On Saturday, June 6th, I appeared as a guest on the YouTube channel Nuskeptix to have a discussion with atheist Raphael Lataster on the topic “The Existence Of God and The Exclusive Truth Of Christianity.” (That was certainly not my chosen title as I make clear in at the beginning of the video.) Lataster is the author of the popular book There was no Jesus, There is no God which was based on his Master’s Thesis.
I had heard of Lataster and his book prior to agreeing to participate in this event, but I had no familiarity with his work or his presentation style. So one afternoon last week I set aside a couple hours to listen to a couple interviews he’d given and to watch the video of one of his presentations on YouTube. It was not long before I was reconsidering the wisdom of engaging with Lataster as an interlocutor.
Throughout the interviews I sampled I found Lataster to be abrasive and extremely condescending and dismissive toward those he disagrees with. For example, in his Skepticality interview the interviewer asks Lataster, who defends a version of Jesus mythicism, why so many biblical scholars and ancient historians (even religious skeptics like Bart Ehrman!) discount mythicism and accept that Jesus was a historical person. This is a crucial question and one would expect a reasonable person, even one taking a fringe view like Jesus mythicism, at least to concede that the consensus opinion is informed by reason and evidence. But Lataster doesn’t concede this, and instead he opts to attribute the consensus opinion to “dogma” driven by various possible ignoble motivations. Here’s how he puts it:
“In general, there is a great reluctance to accept the idea that there was no historical Jesus. It’s very well accepted within scholarship, even biblical scholarship, that the Jesus of the Bible [aka the Christ of faith] is a myth. […] But even those like Bart Ehrman, even those who are atheists, and reject the biblical Jesus, quite a lot of them actually accept and, I think dogmatically assert, that there definitely was a historical Jesus behind it all. And there’s many reasons for that. It could, it could have to do with ego, it could have to do with finances. But it’s very important to them that Jesus did exist as a human being.” (51:00)
Pause for a moment to take in the extraordinary hubris of that statement. Rather than acknowledge that a world-class scholar like Bart Ehrman has reasons for accepting the historicity of Jesus, Lataster claims that Ehrman’s belief (and that of all other scholars in this consensus) is merely a dogma, one which could be driven by various factors like personal ego or “finances” (e.g. research funding).
Though the podcast is called “Skepticality”, the interviewer expresses no reservations when Lataster dismisses the opinion of the vast majority of biblical scholars and ancient historians as “dogmatism” driven by self interest. (Unfortunately, this didn’t surprise me as I have often noticed that self-described skeptics who typically express great skepticism about fringe positions seem to table that skepticism when the fringe position suits their personal interests. Yes, the confirmation bias is alive and well in the “skeptic” community.)
To make matters worse, Lataster talks out of both sides of his mouth. While he suggests that scholars who accept a historical Jesus are driven by dogmatism, in the interview he states that he does not assume a burden of proof in his book to establish that Jesus didn’t exist (42:42). Instead, he’s only defending Jesus mythicism as a reasonable possibility. But if that’s all he’s saying then why does he claim that those who reject Jesus mythicism are driven by “dogma”? And why did he title his book There was No Jesus, There is No God if he’s only aiming to establish that it is possible to be rational and believe that there was no Jesus?
Suffice it to say, after listening to Lataster, I had serious reservations about appearing with him on Nuskeptix. His behavior was textbook fundamentalism: adopt a sharp in-group/out-group binary opposition and marginalize those in your chosen out-group by imputing to them moral and/or cognitive defects (e.g. ignorance, dogma, ego, financial motivations). Meanwhile, present yourself and your in-group as the sole intellectually credible defenders of the truth.
Despite serious misgivings, I had made a commitment to Nuskeptix to appear and so I went ahead with the show in the hope that we might be able to have a discussion of opposing worldviews. In his previous interviews Lataster had expressed his great sympathy with pantheism in particular, though he did so on grounds that seemed to me to be very weak. He had also claimed that the term atheism does not commit one to belief in the non-existence of God despite the fact that this is the standard definition in authoritative sources like the Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, and common dictionaries. Consequently, I was anxious to hear more from Lataster about his idiosyncratic views and his reasons for holding them.
No such luck. I quickly learned that Lataster had no interest in a conversation framed on a charitable exchange of views. Rather, he demanded that I provide him with evidence of the Christian God that he would find persuasive. At the same time, he refused to share anything of his own views. This behavior reminded me of creationist Kent Hovind’s infamous claim to offer $250,000 to anybody who would provide him with evidence for evolution that he would accept. (No surprise, he never had to pay out!)
The contrast between this exchange and my recent evening of conversation with Justin Schieber could not be greater. I don’t know that the resulting exchange was particularly illuminating, and the middling sound quality at points didn’t help matters. Nonetheless I am grateful to Nuskeptix for the invite, though in the future I will make sure to limit my appearances to those who really are interested in a conversation.