Archive for the ‘Theism’ Category

Thoughts on “The Christian Delusion” (The Outsider Test for Faith Revisited)

March 24, 2023

So the last essay in the first chapter is by John W. Loftus, the editor of the work, and where he revisits what he is most famous for, “The Outsider Test For Faith”.  Now, I’ve criticized “The Outsider Test for Faith” myself, and so on reading this chapter didn’t find his defenses all that strong myself.  But why I want to take on the chapter in more detail is because there are some interesting philosophical implications to what he says here … implications that I don’t think he sees.

So, a quick reminder of what the Outsider Test for Faith really is.  Loftus noted that religious people reject the miraculous claims of other religions, and reject the claims of other religions to having truly divine entities, and yet are completely convinced that their miracles are true and their entities are divine.  In addition — and this is the argument that he most relies on — which set of miracles and which set of divine entities they believe in depends greatly on the cultural context they were raised in.  If someone was raised in a Christian culture, they will be completely convinced that Christianity is true and that all other religions are false, but if someone was raised in an Islamic culture, then they would be equally convinced that Islam is true and Christianity is false.  What Loftus’ test asks religious people to do, then, is step outside their cultural context and examine their own religion using the same standards that they use to evaluate and reject the others, and if they do so rationally and honestly he is convinced that they would have to reject their own religion as well and become atheists, with an additional implication that this method is, in fact, why most atheists are atheists, and that if religious people follow his method they will come to reject their religion for the same reasons that atheists reject all religions.

One of my main objections to the OTF is that it fails because religious people don’t reject the religions of other people for the reasons that Loftus thinks and not for the reasons that atheists reject them.  This entire chapter only makes that more clear, because both Loftus and the author of the previous essay, Jason Long, are pretty aggressive in calling religious beliefs ridiculous and nonsensical, but it seems to me that the main reason they — and many other atheists — believe that is because of their attachment to naturalism.  The problem is that no religious person rejects other religions because they are making supernatural claims, as they all accept that at least some supernatural claims are true (the ones their own religion makes).  So Christians do not reject Judaism because it posits miracles, but instead because Judaism does not accept Christ as the Messiah.  And they do not reject Islam because it includes divine entities, but because it, again, doesn’t accept Christ and Christ’s message properly.  And the converse is also true.  Judaism rejects Christianity because it is obvious to them that Christ is not the Messiah (because he didn’t bring peace to the Earth) and Islam rejects Christianity because they do not properly accept Muhammad.  So for the most part, they accept that those religions at least and in general all other religions could be true and are not inherently ridiculous. They just happen to think them wrong because they clash with beliefs they already hold.  So it’s never going to be the case that if they step outside of their own cultural context that they will think of their own religion the same way that atheists do.  They might come to a rejection of their own religion on the basis that from that perspective theirs doesn’t seem more reasonable than the other religions, but that wouldn’t be what Loftus would be advocating for with the OTF … and many of them may well follow the epistemological principle of “Maintain your own beliefs unless you have reason to reject them”, and that kind of minor “Mine doesn’t seem inherently better than other religions” is not a strong enough reason to do that.  At that point, the debate between someone like myself and someone like Loftus is epistemological, and not something that the OTF could settle.

Loftus tries to deal with some objections, and I think these can be sorted into three main categories:  denying that the beliefs of Christians and others are as tightly tied to their culture as Loftus asserts, arguing that even if those beliefs are formed primarily from that culture that doesn’t make them false, and arguing that atheists like Loftus have equally culturally formed and yet equally deeply held beliefs that they are unwilling to give up, and don’t consider themselves irrational for holding.

Let’s look at the first category.  What the objections have pointed out is that Christianity has been successful in areas that are not traditionally and cultural Christian, and that Christians and members of other religions change from the religion they grew up with all the time.  Loftus’ attempts to defend his view against these charges are … underwhelming, to say the least.  Basically, his refutations here end up arguing that those people are not converting rationally and so are not using the OTF at all, and so it’s not a valid objection to his claim.  But this misses the point of the objections.  The point of these objections is that contrary to Loftus’ assertion and assumptions, people come to believe in religions that weren’t part of their cultural background all the time.  Which means that there are perfectly natural mechanisms that would cause a Christian to convert to another religion that don’t involve the OTF.  Thus, if religious people maintain the religion of their culture, they do so because they find that the new religion doesn’t fit their view of the world as well as their original religion, because if it did, as we’ve seen, they would have converted.  What this suggests, then, is that there’s no real need for the OTF for people to convert from the religion of their culture, and so Loftus would have to argue that while whatever method they are using could work, it’s not a proper way to do it and so they would have to use his OTF.  But then Loftus loses the big argument for why the OTF is needed, which is that you have to step outside your cultural context and the beliefs you were raised with to come to the conclusion that your religion is false.  Clearly, these examples prove that isn’t true.  Thus, is argument would have to be that we all ought to do that as a normative claim, and not one that follows from the descriptive idea that we would never be able to assess our own religion in a way that would get us to reject it without doing so.  We definitely could, so why should we use his method other than that he thinks doing so will bring us closer to the conclusion that he wants us to draw?

Let me look next at the idea that they hold beliefs that are equally cultural and equally strongly held without having any better justification for them (whether or not there actually is a stronger justification for them available).  The biggest section of this is an examination of the objections of Victor Reppert, who uses the examples “rape is wrong” and “representative democracy is a better form of government than monarchy”.  Loftus first admits that some of the beliefs we hold that way may not be necessary, but then presents a defense of those specific beliefs from Richard Carrier.  While I won’t go into them in detail, they are basically his standard ones:  someone who considers what a woman who is raped will feel will conclude that rape is wrong, and someone under a monarchy who properly understands democracy would clearly prefer the latter.  The interesting point here is that what Carrier is engaging in here to defend these propositions is in fact clearly apologetics.  He is rationalizing a justification for these beliefs, and those justifications are … dubious, to say the least.  For the first place, that something makes people feel good or bad doesn’t mean that the belief is true.  If a religious person said that the feeling that people get from being religious makes them happy enough and that losing that belief makes them depressed enough that we should hold the religion to be true, both Carrier and Loftus wouldn’t accept that as an argument, so we have no reason to accept it in the rape case either.  And that someone in the past might think that democracy is better doesn’t mean that it is, and they’d reject that sort of argument for religion.  So Loftus’ supposed defenses are the precise sort of rationalization that he wants religious people to give up using his OTF.  So that doesn’t really work to support his point.

And he needs to demonstrate that we can and do hold these beliefs for reasons beyond that we take them from our culture, because any belief that he has to accept he holds because he got it from the cultural context and yet that he doesn’t want to give up opens the door for Christians to say that they treat their Christianity the same way, and so he could not claim that they are necessarily irrational for maintaining that belief simply because it’s one that he rejects and thinks ridiculous.  Especially since the main belief that drives them considering Christianity ridiculous, as I’ve already noted, is their belief in naturalism, and I have raised problems with naturalism (which is why I reject it).  If my and other objections have merit, then Loftus cannot claim that his belief in naturalism is justified, but he would be unlikely to simply reject it.  Ultimately, he considers religious ridiculous because of a belief that he has and religious people clearly don’t.  This changes this all to a debate over fundamental beliefs, which is one that the OTF cannot settle.

Which leads to the final category:  that just because a religious belief is culturally formed doesn’t mean that it’s false.  In order to pull off this argument, Loftus relies on an implicit and at times explicit statement that culturally formed beliefs are not reliable.  He contrasts this with science and even epistemological skepticism which are methods he considers to be reliable.  The problem is cultural beliefs are reliable.  Cultural beliefs become cultural beliefs by standing the test of time.  Yes, some of them could turn out to be false, but that is true of science as well.  And if Loftus claims that science tests and corrects its beliefs, we can see that cultural beliefs are corrected by its own methods as well.  If a cultural belief stops working, the culture will eventually abandon it as we see in the Western world with the shift from monarchy to democracy.  It may take longer for cultural beliefs, but ultimately if a cultural belief stops working it will be abandoned and replaced.  Thus, lots of cultural beliefs are indeed true, some of them are wrong, but for the most part enough of them are true to consider it reliable.  What this would mean is that we are always rational to maintain a cultural belief unless we have good reason to think it false, and as I’ve noted before I don’t think they are.  Loftus could try to argue that science is more reliable, and so we should trust science over cultural beliefs, and science says that Christianity is false.  But even if we accept that epistemology says that we should accept science over cultural beliefs, this would change the debate from us needing to take the OTF to an argument over whether science really conflicts that strongly with religion.  And since I myself have raised philosophical objections to naturalism, it cannot be because of science’s methodological naturalism or else Loftus and myself would be arguing over whether that is valid.

What this means is that as we go through this essay we discover that the OTF is unnecessary.  People change religions and even become atheists without it, and there is little reason to think that their approaches are completely invalid as opposed to being them trying to build the most consistent worldview they can.  At any rate, we don’t need to step outside the culture to change or drop religion.  We all hold cultural beliefs and fundamental beliefs without necessarily having proper justifications for them all the time, and in fact some of those are the very beliefs that cause atheists to consider religion ridiculous, thus reducing the debate to a debate over which sets of those beliefs we should accept.  And finally, a lot of those discussions will be over what epistemology is the right one to use, and we need to settle those questions before we can assess whether the OTF is necessary or even useful.  At the end of the day, the OTF is a method that Loftus promotes because he thinks it will be more likely to turn religious people into atheists, but that in and of itself should make us suspicious of using it unless it really is the right approach … and given the reliability of cultural beliefs I don’t think it is.  Ultimately, then, it is not the case that Christians who refuse to take the OTF are really engaging in a double standard because that’s not why they reject other religions in the first place, and there are a number of good philosophical reasons to be suspicious of it.

Thoughts on “The Christian Delusion” (Part 1 – Why Faith Fails)

March 17, 2023

After reading “Unbelievable?”, I moved on to a couple of compilations from John W. Loftus that Richard Carrier had written things for and was promoting at times.  I don’t intend to comment in detail on each chapter, which is written by a different person and covers a different topic.  Instead, what I plan to do is at the end of each section comment in general on things that I thought while reading the section, and only breaking down a specific chapter if I feel it worth my while.  So the first section is entitled “Why Faith Fails”, and contains four chapters, but here I’ll comment on my overall impression of the section and then take a deeper look at the last chapter in the section, which is Loftus revisiting his “Outsider Test For Faith”.  I’ve read the original book and talked about the test, so it’s worth my looking at his defenses and he says things that are worth discussing philosophically.

Anyway, this section, to me, boils down to atheists trying to demonstrate how Christians could be wrong and seemingly the mechanisms that cause them to refuse to admit that they could be wrong even though it’s not only possible that they are wrong, but that it is in fact the case that they are wrong.  Their hope is that once Christians realize the flaws in their reasoning and the underlying mechanisms that get them to deny it, they will accept that the evidence for the existence of God is insufficient and become atheists.  In my mind, though, this can’t work, because most Christians already accept that they could be wrong and so that by the standards of atheists there is insufficient evidence for the existence of God to produce knowledge in the way they claim they want to know things, and so will not react the way atheists want them to when faced with those sorts of arguments … which tends to enrage those very atheists.

While obviously there are many different stances that Christians can and do take on this matter, the two largest categories — and the ones that cause atheists the most grief — are those Christians who believe entirely on faith and those Christians who are more like me and believe primarily through cultural influence.  For the first category, they accept that it’s just plain obvious that we don’t have the sort of evidence the atheist wants.  That’s what faith is for.  And so when the atheist outlines all of those many arguments to show that they could be wrong, they shrug and note that it is indeed the case that by those standards they could be wrong, but again that’s what faith gives them:  the ability to know and believe even when the evidence isn’t there.  So those sorts of arguments are going to fall on deaf ears, as all they do is establish something that they already know.  For the second category, they would tend to deny that they have or need faith, but then would also tend to argue that they aren’t making a knowledge claim and so have a mere belief.  Since this is a mere belief, they already accept that it could be wrong, but would point out that the onus is on the atheist to make an argument that they feel the need to take seriously enough to drop that belief, and the atheists have yet to do that.  And so, again, the arguments fall on deaf ears because, again, all they are doing is establishing something they already accept, and so the atheists would need a better argument.

Now, the atheists could point out that some people do indeed become atheists from their various arguments, and so my analysis can’t be correct.  But in line with my epistemological commitment to the “Web of Belief”, it makes perfect sense.  What will push the Christians in either of those categories to atheism is not an alternate explanation for God or an argument showing that they could be wrong about their belief in God, but instead an argument that clashes with their Web of Belief strongly enough that there is less damage to that Web if they abandon their belief in God as opposed to denying their argument.  These are the sorts of arguments that cause true “Crises of Faith” and are the things that Christians have been dealing with for centuries.  And what is important about these is that the arguments or thoughts that spawn these tend to be very personal to the person, and aren’t big overarching arguments.  Thus, it’s no surprise that the “Problem of Evil” is probably the most prominent argument in deconversion stories, and it makes sense that many of the New Atheists constantly talk about how religion and their scientific beliefs are incompatible.  Many Christians struggle with the idea that bad things can happen to them, their loved ones, or others and that God, who could prevent it, allows it to happen.  And very scientific minds who see religion encroaching on their science would be unwilling to give up science to maintain religion.  Both of these are very personal to the individual and yet, for the individuals who hold them, are held at a deep enough level and/or an emotional enough level to overwhelm their belief in God and force them to abandon it.

For me, neither of these arguments work, but for philosophical reasons, not faith-based ones.  My Stoic sympathies ultimately cause me to deny that suffering is in and of itself bad and so means that the presence of it in the world is not strong enough to force me to abandon the belief in God (especially since there are ways to resolve the conflict), and my rejection of scientism and naturalism and sympathy for philosophical but non-scientific truths and for some “supernatural” claims means that I reject that science can explain everything and is always right.  I concede that there might be contradictions there, but for me they cannot be strong enough to force me to abandon the belief in God.

Another interesting point is that while they spend a lot of time talking about the various ways that false beliefs can be rationalized and so maintained through our faulty faculties — David Eller talks about cultural defenses, Valerie Tarico talks about cognitive defenses, and Jason Long talks about indoctrination and other cognitive defense mechanisms — they don’t seem to realize that what they are doing is attacking the very rational faculties that they themselves promote and rely on.  Yes, Christians may be using these flawed mechanisms to maintain their Christian beliefs, but these are human mechanisms and not Christian ones.  As we shall see when I look at Loftus, a lot of the beliefs that they themselves hold to be self-evident may themselves be equally flawed and equally unsupported by the evidence, and so they themselves may be doing the precise same things that they castigate Christians for.  And since one of those beliefs is naturalism itself, which is the foundation of the atheism of so many of them, it may well be the case that Christians could indeed fire back that the only reason they reject the belief in God based on these faulty mechanisms.  What they don’t seem to realize is that you cannot posit that these mechanisms are failing for a belief only because it’s a belief that you don’t favour.  You need stronger evidence to show that it is indeed really the case here, because otherwise all you do is call the mechanisms themselves into question, and the history of philosophy provides ample examples of what happens when you do that.  So just as you can’t call something a hallucination just because you don’t want to believe that you’ve seen that, you can’t assume that our reasoning is flawed or biased just because someone believes something you don’t want to believe.  Atheists will, of course, insist that they have good reasons for thinking that’s happening here, and they do have some arguments that can suggest that, but those arguments are not as strong as atheists think and so don’t get them out of this problem as easily as they seem to think.

And one final point, which is a way in which Christianity might be considered unique.  David Eller notes in his chapter how Christianity adapts to and inserts itself into the cultures that contain the people that they are trying to convert, and Valerie Tarico in her chapter notes that Christianity is a religion that is based around specific beliefs as opposed to a shared culture.  This can be contrasted with the other major religions like Judaism and Islam which seem to have a much stronger connection to a specific culture.  Christianity from the start focused more on the specific belief in Jesus’ resurrection than on any specific cultural aspects or rituals, probably because of the influence of Paul.  This is, of course, one reason why it has become such a dominant religion, and spread in large numbers around the world.  But then one might comment that the main religion of a God who wanted one specific redemptive act to be believed by everyone would have that trait.  So perhaps Christians can answer Loftus by pointing to that trait as a reason why the other religions aren’t as credible as Christianity.

But I’ll say more about Loftus next time, in the second post I’m going to make about the book and about the chapters in this section.

Thoughts on “Unbelievable?”

March 10, 2023

So, I finished reading “Unbelievable?” by Justin Brierley, where he talks about why despite having hosted a radio show for many years where he brought atheists and theists together and so after having heard the best arguments that atheism has to offer, he remains a Christian.  I have a few thoughts to share on it.  First I’m going to talk about my overall impression of the book, and then talk about a few points including a brief discussion of Richard Carrier’s take on it, which is what first brought the book to my attention and got me to read it.

So, first, as I commented in my post on why I’m not convinced by atheist arguments, I didn’t expect that his arguments would convince me, and that is indeed what happened.  He has some interesting takes on some arguments, but for the most part when I think about them it turns out that the arguments don’t necessarily work.  There wasn’t any real argument there that I felt conclusively proved the existence of God, and even the combination of all of them didn’t seem to work out.  Basically, if you don’t already believe in God or are skeptical of God’s existence, Brierley doesn’t really have an argument that will convince you.  He tends to focus on the idea most of the time that these things provide a world that makes more sense if there is a God than if there isn’t, it would easily be — rightly — objected that that is for him, and that others might not see it the same way, just as for Christians the atheist claim that things make sense without God doesn’t really work.

But this doesn’t really matter for Brierly, because he himself is something that is interesting to me:  someone who does, in fact, have faith.  As he notes on page 194, people don’t get argued into Christianity.  If Christianity doesn’t resonate at a deeper level than as a simple academic argument, a person will never become Christian or at least will never stay one.  This is interesting to me as someone who doesn’t really have that kind of faith, although I admit it’s not really simple or dry academic arguments that are responsible for my belief in God either.  What this means is that for him apologetics exists primarily to find ways around the roadblocks to faith, which are the skeptical doubts that the atheists rely so much on.  It’s an interesting perspective that isn’t what I am accustomed to.

One minor point to address is his discussion of the cosmological argument.  As with most of these arguments, it focuses on finding a First Cause, but as I was reading it I realized that finding such a thing isn’t sufficient.  After all, philosophically I’m convinced that there must indeed be a First Cause, and yet am not convinced that the cosmological argument establishes the existence of God, and think that the ontological argument has a better shot at it.  Why is this?  Because some of the atheistic arguments about other things that could be that First Cause could work, which leads to this revelation:  just because you’ve established a First Cause does not mean that you’ve established that that First Cause cannot be a purely “natural” one.  Yes, there are a number of non-God First Causes that would work perfectly well to create the universe we see.  I think the Thomists have a leg up in this debate because their arguments establish something important about the Ground of All Being:  that it has to be intelligent.  The cosmological argument can only work if as part of it or through another argument we can establish that that First Cause has to be intelligent.  If a First Cause is intelligent, then it pretty much is God, even if Christianity may not be true.  Atheism, at least, would be defeated there.  But if the First Cause need not be intelligent, then it all could be a mindless process proceeding from some mindless thing that is itself necessary.  So more effort, it seems to me, needs to be done on showing that we have an intelligent or designed basis to the universe than simply focusing on causation and contingency.

I’ve already talked a bit about the New Testament and Brierley’s attempts to defend it here.  I don’t think Brierley’s attempts to defend it historically work, but as noted don’t think that that’s what’s important to defend the idea that a real Jesus existed.  There’s plenty of reason to consider the New Testament akin to the legends that grow around most legendary figures, and so that a lot of things in it might not be true.  So when Brierley claims on page 112 that we have more evidence for Jesus than for Caesar crossing the Rubicon, if we consider the Gospels and Paul and some others all legitimate and independent sources, that might be technically true as there might be more written accounts of it, but we have reason to doubt them all being independent and legitimate, and we know historically that Caesar crossed the Rubicon not so much because many different and independent people wrote it down, but mostly because the historical consequences of that action are clear and could only reasonably follow from him actually doing that.  By contrast, mythicists, at least, will argue that while there are very significant historical consequences that follow from Jesus, those consequences could follow even if we just believed there was a real Jesus even if there wasn’t one.  When I read this claim, my immediate thought was that this was something that Carrier would make hay over given what Carrier has said in other places.

Speaking of Carrier, one of my original purposes for reading the book was to see if Carrier, in his multi-post take on it, was representing it correctly.  Attempting to re-read them before writing this post, however, it turned out that Carrier’s posts were both quite long and tended to — as is normal for Carrier — spend a lot of time focusing on Carrier’s views and little time directly quoting or referencing Brierley.  I really don’t have the time to weed through all of that to find the specific claims and see if Carrier is being fair.  However, while skimming the first post, I found a couple of places that would indicate that Carrier might not be being totally fair to Brierley’s argument.

The first is over the number of arguments for Christianity and atheism.  Carrier says this:

One prominent instance exemplifying Brierley’s illogical reasoning: he actually tries to argue (p. 149) that theism has “a multiplicity of arguments” and atheism really has only one (the Argument from Evil), which is both false (he himself goes on to list many other arguments for atheism; there are many, many more) and illogical. Because it does not matter how many invalid arguments you have for a conclusion; that does not make the conclusion even one iota more likely to be true. If anything, it makes it less likely to be true. Because no one has to invent a dozen bad arguments for something that’s true. Only false claims need such deployments—as I already noted when I dealt with this illogical argument from Alvin Plantinga.

Thus when Brierley says we “may dispute their validity, but the preponderance of arguments tips the scales towards belief in God,” he is exposing how incompetent he is at logic, and that it is this very incompetence that produces and sustains his Christian faith. Bad arguments do not add up to a good argument. They never tip the scales.

The first misrepresentation here is that Brierley is saying that there really is only one argument, which he kinda says but even in that sentence itself he says this:

Atheism, however, while frequently critiquing the role of religion and its arguments for God, has an overall much shorter list of arguments of its own in favour of a naturalistic worldview, the prime one being the argument from suffering.

If Carrier had focused on arguing that there are more arguments in favour of a naturalistic worldview — such as the argument that we don’t need supernatural explanations for everything and natural explanations have always won out in the past over supernatural ones — he’d have a point worth considering.  But instead he focuses on the number of arguments and says that it makes it less probable … which, argumentatively, is false.  A proposition supported by multiple independent arguments is indeed more likely to be true, for a few reasons.  First, all it would need is for one of those arguments to work and it would be proven, which gives it a leg up in any such discussions.  Second, it’s also less vulnerable, as you can’t simply refute one of those arguments and kill it, but have to refute all of them.  But finally, and most importantly, if multiple lines of evidence and argumentation are converging on a single answer, that answer is indeed more likely to be correct since it would mean that from whatever angle we examine the empirical or philosophical evidence we are being unerringly led to that conclusion.  This is, in fact, a key component in science itself, as it relies on multiple lines of evidence converging on an answer so that the extra lines of evidence support or confirm the first one.  While Carrier asserts that you wouldn’t need more than one argument to prove something true, science and basic argumentation disagree with him:  if you have more reasons for thinking something true that really should increase your confidence that it’s true.

This is in line with what Brierley actually argued, as he says this:

Pointing out the existence of pain does not necessarily negate the other aspects of our existence and experience that seem to affirm the reality of God.

Here, Brierley seems to be saying that we have one puzzling aspect in our lives that might point against the reality of God but when stacked up against all the other aspects that point to the reality of God that should tip the scales towards God.  If he’s right, that is indeed a reasonable argument, and one in line with Carrier’s own probabilistic epistemology.  Carrier does not reject the argument because it’s invalid, but because he disagrees with Brierley that those other aspects of our lives point to God.  By arguing as he does, Carrier somewhat misrepresents Brierley and misses Brierley’s actual argument.

The other point is about prayer.  Carrier says this:

There is also a lot of strange self-contradiction in his book, and I’ll point that out when it comes up. But as an example with which I’ll close today’s summary, Brierley tries to explain that the reason he believes “so-called ‘studies’ into the effects of prayer are fundamentally flawed” (p. 73) is not, as is more likely, that they’ve collectively proved prayer has no material effect on the world (beyond psychologically; to which non-prayer correlates, like acupuncture and crystal magic, would work just as well), but rather because he believes science can never study God. Yet barely a hundred pages later he is promoting his own (quite unsystematic) prayer study as evidence for God (pp. 190-94), as if he forgot what he believed in the first half of the book and suddenly started believing exactly the opposite in the latter half of the book. I can’t explain this. But I am not at all surprised that, right on cue, his use of his own “study” betrays all the same ignorance of fact and failures of logic that riddle the rest of his book.

The problem here is that that “experiment” was not and was never intended to be a scientific experiment.  What Brierley was trying to do — or, at least, how he was using it in that chapter — was as a reflection of his belief that you can’t merely argue one’s way into faith, but that you have to live that faith before you can really accept that.  The experiment was getting atheists and agnostics to live the Christian worldview by praying to see if it changed their view.  This is, of course, a completely different sort of thing than the prayer studies referenced earlier, which look to see if there is an effect on the world overall and tries to justify it on the basis of a statistical analysis.  He is also quite clear that, well, it didn’t have much of an effect, and that even in the cases where it seemed like it might have had an effect the explanation from the participants was that it was probably due to natural explanations and causes.  So he’s hardly promoting that study as evidence for God.  In any way.  Carrier always grumbles about people not reading what he says, but here he totally misrepresents the point of the study and, more importantly, the reason Brierley mentions it.

At any rate, I enjoyed reading the book — probably more than I expected, to be honest — but aside from, well, things like that stud and a few other things there wasn’t much new in it.  Still, it was a good summary with some interesting takes on some of these issues, and it’s a short and easy read, so I do recommend reading it if you’re interested in such things.  As for me, I’m moving on to specific atheist arguments with “The Christian Delusion:  Why Faith Fails”.

Historicism, Mythicism, Paul and the New Testament

March 3, 2023

Despite the fact that philosophy of religion is something like seventh on my list of philosophical interests — after luge! — and despite the fact that I’m not particularly interested in the historicism/mythicism debate, after having heard a lot about it through reading Richard Carrier’s posts and from people like Jonathan MS Pearce I’ve decided that I really should sit down and read through the stuff and comment on it, especially since while reading Justin Brierley’s book it was covered there as well and so this isn’t some simple fringe idea that is Carrier’s latest obsession but something that might come up, but also something that I haven’t really studied much.  So I have Carrier’s books on the topic on my reading list and obviously have read some of his posts and thought about it a bit.

Which leads to his latest post on the topic, in line with what I read in Brierley.  Carrier’s post here is taking on Tim O’Neill, and a debate over whether Paul said “born of a woman” or “made of a woman” in Galatians 4:4.  The big argument from the mythicist side is that the word Paul uses is odd, since in all other places when he talks about being born he uses the more standard and less ambiguous Greek word for born, but here and in other places he uses a Greek word that could mean “made” or “manufactured”, and that he also uses that same word for other cases where the body was not born but was instead made, like for Adam or for our resurrected bodies.  What spurred Carrier’s — and another mythicist’s in Fitzgerald — response is that O’Neill tried to refute it and did so in a way that they consider incredibly wrong and even dishonest.  O’Neill, as I understand it, first said that that word couldn’t mean made, and Carrier and Fitzgerald have pointed out that it definitely can.  Also or perhaps later, O’Neill said that they need the word to only mean made and it can also mean born, and they pointed out that they already know that it can mean born, but point out the oddities above.  Their main complaint about his dishonesty is that it seems like in his response to their responses he’s claiming that the argument he was really making was an argument that he didn’t actually make in the original comment, which from the quotes seems fair.

But what struck me about this is that this doesn’t seem like a very important mythicist point, important enough for the two of them to make it a big part of their original arguments and to come out in force when O’Neill criticizes it.  After all, the best they have here is that Paul doesn’t say that Jesus was explicitly born, but to do that they have to concede that Paul said “made from a woman” instead of “born from a woman”.  But since Paul uses the same Greek word for Adam, and we know that Adam had a real, mortal body, then it seems like historicists would get what they need from that.  After all, historicists don’t need the phrase here to indicate a specific mortal mother, but only use that as an argument to show that Jesus was a real person.  Even if Jesus was made in the same way as Adam was, that would still indicate a real, mortal body and so a real person to be referenced.  So what they’d really need to do is attempt to refute that, which Carrier does I believe by making it an analogical claim … but then he also has a hypothesis here that in order to preserve descent from David Jesus was made through stored sperm from David himself, which is a bit odd but, more importantly, would also indicate a real, physical, mortal body which again is what it seems to me is all historicists need, so this doesn’t seem like a great hill to die on.

This defense seems especially odd when we look at what they conclude based on probabilities:

Indeed, so far from “assuming” it, in On the Historicity of Jesus I even score it to the contrary—counting this passage as evidence for historicity; albeit weak evidence, owing to its demonstrable oddity and ambiguity, which even O’Neill has now couchedly started admitting. Fitzgerald does not take that approach; he uses my a judicantiori estimates instead of the a fortiori (which is still 50/50, ultimately the position that “we don’t know for sure either way, so we can’t use this as evidence” for or against the historicity of Jesus).

So the best case for the mythicist here, by Carrier’s own assessment, is that we can’t use this as evidence either way.  So after all of that work, Carrier and Fitzgerald can’t even get to the point where they can cite this oddity as evidence in favour of mythicism.  Why, then, do they care so much about this to give it so much attention?  Well, because if taken at face value and in light of how the currently existent Christian church has interpreted it, it would seem to absolutely refute their position.  So they need to find some way to interpret it so that it doesn’t lead to that conclusion.  Thus, the onus is on them to provide more than it being odd, but instead to show that the at least more likely interpretation is in line with their mythicism.  And while I haven’t read all of the arguments yet — Carrier supposedly outlined it in detail in the books that I haven’t read yet — I don’t see the points they made here doing that, by their own admission.  If the best they can do is claim this is ambiguous they’d need a lot of other evidence to make mythicism even remotely credible.  So I don’t think that historicists really need to spend much time addressing these arguments at all.  It seems like all they’d need to do is point out that by Carrier’s own assessment they have not particularly probable alternative interpretations of it, which don’t really get them to the point of being able to claim that, at least based on this word choice, that Paul thought that Jesus didn’t have a real body (in fact, elsewhere Carrier seems to think that both he and Fitzgerald definitely think that he did, which means that they had better have a really good set of arguments to show that, nevertheless, they can still arrive at an interesting and meaningful mythicism as opposed to historicism).  So we end up with an issue when Carrier claims this:

What this all illustrates is how gullible YouTubers are in believing anything O’Neill says, and how historicity can only be defended with lies—a fact those YouTubers should start to question: if mythicism can be “destroyed” only by lying, isn’t it historicity that is actually being destroyed?

While Carrier might be right to say that O’Neill is lying here, this argument doesn’t work for two reasons.  First, it’s an ad hominem.  Even against O’Neill, the fact that O’Neill lied about some things doesn’t mean that none of his counter-arguments work and so that it can only be opposed with lies, and Carrier would have to show that all counters to his arguments were lies and so none of them were valid.  So he’s attacking historicism by claiming that the people who defend it can only defend it by lying and so are all liars, which both doesn’t support his attack since even liars can make good arguments at times that are not just lies and so need to be addressed and is not supported by the fact that one or even more than one defender of historicism has lied about something.  Carrier loves these sort of rhetorical flourishes but the more he uses them the more inclined we are to carefully look at his arguments to make sure that he’s not committing other logical fallacies in making them.

But the second reason is more important, which is that in this case historicists don’t actually need to defend this at all.  There’s nothing to defend, because ultimately by Carrier’s own admission this is not an actual sally against historicism.  Historicists could accept everything Carrier says and Carrier’s own assessment of the probability here and note that even by Carrier’s own assessment this still supports historicity, albeit weakly.  So it’s hard to say that historicism can only be defended by lies starting from one argument that historicists don’t seem to really need to “defend” at all.

You could ask, of course, the same question that I asked of mythicists above:  if this is so minor, why do historicists spend so much time talking about it and defending their interpretation of it?  Well, it seems to me that the reason is two-fold.  First, mythicists spend so much time talking about it and finding way to interpret it that it seems like it’s an important argument to address.  Second, there’s always the temptation to hit a home run and refute mythicism outright, and if they could demonstrate that this passage almost certainly refers to a real mother then that would pretty much kill mythicism.  So there are reasons for them to put in the effort to refute it, even as, again, I don’t consider it all that important, especially given Carrier’s own assessment of it.

Now, when I was reading Brierly, I noticed that he had a section talking about historicism and defending the New Testament, and did so while referencing Carrier.  There were some arguments that he made that Carrier would — and probably did, given that I found out about the book from reading Carrier’s criticisms of it — take great exception to, but something struck me while reading.  Previously, I had commented that the only reason to rely on interpreting Paul in this debate is because there aren’t any other good sources for what the earliest Christians actually believed.  If we knew what the earliest Christians actually believed, we wouldn’t need to rely on Paul to figure that out, and more importantly we would interpret Paul in light of what they believed, because we know that while he differed from them on some points he also wanted to be broadly consistent with them, and so if they believed in a Jesus who lived and had a real body and a real ministry then Paul would have believed that as well, and so we would interpret any of these ambiguous passages as supporting that.  But as noted in Brierley’s defense, Christians believe we have that:  the New Testament.  And the New Testament is adamant that there was a real, historical Jesus who had a real ministry.  So if we can interpret Paul in the context of the New Testament, then mythicism is refuted.

So, of course, mythicists like Carrier have to discredit the New Testament, and Carrier has done that on a number of occasions.  Brierley tries to defend it on the basis of it being an accurate historical document, which plays right into their hands because the mythicists have spent, as expected, a lot of time and energy showing that it’s not a historically reliable work.  But again historicists don’t have to play that game.  Historicists do not need the New Testament to be a historically accurate work.  It can have all sorts of inaccurate and even just plain invented details in it and so look more like the legend of King Arthur than a real history … as long as it accurate represents what the earliest Christians believed about these key doctrines.  If they really believed that there was a real Jesus, then we ought to conclude that there was one, and interpret Paul that way, which undercuts any basis mythicists have for their claims.

And none of the typical counters work here.  They can argue that the Gospels were written rather late and look like ancient biographies rather than histories which can have all sorts of invented details, but the key thing here is that unlike for King Arthur we have a relatively unbroken chain from the initial Christian movement to the Christian movement that decided what was or wasn’t canonical and that wrote down the Gospels and the other New Testament works.  We can expect that the main Christian movement would have kept at least some of the main doctrines from the initial Christian movement, and so wouldn’t have accepted these works if they greatly contradicted that.  So if the Gospel writers were simply making things up as Carrier often claims, why would the Christians at the time accept these things, so much so that these ultimately became the canon?  Yes, movements and religions change and drift through a number of mechanisms, but from what I’ve seen so far — and again I haven’t read the detailed arguments in the books yet — I haven’t seen any arguments to show how that drift happened other than asserting that it did (Carrier has a post talking about it that I’ve read but don’t recall being that impressed by, and I’m not going to look it up here).  We can even see a reason to think otherwise from Carrier’s own argument here:

This was in fact so obvious that Medieval Christians tried changing the texts of Paul, to switch out his preferred word for “made” for his preferred word for “born,” conspicuously in both Galatians 4:4 and Romans 1:3 (they thus recognized their problem existed in both verses). This fact is also mentioned by us in our argument, and was also dishonestly ignored and was never mentioned or answered by O’Neill in that video, even though it proves that Medieval Christians understood exactly what I am saying. They agreed Paul’s idiom was as I am explaining; and they knew therefore that they desperately needed to change what he said, to change his careful selection of verbs to match his own consistent idiom and still say what they wanted him to say: that Jesus was “born,” and not, like light, the world, and Eve, “made” (these kinds of telltale changes, to “create” evidence for a historical Jesus, are evident across Christendom: the second century Ignatius also tried swapping these verbs out, for example, among much else to historicize Jesus).

Carrier tries to imply that the reason this change was made was because they saw that Carrier’s argument made sense and wanted to change things to not support it, but it’s a perfectly reasonable counter to say that they did see that the word choice made it ambiguous — the Docetists were making the same sort of argument Carrier was making — and since they were more interested in instructing rather than making literal translations/transcriptions changed it to align with what they thought was the case.  Which means aligning it to a historicist view, since that’s what they held.  What this means is that if the Gospels were changing things and if those changes were being accepted it would be more likely that those changes would be more in alignment with what the main Christian movement already believed, not contradictory to it.  And so since we have an unbroken line from early Christianity to the time when the New Testament was created, our initial presumption should be that the important and consistent things in the Gospels probably were things that the early Christians believed.  And there is nothing more clear in the Gospels than that Jesus was real and had a real ministry.

Carrier would likely respond that he has all sorts of arguments to discredit the New Testament on these points.  Presumably, these are in his books.  But one additional point of interest here is that his arguments cannot rely overmuch on Paul itself.  The first reason for this is that it would create a bit of a circular argument, as the reason mythicists want to put aside the New Testament in favour of Paul is because they think that they can find an interpretation in Paul that is more amenable to their position, but that they can interpret Paul that way isn’t sufficient reason to say that we should ignore the context of the New Testament.  The second and more serious reason is what I mentioned above, which is that how we should interpret Paul will depend on what we end up thinking the earliest Christians believed.  If the earliest Christians believed what the New Testament says they believed, we would interpret Paul’s comments about them in light of that and so in line with historicism.  Given that, Carrier cannot say that he can interpret Paul in a mythicist way and so we should count that interpretation against the New Testament’s accuracy, because there is the obvious counter that we can also interpret Paul in a historicist way and, more importantly, in line with the New Testament.  So they’d need either to rely mostly on other sources or else find some cases in Paul where we can’t reasonably interpret those cases in a historicist way.

Suffice it to say, this seems like a tall order.  When I get to the books, we’ll see if that’s what they did and how well that holds up.

Does God’s Justification for not Preventing Suffering Prevent Us From Preventing It?

February 17, 2023

Over at Bob Seidensticker’s “Only Sky” blog, he’s made a post entitled “The atheist has the moral foundation, not the Christian”.  This links to a paper at philpapers entitled “Atheism and the Basis of Morality” by Stephen Maitzen.  Since I’m going to look at that paper specifically, you might be curious about how the title of my post, is, well, nothing at all like their titles.  That’s because despite the fact that both Seidensticker and Maitzen link this to claims from theists that atheists have no basis for and even no real morality in order to oppose those sentiments, the argument itself doesn’t really do anything to address those arguments.  The reason that theists argue that atheists have no basis for their morality and theists do is entirely about how they could justify any objective claims at all.  As we shall see, the argument does nothing to defend atheists against that charge, and instead shows that at least one of our strongest moral intuitions is one that is untenable in a world where God does not prevent at least certain kinds of suffering and is considered justified in doing so.  So the interesting point in the paper is in fact not a claim that atheists have the real basis for morality, but is instead the fact that if the argument works what we might consider to be a strong moral obligation for us turns out to be one that we are not only not morally obligated to do, but in fact are morally obligated to not do.

I’m going to mostly ignore Seidensticker’s post, because it’s just a summary of the paper itself and in trying to make it more clear actually muddles it a bit, as we can see from the first Axiom he outlines:

Axiom 1: For simplicity and to avoid disagreement, “ordinary morality” has been simplified to “we have the moral obligation to prevent easily preventable extreme suffering by a child.” That’s it.

The thing is that this is not what we reduce “ordinary morality” to, but instead Malizen basically takes this as a basic obligation that follows from and is part of our ordinary morality, and so if anything can be said to be part of our ordinary morality, this is.  This is important because that “avoid disagreement” part is going to be violated, as one of my main arguments is going to be to argue that our “ordinary morality” does not in fact have that as a basic obligation.  To defend that, someone would have to go to our ordinary morality and show how that obligation is really a part of it, which they couldn’t do if “ordinary morality” was “simplified” to that statement.  It is important to see that that is supposed to be part of ordinary morality and follow from it, not that we’ve simplified ordinary morality itself to that principle.

So, then, what is the argument?  I’m just going to summarize it instead of extensively quoting it because this is going to be long enough as it is.  Essentially, the argument is as follows:  It follows from our idea of ordinary morality that if we were to become aware of a child suffering unnecessarily we ought to relieve that suffering if it is in our power to do so.  The Christian God, at least, being all-powerful and all-knowing would always be aware of any such child and would always be able to prevent that suffering.  Being all-good, then, such a God should prevent all such suffering.  And yet we can see that such cases exist in this world that God does not prevent.  Up until now, this is just the standard “Problem of Suffering”, where we wonder why God doesn’t prevent suffering that He could easily prevent.  But Maitzen goes a step further and then tries to find a way where we could justify God not preventing that suffering.  And after examining a few options he concludes that such a God could only morally justify not preventing that suffering if He ultimately concluded that it was better for that child for them to experience that suffering, and points out that it can’t be the case that we are exploiting that child by making them suffer for the benefit of others because by our ordinary morality that wouldn’t be moral either.  So if this is true, then we could justify God still remaining moral even if He doesn’t relieve the child of that suffering.  But then if this suffering is really ultimately for the benefit of that child, how could we morally justify our relieving that child of that suffering?  If God determines that it is better for the child to suffer, how can we justify taking that benefit away from them to satisfy our own ideas of ordinary morality?  So if God is not morally obligated to relieve that child’s suffering, neither are we, and so if such a God exists then that basic axiom of ordinary morality is violated, which seems to overturn our ideas of ordinary morality as opposed to buttressing it as theists claim.

Right away we can see why this doesn’t justify either Seidensticker’s or Maitzen’s titles. Despite Maitzen saying this:

On the contrary, I argue that morality depends on rejecting theism. Our most serious moral obligations—obligations at the heart of what we might call “ordinary morality”—remain in place only if God doesn’t exist.

First, this would only apply to the tri-omni God of Christianity and possibly Islam and Judaism.  Any God that isn’t tri-omni is not vulnerable to this attack.  While this seems like a trivial point, it is important because it allows us to dodge the implication that the only option left is to reject theism and adopt an atheistic approach if we want to save “ordinary morality”, as we can instead drop part of the tri-omni God.  Second, and more importantly, if we cannot justify these moral obligations under theism that doesn’t mean that we can justify them under atheism either.  If the theists are correct, we cannot justify any moral obligations whatsoever under atheism, so all Maitzen would have succeeded in doing is undercutting any justification for, at least, ordinary morality whether we are theists or atheists.  So this argument simply cannot establish that we cannot base these moral obligations on theism but can base them on some sort of atheistic framework, so it doesn’t work as a response to that argument from theists.

That being said, it is an interesting argument, and so I’m going to spend the rest of this post examining whether the argument works and whether it really is the case that if God tries to justify His not relieving the unnecessary suffering of a child because it is better for the child that He doesn’t then we ourselves ought not relieve that unnecessary suffering either, and so that a God who does not act to relieve such suffering is indeed undercutting our ordinary morality.

The first objection I want to make is that it doesn’t seem like it actually is the case that ordinary morality says that if we become aware that a child is suffering unnecessarily we are morally obligated to prevent that suffering.  It seems like we consider such things to be supererogatory acts, which are acts that we think that all good people would want to do, but that no person is actually morally obligated to do.  For example, donating an organ to someone who is dying for lack of a donor is seen as that sort of act.  And Peter Singer’s famous argument about giving up going to a movie to give that money to charity to help a suffering child demonstrates that we consider such things to be supererogatory acts as well, since for most people the argument itself is rather counter-intuitive to our ordinary morality.  While we all get that a properly moral person is going to want to do that, we balk at considering it a moral obligation for them to do so or considering them an immoral person if they don’t, which is why Singer’s argument is so famous as it counter-intuitively insists that we ought to think of things that way.  And if we examine an actual case where a child is being abused by someone — which is an example that Maitzen uses — we can see that we would still stop short of considering a moral obligation for any one particular person — other than the abuser, of course — to prevent that suffering of that child.  Only if they were the only person who knew and were the only person who could prevent it might we consider them morally obligated to do so, as I argued in my critique of “A Defense of Abortion” … and even that is controversial and could be claimed to be only my personal moral stance and not the stance of ordinary morality.

So, then, if God could prevent that child’s suffering and we could prevent that child’s suffering, then ordinary morality might well claim that neither God nor us has a moral obligation to prevent that suffering, and so God could decide that it suits His purpose better to leave it to us to relieve it, or not.  And Maitzen needs it to be a moral obligation and not merely something that an all-good God would want to do, because if it’s merely something that an all-good God would want to do then all of the arguments about God’s ultimate purpose and what this world is supposed to be for are back on the table, as God could justify His non-intervention on the basis that He has no moral obligation and He wants his purpose to be fulfilled more (and that it is better for most of his creations if that happens).

So it looks like ordinary morality might not make such actions a moral obligation for God or us, and if it doesn’t do that then there’s no issue for God if He doesn’t intervene here.  But let’s look at what happens if we make this an actual moral obligation for God.  Maitzen takes the common tack of atheists with “The Problem of Suffering” and asks us to examine a very specific case:  that of a specific child suffering unnecessarily.  This has a tendency to evoke empathy in us for that specific case and also allows them to avoid considering the broader picture.  Surely, they argue, God could relieve the suffering of just this one child.  The problem is that once we make it a moral obligation for God to intervene in any specific case, we have to consider what that implies for all similar cases.  If God is morally obligated to relive the suffering of that one child, then why wouldn’t God also be obligated to relive the suffering of all children that are suffering unnecessarily?  And if God is morally obligated to prevent the unnecessary suffering of all children, then why isn’t He also morally obligated to relieve all unnecessary suffering, which by this analysis would mean relieving most of the suffering in the world?  What we end up with is an argument that this world should contain no suffering at all, and no Christian will accept any argument that has an implication that this world should contain no suffering, whether they justify the suffering in this world being due to Original Sin or that the suffering in this world is necessary to create a world where we can develop our moral capacities.  This world is not supposed to be the world without suffering; that’s what heaven is for.  And so if Maitzen tries to make it a moral obligation for God to prevent the suffering of that specific child he needs to either argue that God should have created a world without suffering despite God explicitly saying that that’s not what this world is supposed to be, or showing that God is only obligated to do that and not obligated to prevent any other suffering.  Neither of those options are arguments that are easy to get off the ground.

But Maitzen’s focus on a very specific case masks another, more serious, flaw in his argument.  By limiting it to that specific child, Maitzen encourages us to try to find benefits to that child that follow from that very specific situation, such as them having a disease or them being abused.  And if they are indeed benefiting from being in that very specific situation and God isn’t relieving them of that suffering because of that, then it makes sense that we ought not relieve them of that suffering either.  Both God and ourselves, then, would be in the exact same situation:  pondering whether we should relieve the child of their suffering in that very specific situation.  And if God decides that He ought not relieve the suffering of that child in that situation, then surely we ought to decide the same thing.

The thing is that God might decide that He should allow that child to suffer in that specific situation not because that specific suffering benefits the child, but because being in a world where such suffering can occur is better for that child than a world where such suffering can never occur.  At this point, all of the arguments about moral development requiring random suffering and about free will requiring the ability to cause suffering that Maitzen dismissed come back into the picture, in line with the argument above:  this is supposed to be a world with suffering in it and that world is better for all of us than a world without any suffering in it, and so any individual person who is suffering is still better off for being in a world with that suffering despite the fact that they are, indeed suffering.  And one of the ways such a world is a better one for us precisely because such a world gives us the opportunity to choose to relieve that suffering … or not.  To return to the case of the specific child, let’s consider the case of a child who falls and skins their knee, and then has a loving parent come to them, wipe away their tears, kiss their boo-boo and make it better, leaving them feeling safe and secure and basking in the love of their parent.  That world is not possible if that child could never suffer, and that experience itself is far more valuable to the child than the suffering that they felt that allowed for it.  In fact, many theists will argue that the suffering that they themselves went through allowed them to experience that feeling from God, which is why they believe so strongly in God.  A world where we can feel the comfort of a loved one when we are suffering as they try to relieve our pain, or a world where we can feel grateful to and redeem our faith in humanity by the acts of a stranger to help us is a far better world where none of that could happen, even if sometimes it doesn’t as us flawed humans choose not to help or do that.  If God is obligated to do our good deeds for us, then we can never do them ourselves, and the chance that we might fail to do so does not remove the benefits when we succeed to do them.

So even if we are forced to argue that the only way God can justify not relieving the suffering of that child is because it benefits that child, it turns out that God can indeed do so while still allowing us to justify relieving that suffering ourselves.  In fact, that justification actually does provide a basis for that “ordinary morality” because the benefit to that child is in fact a world where it is indeed left up to us to relieve that suffering.  We ourselves must relieve that suffering ourselves because leaving us that option is the reason God won’t intervene Himself.  Thus, Maitzen’s argument does not show that we cannot justify ordinary morality if we believe that God exists, and when properly fleshed out ends up proving the exact opposite:  if a tri-omni God exists, the only reason for that suffering to exist in this world is for us to relieve it ourselves, so we need to stop demanding that God do it and get to work doing it ourselves.

Why Atheist Arguments Don’t Convince Me

February 10, 2023

As noted on Wednesday, now that I’ve finished reading the Shakespeare I’ve switched to splitting my laundry reading time between King Arthur and philosophy.  And first up is me getting back into the theism/theological debates, because I have been reading a lot of Richard Carrier’s stuff and decided to take on the stuff he was recommending, which means that eventually I’ll be getting into the weeds of the mythicism/historicism debate beyond the minor comments I’ve made on that before.  But before I get to that, I have some other works to read, which includes two collections of arguments by John W. Loftus that Carrier references a bit and as of right now — although I’m still debating it — the entire Bible.  I need to read Paul to understand the references Carrier is going to make — and, in fact, had reading that as a philosophical exercise as one of the things I wanted to do but never got around to — and given the length of that compared to the other things I’m going to read it seems not that much more difficult to just read the entire thing … which will also leave me able to say that I have read it completely and, hopefully, that doing that hasn’t changed my religious beliefs.

But first up is something that was inspired by the fact that Richard Carrier spent a lot of time criticizing Justin Brierley’s “Unbelieveable?”, and I spent some time responding to that.  So before I started and as part of the order I made to get the works Carrier wrote and recommended I threw it in figuring that I should actually read his book and see if Carrier represented it properly, and give my own opinion on it.  I have just started it, but coming into it I figure that I won’t find it as problematic as Carrier did but won’t really agree with it or his arguments either, because my views on this whole thing are quite a bit different from most people’s.  This is despite the fact that he wrote the book to explain why after spending ten years witnessing first hand the debates between atheists and Christians and thus being exposed to the best arguments for atheists that he nevertheless remains a Christian, and for the most part I’ve had less direct access but have been exposed to them as well and have been equally unimpressed.  We have come to the same conclusion, but likely have done that for very different reasons.

So, here, let me talk about why I have been ultimately unimpressed by the atheist arguments.  While I have to admit that some of their arguments have been somewhat challenging and raise issues that good theology/apologetics need to take seriously, I haven’t found any argument that has really shaken my belief.  But the really big reason why I am unimpressed by the new atheist arguments and the new atheist movements themselves is my experience that no matter how strongly they insist that the belief in God is just completely irrational and that they know that God doesn’t exist ultimately, when pressed, they ultimately end up at the rather weak argument of “There just isn’t enough evidence to prove that God exists”, soon followed by an insistence that they don’t have to prove that God doesn’t exist and that the burden of proof is all on the theist.

And, in some sense, they’re correct on that.  Unless Christians or other theists can make good arguments that justify epistemic knowledge — which means excluding simple faith since that is personal and cannot be shared — then in order to say that they don’t believe God exists — which, again, is the position that they always get pushed to no matter how strongly they insist that God doesn’t exist — and justify that claim all they need to say is that they don’t find the evidence compelling enough to believe in.  Since I don’t believe that I know that God exists and in general believe that we can’t know whether or not God exists, I consider this a reasonable position.  However, since I still think it reasonable for me to believe in God I don’t think their position is the only reasonable one.  This ties into my epistemological view that mere beliefs are the things we form when we feel the need to take a position on a topic but don’t have the justification for knowledge.  As such, they are always provisional but we take the epistemological tack of acting on them in the world and waiting for the world to contradict us.  My objection to the other common tack atheists take in line with skepticism that we should always withhold belief in such cases is entirely that doing that is not useful.  If you aren’t going to test it, and the truth of it matters, then simply withholding belief either way means that you will never discover whether or not it is true and then when you act in the world in ways where that proposition matters you have no guidance as to how you should act on it, meaning that you are acting on arguably less relevant propositions, which can’t be a good way to approach the world.

So, as long as the atheist is merely talking about what they believe, they dodge the burden of proof.  However, many atheists aren’t just talking about what it is reasonable for them to believe, but about what is reasonable for everyone to believe, leading to the point that they think that theists are irrational for believing that God exists.  And if you are going to make that claim, you need to do more than simply say “I don’t find the evidence compelling”.  If you aren’t going to delve into epistemology, there are two ways to do that.  The first is to demonstrate that you know that the belief is false, and so in this case indeed prove to the level of knowledge that God doesn’t exist, using evidence that is equally available to the theist you are arguing with (this is why I argue that we can’t use faith to argue against the atheist, since faith isn’t accessible to someone who doesn’t have that faith already).  Thus, if they wanted to take that tack, they would have to violate their own stance and accept that, yes, they have to establish that God doesn’t exist and so could not retreat to talking about having a mere lack of belief.  The other way is to agree that you don’t have that level of evidence, but instead point out that believing in God contradicts something else they believe to be true.  Some atheists do try to do this, arguing that religion clashes with science and that they can’t accept both, or that science proves that the world is entirely natural which also contradicts religion.  The problem here is that this approach is very personal, since it involves finding a contradiction in that person’s beliefs, and the issue for the atheists that use these arguments is that they are arguing based on what they believe and not based on what the Christians believe.  For example, I don’t find any inherent contradiction between science and religion and find naturalism, as a philosophical worldview, untenable and meaningless.  So firing those arguments off at me will not raise any important conflicts in my Web of Belief.  Which leads to the deeper problem with these arguments, which is that to pull it off it requires the person to accept it and resolve the conflict in their beliefs in the way the atheist hopes, but it’s always possible that they will adjust their beliefs to resolve the conflict or bite the bullet and accept the supposed contradiction.  In fact, apologetics is entirely about resolving these apparent contradictions in an at least somewhat palatable way.  If they can do that, then the argument falls flat, and the atheist does not have a claim justified to the level of knowledge to fall back on to prove that move irrational.

Ultimately, then, the reason why I am not impressed by the atheistic arguments and have become even less impressed by them as I have been exposed to more of them is entirely that they have been revealed to be hollow.  Ultimately, even those atheists who have made the strongest knowledge claims — like Bob Seidensticker’s supposed “Silver Bullets” — have failed to pull off those arguments and always end up retreating to the position that they don’t need to provide such proof.  But if they had such arguments they would provide them — since they are usually trying to provide them — and this retreat only signifies their acceptance of the fact that they can’t actually do that.  And yet they still insist that believing in God is just irrational while always retreating, when pressed, to the position that the reason the belief in God is irrational because they aren’t convinced of the evidence (even insisting that there is no such evidence).  But that they aren’t convinced is not enough to prove that I shouldn’t be convinced, and all of the most popular atheist arguments are ones that work for them personally but don’t work at a general level.  They are emotional ones like “The Problem of Evil” or clashes in their personal philosophical worldviews like science versus faith or their commitment to naturalism.  And I don’t share those personal clashes, and so the more they insist that those are clinching arguments the more convinced I am that they have no real epistemological or philosophical or rational weight behind their arguments.  So while I’m willing to grant that their lack of belief or even belief in lack is not irrational, I am in no way convinced that my belief is irrational as they would insist.  And their constant retreat from the universal to the personal only makes my skepticism towards their arguments stronger.

So that’s why I haven’t found their arguments convincing and indeed have become more convinced that they don’t have the necessary arguments to make atheism the only rational position.  For me, they have failed at the epistemological level and at the philosophical level, and admit that every time they retreat to insisting that the burden of proof is on the theist.  This view is likely not how Brierley sees it, but I’ll find that out as I go through his book.

Carrier Claims Most Christians Worship the Antichrist

December 23, 2022

In a relatively recent post — yes, I tend to get quite a bit behind in responding to such posts — Richard Carrier claimed that most Christians are actually worshiping the Antichrist:

In recent years I came to a revelation: Christians are actually worshipping the Antichrist. Not all Christians, of course. Consider, for example, the Christian youth who come out to me after a presentation to a church group to explain their disappointment with their leaders and how they despise everything their churches preach, obsessing over abortion and gay rights and the whole conservative political regime, while they just want to do “Jesusy things,” like end poverty and alleviate suffering. They are worshipping Christ. Everyone else, everyone driving the likes of them out of churches worldwide for being, basically, unwanted heretics, is worshipping the Antichrist. And I think that does track most Christians the world over; but especially conservative Americans. Every cardinal and preacher driving a luxury car, jaunting about in private jets, or living in a million dollar home? Antichrist. Obviously. But I mean something far more pervasive and substantial than that. Bear with me here. Your eyes will soon be opened.

Now, when you read this your first thought might well be that this isn’t meant to be taken all that seriously, but instead as a standard semi-mocking post aimed at pointing out the foibles or hypocrisy of Christians by casting their actions against such a dramatic backdrop.  Surely, one might assume, Carrier doesn’t really mean that, but is instead just came across some sort of commentary on the Antichrist or some recent movie or post or something and thought that it would be fun to place his comments and criticisms in that framing device.  Surely such a claim is too odd and dramatic and severe to be made in any attitude other than sarcastic, mocking fun.  But, no, reading the post and his arguments and even that entire paragraph really makes me think that Carrier, for some reason, actually believes this.  And if he actually believes this, it’s probably worth taking some time to analyze it and show how ones eyes should not be at all opened by his arguments.

Let’s start with the definition of “Antichrist” that he’s using to determine that Christians are really worshiping the Antichrist:

Now here is the kick in the head. The word “Anti-Christ” means, literally, the opposite of Christ. In other words, if you embody the Spirit that is the opposite of what Christ taught, you are embodying the Spirit of the Antichrist. You are therefore, really, in truth, worshiping not Christ, but the Antichrist. Literally or figuratively, the Antichrist has claimed your soul, and commands your obedience. You teach what that dark monster teaches; you do as that dark monster does; you live as that dark monster would live in your same circumstances. Thus, you can either embody the spirit of Christ, or the spirit of the Antichrist. How do you tell the difference? By whether, and how much, you teach and do and live what is exactly the opposite of what the character of Jesus Christ teaches and does in the Gospels—and the book of Acts (where, people sometimes forget, Jesus also appears and speaks, and animates the actions and choices of his flock; just less frequently).

What it’s interesting to note here is that Carrier is not at all appealing to any definition of “Antichrist” that any of the religions that care about an Antichrist are using.  That link there?  That’s a link to the Greek word study of what “anti” means.  So instead of Carrier taking any definition from theology or even philosophy of religion to make his case, he is inventing his own definition of “Antichrist” and is doing it based on an incredibly shallow interpretation of the term rather than engaging any more sophisticated interpretation of the term.  We should always see such a move as a red flag, and unfortunately it’s pretty common among some of the atheists who attempt to do philosophy.  Jerry Coyne did that in “Faith vs Fact” when he came up with his own definition of knowledge instead of using the one that epistemology is using.  While I’m not going to link to it, one of Bob Seidensticker’s common moves in the discussion of morality is to retreat to the dictionary definition of “morality” and note that it doesn’t say that morality has to be objective, ignoring all the philosophical arguments and examinations that lead to the debate.  Jonathan MS Pearce is better at it, but while again I’m not going to take the time to find the posts and link to them — there is a reason why I get so far behind in responding to these things [grin] — his nominalism means that he also often turns to the dictionary to argue philosophical points.  All of these are attempts to sidestep the philosophical or theological discussions by replacing the definitions used there with their own definitions.

There are a number of issues with that approach.  The first is that it can often come across as completely self-serving.  It’s rare that anyone invents their own definition that causes more issues for their position than the one or ones that they are ignoring.  So it always seems like they are creating that definition to make their argument seem more palatable than it would if they used the “official” definition.  Another issue is that it immediately creates a divide in the debate and something to argue over.  The people they are arguing with obviously didn’t consider that to be the proper definition, and so their first temptation is going to be to argue over that definition, especially if the new definition makes their case seem weaker a priori.  This isn’t going to help resolve the issue.  Another issue is that for these reasons it can hamper the debate over the real issues involved here.  Either the person inventing the definition gets dismissed as not understanding the debate at all, or the debate devolves into a debate over the definition instead of over the real issues.  It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that many of these people who treat definitions so cavalierly are also among the first to claim that philosophy is about wrangling over the definitions of words rather than dealing with substantive issues (Pearce is an exception most of the time, and Carrier has his moments as well).

Now, in the context of philosophy it’s clear that sometimes examining and changing the underlying the definitions is something that needs to be done.  Sometimes the definitions aren’t correct, or are stated in such a way that they actually do limit and hamper debate.  But in philosophy if you are going to do that it is crucially important that you justify such a move and point out the limitations that that definition imposed on the debate and show how the new definition avoids all of that.  You don’t simply introduce a new definition as if there had never been a definition in the first place and expect everyone to accept that, and that’s all Carrier does here.

This is a serious issue for his project from the outset.  The first issue is that for every Christian religion that cares about the Antichrist, they are going to have a very specific definition of the Antichrist and what it means to worship him, and it’s not this simple one spawned from analyzing the Greek grammar.  So if they pay any attention to his post at all, they are going to immediately say that that’s not what it means to worship the Antichrist and ignore all of his “evidence”.  On top of that, Christians already have a perfectly good term for those who act in ways opposing and even opposite to Christ’s example, whether intentionally or unintentionally:  sinners.  And, as it turns out, pretty much all Christians are sinners at times, and that doesn’t mean that we are all worshiping the Antichrist.  And, in fact, even if we protest that the sins we are committing are not sins, that just makes us wrong, not worshiping the Antichrist.  So that we don’t live up to Christ’s example doesn’t mean that we are opposing Christ and so are worshiping the Antichrist by Carrier’s definition.  Hence, the issue with Carrier’s definition is indeed that he invents one that almost no Christian would accept as a definition of the Antichrist and that would describe acts that pretty much all Christians would accept as sins instead.  So it’s just not going to work.

Okay, fine, but let me look at bit at Carrier’s arguments for the things that oppose Christ.  He gives some evidence that most Christians hold the view and then tries to argue for how it goes against the things Jesus taught as per the Gospels.  Now, while this was very American-centric — one of his arguments is about Christians not wanting government-provided health care which apples to the United States but not to Canada or Europe where a lot of Christians live — I was willing to let at least the evidence slide and just deal with the theological components … until I actually read some of his sources and was not only unimpressed but appalled by what he was claiming was “evidence”.  So I’m going to address his evidence and the theological/philosophical arguments for each point, which will make this post rather long but, then again, that shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who is a regular reader, so let’s get to it!

Here’s the first point:

Evidence: Most Christians want to pray in public, even fighting for the privilege of doing so before an unwilling public at sports games and in schools and Congress and government meetings; but even more so in general, in front of family and peers, even on national television.

But the Spirit of Christ said: “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues,” in other words, even churches, “and on the street corners to be seen by others.” Christ warns: “Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.” But, Jesus commands, “when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” What is the opposite of this? All public prayer—even voluntary, even at home or in church—is the way of the Antichrist. If you pray in public, even in front of family at home or peers in church, and certainly if you support public prayer being imposed on people at events, in schools, in courts of law, in councils and legislatures, you are of the Antichrist. Because you are thereby embodying the opposite of Christ.

Now, his purported evidence here, as listed in the quote (as an aside, it really does make quoting easier when WordPress allows me to keep the formatting from something I’ve copied, that includes the links) is an article that says this:

The majority of Americans are not opposed to prayer at public meetings, as long as the prayer does not favor one religion over another, a recently released poll conducted by a New Jersey-based university found. Results of the poll come as several states are debating prayer at public meetings.

The poll, conducted by Fairleigh Dickinson University in Hackensack, found that of the 883 voters questioned for the national poll, 73 percent said prayer at public meetings was fine “as long as the public officials are not favoring some beliefs over others.” Another 23 percent opposed prayer at public meetings because such meetings “shouldn’t have any prayers at all because prayers by definition suggest one belief or another.”

So, it’s 73 percent of all respondents, which would include a number of non-Christians, but more importantly the question is not them wanting to pray in public or even pray to their own religion, but is instead being okay with some kind of ceremonial prayer as long as it doesn’t favour a particular religion, which by definition would include their own.  So, no, it’s not them wanting to be like the hypocrites and pray on the street corners so that everyone can see them, and thus be in opposition to Christ’s teachings.  They aren’t even asking to be able to pray in public, but are just saying that they are okay with it being done under certain conditions.  Which is a far cry from what Carrier insists that not only some, but most Christians actually hold.  Yes, in a comment Carrier says that the link to his evidence is supposed to “get them started”, but there really should be at least some direct link there, and so the “evidence” he cites should at least, well, actually make the point that Carrier wants to make, and this article really doesn’t do that.  At all.  This article and poll is in no way evidence for his contention that most Christians want to pray in public in a most unChristlike way.

Now, let me turn to the theology/philosophy.  As already noted, here the context is that we shouldn’t be like the hypocrites who love to pray publicly so that others see them but who aren’t really anywhere near that pious.  As Jesus noted there, they have had their reward with the attention and public reputation that it gives them and so they won’t get any extra reward from God for doing that.  Now, Carrier takes it to mean that we can’t even pray in churches, and as it turns out as a blossoming non-ritualistic Christian in high school I actually debated that with my music teacher (Hi, Mr. Robbins!) about whether following the rituals was actually important and so whether not attending church services was in fact a sin, and I think this quote came up in the discussion (Matthew 18:19-20):

19 “Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”

This really does seem to be public services with the Christian community gathering together for at least intercessory prayer, now doesn’t it?  As my teacher pointed out, while technically rituals aren’t required, Jesus advocated for them on the basis of building and maintaining a Christian community to support each other and that could work together to spread the Word of God.  And that sort of community building, it turns out, is exactly the sort of thing that the people in the article he cites want.  They don’t want to be seen by others praying, but they want the entire community praying together to develop closeness and a sense of community, which is why they don’t really care if it’s their religion that the prayer is about even most of the time, but only that prayer that does such things is what’s allowed.

Okay, so then why does Jesus say to go into a dark room and pray alone with no one else around?  This is actually a point that’s really important for the rest of the points, because it shows a rhetorical technique that Jesus used quite often:  giving a more dramatic counterpoint to highlight the intention that he wants us to have.  Remember, in the original context Jesus is opposed to the hypocrites who pray in public not because they want to talk to God but instead because they want to be seen being pious and praying.  One can pray in public without having the intention of being seen to be praying in public — as the above comment on community building demonstrates — but if someone is not willing to pray all alone where no one can know whether or not they are praying then they are at least at risk for preferring to be seen praying than to actually pray.  If someone can commit to praying when no one can know it, then they have the right intentions so that when they do pray in public, it will be when such prayer is appropriate and not for their own self-aggrandizing.  So especially since Jesus does pretty much tell us to pray together, He doesn’t mean that we are not allowed to pray in public, but that we are to do so with the right attitude and intention:  the intention that means that we could pray all alone with no one the wiser for all our lives and still be content with the outcome.  So all that rhetorical trick does is drive that idea home:  if we are unwilling to do that, then we cannot have the right attitude to pray properly, whether in public or in private.

The second point is this:

Evidence: Most Christians approve, indeed often even insisit upon, all manner of violence in self-defense, imagined or real. They support gun ownership for that reason. Vicious guard dogs. Baseball bats by the bedstand. Prison rape—and all manner of other forms of suffering for the incarcerated. Police beatings and killings. War. They even fly blue flags advertising their support of police violence. They back extraordinary amounts of public money being spent to maintain a whole machinery of global violence, while opposing diverting any dime to national health. Many wouldn’t hesitate to shoot an intruder dead. Nor feel bad about it. Most, refraining only for being squeamish, would still pat on the back anyone who did. Their demands for violent cruelty against immigrants and refugees can even be heard across the nation.

But the Spirit of Christ said: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for an eye, and tooth for a tooth’. But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.”

Jesus thus commanded you not to resist an attacker, or even a thief or enslaver. You aren’t even to defend yourself in court against lawsuits. He is so absolute, we must conclude he means you not even to resist a rapist, a wartime invader, or a home intruder. You must abstain from all violence—even in self-defense. You aren’t even to allow the legal system to step in and provide protective violence for you—as his quote of Torah law directly entails, as also his command that you not defend yourself even against lawsuits. Any Christian, therefore, who is not an absolute pacifist is embodying the Antichrist in some measurable respect. But all warmongers and violence-gloaters, promoters of guns and police violence, are wholly in the service of the Antichrist. Because they are embodying exactly the opposite of Christ.

This is the point that pretty much forced me to address his “evidence”, because the article he cites there is … an article by David French, who is hardly most Christians and certainly doesn’t speak for most of them.  That on its own would be bad enough, but the kicker is that the article is in fact French arguing against Carrier’s interpretation that Christ insists that we not act in any way in self-defense.  Surprised?  After all, Carrier doesn’t mention that that’s what French is doing, nor does he in any way address French’s arguments, even through a link to a post that Carrier had made refuting it in the past.  For someone who gets so incensed when people dismiss his own arguments without addressing him, Carrier is quick to do the rather odd thing of using a detailed argument against his argument that Christ would have opposed all violence, even in self-defense,  as evidence that most Christians hold a view in opposition to what Christ taught.  And call it an Appeal to Authority, but I think that prima facie I’m going to trust the Christian guy who studies Christianity over the guy who was never a Christian and likes to take potshots at it when it comes to interpreting what Christ really meant.

Philosophically, here we get the first really clear example that Carrier’s condemnations are less about what Christ would say and more about what Carrier says and thinks we should do, as evidenced by tying it to the “Blue Lives Matter” movement and taking that up another notch to insist that people who support that and other things support police violence.  Everything he lists here is a political point, not a personal one or even a worldview one.  So as we can see here he starts down the path of saying that if Christians don’t agree with his interpretation of these political points, then they must support the behaviours themselves and those behaviours are against what Christ taught — again according to him — and so Christians are worshiping the Antichrist.  Since most Christians would disagree with, well, pretty much all of his interpretations, this isn’t going to have any traction with them and, bluntly, nor should it.

Theologically this is one of the more interesting points he makes, since Jesus here does seem to advocate for extreme non-violence.  Again, though, we have examples from Jesus that suggest that this isn’t meant to be absolute.  Before going to the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus asked that his followers find swords and his admonishment was less that violence was never acceptable but that it wasn’t the right thing to do in this case, and Jesus famously whipped the moneychangers out of the Temple in an action that might not have been a true beating but at least was somewhat aggressive and so could be considered violent.  So it doesn’t seem like Jesus was opposed to violence in general.  Moreover, Carrier takes the tack that Jesus even opposed defending yourself in a lawsuit, which is so ridiculous that we should only accept that if we have no other option, and despite Carrier at times talking about being charitable and not insisting on your opponents holding ridiculous views that’s what he does here, especially since he later mentions the story of the Good Samaritan and his interpretation would mean that if the Samaritan had come across the robbers actually beating and robbing their victim even if he was capable of defending the victim physically he’d be obliged to step aside and allow them to beat him half to death and only then, once they had gone, could he step in to nurse the victim back to health.  Again, that’s such a ridiculous implications that we really should look for a more reasonable one.

The issue is that Carrier takes the shallow interpretation of the Old Testament quote providing the context of the legal system when the context it really provides is that of retribution.  Jesus is saying here that in the Old Testament everything was based on the model of retribution and revenge, where we did unto others what they did unto us and let nothing stop us from doing so.  In the context of the quotes Carrier provides, we can see that again Jesus is using the rhetorical trick of going to the opposite extreme to ensure that we approach things with the right intention.  If someone slaps us, our first inclination would be to slap them back … so Jesus says that instead we should let them slap the other cheek instead.  If someone sues you and is likely to win, we shouldn’t try to make it difficult for them to collect or, in a modern parlance, tie them up in court with procedural issues, but instead should give them more than they ask for.  If someone forces you to go one mile, don’t fight them all the way but instead go two.  But there’s nothing here that says that one must submit to an unjust judgement or not defend oneself from attack or unjust oppression, and in fact in the last case it seems clear that Jesus is referring to a case where there is no way that you can avoid going at least that one mile.  Taken along with the Gethsemane example, Jesus is saying that one shouldn’t resist for the sake of resisting or to hurt the attacker so that they “feel it” and so get less gain from their attack.  We are not to be vengeful, and so are not to do things, even resist, simply to hurt the person who we feel has wronged us.  That’s all these quotes mean, and so are not a blanket condemnation of violence or of defending others if one actually can.

The third point is this:

Evidence: Most Christians despise immigrants and the homeless, striving to spurn them and turn them away and take away any refuge or welfare given them. They want the homeless arrested or driven out of sight; some even would like them killed. They howl at any aid or home given to the refugee. They regard and treat immigrants as little more than thieves or vermin, an invading threat to be loathed and literally walled off from home or aid.

But the Spirit of Christ said: To the damned, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.” And the damned, Christ tells us, will then ask him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?” And He will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” Every homeless person, every refugee, every immigrant looking for a better life is Christ himself. Your Christ told you this.

Even John the Baptist said, indeed to announce the way of Christ, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.” And this is reflected in Christ’s Parable of the Good Samaritan, who was the moral equivalent of a refugee: set upon and robbed of their livelihoods and left to survive in a foreign land. Christ commands you to help him, not turn him away. The homeless are in essentially the same pickle, and deserve essentially the same return; as Christ commands, you are to take them in, clothe and feed and house them. So if you take the opposite position on these things, if you do not do all within your means to give the homeless homes, the starving food, to give refuge to the refugee and the immigrant (the “stranger”) alike, if you oppose social policies that do these things, you are serving the Antichrist. Because you are serving the spirit opposite to that of Christ.

Once I started checking Carrier’s “evidence”, I found this, which is so strange that it made me wonder if he was trying to test his readers to see how gullible they were and if they’d simply believe what he told them without checking it, but I dismissed that on the grounds that he would have revealed the joke to them by now.  See, that article he gives in the “most” part?  That’s a link to an article that says that most Christians aren’t as anti-immigrant as their leaders are and portray them as:

Most conservative Christians of course want Americans taken care of first. Which is reasonable. Corporations have been lying (as they tend to do) about a paucity of skilled workers as an excuse to hire cheap foreign labor. They can’t just out and say it’s solely profit motive, because that would be bad PR. So they make up some bullshit about how they just can’t find anyone in the U.S. to do jobs that in fact millions of Americans looking for jobs have been specifically trained for. But that involves immigration policy regarding foreign skilled workers who come here legally, not what most people go on about, which is their fear of uneducated masses washing across the border “illegally” and stealing jobs that, it turns out, Americans actually won’t do anyway (despite obviously being qualified to–since here we are talking about minimal skill jobs, which just require backbreaking industriousness, which a shocking amount of Americans are too pampered to endure…although in part because such jobs are criminally underpaid, which gets us full circle back to that corporate greed this paragraph started with).

But it appears the vast majority of conservative sectarian leadership is even more on the side of liberals in terms of calling for more humane treatment of refugees and more accommodating treatment of immigrants, seeing them as admirable and an asset rather than awful and a threat. The Tea Party in fact has been consistently ignoring a nearly unified conservative Christian lobby on this, in its efforts to tank all real immigration reform.

That’s right. Christian leaders are uniformly against the Tea Party on this.

So this could be simply another example of Carrier not reading the post that he’s referencing before imposing his own view on it, but the kicker is this:  the author of that post is Carrier himself!  Yes, Carrier is using as “evidence” that most Christians “despise immigrants and the homeless” an article of his own that argues that most Christians don’t despite immigrants as much as the Tea Party and some religious leaders insist they do.  Yes, Carrier isn’t even interpreting his own post correctly.  That’s … well, that’s just some real good evidence there …

As pointed out above, though, this is another clear example where Carrier is insisting that if Christians don’t see the political situation the way he does then they don’t care about immigrants and homeless and are acting against Christ.  But even Carrier himself, in the quote above, says that it’s reasonable to want to help Americans first before taking in more immigrants, so things are not so clear.  Even those who oppose the more open immigration policies might well want to help those refugees but don’t agree that the best way to help is to let them all into the country and give them full benefits and voting rights.  And Carrier needs these interpretations to be unequivocal to make this case that most Christians even might be worshiping the Antichrist.  But they ain’t, so his point isn’t either.

The fourth point is this:

Evidence: Most conservative Christians in America oppose public health care (the last nation in the developed world to not finally create and enjoy universal health care). They want to spend billions on a war machine, none on any machine of public good. They want armies and navies to spread abroad; but don’t want to cure their own sick at home.

But the Spirit of Christ said: “Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received, freely give.” Freely give. Just as you shall then freely receive. Heal the sick. Christ commands you. Raise the dead. Christ commands you. Cleanse the diseased. Christ commands you. Drive out demons. Christ commands you. If you take the opposite position, of opposing rather than acting to provide all these things freely to all, of opposing rather than supporting universal physical and mental health care, you have taken the position opposite that of Christ. You are serving the Antichrist.

That he had to limit it to most conservative American Christians already invalidates his “evidence”, but even then his point doesn’t work, as per this quote:

Overall, 43% of Protestants and 54% of Catholics say it’s the government’s responsibility to ensure all Americans are covered, according to Pew. They may not think the government offers the best health insurance, but they believe it has the power to get something done, as Carter noted.

He could try to make some hay over that 43% of Protestants … if that wasn’t in an article that argued that the sick needed to be treated but the government was the wrong way to go about it, which means that many of them might be more anti-government than opposed to helping the sick.  Which then leads right into the philosophical point that Carrier is insisting that if they don’t support his idea of public health care then they don’t want to help the sick and so are worshiping the Antichrist, which as we’ve just seen is not at all clear or established.

The fifth point is this:

Evidence: Most Christians promote hatred of their enemies, often even of minorities, and love only for their own kind. Their lipservice to Christian love does not hide their actual true beliefs and behaviors. Their hatred has led many to commit hate crimes, join insurrections, threaten peers with violence; they fly blue flags in support of beating and killing minorities; and many more than do these things, endorse or defend them, or look the other way, secretly in their heart sympathising with them. Acting on hate. Thinking with hate. This has become a Christian norm.

But the Spirit of Christ said: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you [only] love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Any Christian who expresses or feels hatred or disdain for anyone—whether neighbor, minority, or political foe—and does not chastise themselves for this and change their attitude more toward Christ’s, the more they instead indulge in their hatred and despite, the more they are embodying the opposite of Christ, and are thus serving the Antichrist.

Okay, so here Carrier finally has an example of “evidence” that could be a starting point to coming to the same conclusion he did, as the article contains a survey that shows that Christians are more racist than the non-religious.  Unfortunately, Carrier needs to make the claim that they are reveling in their hatred, and the article actually argues that they are upset at the very implication that they might be racist while acting in ways that the author considers to be racist, which doesn’t at all make that point.  Theologically, it’s shooting fish in a barrel to argue that Christians shouldn’t hate, but again we already have a term for those Christians that give in to and express hatred for others:  sinners.  Yes, we shouldn’t hate, but few Christians actually justify their hating others or even acknowledge that they hate the people, at least, so this is yet another swing and a miss for Carrier, despite it likely being the easiest one for him to justify.

The sixth point is a long one:

Evidence: Most Christians defend their right to property and wealth, to be richer than others, to have more money and goods and property than others, and to this end even oppose taxation or any other redistribution of wealth

But the Spirit of Christ said: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven … For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” For, “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” Jesus thus commands everyone to not care about accumulating possessions but to count on their community, their society, to ensure they have all they need; in other words, he commands us to embody socialism. This is in fact one of the clearest and most repeated themes defining the Spirit of Christ.

As Matthew relates, when a rich man asked how he could secure himself a place in heaven, Jesus answered:

“If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth. Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

Likewise in the Parable of Lazarus, a rich man is condemned to the eternal flames of hell, explicitly without any chance of forgiveness or reprieve, simply because he did not share his wealth with the poor and needy. And again, Jesus approves the socialism of Zacchaeus, who vows to give half his wealth to the poor and repay anyone he cheated four times more than he took; and Jesus says he has thereby followed the Lord’s teachings well and thus will be saved. In many ways like these, Jesus repeatedly condemns the rich, and indeed anyone opposed to substantial sharing and redistribution of wealth. He instead commands sharing, redistribution, selling your goods and properties so you can give the poor whatever they need.

Jesus also fully supported paying taxes (which even then funded social welfare programs like infrastructure spending, municipal water supply, and food aid: see Christians Did Not Invent Charity and Philanthropy). Indeed he never opposed taxation in any form. His ideal inspired community, in fact, adopted the Marxist credo: from each according to their means, to each according to their needs (just read from Acts 2 and Acts 4). A Christlike government would do the same; and Jesus already endorsed using compulsory taxation to do it with. Jesus also commanded that you share your wealth without boasting of it or even mentioning it. So, no putting your name on buildings, or expecting any personal return on investment, whether glory or favor.

If you do not endorse the same—if instead you oppose all these things Jesus taught—socialism, taxation, substantial wealth redistribution—if you pursue the opposite (clinging to your money, not letting anyone tax it, accumulating capital, enjoying luxuries, voting for lower taxes, making merely token charitable contributions—remember, Zacchaeus gave half, and the rich son was expected to give all, whereas typically Christians give trivially, and that mostly only to the coffers of their own wealthy churches rather than anyone genuinely in need: see Myths of Charity: The Enduring Sham of Arthur Brooks), if you live obliviously doing not a thing for every Lazarus who could benefit from your sharing, every needy stranger (remember Jesus’s commands on that matter; we just went over them), then you are embodying the opposite of what Christ taught. You are thereby worshiping the Antichrist. You are realizing in your behavior and actions not the world desired by Christ, but the world desired by the Antichrist. You are thus the Antichrist’s servant. That you call them Christ is just another Satanic disguise. In truth you have chosen to build and serve the Antichrist’s world rather than Christ’s.

Carrier’s evidence is a claim that Christianity created capitalism, but from the article it wasn’t in the way he needs it to be to make his point:

It was the church more than any other agency, writes historian Randall Collins, that put in place what Weber called the preconditions of capitalism: the rule of law and a bureaucracy for resolving disputes rationally; a specialized and mobile labor force; the institutional permanence that allows for transgenerational investment and sustained intellectual and physical efforts, together with the accumulation of long-term capital; and a zest for discovery, enterprise, wealth creation, and new undertakings.

So, the values it brought that allowed for capitalism were not related to greed or wealth itself, but instead to more communal values without which capitalism has no hope of getting off the ground.  And the article seems to be defending capitalism on those grounds rather than insisting that it’s all about greed.  So it’s not good evidence for his contention.

Theologically, Jesus isn’t really insisting that we all must be poor.  As seen in the earlier examples, Jesus’ command to the wealthy man to give up all of his wealth in order to become a follower is a test to see if the rich man will put following Jesus ahead of his wealth … and he won’t.  That’s what causes Jesus to exclaim that it’s harder to a rich man to enter heaven than it is for a camel to pass through the eye of needle, not because being rich in and of itself would disqualify him, but because it’s too hard for the rich to put God ahead of their wealth.  But in line with the Stoic philosophy of Seneca, if a rich person gained and maintained their wealth honestly and virtuously then it’s no sin for them to have it and maintain it.  The rich person in the story of Lazarus was not condemned for being rich, but for being able to help and instead pointedly ignoring him and his suffering.  The tax collector gave his money away not because having money itself was the problem but because he was a sinner, explicitly cheating people and being a tax collector which in general would require him collecting taxes from people who couldn’t afford it and having them arrested in those cases or leaving them destitute.  It’s also a bit of a stretch to say that he insisted on wealth redistribution to the level that people like Carrier espouse. especially since again a lot of the examples of demands to sell everything and follow him is not about having wealth or redistributing wealth, but about leaving behind the less important to follow a more important calling.  Few of us have such a dramatic calling that we need to do so.

As for the point about taxes, that’s a huge stretch.  The point about giving back to Caesar what was Caesar’s was about following one’s secular obligations, which would include paying taxes.  That doesn’t mean that they should support all forms of social programs, and especially not the social programs that Carrier insists are needed.  Yes, they can and even must have opinions about the secular realm in order to pay unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and fulfill their secular obligations, and those opinions may differ from Carrier’s about how much taxation is valid and what social programs are necessary.  Again, Carrier is judging them for not agreeing with him and insisting that if they don’t agree with him then they are worshiping the Antichrist.  But he has been consistently unable to establish that opposing him equates to opposing Christ, and that also holds here.

The last point is this one:

Evidence: Most Christians not only judge others, they even use those judgments as excuses to take away the rights of others (either by law or social pressure), rather than regulating their own conduct alone. Instead of just following their own religion in abstaining from sex (gay or straight), or abortion, or only adhering to their own gender norms, they seek to empower society to suppress and repress human sexuality at every turn—gay and straight—and to enforce their own gender norms on everyone else, and to hinder others’ access to abortion. They block sex education. They aim to prevent people learning the history of racism. They hinder access to birth control. In countless ways they use their judgment of others to control others, peoples not even Christian, or Christians who do not share their judgments.

But the Spirit of Christ said: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” And: “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you,” for “with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” Christ condemned stoning sinners, literally and figuratively. He commands to love, not condemn; to treat others as you would want to be treated—which when carried to its own completed sense can only mean, “were you them” (see Your Own Moral Reasoning: Some Things to Consider). If you act the opposite of this, if you think the opposite of this—if you judge rather than forgive, and even use your judging to oppress and control other people rather than regulating yourself alone, in any of these ways or others—then you are embodying the opposite of Christ. You are serving the Antichrist.

His “evidence” is a link to an article that says that some LGBTQ+ people are judged by some Christians and some Christian organizations.  He ignores that many of them would argue that they don’t judge the people but instead judge the act, and a lot of the actions could be seen in this right.  But I can grant that a good number of Christians and maybe even many of them are indeed overly judgemental.  Again, we have a word for that:  sinners.  They are not living up to the standards of Christ, but that’s a failing, not a worship of the Antichrist.  So again we can’t get to where Carrier wants to get from here.

There is more that he talks about here, but I’ve gotten through the main points and don’t feel like sorting through the rest of his rhetoric to find a potential point to talk about.  Suffice it to say that Carrier starts from an overly simplistic definition of “Antichrist” and then most of the time fails to even live up to that definition, and his “evidence” is laughable given that he even misinterprets one of his own posts that explicitly concludes the opposite of what he wants us to conclude.  So while there is lots of room for improvement among Christians, we don’t really have to worry that we are worshiping the Antichrist.  Phew.  Dodged one there.


June 24, 2022

So after devoting the last two weeks to what I mused about myself over the past little while, it’s time for me return to talking about things that other people were thinking about, which today means returning to some stuff Richard Carrier said.  He’d been reviewing a book by Justin Brierley and made a summary post about it here, which I want to talk a bit about since he, as is the norm for him, makes some general statements that I think it worth trying to address.  Since he’s put a lot into that post, I will do something that’s rare for me and split it out into at least two if not more posts, with the first one being about atonement and following on from this paragraph:

In my general summary I noted that Christianity has no coherent notion of atonement. Which is why Brierley avoids the subject. Yet this incoherence is fundamental to it as a worldview. Jesus cannot die for your sins. That is literally a moral impossibility (see Ken Pulliam, “The Absurdity of the Atonement” in The End of Christianity). On any honest, logical, evidence-based analysis, forgiveness can only be received from the wronged (and you never have any right to receive it), and atonement can only be achieved by righting what you did wrong (insofar as you can), and sincerely committing to never doing it again.

Let me challenge this by listing at least three ways where someone can do something for someone else’s sins that relates to people being forgiven:

1) As an important part of things like this is making restitution, it is possible that the person who did the wrong thing simply can’t actually make restitution for their wrong, whether they honestly desire forgiveness or not.  In such a situation, someone might step in and make restitution for them, without in any way demanding that the other person pay them back or do them a favour to do that.  So, for example, paying a huge fine or fixing something that was broken might be ways that someone would pay for someone else’s sin in the hopes that relieving them of that debt that they could never repay will allow everyone to move forward, but knowing that the only reason they need to do that for them is because the person will never be able to do that or anything of comparable worth for anyone, even the person who took on their burden.

2) If the person who committed the offense isn’t willing to admit to that, someone might appeal to the wronged person on their behalf, noting that if the person is given time they will come around and imploring them to forgive them even though that person isn’t ready to repent yet.  Usually, this will be done in order to get them to remove or get removed some restrictions or consequences that the person who committed the offense is facing, and in particular asking for those to be removed because they feel that if those restrictions or consequences are left in place the person will never be able to become the sort of person to feel remorse for their actions or want to make restitution for them.

3) A person may take on the burdens or make restitution for someone who committed the offense who doesn’t agree or admit to it or is in some way trying to dodge responsibility or making restitution as an example to them in the hopes that it will make them better.  They make sure that the restitution is paid and make sure the person who committed the offense knows it in the hopes that their example will convince them to take responsibility and make restitution in the future, in short in an attempt to prod the person into becoming the right sort of person that they could argue that they are capable of becoming in the second one.

Now, 1) and 3) are clearly cases where the person actually pays for the other person’s offense, while the 2) is pleading for forgiveness to at least some extent from the person who was harmed.  And none of these are some sort of strange or esoteric notions of that sort of paying for someone else’s offense, as everyone can immediately grasp it and have probably seen cases of this on TV and even in real-life.  So these are examples where we can in a significant sense say that someone else is paying or atoning or asking for forgiveness on behalf of someone else, and in fact in most cases can even do it even if that person themselves doesn’t feel that they have done anything wrong and so are required to make restitution or need forgiveness.  So the only question left is if Jesus’ sacrifice can be fit into one or more of these models.

And it turns out that it can fit into all three.  It is already noted that no one human could make an appropriate sacrifice to make up for Original Sin, but Jesus, as the Son of God made human, could.  Thus, Jesus repays and make restitution for that sin because we, as individual or even as collective humans, can’t.  But it’s also true that Jesus is appealing to God and interceding with Him so that God will open the gates of Heaven and make it so that we don’t need to simply die but can be reunited with God in Heaven, and so Jesus’ sacrifice is also to remove those consequences from us so that we can learn to become the sort of person who can enter into Heaven, and so become better people.  And finally, Jesus acts as an exemplar, showing us that we can indeed face the horrific consequences of suffering and death for a cause and to help and redeem others by doing that for us to remove those consequences.  And while some atheists snark about how Jesus was raised from the dead in three days and so essentially sacrificed a weekend for us, that belittles the suffering He went through and is the promise that Jesus makes for us as well, meaning that He sacrifices as much as He is asking us to sacrifice.  So Jesus’ sacrifice fits all three of the cases above:  Jesus repays it for us because we can’t and does not ask for a commensurate sacrifice to pay us back, appeals to the Father on our behalf to at least open up the possibility of Heaven for us, and uses Himself as an example to show us how we can make sacrifices for the sake of others and to do the right thing.

So rather than the notion being incoherent, it not only seems coherent but seems to be one that is readily understood by most people.  I haven’t read the source Carrier cites — I have a list of one last big hurrah order from Amazon before returning to wandering out to the shops again and that book is on it — but from what I’ve generally read I don’t think there are as many problems with the idea as a lot of atheists claim.  But I’m always open to people firing off posts and comments and links telling me how it is.  I’m just suspicious that they won’t work any better than the ones I’ve already addressed.

The Meaning of Life

May 13, 2022

Richard Carrier is going through the book “Unbelievable” by Justin Brierley, and one of his posts covered a chapter that talked about how Christianity can give people a meaning and purpose to life, when it doesn’t seem like atheism can do that.  This is, of course, a pretty common argument leveled against atheists, and most of them attempt to address it by saying that there is no actual objective meaning or purpose to life and so that’s something that every person has to determine for themselves.  In this manner, they deny that we have to be nihilistic and deny that there is any sort of purpose to our lives, but don’t have to provide any kind of objective grounding to this purpose or insist that everyone has to have the same purpose in life (although they tend to assume certain purposes are, at least, superior to other purposes).  And as I was taking in my walks, I was pondering it again — even though examining the meaning or purpose to life has never been a major philosophical interest for me — and I don’t think that the atheist approach will work, because a self-selected purpose cannot satisfy the reasons we’d need or want a purpose in the first place (which is also my objection to atheists who advocate for subjective moralities).

Let me start from the end … literally.  Imagine someone on their deathbed, looking back on their life to take its measure.  Now, with the standard idea of us having an objective purpose for living, what we’d expect them to do is compare how they’ve lived their life with regards to that purpose.  If they’ve managed to achieve it, they will feel satisfied that they managed to live according to that purpose.  If they’ve failed, then perhaps they will feel a sense of disappointment in themselves that they didn’t manage that, but they also might look back on their lives and note that they made a full effort, and as much of an effort as could possibly be expected of them, and it was only circumstances beyond their control that caused them to fail.  Regardless, all they are doing is looking at that set criteria and evaluating whether they managed to achieve that criteria or not.

This isn’t true for a self-selected purpose.  If someone on their deathbed looks back on their life given their self-selected purpose, they can’t simply evaluate their life based on how well they achieved that purpose.  If they managed to achieve that purpose, there will always be the nagging question of whether they only succeeded because they choose a purpose that was too easy to achieve, and that they should have chosen one that was more meaningful or more purposeful and shouldn’t have set their sights so low.  On the other hand, if they failed they have to ask if the issue was merely that they chose a purpose that was too difficult for them to achieve and so they should have chosen an easier one.  In all cases, they can’t simply evaluate their lives against that purpose, but always have to consider whether they chose the correct self-selected purpose, which since they have to believe that they chose the right original purpose before they can properly evaluate their lives wrt that purpose means that they are going to have to settle that first.  And as we’ve seen, unless we simply accept whatever it is we came up with, determining whether that purpose is correct or not is not easy to do.

As in death, so in life.  As we go about our lives, with a self-selected purpose we constantly have to ask ourselves if we’ve selected the right one.  If we stumble or encounter difficulties in achieving our purpose, it’s not simply a matter of doubling our efforts to achieve it, as we also have to ask whether that struggle is because we have the wrong one and need to choose a better purpose.  And if we are achieving it with ease, then we cannot congratulate ourselves on our achievement but instead have to ask if we have chosen a purpose that’s too easy for us to achieve.  So with every success and every setback we have to constantly examine and reassess our self-selected purpose to see if it still seems to be the correct one.

This isn’t what we wanted a purpose for.  We wanted a purpose to essentially be our lighthouse, to guide us through life with a light that we can trust to guide us properly if only we follow it properly.  Instead, our self-selected purpose ends up not being any kind of guide at all, or at least one that we don’t or at least shouldn’t trust.  If we don’t question this purpose to see if it is correct or reasonable when we know it is something that we chose (and could have chosen wrong), then what does having a purpose do for us?  We might as well simply just live our lives on the basis of our shallow and not-so-shallow impressions and not even think about any deeper purpose.

This is also what makes Richard Carrier’s normal approach of talking about how best to achieve our desires and wants problematic as well.  The purpose is supposed to determine what we want, not reflect it.  We are supposed to use it as the standard by which we evaluate what we want to determine if that’s what we should want or if we need to change our wants.  Carrier can try to argue that we should appeal to the deeper and “correct” wants in order to do that, but then we have to figure out what those are.  At some level, then, we always require having some sort of objective purpose and sense of value that we don’t select ourselves and so is more-or-less unchanging that we can use to evaluate our desires and, well, everything else in our lives.  We may not need God giving us that set purpose — even if we disagree with it — but we need something, and a self-selected purpose just isn’t going to work for that.

So we need an objective purpose and cannot just choose one for ourselves.  The only reason, I think, that atheists can get away with insisting we can is that they are running on the inertia of the objective purposes that we thought we had — in the same way as they can run with the objective moral ideas that they get from society while insisting that there are no such ideas — and so can even subconsciously take them as being set while insisting that they’ve “chosen” them, but this always runs into trouble when they try to justify it.  All they can do in response to such challenges is shrug and just go with what they have, but that is obviously a pretty weak response and is also a response that will not work if someone is a) struggling to find a purpose and wants to have one as “set” as theirs or b) is faced with them challenging their self-selected purpose on the grounds that the atheist’s purpose is better than theirs.  At this point, the idea of a self-selected purpose or meaning to life doesn’t seem to be doing what a purpose or meaning to life should be doing.

It can be objected — and often is — that what I’d be doing here is arguing for the existence of an objective purpose or meaning because I want there to be one, and it’s not the case that because I want something to exist that it has to.  I get that response from my comments on morality as well.  But as I mentioned above it’s not that I want to have such a purpose, but that a self-selected purpose or meaning to life cannot be used for any of the things we wanted that sort of thing for, so much so that it’s hard to imagine that a self-selected purpose could be a valid purpose or meaning to life.  At that point, it looks like the self-selected purpose they are talking about is something completely different that they happen to be using the same name for, and the only reason they don’t notice is because they’ve adopted as that purpose the old standard “objective” ones that we’ve had for centuries, and they don’t treat that purpose the way they really should treat a self-selected one.  They are using inertia and ideas that aren’t valid to make self-selected purposes seem like they can do what the ones that we at least believed objective did, but as we’ve seen they can’t.  So ultimately their self-selected purposes, at the end of the day, aren’t purposes at all.

So self-selecting our purpose won’t work.  Either we come up with something objective, or else we embrace nihilism.  But the attempt to embrace both worlds leaves us with a stated purpose that doesn’t work like purposes at all.

Mythicism: Carrier on McLatchie on Carrier

April 15, 2022

It’s possible that I should start paying more attention to the historicism vs mythicism debate, given that I’ve gotten sucked into talking about it a bit lately.  I have mused about picking up Carrier’s books on the topic and examining them in some detail, but I keep getting discouraged from that by the fact that I don’t really know enough about the topic to judge things very fairly and have no idea what some good and mostly neutral sources have to say about the topic.  I don’t know what some good introductory texts are on the matter, such as I’ve found in the past for things like philosophy (“Philosophies for Dummies”, at least the version I had, was actually pretty good).  What I can say is that from my reading of Richard Carrier’s posts on the topic his stuff is not a good introduction, and I’ve taken on Jonathan MS Pearce’s take on the Nativity and the Resurrection and don’t think they’re good introductions either.  However, I don’t just want to take on some of the people Carrier himself criticizes because it seems to me that Carrier is far more likely to take on works that criticize him the strongest, and that’s not what I’d need in an introduction.  Add in Gregory House’s admonition that “Everybody lies” and the issue I have is that I’d need as unbiased an account as I can, and as we shall see later the only people in this mess who could be unbiased are people like me who really don’t care about the topic … which isn’t much of an incentive for them to write about it.  If it wasn’t for the arguments that I’m coming across that are bad from a philosophical perspective, I wouldn’t really be involved here either, although I am gaining more interest in it for the simple reason that as I read more and more on the topic I’m finding mythicism increasingly untenable, and so am curious as to why people think it not only tenable, but actually plausible.

As you might have guessed, Carrier’s latest post defending mythicism against a criticism of his specific views by Jonathan McLatchie doesn’t break that mold.  Carrier’s defenses — especially in his blog posts — have always had a tendency to be more fire and flame than actual substance, as he aggressively attacks his opponents but in the process ends up missing the point of what they say.  I’ve noted in the past that if you are going to be aggressive you really have to be right, and at that point even minor errors hurt the credibility of a piece more than they would have otherwise.  If someone is careful about what they say and hedge their bets, if they make a minor mistake in interpretation we can let it go, but when they are ranting about how badly the other person misinterpreted their view even minor errors of interpretation on their part seem hypocritical … and Carrier tends to make more than minor errors of interpretation.  He is one of the people that most justifies my rule of “Make sure you read the original work when reading someone’s criticizes of it” (which is another reason why simply reading his stuff is more of an imposition than it might seem).

Anyway, after taking on someone that he didn’t think did any kind of credible job, Carrier turns to McLathchie as someone who is worth replying to.  But he starts with an odd interpretation of the overall debate:

That article’s subtitle alerts us to a trend I have seen in Christian apologetics as an industry since my second debate with Mike Licona: a readiness to strategically ditch the Gospels and extrabiblical sources and try to rest their case (even for the resurrection!) solely on the letters of Paul. That move was precipitated largely by having lost the debate over whether mainstream scholars “trust” the Gospels and other evidence (they don’t; and that looks bad for Christianity). The last rampart left to defend is the letters of Paul. Lose those, and you lose it all. So I totally understand why McLatchie needs to focus on that. And this is true even from a sound historical perspective: because the Gospels and extrabiblical evidence are deeply unreliable and thus unusable, the only place left to debate the historicity of Jesus, really, is in the letters of Paul. I’ve long pointed this out myself (e.g. see Historicity Big and Small: How Historians Try to Rescue Jesus).

So, McLatchie is replying to Carrier, and Carrier argues that the Gospels and extrabiblical sources are not at all reliable, and so would reject any appeals to the Gospels or extrabiblical sources, and so presumably is basing his case entirely or at least mostly on Paul and so clearly thinks that he can find enough evidence in Paul to demonstrate that mythicism is the most likely theory.  McLatchie, then, deciding to leave the Gospels out for the most part and concentrate on Paul isn’t a sign that he doesn’t think the Gospels credible, but is simply him responding to what the person he’s criticizing is actually arguing.  Sure, McLatchie could argue that the Gospels are reliable and prove historicism, but then since Carrier denies that the argument would be over that, and all of that is unnecessary if McLatchie can refute Carrier’s arguments based on Paul.  If those fall, then Carrier’s entire edifice falls.  So the shift is far more likely to be the result of mythicists insisting on ignoring the Gospels and focusing on Paul, and historicists following along with that because they think they can defeat those arguments and want to take mythicists on directly, keeping the Gospels in their back pocket if that fails.  McLatchie’s early paragraphs pretty much state this:

Carrier examines the extrabiblical evidence of Jesus’ historicity, as well as the sources we find in the New Testament – the gospels, Acts, and epistles. While there is much that could be discussed in regards to Carrier’s handling of these sources, for the purpose of the present paper I will focus primarily on Carrier’s interaction with the Pauline corpus, though – for reasons that will become clear – I will also remark on the book of Acts insofar as it helps to illuminate the proper interpretation of Paul’s letters.

Having rejected the gospels and Acts as reliable documents, Carrier maintains that the letters of Paul are the best sources that bear on the question of the historicity of Jesus. He, however, contends that the letters of Paul fail to unequivocally refer to Jesus as an historical person who walked on earth. Instead, argues Carrier, Paul viewed Jesus as a celestial being, inhabiting a spiritual realm in outer space, in which He was crucified by demons and subsequently resurrected. Carrier’s thesis is in fact not a new idea, but one which was originally proposed by Earl Doherty, to whom Carrier owes much of his material.[2]

So there’s no need to assert that his opponents are abandoning the Gospels when they focus on Paul in replying to them when any reasonable academic work replying to a specific position will, well, focus on that position, regardless of what they themselves think.  Carrier here wants to make a mostly irrelevant argument about how people are agreeing with him when, well, there’s no reason to think they are (McLatchie even uses Acts directly).  Which is a bit ironic given what Carrier says later.

But first, Carrier starts with a claim that McLatchie starts with an ad hominem, which is also going to be quite ironic:

To illustrate the difference between a competent rhetorist (McLatchie) and a hamfisted hack (Krause), consider this sentence from McLatchie’s first paragraph: “While Mythicism occupies only the fringes of the scholarly guild” (it actually has almost twenty public endorsements “from the guild” as being at least plausible, which is not looking all too fringe anymore), “it has gained much better traction on the internet, where poor scholarship can be widely disseminated unchecked.” In the very next sentence McLatchie admits I published my study not on the internet, but through a genuine peer reviewed “academic publisher” (he doesn’t mention my thesis has also been independently corroborated under peer review, by Raphael Lataster for Brill). But McLatchie’s wording makes it appear as though he has accused me of publishing “poor scholarship” (yet unlike the internet, academic publishers aren’t in the habit of doing that). So he gets the benefits of an ad hominem well poisoning fallacy while still retaining plausible deniability. He can fool inattentive readers into thinking he deployed such a fallacy (thus having all its intended psychological effect), while being able (unlike Krause) to deny he did any such thing. That’s not just dirty pool, it’s devious pool. Krause could learn a thing or two.

I wonder if the spur for that comment is more admiration and envy than actually finding it invalid.  Perhaps Carrier feels that it’s he, rather than Krause, who could learn a thing or two about such subtle ad hominems, as the ad hominem is so subtle that I didn’t even notice it on my first reading of McLatchie’s post, and on re-reading it don’t think it is one.  Here is what McLatchie said:

Richard Carrier is an ancient historian who has risen to prominence as the lead advocate of Jesus Mythicism, a school of thought that entertains the idea that Jesus of Nazareth may never have existed at all. While Mythicism occupies only the fringes of the scholarly guild, it has gained much better traction on the internet, where poor scholarship can be widely disseminated unchecked. In 2014, Richard Carrier published the first academic defense of Mythicism through Sheffield Phoenix Press Ltd., an academic publisher.[1] Since this volume represents the first scholarly peer-reviewed publication supporting the Mythicist position and is written by an author with a doctoral degree in ancient history, the contents of Carrier’s thesis are deserving of attention.

So my interpretation of it is that mythicism is a fringe belief academically but has gained a lot of traction on the Internet where there are no requirements for good scholarship, but Richard Carrier has come along and created the first scholarly work for this — which is even peer-reviewed, as Carrier loves to mention — and so unlike the Internet works it’s worthy of some sort of scholarly attention.  I don’t see what’s so ad hominem about that.  Carrier claims that what McLatchie is doing is something akin to poisoning the well by associating it with poor scholarship while then “admitting” that Carrier’s work is not an Internet work, but it seems to me that the entire intent of the paragraph is to flat-out state that:  there’s a lot of stuff that’s not scholarly but Carrier’s is the exception, so it deserves attention.  Given that that’s the last thing in the paragraph and so the take-away of it, it’s not like McLatchie is trying to hide it in parentheses or anything.  It’s what that entire paragraph builds towards.  That’s hardly “admitting”.

As for why I think Carrier might be more admiring of the move and wishing he could do that himself, in his own introduction he says this:

Last week I addressed a lame Christian apologist’s travesty of an attempt to denounce and villify doubts that Jesus existed (On Paul Krause’s Objections to Jesus Mythicism). This week I will address a more competent attempt, by another Christian apologist, Jonathan McLatchie, for Frank Turek’s online ministry at Did Jesus Exist? A Critical Appraisal of Richard Carrier’s Interpretation of the Pauline Corpus.

Structurally, this is pretty much the same thing:  I’ve looked at a bad example but here’s a better one that I’ll address.  By Carrier’s logic, this does the same thing as McLatchie does:  associate the view with incompetence and a lack of scholarly rigour and then “admit” that the view he’s going to look at is better, which then gets the audience associating the later work with that lack while having plausible deniability about whether they actually said that or not.  Of course, in this case I would consider that idea ridiculous and very flawed logic, and so conclude in spite of Carrier’s own application of that logic that Carrier is not engaging in any kind of ad hominem here, but is simply making a standard, boilerplate statement of why he is taking on McLatchie’s arguments, despite the fact that Carrier has stated that statements like that are disguised ad hominems.  Thus, I also consider McLatchie’s paragraph to be the same thing, and so if Carrier wants to argue that McLatchie’s intent is that then he will have to answer for his own intent in a paragraph that, again, pretty much says the same thing.

And then, of course. there’s the actual ad hominem that Carrier makes later:

When he gets to trying to make an actually relevant argument, what we get is a Christian apologist’s quasi-fundamentalist beliefs about the letters of Paul and the book of Acts (with one long section on each), rather than any position one can honestly defend with evidence. This is why Lataster is fond of pointing out that Christians have no business even engaging in this debate. They cannot approach it honestly. Their very salvation is at stake. Whereas atheists are under no threat admitting Jesus was yet another mythologized guru. Hence whether Jesus existed or not is really only a debate that can be honestly and productively held between non-Christians. We’ll see why as we survey this effort.

So, no Christian is able to examine the arguments in any way honestly, and so they should be excluded from the debate entirely.  Only atheists should be allowed to engage in this topic, as all Christians will automatically be dishonest about it and so such discussions won’t be productive.  Thus, we can pretty much ignore any arguments from Christians, right?  Even the ones that are, of course, correct.  Call me crazy, but I think that people can indeed at a minimum critically examine arguments of the position they disagree with even if they strongly hold that view, and then opponents can point out — as Carrier does in this entire post — the arguments that don’t work and the arguments or counters that only work because of their bias.  In addition, it’s actually not clear that atheists like Carrier and Pearce are properly unbiased either.  Carrier takes on a comment asking why secular commentators who favour historicism don’t take up the challenge that often:

So far, everyone competent I would suggest, doesn’t really care whether Jesus existed enough to spend time defending it. Only scholars who desperately need Jesus to exist have the motivation. For example, I don’t know their religious commitments, but Mark Goodacre and James Crossley would do the subject justice. But they are buried in other years-long projects of their own interest, and have somewhat indicated they are unlikely to spend any time on this question.

I suspect they really don’t care whether Jesus existed or not enough to want to devote the time it would take to properly treat it (precisely because they know that requires serious commitment to do properly; it can’t be knocked off from the armchair).

Precisely.  The more interesting position historically is that Jesus was a real person who was mythologized, and that’s already the default.  Mythicism isn’t that interesting historically so those who don’t care about the topic either way have no real reason to do the work to engage with it.  So, then, what can we say about those secular scholars who do care deeply about it, like Carrier for certain?  Well, they have some sort of reason to care about it beyond wanting to come to the right conclusion, because those other secular scholars would have that same motivation.  Thus, they have a motivation above and beyond simple scholarly honesty.  And could that reason be that if they could demonstrate that Jesus didn’t really exist then they have a really strong argument to use against Christians?  Pretty much all of the examples of those who strongly advocate for mythicism are anti-theists and not merely atheists:  they don’t merely not believe that God exists, but spend a lot of time trying to argue against theists and Christians who say he does, often in very strong terms, and most would like to see Christianity and religion gone from the world.  Yeah, it’s perfectly reasonable to claim that those atheists are equally biased and so are equally untrustworthy,  The only unbiased commentators are literally those who don’t care about the topic, and the closest thing I can see to that in the debate is, well, myself … and I admit that I don’t know enough to comment on it fairly, in large part because I don’t care.  So, no, Carrier does not get to smear Christians for having biases when his side seems to have them as well.  What we could do is evaluate the arguments and do scholarly examinations of them, stating our biases and trying to work to moderate them, and using things like the peer review process that Carrier is so enamored of to help catch these sorts of things like we are expected to do for all scholarly and academic work.  Instead, Carrier wants to remove all possible opposition to his claims beforehand so that the only people who could possibly oppose him are people who don’t care to oppose him.

Moving on from ad hominems, we get into an argument about consensus based on an aside from McLatchie.  Carrier says:

Similarly, McLatchie goes on to construct a similarly devious (and disingenuous) analogy between the historicity of Jesus and the science of evolution–without hamfistedly saying there is as much evidence for Jesus as for evolution. Instead, he glides right over all the pertinent differences between history and biology as scientific fields, and the historicity of Jesus (a specific, poorly attested, largely unnecessary event) and evolution as a subject of knowledge (a general, vastly attested, manifest process)—and hopes his readers don’t notice or know any of that. Pro tip: there is nowhere near the evidence for Jesus as there is for evolution, and no one thinks a consensus in history is as reliable and undoubtable as a consensus in any hard science like biology.

So you can’t claim every challenge to a consensus is to be dismissed. To the contrary, if it passes peer review, it’s time to take that challenge seriously (that’s what peer review is for: see On Evaluating Arguments from Consensus).

Of course, McLatchie actually said that last part directly in the paragraph Carrier is talking about (but doesn’t quote):

I cannot help but point out an irony in Carrier’s advocacy of scholarship that to call fringe would be an understatement. In one of Carrier’s other books, Why I Am Not a Christian, Carrier writes concerning biological evolution, “The evidence that all present life evolved by a process of natural selection is strong and extensive. I won’t repeat the case here, for it is enough to point out that the scientific consensus on this is vast and certain, so if you deny it you’re only kicking against the goad of your own ignorance.”[3] One wonders whether this quote has any relevance to the debate over Mythicism. I could forego interaction with Carrier’s argumentation by noting that “the evidence that Jesus existed is strong and extensive. I won’t repeat the case here, for it is enough to point out that the scholarly consensus on this is vast and certain, so if you deny it you’re only kicking against the goad of your own ignorance.” Presumably, Carrier would – quite rightly – object that I need to interact with his arguments rather than simply make an appeal to scholarly consensus. This is somewhat of an inconsistency on Carrier’s part.

The paragraph is an aside, where McLatchie points out that by Carrier’s own logic McLatchie would be well within his rights to say that the scholarly consensus is clear and that any attempt to oppose that is just out of ignorance.  As McLatchie notes, presumably Carrier would think that he needs to address Carrier’s arguments instead of just dismissing them, and yet that is exactly what Carrier insists he doesn’t need to do for evolution.  Yes, the evidence and case for evolution is stronger, but if someone was indeed leveling new arguments against evolution dismissing them outright on the basis of “the consensus is clear” is just as bad (arguing that they aren’t new would actually be fair).  If Carrier’s original statement was more “The case for evolution is strong and it’s not the purpose of this work to restate that”, then this would be any kind of inconsistency, but since he aggressively says that any such arguments must be wrong without engaging in them due to the consensus then he is open to that charge, which is again a charge that McLatchie doesn’t care that much about.  And if Carrier wasn’t taking this as a huge sign of dishonesty the fact that McLatchie’s conclusion, again, is the very thing Carrier cites here wouldn’t be that big a deal either.

And it gets worse:

Ironically, McLatchie goes on in a later section to admit (quoting me) that “there is a great deal wrong with how a ‘consensus’ has been reached” on practically everything in Biblical studies. So…um, McLatchie believes it is acceptable to reject numerous mainstream consensuses in the field, and at the same time it is not acceptable only in this one specific isolated question. For…reasons? He never explains himself on this point. He readily knows consensuses in biblical studies are unreliable and often open to challenge—he just won’t admit it in this paragraph, lest it destroy the rhetorical game he is trying to play on his readers (“But, the consensus!”). Instead he only brings up his admission that he actually agrees with me that it is quite plausible to challenge a consensus in this field paragraphs later, hoping his readers don’t hear a record scratch to a halt in their heads, realizing McLatchie just contradicted himself—in the act of falsely claiming I have contradicted myself. Kafka would be proud.

The first problem with this is that Carrier, as he so often does, is using a rather vague notion of “later”, because McLatchie actually says that … two paragraphs later, where the paragraph in-between is this:

In this paper, I will be primarily interacting with Carrier’s book, On the Historicity of Jesus. However, I may on occasion also draw from other publications by Carrier, including his blog posts, which might serve to illuminate his views or where he may have anticipated some of the objections I raise here.

In general, the accusation of doing that later is that you set it up so that they would have forgotten about the previous statement when the later one comes up, which is what Carrier’s argument is here.  But two paragraphs later isn’t, in general, long enough for that to happen, and Carrier can only avoid a charge of misrepresentation here on the basis that two paragraphs later is technically later.  On top of that, McLatchie actually notes that it’s okay to challenge consensuses in that very paragraph, as we’ve already seen, so it’s not like he’s even trying to hide the principle from the audience.  So what we’ve seen so far is an attempt by Carrier to claim McLatchie dishonest for these tricks that, well, aren’t really tricks at all.  Which is even more ironic given what Carrier follows up with:

None of McLatchie’s opening paragraphs serve any legitimate purpose, other than emotional and rhetorical manipulation of his audience.

Which means that it’s really important that Carrier spend five paragraphs talking about these things that have no legitimate purpose, right?  Putting aside the argument over whether they even actually do that, the opening paragraphs seems to me to be standard boilerplate:  saying what mythicism is, who he’s talking about, what he’s going to talk about, and why Carrier is worth talking about, with a minor aside on how Carrier might be willing to ignore the consensus when it suits him while insisting on following it when doing that benefits him (which is a paragraph that didn’t need to be there, true).  Carrier spends five paragraphs talking about four paragraphs, that seem to do little more than let Carrier make ad hominems while trying to defend himself from what he perceives as being ad hominems.  I think we all should be happy to move on to relevant stuff now (although Carrier will take another three paragraphs talking about how Christians can’t be trusted as seen above and about how we really can only trust Paul’s pastorals, which McLatchie was going to focus on anyway, so so much for getting to things that are relevant).

And, of course, he continues to bash apologists without getting to the meat of the arguments in the next section:

Serious debate over the historicity of Jesus really does always come down to what we understand Paul to have meant when he wrote certain things in his letters. And answering that question requires adducing all the pertinent evidence in Paul that informs us as to either what he did mean, or what he could as likely have meant as anything else—and then seeing where that evidence leaves us. This is how historians operate. Apologists operate backwards: they assume all the later mythologies (never referenced by Paul and by many indications quite unknown to Paul) are “true” and therefore we can “interpret” what Paul said by reference to those later myths. This is a circular argument. You cannot assume “Paul meant what’s in the Gospels” in order argue “Paul meant what’s in the Gospels.” Alas. But this is all McLatchie does, really.

Remember, though, that Paul was indeed aware of Christianity at the time and tried to roughly align himself with them — he did not want to contradict himself and be declared outside of the Church — and so if we have sources that describe what early Christians thought independently of him then we can use them to interpret what he might have meant, especially when he talks about what they meant.  By the same reasoning, we cannot claim that “Paul said that early Christians believed this” to argue that “Paul said that early Christians believed this”.  We would need to establish what Paul himself clearly meant and then make an argument that from that we can be certain that the early Christians meant that as well and that wasn’t one of Paul’s deviations.  Conversely, if the Gospels really did reflect what early Christians believed then even if Paul hadn’t had access to them we could interpret what Paul meant by noting that he needs to be at least broadly consistent with them even though he deviates at times.  However, it’s relevant to note that in this debate the only reason we care about what Paul really meant is because we are trying to find out what early Christians believed.  So if we have good extra-Paul sources for what the early Christians believed then what Paul thought or said isn’t all that important.  It’s only because it is at least claims that we don’t have those sources that we care so much about what Paul said.  Which puts Carrier’s comments about shifting away from the Gospels towards Paul in perspective:  it’s as important if not more so to Carrier that the Gospels be ignored, likely because it’s not as easy for Carrier to make his case taking the Gospels into account as it is if he can ignore them and focus only on Paul, probably because the Gospels all pretty much claim Jesus was a real person and it would take a lot more creative interpretations to make them fit the mythicist model.  Carrier may indeed be right that they aren’t reliable enough to be trusted but that is countered by the fact that they are more directly linked to what early Christians really thought as they are almost certainly derived from what at least certain sects of Christianity that can be traced back to its origin really believed.  So we have issues no matter how we proceed.

But then Carrier says something that from any kind of epistemic view is incredibly odd, and also explains my reaction to his and Pearce’s view, and to atheist anti-theism in general:

To be fair, McLatchie admits “Paul’s reference to Jesus’ teachings on divorce or to the twelve…can be interpreted in a manner that is consistent with” my thesis. So he isn’t just hell bent on gainsaying everything I say. He understands the concept that, for example, Paul referring to their being a “twelve” is equally likely whether Jesus existed or not—without having to insist or prove Paul did not mean what historicists need him to. This is a crucial methodological point. Apologists tend to have a hard time distinguishing between, for example, “we know the Gospels are all myth” and “we don’t know the Gospels aren’t all myth.” All I have to prove is the latter—not the former.

Wait.  So, the consensus is that Jesus was a real person who was mythogized, and we have sources that claim this, and Carrier is saying that he doesn’t have to prove that Paul didn’t mean what historicists need him to to challenge those sources, nor does he have to prove that the Gospels really are myths and don’t contain historical information about a real person?  I mean, a lot of atheists have made hay over strong notions of proof and so denying that they have that burden, but surely to overturn a consensus you are going to have to get to something stronger than “Well, we don’t know that I’m wrong”.  Surely you’d need to get to “I know that I’m right that Paul was referring to a Jesus that was not a real person”, which then at least would get to the implication that any reference in the Gospels to a real Jesus was indeed false and so all of those descriptions were myths.  Carrier states this even more strongly later (yes, a paragraph later):

Hence, so too, anything in Paul. I do not need to prove Paul did mean by “the archons of this aeon” demonic powers; all I need prove is that we cannot know he didn’t. Even at best, for the historicist, the evidence we have is equally likely on whether Paul did or didn’t. So it supports neither theory against the other. It’s simply unusable as evidence. It’s actually worse for the historicist’s interpretation—this wording is actually not likely what Paul would have written if he meant human authorities—as I outline in On the Historicity of Jesus (e.g. pp. 565-66). But my point here is that it doesn’t have to be for my conclusion to follow. In other words, we simply can’t use an ambiguous sentence to prove historicity, when it just as likely can have been the same sentence Paul would write if he only understood the saga of Jesus to be a celestial event and not an Earthly one. In this one moment McLatchie reveals he at least understands this point in principle. Yet we’ll see him conveniently forget about it whenever he needs to.

Well, okay, sure, if the historicist is saying that this sentence proves that Jesus was real and the mythicist can point out that it is consistent with their position as well, that would mean that it can’t at least be used as strong evidence in favour of historicism, but as Carrier himself notes here that’s not what’s happening, and it’s the mythicist who is arguing that this is evidence in favour of mysticism.  At some point, the mythicist is either going to have to find an argument that they claim means they know that Paul was not referring to a real person or else the culmulative case will have to add up to a knowledge claim.  So Carrier cannot simply say “Well, we don’t know that Paul didn’t mean this” if he wants us to take his claims seriously and wants to overturn a consensus.  Eventually, he is going to have to get to a point where, yes, we can say that we do know that Paul meant that, even if that case is ambiguous until he makes the rest of his case.

This attitude, I think, is what is bugging me about mythicism specifically and anti-theistic arguments in general.  Their main focus is always on raising doubts and dodging the burden of proof, pushing it on to their opponents.  But I see no reason to give up any belief because some doubts can be raised.  I can concede that it may not be irrational for mythicists or strong atheists to hold their positions without feeling any pressure to join them in their position.  The arguments, in general, are simply not strong enough to do anything but raise some doubts, and that’s not enough.  Add in that a lot of the arguments are about irrelevant and minor things and things get even worse.  Neither position, it seems to me, has the one knockdown argument that shows that we know God doesn’t exist — see my examinations of Bob Seidensticker’s Silver Bullets that are supposed to do that and fail — but in trying to make a cumulative case they include too many minor and wrong arguments to make that work either.  Every time they include something that doesn’t work or isn’t important it makes the argument seem desperate rather than considered, especially when they treat those minor and incorrect things as things that we are supposed to find critically important.  And so I am unimpressed by them because the arguments are unimpressive and the proponents spend as much time trying to force me to prove my case as they do for promoting their own, and the only way to insist that I take their view is to get to the level of knowledge, and demanding that I prove it to them is always an implicit acknowledgement that they can’t get there.  And if they can’t get there, why should I care about their position?

Anyway, moving on, Carrier commends McLatchie for stating his position properly and then tries to argue that he didn’t:

But then he straw man’s my conclusion by declaring “Carrier’s proposed interpretation of Romans 1:3 is that God manufactured Jesus out of sperm that was obtained from David’s belly, an event that Carrier suggests took place in outer space.” Actually, the following is what I said in the book McLatchie is supposed to be responding to: “An allegorical meaning is possible. But so is a literal one,” and then in a note I explain “in Gal. 3.26–4.29 every Christian comes from ‘the sperm of Abraham’ by spiritual adoption” and so “Jesus could have been understood to come from ‘the sperm of David’ in a similar way.” In fact “Paul even uses the same phrase in his discussion of allegorical heritage here (kata sarka, ‘according to the flesh’, Gal. 4.23, 29) that he uses of Jesus in Rom. 1.3″ (p. 575). So, I did not actually say the only likely thing Paul could mean here is a literal manufacture of Jesus from the sperm of David; I pointed out the text is entirely compatible with an allegorical meaning: the exact same one Paul uses elsewhere, with identical vocabulary. McLatchie never mentions this; nor ever addresses it.

I then go on to explain why a literal reading of the text—divine manufacture—is actually simpler and makes even more sense.

So, McLatchie claimed that Carrier thinks that the way to interpret that statement is to refer to divine manufacture.  Carrier then claims that McLatchie is creating a strawman by saying that Carrier proposes interpreting the statement that way, by arguing that in his sentence he suggests that an allegorical meaning might be valid, that he expands on in a note, and then concludes that after that he goes on to argue that divine manufacture is the simpler and makes more sense.  Well, first, McLatchie can be forgiven for not putting too much emphasis on the note because in arguments notes are not meant to be taken as arguments.  In general, in philosophical works I ignore the notes because those are meant to be clarifications, not arguments, and one should be able to read a philosophical text and understand it without reading the notes.  So notes, in general, are interesting but not crucial asides that can help clarify matters, which is why I do read them in historical works, not because they are important, because they are interesting.  If Carrier wanted us to think that he actually take the allegorical argument seriously, he needed to put it in the text and not in a note.  Additionally, after talking about how it might work allegorically Carrier himself notes that he spends much more time right after that talking about how the preferred interpretation should be divine manufacture.  Given this, it’s perfectly reasonable for McLatchie to conclude that that’s how Carrier thinks it should be interpreted, and so that doesn’t seem like any kind of a strawman.  Ironically, if McLatchie had insisted that Carrier takes it as being analogical that would be a strawman, given what Carrier says.  But saying that Carrier thinks what Carrier admits that he spends time arguing for and that it seems he really thinks isn’t any kind of strawman.

I am at a complete loss for why Carrier would do this.  While I dislike trying to psychologically analyze people, I can only conclude that McLatchie stating the position so baldly struck Carrier as being totally bizarre, and so he wanted to find a way to distance himself from the position, but I cannot understand why he didn’t just say “I know this sounds insane, but this is what the early Christians believed!” instead of spending so much time trying to deny that he said it only to affirm that, yeah, that is what he meant.  And he even goes on to argue that just a short while later.  So why spend the time here trying to argue that what he really does seem to mean isn’t what he meant?

This is part of a long section where Carrier claims that McLatchie didn’t respond to any of Carrier’s real arguments and hides that from the audience, while ignoring most of what McLatchie actually said, which isn’t any better.  The argument is over whether Paul uses a certain verb to mean “born” or “manufactured”.  Carrier quotes McLatchie saying this:

Carrier has in mind here the Septuagint translation of Genesis 2:7, in which the word ἐγένετο (the aorist indicative form of γίνομαι) appears, describing the man as becoming a living creature. However, the word that is used here to describe the moment of divine manufacture is not ἐγένετο, but rather ἔπλασεν (the third person aorist indicative of the verb πλάσσω). The word ἐγένετο, rather, is used in this context to describe the change of state from non-living to living. Thus, it is not precisely correct to say that ἐγένετο refers to divine manufacture.

Which he replies to by saying that the quote in his book is actually this:

Philippians 2.6-11 portrays this fact as an act of divine construction, not human procreation (as noted in §4): Jesus ‘took’ human form, was ‘made’ to look like a man and then ‘found’ to be resembling one (see also Heb. 2.17). No mention of birth, childhood or parents. In Rom. 1.3 (just as in Gal. 4.4) Paul uses the word genomenos (from ginomai), meaning ‘to happen, become’. Paul never uses that word of a human birth, despite using it hundreds of times (typically to mean ‘being’ or ‘becoming’); rather, his preferred word for being born is gennaō. Notably, in 1 Cor. 15.45, Paul says Adam ‘was made’, using the same word as he uses for Jesus; yet this is obviously not a reference to being born but to being constructed directly by God. If so for Adam, then so it could be for Jesus (whom Paul equated with Adam in that same verse). Likewise in 1 Cor. 15.37 Paul uses the same word of our future resurrection body, which of course is not born from a parent but directly manufactured by God (and already waiting for us in heaven: 2 Cor. 5.1-5). Thus, Paul could be saying the same of Jesus’ incarnation. (OHJ, pp. 575-76)

(The emphasis is all Carrier’s).

But McLatchie’s remaining paragraphs in the section are as follows:

Carrier has in mind here the Septuagint translation of Genesis 2:7, in which the word ἐγένετο (the aorist indicative form of γίνομαι) appears, describing the man as becoming a living creature. However, the word that is used here to describe the moment of divine manufacture is not ἐγένετο, but rather ἔπλασεν (the third person aorist indicative of the verb πλάσσω). The word ἐγένετο, rather, is used in this context to describe the change of state from non-living to living. Thus, it is not precisely correct to say that ἐγένετο refers to divine manufacture. Paul himself in fact alludes to this text (1 Cor 15:45). While Carrier asserts that Paul does not use γίνομαι to refer to a human birth, this only begs the question, since he must assume that Romans 1:3 and also Galatians 4:4 (which says that Jesus was born – γενόμενον – of a woman and born under the law) are not using the verb in this sense, which is the very question he is attempting to address. Furthermore, according to Liddell and Scott’s Intermediate Greek Lexicon, the verb γίνομαι, in the context of persons, means “to be born.”[6] We can independently verify this to be the case by analysing instances where this verb is used in the Septuagint, in order to discern how the word is used in relation to persons. Genesis 21:3 says, “Abraham called the name of his son who was born to him, whom Sarah bore him, Isaac.” In the Greek Septuagint, the Hebrew word נּֽוֹלַד־ (“was born”) is translated γενομένου. Another example is Genesis 46:27: “And the sons of Joseph, who were born to him in Egypt, were two.” Again, the Greek Septuagint renders this as γενομένου. Finally, consider Genesis 48:5: “And now your two sons, who were born to you in the land of Egypt before I came to you in Egypt, are mine; Ephraim and Manasseh shall be mine, as Reuben and Simeon are.” Here once again, the Greek Septuagint uses the word γενομένου.

Carrier points out that Paul also uses another verb, γεννάω, to refer to being born. One instance is Romans 9:11: “though they were not yet born (γεννηθέντων) and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls.” The other instance is Galatians 4:23,29: “But the son of the slave was born (γεγέννηται) according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise… But just as at that time he who was born (γεννηθεὶς) according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so also it is now.” While it may be granted that Paul uses the verb γεννάω to refer to being born, this entails nothing more than that Paul was willing to use synonyms for a word.

Another relevant question is how Paul himself uses the word σπέρματος (usually translated as “seed” or “offspring”) elsewhere. Paul writes, “I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! For I myself am an Israelite, a descendant (σπέρματος) of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin,” (Rom 11:1). Here, Paul uses the exact same word for descendant as he used in Romans 1:3 to describe Jesus as being a descendent of David. If Paul – as he presumably did – believed that his descendance from Abraham entailed that he himself existed on earth, then it stands to reason that he also believed that Jesus existed on earth by virtue of His descendance from David.

While there’s too much here to completely unpack and it’s clear that McLatchie leaves out some of the arguments, what is happening here is that McLatchie actually is addressing the idea that because Paul used the same word there that refers to Adam that doesn’t mean that he really did mean that Jesus was divinely manufactured instead of being born.  It’s all about the consistency of how Paul uses words, and I don’t see that Carrier’s argument is necessarily more reasonable than McLatchie’s (one could argue that that’s because I don’t really understand the context, which is a fair comment).  But to return to Carrier’s objection, Carrier makes it seems like McLatchie doesn’t reply to it on the basis that he says nothing about the debate, which is clearly false, and Carrier completely leaves out the arguments that McLatchie does make, while trying to make an argument that McLatchie dishonestly leaves out the arguments and information in order to misrepresent the argument.  If that really is true, then is Carrier doing anything any different?  And note that if Carrier cannot pull off the argument that Paul does not use the word to refer to actual live births then his entire argument here fails, and we have no reason to think that this argument in any way supports mythicism, and surely can fall back on the consensus and the Gospels that claim that Jesus was a real person and not historical, and Carrier, again, does not in any way address arguments that show that Carrier does not pull that off and that Paul is referring to a real person is still a live option.

Carrier also addresses an issue with McLatchie’s last statement:

To wrap up my analysis of this text, I will note that it is very clear from the dead sea scrolls that there was an expectation of a Davidic Messiah, and, moreover, this is likewise very evident from the Hebrew Bible as well. Therefore, the interpretation that Paul intends to express that Christ was born of the line of David is much more plausible than Carrier’s thesis that it refers to divine manufacture.

Carrier accuses him of ignoring this paragraph:

Scripture said the prophet Nathan was instructed by God to tell King David (here following the Septuagint translation, although the Hebrew does not substantially differ):

‘When your days are done, and you sleep with your fathers, I will raise up your sperm after you, which shall come from your belly, and I will establish his kingdom. He will build for me a house in my name, and I will establish his throne forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son’ (2 Samuel 7.12-14a).

If this passage were read like a pesher (Element 8), one could easily conclude that God was saying he extracted semen from David and held it in reserve until the time he would make good this promise of David’s progeny sitting on an eternalthrone. For otherwise God’s promise was broken: the throne of David’s progeny was noteternal (Element 23). Moreover, the original poetic intent was certainly to speak of an unending royal line (and not just biologically, but politically: it is the thronethat would be eternal, yet history proves it was not); yet God can be read to say here that he would raise up a single sonfor David who will rule eternally, rather than a royal line, and that ‘his’ will be the kingdom God establishes, and ‘he’ will build God’s house (the Christian church: Element 18), and thus hewill be the one to sit upon a throne forever—and this man will be the Son of God. In other words, Jesus Christ (the same kind of inference Paul makes in Gal. 3.13–4.29, where he infers Jesus is also the ‘seed of Abraham’ also spoken of in scripture). (OHJ, p. 576)

Or, well, it could also be interpreted as it seems to be the Gospels:  God would restore someone from the line of David to an eternal throne.  This doesn’t seem to be as clear as Carrier seems to think, given that one obvious problem here is that Carrier seems to be saying that the line was broken politically which means it can’t be valid, but the quote explicitly says that it will be broken politically so that it can be raised again.  Moreover, if that kingdom is to be the Christian church then it being a political kingdom is clearly false.  And if God was taking the seed from David’s belly that was somehow preserved how does that relate to that person being the Son of God?  In all honesty, right now having Jesus in the line of David through Joseph but born of God’s implantation is probably the best way to make sense of Jesus being of David’s line but also the Son of God, unless we go full-on allegorical which is not what Carrier is doing here, at least.  This is another issue I have with these arguments, as I wasn’t really wanting to analyze this but as I read it to make sure it was the right quote I kept finding more and more things that didn’t really make sense and seem wrong.  The more and closer I read these things the less compelling and interesting I find that.  That has to be a flaw.

Anyway, my use of this is just a set-up to talk about this line:

So what sounds “much more plausible” to you now? Right. That thing you are feeling? That’s the feeling of gaining access to information McLatchie concealed from you. Apologetics generally operates by excluding evidence. And here you see that directly at work. Once you assemble all the pertinent information, it becomes clear that we cannot tell which thing Paul is thinking of here when he wrote this verse.

It’s one thing to be condescending to your opponents, but quite another to be condescending to your audience.  Telling your audience what they’re feeling is the province of terrible DMs, not of someone making a serious argument.  And it especially falls flat if they aren’t feeling that.  And that’s especially bad since an argument here might make people conclude that, but is unlikely to make them feel that.  Maybe they’ll agree.  Given Carrier’s approach, it’s very likely that many won’t.  And if they don’t, you look arrogant and condescending, not as someone whose arguments should be taken seriously.  Again, Carrier’s aggressive approach works against him, not for him.  All he needed to say was that McLatchie ignored these arguments, not imply that he was dishonestly doing so.

Especially since that’s pretty much the purpose of those paragraphs:

won’t go into as much detail for the rest of McLatchie’s article. The point of doing so above is to show you how McLatchie’s dishonest rhetoric operates, how by omitting key information and engaging in sleight of hand he makes you think he has rebutted my argument, when in fact he hasn’t even addressed it. And you won’t know that if you haven’t read my book, or don’t pick it up again and try to follow McLatchie’s purported answer to it, and then notice what he is leaving out and not answering. Which more than soundly illustrates the fact that you can’t trust his critique—you simply have to go and read On the Historicity of Jesus for yourself. (Or Jesus from Outer Space if you want to start with a quick summary; it has in back a concordance to the corresponding sections in OHJ if you want to dive further into the debate and sources.)

Anyway, moving on, I want to skip the first part of the “born of a woman” argument and focus on the ending, because Carrier seems to not get what it was aiming at and on thinking about it I think it might be more damning than it seems:

McLatchie closes this section by saying “if Carrier’s theory about Galatians 4:4 is correct, then the allegorical interpretation makes sense only if we translate γενόμενον as ‘born’ rather than ‘manufactured’.” Hmmm. Are we to believe McLatchie somehow didn’t read the following in the book he claims to be answering? I wrote, “It’s obvious to me that by ‘born of a woman, born under the law’ Paul means no more than that Jesus was, by being incarnated, placed under the sway of the old covenant, so that he could die to it (and rise free, as shall we). So the ‘woman’ here is simply the old covenant, not an actual person. Paul does not mean a biological birth to Mary or any other Jewess.” (OHJ, p. 579) So, explain to us again, dear McLatchie, how my take on this “makes sense only if we translate γενόμενον as ‘born’ rather than ‘manufactured’.” Oh right. That’s not even a remotely honest description of my position. That’s what makes what McLatchie is doing here apologetics, not honest history.

But McLatchie’s full argument is this:

But there is an even more damning objection to Carrier’s thesis here. That is, if Carrier’s theory about Galatians 4:4 is correct, then the allegorical interpretation makes sense only if we translate γενόμενον as “born” rather than “manufactured”. Therefore, if Carrier is correct here in his interpretation, he has himself refuted his own response to Romans 1:3, discussed above, that γενόμενον should not be used to refer to being born.

So the point is this:  earlier, Carrier says that Paul is consistent in using a particular word to refer to being born, and yet in that section he doesn’t use that word but instead uses another one, and that that other one is also used to refer to Adam, and so thus is used to refer to divine manufacture.  Yet in this case Paul uses that same word, and Carrier says that it’s making reference to another case as an allegory, but McLatchie notes that that references is clearly a reference to being born, not divinely manufactured, and so if Paul only used that word to refer to divine manufacture then it would be the wrong word to use here to make the allegory work.  Now, at first I thought this was just a minor issue and Carrier might be able to escape this charge, but in thinking about it on my walks I noted that he can’t really do that.

Here’s why.  If Carrier argues that Paul simply used the terms in different senses in the two cases, then that invalidates his argument that Paul was always careful to use the one word for “born” and to not use this word to mean “born”, because he clearly used it in that sense here.  Paul was clearly more loose in his uses of words than Carrier needs to make a case for the first case really meaning “divine manufacture”.  So he’d need to insist that Paul really is using it in the same sense and so doesn’t vary in his usages in the same case.  But if Carrier takes that sense as being “born” then he invalidates the argument for divine manufacture and so Paul might easily have meant that Jesus was a real person in the first argument, wiping it out completely.  So he won’t want to do that.  So he has to insist that it means “divine manufacture” in the second case as well, which doesn’t align with the analogy and Carrier gives no reason to think that Paul wouldn’t have used the other word for born there.  This, then, is an inconsistency that Carrier needs to resolve, that he doesn’t resolve with his comments that the born there does not have to mean literally born.  The word “born” fits better here even if Jesus was just incarnated, and Carrier has insisted that Paul never uses the word to mean that.

He then goes on to talk about “brothers of the Lord”, and actually hits on one argument that I myself found odd that McLatchie would make:

Here McLatchie writes “Carrier observes that ‘Paul can use the phrase ‘brother of the Lord’ to mean Christian, since all Christians were brothers of the Lord’.” He cites the wrong page number for this in his appended footnote (my discussion of this is in pages 582-92; not on page 669). He also omits mention of the fact that I go on to explain there that only baptized Christians were considered Brothers of the Lord. But these errors don’t affect his apologetic. Because his only response is the rather self-defeating assertion that “this argument is problematic since it seems unlikely that Paul is implying—as would be required on Carrier’s interpretation—that he saw no other Christian, or even no-one of importance, in Jerusalem besides Peter and James.” Not only is that exactly what Paul is saying, he explicitly says that in the very next paragraph: “I assure you before God that what I am writing you is no lie. Then I went to Syria and Cilicia. I was personally unknown to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. They only heard the report” of me. So look what has happened here. McLatchie wants to cast doubt on the idea that Paul meant he met no one at all but these two men on that visit—and doesn’t tell you that in the very next paragraph Paul explains quite plainly that he met no one at all but these two men on that visit. So now McLatchie is hoping you don’t even read his own Bible.

Yeah, it is odd that McLatchie would argue that somehow Paul would have met other Christians in this context since it doesn’t seem all that important and Paul himself at least insists that he didn’t meet anyone who was all that important.  However, Carrier’s reply is no better:

This should not be surprising. Paul opens his argument with the assertion that he learned the Gospel from no mortal man. He outright says he did not “consult any human being.” Not just apostles. No mortal period. It was thus vitally important that he confess to any Christian he may have met on his visit to Peter, lest he be accused of lying. That’s why he insists “I am not lying.” He cannot afford to be accused of attempting an equivocation fallacy to fool the Galatians, saying he met no man, then only admitting he met no apostle, a trick of a distinction that would not have impressed the Galatians, who would have destroyed him over such an attempt to deceive them. Paul is no fool. He knows this will lose him the argument; so he cannot omit mention of any mortal human Christian he may have met then.

All this means is that Paul didn’t learn his doctrine from them.  It is indeed actually unlikely that he met no other Christians or talked to them at all, just that he didn’t derive his doctrine from them and the only people that he talked doctrine to were Peter and James.  So while we can’t conclude that Paul met other Christians and certainly wasn’t trying to say that he met other Christians, we also can’t conclude that he didn’t meet other Christians either, and it is indeed unlikely that he didn’t meet any others.  The big reason this is such an odd argument for McLatchie to make is that it does open up those arguments and is irrelevant to the argument, which is over whether the James referred to in that passage was being referred to as Jesus’ legal brother or just as another Christian.  McLatchie does talk about that in a bit more detail, and Carrier tries to address that:

Either way, this is apologetics, not history. History reveals that, indeed, Paul very explicitly and repeatedly makes clear he most definitely means these are the only two Christians he met on that trip. This is why the latest peer reviewed scholarship, and several Bible translation committees, now admit Paul means to say here that this James was not an apostle.

I’m really not sure how that follows, to be honest, and Carrier only gives a link to one of his own arguments and not to that scholarship itself.  I can’t translate the grammar from the original, but I’m going to give the King James version of the translation:

Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to see Peter, and abode with him fifteen days.

19 But other of the apostles saw I none, save James the Lord’s brother.

I wanted to use the King James version to get a more formal translation, but the New International Version is the same:

Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Cephas[b] and stayed with him fifteen days. 19 I saw none of the other apostles—only James, the Lord’s brother. 20 I assure you before God that what I am writing you is no lie.

So putting aside the grammar arguments that I don’t have time to delve into, looking at this stylistically I really don’t see why it would make sense for Paul to try to distinguish James by claiming that he’s a non-apostolic Christian.  Even if the James being referred to here is the one that isn’t an apostle, if the translation really is accurate and Paul says none of the other apostles and then says “only James, the Lord’s brother” then that would really seem to be singling out a specific James as an apostle.  Sure, it can work, but it does seem a bit dubious.  Maybe the grammar argument works better but I wouldn’t hold out much hope for that.  Carrier also ignores that McLatchie argues that the purportedly non-apostolic James wouldn’t work because Paul tends to use whether they saw Jesus as the demarcation between apostolic and non-apostolic and that James did see Jesus.  So for all of the text Carrier puts here, there doesn’t seem to be anything that really matters other than pointing out an admittedly odd statement that Paul saw other Christians, and even that can be defended on the grounds that McLatchie is not relying on Paul actually having met other Christians but that it seems odd that he’d bother making that distinction in any way as opposed to just talking about the apostles.

Carrier has been obsessed in this entire post with trying to catch McLatchie in being dishonest, far more than in actually rebutting what he said, which is really bad when he gets it wrong.  Here’s another example, over the Ascension of Isaiah.

Right out of the gate he falsely claims I rely on the thesis that Paul is quoting the Ascension of Isaiah, and responds to this argument I never made with “that Paul is textually dependent upon the Ascension of Isaiah seems very unlikely.” Funny. That’s exactly what I said: “The earliest version” of the Ascension “in fact was probably composed around the very same time as the earliest canonical Gospels were being written,” and thus not before the letters of Paul. What I argue was that Paul likely was relying on some other lost apocalyptic text also used by the Ascension of Isaiah, and only that “we can rightly wonder what relationship that Apocalypse had to the Ascension of Isaiah. May it have been an earlier redaction of it?” I only muse on the possibility. I never employ such a conclusion as a premise anywhere in OHJ. Whereas I give reasons for there likely being some source text (written or oral) for Paul to be relying on for this material. McLatchie makes no response to that, my actual argument.

So we’re off to a bad start here. McLatchie then contradicts himself by admitting I date the Ascension after Paul (I guess hoping his readers don’t notice that), and then claiming “Carrier offers no argument in support of this contention.”

But what McLatchie actually argues is this:

In support of this, he argues, following Earl Doherty, that 1 Corinthians 2:8 “looks like a direct paraphrase of an early version of the Ascension of Isaiah, wherein Jesus is also the ‘Lord of Glory’, his descent and divine plan is also ‘hidden’ and the ‘rulers of this world’ are indeed the ones who crucify him, in ignorance of that hidden plan (see the Ascension of Isaiah 9.15; 9.32; 10.12,15). It even has an angel predict his resurrection on the third day (9.16), and the Latin/Slavonic contains a verse (in 11.34) that Paul actually cites as scripture, in the very same place (1 Cor. 2.9).”[14] However, that Paul is textually dependent upon the Ascension of Isaiah seems very unlikely, given that scholarly estimates of the date of the Ascension of Isaiah generally place it in the early second century (though estimates range between the late first century and the early third century). If there is any dependence, it is more likely that the Ascension is dependent on Paul, not the other way round.

Carrier claims that “The earliest version in fact was probably composed around the very same time as the earliest canonical Gospels were being written.”[15]

So, McLatchie admits that by stating it in the very next paragraph.  That’s hardly hoping that the readers wouldn’t notice it, other than by not pointing out that very fact.  McLatchie’s claim for the similarities is actually that that work referenced Paul, while Carrier has to bring in another lost text for, well, no reason.  Which means that the reason McLatchie references that Carrier doesn’t provide an argument for that is because it places it close enough to Paul in some circles so that it couldn’t be using Paul.  Carrier replies to that this way:

Liar. I cite numerous works of scholarship establishing that date, and even summarize and address some of their arguments (OHJ, pp. 36-37). And he can’t not know this, because that material is directly in the footnote to the very sentence he quotes, and immediately following.

If it’s so important that Carrier wants to make sure we remember that he argued for it, why is it in a footnote and not in the text?  While McLatchie could be criticized for stating that Carrier doesn’t argue for it if it really is argued for in the footnote, putting it in the footnote is pretty much Carrier asking us to not take it seriously, which then makes his “citing numerous works” claim something that we should not take as seriously as Carrier wants us to.

I will say that I can’t assess in any way which of these arguments is right, but do have to note that Carrier’s dismissal of Q is based on not needing to invent a text for two works that can be dependent to share, so I don’t see why he’d need to make those arguments for that here, and he never addresses the claim that it might have referenced Paul.

I probably could go through the minor differences later, and probably intended to, but I’ve been writing this for a while now and am getting sick of it, and am indeed hitting cases where on both side I’m running into issues with my knowledge (for example, reading Carrier’s comments and noting that McLatchie probably didn’t really address the reply but also reading McLatchie’s and noting that the arguments are stronger than I might have originally thought), so let me stop here.  But the big issue here for me is that Carrier’s defenses are not as strong as he portrays them, McLatchie’s counters are not as weak as Carrier portrays him, and for pretty much any accusation that Carrier makes about McLatchie being dishonest I can find an equivalent — and usually something worse — in Carrier.  This does not make me want to take Carrier’s own arguments seriously.  If Carrier would spend less time on rhetoric and more on arguments — and quoting — his arguments might be a lot better off.