Yesterday I received an e-mail from a former Messianic Jew who told me,
"Hitler had infinitely more compassion and true patriotism than your brain dead coreligionists."
The author of this charming line had previously admitted to feeling "disillusioned," and had expressed concerns that Christianity was irredeemably anti-Semitic. I was prepared to engage those concerns, and the writer seemed fairly receptive to some of my answers. But this sort of extremism simply made me lose interest in the conversation. Who that cares about truth, or about real challenges to Jewish survival, would write something so grotesquely, even Gothically untrue and unjust? And why talk to someone who cares so little about truth? A famous teacher once compared it to feeding pigs with jewelry. So I begged off further correspondence.
Then I paid a quick visit to Debunking Christianity, and found a post with this title by an occasional guest poster there:
"Why Atheists Must Assert that Jesus Never Existed."
I had just posted elsewhere the day before that I found the argument over the existence of Jesus the "most boring in all of apologetics." But the stridency of this proclamation did catch my eye, and I read the paragraph that followed:
In the Afterword to Raphael Lataster’s latest book, Jesus Did Not Exist: A Debate Among Atheists, Richard Carrier addresses the Academic Biblical Academy:
“With this book, Jesus Did Not Exist: A Debate Among Atheists, Raphael Lataster has certainly demonstrated at the very least one thing; the entire field of Biblical Studies should be taking this question seriously; yet they have not. This has to stop. They need to either build a more defensible case for historicity, one that does not violate logic or rely on non-existent evidence, or they need to officially recognize, at the very least, that historicity agnosticism is a credible response to what little evidence there is. The Academy needs to stop lying about the evidence or about the argument of peer-review experts who challenge historicity. They need to address those arguments as actually made, and the evidence as actually presented. And Lataster has shown that this isn’t what the experts are doing."
Again, the stridency of these demands seem to have the opposite affect on me from that for which they were designed.
Who is Raphael Lataster? A graduate student in Australia who wrote a book that I reviewed as a potent candidate for the worst piece of writing ever on the historical Jesus. Whose own professor disavowed the fellow's work, and rued his role in teaching so poorly-researched and thought-out (and written, I would add) a book. Certainly not some fatherly figure who has been around in New Testament studies at some major university for decades, and who wishes to offer his colleagues a few kindly-meant words of wisdom.
And now Carrier is back to accusing vast numbers of more reasonable scholars of "lying." Who hasn't Carrier accused of lying? Certainly I've been struck by that projectile from his hand -- then a fellow atheist rebuked him for it, and Carrier backed down for a while. But if you toss harsh words like spitwads, in the end you are seen as juveline, not someone worth talking with in a serious tone.
Given that tone, it is also futile to point out where Carrier's claims part company with clearly-discerned facts in the same way he claims Ehrman's do, and asking, "So should we be calling you a 'liar,' too?" Fairness, like reason, are besides the point in a spitwad fight. You're just glad that you are not tasked with keeping the room clean, and that the fighters have not been asked to do any teaching themselves within any ivory towers.
I expressed a few such thoughts in that thread, and the guest writer answered by mentioning his criticism of famous words in Josephus about Jesus, and of Tim O'Neil, an atheist historian who often debunks such notions as that Jesus never existed, or that Medieval Christianity was evil. Politely enough, the poster challenged scholars like O'Neil and I to deal with his arguments for mythicism. I responded:
"I could hardly care less about the Josephus passages. Tim O'Neill is usually reasonable, which is refreshing from a modern atheist, but if he fails to show, don't suppose that is because he thinks your arguments are just too difficult. . . such wild extremism is just not interesting enough to engage. Shock jocks want too hard to be provocative: they put me to sleep."
This is also one of my problems with Donald Trump. I find him a crushing bore. He wants to shock listeners and offend enemies, to the delight of whatever foolish followers this overweight and overconfident Pied Piper has gained along the way. But the problem with extremism is not that it is too bold: it is that it is too timid. It is too timid to think through issues fairly, facing and admitting real difficulties with your own inclinations and biases, and coming to nuanced, but genuinely workable, conclusions.
Extremism is like the junk food that seems to breed like tribbles in 24-hour rest stops, to feed the overflowing bellies of long-distance drivers who are addicted to sugar and processed fat. Garbage in, garbage not all out.
Give me an gravenstein apple, or a bowl of plain oatmeal, any day. Something a little bit real, with at least a trace of genuine nutrition in it.