Our next candidate for the worst arguments against Christianity comes from Walter who writes:
“I would nominate Jesus mythicism as championed by Earl Doherty as the worst argument against Christianity.”
Fraternite seconded the suggestion:
“Agreed completely. There are any number of ways one could credibly take aim at the different Christianities out there, but this is most definitely not one of them. Jesus mythicism is bad science.”
I have written very little on Jesus Mythicism (where “very little” = “almost nothing”). There are a couple reasons for this. First, I’m not a New Testament scholar or ancient historian so the issues at play are generally outside my wheelhouse. Second, I admit to having reluctance to engaging Jesus Mythicism for much the same reason Neo-Darwinians are reluctant to engage young earth creationists. In short, I don’t want to give a fringe opinion more attention than it deserves.
A couple years ago I wrote a review of the Richard Carrier/Mark Goodacre debate on Jesus Mythicism which was hosted on “Unbelievable”. Carrier is widely recognized to be the best of the Jesus Mythicists. If you are going to find a creative, clever, and comprehensive attempt to defend the claim that Jesus was not a historical person, it will be here. Having said that, the sense I get listening to Carrier’s defense is that it exhibits motivated reasoning in its most rigorous form, i.e. a determined attempt to use reason and evidence to defend a desired conclusion.
In my review, I honed in on an analogy in which Carrier/Goodacre’s Mythicism vs. Realism debate parallels the historic Locke/Berkeley Idealism vs. Realism debate:
“What really struck me about the debate as it unfolded was that it sounded like how a debate might have unfolded between John Locke and George Berkeley on the existence of the physical (i.e. extra-mental) world. As you probably know, John Locke was an old-fashioned realist in that he believed there was a physical world external to our minds. Locke argued that this world consisted of extended substance with primary qualities as well as our minds which added secondary qualities (e.g. color) to our experience of that world. Berkeley demurred. He saw no need to posit a distinction between primary qualities in a physical world and secondary qualities in the mind. Instead, he insisted that whenever you say you’ve experienced the external world, what you have in fact experienced is an idea — a color, a texture, a smell, a visual shape — and that is simply a qualification of your mind. In other words, you find that your experience of the world requires only minds and ideas. (All qualities of experience — or ideas — are “secondary” mental events.) To postulate an external physical substance to go along with minds and their ideas is simply unnecessary.
“In much the same way that Berkeley says “When you look at all the data you find it requires only minds and ideas; It doesn’t require an external world” so Carrier says “When you look at all the data you find it requires only a mythical Jesus resurrected in the heavens; It doesn’t require a historical Jesus”. In my view, both idealism and mythicism are ripe for refutation, but it never struck me before how much the latter, like the former, is grounded in a paradigm-shift evaluation on the exact same set of data.” (See “The new Idealism? A perspective on the Richard Carrier-Mark Goodacre debate on Jesus Mythicism.”)
To bring this back home to the current topic of discussion, one can choose to be an idealist if they so choose, but the fact that idealism can be extended to cover the data of experience doesn’t make it the most natural or reasonable conclusion. And it provides no reason to abandon world-realism. By analogy, the fact that the most sophisticated and imaginative forms of mythicism can be stretched to cover all the ancient data (or more less) doesn’t make it the most natural or reasonable conclusion.
Conspiracy Theories on the Fringe
In conclusion, I want to return to my observation that Jesus Mythicism is a fringe theory reminiscent of young earth creationism. As you probably know, the young earth creationists have explanations for the fact that the vast majority of scientists are Neo-Darwinians. Those explanations include a range of conspiratorial elements such as sin and rebellion, secular humanist paradigms, concerted institutional attempts to quash young earth creationist voices, and so on.
It’s interesting then to hear the same kind of conspiratorial thinking among Jesus Mythicists. Just replace “Neo-Darwinian consensus” with “Jesus consensus” and let the rhetorical bombs fly. I made this point in my article last year titled “My abortive Nuskeptix conversation with atheist Raphael Lataster“. In the article, I noted that prior to my online encounter with Lataster I sampled several of his interviews and was deeply disheartened at what I heard:
“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.)”
Perhaps Lataster should next try his hand at explaining the government cover-up of Roswell and Area 51. Better yet, he might try explaining why the current warming of the earth is not linked to the burning of fossil fuels. Perhaps Lataster can explain the consensus among climatologists by alluding to a similar range of factors: personal ego, finances, etc.
Just in case I haven’t been clear enough thus far, let me sum up by stating that I agree with Walter and Fraternite that speculative fringe theories buttressed by conspiratorial rhetoric do not provide good reasons to reject Christianity.