Saturday, July 12, 2014

Richard Carrier's bizarre preemptive personal attacks: my response

I am a Christian scholar who has tangled with Richard Carrier in the past, both on-line (search "Christ," "Tao," and his name), and in person (a debate last year at the University of Huntsville in Alabama).  Before and after our debate, Richard was civil, even friendly.   And even during the debate, aside from a few "Gee, normally I don't answer all my opponent's lame challenges so quickly, now what do I do?" moments of preening (justified by the glib certainty, but not the quality, of his rebuttals), he was mostly civil as well. 
In general, I am also treated by fellow scholars with respect.  My books have been warmly reviewed by eminent scholars at schools like Oxford, Yale, Marquette, Penn State, etc, while leading scholars in philosophy, history, scientist, sociology, and theology have worked with me on various projects. 
So when I began posting comments on the Amazon site for Richard Carrier's new book questioning the historicity of Jesus, I was taken aback by the nasty, even childish, tone of pre-emptive attacks:

(1) He tells his readers, actual or potential, not to read my comments, because I am an "apologist."

(2) And therefore dishonest by definition.

(3) He claims that, being a poor apologist, Marshall "repeatedly gets badly defeated in debates, and then claims to have decisively won, and goes around to places like this making such claims."

(4) Meanwhile Carrier himself crows crassly about how he allegedly beat me in that debate.  And why (the logic seems to go) should anyone pay attention to anything someone who (allegedly) lost his first public debate in an hour on stage ever has to say?   

This is all particularly bizarre because my comments there have so far not even been particularly critical of Richard.  I haven't received my copy of the book, yet.  I have asked about a few details, expressed tentative skepticism about a couple probably minor points.  But I also supported Richard's dismissal of Acharya S and made positive comments about the intelligence of ancient Greeks and Chinese, with which I doubt Richard strenuously disagrees. 

Let me first respond to Carrier's attacks, then guess at what might be behind them. 

(1) Am I an apologist?  Should apologists be ignored? 

Someone made up a list of the world's 100 leading apologists, and to my surprise, I found myself on it, so I can't much blame Carrier for calling me an apologist.  And I have written or edited six books that argue for the truth of Christianity, which is indeed apologetics.  My academic training lies in history and comparative religions.  I think of myself (as Carrier no doubt thinks of himself) primarily as a seeker after truth. 

Of course Carrier is also an apologist, in all these senses, for his own beliefs, and for the beliefs he shares with the skeptical community.  Furthermore, if you are looking for marks of intensity in belief, such as dogmatic claims and blanket dismissal of critics, vitriol or bombast, I think you will find much more of that sort of thing in the writings of Dr. Carrier than of myself. 

Should people who hold strong opinions be ignored?  I don't think so.  That's why I read Carrier, along with dozens of other antipathetic writers, from Reza Aslan to Howard Zinn, and often find elements of truth in their writings. 

Coming from someone so self-possessed and opinionated as Richard Carrier, this criticism is just weird. 

(2) Are Christian apologists dishonest by definition and therefore not worth listening to?

Of course not.  Who would that illiminate from the history of thought?  Augustine, Aquinas, Anselm, Descartes, Pascal, Locke, Boyle, Ricci, Legge, Chesterton, Lewis, Plantinga, and Collins among others, thinkers far more eminent than Carrier or me, who have contributed vastly to human thought and understanding, in many cases known for their balance, integrity, and probity -- each is a Christian apologist.
Richard Carrier has, in the past, complimented my honesty himself.  As he should.  I bend over backwards to be honest, even with writers with whom I disagree.  As I will be with Carrier's new book, whatever fits Carrier throws in the meanwhile.

(3) Do I really go around various websites claiming to "have decisively won" my debates?

I don't recall having made such a claim even once.  I have always been careful, for instance, to admit that Carrier's rebuttal arguments, while glib and deeply mistaken, were rhetorically effective.  ‍Also that I did not respond well to his positive argument from the Problem of Pain -- partly because it is also a problem for me, and partly because I left my notes on the table when I went to the lecturn!

Neither have I made such a crass claim about other debates -- even if I thought I did well, as I think I did with Duke, I would be embarrassed to speak in those terms.  In fact, I did not do well in the rebuttal portion of my debate with Zuckerman, either -- though I do believe my positive arguments were powerful, and went unanswered.  Zuckerman was also effective rhetorically at times, especially with his "Gish Gallop" at the end, which I could not respond to in five minutes, and also close my own argument. ‍ Unlike Carrier, however, he did not claim to have defeated my positive arguments.

So unless Carrier can back up his claim with some evidence (a link? direct quote?), one has to suppose this is yet another glib and false "shoot from the hip" historical claim from Dr. Carrier. 

(4) What about the logic, "I (allegedly) whipped this guy on stage, so just ignore anything he now says?"

Well the first premise is wrong.  Carrier dismissed my three main arguments, including my argument for the gospels, but never seriously came to grips with any of them.  For the latter, he offered ridiculous parallels, such as the Book of Tobit, Apollonius of Tyan, the Golden Ass, and Hercules.  I could not analyze these in debate in the detail they deserved -- the satire his claim that they are serious parallels to the gospels deserves -- though I had already analyzed Apollonius in detail, in Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus.  I later offered detailed analysis of these other books on my blog, Christ the Tao. 

The important point is, whether defeated on stage or not, Carrier's arguments fail utterly.  Carrier is not only wrong in claiming those works share "all" the characteristics of the gospels, in fact they share hardly any of them, as I show.  The very fact that someone as widely-read as Carrier can find no better parallels in the ancient world to the gospels, is itself tremendously revealing, as it the fact that he thinks these parallels are just fine. 

But the logic here is even worse.  I do not claim to be a trained or experienced debater.  I do claim to be a trained and experience writer. In my own element, I am confident of winning this or any other debate on select important topics.  On stage in a few minutes, I can make no such guarantees.  I am not William Lane Craig; but then, neither is he me.  Our differences do not bother me, nor should they bother him. 
And if (alleged) loss in debate means a scholar should be ignored, by Carrier's logic, we should now ignore all the eminent skeptical scholars whom Craig has defeated in debate.  (And also, in the eyes of most witnesses, Carrier himself.) 

That will simplify the debate considerably.  But Richard Carrier appears to be conflating scholarly debate with the hockey playoffs. 

II.  So why does Richard Carrier want us to ignore "apologists?" 

Reading Dr. Ramos' thorough review on Amazon, it is evident that I am not the only person Carrier tells his readers to dismiss because they argue for Christianity.  This appears to be his considered position.   Let us consider possible reasons he may take this position -- even while espousing a theory far more marginal than those of, say, NT Wright or Ben Witherington‍ -- or myself:

(1) Richard Carrier wants to marginalize most Christians, to make his own position more respectable.  Often the most effective way to join a group, is to point to someone else outside that group, and tell‍ the people in the group how much you oppose the despised outsiders.  So Carrier wants to depict the debate as one between "us serious scholars," some of whom believe Jesus lived but was just a man, some of whom think Jesus never lived at all.  Since many liberal scholars dislike "fundamentalists" anyone, he seems to think excluding them from the club is the best way to get himself included.

(2) Likely he knows his argument is highly vulnerable, and so doesn't wish it to get rid of some of his toughest critics a priori. 

(3) A special species of scoffing is Carrier's stock in trade, with the attitude of a village atheist, added to the prestige of a Columbia University PhD, distinguishing his brand from those of Acharya  S or Freke and Gandy.  "Dr.." Carrier is in that respect like Hector Avalos, only with a weaker academic pedigree: the small dog barks louder. 

(4) Maybe he also suspects we're going to have a fun with this book.  ‍(See, for precedent, my Christ the Tao transcript of the debate among ancient philosophers over whether Richard Carrier exists.)

In any case, "All truth is God's truth."  I still look forward to reading Carrier's new book, because despite -- even because of -- his extreme rhetoric, I am sure we "apologists" will find that book full of interesting truths, intended and perhaps unnoticed by Carrier himself. 


Frank D said...

I just bought Richard Carrier's new book "Not the Impossible Faith," and I was struck by the pure, casual nastiness of his commentary. He raked the author of the book he was critiquing over the coals and seemed to be enjoying the experience. He may be a great scholar, and when he is on his own subject matter he is wonderful (to my way of thinking), but I can see that it is definitely not a nice experience being the object of his scathing criticism. I wish I hadn't bought the book, because it brings those negative aspects to the forefront and degrades his character in my eyes.

Epicurus said...

I thought Carrier's aggressive stance in his dustup with Bart Ehrman awhile back was uncalled for as well.

Ben said...

David, your reaction is understandable from your perspective. However from Carrier's perspective his efforts are primarily geared towards secular scholarship. And few in that camp seriously wrestle with whether or not miracles or fantastic claims in general count against a source material or whether or not the normal rules of evidence and inference apply to the NT documents we happen to have without holding out for implausible excuses to save face for divine inspiration of one sort or another. Its all dimishing returns from there making nuance for nuance engagement fairly meaningless. For at least another decade mythicism won't have much use for the religious culture wars Carrier cares deeply about because he has a secular consensus to change. It's happened for Moses and Abraham. We'll see how Jesus fares. I don't expect you to share Carrier's investments along those lines but they more likely model his motivations and priorities. Much more so than thinking maybe he's afraid of your sense of humor. He just doesn't care. Engaging Christian apologetics is an exercise in public education. It's not because Carrier thinks the ideas have any serious merit.

Crude said...

Actually, Carrier's perspective seems largely to be less about concerns for 'scholarship' and more about defending his very tiny island of relevance and authority against anyone who would challenge him. It doesn't particularly matter if the source is religious or not - see his dealing with Ehrman.

As for whether Carrier thinks the ideas has serious merit, I think it's far less a matter of 'what Carrier thinks' and far more 'what Carrier wants others to think', or even 'what Carrier wants to be known as wanting others to think'. There's no getting around the fact that he is a pretty small fish in an increasingly big sea, and that he's forever trying to be a big fish - often with unintentionally comedic results. Does anyone remember when he tried to rush to the front of the crowd with the apparently short-lived 'Atheism+', only for the same crowd to metaphorically jump on him and beat him into submission?

I suppose the short version is - whatever his intellectual accomplishments are (Note: They're pretty few), as a man Carrier leaves much to be desired. Most people can tell this at a glance, but then again, most people just don't bother glancing at him to begin with. There's more important atheists around, both measured in terms of intellectual weight and public prominence. And, in Carrier's case, there likely always will be.

David B Marshall said...

Crude: Richard Carrier is like a box of chocolates. I'll be opening and sampling over the coming month, the sweet and sour. What can I say? I happen to like the ones that are partly nuts.

David B Marshall said...

WOE: Like Carrier, I work with one foot in the scholarly world, though I prefer to publish for ordinary readers. If scholars as a whole choose to assume that no religion can possibly be true, that God cannot act in the world, then to my mind, that will be a narrowing of scholarly interest and what we can learn about the world, indeed. But many of my acquaintance to not choose to beg the question in that way.

As for Carrier's scholarship, is appears impressive at a glance, but much less so when you dig deeper and examine the sources that he cites. I have shown that again and again on this site. I am finding it is just as much true of his long new book, and intend to demonstrate that over the coming month on this site, and then elsewhere.

What Carrier thinks about me is really not important to me: he hasn't read my work, and doesn't know what he's talking about, when he makes guesses. (As, I noticed yesterday, another totally false guess he made about me on Amazon.) Which is just as well, because it makes my job so much the easier. Maybe even a little too easy. I am enjoying his book in more than one way.

Laura said... I hope that works. Jump to 7:30 mark to skip the long summary of atheist vs. atheism+ drama that lead up to it.
I hope you aren't disappointed that he put a lot more effort into smearing Thunderf00t.

Here's an atheist blog taking Carrier to task. Can you see how much of the online atheist community thinks about him? Carrier also graciously offered to provide his allies with the "intellectual artillery".
Read the comments on the blog. Somebody brings up his lack of scholarly rigor his Christ Denier position;)
Just getting caught up on my blog reading. Sorry to jump in late!

Laura said...

That should say his lack of scholarly rigor in his arguments defending his Mythicist position.

Has anyone asked whether the Holocaust is a myth? Is the official death toll a gross exaggeration in Carrier's opinion?
Denying Jesus, the man (fully God and fully human), ever existed is confirmation bias of his contempt and hatred of Christians just like Holocaust denial is rooted in antisemitism.

Anonymous said...

I thoroughly enjoyed this post by Mr. Marshall since I was one of those Richard Carrier attacked recently. It was a quite funny to see him flinch at my criticisms when we wrote a review of my online shopping mall review in his blog without knowing anything about me. I got to see how his mind works with dealing with "unknowns". He of course was off the mark often since I actually agreed with some of the points he thought I was denying, but it sure was a first hand look at how he interprets "sources" and also how much he impresses his own biases into what he reads. For sure he has some issues since he should be more professional and disagree like academics often do - in a respectable fashion. The fact that even Bart Ehrman, an agnostic, and other freethinkers have been abused by him is telling that we should obey the infallible word of Carrier's metaphysical naturalistic apologetics, even though it contaminate his reliability on history, society, and even religion.

Anonymous said...

Hey on the support for atheism+ from Carrier, another good criticism is

It shows how Carrier shows his support for his 3 moral principles: "compassion", "integrity", and "reasonableness". He sure knows how to divide "us" from "them" as he noted on his blog. I definitely have seen how nice Mr. Marshall, William Lane Craig, Bart Ehrman, and others whom Carrier has insulted, are. Now perhaps a few impolite remarks may come out, but Carrier is a factory for this kind of irrational and unreasonable commentary. His sarcastic way of expression also does not support the idea that he is simply trying to reason and help people see his perspective. Humility is something I have not seen from him when he talks about things he disagrees with in public. It does go beyond reason and into hardcore atheistic apologetics. For sure he can be intense, however, he really should show that he can be civil with those he disagrees with. He is hurting his reputation more by getting too personal when clearly there is no need for that. I hope he can come to see that one day.