Saturday, January 31, 2009

Dr. April DeConick: A Response

Dr. April DeConick, the Isla Carroll and Percy E. Turner Professor of Biblical Studies at Rice University, wrote a blog post which I found very interesting. In it, she says

"...I have continued to learn, and I am now in the position of saying that Norman Perrin's book might be fantastic, but it is bankrupt, as is the Jesus Seminar Jesus. This Jesus is nothing more than a constructed person who exists only in our imaginations. I say this not because I am a myther. In fact, I think that the myther position cannot be maintained, because parallels between Jesus' myth and other ancient myths tell us nothing about whether or not he lived as a real person. It only tells us that ancient people cast their memories of Jesus into mythological narratives and schema that were part of their culture and minds. Rather I say this because I have come to realize over the years that the methodology and the assumptions of the methodology that were used to construct Perrin's Jesus and the Jesus Seminar Jesus are bankrupt."

I agree with her: If pagan parallels were all that the mythicist case were based on, one could not be a mythicist. After all, Dr. Robert Price has talked about how the life Caesar Augustus included a story of him surviving death as an infant (which was a common occurance in the lives of the gods). But no one would argue that Caesar Augustus was a myth. He is intricately interwoven into the history of his time. The most credible explanation for him is that he was a real person but was perhaps admired as a god, or as the son of a god, after his death, and so his memory became encrusted with myth. Caesar Augustus was a real person, but there are a few stories about him which have to be rejected as myth. The same could be said of many other figures, such as Alexander the Great.

What bothers me is that I don't think Jesus is interwoven into the history of the early first century. We know that Jesus is the type of figure people in that time and culture made up, so in the absence of historical evidence for Jesus I think we should be agnostic, if not slightly suspicious, of Jesus' existence.

I'd like to call attention to the fact that I qualified my last statement: In the absence of historical evidence... Is there historical evidence? I don't feel like there is. There is the Testimonium Flavium, but I feel that there are problems with this; Namely the fact that it was not mentioned by Origen (who was eager to cite historical sources for John the Baptist and James). Also the fact that Josephus was not a Christian and yet seems to have nothing but good things to say about Jesus makes me suspicious, especially when Josephus seems to dismiss other messianic claimants (calling the followers of Theudas "deluded"). For more on this, see
Ken Olson, "Eusebius and the Testimonium Flavianum," The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 61:2, April 1999, pp. 305-22

For those without access to this article, have a look at Olson's summary of his case.

There are some other extrabiblical sources for Jesus, but I don't feel like they do anything to establish that Jesus was an historical person (If anyone wants to discuss this, I'd be more than happy to, I just feel that even looking at these passages usually reveals their historical worthlessness).

Then there are the biblical sources. I don't feel like any of Paul's letters give a clear indication of an historical Jesus, although there are certain passages ("Born of a woman" Galatians 4:4) which seem to indicate otherwise. However, as I have discussed before, all of these alleged Pauline references to a historical Jesus, when read in context, seem to have a symbolic meaning.

Then there are the gospels. I feel that these are allegorical in nature, and that they are "midrash". For example, see Robert Price's commentary as well as Michael Turton's commentary.

I'm trying to provide a summary of my position, but I am more than willing to go into detail and address any questions Dr. DeConick may have.

Anyway, when we take into account the silences, especially those of the Apostle Paul, things begin to look very suspicious. They become even more suspicious when we realize that almost everything about Jesus' life seems to either have been derived from the Old Testament or to have been borrowed from Hellenistic Myths. When we realize that Paul, who authored the earliest Christian writings we have, viewed Jesus as a spiritual figure (Second in command to God, according to 1 Corinthians 15:25-28), it seems to me that the simplest explanation is that there was no historical Jesus.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Honest Creationist Kurt Wise Spills the Beans about Transitional Fossils

This is from Panda's Thumb, and it is classic.

Kurt Wise, a creationist paleontologist who studied under Stephen Jay Gould, and was called the only "honest creationist" by Richard Dawkins, wrote an article about how creationists should understand transitional fossils. While Kurt says that species-to-species intermediates are lacking (which can be explained by periods of rapid evolution), Kurt admits,

"Evidences for Darwin’s second expectation - of stratomorphic intermediate species - include such species as Baragwanathia (between rhyniophytes and lycopods), Pikaia (between echinoderms and chordates), Purgatorius (between the tree shrews and the primates), and Proconsul (between the non-hominoid primates and the hominoids). Darwin’s third expectation - of higher-taxon stratomorphic intermediates - has been confirmed by such examples as the mammal-like reptile groups between the reptiles and the mammals, and the phenacdontids between the horses and their presumed ancestors. Darwin’s fourth expectation - of stratomorphic series - has been confirmed by such examples as the early bird series, the tetrapod series, the whale series, the various mammal series of the Cenozoic (for example, the horse series, the camel series, the elephant series, the pig series, the titanothere series, etc.), the Cantius and Plesiadapus primate series, and the hominid series. Evidence for not just one but for all three of the species level and above types of stratomorphic intermediates expected by macroevolutionary theory is surely strong evidence for macroevolutionary theory. Creationists therefore need to accept this fact. It certainly CANNOT said that traditional creation theory expected (predicted) any of these fossil finds."

I've skimmed the rest of the article, but do plan to go back and read it. Here's a challenge: Find what's wrong with Kurt's explanation of intermediate forms. I await your comments. In the next two or three days I will make the time to debunk it.

Tonight on Infidel Guy

Tune in about 5:00 PM PST tonight to hear Jerry Coyne on infidel guy radio, discussing his new book "Why Evolution is True".

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A Final Word on Jesus Mythicism

Just wanted to wrap up with a few closing thoughts...

In one of his comments, James argued that the first Christians did not believe Jesus was divine. This is an issue which I must confess I know very little about. I mean, I don't know of anything in Paul's letters or in Mark (the first gospel) which treat Jesus as completely human. In fact, 1 Corinthians 15:27 says that everything is under Christ except God. So it seems that Jesus was viewed as very important and very Godly, but was also treated as distinct from God (and as a lesser being). It seems to me that Jesus would have been viewed similarly to the other sons of God being worshipped in that, who are often called "demigods". I can't be certain of that, it is just my personal opinion.

I think James was also much clearer about the criterion of embarrassment: He is arguing that, given the expectations which were present for the messiah (that he was to be an earthly ruler), it doesn't seem like anyone would make up a character who was the precise opposite of expectation. The Jews wanted an earthly king who would lead them to conquest of other nations. But Jesus is only a peasant, the son of a carpenter. Why would someone invent him? To be clear, the Jesus myth theory would entail that Jesus was originally understood as allegorical, but over time this understanding of Jesus was lost and Christians began to suppose Jesus was an earhtly, flesh and blood person. To understand how this can happen, see my second endnote**.

I think I can confidently say that if the Jesus myth theory ever degenerated into claiming that there was a conspiracy to invent an earthly person I would abandon all thought of it. It would not make any sense to believe that the earliest Christians tried to invent someone who was thought of as a regular, earthly person. The Jesus myth theory which I believe has the most credibility would be the one which states that the first gospels were symbolic tales and that Jesus was originally viewed as more of a spiritual figure. Perhaps not necessarily a God, but most certainly higher than man (see 1 Corinthians 15:27).

The writer of the gospel of Mark could have chosen to present Jesus as a literal earthly king, but outsiders would have immediately known that the story was fictional. You could not have a written a story of Jewish king leading te Jews to victory without people knowing that it was fiction. I think that initiates into early Christianity were supposed to believe that the story was true, and gradually they would be told what it really symbolized*. I think that Mark was faced with a conundrum of having to let his audience know that Jesus was king without giving the game away that this an allegorical tale. His solution was to have the charge against him written as "King of the Jews" (Mark 15:26). So this is my conjecture about how this would work under the mythicist theory. I'm not saying it is right, I am simply explaining how I think it would work under the theory.

* Here is what Sallustius wrote:

"We may well inquire, then, why the ancients forsook these doctrines and made use of myths. There is this first benefit from myths, that we have to search and do not have our minds idle.That the myths are divine can be seen from those who have used them. Myths have been used by inspired poets, by the best of philosophers, by those who established the mysteries, and by the Gods themselves in oracles. But why the myths are divine it is the duty of philosophy to inquire. Since all existing things rejoice in that which is like them and reject that which is unlike, the stories about the Gods ought to be like the Gods, so that they may both be worthy of the divine essence and make the Gods well disposed to those who speak of them: which could only be done by means of myths.

Now the myths represent the Gods themselves and the goodness of the Gods - subject always to the distinction of the speakable and the unspeakable, the revealed and the unrevealed, that which is clear and that which is hidden: since, just as the Gods have made the goods of sense common to all, but those of intellect only to the wise, so the myths state the existence of Gods to all, but who and what they are only to those who can understand.They also represent the activities of the Gods. For one may call the world a myth, in which bodies and things are visible, but souls and minds hidden. Besides, to wish to teach the whole truth about the Gods to all produces contempt in the foolish, because they cannot understand, and lack of zeal in the good, whereas to conceal the truth by myths prevents the contempt of the foolish, and compels the good to practice philosophy."

** On how a mythical Jesus evolved into a historical one.

Here is Bob Price's description of how Hercules originated as a solar deity but later evolved into a flesh and blood character. Note that I am not claiming Jesus began as a solar deity, I simply want to draw attention to the fact that symbolic myths can later be mistaken for historic truths.

"I find it more natural to suppose, with many myth scholars (among whom I do not number myself, I hasten to add) that raw myths treated stellar entities as direct characters in symbolic myths, but that in subsequent retellings and reinterpretations, the sun, moon, and stars are transformed into anthropomorphic gods and heroes. Hercules must first have been the sun, period. But then people tend to forget that and to imagine that there was a demigod hero names Hercules. One can still sniff out his solar origins from clear vestiges of it, like the lion's mane he wore (the sun's rays), the twelve labors he performed (the zodiac), and the deadly arrows he shot (sunstroke). But you do have to make the connection, because it is no longer overt. Later, a la Euhemerus, people begin thinking of these figures as real historical individuals whose memorable greatness led to their mythic exaggeration. This seems like a realistic reading of the history of mythology to me. So I doubt that any hierarchy in the Church (or Buddhism, etc.) has realized for a long time the origin of their faith and its symbols."

Debates I'm looking forward to

Dan Barker vs. Dinesh D'Souza

"Can we be good without God?" Jan 29th.

Richard Carrier vs. William Lane Craig

"Are Moral Facts Evidence of God?" March 18th

Between these two debates I expect the nail to be put in the coffin of the moral arguments for God.

Just for anyone who likes reading or listening to God Debates, I found a webpage that has an exhaustive list of debates that William Lane Craig has had and where they can be read/listened to/watched online.

Monday, January 26, 2009


Have you seen the video where a guy asks anti-abortion demonstraters what should happen to a woman who has an illegal abortion? Most of the people he talked to could not give an answer and/or said that they had not spent much time thinking about it.

I was disappointed with all of the people interviewed. It seems to me that they are just following the cries of anti-abortion ralliers or fundamentalist preachers and are not really thinking about this and questioning it. I mean, I don't think that people who are against abortion are necessarily stupid or wicked or anything else. But I am disappointed with people who take that position without having thought it through. It just goes to show that our society needs to have greater critical thought skills.

So should abortion be legal? Yes. It will happen whether it is legal or not, and if it is illegal it will be less safe (women used to give themselves abortions with coat hangers).

Is abortion right? I don't know. I suspect that the embryo (or fetus) is not conscious, at least not to any high degree, so I don't think abortion is anything like killing a three year old child, who is fully conscious. In fact, there are probably lots of animals that have a level of consciousness equal to or greater than a fetus. So in this sense I do not feel it is wrong.

But would I ever encourage a girl to have an abortion? In most cases, No. I know at least one woman who has had an abortion and I believe she has suffered severe psychological anguish from it. Taking the life of your unborn offspring is traumatic, as anyone can imagine. I also admit that I personally would never encourage a woman to have an abortion simply because I have a lot of personal discomfort with it. It would bother me tremendously if I influenced a woman to have an abortion. I can't say why, but I just feel this way. So as far as emotional considerations go, I think abortions should be avoided at all costs.

But what about in extreme cases? Say, if the mother's life was in danger if she decided keep a baby. Or if the baby was certain to have some type of horrible birth defect or suffer mental retardation. In those cases I think it would be kinder to have an abortion. If you ever see the way a mentally retarded child goes through life, how much effort it takes to take care of them, and compare this to the amount of pleasure the child gets from life, I think you will find that it is simply a waste. And in many cases it is just plain cruel to allow such a child to live.

Anyway, those are my thoughts.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

A response to James McGrath

If you don't remember, James McGrath and I had been debating the historicity of Jesus Christ.

Anyway, here is my response to one of his latest comments (his comments are in italics):

I have to be honest, I think that the parallels you point to are a slim basis for concluding that Jesus was a purely invented figure. Were the birth narratives invented? Sure. But it wasn't just mythical figures that had such stories made up about them (one thinks, for instance, of Alexander the Great).

I think I need to be a little more clear about my position on the pagan parallels: Pagan parallels don't mean that Jesus was definitely a myth, but, so long as there is no corroborating evidence for Jesus, it does place the burden of proof on the one who claims Jesus was a real person. If we have no need to posit a historical Jesus, and if he's cut from the same cloth as other mythical characters, it makes sense to presume he is just as mythical as Heracles or Dionysus unless there is a good reason to think otherwise. Still, there very well could have been a Jesus who had these stories (surviving death as an infant) grafted on to him, but, as I said before, we don't need that hypothesis. No one ever posits that Dionysus was a real person whose legend became drenched in myth over time.

Descending into Hades was presumably something most people who died were thought to have done, and so once again an examination of the details doesn't demonstrate direct borrowing. Indeed, in many instances you seem to be guilty of what Samuel Sandmel famously dubbed "parallelomania". Religions regularly come up with similar ideas, perhaps for reasons rooted in the human psyche, but often we find similarities even where direct borrowing is unlikely, if not indeed impossible.I'm just curious whether you think that the story of Moses borrowed from the story of Romulus, or vice versa, given the similarities one finds there as well.

Descending into Hades was something that most people who died were thought to have done. Exactly. This was a part of the zeitgeist of the time and culture, just as I believe that many of the other parallels were.

Now, as for the parallels: They may be due to influence/borrowing, or from some common feature of the human psyche. But I don't think this helps your case: If Jesus looks exactly like the type of Saviour God a human being would invent, that hurts your case! Let's go back to the criterion of embarrassment: You are arguing that a crucified messiah (or Savior/Son of God) would be unlikely to be invented by human beings because crucifixion was embarrassing and shameful. But the ancient Sumerians worshipped a goddess named Inanna who was said to have been stripped naked, killed, and hung from a hook for three days. Who would argue that this event was historical? It obviously wasn't (it took place in the underworld). Perhaps there is something about the human psyche which desires a humiliated god to worship. In that the case the crucifixion does not mean that Jesus must have been historical.

I believe Dr. McGrath agrees with me that Jesus was viewed in a way similar to the way in which other Savior figures were viewed. Jesus filled a void inside of his followers similar to the void filled by the followers of other savior deities. This is why we see the similarities we do between the birth narratives and such: Jesus played the same role that the other pagan gods played in the minds of their followers.

I'm going to close with some questions for Dr. McGrath: Do you agree with me that Inanna's death was humiliating, and, if so, do you think that this refutes your argument that the crucifixion was too shameful to have been an invention?

P.S. On the similarities between Romulus and Moses: I think its likely that both stories share a "common ancestor" - Both stories are influenced by a much older story (or maybe even heavily modified versions of the same story).

Why Evolution is True

The other day I wrote a post about Jerry Coyne's excellent article on theism and evolutionary theory as well the fact that he was coming out with a new book.

Today I went to the bookstore and had a look at Jerry Coyne's new book "Why Evolution is True" and I have to say that at a glance it looks superb. Coyne seems to have bent over backwards to clearly and simply explain the evidence for evolution and why the objections to it fail. For example, creationists often argue that vestigial organs have a purpose. Wings are specified for flying, but the ostrich simply uses its wings for a lesser function (balance). A vestigial organ is sort of like using an old van as a clubhouse: It works, but the van definitely was not originally built for that purpose. So why do we see such jerry rigged organs like the wing of the ostrich? Because they are descended from a species which could fly. God could have created them with something else to do the same job.

That's just one example, I recommend Coyne's book to anyone who wants a thorough understanding of the evidence for evolution.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

A Brief History of Intolerance in Cosmology and Jesus Mythicism

Answers in Genesis has a new article in their "journal" all about the discrimination that enemies of the Big Bang (allegedly) face. I was actually surprised to see that they advocated exploring alternative cosmologies which would actually harm Christianity if they were true (The Steady State Theory, which calls for an eternal Universe).

Anyway, I dug up an article by Richard Carrier which gives an honest evaluation of the evidence for and against the Big Bang. Carrier even concurs with AiG that there is some discrimination going on in Cosmology.

However, in the end Carrier concludes that the Big Bang is well supported by many lines of evidence and that the "evidence against" the Big Bang is very meager and unlikely to falsify every possible way the Big Bang may have taken place.

I found it interesting to read the beginning of Carrier's article, when he talked about how Cosmologists would not explain or defend the Big Bang Theory in detail, or would tell him that the evidence was too much for him to understand.

I found an interesting symmetry here between Carrier's experience with cosmologists and my experience with Jesus historicists. The JHers offer very meager evidence for their hypothesis (which can often have a very different interpretation than the one which they give it). For example, in one of John Shelby Spong's books he offers the fact that Jesus lived in Nazareth as evidence for the historicity of Jesus. He argues that a small rural area like Nazareth isn't the kind of place you would want your messiah to be born. So this fact is not to be expected if Jesus was invented. But is to be expected if Jesus really did exist and this really was his hometown.

I find this evidence very weak. I mean, plenty of heroes in the movies are born in small towns. The fact that someone grows up in such an ordinary place helps ordinary people relate to the hero. Besides, as Bart Ehrman has noted in Peter, Paul and Mary Magdalene (Pages 225-226), the gospel writers have a tendency to want to show that God takes the weak things of this world and transforms them into something greater.

It also reminded me of some of the past exchanges I have had with Dr. James McGrath. McGrath is a smart guy, no doubt, and obviously knows magnitudes more about Christian History than I do. But I found his argument for a historical Jesus to be weak. He argues that crucifixion was not expected of the messiah and that crucifixion was so shameful that no one would have made it up.

But a study of the Bible, as well as the culture of the time, seems to me to show both of these contentions wrong. First of all, I have a book called "All the Messianic Prophecies of the Bible" and it (unwittingly) shows that almost all of the gospel stories are fashioned after Old Testament legends. Of course, the author argues that these are prophecies, but I find that suspicious in light of the fact that OT scriptures often appear to be taken out of context in the gospels ("Out of Egypt I have called my son" did not originally refer to Jesus).

At the beginning of Romans Paul says,

"Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God— the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his Son..."

It looks very much as if the early Christians thought that Jesus life was either revealed by or to
be interpreted through Old Testament Scriptures. When we look at Psalm 22 we can easily see why the early Christians would have invented a crucifixion (and death) for Jesus: They thought it was in the scripture.

As for the alleged embarrassment of the crucifixion, it does not mean that it must be true. The worshippers of Attis believed that he died of castration (and this allegedly caused disgust to their fellow countrymen) but no one in their right mind would argue that Attis was real. See page 13 of this document.

McGrath has argued that Jesus was not a dying and rising god, but rather, a dying and rising messiah, but that won't cut it: It is very clear that the gospel stories were influenced by stories of Roman gods, and I cite primary sources for that here.

So, I'd like to see Dr. McGrath either admit that the argument from embarassment is wrong, or explain to me why I am wrong. Will he do it? Stay tuned.

Seeing and Believing

Just in time for his new book "Why Evolution is True" Jerry Coyne has written an excellent article which examines attempts to forge a link between the scientific worldview and the religious worldview. With every point Coyne hits the nail on the head. The scientific way of thinking and the religious way of thinking could never be reconciled precisiely because science allows for the possibility of being in error and bases its understanding of the world on observation. Religion, however, is not open to change and does not base its understanding of the world in reason or evidence. These two ways of thinking can never be reconciled. Even if science proved that God exists, it would never be dogmatic about its assertion, and its discovery of God would be based on honest and objective observation. This is obviously nothing like the "faith" espoused by believers, or "the personal relationship with Jesus" espoused by the more lovey-dovey Christians.

The only way that any religion could avoid overlap with science is by making absolutely no claims about the observable world. And as we have seen, the religions of Abraham, as well as the vast majority of religions, do not abstain from making claims about the world we live in.

I also found Coyne's explanation of contingency in evolution to be superb. He points out that current evidence indicates that the human race was a fluke. If everything but one celled organisms were wiped out in atomic bomb, it is grossly unlikely that anything even resembling our species would evolve a second time. This poses a problem for the Abrahamic faiths because it shows that we were nothing special. We were not the intended outcome of the evolutionary process, as some theistic scientists like to think.

The only way out of this conclusion is for theists to turn to hardcore determinism: that everything around us inevitably followed from the Big Bang. This way theists could claim that God set everything up to lead to us, but this suggestion comes at a very steep cost. In Finding Darwin's God, Kenneth Miller discusses why such a deterministic universe would undermine theism. His answer? It is very hard to see how a deterministic universe could allow for free will, a concept very near and dear to believers. To resolve this problem he turns to quantum randomness, which only undermines his position: If things are random at the quantum level, they are somewhat random at the atomic level, and fairly random at the molecular level, which means so many mutations really are purely random, meaning that contingency comes back into evolution and we no longer have a loving God that predetermined us as the outcome.

I suppose one could argue that the universe was purely deterministic until humans came on the scene and God gave man free will. But this only serves, once again, to undermine the theistic position. If human beings are truly distinct from animals in having a soul, then this means that the choices animals seem to make, and the consciousness they seem to have, is nothing but an illusion. If this is true then it raises some troubling questions for the theist: If he can say that animals are not conscious and don't have free will (despite the appearance that they do), how does he know that other minds exist? If animals are conscious, then this means that God left the possibility of human evolution in the hands of animals (our ancestors) who could have cared less about whether humans evolved, and certainly did not have our evolution in mind. If animals are not conscious, then God was not only deceptive in creating them to seem like they are, but the entire explanation is just ad-hoc and not truly representative of reality. If you think animals are not conscious, they only seem like it, you are inventing this explanation to keep God in the picture. This, as most of us know, is utterly unscientific.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Obama is my Homeboy

I voted for Obama, and it looks like I'm getting my money's worth:

Obama has halted all of President Bush's sneaky last minute changes and set them up for review:

Obama is allowing stem cell research much fewer restrictions:

I think the time has come for cautious optimism regarding America's future.

The Greatest Show on Earth

I've got some good news and some bad news. The good news is that Richard Dawkins is planning to release another book, this one called "The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution". It's even available for pre-order on Amazon. The bad news is that it won't be out until September 2009 (He says so himself in an interview).

It shouldn't be too hard to wait for the book though, since Jerry Coyne's new book "Why Evolution is True" is set for release today. Expect a review of it in a few weeks.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Lizards evolving in response to fire ants

Read all about it at NatGeo. Here's an excerpt:

When studying infant lizard populations, Langkilde noticed that longer hind limbs are more prevalent at birth in lizards from fire-ant exposed populations, indicating an evolutionary adaptation—not a response to habitat as seen in some lizard species, she noted.

Longer leg length was likely genetically selected because it gives the lizards more leverage to shake off the ants and flee more quickly, said Langkilde, whose study appears in the January issue of the journal Ecology.

Langkilde also tried to determine whether the skittish behavior is a learned or evolved response.
If the twitch-and-flee behaviors were learned, she figured lizard young would not respond at fire-ant-free sites. If the behaviors were evolved, then only babies from the invaded sites would respond.

"Of course, science being science, you never find what you expect and we found all the babies responded all the time," Langkilde said.

It may be that all juvenile lizards respond to the ants because any ants pose a threat to them.

For example, lizards in non-affected sites appear to stop the skittish response once they mature because their adult scales provide sufficient protection.

In addition, twitching and fleeing could alert the otherwise well-camouflaged brown lizards to other predators.

Where fire ants have moved in, however, only the lizards that maintain the twitch-and-flee behavior into adulthood have survived, and thus passed on their genes, Langkilde speculates.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Creationists caught misrepresenting again

The Institute for Creation Research was once again caught misrepresenting and downright lying about a real scientist's research. Read about it here.

Blog Response: Jesus Mythicism

Hambydammit from the rational response squad and John Loftus from debunking christianity have gotten into it over Jesus mythicism. You see, Loftus has continued believing in and defending the theory that there was a real man named Jesus who began the Christian faith, while others, such as Richard Carrier, have gradually been persuaded to believe that Jesus was a spiritual being, like an angel, and was to the earliest Christians what Hercules was to the Greeks: A poetic allegory. A fiction. Anyway, here is something Loftus said which I found intriguing:

"I fear my friend Carrier could become marginalized as a scholar if he doesn't make a strong case [for Jesus mythicism]... His scholarship is too good for that and for our cause. If he becomes marginalized people will write him off and his credibility will be in need or repair."

This got me wondering: Why are the people who study Christianity so dogmatic as to write some one off permanently for having an idea they disagree with? Sure, maybe its wrong. Sure, maybe its stupid. But why would Carrier's support of a bad theory permanently ruin his reputation? I'll tell you why: Most of the people who study Christianity are Christians, and if Jesus is a myth then their cherished religion is over. Well, call me a fool but I don't think trying to break this dogma would be a bad thing if it came at the cost of "losing respect" amongst the likes of Gary Habermas or even the Jesus Seminar (They just have a liberal theological agenda, they want to bring Jesus into the 21st century, but that is a subject for another time).

Now, I can agree with Loftus that atheists may be better off accepting the historicity of Jesus for the sake of argument, whether one believes in Jesus or not. But Loftus seems to think that this issue shouldn't be brought up in academia so that we gain street cred with moderate christians and then, before they know what hit 'em, nail 'em within the acceptable parameters of debate they've chosen. They may write off Jesus mythicism, so let's steer clear of that, and instead portray Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet. That's something intellectual that the moderates could at least hear, so let's go that route.

I don't agree with that. Sure, in a debate you can accept the historicity of Jesus as a given and show that the arguments still don't hold up, but as a historian should you pretend like Jesus exists if you suspect he didn't? No, and not even to win over the moderate christians.

This is where Loftus has gone wrong. From what he has written elsewhere, it seems that he thinks the Jesus mythicist position is some kind of gargantuan effort to once and for all destroy Christian apologetics. But it isn't: Neither Carrier, nor Robert Price, nor any of the other academic mythicists use it as an end-all argument against Christianity. The intellectual, philosophical, scientific and historical arguments for Christianity are dead in the water, and have been for a long time.

What historians like Carrier are seeking is to understand more about the man, or myth, who has affected so much of civilization. And they came up with a different answer about Jesus than the modern day admirers. Go figure.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Blogging the Origin

Have you guys seen this blog yet? It is a biologist who had never before read Origin of Species, but is now doing so and posting his comments on each chapter. Pretty good stuff. Grab a copy of the Origin and follow along!!

Monday, January 19, 2009

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Sweet Mother of God

"A prominent fashion designer has sparked outrage in Chile by dressing up models like the Virgin Mary -- in some cases with ample, near-naked breasts."

Adam and Eve

Here is a really cool stop-motion film that adds a unique twist to the Genesis myth.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Darwin 200

There's an excellent issue of Focus Magazine all about evolution which can be read for free here. It has an interview with Richard Dawkins, a report on E. Coli Evolution experiments, evolving robots and more!!

Friday, January 16, 2009

Reading, Reading, Reading!

I have been reading tons and tons of books lately, all in preparation for my book. I'm more than halfway through "The Making of the Fittest" right now, a superb book about evolution and genetics. I know it will come in handy for my chapter on evolution.

My next superspurt of reading is going to focus on philosophy, and I have already started (a little) on it. I've read "Language Truth and Logic" by A. J. Ayer, which was very helpful, although I don't think Ayer was right about every single thing he wrote. Very good book on empiricist (observation based) philosophy.

I also read "The Philosophy Gym" by Stephen Law, mainly because I emailed him about the philosophy of knowledge and he told me he had written about it in this book. I have to say, I wasn't impressed with the book. It's fine if you're new to philosophy and just want a fun, easy read on the subject, but I need something a little more serious.

I also read the "Squashed" Version of David Hume's Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. I now see why so many philosophers love David Hume! He is a very clear, very sharp thinker who didn't pull any punches when it came to being skeptical.

Well, that's about it for now, if any of you have any suggestions for me, by all means leave a comment!!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Awesome Blog I stumbled Across

It's called Atheism: Proving the Negative

My favorite posts so far:

100 Reasons to Believe that God does not exist

What if the lie [religion] really is good for us?

Graverobbers or magic?

Pretty good stuff I think. Let me know how you feel.

P.S. I've also come across a website that has super-condensed works of philosophers for free! Here it is.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Montgomery Freethought

Hey everybody!

Just wonderin' how many Alabamians read this blog. And how many of em live near Montgomery. Because if you do, I've got good news!! There's a brand new group called Mongomery Freethinkers which plans on meeting about once a month (Jan 31st is going to be the very first meeting).

Click here to go to their meetup page.

I'll see you there!

Sunday, January 11, 2009

RNA Replicators Created!!!!

Via Sciencedaily:

One of the most enduring questions is how life could have begun on Earth. Molecules that can make copies of themselves are thought to be crucial to understanding this process as they provide the basis for heritability, a critical characteristic of living systems. New findings could inform biochemical questions about how life began.

Now, a pair of Scripps Research Institute scientists has taken a significant step toward answering that question. The scientists have synthesized for the first time RNA enzymes that can replicate themselves without the help of any proteins or other cellular components, and the process proceeds indefinitely.
The work was recently published in the journal Science.

In the modern world, DNA carries the genetic sequence for advanced organisms, while RNA is dependent on DNA for performing its roles such as building proteins. But one prominent theory about the origins of life, called the RNA World model, postulates that because RNA can function as both a gene and an enzyme, RNA might have come before DNA and protein and acted as the ancestral molecule of life. However, the process of copying a genetic molecule, which is considered a basic qualification for life, appears to be exceedingly complex, involving many proteins and other cellular components.

For years, researchers have wondered whether there might be some simpler way to copy RNA, brought about by the RNA itself. Some tentative steps along this road had previously been taken by the Joyce lab and others, but no one could demonstrate that RNA replication could be self-propagating, that is, result in new copies of RNA that also could copy themselves.

In Vitro Evolution

A few years after Tracey Lincoln arrived at Scripps Research from Jamaica to pursue her Ph.D., she began exploring the RNA-only replication concept along with her advisor, Professor Gerald Joyce, M.D., Ph.D., who is also Dean of the Faculty at Scripps Research. Their work began with a method of forced adaptation known as in vitro evolution. The goal was to take one of the RNA enzymes already developed in the lab that could perform the basic chemistry of replication, and improve it to the point that it could drive efficient, perpetual self-replication.

Lincoln synthesized in the laboratory a large population of variants of the RNA enzyme that would be challenged to do the job, and carried out a test-tube evolution procedure to obtain those variants that were most adept at joining together pieces of RNA.

Ultimately, this process enabled the team to isolate an evolved version of the original enzyme that is a very efficient replicator, something that many research groups, including Joyce's, had struggled for years to obtain. The improved enzyme fulfilled the primary goal of being able to undergo perpetual replication. "It kind of blew me away," says Lincoln.

Immortalizing Molecular Information

The replicating system actually involves two enzymes, each composed of two subunits and each functioning as a catalyst that assembles the other. The replication process is cyclic, in that the first enzyme binds the two subunits that comprise the second enzyme and joins them to make a new copy of the second enzyme; while the second enzyme similarly binds and joins the two subunits that comprise the first enzyme. In this way the two enzymes assemble each other — what is termed cross-replication. To make the process proceed indefinitely requires only a small starting amount of the two enzymes and a steady supply of the subunits.

"This is the only case outside biology where molecular information has been immortalized," says Joyce.

Not content to stop there, the researchers generated a variety of enzyme pairs with similar capabilities. They mixed 12 different cross-replicating pairs, together with all of their constituent subunits, and allowed them to compete in a molecular test of survival of the fittest. Most of the time the replicating enzymes would breed true, but on occasion an enzyme would make a mistake by binding one of the subunits from one of the other replicating enzymes. When such "mutations" occurred, the resulting recombinant enzymes also were capable of sustained replication, with the most fit replicators growing in number to dominate the mixture. "To me that's actually the biggest result," says Joyce.

The research shows that the system can sustain molecular information, a form of heritability, and give rise to variations of itself in a way akin to Darwinian evolution. So, says Lincoln, "What we have is non-living, but we've been able to show that it has some life-like properties, and that was extremely interesting."

Knocking on the Door of Life

The group is pursuing potential applications of their discovery in the field of molecular diagnostics, but that work is tied to a research paper currently in review, so the researchers can't yet discuss it.

But the main value of the work, according to Joyce, is at the basic research level. "What we've found could be relevant to how life begins, at that key moment when Darwinian evolution starts." He is quick to point out that, while the self-replicating RNA enzyme systems share certain characteristics of life, they are not themselves a form of life.
The historical origin of life can never be recreated precisely, so without a reliable time machine, one must instead address the related question of whether life could ever be created in a laboratory. This could, of course, shed light on what the beginning of life might have looked like, at least in outline. "We're not trying to play back the tape," says Lincoln of their work, "but it might tell us how you go about starting the process of understanding the emergence of life in the lab."

Joyce says that only when a system is developed in the lab that has the capability of evolving novel functions on its own can it be properly called life. "We're knocking on that door," he says, "But of course we haven't achieved that."

The subunits in the enzymes the team constructed each contain many nucleotides, so they are relatively complex and not something that would have been found floating in the primordial ooze. But, while the building blocks likely would have been simpler, the work does finally show that a simpler form of RNA-based life is at least possible, which should drive further research to explore the RNA World theory of life's origins.

Saturday, January 10, 2009


You must read this article - It is about octopi who escape from their tanks at the aquarium.

Smart little buggers, they are. Makes me wonder if their consciousness is near human-level (or beyond?!?)

Friday, January 9, 2009

Old Pizza

I have been doing lots and lots of reading lately. I think I've checked out about 20 books from my library in the past few weeks, and I have been reading articles (journal and magazine) galore. It's all so that I can be as informed as possible for the writing of my book (I'm currently working on a draft of the third chapter).

Anyway, I'm now reading an antievolutionary classic. It's Evolution: A Theory in Crisis by Michael Denton.

I found it eerie to read his descriptions of the bacterial flagellum and cilium and his comments on how complex they were. This book totally got the Intelligent Design movement up and running.

Denton also tries to replace the evolutionary understanding of animals' relationships with "typology". The idea is very similar to the creationist concept of a "kind". The big question is: How does one reconcile the concept of distinct "types" with bizarre critters like the platypus? You can't. Denton dodges the issue by pointing out that although marsupials do seem "part mammal part reptile" there is no one part of the animal that seems intermediate, only parts which are fully reptilian or fully reptile. Although this isn't quite true, even if it were true it would be nothing but a red herring. If all animals could be classified into discrete "types" we shouldn't see anything like the monotremes or marsupials.

I suppose the best I could say about the book is that it isn't rude or stupid as most creationist literature is, nor do I get the feeling that Denton is deliberately decieving himself or trying to decieve others. He really believes what he wrote, he is just sorely mistaken.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Bill Craig on Pagan Parallels

When they say that Christian beliefs about Jesus are derived from pagan mythology, I think you should laugh. Then look at them wide-eyed and with a big grin, and exclaim, “Do you really believe that?” Act as though you’ve just met a flat earther or Roswell conspirator. You could say something like, “Man, those old theories have been dead for over a hundred years! Where are you getting this stuff?” Tell them this is just sensationalist junk, not serious scholarship. If they persist, then ask them to show you the actual passages narrating the supposed parallel. They’re the ones who are swimming against the scholarly consensus, so make them work hard to save their religion. I think you’ll find that they’ve never even read the primary sources.
-William Lane Craig

Here I have found two gods, one Greek and one Roman, who bear striking similarities to Jesus. I have cited primary sources (translations of the original ancient texts) all of which you can read for yourself via Tufts University’s Perseus Project or through equally reputable University resources.


Written about by Titus Livius (who died in 17 CE) in his book “The Early History of Rome” and by Plutarch in “Numa Pompilius”(written circa 75 CE, around the same time Mark’s gospel was written).

The Parallels:Romulus is born of a vestal virgin, which was a priestess of the hearth god Vesta sworn to celibacy (Early History of Rome, 1.3-1.4). His mother claims that the divine impregnated her, yet this is not believed by the King (there is a certain irony to this since Romulus is later hailed as “God and a Son of God”, meaning that his mother’s seemingly far-fetched tale was true after all). Romulus and his twin brother, Remus, are tossed in the river and left for dead (A “slaughter of the innocents” tale which parallels that of Matthew 2:13-16).

Romulus is hailed as the son of god. He is “snatched away to heaven” by a whirlwind (It is assumed that the gods took him), and he makes post mortem appearances (See The Early History of Rome 1.16). In his work Numa Pompilius, Plutarch records that there was a darkness covering the earth before his death (Just as there was during Jesus’ death according to Mark 15:33). He also states that Romulus is to be know afterwards as ‘Quirinus’; A god which belonged to the Archiac Triad (a “triple deity” similar to the concept of the Trinity). This information may be found in the second paragraph of the translation of Numa Pompilius (hyperlinked above).

Heracles (Hercules)

Written about by Diodorus Siculus in the "Library of History" Book 4. Diodorus lived from 90 to 21 BCE (According to his entry in Funk and Wagnall's New Encyclopedia).The Parallels:Heracles is the Son of a god (Zeus).In Library of History 4:9:1-2, it is recorded that Zeus is both the father and great-great- great grandfather of Heracles, just as Jesus is essentially his own grandpa, being both “The root and offspring of David” (Revelation 22:16) as he is part of the triune God which is the father of Adam and eventually of Jesus. Both are doubly related to the Supreme God.

Diodorus writes that,"For as regards the magnitude of the deeds which he accomplished it is generally agreed that Heracles has been handed down as one who surpassed all men of whom memory from the beginning of time has brought down an account; consequently it is a difficult attainment to report each one of his deeds in a worthy manner and to present a record which shall be on a level with labours so great, the magnitude of which won for him the prize of immortality."-Library of History, 4:8:1

Jesus is also said to have done a very large number of good works. John 21:25 says that: "Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written."

Hera tries to kill Heracles as an infant by sending two serpents after him (Library of History, 4:10:1) yet Heracles survives by strangling them. This parallels Herod's slaughter of the innocents in an attempt to kill Jesus (Matthew 2:13-16).

Heracles makes a descent into Hades and returns from it with Theseus and Peirithoüs (4.26.1), just as Jesus descends into the “lower parts of the earth” or Hades (Ephesians 4:7-8); Though Jesus does not bring anyone up from it.Heracles' body is not found and he is assumed to have been taken by the gods:"After this, when the companions of Iolaüs came to gather up the bones of Heracles and found not a single bone anywhere, they assumed that, in accordance with the words of the oracle, he had passed from among men into the company of the gods." (Library of History, 4:38:5)

Principles of Biology II

Yesterday I attended the first class of "Principles of Biology II" over at my college.

It was pretty interesting stuff. We went over the basics: Taxonomy (Three Domains: Eukarya, Prokarya, Archaea, all the way down to the species level of classification), Ecology (how organisms interact with their environments and with each other), and Evolution.

When he was explaining evolution, he said that some people ask, "If Evolution happens then why aren't people born with tails?" His Response: They are. If it happens in India, he told us, they think you're a monkey god. If it happens in the United States, they snip it off at birth and no one says anything about it.

: )

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Friday, January 2, 2009

Ken Miller, Creationist Killer.

Ken Miller has made a guest post over at Carl Zimmer's blog, The Loom. It is a step by step dismantling of creationist whining that Miller misrepresented Behe in court. Absolutely Devastating for Intelligent Design.

Read it here.

Part Two can be found here.

Jonathan Wells: Dishonest and Unashamed

I just read this post over at the Talk.Origins Google Group. Apparently Jonathan Wells has misquoted a scientist, and now that scientist is responding.

"We all know that creationists (and I would count Wells in that group) frequently make use of quote mines. They also make use of citation mines -- references to scientific papers that don't support the arguments they're making.

I mention this because Jonathan Wells has resorted to a citation mine of a publication of mine.

The citation is reference 5, and here's the context:
"So some cases of geographic distribution -- the study of which modern biologists call “biogeography” -- may be due to migration, while others may be due to the splitting of a formerly large, widespread population into small, isolated populations by changes in climate or geology -- which modern biologists call “vicariance.”4

Darwin argued that all modern distributions of species could be explained by these two possibilities. Yet there are many cases of geographic distribution for which neither the center-of-origin-followed-by-migration nor the widespread-population-fragmented-by-barriers explanation seems to work.

One example is the worldwide distribution of flightless birds, or “ratites.” These include ostriches in Africa, rheas in South America, emus and cassowaries in Australia, and kiwis in New Zealand. Since the birds are flightless, explanations based on migration over vast oceanic distances are implausible. After continental drift was discovered in the twentieth century, it was thought that the various populations might have separated with the landmasses. But ostriches and kiwis are much too recent; the continents had already drifted apart when these species originated. So neither migration nor vicariance explain ratite biogeography, which remains controversial.5"

But if Wells had actually read the reference he used, he would have noticed that one of its lessons is that migration is a better explanation for ratite biogeography than vicariance, and is made more plausible because we posit a late and multiple evolution of flightlessness.

(Wells' reference is to Harshman, J., E. L. Braun, M. J. Braun, C. J. Huddleston, R. C. K. Bowie, J. L. Chojnowski, S. J. Hackett, K.-L. Han, R. T. Kimball, B. D. Marks, K. J. Miglia, W. S. Moore, S. Reddy, F. H. Sheldon, D. W. Steadman, S. J. Steppan, C. C. Witt, and T. Yuri. 2008. Phylogenomic evidence for multiple losses of flight in ratite birds. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 105:13462-12467.)

I won't go into any of the other major problems with Wells' use of sources, here and elsewhere. One example should suffice, and it hurts my brain to read too much of his article."

Read the original post here.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Transitional Spider Fossil

Via ScienceDaily:

...The research focuses on fossil animals called Attercopus fimbriunguis. While modern spiders make silk threads with modified appendages called spinnerets, the fossil animals wove broad sheets of silk from spigots on plates attached to the underside of their bodies. Unlike spiders, they had long tails.

The research findings by Paul Selden, the Gulf-Hedberg Distinguished Professor of Invertebrate Paleontology in the Department of Geology at KU, and William Shear, the Trinkle Professor of Biology at Hampden-Sydney College, were published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Selden and Shear first discovered the fossils almost 20 years ago. At that time the specimens were thought to be the oldest spider fossils known, dating back to the Devonian Period, about 380 million years ago. Unearthed in upstate New York, the fossils were among the first animals to live on land in North America.

New finds near the same location, in Gilboa, N.Y., caused the paleontologists to reinterpret their original findings. The new fossils included silk-spinning organs, called spigots, arranged on the edges of broad plates making up the undersides of the animals. The researchers identified parts of a long, jointed tail not found in any previously known spider, but common among some of the spiders’ more primitive relatives.

“We think these ‘tailed spiders’ represent an entirely new kind of animal, not known before from living or fossil examples.” Shear said. “They were more primitive than spiders in many ways, and may be spider ancestors.” Besides having tails and spinning silk from broad plates, the animals also seem to lack poison glands.

Selden added, “This new information also allows us to reinterpret other fossils once thought to be spiders, and this evidence suggests these Uraraneida, or pre-spiders, existed for more than 100 million years, living alongside real spiders, which evolved later.”
The paleontologists think that Attercopus developed silk-spinning spigots in order to line burrows, make homing trails and possibly to subdue prey, but were not capable of making webs because of the limited mobility of the spigots. True spiders may have arisen when the genetic information for certain appendages was “turned back on” and the spigots moved onto them. The appendages became the modern spiders’ spinnerets, which can move freely and create patterned webs.

The Month in Review

Happy New Year!!

So many interesting things happened this month that I thought it would be helpful to link to some of the better things I wrote about [in case anybody missed anything]:

More Support for a Cold Origin of Life

The Origin of Life is Harder than I thought

More Origin of Life Research

My Plans to Write a Book

Ex-Apologist did a Series on Debunking Irreducible Complexity

Scientific American came out with Kick-Ass Issue all about Evolution