Monday, March 03, 2014

True Reason -- now out!

(Writing from Hong Kong, where I'm renewing my visa.)

Well, our new book, True Reason, is now out.  The book has about two dozen reviews on Amazon already, in just a few days (Tom Gilson's hard work, no doubt), and seems to be selling pretty well, so far.  One of the nice things about the book that the reviews demonstrate, is that different chapters appeal to a variety of readers -- lots of chapters are described as "my favorite," appealing to people with various interests.  That must be gratifying to the editors. It shows they did an excellent job of finding good writers and balancing interesting and important topics.  Reviews also show that so far most readers have also really liked the book.

I think you probably will, too!

This version is frankly much better than the e-version we put out two years ago, for two reasons: (1) It includes two new chapters, including one by Tim McGrew and myself on how early Christians understood faith and reason; (2) The other chapters were also mostly updated and improved.  (I helped edit them myself, as a matter of fact -- including adding a bit of a response to John Loftus' reply to my chapter rebutting his Outsider Test for Faith, and showing why the Gospel passes that test four times over.  Truthfully, John didn't offer my arguments too much of a challenge, but there were other things that needed improving, anyway.)

So far, my OTF chapter has attracted quite a bit of attention from reviewers, both positive and negative.  Here are most of the comments to date.  I especially appreciated David Hedges' critical comments, and hope to respond to them in more detail later -- see also his comments on the Amazon site.  He really tries to understand my position and represent it accurately -- not always the case with my critics!  But of course he's still wrong. :- )

Of course I also greatly appreciate the favorable comments -- they are very encouraging.  Thanks!

Anyway, here are some of the comments on my chapters:

True North: My favorite contributor to this book is David Marshall. He is a very engaging defender with a unique sense of humor, a down-to-earth writing style, and reasoning that is really easy to understand. In "John Loftus and the Insider-Outsider Test for Faith," Marshall points out that he actually gave Loftus the very tools Loftus used in formulating his Outsider Test for Faith! Marshall also authored "The Marriage of Faith & Reason," showing how the Christian concept of faith is intellectually exciting, and explains the complex world we live in. Marshall co-wrote an article with Timothy McGrew, "Faith & Reason in Historical Perspective," wherein they reason that Christianity compels itself to the rational mind.

David Hodges: I do admit to not being entirely satisfied with David Marshall's contribution to this category, since its effort to show wide agreement in non-Christian religions with Christian truths is phrased in such a way as to risk suggesting that Christianity is less exclusively "the true faith" than it is, or suggesting that false religions are not the culpable efforts to evade the whole (Christian) truth that Scripture seems (notable in Romans 1) to say they are. My difficulty with Marshall's piece is more rhetorical than substantive, though of course bad rhetoric can lead to substantive errors if left uncorrected.

Jason Livingstone: At its best, it boasts impressive scholarship, thoughtful evaluation of the arguments to which the authors are responding, and an invitation to the reader to do his/her own thinking (the contributions of David Marshall and Randall Hardman fit this description well).

Writer Rani: Chuck Edwards, David Marshall, Peter Grice, and the other Christian authors did such a wonderful job of presenting the information that lay-people and scholars alike will be able to learn a lot from their essays.

I was very surprised when I read the quotes from Loftus, and others on how weak their arguments were. They seemed to have nothing to base their arguments on and they contradicted what they were saying. The Christian authors had facts and history to support their ideas. It shows me that the New Atheists claim of reason is truly a weakness. Christianity has a lot more going for it.

Randal Everist: One of the essays I found to be most fascinating was David Marshall’s on John Loftus’ “Outsider Test for Faith” (hereafter OTF). OTF is as follows:

1. “People who are located in distinct geographical areas . . . overwhelmingly adopt and justify a wide diversity of religious faith due to their particular upbringing and shared cultural heritage, and most of these faiths are mutually exclusive.
2. To an overwhelming degree, one’s religious faith is causally dependent on brain processes, cultural conditions, and irrational thinking patterns.
3. Therefore, it is highly likely that any given religious faith is false.
4. In practice, one should hence test one’s religion ‘from the perspective of an outsider, a nonbeliever, with the same level of reasonable skepticism believers already use when examining the other religious faiths they reject.’” (p. 77)

Now, the point of Marshall’s essay is to show that Loftus’ contention that OTF is opposed by Christians because they know Christianity will fail is demonstrably false, historically. This we will return to in a moment. First, Marshall casually mentions that (3) doesn’t follow from (1-2); I think, however, we can rescue OTF pretty easily from this malady. Consider:

OTF1. If, to an overwhelming degree, one’s religious faith is causally dependent on brain processes, cultural conditions, and irrational thinking patterns, then it is highly likely their religious belief is false.

It’s worth noting Loftus might resent this oversimplification, because he wants to include all other religions as live options for complete pictures. So let’s include that fact in our consideration of (OTF1). Marshall mentions that (OTF1) is nonetheless an example of the genetic fallacy (p. 78). I think this is less than clear. Why? Because Loftus includes, in (OTF1), that irrational thinking patterns have helped causally inform particular religious beliefs. Surely we wouldn’t want to say, given that such-and-such a belief is formed in an irrational manner, that it is just as likely true as false? If I bang my head into the wall four times, and announce that on this basis I now am a devotee of the Easter Bunny, you’re just as likely to suspect I have a concussion as anything else—but surely you (nor I) don’t thereby gain some support for the premise that the Easter Bunny is real. I think that, all things being equal, if a belief is formed for irrational reasons, we can safely say, epistemologically, that there’s no reason to regard it as true, and even some reason to say it is false.

The crucial question then becomes two-fold: Are all things equal?, and Do people form their belief in God in an irrational thinking pattern? The latter question demands that we see reason to think that we have been irrational in our thinking about God. That will require an account of rationality and that our belief in God has arisen from something contrary to rationality (or irrationality). As Alvin Plantinga has argued, it’s not even clear this can be done without appealing to the de facto question of whether or not God exists. The former question is evidential: we can only conclude that our religious beliefs are false or very likely false if we don’t have countervailing evidence (of course, if we already have these evidences, it’s very unlikely we meet condition [2] of Loftus’ argument, and so [OTF] doesn’t really have any application for us).

The rest of Marshall’s essay, however, is an excellent discussion on other world religions and conversions. I was especially happy to see his reference of the great African scholar John Mbiti. One should charitably read Marshall at this point in saying that other world religions do in fact contain shadows of truth; the true God’s witness of Himself in the real world, even if it has been diluted and perverted.

Jason: David Marshall puts ex-Christian John Loftus's "insider-outsider test for faith" to the test and gives it a failing grade while showing how the claim that most people who view Christianity from the outside will reject it is unfounded. I can attest to this as a person who grew up with a secular worldview and did not accept the truth of Christianity until adulthood. Marshall concludes by making a case of how Christianity passes the tests of history, prophecy, transformation, and lo and behold, the insider-outsider test for faith.

David Marshall skillfully expounds upon how faith and reason are the product of a marriage undefiled. After properly defining faith (which has nothing to do with blindness) he unpacks seven different ways that the New Testament ties faith to reason. Touching on topics such as historical investigation, critical accounts of Jesus's life, and the resurrection, Marshal combines logic, philosophy, and careful exegesis to explain how no man can put faith and reason asunder.

David Marshall and Timothy McGrew provide a thorough review of how Christians—including the early church fathers and modern-day scholars—have historically viewed faith. They use contextual analysis to set the record straight against false characterizations of Christian faith as an uninformed, lazy default position.

Sunday, February 02, 2014

Peter Boghossian sees through everybody.

I've almost given up blogging, since I'm now in China, which seems to have an inexplicable grudge against amiable American web sites, that one included.  But I did happen to notice that Randall Rauser and Tom Gilson have both  been posting on Peter Boghossian, the veritable reincarnation of Socrates in Gnu form, lately.  Readers may have seen my account here of what happened when I challenged Peter to debate long before his book came out, "Peter Boghossian sees through me."  Apparently he's seen through these other guys, too!  He has apparently refused to debate either of them publicly, Rauser on the Unforgettable show that I have also appeared on in the past, on the grounds that he is not a real scholar, or something. 

Good on Peter.  Those of us whose vision has lessened as we grow older, can only feel profound respect for those who gain such powers as the ability to see thoughts over thousands of miles through inches of thick (and in my case, thickening) cranial tissue, and discern the true quality of scholarship they have never read, from otherwise apparently respectable institutions.  (I would be satisfied with a much lesser superpower, like reading two books at the same time with two different eyes.)

Which brings us to Randal's recent post, which made unfortunate light of the esteemed sage (I mean the contemporary one) by comparing him to comic book knights.  I have to say, I think that's all wrong, unnecessary, and even rather mean of our friend Randal.  The real comparison is to a Jedi Knight.  Like the Jedi, Dr. Boghossian knows that he understands Christianity most clearly with a blindfold over his eyes.  This is one of those cases in which perception of the evidence, say by physically reading what Christians say about faith, for instance, would merely distract someone with Jedi powers from what he knows, with unassailable certainty, from serendipitous truth internally mediated, about that pernicious superstition. 

And this is, let me add, a great advantage that Gnu scholars like Boghossian hold over primitive sages like Socrates.  Socrates seemed, poor fellow, to ask people questions because he wanted to know the answers, because he recognized his own ignorance and sought to ameliorate it.  That is hardly any better than asking the way to the train station because you are lost!  Whereas Boghossian asks questions because he knows the vast majority of humanity consists of deluded fools, and he seeks to enlighten them about their foolishness, and offer the Good News that God does not love them, after all.  To me, that is the position a true sage must take.  And this is the difference between Randal or I or our readers and a real scholar, like Peter Boghossian: you had to read this post to find out what I think, whereas Dr. Boghossian knows already, without opening his computer, that the likes of you and I hardly engage in anything that can be called "thought" at all.  I have no idea what Justin was thinking, inviting Rauser on with the likes of Peter Boghossian.  Of course, I'm sure Peter knows. 

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Headline News: Stalin was kind to Christians!

Just as physicists seek to unite Quantum Theory and Relativity, for the New Atheists the Holy Grail of historicism is to find some way of proving that while Christianity was fully responsible for every inquisition, act of imperialism, racial slur, and poorly-cooked Big Mac in western history, atheism was wholly innocent of the hundred millions of kulaks, workers, priests, and assorted perpetrators of Bad Think and class error who were murdered from about 1917 to about 1989 under the aegis of dialectical materialism.  The Search for this Unholy Grail is a common thread in the mythologies of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Victor Stenger, and reaches something of a fever pitch in the writings of Hector Avalos -- along with other Gnus too numerous to mention, especially since I'm at the other end of the world right now and can't leaf through my office library. 

Stenger chooses as his dialogue partner on this subject one Vox Day, an interesting and entertaining writer, but not a scholar of communism, as have been some other critics of atheism on this score, like David Aikman, Alister McGrath, or myself.  (Stenger cites me extensively on other topics, so he could have challenged me here if he had wanted to.)  Not to worry: this is not a football game, the line between players and fans is loose, and some unpublished Gnus HAVE gone after me on this subject. 

Including, today, one PJ Shelton, a sometime-traveler in China.   

Shelton wrote an accerbic critique of Vox Day's book, The Irrational Atheist, magnanimously entitled, "Headline News: The World's Dumbest Christian Discovered."  Among other things, like blaming everyone but Iran for Iran's international isolation, Shelton made the following remarkable set of comments:

"Here's another laughable error from "TIA," from a man who claims to be a libertarian: '[The] communisms of Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Mengistu, and Kim Il-Sung all differed in the details. While each of the six dictators identified themselves as communists, the only belief these mass murderers held completely in common was an atheism more militant than that of Harris himself."

Shelton replied:

"No, all those commie mass murderers had at least one other belief that they held completely in common, a big one: GUN CONTROL, in the sense that only agents of the state, senior party members, and other 'trusted' classes could legally own guns. Kind of a big thing for a so-called libertarian to ignore, but - as with the Iran thing above - you'll find Beale does this sort of thing a lot in "TIA."
"Readers, answer me this: which of the below Two Things that totalitarian communist countries forced their citizens to do, do You think added the most human lives to the final body count?

"A - Give up their religions

"B - Give up their guns"

I responded:

"The reason Stalin murdered tens of millions of people, was because Peter lost his wolf-hunting gun and couldn't shoot back, not because Marx, Engels, Stalin and every other communist leader hated religion and were deeply influenced by atheistic promethean thought that radically transformed the very shape of their thinking.

"I'd have gone with "B" on that one. But what do I know? I only studied Marxist policies on religion for my BA under a leading historian of communism, reading what they actually said, when I could, in the original languages. (And also read David Aikman's very enlightening Atheism in the Marxist Tradition, which details the facts.)"

Shelton wrote me a sizzling e-mail, most of which I will reproduce below, along with appropriate responses to his historical claims.  

"Mr. Marshall,
"I have read the foolish comments you made regarding my review of "The Irrational Atheist," and have responded to them thereunder.

"Given your life’s work, you must know a lot about China’s recent history, as a result of the many in depth historical discussions I’m sure you have had with the Chinese."

Well, yes, that and a few books. 
"As for myself, I lived in China a few years in the late 1990s. Among the people I met during my time in China was Sidney Rittenberg, author of the autobiographical The Man Who Stayed Behind.  Dr. Rittenberg was even kind enough to give me a free copy of his book when we met. As my work continued, we struck up a friendship, and through him I was introduced to a number of his Chinese friends; contemporaries of him and his wife, who, like the Rittenbergs, were eyewitnesses to China’s disastrous Cultural Revolution.

"During various discussions of the Cultural Revolution, Rittenberg and the other eyewitnesses described armed gangs of young Red Guards going round all the neighbourhoods, attacking those they deemed "counter-revolutionaries." The overwhelmingly majority of their targets were the working professionals: doctors, community organisers, scientists, writers, academics... basically any and all "intellectuals" that failed to be "100% revolutionary" in their brand of intellectualism.

"In other words, the Red Guards were attacking the exact same groups of people that Theodore Beale - and, to a lesser extent, you - verbally attack in your blogs: scientists, writers, academics and "intellectuals," all of whom dissent from the narrow views which you and Beale propound."

Funny, I thought I WAS a "writer, academic, and intellectual."  Does that mean I must "dissent" from my own views? 

And does Sheldon even know what they are?  Has he been reading my blog, or my own books?  What attack on "writers, academics and intellectuals" as a class has he found in any of them?  Of course, criticizing other academic arguments is what academics do -- is that all he means by "attack?"  So all academics are themselves enemies of their own class, because they tend to disagree with one another?  And pointing out errors is the same as herding people you don't like into the Gulag, or pushing them into the sea on barges and then sinking the barges? 

And does that make Sheldon a genocidal maniac, too, since he's "attacking" me? 

But let's read on.

"All of the violence the Red Guards perpetrated during the Cultural Revolution was demonstrably founded upon exactly the same disposition to fly rabidly at differences of opinion, a disposition which I’ve observed in you, in Beale, and in christian apologists the world over, despite your being proved wrong again and again."

I deny the capacity to "fly," and deny ever having done so "rabidly."  But note the tone of Sheldon's own remarks.  Santa forgot to give someone a mirror for Christmas. 

Again, criticizing error is not the same as murdering your enemies -- or if it is, Sheldon is a mass murderer, if that is he has found any actual errors.  Again, we read on in hope. 

"Moreover, none of the Red Guards hatreds were founded on anti-religionism, according to all the eyewitnesses I met. Not once did an eyewitness describe attacks which targeted christians or other religious groups. I asked them specifically about it, and according to their accounts, this persecution on religious grounds simply did not happen in China during that time."

Who brought up the Cultural Revolution?  Not me, that was Sheldon.  WE were talking about communism in general.  But SOMEONE destroyed most of the Buddhist temples in China after 1949, and it wasn't Muslims.  SOMEONE shut almost every church in the land, and put thousands of pastors in prison, and tortured them there -- I'm talking about people I HAVE met, in some cases -- and it wasn't Hassidic rabbis or Jains on a rampage.   

"The worst of it: armed gangs of revolutionaries would go at it in the streets; first, by lining up at opposite ends of the street, then, they'd start arguing by all-in-unison shouting their (100% contradictory) slogans from Mao’s Little Red Book at each other, before coming together in huge altercations. Per the eyewitness accounts, the slogans they shouted back and forth all related to the need for a "people's revolution," the need to eliminate those whose "support for the collective" was inadequate, and suchlike social, political and economic lines of rhetoric; namely, their targets were social and political thinkers of the time whom the Red Guards had adjudged to be "not 100% in support of Mao" and his skewed vision of things."

That's because religion had long since disappeared from public in China.  Anyway, only some one in 400 Chinese was a Christian by this time.  But the survivors went through hell, whether or not PJ Sheldon heard about it.

Note an interesting contradiction in the Gnu line, here.  When distancing themselves from "religion," they define religion as belief in God or in a supernatural world.  When trying to blame the Gulag on "religion," somehow, they turn around and define religion in terms of fervency or lack of reason or some other moral weakness, rather than in terms of belief.    

"Not once did I hear an eyewitness relate how he’d heard religion-bashing slogans, or anything at all to do with religion, during any of the violence perpetrated during the Cultural Revolution."

Whereas I interviewed a communist official who himself witnessed a mob tear the cross off a church.  One of the people who tied the rope to the cross fell to his death, and the official asked me, "Do you think that was the punishment of God?"

"Simply put, direct persecution of religion did not happen in China."

All those tortured and murdered for their faith will be relieved to hear that.   

I doubt he can read Chinese, or I might recommend Zhao Tianen's work on Christianity under communism to him.  But Tony Lambert describes the communist policies, and their effect, in his works well, as do numerous other writers who know what they're talking about. 

"Anything that the Red Guards deemed "antiquated," they indiscriminately destroyed; what any of the destroyed icons may have represented in the religious sense was never touched on, per the eyewitness accounts. It was destroyed because it represented the counter-revolutionary past, not because it was intrinsically religious."

"Read The Man Who Stayed Behind.  I defy you to show me one instance of Chinese religious persecution anywhere in Sidney Rittenberg’s book."

Who cares?  Heavens Above!  Does Shelton imagine that historical reality is to be constrained by the limits of his accidental reading?  The sheer narcisism of the argument is astounding.   

"Similarly, my reading of history has revealed to me that the world’s most violent communist revolutionary acts were levied primarily against people whose beliefs were "insufficiently radical" for the time, against those who failed to exhibit "100% support for the Party and all its policies." Ignorant christians have extrapolated this into the false notion that the communists assiduously targeted religious believers. They’re half right; communists essentially targeted anybody and everybody who refused to accept the "truth" that happy, joyous communism would lead us all to a brighter future, if only we'd all believe in it unquestioningly."

No one claims that the communists limited the scope of their persecutions to religious believers.  But anyone who thinks they did not purposely and methodologically try to destroy religious faiths, is deeply ignorant of 20th Century history, and should close his mouth until he catches up.

Start with Aikman, Atheism in the Marxist Tradition.  The details are rich, and there is no gainsaying them: Marx and his allies hated Christianity with a passion, from the get-go.   Then read Richard Wurmbrand, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Lambert and Zhao and hundreds of other detailed accounts from the real world.  Go and talk to the pastors who were themselves imprisoned, and to this day are sometimes hounded and put behind bars. 

"Rather like the christians, who continue to proclaim that if everyone would just curl up, thumb-in-mouth, and believe 100% in jesus christ as the Messiah, then the world would automatically become a better place. Meanwhile, 1500 years later, christianity has not ended war, cured crime or erased poverty; it hasn’t even come close. Even at the apogee of christianity’s cultural and political dominance, the historical record incontestably reveals that a christianised paradise filled with people "loving one another" was still a long, long way off."

The world HAS become a much better place, because of the Gospel.  Readers of this blog, and of my books, know that I do not make that claim without a great deal of support to back it up. 

"Throughout history, the biggest persecutors of christians have always been other christians."

Nonsense.  The biggest persecutors of Christians under the Jews were Jews, under the Romans, pagan Romans, under the Muslims, Muslims, and under the communists, communists.  There HAVE been periods when Christians (real or imagined) have persecuted other Christians.  But "always" is patently false. 

"That’s how we know for certain that christianity is not "of God." If it truly were of God, how come christianity has completely failed to achieve even a modest manifestation of the tinsel-coated sentiment it has paid lip-service to through the centuries? Love one another, as I have loved you.

"So much for all that rubbish," said the christians. "We want power, the power to judge others."

"Just like the communist revolutionaries. And the results, despite the centuries of lip-service christians have paid to loving one another, were more of less the same."

Not at all.  For all the crimes of Christendom, which have indeed been considerable, and which as the Bible itself predicts ARE based on pride and the love of power, the Gospel has indeed transformed the world in radical ways for the better.  Communism mostly made things much worse, though it was not completely bereft of useful acts.  (Such as improving health care at times, and raising the status of women, under the prior influence of the Gospel.)
"Mr. Marshall, I base the above contentions on interviews with Chinese eyewitnesses, as well as the account of Sidney Rittenberg, a respected American expert on a foreign power who did not merely study China’s history, he lived it for half a century."

That "argument" is subjective and entirely negative.  Sheldon did not hear about persecution of religion.  Yeah, well, the communists almost wiped it out, destroying tens of thousands of religious houses, killing millions of believers.  Solzhenitsyn heard of them, and met them -- "prisoner transports and graveyards, prisoner transports and graveyards" -- they challenged him, till he became a Christian himself, finding that Christians were the only one to whom the camp philosophy of "Who to Whom" did not stick.  But Sheldon, the sometime traveler to China and reader of a book, has not heard of any of this, therefore it did not happen. 

"On what do you base yours? Books written by sessile (?) "China watchers" who rarely step outside their libraries? Or, a patchwork of start-stop conversations with your broken Chinglish-speaking students in various Bible-study groups? The ignorance you showed of Iran's history in your comment on my Amazon review was simply astonishing. I presume you've a similar perspective when it comes to your reading of the history of China?"

I was traveling China, and speaking to its inhabitants in their own language, years before this silly fellow swarmed onto those shores and began gossipping with a few of its inhabitants in "Chinglish," apparently. 

And what I said about Iran was accurate, too.   

"BTW, I’m sure those young "christian" Chinese that hang out with you do so out of their desire to learn more about your false, never-risen jesus, and they’ve no interest in those extracurricular hours spent "practicing their English conversation" with a native speaker, or anything of the sort. They know far more than you think they do, Mr. Marshall; never underestimate the Chinese."

I don't.   Tens of millions have come to know Christ in recent years, for good reasons, and I expect great things from them.

I don't think I'll inflict the entire discourse on my patient readers.  Let's skip to the final few paragraphs, the climax of Shelton's high dungeon, where he reveals most clearly the emotions that move him: 

"The feeble apologetics of you and your cronies are nothing new. Throughout its history, christianity has consistently stood against scientific discoveries that have revealed the true nature of the universe. Until, after grudgingly admitting that Galileo et al were not in fact heretics whose discoveries warranted death by fire and torture, christians finally started reconciling each new scientific discovery with their increasingly proved-wrong faith, and ascribing each to some new, increasingly vague theistical plan - that is, to use plainer language, altering religion to suit science and making of God a plastic character, to be remodeled whenever the obvious truth disproves one of His original legendary attributes."

Uh, Galileo was neither tortured nor put to death.  Neither was "et al," whoever that is supposed to be.  (This charge is best left vague, as Oxford historian of science Allan Chapman demonstrates.)

And Christians invented modern science, as Rodney Stark clearly shows in For the Glory of God, as have many qualified historians. 

"All of which mirrors your ludicrous, ham-handed attempts to equate Confucianism with christianity and Shangdi with the judeo-christian jehovah-god. It’s a syndrome I have actually seen before, the attempt to salvage one’s christian faith by bringing the Chinese - the world’s longest-standing non-christian holdout - on board with your fake, plastic mythology, clumsily reconciling your religious faith with the philosophies of the Chinese, shaking your magic rain-dance stick at them and shouting: "Poof! You’re all in fact christians! Hallelujah!"

People who hate, said C. S. Lewis, render themselves incapable of seeing.  This is clearly demonstrated when a would-be critic simply imagines or invents positions for those he hates, failing thereby to read and recognize and understand his target's actual position.

Of course I do not "equate Confucianism with christianity."  (Why does the former merit a cap, but the latter does not?  Another proof of this fellow's deep and unreasoning hatred.)  And many non-Christian Chinese have recognized the close resemblance between Shang Di (caps) and the "judeo-christian jehovah-god" (none.)  Speaking of "clumsy" and "ham-handed," how petty can one get than to ignore the rules of grammar in this absurd manner?  If anyone is "clumsy" for confusing Shang Di with God, though, then blame Matteo Ricci, then the great Chinese converts, then the greatest emperor in Chinese history -- the Kang Xi emperor -- then the greatest western scholar of ancient Chinese religion, James Legge, then the communist authors of modern Chinese-English dictionaries.

Lots of "blame" to go around.  Why start with "clumsy" old me?

Nor, of course, do I claim believing in God alone makes anyone a "christian." 

"A mere knowledge of the approximate dimensions of the visible universe is enough to destroy forever the notion of a personal godhead whose whole care is expended upon the tiniest of dust-specks that is mankind, and whose only true and original Messiah was dispatched to save the insignificant vermin, or humans, who inhabit this one relatively microscopic globe. It’s true that science fails to positively refute religion - instead, it causes religious points of view to appear so senseless and so thoroughly improbable that a large majority of men see religion for what it is: false revelation, through and through."

Well now the whole human race is "insignificant vermin."  Which reminds me of Chesterton's observation that people who hate Christianity begin to deny sense, reason, morality, humanity, even their own existence, in their attempts to blot God out.

Though as Lewis pointed out, the tininess of Earth was common knowledge to the Medievals, already. 

"And Chinese mainlanders, even the ones who will do anything for the opportunity to practice English conversation with a native speaker, generally agree with me. Your blindness to the truth notwithstanding... "

Shelton is under (how many false assumptions is this now?) that I am some sort of an evangelist in China, that I am starting Bible studies here, and that the tens of millions of Chinese who have come to Christ in recent decades are doing so so they can practice English with me.  I'll have to share the joke with some of them. 

Thursday, December 26, 2013

In Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton wrote that Robinson Crusoe:

"Owes its eternal vivacity to the fact that it celebrates the poetry of limits, nay, even the wild romance of prudence.  Crusoe is a man on a small rock with a few things just snatched from the sea: the best thing in the book is simply the list of things saved from the wreck . . .  Every kitchen tool becomes ideal because Crusoe might have dropped it in the sea."

Soon, Chesterton brings his parable around to philosophy:

"That there are two sexes and one sun, was like the fact that there were two guns and one axe. It was poignantly urgent that none should be lost; but somehow, it was rather fun that none could be added."

I think that's one reason I enjoy camping.  Last summer, John, James and I camped at a little lake in the North Cascades, made our dinner, set up our tent: each item (besides the dog) essential.  I laughed uproariously when a sudden breath of wind took our tent away, and cast it into the sea, and James went chasing after it over the snow in his bare feet.  I was glad, though, that we saved that tent from the wreck, and allowed the local mosquitoes to celebrate the poetry of limits.

Now here I am in China, for a long spell, with a limited number of items from home.  I'm surprised at how many of those items have already proved essential.  (Some of which, yes, Mayumi thought of, like the hot chocolate.)  Bedding did not come with the tiny "apartment" I'm staying in, if one can call it that, so the sleeping bag and sheets came in handy.  (I also borrowed a bit more, and bought a tiger blanket to put underneath.)  There's no light by the bed, so the little flashlight lights my way to the door to turn on and off the lights.  I found exactly six clothes pins in my pack, and also some rope from hiking trips, just long enough to stretch between poles to dry clothes, and about as many clothes as I want to wash by hand at one time.  (Smaller items dry by the window: but sheets tend to freeze together outside, it falling into the teens here almost every night, to rise the next day into the 30s.)

It's also rather fun that Orthodoxy came with me.  Kindle and all those screens from which all information in the world is just a click away spoils us.  Maybe the greatest shortage in our Brave New World will be a shortage of limits.  (This is the point I fumbled to express in my debate with Richard Carrier earlier this year -- wow, was that the same year as this?) 

Unfortunately, city kids in Beijing are shown the world through screens, but every bit of wild fun -- skating on frozen lakes, for instance -- is forbidden them, for fear they will drown, or something.  Through excessive fear of death, we may fail to live.

Meanwhile, I'm beginning to buy Chinese books, which are really cheap, and the reading of which led to a curious adventure today, which I'll tell later.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Going to China tomorrow

And I don't know how often I'll be able to blog . . .

A few intriguing rules for the first Buddhist nuns, from the Bikkumusangha, from the road:

12.  No crossing roads where there are crows. 

21.  Nuns should pack heat. 

24.  Avoid beautiful gardens, palaces, flowers. 

38.  No riding in vehicles -- if you're fit, walk! 

Anyway, thanks to my readers . . . Have a Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

How Smart People Lie

I'm presently researching how the Gospel has changed the world for women, as you may know.  One comes across all kinds of interesting phenomena on such a journey. 

One thing I've noticed is a difference between some Indian scholars, and some American scholars.  Even in an anthology dedicated to a professor, I find that not all of the Indian scholarship would meet American standards.  There are lots of misspellings, poor grammar, and worse yet, the unabashed expression of horror when confronting evil:

"It passes our comprehension how the great Buddha could reconcile himself to the transparent injustice implied by the first regulation."
Door of Hope doll: are we
"white and wholesome," yet?
"To dub women as perpetual minors is the worst form of coercion that man can perpetrate on the womanhood.  That the Buddha with all his solicitousness for women could not help sanctioning this abominable tyranny on them is a sad commentary on his otherwise catholic vision and keen intelligence." Shalini Dixit, Patriarchy and Feminine Spaces: A Study of Women in Early Buddhism
Similarly, in Women of Disadvantaged Groups: Status and Empowerment, the author of a piece on the sexual exploitation of non-Brahman women in South India rages against various bizarre sexual practices and scams inflicted on women. 
Bad form, ladies.  Let your female American colleagues teach you how to be appropriately scholarly -- which means, finding evil in good, and good in evil, and being patronizing and especially suspicious of virtue.  (Except your own, which can be tacitly assumed.)
Here, for instance, from a book entitled Competing Kingdoms: Women, Mission, Nation, and the American Protestant Empire, 1812-1960.  Sue Gronewold writes a chapter in that book about the Door of Hope Mission, a rescue mission run by Anglo-American missionaries in Shanghai, later mostly of the China Inland Mission.  (Hudson Taylor's outfit.)  As Gronewold admits, Taylor was very open-minded when it came to giving women a strong role in his mission.  Indeed, he was known to say his female missionaries were better evangelists than his male missionaries, at least in one region. 
Since 1902, to make money for rescued women, the mission sold China dolls.  These were painstaking objects of art, one of which would take a month of work to produce.  In 1929 these dolls were updated to more modern outfits. 
Here's how Gronewold writes up the story.  Sisters in that part of the world in which sneering still lags in its developmental infancy, please take note:

"CIM views of Chinese women added racism and imperialism to the already complicated patriarchy.  For evangelicals, the main attribute of Chinese women was their supposed heathenness and idolatrous ways.   In their view, women were far more susceptible to and responsible for perpetuating popular religion, for prostrating themselves before the 'gilded Goddess of Mercy.'  CIM literature, like much missionary writing, constantly portrayed Chinese women as downtrodden, dark, and limited in mobility, education, and esteem.  The kingdom of Christ literally lightened and whitened them.  'Woman's work for women' was necessary to reach the women and children of China and 'bring them into the light.  Victimized 'girls' represented more that the CIM's best test case; they represented China itself, a China that had been feminized and infantilized at the Door of Hope, born again, and transformed.  The girls who produced new Chinese women and girl dolls in this period reinforced the image of remade and reborn China and Chinese womanhood." (199)
Notice the dexterity with which Gronewold moves the conversation away from anything in the real world, any facts about how life is lived and what might make it better, any true picture of the state of affairs in early 20th Century China, any virtues or good deeds or kindnesses or sacrifices that her target villains (the missionaries) might achieve, to wholly imaginary and unreal crimes. 
To begin with, one must take care not to ask any questions about objective reality. 
* Are most of the worshippers of Guan Yin, the goddess of mercy, female?  (Answer: of course they are, as anyone who has actually been to a Chinese temple, to this day, knows.) 
* Did women disproportionately prostrate themselves before religious figures?   (Again, the answer is "Of course."  I have photos, I have interviews, and stats are not hard to find.) 
* Were Chinese women "downtrodden," uneducated, and limited in mobility in the 1920s?  (Of course they were.  The bones in girls' feet were broken at about the age of six, which very literally limited their mobility.  Did you ever try walking on broken, bound feet, Ms. Gronewold?  And almost no women were, in fact, educated or literate, until the missionaries arrived.)
* In what sense were the missionaries "racist?"  What does Gronewold mean by that accusation?  What is her evidence?  To what degree, compared with other westerners in the 1920s?  (No answer.)
* How were they implicit in "imperialism?"  What evidence does she have that the women who served at Door of Hope wished their governments to push around China?  (No answer.)
* Did the missionaries in fact change things?  (Well yes they did, in a big way.  Gronewold tells the story of how Door of Hope does this later in the chapter.  It is also a fact that missions in general introduced education for women, and helped launch the war against foot-binding, and in other ways did much to raise the status of women in China.)
* Has Ms. Gronewold ever served in a rescue mission, or tried to help girls forced into prostitution?  How many young women has she "rescued?  (No answer.)
But Gronewold doesn't need to answer such questions: guilt is implicit in the accusation.  If it weren't, it would be proven by the fact that the missionaries saw what everyone else with open eyes recognized -- that Chinese women, not excluding girls sold into prostitution (!), were in a bad way, and could benefit from a helping hand.  What else can one call that, but patronizing?  And thinking of oneself as better off than others -- isn't that the sin of the Good Samaritan?  After all, didn't he view the person who had been mugged and left for dead as "downtrodden, dark (dried blood will do that), and limited in mobility?"
Now it is probably unfair to be too harsh on Ms. Gronewold.  Maybe this paragraph, and other comments like it, are mainly a scholarly affectation.  (She may also have imbibed some Marxism, with all her vague talk about imperialism.)  She does, as I said, detail much of the good that Door of Hope accomplished, later in the chapter:

"The fruits of their labors benefited the Chinese nation as much as or more than they did either Western imperialists or the kingdom of God . . . From the vantage point of poor Chinese women in Shanghai who lived life on the edge and whose possibilities were limited to relatively unskilled factory work, abusive marriages, brothel work, begging, and hunger at home, the mission did indeed offer a 'door of hope.'"
But isn't the need to work to this conclusion by way of so many unsupported insinuations in itself, rather telling?  Because what Gronewold is affecting, is indeed a common and accepted style.  It is a style of lying, lying by insinuation. 
Give me bad spelling and honest emotion, any day. 
(Note: I posted another article yesterday that might just as well be called "How Dumb People Lie," then recalled it.  I don't know how much stupidity my good readers want to put  up with, around the holidays -- or me either, I'm grumpy enough as it is.   So Happy Thanksgiving!) 

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Disproving History: Carrier takes on the Gospels I

Proving History, the first part of Richard Carrier's bold two-volume attempt to demonstrate that Jesus never lived, or at least that asserting that he never lived is intellectually respectable, is easily the best of Carrier's books I have read so far.  Why I am Not a Christian (which I will review shortly) is embarrassing.  Sense and Goodness is much better, but still suffers from that cockiness and careless prodigality of opinion on a universe of topics that apes virtuosity as Sunday insert travel journalism apes really knowing a foreign land.  But in this book, Carrier keeps to a focused topic, on which he has read and thought a good deal, and banishes self-praise to the margins of coy implicity.  

Not that Carrier claims to prove much about Jesus in this book, which claims to mainly offer a foundation for the argument to follow in Volume II. 
The subject here is historical methodology, and how best to "search for the historical Jesus."  Carrier thinks the methods commonly employed need reform, or perhaps revolution is a more apt term.  His main goal in this book is to demonstrate that the received methods do not work as usually applied -- and then to point us to the Straight Path, that is, Bayes Theorum.  His secondary goal is to begin showing why his methods are going to take out tradition arguments for Jesus' historicity, still more for the reliability of the gospels -- knowing the kids can't wait for supper, and need some snacks of raw meat beforehand.  (Tis the season for Thanksgiving analogies.) 
This book roughly consists of three parts: (1) Carrier's general theory of how to do history; (1) his attacks on the criteria that are used to establish Jesus, or the use of those criteria to do so (most of his time is spent on the Criteria of Embarrassment), and (3) a defense of using Bayes to make historical arguments. 
I will not analyze Carrier's use of Bayes in this review.   There are mathematicians who seem to have issues with that, and I see no need to poach on their territory.  I personally have no problem with applying Bayes to history, to the extent that I follow the discussion.  The devil, as usual, is in the historical details.  I will explain why I find his logic, and treatment of history, defective at times in the first two parts of this work, then go after three major issues, that threaten to ruin Carrier's project.   
But first, let me say that that does not mean the book is not worth reading, or that Carrier makes no valid or interesting points.  We need our critics.  In a sense, as a Christian I think Carrier is doing helpful work, here.  He is offering the strongest challenges he can think of, taking skepticism in some ways beyond where it has gone before, beyond the Jesus Seminar that I rebutted long ago, to fling the most ingenious arguments he can get his hands on at the citadel of faith, like the siege-works of Mordor advancing on Gondor.  Behind him, however, lies history itself, including history that Carrier himself has in the past argued for, debunked along with the gospels, as collateral damage.  And I believe his assault on Gondor, too, begins to fail already in this first volume, as new resources of historicity come raging into the field from hills and river, trumpets blasting. 
Having gotten the Tolkien out of my system, let's get down to specifics.  I'll begin with details, then move on to three big issues. 

Selective Nit-Picking
The first hundred pages or so of Carrier's book attempts to establish a series of principles for testing history.  There is a lot of this that I agree with.  Carrier obviously respects the discipline of history, as he understands it, pointing out for instance that science itself depends to a large extent upon historical reports.  Carrier is at his best when he takes his Gnu pugilist hat off, and puts his philosopher of history hat on.  Unfortunately he cannot always resist tossing peanuts to the peanut gallery:
11. "Apart from fundamentalist Christians, all experts agree the Jesus of the Bible is buried in myth and legend."

Carrier surely knows that scholars who fit no reasonable definition of "fundamentalist" (Luke Johnson, NT Wright) would strongly disagree with this statement, and that many whom he might try to pigeon-hole into this category (Richard Bauckham, Craig Evans, Ben Witherington) have gained credibility in, and made marks on, the scholarly world far beyond what he or any Christ mythicist have yet achieved. 
23. "Compared to, for example, Richard Nixon or Mark Twain, the documentation for Jesus and the origins of Christianity is extraordinarily thin and problematic.  And yet even knowing all we'd like to know about Nixon or Twain is impossible, as even for them the evidence is neither complete nor unproblematic; for Jesus and the origins of Christianity, vastly more so.
"Anyone who rejects this conclusion is not an objective scholar, but a dogmatist or propagandist whose voice needn't be heeded by any respectable academic community."
I wonder what respectable community Carrier has in mind.  Is it the community that overwhelmingly rejects mythicist conclusions about Jesus?
And why, in researching Jesus, should one reference Richard Nixon, about whom many of us already know than we wish?   Compared to the historical King David, who certainly did live, documentation for Jesus is extraordinarily robust and diverse.

179.  " . . . any true content gets simpler and less detailed over time . . . "
That's not what happened when I wrote a little biography of my father for our family, after he passed away.  The stories began simply, from what I personally remembered, or what one other family member told me.  Then as I interviewed more people -- about events, mind you, often much further in time than the writing of the gospels was from Jesus' public ministry -- the stories tended to grow, become more detailed, as different people recalled different parts of what happened.  All in all, my experience writing that biography affirmed my trust that human memory can provide solid evidence, and the possibilities of turning memory into accurate biography.  Again, at a longer distance by decades, in some cases, than Mark was from the events of his gospel. 
Problem One: Is Carrier acting as Historian, or Prosecuting Attorney?

Carrier gives Matthew 10: 5-6 and 15:24, in which Jesus tells his disciples to preach only to Jews, a bizarre but perhaps revealing read.  He claims that Matthew was struggling against a community of Gentile Christians, whom he wanted to discredit, and that may be why he invented these sayings. (171)  He finds evidence for the idea that these sayings were indeed invented by Matthew, in the fact that Paul is never depicted at having to answer Christians who cited Jesus restricting evangelistic efforts to just Jews.

Yet at the end of Matthew's gospel, Jesus tells his disciples to "Go into all the world, and make disciples!"  Carrier points that passage out himself, and remarks:
"On the other hand, Matthew's seemingly contradictory endorsement of a mission to the Gentiles (in Matthew 28:19) is no more likely to be unhistorical because it fails to cohere with what we know from Galatians -- because Matthew does not mean what Paul was doing (converting Gentiles straightaway, without first converting them to Judaism through circumcision and dietary laws) . . . . "
This is an argument worthy of Rube Goldberg. 
First, where is the supposed "contradiction?"  If a coach tells his offensive team to get out on the field after the ball has been kicked off to their side, does that "contradict" him telling them to sit on the bench after they have kicked off?  Nor is there any "contradiction" in Jesus telling his team to do one thing at one point, obviously tied to a particular mission, and something else later.

Nor did Jesus say anything anywhere in these Matthew passages about dietary laws. 

And Paul knew first-hand that Christ wanted him to preach the Gospel to Gentiles (Acts 13:47).  Why in the world would Luke record Jews making objections that had not been written down yet, and that when written down, would be narrowly focused and contain their own universal negation in the Great Commission?  (What does it say, "Go into all the world and make Jews, getting out your knives and cutting . . . ?")  
Carrier is inventing problems for the NT texts with the glee of a rich Roman merchant setting gladiator slaves at one another in the Coliseum.  The New Testament account is at this point sensible and straightforward: Carrier works overtime to introduce problems into it so as to undermine its credibility. 

And that is the stance not of objective history (if there is such a thing), but of a prosecuting attorney.  Fine, good to know what we're facing here. 

Problem Two: Disproving History

One of Carrier's chief goals in Proving History is to undermine the historical criteria frequently used to defend the Gospels.  In the second major part of the book, he thus goes after these famous criteria in a D-Day landing style chapter of 86 pages, entitled "Bayesian Analysis of Historical Methods."  Unfortunately, in the process he accidentally wipes out all ancient history along with the gospels. 
The attack Carrier launches on the "Criterion of Embarrassment" is especially energetic.  He argues that the criterion is self-contradictory: "Surely if anything was actually embarrassing about Jesus, we can fairly well assume it would not survive in the record at all," because it would have been edited out. (135)  So we must assume the authors had some positive reason for including such "embarrassing" facts as Jesus' death on the cross, his cry of despair from the cross, and so on.  In fact, one can often find (or imagine) excellent reasons why the evangelists would have included this or that embarrassing fact even if it wasn't true.  Mark, for instance, would have read prophets like Daniel who as much predicted the death of the Messiah.  And even when we don't have access to such opposing motives, our very ignorance defeats us: we would have to be aware of the author's thinking, his assumptions, the theories he was arguing against, and so on, to be sure that what he recorded truly did upset his apple cart.  Furthermore, Carrier argues that all religious texts record events that might be deemed embarrassing -- should we accept them all?  Sometimes here, Carrier seems to just throw mud against the wall to see what sticks:
"The incest and immorality of the gods in Homer was embarrassing to Plutarch and Plato, for example (they chafe at it constantly), yet no one today uses that fact to argue that Homer's stories of the gods must therefore be true." (129)
Of course not.  Plato doesn't claim that Homer's stories are true, so why should anyone use his skepticism about already ancient tall tales to argue that they really happened?  Still less does Plato claim, as Luke does, to have carefully researched the historical facts, before describing how Zeus appeared as swan or bull to chase fair maiden.  Homer wrote some two to four hundred years before Plato.  These are basic and obvious considerations, that Carrier too often just fails to consider. 
After taking his shots at the Criteria of Embarrassment, Carrier asks, "What are we to do?" (158)  He admits that in practice, this criterion "often finds successful use in every historical field," and even "I've relied on it myself."
So he has.  (And so, for that matter, have some of America's most famous skeptics have employed it against me.) 
In Sense and Goodness Without God, Carrier argued that Julius Caesar's crossing of the Rubicon in 49 BC is much better attested than the Resurrection of Jesus.  Carrier offered what he there called "counterbiased corroboration" for the crossing.  He explained:
"A Counterbiased source is someone who is actually notably biased against the event being reported, so that if even they admit it happened, there is a good chance it did.  And so, we find that many of Caesar's enemies, including his nemesis Cicero, refer to the crossing of the Rubicon, as did friends and neutral observers . . . " (SBWG, 243)
Here we apparently have an example of how the Criteria of Embarrassment should be used.  But see what Carrier demands of proper use:
"First, you must reliably know if the statement in question very probably did go against its author's interests, that the author actually perceived that it would, and that the statement did not serve other interests the author had which he may have regarded as outweigh any other consequences he perceived to be likely.  And that means you must reliably know what an author's interests actually were, and not just in general, but that particular author in that particular book, in that particular scene (and in that particular community at that particular time, and you must reliably know what the author perceived the consequences of his statement would be . . . you must reliably know how that author would have weighed the pros and cons he was aware of at the time . . . And if you can establish all that, you're not done.  For you must also reliable know if the author was even in a position to know the statement was actually true . . . You also need a specific theory as to why the questionable statement was included at all.  And then you need to test that theory against other theories of what it may have been included"
Nor is that all!
"But that requires explaining why that author could not omit it or even change it (and why no one else could in all the decades before." (PH, 158-9)
Now did Richard Carrier "establish" all this about Caesar crossing the Rubicon in 49 BC?  For that matter, could anyone ever establish it about anything?  Or are we artificially raising the barrier to proof so high that not only the gospels, but no one ever, could possibly surmount it?
Where in Cicero does Carrier claim he spoke of Caesar crossing the Rubicon?  Extant works of Cicero may be as old as 350 AD, but that still leaves a lot of time for anonymous scribes to do their dirty work. 
Plutarch, who tells the story of Caesar crossing the Rubicon, was born more than a century after the event, and the manuscripts for his Lives arrive in our hands almost a thousand years later. 

Carrier rebukes Marcus Borg for supposing that if we have at least two early and independent versions of a saying, that is good reason to think it "goes back to" Jesus.  Carrier responds to Borg:
"It is an equally good reason for thinking that the gist of it goes back to an originating myth (or even a revelatory dream or vision), or an earlier storyteller's innovation." (174) 
Carrier fails to notice that this destroys his argument for Caesar crossing the Rubicon, too.  Cicero does not claim to have witnessed Caesar's horse getting his hooves wet.  (And if he had, given the hundreds of years down which his accounts descend, there were plenty of opportunities for fabrication.)  His account, if any is actually given anywhere (Carrier does not cite his source), can be explained as the reflection of an  earlier originating myth which also reached Plutarch's ears, maybe part of the Herculean mythological motif about crossing the River Styx to regain a beloved from Hades. 

Probably nothing in ancient history, and very little in modern history, can survive the level of skepticism Carrier brings to the gospels here.  One can seldom "reliably know" that a statement could not have served "other interests," still less what a given author "perceived the consequences" of him saying something would be.  It may be that, supposing Cicero to actually have said that Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon (I have found no such record, yet), he thought telling the story would make Caesar look bad.  Or maybe he thought it would make Caesar look good, but now that Caesar was dead, he wanted to assuage that Roman faction against Mark Antony and the assassins.  Or maybe he heard a false rumor of the crossing.  And Caesar might have gone by sea.  One can think of an infinite number of sillier possibilities -- maybe one of Caesar's generals was holding a knife to Cicero's throat as he wrote.  Maybe he wrote "Caesar did NOT cross the Rubicon" and the word "not" was swallowed in a manuscript crease.  Indeed, the whole train of manuscript history is vulnerable to attack at thousands of points.  (Exponentially more vulnerable than the manuscript history of the gospels, which is centuries shorter, with many times as many early manuscripts.) 
So must all ancient history be declared bunk? 
Not at all!  Sometimes these fragile trains of evidence come to be verified by more direct evidence, even physical evidence that archeologists dig up from the very time and place that the original writing was about.
For instance, the Chinese historian Si Maqian (d. 86 BC) recorded the sequence of Shang Dynasty rulers more than a thousand years before his time.  (Some of whom lived in the city I'm going to be moving to shortly, Zhengzhou.)  These reign periods were widely questioned by skeptical historians, until archeologists found the names of most rulers at Anyang, a later Shang capital, and other archeological records that generally confirmed Si Maqian's late account. 
Carrier wants us to believe that having four gospels that generally confirm one another's stories, is no advantage at all.  This is extreme.  The gospels would seem to be vastly more secure than the single late record of Si Maquian, which was put into hiding by his daughter, and finally "published" by his grandson, with a few alterations.  The first manuscript of that work only appears half a millennia or so later.  Yet if you believed Si Maqian in the face of all that long transmission and storage with all those people you had never met and never were given the lie detector and mind-reading tests Carrier seems to demand for reliable history, so as to dissect their every thought and intent -- you would know something about a long stretch of Chinese history, that you would otherwise not have known. 

So something seems wrong with Carrier's ultra-critical methods. 

Let's look again at the Criteria of Embarrassment.

Carrier seems to suppose that if a writer finds a reason within his greater authorial purpose for inserting an incident into the story he is telling, then that incident is no longer "embarrassing."  But this seems simplistic.  The gospels record how the disciples' expectations were shattered.  Upon that shattered foundation, a new foundation of partial understanding was erected. 
By analogy, consider the story Deborah Layton tells in her autobiographical Seductive Poison: A Jonestown Survivor's Story of Life and Death in the People's Temple.   The story she tells about Jim Jones includes three kinds of elements, roughly speaking: (1) positive elements, reflecting her original high impression of Jones as a spiritual man who fought for racial justice and to help the downtrodden (let's call that Model A); (2) negative elements, reflecting her growing understanding that Jones was evil, manipulative, and dangerous (Model B); (3) neutral elements related simply because they were important to her story. 
That story is full of incidents that are obviously painful to Deborah personally, and also to both her first and her second models of the Reverend Jones.  She has to tell how Jones seduced her and other women in the cult.  One need not nail down all possible alternative motivations with certainty, as Carrier seems to demand, to suppose that she found this embarrassing.  There are people who make up lurid sexual adventures, but these incidents are so humiliating, and not very titillating, and she does not seem to be that kind of person. 
As for Carrier's claim that the disciples are too stupid and willful to find credible, Deborah notes:

"It's hard to explain why I didn't realize something was seriously wrong; why I stayed deaf to the warning calls ringing in my ears.  I ignored my doubts and my conscience because I believed that I could not be wrong, not that wrong." (69)
This is how Deborah realized that Jones was vicious and amoral: incidents that embarrassed her former beliefs occurred.  Her stories mark the transition from Model A to Model B.
So should we toss out her story, because it now fits Model B?  That would be a strange thing to do. 
Layton forthrightly tells stories that were terribly painful, and remained deeply embarrassing.  In her literary reconstruction, she does fit it all into a "myth," an overweening interpretive narrative, a story line by which she interprets what happened.  But that does not in any way draw the intellectual power of her story, any more than the palpable realism of Mark's story.

But apparently that realism is not palpable to Dr. Carrier. 

Problem Three: Has Carrier Read the Gospels? 

I sometimes wonder, in his analysis of microfractures in the body of the gospels, if Carrier has lost the ability to read the texts as a whole.  Note:
"All we have are uncritical pro-Christian devotional or hagiographic texts filled with dubious claims written decades after the fact by authors who never tell us their methods or sources. Multiple Attestation can never gain traction on such a horrid body of evidence." (175)
I take it from this that Carrier either never reads genuine hagiography or devotion, or has not noticed what it is like.  More likely, he fails to recognize what the gospels themselves are like.  As C. S. Lewis, one of the best-read experts on fiction in modern times, put it, comparing the Gospel of John to various forms of fiction, "None of them is like this." (I demonstrate this point in detail in some chapters of Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus.)
Likewise, critiquing the criterion of Multiple Attestation, Carrier offers another revealing comparison:

" . . . we should actually expect multiple attestations to be fabricated.  Hence the Infancy Gospels 'corroborate' that Jesus was a great miracle worker, yet we know full well this evidence is fictional . . . " (173)
But the example of the so-called "Infancy Gospels," too, shows remarkably inattentive reading.  Read the things!  Carrier doesn't seem to notice how startlingly different the alleged "miracles" in these works are from those in the real gospels.  (I describe some of the differences between real miracles and such fabrications in Jesus and the Religions of Man.)  
C. S. Lewis wrote of an affliction he found common among New Testament scholars:

"These men ask me to believe they can read between the lines of the old texts; the evidence is their obvious inability to read (in any sense worth discussing) the lines themselves. They claim to see fern-seed and can't see an elephant ten yards way in broad daylight."

That is also my impression of how Carrier reads the gospels, too.  He rips them to shreds analytically, but misses the essential character of the texts he purports to be analyzing.  This was proven to me in our debate, when he made the astounding claim that books like Apollonius of Tyana, the Book of Tobit, the Golden Ass, and Life of Romulus "share all the characteristics of the gospels."  I analyzed that claim here, showing that objectively analyzed, it was clear that nothing could be further from the truth: in fact, not one of them comes anywhere close to resembling a NT gospel. 

This post is just a short and preliminary brief for the defense, of a book that makes many good points, but that I think signals that Carrier's project is unlikely to succeed.  Indeed, while many of his historical principles are solid, and some of his criticisms of individual NT passages seem credible, I suspect the overall effect of his attack is likely to prove much like what John Earman says about Bayes Theorum:
"I trust I have managed to reveal one of the undeniably impressive properties of Bayesianism: the more it is attacked, the stronger it gets, and the more interesting the objection, the more interesting the doctrine becomes." (41)
Whether or not refuting Carrier's doctrine will make the Gospel appear stronger and more interesting, may depend partly on how good are the objections Carrier and his confederates can raise.  But Carrier is smart.  He is well-read.  He has searched high and low for parallels to the gospels, following a vast herd of mainstream but also skeptical scholars before him.   That is what makes such arguments worth considering. 

In the end, Kilimanjaro still rises above the Kenyan plains.   And the elephant, standing ten yards away in broad daylight, stamps his foot with justifiable impatience. 

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Hindu Texts on Women I: The Rig Veda

Two years ago, as part of my long series on "How Jesus Liberates Women," I analyzed the influence of world religions sociologically, according to a 1988 UN study of the status of women around the world.  Earlier this fall, we looked at an alternative interpretation of the same data, by a female scholar from Pakistan.  While both studies were flawed in various ways, in both cases the results showed that countries with strong historical Christian influence tend to treat women relatively well, while countries with a Muslim or Hindu background tend to treat women poorly.  (With Buddhists in the middle, and states with many Secular Humanists looking pretty good, too.)   

But such broad social surveys are most effective in establishing correlation, not causation.  I argued that to demonstrate causation, to show that different religions really do effect the status of women in different ways, it would help to find two other things: (1) a plausible source of causation in the religious texts themselves, and (2) historical evidence that in fact, those texts made a difference. 

In several later posts (click on the "Christianity and women" label below), I offered plentiful evidence for both of these points. 

Now we are examining the impact of other religious texts and traditions on the status of women.  In a three-part series on November 8, November 14, and November 18, I cited every important, and most minor, references to women in the Quran.  I was frankly appalled by the prophet's scheming and cruelty.  In the comments sections, especially of the third post, some objections were raised, not to what I found in the Quran, but along the lines of, "Don't take the splinter out of your neighbor's eye, until you first take the log out of your own." 

To which my response is: (a) I'm a student of world religions: my goal here is to understand.  (b) Jesus also said, "By their fruits you will know them," which seems to imply that religious leaders ought to be evaluated empirically. (c) In fact, I already analyzed the gospels and Acts of the Apostles in the same way.  That's the whole point of the exercise.  I'll also get to Paul, too.  Mohammed was not being treated unfairly.  (d) Anyway, I welcome fair analysis of Deuteronomy, or any other OT book, if you treat it the same way: read systematically, rather than cherry-picking, and evaluate how the text as a whole teaches us to treat women.  (f) I probably won't do that myself, because Christ is the center of the Christian faith, through whom we interpret the Old Testament.  One only has so much time. 

The other great religion that the UN survey leads one to believe may have harmed women is Hinduism.  (As you may recall, Buddhist countries tended to lie scattered in the middle.) 

Friday, November 22, 2013

Happy Homecoming Day, C. S. Lewis!

In college some time during the last century, I reviewed a clever book for a student newspaper by Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft called Between Heaven and Hell.  Noting that Lewis, JFK, and Aldous Huxley all passed away on the same day, Kreeft proposed that the three men met somewhere in another world after their deaths for a conversation about ultimate truths, which he then records.  Of course Lewis got the best of the debate, as he normally did in this life. 

I was two when Lewis passed away, so I never had the chance for that long conversation with him that I have often wished for since. 

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Great Christian Thinkers on Faith and Reason

Note: I originally compiled this anthology for  We considered including it in the upcoming volume, True Reason, which is due to come out in print early in January, but ultimately Tim McGrew and I reworked some of the early sections in more depth for a single chapter.  However, as part of his multi-pronged response to Peter Boghossian's Manual for Creating Atheists, Tom Gilson recently asked if he could post this on his site, Thinking Christian, which he did.  I thought I'd post it here, too, and maybe add new names and quotes as I come across them.  One new one I'll add today is by St. John of Damascus, from the 8th Century.  -- David

The following quotes represent a variety of traditions—Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant—and vocations—philosophers, theologians, scientists, reformers, and perhaps the greatest Christian missionary after St. Paul: all of them key Christian thinkers speaking on faith and reason—for those who think that faith is disconnected from good thinking.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Mohammed enslaves Women III, then John of Damascus weighs in

We seem to share with our canine friends an unfortunate instinct to grovel before bullies. 
That is the only explanation I can find for the tendency of some non-Muslim women to depict Mohammed as enlightened or anything but ruthless in his treatment of women. 

On reading it through for the first time, I find the Quran even worse than expected. It seems little more than a vehicle by which Mohammed asserted power over others, and demanded that everyone submit utterly to him.  There is one great law to which all people must bow at all times, to gain paradise with rivers of honey and water and wine and milk, and in which one lounges on couches and eats fruit and it entertained by virgin beauties, and avoids a hell of boiling water or copper that burst one's innards and has to consume hellish devil fruit to intensify agony forever.  And that law is absolute, unquestioning obedience to the "prophet's" every whim. 

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Mohammed gives women more trouble.

I am presently reading through the Quran from beginning to end for the first time.  I have taught on Islam (shortly, in the context of world religions), and I have read many books on Islam, so it is past time that I finally grappled with the source of Muslim teaching in its totality. 

It has so far been an enlightening, which does not always mean exciting, ride.  The book is very repetitive.  Sometimes it gains a kind of low-key poetic majesty, in which the very repetitions feature as a useful device.  The overwhelmingly dominant themes are: