Do believers see scripture as literally true?

July 12, 2014 • 11:24 am

In all the to-and-fro we’ve had in the last couple of weeks, some people have maintained that very few people—and almost no theologians—see the Bible as literally true. If you live in the US, you’ll know how ludicrous that is.  While I agree that Americans who take the whole document as the literal word of God aren’t in the majority, most believers (indeed, most Americans) see parts of it as literally true. My own aphorism, which is mine, goes as follows:

“Some believers are literalists about nearly everything, but nearly every believer is a literalist about some things.”

I like that, and and hope it will become a meme!

But first, the latest data on how many American see the entire document as the literal word of God. This is from a 2011 Gallup Poll (article by Jeffrey Jones):

Screen shot 2014-07-12 at 7.22.27 AM

Screen shot 2014-07-12 at 7.22.36 AM

It’s 30%, and, although fluctuating, has dropped 8-10% since 1977. Still, only 17% saw the Bible as a book of “legends,” while 79% thought of it as either literally true or “inspired,” in which some but not all of it should be taken literally. As expected, belief in the Bible as either partly or wholly true increases with increasing church attendance, is higher among those with less education, and is higher among Republicans than Democrats. Protestants show a higher degree of literalism than Catholics (see the original article for the data).

There are non-negotiables for most believers, at least in the U.S, which, for many Christians, include the divinity of Jesus and our redemption from sin through his crucifixion, resurrection, and acceptance of Christ as our personal savior.

But (at least in 2004) there were far more non-negotiables than this (we need a more modern survey , since this kind of belief has probably declined). These data are from an  ABC News poll, which one should take with a bit of salt because of the small sample size (a bit over 1000). Here are are the 2004 data for what they’re worth, as reported in the conservative Washington Times (my emphasis):

God’s creation of the Earth, Noah and the flood, Moses at the Red Sea: These pivotal stories from the Old Testament still resonate deeply with most Americans, who take the accounts literally rather than as a symbolic lesson.

An ABC News poll released Sunday found that 61 percent of Americans believe the account of creation in the Bible’s book of Genesis is “literally true” rather than a story meant as a “lesson.” [JAC: note that here they’re asking about the creation story in Genesis, not the entire Bible as reported in the Gallup Poll above.]

Sixty percent believe in the story of Noah’s ark and a global flood, while 64 percent agree that Moses parted the Red Sea to save fleeing Jews from their Egyptian captors.

The poll, with a margin of error of 3 percentage points, was conducted Feb. 6 to 10 among 1,011 adults.

. . . The levels of belief in the stories, however, differed among Christians.

The poll found that 75 percent of Protestants believed in the story of creation, 79 percent in the Red Sea account and 73 percent in Noah and the ark.

Among evangelical Protestants, those figures were 87 percent, 91 percent and 87 percent, respectively. Among Catholics, they were 51 percent, 50 percent and 44 percent.

The stories still proved somewhat compelling among those who had “no religion.” A quarter said they believed in Creation, almost a third said Moses parted the Red Sea, and 29 percent believe in Noah.

Remember, this was a survey of a sample of all Americans, not just Christians or even believers.

But this next part I find really funny, but also a bit sad:

“These are surprising and reassuring figures — a positive sign in a postmodern world that seemed bent on erasing faith from the public square in recent years,” said the Rev. Charles Nalls of Christ the King, a Catholic-Anglican church in the District.

“This poll tells me that America is reading the Bible more than we thought. There had been a tendency to decry or discount Bible literacy among the faithful,” he said.

“But this indicates a strong alliance among Americans with the inerrant word of God, as opposed to simply the inspired word of God, as viewed in the context of faith tradition,” Father Nalls said.

I don’t know what a “Catholic-Anglican” church is, but I thought both of those denominations were supposed to be less literalistic than American Protestants. Still, an American reverend in that Church finds the widespread belief in miracles “reassuring,” for they show Bible literacy.  But the distressing thing is that a.) they don’t really show much Bible literacy (everyone knows about creation, Moses, and the Ark), and b.) they show not literacy but literalism. As we all know, atheists show more familiarity with what’s in the Bible than do believers, so, for a reverend, literacy is not something to be especially proud of!

I document more recent surveys in my book—not only of Christianity, but of Islam and other faiths. And there is a surprisingly large tendency to be literalistic about some parts of the Bible, even among UK Christians. For Islam, literalism is a given; it is not kosher (excuse the pun) to see the Qur’an as a metaphor rather than as the words God dictated to Muhammad.

Do have a look at Julian Baggini’s surveys of UK Christians. Baggini used to disparage New Atheists for criticizing strawmen, and for saying that religion depends on belief in empirical truths. Then he did his own surveys (granted, not  very systematic ones) and found to his surprise that some literalism was ubiquitous even in British Christians. As he noted in his Guardian piece on the surveys:

Nevertheless, it is essential to stress that I take these surveys to be no more than indicative. And as the survey was exclusively about Christianity, what we can extrapolate about the likely beliefs of people in other religions is especially limited. So I see these results as being no more than highly suggestive and would like to see more rigorous work done to test what the reality is. I want to thank the various Comment is free readers who have already pointed me to other research. I’ve still got to work my way through a lot of it but I have yet to see anything that achieves quite what I’d like to see.

So what is the headline finding? It is that whatever some might say about religion being more about practice than belief, more praxis than dogma, more about the moral insight of mythos than the factual claims of logos, the vast majority of churchgoing Christians appear to believe orthodox doctrine at pretty much face value. They believe that Jesus is divine, not simply an exceptional human being; that his resurrection was a real, bodily one; that he performed miracles no human being ever could; that he needed to die on the cross so that our sins could be forgiven; and that Jesus is the only way to eternal life. On many of these issues, a significant minority are uncertain but in all cases it is only a small minority who actively disagree, or even just tend to disagree. As for the main reason they go to church, it is not for reflection, spiritual guidance or to be part of a community, but overwhelmingly in order to worship God.

This is, I think, a firm riposte to those who dismiss atheists, especially the “new” variety, as being fixated on the literal beliefs associated with religion rather than ethos or practice. It suggests that they are not attacking straw men when they criticise religion for promoting superstitious and supernatural beliefs.

Baggini, an atheist himself, was intellectually honest enough to admit that he was wrong. I give him kudos for that.

Now we know that stuff like the Ark, Adam and Eve, and the parting of the Red Sea are fiction, so believers who see them as fictional are clearly right. Nevertheless, we shouldn’t underestimate the number of people who see other parts of the Bible as historical truth. Which parts are those? The parts that science hasn’t yet, or can’t (because of lack of data) refute.

What about the Sophisticated Theologians™ who claim that throughout history, neither Church Fathers, nor early theologians, nor believers themselves, saw Scripture as historical truth? I think that is largely a bogus argument constructed by theologians who want to rewrite history to pretend that the scriptural literalism decried by New Atheism is a recent development.

My response is that this is simply wrong for lay religionists, and theologians never show otherwise. Historical truth of the Bible has been a constant strain in Christianity: it’s what you see portrayed in the stained-glass windows of medieval cathedrals.

As for the theologians themselves, I’ve shown already how the supposed Kings of Biblical Metaphorizing—Aquinas and Augustine (as well as other theologians before the 18th century) were literalists about many things, although some believed one could read a metaphorical meaning into scripture as well. But for Augustine and Aquinas, the historicity of things like Adam and Eve, Paradise, heaven, angels, and so on, was never in doubt, and their empirical reality took precedence over interpretation.

Further, even Sophisticated Theologians™ see parts of the Bible as historically true, especially the whole Jesus story involving his status as both God’s son and God at the same time, his crucifixion and resurrection, and the value of that sacrifice for saving humanity. Now, given the absence of extra-Biblical evidence for that tale, on what grounds do theologians see that as credible but the Genesis stories as metaphor? Only because science has disproven Adam and Eve (and the creation story in Genesis) as false, but hasn’t been able to scientifically examine the Jesus story. What we know is that there is no extra-Biblical evidence for a historical Jesus figure, much less for his divinity or the crucifixion and Resurrection stories.

On what grounds, then, do theologians buy the Jesus myth as true but reject much of the rest of scripture as “not a textbook of science” (i.e., “not true”)? Only because the Jesus story hasn’t yet been disproven! The only criterion for what theologians see as metaphor is what reason and science has failed to confirm. There are no other criteria for the theological acceptance of some parts of scripture as historical and other parts as fable, allegory, or metaphor.

Finally, how much should we care about what theologians believe versus what laypeople believe? It is, after all, mostly the laypeople who do the harm inflicted by faith. It is laypeople who try to get the Genesis story taught in public schools. It is lay Muslims, not imams, who riot and kill—and they kill not just non-Muslims, but each other. And much of that killing is based on literalism, either of the Qur’an, or of the hadith. Catholic opposition to abortion is based on the dogmatic claim that a fertilized egg has a soul, and their insistence on procreation (and their discourage of condoms, even in AIDS-ridden Africa) is based on the claim that God wants every act of sex to potentially produce a child.

In the end, the question to ask the Theologians Who Love Metaphor is this:

“On what grounds do you know that some parts of the Bible, like the divinity of Jesus, are true, while others, like the creation story of Genesis, are false?”

An honest theologian would give this answer: “Because science hasn’t yet falsified the Jesus stories.”

Sadly, there are few intellectually honest theologians on tap.  (And if I weren’t feeling charitable, I’d replace “few” with “no”.)

 

291 thoughts on “Do believers see scripture as literally true?

  1. If this challenge results in a response from theologians or other adherents of scripture I have 0.0~1 expectation of the honest response, but I will be quite surprised if a fancy semantic dance or two is not choreographed.

  2. Sometimes I think that you’re plucking the low-hanging fruit. But then I ask myself: is there any high-hanging fruit? I’m reading Herman Philipse on Religious Reason (thanks for the reference), but even there I wonder why employ all that intellectual power and erudition to demolish arguments (like Plantinga’s) that are self-evidently dumb. Strip out the verbiage, and every argument for any religion is either circular (its premiss contains its conclusion) or teleological (its conclusion dictates its premiss).

    1. Or its circumcisional, anything else than the conclusion is snipped off from future consideration.

      [“Circular” is actually not an empirical problem, just a problem in the static, pre-causality world of philosophers. A good theory has better be “circular” when it matures, or it was not a useful, fully testable attempt!

      Maybe it is better to say that religion uses non-evidence circularity vs teleology pattern search.]

  3. I’d say the notion of an afterlife/post-death consciousness of some sort is a literal belief for the vast majority of believers regardless of flavour and I guess for some who’d self-describe as non-believers as well.

    “Some believers are literalists about nearly everything, but nearly every believer is a literalist about some things.”

    It’s good!

    I’d skip the “nearly’s”, but maybe that’s too bombastic…

          1. That was hilarious. I love the explosion during Thanksgiving. And yes, my Catholic relatives are the most annoying with all the stuff he said.

        1. That Carlin bit was right on. When Carlin says that there is no ‘up there’, the audience responds with cheers and applause. I wish I could see a survey on belief of only people who attended a Carlin show. Are the majority really non-believers or do they go along with the applause because he makes it sound good? Or maybe they go along with the applause because audiences do that. As usual, it would probably be an unsatisfying combination of the three.

    1. It’s true. There must be some aspects of their faith that believers hold to be literally true – otherwise what’s the point?

      After all, why worship a metaphorical deity, who only metaphorically created the universe and everything in it and who can only grant you a metaphorical eternity of your metaphorical afterlife in a metaphorical paradise?

  4. I am trying to consider the ways theologians can be intellectually honest.

    I guess that if one makes an assumption about reality, even if it is not testable and they admit it, then that’s being honest.

    1. “I don’t know” would be a good start.

      But it is always followed up by appeals to whatever is within reach…it’s a weak discipline.

    2. I think some are honest: these are academics, and (not offense to Jerry and other professors but…) is it all that surprising that they want to push the conversation into an academic, rather than social activism, direction? What the sophisticated theologians are doing is not too different from an economics professor wanting to discuss the minutiae of some economic theory and pooh-poohing people who want to talk about the impact of taxes or prices on real people.

      Now sure, some are doing it as an intentional dodge. But I bet a lot of them just have the myopia that the ivory tower has a reputation for producing (in some professors, not all).

    3. Or they could leave the profession, or (what is functionally the same), like the faculty of Theologie at Aarhus seems to do partially, start doing art and culture stuff (i.e., like “Religious Studies” at some Canadian univeristies).

  5. 61 percent of Americans believe the account of creation in the Bible’s book of Genesis is “literally true”

    This literally blew my mind.

        1. I’m fine. But I actually did have a somewhat serious point, which is that I wonder to what extent problematic words like “literally” are getting in the way of honest answers. Maybe there are a lot of people who know they’re supposed to hold the Bible to be literally true, but are a bit fuzzy on what “literally true” actually means in practice.

          So it might be interesting to rephrase the question in a way that leaves religion, the Bible, and “literally true” out of it. For instance:

          Suppose scientists invent a time machine that lets you visit any place and time in Earth’s history. Which of the following people would you be able to visit with this machine?

          George Washington
          Isaac Newton
          Gandalf
          Henry VIII
          Julius Caesar
          Noah
          King Tut
          Fred Flintstone
          Adam & Eve

          My hunch (for which I have no evidence) is that the number of people who put Adam & Eve in the “visitable” column would probably be less than the number who profess to believe in the literal truth of Genesis.

          1. I would be interested to know which of them I could communicate with. Would Newton and Washington have sufficiently different accents that understanding would be difficult without a paper and pen (oh, no, not a quill! I had trouble enough with a cartridge pen in grade 3 …)

      1. Years ago, a local fundamentalist had a piece in the paper insisting that the Bible should be taken “literally.” When someone wrote in citing some absurdity in the Bible or another, asking if he took THAT literally, he answered that taking the Bible “literally” meant understanding what the original author intended. I think Gregory has a good point–a lot of people aren’t clear on what “literally” means. Most people I hear using the word are misusing it (“I was literally scared to death,” etc.) In fact, some grammarians are defending this use.

        1. “. . . some grammarians are defending this use.”

          Arrgh! I literally hate it when that happens.

          Agree–“literally” is all too frequently misused.

  6. Many thanks, Jerry, for bringing these statistics where we can see them. One of the things that bothers me is the difficulty in finding such regular surveys, despite their relevance to the issues of religion that we criticize (and are criticized for in turn).

    For instance, I didn’t know how extensive biblical literalism is, and I wasn’t aware of its history. Thanks to this, I have less difficulty gauging how correct or incorrect a proponent of the “scripture isn’t meant as literal truth” school would be. The claim raises my suspicions when it appears, as I suspect it is revisionist in the worst sense, and thus an example of motivated reasoning.

    Also, I think the “nearly’s” make your coinage a tad ungainly. I like the idea behind it, though. And your point about how even the most metaphorical Christians still have their literalisms is worth noting.

  7. Thanks for the in depth post. I think your central premise is completely true. The vast majority of Christians, religious Jews, and Muslims take the Bible literally for the most part. Most of the ones I personally knew also did.

    There are a few points of your article where I disagree, such as this: “It is lay Muslims, not imams, who riot and kill—”

    I would point out that usually lay Muslims riot and kill after imams order/ordain/preach/plan for them to do so. Notice how often riots occur right after Friday services.)

    Even better than this post, however, are the many nature photos you’ve put up in the last few weeks. (I’ve not commented on them yet, so just wanted you to know they are great.)

  8. I’ve almost finished reading Richard Carrier’s new book On the Historicity of Jesus, and it is a masterwork which powerfully argues that Jesus was a fictional character, and that most of what early Christians wrote were lies. He even calls Luke and John liars, and backs up his accusations quite well. On p37, he says, “That’s what religious believers do with their heroes: make things up.” After reading this book, I would say there is almost no chance that Jesus ever existed. But will this influence the believers? Ha, ha ha.

    1. I had a quick look at the pages on Wikipedia on the subject. Since I’ve encountered one or two discussions on this online, I’ve tended to be agnostic on the issue of whether a person called Jesus (or some person) existed and directly or indirectly inspired the gospels, a baptised and ordinary apocalyptic preacher preaching a Roman heresy and getting crucified for it. Seems a bit strong to say “there is almost no chance that Jesus ever existed”, but I could be persuaded yet, pending future information.

      Honestly, I haven’t delved too deeply into the issue. The way I see it, the historicity of Jesus isn’t a particularly compelling point in the context of pointing out the problems of Christian doctrine, at least compared with the obvious nonsense and moralistic claims in the stories themselves. The charitable interpretation still leaves us with billions of people basing their beliefs on the ravings of an apocalyptic preacher, as filtered through the texts of fantasy writers, either who were cynically exploiting gullible people, or who were completely delusional and gullible people themselves.

      Sources:

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christ_myth_theory

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historicity_of_Jesus

      1. It’s pretty straightforward, actually.

        There is no physical evidence, period, full stop.

        There is no contemporary documentary evidence of Jesus or anybody who could be remotely mistraken for him or the events of the Gospels, despite copious amounts of documentation where such could or even must appear. Most notable are the Dead Sea Scrolls, which are the actual pieces of paper and parchment penned by millennialist Jews in and around Jerusalem before, during, and after all possible dates and covering pretty much all the topics Jesus himself was interested in. Also crucial are the collected works of Philo of Alexandria, the hellenized Jewish philosopher who incorporated the Logos (of John 1:1) into Judaism. He was the brother-in-law of the King Herod Agrippa whom the gospels identify as king as the time of Jesus’s ministry, and his prolific writings end after the end of Pilates reign with his account of an embassy to Rome to petition Caligula about Roman injustices (including crucifixions) of Jews. Other important omissions include the Roman Satirists whose stock in trade was the sort of scandal of the Trial and the scene with the moneychangers, and Pliny the Elder who was obsessed with all things and people supernatural. There are many more.

        The first Jesus appears in the historical record is decades, a generation even, later, in the writings of Paul. Paul’s Jesus was explicitly non-corporeal and nearly perfectly devoid of his familiar biography and quotations — again, in contexts where the omission is noteworthy. Paul makes an habit of awkwardly quoting Jewish scripture to make points that Jesus himself made much better and more famously. Plus, Paul established his bona fides by identifying his interaction with Jesus as an entirely spiritual (hallucinatory) matter, exactly as everybody else had experienced Jesus.

        We know that the Gospels weren’t written until long after everybody alive at the time had died. Mark, the presumed earliest of the lot, makes references to the destruction of the Temple, events we know happened in 70 CE at the hands of the Romans. Yet Mark’s description places those events at the time of the Crucifixion, something that can only make sense if a great deal of time and space separated Mark from not only Jesus but the Roman conquest of Judea as well. This is only further underlined by Mark’s notorious displays of embarrassing ignorance of Judean geography.

        At about the same time as the Gospels were being authored, the earliest Christian apologists were defending the faith against Pagans. Justin Martyr’s primary thesis was that Pagans had no right to make fun of Christians because Jesus was just like their gods — and he proved that last point most emphatically with painfully long and detailed lists of evidence. Search his First Apology for references to “Sons of Jupiter” to get an idea. Martyr claimed it was evil daemons with the power of foresight who planted the false myths of Paganism centuries in advance in order to lead honest men astray when Jesus came, but we can safely discount that paranoia without damaging the rest of his thesis. Indeed, strip out all the examples he gave — Perseus born of a virgin, Bellerophon Ascending, Mercury as the Logos, and many many many more — and you have literally nothing left of Jesus.

        Some time after Martyr, we get the first Pagan authors writing about Christians. And they universally dismiss Christians as the same sort of lunatic nutjobs as we dismiss Raelians and Branch Davidians today. Lucian of Samosata, in particular, wrote a delightful satirical biography of Peregrinus, who had just immolated himself in front of the Olympic stadium. Peregrinus was a lovable cad who took special pleasure in duping the Christians to think of him as one of their holiest of holy men and “revealing” unto them many of their most profound “mysteries.” Whether the work of Peregrinus or not, we can actually see an example of this in practice. The most detailed biography of Jesus we get in the writings of Paul at first blush appears to be the story of the Last Supper in 1 Corinthians 11. But, instead, Paul is instructing the Corinthians in the proper way to perform the Eucharist. We know from Martyr that the Christian Eucharist was modeled after the Mithraic Eucharist, save with wine rather than water; and we know from Plutarch that the Cilician pirates who spread Mithraism a few generations before the Caesars had Tarsus as their home port. Tarsus, as in, “Paul, of.”

        So, add it all together — nobody noticed anything at the time, Jesus as a syncretic patchwork of ancient and well-known Pagan traditions, and documentary evidence of the myth being built up piece by piece — and there’s really no other conclusion that makes sense.

        Many people like to cling to the “Jesus as random schmuck later deified by his followers” theory, but not only is that perfectly unsupported by any evidence whatsoever, it’s vehemently contradicted by all the evidence there is. Even Paul credits Jesus with divine creation and goes out of his way to describe him as a spiritual entity from another age.

        Cheers,

        b&

        1. Thanks for the reply. It prompted me to look a little deeper, and while I can’t say I’m completely won over, I do regard the evidence supporting the “Jesus was real” idea as weaker than I’d thought.

          “The first Jesus appears in the historical record is decades, a generation even, later, in the writings of Paul. Paul’s Jesus was explicitly non-corporeal and nearly perfectly devoid of his familiar biography and quotations”

          I think this is incorrect. The earliest likely text was Galatians at 45CE-55CE, and in that he mentions James the apostle as “the Lord’s brother” in the first of the six chapters, Jesus’ being raised from death by God in the first, and the crucifixion in the second and third (and possibly in the sixth when talking about the cross). Granted, it’s mixed in with a lot of “Jesus is a spirit in you” talk, but there’s also a lot of “Jesus gave himself for our sins, that he might deliver us from this present evil world” stuff, which doesn’t seem explicable if he was only ever meant to be a spiritual hallucination and not a crucified man.

          “We know that the Gospels weren’t written until long after everybody alive at the time had died. Mark, the presumed earliest of the lot, makes references to the destruction of the Temple, events we know happened in 70 CE at the hands of the Romans.”

          Granted, though I’ve got 60CE-70CE from Wikipedia, not 70CE itself, and Luke might have been not long after either. What about the Q document, though? I thought that was a document from roughly a decade or so before the 60s that formed the basis of the gospels Matthew and Luke. And before then, there was also Romans, Corinthians, Philippians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, Philemon, and possibly James and Colossians.

          I don’t know about the destruction of the Temple business. The most I can tell is that, in Mark, Jesus promised to destroy a temple and rebuild it in three days, and it was quoted back at him on the cross by mocking bystanders, but not much else.

          “This is only further underlined by Mark’s notorious displays of embarrassing ignorance of Judean geography.”

          On a tangential side note, I’m interested. Can you give an example or two?

          “At about the same time as the Gospels were being authored, the earliest Christian apologists were defending the faith against Pagans. Justin Martyr’s…”

          This doesn’t seem right. The gospels (at least the main four) are dated to between 60-95CE, whereas Martyr wasn’t even born until 100CE. He’s an indirect source at best, so probably more a self-styled interpreter and apologist for Christians than a self-styled historian. I don’t think he counts, but in any case…

          “Justin Martyr’s primary thesis was that Pagans had no right to make fun of Christians because Jesus was just like their gods — and he proved that last point most emphatically with painfully long and detailed lists of evidence. Search his First Apology for references to “Sons of Jupiter” to get an idea.”

          I see your point, but I think you’re treating it as needlessly exclusive to say “if Jesus is treated as a Demi-God like figure, and/or compared to one, then there can’t have been a real person involved”. Martyr also seems to have explained the Eucharist as eating Jesus’ flesh and blood, which fits with the talk Jesus was alleged to have given at the last supper. In any case, all the Demi-God stuff is about the invented mystical magical Jesus, not the historic one.

          To keep this on point, Martyr’s attempts to show hypocrisy in pagans ridiculing Christ, and Martyr’s emphasis on Christianity as the completion of rational thought and insight, and his talk of invoking Jesus’ name to exorcise demons, doesn’t necessarily mean he didn’t believe that Jesus was a historical figure. His Dialogue with Trypho tried to prove Jesus was the Messiah of the scriptures.

          “Some time after Martyr, we get the first Pagan authors writing about Christians. And they universally dismiss Christians as the same sort of lunatic nutjobs as we dismiss Raelians and Branch Davidians today.”

          When it comes to Tacitus and Pliny the Younger, (and Suetonius’ Nero reference and some of Josephus’ stuff), undoubtedly. They can’t be said to have demonstrated Jesus was a real guy himself, being hearsay by the time they get to talk about it, but mostly to the followers. But then there’s Mara Bar Serapion, Suetonius’ Claudius reference about Jews being instigated by “Chrestos” (admittedly, second-hand), and Josephus’ writings. Mara Bar wrote about Jesus at best 72CE, and seemed to think Jesus “king of the Jews” was as real as Socrates and Pythagoras. Josephus’ Testimonium Flavianum reference makes the strongest claims about Jesus’ miracles, but seems to have been fiddled with by Eusebius a few centuries later.

          OK, I will give you this, though: The one thing I do agree on is that none of them were contemporaries (except possibly Mara if he was older than 30 or 35, but his lack of detail suggests he was a pagan working from second-hand hearsay in Syria).

          Also, something bothers me about the second-hand-therefore-unreliable argument. Was this usual or unusual in Roman historians’ historical accounts at the time? Is it demonstrable at least some of them had access to contemporary (and reliable) documentation? I’ll bring this up in the next point, so skip to there to get where I’m coming from:

          “So, add it all together — nobody noticed anything at the time,”

          I’m wondering if this would be abnormal for that time period. Do historians today routinely use second-hand or non-contemporaneous documentation to recreate the past? I don’t want to think either of us is making a double standard before using that against the historicity of Jesus, in case a believer claimed that the level of evidence for Jesus was the same as that for other historical figures we take for granted. You see where I’m coming from here?

          “Even Paul credits Jesus with divine creation and goes out of his way to describe him as a spiritual entity from another age.”

          Firstly, which book(s)? I’m wondering where he says Jesus Divinely Created the world.

          Secondly, I thought Jesus was supposed to be a kind of Trinity-God deal, anyway? Or at least, people frequently mixed up descriptions on this point, one moment claiming Jesus was a man guided by and acting for God, the next claiming he was God, and so on.

          I agree and disagree with some of your points, and remain uncertain about others, but overall I consider this an interesting time well spent. Thank you! 🙂 I look forward to a reply.

          Sources:

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dating_the_Bible#The_New_Testament (This is where I got my dates)

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Q_document

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Apology_of_Justin_Martyr

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_Apology_of_Justin_Martyr

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dialogue_with_Trypho

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tacitus_on_Christ

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pliny_the_Younger_on_Christians

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mara_Bar-Serapion_on_Jesus

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suetonius_on_Christians

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Josephus_on_Jesus

          1. Also, typo: when I said “but mostly to the followers”, I meant “but mostly talking about the followers”. Comes from changing the first part of a sentence, and then forgetting to change the second part to make sense.

          2. I think this is incorrect. The earliest likely text was Galatians at 45CE-55CE, and in that he mentions James the apostle as “the Lord’s brother” in the first of the six chapters, Jesus’ being raised from death by God in the first, and the crucifixion in the second and third (and possibly in the sixth when talking about the cross).

            And where’s the Prophecy of Birth, the Annunciation, the Magnificat, the Virgin Birth, the Magi, the Slaughter of the Innocents, the escape to Egypt? And we still haven’t even gotten Jesus out of diapers!

            Granted, it’s mixed in with a lot of “Jesus is a spirit in you” talk, but there’s also a lot of “Jesus gave himself for our sins, that he might deliver us from this present evil world” stuff, which doesn’t seem explicable if he was only ever meant to be a spiritual hallucination and not a crucified man.

            Your conclusion does not follow, especially in light of Paul’s other writings. 1 Corinthians 15 puts it all quite plainly and in context. That’s where he starts by recounting all the people who saw Jesus after the Resurrection, including himself — and we all know that Paul only ever met Jesus on the road to Damascus. Shortly after he gives the famous “And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.” line, including associated commentary.

            Pretty clear case for corporeality, right?

            Not!

            Because right after that he discusses all the different types of bodies, with humans having both physical and spiritual bodies, with the spiritual body being the one that will be resurrected. “It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body.”

            And the very next set of verses is the clincher, the one that really ought to lay the whole debate about what Paul thought of Christ’s nature completely to rest:

            1 Corinthians 15:45 And so it is written, The first man Adam was made a living soul; the last Adam was made a quickening spirit.

            46 Howbeit that was not first which is spiritual, but that which is natural; and afterward that which is spiritual.

            47 The first man is of the earth, earthy; the second man is the Lord from heaven.

            48 As is the earthy, such are they also that are earthy: and as is the heavenly, such are they also that are heavenly.

            49 And as we have borne the image of the earthy, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly.

            For those not familiar, “the last Adam” is Christ.

            What about the Q document, though?

            What about it?

            Can you offer up any evidence that it actually existed, what it said, when it was created, who authored it, what the author’s intentions were?

            It’s every bit as possible that the Gospels we have today were revised multiple times after their authorship, with those overlapping revisions accounting for the urge to invent Q. After all, the earliest extant copies of the Gospels are late, fragmentary, and of especially poor provenance. It’s also possible that the “common earlier tradition” they drew upon was an entirely oral one, or even something shamelessly invented from whole cloth by a fraud such as Peregrinus.

            Citing Q as anything other than an example in literary analysis is an exercise in futility.

            I don’t know about the destruction of the Temple business.

            Mark 15:38: “And the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom.” We know exactly when the veil of the Temple was torn. It was never torn during the reign of Pilate, else everybody would have written about such a sacrilege. It was torn by the Romans when they destroyed the Temple in 70 CE. On July 29 or 30, if Wikipedia is to be trusted.

            For Mark to have placed it generations earlier than that can only make sense if the two events were far enough away in time and space for them to plausibly merge — as somebody today not especially up on history of the 20th Century might put the Battle of the Bulge in the First, not the Second, World War. Suggesting he wrote that in the early 70s simply doesn’t make sense, even if you assume profound incompetence on Mark’s part.

            “This is only further underlined by Mark’s notorious displays of embarrassing ignorance of Judean geography.”

            On a tangential side note, I’m interested. Can you give an example or two?

            The most infamous example is Mark 5, where Jesus chases a bunch of pigs out of the mountains over a cliff into the sea. The problem…is that Umm Qais is rather far inland, there aren’t any sea cliffs at the nearest portion of the Mediterranean, and the Golan Heights are some distance away.

            This doesn’t seem right. The gospels (at least the main four) are dated to between 60-95CE

            The only way to come up with such dates for the Gospels is to assume that they were written by the men whose names head the chapters, and to further assume that they didn’t wait until too embarrassingly long into their dotage to write them. As I’ve shown, they had to have been written well after 70 CE. I could maybe buy the tail end of the first century. Early second century is much more plausible, with it not at all being out of the question that they were mid- to late-second-century works.

            I see your point, but I think you’re treating it as needlessly exclusive to say “if Jesus is treated as a Demi-God like figure, and/or compared to one, then there can’t have been a real person involved”.

            Then you miss my point.

            Tally up every significant biographical “fact” we know of Jesus — the virgin birth, the Ascension, etc. Now cross off from that list everything that was a blatant rip-off from some demigod whose story everybody knew by heart. What’s left? Nothing. If Jesus wasn’t born of a virgin, if he didn’t turn water into wine, if he didn’t heal the sick and raise the dead, if he didn’t die and go to Hell and come back and ascend to the Heavens, then who, exactly, was he?

            Martyr also seems to have explained the Eucharist as eating Jesus’ flesh and blood, which fits with the talk Jesus was alleged to have given at the last supper.

            Then you weren’t paying much attention. From chapter 66:

            […] He said, This is My blood; and gave it to them alone. Which the wicked devils have imitated in the mysteries of Mithras, commanding the same thing to be done. For, that bread and a cup of water are placed with certain incantations in the mystic rites of one who is being initiated, you either know or can learn.

            Are you willing to argue for an historic Mithras? If not, your argument carries no weight for Jesus.

            In any case, all the Demi-God stuff is about the invented mystical magical Jesus, not the historic one.

            Woah — hold it right there.

            What “historic” Jesus?

            Can you give us any facts about this invention of yours?

            Can you support any of your fact claims with evidence?

            I’m sure you can’t. Nobody else in all of history has ever done so.

            Mara Bar wrote about Jesus at best 72CE

            He did no such thing. He wrote of misfortunes that befell the Jews after executing their wise king. He never mentions the king or when this is supposed to have happened.

            Josephus’ Testimonium Flavianum reference makes the strongest claims about Jesus’ miracles, but seems to have been fiddled with by Eusebius a few centuries later.

            Josephus wrote not one word about Jesus — and, even if he had, he wasn’t even born until years after the latest possible date for the Crucifixion.

            Origen lamented that Josephus didn’t know Jesus. Before Eusebius “discovered” the Testamonium, nobody was aware of its existence.

            Is it demonstrable at least some of them had access to contemporary (and reliable) documentation?

            I already addressed this. The Dead Sea Scrolls are the actual pieces of paper and parchment penned by actual messianic Jews in and around Jerusalem during all possible dates. Philo, Pliny the Elder, the Satirists, the rest…all are contemporaries writing contemporary accounts of contemporary people and events. None noticed even the slightest whiff of Jesus stench.

            …that’s probably already way more than a suitable number of electrons spilled from me on this subject, and I’m starting to repeat myself….

            Cheers,

            b&

            1. “And where’s the Prophecy of Birth, the Annunciation, the Magnificat, the Virgin Birth, the Magi, the Slaughter of the Innocents, the escape to Egypt? And we still haven’t even gotten Jesus out of diapers!”

              You asked elsewhere where the historical Jesus can be found if we take away all the supernatural and demi-god elements. I’ll concede that those elements were definitely made up later by the gospel writers, and that this leaves the earliest biographical details as “his (the Lord’s) brother was James” and “he died/was crucified for our sins”.

              Your follow-up passage from 1 Corinthians demonstrates that Paul thought that Jesus was God, which just seems like more of the mystical elements added on.

              How, though, do you explain the “he died for our sins”, the allusions to the crucifixion especially (the notion that some random crucified dude triggered a lot of myth-making is still on the table), and the “James’ brother” bits?

              “Can you offer up any evidence that it actually existed, what it said, when it was created, who authored it, what the author’s intentions were?”

              Not personally. This is what Wikipedia has to say:

              The relationship among the three synoptic gospels goes beyond mere similarity in viewpoint. The gospels often recount the same stories, usually in the same order, sometimes using the same words. Scholars note that the similarities between Mark, Matthew, and Luke are too great to be accounted for by mere coincidence.[19][20]

              If the two-source hypothesis is correct, then Q would probably have been a written document. If Q were merely a shared oral tradition, it is unlikely that it could account for the nearly identical word-for-word similarities between Matthew and Luke when quoting Q material. Similarly, it is possible to deduce that Q was written in Greek. If the Gospels of Matthew and Luke were referring to a document that had been written in some other language (for example Aramaic), it is highly unlikely that two independent translations would have exactly the same wording.[21]

              The Q document must have been composed prior to the Gospels of both Matthew and Luke. Some scholars even suggest Q may have predated Mark. A date for the final Q document is often placed in the 40s or 50s of the first century, with some arguing its so-called sapiential layer (1Q, containing six wisdom speeches) being written as early as the 30s.[22]

              If Q did exist, it has since been lost. Some scholars believe it can be partially reconstructed by examining elements common to Matthew and Luke (but absent from Mark). This reconstructed Q is notable in that it generally does not describe the events of the life of Jesus: Q does not mention Jesus’ birth, his selection of the 12 disciples, his crucifixion, or the resurrection. Instead, it appears to be a collection of Jesus’ sayings and quotations.

              I agree with you: Citing Q as anything other than an example in literary analysis is indeed an exercise in futility.

              “It’s every bit as possible that the Gospels we have today were revised multiple times after their authorship, with those overlapping revisions accounting for the urge to invent Q. After all, the earliest extant copies of the Gospels are late, fragmentary, and of especially poor provenance. It’s also possible that the “common earlier tradition” they drew upon was an entirely oral one, or even something shamelessly invented from whole cloth by a fraud such as Peregrinus.”

              The oral tradition theory aside, this strikes me as a bit speculative. Or is that your point: That the evidence for the gospels being dated so close to the early half of the first century, that the commonalities suggest a common earlier document, that the possibility of total fabrication is unfeasible, etc. is so murky as to be on par with the alternatives that they weren’t?

              “For Mark to have placed it generations earlier than that can only make sense if the two events were far enough away in time and space for them to plausibly merge — as somebody today not especially up on history of the 20th Century might put the Battle of the Bulge in the First, not the Second, World War. Suggesting he wrote that in the early 70s simply doesn’t make sense, even if you assume profound incompetence on Mark’s part.”

              The best I can suggest is that there was some otherwise unrecorded ripping of the veil earlier, but since that’s totally unjustified, I agree with your point that it most likely wasn’t ripped.

              I don’t agree that it was because Mark was confusing a recent event and an older one, though, since everyone knows it was the Roman-Jewish war that caused the destruction, and it seems a stretch to think Mark confused Jesus’ ripping it with the Romans doing it. Seems more plausible Mark just invented Jesus’ ripping from scratch.

              “The most infamous example is Mark 5, where Jesus chases a bunch of pigs out of the mountains over a cliff into the sea. The problem…is that Umm Qais is rather far inland, there aren’t any sea cliffs at the nearest portion of the Mediterranean, and the Golan Heights are some distance away.”

              Mediterranean? I thought Jesus crossed the Sea of Galilee in chapter 4, considering he started in Capernaum on the other side of that sea? The “country of the Gadarenes” would have bordered the sea at the time, at the northern tip of where Jordan is today. At least, they don’t look that far on the map to me.

              “The only way to come up with such dates for the Gospels is to assume that they were written by the men whose names head the chapters, and to further assume that they didn’t wait until too embarrassingly long into their dotage to write them”

              I did wonder how the texts were supposed to be dated, given the earliest extant ones date only to the 2nd century (Rylands Library Papyrus P52, possibly though not necessarily around 100CE to 150CE). Wikipedia claims the 1st century dates are arrived at by “internal evidence”, “including direct references to historical events”, and the “internal testimony of the texts”. Also, with ” the exception of a few biblical sections in the Prophets, virtually no biblical text is contemporaneous with the events it describes”. The number of extant copies doesn’t really seem to take off until the 3rd century, with fragments of gospels and epistles in the 2nd.

              I think you might be right.

              For one thing, the authorship of the Gospel of Luke is hindered by the fact that the work never mentions the name, and the details don’t match the Luke mentioned in Pauls’ letters. The Wikipedia page gives this:

              According to a Church tradition dating from the 2nd century, he was the “Luke” named as a companion of the apostle Paul in three of the letters attributed to Paul himself

              The same story plays out for Mark and Matthew: anonymity, spurious 2nd century traditions that have since been discredited, and no matching details to the supposed Mark or Matthew. John has the “disciple whom Jesus loved” bit, and even that is just a claim that the disciple went on to write a testimony, not that the Gospel of John is itself the testimony.

              So that leaves internal evidence based on historical references.

              “Are you willing to argue for an historic Mithras? If not, your argument carries no weight for Jesus.”

              Fair enough. I concede that point.

              “…and, even if he had, he wasn’t even born until years after the latest possible date for the Crucifixion.”

              Again, I concede the point.

              “Origen lamented that Josephus didn’t know Jesus”

              Did he? Where?

              “I already addressed this. The Dead Sea Scrolls are the actual pieces of paper and parchment penned by actual messianic Jews in and around Jerusalem during all possible dates. Philo, Pliny the Elder, the Satirists, the rest…all are contemporaries writing contemporary accounts of contemporary people and events. None noticed even the slightest whiff of Jesus stench.”

              I’d be impressed if there was some kind of official Roman documentation listing who was crucified in certain years. That would be interesting. Otherwise, I once more concede.

              Sources:

              http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Q_document

              http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capernaum

              http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sea_of_Galilee

              http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gadarenes

              http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golan_Heights

              http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rylands_Library_Papyrus_P52

              http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dating_the_Bible

              http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Biblical_manuscripts_by_century

              http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:1st-century_biblical_manuscripts

              http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:2nd-century_biblical_manuscripts

              http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:3rd-century_biblical_manuscripts

              http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gospel_of_Luke#Luke-Acts:_authorship_and_date

              http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gospel_of_Mark#Composition_and_setting

              http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gospel_of_Matthew#Composition_and_setting

              http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gospel_of_John#Authorship

              http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Disciple_whom_Jesus_loved

              1. I’ll concede that those elements were definitely made up later by the gospel writers, and that this leaves the earliest biographical details as “his (the Lord’s) brother was James” and “he died/was crucified for our sins”.

                Well, if we’ve stripped the historical Jesus down to somebody with a brother named, “James,” and who was a ritualistic sacrifice, I think we’re basically done, no?

                But, to be thorough: it is in no way remarkable for fictional characters to have fictional siblings, and it was already customary at the time to use familial terms to describe religious positions — the “father” of priests, the “brother” of monks. That latter is especially relevant, for two reasons. First, the phrasing is typically, “James, Brother of the Lord,” as opposed to “Jesus’s brother, James.” Second, Mary is nowhere officially mentioned as having had other children, and many churches officially hold that she never did have any other children, preserving her virginity. More on James’s relationship to Jesus below.

                As to the Crucifixion…you do know, don’t you, that death / rebirth / salvation gods are perhaps the most common variety of ancient and Classical Pagan god, don’t you? (And not just in the Old World, too — see Quetzalcoatl.)

                Most famously, there’s Osiris and Dionysus. With Dionysus we should mention Bacchus, the Roman counterpart. There’s Attis and Adonis — with the Jews, incidentally, still knowing Adonis to this day as “Adonai.” There’re all the “avatars,” if we may borrow that term, of Dionysus, such as Orpheus. There’s Mithras, whose sacrificial meal we know the Christians adopted for their own. There’re many more, with Wikipedia even having an entire category page for the subject:

                http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Life-death-rebirth_gods

                Or is that your point: That the evidence for the gospels being dated so close to the early half of the first century, that the commonalities suggest a common earlier document, that the possibility of total fabrication is unfeasible, etc. is so murky as to be on par with the alternatives that they weren’t?

                I think that might not be unreasonable. My point is that Q has been proposed to explain certain literary parallels; however, it is far from the only possible explanation for the parallels and only becomes the most reasonable option if you assume that all the authors were credible. Lacking such an assumption, you can’t even conclude Q’s existence. And, even if you do conclude Q’s existence, you certainly can’t reasonably use it to conclude anything further.

                I don’t agree that it was because Mark was confusing a recent event and an older one, though, since everyone knows it was the Roman-Jewish war that caused the destruction, and it seems a stretch to think Mark confused Jesus’ ripping it with the Romans doing it. Seems more plausible Mark just invented Jesus’ ripping from scratch.

                It makes perfect sense if Mark hadn’t even been born yet in 70 CE, if he had never traveled to Judea as he so plainly hadn’t, and if he didn’t speak a word of Hebrew or Aramaic, as he so plainly didn’t. As such, he’s writing about (to him) ancient history in a far-away exotic land.

                But, even if we are to go with your hypothesis…well, you’re just confirming that Mark was writing fiction. Are you going to use a work of fiction to establish the historicity of a real person? I sure wouldn’t.

                For one thing, the authorship of the Gospel of Luke is hindered by the fact that the work never mentions the name, and the details don’t match the Luke mentioned in Pauls’ letters.

                All you need to know about the authorship of Luke is the opening verses, in which the author unambiguously reports that what follows is the end result of a game of Telephone.

                Luke 1:1 Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to set forth in order a declaration of those things which are most surely believed among us,

                2 Even as they delivered them unto us, which from the beginning were eyewitnesses, and ministers of the word;

                3 It seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write unto thee in order, most excellent Theophilus,

                4 That thou mightest know the certainty of those things, wherein thou hast been instructed.

                “Most surely believed among us”? Clearly an expression of religious faith that nobody else believes.

                And then we get “they” who delivered them unto “us,” with “they” having gotten it from “ministers of the word” (i.e., preachers of the Logos, of Jesus) and “eyewitnesses.” Even the most charitable reading of that is that people too minor to be named saw parts of the story, and they told the second generation of storytellers who told Luke who’s now telling a man whose name is, “God lover.”

                Then “Luke” makes painfully clear that this is not an honest history he’s setting forth, but rather an instruction manual in indoctrination.

                And, oh-by-the-way, “Luke” had his own words copied and re-copied and re-re-re-re-re-re-copied before the oldest surviving manuscripts were copied.

                Any actual empiricist would look at that provenance and think you must be smoking crack to conclude anything from it, other than what the last copyist wanted his audience to believe.

                So that leaves internal evidence based on historical references.

                If by, “internal evidence based on historical references,” you mean, “absolutely nothing whatsoever,” I’ll agree with you. You are aware, are you not, that every work of fiction has internal evidence and historical references? Even Tolkien has humans in it, a clear historical reference.

                “Origen lamented that Josephus didn’t know Jesus”

                Did he? Where?

                Contra Celsus, 1:47:

                For in the 18th book of his Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus bears witness to John as having been a Baptist, and as promising purification to those who underwent the rite. Now this writer, although not believing in Jesus as the Christ, in seeking after the cause of the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple, whereas he ought to have said that the conspiracy against Jesus was the cause of these calamities befalling the people, since they put to death Christ, who was a prophet, says nevertheless — being, although against his will, not far from the truth— that these disasters happened to the Jews as a punishment for the death of James the Just, who was a brother of Jesus (called Christ), — the Jews having put him to death, although he was a man most distinguished for his justice. [emphasis added]

                It is in the 18th chapter of the Antiquities that we find the Testamonium, and it is most clear that Celsus’s copy of that text didn’t even remotely resemble Eusebius’s copy. In Celsus’s copy, what we now call the Testamonium instead blamed the execution of James the Just for some lost-to-history tragedy rather than Jesus.

                The only other reference to Jesus in Josephus Christians cite is a passing reference of Jesus bar Damneus that some ancient “scholar” thought maybe could have instead been of “the” Jesus — and Celsus never mentions that passage, either.

                Incidentally, that same chapter in Contra Celsus lays to rest the notion of James as having been Jesus’s actual brother:

                Paul, a genuine disciple of Jesus, says that he regarded this James as a brother of the Lord, not so much on account of their relationship by blood, or of their being brought up together, as because of his virtue and doctrine.

                In other words, James was the “brother” of Jesus in the exact same way that every Christian monk since then is the “brother” of Jesus.

                I’d be impressed if there was some kind of official Roman documentation listing who was crucified in certain years.

                No such thing exists, despite persistent rumors not only to the contrary, but that Jesus’s own execution is to be found in them.

                Cheers,

                b&

            2. I’ve had an extra look into the authors and the apostles, and these are my thoughts so far.

              Jesus himself is so vaguely described in the earliest texts that you’re right: he might as well be an invented myth based on the prior healing, apocalypse-prophesying, and resurrection tropes of gods and their servants and prophets. There are no original sources for Jesus beyond Paul’s meagre and vague plot summary (the apocalyptic prophecy and the resurrection, basically), and the say-so of his little circle of friends, the three pillars, and a handful of other collaborators and converts. Thessalonians and Galatians, the earliest epistles, clearly emerged after a prior and established round of proselytizing in bits of west Turkey and south east Greece, along with a handful of accomplices to Paul, and with Paul already being converted after encountering and energetically persecuting the possible original collaborators (maybe the three pillars, maybe not).

              The three “pillars”, being already established, are almost entirely devoid of biographical detail themselves beyond that Peter/Cephas is referenced as a man Paul has already met who claims to have been an apostle of Jesus, and who allegedly received the first resurrection appearance from Jesus, being “one of the twelve”. He’s only ever mentioned to dispute with Paul how to approach the Gentiles. This guy, along with possibly a few others not delved into at all (like the twelve and the “five hundred” and maybe James and John) is the only possible originator of the Jesus story, and he gets all of a handful of passages which elaborate no further. And he gets the biggest appearance!

              Of the other two notables, James barely gets more than occasional name-drops, and John gets one mention in Galatians as a “pillar” who, along with the other two, noticed Paul’s grace and joined forces. That’s it.

              All their appearances are limited to 1 Corinthians and Galatians, and since we’re already supposed to know who they are, given that they’re talking among fellow believers, there’s barely any historical explanation and barely a moment’s rest from all the polemics, preaching, eager explanations of mystical doctrine and conversion, and mythologizing. If there was a real preacher involved, you’d think these other guys would be among the first to get it down onto paper, or to convert some Roman official smart and literate enough to do it for them. Other key players, like Judas, Mary, and Herod, aren’t even mentioned, and Pilate gets one mention in Romans, with nothing about the chapter suggesting his role beyond some witnessing of Jesus.

              I had a look into Paul of Tarsus and the authorship for the Acts and the Pauline letters. With the exception of seven of Paul’s letters which are unanimously considered his, (and two more iffy ones), it’s surprising how second-hand, unreliable, and ambiguous they are as sources of information. Apparently, a few rogues wanted to steal his credit too.

              So Christian churches popped up in West Turkey and Southeast Greece during at least the late 40s when Paul was on their side, these churches having been established at some uncertain date before then. Peter and John and James are mentioned as present by Paul in understated ways while he maintains and spreads faith from Turkey to Rome for a decade or so, and a few more years pass.

              Then, into the 60s, the first of several suspiciously detailed and historically hit-and-miss accounts of Peter’s and Paul’s (and finally Jesus’) improbable exploits start appearing. For the next few decades, after at least a couple of decades of vague but enthusiastic proselytizing from an already-existing handful of churches in the eastern Roman Empire, there appear multiple takes by different authors on what this Jesus fellow actually did, two or three decades after most of the key players are dead, with some of these new accounts possibly dating to as late as the 90s almost half a century after Paul started writing to his fellow converts across Turkey and Greece.

              That sounds less like a faithful historical accounting trying to catch up with itself and more like several people clumsily inventing their own mythology from scratch (or from each other) to justify the beliefs.

              To people who already were followers and likely either in the Near East or in Rome, where the religions were already established.

              To disparate audiences, no less, who apparently can’t all have the same version of God’s most important act for political or religious or geographical reasons.

              While these accounts freely borrow or copy from each other and from prior stories and parables.

              Nearly every account prior to the Acts and the Gospels is filled with mystical nonsense and a lot of polemic around conversion and Mosaic law and the incoming end of days. It’s based on a nebulous resurrection story by a god-prophet Paul only ever saw in a vision on the road to Damascus. And when the gospels do come along to explain the origin of all this to various audiences, none of them can get the details straight even when drawing upon each other, all of them are filled with mystical nonsense, and nearly everybody crucially involved (Paul, the Twelve, James) is either marginalized or in on the mystical shenanigans.

              We don’t even see fleeting external reports from Roman historians until they were born during the mid 50s or late 60s during or after these writings were earliest written (Suetonius, Tacitus, Pliny the Younger), and in ways that suggest Christianity was a minor concern compared with other matters of state beyond Nero’s blaming them for a fire. The closest to a contemporary historian, Josephus, was born barely a few years before the religion spread and after the alleged resurrection, had little to do with it, barely noticed or cared about the rise in Christianity (Josephus gives one dubious James reference and one Jesus reference that turns out was tampered with), and wrote almost entirely about the clashes between Romans and Jews from Galilee and Jerusalem. Even for the overhyped random preacher theory which explicitly denounced the miracles stuff, that’s a discouraging lack of detail.

              After this brief overview and conversation, I think not only is Jesus as dubious as John Frum, but so are James, John, and the Twelve, and even Peter/Cephas and other bit-players like Philemon and Timothy can’t muster up more than a passing reference or a second-hand claim in Paul’s letters to other believers. The alleged historicity of Jesus is almost entirely awkward and post-hoc mythologising within a narrow circle of believers, which in any case is about as reliable as a private cult’s mutual congratulations, nepotism, and faith-supporting propaganda after taking off from a scanty but unoriginal myth.

              It’s a pity we can’t see how the story actually arose, since there’s still a gap for apologists to take advantage of ambiguity.

              1. I think he’s got it. By George, I think he’s got it!

                Few minor nitpicks here and there, but nothing significant. Dates may again be questionable, as early dates for Paul’s writings again presume he was writing soon after the Crucifixion…and it should be again noted that the Gospels can’t even agree on the year or even the day of the week for that, which gives us a significant range of “possible” dates. Paul himself is clearly a more fictional character than factual; his own authorized biography in Acts again has no bearing on reality. If nothing else, the Talmud authors (as well as Josephus) would have noticed one of their star pupils joining the resistance, which they didn’t — but, again, somebody wrote those epistles, and we might as well call him, “Paul.” And, again, Origen makes it quite clear that the passage today known as the Testamonium was about James the Just with no mention whatsoever of Jesus.

                And…as to your complaint that “we’ll never know,” even that is a bit pessimistic. Read Lucian’s delightful satire, The Passing of Peregrinus. Might be a bit light on the details and heavy on the satire, but the picture it paints is pretty clear nonetheless. And we have independent verification that the basic process described is really real; that’s exactly how Paul “revealed” the Eucharist to the Corinthians. (Was Peregrinus Paul? I have my suspicions, but not sure how one would confirm.)

                Cheers,

                b&

            3. Basically, the evidence suggests the religion of Christianity started with little more substantial evidence than a “I met a man in a pub who knew this great guy” story.

              One being told to others who also met a man in a pub who knew this great guy. Or who met a man who met a man in a pub, etc., who knew this great guy.

              And we know the names of three or four people who knew this great guy. And only one of them can write, and he’s not the first guy to meet the great guy, and he says he met the great guy who just magically came to him on a walk after presumably a long time obsessing over persecuting the men who met a man in a pub who knew this great guy. And he knows exactly what the great guy wants.

              Also, Jesus Christ… is that a real name?

              1. Also, Jesus Christ… is that a real name?

                The literal translation is, YHWH’s Anointed (as with oil) Savior / Salvation. You tell me.

                (It should also be noted that “Jesus” remains every bit as popular a name today as it was back then. It’s been anglicized to, “Joshua,” but “Jesus” (“Hay-Seuss”) is equally popular in Latin countries. And Josephus mentions several other men by that name at that time.)

                Cheers,

                b&

        2. Ben, the best reason I can think of that Jesus MAY have been a real person was the fabrication of the census that was used to get Mary from Nazareth (where she lived and Jesus grew up) to Bethlehem to give birth in order to “fulfill” the prophecy that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. A totally fictitious person could have been born where ever the authors chose.
          OTOH, some have speculated that the “Nazarene” in Jesus of Nazarene referred to a religious sect he followed. The writers, not realizing this, thought it was his home town and had to find a way to get him born in Bethlehem.

          1. Those sorts of “arguments from embarrassment” never hold weight outside of religious apologetics. You get all sorts of that type of absurdity in the Gospels in particular, especially as a result of the authors trying to shoehorn “prophecies” from the Septuagint (not even the Hebrew Bible) into the Jesus story. Witness Jesus straddling both an horse and an ass into Jerusalem, or him being born in Bethlehem as well as Nazareth.

            To your specific example, there’re also hints that there may be remnants of astrological allegories running underneath some of the Gospels, with town locations serving as mnemonics for constellations and the travels of characters representing planetary (including retrograde) motions. That latter is too flexible to reliably pin down to the point of it being reasonable to take seriously, but it wouldn’t be out of character. They could even be syncretic adoptions from pre-Christian religious stories.

            b&

            1. Ben, I enjoy your comments and agree completely with your reasoned conclusions. I would like to recommend Rene Salm’s book “The Myth of Nazareth: The Invented Town of Jesus” which states a solid case for there not being a Nazareth during the time that Jesus would have been alive.
              He also writes a blog which is a treasure trove of posts about Christian origins. He is a polyglot and translates papers or book quotations from time to time from foreign works that may have been forgotten but bear upon subjects like Nazareth, the Nazorean sect, pious frauds in Christian archaeology, etc.
              He is also a musician.
              Check out his blog at mythicistpapers.com

              1. Thanks for the reference! I’ve long been aware of the fictional nature of Nazareth — for example, Josephus never mentions it despite living a morning’s walk away and mentioning everywhere else in the neighborhood. I’m not familiar with Rene Salm, though; I’ll have to check him out.

                b&

  9. Homosexuality is an abomination – literally true

    Abortion is evil – literally true

    Jesus is the only way to heaven – literally true

    God supports capitalism, Obama is a socialist- literally true

    Slavery, Genocide, Stoning disobedient kids to death or letting them get mauled to death by bears – no longer literally true

      1. Oh, I was going to ask where you kept the bears. Also, an interesting theological question – if you shoot a bear that is attacking a child for poking fun at a folically challenged holy man, are you thwarting God’s will?

        It’s a theological minefield out there.

  10. We can actually be about as confident as we are that Caesar crossed the Rubicon about the non-existence of Jesus. Justin Martyr himself, the very first Christian apologist and writing about the same time as the authors of the Gospels, made the case most eloquently that there’s no difference between Christianity and any other syncretic Pagan mystery cult — with overwhelmingly detailed evidence, no less.

    To be fair, he attributed the copying to evil daemons with the power of foresight working centuries in advance to lead honest men astray from the truth of Christ, but one can trivially excise that bit of nonsense and the rest stands perfectly on its own.

    If you want to know where all the patches came from in the coat of many colors that is Jesus, just read Martyr’s First Apology.

    b&

    1. Thank you, Ben. You have linked to that before and I have been meaning to read it. I read it recently and found it extremely enlightening. Everybody with an interest in the Christianity cult should read Justin Martyr. In itself it cancels the whole Jesus myth. Funny thing is, as far as I know, I haven’t come across Sophisticated Theologians taking on Justin Martyr. Why is this text not of more concern to ST’s? Are they hoping that the flock won’t hear of it?

      1. For one, outside of the mind-numblingy boring Catholic ceremony of the invocation of the saints, nobody even mentions Martyr. For another, there’s no advantage to mentioning him; it would just bring up the awkward question of how one is supposed to reconcile all those parallels he lays bare. Then, there’s also the embarrassing fact that, last I heard, Martyr’s excuse remains the official one to this day: evil demons with the power of foresight spread distorted stories mimicking Christ’s ministry well in advance so as to lead honest men astray when he finally did come.

        I suspect that, if more atheists started asking Christians to explain why the earliest defender of the faith thought that there was wholesale copying going on between Jesus and practically every other Pagan demigod popular at the time, we might see some Sophisticated Theologians sit up and take notice. But, more likely, you’ll just get people — Christians and atheists both — dismissing the idea of Jesus as the same sort of fictional character as every other demigod as some sort of fringe conspiracy theory that doesn’t deserve to be addressed seriously.

        This, again, despite the perfect lack of contemporary and near-contemporary mentions in an exhaustive record; the early Christian descriptions of Jesus as non-corporeal and fantastic; the profoundly bad historical accuracy of the Gospels (Oh Noes! That’s also conspiratorial!), and all the second century sources laying forth exactly how the fabrication of the Jesus myth went down. Oh — and let’s not forget all those bizarre heresies (such as Marcion’s Jesus arriving on the scene not as a babe in a manger but beaming down Kirk-style from the heavens, or the Ophites for whom Jesus was some kind of snake god) that were contemporary with the authorship of the Gospels, and which only lack of political and military might kept from being established as orthodoxy.

        Cheers,

        b&

      2. Today I finally got around to reading it, also. The first 19 or so Chapters were a bit of a tough slog for me, but it turns out ol’ Justin was just settin’ the table. He takes off like a rocket after that.

      3. I wouldn’t go that far. For one thing, I’d like to see other examples of saviour figure myths from the centuries before, during, and after, potentially little different from the Christian one but which simply didn’t have the luck to spread as widely. That would make a good case for the idea that the Jesus story was yet another unoriginal take that happened to get lucky. Also, the parallels to Jupiter’s sons, Bacchus, and Aesculapius, are probably just ad hoc. Yet, they are interesting.

        1. The mystery cult of Isis is a good example – it is has similar themes to Christianity, another contemporaneous mystery cult: resurrection (Isis travels the world putting disembodied Osiris IIRC back together, compassion in the form of Isis. It’s understandable that the cross over themes meant there was a cross over audience for such cults: the disenfranchised: slaves, women, the poor.

          1. The cult of Mithras, too — many parallels, some of them explicit (such as the Eucharist — and what is Christianity without the Eucharist?)

            b&

        2. Also, the parallels to Jupiter’s sons, Bacchus, and Aesculapius, are probably just ad hoc.

          They weren’t to Martyr.

          And if you think they are, then you’re ignorant of the Pagan myths, the Christian myths, or both.

          Bacchus was known for turning water into wine. Aesculapius was known for healing the sick and raising the dead. To suggest that somebody in that time and place could have written about somebody turning water into wine without being aware that the story was a deliberate copy of Bacchus makes as much sense as suggesting that somebody today could write a story about a boy from another planet who grew to be a noble man of great strength and supernatural powers who flies around with a cape rescuing the unfortunate and doing great deeds…but that totally has nothing at all to do with Superman.

          Take my personal favorite: Perseus. There was a prophecy that the king’s daughter, a virgin, would bear a son and that son would one day become king. The king, fearing for his life (WTF? what king doesn’t want his grandson to take his place?), orders his daughter locked up. But Zeus, the Heavenly Father of the gods, looked at the poor girl, took pity upon her, took up his holy spiritual form as a shower of gold, visited her…after which she was found to be with child. King Herod…er, Queen Hera was so outraged by all this that she ordered the child to be killed. The holy family fled over the seas to a distant land where the boy grew into a man and eventually fulfilled the prophecy.

          When even the names of the characters rhyme, you know that the one is a ripoff of the other.

          For another very obvious example, compare the ends of the stories for Jesus and Orpheus. The order of the trial and the descent into Hell is reversed, but they’re otherwise indistinguishable.

          And, let’s not forget: this is how gods and religions were created. Serapis was explicitly created for political reasons as a syncretism of Osiris and Apis. Even Republican Roman scholars had identified Osiris and Dionysus as different cultural interpretations of the same fundamental deity. And look at all the Roman / Greek examples: Zeus / Jupiter, Mars / Ares, Mercury / Hermes, and on and on and on.

          Indeed, for Jesus to have been an actual flesh-and-blood human would be perhaps even more remarkable than him having been a real demigod.

          b&

  11. The banner that the Christians don’t take the Bible literally is raised against the claim that Christianity should be viewed as a kind of hypothesis that makes truth claims about the world, and so overlaps the domain of science. For that to work, “inspired word of God” would have to mean that the *only* things God inspired are, say, otherwise unknowable facts about himself. As soon as the inspiration touches on our lives in any way it becomes empirical and potentially evaluated with evidence. So it’s difficult for me to see how the 49% “inspired word of God” group achieves anything for those making this argument.

    I am tempted to assemble a list of things you explicitly can not believe if you are making the claim that your belief is outside the realm of science. Top of the list: that prayer does anything. How big, really, is the set of Christians who think prayer does nothing, or only ever affects one’s own mental state?

    The poor nature of polling questions in this regard is frustrating. I wonder how much it costs to hire a reputable polling agency to conduct a poll? I’d personally be happy to chip in my $20 to a kickstarter project for the purpose of doing a poll that more closely evaluates the degree of literalism among believers.

  12. I might be able to shine some light on the Catholic-Anglican church detail. It almost certainly is a case of bad wording. That said, there is such a thing as “Anglo-Catholicism” which uses liturgy closer to the Roman Catholic Church. Not-bad summary here: http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anglo-catholicism.

    There’s also the “Anglican Catholic Church” (not Catholic-Anglican as in the article). A summary is here: http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anglican_Catholic_Church. Catholic here means “universal” (from Greek Katholikos) and does not refer, unlike Anglo-Catholicism, to the Roman Catholic Church. It is a conservative breakaway group.

    I looked up this church and it belongs to another dissenting Anglican organization from the USA. They identify as historically Anglican (coming from an English theological tradition) but don’t like the liberalization of the modern church.

    If anyone does find something about a Catholic-Anglican church, please correct me! I’d be very interested.

    1. The other option for Catholic-Anglican are members of the Anglican Ordinate which is a group of Anglicans that split off and joined the Catholic church but are permitted to keep their form of the ritual and some priests were accepted as Catholic priests even if married.

  13. I’ve always liked the bible scholar James Barr’s (a Christian, if that matters) take on fundamentalist hermeneutics. In essence, he says that fundamentalists don’t interpret everything in the bible as literal. No, what they do is interpret the bible in a way that it can’t be shown to be in error. If this means taking some parts metaphorical, then so be it. This method, of course, is applied in an arbitrary and ad hoc manner, depending how theologically important the specific issue at hand is. For example, the depiction of Jesus’s resurrection in the gospels is obviously a description of literal events, whereas his ascension is often afforded a more metaphorical interpretation, simply because observational science has proved that one does not reach heaven simply by lifting vertically into the sky.

    James Barr’s book, Fundamentalism (1977), is a terrific book that many on this website might want to read.

  14. On a more serious note, I can see both sides on the Jesus did/didn’t exist debate, based on the arguments presented by people like Bart Ehrman and Richard Carrier, so I remain agnostic on the issue. It really doesn’t matter since even if he existed, it remains to be shown that he performed miracles and rose from the dead, which if they occurred would be unique single events so are unfalsifiable in principle.

    The weakness of Christianity and other revealed religions is that they depend on revelations, and particular historical events to have happened which isn’t true of say Buddhism (which of course includes in many forms different sets of superstitious beliefs and practices). Why would truth depend on something that supposedly happened to a person 2000 or so years ago?

    On another note, I see the Brazilian nightmare continues.

    1. There are a surprising number of people who treat the basic outline of history as presented in the Bible as true, even if they consider it to be embellished. For example, many people think Moses led the Jews out of Egypt, even we know Moses is a fictional character and the Jews never had any presence in Egypt and never migrated from Egypt to Israel.

      Ancient and classical history is of so little interest to the general public that there really isn’t even any opportunity for such misconceptions to be corrected.

      …and then add in what I’ve heard of the “History” Channel running “specials” on the “discovery” of Noah’s Ark, and it’s easy to see how the default position is what it is: that the Bible is basically reliable but with some supernatural flourishes.

      Indeed, in reality, there’s far much more true history in a Michner novel than there is in the Bible….

      b&

      1. Great point. The “Bible as History” documentary trope has been around along time, as far back as I can remember. All you have to do is embellish a few Bible myths with quotes from writers, professors or theologians with pretend recreations of what might have happened mixed with a bit of pretend skepticism for flavor and you have a hit. From PBS to the Hiatory channel, it’s formula that always works.

      2. I have never really read much in depth about the secular history of the world from say 4000 BCE up through the early centuries CE. But, even during my childhood, I picked up enough to see the obvious discrepancies. Why is Moses never mentioned in school? Why is ancient Rome covered with nary a mention of Jesus? I suppose during my religious upbringing, I chalked it up to secular conspiracy or simply didn’t think about it much. But, I would guess any naturally curious child has the same thoughts at one point or another. It is unfortunate that the right wing establishment scares the curiosity out of so many by the time adulthood is reached.

        1. Oh you’re missing out! I maintain the Battle of Actium was the most important western battle. I also just ordered a book on the Battle of Marathon – I never liked the military stuff as much when I was in school, but I like it a lot now.

    2. It is also difficult to evaluate some of the stuff without a lot of work, though if one is open minded enough Ben Goren’s “comparison approach” might work.

      For example, people tend to breeze over the neoPlatonism as just “weird crap” or have it changed beyond fairness by translations. If they actually read thing as written (even in the KJV – I’m no Greek scholar) things would be different. Hebrews is a good case; it says clearly (chapter 8) that Jesus had not been on earth but instead is (sub specie aeternitatis) a divine only figure. And yet people don’t seem to notice (I hadn’t, prior to reading Earl Doherty) this because the whole book is weird.

  15. Fantastic post. It speaks to the discussions on the other threads regarding what the Bible is an allegory or metaphor for if we were to interpret the whole thing that way. Maybe Eric MacDonald will jump back in here, but he did at least seem to agree that watering down Christianity to this point may not be distinguishable from humanism.

    I’m also glad you brought up miracles for the Church has sanctioned miracles as real throughout its history, most notably the Resurrection. Add to that miraculous cures from beyond the grave, Marion apparitions, and flying, transmorphic Communion wafers and we have the makings of some very strong claims about an intervening God and blatantly absurd scientific claims, to put it mildly.

  16. Very honest [sic!] about the seeming lack of honest theologians! Sophisticated Theology™ = Lying For Jesus™. I note that “sophisticated = lying” is the shorter version here…

    on what grounds do theologians see that as credible but the Genesis stories as metaphor? Only because science has disproven Adam and Eve (and the creation story in Genesis) as false, but hasn’t been able to scientifically examine the Jesus story. What we know is that there is no extra-Biblical evidence for a historical Jesus figure, much less for his divinity or the crucifixion and Resurrection stories.

    But theologians have more problems than that in order to make their myths about magical agencies credible.

    1) Myths are legion. On what grounds are we to expect a specific myth to be more credible than its face value, e.g. myth?

    2) Magical agency myths are legion. On what grounds are we to expect a specific magical agency myth to be more credible than another similar myth?

    3) Myths have no historical evidences. On what grounds are we to expect a specific myth to be more credible than historical quality criteria?

    4) Magical myths have no historical evidencies. On what grounds are we to expect a specific magical agency myth to be more credible than another similar myth? E.g. why should we expect anything else but the historical pattern?

    If you make an extraordinary claim you need evidence. Not the absence of evidence that supports your claim being in actuality a claim among many other similar unsupported ones.

    Somehow I think one can make a TGD style bayesian argument here on the necessity of myths being once-offs but they never are. “Any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology.” But I can’t make it properly right now. :-/

    1. “Any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology.”

      I personally prefer the formulation, “Any technology distinguishable from magic is insufficiently advanced,” but it’s clearly not a drop-in replacement….

      b&

  17. They need to be more specific in the questions. Could it be literally true that Jesus was an itinerant apocalyptic rabbi who was executed by the Romans? It’s a plausible story. Could he have come back to life and inspired people to speak to foreigners in their own language? Less plausible

  18. I was an Evangelical Christian for about ten years. My friends and I were very interested in theology and church history, and we studied quite a bit of it. Of course, in our community, the sources that were considered “legitimate” presented everything from the Evangelical point of view. Thus, we “learned” that early Christians, both the clergy and the laity, took the Bible literally. Based on this experience, I think it almost goes without saying that every sect “rewrites history” (as you say) to make it look like their view was always the mainstream, orthodox view. Their purpose may not specifically be “to pretend that the scriptural literalism decried by New Atheism is a recent development.” It may simply be to convince themselves that their own personal views hold up under the lens of history. In further support of your main point, here in the South (I live in Texas) there are churches all over the place that take the Bible stories literally. These are churches of all denominations and none: Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist, Pentecostal, Charismatic, and independent “Bible” churches. Certainly many ordinary churchgoers expect their preachers to espouse a literal interpretation; and so the preachers often do so publicly, whether they really believe it privately or not.

  19. Jerry says,” What we know is that there is no extra-Biblical evidence for a historical Jesus figure…” Rather, what we know is that there is no extra-Christian evidence for a historical Jesus figure. We must not forget the early Christian texts which did not make it into the NT. The Gospel of Thomas, the Didache (parts of which are probably early), 1st Clement. But all definitely post-date the Jesus figure’s death.

    There are elements in the Bible as a whole which can be fairly securely called accurate. And all of them derive from the work of archaeologists: that there was contact between early Israel and Pharaoh Shishenk; that the Israelite-Moabite conflict occurred: that King Jebu existed; that the Babylonian exile occurred; that Tattenai was governor of Jerusalem in 502BCE – not an exhaustive list. Here literary analysis is confirmed – or the rough outlines of the tale is established – by external scientific archaeological research.

    In the case of the historicity of Jesus it can not. But that is not the end of the story. You have to go to the literary sources alone, there being no archaeological confirmation. And to use your judgement on whether a Jesus figure existed.

    The Christian sources do leave clues: the story is wound round characters whom we know existed. The Herodian royal family attested passim in extra-Christian sources, John the Baptist in Josephus, Caiaphas the High Priest (btw. a priest of high status was called Kohen – any relation to Coyne?), Seneca’s brother mentioned in Acts, the millenarian apocalypticists in Acts whom Josephus again references, Gamaliel the Pharisee in Acts, a Christian fellow-traveller and who in all likelihood existed, Pontius Pilate who appears on the stele discovered in the early 1960s.

    All of these people – and it is a list off the top of my head – are actors in the Jesus and Paul story. Now you can take all this in two ways. That the Jesus stories are theological fictions using real people and events to lend verisimilitude: or that there was some actual character at the centre of these events.

    And it’s a question of balancing probabilities: I plump for there being some character called Jesus. Why? Because there are several early independent sources. Because he shares many traits with externally attested charismatic leaders of the time. And he was a man upon whom the early Christians accreted words of wisdom and apocalypticism in the crisis within Judaism following the 66-74 BCE Jewish Revolt débâcle.

    But also because the tales were written in Koine Greek. They were influenced theologically by Judaism, obviously. And by the historical tradition invented by Herodotus and advanced by Thucydides. We have Judaistic magical thinking – miracles, the intervention by God in history, apocalypticism, Wisdom literature – and how much and in what form that intervention occurred, represented much of the debate on Christology for the next 4 centuries.

    But there is a difference between the early Christian writers and their near-contemporary Hellenistic authors like Horace and Virgil. We’re highly doubtful that the latter actually believed in the existence of the Roman pantheon: for them the many gods really were metaphorical. That’s why Roman intellectuals like Celsus really were aghast at the credulity of the second-rate early Christian intellectuals like Justin Martyr.

    I strongly suspect that the Gospel of Matthew is part of the dispute that led to the definition of the Jewish scriptures at Jamnia in the 90s CE – hence its rabid anti-Judaism. If you are going to argue with your erstwhile co-religionists, are you going to make up a Jewish preacher within the lifetime of those in the debate? A bit of a stretch.

    Finally, let us use Dawkins’ scale for the existence of a Jesus figure. Did Sathya Sai Baba exist? Loads of YouTube videos. Almost certainly, yes. 6.99999 recurring. Did Apollonius of Tyana exist? 1 ancient nearish contemporary reference. Let us give him 3.0. Did Jesus exist? See some reasons above. 50% + 1.

    And of course he was nothing like what any of the Christian sects pretend he was.

    Slaínte.

    1. “And it’s a question of balancing probabilities: I plump for there being some character called Jesus. Why? Because there are several early independent sources.”

      Like what? The earliest Christian writing, mostly Paul’s, was Galatians, which was at best written a decade after the alleged events. Also, apart from Jesus’ crucifixion and a reference to Jesus’ brother James (pending whatever response I get to my incoming longer post above), there’s little of substance to suggest Jesus was a real person as opposed to some mythical demi-god invention. None of the biographical details appear until later on.

      “Because he shares many traits with externally attested charismatic leaders of the time.”

      Can you give examples of these leaders of the time?

      “And he was a man upon whom the early Christians accreted words of wisdom and apocalypticism in the crisis within Judaism following the 66-74 BCE Jewish Revolt débâcle.”

      That proves they knew about the story, not that there was a real man behind the story. John Smith managed to dupe a good number of his contemporaries into believing that he was visited by angels and received gold tablets from them, despite any contemporary being able to point out that no one else had seen these alleged figures. The situation with Paul’s accounts of Jesus seems similarly dubious, given the lack of contemporary sources. In any case, the same logic could be used to support the existence of John Frum of the Cargo Cults, who was more likely based on visiting Americans than an actual American person.

      It’s not clear to me what most of your subsequent paragraphs are supposed to prove. For instance, the Gospels were written in Greek, but why does that count as evidence in favour of Jesus’ existence?

      “If you are going to argue with your erstwhile co-religionists, are you going to make up a Jewish preacher within the lifetime of those in the debate?”

      Jesus was alleged to have been crucified in the 30s, a good fifty or sixty years before the time you suggest, within which we’re supposed to have seen – among other things – Paul’s letters and a growing number of Christians in Nero’s time, instigated by “Chrestos” (Suetonius) and following a “base superstition” (Tacitus). Matthew’s author could just as well have been a gullible inheritor of the superstition.

      “Finally, let us use Dawkins’ scale for the existence of a Jesus figure. Did Sathya Sai Baba exist? Loads of YouTube videos. Almost certainly, yes. 6.99999 recurring.”

      I think you’ve got the numbers backwards. 6.999 means “almost certainly does not exist”, not “almost certainly exists”. However, I’ll just read it as you probably meant it and mentally flip the numbers.

      Also, what’s 50%+1? Is that a range of 0.5 to 1.5 on the scale from 0 (impossible he existed) to 7 (impossible he didn’t exist), or are you saying its equiprobable, at 4?

      1. Reasonshark,

        Re: references. I listed some early sources. Plus Q, Mark, Matthew, Luke, Crossan’s hypothetical Signs source, although that’s controversial, and of course Paul, and possibly the forgers of Paul.

        Re: charismatic leaders. Honi the Circle-drawer, Hilkiah, The ‘Egyptian’ (can’t recall the source), Simon the Magus (in Acts whom Justin Martyr mistakenly referenced and after whom simony is named and who appears passim in several early Christian sources), Theudas (in Josephus), John the Baptist, Jesus ben Ananias, Yohanan ben Zakkai (more a theologian than a magicworker/charismatic/apocalypticist),the magic-worker (whose name escapes me) who impressed Emperor Vespasian, the politico-religious leader of the turn of the millennium (again whose name I have forgotten – and I will explain why below).

        “That proves they knew about the story, not that there was a real man behind the story.” Yes, badly phrased on my part: the sentence should not depend on the ‘because’ of the previous sentence.

        Re: writing in Greek. It’s a general point about the Greek literary tradition and its influence on the early Christians who wrote in Koine Greek. Both ancient Israel and Classical Greece developed a proto-historical method. In the former case, that of the Deuteronomist historian(s): and in the latter, that initiated by Herodotus and Thucydides. Thucydides and the Deuteronomist historian(s) share the trope of giving characters speeches which they think they would have said.

        In the Latin-Greek world around Jesus’ time, the tradition continued – Livy, Tacitus etc. But in the purely Hebrew milieu, the writing of history seems to have dried up until you get to Maccabees. From the 1st century BCE to about the 5th century CE, there is little purely Jewish historical writing and there appears to be a collective amnesia about their history. Except. For the Greek advisor to Herod who wrote a no longer extant history (or possibly annals, I can’t quite recall): and Josephus who was obviously influenced by the Hellenistic culture.

        And Luke: who makes the claim at the start of his Gospel that his writing is a work of history. And the writer of Acts of course makes the same implicit claim in his narrative. The writing of the early Christian texts in Greek makes it more likely – but only slightly more likely, in my opinion – that there is a core of truth somewhere in the texts.

        Clubschadenfreude,
        I know that Jesus was nothing like the gentle Jesus meek and mild because he was a first century Jew with the thoughts of a first century Jew. Would you invite him to a dinner party? Me neither.

        Finally, two apologies. One for the tardiness of my reply – I have been rehearsing for two days. And a second for the lack of detail in my references. My computer has broken down – don’t buy Pro Cleaner 2013, I think that was the cause. And my mad hyperactive kitten, Elsa, has also broken my back-up external hard drive. All my references are lost, all work lost, so I have done all this from memory. It’s back to the 20th century for me. O me miserum.

        Slaínte.

        1. From the 1st century BCE to about the 5th century CE, there is little purely Jewish historical writing and there appears to be a collective amnesia about their history.

          Your crashed hard drive obviously has your references to the Dead Sea Scrolls and Philo and the Mishna and the Gemara and….

          b&

          1. Yes Ben, all works lost, no longer extant, no scribes to copy them, not even dodgy Christian ones.

            The issue from a historical point of view about the Mishnah is that it isn’t a work of history but of Jewish law. From the perspective of the descendants of the Pharisees. Of a sect which had for perhaps 100 years definitively completed the toxic split with Christianity. To use it as evidence for a character from 200 years before needs to be given due weight.

            The problem with your first two references is that they are neither works nor writers of history. Philo of course was a high-ranking Alexandrian Greek-speaking Jewish exegete, who in all likelihood wrote before any written Greek reference to Jesus and whose works mainly refer in passing to contemporary events: for example to the Essenes, the Thereapeutae and to his nephew who supported the Romans in the Jewish Revolt and who had a highly successful Roman career. Nevertheless, it would be possible for Philo to mention Jesus if he had heard of him.

            I am surprised that you continue to mention the argument from silence in the Qumran Scrolls. You know that they don’t name one prominent first century inhabitant of Judaea: they don’t even name the founder of their own sect. That is the end of the argument for any reasonable person. Unless you have discovered some counter to this point, then the Scrolls should be set aside in the debate.

            On the question of Jesus’ Empire-wide fame, it is really a red herring. Nobody since at least the time of Gibbon has believed the inflated numbers of ancient historians. We all know that they exaggerated to a huge degree. For example, it is Herodotus, I think, who numbers the Persian invasion force at 1 million: modern historians put it at 60,000. Let’s take the same ratio for the feeding of the 5,000: that leaves you with about 300. Methodologically that needs sorting by some statistical/demographic whizz: but you get a ball-park idea. Was Jesus a random schmuck? Of course he was. Like Jesus’ contemporary, Apollonius of Tyana. And Theudas. And all the other nutters who litter the first century Fertile Crescent.

            On the general question of the lack of external references to Jesus, it should not be particularly surprising. Jesus did not even live under Roman administration: Galilee was run with quite a free rein by Herod Antipas. Take the first century Iberian writers in Latin, such as Martial, the Senecas, Lucan and Quintilian. The focus of their writing is not their colony homeland: they are Rome-centric. Take Juvenal: who is he addressing? The literate Roman of high-status. A misogynist, unlike the woman-friendly (relatively) strand of Pauline Christianity: nothing in favour of the lower classes and the disenfranchised. To a huge degree the conversation of the intellectuals centred on the cultural heft of Rome and Athens. You have to take the Roman-Greek near contemporary works and analyse them one at a time: how reasonable is it to expect them to mention Jesus? Some more than others: Pliny the Elder over Juvenal; Philo over Martial.

            The debate is not really about Jesus’ existence: it is about the historical method. Let’s face it: we’ll never know if Jesus was real.

            And on a more serious note. My poor 13 week-old tortoise-shell kitten Elsa now has the runs. What to do? Oh for the days of our prematurely deceased black cat, Charlie. I wanted to call him Nero but as usual in my household I was overruled.

            Slaínte.

            1. The problem with your first two references is that they are neither works nor writers of history.

              That you’d reject extensive and detailed topical contemporary works in favor of incredible fantasy and self-described hearsay written generations later…really, that’s simply academically indefensible. And arguing that the authors of the late fantasies were really describing the antithesis of what they wrote of is simply bizarre.

              Might as well suggest that the Book of Moron is evidence for an historical Moroni and an early Jewish presence in the New World — and never mind Smith’s rap sheet longer than your arm.

              b&

        2. “Re: references. I listed some early sources. Plus Q, Mark, Matthew, Luke, Crossan’s hypothetical Signs source, although that’s controversial, and of course Paul, and possibly the forgers of Paul.”

          Q is also hypothetical, and about the most material it would provide in any case is a list of alleged Jesus sayings.

          The synoptic gospels were almost certainly written from hearsay (Luke admits as much), and they certainly aren’t independent sources since Matthew and Luke take chunks out of Mark and out of each other. Yet, they contradict each other frequently on biographical details.

          Not to mention even the most optimistic dates place them thirty years after the event, during times when the apostles, Paul, and James – the closest things to witnesses – were either martyred/dead or well into their old age. Not to mention the synoptic gospels were internal propaganda aimed at Christian audiences, rather than sober history meant for everyone.

          In terms of reliability, Paul’s letters, apart from being the earliest sources (50s), are about as good as it gets. Yet, he’s basically a zealous Millerite from the first century, more interested in maintaining the faith, quashing descent, and shooting down counterpoints than in explaining anything in detail.

          And one late to the party by his own account: in Galatians, he claims he never spoke to anybody about his vision and went to Arabia for three years before going to the apostle Peter in Jerusalem and being hailed in Syria and Cilicia. And apparently it was another fourteen years before a confusion about Jewish law involving Titus and James was ever resolved, giving us at least seventeen years after the vision before he started sending letters (see Galatians).

          As far as I know, he only ever revealed through his letters – especially 1 Corinthians 15 and Galatians 1 – that he knew the bare bones of the story and wasn’t even converted by witnessing the event. The bare bones being:

          1. Christ the Son of God’s descent from Abraham and Isaac (which he couldn’t possibly have known was true), and which must have come through “a woman”, since he’s basically a meeting of God and mortal woman,

          2. Christ getting killed by Jews (possibly crucified) and his body buried for three days “like a seed of a plant”,

          3. Christ the Spirit resurrecting (Paul made this clear in 1 Corinthians, too), like a plant from its dead seed (major botany fail here and elsewhere in the New Testament, but we’ll let that pass),

          4. and then Christ revealing himself to Peter, then apparently 500 others, then James, then the remaining 11 apostles, and then finally Paul through a vision,

          5. followed by Paul sending his letters to churches 17 years later and recounting all this at least in his late 40s.

          And if Paul’s vision is anything to go by, you didn’t have to actually witness a historical Jesus, just a religious hallucination. Certainly none of the converts did beyond “having faith” that “Christ is in you”.

          Also, it’s possible Peter et al. didn’t witness a real Jesus either. “Apostle” means “messenger”, and they weren’t described as disciples at all, though I admit that one’s not a strong argument.

          “Re: charismatic leaders.”

          A sizeable list, I grant you. But apart from being charismatic leaders, what do they have in common with Jesus? (Not Gospel Jesus, but Paul’s Jesus).

          “Re: writing in Greek.”

          I still fail to see why this indicates Jesus was based on a real preacher. The Gospel writers certainly wanted to give the impression that they were writing attested history to pass among the Christian believers. Yet unlike Josephus, who actually was present during the Jewish-Roman clashes and whose reports of times before him are largely believable, none of the Gospel authors were witnesses, they don’t agree with each other on biographical details (beyond copying each other) or genealogies, and they fill their reports with obvious nonsense that any real historian would dismiss as compensating fantasy.

          I might be missing something or making too much of some points, but picking a realistic historical tradition doesn’t gel well with the miracles and polemics and inconsistent theology it gets liberally mixed with. Add that to my point above about witnesses, and that doesn’t seem persuasive of the idea that Jesus Christ was based on or inspired by a true would-be messianic preacher’s execution.

          “And Luke: who makes the claim at the start of his Gospel that his writing is a work of history.”

          I think I’ll let Ben Goren answer that one:

          http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2014/07/12/do-believers-see-scripture-as-literally-true/#comment-1010338

          “The writing of the early Christian texts in Greek makes it more likely – but only slightly more likely, in my opinion – that there is a core of truth somewhere in the texts.”

          Couldn’t it have just been a regional language thing? Paul was preaching to the Gentiles, not the Jews, and elsewhere he talks about Greeks and Jews not accepting their “foolish preaching” in 1 Corinthians 1. If Gentiles roughly equals Greeks, then Koine Greek was probably being used for mundane reasons, i.e. because it was the lingua franca of that population at the time, ever since Alexander’s conquests.

          “I know that Jesus was nothing like the gentle Jesus meek and mild because he was a first century Jew with the thoughts of a first century Jew. Would you invite him to a dinner party? Me neither.”

          But that’s based on context, and not on any actual textual evidence. That’s like saying you know what Joseph Smith was like because he lived in the 19th century. Or, more pointedly, like saying you know what Heracles was like solely because he lived in Ancient Greek times. There would be common elements in a period’s culture, granted, but that does nothing for the plausibility of a real preacher.

          We’re talking about individuals, and Ben Goren’s point is that beyond the mythical Jesus, there’s a black hole of nothing where there should be an identifiable person. That renders claims for a historical Jesus as arguments from ignorance: we don’t know Jesus didn’t exist, so there’s nothing wrong with suggesting there really was one. And if the myth is considered evidence for a real Jesus, then the same logic should vindicate a lot of other mythical characters whose existence we reject, a double standard.

          1. Reasonshark,

            Re: Q (and for that matter) the extant Gospel of Thomas, yes they are sayings sources. And for that reason a claim of Jesus’ existence.

            Re: Matthew and Luke, yes 95% of Mark is in Matthew and 50% of Mark in Luke. Yet there are also the hypothetical M and L sources independent of each other. Of course they contradict each other.

            Yes, the Gospels were Christian propaganda and due weight needs to be given to that.

            Re: Paul. Not much to disagree with there. Paul makes references to a historical figure Jesus and whose religious significance is him ‘crucified’ and therefore in Paul’s view there is a new Covenant. That’s what he was interested in.

            Re: charismatic leaders and their similarities with Jesus. Theudas, taking followers to the Jordan: Jesus ben Ananias apocalypticist nut-job repeatedly declaiming the fall of the Temple: Hanina ben Dosa miracle-worker: Yohanan ben Zakkai, sage: John the Baptist and baptism.

            Re: Josephus’ reliability (and even that of Herodotus). Both are prone to add a large amount of fantastical elements and therefore have to be treated with more scepticism than, say, Thucydides. But both have demonstrably realistic historical claims. And so do the Gospels, and even Paul. And that is the historical problem.

            Re: Luke’s claim to be writing history. There is no sign of his evaluating sources in true historical style. There is evidently a claim that he is using oral sources. And that needs to be given consideration. Did he believe that the sources believed in Jesus’ real existence? In all likelihood, yes. For that matter, so probably did Paul – the Steven episode in Acts.

            Re: Koine Greek. The corollary of using that language, apart from the obvious fact that you write in your own tongue, is that you were far more likely to know of the Hellenistic historical and literary traditions. Josephus for example, in the case of history: Philo, in the case of the application of Platonism to Pentateuch exegesis.

            I don’t see anything wrong with basing one’s opinions of Jesus on context: you can’t think historically without context. But if you want textual evidence for my antipathy towards Jesus, let’s go for Matthew 19:12, his ambivalent attitude towards self-eunuchism.

            Yes, there is a black hole where there should be an identifiable person in Jesus. But not quite. If you contrast Jesus with the charismatic leaders above, he has elements of all. Apocalypticist, sage, preacher, miracle-worker. Which element is an accretion? Or maybe all are.

            All, perhaps, accreted onto a myth. Or perhaps a real person. From several independent sources. The sources don’t go away. Just because Jesus subsequently became who he is now (and I do not accuse you of this) is no reason discount the possibility of these stories being based on some ragged, itinerant preacher. Reasonshark, I think that your last sentence, ‘And if the myth is considered evidence for a real Jesus, then the same logic should vindicate a lot of other mythical characters whose existence we reject, a double standard’ is begging the question. You go where the sources take you. Is for instance Apollonius of Tyana, worshipped by the Empress’s son, mythical or not? An unreasonable question, most scholars would say.

            Slaínte.

            1. “Re: Q (and for that matter) the extant Gospel of Thomas, yes they are sayings sources. And for that reason a claim of Jesus’ existence.”

              If you’re arguing for the hypothesis that there was a real-life person who, post-death, got spin-doctored into a demi-God, you can’t do that by quoting sources that may or may not exist. My point was that there’s no possible way anyone, decades later, could realistically remember and write down what someone said that they never met. You yourself even admitted historians would invent dialogues to characterize events! These Jesus sayings, assuming they ever existed, have to have collectively been inventions of the author, leaving us with no evidence and leading us back to square one.

              “Of course they contradict each other.”

              If they contradict each other, despite clearly borrowing chunks from each other, then that suggests a degree of invention on the part of the authors involved. We already know through Paul’s letters that the Christ story had been spread from Judaea to Rome via Turkey and Greece. It’s not hard to see the gospels building on a pre-existing and popularized story.

              But we need to pin down the origins of that story if we’re going to argue about historicity. That’s why I’m focusing on Paul’s letters: the Gospels weren’t written by people close to the actual events they purport to describe. That’t why I said :”In terms of reliability, Paul’s letters, apart from being the earliest sources (50s), are about as good as it gets.”

              “Re: Paul. Not much to disagree with there. Paul makes references to a historical figure Jesus and whose religious significance is him ‘crucified’ and therefore in Paul’s view there is a new Covenant. That’s what he was interested in.”

              Paul certainly seemed to believe Jesus existed, but he only ever saw him in a vision after persecuting Christians. Either he was convinced of Jesus’ existence by a hallucination, or he was pretending to be a true believer for whatever motive. But he was no witness, and the only plausible candidates for witnesses – Peter and the other apostles, and James – are reported second-handedly. So that leaves us with three possibilities:

              1. The apostles and James were deluded, and they invented the myth from their delusions and basic mythic elements.

              2. The apostles and James were cynical manipulators, and they invented the myth from basic mythic elements.

              3. The apostles and James might have had some combination of delusion and cynical manipulation, and invented the myth from some combination of delusion and basic mythic elements.

              4, 5, and 6 are basically the same, except they also took a real-life preacher to be the nucleus of the myth, and may have actually followed him.

              If there were any biographical details they knew, then Paul revealed nothing about it beyond the familiar “Demi-God birth”, “Old Testament prophecy messiah”, “killed and came back a spirit”, “end of the world soon” tropes.

              It seems indicative that actual biographical details are missing in the earliest references we have of this dude, even though the earliest references are internal communications reiterating what the Christians already knew from Paul’s preaching. No birthplace is given, no kin are mentioned (unless you count a one-line reference to James as “the Lord’s brother”), no occupations or social stations are mentioned, no locations are given for where these events unfolded, there’s no interaction with anyone but “the Jews” who killed him and the apostles, who aren’t mentioned in the story chronologically until Jesus’ post-death spirit reveals itself to them in a sequence, and for every chapter in the epistles (in total) in which this history is mentioned (usually in summary and in parts), there are a dozen more that hammer in doctrines and explanations about what the believers should be doing now.

              Those details only occur in the 60s earliest, in gospels that can’t agree on the details. This seems to me to be what you’d expect if they had to be invented from scratch and shoehorned into a story.

              “Re: Josephus’ reliability”

              How does that compare with, say, Harry Potter’s geographical accuracy regarding King’s Cross Station, Surrey, and the unnamed Prime Minister? My point is that Josephus might have made stuff up, but if he was a propagandist and slightly biased for the Romans who patronized him, he wasn’t an outrageously unbelievable one. I imagine his comprehensive histories of the Jews in and around Galilee are not dripping with miracle stories, polemics, and a figure who seemingly can’t appear in a text without all these absurdities happening all around him.

              To put it another way; stick Heracles in an otherwise historically accurate and geographically well-researched Ancient Greece, and he doesn’t suddenly become more plausible. The Gospel writers aren’t witnesses, and while they may or may not have done their homework about the locations Jesus happened to visit and who was in charge at the time, this diligence seems to dry up when you turn the spotlight on the man (or Demi-God) himself.

              “Re: Luke’s claim to be writing history. There is no sign of his evaluating sources in true historical style. There is evidently a claim that he is using oral sources. And that needs to be given consideration. Did he believe that the sources believed in Jesus’ real existence? In all likelihood, yes.”

              Which proves nothing for the argument for a real preacher behind it. We acknowledge second-hand reporting is unhelpful in establishing the truth of modern phenomena. Why suddenly lower the benchmark for something that happened 2000 years ago? Why not just say it’s anecdote?

              “But if you want textual evidence for my antipathy towards Jesus, let’s go for Matthew 19:12, his ambivalent attitude towards self-eunuchism.”

              See my point above. Matthew was almost certainly written no earlier than the 70s.

              “Yes, there is a black hole where there should be an identifiable person in Jesus. But not quite. If you contrast Jesus with the charismatic leaders above, he has elements of all.”

              But they’re not good parallels if you’re trying to demonstrate good evidence for a real person. Do these others suddenly pop up in letters among believers as Demi-Gods decades after the fact?

              “The sources don’t go away. Just because Jesus subsequently became who he is now (and I do not accuse you of this) is no reason discount the possibility of these stories being based on some ragged, itinerant preacher.”

              I’m not discounting the possibility. I’m ready to admit there’s no conclusive verdict either way. But you can’t go from “it’s possible there was a real preacher behind this” to “there’s good evidence he existed”. That principle of argument gives the hypothesis more weight than is justified, and it is this unjustified confidence in the hypothesis I’m against.

              “I think that your last sentence, ‘And if the myth is considered evidence for a real Jesus, then the same logic should vindicate a lot of other mythical characters whose existence we reject, a double standard’ is begging the question. You go where the sources take you. Is for instance Apollonius of Tyana, worshipped by the Empress’s son, mythical or not? An unreasonable question, most scholars would say.”

              I think you are begging the question, if you think that’s the case. Here are texts that talk about a Son of God who died and became a spirit, who showed himself to the writer through a vision, and that writer knows some friends who also claim to have been visited by this vision. If we’re going to ask if there’s evidence whether we can be confident a real person was behind the writer’s story, it’s completely circular (and frankly insulting) to say “Well, the text itself!”

              The proof of Robin Hood’s existence doesn’t come from the fact that there are stories about him. That’s ridiculous logic.

              No, what I meant was that, if the best we have is a text by a non-witness convert dripping with mystical polemics and self-congratulatory moralism, we can just as soon consider it a baseless myth as we can consider it a myth spun from some obscure and unknown preacher (or preachers, even!). But in principle, the evidence for a text’s claims can’t be the text itself, or all sorts of absurdities follow from that premise.

              1. @Reasonshark,
                Posted July 15, 2014 at 2:03 am

                “If you’re arguing for the hypothesis that there was a real-life person who, post-death, got spin-doctored into a demi-God, you can’t do that by quoting sources that may or may not exist.”

                There are several issues with this sentence. Firstly, the hypothetical ‘Quelle’ source is almost universally agreed by scholars, including mythicists, to have existed: we can’t just make up the idea that it did not exist. Secondly, the demi-god idea should not be confused with the Son of God idea, to which I presume you are referring.

                In the Jewish tradition a son of god was anybody who had a close relationship with God: they were mere mortals. King David was a son of God, so was Israel, Paul refers to Christians becoming the sons and daughters of God. It is a pretty simple idea. Carrier (who dismisses the many startling parallels between the fantastical elements in Jesus’ biography and Greco-Roman myths as of relatively little significance in the historicity debate), in 2009, avers that it is highly questionable whether Paul called Jesus ‘God’. This is not a controversial idea amongst biblical historians. And, rather ironically, a Jewish son of god is a less exalted concept than the Hellenistic demi-gods. A Jewish son of god was emphatically not a god.

                And of course, neither is a Messiah. Cyrus the Great of Persia in the OT was a Messiah. Now all that changes the nature of the earliest documents attesting Jesus’ existence. And again there is an irony in this. It is mainly rationalists, agnostics and atheists who point out the very early Christian assertions that Jesus was human and not divine – the ‘slave of the Lord’ in the Didache 9:2, specifically comparing Jesus to King David. If we had a consistently high Christology from very early, then that reduces the reliability of the texts. But we don’t. It is mainly Christians, and certainly lay-Christians, who assume that Paul and the Synoptics affirm Christ’s divine and human nature.

                So we have a position where the rational analysis tends to favour the hypothesis of a real figure called Jesus: and the Christian world-view throws into question that existence.

                And historiography has to be consistent and not arbitrarily favour one source over another according to our preconceived ideas. For instance, we cannot cite one sect like the Essenes with multiple independent sources in the Qumran scrolls as evidence that Jesus didn’t exist (quite apart from their uselessness as a source for any character in 1st century Judaea): and then point to the multiple independent sources of another sect like the proto-Christians who claim his existence and dismiss those claims.

                We can’t assert Apollonius of Tyana’s existence on the basis of one extant source written 100 years after his death by Philostratus, based on the hypothetical Damis document and subsequently worshipped by the Roman royal family: and simultaneously deny the existence of a Jesus figure on the basis of several independent sources written 20-60 years after his death, based on several hypothetical documents and subsequently worshipped by the Roman royal family.

                And I have never been impressed by any of the arguments from silence. In the 400 years or so of Rome-Jerusalem relations roughly between the turn of the millennium and Constantine, there are 30 literary Roman references to the Judaea area, however it was called in that period. 30, that’s it. And the quality leaves a lot to be desired. Take Pliny the Elder’s 3 pieces of information about the Jews: a fine man in lots of ways, polymath, proto-enlightenment, brave as hell, he got the Jewish diet wrong – and laughably wrong. Pliny is also the man who thought that precious metals were made by ants in India. That’s the sort of thing we have to work with: and Pliny represents the more rationalist end of the scale.

                But there is one argument from silence which impresses me. That of Josephus. I don’t believe that he mentioned Jesus: but not for the usual reasons. My opinion derives, rather surprisingly, from the 9th century. From the intellectual Patriarch of Constantinople, Photius. Asked by a student to produce a bibliography on Jesus’ times, he produced in his Myriobiblion, an exhaustive list, mentioning Josephus, but not the references to Jesus: in view of the fact that the agenda was evidence for Jesus himself, that indicates to me that Photius had never seen the Testimonium Flavianum and the other reference to Jesus. I cannot think of a reason why in the 6th century of Christian hegemony the equal most significant figure in Christianity should not have a copy of Josephus’ reference to Jesus. Unless it was not there in the first place and it beggars belief that it would be taken out by the Christians: and there would be two traditions of scribal copying of the whole text, one without the Testimonium which Photius had, and one with the reference, derived at least from the Eusebius of Caesarea tradition. I have yet to work out the implications of this.

                You’re absolutely right. In general, the question of circularity bedevils the topic. And as long as we have only texts as sources that will remain the case. Even the Jesus Seminar who tried a rigorously rationalist approach to determining what Jesus said, in my opinion, could not get beyond that problem. All we can do is to be historiographically consistent. In history as ancient as this we can only say what possibly happened, what probably happened and what probably did not happen. We will never know if a Jesus figure existed

                Finally, to précis the ‘would you want to meet Jesus’ sub-plot.

                Me: I wouldn’t want to meet Jesus; first century Jew.
                You: That’s just context. Give me textual evidence.
                Me: OK, Matthew 19:12. Christ orchestrates the Christian crush on castration.
                You: Yeah, but that was written after Jesus’ death.

                Well, I’m not sure what chain of logic that is, but the nearest I can come up with is in circulo probando. That’s a nerdy joke, by the way.

                That’s all I have to say. I’m gonna finish there.

                Slaínte.

  20. Jerry – Someone has apparently mocked the phrase “Sophisticated Theology™” to death, because I note in the May 15 “The Stone” on “Soft Atheism” [NYT Opinionator section], in the Gary Gutting interview of Philip Kitcher, the in-phrase now seems to be “refined religion.”

  21. For those who haven’t read Julian Bagini’s Heathen’s progress series, it’s worth a look. He is openly hostile to new atheists (as he perceives them) but also acknowledges that the usual charge – that atheists don’t understand how religion is actually practiced – is bogus.

  22. If someone is asked, “Is the Bibe literal?” Anyone can answer, “Yes”. There is no ramification. None.

    Now, if they were asked “Do you have proof that what you believe is literal is also based on evidence?” Everyone would be forced to answer no.

    How does this make the surveyor feel? They should feel like they have not done their job well.

  23. Anybody who has been brought up in even such a milk-and-water sect as that of the Anglican Church, as I was (until everything fell away after I was ‘confirmed’ to please my parents, who, I suppose, thought it would give me morals, as you might geld a cat), knows very well that you are brought up so as to accept the truth of, in particular, the story of Jesus, as well as the more obviously historical stories of the Hebrew Bible – the moving story of Ruth, for example (for the Bible is not lacking in good stories and literary virtues). If the historicity of the tales of Jesus’s life and the fact of his divinity are not accepted, then Christianity simply collapses. As it does, too, if the doctrine of Original Sin is removed: ‘… either there is no Creator, or this living society of men is in a true sense discarded from His presence … if there be a God, since there is a God, the human race is implicated in some terrible aboriginal calamity. It is out of joint with the purposes of its Creator. This is a fact, a fact as true as the fact of its existence; and thus the doctrine of what is theologically called original sin becomes to me almost as certain as that the world exists, and as the existence of God.’ (John Henry Newman – note that ‘if there be a God, since there is a God’) It has always been possible, I think, to regard the story of the Fall as, to a greater or less degree, a metaphorical account of that ‘terrible aboriginal calamity’, but now, as a result of the theory of evolution, and the general scientific acceptance of a mitochondrial Eve and a Y-chromosomal Adam, it is clear that there never was any such ‘calamity’ – and it is this which prompts believers either to insist that the religious stories are true, whatever the evidence, or to take refuge in the metaphorical (not metaphysical) realm where they can pretend to have put away childish things and can use Paul’s words about seeing through a glass darkly in this present life as an excuse for not addressing the crudities of the atheists.

  24. Jerry, Anglicanism is often described as a “broad church” and only this morning I heard on Sunday (BBC Radio 4’s religious news programme), in an item about the vote to allow women bishops in the Church of England, the phrase ‘Catholic wing of the CofE’; so this is a well-established demarcation. These are the people who tend to have a more conservative stance about gays and women in the Church because of “conscience”. Individual churches in the CofE may be described as high-church or low-church, with high referring to those churches with strong emphasis on ceremony and more Catholic elements in their worship. Low-church tends to be more informal and evangelical. The high-profile reactionaries who leave the CofE because of theological differences usually transfer quite easily into the Roman Catholic Church.

  25. I think a big mistake people make with the whole literal, non-literal thing with the Bible in particular is – it doesn’t really matter all that much.

    Not really.

    The fact that some religious people “don’t take the Bible literally” doesn’t mean that they are off the hook for all the stupid crap they still believe based on their “metaphoric” reading.

    The idea that the Bible has truth on a metaphoric level is just as bad really – because metaphors still communicate ideas that can be deadly wrong. That X is a metaphor for Y – doesn’t mean that Y is actually correct.

    Further Catholicism has it as a matter of dogma that the Bible isn’t inerrant, and is at best divinely inspired, intended to inspire people towards divine behavior rather than defining it.

    But that doesn’t matter all that much when you consider that Catholicism as points of dogma promotes extremely dangerous views regarding contraception, gender, sex and the existence of demons.

    The fact that they rely on divine revelation and inspiration as sources of authority rather than strictly on the Bible for these added bits of crap, doesn’t change the fact that they are crap.

    We have been trapped by this idea of criticism based on whether an idea is in the Bible or not, whereas really religion is just a collection of bad ideas given divine authority.

    The Bible is useful for illustrating that, but there are a lot of bad ideas in modern religion that have nothing to do with anything in the Bible.

    For example in the Bible there is not one word uttered against abortion, yet most pro-suffering activists (as they aren’t so much pro-life as pro “baby as a punishment for “slutty” behavior”) will cite their religion as an excuse.

    They’re being sincere in this excuse – they, not their holy books, define their religion – and it is crap that ultimately leads to a lot of harm.

  26. A good source for British religion statistics is the University of Manchester’s British Religion in Numbers, which records the polls, censuses and surveys that are taken.

    There was a survey on various beliefs in October 2013. There was also the <a href="http://www.brin.ac.uk/news/2012/census-christians/"Dawkins Foundation's poll of those who were recorded as ‘Christian’ in the 2011 census.

    54% believed in God (two-thirds of whom said that Christianity is just one way, rather than the only true way, of knowing Him), 32% thought of God in terms of the laws of nature or some kind of supernatural intelligence, and 6% disbelieved.

    44% regarded Jesus Christ as the Son of God and the saviour of mankind, 32% as a man and role model, 13% as a mere man, with 4% disbelieving in His existence.

    32% believed in the physical resurrection of Jesus, 39% in His spiritual but not physical Resurrection, with 18% disbelieving in the Resurrection.

    20% did not believe in heaven and 40% did not believe in hell, versus 63% and 41% who did believe (completely or to some extent). There was a strong attachment (64%) to fate and, to a lesser extent, to other alternative belief systems.

    There’s a large set of tables for that, which I haven’t looked at, but which may well be more specific about the beliefs of those who attend church regularly.

  27. Jerry, I’m finding your arguments (and the reasons for them) harder and harder to follow. First of all, it’s not hard to get people to say, unreflectively, that they believe in the literal truth of something. Some scientists believe in the literal truth of their theories, and yet, if you take seriously what philosophers of science like Stephen Hawking are saying, scientific theories are models (that is, in some sense, metaphors) of the real world as understood by science. Kant’s problem of what he called the noumenon has never been satisfactorily explained, despite science’s attempt to give a view from nowhere. Scientific knowledge is perspectival. This is inescapable.

    Of course, in the case of fundamentalism — a phenomenon you seem to be very shady about — literalism is a given, but if fundamentalists were truly challenged by the texts themselves, they would be forced to qualify what they mean by the words ‘literal’ and ‘inerrant’, often taken to be referring to the original manuscripts (which are no longer available) — thus deferring the problem of what is to be taken literally. However, if push comes to shove about the Genesis creation stories, for example, they would have to deal with the clear disparity between the two separate narratives from different original source narratives, the Priestly narrative in Chapter 1, and the Yahwist narrative in Chapters 2 and following.

    The point is is that if you ask ordinary Christians about their beliefs, you will find that their beliefs are, very often, not based on actual analysis of the texts, but are borrowed from pulpit summaries that often deceive as to contemporary knowledge about the biblical text, believing that the only way to preserve faith is to repeat dogmatically accepted beliefs based on what they are told, either from the pulpit, or from widely accepted beliefs that are current in the culture. To give you an example, both my son and daughter believed that I was teaching, as true, many of the common beliefs which I have never believed! Indeed, they told me on different occasions what they thought I beleived, and it was straight literalism, a literalism they did not inherit from anything that I ever said, and they never went to church elsewhere. In many cases I was told by parishioners that they never knew, that no one had ever told them, that questions that I was raising were legitimate questions for Christians to raise. Very little of what is taught in seminaries gets down to the parish level. It’s a scandal, indeed, but, as one young priest told me: “If I told people what I believe, they would not believe I was evena Christian.” The weight of the media and what seems to be accepted as “common knowledge”, when not contradicted by teaching of what is contemporarily known about religion in general and Christian belief in particular, is simply parroted in polls.

    Beyond this, the question about the historical Jesus is deeply coloured by unreasonable expectations as to what might be expected as historical evidence for the existence of persons in the first century or later. The classical historian Robin Lane Fox points out that if the evidential requirements that are often demanded for historical proof of the existence of Jesus were demanded for many characters in classical history, a large swathe of classical history would be simply wiped clean of many familiar characters in terms of which the historical story is told. Even Socrates, if you take the conflicting evidence of Xenophon, Plato and Aristophanes, might well be taken to be a fiction. It is quite clear that the Jesus of the gospels cannot have existed quite literally as the story is told, since, to take but one example, Matthew has to find a way to get Jesus to Nazareth, whereas Luke has to find a way to get him to be born in Bethlehem. So Matthew takes the family into Egypt, while Luke has them return to Galilee by way of Jerusalem and the Temple, where Jesus is supposed to be recognised by Simeon and Anna. So, whatever the truth about Jesus, it cannot be simply read off from the texts as we have them. The Magnificat and the Nunc Dimittis are both literary expressions of later Christian belief about the significance of Jesus, and are not plausibly spoken by either Mary or a man named Simeon.

    So, what do you want to prove? That many people take the biblical stories and Christian doctrines literally? Well, of course they do. That is not in question. But what do you want to prove by saying this? You speak, for example, of the divinity of Jesus. There is no text in the Bible which affirms Jesus’ divinity, and certainly none which makes him the son of God in the Trinitarian sense. These were later developments, and cannot be found in any of the writings of the New Testament. Secondly, the resurrection of Jesus, as recorded in the Bible, and especially as described by Paul, is not the resurrection of a physical body. Paul saw visions of the risen Jesus, and Stephen saw a vision of the risen Jesus seated at the right hand of God. The stories which have a superadded layer which makes Jesus a physical being (who entered locked rooms and was not recognisable by the disciples or Mary Magdalene) are later concoctions, and deeply misleading. It is believed that the gospel of Mark never had a resurrection narrative. The question of the divinity of the Spirit is a much later theological development, and the Trinitarian doctrine the latest of all. An Anglican theologian, G.W.H. Lamb, argues convincingly (in God as Spirit)that all Christian God language can be reduced to language about the Spirit of God, and that Trinitarian language is an unnecessary theological development.

    In saying this I am not defending Christian belief, but what I am defending is a more sophisticated way of understanding what belief consists in than is reflected in talk about literalism. So far as I can make out, this is merely a facile way of dismissing Christian (or other) belief. (I am afraid that Islam is stuck with literalism, given its beliefs about the origin of the Koran, a particularly vile and ugly book to my mind. There are uglinesses in the Jewish and Christian scriptures, to be sure, but, as the Talmud makes clear, literal meaning is not fundamental for Judaism, and, as modern biblical criticism makes clear, it is not reasonably held to be necessary for Christianity either.) Sure, ordinary Christians often do not understand their faith, and, if asked, will give simplistic interpretations of it. So what? Religions are complex systems of belief, often of scriptural hermeneutics, and theological diversity. It would be amazing if ordinary Christians could give more than a simplistic understanding of the belief systems of their respective confessions. Of course, to the extent that this simple-mindedness influences education, it is to be deprecated and opposed, which seems to be your main target. But this can be done without the genuinely cavalier way in which so many (as evidenced in this comment stream) think they can simply dispense with Christianity without engaging in discussion with Christians, whose arguments, as reasonshark shows with some clarity above, are not so easily dismissed.

    By the way, regarding the Fall, it is clear that this is not necessary to Christianity, since (and I believe I am correct in this) Orthodox Christianity does not interpret the Genesis story in this way, and does not interpret salvation as a deliverance from original sin. Instead the Orthodox speak of “theosis” or the divinising of man which is made possible through the incarnation. So it is possible to express Christianity without the ideas of fall and blood redemption. The one canonical Christian text in which such sacrificial redemption is emphasised is the letter to the Hebrews (so-called) which was mistakenly thought to have been written by Paul. As Luther dismissed James as an Epistle of Straw, so other NT writings need to be held with less than absolute authority. Indeed, the whole idea of revelation is suspect, since, as Deridda showed so admirably, texts are almost infinitely hermeneutically plastic.

    As for Christians who think that Jesus Christ is a metaphor (of whom clubshadenfreude believes there are none), the very expression of the claim shows why. ‘Jesus’ and ‘Christ’ (or ‘Yeshua’ and ‘mashiach’) came to be yoked together to refer to a man who probably, despite all the blather to the contrary, existed as a first century Jew in Galilee, and so, as such, it is a referring expression. But the term ‘Messiah’ or ‘Christ’ or ‘Anointed One’ attached to Jesus is, in fact, a figurative expression, indicating someone chosen of God (according to Jewish expectation) to deliver his people, almost certainly referring metaphorically to the Jewish rite of kingship in which the king is anointed with oil and is thus considered God’s anointed. So, the expression Jesus, the Anointed One, has many figurative layers with deep historical associations, and is only by long misuse considered as a referring expression. It is instead a descriptive theological metaphor.

    1. I’m not sure what you and Dr. Coyne are disagreeing about, other than perhaps a matter of degree. The key point to me is

      “…if you ask ordinary Christians about their beliefs, you will find that their beliefs are, very often, not based on actual analysis of the texts, but are borrowed from pulpit summaries that often deceive as to contemporary knowledge about the biblical text, believing that the only way to preserve faith is to repeat dogmatically accepted beliefs based on what they are told, either from the pulpit, or from widely accepted beliefs that are current in the culture.”

      Widely accepted beliefs that are current in the culture are what Dr. Coyne is referring to, it seems to me.

      These are the beliefs that I was taught in about 15 years of Sunday School and Sunday Church Service (9 AM to ~12:15 PM every Sunday), Sunday Evening Youth Service (7-7:30 PM), Daily Vacation Bible School in summer, and Release-Time Religious Education (1-3 PM every Thursday during High School). It seems to me that if religious authorities who know better will not speak out against this they should at least not criticize atheists for doing so.

      1. I agree with JimV that we don’t have a real disagreement: Eric admits that most people are literalists, but says it doesn’t matter. I don’t want to engage in a back and forth on this except to say two things.

        1. Religion, especially Christianity, depends on belief in a divine figure: God. You say the claims of Christianity are “not so easily dismissed” simply by showing that people have literal belief in things that are palpably false. But yes, belief in God is easily dismissed in one sentence: There is no good evidence for God. Period. As Hitchens said, “What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.” If believers can’t produce good evidence for even a divine being, I see no need to take their arguments seriously as epistemic claims. I engage them only because religion is in general a malign force in our world, and perhaps I can reduce its mischief a bit. Really, Eric, do you think I need to deal with sophisticated theology and religious belief if they can’t even convince me that there’s a God? So yes, we can dismiss all the palaver of sophisticated theology, and I do.

        2. As far as I know, and I’ve just verified this by searching on the web for a bit, Orthodox Christians do believe in the Fall and original sin inherited through Adam.

        Frankly, I don’t give a rat’s patootie about whether the Jesus myth has “many figurative layers with deep historical associations.” Absent real evidence for the divinity of Jesus, which is the nonnegotiable belief of most Christians, these deep layers of an Onion Jesus is fuel only for the history of religion.

        Studying the history of religion is fine, but we should realize that we’re studying the history of a fictional construct.

        I have nothing more to say about this. You can call me unsophisticated if you want, Eric, or even “shady” (which I see as an insult), but until there is evidence for the nonnegotiable empirical claims of faith, I will see it as simply a form of superstition, which some people, such as yourself, turn into an intellectual game.

        1. Regarding the Orthodox Church and the fall, of course you are right. I was not thinking clearly. What the Orthodox Church does not believe is that there was some original sin that each of us inherited as a result of the fall. The fall is reasonably taken to be a fact, if you believe that the original creation we perfect, so it wouldn’t have taken the story of Adam and Eve to convince anyone that something had meanwhile gone wrong. But that there is an inherited fault that must be redeemed by Jesus’ blood is not a part of Orthodoxy. Whether they think about the crucifixion in terms of sacrifice, I am not sure, though I rather think not. The suffering of Jesus is not necessary for redemption, though his sharing in the suffering of humanity is necessary for the theosis of humanity, a belief which has predictably disastrous consequences for the valuation of human suffering.

    2. The point is is that if you ask ordinary Christians about their beliefs, you will find that their beliefs are, very often, not based on actual analysis of the texts, but are borrowed from pulpit summaries that often deceive as to contemporary knowledge about the biblical text, believing that the only way to preserve faith is to repeat dogmatically accepted beliefs based on what they are told, either from the pulpit, or from widely accepted beliefs that are current in the culture.

      Here you’re confirming Jerry’s central point: that “the unwashed masses” actually believe that these childish stories are true history. Which is exactly what Jerry has been railing against from the beginning.

      The classical historian Robin Lane Fox points out that if the evidential requirements that are often demanded for historical proof of the existence of Jesus were demanded for many characters in classical history, a large swathe of classical history would be simply wiped clean of many familiar characters in terms of which the historical story is told.

      This is quite true. And honest empiricists will admit that, indeed, after all, we know far less about history than we thought we knew. Honest physicists did as much when they abandoned the Luminiferous Aether in light of Michelson and Morley’s famous experiment. Why can historians not admit as much?

      The universe cares not one whit what we want to be true. We may well want these many stories to be actually true. And some of them may well actually be true. But we, often, have no way of actually knowing.

      And, often, we do. For about a month’s mortgage payment or even less, you can buy for yourself a coin minted during the reign of one of the Caesars with his portrait on it — hard physical evidence of that person, what he looked like, and even some particular bit of his history (such as a military campaign). Not to mention, of course, we have Julius Caesar’s own autobiographical account of his conquest of France, and the archaeological digs confirming what he wrote — and that’s just the tip of the iceberg in the case of the Caesars.

      But the Jesus whose historicity you’re advocating doesn’t even vaguely resemble any Jesus any Christian in all of history, especially the earliest Christians, have ever described. For that matter, does your Jesus even need to be named, “Jesus”? Maybe the real Jesus was named, “Proteus,” and he invented the entire thing from whole cloth as a scam, and never even pretended to have met Jesus in the flesh but only visions. That’s consistent with your own nebulous theory of Jesus, and yet I’m pretty sure nobody would call our Proteus the real Jesus.

      There is no text in the Bible which affirms Jesus’ divinity, and certainly none which makes him the son of God in the Trinitarian sense.

      Squeeze me?

      John 10:27 My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me:

      28 And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand.

      29 My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father’s hand.

      30 I and my Father are one.

      That’s hardly a rare example.

      In what sense can somebody give eternal life, raise the dead, walk on water, turn water into wine, be born of a virgin by the conception of a divine heavenly spirit, be the eternal shepherd of mankind, and not be divine?

      And how can you read that very same Magnificat you referenced earlier and not think that Jesus was the literal son of God? Or do you think that Christians generally think that Naughtius Maximus was Jesus’s real father, and the whole Annunciation thing and the rest is some bizarre metaphor?

      Secondly, the resurrection of Jesus, as recorded in the Bible, and especially as described by Paul, is not the resurrection of a physical body.

      Paul I’ll certainly grant you, but the first half of that claim is outrageous:

      John 20:24 But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came.

      25 The other disciples therefore said unto him, We have seen the Lord. But he said unto them, Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.

      26 And after eight days again his disciples were within, and Thomas with them: then came Jesus, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, Peace be unto you.

      27 Then saith he to Thomas, Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing.

      28 And Thomas answered and said unto him, My Lord and my God.

      29 Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.

      How is Thomas supposed to grope Jesus’s guts unless Jesus’s physical body had been resurrected?

      Or is John no true Christian?

      Sure, ordinary Christians often do not understand their faith, and, if asked, will give simplistic interpretations of it. So what?

      It is these ordinary Christians whom you claim don’t understand what they believe who elect themselves to public office and use their “misunderstandings” to enact public policies that fuck us all over royally. And their forebears used their “misunderstandings” to keep slaves, burn witches…the Inquisition, the Conquistadors, the Crusades….

      That’s an awful lot to sweep under the rug with “misunderstanding” and a shrug of, “So what?” wouldn’t you agree?

      Cheers,

      b&

      1. Come on, Ben. I never once suggested that there are no stories in the gospels that premise a physical resurrection (but quite the contrary), but, like the gospel of John, they are all late. As to my first point, which I take it is that there is nowhere in the NT where Jesus’ divinity is affirmed, this has long been argued, and many Christians have been at pains to point out that this is false, so far without unequivocal success. In the prologue to the fourth gospel Jesus is identified with the Logos, but it is by no means clear that Logos, or Wisdom, which was with God in the beginning (see the Jewish Scriptures on Wisdom here) is itself divine. It is really a bit like Plato’s forms, upon which God looks in fashioning the world. Whatever metaphysical status this gives Jesus, it is not clearly divine.

        1. Eric, you wrote that the Bible does not record the Resurrection as that of a physical body — and, now, you’re not only contradicting that, but you’re throwing John under the bus.

          I have no trouble accepting that there are theologians who, after agonized analyses and interpretations, come to the conclusions you’re presenting. But can you not see what a small and insignificant minority opinion that is in all of Christendom, and what torturous cherry-picking you have to do to get there? You yourself, just now, dismissed an entire Gospel!

          It is really a bit like Plato’s forms, upon which God looks in fashioning the world. Whatever metaphysical status this gives Jesus, it is not clearly divine.

          The only way I can even begin to make sense of this is by assuming that you’re working with an extremely narrow definition of “divinity” applicable only to a particular Christian sect.

          From an anthropological perspective, somebody who’s born of the union of a god and a virgin mother is the very textbook definition of a demigod. All the other miracles in all the Gospels only drive that point home further. Paul’s salvific otherworldly Jesus makes it even more emphatic, and Jesus’s post-resurrection story, as the Judge in Heaven and the harbinger of Armageddon, nails the deal.

          And even if you somehow discount everything in the New Testament — the whole purpose of which can only be seen as the establishment of the divinity of Jesus — you’re still left with the Credo that billions have and do recite regularly:

          We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father.

          I don’t know what your goal is with your attempts to deny the divinity of Jesus, but it strikes me as an even more bizarre exercise than an attempt to declare tap water to be not wet.

          b&

      2. Jerry, you may not

        give a rat’s patootie about whether the Jesus myth has “many figurative layers with deep historical associations.”

        but the truth is that, if there are many figurative layers and historical associations, then the literal reading on the Bible is simply wrong. That’s the only point I was making. Fundamentalism is simply a mistake, because no text, and especially not a figuratively layered one such as the Jewish or Christian scriptures, can be read in a literal sense with any show of reason.

        Sure, lots of people have a literal belief, but this is belied by the early Fathers as well as the later theologians of the church. That’s why I wonder what your point is. When you say that

        Absent real evidence for the divinity of Jesus, which is the nonnegotiable belief of most Christians, these deep layers of an Onion Jesus is fuel only for the history of religion.

        you simply miss the point, that such evidence is not and cannot be available, and that the scriptures cannot be read literally to provide even the belief let alone the evidence for such a belief. This is a later theological development, and it is hard to know how such a belief could be considered literal (in what sense could it be said that Jesus is literally divine? — what would such a claim mean?). The creeds may affirm it, but they do not explain it, and, for most Christians throughout history, the incarnation would be called a mystery of faith, not in any sense a literal belief.

        You know, as I argue with you, I begin to understand why so many Christians are frustrated with the new atheist understanding of faith. You think everything has to be expressed in propositions which somehow have a correspondence in reality, for which evidence is necessary. Much, if not most of our language is not used in this way, and, in any event, the correspondence theory of truth runs into difficulties fairly quickly.

        I think of Freud here, whose theories are definitely not scientific, but whether they are true in some sense to our understanding of ourselves, this may be a different question altogether. He may have called religion an illusion. Fair enough. But he also knew the work that mythology did in self-understanding. And if religion offers something in the way of self-understanding, then perhaps it has a greater value than you are suggesting. It is precisely here, in the way that you and Dawkins and others want to narrow our understanding of what it might mean to know that led to my dissenting from the new atheism. However, I would like to be able to talk about religion without the constant refrain about absence of evidence and evidence of absence. I am not even sure that this is true, much as I admired Hitchens. Indeed, one of the reasons I admired Hitchens was his understanding of religion as a deeply human activity, the elimination of which he would have abhorred.

        I would add here that I think atheism takes too much for granted that the moral world that is assumed by most atheists in the West would be retained in the absence of religion and what theologians have called the introspective conscience of the West, which is largely the product of religious belief and tradition, especially Judaism and Christianity. I happen to believe, as I watch the uncontrolled development of global capitalism, that the moral world of the future, without such cultural support from religious tradition, and instrospective conscienced, might well be a human disaster. Indeed, it’s not that far away, as captialist authoritarian systems begin to play a larger role in world politics and international relationships.

        1. Telling Jerry (or the rest of us) that a “literal reading on the Bible is simply wrong” seems a bit peculiar to me. He’s not the one doing it.

          There are countless Christians do this on a regular basis. Pretending that this is not the case is the heart of Sophistocated Theology and accommodationism. It is, I’m sorry to say, just make-believe, Eric.

          1. GBJ,

            There are countless Christians do this on a regular basis. Pretending that this is not the case is the heart of Sophistocated Theology and accommodationism.

            Nonsense! It has nothing whatever to do with sophisticated theology and accommodationism. The reading of the Bible underwent a transformation over the last four or five hundred years, as the Bible came to be read by ordinary Christians and non-Christians. Up until then the Church pretty well controlled interpretation. When it is open to unlimited hermeneutic, especially when it is read “literally” (as it is supposed), the whole structure of Christian belief broke down.

            The Bible was, in the first place, the Church’s book, and this is where the idea of the Magisterium (the teaching authority) originated. Even the Reformers wanted to control hermeneutic, because uncontrolled hermeneutic ends up in simple nonsense. The theological tradition, whether Catholic or Reformed, maintained such control.

            Fundamentalism was a refusal to accept such control and to insist that the Bible could be read literally. However, there is no strict sense in which literal interpretation is not just another interpretation. There is no literal interpretation as such, for this ignores the patent conflicts in the text, conflicts and relationships that have been clarified over years and years of historical critical study. Which is why fundamentalism is simply a non-starter. It simply makes no sense.

            A “literal” reading is an interpretation pretending to be something else. Which is why it simply bumps up against science all the time, because it is an insistence that the Bible should be read almost as though it were a scientific text with a univocal meaning. But there is no such univocal meaning. All literalism manages to be is a deformation of anything intended by the original interpreters of scripture, who were much more sophisticated readers than tends to be suggested by those who accuse Aquinas and Augustine of literalism.

            This doesn’t mean that Christian belief can’t be criticised, but it has to be criticised on other grounds besides those that simply say we need evidence that Jesus was divine. Indeed, there is no clear sense in which the meaning of this claim can be made good. What does it mean? Even Christians think of it as a mystery. So evidence is not likely to be forthcoming. However, theologians attempt to make sense of this in terms of our relationship with the divine — as well as one another (however the divine is understood, which is seldom in a simple sense in which empirical evidence would be relevant to the assessment of its truth or falsehood). If Christianity’s despisers want to claim that there is no empirical evidence for the divinity of Jesus (whatever that means) the Christian need merely say that there isn’t any, and that it is not expected. Which takes one into another train of argument altogether. I’m not saying that it is a good one, but in order to understand it, you must at least make some effort to follow the argument where it leads. If, in the end, you want to say, that this makes no sense to you, then this is not very different from Ronald Dworkin’s point when he says in his little book Religion without God:

            I will not have convinced some of you. You will think that if all we can do to defend value judgments and then finally to declare faith in the whole set of judgments, then our claims to objective truth are just whistles in the dark. But this challenge, however familiar, is not an argument against the religious worldview. It is only a rejection of this worldview. It denies the basic tenets of the religious attitude: it produces, at best, a standoff. You just do not have the religious point of view.” [p. 21]

            This is where the atheist-religious discourse is leading — to a standoff, and I am afraid that it is not particularly rewarding, which is why I have largely abandoned it. So “sophisticated” theology is really the expression of a worldview which the non-believer does not share. It does not demolish the religious worldview (even the religious worldview with God), for it is, in this sense, a worldview and not a particular claim to the truth of a proposition or set of propositions. When I hear Jerry say that he wants evidence that Jesus is divine, then I know he has taken a wrong turning in the discussion, and there is little more to be said except to say, you seem to have missed the point.

            1. So your claim is that most Christians don’t see Jesus as someone whith supernatural abilities, but merely as the son of god?

              Or do they also think his mother lied and was in fact impregnated the all-natural way by Mr. X?

            2. Again, Eric, so much of your writing hinges on denying the divinity of Jesus.

              Can you perhaps move the discussion forward by explaining to us what the term means to you?

              Is it fair to characterize Perseus as divine? Can we state that Osiris is a god?

              If so, how do those terms not apply to Jesus?

              If not, what possible meaning can those terms have?

              b&

        2. Eric, if the only value religion has is in being mythology–a story to help us understand ourselves–then you aren’t really defending religion. You are defending the value of art.

          1. Well, and so religion is art, at least aspects of it are. Anyone who has seen or officiated at a solemn high mass can scarcely think of it as otherwise. But this does not mean that the stories we tell are not perfectly reasonable stories to be told in reference to either an emotional response to a particular experience, or to a particular world view. But your attempt to squeeze art into a category where it really doesn’t signify something of human importance is surely simply a misunderstanding of the role that art plays in human life. Indeed, I have often thought that the new atheism is precisely an attitude towards the world which marginalises art and impoverishes human activity and belief.

            1. Oh, come on Eric, really? New atheism “marginalizes art and impoverishes human activity and belief”? Really, do we marginalize art? Do I? Does Dawkins? Did Hitchens? You are starting to sound like the worst sort of atheist-basher, lashing out with these kind of bogus accusations. We marginalize unevidenced belief that is harmful, just as you do with Islam.

              Please give me ONE example where I, or Dawkins, have marginalized art.

              1. …not to mention all the Jazz Week (etc.) postings you’ve done over the years, all the readers’s wildlife photos, the promotion you’ve done of Kelly Houle’s paintings and her Illuminated Origins project…and then, I think we can quite fairly classify many of your boots as works of art, and you have no lack of love for the culinary arts.

                Really, I have no clue where this caricature of Gnu atheists as ascetic boors comes from.

                Can anybody offer an example of a Gnu atheist who doesn’t love the arts?

                I’m not sure anybody in the modern era was as passionate about literature as Hitchens was.

                Richard regularly expresses his love for Bach and even Christmas carols.

                Sam is all over the meditation thing, and I seem to remember him being a big lover of jazz.

                Dan is certainly another literature nut, and I seem to recall him as well expressing admiration for the pageantry of the Mass.

                That’s the Four Horsemen, and if the caricature doesn’t even apply to them, who does it apply to?

                b&

              2. Richard Dawkins did a whole book that was inspired by Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales!

              3. I still find Oh Holy Night to be a beautifully moving song. It matters not that I don’t think it is talking about anything real. It’s like saying that we can’t enjoy reading Harry Potter if we don’t accept the true repercussions of being surrounded by dementors.

              4. The irony, of course, is that that would mean that the reaction from the “inclusive” religious people at hearing that we don’t care for their art is to dismiss the possibility that we have any art of our own….

                b&

              5. I think it’s more a Motte and Bailey Doctrine.

                Religious belief is all over the exciting Bailey of premisses and statements and arguments and intellectual standards, for here is where beliefs matter to their understanding of the world, which in turn is explaining or giving rationales to their behaviour and decisions. If heavily attacked here, though, they retreat to the Motte of art and culture and personal choice, and call atheists judgemental and bad-attitude bullies and philistines for intruding on their turf.

                Or another way of putting it, we are examining and rejecting their beliefs in the Problem-Solving group, and unable to win, they reframe it and say we’re at the Smorgasbord, rejecting their favourite cake (and them, by proxy), and telling them they should eat stale liver instead. While also suggesting the cake may have something to say for everyone in Problem-Solving, if you weren’t such a judgemental, even bullying philistine with a bad attitude.

              6. Dawkins certainly does. Hitchens does not, and is much more humanistic in his understanding of religion. You certainly give every evidence of appreciating art, literature and music, but your claim to scientific hegemony when it comes to knowledge and truth belies such evidence, to my mind. Art has to do with knowledge and understanding of our humanity which cannot be expressed in scientific theories or discoveries.

              7. Eric, please stop this. You are doing nobody any good, especially yourself. You are being extremely offensive, and your attacks haven’t the slightest foundation in fact.

                If you would understand how Gnu Atheists typically harmonize their understanding of the arts and sciences, see Carl Sagan or, more recently Richard’s Unweaving the Rainbow.

                It is not necessary to have any understanding of rainbows to appreciate how pretty they are. However, any understanding you do have only deepens your appreciation.

                This happens to be of particular relevance for me personally right now. I’m in the middle of a project that’s turned out to be much bigger than I anticipated; I’m trying to make ICC color profiles for digital cameras using spectrographic imaging, with the goal of something any photographer can do relatively easily with a bill of materials in the $20 range. The results should be unprecedented color accuracy.

                And, along the way, I’m learning far more about color science and optics and diffraction gratings and even quantum mechanics than I anticipated. I’ve already seen colors I’ve never seen before. As in, the true colors of red, green, and blue laser pointers, not the painfully bright tiny dots we think of. Let me assure you, you have no idea what color actually is until you’ve seen a uniformly-illuminated monochromatic field. I can’t wait until I’ve finished building my integrating sphere so I can really see some of these things properly rather than just as glimpses clumsily holding bits and pieces here and there. And I’ve seen simple math and geometry (of the diffraction grating equation) that I’ve demonstrated for myself that is amazingly elegant, and really truly works. Oh — and I’ll likely take a side trip after I finish the main project to play around with the double-slit experiment, with a goal of personally seeing the diffraction pattern of individual photons. Not with an electronic detector, but with mine own eyes!

                I am, quite literally, in the process of unweaving the rainbow, and the beauty is mind-blowing.

                Hell, man. Do you yourself not see the beauty in Darwin’s theory? The grace of Newton’s Mechanics — the very melody that the planets dance to? The messy elegance that is the periodic table?

                My degree is in trumpet performance. Who do you think has the greater appreciation of, say, the Chicago / Reiner recording of Pictures at an Exhibition: you, who (I presume) have little understanding beyond the beautiful sonorities and moving melodies, or me who has all that plus decades of study into music theory and performance? I guarantee you, I hear things in that recording you can’t even imagine, that only experienced brass musicians and especially other trumpeters are even capable of recognizing — and I have no doubt but there’re other things that I myself don’t hear that many of my colleagues in other sections dohear.

                So how dare you accuse empiricists of being incapable of appreciating the arts?

                How dare you!

                b&

            2. I have often thought that the new atheism is precisely an attitude towards the world which marginalises art and impoverishes human activity and belief.

              I find this an incredibly condescending comment. Unworthy, Eric.

              1. Agreed. That caricature does not fit one single atheist that I know, “new” or otherwise.

                As Ben pointed out, a great portion of Jerry’s own posts have to do with aesthetic appreciation – food, music, art, photography etc. (Or perhaps would Eric condescend to say Jerry is not appreciating art deeply enough, or in the right way…as Eric himself does?)

                I identify with the New Atheist movement, and I come from an artsy-fartsy family were we are all musicians, draw, paint, do photography, love classical, jazz and new music. Talk to any of my other friends who are active in terms of atheism and they hardly shut up about the art, literature, music etc that they adore.

                As for this idea that it’s facile or shallow to ask for evidence for religious claims…it’s just perplexing that this would be so confusing to Eric.

                For most of the things people believe they want evidence. Christians tend to think they have ENOUGH of the evidence they need for their beliefs. Though the amount and type of evidence varies, they still have something they take to ratify their Christianity.

                And it is so damned weird for people to start wondering what “evidence” would mean in the context of religions claims when the Biblical stories themselves continually exemplifies this very type of existentialism.

                It’s not like the Bible has God giving one big “take my word on this.” The OT God continually gave displays of his power lest anyone doubt Him. And the LORD said to Moses, “Is the LORD’S power limited? Now you shall see whether My word will come true for you or not” (Numbers 11:23),

                It’s a litany of God given displays, evidence, of his powers. “Didn’t do what I said? WHAM!” Supernatural display of His powers. The word “behold…” occurs over and over because the Bible is one tale of God “proving” “displaying” His power after another.

                People in the Bible are continually being given evidence of, displays of God’s power and Jesus’ power because it reflects our typical evidential thinking – that’s why the stories so often involve people being given evidence for whatever God is claiming He can or will do. It’s why Jesus does miracles. It’s why Jesus is depicted as re-appearing to people after his Crucifixion. He’s giving people EVIDENCE.

                And suddenly this word is supposed to indicate some shallow mentality when WE ask for the same thing.

                Further, I’ve been debating religion with Christians of many denominations for decades (including Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, etc)
                and I have not encountered one Christian who didn’t hold that Jesus was crucified and re-appeared after his death to witnesses. It has always boiled down to the Christian
                defending the rationality of believing the apostolic accounts of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Not some allegorical interpretation.

                If I claim my father was killed and just rose from the grave, every sane person would think this is a claim that one ought to have evidence for, before believing it happened.
                If I add “Oh, my father was a manifestation of God” it’s not like this would make a rational person say “Oh, then I’m suddenly confused about whether I ought to ask for any evidence…”

                I just fail to see what actual substance Eric has in this particular critique.

                Vaal

              2. Please, Eric. Give me a break. Point to this evidence.

                You confuse people disagreeing with you with them having a lack of aesthetic appreciation and a desire to marginalize art. You are simply throwing feces around when you say such things.

            3. “Well, and so religion is art, at least aspects of it are. Anyone who has seen or officiated at a solemn high mass can scarcely think of it as otherwise. But this does not mean that the stories we tell are not perfectly reasonable stories to be told in reference to either an emotional response to a particular experience, or to a particular world view.”

              It won’t bother you, then, if we keep pointing out that the Christian beliefs are as fictional as Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and George Orwell’s 1984? If religious stories are and were only ever meant to be a form of artistic self-expression, then presumably the aesthetes involved won’t be bothered if we compare their human insights with psychological and neurological and anthropological research, point out why the beliefs (and events depicted in the stories) are not true or justified, dismantle arguments put forwards for the truth of the beliefs, disable creationist and anti-science rationales based on such beliefs, and prevent legally enforced religious privileges and excesses in what should be secular areas. After all, if we and our religious opponents are not doing art or human condition insight interpretation, we can’t be dismissed on artistic grounds. We’re doing you a service, if anything, since freed from a requirement to be technically correct, you can enjoy the art your own way without fear of wondering or of being told if you’re somehow wrong for doing so. Harry Potter’s fictionality doesn’t stop me from enjoying it.

              If, on the other hand, there are reasonable aspects in the stories, whether they refer to experiences or worldviews or something else entirely, then it should be no problem for you to join in and consider them rationally with us, or at least let us get on with it. Discussion and the research into the mind sciences, modern physics and scientific cosmology, the evolution of morality, cognitive biases and mental heuristics – all that good stuff – they benefit everybody interested in finding out stuff and separating truth, facts, and good theories and models from mistakes, errors, vagaries, and even deceptions, because everybody learns as progress is made, including the subject of history.

              1. If religious stories are and were only ever meant to be a form of artistic self-expression, then presumably the aesthetes involved won’t be bothered if we compare their human insights with psychological and neurological and anthropological research, point out why the beliefs (and events depicted in the stories) are not true or justified, dismantle arguments put forwards for the truth of the beliefs, disable creationist and anti-science rationales based on such beliefs, and prevent legally enforced religious privileges and excesses in what should be secular areas.

                This is one of the most foolish and arrogant statements that I have read. Talk about marginalising art! As I said! You haven’t the slightest idea what you are talking about.

              2. So it’s foolish and arrogant to try to gain objective truths about the human condition, and somehow “marginalize” art in the process, but it isn’t foolish and arrogant to act like your appreciation of art either rivals or trumps the elbow grease put in by, among others, everyone I mentioned from psychologists and neurologists through to science education and secular campaigners?

                Eric, I studied King Lear when I was in college, in particular the themes Shakespeare expressed about madness and insight during Acts Three and Four. I’ve had the privilege to see different performances and different takes of the work (making King Lear more grandiose, or weaker-looking for effect, etc.), done by actors who clearly had a lot of passion for it.

                We in the class were encouraged to think and analyse the characters and plot and subplot parallels from different perspectives, such as judging whether Lear’s “I am a man more sinned against than sinning” line could be justified. King Lear in his madness made some powerful points about hypocrisy in society, and it was intriguing when we had the dramatic irony of the Duke of Gloucester, blinded, being unknowingly guided by his ostracised son, Edgar, and thinking of him as a kindly stranger. And thanks to my enthusiastic tutor who taught us, it’s easily my favourite of the Shakespeare tragedies.

                A good chunk of my past influence has to be the stories and books and media I interacted with. As Horace said, art is there to “instruct and to delight” the senses. Of course we should teach people how to look at the themes and what the work is trying to say about those themes. Of course we should try to understand different points of view across history and across cultures: a lot of Elizabethan poetry makes no sense if you don’t decipher the (often very rich) symbolism involved, and know the relevant history and anthropology.

                As per Horace, there are at least two major ways you can go about it. You can appreciate the work for its delight, in which case the themes and symbolic meanings may contribute to the experiences, but different people of different tastes will have their views on it. Or you can appreciate a work for its insights, in which case there’s nothing wrong with also looking at real world research into the relevant areas and getting objective truth from that. You can enjoy a work for both, of course.

                My point, however, is that if the claims or teachings made in a piece of art wish to be taken as seriously as, say, scientific research, then they can’t just claim the respect without doing the relevant legwork.

                Supposing one artist decries the greed and coldness of modern consumerist society and determines to explain through art why, and another artist praises the wealth and freedom of choice of that self-same society and determines to explain through art why. Both do their best to express how they feel about the issue, and portray it in a way that gives the audience those feelings too, by featuring characters in certain situations and gauging how they react to them.

                Who is right? If both of them in their own way, then how do we judge to what extent, under what conditions, and with what other factors in play? None of this means that they’re necessarily wrong: the science could catch up to and agree with either insight. But it occurs to me that the greatest compliment you can pay to the claims and views of either artist – who are clearly making claims that could, in principle, be verified – is to take them seriously.

                Is that marginalizing art? If so, what is so foolish and arrogant about it? Or are you, in your keenness to diminish the “scientific hegemony”, marginalizing science, its high epistemological standards, its rigorous demand for intellectual honesty, and its hard-earned offerings in favour of falsely, unjustly, and lazily elevating your pet indulgence to the same level for no extra effort?

                Is this NOMA-like reconciliation of art and science really going to help either the delight or the instruction of art, or is it just a smokescreen for avoiding criticism and substantiating any claims it makes?

                And if the major yardstick of art is personal experience, then why does it offend you so much if someone starts talking about the objective claims in any piece of art from a scientific perspective? Is it really going to cause harm or confusion if an emotional experience – conveyed through a novel, say – of how bad it is to live in poverty or under a totalitarian regime is sided with a scientific understanding of either condition?

            4. But your attempt to squeeze art into a category where it really doesn’t signify something of human importance is surely simply a misunderstanding of the role that art plays in human life.

              I don’t think I did that, because I think art plays one of the most important roles in life. We are a story-telling species, so we fill our minds with narratives to explain ourselves and our world. We are a musical species, so we listen to songs that evoke intense emotional reactions. We are a sensuous species who love to decorate with colors, spread pleasant scents, and lounge on comfortable materials.

              No, you misunderstand me. I’m not trying to diminish the importance of art as it relates to the human emotional experience. Rather, I’m trying to suggest that the things which you are identifying as valuable within religion are its artistic components. It’s certainly not the science! We know you reject the empirical claims of religion. So what’s left? The imagery, the poetry, a few songs…. and the feelings they evoke. That’s where all the “meaning” of religion lies. In its art.

              But possible to have a perfectly meaningful life through art apart from religion. We can learn new stories, strive to live up to better ideals. And we’ll be happier for it.

              Indeed, I have often thought that the new atheism is precisely an attitude towards the world which marginalises art and impoverishes human activity and belief.

              No, I think what you are seeing is merely a refusal to give religion credit for art.

              1. That’s where all the “meaning” of religion lies. In its art.

                And of course art has no commerce with the truth or knowledge. This is what I mean by marginalising art. The scientistic or naturalistic claim to be the sole representative of knowledge or truth is simply unsupportable. Just try to provide evidence for any such claim.

              2. By the nature of it subjectivity, art has no commerce with truth. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Being unconstrained by what is is the engine of creativity.

                I don’t think science is the only source of human knowledge, but it is the only source of objective truth, which is really the only kind of truth there is. “Subjective truths” are really opinions, since without an objective point of reference all claims become relative.

                So science does have a monopoly on truth, as far as I can see. What I can’t understand is why that apparently bothers you, since you already acknowledge that the appeal of religion does not reside in its truth.

              3. Eric.

                Art is communication, that is highly and incredibly important. For all science is good at investigating truth claims, it falls to art to express the findings.

                That said, art is communication. Communication includes fiction, lying and error.

                It can include great insights into the human condition – at the same time it can be talking the biggest load of crap.

                Or did you never read the propaganda poets from World War One? The fact that their work was stirring didn’t change the fact that it portrayed a false idea of war, the fact that they portrayed a false idea of war didn’t change the fact that their work was stirring.

                My impression from reading what you have written here is not that any of the people you are arguing with lack an appreciation for the arts, but that you do.

                You have no appreciation for the imagination or the work behind the art, you have to insert little truths here and there, little added bits beyond the rhythm of the line or the grace of the couplet.

                You cannot feel the mood of the piece if you do not fundamentally agree with the art you are looking at.

                And that is a sad, sad place to be.

              1. There is absolutely no substance to this accusation. Please indicate chapter and verse. Besides, even were it so, a Christian atheism is not far to seek. There are numerous examples. Scientistic new atheism is a narrow belief system which cannot itself provide evidence of its truth.

              2. So, show these “numerous examples”, Eric. In that you have not, and could have easily rather than making a vague claim, there is no reason to believe you at all, Eric. I also wonder, what the heck does “a Christian atheism is not far to seek” means. Again, examples, Eric? Surely you have them, right? I know plenty of people who are decent types and are atheists. The few decent concepts tat the bible attributes to Jesus Christ aren’t original with him. Tell me of a atheist who believes in Jesus Christ, not some itinerant rabbi in the eastern Med.

                And wow, “scientistic new atheism”. Nice garble. What is “scientistic”, Eric? it’s always fun to watch you make up words. All I see is the usual claims of a TrueChristian who thinks his argument is more believable if he doesn’t admit he’s a Christian. I do believe I hear a cock crowing.

                There is no reason to think you aren’t a Christian, Eric. You use every old sad Christian claim about atheism as well as trying to use the usual Sophisticated Theology ™ that has been shown to be utter nonsense. If it acts like a duck and quacks like a duck, there is little reason to think it’s not a duck. It’s not like this nonsense hasn’t been tried repeatedly before, where a Christian tries to pretend to be an atheist or agnostic to show atheists just how “unreasonable” they really are.

                Sorry, Eric, but there are plenty of Christians who are sure that Christianity is very literal. There are also plenty of Christians who pick and choose what they want to believe, trying to discard the silly stuff but still pretending that their lord and savior is very real and literal.

              3. oh and as soon as you can show that there are gods, please do so. Then you can support your claim that “Scientistic new atheism is a narrow belief system which cannot itself provide evidence of its truth”. Of course, we do need defintiions of what this new atheism type actually is, as well as what you would consider evidence of no gods.

        3. You think everything has to be expressed in propositions which somehow have a correspondence in reality, for which evidence is necessary.

          If Christians want their beliefs reflected in public policy, then yes, we require that those beliefs have some correspondence with reality, with evidence to back it up.

          I have often thought that the new atheism is precisely an attitude towards the world which marginalises art and impoverishes human activity and belief.

          If you think that, then you’re the one who’s missed the point. New atheism is precisely about treating religious belief on par with Harry Potter or Star Trek fandom, i.e. as art and myth rather than as legally enforceable prescriptions and constraints on behavior.

          Christians are free to believe what they like on their own time, and to get as much fulfillment out of it as they can. They do not have to right to demand that the rest of us respect or conform to their fantasies, and that’s what the new atheism is about.

          1. No one should expect religious beliefs to inform public policy, period. But there is no reason to define their beliefs as fantasies, tout court. I do not want to defend the truth of individual religious doctrines. Indeed, by the time they have become dogmatised, religions are well on their way to irrevocable sclerosis. But dismissing worldviews as fantasies, because they cannot be empirically confirmed is precisely what I mean when I say that the new atheism marginalises art. Any scientistic view of the world, as Ronald Dworkin rightly points out, must do that. And the new atheism has nailed its banner to the mast: only claims reducible to what amount to empirical observation statements will qualify as knowledge. This leaves the most important aspects of being human relegated to the margins as not so reducible. This is dehumanising, and, I think, simply wrong-headed. Since there is a possibility of religious faith without God (see Dworkin), this leaves the new atheism hanging by its fingernails, which is why I have dissociated myself from the movement.

            1. Am I marginalizing art if I say that Harry Potter is a fantasy? Xenu? Paul Bunyan? Merlin? Gilgamesh? How old does a fantastical story have to be before it becomes a protected “worldview” and immune to criticism?

              As for the charge of scientism, it seems you’ve fallen into the trap of confusing “empirical” and “observable” with “discoverable in a lab”. In fact a deep appreciation of art hinges on our ability to pay close attention to it, to minutely observe the nuances of the work and of our own reactions to it.

              If art has become marginalized, it’s not science or empiricism that did it; it’s the failure to teach and study art in a systematic way.

              1. Indeed, those most passionate and successful in the arts take a very deliberate and methodical approach to the craft.

                Oh, sure, we cut loose and let the moment move us — as Pavarotti put it, the Voice sang him, and he was just along for the ride. But to get to that point, where you have all the pieces in place that you can have a Voice to sing you, one that’s worth you or anybody else listening to? Not gonna happen without much old-fashioned empirical analysis.

                Yes, even the prodigies. They’re just able to perform that analysis more effectively and with less effort than the rest of us.

                b&

              2. In my own role as a ballet educator, I see firsthand the immense amount of training, technical expertise, experimentation, and painstaking attention to detail that goes into every performance. As with most art forms, this simply would not be possible without a solid foundation of hard-won empirical knowledge about the medium (in this case the biomechanics of the human body) accumulated over many generations by trial and error.

                So the idea that empiricism is somehow the enemy of art, or that art occupies a separate sphere from factual knowledge is, to me, simply ludicrous.

            2. “No one should expect religious beliefs to inform public policy, period.”

              Why not?

              If Our Creator has prescribed and proscribed certain actions and ways of living, how in the world should that NOT inform public policies? It certainly seems God’s desire in the texts that these inform public policies – he makes lists so they can be followed.

              Your universal decree above seems brazenly dismissive of the fervent beliefs of a great many religious people (even more massive if you go beyond the borders of the western world).

              Why such an intolerant decree? Why WOULD you dismiss the claims religion would have on public policy, unless you had some manner of dismissing it’s claims as unjustified?

              And if so, what method do you use to dismiss the claims, if not that they do not meet demands for evidence, argument, coherence, etc?

              Have you decided that religious beliefs shouldn’t inform public policy by, what, evaluating the paintings and songs of each religion? What ARE you saying exactly?

              I hardly see art as something to be marginalized. I don’t think there is any “one” view of art that captures every way we interact with it, but one angle I like is Shklovsky’s take in which art can help us
              recover the sense of perception for experiences that have become habitual and replaced by symbols – make objects unfamiliar again to re-perceive them.
              My artist pals and I talk about this all the time; it matches what some of them are trying to achieve and it’s often describes exactly the transcendent type of thrill I get when some art has pulled that off.

              I think this certainly does have to do with “truth.” I love film very much and one of the reasons has to do with what to me is among the most important elements of being human: they are (or can be) as Roger Ebert called them “empathy machines” in which you
              get inside the head of, and align yourself with the goals and fate of other characters.
              (Literature often does this too). I see that as a massively valuable to human experience. (And my love for film is why I work in the industry).

              But all that is just tip of the iceberg stuff – there are so many ways to talk about the contribution of art to our lives (and that includes the view that articulating about it in the first place is misplaced, to some minds, like dissecting a joke).

              But so long as we do not agree with your particular view, well then we remain shallow about art.

              As far as I can see in what you’ve written, you are assuming the most facile, shallow, straw-man version of the atheists you are decrying. But then, once you see the charge of “scientism” raised, you know that is usually coming anyway.

              Vaal

            3. ” But dismissing worldviews as fantasies, because they cannot be empirically confirmed is precisely what I mean when I say that the new atheism marginalises art.”

              We don’t dismiss worldviews as fantasies. We notice worldviews are making real-world claims, pay attention to the details, and ask for evidence and reasons. Heaven forbid anyone should entertain the possibility that their worldview contains errors! Or that those errors should ever be corrected, and the individual learn a thing or two with confidence. Even emotional reactions, if they influence behaviour, don’t get to escape careful scrutiny. Phobias, for instance. Gut feeling prejudices. And Steven Pinker once wrote a scientific book that, of all things, might justify a bit of cautious optimism about the 21st century.

              “And the new atheism has nailed its banner to the mast: only claims reducible to what amount to empirical observation statements will qualify as knowledge.”

              So atheists don’t count mathematics, logic, secular humanism and ethics, philosophy of consciousness and epistemology, (especially in relation to science), and basically critical thinking as knowledge? Atheists take all these things seriously, and temper them with empirical observation, especially science, since your theory of mind won’t get far if it occurs independently of the mind sciences, and especially if it shuns such research. For instance, if an elegant and coherent mathematical model gets contradicted by empirical evidence in any field (physics is the obvious one, but in theory this could apply to social sciences), then the model, for all its beauty, is in error and must be replaced. That’s because, at some point, claims about how reality (including ourselves) work have to be compared with reality.

              “This leaves the most important aspects of being human relegated to the margins as not so reducible.”

              No it doesn’t. It takes those aspects the most seriously and aims to understand them, if not now then with further research and discoveries. One of the most eye-opening things I’ve learned the last few years is how surprisingly irrational human decision-making can be, and not just in random ways but in biased, systematic, and therefore potentially predictable ways. Learning the details has brought tremendous insight to my worldview, with the added advantage that I can be confident that worldview is true. I may have learned the same thing from a skilled artist or art movement, but without a corresponding attempt to actually verify it, through science or just plain reason, then how could I be sure it was not just a beautiful untruth that I happened to find interesting?

      3. Ben, I have stated explicitly that the gospel Jesus did not exist as described, and could not have. However, there is a good reason to believe that his name was probably Jesus (in Greek), and there is no good reason to think otherwise. Nor is there any reason to believe that nothing that is recorded as said and done by him is historical. The problem, of course, is to sort out which. The same applies, of course, to Caesar, since, after all, writers tend to embellish their stories, and some of the things that he writes about himself may not be true. Besides this, many other figures in early history are only known from one or two comments or apparent quotes or descriptions, and yet there is held to be enough reason, given the stories themselves, to believe that such persons existed. As an aside, it is worth commenting that Richard Carrier’s application of Bayles’ theorem to history is surely simply a mistake. R. J. Hoffmann has something decisive to say about this as I recall, so I shall not enlarge upon it here.

        1. Ben, I have stated explicitly that the gospel Jesus did not exist as described, and could not have.

          Then how could such a person possibly be Jesus?

          Santa is real! His name is, “Harold,” he’s Jewish, he’s retired and lives year-round in Florida, hates children, never gave anybody a present in his life, is allergic to reindeer, and has never been farther north than Boston…but he’s the real Santa!

          The same applies, of course, to Caesar, since, after all, writers tend to embellish their stories, and some of the things that he writes about himself may not be true.

          I don’t think anybody would be surprised to learn that Caesar’s autobiography has errors, intentional or otherwise, in it — though, in fairness, it has held up remarkably well to independent scrutiny.

          At the same time, there can be no doubt but that he wrote it, that he really was assassinated on the floor of the Senate, that he really did cross the Rubicon, and so on.

          With Jesus…here you yourself are positing an apophatic Jesus, one about whom the only thing we can be certain is that nothing in his official biography is correct save for the spelling of his name.

          I’ll present you with a challenge I’ve presented to many other historicists, a challenge none has even seriously attempted to meet.

          First, describe for us who, exactly, you think Jesus was. What are some true facts about Jesus that uniquely identify him as distinct from the several other men with that name from that time whom Josephus alone mentioned?

          Second, what contemporary and near-contemporary (say, first century) evidential sources support your claims? I’m not asking for some out-of-context cherry-picked turn of a phrase that’s not inconsistent, but rather a source where the point of the passage is to establish your true facts as historically accurate.

          Last, how do you reconcile your theory with the overwhelming body of evidence of Jesus as a larger-than-life religious figure?

          I’m certain you won’t be able to meet this challenge, even to your own satisfaction. That you won’t be able to should give you pause and cause you to reconsider your position.

          Cheers,

          b&

    3. “literalism is a given, but if fundamentalists were truly challenged by the texts themselves, they would be forced to qualify what they mean by the words ‘literal’ and ‘inerrant’, often taken to be referring to the original manuscripts (which are no longer available) — thus deferring the problem of what is to be taken literally.”

      So, by your own words, no one can tell anyone else what is to be taken as literal and as metaphor since no one has any idea.

      We also have from the bible this which says that Jesus is indeed God. “11 I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep.” – John 10 which is a direct reference to Ezekiel 34 where God says he’s the shepherd. More on how real life Christiansn believe that Jesus is God can be round right here: http://www.probe.org/site/c.fdKEIMNsEoG/b.4226717/k.C18B/Jesus_Claims_to_be_God__Yes_Jesus_Said_He_is_God.htm and you can find more just by googling “Jesus claims God” and see just how many Christians agree. We even have Paul saying exactly that here in 1 Timonthy 3 “16 And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory.”

      Of course, we can have you say that all other Christians are wrong and you and only you have the “right” way of understanding, this “more sophisticated way”, that very few other Christians agree with. (and yes, I am quite sure you are indeed a Christian) Please do show us that you and only you should be believed in what your god “really” meant. Show us how everyone but you “misuses” these words, and how you know that they do.

      And please do show us Christians who say that Jesus Christ is nothing more than a metaphor and that being “saved” is just a metaphor and that Revelation is just metaphor and there is no hell and no god and no satan. The term messiah isn’t a “figurative” expression, it is a descriptor of what Jesus supposedly is, just like saying someone is a doctor, or a scientist or a Christian or an atheist. Please do tell us how these terms are “figurative” aka “expressing one thing in terms normally denoting another with which it may be regarded as analogous” Messiah is indeed the anointed one, the chosen one who is to liberate the people which Christians believe in literally, that he will literally do this, not “metaphorically” do it.

      One also has to ask what you mean by “orthodox Christianity”. Do you mean Greek Orthodox? Eastern? Or do you mean, like so many wannabee TrueChristians, something else, that only those who agree with you are the only “orthodox” e.g. correct Christians? Now it seems that Orthodox Christians do have the idea of original sin: “In the Orthodox Faith, the term “original sin” refers to the “first” sin of Adam and Eve. As a result of this sin, humanity bears the “consequences” of sin, the chief of which is death. Here the word “original” may be seen as synonymous with “first.” Hence, the “original sin” refers to the “first sin” in much the same way as “original chair” refers to the “first chair.
      In the West, humanity likewise bears the “consequences” of the “original sin” of Adam and Eve. However, the West also understands that humanity is likewise “guilty” of the sin of Adam and Eve. The term “Original Sin” here refers to the condition into which humanity is born, a condition in which guilt as well as consequence is involved.

      In the Orthodox Christian understanding, while humanity does bear the consequences of the original, or first, sin, humanity does not bear the personal guilt associated with this sin. Adam and Eve are guilty of their willful action; we bear the consequences, chief of which is death.
      ”” http://oca.org/questions/teaching/st.-augustine-original-sin

      The redemption through Christ’s blood is still needed, because it is assumed that is is only through God’s grace that one gets it, nothing else. God had to send Jesus to die for things to be “fixed”. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Original_sin#Eastern_Orthodoxy Which can be stated like Athanasius of Alexandria said “”The Son of God became man, that we might become [like] God.” This god had to become like man, aka be able to die, since we all die supposedly from the nonsense of original sin.

      1. Club… Eric is not a believer. IMO he’s not happy about it, but he can’t really be called “indeed a Christian”.

        1. Also wanted to tell you that I have read his blog. From reading it, it seems that Eric is a Christian who left his religion in anger and how seems to want to find it again as long as he can claim that it was a misunderstanding of the religion that caused the horrible situation with his wife and not the religion itself. It becomes easy to decide that the religion didn’t really contain the parts that caused such pain, and that anyone who says that the religion does contain those parts have to be wrong, be it theist or atheist.

          I agree, I don’t think he is happy in the position he finds himself in. But to declare that Christians don’t believe that the bible is describing literal things is disingenuous at best. He has created a Christianity that satisfies him. As most versions of Christianity, it is a personally tailored version dependent on deliberately ignoring anything to the contrary.

          1. I take Eric at his word, having read and argued with him many times. Wanting to believe in something and actually believing in something are quite different things, I think. Eric is a former priest and left, as I understand it, because he no longer believed Christian dogma nor could stomach the consequences of this dogma, particularly as regards assisted suicide. My personal take is that forms of worship/ritual still still exert a strong emotional appeal on many former believers. That’s why the idea of “atheist churches” pops up from time to time.

            1. I can understand that forms of ritual appeal to everyone, not just former believers. Worship is quite different from ritual.

              I can understand taking someone at their word. I can also understand seeing that someone’s word isn’t always the truth, especially when it comes to religion. Eric may have left his sect because he didn’t like what it said; many theists do that exact thing, deciding that they have the “truth” and no one else does. In saying that no Christians take the myths literally is emblematic of this tendency, to say that no one “really” understands Christianity as well as the claimant does.

              It is this very common trait that makes me think that Eric is indeed a Christian, though he doesn’t like some about Christianity to the point that he claims that “real” Christian’s don’t believe in “x”.

              1. Maybe. Eric does make references from time to time to “Christian atheism” as if such a bizarre concept was a good thing. Still, I’ll rely on the dictionary definition of atheism, not believing in a god, and say it applies even to people who want to hold onto some of the fabric of their religious past. It a project I see any value in, but you don’t have to be a believer to be in that situation.

              2. I understand. My quibble with this is that one can’t be a Christian and an atheist since to be a Christian one must believe in the supernatural nonsense. A Jesusian atheist? maybe 🙂 in either case, there is nothing non-supernatural that JC said that hadn’t already been said by someone else before his supposed existence.

              3. One can reasonably be a “cultural Christian” and an atheist in the same sense that Jerry is a cultural Jew. Richard Dawkins identifies as some sort of variation on the “Christian atheist” theme: his culture is very much that of Anglican Christianity, but he obviously doesn’t buy the slightest bit into the reality of the myths.

                b&

              4. Ask the person in question. I can’t imagine somebody who culturally identifies as anything who wouldn’t tell you that fact, save to avoid persecution. That’s the whole point of culture and identity, after all….

                b&

              5. “Cultural Christian” is a phrase that is frequently thrown around this neck of the woods. It is something agnostics and believers often like to point out while reminding us that we’re officially a Christian nation and that freedom of religion isn’t the same as equality of religion. Usually when the talk is regarding Muslim refugees and immigrants.

                In other words, old-fashioned right-leaning Nationalism under the usual guise of religion.

                I sometimes feel obliged to remind my fellow Danes that I’m a cultural Heathen and that Odin is the foundation upon which Christianty lies in this country. We were here long before Yahweh. 🙂

              6. So you are claiming that it is dependent on the person making the claim and not the observer? Then it becomes just a subjective claim and in this case it depends on how one defines Christian, Jew or whatever. We know that theists can’t agree on what a TrueChristian is, etc.

              7. How do you know what political party a person identifies most with? Ask. You can check voter registration figures, but many people in the States engage in strategic primary voting, and register with a different party in order to try to get the least electable candidate on the ballot in the general election.

                This is the same thing.

                b&

              8. I know, but I do have a problem in comprehending what that is exactly. For instance, I can get that some people would call me a cultural Christian, but there is nothing I do that has anything to do with Christianity and its beliefs or principals.

              9. For me, Christian parties like Easter and Xmas are so ingrained in my culture that I just consider them part of the dominant culture. Both have become very secular (via their pagan ways) anyway.

              10. I agree. I do egg hunts with my kids, decorate the house for the Holidays and put up a Christmas tree. I think these behaviors would make me culturally Christian as opposed to religiously Christian. Likewise, I have secular Jewish friends who participate in some customs without the supernatural attached.

                It is valid that some on the religious right try to define Christian culture in context of enforcing their authoritarian religious beliefs, but I think they are bastardizing the common interpretation when then do that.

              11. That’s kinda my point. what makes someone a cultural Christian, Jew, or whatever? I could say that I’m a cultural Roman polytheist because I go to Christmas aka Saturnalia parties. 🙂

              12. I know, but I do have a problem in comprehending what that is exactly. For instance, I can get that some people would call me a cultural Christian, but there is nothing I do that has anything to do with Christianity and its beliefs or principals.

                It seems pretty obvious to me. Whatever culture you’re brought up in, its traits tend to stick with you through adulthood. They might include certain foods, holiday celebrations, music–and for some Jews, the occasional apt bit of Yiddish. 😉

                This may be less obvious for some forms of liberal Christianity, just because its pretty indistinguishable from mainstream U.S. culture in the first place.

                I still love many Christmas carols; but for the stirring music, not the lyrics.

              13. Okay, what traits are you considering “Christian” or “Jewish” in this context? I use Yiddish terms and love lox and cream cheese, does that make me a cultural Jew? I go to winter parties vaguely around the winter solstice, does that make me a cultural Christian, Roman polytheist, or pagan? I was a Presbyterian, so does that make me a cultural Christian even though I don’t follow a single identifiably Christian thing? I believe in the golden rule, help others, and flake out on the weekend days etc, but those certainly aren’t only Christian things.

                These question are why I find that the claim of “culturally” X to be very hard to define.

              14. “Okay, what traits are you considering “Christian” or “Jewish” in this context?”

                With all due respect, cs, I think you’re taking this much too seriously. 🙂

                These labels are ones that the so-identified use to describe themselves, if they feel the phrases apply. You don’t have to chose any label if you don’t want to. Those who do obviously use the terms as shorthand for the cultural experiences they imply.

                You sound rather like a typical American (?) mutt atheist–a little of this, a little of that–so probably not “label-able” in any helpful way.

              15. I’m taking this as seriously as it needs. I’m just curious and showing it. I think this is a fascinating subject, what people want to call themselves, how they act and how others see them. My husband and I have discussed this when it comes to role playing games, where someone can say that they are “good” or “lawful” but if they don’t act like it, are they really good or lawful? Are those terms something that the group defines, not the individual? If you aren’t interested in such things, that’s okay. I am.

                Now, I think I can be called a cultural American, since I am indeed an American. But what makes someone “American”? Eating lots of meat? Thinking that we’re just the hot shit? Being really interested in civil rights? I was raised Presbyterian Christian, but again what would make me culturally Christian as opposed to culturally Roman or culturally Celtic? I am female and my formative years were in the 1980s. If I can’t be labled in any helpful way, how is anyone else?

              16. Well, I think your reply includes the answer you’re looking for. 🙂

                We’re talking about self-labels, so what makes one a Cultural Anything is that they think they are one. I would make certain associations from these labels, along the lines of things which have already been mentioned–food, music, celebrations, etc. But it’s not something that a person must have; and I agree with you that some people’s views of themselves don’t always gibe with reality!

                Here’s a rather formal discussion of one kind of Cultural Jew:

                http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cultural_Judaism

              17. So, there is nothing that I can consider an objective way to tell if someone is a cultural Christian, Jew, etc? Now, this does tell me something: that religion is entirely subjective. 🙂

          2. Oh… I agree with your comment about personally tailored versions of religion. But one can do that without actually believing. If I recall, the term “Faithiest” was coined (Coyned?) on this website some years back to describe nonbelievers who wished they still believed.

            1. Yes, there is that definitely. I find the idea of wishing one believed and defending what one wished that one believed to be very hard to distinguish from actually believing in it. The defense appears to assume that what is being defended is true.

    4. The idea of the inaccessible noumenon was killed before Kant wrote by any scientific statement worthy of the name. Any worthwhile theory of reference tells you, for example, that Newton’s laws apply to bodies. Not what we say about bodies, or what humans know about bodies, or anything of the sort or, worse, what bodies appear to be like. So “F=ma” is true (or false – nothing I said commits to truth) independently of experience. This latter word is so crucially misunderstood, even by some Kant scholars, because it makes Kant sound too Berkeleyian otherwise. But that’s how as far as I can tell exactly how the readers at the time would have understood it, none of this special pleading, etc. about changing the meaning of “phenomenon”. (In case anyone cares, I have asked historians of philosophy and others with better German but no axe about Kant to grind, and they agree. That’s just an appeal to authority.)

      The ship has sailed on this point, but folks shouldn’t have played along by calling something like electron-positron anhiliation a “phenomenon”, when it is so far from experience (and there we go with that last word, too).

      The lesson for the religiousity debate is that subjectivism can be overcome. Letting people retreat into it is infantalizing. We know better, and we can give people the benefit of the doubt that they do too.

      1. When Hawking speaks of “model dependent realism” he is making a philosophical, not a scientific statement, even though he seems to be unaware of the fact. And he says this in a book which proclaims the death of philosophy!

          1. The term ‘model dependent realism’ is in fact a analytical statement about how scientific statements are true of the world. Very much like Kant’s categorial idalism, model dependent realism is an ontological claim about what exists given human capacities for scientific exploration and discovery. All these things are philosophical in nature. They are not empirical statements and are not open to empirical review or substantiation.

            1. so, scientific statements aren’t accurate which is what I believe you mean by “true of the world”? It seems that many scientific statements are quite open to empirical review and substantiation and have been subject to that in order to show that, for instance, you will indeed be burned to the bone if you grasp a white hot piece of iron.

              Can you tell me how you can demonstrate *your* claims are accurate? How are they open to “empirical review or substantiation”?

  28. My feeling, worth as usual what you paid for it, is that I can accept all the evidence against an historical Jesus as valid, and still consider that a human Jesus existed and was the basis for the religious myths – because I know a person can be both historical and mythical. Example: in my 7th grade Social Studies textbook I was taught the myth that George Washington chopped down a cherry tree and was asked by his father if he did it, replied, “I cannot tell a lie …”

    Alexander the Great was also mythicized as the son of Zeus, and showed his divine nature by marching a whole day through a desert without drinking or sweating. In my own lifetime I have seen myths arise about Mary Lou Retton and Magic Johnson.

    Had it not been for the ATF stand-off culminating in the Waco events, I doubt if any contemporary historians would have written about David Koresh until such time (if any) that his cult had grown large after his death.

    By the same token, I think it is possible that Dionysus was an early wine-maker, and Asclepius was an early physician.

    Germany wins the World Cup as I write this.

    1. “… consider that a human Jesus …” was meant to be “consider as plausible that a human Jesus” – due I think to multi-tasking between World Cup TV and my laptop.

    2. Your logic applies equally well to any other ancient deity. Do you think Hercules was an actual historical person? Athena? Zeus? After all, we even have statues of them. Maybe Quetzalcoatl was an historical figure too? And a real lumberjack was a the heart of Paul Bunyan?

      Yes, there are certainly cases where tall tales get added on to real historical figures. Vespasian, if I remember right, was said to have restored vision to a blind man by spitting in his eyes, exactly as Jesus did. (Vespasian was born in 9 CE and was emperor from 69 to 79 CE — were the Jesus incident real, Vespasian would have heard about it.)

      But the difference with Jesus, as with all the other gods, is that his story is all myth and utterly devoid of the banal. Strip away the miracles and there’s nothing left — same as with any of the Olympians. But strip the odd miracle here and there from Vespasian, and you’re still left with one of the Twelve Caesars, one of the best-documented figures in all of history — complete with contemporary archaeological evidence and other artifacts.

      …in stark contrast to Jesus….

      Cheers,

      b&

      1. Paul Bunyon and Pecos Bill: obvious tall tales which are meant to be understood as such.

        Hercules and Perseus: also tall tales, in my best guess.

        Alexander the Great and George Washington: real people with some myths added (and viewed as gods by some).

        David Koresh and Rev. Moon: real people, charismatic cult leaders, whose followers believed/believe they had mythic abilities. That seems to be the way a lot of cults start.

        Jesus: don’t know, but many of the stories about him seem in a different genre than those about Paul Bunyon and Hercules – not the sort of thing you make up over a campfire to get a rise out of new recruits. Could have been a charismatic leader of a small, un-noticed cult which grew into mythic proportions after his death. If so, I have to admire the way his followers took his ignominious death and spun it as a supreme sacrifice on behalf of humanity, and followed up with the trinity thing. It has a sort of “you can’t (wouldn’t) make (all of) this stuff up” quality to me, but a screen-writer brought in to save a bad movie after all but the last half-hour has already been filmed might decide to wing a crazy ending like that.

        Then there’s my great-great-great-grandfather. Aside from some family stories, passed on in non-contemporaneous letters, there is no paper trail for him at all. I don’t believe all the stories, but I think he did exist.

        All cases don’t have to be the same, according to my logic.

        Okay, too many comments by me, so I’ll give it a rest, as much as I would like to comment on art as a way of knowing.

        1. “Okay, too many comments by me, so I’ll give it a rest, as much as I would like to comment on art as a way of knowing.”

          A way of knowing what? Is art to be considered limited in interpretation so everyone “knows” the same thing?

        2. Jesus: don’t know, but many of the stories about him seem in a different genre than those about Paul Bunyon and Hercules – not the sort of thing you make up over a campfire to get a rise out of new recruits.

          Oh, man, you desperately need to read Martyr’s First Apology. Now!

          If you’re in an hurry, just search for “Jupiter” and read only the chapters (long paragraphs) with hits. That’ll be “good enough” to get you up to speed, but you really should read the whole thing….

          Oh — and a bit of context: Martyr was the first Christian apologist (defender of the faith), writing roughly the same time as the authors of the Gospels, canonical and heretical (perhaps after the synoptics but before John, maybe…it’s virtually impossible to credibly nail down dates for the Gospels).

          Cheers,

          b&

          1. Ben, you cannot show that the gospels are not different from tall tales such as the story of Paul Bunyan by referring to Justin Martyr. Whatever use Justin made of the gospels does not show that they are not different from tall tales. Justin tries to show analogies between Christian beliefs and the religious beliefs of the “pagans” (because he wants to counter the claim that Christians are atheists) but what is surprising about that, and how does that affect what JimV says about the difference between the gospels and stories about Paul Bunyan?

            1. JimV was expressing a belief that the Christian Gospels represent novel inventions that were unlike anything to that point in time. Martyr showed quite emphatically that they were merely variations on the same theme — even if the reason he wanted to make that point was for a different purpose than the reason I want to make that point.

              I could have shown how virgin birth; turning water into wine; dying, going to the underworld, returning briefly before continuing on to paradise; healing the sick and raising the dead; and all the rest were, in fact, the stories that children in the region had been growing up with for forever. But that would have been a much longer post; it wouldn’t have been substantively different from what Martyr wrote; and it would have lacked the rhetorical impact of using the earliest Christian apologist’s principal obsession to demonstrate the obvious mythical origins of Christianity.

              Cheers,

              b&

    1. Well, thank you Chris, but I don’t feel superior to anyone in particular, nor am I trying to suggest, as Ben Goren says, that new atheists cannot appreciate art. Of course they can. What I am saying is that the new atheist naturalism is itself destructive of the art that many new atheists so obviously enjoy and appreciate, that their theory about truth and knowledge is in conflict with their own understanding of what can be known. Someone (I haven’t tagged everyone’s name in this discussion) suggests that empirical knowledge is crucial to the performance of ballet. Well, he is the expert, so he should know. This still doesn’t deal with the new atheist restriction of knowledge and truth and understanding to the purely empirical and scientific, which seems to me an impoverishment of what actually may be reasonably be thought to characterise knowledge.

      The point, however, to begin with was the point about literal understanding of the Bible and religious beliefs. That’s where my primary emphasis lay, and I believe (and have suggested some reasons why) this is a caricature of religious believing (whether that believing can be supported by argument (certainly not be empirical evidence) or not). My point about the marginalisation of art, and its role in human self-understanding (self-knowledge, if you like) still stands, regardless of the ability of new atheists to appreciate literature, art, music, scuplture, dance etc, which, as human beings, I am sure they are capable of doing. What is being misunderstood is what I mean by the marginalisation of art, which means its isolation from the realm of knowledge, which I take as a distinct impoverishment.

      There is so much else here that it would take a lifetime to work through — such as the historicity of Jesus, which scholars have been working at for well over a hundred years, and for which there is a mountainous amount of scholarly historical study to work through. One reasonable trajectory in all this was, I believe, the Jesus Seminar, which attempted (with what success we will have to let the historians decide) to pick out sayings and acts which are reasonably traced back to the historical personage at the centre of the gospels. But this is only one trajectory. I am not convinced by anything that Richard Carrier has written. Indeed, it seems to me that his evident bias is already an impediment to serious scholarly study of the question.

      My problem, to be frank, is what I consider the rather hasty and simplistic responses that characterise much of this comment stream. I am not going to solve the question of the historical Jesus here, nor am I going to try to show what difference there is between Grimm’s Fairy Tales and the Jewish and Christian Scriptures. There are certainly similarities. I assume that the fairy tales were in fact a fairly sound imaginative basis upon which the experience of early childhood, before childhood was decisively separated as a distinct period of life with its own priorities and challenges, could be imaginatively understood, and in this they resonated with childhood experience (which indicates what a parlous state childhood was in those days). In similar ways, religious texts imaginatvely express (amongst other things) something of what is reasonably thought to be religious experience, the experience of the numinous (Otto), or the experience of absolute dependence that Schleiermacher wrote about. Whether religious experience points to the existence of transcendent beings (which I doubt), does not diminish the importance of such experiences in our understanding of ourselves, or the world in which we live out our lives.

      1. “What I am saying is that the new atheist naturalism is itself destructive of the art that many new atheists so obviously enjoy and appreciate, that their theory about truth and knowledge is in conflict with their own understanding of what can be known.”

        And what I believe most of us here are waiting for is an actual reason to take that grandiose-sounding claim seriously.

        Of course there are truths represented in art. The dispute seems to be over how those truths sit within an epistemology, not that they don’t exist! (Similar to the debate over which is primary, reason or empirical experience. Neither side, rationalist nor empiricist, disavows the worth of reason or experience, they just tend to debate about how they are situated in respect to one another, epistemologically).

        Could you please give an example of a truth delivered via any piece of art (music, painting, literature, whatever you wish) that
        you think we would be missing?

        I’d have to say I would like to see actual examples of this purported “impoverishment.”

        Vaal.

        1. I’d have to say I would like to see actual examples of this purported “impoverishment.”

          I’ll take it a step further. The one with the impoverished artistic sense is Eric; he’s the one missing all the deeper layers and is happy with the pretty feel-good surface. And that’s just fine; artists are chuffed to get even that much reaction out of an audience, with anything more being icing on the cake. But what’s not cool is that he’s the one telling us to stay out of the deep end, which is where all the real action is at….

          b&

          1. Ben, I have never in this discussion (unless I did so unintentionally) spoken about an impoverished artistic sense. My argument is simply not about that. I am sure that many people who accept the new atheist world view are very sensitive aesthetically. My point is precisely about layers of meaning, and the fact that, if we restrict ourselves to the “empirical” facts (whatever those are in relation to the various arts and humanities), we are missing the most important aspects of the aesthetic experience. I am not interested simply in surface emotion, which is adequately dealt with by romance novels, which are, broadly speaking, artistically shallow. I am much more interested in arts’ meaning for us as human beings and our grasp on how best to live. I can’t give precise examples of this, since there is a great deal of perspectival reception involved in art appreciation. But it would be strange if, for example, we took the studies of mythology done by people like Freud, Jung, and others, and supposed that the only useful thing about them is the factual residue about the myths merely as stories that people once “believed”. If you take the Greeks gods and goddesses, for example, it would be interesting to know in what sense it was that they actually believed in them, and what believing in them did for their worldview. The thought that their beliefs in their gods was quite realistic is very hard to sustain. Indeed, if you study the Christian writings, such as Justin Martyr, the sense in which he thought of the stories of Jesus, given that he so readily associates them with stories of the Olympian gods, is really hard to pin down. What difference did those stories make to his worldview? And what is more important about the stories, the fact that they had effects on the way that people perceived each other and their neighbours, or the precise meaning that such stories had for them? It’s hard to say, especially since there is such a variety of story telling about Jesus’ resurrection, to take but one example, or the story of Jesus’ birth, to take another. Since there is no way of reconciling all the difference is the narratives, the question is what function those stories played in establishing a worldview for those who read or heard them. What I find odd is how insistent you and others in this comment stream are in thinking in terms of literal readings of the stories, when, in fact, in Justin and Origin and others, it is evident that the stories were read in a bewildering variety of diverse ways. The point about religious belief, which has become much clearer in contemporary theology (except for the drag of fundamentalism which continues to pull people towards an insupportable literalism) is that it has much more to do with myth that literal description. That’s one of the reasons why I quote from Dworkin elsewhere in these comments, because it is clear that he understands this more contemporary understanding of religion. I used to say the creeds Sunday by Sunday, and never did I think of them in literal terms. Indeed, it’s hard to know what they mean in literal terms! But that didn’t diminish the power of what the creeds represent in providing the structure for a worldview of great religious energy. What I oppose is yoking the religious energy to literalism, because in such cases religion does more harm than good (as even David Bentley Hart emphasises). My problem with religion is wondering whether, in the scientific age, it is possible to see religion as other than somehow literally true, in which case it is a menace. One thing that does not help is the constant refrain by the new atheists that that is the only way to understand religion, which, while it may “convert” a few, is liable to drive many more into digging in their heels. While many new atheists know a lot about religion, they do not seem to understand how religion functions in everyday situations, except in those notorious cases where religion is at loggerheads with science. But this is fairly understood not to reflect accurately the way that religions do function in their everyday way of structuring people’s world view. But I see that most of my words in this direction are bit like whistling in the wind in this context. That is not a supercilious remark, by the way, but simply the expression of a feeling that we are talking past each other, and not connecting on what either of us consider the key points.

            1. “…I can’t give precise examples of this…”

              If there is “talking past each other” it is because of this, a failure to provide examples that hold up to scrutiny.

              Why would it be strange to think that the value of Freud and Jung is ‘factual residue about the myths merely as stories that people once “believed”’? These two gents created a body of work that largely has not stood the test of time. (And why is “believed” in quotes? Ancient Greeks didn’t actually believe things?)

              Sure, it would be nice to know more about the world views of ancient greeks. Also ancient paleolithic hunters. And I’d like to know a lot more about the worldview of ancient Mayans. We should do our best to figure such things out. That’s the job of archaeology and history. But in what sense is this not a job for empirical analysis of whatever data we have at hand? And why on god’s green earth would we want to accept literary fantasy as an explanation instead of simply saying “I don’t know (yet)”?

              How can you seriously make accusations like “many new atheists… do not seem to understand how religion functions in everyday situations, except in those notorious cases where religion is at loggerheads with science”? This is poppycock. And without backing it up with evidence it is insulting poppycock.

              What is your measure of “understanding” such matters? Because it seems to be something like “speaks respectfully of religious things I like”.

              1. These two gents created a body of work that largely has not stood the test of time.

                If you mean in terms of scientific conclusions, of course that is true. Freud’s theories have not stood the test of time, yet Freud is still used in helping people to understand the dynamics of their psychological problems. I put the word ‘believed’ in scare quotes, because I wanted precisely to raise the question of what ‘believe’ meant in relation to the Olympian gods. As for examples, I make a quick stab at that in a later comment, but I am reluctant to do this for the reasons given there. For the arts are not discursive, and to try to turn what they teach us into discursive language is precisely to suggest otherwise. Which is precisely why I objected to the ‘factual residue about the myths merely as stories that people once “believed”.’ I thought I had made that clear.

              2. “Freud is still used in helping people to understand the dynamics of their psychological problems”

                So are witches. The Catholic Church is upping its reliance on exorcism as a result.

                The fact that some people still think of these two gents has having significant things to say about mental illness is not a measure of their quality of their contributions, it is a measure of the credulity of humanity and the inability of some of us to learn from scientific progress.

              3. “So are witches …” There is not a speck of empirical evidence to suppose this true, but there is at least some evidence to show that psychoanalytic practices linked to Freud’s use of mythology in understanding our psychic nature are helpful in sorting out people’s neuroses. No one should claim that Freud’s theories are scientific, but it does not follow that practices based on those theories are not helpful. I suppose exorcism may have some parallels, since if someone is convinced (for whatever reason) that they are possessed by evil spirits of some sort, exorcism may in fact help them to rid themselves of such a burden, like a placebo. Indeed, this placebo effect may be part of the reason that religious mythology is effective in ordering people’s lives, but I think there is reason to suppose that more than placebo effect is in question here, since such ordering can govern whole societies and cultures. This, of course, does not make the literal beliefs true, but it may make many of its subsidiary beliefs both true and effective as expressions of our nature as human beings.

              4. Eric: Your comment “There is not a speck of empirical evidence to suppose this true…” is ambiguous. I don’t know what the word “this” refers to. Do you mean people don’t still take witches and demons to be the cause of mental illness? Because there is considerable evidence that this is true. (Google it.) The pope takes it seriously enough. Witch burnings have become sadly common in parts of Africa.

                The fact that some people believe that homeopathy works doesn’t make it work. And it doesn’t mean that there is a reason for you or me to take the theory behind it seriously. There is no reason to take Carl Jung’s theories about collective unconscious seriously unless you are studying the history of psychology or something like that.

            2. Ben, I have never in this discussion (unless I did so unintentionally) spoken about an impoverished artistic sense.

              Knowingly or otherwise, that is exactly what you do here but a couple sentences later:

              if we restrict ourselves to the “empirical” facts (whatever those are in relation to the various arts and humanities), we are missing the most important aspects of the aesthetic experience

              Your offenses are legion.

              Your words establish that a rationalist cannot experience the world other than through petri dishes and logarithm tables, and anything that cannot be quantified is inaccessible to an empiricist.

              They presuppose that aesthetic experiences are not subject to careful observation and analysis, yet that is exactly what artists devote their lives to.

              And, hell — your words are right there. You’re accusing us of “missing the most important aspects of the aesthetic experience.”

              Turn that around once again. What’s the most important thing there is in your life? How would you feel if I wrote about how you were missing the most important aspects of whatever that is?

              The closest analogy I can come up with right now is an atheist telling a theologian that he’s devoted his life to studying a myth, but that he can’t see that it’s a myth. That would obviously upset the theologian for very understandable reasons, but the accusation is not only perfectly defensible but exactly what one should expect in conversations with atheists over the nature of religion.

              But, seriously? You’re telling atheists, many of us here artists, that we’re missing the most important aspects of the aesthetic experience, you’re reluctant to offer evidence, and you don’t expect us to take offence and think you’re trolling us?

              What I find odd is how insistent you and others in this comment stream are in thinking in terms of literal readings of the stories, when, in fact, in Justin and Origin and others, it is evident that the stories were read in a bewildering variety of diverse ways.

              You’re confusing two entirely different contexts.

              I would absolutely agree with you that the early Christian theologians and apologists weren’t concerned much about the reality of their brand-new pantheon, and were instead devoting their lives to its significance and deeper meanings and all the rest. But that’s first because they themselves no more seriously questioned the reality of said pantheon than do modern Christians — and, if you’ve already settled the questions of existence to your own satisfaction, what point is there to dwell on it further?

              But the flip side of that coin is that their beliefs, from an outsider’s perspective, and especially a modern one, are so palpably about fantastic nonsense that there’s simply no way they could have any foundation in objective reality. Yes, Jesus was very real to them, but that real Jesus for them was no different from the “real” Perseus and the rest. So if they were happy to equate their sincere and fervent beliefs with those that everybody today understands to be so much fantastic nonsense, why shouldn’t we understand that their own beliefs properly fall in the “fantastic nonsense” category as well?

              If you want to wax poetic about the spiritual significance of the Logos to Martyr, have at it. But that’s an entirely different question from whether the most rational conclusion from his First Apology and other works is of the historicity of Jesus or the mythical origin of Jesus.

              b&

              1. Well, Ben, if you continue to misunderstand a perfectly innocent theoretical point, then there isn’t much that I can say. You say that I offend in saying this:

                “if we restrict ourselves to the “empirical” facts (whatever those are in relation to the various arts and humanities), we are missing the most important aspects of the aesthetic experience.”

                That says nothing about your aesthetic appreciation, but about what can be said theoretically about aesthetic experience. The two are very separate things, and if you can’t tell them apart, the you are simply missing the point. I am simply saying that there is more contained in aesthetic experience and appreciation than can be capture in empirical facts, or discursively identifiable stretches of experience, in fact, as I say in other places, that in order to identify an aesthetic experience and what is important about it, while you can point in its direction by using discursive language, only the work itself will give you the experience you are gesturing towards. I must say this is getting a bit tiresome. You must be able to see this as other than expressing the view that the new atheists cannot appreciate (or do not appreciate) aesthetic experience.

              2. I am simply saying that there is more contained in aesthetic experience and appreciation than can be capture in empirical facts, or discursively identifiable stretches of experience, in fact, as I say in other places, that in order to identify an aesthetic experience and what is important about it, while you can point in its direction by using discursive language, only the work itself will give you the experience you are gesturing towards.

                Had you phrased it thus from the get-go, you probably wouldn’t have evoked the visceral response you did.

                You’re obviously not happy with my definition of, “science.” But how about frobnotz? Do you think frobnotz is capable of making sense of art and aesthetic experience?

                You might also tell us your definition of an “empirical fact.” I rather suspect we’re operating from different dictionaries with respect to that term as well.

                b&

              3. But Eric, you are not “simply saying that there is more contained in aesthetic experience…” You are ALSO saying that those of us in the Gnu camp are, if I may paraphrase, out to destroy human culture, degrade humanity, and generally be mean. Because we JUST DON’T UNDERSTAND the contributions of the humanities. Or something. There is clearly a very important offense that’s been committed that’s required that you separate yourself from the ravages we barbarians are spreading.

                We’ve been over this territory countless time for many months, especially on Choice In Dying. But until you produce some evidence that this terrible crime is actually occurring (and it doesn’t sound like simple academic territorial defense) I, at least, am not going to stop using phrases like “science broadly construed”. Nor am I going to allow that my appreciation of art, great or small, is any less rich than someone else’s just because they throw around words like “scientistic”.

              4. Eric, presumably you will grant that a skilled chef can know what a dish will taste like just from reading (or imagining) the recipe, and that this skill is in fact a necessary prerequisite to being a great chef.

                Similarly, a sufficiently skilled musician can get essentially the full aesthetic experience of a piece just from reading the score.

                Don’t these examples pose a problem for your claim that aesthetic truths can be appreciated only by direct experience of the work, and not by mere discursive descriptions of it? How do you reconcile these cases with your theory of aesthetics (hopefully without denigrating these particular arts as aesthetically inferior)?

            3. Eric, I think I know where you are coming from here and by the way you have illustrated what you mean with the examples of trying to understand how Ancient Greeks (for example) related to their gods and what this tells us about the Ancient Greeks I take that as “science broadly construed”. Art alone without the deeper analysis is shallow (like those romance novels – though they can tell us something about women and why that stuff is marketed to them) but art as a communication mechanism that can be though about an analyzed gives us a way to get to truth. I think this comes down to semantics at the end of it all.

              1. Very nice, Diana, no doubt, but construing things so broadly is to empty the concept ‘science’ of any real meaning. We could go on building up clouds of meaning and keep speaking of science broadly construed, but it wouldn’t help us in the slightest to understand what we are talking about. For art as a modality of communication (I don’t like ‘mechanism’ here) is not discursive as science is, and many people point to the contribution that science can make to the study of literature and music and think that this somehow makes literature and music scientific. This is a mistake. For the kind of communication involved is not scientific but emotional, moral, cultural, etc. etc., which brings very different types of thinking into play. Nor does it come down to semantics in the end either, unless you are prepared to speak of semantics broadly construed as well. Why not just acknowledge that there are forms of knowledge that are not empirical, and cannot be reduced to empirically verifiable statements? The only thing that science broadly construed allows you to do is to adhere to a dogma for which there is no plausible evidence.

              2. My definition of science, which is mine and not Jerry’s, but which Jerry has had ample opportunity to object to and never has, is the apportionment of belief in proportions indicated by a rational analysis of objective observation. Note that, though this is a broad definition, it is not all-encompassing; faith is explicitly ruled out, as the whole point to faith is to believe regardless of the evidence.

                Some variation on this definition is a common theme amongst rationalists, and especially Gnu Atheists, most especially those of us in Jerry’s camp. You might not agree with us that that’s an useful definition of the term, but you should be aware that that is the definition we’re working with. Arguing against your own different definition as if that was the definition we’re working with would be an exercise in flogging a straw man and is not going to move the discussion forward.

                If you don’t like that definition for the word, “science,” invent your own term that does fit the definition, and see how well your arguments hold up against that. For example, call it, “frobnotz.” “Frobnotz is the apportioning of belief in proportions indicated by a rational analysis of objective observation.” Would you agree that frobnotz can be usefully applied to gain a full and complete understanding of the arts?

                b&

              3. … faith is explicitly ruled out, as the whole point to faith is to believe regardless of the evidence.

                This is mistaken, as many discussions of faith can show. Certainly, the word ‘faith’ is sometimes used in this way, but it does not follow that the whole point of faith is to believe regardless of the evidence. Indeed, most people of faith are very keen to show that there is reason to have faith, that, as Pascal said, faith has its reasons that reason cannot know. So does painting, literature, music, etc., as I have been trying to say. Whether, in fact, the person of faith can make a case for belief is another issue, but it is simply wrong to say that “the whole point of faith is to believe regardless of the evidence.” Indeed, in the absence of evidence some items of faith are simply ridiculous, such as the belief that it can be confirmed by the church that a particular prayer to a particular deceased person can demonstrate that that person, still living, beyond death, is in the presence of God and can affect what happens to us on earth. This is a ridiculous claim, and can be shown to be so theologically, let alone other ways. No one should choose to believe something because there is no evidence (which is what your “whole point of faith” boils down to), but one should indeed base one’s faith on what is reasonably construed to be true, whether that is based on empirical evidence, logical argument, or other bases for belief. The idea that the whole point of faith is to believe regardless of the evidence is simply a an empty jibe directed at people of faith. It may be that, in the end, there is no basis for their faith, but if there is no basis (not necessarily evidence in the sense in which you are using the word), then there is no reason to believe. That is why I think Boghossian’s claim that faith is a pschological problem in need of a cure is not only wrong but dangerous. The Bolsheviks were prompted by a similar idea, and sent dissentients to psychiatric hospitals. I deplore the T shirt modeled by Dawkins which reads: Religion – Together we can find the cure. That is a totalitarian claim.

              4. Perhaps I didn’t phrase that as precisely as possible.

                Factors other than a rational analysis of objective observation come into play when apportioning belief using faith. Would you agree with that?

                If so, there we have the divide between science and faith: science is nothing more nor less than getting your error bars properly sized and positioned; faith has different criteria for how to determine where those error bars go than rational analysis of objective observation.

                I don’t doubt but that the faithful have all sorts of methods for apportioning their beliefs; it’s obviously not a case of “anything goes,” if for no other reason than the evidence of a great deal of symmetry between believers.

                The point is that the rulebook for the faithful has something different from rational analysis of objective observation.

                As for your accusation against Richard of totalitarianistic fantasies, permit me to merely remind you that this is what a militant atheist actually looks like. Does it actually look like any real humans you know or know of? No? Didn’t think so.

                b&

              5. I largely agree with you on most of what you say here. Faith is not “just belief without evidence” in all cases. I’m sure you know fideism has for many centuries been considered a grave sin in Catholicism as well as the sects established prior to the Reformation. This is one area where the Church has stumbled quite close to actually attaining the truth it claims to have a stranglehold on.

                But, comparing Boghossian to the Bolsheviks is simply conflating one notion of faith with another. Belief without evidence or reason rightly could be considered a mental disorder, for establishing any belief system under these conditions is incoherent. Unfortunately, this is precisely what fundamentalists do, so it is a bit strange to me that sophisticated believers would take such a hard line against New Atheism when their arguments against it only serve to reinforce belief for those who are apparently “doing it wrong”. I will grant that fundamentalism doesn’t quite establish beliefs on no evidence, rather they are established on very bad evidence; that being literal belief in the Bible. They didn’t pull their beliefs out of the blue, but they’re awfully close.

                The main reason I can no longer maintain belief in Catholicism is precisely because of the Church’s teaching on fideism, faith and reason, the idea that truth cannot contradict truth, and specifically the idea that God can be known through reason alone. Had I been raised as a fundamentalist, perhaps I never would’ve bothered questioning anything and continued on in happy denial (though I doubt this since my upbringing did have a fundamentalist streak).

                I came to the conclusion that despite the Church’s insistence to the contrary, the core elements of Christian faith require belief without evidence, but the faith tradition as a whole includes much more. Further, while God may be shown through reason alone (with regard to not contradicting scientific findings), so may any number of other things, and they can even contradict each other. So the claim that reason alone demonstrates any kind of truth at all isn’t justified. On the other hand, reason can be interpreted to mean reason and evidence and the core elements of Christianity of any stripe fail to pass the test here too.

                I’m not trying to split hairs here, but you said, “but one should indeed base one’s faith on what is reasonably construed to be true, whether that is based on empirical evidence, logical argument, or other bases for belief.” Logical argument must necessarily be paired with empirical evidence if we’re trying to arrive at a high degree of confidence that a claim is true. At some point, any theistic claim to faith boils down to the root element (belief in God) being believed without evidence, but you did acknowledge that faith is at times used that way. The argument that many in this thread have been trying to drive home, however, is that for many common believers, this is precisely what faith is and in certain cases, it is true for all believers, regardless of rationalizations to the contrary.

              6. We agree, I think, that art is a way to communicate. I also think it is a way to work things out. However, I don’t really think it is a way to know something so much as it is a way to get to something. Art, to me, helps form the question that we need to answer and when we inevitably come to answer that question, if we truly want to get to the truth of things, we use reason. We can keep calling that way of getting to the truth of things “reason”; some have chosen to call it “science (broadly construed)”. This is where I see the semantic differences.

                As an example, I see speaking foreign languages an art but linguistics a science. I see understanding grammar, an exercise in reason (but also a science) and analysis of word choice – reason (but also a science).

                I think that you really aren’t so far a part from other commenters, if I’m understanding you correctly. From my experience, it is not so much “another way of knowing” but “another way of thinking”. I see myself as someone who bridges both worlds. I am naturally analytic so I feel uncomfortable when I don’t know the answers to things. The only way I can ease that discomfort is to engage in highly analytical activities to determine what the truth is. This is why I become agitated with art that doesn’t answer my questions – existential literature does this because it often deals with absurdity. It is meant to make people like me uncomfortable and it does so perfectly.

                Experience I have had with this different way of thinking I find through work; although I have found my home among like minded IT geeks, I come across the occasional non analytical thinker. These are people that are okay in the unknown areas. They won’t immediately understand how to determine the quality of data is to do a compare across systems, but they do see things in ways analytical people don’t. Often we can’t communicate well with each other. We don’t understand each other. But, I can tell you that when I argue things from reason to those who think in a non analytical way, they won’t listen to me no matter how much supporting data and statistical truth I throw at them. This is where the non analytical people come in.

                So, honestly, as I said up above, it may not be as simple as semantics but may well be closer and simply a different way of thinking.

        2. Vaal, you’re missing the point. If I could express in simple propositions the truths that art conveys, we wouldn’t need art, would we? Again we butt up against the naturalistic fallacy (if I may extend it in this way), that all our knowledge can be expressed in propositions that can be empirically verified. If art could be so recast, then art is just a flourish on top of a cake. The truths of art are conveyed by art, by art’s effect on us, and our self-understanding.

              1. This line:

                “Again we butt up against the naturalistic fallacy (if I may extend it in this way), that all our knowledge can be expressed in propositions that can be empirically verified.”

                Your Lawrence example below and your comment on emotional judgement elsewhere lead me to suspect that you think some mysterious action is going on when you interpret a piece of work. If the recreation of an experience through art is supposed to be beyond science’s ken, then presumably that’s because you think experience itself is beyond science’s ken. Which leads me to think you’re tending towards mind dualism, which leads me to think you’re tending towards supernaturalism, if not explicitly then implicitly.

                The only other plausible angles I could discern are that the limitations to deciphering the claims in a text are simply practical rather than ones in principle (can’t access the artist’s mindset, don’t have to tech to study it, highly complicated brain, etc.), or else you think science is almost entirely like particle physics and somehow is impotent for local descriptions.

                Also, you think your car being in the garage is not an empirically verifiable claim?

              2. Also, I raised a question to you elsewhere that I’d like to see answered, if at all possible:

                “One of the most eye-opening things I’ve learned the last few years is how surprisingly irrational human decision-making can be, and not just in random ways but in biased, systematic, and therefore potentially predictable ways. Learning the details has brought tremendous insight to my worldview, with the added advantage that I can be confident that worldview is true. I may have learned the same thing from a skilled artist or art movement, but without a corresponding attempt to actually verify it, through science or just plain reason, then how could I be sure it was not just a beautiful untruth that I happened to find interesting?”

              3. Also, if I may throw a third comment in and add another post-script,

                “For art as a modality of communication (I don’t like ‘mechanism’ here) is not discursive as science is, and many people point to the contribution that science can make to the study of literature and music and think that this somehow makes literature and music scientific. This is a mistake. For the kind of communication involved is not scientific but emotional, moral, cultural, etc. etc., which brings very different types of thinking into play.”

                Unless you think emotions, morals, and other cultural meanings occur in this material universe, you’re effectively saying science could never look at them because they exist on some untouchable realm of non-scientific existence. Presumably, material minds using material… well, materials, to produce material works don’t suddenly jump into a whole new ontology when read by material minds. That’s another reason why I suspect you are leaning towards dualism, and thus supernaturalism.

          1. Eric,

            I’m not missing the point, I’m simply asking you to support your claims.

            You haven’ made any actual “argument.”
            You’ve simply thrown out assertions (that seem to be non-sequiters), so everyone is asking for actual examples in support of any of your premises.

            When asked for an example of a truth delivered via art that can not be apprehended via empirical inquiry, now you seem to be saying you can not articular such examples for us.

            Well then, you can hardly blame us for pointing out this does not constitute an argument for your position – thus far it’s merely “What I say is true.”

            And then you move right on to begging the question by claiming not agreeing with you and your mysterious as yet un-articulated argument is due to a Naturalistic Fallacy.

            It’s just very surprising, and disappointing, that someone like yourself who surely knows what a good argument looks like, is here claiming to be making a (rather grandiose) argument against New Atheist epistemology, without actually making the argument, or supporting any of your claims.

            The truths of art are conveyed by art, by art’s effect on us, and our self-understanding.

            ^^^^ See, this is what we’re talking about.
            This is mere assertion. Until you can articulate examples for us in support of that assertion, you are not making an argument just..apparently…asking us to accept this truth as either granted, or criticizing us for not “feeling it to be true” as you do.

            So it’s rather hasty to castigate people for not getting a “point” or argument that you refuse to support or fully articulate.

            Vaal

            1. Again, what can I say? Take a novel by Lawrence, for example, say, The Rainbow. It’s a beautiful piece of work, and the wonderfully descriptive opening chapters of the passing of the seasons and the organic in which people were linked with the land and the countryside, compared with the more superficial relationship between “man” and nature as we move into the modern period, with the Brangwen sisters, and finally, the arch modernist, represented (in Women in Love, which, is, of course, a continuation of the story), by the coal mine owner Richard Crich, the one who is lacking in human feeling (which is represented in the end by his being frozen to death), raises important questions not only about our relation with nature and each other, but about moral insight into the nature of modernity, an insight which seems to be much more in evidence today and our exploitation of the natural world and people. Of course, this is one way of interpreting the work, and there may be others. That’s one reason I am reluctant to offer examples as you have asked, but there is one. And of course, there are far more layers of meaning in the novels than this, and if there weren’t it wouldn’t have taken novels to provide them. It’s not that I can’t give examples, but the examples, like all attempts to interpret the meaning of a novel or a poem or musical composition, are always really but poor second bests to the works of art themselves, whose truth is conveyed much more directly and less discursively.

              1. You describe a vital function of art, but what is going on there is not the revealing of objective truths about the universe as an whole. Rather, it’s holding up an intentionally-distorted mirror to your own psyche, for you to examine your own self in a new light and, perhaps, gain new insights into yourself.

                If you are wise, you will take a careful and methodical approach to such introspection, and be brutally honest about observations. And that is exactly what science is, broadly understood — though, to be sure, in this particular case the observations are generally only accessible to you from within your own mind.

                You yourself identified how we can know that any true facts revealed through art in this manner are entirely subjective: there are at least as many ways of interpreting a work of art as there are people in the audience, and many of those interpretations are diametrically opposed to each other. Are they reaching these irreconcilable conclusions because they’re experiencing different works of art? Obviously not. Their interpretations are, as much as anything, revelations of their own selves as they are of the work of art. The art is a catalyst, a crucible through which the audience passes: the art remains unchanged, but the audience does not. At least, not if the art has any depth to it….

                b&

              2. No, of course not. But why should knowledge or truth be confined to what is true of the universe as a whole? This is absurd, Ben, and pointless. It is true that my car is in the garage. I was just out there, and saw it. I believe it is still there now. This is not true of the universe as a whole, but of this part of my little world. Very few people know or could know the truth of that statement, and in a description of universal knowledge it would figure not at all, unless you wanted to describe the present system state of the universe in which entities such as cars figured. But then in that sort of state description there is no reason why the truths known through literature should not also be included as part of the content of the universe, since such knowledge will be constitutive of certain mental or brain states.

            2. Thank you Eric.

              Although I was into philosophy/science/religious literature long before the New Atheist movement, I nonetheless identify with the movement and largely agree with it. I just don’t think the type of empiricism “we” espouse is as shallow, naive, reductionist or exclusive as you portray.

              In looking at your example, me response is:

              I’m not sure what specifically the “truth” was in the example. You said it raises “questions” but I’m not sure which is the truth claim. The best I can infer is that the inferred “truth” is that, where once people had a more organic relationship with the land, now we have a more superficial relationship. There’s obviously a lot of unpacking to do with that premise, but just taking it on face value: I see nothing in my, or the New Atheist’s, philosophy that bars us from either coming to that same interpretation of the meaning in the book, OR from recognizing the “truth” of that message. (Again, presuming one agrees with such a conclusion).

              But an obvious problem arises: Have we been given a truth, or simply been persuaded to feel one way or another? Surely this is a difference of considerable importance, because people are often persuaded by literature (and other mediums) to believe things that are not true. So how do we decide? And if the truth resides in our interpretation, again…how do we recognize when our interpretations are true or false, without devolving into some superficial tautology about our own opinions always being true? If you’ve answered this question of how we decide how we “know” something is true vs false via art, I must have missed it.

              What if someone else reads The Rainbow and either comes to a competing interpretation, or simply disagrees with the “truth” you think you apprehended e.g. they might say that, in fact, modernity has made us more cognizant of our relationship with the world; through science man has never been more richly informed of our relationship with the rest of our world, and the most informed among us are taking steps far more significant than anyone in the past has taken to address our impact on nature. How then do we decide which conclusion is really “true?”
              The one you would say came from the art, or the competing claim?

              If the issue is the truth of how “we feel” about our place in nature these days, then there is nothing separating New Atheist philosophy from recognizing and discussing how we and others feel. If the truth claim concerns how people felt in the past about nature, we can investigate that in many ways. If the truth claim concerns whether people actually lived in some “more organically sustainable” way with nature, then that too is amenable to empirical inquiry.
              I can not see what truth I would be removed from in this scenario.

              It reminds me of other ideas promulgated in literature, TV and movies: e.g. the very common
              portrayal of bullies having low self-esteem, as a cause for their being bullies. This has so often been a theme in art (I include movies) that it seems to have almost become accepted as an intuition “yes, that makes sense, that feels right.” This seems to reside in the same realm of “truth claims” as your “we used to have a less superficial relationship with nature” theme inferred from The Rainbow. But do we just take this as a truth delivered to us via literature? What happens when empirical studies start to show otherwise, which in fact it appears they have:

              http://www.abc.net.au/news/2012-05-30/excessive-praise-risks-turning-kids-into-bullies/4041198

              Do we go with what we “felt” or “concluded” was “true” conveyed by certain artistic versions of bullies? Are we not to amend our conclusion based on more careful inquiry? And if so, what then of this idea that we can rely on some truth strictly delivered by art? It always comes back to “how did you decide what was ‘true’ vs ‘false’ from any piece of art?”

              It’s not that I, or most atheists, would deny art can convey truth. It certainly can. And it can be fantastic at shaking us out of certain stultified states, reacquaint ourselves with truths, get us to recognize or investigate new truths. (And that is only some of the merits of art).
              So there certainly is, or can be, a very strong link between art and truth. It’s just that when you get into more careful epistemological concerns, the premise that art delivers truths about the world that can not be known, or verified in some other more careful empirical way, is very problematic for all the reasons we’ve been spelling out. It’s incredibly valuable, but if we are talking cogently about art’s place in our epistemology, it’s not marginalizing it to understand where it fits in, coherently. I do it strikes me that art is actually given firmer ground and rational significance when it has it’s place in the more coherent epistemology.

              I do not see yet coherency in your epistemological treatment of art. And I still see no example of a truth conveyed in art that I would be barred from knowing, or that I could not acknowledge as a truth being conveyed by art. It seems to me that such truths have a deeper connection to the rest of my epistemology, wherein by having a more fundamental, coherent empirical framework, I can give those truths a firmer anchor, greater warrant and coherence. Truth in art can be in principle verified to be intimately coherent with my entire epistemological system, vs than the apparently free-floating, separate “truths” module in which you appear to place art.

              Cheers,

              Vaal

              1. Again, you are missing the point. I did not use the opening chapters of the Rainbow to point to specific truths only accesible via art, but I am saying that if you think that you can take a novel like the Rainbow (along with Women in Love) and reduce it to discursively expressed truths, you are missing the best that literature of the calibre of Lawrence’s best work has to convey. And what it does convey is true, whether discursively expressible or not. My example was not to give a specific expression of such a truth. Indeed, my point is that you have to read the novel to access the truth that Lawrence had to express. If he didn’t have to do it in artistic terms, he would have been better of trying to say it discursively in the first place.

              2. And you’re continuing to miss my point, at least, and I think Vaal’s as well.

                Your truths from that or any other work of art are yours and not necessarily shared by anybody else. They are true, yes, and unquestionably, but their domain is not only limited, but there are as many other truths for that one single work of art as there are other members in the audience. (And, of course, there will generally be a lot of similarity — we’re all cousins, after all.)

                You are doing science as we define it when you engage in art criticism, even the impossible-to-describe-in-English criticism under discussion. It’s not the most precise form of science there is, and its domain is even more limited than that of a biologist who specializes in fruit flies.

                Of course, you might not actually be doing science in that case; you may be practicing some form of self-deception, such as faith. For example, you may like to think that you’re the type of person who would react in a certain way, so you try to convince yourself that that’s how you really did react. But, in that case, whatever you think you’ve learned has obviously moved outside of the realm of truth.

                (And, to forestall an anticipated response: if you don’t like the way you reacted, and use the realization of that fact gained from the art to actually work to change your reaction rather than just pretend you have, you’re now again in the realm of science, or perhaps applied science, aka engineering.)

                Cheers,

                b&

              3. Eric,

                “I did not use the opening chapters of the Rainbow to point to specific truths only accesible via art,”

                Wha?

                You’ve claimed that New Atheist philosophy results in an impoverishment and marginalization of art, and this is due to New Atheists “isolating art from the realm of knowledge.”

                The crux clearly is epistemological, which is why you have constantly talked of art delivering”truth” and “knowledge” as if New Atheists are denying truths in art, or that empirical inquiry misses some truths that are only delivered through art.

                I’d joined the chorus of asking you for an example of “a truth delivered via art that can not be apprehended via empirical inquiry.”

                Why then wouldn’t I presume that you were offering an example? And now you are saying you never meant to provide any example??? You are indeed confusing me.

                “but I am saying that if you think that you can take a novel like the Rainbow (along with Women in Love) and reduce it to discursively expressed truths, you are missing the best that literature of the calibre of Lawrence’s best work has to convey.”

                But that’s just a straw man. Who is talking about reducing the novel in any such way? We can discuss possible truths expressed in a work of art while recognizing that our dissecting some section doesn’t constitute “the art itself” but is simply a discussion about it. We can do this knowing that it’s the art itself that conveys such experiential power of what we are talking about, that our dissection of it is unlikely to re-create. It’s just a straw-man assumption of crazy reductionism where you seem to picture us “reducing” art, discarding it, to be replaced with some terse propositional truths. I don’t know anyone who does anything like this…or wants to! We would certainly recognize the power of Lawrence to convey powerful ideas, experiences, and possible truths about human nature, and that the particular experience would be unique to Lawrence, as another artist will produce his unique experience for the audience.

                To ask of any proposition “Is This True?” has no bearing on dismissing the worth of art. And the question remains as to whether one can, or ought to, determine “If This Is True” STRICTLY via the art itself.

                To know whether it makes sense to do so requires looking at actual examples of a truth inferred from art, to see how this plays out. So why you are so reticent to actually provide an example is baffling, since the whole dispute turns on this epistemological issue.

                And what it does convey is true, whether discursively expressible or not.

                Again…you keep simply claiming this, without providing one example of such a “truth.” Or explaining how you “know something to be true” vs “false” strictly via art.

                “If he didn’t have to do it in artistic terms, he would have been better of trying to say it discursively in the first place.”

                All sorts of truths are given more powerful, nuanced, even persuasive expression in literature. You can intone the truth: “Racism is bad and a source of injustice” or you can write a book or make a movie about it (e.g. To Kill A Mockingbird), that dramatizes this truth, conveying it more powerfully. You could say “Slavery was terrible,” which is certainly true, but you can say that in an even more powerful way by dramatizing it in a book or via re-creation or characters in a movie, like 12 Years A Slave, which gets all our “emphatic systems” firing on all cylinders so we somewhat “experience” and “feel” the truth, rather than simply coldly acknowledge some proposition about it. There are all sorts of reasons one would say something via art (and not that art even *has* to always be a comment on anything).

                This is a massively valuable feature of the arts that no atheist I know would
                disavow, certainly not me. And our emphasis of a generally empirical epistemology as a foundation in no way undermines such value. Art remains unique, powerful, valuable, because of it’s totality, it’s character, how it WORKS, not merely on some set of truthful propositions. Art is not reducible to mere truthful propositions – and hence fully replaceable by guys in a lab coat doing science – any more in my philosophy than it is yours! (And, again, don’t forget if it’s about art’s subjective effect on many people, or some other truth about our nature, New Atheists avail themselves of intersubjectivity just as everyone else does).

                But the question still remains: IF we are going to say that art can convey truth, where does that truth come from? And can art convey falsehood? Surely it can.
                And so the obvious question is: when we are going to ask the pointed question of whether some piece of art has delivered some truth, we first at least have to be able to coherently conceive of whatever this “truth” is. And articulate it. If we can’t do so, how do we even “know” we “know” it? Pure feeling, a satisfying tingling of our intuition? But we already know those can lead to false beliefs as well.

                So how do you decide whether some piece of art has delivered some “truth” to you rather than putting a falsehood into your head? I wish you could answer this, but of course that would take actually getting down to examples.

                This is reminding me of all sorts of claims about things that “can not be the subject of empirical verification.” Often this is a result not of the purported phenomenon, but rather due to the fact that the claimant either refuses to, or can not, articulate anything cogent about this purported phenomenon to begin with. (Often “the supernatural” is an example). Yeah, science is insufficient for verifying belief in incoherent concepts. But then…what IS sufficient for verifying, or justifying incoherent or inchoate concepts?

                I just still don’t see the coherence of your epistemology in regards to the truths of art. Nor, again, do I see anything of true value or substance in art being discarded by New Atheists, who simply recognize that we can have, in principle, empirical ways of deciding which truth claims warrant our assent, even when those claims are made via art. It’s an epistemological foundation that gives coherence to truth propositions, including those in art. And this does nothing to diminish art’s unique way of conveying truth, or it’s unique power and place in human life.

                Vaal

              4. Permit me to quote a wise man:

                We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth, at least the truth that is given us to understand. The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies. If he only shows in his work that he has searched, and re-searched, for the way to put over lies, he would never accomplish anything.

                I think it is this foundation of art that Eric just simply doesn’t “get,” and instead thinks there’s some sort of platonic capital-T Truth embedded in each work of art. At least, that’s my best guess….

                b&

        3. Interesting, not even one example, just one can he produce where “the truths of art” are as informative about nature as “the truths” of scientific inquiry – “if I could do that we wouldn’t need art”.

          I predict the idea of “science marginalizes art as a means of knowledge” will be restated many times in many ways as being so, without a single example produced.

          I’ve seen a similar argument made for the dearth of aboriginal authors on the NYT bestseller list. Why? Science – because it rejected Charles Hoy Fort’s ideas and something about the the colour orange.

      2. What I am saying is that the new atheist naturalism is itself destructive of the art that many new atheists so obviously enjoy and appreciate, that their theory about truth and knowledge is in conflict with their own understanding of what can be known.

        Eric, you murdered your wife out of cowardice and because you didn’t want to pay the hospital bills.

        No, of course you didn’t; you did the only thing a compassionate human could possibly have done in your place. But at least your blood is boiling as much as mine is right now, and for the same reasons.

        Can you not possibly understand how powerfully offensive and crude you’re being by telling artists that you understand their art better than they do, and that the understanding they have is invalid and useless?

        Don’t you think we would have noticed at some point the futility of our efforts, were they futile?

        Are you truly unaware that the “atheists are dour boors with no reason to live” trope is as common, offensive, and bizarrely baseless as the “Hitler was an atheist so why don’t you eat babies?” one?

        Are you trying to insult us? If so, at least have the balls to do so openly!

        I apologize for crassly using the memory of your wife to get your attention by getting your dander up. I can only hope you might have a similar apology forthcoming for the rest of us. If so, and if you’d like to have a civilized discussion about the compatibility of naturalism and artistic expression, I’d love to engage in such with you — but not if you’re going to try to tell me what I know.

        b&

        1. Ben, I find it way out of line to compare what Eric and his wife went through with being a dissed artist.

            1. I’m willing to offer my apologies, but I really think we’re all due a similar round from Eric. For many artists, passion and commitment to the arts runs at least as deep as to any partner, and being told that we are fundamentally and profoundly incapable of justifying our lives is every bit as insulting and patently false as being told that you can’t possibly love your spouse.

              That’s the point I was trying to make.

              I’m sorry. This is obviously a hot-button topic — but Eric really has no excuse for not being aware of that, and his repeated insistence on pushing this insult, even after I kept urging him to drop it, suggests to me that he himself is being driven by spite and the desire to offend.

              Maybe I’m overreacting, and reading more into Eric’s words than intended — but even that doesn’t explain why Eric has been so keen to keep pushing and pushing and pushing on what should have obviously been a sore spot.

              b&

              1. Look, I’m sure many of us were peeved at Eric’s insistence that we are destroying art, or not “getting it,” or whatever, and you’re not the only artist or musician on this site. But what you said, and I think you should just own up to it, is beyond the bounds of civility; you went after his late beloved wife, who departed under horrible circumstances. Yes, we had a right to be peeved, but we should be taking the high road, not striking a low blow.

                I really think you should apologize and not carp about it. And it would be great if the apology were a real one without qualifications or justifications.

                I like to keep discourse civil here, and you are a regular, one who should set the tone for the place.

              2. Sorry. You’re right; I should have taken the high road, and I didn’t. I couldn’t think of any other way to get Eric to understand the insults he was hurling, and so I responded in kind, when I shouldn’t have.

                b&

              3. I am not insulting anyone, nor intending to. I am merely making an argument. If you take the argument personally, and feel peeved, then I am not able to help you. But the argument itself remains, and so far I haven’t received anything like a response to the argument, whether expressed in high terms or scraping the bottom of the barrel as you have chosen to do. And saying that you will apologise if I do is not apologising. The high road here is not to take things personally and to argue on the merits or demerits of a case. To comment on Jerry’s remark about destroying art. I never made any such suggestion. My point was that a purely naturalistic epistemology largely misses the point of art, because it deals with values which cannot be given empirical expression or verification. Of course, those who don’t get the point can both appreciate art, and marginalise it at the same time. Art is appreciated because it calls into play all sorts of levels of discernment, but it is marginalised because the claim that is being made about truth and knowledge does not acknowledge the epistemological importance of art as art.

              4. I’m sorry Eric, but your tone is arrogant and supercilious and yes, we do feel insulted. And yes, it’s because you have never supported your claim that we New Atheists are too obtuse to see the truths expressed in literature that cannot be discerned by science. The thing is, you’ve never given ONE EXAMPLE of such ‘truths,’ and continue to argue.

                Let us have a list, then. I will maintain that any truth about the world that is in literature is science broadly construed. If you’re talking about personal, subjetive or emotional “truth” (for you seem to go back and forth between truths and feelings), then that’s a different issue. But I defy you to tell me one thing that literature or art has told us about THE UNIVERSE that cannot be discerned by empirical observation and reason.

                Look at how you waffle between truths and values:

                My point was that a purely naturalistic epistemology largely misses the point of art, because it deals with values which cannot be given empirical expression or verification.

                Which is it? If it’s truths, then give us some. And if you think that New Atheists are immune to the emotional values of art, then you’re wrong, and you know it. And, you know, some day we may know–through science–why some works of art appeal to some people and other do not What will you say then?

                And if you’re claiming that one’s values can’t be determined by science, well then a lot of us already agree with you, and disagree with Sam Harris’s point. BUT YOU ALREADY KNOW THAT. So why the fusillade of atheist dissing on this site?

                Finally, religion has no a priori way of validating its claims either. Science has a method that works, and we don’t need a priori philosophical justification. If you demand that, then you cannot justify your claim that art itself tells us truths about the world.

                1. Justify that. What is your a priori philosophical justification for saying that art has the ability to tell us truths.
                2. Please give us a list of “truths” (not values) that art imparts to us that a naturalistic epistemology does not.

              5. Please give us a list of “truths” (not values) that art imparts to us that a naturalistic epistemology does not.

                I’ll make it even simpler, if I may.

                Eric, please give us a few examples, or at least one, of works of art that you think best exemplify whatever point it is you think you’re trying to make. From any medium — music, sculpture, dance, poetry, whatever. And, if at all possible, give us the program notes version of what you think we should be looking for. Yes, your thesis is that this <whatever /> in art is somehow fundamentally indescribable, but you can at least point us in the right direction.

                This is not at all an unreasonable request, and it should be trivial for you. You should have some favorite works of art that move you deeply that you’ve had in mind when you’ve been tossing your hand grenades; and, if your thesis is even remotely correct, it should be pretty obvious to us that there’s “something” there, even if we have no better luck putting it into words than you’ve had.

                It’s even fine if you want to point to overtly Christian works. Over the past week or three, I myself have encouraged multiple people here to soak themselves in this definitive and mind-blowingly amazing performance of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio — and it’s hard to get more overtly Christian than that.

                Hell, you can even use that work as your example, if you think it’s adequate; just point us in the direction of where in that work you think this fundamental disconnect is supposed to lie.

                If you want bonus points, you can also give us an example or two of works that don’t demonstrate this phenomenon. Those don’t even have to be specific; you could handwave at a toddler’s random fingerpainting held to the ‘fridge with a magnet, perhaps — or maybe identify what you see as the difference between the dramatis personae of a Shakespeare play (which itself can be quite evocative) and the telephone book. I’ll leave that to you — but, please, not at the expense of identifying some actual work with this magical mystery you think empiricists are incapable of appreciating.

                b&

              6. Jerry, you said:

                I’m sorry Eric, but your tone is arrogant and supercilious and yes, we do feel insulted.

                Show me one place where I have been arrogant and supercilious. I disagree strongly, as I’ve said, with the kind of naturalism which seems to have come to dominate the new atheism. That would never have won my approval. I try to say why. If it is arrogant to make this attempt, then, unfortunately, there is no other way to do it. But if you are taking disagreement as arrogance, then I really do fear for the consequences of the new atheism.

              7. ndeed, I have often thought that the new atheism is precisely an attitude towards the world which marginalises art and impoverishes human activity and belief.

                I’m guessing this sentence is one of the objections, but of course New Atheism isn’t the same as new atheists, right?

                Otherwise it’s a rather silly and ignorant claim.

              8. Indeed, Eric, that sentence is an example.

                And to further things along you seem not to care…

                “Condescending or not, I believe it to be true, and the evidence is available in the comments here.”

              9. In what way is that sentence condescending? It is merely a statement of how I perceive the limitations involved in what I think is a deepening dogmatism in the new atheism, which I express in terms of the term scientism. (Philip Kitcher and Susan Haack have both detected this, and I believe they are right.) I do not mean to be condescending when I speak in this way. I mean to be descriptive. You can agree or disagree. I know that the Web has a tendency to ramp up the energy of statements so that they look like personal affronts when they are simple statements, but we can avoid that by remembering that what is written without the expression and the intended kindness that goes along with it, even if it is critical, is not really meant in a personal or denigrating way, except, of course, in so far as you do not take disagreement as denigrating, which it should not be considered to be. Indeed, this should be the most impersonal medium, because it is not accompanied by facial expression or vocal intonation, and yet is often interpreted as the most person form of communication, because you can add whatever expression or intonation you wish to the words that you read.

              10. Alright, Eric, I’ll take your word for it that it’s not personal, but as a recording artist it’s a rather, how to put it, challenging notion to take on. I’m used to people not liking our shit, but they usually refrain from implying that I’m contributing to the deprivation of society because of it.

                That kind of talk is usually reserved for conservative preachers.

                Regarding scientism, what exactly is it we new atheists are guilty of reducing the artistic value of?

                I’d just like one concrete example where new atheists are downplaying the importance of the arts.

                Surely that is not to much to ask if you truly think you’ve recognized it.

              11. Jasper, as a recording artist, you would be right to take exception to the criticism that, by your work you are “contributing to the deprivation of society because of it.” But I am not talking about specific artistic works, or specific users of such works. I am talking about the aesthetic theory that says that aesthetic works do not, in themselves, express truths that can be grasped by those who enjoy them, and which cannot be expressed as clearly in another way. That’s all.

              12. I am talking about the aesthetic theory that says that aesthetic works do not, in themselves, express truths that can be grasped by those who enjoy them, and which cannot be expressed as clearly in another way.

                But that aesthetic theory doesn’t exist outside of the scientistic straw man you’ve created.

                Why do you persist in telling us that you know the aesthetic theory of artists better than the artists themselves?

                b&

              13. Well, that depends on your working definitions of truth, art, science and New Atheism.

                As a songwriter I’ve often been asked about the meaning of the lyrics in the songs, but no one has ever asked me what the meaning of the melody was. There is no true melody.

                Of course truths can be expressed in and through art, but there is no such thing as true art.

                Science and art overlap and intertwine just like religion and art overlap and intertwine.

                Oxymoronically you yourself are taking the role of being the arbiter of what constitutes art and in what way New Atheism( what is our creed, btw? ) contributes to it.

                Through the proxy of accusing us of scientism it seems to me that you take a subjective emotional complaint and try to rationalize it as an objective general observation you have made regarding new atheists.

                That’s why I’m looking for a concrete example from you. I haven’t read Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris or Dennett, but I’ve watched loads of debates on the tube and I cannot for the life of me remember when any of said horsemen reduced the importance of art to a mere question of objective factual truth or not.

                Not once have I heard any of them argue that art solely is meaningful when “reduced” to scientific units or scientific concepts.

                The simple matter of the fact is that many of us work within and contribute to the arts, so I simply don’t understand your complaint unless viewed as a subjective emotional matter of taste.

                Exactly how do we new atheists deprive society of anything ( except religion ) because of our new atheism?

              14. So let me get this straight, Eric. According to you, our “aesthetic”, which is to claim that truths about the universe cannot be derived solely from art, literature, etc. does this: it creates

                “an attitude towards the world which marginalises art and impoverishes human activity and belief.”

                Are you frickin’ SERIOUS? Can you actually believe that this attitude has impoverished human activity and belief? Can you give us one tangible example of how it has done that, or is this all just something you made up because it sounds good.

                If some of us didn’t believe that, do you think art would be less marginalized or human activity would have been richer and more “active”?

                I’m flabbergasted. You can argue this if you want, but I don’t believe it for a second, nor do I think you can give any examples of how art has been marginalized because of the attitude of a few of us.

                I think your efforts would be better spent going after the malfeasance of religion than attacking New Atheists. You’re not accomplishing your goals on this site, that’s for sure. And yes, it’s insulting to tell us that we’re marginalizing art and impoverishing human activity. I could easily say you’re enabling religion by wasting your considerable talents supporting an untenable thesis at some small atheist website.

              15. Also, Eric, I notice you still haven’t provided concrete examples in response to Jerry. The closest I’ve seen is “go read Lawrence, and you’ll get it then”:

                “Again, what can I say? Take a novel by Lawrence, for example, say, The Rainbow. It’s a beautiful piece of work, and the wonderfully descriptive opening chapters of the passing of the seasons and the organic in which people were linked with the land and the countryside, compared with the more superficial relationship between “man” and nature as we move into the modern period, with the Brangwen sisters, and finally, the arch modernist, represented (in Women in Love, which, is, of course, a continuation of the story), by the coal mine owner Richard Crich, the one who is lacking in human feeling (which is represented in the end by his being frozen to death), raises important questions not only about our relation with nature and each other, but about moral insight into the nature of modernity, an insight which seems to be much more in evidence today and our exploitation of the natural world and people. Of course, this is one way of interpreting the work, and there may be others. That’s one reason I am reluctant to offer examples as you have asked, but there is one.”

                This basically amounts to a claim: the more modern a society is, the more cut off from natural elements it is, and the more morally iffy its practices become and unfeeling its people are.

                Is this your idea of “a truth that cannot be discerned by science”: i.e. that a scientific body could never investigate whether this claim is true. And if it’s just your interpretation, how do you know it’s the truth rather than just a prejudice against modernity?

              16. Also:

                “Show me one place where I have been arrogant and supercilious.”

                LOL, what a self-serving definition of arrogance you must have! Suggesting or implying that science has a stronger claim to providing truths than art does – while showing an aesthetic appreciation for art – is outrageous arrogance that betrays a condescending attitude enough to put off would-be atheists. Saying new atheists are scientistically dehumanizing the arts and impoverishing human activity and belief, and that you think they’ll lose us the moral world once religion goes, is just honest disagreement with them.

                Oh yes, and racists are just people who happen to have different views on what skin colour means. They’re not condescending or arrogant, either, of course, even when they say non-racists will ruin society and morals.

              17. I find it hard to understand the criticisms that are being made here, quite aside from the near impossibility of following the discussion because of the nested comments. However, take this from Jerry:

                So let me get this straight, Eric. According to you, our “aesthetic”, which is to claim that truths about the universe cannot be derived solely from art, literature, etc. does this: it creates

                “an attitude towards the world which marginalises art and impoverishes human activity and belief.”

                Are you frickin’ SERIOUS? Can you actually believe that this attitude has impoverished human activity and belief? Can you give us one tangible example of how it has done that, or is this all just something you made up because it sounds good.

                Nowhere do I suggest anything remotely resembling the claim that truths about the universe can be derived solely from art, literature, etc. However, it is true that I think the end result of scientism (which Jerry dismisses as a canard) will be to marginalise art, literature, etc. Anything which claims that the only truths we can know are those that are empirically confirmable will do this, for art and literature, though they convey important cultural, personal, interpersonal, and moral truths, do not (as such) deliver empirically verifiable truths (not that there are no empirically confirmable truths in the humanities, the Geisteswissenschaften). I do not say that this attitude has impoverished human activity and belief, though I think it may be true that it has, but more likely that, were the scientism of the new atheism to become common cultural currency, it is likely to do so. All we can do is wait and see on this latter point. I think the new atheism badly misconstrues the nature of cultural reality and the widespread underlying agreement about non-empirically verifiable truths, and the effect of this misconstrual, given wide enough influence, would be culturally disastrous. However, this is my last comment on this thread. There are simply too many discussions going on all at once. I can’t keep up, nor do I get a sense of a consistent discussion taking place, and I find myself constantly repeating myself to very little purpose.

              18. I think you try to make a case for art as NOMA, Eric, and I think it is an impossible claim to verify. You certainly fail to do so to this point. Art conveys messages via emotion, both from the artist and by those who interpret the artist’s work. These emotions may be unique in a number of ways, a uniqueness experienced for only an instant or in a “timeless” sense, although I do not want to accidentally imply anything eternal with the phrase; after all, the nature of all things is, as best presently known, impermanence. Art may be reality conveyed someewhat differently as described by scientific means (scientism may have been a useful term decades ago, but for some time now it is reduced to an ignorance-based pejorative insult by contemporary conservative Know-nothings), but art contains no information about reality inaccessible by empiricism. It just says it cooler, partly because it is not burdened by the constraints scientific literature must operate under.

                Are you familiar with this author?

                http://books.wwnorton.com/books/Colliding-Worlds/

                A dazzling look at the artists working on the frontiers of science.

                In recent decades, an exciting new art movement has emerged in which artists utilize and illuminate the latest advances in science. Some of their provocative creations—a live rabbit implanted with the fluorescent gene of a jellyfish, a gigantic glass-and-chrome sculpture of the Big Bang (pictured on the cover)—can be seen in traditional art museums and magazines, while others are being made by leading designers at Pixar, Google’s Creative Lab, and the MIT Media Lab. In Colliding Worlds, Arthur I. Miller takes readers on a wild journey to explore this new frontier.

                Miller, the author of Einstein, Picasso and other celebrated books on science and creativity, traces the movement from its seeds a century ago—when Einstein’s theory of relativity helped shape the thinking of the Cubists—to its flowering today. Through interviews with innovative thinkers and artists across disciplines, Miller shows with verve and clarity how discoveries in biotechnology, cosmology, quantum physics, and beyond are animating the work of designers like Neri Oxman, musicians like David Toop, and the artists-in-residence at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider.

                From NanoArt to Big Data, Miller reveals the extraordinary possibilities when art and science collide.

              19. “non-empirically verifiable truths, “

                Eric, I don’t see how you can advance your position until you provide examples of such truths. Particularly, as conveyed by any example in art.

                You may come up with some we agree with, you may not. But we’ll never know until you show us exactly what you are talking about.

      3. What I am saying is that the new atheist naturalism is itself destructive of the art that many new atheists so obviously enjoy and appreciate, that their theory about truth and knowledge is in conflict with their own understanding of what can be known.

        I’m unclear on what you mean by this. Are you saying there’s a supernatural component to art that can’t be explained naturalistically? Or are you distinguishing “new atheist naturalism” from some other sort of naturalism with (presumably) more explanatory power?

        Or perhaps you’re of the opinion that any attempt to explain art necessarily destroys it, just as knowledge of optics allegedly destroys the beauty of the rainbow.

        In any case, you still haven’t provided a concrete example of an artistic truth that cannot be learned by observation of art and of human experience, but must be apprehended directly by some (as yet unspecified) means.

        1. I am simply saying that art and literature and music expresses truths about ourselves and the world which cannot be expressed in naturalistic terms, in terms of empirical evidence. As I said above (and I see that I did speak about destroying art, but that was meant as a criticism, not of the appreciation that people can have of art despite their theories, but of the fact that it diminishes the value of art because the idea that truth is only expressible in naturalistically confirmable propositions simply misunderstands what might be taken to the way that art functions in human life and experience).

          1. “…literature and music expresses truths about ourselves and the world…”

            I think you are failing to distinguish truth claims from emotive responses.

            1. Yes, that is a major problem with the “scientism” canard, one that I examine in my book, which deals with this issue in part of a chapter. Even Eric keeps confusing “truth” with “emotion”.

              It’s telling that in my reading the many accusations of scientism, I have found almost none of the accusers citing specific claims of truths that can’t be found by science but can by other means. Philip Kitcher has mentioned a few, like things in history, but they turn out to rest on empirical investigation, i.e., science broadly construed.

              1. I am not confusing truth with emotion, though I do believe there are truths which are essentially emotional in their content. And here, just to anticipate what Keith Douglas says, I am not speaking about judgements of emotion, but emotional judgements, which are a different thing, and can be true to our nature as individual and social beings. I’m not sure it is possible to produce empirical evidence of this, for this would be to jump out of emotion into discursive ideas, but I am sure we are aware when, for example, something depicted in a story or a play is (or is not) true to the emotions involved. In which case we might say, pointing at the scene and perhaps playing it over again, “that is true to human experience,” even though you could not, without replaying the scene, say what it is that is true to human experience. Richard Holloway does this very well with scenes from movies, by the way, and also does the same thing with religious ways of perceiving our lives and the world, but you cannot say what is true without pointing to the scene, and expressing your conviction that that is a particularly vivid depiction of some aspect of human emotional response, which you could not express without the depiction itself — which is why literary criticism is so often a trap to the unwary, thinking that reading criticism is to understand a poem (say), when the only way of understanding it is to read the poem with understandting. The criticism might point the way, but cannot substitute for the poem itself. It is the poem which expresses the truth, not some discursive explanation of it.

              2. Again, the truths you are revealing with your criticism are truths of your own self. They may be common truths, but they are not universal; you yourself acknowledge as much.

                You are, in essence, doing science (using my own definition already supplied in this thread) with the lens of the work of art turned upon your own consciousness. The picture may well be fuzzy…but so are electron micrographs of individual atoms, the highest-resolution scientific equipment that exists (best I know as a non-physicist).

                b&

              3. Eric,

                “I am sure we are aware when, for example, something depicted in a story or a play is (or is not) true to the emotions involved. In which case we might say, pointing at the scene and perhaps playing it over again, “that is true to human experience,” even though you could not, without replaying the scene, say what it is that is true to human experience.”

                The problem is still that this still seems very vague. There’s still no concrete examples of any particular “truth” to help us evaluate your claims.

                So let’s take your talk of the truth of emotions in a scene. What exactly do you mean? Let’s say we are watching a play in which a mother clearly shows favoritism for her older son over her younger son.
                We see the sadness and frustration in the younger son and conclude “yes, that is true to the emotions involved.” And perhaps the younger son acts out recklessly in response, which we interpret as an attempt to be noticed by his mother, or to rebel against his situation. Presumably we could conclude: “the action and emotions on stage is true to how a child feels who notices he is loved less by a parent.”

                Now, would a New Atheist’s epistemology somehow bar him from such a conclusion? Of course not. He hasn’t missed out on anything there. But it does not diminish the truth conveyed in that play at all to recognize how it is confirmed by, and derived from, our wider experience. (We may have experienced it, seen it happen in other families, or simply empathize based on how we know we’d feel in the same situation, so it rings true). Certainly acknowledging the reality of subjective experience, and also engaging in the intersubjective project of comparison with others, is part of New Atheist epistemology. Life couldn’t make sense without it. But then you seem to say that such “true emotions” as depicted in art are not going to be amenable to other empirical inquiry. But why not? All sorts of cognitive and human sciences would seem to bear on such truths. It seems pretty much any “truth” one infers from the play could be framed as a potential hypothesis for further inquiry, e.g. “Do children who believe they are less loved than other siblings tend to feel X emotions, or act in Y manner?” That’s just the type of question regularly investigated in the human sciences.

                Which goes back to my “bullies harass other kids because bullies have low self esteem” meme that permeated so many literary, TV and film depictions. Someone watching such a depiction may say “that is so TRUE to human experience.” But…is it? Just because they feel it is, intuitively, or whatever? I remember watching a “bully” movie with my girlfriend once and that’s pretty much exactly what she claimed afterward. But it didn’t resonate with my observations of bullies at all. They always seemed rather confident and full of themselves. So…when one person says “that art conveys X truth about human experience” and another person disagrees….how do we discern which is true?

                As mentioned in my previous post, careful empirical inquiry into the psychology of bullies seems to support they often tend to have high self esteem. Do we ignore this and say “no, art is in it’s own, hermetically sealed category of experiential epistemology. It may be ‘true’ when investigated empirically that bullies have high self esteem, but via art we can directly experience the fact that bullies have low self esteem.” Unless you have some underlying basis for deciding such claims, it seems your epistemology, is balkanized in a way that would allow for contradiction.

                ??

                I just don’t see how you are putting this all together. Whereas an empirical approach that both arms us to recognizing truth in art, and to discern when art is conveying falsehood, does seem to be more coherent.

                Vaal

            2. Or, at least, we are owed a sketch of a theory of truth where by emotions are truth-evaluable (something I actually agree with). *But* I don’t claim that the judgements of emotion are somehow foreign to those of scientific research or any other “naturalistic” (however that is being used) inquiry. For example, my anger at injustice, I take it, is saying something like “that’s wrong”. Hamlet is saying, “what pitiful but grand creatures we are” or something like that. It might even be several propositions. But I know of no argument that they are inaccessible; after all, how did Shakespeare or any other great artist discover the propositions (or falsity) expressed in his art?

              If the domain is not propositions, then, we need that theory of truth above, where somehow it applies to propositions and to … something?

          2. I’m willing to believe there are emotional truths best conveyed by art. I’ll even grant that they can be hard to articulate verbally. (A picture is worth a thousand words.)

            What I’m not buying is that these truths form a separate epistemic category from empirical or naturalistic truths about the world.

            Human brains are physical objects, and human emotions are physical processes. When I witness, say, a ballet performance of extraordinary beauty, how do I come to know that truth? By the way it makes me feel: my breath catches, my eyes get moist, my neck hairs stand up in goosebumps. These empirically detectable physiological changes are not mere side effects; they’re the very stuff of emotion.

            If I were to sit there physically unmoved by the performance, to then say that I loved it would be at best an empty platitude, without emotional substance. I love it because of the way my body responds to it, which puts the indescribable artistic truths conveyed by the performance firmly in the realm of empirical natural phenomena.

            1. I’m willing to believe there are emotional truths best conveyed by art. I’ll even grant that they can be hard to articulate verbally. (A picture is worth a thousand words.)

              What I’m not buying is that these truths form a separate epistemic category from empirical or naturalistic truths about the world.

              We even have the perfect analogy to point to: math.

              Sure, people like Sean Carroll do a wonderful job of translating the math of the Standard Model into plain English that most anybody can understand with a bit of effort. But you don’t really understand the Standard Model until you understand the math.

              I could easily buy a parallel construction with the arts.

              But — and here’s the catch — this does not support Eric’s thesis. All it establishes is that there’s a particular specialized language effective at communicating certain concepts, and that no other language is as effective at the task.

              It does not establish that the concepts being communicated lie beyond rational understanding, any more than the difficulty the average person faces in learning the Calculus means that Quantum Mechanics is some deep etherial mystery.

              b&

      4. Thanks Eric. I will take you at your word that you don’t feel superior. The xkcd cartoon is, of course, a joke and, in the theme of this discussion, it’s can be interpreted a bit more deeply than just the literal interpretation. On one level, it is driving home the point that when people toss about accusations that atheists don’t understand religion or are missing some key point which makes us as bad as fundamentalists, it can come across as implying superiority. I’m sure many people here are no stranger to this as it’s an accusation that religious people often hurl at atheists.

        It is well documented through polls that atheists, as a group, are more knowledgeable about religion than religious people are and generally more knowledgeable about multiple belief systems. So, to say that fundamentalists are the equivalent of New Atheists, but with opposite views, just isn’t supported. Generally, the theists are the ones making the claims and the counterarguments are tailored to whatever those claims are. The issue is that so many utterly absurd claims are made.

        Fundamentalists may make a lot more of these absurd claims, but they permeate all branches of Christianity to some degree, and as you rightly point out, all of Islam. The main one of these themes that’s been running through this and some of Jerry’s recent posts is regarding whether Jesus’s body really (literally) rose from the dead. You are more well-versed in Anglicanism and it appears in Orthodoxy than I am, so I’ll accept your claim that perhaps this literal belief isn’t necessary there (which still doesn’t remove the burden of proof for other afterlife claims).

        However, for at least the largest Christian sect in the world, it is an essential belief as passed down through the Magisterium (http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p123a11.htm). The Church can claim this is incomprehensible mystery, but simply claiming it doesn’t remove the burden of proof if they want to be taken seriously. Ironically, they even leave it to faith, the very charge New Atheists make that sophisticated theologians so vehemently deny! (“This ‘how’ exceeds our imagination and understanding; it is accessible only to faith. Yet our participation in the Eucharist already gives us a foretaste of Christ’s transfiguration of our bodies.” CCC 1000).

        For the life of me, I still can’t seem to grasp the core problem you have with the New Atheist movement, or rather that the core problem you’ve outlined at length, is actually indicative of New Atheism. As Ben pointed out, if these accusations don’t apply to the Four Horsemen, who do they apply to? You even expressed admiration for Hitchens in another response.

        You are right that issues such as the historicity of Jesus won’t be resolved in comment threads (though there have been several great suggestions on where to read further, another way in which New Atheism isn’t at all like fundamentalism), but at least part of the reason for simplicity in responses is due to the medium in which we’re communicating. A comment thread is not the place to write a dissertation and provide answers to all possible objections to it.

        I do think it is a perfectly viable medium to dismiss your claims such as “What is being misunderstood is what I mean by the marginalisation of art, which means its isolation from the realm of knowledge, which I take as a distinct impoverishment.” How precisely is art being marginalized by pointing out that there’s no evidence for claims made by an enormous percentage of the population? Nobody is saying that the problem with religion is that cathedrals are aesthetically beautiful, music is moving, or glancing up at the night sky fills one with a sense of wonder and transcendence. The problem is people taking these human feelings and then correlating that with divine revelation about how to mandate the way for other people live their lives.

        There is a distinction between knowledge about what art conveys and something that is objectively true. But, as other posters have pointed out, there is empirical knowledge that can both be derived from and applied to the arts. You haven’t used the word, but you seem to be treading awfully close to accusations of scientism, which is simply an invalid claim to be making about New Atheism. The claim is not that there isn’t knowledge in the arts, or that there isn’t real knowledge that is only subjective. The claim is that many religious people greatly overstep the limits of how such knowledge can be applied. When Biblical stories, whether interpreted as literal or metaphor, are used to make objective claims about how the world works or claims about objective morality, that is overstepping the bounds. As Dawkins said regarding sophisticated theology, “If only such subtle, nuanced religion predominated, the world would surely be a better place and I would have written a different book.”

        1. I think Eric’s complaint would be that hermeneutics, for example, isn’t given enough respect by those of us who distinguish knowledge based on evidence in the world from studied interpretation of ancient texts.

          1. Personally, I think hermeneutics largely gets the respect it deserves from New Atheists, and gets more than it deserves in society as a whole. That is not to say it deserves zero respect, but it must be tempered by how an interpretation applies to reality. We can’t maintain intellectual integrity by saying the best interpretations of the Bible, which lead to a humanistic paradigm, automatically carry more weight than an interpretation such as that of Michael Pearl, who uses it to justify beating children. Sure, we can try to perform an exegesis of the text to determine original intent of the authors, but in any literary or artistic endeavor, original intent is but one factor in an analysis. Who is to say that this is the most important factor? Or, that it even matters which factor is most important when there are clearly so many interpretations which have real effects on society? Or, in the case of the Bible, that the original intent in many cases may be malevolent?

            That is to say, both examples above are interpretations of the text until we apply some kind of empirical or objective criteria to them. It wouldn’t really matter much if these interpretations were applied in a strictly artistic sense, but religious people are applying their interpretations of the text to society at large. We can say that the interpretation supporting humanism is better only because we have objective evidence that human beings live more fulfilled lives than they do when they are suffocated by dogmatic religion.

            1. Or, as Douglas would say:

              “All opinions are not equal. Some are a very great deal more robust, sophisticated and well supported in logic and argument than others.”
              – Salmon of Doubt

          2. No, GB James, that is not what I am saying, though I am saying that the hermeneutical plasticity of many works is such that providing a discursive expression of the truths that work conveys is not as simple as people seem to imagine. Indeed, I am saying that it is often not possible at all, and yet that truths are being expressed. One of the things that science does, by taking the “view from nowhere” (to use Nagel’s terms) is to try to reduce this hermeneutical plasticity to zero, so that the experiment or observation can be exactly reproduced. Artistic expression does not give a view from nowhere, but a deeply embedded view from the context of human experience, its nuances and its complexity. This is not so easily interpreted as scientific theories, because it is not so hermeneutically univocal in meaning, which is why, very often, the only way to indicate what it is you want to say is to say it again in the same words, or to paint a picture in the same style, or to express it in musical phrasing with a similar resonance.

        2. There is some irony here.

          While complaining that gnu atheists who use the phrase “science broadly construed” are being over-broad and encroaching on territory where science doesn’t belong, Eric broadens “religion” to the extent that no supernatural beings need remain and the term becomes synonymous with “art”.

  29. Quite recently I was debating with a Christian online. She asked how science could explain the evolution of whales. When I pointed her to the quite staggering and beautiful evidence that science has uncovered for the evolution of whales she denied it, attempted to discredit it and ultimately ignored it. I found this particularly ironic as two days earlier she had been seriously expressing the view that it was possible for a man to live inside a whale for three days!

    1. What a strange discussion to have. It is quite well known to biblical scholars that the book of Jonah is a morality tale to illustrate God’s love for all, and not only for those, like Jonah, who felt themselves particular chosen.

      1. Then maybe those scholars or their spokesmen in the highly religious USA would be kind enough, smart enough, and aware enough of mainstream perception, to publicly correct the Christian believers who think otherwise, and campaign to stop creationist propaganda getting into education. Like the “new” atheists are doing.

        Oh wait, that’s right: they’re too busy telling atheists what arrogant dehumanizers they are for failing to see that religious myths are really chicken soup for the soul. That explain how God works. How dare we point out that God doesn’t exist, when religious texts aren’t about real events, but just ways of explaining how God works that relies on presuming God exists! How do we not see the obvious contradiction?

        1. Nonsense. There are lots of Christian theologians and others who strongly oppose fundamentalism and its idiocies, and do campaign to see that evolution and not a known-nothing fundamentalism is taught in school. I myself have done so on School Advisory committees and at public meetings. Read Langdon Gilkey’s Blue Twilight: Nature, Creationism, and American Religion as an example. And there are books by Jack Spong, Don Cupitt, practically any Anglican that you care to name (except perphaps for the Evangelical wing of the church), plus all sorts of others. Fundamentalism is primarily an American creation, though American fundamentalists have been assiduously spreading it around the globe. What surprises me when I listen to American TV is how seriously their point of view is taken. Interviewing someone like Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell in Canada would be considered largely an act of lunacy. Why would anyone listen to what these idiots have had to say? But in the US they seem to have the public ear. This simply amazes and appalls me.

          1. “Nonsense. There are lots of Christian theologians and others who strongly oppose fundamentalism and its idiocies, and do campaign to see that evolution and not a known-nothing fundamentalism is taught in school.”

            Ah, OK then. My mistake. In that case, I retract my claim to the contrary.

      2. It would seem this scholarly wisdom hasn’t made its way outta the ivory tower and into the great grey mass.

        And for the wee folk conversations like that aren’t strange at all. I worked with two people who believed Harry Potter actually teaches witchcraft. One of them was convinced mental illness was demon possession. Both received this wisdom from the BuyBull – which is art in the way Plan 9 from Outer Space is artful.

        Our demon fearing fella came to this conclusion because his wife developed a deadly brain tumor(?) while he was out whoring, drinking and gambling. So he prayed to doG to save his wife in exchange for ending his weirding ways – and doG answered in the affirmative.

        I went to a wedding where 95% of the guests were Wesleyans and they all got up and left after the meal because the evil gift from Satan – music and dancing – was to begin. It was quite amusing and sad to see a grown man physically recoil in horror from a bottle of plonk. Moody Blue I could understand.

        We have televangelists here in Canukistan – 100 Huntley Street. Before Confederation Life went under, it rented property to this group and cancelled the lease when big plans were afoot for the new Confed HQ @ 1 Mt Pleasant.

        The televangelists went into victim mode and raised money for their new digs by shamelessly guaranteeing heavenly benefits for $$$$.

        Artfully telling the truth

        1. Yes, we do have televangelists here. But no one on a major news program would take their views seriously, and enquire of them as to the significance of hurricane Katrina. CTV or CBC would be laughed off the air. Of course, Vision TV is another issue, but my point had to do with the way that American TV, the major news networks, take fundamentalist preachers and their opinions with such seriousness.

          And yes, it’s true, that much of the more contemporary theology has not made it to the great unwashed or the grey mass as you call it, but not for want of trying. Jack Spong has a large following, and most religion departments in universities represent religion in these ways. England, New Zealand and Australia have fairly active Sea of Faith groups, which promote religion as a human creation. However, judicatories of religions tend to be conservative, because they have created a great mass of conservatives by the widespread refusal of clerics (who were taught otherwise) to tell people what they learned in their own studies. Often it’s simply easier to go with the flow, rather than offend sensitive consciences. However, it can be done, as my own experience tells me, and, to my mind, it is a moral imperative for trained clergy to do.

          1. And yes, it’s true, that much of the more contemporary theology has not made it to the great unwashed or the grey mass as you call it, but not for want of trying.

            That’s exactly the point.

            Who are the “real” Christians?

            The insignificant minority of theologians whom nobody pays attention to? Or the billions of people whose asses are in the pews, listening to literalist sermons preached by literalist pastors, reciting literalist creeds, and who’d passionately insist in the literal truth of their literalist interpretation?

            Just look at the surveys. Random samples of Americans show overwhelming majorities believe that angels are real — and I’ll guarantee you that their idea of what an angel is comes from popular culture tropes such as the earnest junior heavenly bureaucrat sent to Earth in human disguise to earn his wings by helping some unfortunate.

            Jack Spong has a large following

            Eric, if you sincerely believe that, you are so far out of touch with the modern Christian phenomenon as it actually exists that you are completely unqualified to participate in this discussion. I’d be surprised if Spong even gets single-digit name recognition amongst Christians, and I guarantee you that the overwhelming majority of Christians would call him an atheist if you told them what he’s about.

            Jack Spong has a large following in the same sense that Manuel de Zumaya is making a comeback in the concert hall.

            I have no doubt but that Spong is taken seriously by a small circle of academic theologians, and that you yourself take him seriously. But he’s not even a blip on the radar in the real-world Christian community.

            b&

            1. Perhaps Spong has not reached an enormous audience, but his sales figures are in the millions. Many ordinary Christians have found Spong’s interpretation of Christianty compelling. I wouldn’t hazard a guess as to how many. As to who is the real Christian — that’s a mug’s game. There are no true Christians, since the diversity of interpretation is simply too great to make the claim with any sense of reason. Christianity comprises a cascade of belief systems which shade off into one another. Some of them are more reasonable than others.

              1. From an anthropological perspective, it’s very easy to identify who is and isn’t a Christian. First, if you identify as a Christian, you are one. Richard Dawkins identifies as a cultural Christian and so he is.

                We can divide the Christians further into religious and cultural Christians with a very simple test. Those for whom Jesus was more than a mortal human are religious in some way or another. Almost all religious Christians will also fall into the cultural Christian group, but you can point to “Jews for Jesus” as a group that’s religiously Christian but not at all culturally Christian, at least ostensibly.

                There are those who like to waffle or get cute on the question of whether Jesus was more than mortal, of course, but that type of sophistry is generally pretty transparent. You can usually clarify it with questions over whether that person thinks happens after death; if Jesus is anywhere in that picture, as it invariably is with those who play those types of games, they’re religious.

                And “sales figures in the millions,” especially in the religious subcategory of the field of fiction, is damning with faint praise if I ever heard it. I’m sure Spong isn’t even within an order of magnitude of the sales for Left Behind. The Heaven is for Real movie is already close to an hundred million in box office take, and DVD sales of The Passion of the Christ probably outpaced Spong’s lifetime total sales count the day of release.

                b&

              2. Ah, yes, of course, Ben, that is true. But then of course you will find people who say that that is not really Christianity, and will try to define what is truly Christian. When I say that it is impossible to define what a Christian is I had in mind the idea of “true Christian” which often lies behind such claims.

Leave a Reply