Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Marshall: Liar, Lunatic, or Historian?

A couple weeks ago, I posted what is so far the most substantive review of Richard Carrier's On the Historicity of Jesus, on the Amazon site for that book.  Predictably, my review has provoked a bit of a firestorm there.  Almost 200 (update: now 568) comments have been posted so far.  As I foresaw in the review itself, most comments by Carrier fans so far have involved personal invective, rather than any substantive attempt to refute my arguments.

As I also rather expected, while Carrier posted heated comments in response to my earlier posts there, he has so far remained, to my knowledge, mute in response to this long critical review.  There seems to be a certain sense to this silence.  He makes it clear in the book itself that his contempt for "fundamentalists" and "apologists," or to use his special term, "triumphalist" Christians, those who like me think the evidence actually favors Christianity, is complete.  He is writing for respectable people who either accept his own materialism, or at least lack the temerity to argue against it.  To cross swords with me now would undermine that studied contempt.  In addition, he tried to shoo me away with name-calling, falsely claiming that I had crowed about beating him and other atheists in debate, while himself crowing that he had beaten me in debate.  Therefore (the logic gets tangled and implicit here) there was no need to read my comments any more, and he discouraged the faithful from doing so.  To answer directly would therefore, in his thinking (as I read it, admittedly from a distance), mean losing face. 

But some of his fans have answered on Amazon, and with heat.  The most vitriolic, or at least the most intelligent of the more vitriolic ranters, has so far been one Laura Bray.

Laura tried, early on, to show why my points were mistaken, as well as why I was a fool, liar, and incompetent.  Those attempts failed rather badly (she isn't very good at math, apparently), so she fell back on an exclusive diet of vitriol.  I put her on "ignore," and said I would not answer her personal attacks.

But I've changed my mind.  Since Richard himself set the tone of personal calumny, I think I will take Laura as a temporary stand-in for Richard, which it is indeed possible that they intend.  (Since he apparently will not stoop to explaining why I any of my points, tentative and partial as they are so far, are mistaken.)

Laura's main accusation is that I am a "liar."  She repeats this accusation frequently, with just enough variation in tone and style to suggest that she might be capable of a real argument, if she put her mind to something besides blind hatred.  But the logic of the personal attack goes like this:

(1) Marshall claims to be an historian. 

(2) He is not an historian, he is a theologian.  His terminal academic degree is in theology, not history, that makes him a theologian. 

(3) Also, he has failed to provide evidence that he has written peer-reviewed articles in history.  And in Laura's experience, people who do not answer her inquisitorial questions, have something to hide.

(4) Therefore Marshall is a liar. 

Now I feel maybe even more contempt for this sort of argument than Richard expresses for Christian apologetics, so I will not deign to merely refute it.  Nor will I merely point out that even if I were a liar, even if I were the hero in "Catch Me If You Can," running around the world pretending to be a pilot or a doctor, even I studied at Mossy Rock Bible College and tried to sneak into Mission Control claiming to be a nuclear scientist, that would not serve to refute a single one of my criticisms of Richard Carrier's failed argument. 

But I think there is something more useful and charming we can make of Laura's personal attack.  In what follows, I will not only refute Laura's attack on my person (who cares?), I will show how, like a boomerang, it actually whirls around and knocks our friend Richard Carrier right off the pedestal upon which he has set himself.  

My argument will come in three steps: Laura's accusation, Carrier's claims about himself, and my own personal "Liar, Lunatic, Historian" trilemma (with apologies to infinitely more important arguments of which this seems a skeptical caricature.) 

Laura Debunks a Lying Liar who tells Lies. 

How many times does Laura call me a "liar" for claiming to be an historian, in the following five paragraphs?  Let's count. 

"Marshall misrepresents this book ubiquitously, and in many parts outright lies about the content by attributing claims to it that it never makes and/or actually argues directly against."

That's one.  Laura never substantiates this claim, aside from pointing to a single number I cited incorrectly, then immediately admitted, which made no difference to my argument.  (I cited Carrier's figure for how many people lived in the ancient world from memory, wrongly.)  But errors are not lies.     

"Objective people trying to decide how much weight to give Marshall's review should note that in this review, of a peer-reviewed work of a respected academic press of an ACTUAL HISTORIAN, Marshall writes an entire paragraph about C.S. Lewis...who was not a historian or qualified biblical scholar in any sense of that word. He was simply a layman christian apologist...just like Marshall himself:"

Still on one.  I debunked Laura's claim that Lewis was "simply a layman" when it comes to literary criticism, which is the issue I cited him on.  But I am deeply flattered by any comparison between Lewis and myself. 

The implication here is, however, that I am not an "actual historian," unlike Dr. Richard. 

"Wow - this is a first: prove someone is a liar, and then have them immediately claim victory!? Welcome to Marshall's delusion."

That's "liar, liar" accusation number two.  But am I a liar, or am I deluded?  So hard to keep track of these twisted mental states.  If I were deluded, a charitable writer familiar with Occam's Razor might exempt my deluded brain from the charge of dishonesty, one would think.      

"At least your nemesis Carrier doesn't have to lie about his credentials in order to try and trick people into believing what he says. It should be noted that deliberately lying about your credentials is a major deal in academia - a person can get fired for this stuff."

That's three and four.   

So let's keep the count at four.  I think Laura came back to the "liar liar" taunt later in the thread, but that will do for now. 

Now we need to define our terms.  What does the word "historian" mean? , What qualifies a person to describe themselves as an "historian," or as an archeologist, biologist, or philosopher?  Might I plausibly meet a reasonable definition of "history?"  And if we hold everyone to the same standard, what would the definitions of the terms we decide upon tell us about Richard Carrier's standing in the academic community?  Is he a liar, too?  Could he get fired for statements he has made, and still makes, about his own qualifications?  Or does this sort of calumny only apply to Christians?  Should we hold Christians to an entirely different standard from that to which we hold atheists? 

Is Richard Carrier really a Philosopher? 

Richard Carrier has long described himself not as merely a philosopher, but as a special philosopher, a kind of Voice in the Wilderness of philosophy, calling fellow philosophers to repent.  On the back cover of the clearly self-edited Why I Am Not a Christian, Carrier describes himself as a "world-renowned philosopher and historian."  The word "and" implies that Carrier considered himself to be a famous philosopher AND a famous historian -- or if someone else wrote the back cover copy, he at least did not object to these claims.

In Sense and Goodness Without God, Carrier wrote:

"My religion is philosophy itself." (4)

By that he means that for himself, as for the ancients, philosophy was more than an abstract and abstruse mumble about obscure topics, a "jargonized verbal dance around largely useless minutiae," it is the passionate pursuit of reasoned answers to life's Big Questions. So Carrier cries out in the wilderness against those who have "retreated behind ivory towers, talking over the heads of the uninitiated, and doing nothing useful for the every-man," therefore causing the masses to lose interest.

Carrier notes that he himself has sought answers to the Big Questions since he was in his teens, devoting time every day to reading and thinking systematically about those questions.  And that, he seems to imply, is what a philosopher ought to do. 

Ironically, this is a point C.S. Lewis has also made, in telling the story of his own conversion to Christianity. 

And I am sympathetic.  I actually see a lot of myself in Carrier, or vice-versa.  We have both studied largely outside of academia in a wide variety of fields, putting pieces of truth together and creating broad frameworks for our very different visions of the world, before trying to legitimize our work through conventional scholarly channels. 

In that sense, I see myself as a philosopher, too.  I have also read widely in philosophy, and most of my work carries a whiff of the flavor of that discipline.  But I seldom call myself a philosopher in public, because I have few academic credentials to back that title up.  And unlike Carrier, I have enormous respect for many academic philosophers, who often do in my experience speak to the "Big Questions" in interesting ways.  (Nor do I see any reason why some people should not be allowed to think long and hard about smaller, more localized issues, if they find value in them -- we need specialists, too.) 

In On the Historicity of Jesus, Carrier again emphasizes his standing as a philosopher, though in somewhat more cautious terms:

"I am a marginally-renowned atheist, known across America and many other corners of the world as an avid defender of a naturalist worldview and a dedicated opponent of the abuse of history in the service of supernaturalist creeds.  I am a historian by training and trade (I received my PhD in ancient history from Columbia University) and a philosopher by experience and practice (I have published peer-reviewed articles in the field and am most widely known for my book on the subject, Sense and Goodness without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism.)' vii.

So, then, it appears that Carrier's claim to be a philosopher, made so passionately and often, rests upon the following qualifications:

(a) He has been practicing philosophy for a long time.

(b) He has published multiple articles in philosophy that have been reviewed by "peers," whoever they are.  (The only article listed on his Wikipedia article clearly in this field, however, is "On Defining Naturalism as a Worldview," in Free Inquiry Magazine.  Perhaps someone needs to upgrade the article?  Or perhaps Carrier is mildly exaggerating his publication history?  Note that Laura specifically demanded a large number of peer-reviewed articles, failing which I would be a "liar" to describe myself as an historian!)

(c) Carrier is allegedly well-known for his book, named (and cited) above, on the subject of philosophy.  (Known by whom, it is not clear.) 

So is Richard Carrier within his rights, given these qualifications, to describe himself as a "philosopher?"  Or is he a "liar" times ten for making this claim, and then adding an exponent for his chutzpah in rebuking the whole discipline of philosophy for not following his golden example as a "world-renowned" philosopher?  (Language the likes of which I avoid like the plague.)

I wouldn't call Carrier a "liar" for all of this.  In fact, I actually think Richard is a philosopher -- a bad philosopher, but he can't be expected to realize that. 

Does Laura call Richard a "liar" for making such bold claims?  Maybe she can point out where she has done that.  If she has, then I will still disagree with her profoundly, and find her rhetoric extreme and absurd, but at least grant her the virtue of a foolish consistency.  If she cannot, then not even that virtue can be granted her attacks. 

But are my qualifications as an "historian" inferior to those by which Carrier can claim for himself as a "philosopher?"  I hesitate to defend myself against such crass criticism, and usually avoid doing so.  But since the Carrieristas make such a point of such personal invective, apparently I need to set the record straight.  (Which is, after all, what historians do.) 

So am I an Historian?

I do not call myself a "philosopher" often, though I do practice philosophy frequently enough, and feel passionate about it.  That's partly because I have no academic credentials in the field, and partly because I have never gotten around to reading either Kant or much of Aquinas.  And I'm afraid someone might ask me about that, if I identify myself as a philosopher.

I don't call myself a "theologian" because frankly, I don't think God is a subject.  I think we are God's subjects.  We are part of His experiment, not the other way around.  I don't claim to have any special knowledge of God.  I may be a Natural Theologian, in that I argue to God from human experience, as for example my Theistic Argument from Cultural Transcendence. (TACT)  But most of my academic work has not been in theology.   

So I call myself an "historian," and I believe that probably is the most fitting description of what I am, if we need to put people in such boxes.  Here are the excuses I would offer: 

(a) I did a fair amount of coursework in history for my BA.  This included two quarters with the head of the History Department at the University of Washington, Dr. Donald Treadgold, including a Senior Thesis tutorial, in which, under his weekly direction, I compared difference phases of the Russian and Chinese revolutions by the use and misuse of language in important documents during those periods. He expressed a high view of that work.   

(b) My MA, also at the University of Washington, was officially in "China Studies."  But again much of my coursework was historical: the History of Chinese Art, a seminar largely on the Qing Dynasty, Classical Chinese studying ancient texts, an historical analysis of the youthful Mao Zedong.  One of my two Senior Thesis papers was a study, under the Qing Historian Kent Guy, of the Tai Ping Rebellion, and its relation to modern Chinese sects. 

(c) Of eight chapters in my doctoral dissertation, six were primarily historical.  That's three fourths, but actually more than 80% by volume, since the more theological chapters were the shortest in the dissertation.  That work alone clearly qualifies me as an historian by any reasonable definition. 

(d) I have not so far often had the luxury of writing articles for which I was not paid.  (Aside from here on my blog, or on Amazon!)  But if you demand "peer-reviewed" works, my books more than satisfy that criteria in one sense at least.  Some of my writings have been reviewed by historians who are more than my peers, they are eminent senior historians: Dr. Allan Chapman of Oxford, who liked my The Truth Behind the New Atheism so well that he wrote a chapter for Faith Seeking Understanding, Dr. Philip Jenkins of Penn State, who said very nice things about the latter book (to which my own sole-author contributions were mainly historical), Dr. Donald Treadgold, who reviewed a chapter on why Marxism failed from Jesus and the Religions of Man, Dr. Craig Blomberg also reviewed my "The Truth About Jesus and the 'Lost Gospels,"  All these scholars made generous comments about my work, sometimes extremely generous. 

(e) All my books contain a large element of history.  From that perspective, too, I am an historian "by experience and practice," as Carrier put it, as well as by doing historical work for my BA, MA, and PhD degrees.  There is not a single one of my seven (soon eight) books that is not essentially historical.  And when historians review those books, they tend to praise them warmly. 

(f) I have, I think (and what one thinks counts towards whether one is trying to tell the truth or not) written historical papers, whether academic or popular (and again, Carrier makes a point of emphasizing that it is better to write for the common folks) that illuminate the following issues, among others:

1. The history of Christian thought in China in its relation to the Chinese tradition.
2. Why Marxism failed.
3. The ahistorical nature of the Gnostic texts. 
4. Twenty-six historically-relevant characteristics that define the four gospels.
5. Nestorians in China.
6. The history of esoteric Buddhism in China, in relation to the True Buddha Movement. 
7. The impact of Christianity on the status of women around the world.
8. The impact of Christianity on Scandinavia.
9. The evolution of the concept of "Dao" in ancient China.
10. Analysis of qualities in ancient texts that mitigate for or against their historicity: Analects, Epic of Gilgamesh, Iliad, Agricola, the "Gospel" of Thomas, Life of Apollonius of Tyana. 
11.  Even my intentionally fanciful "How the Brothers Grimm overthrew the Evil Empire" made historical connections that I think are of interest. 
12.  On how Christians have understood faith from the 1st to 21st Centuries (in True Reason and other places.)

Even my main effort in the epistemology of faith has been in service of historical interests.  In substance, if not in terminology, I am in a sense supporting Carrier's contention that science is a wing of history, and that history can be an important and credible way of knowing.  . 

So I feel comfortable describing myself as an historian.  I studied history, including under some eminent historians, for BA, MA, and PhD degrees in respectable institutions, and under the guidance of respectable professors.  I work in history, and have done so for decades -- which is Richard Carrier's own criteria.  Whether I am a good historian or not, is up to fellow historians to decide.  And so far they seem to think I do all right.   In all these ways, I seem to have far  better cause to call myself an "historian" than Richard Carrier has to call himself a "philosopher," still less "world renowned philosopher."  And I don't call Carrier a "liar" even for the latter rather wild bit of self-promotion. 

So as usual, the insults of fanatics hurt their own side far more than the targets those insults are directed at.  Laura's attacks do me no harm whatsoever, but would badly hurt Richard Carrier -- that is, if she bothered to hold her hero to anything like the same standard she holds me to.  
 If Laura wants to call anyone a "liar" for exaggerating their credentials, Richard would be far and away the choicer target.  He claims far more, on a far narrower and more subjective basis, than I do.  He has apparently done less coursework, has written far less, and has fewer reviews from eminent philosophers, and has done far less work in philosophy, than I can claim to establish my historical credentials.

Working themselves into a fine lather, the Carrieristas sink their own battleship, once again.  (Though I do not think Laura will admit  or apologize for her calumny.)

Given everyone's passionate commitment to history, would it be too much to ask the Carrieristas to return to the subject introduced by their guru's book?  Or shall we now hop like a frog on a pond to some other distraction ("squirrel!") or form of invective to another?

I wait with bated breath. 


The Half-Blood Welshman said...

Dear David

I'm an occasional reader of your blog, largely because I find it entertaining (and because I teach on China). I have just read through your review of Carrier's book and the comments thread. I think you deserve a medal for your patience, persistence and restraint. Meanwhile, the dim-witted unpleasantness and unwitting irony of Laura Bray's hysterical posts were by terms sickening and hilarious.

I have run across Carrier before in my own field of interwar history, on Hitler's Table Talk. I noted the article was mentioned on the thread. I endorse everything you said about Carrier's inability to quote sources correctly, based on that one article in my field. His source material was so sloppily presented that in several cases it reversed the meaning of the original.

The added complication there - I'm not sure whether it applies in your field - is that Carrier is not able to speak German, so he filtered the material through a translator (who is a violin player). The results were to say the least unimpressive - indeed, I often wonder how it survived peer review. Anyone who thinks 'Christentum' (Christianity) is an idiomatic term for 'Catholic' in a language as precise as German is not somebody whose word can be trusted.

In case you had wondered about why the article has never been rebutted, it is because it is so irrelevant that it is more or less ignored. However, of the two experts who work in the field of Hitler's religion - Steigmann-Gall, Hastings and Koehne - the first two cite it and dismiss it in a sentence, and the third ignores it entirely.

I would say that anybody who takes Carrier seriously must be either deluded or doesn't care about facts. Unless, of course, he does publish good stuff elsewhere - but your review rather gives the lie to that.

Don't suppose it will convince the haters - but I was impressed, so I thought I'd offer you some support.

Hope it helps.

David B Marshall said...

Half-Blood: Great to hear from you. I know no German and thought Carrier sounded pretty convincing on that! But that seems ever the case -- he loves to glibly quote obscure sources that he can count on most of his audience never having read. I quoted some of your comments, with vague attribution, in that thread, hope you don't mind. I have most of Carrier's fans ther on "ignore" now, though -- one does want, at the end of the day, to return to the grownup's table, and have an adult conversation.

Brigitte said...

If you would ever like me to, I could check some German for you.

David B Marshall said...

Thank you!