” I imagine it works just as well for you as it does for the religious right. I ask you, however, to consider the harm: it isolates you from those who might otherwise be allies; it adds to the fuel of your actual ideological enemies, but most important, it changes who you are. If you give up the basic commitment to fairness and decency in argumentation, you abandon some of the most important ideals of a rational humanist society.

    As it happens, I don’t accept Clayton & Knapp’s worldview, but I think they are right about one thing: we need a lot more humility in this debate.

    Let me be clear: I don’t mean that we need anything less than a full embrace of the findings of science, but that does not entitle anyone to be savagely disrespectful of others who have done nothing worse than try to reconcile those findings with a religious narrative that is important to them, nor is it license to declare full knowledge of ultimate reality. The “enemy,” if you must have one, is in the camp of theocrats who seek to quash science and impose their religious narrative on all of society. In the face of that authentic threat, sowing division between religious liberals and atheists is folly.

    Regards,

    Clay Farris Naff

    1. Let me try and respond with a little less snark.

      To test my understanding, it seems that what you are saying is not that the arguments of gnu atheists are wrong per se, but that they are expressed in a way that crosses a line into disrespect, rudeness, intolerance. Is that about right?

      Here’s the thing: As I alluded to in my shorter, snarkier response, we’re pushing for social change here. We want to see a) the role of religion in the public conversation (and especially in public policy) drastically reduced, and b) the end of the special deference which shields religious belief from criticism — even from fair, respectful criticism.

      Historically, social change comes about most rapidly when you have voices that span the spectrum from the polite and respectful to the rude and uncompromising. As you imply, it is true that if you only have the latter then you will not tend to win allies, you will tend only to generate a reactionary response. But if you only have the former, then you’ll get steamrolled and ignored.

      There’s a bumper sticker, “The world is seldom changed by well-behaved women” or something to that effect. ‘Tis true, and it applies for other groups as well. We want to change the world here, and we aren’t going to get there by behaving nicely.

      If nothing else, be thankful that the uncompromising rhetoric of the gnus makes room for your more moderate voice. Were it not for them, you would be seen as the extremist for daring to question religion in even a polite manner.

    2. So people think that the creator of the whole universe loves them dearly, and that when they die they actually end up living for eternity in paradise.

      Why should we not be overly critical of such blatant insanity? Why do we have to treat such ridiculousness with kiddie gloves?

      Learn some science, learn some history – the fact that tons of people think centuries old texts contain the secrets of the universe means they deserve even less respect then they are afforded now. If it was up to accomodationists like yourself we will be stuck in this anti-science-anti-history rut for eternity – because hey, you wouldn’t want to make anyone upset by making them seriously consider their worldview.

    3. ‘we need a lot more humility in this debate.’

      I was going to write to my local Bishop to see if he thought New Atheists were humble enough.

      But I had to abandon that idea, as I could not remember if I had to address him as ‘Your Grace’, ‘Your Eminence’, ‘Your Holiness’, or just plain ‘Father’.

      I also was so ignorant of matters religous, that I did not know if he was a Reverend, Very Reverend, Most Reverend, or Right Reverend.

      I think atheists could learn lessons in humility from clergymen.

      To begin with, I will insist on you calling me ‘My Liege’. Is that humble enough for you?

    4. After some consideration, I do agree with Clay Naff in one respect: The war metaphor is probably best avoided. We don’t like it when the other side does it; I don’t think we ought to do it.

      It’s a minor point, but I suppose I do agree in that regard.

      1. Well, “conflict” might be a better word, since there tend to be other means of conflict resolution short of a full fledged genocidal war of mutual extermination.

        I note, however, that it’s Clayton who is introducing the metaphor here, via the phrase “warring factions” in his bio. So, in the arc words of Phil and Kaja Foglio’s comic Girl Genius: “I can work with that.”

        I’d suggest reading some of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series, to give some flexibility about the fuzziness sometimes involved. “A weapon is a device for making your enemy change his mind. The mind was the first and final battleground, the stuff in between was just noise.

    5. Clay, “the usual tactics” of accomodationist articles on the Huffington Post are exactly as I have described. It is accomodationists themselves who have adopted terms like ‘extremism’ to set out their oh-so-very moderate stall.
      As for forming alliances with liberal believers, shouldn’t that entail something that we both agree upon? For instance I support alliances in which non believers and believers promote policies that are of benefit to all members of society. For example I’ve never seen a gnu atheist article that criticized ‘Americans United for Separation of Church and State’, a group headed by an ordained minister, Barry Lynn. Likewise, where is the evidence that gnu atheists advocate shunning cooperation with believers who seek to promote proper science education or the scientific consensus on global climate change?
      The vast majority of gnu atheist articles that are critical of accomodationists focus on one issue, namely the policy by accomodationists of ‘othering’ the outspoken atheists. It’s as if the only thing they have in common with liberal Christians is a hatred for gnus.
      Think for a second what it means by stating that new atheists are as bad as the worst religious fundamentalists. Think of the things that the worst religious fundamentalists have done. Now try to think of anything that new atheists have done that compares. Do you really need to wonder why new atheists might react angrily to such comparisons?
      As for using language or statements that are seen as offensive by liberal Christians, well it’s hardly as if we are running into a church service with a megaphone and screaming “you know it’s all just a fairy tale, don’t you?” If a believer makes a claim that has as much evidential support as the Santa story then why should WE be the ones who must hold our tongue? Aren’t we simply treating others as we would want them to treat us?

      1. Another thing, Clay: can you count on more than the fingers of both hands the numbers of times that liberal Christians have prominently published refutations of even the vilest accusations and nonsense made by their fundamentalist fellow travelers… I can`t. It`s as though they will sit back – tut-tutting to be sure – happy to have one of ‘those’ Christians say what they themselves feel is politically incorrect to say. The great majority of liberal Christians are,in fact, cowards of the first water when it comes to the tenets of their faith. I should know – I used to be one of them.

    6. If you give up the basic commitment to fairness and decency in argumentation, you abandon some of the most important ideals of a rational humanist society.

      I think its much more fair and decent to treat religious historical or miracle claims the same way you would any other historical, political, or other types of claims, than it is to section them off and treat them with special kid gloves.

      If someone claimed that Tiger Woods literally walked on water, I wouldn’t give him a bye. Would you? It seems to me that if we give someone claiming person X literally walked on water a bye only when X = Jesus, that is about as far from “fair” or “equal” treatment as you can get.

      And this, I think, is one of the things that ticks off the gnus. Accommodationist insistence on fair treatment is practically Orwellian, becausse “fair” is exactly what the gnus are doing and the accommodationists are actually arguing against. Accommodationism is really a call for atheists to adopt a ‘big tent’ strategy of not questioning the poor logic or bad reasoning of our allies’ theology as long as they support the same educational cause.

      So, tell you what Clay. You guys start calling it what it is – special dispensation, unfair, and unequal hands-off treatment of our allies’ cherished religious beliefs – and maybe you’ll find some gnus willing to reconsider doing it, for realpolitik reasons if no other reason.

    7. Clay Farris Naff, you wrote:

      Rather than consider their arguments on the merits (or lack of merits), you term them “the usual tactics”…

      However, nothing they have written is novel, new, different, out of the ordinary, unusual, or anything but all the usual tactics based on year after year of our collective experience. They are doing the same, tired, refuted, rebutted, proven wrong things — making the same tired, refuted, rebutted, proven wrong arguments — nothing original, nothing with evidence, nothing convincing.

      All they are doing is demanding respect, humility, accommodation, capitulation, silence on our parts.

      No.

      As for the war metaphor, since their ilk have murdered our ilk, persecuted us, and continue to go to great lengths to deny us equality — they have already started a very real war. They want us to have casualties — not just metaphorically. They want us to lose the legal battles, the education battles, billboard battles, the voting battles.

      They don’t want to humbly coexist with us — they want us silent, invisible, or better gone. The very notion that we exist makes them scream how offended they are!

      In a very real way, if you are not with us, you are against us. There is no neutral ground. Neutrality is to accept the status quo where we are not treated as full citizens under the law, where theists have special rights. Neutrality perpetuates the evil.

      It is no different than standing and watching someone drown without doing anything to assist, and then saying that you didn’t cause them to drown.

    8. The “enemy,” if you must have one, is in the camp of theocrats who seek to quash science and impose their religious narrative on all of society.

      Yes, but they are enabled by the moderates who do nothing.

      And, to be clear, ridicule may not be useful against the True Believers, but it can be a very effective tool for convincing the fence-sitters that religious belief is, well, ridiculous. This is a broader cultural fight, and not all the efforts that respond to the overtly religious have them as their ultimate target.

  7. I think Clayton & Knapp’s thesis here is easily rebutted by Julian Baginni’s recent series. Yes, fine, that’s nice… but in the real world, what you are pushing is more at odds with most believers than it is with atheists, so why don’t you start with them?

  8. Strictly speaking ‘Jesus died’ falls within the realm of scientifically and historically possible. Only ‘Jesus physically resurrected and ascended into heaven’ defies science and therefore history (which is perhaps one reason that some Christians don’t take it literally [in the US in 2007 about 17% of mainline Protestants, 18% of Catholics, and 5% of non-mainline Protestants http://www.barna.org/barna-update/article/18-congregations/92-most-americans-take-well-known-bible-stories-at-face-value {the results of the survey are quite dismaying since it also shows how many are Bible literalists in regards to creation}]).

    1. “Jesus died” is in no way historically plausible, for it is dependent on “Jesus lived,” which the historical record refutes absolutely (to the extent that anything in history can be considered absolute).

      Cheers,

      b&

      1. which the historical record refutes absolutely

        While there may not be indisputable and convincing historical records of a historical Jesus’s existence, to say that historical record REFUTE his existence goes a bit too far in my opinion.

        To refute: to prove wrong by argument or evidence : show to be false.

        Most agnostic scholars (like for instance Bart Ehrmans) accept a historical Jesus.

        1. Most agnostic scholars (like for instance Bart Ehrmans) accept a historical Jesus.

          He does, but his reasoning on this topic is crap.

          I agree with you that it is overstatement to say that the existence of a historical Jesus has been refuted. Jesus was a pretty common name at the time, it would not be improbable that someone with that name lived in Galilee, or Nazareth, or thereabouts.

          But there is no historical record that he did. And the Jesus described in the gospels is certainly not historical. The timeline simply does not work, the massacre of innocents received no mention by any writer of the time, nor did the alleged resurrection of the saints following Jesus’ resurrection.

          So if there was an actual person named Jesus, but almost none of the described events of his life actually happened, that is certainly not historical verification. This may not be “refuted”, but I don’t know how much refutation is required in this situation. To require refutation would be to switch the burden of proof.

          1. Santa is real!

            His name is Harold, he lives year-round in Florida after retiring there a decade ago at age 65, he hates kids, and it’s been fifty years since he’s given anybody a Christmas present.

            But he’s the real Santa!

            Cheers,

            &

        2. No, “refute” is exactly the correct term.

          “The” Jesus, no matter how you look at it, was a towering figure, absolutely dominating the sociopolitical landscape. At the very least, he was the charismatic apocalyptic preacher who founded the most powerful religion in all of history. It’s uncritically universally accepted by Christians that he rubbed shoulders and butted heads with all the most important figures of first century Judea, to the point that he united the Jewish and Roman leaders in having him executed on trumped-up charges that weren’t even crimes. And there’s all the sermons, the crowds following him around, his twelve-man harem…and then all the supernatural stuff…and the “fact” that he was the personal incarnation of the god that created the world in the first place.

          The historical record of first century Judea is remarkably thorough. It even includes the original documents (not copies-of-copies) of an entire library. And nowhere in that record will you find even a hint of a reference to a rumor of anybody who could even vaguely be mistraken for “the” Jesus.

          Just to drive the point home, there are records of dozens of men named, “Jesus,” countless apocalyptic charismatic preachers, innumerable people crucified, plenty of rabble-rousers, more political scandals than Woodward and Bernstein reported on, and and and and — it’s just clear that each and every example is most emphatically not “the” Jesus.

          But wait! There’s more! The evidence that Christianity, including its central figure, was no different from any other Classical pagan death / rebirth / salvation cult, is irrefutable. Not only are the stories of Jesus indistinguishable from the pagan versions, second-century Christians went out of their way to record, in painful detail, all the models used for Jesus. And the Romans, when they finally started to notice the Christians, dismissed them as yet another whacked-out fringe nutjob lunatic cult — and Lucian even wrote of how Peregrinus scammed the Christians into adopting paganism wholesale by convincing them he was a prophet and simply changing around some names.

          I know there’s a popular misconception that “you can’t prove a negative,” but that misconception is naïve in the extreme. Nonexistence proofs are trivial — here is no “largest prime number” nor luminiferous aether. And no Paul Bunyan nor Jesus Christ of Nazareth.

          Cheers,

          b&

            1. Fixed,Ben. But in return, perhaps you could refer us to a book that supports your contention about the non-evidence for Jesus (I’m not disagreeing with you)? I haven’t seen it summarized in one place, but I haven’t looked much, either.

              1. Thank you!

                I’d love to suggest a book…but, unfortunately, I’m not aware of any one book that puts it all together. (Maybe somebody else here can offer a good suggestion?)

                I can, however, recommend a number of original sources upon which I base all my conclusions.

                First and most important are the Dead Sea Scrolls. These are the original pieces of “paper” penned by Essenes Jews in and around Jerusalem before, during, and after the time of Jesus. It’s an entire library’s worth, and it includes all sorts of things where a Jesus even vaguely similar to “the” Jesus would have had to have made an appearance. Nowhere will you find such a mention.

                Next up is Philo of Alexandria. As with everything except the Scrolls, all we have are copies-of-copies, so the possibility of tampering can’t be discounted. However…Philo’s works were preserved by Christians, so it seems unlikely in the extreme that they would excise from the record evidence in support of the reality of their savior.

                Philo lived in Alexandria, the most likely Egyptian destination for the Holy Family when they fled the Massacre of the Innocents. He was the brother-in-law of King Herod Agrippa, the Judean king at the time of the Crucifixion. He corresponded with his family in Jerusalem and is known to have visited there once. Not only was he a philosopher, he is the first Jew to have incorporated the Greek Logos into Judaism, thereby creating the philosophy that the Christians adopted as their own. Indeed, Christians who read his theological works universally describe him as a kindred spirit. The last thing he wrote was his account of his participation in an embassy in the 40s to Caligula to petition him about the mistreatment of the Jews at the hands of the Romans.

                Philo never mentions Jesus or any of the events of the Gospels.

                There’s Pliny the Elder, who was fascinated with all things supernatural; no mention of Jesus. There’re all those Roman Satirists whose stock in trade was the exact sort of humiliation Jesus heaped upon Pilate and the Sanhedrin; no mention of Jesus. There’s Josephus; aside from the two famous mentions that Christians are known to have forged into his histories, he never mentions Jesus or the events of the Gospels.

                There’s Seneca, Plutarch, Justus, Damis, Juvenal, Martial, Petronius, Persius, Pausanias, Epictetus, Aelius Aristides, Fronto, Dio Chrysostom, Aulus Gellius, Lucius Apuleius, Marcus Aurelius, Musonius Rufus, Hierocles of Alexandria, Cassius Maximus Tyrius, Arrian, Appian, Marcus Fabius Quintilianus, Lucius Annaeus Florus, Marcus Annaeus Lucanus, and more — none of whom ever mentioned Jesus.

                That should be sufficient evidence for his absence from the historical record, but it still doesn’t explain his origins.

                For that, one should first turn to Justin Martyr who, in the second century, wrote the earliest-surviving Christian apologetics. In attempting to defend Christianity to the Pagans, he detailed dozens of “Sons of Jupiter” whose stories were indistinguishable to Jesus’s. Start at Chapter XX in his First Apology for a good taste, but that’s far from the only example. His excuse? Evil prognosticating demons knew Jesus was coming and so planted those stories to convince honest men that Jesus was just another faery tale.

                Martyr wasn’t the only one to make that argument, but I keep forgetting the others who did.

                But perhaps the most striking evidence of all is Lucian of Samosata’s account of the Passing of Peregrinus. Do read that one — it’s short and entertaining, and it explains exactly how religions founded and grew two millennia ago. Spoiler: it’s the same way they do today.

                Rounding out the original sources are all the ones that Christians regularly trot out to “prove” the “historicity” of Jesus. Aside from Eusebius’s forgery of the passage in Josephus, there’s Tacitus, Suetonius, Pliny the Younger, and others. But they, too, show signs of Christian tampering…and what they do describe isn’t anything remotely like what the Gospels contain, but rather a lunatic nutjob cult.

                I know that’s not what you asked for, but I hope it might answer your question better than what you asked for.

                Cheers,

                b&

              2. Yes, please do make a suggestion for further reading (there’s a whole original library? Like Jerry, not that I’m doubting you, I’d just like to know more about it).

                And, as I’ve said before, won’t you consider writing a book? Or at least an article.

              3. Robert M. Price, Jesus Seminar fellow

                Alan Dundes, Professor of Folklore at the University of California at Berkeley

                Richard Carrier, historian

                Scholar Earl Doherty (The Jesus Puzzle)

                Or in the actual supposed time of Jesus, how about Philo of Alexandria?

                Or:

                Apollonius Persius
                Appian Petronius
                Arrian Phaedrus
                Aulus Gellius Philo-Judaeus
                Columella Phlegon
                Damis Pliny the Elder
                Dio Chrysostom Pliny the Younger
                Dion Pruseus Plutarch
                Epictetus Pompon Mela
                Favorinus Ptolemy
                Florus Lucius Quintilian
                Hermogones Quintius Curtius
                Josephus Seneca
                Justus of Tiberius Silius Italicus
                Juvenal Statius
                Lucanus Suetonius
                Lucian Tacitus
                Lysias Theon of Smyran
                Martial Valerius Flaccus
                Paterculus Valerius Maximus
                Pausanias

                And then there’s Josephus:
                “Its brevity disproves its authenticity. Josephus’ work is voluminous and exhaustive. It comprises twenty books. Whole pages are devoted to petty robbers and obscure seditious leaders. Nearly forty chapters are devoted to the life of a single king. Yet this remarkable being, the greatest product of his race, a being of whom the prophets foretold ten thousand wonderful things, a being greater than any earthly king, is dismissed with a dozen lines.”
                — The Christ, by John E. Remsburg.

              4. I’m currently slogging my way through Earl Doherty’s “Jesus: Neither God nor Man–the case for a mythical Jesus.” It’s a dense but crystal clear account of the rise of early Christianity, explained without any Jesus of Nazareth as founder. It comes down to a better explanation for the evidence at hand. I recommend it for those willing to tackle the scholarly work.

              5. “Nailed: Ten Christian Myths That Show Jesus Never Existed At All” by David Fitzgerald covers a lot of territory in a short volume (225 pages, incl. notes).

                Richard Carrier, PhD in Ancient History, has two books on the subject due to be released next year:

                “Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus” – April 2012

                “On the Historicity of Jesus Christ” – late 2012 or so.

              6. Earl Doherty’s stuff is great, but a slog to read – it is just so detailed. It is the stuff that seems to have convinced Carrier. (It was the stuff that convinced me, but Carrier is the historian …)

              7. I’d love to suggest a book…but, unfortunately, I’m not aware of any one book that puts it all together.

                I’ve got a suggestion: you need to write that book, Ben!

              8. There’s Josephus…

                Born 37 CE. There is no way he could have met Jesus H. Christ. The most he could do is recount tales he had heard, or comment on the early Christian church – but the existence of an early Christian church is not what is in question. Most of the other Greco-Roman writers mentioned are even later than Josephus.

      2. I agree with Jack: you can’t say the historical record refutes the existence of historical Jesus; you can only say that it doesn’t support it.

        I’m no biblical scholar, but it seems likely to me that some of the stories were inspired by one or more real people. Obviously at this point there is little connection between the Biblical Jesus and any possible historical Jesuses (Jesii?). And from what I do know on the subject, I accept that any of the possible historical candidates are purely speculative. But you can’t really say the historical record refutes it… Surely there have been many radical socialist itinerant preachers over the centuries who are nonetheless absent from the historical record? Does that mean they never existed?

        1. I’m no biblical scholar, but it seems likely to me that some of the stories were inspired by one or more real people.

          I believe the polite term to describe what you did in that sentence is that you “extracted it from your nether-bits.”

          Seriously, I guarantee you that you cannot cite one single Jesus story for which you can find even one single scrap of evidence that it was “inspired by one or more real people,” except in the most trivial sense that some of the characters and places used in the story were real. Then again, Harry Potter visits real places in London and mentions real people.

          Cheers,

          b&

          1. Yeah, more or less 🙂 I was saying my gut intuition is that it would be a little weird if every story in there was a complete fabrication and not even loosely inspired by some guy that some other guy knew once — especially given the abundance of itinerant street preachers in the region at the time. I suppose it’s possible that every single one is a fabrication, but then it’s harder for me to understand why some of the stories are so weird and some of the rationalizations so tortured. If, on the other hand, those stories were being shaped to plausibly match people’s recollections of one or more small-time cult leaders, it’s less puzzling. To be clear, I’m not saying this is evidence of such a proposition; I’m just saying, those are the reasons why my gut feeling is such as it is.

            In any case, you clarified what you meant by “refutes the existence of”, i.e. the historical record refutes the existence of the Biblical Jesus. This I agree with wholeheartedly. What I and others were saying is that the historical record is silent on whether or not any of the mythology surrounding the Biblical Jesus is based on real people. That’s a separate thing, and now that you’ve clarified what you meant, I definitely agree: There was clearly no single preacher circa 30AD that had developed such a following that it caught the attention of the Romans and had anything like the profound social effects claimed.

            There still could have been some guy with a twelve-man posse who went around doing street tricks and preaching about gay abstinence and beating up rich people. Who knows? But I understand the point you are making now: Such a joker would not be the Biblical Jesus, and we do know that no figure exists who fits the bill. Fair ’nuff.

              1. I was just being flippant. I didn’t mean “abstinence from being gay”, I meant a homoerotic form of abstinence. There’s some fishy stuff in a couple of the gospels ;p

            1. jesus never preached anything about gays. Nothing. Ever.

              He did, however, speak out about heterosexual sexual sins quite a bit.

              1. That’s what I meant. A guy who hangs out with a posse of 12 men and constantly talks about what a horrible thing it is to have sex with women…. Yeah.

                I realize the phrasing was confusing.

              2. Well, now we’re firmly into the realm of literary analysis. And, in that vein, I must mention the incident with the Centurion’s (male sex) slave that Jesus healed and sent back to the Centurion with a blessing.

                Cheers,

                b&

            2. There still could have been some guy with a twelve-man posse who went around doing street tricks and preaching about gay abstinence and beating up rich people.

              If there was such a person (and we have no evidence that there was), we know most emphatically that such a person was in no way connected with Christianity.

              How?

              Quite simply, the first time Jesus appears in the historical record is in the Pauline epistles, and there’s no possible way that that Jesus could have grown from what you describe in a mere three decades or so (accepting apologetic dating of the letters).

              Paul’s Jesus was the co-creator of Heaven and Earth, the salvation of mankind crucified by “the Archons of that age.” Paul knew Jesus the same way everybody else did, including the Jerusalem crowd — and that was explicitly through divine revelation, not physical interaction.

              To be honest, I have a very strong suspicion that “Paul” and “Peregrinus” are the same individual. After all, Tarsus and Parium are both in modern-day Turkey, and they were both converts to Christianity who persuaded them to adopt re-branded pagan myths as their own. The timing would actually make a bit more sense with Peregrinus’s dates than those assumed by the apologists for Paul, too — but then, of course, that would mean that “Paul” isn’t actually the oldest mention of Jesus after all.

              (I must note: the oldest physical evidence for Jesus is Rylands P52, a fragment of G. John that doesn’t even mention Jesus, a fragment that’s been dated to the middle of the second century by nothing other than handwriting analysis. That’s the best evidence we actually have for Jesus; everything else is worse, pure speculation, or both. Now, contrast that with the evidence for Julius Caesar….)

              Cheers,

              b&

              1. Vridar examines a case for Peregrinus and Ignatius being the same person:

                http://vridar.wordpress.com/category/book-reviews-notes/parvus-letters-supposedly-written-by-ignatius/

                In re to The Christ by Remsberg. He makes 2 further points regarding the lack of evidence for a historical Jesus that seem particularly strong to me:
                1) Josephus was very critical of Herod and went to great pains to record Herod’s vile deeds. Yet somehow Josephus missed the slaughter of the innocents?
                2) Josephus takes an interest in and tells us in detail the careers of numerous religious figures and failed ‘messiahs’. But is silent about Jesus?

          2. Some of the “Jesus” quotes may be paraphrases of historic people like Rabbi Hillel. None of them are particularly exceptional–praise be to Our Lord, Conventional Wisdom. The quotes and deeds orginated with some human being at some time, whether from random anecdote or whole cloth. Not evidence for anything.

        2. “I agree with Jack: you can’t say the historical record refutes the existence of historical Jesus; you can only say that it doesn’t support it.”

          Likewise with Robin Hood, King Arthur and William Tell. However try getting a tax deduction or special respect for your belief in those. You’d have more luck with James (007) Bond or Harry Potter.

  9. Along the way, they address such questions as the ultimate origin of the universe…

    Oh sure they do. This reminds me of a discussion I had with a student.

    He started with the “science addresses how, now why” card.

    I came back with “the distinction between how and why is usually not that great.” For example, ‘why do demons make people ill’ becomes ‘how do germs and genes explain the bulk of human illness’ when you throw some scientific knowledge at it.

    He countered with “there are still the ‘Ultimate Why’ questions.” Such as ‘why is there something instead of nothing?’

    There may be questions science cannot answer, but this does not in any way give us confidence in the ability of religion to answer such questions accurately. We have no way to verify those religious answers, and the track record of religion in this regard is very bad.

    Moreover, saying “God did it” clears up neither how nor why. If you could tell me _how_ God did it, then I probably wouldn’t need the who. This is the entire history of science in a nutshell.

    Meanwhile, saying “God did it” also does not answer an ultimate why. It is not an answer but an evasion, and it creates another question one step back: why is there God instead of nothing?

    1. He countered with “there are still the ‘Ultimate Why’ questions.” Such as ‘why is there something instead of nothing?’

      There’s a scientific how answer to that too: how QM (and specifically, the heisenberg uncertainty principle) explains the observation (because that’s what it is – something observed to occur) that spontaneous production of materials with a net energy of 0 from nothing actually does occur. And how the lesson from that can be applied to the universe as a whole.

      1. But why is there QM instead of nothing? Resorting to physics for this question is to engage in a category error — consider the question to instead be “Why is there physics?”

        1. Once you start asking those types of questions, you first have to establish that the proposition, “there could have been nothing,” itself even makes sense.

          I would submit that “nothing” as in “the perfect absence of everything” is as incoherent a concept as “the largest prime number.”

          If that’s the case, then there should be no surprise that there is, indeed, something; the only remaining question is why the something that there is should take the form that it does. And QM is doing a stellar job at answering that question.

          Cheers,

          b&

          1. I would submit that “nothing” as in “the perfect absence of everything” is as incoherent a concept as “the largest prime number.”

            Perhaps, but that claim needs an explicit argument. It’s not clear to my why there has to be “anything”.

            the only remaining question is why the something that there is should take the form that it does. And QM is doing a stellar job at answering that question

            But again, even you can sucessfully argue that there has to be something, you need to explain why there has to be QM, as opposed to something else. In other words, you have to argue why QM is not just the physics we happen to have, but is instead the only possible physics. I very much doubt that such a modal, metaphysical argument can be made.

            1. If “nothing” is truly an incoherent concept, then that’s the proof for why there “has to be ‘anything.'” And I’ve yet to sit down and work out the set theory, but that’s the right tool to answer that question, and my gut tells me that the answer is that “nothing” is as much a self-contained contradiction as all the divine omni-properties.

              As to why QM? Well, there are two possible answers.

              The first is anthropic — there are many different observable universes, and the observable universe we’re in just happens to run according to QM, and QM supports life as we know it so it’s the one in which we just happen to find ourselves.

              I find that answer unsatisfying, but my satisfaction is irrelevant, of course.

              The other possibility is that, just as we’ve found so many instances of bizarre mathematical principles having real-world manifestations, the “Grand Unified Theory” that physicists are seeking will turn out to be a straightforward application of math. That is, QM may turn out to be as inevitable as Euclid is for simple geometry.

              My money’s on this answer.

              Cheers,

              b&

              1. If “nothing” is truly an incoherent concept, then that’s the proof for why there “has to be ‘anything.’” And I’ve yet to sit down and work out the set theory, but that’s the right tool to answer that question

                I’m very dubious that a metaphysical question can be answered by math (“why is there set theory?”), but I’m willing to consider any actual worked-out approach.

              2. As I wrote, I’ve yet to work it out for myself, so I can’t offer you “an actual worked-out approach.”

                But, as far as set theory’s suitability to the task…well, all it is is the formalized study of groups of things. The nature of the things is irrelevant; all that matters is that there’s something under discussion and it either does or doesn’t exist; set theory takes over from there.

                And that’s exactly what we’re discussing.

                So, if the question can be answered at all, then it can be answered with set theory.

                Did you have a better tool in mind to use to answer the question…?

                Cheers,

                b&

              3. Ben, you seem to be presuming that set theory is itself not a feature of just this particular universe, but a necessary feature of any possible universe. I’m not sure that’s a defensible position (even if it may be true), and at the very least that is a metaphysical (or perhaps more accurately “meta-mathematical”) claim, and not a straightforward mathematical one. One can’t use set theory to justify the existence of set theory (just as one can’t use QM to justify why there is something, such as QM).

              4. Ben, you seem to be presuming that set theory is itself not a feature of just this particular universe, but a necessary feature of any possible universe.

                Eh, set theory is pure logic that inevitably flows from the simple assumption that entities may or may not exist. I don’t think there’s anything that gets more basic.

                If you want to suggest that it’s somehow meaningful to hypothesize a universe without logic, the only answer I can give you is that such an hypothesis is the most illogical one imaginable. Really, I don’t see how you could even think that such a discussion could even in theory be possible, let alone meaningful.

                I mean, if there were ever an exercise in futility…well, using logic to disprove the existence of logic surely must be Sisyphus’s ultimate nightmare….

                Cheers,

                b&

              5. We can approach this from the opposite angle, as well: empiricism.

                The experiment has been run. If non-existence were a possible outcome, then nothing would exist. However, I (and presumably you) do exist, so we know for a fact that “not existing” isn’t a possible outcome. Any theory that includes “not existing” as an option can be summarily dismissed as not fitting the observations. At this point, all we have to do is pick from the remaining theories to figure out which best explains the rest of the observations.

                Cheers,

                b&

              6. If you want to suggest that it’s somehow meaningful to hypothesize a universe without logic, the only answer I can give you is that such an hypothesis is the most illogical one imaginable

                But of course that’s circular. Even if one can say that any existence must also involve logic, that doesn’t say that logic itself must exist.

                And even if I grant that some form of logic and math must exist, that doesn’t mean that the variety of set theory you advocate is the only possible option. I am certainly no mathematician, and this may not be an appropriate analogy, but Kant once argued that Euclidean geometry was a necessary feature of the universe, and that other geometries were inconceivable. We all know how that turned out.

                If non-existence were a possible outcome, then nothing would exist.

                Interesting…I am tempted to say that “perhaps it did at one time, and perhaps it will again”, but that of course just gets us back to the notion that something has to produce the universe (not something as in a “cause”, per se, but at least in terms of (meta-)physical laws). I have to admit I find an empirically-based argument more compelling than one founded on meta-mathematics and modal logic. I’ll have to ponder this a bit more…

              7. I think you’ll find all of the foundations of logic have iron-clad empirical evidence supporting them. For example, Heisenberg notwithstanding, there is nothing that both does and does not exist.

                b&

              8. all of the foundations of logic have iron-clad empirical evidence supporting them.

                Does that include multi-valent logics and fuzzy logics? And surely we’re not going to rely on empirical support for abstract systems, are we? Is there empirical support for the existence of perfectly straight lines or perfect circles?

                In any case, all that empirical support would show is that, in this universe, logic works in this fashion. But that doesn’t get us anywhere, since the question is whether such logic is a necessary feature of any universe. It’s difficult to use empirical evidence to argue modal notions of necessity.

              9. Does that include multi-valent logics and fuzzy logics? And surely we’re not going to rely on empirical support for abstract systems, are we? Is there empirical support for the existence of perfectly straight lines or perfect circles?

                Of course. In all those cases (and more) you can build real-world objects that approximate those ideals, and those real-world objects behave exactly as predicted by the theory within the limits of the model.

                Draw the most perfect circle you can, draw two non-parallel tangents, bisect the tangents, draw perpendicular lines at the bisections, and lo-and-behold, within the limits of your measurement, every point on the circle is the same distance from where those two latest lines meet. There’s your proof that every point on a circle is equidistant from the center — as well as proofs of various other bits of geometry.

                In any case, all that empirical support would show is that, in this universe, logic works in this fashion. But that doesn’t get us anywhere, since the question is whether such logic is a necessary feature of any universe. It’s difficult to use empirical evidence to argue modal notions of necessity.

                Again, empirically, it is a feature of the universe. Any theory that fails to at least permit such an outcome as a possibility is fatally flawed, as is any theory which predicts the possibility of contradictory outcomes (such as nonexistence). I think you’ll find that leaves us right back where we started: hypothesizing an illogical universe is incomprehensibly counter-productive.

                Cheers,

                b&

              10. On the other hand, while I agree that “there could have been nothing” is a contradiction, I disagree that logic and set theory which one of each?] are somehow ontologically basic.

                But then, I’m a mathematical fictionalist. Logic and math apply to our *ideas* of the world, not directly to the world itself: or so I would defend but can’t here for lack of space. (Anyone who cares about the long answer can read volume 5-6 of Bunge’s _Treatise on Basic Philosophy_.)

              11. Ben, Putnam’s take on logic is that it is an empirical generalization from our classical experiences (for example, your observation that nothing can exist and not exist). We would use a different, nondistributive logic if we experienced the quantum realm directly. I think he is right; classical logic is analogous to Euclidean geometry. Both are derived from experience, and only seem necessary because our experience of the universe has always (through our entire evolutionary past) been classical. Our brains are wired to perceive the world this way, thanks to evolution. But we now know that geometry is empirical, and I think logic may also be.

    2. Theists hate being asked “Who created god?” Because when they reply that ‘god always was’, I reply that “it makes more sense to say the universe always was, and not have to invoke magic.”

  10. “We find it impossible to deny that … mental events are inseparable from (even if they can’t be reduced to) the operations of the brain.”

    According to theism, God is a brain- and bodiless soul, and human souls temporarily having a brain and a body can exist disembodied as well. So, if Clayton&Knapp really deny the brain-/body-independence of mental events, then they deny theism.

  11. I’ve never understood the we have to be nicer when it comes to critiquing religion crowd. I am constantly told by religious types from all walks of life that I cannot possibly understand morality and I will spend an eternity paying for it in a lake of fire and brimstone because I’m an atheist. Yet, I’m the one being an asshole?

  12. We should all deconstruct and attack the scientism straw man whenever possible . Never accept your opponents labels, tags and frames.

    We should also attack the calls for civility, politeness and humility. These too are just social acceptability/norming attempts to deny facts.

    These are really just patronizing pleas to not upset the weak minded — too baby them.

    Hard data and facts are rarely polite, nor are they warm and fuzzy and meant to be children’s cuddly toys.

    Liberals had better think twice of stepping away from evidence-based arguments. Conservatives are far more effective at rhetoric, PR and marketing false ideas.

    1. Alex Rosenberg thinks otherwise:

      “We all lie awake some nights asking questions about the universe, its meaning, our place in it, the meaning of life, and our lives, who we are, what we should do, as well as questions about god, free will, morality, mortality, the mind, emotions, love. These worries are a luxury compared to the ones most people on Earth address. But they are persistent. And yet they all have simple answers, ones we can pretty well read off from science. Attempts to do so will be accused of ‘scientism’—the unwarranted and exaggerated respect for science. I plead guilty to the charge, while taking exception to the ‘unwarranted’ and ‘exaggerated’ part. In the book here summarized I take a page out of the PR of the gay and lesbian community and (mis)appropriate the word ‘scientistic’ the way they did to ‘gay’ and ‘queer.’ Scientism is my label for what any one who takes science seriously should believe, and scientistic is just an in-your face adjective for accepting science’s description of the nature of reality.”

      (Alex Rosenberg: “The Disenchanted Naturalist’s Guide to Reality.” http://onthehuman.org/2009/11/the-disenchanted-naturalists-guide-to-reality/)

      1. I can easily support that attitude.

        If we ever win the scientism-connotation battle, perhaps we can work on de-demonizing ‘liberal’ . . .

    1. What an OT mess!

      In any case, what is pertinent is that Rosa et al sets up a fallacious strawman for Tegmark’s model instead of showing him wrong, just as you would expect of woo contributors “halfway to crazy town”.

  13. The incompatibility of religion and science is not as a result of atheists being unwilling to accept that scientific understanding will have unanswered questions. The problem that atheists have is that the unanswered questions in science should not automatically be presumed to contain a religious answer. The atheists may delight in challenging the faithful but they do not argue that one should put faith in science simply because of the infinite mysteries of god. The atheists are simply asking the religious to acknowledge that religion is belief without anything even vaguely resembling scientific evidence and without scientific evidence religion has no business encroaching on science.

  14. the extraordinary claim that an ancient teacher rose from the dead.

    Actually a a boringly mundane claim:

    “A dying god,[1][2][3][4] also known as a dying-and-rising or resurrection deity, is a god who dies and is resurrected or reborn, in either a literal or symbolic sense. Male examples include the ancient Near Eastern and Greek deities Baal,[5] Melqart,[6] Adonis,[7] Eshmun,[8] Attis [9] Tammuz,[10] Asclepius, Orpheus, as well as Krishna, Ra, Osiris,[11] Jesus, Zalmoxis, Dionysus,[12] and Odin. Female examples are Inanna, also known as Ishtar, whose cult dates to 4000 BCE, and Persephone, the central figure of the Eleusinian Mysteries, whose cult may date to 1700 BCE as the unnamed goddess worshiped in Crete.”

    Of them at least Krishna and Odin are known as teachers of wisdom and prophecy:

    “The eighteen chapters of the sixth book (Bhishma Parva) of the epic that constitute the Bhagavad Gita contain the advice of Krishna to the warrior-hero Arjuna, on the battlefield.”

    “Odin is a principal member of the Æsir (the major group of the Norse pantheon) and is associated with war, battle, victory and death, but also wisdom, magic, poetry, prophecy, and the hunt.”

    You would think that a new religion would come up with something new! But oh no, same old, same old…

  15. Biology anyone? Probably not. The conflict seems to be pretty simple: the value of external circumstances vs. internal states in predicting things in the future.

    Bottom line: Our internal states are rarely generalizable, don’t even predict behavior of the organism and frequently dead wrong. But many (weak) brains will fight to the “death” for the value of their internal states. Dum.

    “To me it’s obvious that there’s no point in the brain processing or storing anything if it can’t have benefits for physical movement, because that’s the only way we improve our survival. I believe that to understand movement is to understand the whole brain. Memory, cognition, sensory processing – they are there for a reason, and that reason is action.”

    http://www.cam.ac.uk/research/features/the-man-with-the-golden-brain/

  16. I always thought that there are different styles and tempers, and that atheists and scientists should cope with the faithheads and evolution deniers each in his/her own way.

    BUT I see the “moderates” blaming the writers and speakers with more outspoken and crisp styles all the time, often so much that they seem to have no time left to argue with the faithheads.

    I conclude that even the little moderation to leave anybody to his/her personal style is wasted energy, and declare:
    I LOVE your blog, Jerry!
    Keep up the good work!!!

  17. It is interesting that the magical statements and beliefs that supposedly bright, recognized, responsible and authoritative voices of philosophers,theologians and some physics types would be considered close to felonious if uttered and acted upon by doctors treating their children.

    So apparently there are different standards of facts and belief for their self-care behaviors and their professional behaviors.

    Can you imagine a doctor being accused of “scientism!?” It’s nonsensical and a bit psychotic.

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