Monday, April 30, 2012

News Bits

Here's an Interesting article on Why Pygmies are Short.

Victor Stenger has a new book out, God and the Folly of Faith: The Incompatibility of Science and Religion.

Bart Ehrman has just created a blog, but in order to get full access you have to make a payment ($7.95 every three months) all of which goes to charity. I signed up, as I figure it's a great excuse to give money to charity plus I'll get something in return that I will value.

I'm thinking about writing a review of Ehrman's book on the existence of Jesus and possibly offering some more commentary on the controversey that has ensued. I'd like some reader feedback on this: Do you want to see me write that? If this is something that bores other people, I'll skip it.

That is all.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Ehrman-Carrier Kerfuffle

So, a while back Bart Ehrman published a book called Did Jesus Exist? arguing against Jesus mythicist theories and for a historical Jesus. The well-known mythicist Richard Carrier has written a pretty harsh and rhetorically-overblown review of the book, accusing Ehrman of incompetence and even obnoxiously declaring that his own books are far superior to Bart's latest book. Even worse than that, many of the mistakes Carrier points could not even concievably be classified as whoppers indicitive of incompetence. For instance, Bart wrote that mythicist Acharya S. was wrong and that there was no statue of the Apostle Peter in which he is depicted as a giant penis-nosed rooster. It turns out that the Vatican actually does house a statue of a giant, penis-nosed rooster but there's no evidence it had any connection with the Apostle Peter. Careful attention to what Bart wrote reveals that he did not write that there were no statues like this, only that there were none depicting St. Peter like this: “there is no penis-nosed statue of Peter the cock in the Vatican or anywhere else except in books like this, which love to make things up” (Emphasis mine, see Page 24 of "Did Jesus Exist?"). Why Carrier would shoot himself in the foot by making a lot of hay over trivial things like this is beyond me (Chris Hallquist has made similar comments on this issue, also see his latest post here). Word to Carrier: when you engage in so much inflammatory rhetoric it makes you look exactly like Acharya S. every time she lashes out at a critic. Further, you shouldn't waste hundreds of words on trivial issues like this, rather, it would have made much more sense in this context to stick to bigger issues and to list them in order of importance, that way when Bart responded he would have had no choice but to begin by addressing the substantial issues that mean the most to you (because substantial issues would have and should have been the only thing in your critique). Are you really interested in dickering with Bart about the penis-nosed Priapus rather than engage the criticisms he's made of your work specifically?

Here's one issue worth addressing: In Carrier's review of Did Jesus Exist he said the following:

Ehrman declares “there were no Jews prior to Christianity who thought Isaiah 53 (or any other ‘suffering’ passages) referred to the future messiah” (p. 166), yet he does not even mention much less address the Dead Sea pesher (11Q13) or the 1st century targum that both explicitly evince this belief. And he knows about all this, so I cannot explain why he doesn’t even attempt a rebuttal, or even in fact mention this evidence, which can only misinform the reader, who will think there is none, and mistakenly conclude his assertion has not been disputed. That is simply irresponsible. See my discussion of this in The Dying Messiah.

It's odd that Ehrman, while addressing the issue of a pre-Christian dying messiah concept (p.166-170), never mentions or discusses the evidence here. Are there problems with the evidence Carrier is bringing up? If so Ehrman should have discussed what the problems were, and I hope that if there is a problem with this he will tell us what it is. I know Ehrman doesn't want to get bogged down in responding to every last mythicist claim ever made, but at the same time if you want to show the general public what is wrong with mythicism I think you have to get your hands dirty and at least respond to the first round of counterarguments that are made. I wish Ehrman had taken a page from Jerry Coyne: when Coyne wrote Why Evolution is True (intended to give the case for evolution to the general public) he made an effort in nearly every case to respond to the typical counterarguments that creationists have against evolution. That, I think, is the way things ought to be done.

Here's Carrier's review and Ehrman's response. Don't take my word for it, think for yourself.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Proving History: A Review

I have now finished Richard Carrier's Proving History.

The book was written in order to advance the thesis that Bayes' Theorem ought to be used to decide correct historical explanations and, more specifically, that Bayes' Theorem ought to be used in studies of the historical Jesus and early Christianity. Carrier also tries to show that all the criteria used to judge the historicity of gospel events and sayings of Jesus are bankrupt, illogical, and do not do the job they are supposed to do: find historical truth.

Bayes' Theorem itself has been proven true, so this isn't at all controversial. What is controversial is whether it can be validly applied to history. How can we possibly come up with a decimal number to describe the prior probability of certain historical events? Isn't math just the wrong sort of thing to bring to a field like history? Carrier satisfactorily addresses all of the concerns one might have about this, and in the process I think he shows that Bayes' Theorem can be extended to all kinds of fields besides the "hard" sciences. Indeed, he demonstrates that all of us are already using Bayes' Theorem in our everyday lives but that we never realized it before. The theorem is just the mathematical description of our off-the-cuff reasoning about everything else (like how a jury can justify finding someone guilty or innocent, how we know that the sun rose today, how we know the Civil War took place, and so on and so forth). Carrier's discussion of this is worth the price of the book alone, and it will be of great interest to those looking to deepen their understanding of epistemology (the philosophy of how humans can know things are true).

The second thesis of the book is a bit trickier and far more controversial: is it true that Jesus scholars have been using bankrupt methods in their historical studies? Several leading biblical scholars (Stanley Porter, for example) have already reached similar conclusions. I'm not sure if they agree that *all* such "criteria" and methodology employed in Jesus studies are bankrupt, but it is beyond doubt that they believe all/most of the criteria have one or more shortcomings. After reading Carrier's analysis of the criteria, I am very much inclined to agree with him, with only one caveat. While Carrier seems to think that all of the criteria are bankrupt no matter what, I believe that if we *assume* that there was a historical Jesus then we can validly reach some conclusions about the life of Jesus. For example: Was Jesus an apocalyptic prophet? That is, did he teach that the end of the world was near? Paul thought the end of the world was near, the gospel authors say that Jesus said this, the book of Hebrews and Revelation says it. What could account for all of these early Christian authors believing the end of the world was near and the gospels portraying this as a central teaching of Jesus? If Jesus was a real historical figure, we have two hypotheses to test: that he was an apocalyptic prophet or he was not. If he was, it is easy to see why early Christian texts say what they do. If he was not, then we have to postulate a rather radical, ad-hoc discontinuity between the teachings of Jesus and the beliefs of so many early Christians. The latter seems fairly improbable while the former is not. Therefore, it is somewhat probable that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet. To take another example: Was Jesus crucified? Most scholars would say that this is almost certainly true because it is a part of the earliest Christian teaching and because it seems implausible that a humiliating death would be invented. However, Carrier disagrees with both of these and I am in partial agreement with his reasons for doubt. That said, in his discussion of the criteria of embarrassment (the criteria of "they would have never made it up because it went against their interests") he says that if someone reports something that is true even though it is embarassing, this predicts that they may try and spin it, rationalize it, etc. Well, look at what Paul says about the crucifixion of Jesus in Galatians 3:10-13. Look at how the crucifixion is tied in to Old Testament references in the gospels (as if the Old Testament had predicted it when it had not). Why did the gospel writers do this? Probably, or at least plausibly, they were looking to put a spin on their savior's death, to cloak the embarassment of a crucifixion with a blanket of Old Testament approval. So, if there was a historical Jesus, then it follows that we can know at least a couple of things about him. That said, Carrier is right that the gospels are not generally reliable and that any sound analysis of the evidence we have will not render much of the traditional story historically true. In fact, it seems to me that the amount of confirmable history in the gospels is really pathetic.

I'd like to return to what I said earlier about assuming Jesus existed. Is this a valid assumption to make? Carrier's next book will address the topic and it seems he will be arguing that it is not. I happen to think that is, because I think that a historical Jesus is the best explanation of the beginning of Christianity and because I think certain things in early Christian letters (Paul's reference in Galatians 1:19 to "James, the brother of the Lord") are somewhat more probable if Jesus did exist than if he did not. That said, there is a fairly startling conclusion that I have reached after reading this book. Bart Ehrman, in denouncing mythicism, mentioned that he had written a book on what Jesus said and did and added that "Jesus could not have said or did anything if he didn't exist." Ehrman has put the cart before the horse: the so-called historical events and sayings in the life of Jesus probably cannot be judged as historical unless one first makes the assumption that a historical Jesus existed, and therefore this set of judgments cannot be used as evidence of an historical Jesus without begging the question. So after reading "Proving History" I am convinced that (1) We know very little about the historical Jesus assuming there was one and (2) What we do believe is true about the historical Jesus cannot be known unless we are first sure that he existed and (3) Therfore the "historical" bits of the gospels cannot be used as evidence for a historical Jesus, which wipes one of the biggest lines of evidence for a historical Jesus completely off the map. This is significant.

Here's my recommendation about this book: Buy it. Buy it to further your understanding of how you know things. Buy it so you can learn about early Christian studies. Buy it because that will help it become a number one seller on amazon and will hopefully open the eyes of others about both of these issues.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Guess What Came in the Mail Yesterday!

Richard Carrier's new book, Proving History. I have been reading it, and it is truly eye-opening. Whether you are interested in Bayes Theorem, human knowledge, or Jesus studies this is a must-read. A full review will be coming after I have finished it.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Free Evolution DVD!!

You can order a free DVD from Howard Hughes Medical Institute here:

Please get it and when you're done watching it, give it to a creationist friend.

P.S. Howard Hughes has also posted a number of lectures online for free. One of my favorites is Selection in Action.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

My Life as a Christian

Today I'm going to write about something I have written very little about in the past: my experience as a former Christian.

As I was growing up I attended several congregations of the Church of Christ in Alabama. The churches I attended never had a paid preacher (preaching was done in rotation by several male members of the congregation for free) nor any sort of hierarchal authority but nonetheless the congregations across Alabama (and to some extent, across the country and even the world) maintained connections with one another such that members of the church of Christ in Birmingham often knew members of the church in small towns a couple hours away.

The absolute, number one focus of these churches was to keep themselves and their church service in complete accordance with what the Bible taught. We had no Sunday school, no musical instruments during the church service (singing was a capella) and the members of the church cited verses from the bible (or, sometimes, a total absence of verses that condoned such things) to support these prohibitions. Over at Less Wrong you can find a community of people who are dedicated to, at all costs, eliminating their own bias and following logic and evidence. The church of Christ is very similar with the exception that they are dedicated to following the bible (which they consider to be well-evidenced, and proofs of prophecies and such were regularly presented).

Let me offer a few recollections to show you what it was like:

I knew an elder who was subjected to punishment during World War II. He was asked how he would contribute to aiding his country during the war and he responded that he would go to the battlefield and collect the wounded for further treatment. But there was a catch: he said he would pick up the bodies of the Germans as well. He reasoned that the German soldiers were people too and as a result he could not, in good conscience, allow them to die (thou shalt not kill). As a result he was ordered to do hard labor for several months (apparently the US had some sort of work camp set up for people like him).

After learning about the pagan roots of Christmas, my parents quit celebrating it and my Dad even preached a sermon on why it was wrong, which did not go over well with a few of the members.

As a child I was frequently taken to the library, allowed to read whatever I wanted (my mother had read the Qu'ran and felt it was good for me to read a broad variety, too). My mother also told me not to simply trust everything I was taught, but to keep an eye out for things that might be wrong with our own religious practices, just in case we weren't doing things exactly the right way.

So, the peculiar version of Christianity that I was raised in laid the groundwork for me to become a freethinking atheist. It took only a baby step to go from my former belief that all other churches in the world were a distortion of the truth to my present belief that all religions are fundamentally wrong.

I only made a baby step when I, as someone who believed in basing my beliefs directly on evidence (of which I had assumed the scriptures were a subset) started to turn a skeptical eye on the Bible.