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.


When to Bayes

Richard Swinburne

The Following essay review of Richard Swinburne’s The Resurrection of God Incarnate appreared originally in Ars Disputandi (Utrecht) and is reprinted here without editorial changes.

The Resurrection of God Incarnate
By Richard Swinburne (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003; 232 pp.; hb. £ 45.00, pb. £ 16.99; ISBN: 0-19-925745-0/0-19-925746-9.)

Reviewed by Andrew Wohlgemuth
University of Maine, USA

1 Introduction
[1] Swinburne states, ‘New Testament scholars sometimes boast that they inquire into their subject matter without introducing any theological claims. If they really do this, I can only regard this as a sign of deep irrationality on their part. It is highly irrational to reach some conclusion without taking into account 95 per cent of the relevant evidence…But of course they couldn’t really do this if they are to reach conclusions about whether the Resurrection occurred…For you couldn’t decide whether the detailed historical evidence was strong enough to show that such an event as the Resurrection occurred without having a view whether there was prior reason for supposing that such an event could or could not occur. What tends to happen is that background theological considerations—whether for or against the Resurrection—play an unacknowledged role in determining whether the evidence is strong enough. These considerations need to be put on the table if the evidence is to be weighed properly.’ (p.3) Swinburne’s book has this ambitious and worthy aim.

[2] The book is in three parts, and has an appendix in which he uses the probability calculus to formalize his arguments. He concludes that the probability of Jesus being God Incarnate and being raised from the dead is very high. His assignment of what he feels to be conservative probabilities to the relevant data leads, via the probability calculus, to a probability of 97% that God Incarnate in the person of Jesus was raised from the dead.

2 The Probability Calculus
[3] Swinburne describes three types of probability: physical probability, statistical probability, and inductive (or logical) probability. (Some people identify physical probability with statistical probability.) Statistical probability is the most widely known. It rests on events—technically, subsets of a probability space. A typical probability space might be the set of all possible outcomes in some game of chance. Actuarial science and the physical sciences make use of statistical probability—which has been well developed mathematically. Probabilities in statistical probability can be assigned with precision.

[4] Logical probability is an extension of the propositional and predicate calculus—the formal logical structure of mathematical argument itself. It was developed by J.M. Keynes (A Treatise on Probability, MacMillan, 1921), because in many real-life situations one proposition, say q, does not follow another, say p, with the complete certainty of ‘p implies q’ in a mathematical argument. Instead, we might only be able to say that we are fairly sure that q would follow, if we knew p. Thus, a probability, a number from 0 to 1, might be assigned to the expectation that q would be true, if we knew that p was true. This probability is denoted by P(q/p) (the ‘probability of q given p’). Thus p implies q in the logical, or mathematical, sense provided that P(q/p) = 1.

[5] I think we all feel that it is reasonable and meaningful to ask if something is likely to happen, or likely has happened. To give an easy example, consider the forecast that the chance of rain today is 80%. We base this on experience. The forecasters notice that it actually did rain on 80% of the days that had the same early-morning conditions as today. This is an example of statistical probability. The underlying probability space is the set of days with the same initial conditions as today. The event we’re concerned with is rain.

[6] Suppose, however, that our neighbor Tom is accused of knocking his wife unconscious while in a rage. Although there may be no way to form a meaningful probability space here, we can nevertheless feel strongly that Tom is likely to have done it—or very unlikely. We do this by considerations that run deeper than the merely statistical. Of course, if Tom habitually knocks people about while in a rage, then we may not need to go any deeper than the statistical. But if the accusation is unexpected and unique, then we begin to rely on things such as Tom’s character, as it is known to us, in order to support our feelings of the likelihood of his having done the deed.

[7] This is what Swinburne is doing in his book. He is asking whether God is likely to have done certain things, and he is adding that in with the smaller world of history. Christians, of course, do believe that some things can be known about the character of God. I’ll look first at the formal treatment in the appendix, and then go to the material in Chapter 1.

[8] Swinburne lists 5 axioms of the probability calculus. (The axioms of the predicate calculus are implicitly also needed.) Axiom 4, which will play a prominent role, follows.

(4) P(p&q/r) = P(p/q&r)P(q/r)

[9] Substituting h, e, and k (letters Swinburne will use later) for p, q, and r gives

P(h&e/k) = P(h/e&k)P(e/k)

[10] Dividing both sides by P(e/k) gives

P(h&e/k)∕P(e/k) = P(h/e&k)

[11] Since h&e is logically equivalent to e&h, we can substitute

P(e&h/k)∕P(e/k) = P(h/e&k)

[12] Now by Axiom 4, P(e&h/k) = P(e/h&k)P(h/k), so we can substitute for P(e&h/k) to get

P(e/h&k)P(h/k)∕P(e/k) = P(h/e&k)

[13] Interchanging left and right sides of the equation gives

(4′) P(h/e&k) = P(e/h&k)P(h/k)∕P(e/k)

[14] Swinburne states, ‘Among the theorems that follow from the axioms is a crucial theorem known as Bayes’s Theorem. I express it using letters ‘e’, ‘h’, and ‘k’ which can represent any propositions at all; but we shall be concerned with it for the case where e represents observed evidence (data), k represents ‘background evidence’, and h is a hypothesis under investigation’ (p. 206) Equation 4′ above is Bayes’s Theorem as Swinburne expresses it. I have derived it to show that it follows from the axioms by the two simple algebraic operations of substitution and dividing both sides of an equation by the same thing. It is customary, when talking about formal languages (like the propositional, predicate, and probability calculus) to refer to anything that follows from the axioms as a ‘theorem’. In other mathematical branches with which the reader may be more familiar (like geometry or calculus, for example), the use of the word ‘theorem’ is reserved for deeper results. The foregoing should take away any mystery from the use of ‘Bayes’s Theorem’. It is really just a rephrasing of an axiom.

[15] As to the axioms, Swinburne states, ‘It is very easy to see intuitively the correctness of these axioms.’ (p. 206) At which point he explains them in words. When he gets to axiom 4 however, he appeals to successive tosses of a coin—which doesn’t model the situation accurately. We don’t know what p, q, and r are. In order to see why axiom 4 is true, we can relate the logical probabilities to conditional (statistical) probabilities. Thus let p, q, and r be events with probabilities P(p), P(q), and P(r). Let p be the proposition ‘p occurs’, and similarly for q and r. The conditional probability P(a/b) (the ‘probability of ‘a’ given ‘b’)’ for events a and b is defined to be P(a&b)∕P(b). In this case

Axiom (4) P(p&q/r) = P(p/q&r)P(q/r)

[16] in terms of conditional probabilities is

P(p&q/r) = P(p/q&r)P(q/r)

[17] which by definition is

P(p&q&r)∕P(r) = [P(p&q&r)∕P(q&r)][P(q&r)∕P(r)]

[18] which is an identity, since the factors P(q&r) cancel.

[19] It should be noted here that while any conditional probabilities (of statistical probability) can be seen as propositions of logical probability (as we have done), the reverse is not so—simply because there may not be any well-defined probability space. It is crucial for the case Swinburne makes that meaningful probabilities can be assigned to the factors on the right-hand side of equation 4′. Once that is granted, the probability on the left side must be accepted as calculated. I have shown the ‘intuitive correctness’ of axiom 4, since it follows from definition in the realm of statistical probability, which can be viewed as a restricted case of logical probability—the case in which we would find illustrative examples.

[20] Specifying the factors in equation 4′, Swinburne states, ‘Let k now be…the evidence of natural theology (including the sinning and suffering of humans). Let e be the detailed historical evidence, consisting of a conjunction of three pieces of evidence (e1 &e2 &e3 ). e1 is the evidence of the life of Jesus set out in Part II. e2 is the detailed historical evidence relating to the Resurrection set out in Part III. e3 is the evidence (summarized in Chapter 3) that neither the prior nor the posterior requirements for God being incarnate were satisfied in any prophet in human history in any way comparable with the way in which they were satisfied in Jesus.’ (p. 210) ‘Let h1 be the hypothesis that God became incarnate in Jesus, and h2 the hypothesis that Jesus rose from the dead. h is the conjunction (h1 &h2 ). Now at the end of the day this book is interested in P(h∕e&k)—the probability that Jesus was God Incarnate who rose from the dead (h), on the evidence both of natural theology (k) and of the detailed history of Jesus and of other human prophets (e).’ (p. 211)

[21] Assigning probabilities to the factors of equation 4′ is done by building up from other factors: ‘Let us represent by t theism, the claim that there is a God of the traditional kind. P(t/k) is the probability that there is such a God on the evidence of natural theology. I suggested in Chapter 1 that we give this the modest value 1∕2.’ (p. 211) Swinburne backs up this value only in the last paragraph of Chapter 1: ‘This evidence, the evidence of natural theology, provides general background evidence crucially relevant to our topic. I have argued elsewhere the case for this evidence giving substantial probability to the existence of God. (See esp. my The Existence of God and the shorter Is there a God? (Oxford University Press, 1996)). I cannot, for reasons of space, argue that case again here. But to get my argument going here, I will make only the moderate assumption that the evidence…makes it as probable as not that there is a God…’ (p. 30) I’ll return to more in Chapter 1, Principles for Weighing Evidence, after another illustration of assigning probabilities.

[22] ‘Then let us represent by c the claim that God became incarnate among humans at some time with a divided [’…he could act and react in his human life in partial ignorance of, and with only partial access to his divine powers.’ (p. 52)] incarnation, a more precise form of the way described by the Council of Chalcedon…and set out in Chapter 2. I suggested there that if there is a God (and there are humans who sin and suffer), it is quite probable that he would become incarnate…I suggested that it was ‘as probable as not’ that he would do this, and so in numerical terms the probability of his doing it is 1/2. The probability of 1/2 is clearly unaffected if we add to [should read ‘t’] all the data of natural theology, and so P(c/t&k) = 1∕2.’ (p. 211) Since P(c/k) = P(c&t/k) = P(c/t&k)P(t/k) by Axiom 4 and the logical equivalence of c and c&t, P(c/k) = 1∕4.

3 The Grand Philosophical Principle
[23] The two paragraphs above suffice to illustrate the completely subjective nature of assigning probabilities to the factors involved in the calculations. I don’t mean to imply that being subjective is necessarily bad, although I would not want to be involved personally with arguing the case for certain subjective probabilities. In the main body of the book, there are arguments for why Swinburne believes these probabilities to be reasonable—even conservative.

[24] The most problematical assertion in Chapter 1 is the following: ‘It is a further fundamental epistemological principle additional to the principle that other things being equal we should trust our memories, that we should believe what others tell us that they have done or perceived—in the absence of counter-evidence. I call this the principle of testimony. It must be extended so as to require us to believe that—in the absence of counter-evidence—when someone tell us that so-and-so is the case…they have perceived or received testimony from others that it is the case. Without this principle we would have very little knowledge of the world.’ (p. 13) There is no doubt that we get almost all of our information about the world in this way—but we also get a very good amount of misinformation too. For example, in a letter to John Norvell in 1807, Thomas Jefferson wrote, ‘Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle. The real extent of this state of misinformation is known only to those who are in situations to confront facts within their knowledge with the lies of the day.’ If we change the word ‘lies’ to the word ‘fancies,’ we get a fair account of my own experience. I also have a great skepticism of grand philosophical principles that are used to draw inferences in special cases in arguments. If the special cases are not seen to be true themselves, how can the generalization be seen to be true?

[25] Swinburne would be on much sounder ground to take, as his ‘principle of testimony’, something in his next paragraph: ‘Testimony by more than one witness to the occurrence of the same event makes it very probable indeed that that to which they testify is true—to the extent to which it is probable that they are independent witnesses.’ (p. 13)

[26] A discussion of the probability of a miracle must, I suppose, bring up David Hume. Swinburne says, ‘Hume’s discussion suffers from one minor deficiency, one medium-sized deficiency, and one major one.’ (p.24)…‘But Hume’s worst mistake was to suppose that the only relevant background theory to be established from wider evidence was a scientific theory about what are the laws of nature. But any theory showing whether laws of nature are ultimate or whether they depend on something higher for their operation is crucially relevant. If there is no God, then the laws of nature are the ultimate determinants of what happens. But if there is a God, then whether and for how long and under what circumstances laws of nature operate depends on God. And evidence that there is a God, and in particular evidence that there is a God of a kind who might be expected to intervene occasionally in the natural order, will be evidence leading us to expect occasional violations of laws of nature.’ (p. 25)

4 Proof by Lack of Imagination
[27] Since I faulted Swinburne on using grand generalizations in a logical argument, I feel the need to fault Hume on the same account. Hume states, ‘It being a general maxim, that no objects have any discoverable connexion together, and that all the inferences, which we can draw from one to another are founded merely on our experience of their constant and regular conjunction; it is evident, that we ought not to make an exception to this maxim in favor of human testimony, whose connexion with any event seems, in itself, as little necessary as any other.’ (An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding, edition by The Liberal Arts Press, 1955, p.119) This ‘maxim’ is Hume’s own grand philosophical principle. It elevates mere correlation, and pronounces the discovery of causation as hopeless. The most obvious counter-example is modern medical science, where correlation most often prompts the question—to which the discovery of causation constitutes the answer. One may not think it fair to fault Hume for not being familiar with modern medical science, but that gets us to an important point. Hume’s assertion that ‘all the inferences, which we can draw from one (object) to another are founded merely on our experience of their constant and regular conjunction’ is a mere proof by lack of imagination—which, in general, would run something like this: ‘I can imagine it being like this. I can’t imagine it being any other way. Therefore, it must be like this.’ Logical possibilities cannot be ruled out simply because they do not present themselves to even the best human imagination. For a statement or argument to be truly logical, it must exclude the possibility of a counter-example. That’s what makes it logical (instead of empirical). If a counter-example is ever found, it shows that the statement or argument was not logical in the first place.

[28] There is no doubt but that Hume intended his maxim to be part of a logical argument. He begins, ‘I flatter myself, that I have discovered an argument of a like nature, which, if just, will, with the wise and learned, be an everlasting check to all kinds of superstitious delusion, and consequently, will be useful as long as the world endures. For so long, I presume, will the accounts of miracles and prodigies be found in all history, sacred and profane.’ (ibid. p. 118) And concludes, ‘The plain consequence is (and it is a general maxim worthy of our attention), ’That no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous…’ (ibid. p. 123) And right in the middle of this argument is his maxim—which appears ridiculous to scientific eyes.

[29] It is interesting, to me, that Hume thinks his argument will be effective with the ‘wise and learned’. When looking through Swinburne’s references and related material, I noted numerous statements of Hume’s brilliance. Hume ponders his own ‘genius’, and is concerned with the ‘admiration of mankind’. (ibid. p. xi) I am uncomfortable in a field where people feel it appropriate to attest to the brilliance of anyone. It smacks of whistling in the dark—and I suspect the praise is lavished on those with a philosophy close to one’s own.

[30] Except for one place in which his ‘principle of testimony’ creeps in, Swinburne’s five-and-one-half page introduction states his case well. At the end of the introduction, he states, ‘Although there are, I believe, a number of original detailed historical arguments in this book, its main task is to put arguments developed by others into a wider frame so as to form an overall picture.’ (p. 6) In the body of the book, he addresses the program of the introduction, and motivates the assignment of probabilities assigned in the appendix.

[31] Swinburne’s main thesis, that one should make decisions about the likelihood of things only in the broadest context available, is very well taken. For example, consider suffering. Swinburne says, ‘I argued in The Existence of God that it is “more probable than not” that there is a God. However, my subsequent more satisfactory argument in Providence and the Problem of Evil to show that suffering does not count against the existence of God relied in part on the supposition that God would become incarnate to share our suffering and to make atonement for our sins.’ (p. 31 note)

[32] Suffering has been felt to be inconsistent with an omnipotent, good, and omniscient God. The only way I can see to reconcile these is to observe that the evidence is not all in yet—except in one case. Who could say that anyone suffered more than Jesus—with sweating blood (hemathidrosis) in Gethsemane, even before the physical abuse began. Yet who would want to say that Jesus himself would be better off, now, without the suffering. Jesus is the only one of us for whom we have enough information to decide that ‘suffering does not count against the existence of God’. And St. Paul says, ‘Christ has been raised from the dead, as the first-fruits of all who have fallen asleep.’ (1 Cor. 15:20) And, ‘Just as all die in Adam, so in Christ all will be brought to life; but all of them in their proper order: Christ the first-fruits, and next, at his coming, those who belong to him.’ (1 Cor. 15:22,3) And St. James says that ‘we should be a sort of frirst-fruits of all his creation.’ (James 1:18, italics mine, of course) So where the results are in, we see that God is justified, and we have promises that when all the results are in, God will be justified.

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.

Of Implicit Atheism – An Easter Meditation

It is time to worry about the sorry state of discourse  between believers, non-believers, and (my favourite category) “others.”

I’m especially worried about the war between implicit atheists–those who identify as unbelievers or agnostics, but draw no particular satisfaction from doing so–and explicit or new atheists who like their A’s red, their heroes scarlet,  and their language blue.

It is almost unimaginable to me that respected scholars need to taunt religious women and men with words like “faithhead” while others drive spikes through religious symbols and Korans–then  defend their actions as examples of the sacred rights and guarantees that keep us free and independent of religious tyranny.  WWJD?  Q: What would Jefferson do? A: It doesn’t matter.  But it is even more startling that explicit atheists see implicit atheists as religion-coddlers, sissies in the fight, traitors to the cause.  It really makes me want to throw my extra creamy rice pudding at them.

Yet criticize this mode in kind, with a little sarcasm tossed in, and (I promise) you will be called a faithhead too. Or a goddist. Or a troll.  Or a fabricant des hommes de paille, or a stirrer of pots,  or a closet priest.

You’ll be told your logic/principles/syntax/ethics/ suck. Probably your brainpower too.  You’ll be told that atheists aren’t interested in being kind, “accommodating,”  or engaging. (Not after all they have suffered, all the kidnapings, unsolved murders and broken down doors.) They are interested in being right.  The closest analogy, I’ve come to conclude, isn’t the academic seminar where most of the current language would probably get you sent to the Dean for a lecture on civility.  It’s the language of political partisanship.  It’s true home is the Town Hall Meeting of Teaparty activists. (Alcibiades to Socrates: Your dialectic’s no good here, cowboy.)

Where have we all gone wrong?  What is the new factor in our discourse that causes us to  “abjectify” our opponents before we come to terms with their arguments?  –Which of course, with an abject opponent, you don’t need to do. Is it merely that we’re all too busy to dignify stupidity when we can roll right over it and not worry too much about casualties.

The standard explanation for our invective approach to discussion (please notice I number myself among the sinners)  is that we are encountering an international discourse crisis brought on by the trigger-happy nature of internet communications: we click before we think, not considering that at the other end of the connection is another human being (also sitting in front of a screen) rather than a lead wall.  What Christian girl named Perpetua, finding herself alone in these rhetorical woods at night, would not run, clutching her Bible, to the nearest church?

Not unbelievers, though.  These woods are ours, and we can burn ’em down if we want to. –Plus there’s that little thrill, that tiny rush that comes from having just composed a long, churlish digressive paragraph and seeing it go live when we hit “Submit.”

When we discover that quick and correct are not the same thing, it’s too late.  We’re committed to the press-select-to-play choice of our latest rhetorical spasm, and because of the public nature of the interchange we have to fight back and fight on.  The digathon, as in heels in, is on.  Your oblation to the gods of unreason has been made; now just lie back and watch them revel.

I spent a whole hour of my short life a month ago trying to persuade a Big Red A-atheist “friend” (I’d never met) that the drunken priest  arrested out west for offering his staff to the arresting officers was (a) not a Catholic (b) was more pathetic than dangerous, and (c) was therefore a bad instance of the moral troubles with the Catholic church and its ministers, about which I have scarcely remained quiet. If you believe that as all religion is putrid,   details of its putrice are irrelevant and interchangeable puzzle pieces, then I suppose one detail is as good as another.  After all, we’re not doing science here are we?

The responses came from a large crowd of her commiserators who, in no particular order, called me a prick, a molester, an idiot, and “Just shut the hell up because this is what religion does to our children.” After suggesting that the arresting officers were probably over eighteen  I decided not to stay for drinks and courageously hit the Unfriend button. Scene: the gods of Unreason quaff and toast each other, laughing.

The same applies when we’re “right“:  It’s not enough that Hector is dead. He has to be dragged three times lifeless around the periphery of Troy, electronically speaking, to impress the watchers.  The internet has given us a new shame culture, and with that comes new mechanisms of insult and humiliation. You can’t be too dead when you lose a point: you have to be dead and ashamed, too.  (Comment being formulated by as yet unrevealed reader: “Right, Hoffmann: You should know.  You’re just making straw men again….“)  Note to self:  bring three more straw men up from basement to send to “friends.” Order new straw.

Given the nature of the back-and forth, what you will almost never see in a comments section is someone saying, “I never thought of that.  You have a point.”

It’s true that isolation plays a role in this nastiness: the computer screen is a real screen between us and others.  It keeps us in contact as a social network (the name says it all) of virtual strangers, and friends of strangers.  It is not a community because communities produce human relationships, forms of decorum, harmony (or at least courtesy) and the potential for fulfillment and happiness.  –But not social media. There’s  no need to risk real humanity or feelings in the bargain.  We can screen information and opinions and hasty judgments and challenges in and out.  It’s the community of Id. We can be vicious and count on no one to check the story against the facts–or more commonly, the fallacies alleged against the argument proposed. Best of all, we can count on viciousness back from others.  It’s just like a bad marriage, isn’t it?

We are the gods of applications: we can be seen and unseen. Friend and unfriend at a whim.We can climb into the ring of an unmoderated slug fest or play on sites run by an austere figure named Moderator, as in WTF Moderator.  We can keep controversies alive for days beyond their shelf life by sending Just One More Comment.

When you’re isolated from real conversation and discussion the Q. is: who knows what the last word is? (A: It’s when I stop hitting submit.)  We can invade, evade, withdraw, disappear.  But we cannot do the one thing that real intellectual encounters often require us to do: change our minds.

In the discussion that most concerns me right now, the quarrel between unbelievers of an explicit and implicit variety, the debate also seems to be about men and women who see science as the basic cipher for human satisfaction–including moral good–and those who have a wider humanistic outlook that also, often includes a certain respect for religion, or at least an awareness of its social and cultural significance.

The “soft atheists” are men and women who aren’t afraid to accept the notion that they are unbelievers, but they make this choice on humanistic, existential or historical grounds–not because they feel the conclusion is forced on them by science.

At the risk of rousing the guard, I think thousands of intellectuals, scholars, artists, scientists, and ordinary folk fall into this category. The “atheism” they assume but do not profess or press can only strike the full-frontal atheist as quaint and hypocritical. When I say this, the default reaction toward the critic is to impute a deadly sin: Critics are always merely jealous of commercial success.  That explains everything. The logic: whatever sells is right.

My favourite “example” of the implicit atheist made no secret of her atheism.  Whenh Susan Sontag was told she was dying of cancer, that it was inoperable, and that what was left to her was “faith,” she said  that she believed in nothing but this life, that there was no continuation, and that in any event she took religion far too seriously to think she could embrace it at the last minute to get a sense of relief.

Implicit atheists are not intellectually soft, but the conclusion that God does not exist does not seem pivotal, life-changing to them because they neither read it in a newspaper as data nor in a book called Wake Up You Slumbering Fools: There IS NO God. Most of them have come to a position of unbelief through a culture in which religion inhabits ideas, spaces, patterns of thought, modes of conduct, art and music.  Who can say that this is right or wrong: it’s the world we’ve got.

I suspect that implicit atheists are especially repugnant to New Atheists because they are seen to have arrived at atheism using discount methods. They lack toughness.  Apparently (as a commentator opined) I don’t have cojones.  Damn.

Their (our) “decision” looks like indecision.  Maybe they should have to wear a red Question Mark for three years until they realize that it’s science that confirms your unbelief–sort of like the Holy Spirit confirms your being a believer in Christianity. Earn your A.

But it does seem to me, beyond this, that the implicit atheist does not entirely reject religion.  How do you reject whole chapters of the human story? Your distant grandmother probably said the rosary, or wore a wig, or a veil.  Your grandfather fifty generations ago might have slaughtered Jews en route to Jerusalem or Muslims after he got there. So many possibilities.  You can’t tear their superstitions out of your family album, can you– an impossibility made less critical by the fact that you have no idea what they did.  History has transformed them into innocuous unknowns in the same way that it has rendered the most noxious forms of religion impotent.  The Old Testament God that most new atheists like to rant on about is a God that implicit atheists gave up on years ago. No cojones.

This comes to them inductively, though a process of intellectual growth and assimilation.  What they call religion has historical context and historical importance.  But the key word is “context,” because the humanistic unbeliever lives in a context where religion is no longer the magisterial authority for how we understand the physical world or how we lead our lives within it.

Many such implicit atheists will feel some degree of sadness about this, not because they feel religion doesn’t deserve our skepticism, occasional contempt, and criticism, but because they know from poetry, art, music, and philosophy that the project to create a secular humanity from the ashes of our religious predecessors is a tough project and that the nasal chorus, “God does Not exist” (option one: “Religion is Evil.”)  is really a wheel-spinner when it comes to getting things done.

The anger of many hardcore (explicit?) atheists comes down to this: their belief that an atheism which is not forced by science is inauthentic. Why? because a humanistic, existential and historical unbelief does not acknowledge the apriorism of scientific atheism.  It–implicit atheism–sees science as a mode of knowing, not the only mode.  Soft-core atheism (I number myself as a proud member of this club) does not blame the Bible for being a very old book, or religion for its historical overreaching.  It forgives the Bible for being a book of its time and place and asks that we regard it merely as a souvenir of our human struggle for answers.  Anything more–like ethical rectitude or scientific plausibility–is too much.  That goes for the Qur’an, too.

There is no reason to villify God and religion, historically understood, for excesses that, as humanists, we slowly recognized as human excesses and finally learned to combat.

If we accept the principle that we made God in our image, as well as his holy and diverse books, then surely the burden is on us to clean up our mess–not to reify it merely by asserting its non-existence.

Everything from Eden to the Flood, to Sodom to the Holocaust to 9/11 was us.  Not mystical religious others: Us. Science does not explain this and does not solve it for us.  When the New Atheists are willing to accept real human responsibility for the abominations they attribute to a mythical beast called religion they will have taken a giant leap forward.

Did Religion Give Us Doubt?


Professor Jerry Coyne asks this question while pretending to ignore me, and I assume he means it can be answered, and that the answer is a loud and obvious No: that religion, as the source of the world’s ugliness and ills, cannot possibly have given us doubt. Religion gives us faith–the opposite of reason–as everybody knows.

The previous post on martyrdom may raise Mr Coyne’s question indirectly.  

A number of people, mainly the cheering squad for Team Gnu, suggested that I was wrong and that atheists have too been murdered as atheists. That may or may not be true; the evidence (which is more on the order of information) looks highly problematical to me and the source cited–the New Encyclopaedia of Unbelief, is far from a disinterested or trusted resource for finding out.   When the Team finally settles whether they don’t need martyrs or do but want to call them something else I’m sure they will be in touch.

Frankly, it doesn’t matter since martyrdom and murder are not the same thing.  To analogize: martyrdom is to murder as baptism is to bath.  The key difference is that martyrdom can only happen when a church (medieval Rome and Calvin’s Geneva or the whole of Byzantion or the Islamic Middle East will do) or a state, where edicts of the church have the force of law (no good modern Western examples),  can be judicially enforced.  

Martyrdom is not murder; in context, pathetic though the context may be, it is the execution of justice.  Thomas More is a martyr becausehe was sentenced to death by Parliament, not because he was murdered in his sleep for holding treasonous opinions.  (He wasn’t.) If Gnus really care about the meaning of words and not just using them for stones, they might begin with this distinction.


But the cases that were cited, ranging from the posthumously burned John Wycliffe and the “heretics” William Tyndale, Miguel Servetus, and the completely incomprehensible Giordano Bruno–none of them atheists and all of them judicially executed when the term martyrdom could be applied by one side or another in a struggle against an oppressive Church, or specific repressive doctrines–does tell us something about “doubt.” It tells us that they were put to death for doubting, for skepticism ab0ut the doctrines of their religion.  So yes, clearly: religion gives us doubt.  It’s certainly given us scores of doubters.

And they aren’t the first.  The first time Christianity comes into contact with the term “atheist” is when the Christians themselves were derided as atheists.  Justin  Martyr and Tertullian both write “apologies” in the second and early third century defending themselves against the term. “Hence,  we (Christians)  are called atheists. And we confess that we are atheists, so far as the gods are concerned.” (Justin, First Apol., ca. 167).

Tertullian: The First Angry Christian, or Just Another Atheist?

Plainly, the accusation comes from their doubts about the existence of the Roman pantheon.  So when Richard Dawkins confidently proclaims that we are all “atheists” with respect to the majority of gods who have ever existed, it begins here–with Jews and Christians.  It begins with doubts about the tales and myths propagated by their Roman hosts. –And just for the record, neither Tertullian nor Justin fits the description of local yokels that Celsus and Porphyry tried to pin on the Christians.

We can quibble (and should) over what the term atheist might have meant that long ago.  A fairly substantial body of scholars feels that atheism in the sense of rejecting the existence of God doesn’t achieve its modern proportions prior to the encyclopaedist Holbach’s rejection of the idea of gods  in the eighteenth century.  But that conclusion, along with strata like like “positive,” “negative,” weak and strong (old and gnu?) atheisms are just intellectual squares in a bigger picture.

If you put the picture together from its fractious bits, it looks like doubt has a significant amount to do with its coherence.  To get from a lawyer-apologist like Tertullian to an atheist-materialist like Holbach is a long trip, and it is peppered (just like I said) by the death-scenes of dozens of martyrs (yup, that word again) who coaxed doubt and skepticism along–people who were called godless by others but would never have used the term about themselves.

Does it seem improbable to the New Atheists that a full-frontal atheist like Holbach, so explicit in his denunciation of religion that his view even frightened Voltaire, wouldn’t have known the long history of heresies about the trinity, the nature of God, creation, biblical inspiration, and particular revelation? Or will this continue to be a blind-spot in the essentially ahistorical view that they’re professing–one that, frankly cheapens the history of ideas and thus their own, big,  negative idea about God?  It would be pretty rare, I think, to discover a view that is free of historical development, predecessors, and mediators.

Do they really intend to continue spinning historical fantasies that are not only wrong but embarrassing.

Strawman: The other guys martyr

One of Professor Dawkins’s favorite talking points about faith-heads is that religion is their “default position.”   Weak in science, they can explain everything including the origins of the cosmos and life on the planet through the legerdemain of beliefs that take the place of hard science.

I couldn’t agree more with the diagnosis.

But surely a big part of the ignorance afflicting faithheads is that they do not study history: They make it up, or they rely on a few convenient truths that they find useful in protecting their faith.  One such view is that history is negotiable and about things that happened a long time ago, so there is no real right or wrong–just viewpoints.  They see the time of Jesus and the modern world as overlapping periods punctuated but not punctured by science and critical history.  
I personally find this tendency the most distressing, head-banging feature of the fundamentalist mindset.

And what does New Atheism do with the fantasies of faith-heads?  They create an alternate fantasy in which the history of religion becomes a caricature of intellectual and ethical developments: a static church with undifferentiated teaching about a God who is entombed in a book that has never been interpreted, challenged, attacked–or doubted.  It’s pure drivel.  Why do they do this?  because it’s convenient; because it has become their default position.

It would be a huge tragedy if the wishful thinking of some atheists became a template for understanding where doubt comes from.  It doesn’t come like Meals on Wheels  from Sextus Empiricus and covens of atheists who managed to survive the onslaught of “religion” and the “Dark Ages” in caves above Heidelberg. It comes like everything else from the cultures that we have shaped.  

In none of these cultures has anything like the 4% (or whatever minuscule number) of hardcore atheists been influential in moving doubt and irreligion forward against the thundering tide of dominant religious orthodoxies. That role, as I’ve already said, has been taken by men and women of terrific stamina, courage and imagination.  And doubt.

Doubt has everything to do with religion,  Professor Coyne.

Dimming the Brights? The Debris of the Dawkins Revolution

There used to be two kinds of atheists: those who lost their faith and those who never found it. The kind who never found it–people like Isaac Asimov and Richard Feynman–had fathers who actually never encouraged their kids to think there was anything to find.

Those who had it and lost it–people like Steve Allen, Julia Sweeney, Seth MacFarlane and George Carlin–seem to have been equipped by their church for a life of infidelity and enough material to last a lifetime.

There are atheists who came from the fields of course: the World Wide Church of God seems to be doing its share to produce them, and the nuttiest of the nutty brood will probably spin off dozens more by natural selection. Fundamentalism has been helpful in producing outrageous opinion and claims that have sent rational minds screaming from the congregation, and they deserve some credit for this.

The lesson in this highly informal typology is that “strong” religion seems to produce more unbelievers than mainline “soft” religion, for the same reason that oysters produce pearls. It’s the “grate factor.” –I hope I haven’t offended too many Episcopalians by saying that they are not doing a good job in this respect: the fact is, they are out in front on a number of social issues that wouldn’t be substantially improved by their becoming atheists. “God” is a small (very small in some cases) price to pay for social progessivism.

There is however a new wave of atheism, neither alienated Jew, Catholic, fundamentalist nor profoundly secular from birth. It worries me just a little–though it–the wave–is young, pretty smart, highly sociable and will probably vote for Democrats. That is reason enough in my book to go easy on it. After all, there are enough yahoos out there in Wonderland to worry about without offending our friends. For that reason, it doesn’t worry me very much.

New wave atheism follows in the wake of the Dawkins Revolution and book tours that featured the so called New Atheists–but especially Dawkins himself. I don’t think for a moment that other new atheists aren’t charismatic, but of the lot, Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, who is the Hume and Dr Johnson of our time rolled up into one, take the prize for saying the kinds of things, in the right accent, that sound authoritative because they’re said in the tropes of Oxford, whence cometh our hope.

The bad reviews of The God Delusion and God is Not Great stressed that theologians had been having the conversation about classical arguments for the existence of God for a hundred years and had, basically, laid them to one side. They stressed that liberal and radical theology had long since moved beyond the ossified categories of Christian thinking: that no smart person took the Bible literally anymore. Aquinas? Who needs him? Ontology? Eleventh century stuff. Hadn’t theologians, the critics raged, especially in America and England, been using the term “post-Christian” for a generation? Perhaps, but almost no one had paid attention because no one reads theology except divinity school students and other theologians.

No one in any position to cause sales to jump was reading the “professional” books where radical theology had given up on God. And even if ordinary readers had read it, there was the honest sense that if you are at the point of saying that your theology is post-Christian, that Jesus is not the son of God, that miracles are hooey, and that the Bible contains ideas that have been retardant in our culture–you really ought to pack your bags and go away.

There was something elementally refreshing about seasoned scholars and journalists taking on the absurdity of some of the classical argumentation as though they had just discovered it, which for the most part they had. The criticism–which I made on this site as well–that journalists and scientists may not–odd to say–be especially well-qualified to talk about religion seemed petulant and jealous, which of course it was. Who wouldn’t rather have written The God Delusion than Defeasible Assumptions in Plantinga’s Epistemological Reliabilism Argument. I know I would.

So this is not really about getting to be an atheist by shortcutting: not all of us can have a radical Jewish father who wants to keep us away from Torah, or a run-in with Sister Mary Margaret (when there were Sister Mary Margarets) over the plausibility of the Assumption of Mary into heaven. (I was expelled for rolling my eyes).

It is about a rapid relocation of attitudes: people who have made a fairly quick progression from some belief (or not much of anything) to atheism without having at least some of the same background as the New Atheists themselves. It is about the danger of any kind of hero worship and fan-clubbism substituting for a critical assessment of sources. It is, frankly, about idolatry.

The conversation reminds me most of feminism, or rather the divide between first generation feminism and where we are now. The survivors of the sixties and seventies who broke down walls, challenged a sexist system, broke through ceilings and populated professional schools and academic departments with members of their own sex are now confronted with women who either don’t know the story or only know it as yawnable history. The world they have come to inhabit is not the world their grandmothers (yes, grandmothers) fought for. Judging from the number of African American Republicans maybe the same is true of that community: memory is short.

But the dues-paying comparison doesn’t work perfectly.  There are doubtless atheists out there who feel they earned their right to disbelief.  But a strong tranche of movement-atheists would argue that it doesn’t matter how you get there, just so you get there. There are no dues to pay. Atheism is not built on the abuse, bones and ashes of courageous predecessors, as was the case with the women’s movement or civil rights. If you get there from reading market paperbacks or children’s stories by Philip Pullman (who is a friend, by the way) or a couple of titles by Dawkins, so be it. It will do.

What matters to movement-atheists are the numbers, getting that meager 5% or 6% of professed unbelievers up to 10 or 15 percent– where it can claim some political advantage, and not be relegated to the irrelevance that has always been the lot of American atheism. As a movement, the American idolatry of the British atheist “style” has helped–so much so that bus campaigns and bumper stickers are now studiously modeled after the campaigns of the British Humanist Asociation, which itself promotes and benefits from the work of Dawkins and his comrades.

I feel terrible quibbling about this because soon enough it sounds like a quibble about being a good Catholic or a bad Catholic. Do you go to Mass Sundays? Great. Wednesdays and Fridays too? Even better. Hate abortion to the point you’ll march and picket? Best. It ought to be a cardinal tenent of the tenentless philosophy called atheism that no such gradients should arise within the movement. As in Islam, you really only have to believe one thing–or rather, disbelieve it.  In that sense, atheism is or ought to be a settled or definitive position, without qualification–like being pregnant, not like being a Presbyterian.  Atheists often write to tell me that I confuse their exquisitely simple position about God with more comprehensive philosophies like humanism, where gradients are possible.  Yet exquisitely simple atheism has long been the sine qua non of movement humanism, especially in England.

But my quibble is not with cynical efforts to jack up the numbers or the promotion of heroes as magnets to the cause. That’s the way movements work.  It’s the way religious denominations work as well, and they haven’t had a hero for a very long time.

My concern is over the fact that many of the idolaters are now not reading the sources of their distress, not really aware of any but the most contemporary reference points in their estimate of a fundamental religious question.  It is a destination without a journey behind it.

The Bible is considered toxic, in toto; religion, a long history of superstition, distress, and violence–even some of the art, music and literature of the western tradition, expendable expressions of priestcraft and supernaturalism.  In the most extreme cases, the present is regarded as having a juridical role to play toward the past, when people believed silly things.  History becomes a series of mistakes with respect to scientific outcomes and has nothing to teach us but the error of our ways.  What has been tainted by religion is not worth our time, not worth investigating because our vantage point makes it ridiculous. When this attitude takes hold, it is not just God who is disbelieved in: it is culture.

At this point, the debris of the Dawklins revolution becomes problematical on two counts. On the one hand, it permits the new wave atheist to reduce everything to a single proposition: God does not exist; and then to evaluate the entire history of western civilization according to an opinion that has been reinforced by similar opinions but never really tested against the sources. The opinion that God does not exist is an important one. It deserves scrutiny. But it does not deserve doctrinal security as though infallibly propounded by a secular pope.

We cannot cast off the literary and artistic history of our civilization, from Plato to Nato and Bible to Blues without knowing at least a little something about the creators.

In 2002, a number of students enrolled in my course in Civilization Studies at the American University of Beirut walked out of the classroom, in a staged protest, as we began to examine the book of Genesis. It was a book that had been excluded for a dozen years from the syllabus because it raised the temperature during the long Lebanese Civil War. I had made it plain that the story was a story; that some people thought it was historical, but that scholarship had shown it was a typical Near Eastern creation myth with a half dozen well preserved cousins from earlier in the millennium. But my careful historical framing was of no consequence. The students who protested were not Muslims; they were Lebanese Christians who regarded the Old Testament (which of course is in their Bible too) as “Israeli” propaganda.

The point is, of course, that an educated and informed atheism is a very desirable perspective. But an atheism that depends on the authority of others is no better than the political opinion that excuses Arab Christians from knowing something about the ancient history of the part of the planet they occupy.  Unfortunately for the new wave,  atheism has a long history–one that goes back far before 2005.


Matthew Arnold used the term Philistine to describe a set of values prominent among people who despised or undervalued art, beauty, and intellectual content. Despite his problematical approach to the Bible, which was neither credulous nor entirely respectful, he retained it as a key text in his educational canon.

The worst trait of the Philistine as Arnold painted him was his materialism, the preference for quick and easy fixes, a mass produced painting instead of a developed aesthetic sense.

Quick fix atheism is that kind of atheism. I think it needs to be worried about ever so little.

A Secular Ethics?

Radical secularism calls for radically secular moral alternatives to religious ethics.  No one has been more vigorous in his defense of this project than Paul Kurtz.

I have claimed frequently on this site that if skepticism at a minimum, and unbelief at the extreme, is a kind of prerequisite to such a project, it’s not because either position is self-affirming.  It is because whether God does or does not exist, the secularist believes that human values are made by humans and do not originate on mountaintops.  Even if one believed in a God who demanded obedience to such laws, it would be the duty of the secularist to defy him.

Religious doctrine calls itself into question because it has lingered into an age where religious explanations of the world and human choice are no longer persuasive.  In the long run, it is the failure of the Church, the mosque, and the synagogue to explain and to persuade that leads to skepticism and atheism, the loss of faith, and the erosion of ethical absolutism.  It is the death of belief in a god whose laws rule both the universe and human choice,  as Sartre said, that invites human beings to construct a system of values that deals with a world shot through with doubt about the old explanations and mythologies.

Hammurabi receives his law code from the god, Shamash

Some people continue to maintain that there is a law of God, that this law is sovereign over conscience and that all other law is subordinate to it.  It is probably true that these people have a very imperfect understanding of science, history and the development of ideas.  In general, a secular humanist would consider this view malignant in the sense that it is not harmless: that it has both moral and political consequences, and that when it is enforced or advocated in educational or democratic contexts it is toxic and has to be defeated.

For that reason, secularism, and secular ethics can never be quiet about religion.  It must place the burden of proof squarely on the shoulders of people who believe unsupportable truth claims based on the authority of faith.  These people may belong to any religious group, and they exist in every corner of the cornerless world.  What they have in common is the fantasy that rules and laws crafted in the first millennium before the common era have not merely historical interest but eternal force.  That is the position that secularism opposes.  There is a “secular moral imperative” to resist this kind of thinking in the same way that there is a duty to call attention to error in other factual domains–especially the sciences.

There are others who believe that God exists, that not much can be known about the subject, and that there is no special connection between the life we lead, or the moral choices we make, and this belief.  This position might seem to make the existence of God superfluous, irrelevant or a matter of diffidence–the sum of the difference between two equal improbabilities.

Secularism, it seems to me, has no reason to quarrel with people who believe in what Kurtz has called the “common moral decencies,” and lead a life committed to the discovery of virtues and moral excellence without the dictates of revelation and divine law. For the same reason we use metaphors of love, hope and compassion to describe states that are essentially emotional, there is no additional privilege to be gained by insisting on the rejection of all conceptions of God.  Yet the more personal and “described” this being is, the greater the risk of identifying it with the gods of mythology–the gods whose rules are seldom relevant to the planet we occupy.  For that reason, a secularist may insist that any idea of god is an idea too far.  It’s at the point of this insistence that secularism and unbelief converge.

As in all ethical matters, the primary nostrum for secularists is “to do good and to do no harm” (Hippocrates).  Like other ideological systems based entirely on human wit and imagination, religious beliefs are accountable  to the ancient formula. A secular ethic  will always require that this interrogation take place–that religion enjoys no privileged status based on assertions of authority that are widely regarded as untrue.

Beyond the Secular City

It has been forty six years since Harvey Cox was made famous by a book called The Secular City.

I’m sure people read it—they certainly bought it–but apparently very few people took it to heart. It was famous for being famous, had an untidy thesis and worst of all did not prominently take on the topic its title promised: the secularization of American life. It was dazzling, intellectually promiscuous, and energetic, much like its author, a “village Baptist” come to Harvard.

And it was an extended broadside against the death of God theologians who then dominated the covers of Time and Newsweek and whose shelf-life, after the initial shock of the new, did not amount to a decade.

No one could quite make out what they wanted God to be, so the thought that he was dead turned out to be something of a consolation. “Now,” I remember thinking one day after reading a certain book by Thomas Altizer, “if only the theologians would stop writing obituaries.”

It is a shame that The Secular City got so much press because when it was written secularization was a real phenomenon. God was not only in retreat at Harvard, Yale, Chicago, and even Emory, but the great social programs of the era seemed to suggest that people were looking for this-worldly solutions to urban blight, poverty, domestic illiteracy, racism, war and a dozen other issues that competed for attention. The jury is still out on all of those issues, from blight to birthers.

In an odd way, Cox’s book could have been written by Joseph Ratzinger who is constantly invoking “authentic Christianity” in “secular Europe.”. In fact,Cox was fresh back from a German stint when he wrote it and decided that the cure for many of the ills of American society was a new spirit of “authentic Christianity,” the first symptom of infection with the virus existentialus immoderatus. Cox did not mean revival in the Billy Graham style. That was an option throughout the twentieth century and, remarkably, affected politics from Truman to Obama. Like every freshly minted theologian, Cox believed that the the cure for nihilism (which was the jumping off a cliff option of the era) was not just any faith but (again) authentic faith. The kind of faith that found affirmation in negation. That sort of garbage.

In a 1990 article in Christian Century, Cox said he had written the book to stress that neither religious revivial nor secularism are unmixed blessings, that the thesis of The Secular City was “that God is first the Lord of history and only then the Head of the Church.”

This means that God can be just as present in the secular as in the religious realms of life, and we unduly cramp the divine presence by confining it to some specially delineated spiritual or ecclesial sector. This idea has two implications. First, it suggests that people of faith need not flee from the allegedly godless contemporary world. God came into this world, and that is where we belong as well. But second, it also means that not all that is ‘spiritual’ is good for the spirit.

Written to be quoted by liberal pastors, when I read this passage today it sounds like a vintage sixties tract, which in many ways it was. It is the language of someone who has drunk too deeply from the theology of Karl Barth (a real hazard of American theology of the era) and whose main talent was not serious theology but impersonation. Even the suggestion that “people of faith need not flee from the godless contemporary world” rings empty: who was chasing them? What answers were they afraid to hear?

The Secular City makes for depressing reading for another reason: because we are now twenty years beyond the twenty five year retrospective of its appearance, and we are not saved. There is plenty of religious revival. There is an awakened interest in atheism, that seems neither informed nor profound. But neither phenomenon is the point, any more than the shock value of the Death of God “movement” was the point in the swinging sixties.

The point is, we need to be talking about secularism. Of course, that includes a discussion of issues, and the Constitution, and the right of gays to marry, and a dozen cognate matters that respond well to secular approaches. But simple talk about those issues–and I will add various Pride Movements to the list–threatens to drown out the voice of what my former colleague, Austin Dacey, has called “The Secular Conscience.” That is what matters, and that is what we should be talking about. I have no doubt that people who are afflicted by various forms of discrimination have found a better friend in secularism than in the church, mosque and synagogue. That is why it is time to give our friend the time it deserves.

We do not need to be religious to realize that Father John Neuhaus (The Naked Public Square, the book Cox might have wanted to write) was right on the money when he said that the world is dying of metaphysical boredom. Neither fervently religious people nor ardently non-religious people, it seems to me, have the tonic for this peculiarly modern disease.

Be secular.

In the midst of the most degrading sexual scandal of modern history, the Catholic church still cleaves to the banner of moral authority in the name of this lord of History and head of the Church, while preaching a “gospel of life.” Our political world is dominated by office seekers who, to get elected, must swear fealty to religious principles they have never examined. Our teachers still find Darwin suspicious reading (or suspicious on hearsay) and evolution “just a theory.” Science illiteracy and religious illiteracy—always the Bobbsey twins of ignorance, are arguably worse in 2011 than they were in 1965 when Cox sounded his muddled alarm.

Something else was going on in the sixties, however, of far greater consequence and, this being America, of lesser note at the time. Prometheus Books was founded by Paul Kurtz—a voice for humanism, secularism and free inquiry in an age hounded by the reactionary religious (aka “Moral) majority of the era. Kurtz went on to found the Council for Secular Humanism to advocate for non-religious morality and decision making; the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSICOP) to push for critical thinking in matters of science, and the flagship organizations, the Council for Secular Humanism and later the Center for Inquiry.

The mission and objectives of these organisations was crystal clear. They were dedicated to the advancement of science and reason. To make them more clear, he founded two magazines that are still going strong and are unique in their support of evangelical common sense: Free Inquiry, and The Skeptical Inquirer. In 1984, in response to explicit threats to the First Amendment and to encourage the free and open discussion of religion in the public square, he organized the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion.

Over the years, these organizations have grown against the odds and moved against the tide flung against progress by the Lord of History.

In 2010, after a humiliating setback in the Center for Inquiry, which led finally to his resignation, an undaunted Kurtz founded an organization whose name expresses better than any previous one what the unfaithed and unchurched and humanistic minority of this country need to support their habit of secular thought: The Institute for Science and Human Values.

The Institute will be an engine for a process that Kurtz and others put into place forty years ago. It is unequivocal in lobbying for a secular and humanistic worldview, grounded in science, supported by inquiry, and skeptical of the claim of any movement or group to possess the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

I am proud to associate myself with the Institute and its programs, its new publication (The Human Prospect) and its Forum. I think that every person who regards herself or himself as secular will want to support it too.

The new Secularism and the City Forum invites you to share your story, your commitments, and your thoughts. You may be an atheist, a faitheist, a skeptic, or a Freethinking None. But we hope to see you on the forum to register your thoughts.

The transition between the Death of God and the Secular Era, despite a few setbacks, begins now.

The Secular City

Someone once defined a puritan as a person who lives with the gnawing suspicion that his next door neighbor is having more fun than he is. When you get right down to it, what the religious conservative hates about American democracy is his own suspicion that his neighbor isn’t as Christian as he is.

It is a lie propagated by wishful-thinking conservatives that America is a Christian country. But it would also be a lie to say that this country was founded by atheists. It wasn’t.

It’s also untrue to say that America was founded by humanists. In the eighteenth century, the term had already come to describe attitudes associated with classical idealism, reborn during the Renaissance–especially the Italian branch of the movement. Nothing frustrates the modern humanist more than to be told that both Erasmus, a pretty devout Catholic, and Calvin, a pretty devout Protestant were not just humanists but typify their respective branches of the humanist Zeitgeist of the sixteenth century.

America’s founders weren’t humanists, though they were fair examples of humanistic learning–especially Franklin and the polymathic, almost disgustingly smart Jefferson. If anything, both were too skeptical of religion to have been good humanists in the renaissance sense of the word.

But for the most part the founders of the Republic were secular. When they trusted in God it was simply a homonym for trusting in themselves–a real “All others pay cash” approach to the slogan that finally adorns our currency.

They knew what they were doing when they rejected Hobbes and reinvented Locke’s theory of government.

Secularism and self-reliance (the word Emerson assigned an almost mystical value to) granted them the ability to move in less than a century from the narrow religiousness of the Bay Colony puritans and the cavaliers of Virginia Anglicanism to a new position that would be neatly summarized in the idea of “toleration.” If there was ever a miracle in American history, it was that.

The British Parliament had passed a completely useless Act of Toleration in 1689 when the Plymouth Colony was only sixty five years old (Boston was founded in 1630, ten years after Plymouth. Harvard in 1636, a century and a half before the United States and, remarkably, over a century before most Oxford colleges).

The Act did not extend its tenderness to Roman Catholics or non-Trinitarians (thus not Jews or Unitarians) and excluded them from university education and political office. It is why,vestigially, to this day, a special act of Parliament would be required for an heir to the throne to be anything but a Protestant. Perhaps even to marry one.

Only in the nineteenth century did England get round to upgrading the 1689 law; it was beat at the hustings by the Maryland Toleration Act of 1649 that mandated religious freedom for anyone living in the colony, though it was a bit tough, in British fashion, on anyone denying the divinity of Jesus. The penalty for that was death. Hardly a model for the First Amendment.

The turning point for American law was the belief that individual liberty entailed freedom of conscience. That meant that colonial protections of particular religious practices–Baptists in Rhode Island, Anglicans in North Carolina, Catholics in Maryland–gave way to a more spacious principle based not on the status quo of religious numbers but to the belief that conscience is more sacred than deity.

John Adams

That principle gets enshrined in the Virginia Statute of 1786, “That no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”

Thomas Jefferson wrote it; James Madison oiled its way through the Virginia Legislature.

In the long preamble, Jefferson jabs for the idea that argument and debate are the only tests of religion opinion, and that religious tests insult the divine gift of reason:

“Whereas Almighty God hath created the mind free; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burthens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the Holy author of our religion, who being Lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as it was in his Almighty power to do; that the impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who being themselves but fallible and uninspired men, have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible tests.”

Let kings, tyrants, and all Gods but Reason beware.

It was a short step to the concise language of the First Amendment to the Constitution. To paraphrase: Congress is not in the religion business. It is not in the anti-religion business. Public institutions funded by government may not be in the religious business. And politicians who curry public favor by suggesting otherwise walk a very fine line, fraught with the danger of betraying the republican and secular values that resulted in American democracy.

I assume that the absurdist “reading” of the Constitution at the opening of 112th Congress of the United States included a reading of the Bill of Rights. But of course, like their reading of the Bible, the Conservative Christian reading of the text made little sense to its readers. For example: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” It took until the Illiterate Century, our own, for a Supreme Court to say that this meant a private citizen is entitled to carry a concealed weapon.

And this is why secularism, far more than disbelief in God, is considered threatening by religious conservatives. Mere atheism has no political implications. None. Secularism on the other hand requires the religious conservative to defend the proposition that belief in God is an entitlement in a nation where that opinion is, basically, outlawed by writ even they want to consider sacred.

Secularism is more than a recipe for religious toleration, however. And both religious persons and non-religious persons need to realise that. Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, and the obsessively odd John Adams would not have been atheists. It is a waste of intellectual time to think that they were or would have been.

But they would vomit at the obsequious language of both Democrats and Republicans–especially at the necessity of having to proclaim religious faith in order to qualify as a serious contender for political office.

The secular factor in American democracy is not only on trial at home; it is precisely why American democracy is a hugely unlikely option abroad–especially in the Middle East. More’s the pity that we have fought wars to export it, without recognizing its non-exportable features as a philosophy that does not trust in God at all. I do not know what is sweeping through the Middle East at the moment. But I know it is not the Spirit of ’76.

American secularism does not enshrine any opinion or movement. In fact, it exposes the reality than any opinion or movement that cannot be argued and reasoned deserves to be treated, like the divine right of kings, as a new superstition.

It’s important to realize that while the American experiment in secularity came from a time when gentlemen and ladies were questioning core religious doctrines like the divinity of Jesus, it also came from circles that had a quiet belief in the divinity of reason.

To the extent we share something like a demythologized vision of that faith in ourselves, we are secularists.

To the extent we don’t–or ascribe it to the power of an unseen God to help us out of our misery–we are mere partisans, peasants to our passions and private agendas.

Darkness, Doubt, and Dante

Augustine: Having seen the light...

What do Augustine, Thomas de Quincey, Leo Tolstoy, and John Henry Newman (now Blessed) have in common? That’s right: confessions. Relatively speaking, Tolstoy might have chosen to blog about his plight rather than write through it in longhand, de Quincey would have done well on, and Newman called his confession an apologia because he had been put in a defensive mode. But they all wrote about their spiritual troubles and how they solved them. To quote de Quincey in a somber moment:

“Christianity is that religion which most of all settles what is perilous in scepticism; and yet, also, it is that which most of all unsettles whatever may invite man’s intellectual activity. It is the sole religion which can give any deep anchorage for man’s hopes; and yet, also, in mysterious self-antagonism, it is the sole religion which opens a pathless ocean to man’s useful and blameless speculations.”

Historically, accounts of journeys from periods of doubt and anxiety (and addiction) to periods of what Newman called, at the time of his trade to the Catholic church, religious “certitude,” occupy considerably more space on library shelves than the journey in the other direction.

Religion has had the upper-hand in promoting itself as closure (isn’t that what “certainty” is?). Unbelief is saddled with images of confusion (isn’t that what doubt is?) and discontent–aimless searching.

“As the sentence [of the scripture I was reading] ended, there was infused in my heart something like the light of full certainty and all the gloom of doubt vanished away….Thou hast prompted him, that he should delight to praise thee, for thou hast made us for thyself and restless is our heart until it comes to rest in thee (Augustine, Confessions, Book IX.29; I.1)

Naturally this irrational but culturally potent association between doubt and darkness drives unbelievers crazy. The question is, Why does it arise at all?

Holman Hunt, The Light of the World

Because of an ancient theft of images. Religion has had the advantage of being imagined as a light on a hill, the “radiance” (as in John 14.6) that overpowers the darkness. That is the way Augustine imagined the Church of his day when everything else was, in fact, pretty dark–Rome declining, unable to sustain its institutions, hounded by unwelcome tourists from the north.

Christianity was a kind of theological alternative to demoralization and decline, though as a populist movement it could do very little in the western empire to forestall the inevitable “fall,” which later generations of historians would falsely ascribe to pagan immorality and corruption. To accept Christ, the light of the world, meant different things to different people. But for the Church’s early intellectuals it meant moving out of the darkness towards knowledge, towards wisdom, towards God, love and grace. To move in the other direction was not an appealing option, not even very rational.

The Church has had its way: darkness, hatred, sin, death, and final destruction of the spirit lay like the turbid waters of the Acheron at the end of the atheist’s quest. Who would knowingly move from truth toward a lie, from splendor towards dullness, from Palestrina and Bach toward Janacek? Since long before Dante consigned atheists to the inferno, setting your face against God has been seen as a lonely journey, driven by pride and a corrupt will that puts self in place of the Good. But the Church also traded on its philosophical bounty, especially Platonism, which saw rejection of the Good, now equated to the Christian God, as a rejection of reason.

Jesus enthroned in the Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom)

“Atheism” did not actually lose control over or forfeit the imagery of light and truth. It has never really owned it. The theft was evolutionary rather than revolutionary: No (orthodox) philosophers died as a result of the heist, no secret coven of atheists was rooted out by posses of churchmen with a license to kill unbelievers. That point will appear jejune until you recall that such posses were empowered by Rome and local bishops to deal with heretics, well into the sixteenth century. Such unbelief as there was had to exist within the Church because that is where poets and professors earned their meager living.

When atheism has been considered at all by Catholic Christianity, it has been linked with heresy and apostasy as a special category of error–yet (oddly) not as serious as the other kinds because while atheism (by Anselm and the medieval theologians, for instance) is seen as a form of mulish stupidity (Ps.14.1), it is not a threat to the unity of the Church, like heresy, or as willful rebellion against God and his Church, like apostasy. That is to say, atheism doesn’t rise to the same degree of malignancy in the theological calculus, because then as now atheists were a lonely crew of poets and intellectuals and could not organize themselves into parties or schools.

Augustine refutes a heretic: note the toppled Church

Even Dante does not consign atheists to the darker levels of hell–merely to the deficient form of heaven, Limbo. Here you can find all the right people anyway: Horace, Julius Caesar, Ovid, Socrates, Cato, Vergil, Avicenna, and Averroes–whose common flaw is that they were unbaptized.

What did atheism do to deserve this patronizing neglect?

In the power vacuum created by the decline of the western Church and in the battles waged against heretics by the more powerful theologians in the eastern empire (Byzantium, where the creeds would be written), the ecclesial victors stole the imagery of philosophy and decorated their God like a Christmas tree with attributes that had been, basically, speculative in Greek thought. It was all about light, truth, and wisdom–their own, primarily, metaphysically projected outward onto their new triune God.

The Christian church deserves some credit for this. Hardly a philosophical image is left unexploited: goodness, infinity and eternality, immutability, omniscience (a kind of cheat, but that’s complicated), beauty, love, symmetry and perfection. Their grab-bag of ornaments included smatterings, ripped out of context, from Plato, Plotinus and Porphyry and assorted other philosophers. While condemning “paganism” (and with it, in many cases–for example the second century writer Justin Martyr–their own classical educations), they found the biblicism of their own tradition intellectually weak and aesthetically defective. It would take another century or two to find cradle-Catholic theologians who could pass up the temptations of pagan philosophy because, by that time, the usable bits had been brought in under the roof of the church. There was hardly any light left outside.

At the other end of this transformation, let me be pretty blunt, the Bible was transformed from an uneven collection of stories, poems and prophecies into an icon–if not a relic–while “tradition”–a word that looks innocent enough but refers to the creation of doctrine (teaching) of biblical interpreters–won the day. The artifact of this process, by the way, is the popular “protestant” belief that Catholics don’t read (or know) the Bible. They didn’t need to: the Church knew it for them.

It took until the sixteenth century for a few adventurous spirits to take the book out of its jeweled casket to see if the Church was anything like the book said it should be. But by then the damage (if that’s what it was) had been done. Not only was the Church a lot more complicated, richer, and better dressed than the one in the New Testament, but its God didn’t look very much like the biblical God either. Frankly, however, the Reformers were not all that consistent: the God of the Bible had already been retired in creeds they defended from the fourth century–“God from God, light from light, true god from true god, one in substance with the Father”–when the bishops were speaking of a man named Jesus.

Cardinal in full dress regalia....

With so much light going to the orthodox, there wasn’t much left over for atheists. The creed I just quoted was barely thirty years old when Augustine was born, and even though he quotes massively from sacred scripture, the way he does it leaves no verse unturned, no verb unextrapolated and no simple noun standing in its rightful place. The church had begun to speak allegory, and that would remain its official idiom until nineteenth century protestant theologians added paradox to the tool kit.

Granted, it’s a bit late for atheists to worry about getting back the light that was stolen from philosophy: eleatics, Socratics, skeptics, stoics, epicureans and sophists, all with highly rationalistic if not (exactly) atheistic tendencies. The final nail in the crucifixion of this-worldly knowledge was the teaching that the wisdom of this world (that would include science) is darkness and folly, and that the “true light” is essentially a way beyond, a path to heaven charted by the church.

The word that would come to describe this light is faith (πίστις). And the key thing about faith is that the Church was thought to possess it and (along with grace) dispense it. It was the faith, not faith in a verbal sense as a kind of assent. Much later, the reformers would try to restore an older, and what they thought was a more biblical understanding of St Paul’s favorite word. But it was a quibble. Whoever or whatever possessed it, it was thought be superior to reason; whether you accessed it through a change of heart or through the sacraments, you did not access it in your head. You surrendered to it because you had no other choice.

This is a kind of final-strawism. Thomas Aquinas, as we all know, argued that God could be known through natural reason, to a point, and his five ways or arguments for God’s existence all seem superficially reasonable. But in the long run, the finer things about God–that he is all good, for example–can only be known by faith, because the world we live in is full of ugliness and sorrow and pain and seems to contradict the goodness of God, except as a sadist might define it. The light of truth comes shrouded in darkness. It is the duty of the church, he thought, to reveal it. “Ubi fides est, ratio fallitur.” Where reason fails, faith prevails.

The artistic culture of the west has been a prolonged illustration of religion’s monopoly on light, certainty, closure and truth. Think Paradise Lost, Pilgrim’s Progress, Dante’s Paradise, Thompson’s Hound of Heaven, Gretchen’s salvation in Faust. And beyond that, think of every Cinderella story, rags-to-riches-epic, chick-flick. These don’t have to be religious as long as the protagonists end up in love and at the castle.

Now think of Waiting for Godot, Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, Kafka’s Metamorphosis, the absurd and existentially restless genres of the twentieth century. On the one hand, the drama and music of the period tolled in the death of God and certainty, illustrated by atonality and abandonment of form and the unities of classical aesthetics. On the other hand, we already see this art as periodically limited to the discovery of psychology and the aftermath of nuclear confusion. In fifty years it will be unreadable except by literary professionals interested in last-century movements. If it means anything in the twenty first century, it underscores David Hart’s comment, “The world is dying of metaphysical boredom.” Atheism is hard pressed to be a solution to that situation, at any level.

Even if by some freak chance atheists in 2012 would grow to 20% of the American population they are still hamstrung by a tradition of seeing skepticism and doubt as a menu for spiritual starvation and human incompleteness. They do not seem to be helped by the attempt of a few aggressive atheists to monopolize the term “Brights” to reclaim their right to the image, or by public displays of blasphemy which seem to attack dogmas that an increasingly illiterate laity don’t know are sacred anyway. (45% of Catholics in a recent poll did not know their Church taught the doctrine of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Imagine how they’d explain the virgin birth).

When atheists attack religion, it seems to many bystanders that they are attacking the solution to a problem, proposing doubt as a cure for certainty, or despair as a remedy for hope. When they do so in obnoxious ways, they just seem to be grousing about the fact Dante doesn’t give them the choicest rooms in his hell. It hardly seems fair that the unequivocal denial of God shouldn’t be the thing that God hates the most.

Is there a way to revive a debate that was really over before the fifth century of the modern era? To give atheists a chance to negotiate God out of his right to adjectives the Church won fair and square in a game of chance? I can’t answer that. Most atheists I know aren’t even interested in trying.