Paul Kurtz: December 21, 1925 – October 20, 2012

Like my relationship with my own father, my relationship with Paul Kurtz was complicated. My feelings about his death are equally complex. On the one hand, clichés must be spoken: Paul was one of the great secular leaders of the last century, and devoted more time and energy to the life-stance he called secular humanism—a humanism without gods—than almost anyone in the contemporary humanist world.  His living monument, the Center for Inquiry (and its component organizations, the Council for Secular Humanism and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry) will no doubt feel his loss intensely.

At the same time, truth must be told:  at the end of his life, the secular vision is unfulfilled–through no fault of his own–and many of the ideas he espoused have been reformed or rejected by a simpler and more callous approach to secular humanism than Paul ever could have imagined.

It is, as they say of irreplaceable figures, unlikely that anyone will take his place.  Paul himself was keenly aware of this: as he grew older he was very much concerned that the lessons he had taught had not been fully learned  by his younger colleagues and proteges.  For thirty years, I was privileged to be one of those.  It is fortunate that another of his young colleagues, Nathan Bupp, has published in the last year a thoughtful collection of some of Kurtz’s most significant writings, a garland from the forty books that Paul wrote over his long career as a teacher, lecturer, activist, and theoretician.  They show a mind consistent in objectives and sensitive to application.  If secularism had a “great communicator”–someone who could make philosophy appealing to ordinary readers and listeners–it was Paul Kurtz.  My guess is that in terms of others discovering the importance of his thought, his best days are ahead of him.

With death, wars end, hatchets are buried and clouds resolve into clear images of the future. I personally hope that this will happen at the CFI. One thing that can be said without contradiction about Paul: he lived for the future, and lived passionately with the optimistic and “exuberant” belief that the world can be made a better place through human effort. His entire humanist vision was rooted in that belief. When he underwent valve replacement surgery at Cleveland Hospital in 2007, he confidently looked forward to another decade of engagement with the causes and challenges that most engaged him.

When he wasn’t campaigning for reason and science, he liked hearing jokes, telling jokes, and chuckling over collections of Woody Allen monologues. He loved music.  He couldn’t sing.

Paul Kurtz was never really comfortable with the “new atheist” doctrines that began to appear in the early twenty-first century. While cordial to everyone, he deplored direct frontal assaults on religion as being out of keeping with the “humanist” side of his philosophy. Authentic humanism, he believed, must be radically secular. It should expel the gods and eschew dogma and supernaturalism. It should embrace science, reason, and ethical praxis—a combination he named eupraxsophy, a recipe for the good life.

For Paul, this was not a new idea but a “stirring” that could be detected in the great philosophers going back to Plato and Aristotle. Virtue is as virtue does. Happiness is its consequence.

Some of his critics thought that Paul was too philosophical. Others, that he treated religion too politely. His final departure from the Center for Inquiry came from the organization’s decision to get tough on religion and sponsor cartoon and blasphemy contests—a contravention of the gentler approach to religion that he advocated.

He liked to boast that in the ecumenical spirit after Vatican II, he had attended two Vatican meetings as part of the Catholic Church’s colloquium on the Church’s relationship with unbelievers—a colloquium that indirectly and eventually resulted in the Vatican’s concordat on science and faith, endorsed by two of Paul’s heroes, Carl Sagan and Stephen Jay Gould. He had a special admiration for French Cardinal Paul Jean Poupard who headed the colloquium—and indeed, for smart people in general, theists or atheists. When I asked him once why he did not admire Billy Graham for the same reason he answered with a wry grin, “Because Billy Graham isn’t very smart.”

But Paul himself could be tough on religion: Beginning in the 1980’s he set out to subject religious truth claims to tests in the interest of exposing the flim flam of television evangelists and the religious right. From opposing Ronald Reagan’s “Year of the Bible” to the born-again George W. Bush’s “faith based initiatives,” he believed that religion had no place in national politics and that its abuse could only be corrected by exposing its hypocrisy. In 1982 he founded the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion to work in tandem with his Council for Secular Humanism as a quasi-scholarly watchdog commission. CSER was defunded by CFI in 2010, shortly after Paul Kurtz resigned from CFI.

But the difference between new atheism and Paul’s vision is crucial. First and foremost, Paul believed in education, in getting the word out to ordinary people. Like John Dewey, he believed that the liberal arts and sciences were transformative. He was not the kind of man who would divide audiences into brights and dims: for Paul, everyone who had the will to listen and learn was potentially bright and inherently humanistic in their aspirations. In literally hundreds of conferences and seminars and through the work of on-site meetings and the aegis of Prometheus Books (which he founded), he replicated the energy of the old tent revivals. In fact, some of his earliest editing work included anthologies of the puritan philosophers in American history, including the “father” of the Great Awakening Jonathan Edwards. Edwards’s goal was to deliver the saints from the devil and sin. Paul’s mission was to deliver them from religious hypocrisy.

His gospel was a gospel of freedom from superstition, a gospel of freedom through learning.

He was a professor until the end.


Liberal Scarecrows, Shadows, and Atheist Internet-Experts

eorge Rupp, former president of Columbia and before that the dean of Harvard Divinity School wrote in 1979 that “Christian theology is in disarray; it has neither a goal nor a purpose,” trends follows fads with such dizzying speed, he wrote,  that the discipline is more like a carousel gone wild than an academic discipline.  If Rupp were observing the current state of New Testament scholarship in 2012, he might have written just the same thing.

Why has this situation arisen?  While generalizations are always more convenient than precise, I think it’s safe to say that three overlapping trends explain the current crisis in New Testament studies.

irst, of course, New Testament studies is simply a mess.  It is a mess because many otherwise conscientious scholars (many of them either refugees from or despondents of the Jesus Seminar) had reached the conclusion that the New Testament should be regarded as a theory in search of facts.  Accordingly, the “facts” were arranged and rearranged in sometimes ingenious ways (and sometimes absurd) to support personal theories. The harsh truisms of 100 years of serious “historical-critical” study (not atheism or scholarly extravagance) were largely responsible for the rubble out of which the scholars tried to build a plausible man, but the men they built could not all be the same character as the one described in the gospels.  They differed from each other; they differed, often, from the evidence or context, and–perhaps vitally–they differed from tradition and “standard” interpretations, which had become closely identified with orthodoxy–which in turn was identified with illiberal politics and hence ludicrous and bad. Having left a field full of half clothed and malformed scarecrows, the theorists packed their bags and asked the world to consider their art.

ECOND: the rescucitation of the myth theory as a sort of zombie of a once-interesting question.  The myth theory, in a phrase, is the theory that Jesus never existed. Let me say for the hundredth time that while it is possible that Jesus did not exist it is improbable that he did not. For the possibility to trump the probability, the mythicists (mythtics in their current state of disarray) need to produce a coherent body of evidence and interpretation that persuasively challenges the current consensus.  No argument of that strength has been proved convincing.  Moreover, there are serious heuristic questions about why many of the mythticists want the theory “proved,” the most basic of which is that many are waging a kind of counter-apologetic attack on a field they regard as excessively dominated by magical thinking.

Bruno Bauer

And the “proof”  is unlikely to appear. As someone who actively entertained the possibility for years, I can report that the current state of the question is trending consistently in the direction of the historicity of Jesus and partly the wishful thinking of the mythtics is responsible for the trend. The myth theory, in its current, dyslectic and warmed over state,  has erected the messiest of  all the Jesuses in the field, constructed mainly from scraps discarded by the liberals and so startling (perhaps inevitably) that it looks more like an Egyptian god than a man, less a coherent approach to its object than an explosion of possibilities and mental spasms. Like all bad science, its supporters (mainly internet bloggers and scholarly wannabes)  began the quest with their pet conclusion, then looked for evidence by alleging that anything that counted against it was false, apologetically driven, or failed the conspiracy smell-test. A survey of the (highly revised and hideously written) Wikipedia article on the Christ Myth Theory shows its depressing recent history–from a theory that grew organically out of the history-of-religion approach to Christianity (which drove my own work in critical studies) to a succession of implausibilities and splices as limitless as there were analogies to splice.

The prototype of the Jesus story?

Yet the myth theory is explained by the woeful history of liberal scholarship: ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. It is a direct result of the mess liberal scholarship made of itself.  If the problem with “liberal” scholarship (the name itself suggests the fallacy that guides the work) is that a flimsy, fact-free, wordless Jesus could be a magician, a bandit, an eschatologist, a radical, a mad prophet, a sane one, a tax revolutionary, a reforming rabbi (anything but Jesus the son of God)–the mythical Jesus could be Hercules, Osiris, Mithras, a Pauline vision, a Jewish fantasy, a misremembered amalgam of folk tales, a rabbi’s targum about Joshua. In short–the mirror image of the confusion that the overtheoretical and under-resourced history of the topic had left strewn in the field.  If the scarecrows concocted  by the liberals were made from rubble, the mythtic Jesuses were their shadows. If the bad boys of the Jesus Seminar had effectively declared that the evidence to hand means Jesus can be anything you want him to be, there is some justice in the view that Jesus might be nothing at all.

he Myth Theories, in some respects, but not every detail,  are the plus ultra of the old liberal theories rooted in the Enlightenment and the philosophy of Kant and Schleiermacher, abetted by the work of Strauss and his sympathizers. Perhaps that is why New Testament scholarship is so eerily quiet or so lazy towards them, and why the proponents of the theory feel betrayed when scholars who point them to their own scarecrows  suddenly say that while the scarecrow exists, the shadow doesn’t.  That is what happened (unmysteriously) when the very liberal Bart Ehrman, thought to be a “friend” to atheists and mythtics, decided to draw a ring around his neck of the field and say that a makeshift Jesus made of doctrinal rags and literary plunder is better than no Jesus at all.  It is not nice to be driven into a field, invited to choose the most appealing strawmen to reject, and then told that only scholars can reject scarecrows. New Testament scholarship defends its nominal field with a No Trespassing sign that invites the suspicion that there is very little to protect.

inally, the New Atheism.  In a minor scholarly rhapsody called Of Love and Chairs, I tried to suggest that not believing in God is not the same as not believing in Jesus.  In fact, it is only through making a category error that the two beliefs can be bought into alignment.  It is true that both God and Jesus are “discussed” in the Bible (though Jesus only in an appendix).  And it is true that later theology understood the Bible to be saying that Jesus was a god or son of God. But of course, very few scholars today think the Bible actually says that or meant to say that.  It is also true that the God of the Hebrew Bible walks, talks, flies through the sky, makes promises, wreaks venegance, gives laws and destroys sinners. And surely, that is a myth–or at least, extravagantly legendary. Thus, if God and Jesus occupy the same book and his father is a myth, then he must be a myth as well.

This reasoning is especially appealing to a class of mythicists I’ll call “atheoementalists,” a group of bloggers who seem to have come from unusually weird religious backgrounds and who were fed verses in tablespoons on the dogma that all of the Bible is, verse for verse, completely, historically, morally and scientifically true.  To lose or reject that belief and cough up your verses means that every one of them must now be completely false.

The New Atheism comes in as a handy assist because it came on the scene as a philosophical Tsunami of militant opposition to religion in general but biblical religion in particular.  NA encouraged the category error that the rejection of a historical Jesus was nothing more than the logical complement of rejecting the tooth fairy, the sandman, Santa and the biblical God. Conversely, believing in the god of the Bible, or Jesus, was the same as believing in (why not?) a Flying Spaghetti Monster. The NAs were less driven by the belief that religion was untrue than that religion was all bad, that God is Not Great, that it is toxic, hostile to science (the true messianic courier) and a delusion, a snappy salute to Freud’s diagnosis.

While the books of all four NA “Horsemen” were roundly thumped in the literate press as hastily conceived and shoddily reasoned attacks–largely provoked by the anti-religion and anti-Muslim rage of the post-9-11 world–they became canonical, and strategic, for large numbers of people who wanted to take Dawkins’s war against religion from Battleship Mecca to Battleship Biblicana. It is intersting for example than in the Wiki article on the Christ Myth Theory referenced above, where almost anyone who has floated the notion gets a mention,  someone has felt it necessary to insert Richard Dawkins’s irrelevant opinion that “a good case can be made for the non-existence of Jesus,” though he “probably did” exist (God Delusion, 2006, 96-7).  –Irrelevant and non-supportive.

IBERAL scarecrows, mythicist shadows, and atheist internet-experts who argue history as though scholarship was a polticial slanging match of opposing “opinions.” That is not the end of a story but the description of a situation.  I do not believe that “professional” New Testament studies, divided as it still is, especially in America, by confessionally biased scholars, fame-seekers, and mere drudges, is able to put its house in order. Their agendas only touch at the Society of Biblical Literature conclaves, and there c.v. padding and preening far outweigh discussion of disarray and purpose.  I think the situation in New Testament studies has been provoked by a “Nag Hammadi” generation–myself included–who weren’t careful with the gifts inside the Pandora’s box, so greedy were we for new constructions of ancient events.

But as part of a generation that thought it was trying to professionalize a field that had been for too- long dominated by theology, Bible lovers, and ex-Bible lovers, it is disheartening now to see it dominated by the political interests that flow from the agenda-driven scholarship of the humanities in general–attempts to see the contemporary in the ancient.  The arrogance of the “impossibility of the contrary” has displaced the humility of simply not knowing but trying to find out.

I have to sympathize with the mythtics when I lecture them (to no avail) about the “backwardness ” of their views and how New Testament scholarship has “moved beyond” questions of truth and factuality–how no one in the field is (really) talking about the historicity of the resurrection any more. How the word “supernatural” is a word banned from the scholarly vocabulary, just as “providential” and “miraculous” explanations are never taken seriously in assessing the biblical texts. They missed the part where we acknowledged it wasn’t true, and so did the people in the pews. They want to know–and it’s a fair question–where it has moved to.  This is not a defense of mythicism; it a criticism of the stammering, incoherent status quo and failure to do what a discipline is supposed to do: look critically and teach responsibly.

Robert Funk, a founder of the Jesus Seminar

I do not think, either, that the voices of dissent have much, if anything to offer.  I’m well aware that many of my colleagues are grossly ignorant of the history of radical New Testament criticism.  That being so, they are unlikely respondents in the defense of sound method. Perhaps that is why they are  unresponsive, in an era where non-response is always interpreted as a sign of weakness–especially in the gotcha culture of the blogosphere.

If the challenge to mythtics is to come up with something better than the more cognizant radicals had produced by 1912, the challenge for liberal and critical scholarship is to recognize that the mess that made the mess possible–the scarecrows that created the shadows–need to be rethought.  That’s what scholarship, even New Testament scholarship, is meant to be about: rethinking. That is what the Jesus Process is all about.

See also: “Threnody, Rethinking the Thinking Behind the Jesus Project,” The Bible nd Interpretation, October 2009.


Proving What?

The Revd Thomas Bayes

The Revd Thomas Bayes, 1701-1761

The current discussion among Jesus-deniers and mythicists over whether probability in the form of Bayes’s Rule can be used in historical research is more than a little amusing.

The current fad is largely the work of atheist blogger and debater Richard Carrier who despite having a PhD in ancient history likes to tout himself as a kind of natural science cum mathematics cum whachagot expert.

Carrier’s ingenuity is on full display in a recent book published by Prometheus (Buffalo, NY) in which he makes the claim that Bayes Theorem–a formula sometimes used by statisticians  when dealing with conditional probabilities– can be used to establish probability for events in the past.  That would make it useful for answering questions about whether x happened or did not happen, and for Carrier’s fans, the biggest x they would like to see answered (he claims ) is Did Jesus exist or not?  

The formula looks something like this:

Let A1, A2, … , An be a set of mutually exclusive events that together form the sample space S. Let B be any event from the same sample space, such that P(B) > 0. Then,

P( Ak | B ) = P( Ak ∩ B )

P( A1 ∩ B ) + P( A2 ∩ B ) + . . . + P( An ∩ B )

Invoking the fact that P( Ak ∩ B ) = P( Ak )P( B | Ak ), Baye’s theorem can also be expressed as

P( Ak | B ) = P( Ak ) P( B | Ak )

P( A1 ) P( B | A1 ) + P( A2 ) P( B | A2 ) + . . . + P( An ) P( B | An )

Clear?  Of course not. At least not for everybody. But that isn’t the issue because the less clear it is the more claims can be made for its utility.  Its called the Wow! Effect and is designed to cow you into comatose submission before its (actually pretty simple) formulation, using the standard symbols used in formal logic and mathematics.

What is known by people who use Bayes’s theorem to advantage  is that there are only certain conditions when it is appropriate to use it.  Even those conditions can sound a bit onerous: In general, its use is warranted when a problem warrants its use, e.g. when

  • The sample is partitioned into a set of mutually exclusive events { A1, A2, . . . , An }.
  • Within the sample space, there exists an event B, for which P(B) > 0.
  • The analytical goal is to compute a conditional probability of the form: P ( Ak | B ).
  • You know at least one of the two sets of probabilities described below.
    • P( Ak ∩ B ) for each Ak
    • P( Ak ) and P( B | Ak ) for each Ak  

The key to the right use of Bayes is that it can be useful in calculating conditional probabilities: that is, the probability that event A occurs given that event B has occurred.  Normally   such probabilities are used to forecast whether an event is likely to  occur, thus:

Marie is getting married tomorrow, at an outdoor ceremony in the desert. In recent years, it has rained only 5 days each year. Unfortunately, the weatherman has predicted rain for tomorrow. When it actually rains, the weatherman correctly forecasts rain 90% of the time. When it doesn’t rain, he incorrectly forecasts rain 10% of the time. What is the probability that it will rain on the day of Marie’s wedding?
StaTTrek’s solution to Marie’s conundrum looks like this:

“The sample space is defined by two mutually-exclusive events – it rains or it does not rain. Additionally, a third event occurs when the weatherman predicts rain. Notation for these events appears below.

  • Event A1. It rains on Marie’s wedding.
  • Event A2. It does not rain on Marie’s wedding.
  • Event B. The weatherman predicts rain.

In terms of probabilities, we know the following:

  • P( A1 ) = 5/365 =0.0136985 [It rains 5 days out of the year.]
  • P( A2 ) = 360/365 = 0.9863014 [It does not rain 360 days out of the year.]
  • P( B | A1 ) = 0.9 [When it rains, the weatherman predicts rain 90% of the time.]
  • P( B | A2 ) = 0.1 [When it does not rain, the weatherman predicts rain 10% of the time.]

We want to know P( A1 | B ), the probability it will rain on the day of Marie’s wedding, given a forecast for rain by the weatherman. The answer can be determined from Bayes’ theorem, as shown below.

P( A1 | B ) = P( A1 ) P( B | A1 )

P( A1 ) P( B | A1 ) + P( A2 ) P( B | A2 )

P( A1 | B ) = (0.014)(0.9) / [ (0.014)(0.9) + (0.986)(0.1) ]
P( A1 | B ) = 0.111

Note the somewhat unintuitive result. Even when the weatherman predicts rain, it only rains only about 11% of the time. Despite the weatherman’s gloomy prediction, there is a good chance that Marie will not get rained on at her wedding.

When dealing with conditional probabilities at the loading-end of the formula, we are able to formulate the sample  space easily because the “real world conditions” demanded by the formula can be identified,  and also have data–predictions– regarding Event B, which is a third event, A1 and A2 being (the required) mutually exclusive events.

So far, you are thinking, this is the kind of thing you would use for weather, rocket launches, roulette tables and divorces since we tend to think of conditional probability as an event that has not happened but can be predicted to happen, or not happen, based on existing, verifiable occurrences.  How can it be useful in determining whether events  “actually” transpired in the past, that is, when the sample field itself consists of what has already occurred (or not occurred) and when B is  the probability of it having happened? Or how it can be useful in dealing with events claimed to be sui generis since the real world conditions would lack both precedence and context?

To compensate for this, Carrier makes adjustments to the machinery: historical events are like any other events, only their exclusivity (A or not A) exists in the past rather than at the present time or in the future, like Marie’s wedding.  Carrier thinks he is justified in this by making historical uncertainty (i.e., whether an event of the past actually happened) the same species of uncertainty as a condition that applies to the future.  To put it crudely: Not knowing whether something will happen can be treated in the same way as not knowing whether something has happened by jiggering the formula. Managed properly, he is confident that Bayes will sort everything out in short order:

If you treat every probability you assign in the Bayesian equation as if it were a syllogism in an argument and defend each premise as sound (as you would for any other syllogism) Bayes’s theorem will solve all the problems that have left [Gerd] Theissen and others confounded when trying to assess questions of historicity.  There is really no other method on the table since all the historicity criteria so far have been shown to be flawed to the point of being in effect (or in fact) entirely useless. (Carrier, “Bayes Theorem for Beginners,” in Sources of the Jesus Tradition, 107).

What? This is a revolution in  thinking? Never mind the obvious problem:  If all the historicity criteria available have been shown to be “in fact” entirely useless and these are exactly the criteria we need to establish (“treat”)  the premises to feed into Bayes, then this condition would make Bayes compeletly useless as well–unless opposite, useful criteria could be shown to exist.  Bayes does not generate criteria and method; it depends on them, just as the solution to Marie’s dilemma depends on real world events, not on prophecy. Obversely, if Bayes is intended to record probability, the soundness of the premises is entirely vulnerable to improbable assumptions that can only poison the outcome–however “unarguable” it is by virtue of having been run through the Carrier version of the Bayes Machine.  Moreover, he either means something else when he talks about historicity criteria or is saying they exist in some other place.  In any event, the criteria must differ from premises they act upon and the conclusion Bayes delivers.

“Fundamentally flawed,” as I noted in a previous post, is the application of Bayes to data where no “real world data and conditions” can be said to apply.  It was this rather steep lapse in logic that led a former student of mine, who is now studying pure mathematics at Cambridge to remark,

Is this insistence [Carrier’s] of trying to invoke Bayes’ theorem in such contexts a manifestation of some sort of Math or Physics envy? Or is it due to the fact that forcing mathematics into one’s writings apparently confers on them some form of ‘scientific’ legitimacy?

The fact of the matter, as far as I know, and as I thought anyone would realize is that Bayes’ theorem is a theorem which follows from certain axioms. Its application to any real world situation depends upon how precisely the parameters and values of our theoretical reconstruction of a real world approximate reality. At this stage, however, I find it difficult to see how the heavily feared ‘subjectivity’ can be avoided. Simply put, plug in different values into the theorem and you’ll get a different answer. How does one decide which value to plug in?

Secondly, is it compulsory to try to impose some sort of mathematically based methodological uniformity on all fields of rational inquiry? Do there exist good reasons to suppose the the methods commonly used in different areas that have grown over time are somehow fatally flawed if they are not currently open to some form of mathematization?

If this kind of paradigm does somehow manage to gain ascendency, I assume history books will end up being much more full of equations and mathematical assumptions etc. While that will certainly make it harder to read for most (even for someone like me, who is more trained in Mathematics than the average person) I doubt that it would have any real consequence beyond that.”

In fairness to Carrier, however, the use of Bayes is probably not being dictated by logic, or a respect for the purity of mathematics, nor perhaps even because he thinks it can work.

It is simply being drawn (unacknowledged) from the debater’s handbook used by Oxford philosopher Richard Swinburne, who (especially through 2007) was active globally debating the question of God’s existence, under the title “Is there a God?” using Bayes’s Theorem as his mainstay.  Not only this, but Swinburne is the editor of the most distinguished collection of essays on Bayes’s Theorem (Oxford, 2002).  In case you are interested in outcomes, Swinburne formulates the likelihood of God in relation to one argument for his existence (the cosmological) this way:  P (e I h & k) ≥ .50  The “background knowledge” Swinburne needs to move this from speculation to a real world condition is “the existence [e] over time of a complex physical universe.”  In order to form a proposition for debate properly, Swinburne depends on the question “Is There a God,” which gives a clear modality:  A and A1.

Unlike Carrier, I believe, I have had the dubious pleasure of having debated Swinburne face to face at Florida State University in 2006. A relatively complete transcript of my opening remarks was posted online in 2010. In case it is not clear, I took the contra side, arguing against the proposition.

I knew enough of Swinburne’s work (and enough of his legendary style from graduate students he had mentored at Oxford) to be on guard for his use of Bayes.  Unlike Carrier, Swinburne is both a theologian and a specialist in formal logic, whose undergraduate degree was in philosophy, politics and economics.  He travels the two worlds with ease and finesse and his most prominent books—The Coherence of TheismThe Existence of God, and Faith and Reason--are heavy reads.

But he is quite uncomfortable with historical argumentation.  Historical argumentation is both non-intuitive and probabilistic (in the sense of following the “law of likelihood”); but tends to favor the view that Bayes’s excessive use of “prior possibilities”  are subjective and lack probative force.   So, when I suggested he could not leap into his Bayesian proofs for God’s existence until he told me what God he was talking about, he seemed confused.  When I scolded him that the God he kept referring to sounded suspiciously biblical and fully attributed, he defended himself with, “I mean what most people mean when they say God.” When I retorted that he must therefore mean what most atheists mean when they say there is not God, he replied that arguing the atheist point of view was my job, not his.   When I said that any God worth arguing about would have to be known through historical documents, the autheticity and epistemological value of which for a debate like this would have to be tested by competent historical research, he became  impatient to get back to his formula, which works slowly and cancerously from givens to premises–to the prize: the unarguable conclusion.  It seems Swinburne thought the fundamentalist yahoos (not my interpretation) would be so dazzled by the idea of an “unarguable argument” for God’s existence that he would win handily.

Except for those  pesky, untended, historical premises.   Not to let a proficient of Bayes get past his premises is the sure way to cause him apoplexy, since Bayes is a premise-eating machine.  Like any syllogistic process, it cannot burp out its unarguable conclusions otherwise.  The result was that in an an overwhelmingly Evangelical-friendly audience of about 500 Floridians, the debate was scored 2 to 1 in my favour: Swinburne lost chiefly because of The Revd. Thomas Bayes.

And this is the trouble Richard Carrier will also need to confront, sooner or later.  He will not solve the primary objections to the use of Bayes’s Law by telling people they don’t get it (many do), or that there are no other methods on the table (where did they go to?), or that all existing historicity criteria, to use a more familiar word in the lexicon he uses on his blog, are “fucked.”

It is rationally (still a higher term than logically)  impossible to use the existence of the world in which thinking about God takes place as the real-world condition that makes it possible to use cosmology as the real-world condition proving his existence.  As Kant complained of Anselm’s ontology, existence is not essence.  It is not argument either. The defeater in this case is history: God has one, in the sense that all ideas about God are historically generated and directly susceptible to historical description and analysis.

And he could learn a thing or two from Swinburne’s sad fate, which is adequately summarized in this blog review of the philosopher’s most extensive use of the Theorem in his 2003 book, The Resurrection of God Incarnate.

Using Bayesian probability and lashings of highfalutin’ mathematical jargon, Swinburne argues that “it [is] very probable indeed that God became incarnate in Jesus Christ who rose from the dead” (p. 214). His mathematical apologetics for the resurrection boils down to the following argument:

  1. The probability of God’s existence is one in two (since God either exists or doesn’t exist).
  2. The probability that God became incarnate is also one in two (since it either happened or it didn’t).
  3. The evidence for God’s existence is an argument for the resurrection.
  4. The chance of Christ’s resurrection not being reported by the gospels has a probability of one in 10.
  5. Considering all these factors together, there is a one in 1,000 chance that the resurrection is not true.

It’s almost impossible to parody this argument (since in order to parody it, you would have to imagine something sillier – a daunting task!). But let me try:

The probably that the moon is made of cheese is one in two (since it is either made of cheese or it isn’t);

the probability that this cheese is Camembert is also one in two (since it’s either camembert or it isn’t); and so on.

At any rate, while Carrier loads his debating machine with still more improbable premises, I am going on the hunt for those missing historicity criteria.  They must be here someplace.  I do wish children would put things back where they found them.


Two pieces in the last three days have opened my eyes to a new reality.  Being opened to a new reality doesn’t happen every day, probably because as you get older there are fewer realities that are actually new.  Just things you have forgotten that seem new when you rediscover them.

One article which was good enough to repost in its entirety came from Jacques Berlinerblau, who often says wise things and should be heeded when he does.  Jacques has commented frequently on the need for secularists and even atheists to learn table manners and not rely simply on the assumed rectitude of their position while trying to influence people and win converts.

They could learn a lesson from that old time religion, Christianity, where instead of just shouting at people, like John the Baptist did (and look what happened to him), St Paul professed to become all things to all men in order to win souls to his cause.  Eventually, that strategy made Christianity the majority faith of the Roman empire.

Of course, the atheists old and new don’t believe there are souls to be won.  But there are political values at stake, and elections, and demographics which atheists and “seculars” do claim to care about.  But so far Americn secularism hasn’t had the savvy to know how to preach its gospel in a way that (really) ups the numbers.

For Berlinerblau, this has something to do with an historical incompetence at every level of the secular movment: Without naming names that could be named, he cites

“…a colossal failure of leadership and strategic vision. Those who advocated on its behalf in the 1970s and ’80s had little understanding of who their irate, coalescing adversaries actually were. In the secular mindset these “Fundies” were just a bunch of yokels, sitting on their front porches, cleaning their guns to the musical accompaniment of Pa strumming the gutbucket. In reality, however, the movement had scads of charismatic and savvy, if not incendiary, leaders. …Secular leadership, by contrast, was static and moribund.

Which brings me to the second piece, by E J Dionne, a truly liberal soul.  The always bluff Freedom from Religion Foundation, which sees itself as a “radical” conservator of First Amendment rights, has outed liberal Catholics for being hypocrites and challenged them to do the right thing: leave the Church.  Writes Dionne:

Recently, a group called [the FFRF] ran a full-page ad in The Washington Post cast as an “open letter to ‘liberal’ and ‘nominal’ Catholics.” Its headline commanded: “It’s Time to Quit the Catholic Church.”

The ad included the usual criticism of Catholicism, but I was most struck by this paragraph: “If you think you can change the church from within — get it to lighten up on birth control, gay rights, marriage equality, embryonic stem-cell research — you’re deluding yourself. By remaining a ‘good Catholic,’ you are doing ‘bad’ to women’s rights. You are an enabler. And it’s got to stop.”

Yes, it does sound just like the nun who told you to give up looking at dirty magazines during math class. Or maybe I have given away too much of my eighth grade year at St Joseph School.

But there is a pattern here that displays itself, as in neon lights, through the shouting.  I have commented more than three times on this site about the ugliness of the American Atheists’ (and others’) billboard campaigns and the way atheism itself is promoted by using a strategy that depends, basically, on repeating one hundred times the mantra:  “Wake Up Stupid: Nobody is at Home Up There.”

This is supported by the infinitely reasonable proposition that if there is no Santa Claus, no big bad wolf, and no such thing as ghosts, there is no Sky Fairy either. Anyone who says there is is just using up the oxygen that smart people need to grow brain cells.

But guess what?  Many people who would call themselves religious–like E J Dionne, and even the resoundingly secular Jacques Berlinerblau–are not at all stupid.  And they wonder why the advocates of freethought and secularism don’t get that.  Why is a secularism that flows from principles of religious tolerance more suspect than a secularism that flows from atheist suppositions?  It is a good question, because in those countries where a dogmatic atheism has been imposed from the top, tolerance has not fared well.  Restrictive practices based on the godlike perfection of the state–witness Chen Guangcheng– have.

And that leads me to conclude: there is a troubling religiophobia going on here.  The shouters and ultimatum-givers are not just in favor of separation of church and state, or freedom of (or from) religion, or secularism or the right not to believe in God and say so openly.

There is profound stress and anxiety about religion in these movements.


Is this a teenage anger pathology that comes from a passive fear of the gods? A bad church experience that stems from the awakening that Pastor Bob (or Sister Mary Therese) lied to you about…everything? The possibility that despite social approval of your atheism, your private doubts sometimes clash with that approval and put unreasonable and seductive thoughts in your head–a hankering for a ten o’lock sermon or a quick Mass at St Aloysius?

Probably none of the above.  It’s probably more easily explained as your anxiety over the existence of what you have come to believe is SPS–Stupid People Syndrome:  your feeling that the co-existence of atheists and believers has only been paralleled in human history by the brief co-existence of Neanderthal and modern humans.  And it would, after all, be so much easier if social disapproval could be generalized and society were rid of religion once and for all–its lures and seductions driven from the world and the gods into the fiery pit.   Maybe then you could get some sleep.  And stop being so Angry.

Homo Religiosus

Until the day that happens and the First Amendment is repealed, which is what the solution would require, reading Seneca and a little Marcus Aurelius or Lucretius on the gods would help:  They had this phobia mastered long before Christian thinkers like Boethius took up the question.   The gods are lazy blighters who don’t care about you. They only care about themselves. You are on your own.

The point is, religiophobia leads to aggression and aggression often manifests itself in stupidity and rash behavior.  I am not certain, given the religious perspective that God takes care of everything, that religion exhibits fear in quite the same way–which is a poor way of saying that fear of the gods (theophobia) is different from fear that there are no gods (religiophobia).

Oh, I know: you atheists out there will tell me I am making things up and that every atheist has the courage of his convictions and isn’t afraid of the big bad wolf or the big old sky fairy or any of those things.  And I say: Good for you, Pinocchio.  Then stop worrying about what goes on in the heads of religious women and men, or their being hypocrites for believing some of the things you no longer believe.

–And read some Seneca.

So, Atheism is Just a Belief?

ELL, what did you think it was?  Let me guess.  You thought it was about not believing–and naturally not believing something is the opposite of belief.  And since the opposite of belief is fact, well there we are.

Of course atheism is just a belief.  One of my favourite websites says it best:

Strictly speaking, atheism is an indefensible position, just as theism is indefensible, for both are systems of belief and neither proposition has been (or is likely to be) proven anytime soon.

The rational position for the non-believer to take is to say that there is almost certainly no god, because no credible evidence exists to support the claim that god exists. This is a stronger position than agnosticism, which holds belief and non-belief on an equal footing.

So the debate between atheism is about the evidence and not about the status of propositions.  Oh, and what beliefs are in relation to personal identity.

Which question brings me to a recent post by Joshua Rosenau at his website— that often touches on some really interesting stuff.  This interesting stuff is directed against a not very interesting notion by Ophelia Benson that “beliefs are not really a part of identity and should not be treated as though they are. ”

Rosenau says that

 What’s especially odd about Benson’s claim is that New Atheism is all about belief. The defining difference between New Atheism and other sorts of atheism is that the gnus don’t just want to assert their own belief that there is no god (or their lack of belief that there is a god, depending). They want to assert a belief that other people’s belief in god(s) is dangerous ipso facto. When folks say that belief is only bad if it leads people to do bad things, they reply by emphasizing just how important belief is in shaping personal identity, and arguing that belief matters on its own.

Of course, this has to be true if you are going argue, for example, that bad beliefs cause people to do bad things, and the Gnus think that this correlation goes a long way in explaining why Muslims behave irrationally and why fundamentalist Christians are personally annoying and politically dangerous.

Atheists having their identity revoked in unbaptism: Fun!

Systematized bad beliefs, in the form of doctrine, are the worst because a fully constructed Catholic, or Muslim, will buy wholesale what his faith sells on the subject of sexual morality, suicide bombings, abortion, and who owns Palestine.  When someone says he’s a Catholic he’s making an identity claim, code for any number of agendas stock full of beliefs.  When someone says she’s a good Muslim, same thing.  There are no category errors here, unless you swallow the giddy notion that atheism is not a belief but a non-identity-imposing non-strait-jacketing opinion about belief.

I want to say that Rosenau’s point is elementary, in the sense that it’s fundamental to understanding that religion is identity-shaping.  Is the reason for this sly turn away from seeing belief as identity-forming purposeful among the Gnus?  Maybe it’s a slip of the keyboard: if so there is still time to back away from this preposterous claim.  But if it’s meant as a serious suggestion, somebody’s got some explaining to do.

Isn’t it true that Gnus have a catechism in the making and thus, you should pardon the expression, a fetal identity of their own?  Even though it may be short of the intellectual range of the Catholic Church or the Torah, at least their movement is beginning to resemble the bylaws of a local Masonic Temple. Every movement has to start somewhere.

More important for future development it has in common with these other systems the basic identity-shaping construct that all religions start with: We’re right. You’re wrong.

What an Unbeliever Believes: A Prelude to Winter in a Secular Season

I am a humanist. I do not believe in an afterlife but (to quote Woody), “Just in case, I’m bringing a change of underwear.”

I don’t deny or affirm the existence of God, any god. There have been so many, and all of them had their vague charms and serious hang-ups, ranging from the violent to the sexually perverse. Who could know which to worship? No one. That’s why we usually end up with the god our grandfathers worshiped.

Whether there is a God or not is simply of no consequence to me, and if the truth be told, can anyone in raw honesty claim that the God they pray to for answers, solutions, reversal of fortune, pie-in-the-sky or redress of grievances ever–ever answers their calls. Of course not. I can still see the pious face of a too-close relative asking me, as my mother lay dying in a hospital ICU, whether I believed God answered prayer. “It depends,” I said. “What are we praying for?”

In the paragraph above: the part where I said “is of absolutely no consequence to me.” That was a lie.  It is of enormous consequence, and you are lying too if you say it isn’t. If you are a believer, it is what ultimately matters.  If you are an atheist, it is what ultimately matters.  

Squirm though you may.  Notice that I completed the last sentence with no reference to Richard Dawkins or his feckless bulldog, PZ Myers whose lives would be infinitely emptier if it did not ultimately matter.

I am an Unbeliever, of sorts. Joylessly so. I have no axe to swing at the necks of believers. I dislike the word “agnostic.” It sounds as precious in tone and as pretentious as the era when it was coined. It sounds as though we wait patiently for some impossible verdict to emerge from the skies confirming our hunch that we were right to disbelieve all along, Descartes and Pascal be fucked. But it’s not really about evidence, is it? It’s about hunches.

I am not an atheist. Not on Friday. But it is a noble thing to be, done for the right reasons.

There are plenty of good reasons to be an atheist–most of them originating in our human disappointment that the world is not better than it is, and that, for there to be a God, he needs to be better than he seems. Or, at least less adept at hiding his perfection.

But you see the problem with that.

Goodness and imperfection are terms we provide for a world we can see and a God we don’t.

Taken as it is, the world is the world. Taken as he may be, God can be anything at all. I’m not surprised by the fact, human and resourceful as we are, that religion has stepped in as our primitive instrument, in all its imaginative and creative power, to fill in the vast blank canvas that gives us the nature (and picture) of God.

But let’s be clear that God and religion are two different things, and that atheists err when they say “Religion gave us God.”

What religion gave us is an implausible image of God taken from a naive and indefensible view of nature. I find my atheist friends, even the “famous” ones, making this categorical error all the time.

There are also some very silly reasons to be an atheist. The silliest is the belief that the world wasn’t made by God because God doesn’t exist and that people who think this are stupid and ignorant of science.

There are so many fallacies packed into that premise that it’s a bit hard to know where to begin picking. But perhaps this analogy will help:

This clock wasn’t made by Mr Jones because I made Mr Jones up in my head. It was actually made by a clockmaker whose name is lost in the rubbish of history, so if you continue to think Mr Jones made it just because I said so, you’re ignorant.

No, that is not a broadside in favor of intelligent design (though I happen to think the atheist approach to the question is often tremulously visceral); it’s a statement about how we form premises.

The existence of a created order–a universe–will ultimately and always come down to a choice between the infinity of chance and the economy of causation.  Whatever the choice, my causation is not muscled and bearded and biblical.

The unreal gods of the human imagination from Marduk to God the Father are. If horses made gods gods would be horses. Xenophanes.

That much we can know.

I am a realist. I believe (with a fair number of thinkers, ancient and modern) that human nature is fundamentally about intelligence and that the world (by which I really mean human civilization) would be much further on if we stopped abusing it.

I regret to say, religion has not been the best use of our intelligence, and it has proven remarkably puissant in retarding it. Science is always to be preferred, except in its applied, for-profit form (as in weapons research) because it expands our vision and understanding of the world while religion beckons us, however poetically, to a constricted view of cosmic and human origins.

To be a realist makes me something of a pessimist (a term going out of fashion) not because I don’t believe in the capacity of human nature to become what it seems designed to be, but because–realistically–we have become as flabby in our thinking as we have become corpulent of mortal coil.Obese America is also fuckwit America.  Anti-Enlightenment America. Tea Party America.There may well be countries in the world, developed, developing and undeveloped that  have higher illiteracy rates, worse schools and universities, and greater obstacles to face in providing access to education at any level.

Yet America, it seems to me, is the greatest anti-intellectual country of all.  Even if America continues to monopolize the Nobel Prize, it has the humiliation of having the worst public school system in among G-20 nations.