Friday, June 22, 2012

6th Most Unpopular Review: Richard Carrier, Sense & Goodness Without God

** "Bold, Ambitious, Sloppy and Often Wrong"

36 +/ 50-
I was asked to read this book by a thoughtful college (now doctoral) student who had read my response to Dawkins, The Truth Behind the New Atheism, and thought I might find Carrier's case for atheism more challenging.

Richard Carrier is one of the most confident writers I have come across. Writing on philosophy, history, religion, politics, and science, he seems to know the answers to an astonishing variety of questions, with little room for doubt. He also has a long list of extra readings, if his own (sometimes unavoidably) brief argument fails to sway you. This is all the more remarkable, because at the writing of this book, Carrier was still in his mid thirties and in grad school.

One cannot fault Carrier for lack of breadth or ambition. And his treatment of some topics seems impressive enough, though I've only read a portion so far, and am not in a position to judge all I've read. When I know the issue well, though, I find Carrier often sloppy, misinformed, or illogical. (As, indeed, I found Dawkins.) I can't appraise his argument as a whole, reading only on those subjects I know well, but I'll offer 14 examples of poor argument, from a few passages:

(1) "Because there are so many (stars), the law of big numbers prevails: every possible planet that could be probably has been, is, or will be."

"Law of big numbers?" When Dawkins tried a similar line, mathematician Herbert Yockey replied by writing of "people who do not understand probability." Like this magic wand of a pseudo-scientific phrase, Carrier's discussion of biogenesis is terribly glib. He doesn't seem to notice, let alone deal with ANY of the real problems in this field.

Carrier responded to my review by pointing out that he had written an article elsewhere in which he went into more detail on the origin of life, that he cited in this book.  But simply citing oneself, especially when one is not an acknowledged expert in the field, without giving actual arguments on so complex a field, is not at all persuasive. 
(2) Ideas, which scientists call 'memes.' (175)

The term is not really part of common scientific parlance. It seems that for Carrier, religious ideas are "virus-like memes," while skeptical memes are benevolent and wholesome. But how can the meme-carrier, if we talk in such terms, know? Better to avoid such "meaningless metaphors," as one scientist (Steven Gould) called them, and talk about good and bad ideas, giving your opponents the dignity of error.

(3) Rejection of the supernatural is not a priori . . . It comes only from a scientific investigation . . . there is no reliable evidence that these beings or phenomena even exist . . . they have ready explanations in fraud, self-deceit, sensory illusion, and 'myth-making.

Despite Carrier's disavowal, this sounds a priori to me. Carrier cannot possibly have investigated all alleged miracles "scientifically," or even historically. For some, he must be relying on the word of fellow debunkers. For the vast majority, he can only be relying on his a priori defense network of ready and maybe glib explanations for reports of miracles -- "fraud," "self-deceit," "illusion," "myth-making." At most, he can say "I have seen no" not "there is no" evidence.

(4) As an historian I do not believe any miracle has ever been adequately documented.

And I, as an historian, do, as do historians far more eminent than either of us. The difference is, a positive claim ("I saw a fat dog dining on a skinny rabbit") may be historical, but a universal negative ("no dog ever ate a rabbit" or even, "the consumption of a rabbit by a dog has never been adequately documented") CANNOT be historical -- it has to be a theoretical extrapolation.

Carrier compares evidence for the Caesar's crossing of the Rubicon, to the evidence for the Resurrection:

(5) We have lots of direct physical evidence . . . a number of inscriptions and coins . . . related to the Rubicon crossing.

Inscriptions and coins are not physical evidence that a given person crossed a given river. Rather, they may be physical evidence that someone ascribed that crossing to him . . . physical evidence of prior human testimony, in fact.  The only thing that would constitute "physical evidence" for the actual crossing, might be a clear set of footprints in the mud from one side of the river to the other.  Even then we would have to rely on foot-print experts to say who actually did the crossing.  In fact, there probably is no such thing as evidence for any historical event, that evades the need for human testimony. 

(6) We have unbiased or counterbiased corroboration . . . many of Caesar's enemies . . . refer to the crossing of the Rubicon.

This is also confused. Were the enemies biased against Caesar, or against the claim that he crossed the Rubicon? Apparently the former, which need not count as "counter-biased corroboration" to the crossing, which is the issue here.

(7) We have no hostile or even neutral records of a physical resurrection of Jesus by anyone until over a hundred years after the event.

Carrier chooses the word "physical" no doubt to exclude Paul, who was a hostile witness, until he met Jesus. But NT Wright (Resurrection of the Son of God) argues in great detail, for some 180 pages, that Paul believed he was witness to the physically resurrected Jesus. And Josephus mentions the resurrection of Jesus within decades of the event. While the Josephus passage is disputed, Carrier ought not to simply ignore it.

(8) We have not a single historian mentioning the resurrection until two or three centuries later, and then only Christian historians, who show little in the way of critical skill.

One should not say something so stupid and talk about anyone else's lack of critical historical skill in the same sentence. Luke was an exceptional historian,(Carrier himself actually calls him "above average" elsewhere!). Luke mentions the resurrection just  a few decades after the event. So, again, does Josephus. It is a semantic question whether Mark, Matthew, and John should be classified as "historians" or "biographers," as Richard Burridge argues in his comparison of the Gospels to Greco-Roman bioi, but in any case, they purport to tell what happened in the recent past, and therefore should not be ignored here, either.

(8) Paul mentions no other kind of evidence other than . . . (encountering) Jesus in a vision.

He does, in I Corinthians 15.

(9) Carrier also assumes that the only possible way for Caesar to have marched on Rome would have been to cross the Rubicon. Actually, in theory he could also have (a) been in southern Italy already; (b) crossed the mountains and moved south through Florence; or (c) taken a boat.

Finally, from another section of the book, there's this jumbled thicket of confused revisionism:

Christianity was spread, quite literally, by the sword . . . Christianity only truly flourished when it had the ability to eliminate the competition . . . the two most widespread religions in the world today are the most warlike and intolerant religions in history. Before the rise of Christianity, religious tolerance . . . was not only custom but in many ways law under the Roman and Persian empires . . . Christians were persecuted for denying that the popular gods existed . . . for being intolerant. (264)

(10) To begin at the end, if we are to define it as "intolerant" to deny that popular gods exist, what is Richard Carrier? He denies not only the Greco-Roman gods, but Christian, Muslim, Confucian, Aussie, and every other vision of God as well!  By his own definition, then, Carrier is far less tolerant than the early Christians, who accepted the God of Abraham, Jesus, and (often) Socrates, Plato, Cleanthes, Cicero, and Epictetus. 

(11) In fact Christianity mostly did NOT spread by the sword. Constantine adopted the faith because it had already become the strongest spiritual force in Roman society already -- by caring for the sick, treating women well, and showing courage in the face of death, as Rodney Stark shows in The Rise of Christianity. Richard Fletcher's The Barbarian Conversion tells the rest of the story for Europe, others for the rest of the world -- force was the exception, not the rule.

I analyzed this claim in light of some fourteen periods in which Christianity spread the most rapidly, in an article at  I found that this claim could only reasonably be made of two of those periods -- Medieval Europe, and the initial spread of Christianity in Latin America -- and then only partially, especially the former. 

(12) Christianity has always been strongest in a free market of faiths -- as in modern America, Korea, and even modern China.

(13) To say even Islam is the most intolerant or warlike religion in history reveals gross ignorance. Has he never heard of the Aztecs? The Tai Pings? Yanomamo shamanism? Jim Jones? Or (to stretch the term "religion" slightly) Vladimir Lenin? Pol Pott?  Adolf Hitler?

(14) The tolerance of the Greco-Romans was punctuated by episodes of persecution, bigotry, witch-hunting, and murder. Elsewhere in the same book, Carrier admits that one sect began their rituals with the shout, "Away with the Epicureans! Away with the Christians! . . . this hostility could come to slander and violence. Challenging a popular legend might start a riot, even get you killed."

Socrates was not the only one to get officially killed for unorthodoxy.  Nor, as Paul Johnson points out, was Socrates the only Athenian or Greek to be persecuted in that way -- it was common, at the time. 

Sum: There's a lot in this book, perhaps enough to justify the price for you. Carrier is certainly intelligent, widely-read, and innovative.  But Carrier is far too sloppy with both facts and logic to fully justify his self-confidence. In short, what I have read so far suggests a widely-read and ambitious internet-style polemicist, more than a judicious and fair-minded philosopher or historian.

Carrier responded to my original critique by attempting to refute each and every one of these points on Amazon -- also by repeatedly describing me as "dishonest," or in early versions, a "liar."  (Later toning that down, on the advice of more sober-minded fellow skeptics.)  He later published a long response to my point about biogenesis on his blog. Some of my responses appear under the original review. I also opened a customer forum refuting Carrier's claim that Christianity "spread by the sword" and that "Christianity only truly flourished when it had the ability to eliminate the competition." The claimed being worth discussion, I then posted the debate between Carrier and myself over three issues -- my dismissal of his discussion of biogenesis as "glib," his claim that Christianity "spread by the sword," and his claim that Christianity thrives best when upheld by state power -- at, in the "debates" section. 


Doug said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David B Marshall said...

Doug: There's a debate page at It's a little iffy, admittedly, but the discussions with Carrier can be found there, in Pdf form:

Paul said...

Just like this review the pdf David points to contains too many misunderstandings and piss poor counter arguments to count. The Dunning-Kruger effect is powerful in David's (very small) brain. Just ignore it. Everyone else does.

David B Marshall said...

I see that you and "Anon" (if you're not the same person) have left a string of petty insults, lacking a trace of substance and saying pretty much nothing, to several blogs.

This is not Pharyngula. This is a forum for adults. If you can manage to act like one -- make real, substantive objections, talk to those you disagree with, not just at them, then feel free to challenge any of my arguments, and I will respond. But if those kind of vacuous and childish insults are the best you can produce, I will delete all your subsequent posts, and feel little or no sense of loss. Again, this is a forum for grown-ups.