Richard Carrier: "Christianity's Success was not Incredible" (Part III)
Richard Carrier contributes three chapters to The End of Christianity. Only one of those chapters is on a subject that he (or I) is qualified to say much about, though. The other two are on the origin of life, and anthropic principles. Might as well watch celebrity golf, as watch two historical philosophers, or philosophical historians, or whatever the heck we are, argue about nucleotides and black holes. So I'll concentrate here on the chapter in which Carrier is supposed to know what he's talking about: ancient history.
It's hard at first to figure out who Carrier is arguing with in this chapter, though. (a) He begins by vaguely citing a cloud of Christian opponents who allegedly make the following argument:
"It's often claimed that Christianity could never have begun or succeeded unless the people of its first three centuries had overwhelming evidence that it was true."
He never gets around to quoting or naming anyone who actually says that, though. Presumably the reader is supposed to know tons of people who do, but I don't know any. I have heard it said that Jesus' direct followers would not have knowingly died for a lie. But they only lived (at best) until about 100 AD, not 330 AD, which is when "three centuries" would take us to.
Fortunately, Carrier also explains his own positive claim in the same paragraph, which he tries to support later:
"But when we look at the actual facts of that time and place, we find Christianity's conception and growth were not remarkable at all. In fact, what happened is quite the contrary of what we should expect if it really did have the backing of a benevolent miracle-working God. This evidence thus actually disconfirms Christianity." (53)
This paragraph promises two arguments: (b) a series of historical claims ("actual facts of that time and place"), that support (c) a theological claim ("what we should expect if it really did have the backing of a benevolent miracle-working God").
Since we don't know who he's debating (a) with, then, I'll try to deal with Carrier's negative argument fairly quickly. I'll then (b) question some of Carrier's key (and less key) historical assumptions. Finally, (c) I'll show why his theological argument against Christianity, which is the heart of the matter, does not work.
A. "Wholly Unremarkable Growth?"
As Carrier I am sure realizes, his argument that the growth of Christianity mirrored that of other religions, like Mormonism, was popularized by the eminent sociologist of religion, Rodney Stark, in The Rise of Christianity (1996). Stark argued that a 40% growth rate per decade, close to the Mormon rate of growth, was sufficient to make more than 10% of the population of the Roman Empire Christian by the year 300. We do not need to posit miracles to explain that growth, he argued.
Stark evidently didn't interpret this as much of an argument against Christianity, though, since he soon converted himself. In my interview of Dr. Stark, which can be found at christthetao.com, he reaffirmed his old argument, but noted that it did not imply that miracles didn't happen.
Carrier, however, leaps to bolder conclusions:
"Since that rate was natural, we should expect its cause was natural, which alone closes the book on Christianity having any supernatural evidence or guidance."
That's quite a leap.
First, on a minor point, the analogy Stark offered in 1996 is rather imperfect. Mormonism has grown under conditions of religious freedom, during an era of quick travel, instant communication, and far better health for infants and mothers, making use of aggressive, highly systematic and quasi-militaristic missions campaigns. None of these factors were true of Christianity during the Roman Empire. All Christian males were not, like the Mormons, required to "go on a mission" for two years. Mormons have seldom been liable to crucifixion or being fed to lions.
Second, the phrase "this alone closes the door on" is one of many phrases that gives the impression Carrier is preaching to the choir, here. On the same page, Carrier insinuates that Christians in Rome were a "lunatic fringe." A few pages later, he describes Jesus as "a stupid, working-class hick." Later he describes witnesses to the Resurrection as "a few fanatics and a church community demonstrably full of regular hallucinators and fabricators."
These rather adolescent applause lines no doubt work, for a friendly audience. Reading the chapter as a whole, I sometimes get the feeling Dr. Carrier has been preaching to his choir too long, and might improve the quality of his argument by interacting with a more mature audience.
Third, in any case, Carrier's leap does not carry him over the canyon. Is it true that if Christianity grew at a rate for which natural parallels can be found, miracles must be excluded from the history of its spread? Carrier seems to be assuming that the only reason to believe those miracles is the raw increase in numbers. But of course that is not true: I believe in them, because people I trust, like St. Luke and St. Augustine, tell about them happening to people they knew. Direct evidence trumps mere sociological generalizations.
But suppose Carrier is saying raw numbers ARE the issue, and the sociology should come first. Does that mean, if the increase exceeds 40% a decade, Carrier himself will admit to miracles?
I have met many people in China who claim to have seen God work in miraculous or remarkable ways. In some cases, the growth rate of Christianity has far exceeded that 40% per decade. In Anhui Province, for example (which has far more people than the Roman Empire did), the number of Christians seemed to grow, for several decades, at some 400% per decade.
Does Carrier, then, concede that miracles occurred in Anhui? If not, then perhaps it is time to dismiss this line of a priori reasoning entirely, and decide historical questions by looking at historical evidence. The card he plays here, trumps his own hand.
There is also a theological question: what growth rate Christianity actually predicts. Carrier has not really thought this issue through, as we will see in section C.
B. Historical Problems
Richard Carrier's arguments often seem to sound convincing to smart people in other fields. The biologist and radical skeptic P. Z. Myers has, as I recall, described Carrier as one of his favorite historians. A young philosopher I have much respect cites him regularly.
My goal in this section, then, will not be so much to critique Carrier's historical argument (this is not necessary, since as I will show, his theological premises are completely mistaken). My intent here is rather to show why I think even his historical claims should be accepted with great caution and scrutiny.
I'll give four examples of sloppy historical arguments in this chapter, the first three of which are important to Carrier's argument.
(1) When did Christians take over the Roman Empire? On page 54, Carrier notes:
"Even after nearly three centuries of that entirely ordinary growth, only when Christianity acquired absolute despotic power (first in the hands of the Emperor Constantine . . . "
Later on the SAME PAGE he says:
"All of this came over a generation before Constantine, the first Christian emperor, seized power by force. Even after that, it took a century for Christians to fully take over . . . "
This is perplexing. How could Christianity have had "absolute despotic power" under Constantine, yet not "fully take over" for another century?
The truth is, Constantine probably was not all that Christian, certainly not when he attained power. And what he instituted was not "absolute despotic power" for Christians, but freedom to practice their religion, plus a bunch of handouts.
Historians of ancient Rome should know better than to claim Christians had "absolute despotic power" under Constantine. (Another popular version is that Christianity became the "official religion" at that time.) Probably Carrier does know this, but is being sloppy, and just can't pass up a good applause line.
(2) How did Christ conquer Caesar? Carrier ascribes the victory of Christianity to political turmoil in the Roman Empire, especially a long civil war starting in the 230s, and an economic depression in the 270s. Therefore, he concludes:
"The fall of the Roman Empire caused the triumph of Christianity."
Did it really?
Stark argues that by 300 AD, having grown steadily at a 40% rate per decade since the 1st Century, 10% of the people in the Roman Empire were Christians.
In a graph on page 55, Carrier sets the percentage of Christians in the Roman Empire, for the same year, at 20%.
Stark goes on to point at that GROWING AT EXACTLY THE SAME RATE, Christianity would have reached 56.5 % of the Roman populace by 350 AD. This is independent of ANY new political advantages.
Plug in Carrier's figure, and at the same growth rate, Rome would have attained a Christian majority by 330 AD. (Though Carrier's graph arbitrarily suggests this happening maybe about 1900, for reasons to be explained below.)
Given either figure, Carrier's explanations for why Christianity won the West are simply not needed. It was clearly heading towards dominance, whatever Constantine decided to do.
Carrier tries to make his argument more persuasive, by marking increases in the rate of conversion at the two periods he mentioned -- 230s and 270. He does not offer any imperical evidence that there was, in fact, any increase in the rate of Christian growth during these two periods, however. (Unlike Stark, who makes use of various sorts of demographic data to support his own, less complex, picture of the rise of Christianity.) One gets the impression that Carrier is making the graph bend up where it needs to bend to support his argument -- forget about the evidence!
The graph is, in any case, unworthy of a serious historian. What is Carrier claiming to graph? The graph explains itself as showing the "percentage of population converting to Christianity." Population of what? Apparently he is referring to the Roman Empire, since the only historical or geographical referents given are "Constantine" and "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire." It is all rather fuzzy. But apparently he is graphing the percentage of Christians in the Roman Empire, or in the area once covered (when?) by that entity.
If that is the case, why does he show the percentage of Christians reaching 100% by 500 AD, and remaining at 100% until 700 AD, the last date on the graph? Has he never heard of Jews? Goths? Huns? Vikings? Has the name "Mohammed" never crossed his desk, as an historian? By 700 AD, much of the old Roman Empire, including many of its richest parts, was ruled by Muslims.
Does Carrier not know how long it took Christianity to convert even the mildly Romanized parts of Europe, like the British Isles, let alone areas further north? Or how many pagan invasions occurred during those years?
This careless, grossly misleading graph is as bad as Carrier's claim, in Sense and Goodness Without God, that Christianity usually "spread by the sword," a claim I rebutted with great relish, and some historical detail, about here. (See "Response to Carrier," the second article.)
I know Richard Carrier is a smart fellow, and widely read. I know he has a doctorate in history from Columbia University. No doubt he earned it. But this kind of slip-shod, half-cocked, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants, back-of-the envelope pseudo-historical gibberish, does not, frankly, make me want to run out and make a contribution to Columbia University. Nor does it make me at all confident in the many cock-sure claims he makes that I have not been able to check out, yet.
(3) Did Christians want any evidence?
Carrier repeats his claims, which he formerly made on-line, that early Christians didn't care about evidence, but believed on blind faith:
"You don't need evidence, you just need faith . . . We find no evidence that any Christian converts did any fact-checking before converting . . . Indeed, every Christian who actually tells us what convinced him explicitly say she didn't check any facts but merely believed upon hearing the story and reading the scriptures and just 'feeling' it was right."
This, too, is nonsense. I have rebutted Carrier's "The Early Christians were gullible dweebs" fuliminations before, more than once, and am happy to let my previous arguments do most of the work here.
Carrier then issues the following detailed claims:
"Likewise, every early discussion we have from Christians regarding their methodology for resting claims either omits, rejects, or even denigrates rational, empirical methods and promotes instead faith-based methods of finding secrets hidden in scripture and relying on spiritual inspirations and revelations, and then verifying all this by whether their psychosomatic 'miracles' worked and their beloved leaders were willing to suffer for the cause." (63)
Let's look at a few of those "psychosomatic" illnesses described in the Acts of the Apostles, which supposedly demonstrate how early Christianity was an evidence-free zone:
* Tongues of fire descend from heaven and give the disciples the ability to preach in dozens of languages they have never studied. (Acts 2)
* Peter and John tell a man who has never taken a step in his life to walk, and he walks, praises God; on-lookers are impressed. (Acts 3)
* Ananias and Sapphira are struck dead without any human touch when they attempt to fool their fellow Christians. (Acts 5)
* A murderer named Saul hears an audible voice, sees Jesus, and is struck blind, and converts to Christianity. (Acts 9)
* Another lame man who has never walked begins to, resulting in conversions, but also the stoning of Paul and Barnabas. (Acts 14)
And on it goes. Apparently the word "psychosomatic" covers a lot of territory, these days.
The truth is, as I showed in those earlier rebuttals, conversion is almost always linked in Acts to strong and convincing evidence. Furthermore, the earliest audiences for Jesus, in the Gospels, were generally models of skepticism and doubt.
(4) "Even (Hitler's) Final Solution was really just the Final Failure to Have Any Effect at All."
This is a strange thing to say about the murder of half the world's Jews. The Jewish people didn't disappear, but no serious historian doubts that Hitler's murders were devastating to the European Jewish community.
C. Theological Problems
But the biggest problem with Carrier's argument is his theological presumption. He assumes he knows that if God were real, and favored Christianity, he would have had the Gospel spread by magic:
"He could even have flown to America . . . and even China, preaching in all the temples and courts of Asia. In fact, being God, he could have appeared to everyone on earth. He could visit me right now. Or you! And yet, instead, besides his already-fanatical followers, just one odd fellow ever saw him."
"If Jesus was a God and really wanted to save the world, he would have appeared and delivered his Gospel personally to the whole world." (70)
Yes, and no doubt he would have written Richard Carrier's dissertation for him, so he didn't have to do the work himself. And he would drop cash on all the poor. And he would hover over the Atlantic ocean, and blow hurricanes harmlessly out to sea. And he would cause fruit to ripen without any growing season, heh, presto!
Exactly how far do we want to take this?
Carrier misunderstands what a miracle is. God does not "violate" the laws of nature in crass and ineligant ways. God allows his creatures the dignity of causation, and I, for one, am glad that he does.
Anyway, the question to ask is not, "How does Richard Carrier think God should do things," but "How did the Bible lead us to suppose God WOULD do things?"
To answer this latter question, we need to look at what sort of growth the Bible actually predicts for the Christian faith:
(a) Jesus says the Kingdom of Heaven is like a tree, that grows from a small seed, but in which birds come and nest. This appears to imply that the growth is organic -- much as the universe itself grows from a small seed, and life begins with amino acids linking and forming chains.
Carrier predicts the growth, not of a tree, but of something like a lawn, seed broadcast around the world out of an airplane, Jesus flying off to South America and China to preach.
But the Gospels also show:
(b) Wise men traveling from afar to see the baby Jesus. (Following a star, it is true.) If we're going to do a miracle, why couldn't Jesus fly off to see them? Or why couldn't they come on flying carpets?
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easy road to world evangelism?"
(e) Jesus explaining that discipleship will be difficult and painful: "Take up your cross, and follow me!" (The most frequently-repeated words of Jesus in the Gospels.)
(f) When offered the "kingdoms of this world" in a vision, what Honest John would call the "Easy Road to Success," Jesus says, "Get behind me, Satan!"
(g) I also seem to recall an episode involving a cross.
(h) Jesus then tells his disciples, "Go into all the world, and preach the Gospel, making disciples." He makes it clear that the disciples will be persecuted and arrested.
(i) Pentacost involves fire from heaven, yes, but also disciples preaching, and getting mocked, and rational argument, including the re-telling of Israel's story. The Church then sets out not to conquer by the sword, nor to win easy spiritual successes, but advances largely by the work of a preacher who is beaten, spin on, ship-wrecked, attacked by wild animals, imprisoned, and finally killed.
I have to say, reading this chapter, I don't feel that Dr. Carrier much understands Christianity, yet. He fails to fully take into account the doctrine and dignity of creation. He also does not appear to understand the role of suffering in redemption. His proposals remind me of Farrell Till's crass suggestion, at a debate at the Seattle Pacific University campus, which is shaded by beautiful, tall hardwoods, that he might believe in God if he suddenly created a tall skyscraper on the spot.
That might, rather, make a sane person believe in the devil.
The Christian God seems to like organic growth. As a former missionary, I for one am glad he allows his people to participate in the "dignity of creation," by taking the teaching of Jesus to the world, against obstacles.
At the same time, I believe God's truth has "not been without a witness" in the cultures of the world. It is not that Jesus traveled the world by magic carpet or flying horse to do all the work himself, but that when missionaries arrived, they often found cultures prepared for the Gospel.
But that Christianity has helped billions of people around the world, is I think a fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham: "in your seed all nations of the world will be blessed." I can think of nothing in the Bible that leads us to expect the Good News of Jesus would spread by any method other than what was actually used -- whatever strange fantasies Richard Carrier might have about the matter.
That the Gospel has changed the world for the better, is I think real evidence for its truth, and a more interesting claim than that Christianity will grow faster than any religion ever, would have been. That's more the mindset of Islam.