Tuesday, January 6, 2009

While I'm At It

You know what?  I just figured out what's really bothering me about John Loftus.  This has been bugging me for weeks, actually, and I just figured it out.  I'm not particularly distressed that he leans towards Jesus' historicity.  What distresses me is that he routinely refers to this as an informed opinion.

I don't doubt that he has the theological qualifications to have an informed opinion, but an informed opinion is most certainly NOT the same as a defendable position.  In proposing that a certain position is the correct one, two things are required.  First, we must justify our own proposition.  Second, if our proposition does not inherently do so, we must address competing propositions and either prove them false or render them sufficiently implausible as to make our own the only likely candidate.

Richard Carrier, Thomas L Thompson, and others have written compelling arguments for an ahistorical Jesus, and they've addressed in some detail what they feel to be the problems with the Jesus historicity argument.  In other words, they've done exactly what I'm talking about.  James Loftus has been quite unwilling (unable?  I don't know) to refute these arguments in anything I've read online.  Am I missing a scholarly rebuttal in his books?  I don't know personally, but nobody I know who's read his books has mentioned any.

This, then, is the crux of my problem with John Loftus with regard to the claim that Jesus probably lived.  He's only playing one side of the coin.  It's easy to be persuasive when you don't even acknowledge the other side of the coin.  I wish he would leave that part of the former preacher behind.

I want to make one other thing very clear.  I've been ripping Loftus pretty hard over this Jesus thing, and I think it's justifiable criticism.  However, I don't want you to get the impression I don't like the guy or think that he's doing good work.  In fact, I encourage everybody to check out his website Debunking Christianity.  I have almost all good things to say about the site and the work that Loftus is doing for Atheism.  However, I refuse to allow a lapse in critical thinking to go unquestioned, particularly when it is being made by one of our leading spokesmen.  I hope that should I ever make a similar mistake, I will be immediately corrected.

6 comments:

John W. Loftus said...

...particularly when it is being made by one of our leading spokesmen.

You are refering to me here? Wow! Somehow this just hit me. Is it really true? Really? I just don't think of myself like that at all. I'm one guy who wrote a book and maintains a blog. But a "leading spokesman?" That's a horse of a different color. Do skeptics have spokesmen? How are they determined? What responsibilities do they have?

This just stopped me dead in my tracks, my friend. I'm not sure what to make of this. I don't think it's even partially true. I don't know why it should matter even if I am.

Maybe that's partially the problem with us. I'm just a person who is making a case. You are expecting me to speak for most all skeptics. That I don't irritates you because of who you view me to be. If I was just another person making an argument you might not be so upset.

You've given me food for thought here, really. Is it true? if true what should I say? Do skeptics have spokesmen? And so on.

Cheers.

Hambydammit said...

You are refering to me here? Wow! Somehow this just hit me. Is it really true? Really? I just don't think of myself like that at all. I'm one guy who wrote a book and maintains a blog. But a "leading spokesman?" That's a horse of a different color. Do skeptics have spokesmen? How are they determined? What responsibilities do they have?

There are two things going on here. I'm really not sure if I've managed to convey my real gripe to you, and I'm going to try again in a second, but I want to address the idea of skeptical spokesmen for a minute.

I don't think you'd have any problem seeing someone like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, or Margaret Downey as a spokesperson for atheism, right? I mean, they pretty much identify themselves as such. I realize you don't know anything about me, unless you've really looked into my site and clicked a lot of links. I'm a student of human nature, and specifically evolutionary psychology and sociology. We all have different roles to play if we're going to turn America into a more secular nation. That's your goal, right? It certainly is my goal. If it happens, it will be because all of us played our parts.

John, when I type in "Why I Became an Atheist" on Google, I get your name first. That's not exactly a crazy-ingenious title you've got there. I am pretty sure I wrote an article by the exact same name about a decade ago and published it on the internet. Even so, I have to go to the third page of Google before your name isn't the most common one. You have some influence, my friend, and not just a little. You're no Dawkins with regard to evolution, and you're no Dennett with regard to philosophy, and (forgive me) you're no Robert Price with regard to Jesus. What you are is a shining example of someone who came from as far into Christianity as most people will ever go, and you have an amazing story to tell people about your journey out. You are a poster child for atheism, John. You are exactly what I, and Dawkins, and Harris, and everyone else hope for. You're someone who made it out.

With that comes great responsibility. You have an obligation to represent not only yourself, but everyone else around you, and to do it honestly.

Now... here's where I need to address one other point specifically:

If I was just another person making an argument you might not be so upset.

No. If you were just another person, I would not have been as persistent in trying to convince you of the error of your ways, but I would be just as upset by the mistake. This is what I want you to understand.

We as atheists, skeptics, and rational thinkers owe it to each other and the world to be epistemologically honest. I owe it to Richard Dawkins and Matt Ridley not to misrepresent their arguments. They spent years of their lives for each book they wrote, and they have mountains of data and research going into what they have written. I owe it to them, even though I'm fascinated by their subject, and even though I am probably better versed in it than most laymen, to not go out on limbs which will not support me. As you have (rather crudely) pointed out, I'm not the most popular blogger on the internet, but I'm doing my part, and I'm doing my best to do it with integrity and honesty. I try very, very hard not to say anything even within my own field that I'm not completely comfortable with. As you know, John, theists will pick up on any mistake at all and use it to dismiss our arguments. You've seen this. You were just griping about it on your blog.

It doesn't matter if I'm a "spokesman" for atheism. By putting my thoughts on the internet, I am committing them to the collective knowledge base, and they will have an impact. I have no idea what the 100 plus people who have viewed my site will do with what I've written. I must assume that they will believe me and take me as an authority, for that is how I write -- as one with knowledge.

Ok, so back to Jesus for a minute. Like I said, I don't care that you come down on the Jesus historicity side. What I care about is that you do it with cavalier disregard for the impact that careless opinions have on the internet. Several of my friends are working in the field of ancient literature and I know how incredibly difficult their work is. You speak often of your fear for Richard Carrier's career. Have you read some of the hateful misinformation and flat out lies that have been told about Thomas L. Thompson? Do you realize how horribly these people are maligned -- by other scholars?

Ok... here's the crux of why I'm upset with you. Consensus is not the measure of an idea's worth. Factual accuracy is. Jesus either existed or he didn't, and the question is far from resolved. People are citing you as a source, though. They are saying, "See... this guy's a former pastor turned atheist, and he's read all those guys, and he says Jesus really existed."

You are adding to the consensus without adding content.

You are adding to the consensus without refuting the minority.

Regardless of the relative weight of your opinion, you are getting in the way of real Jesus scholars who are doing their best to have academic integrity. It makes it worse that your opinion carries the weight it does, but it would be bad form in any case.

Trusting the consensus and forming opinions based on incorrect or incomplete knowledge is what lets theism, UFOism, New Ageism, Conspiracy Theory-ism, and a thousand other isms flourish. Science is hard, and it takes a lot of work to be able to say something definitively and with authority.

We all, regardless of our relative weight in the blogosphere, do a disservice to those who work so hard when we proclaim our unsupported opinions as being anything more than that.

John W. Loftus said...

I just don't understand you. No, Dawkins does not speak for me (he is abrasive and doesn't understand philosophy), nor does Sam Harris (he seems to be interested in some sort of spirituality). And neither Dawkins nor Harris recommeds my book, so the feelings about our roles as skeptics are mutual, I think.

And I do present my arguments sincerely and honestly. Why in hell would you think I don't? Because I disagree? Balderdash!

You are adding to the consensus without adding content.

You are adding to the consensus without refuting the minority.


How can you say that? You are ignorant to assume you're correct and so therefore I should shut up. I am part of the consensus. I have no axe to grind. I have no dog in this fight. This is what I think. I have a right to help make the consensus. I think I'm right, too. I honestly do.

So, let me turn what you said around on you: "We all, regardless of our relative weight in the blogosphere, do a disservice to those who work so hard when we proclaim our unsupported opinions as being anything more than that."

If mythicists are correct then they will win the day, someday. I have never suggested they should shut up and there are many ignorant ones out there, as you would have to admit, so once again I bristle at your suggestions.

Just look at what Christian scholars think of mythicists by reading what William Lane Craig wrote on my blog today (see my blog).

Do not tell me to shut up! You have given me no reason to do so and every reason to think you lack critical thinking skills. With skills like that no wonder you think the way you do.

Hambydammit said...

I just don't understand you. No, Dawkins does not speak for me (he is abrasive and doesn't understand philosophy), nor does Sam Harris (he seems to be interested in some sort of spirituality). And neither Dawkins nor Harris recommeds my book, so the feelings about our roles as skeptics are mutual, I think.

And here I thought we were getting to a breakthrough. Look, dude. I don't agree with everything Dawkins says either. He has been stubborn in his refusal to admit that parts of the Selfish Gene theory have been revised to the point that people will get the wrong idea if they trust Dawkins' rendition of it. I don't agree with Harris in his use of what seem to me to be scare tactics similar to what sold America on the current war. Religion is not, in my opinion, going to end humanity, and I don't like him saying that it will. That seems reactionary.

Look, the point isn't that I agree with all of them. The point is that each of them is doing great things for atheism, and we, as fellow atheists, owe it to them not to unduly malign what they're doing. I'll get back to this in a minute.

And I do present my arguments sincerely and honestly. Why in hell would you think I don't? Because I disagree? Balderdash!

Christ, John. How many ways can I say this? I AM NOT A MYTHICIST. I DON'T CARE IF YOU BELIEVE JESUS WAS HISTORICAL. I believe you are sincere in your arguments.

My problem with you is that you admit you don't have the authority to be an authority on Jesus mythicism and then you pretend like you are.

How can you say that? You are ignorant to assume you're correct and so therefore I should shut up. I am part of the consensus. I have no axe to grind. I have no dog in this fight. This is what I think. I have a right to help make the consensus. I think I'm right, too. I honestly do.

I'm doing my best to be polite with you, John. I really am. And you keep insulting me. AND... you don't seem to read, or perhaps comprehend, what I am writing to you.

Let me put this the same way... again... and see if you'll read and understand this time.

I AM NOT A MYTHICIST. I am a skeptic, and that is ALL the epistemological justification YOU have, yet you overstep your epistemological bounds.

Please, John. This isn't hard to understand. You're playing with the big boys and you've still got your Jesus Mythicist tinker toys. You can build stuff that looks like what they do, but it doesn't have the same structure or solidity or function. The problem is, people mistake your tinker toy set for the real thing because they, like you, HAVEN'T DONE THE RESEARCH.

(Do I need to quote you again to prove that you've said you haven't done the research, or can we take it as read?)

If mythicists are correct then they will win the day, someday. I have never suggested they should shut up and there are many ignorant ones out there, as you would have to admit, so once again I bristle at your suggestions.


I'm happy to admit that there are ignorant mythicists out there. I'll give you a fantastic example. Achyara (or however you spell her name... I don't feel like looking it up) has hoards of followers who see Jesus as some kind of conspiracy theory. That's baloney, and is easily refuted by someone who has the requisite knowledge. In fact, John, this has direct bearing on my conversation with you.

I used to be a quasi-supporter of Achyara, even though I knew she was something of a crackpot mythicist. I believed that if she convinced people that Jesus was a myth, she was contributing to the mythicist cause, even if her explanation turned out wrong. A friend spent quite a long time discussing this with me, and I subsequently decided that I was wrong. Achyara is in the wrong even if she is on the right side because she's doing bad science. Period.

Bad science includes making pronouncements without the experimental data to do so, and you, John, are doing the historical equivalent. You're announcing your conclusions when you haven't done your research. That's bad history, and you're doing it from the pulpit.

Do not tell me to shut up! You have given me no reason to do so and every reason to think you lack critical thinking skills. With skills like that no wonder you think the way you do.

I've come to agree with the blogger you fought with. You don't read, apparently. You either skim, or you don't retain, or something. I'm not going to guess because I don't know which, but you certainly don't display a knowledge of what I've written to you.

I'll put it in big print too, so you won't accuse me of it, again, after I've explained it at least twice before.

I'M NOT TELLING YOU TO SHUT UP. I'm telling you that you owe it to the community to say only what you have the justification to say. You do not have the justification to say that the historical Jesus -- and particularly your favorite version, which I gather to be a doomsday prophet -- is the most likely scenario.

John, again, I am not telling you to shut up. I'm politely asking you to refine your position to accurately reflect the weight of your opinion. Please, keep saying that you find historical arguments more compelling than mythicist arguments, but say it within the context of what you are -- an observer of the ongoing debate, not a scholar who's adding anything new to the debate. You don't have a book about it, and you don't have anything new to add. Watch the debate with the rest of us, and tell us who you think is winning, but don't make yourself out to be anything more than a fan.

Let me explain it another way (again). I comment on Jesus mythicism or historicity from time to time. As I mentioned above, I've commented on Achyara before, and now I'm commenting on you. The reason is both of you are committing the same sin. You're reading books that summarize a position and then acting like you're an authority. You're not. You're a well read guy who likes Jesus history. You're not a Jesus historian.

I have comments on this very blog about Jesus historicity, and I'll be honest with you, John, after I've chided you about your stance, I went back and looked at them to see if I am overstepping my bounds in any of them. The truth is, some of them probably should be reworded a little, although I think a learned reader ought to see my intention. I do my best never to say, "Jesus didn't exist" or "There almost certainly wasn't a Jesus." I can't say that. I don't have the authority. What I say is, "This is what virtually all scholars agree on, and this is how I view the debate, and which side seems to me to have more logical justification."

It probably seems like an insignificant quibble to you, John, and I suppose I can understand that. I know the world you came from because I lived in it for nearly two decades. I was an amateur apologist in those days, and I remember how many times I glossed over details and fudged wording slightly because I knew in my heart that if the end worked out ok, God would justify the means.

That's religion.

This is science, and now that you're on this side, you owe it to scientists to play on their field, and not bring it down to the level of rhetoric.

You have every right to say that in your unscholarly opinion, the historical Jesus arguments seem to be more sound and give your reasons why. You do not have the epistemological right to say that you understand both sides enough to pronounce that there was probably a historical Jesus.

In the scholarly world, the question is not settled. It does not fall to you, lowly autodidact, to make pronouncements for historians. You owe it to them to report accurately the state of affairs and not add your own opinion as if it is meaningful content to be added to the scholarly debate.

Does that explain what I mean when I say you're adding consensus without content? Let me try one other way. You are a reporter. You're not a researcher. Researchers present new material. You're just rehashing what historians have said, which would be fine if you were doing it with the right disclaimers and caveats -- namely that you don't know enough about mythicist arguments to refute them, and that you would need to study more to make any firm pronouncements -- but you're skipping that and making it sound as if you have an authoritative opinion. You do not.

Do not tell me to shut up! You have given me no reason to do so and every reason to think you lack critical thinking skills. With skills like that no wonder you think the way you do.

Jesus Christ, man, but you do end with insults a lot. In the scholarly world, that's viewed... dimly.

John W. Loftus said...

*Warning* *Warning* *Warning* *Warning*

In keeping with what you said let me say as a disclaimer that I admit I don't have the authority to be an authority on Jesus mythicism and so I'll not pretend like I am one.

Yeah, that's right. I'm pretending to be an authority whenever I speak on an issue. But I'm really not one, right?

What's an authority?

And what is it like to pretend?

Sheesh.

I bid you well. But you have not proposed anything that I can or should do.

Hambydammit said...

*Warning* *Warning* *Warning* *Warning*

In keeping with what you said let me say as a disclaimer that I admit I don't have the authority to be an authority on Jesus mythicism and so I'll not pretend like I am one.


I propose that you put that warning on blogs in which you talk about mythicism.

Hambydammit!

Hambydammit!
Rationality through Fluffy Fur and Pointy Claws

Is there such a thing as a God or Gods?