Quantcast

«

»

Jan 29 2013

Paging Dr. Pander Hyperbole

Christianity is the most amazing thing ever. Or not.

In clearing my by-the-desk bookshelf of books I’d been using to complete On the Historicity of Jesus Christ, I came across Bart Ehrman’s excellent Jesus Interrupted again, which is still the standard book I recommend to anyone who wants to get up to speed on what the widest mainstream consensus is on the state of New Testament Studies (the ideal analog to The Bible Unearthed for Old Testament Studies). It’s definitely a book every atheist should own and have read (it has errors, but they are few).

I’ve been thumbing through all these books, re-checking my marginal notes to make sure I’m not overlooking anything before relocating them to more rarefied cubbies in my vast household array of bookshelves. Doing the same for Jesus Interrupted, I came across this, the very last line in the second to last chapter. Immediately one of those cartoon &?#$& thingies appeared above my head (as clearly it did the first time, since I see I wrote a pithy note in the margin after it):

The ultimate emergence of the Christian religion represents a human invention–in terms of its historical and cultural significance, arguably the greatest invention in the history of Western civilization.

Boing! Wha?

Are You Serious? (Davis Silverman Meme)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My note written below it:

What about democracy, science, philosophy, logic, [formal] mathematics, and human rights?

(Indeed, what about electricity or the internal combustion engine or the computer or the solar panel or the light bulb?)

You know. As for example.

That was obviously just off the top of my head, probably while kicking back on some couch somewhere. Revisiting the notion in just a few seconds, I thought of a few others I could have jotted in there (vaccination, birth control, radio, the satellite, women’s suffrage … &?#$&). Feel free to post your own list of “arguably the greatest inventions in the history of Western civilization [that are damn well more important than Christianity]” in comments here.

I’ve addressed the “Christianity saved the universe” baloney before, of course. In my chapter “Christianity Was Not Responsible for Modern Science” in The Christian Delusion (pp. 396-420) and online in “Christianity Was Not Responsible for American Democracy” (or human rights blah) and Christianity didn’t invent everything (see Flynn’s Pile of Boners) and the “Stirrup of Jesus” didn’t save Western civilization and whatnot (see Lynn White on Horse Stuff) and Jesus was not the greatest philosopher in history (he doesn’t even rank; see my summary On Musonius Rufus and Reply to McFall on Jesus as a Philosopher, in which Christianity supposedly invented feminism, too).

I don’t mean to pick on Ehrman. Or that book (it’s otherwise mostly great). And I’m not attributing all this nonsense to him. It’s just that at the end of the day, re-reading that remark just made my head spin. So I had to vent a bit…and remind people these kinds of remarks are really, really absurd. Like I said of something else in one of the above links: this is not nonsense on stilts…it’s nonsense on twirling rockets to the moon.

95 comments

Skip to comment form

  1. 1
    Ben Schuldt

    He said it was the greatest Western human invention. He didn’t say what it was greatest at doing. :p

  2. 2
    angst the ontological oddity

    1. The Washington Redskins
    2. G.g allen and the murder junkies
    3. Jimmy sypper fly snooka
    4. Willy wonka and the chocolate factory/fuck charlie and the chocolate factory
    5. Artie lang(before he got clean)
    6. Condoms
    7. Dutch ovens
    8. Joe dirt
    9. Peggy bundy
    10. Oh and RICK JAMES

  3. 3
    Madalyn Johnson (@Cressida74)

    birth control. and it will be even better once there’s a male version.

  4. 4
    John Haigh

    “arguably the greatest invention in the history of Western civilization.”

    I guess if you define greatest narrowly to mean most powerful rather than beneficial You could argue some sort of case. You would need to define civilization as culture rather than all the other components of a civilization too.

    I would prefer to argue “arguably the worst invention in the history of Western civilization.” But I can envisage some clever people finding some invention that is worse for our civilization. H Bomb? Power Point presentations? Reality TV shows? Let’s be creative and also put forward some inventions that could be worse than Christianity.

    1. 4.1
      Richard Carrier

      Oh, that’s not a bad idea. Hmmm. The Real Housewives? No, wait. Jim Crowe laws. Or do we only count things that are still around? Okay. Congressional district gerrymandering? …

  5. 5
    WMDKitty -- Survivor

    The wheel. Hell, the wheelchair — giving people mobility is pretty great.

    1. 5.1
      Richard Carrier

      Oh, good one. The wheel. Duh.

    2. 5.2
      Randomfactor

      Western civilization is specified. I’m almost sure something like a wheelchair predated that. And certainly the wheel.

    3. Richard Carrier

      The wheel is Western (originated in Europe, diffused east). I know, I was thinking the same thing, but then checked. Sure enough, it was invented in the West.

      As far as wheel chairs in the sense intended (wheeled chairs for the disabled), I am unaware of that being a thing in the Greco-Roman period. So I googled “when was the wheelchair invented” and eHow says first in medieval China. So not Western. If we trust that source (Wikipedia supplies only marginally better documentation, but it sounds like there is evidence to back it). Unless we count Western re-inventions (i.e. the Western wheel chair does not appear to be a diffusion from China) as Western inventions, as we perhaps could here. In that case, it looks like 16th century Spain gets the credit.

  6. 6
    Will

    yeah.. the way Ehrman worded that “.. arguably the greatest invention in the history of Western civilization.” is pretty inappropriate. I would add to your list of higher ranking things germ theory, the steam engine, heliocentric astronomy and perhaps the donut. :-)

    1. 6.1
      Richard Carrier

      Germ theory’s good.

      But the steam engine is arguably weaker since it has since largely been replaced by the internal combustion engine. But it was certainly a hugely important transitional invention that did indeed change nearly every single aspect of Western civilization, in ways that have long outlived the invention itself, many of which certainly more impactful than Christianity (just compare what Christianity did to Western civilization over a thousand years, with what the steam engine did to it over just one century).

    2. 6.2
      Will

      Richard, this is tangential, but there has been some discussion on your FB thread about whether or not Ehrman’s anti-miracle stance in doing history is basically the same approach that Hume took. That was my impression but there has been some disagreement. Whats your take on it? just curious.

    3. Richard Carrier

      Re: Ehrman and Humean reasoning on miracles…

      Ehrman is not a particularly cogent or experienced philosopher, so he is often not clear or sound in his articulation of positions like this. There can easily be a disconnect between what actually validates his assumptions, and what he claims does. He can also just be wrong sometimes (I catch him committing a number of logical blunders in my blog review of his book on historicity). I don’t find any utility to examining his case for this, when clearer and more careful arguments are available elsewhere (so even if he adopts his stance for the wrong reasons, his stance can be still more or less correct).

      See Proving History, pp. 114-17 (w. n. 18, p. 310 on Hume specifically; Hume’s only defect was that he was unaware of Bayes’ Theorem, which was developed around the same time; a Bayesian revision of Hume closes all its holes and verifies his conclusion, with some qualification).

    4. 6.3
      Will

      I see.. yah, he did commit alot of fallacies in DJE? that were even apparent to my novice level reading. i’ll reread that part of ‘Proving History’ that you referred to in regards to the Humean material…actually i was planning on a second read of the whole thing before i get back into school anyway- that book is pretty packed.. and it does help clear up one’s thinking about these matters to get into the Bayesian framework for looking at historical questions.. no question about it. I wonder if Ehrman has looked at ‘PH’… it sounds like Goodacre read it since he had some nice things to say about it in the Unbelievable debate. BTW, thanks much for that!

  7. 7
    snowman

    His claim is fair.

    Few of your examples come even close to the impact of Christianity except the joint affect of science/logic/et al, and several are entirely derivative and owe their very existence to Christianity – equal rights and democracy grow up in the West out of the Christian mythology of equal “souls” of divine value being transmogrified into the myth of equal “persons” with “dignity”. Even our desire for truth, and the value we have placed on truth, was inculcated by Christianity over the years.

    Just because we no longer accept Christian mythology – though you and others still righteously defend mythologies it entailed! – it would be churlish to be disdainful of Christian and ungrateful for everything it bred into us over 2000 years.

    I would agree it is our greatest invention to date.

    1. 7.1
      Richard Carrier

      [Hmmm. Is snowman a Christian? Anyone who has more evidence like this, please let me know. It would confirm he's a troll engaged as an agent provocateur in atheism circles, and people should know that if it's the case.]

      [And of course everything he just said is flatly refuted in the very articles I linked to; if that wasn't already obvious.]

    2. 7.2
      LykeX

      equal rights and democracy grow up in the West out of the Christian mythology

      That’s not only false, but so absurdly, bizarro-world, out-of-touch-with-reality dishonest, I don’t even know how you can begin to defend it. How about the fact that democracy is explicitly a pre-christian idea? How about the fact that, despite ruling Europe for over a millenium, Christianity never managed to produce societies ruled democratically or with equal rights, neither in relation to gender, economic status, religion or race.

      Even our desire for truth, and the value we have placed on truth, was inculcated by Christianity over the years.

      Oh, give me a goddamn, sugar-coated break. That’s complete bullshit. If there’s one thing the Christianity has always had an extremely strained relationship with, it’s truth. Sure, Christian have always been happy to pay lip-service to the idea, but actual promotion of the truth and the tools necessary to approach it was always done in opposition to orthodoxy.

      All the things that apologists are now happy to claim credit for in the name of Christianity, developed only after Christianity started losing its grip on Europe and the church was kicking and screaming every step of the way.

    3. Richard Carrier

      I know. It’s like he thinks Aristotle was a Christian. Dr. Who must have taken Jesus back a few centuries and introduced them at a cocktail party. Aristotle: “Whoa! Truth? Hey, Jesus, that’s a really groovy idea! You’re so right. We should care, like, totally all about that! Thanks, man. And what’s with that weird blue box thingy you just stepped out of…?”

    4. 7.3
      snowman

      Richard, calling people a “Christian” is not an argument in favor of your superficial atheism. Don’t be a simplistic partisan, Richard, be a skeptic.

      Lykex, don’t confuse the Church with Christianity, Russia with Marxism, or Obama with liberalism. Look to the essence of them.

      >>democracy is explicitly a pre-christian idea?

      :-) Well, only if you think “democracy” excludes most of society and bears no relation whatsoever to human rights. The fundamental essence of true democracy is universal equality of citizenship which does not exist until you have a mythology – a common sense or assumption – of equally valued humans. True democracy only matures in recent centuries alongside “human rights” and the “dignity of personhood”, which is a philosophical attempt to reformulate our Christian heritage of the “equal divinity of souls”. And obviously only Christianity began breeding that universal mythology into our culture NOT Aristotle or any of the Greeks. The Greeks never believed in “equality”!

      Such understandings were only superficially secularized with the Enlightenment. You can even look at the movement to outlaw slavery in the US which still explicitly relied on Christian notions of equality. Even Kant, the father of “dignity”, admitted he couldn’t birth such a miracle child without assuming the same old god above. Where do you think such notions come from??? Trace their genealogy, most of the philosophers you’re implicitly relying on were very explicit in what they were trying to do!

      >>If there’s one thing the Christianity has always had an extremely strained relationship with, it’s truth.

      Again, don’t confuse the Church with Christianity. If you do not understand how Christianity has inculcated a desire for truth in our culture over millennia then you don’t understand the essence of Christianity and you can never understand true atheism. Christianity poses as the universal truth, not the defender of a tribe. It obviously hasn’t served Christianity well, this focus on the truth has come to bite it in the ass, but that doesn’t mean we don’t owe a great debt to Christianity for having bred us in the West for 2000 years.

      Liberalism and its claim to truth are entirely in debt to Christianity for giving birth to it. Do you really think the son has nothing of the father in him? The wisest words in the Bible were spoken by a Roman: “What is truth?” Well, Richard claims he knows. Western liberalism knows (we even call them “rights”). You sound like you know too. Do you?

      This is why US atheism, A+ et al, is a joke; it is entirely superficial. It hasn’t traced and questioned the essence of Christianity and therefore hasn’t even begun to see its own roots and mythologies as problematic. You can’t kill off the Christian god and maintain its essential morality. Claiming that the latest iteration of an ape on some rock in space is of value because it is a “person” possessing “dignity” is no more grounded than claiming it possesses a divine soul. Nor is what follows from such claims.

      Very little of so-called “atheism” has yet fathomed the depth of what true atheism undermines.

    5. Richard Carrier

      So are you a Christian or not?

    6. 7.4
      LykeX

      don’t confuse the Church with Christianity

      Right. Never mind the fact that the entire Christian world, for over a millenium, was the most ardent enemy of truth, democracy and equality; clearly that has no bearing on the matter.
      But somehow, the fact that Greek society restricted voting rights cancels out any claim they have on the idea.

      Christianity gets to lay claim to truth, despite never doing more than paying lipservice to the idea, but the Greek philosophers, who not only pursued truth as a virtue, but also took the first steps in developing a rigorous epistemology, get tossed to the side.

      Yes, you’re clearly even-handed and unbiased here. Well done.

    7. 7.5
      Dave B

      I think he’s a Christian because I’m seeing a lot of bluster but no actual point being made. I’ve read these posts a few times now and they’re just ramblings that don’t make any sense. I swear I seen so many Christians over the years that post these whacky streams of consciousness that I seriously wonder if there is a correlation of some sort.

    8. 7.6
      snowman

      Richard et al, you’re actually asking if the guy calling Christianity’s background a mythology, your atheism superficial and ourselves merely the latest iteration of an ape on a rock in space is a Christian??? Uhh, no.

      >>Never mind the fact that the entire Christian world…

      Exactly as I said, never mind that and understand the essence of Christianity, as you clearly have not yet done. Yet again, Christianity posed as the universal truth, not the mere defender of a local tribe. What did that mean and imply and gestate??? THINK for once.

      >>no actual point being made

      Wow, a real gathering of scholars here, I see. Blithe snarkism posing as skepticism yet again.

    9. Richard Carrier

      So…

      Are you a Christian?

    10. 7.7
      snowman

      Are you blind or just stupid, Richard?

      Let me ask you an equally relevant question: are you gay?

    11. Richard Carrier

      I happen not to be gay.

      So, are you a Christian?

    12. 7.8
      snowman

      Nor blind? So you mean you are just stupid then?

      Look up about 25cm and you’ll find your answer.

      How is it you manage so frequently to shoot yourself in the foot and reveal yourself to be a partisan hack?

    13. Richard Carrier

      [Note to readers: though snowman is now routinely violating my comments policy, I am letting his comments through because they demonstrate what a massively immature douchebag he is, which is more than enough to discredit him. He is arguing against himself here. I don't even need to lift a finger at this point. I may tire of this and just start deleting his posts. But I'll wait a while, because they are already such effective arguments against him. He's doing all my work for me!]

    14. alandeon2

      But Richard, he quite clearly stated he was NOT christian two weeks ago. why is he a douche for wanting you to look for yourself?

      You may not agree with his comments but quite clearly, you don’t seem to agree with others general comments anyway so same ol’ same ol’ right?

    15. Richard Carrier

      snowman quite clearly stated he was NOT christian two weeks ago

      Did he?

      Please point me to where.

    16. alandeon2

      Well, this is what he said on Feb 6th

      post 7.6 (above)

      “Richard et al, you’re actually asking if the guy calling Christianity’s background a mythology, your atheism superficial and ourselves merely the latest iteration of an ape on a rock in space is a Christian??? Uhh, no”

      The “Uhh, no” part was the dead giveaway…. ;-)

    17. Richard Carrier

      It’s unclear that that is what he meant.

      So let’s ask him.

      Snowman: did you mean to say “no” as in “No, I am not a Christian”?

    18. 7.9
      LykeX

      Exactly as I said, never mind that and understand the essence of Christianity, as you clearly have not yet done.

      1) If you have a point, make it. Don’t try to play Socrates. It’s insulting to me and you don’t fit the part.
      2) You’re trying to divorce Christianity from actual real-life Christians. I think that’s highly problematic.
      3) I made this point last post, but you seem to have missed it, so I guess I have to spell it out:
      If we’re to accept the idea that practice and “essence” can be divorced, then you have no basis for claiming that democracy was not a Greek invention. The fact that they excluded large segments of society from actually participating is no more relevant than the fact that Christian kings didn’t give up their power to the people.

      Yet again, Christianity posed as the universal truth, not the mere defender of a local tribe.

      1) The idea of a search for universal truth also underlies all Greek philosophical thought. Again, definitely pre-Christian.
      2) The idea of religious universalism was not unique to Christianity, nor was equality. E.g. think of the Elusinian mysteries, which didn’t discriminate according to class, gender or nationality.

      What did that mean and imply and gestate??? THINK for once.

      I do. I think to myself “Is what he’s saying actually true? What do I know about this subject? Is there any way I can check up on these supposed facts?”
      That’s why I’m not just swallowing whatever you dish out.

    19. 7.10
      pg scott

      I agree with snowman, I also suspect that snowman, (like myself) comes to atheism via Nietzsche, or at least in that tradition. And I also think that understanding atheism from a Nietzschean perspective is totally at odds and foreign to the kind of atheism Richard adheres to.

      But I agree with everything snowman has said…

    20. 7.11
      snowman

      Here you are, Richard et al, you sound exactly like this woman explaining the “truth” of how people ought to be treated, you just assume a different mythology as background for what you want to be true. You have the same possessed look in your eyes though.:

    21. 7.12
      snowman

      I’d hate to be Richard’s date if he doesn’t accept that no means no even after told several times:-)

      Apparently violating Richard’s rules means pointing out how superficial he is. Richard then gives up arguing and relies on personal attacks. You really do make yourself look shabby with that approach, Richard.

      alandeon2 and pg scoott, thanks for the posts, it gets lonely here in the forest.

      Btw, that video was supposed to start at around 8:40 to mock Richard’s mythologies.. You just want to shake that women (or Richard) until her brain wakes up and she starts to think not attack.

      LykeX:
      3) there was no essential theory behind Greek democracy that saw everyone as equal and drove toward universal equality. So your analogy is not relevant. With Christianity however there was an essential universal ideal that motivated the Church over time. Gay rights today have their greatest defenders in the church and its liberal epigones..
      4) I do see some Greeks as problematic in the same manner of Christianity.and having contributed to Christian notions of truth.. I don’t think they had any much cultural force within Greece though. Socrates was a precursor, no doubt, in believing the true world was a still peaceful one separate from ill and evil and this world, an absolute heresy against reality.
      5) Elusinian mysteries had nothing of the cultural impact of Christianity. It was more of a sideshow, no?

      Hope it helps.

    22. Richard Carrier

      Now I’m starting to really smell the crazy.

      (When they start talking about you in terms that sound eerily exactly like them, you know it’s time to start slowly backing away…)

    23. 7.13
      snowman

      >>Richard then gives up arguing and relies on personal attacks. You really do make yourself look shabby with that approach, Richard.

      Do you not even think before posting and proving the criticisms others make about you, Richard?

      The basic routine is:

      Make clear points explaining why Richard’s take is superficial
      —Richard makes no points but attacks you as a Christian instead.
      Make points to clarify with others why Richard is being superficial.
      —Richard makes no points but repeatedly denies that you or he just said what everyone else can read.
      Make points to clarify with others why Richard is being superficial. Mock Richard’s partisan approach to show how silly it is.
      —Richard still unable to make any points at all but uses cliched snark-irony and calls you crazy, thus proving what you just said about him.
      —If really pressed, Richard will claim that his “philosophy” has already settled millenia-old questions and is undisputed except by insane evil people.

  8. 8
    k_machine

    You know, I’ve been thinking about how Christianity used to be a bunch lately. If you went to any Christian that lived for the majority of the history of that religion, they would probably think you were insane if you told them that people now aren’t ruled by the aristocrats that god appointed to rule the earth. You can’t find the word “republic” or “democracy” in the bible, but you can find plenty of divinely appointed kings.

    As for great inventions, without Christianity we wouldn’t have Christmas, which is ipso facto the greatest thing ever. Check and mate, professor Carrier.

    1. 8.1
      Richard Carrier

      Actually, Christmas is almost 100% pagan. Combine the Roman Saturnalia with the Germanic solstice festivals and you pretty much have everything about Christmas secularists do. Even the Christmas tree could as easily have evolved from them as it did from Christianity–since it actually has nothing whatever to do with Christian belief or scripture, but in fact copies pre-Christian pagan practices that are actually condemned in the Bible. And arguably, Saturnalia would be more fun. Most of what we think of as enjoyably “Christmassy” is actually Dickensian anyway (ironically, considering what that adjective has come to usually signify).

  9. 9
    watchingpaintdryblog

    Indeed, one might note that christianity was an invention of Late Classical civilization, not western.

    My choice for greatest invention would be movable type printing

    1. 9.1
      Richard Carrier

      That was a Chinese invention. It seems to have been independently invented by Gutenberg, but only half a millennium later. So 50/50 whether that counts.

  10. 10
    oolon

    Well in terms of making peoples lives better even individual scientific discoveries have had a far larger effect on the well being of the worlds population that Christianity ever has. Penicillin for one, Haber-Bosch process for another. More recently the internet has helped foster and create communities and support networks that will imo supplant religion in the long term.

  11. 11
    kfwils

    First, Bart said “arguably”. Second. I would give him slack for using the adjective, greatest”. If he meant that religion has had the most widespread, powerful impact on people globally then I agree. Nothing else is on the mind of so many people, so constantly as religion. We have a planet of humans consumed by a belief system and that surpasses any other invention. Is it the greatest? Absolutely not. It is by far the most disturbing and unsettling phenomenon I can think of.

  12. 12
    marcusjo

    English is not my native language so maybe I’m not reading the quote quite right but isn’t Ehrman just saying that christianity is the human invention that, for good or bad, had the greatest impact on western society? I think that might be right. Science lost a couple of centuries because of christanity, that is enormous cultural significance.

    1. 12.1
      Richard Carrier

      He said “greatest” in respect to “historical and cultural significance.”

      Even so, I would say the things I listed have had far greater impact by both measures, too (historically and culturally). But by his own definition, they have been far more significant in their effects and the ways they changed the world. They have also been among the greatest gifts that Western civilization has given the rest of the world.

      In fact, I can’t honestly think of any way in which Christianity has been more significant than them. Hence my point. His remark is just pandering to Christian readers (and is hyperbolic to boot). Hence the post’s title.

  13. 13
    Kilian Hekhuis

    I think the statement has a very important restrictive subclause in there: “in terms of its historical and cultural significance”. And I think he’s very right on that. Nothing else has had an influence of 2000 years and counting, no matter how important nowadays.

    1. 13.1
      Richard Carrier

      I disagree.

    2. 13.2
      Kilian Hekhuis

      Yes, so you did. However, I have a hard time imagining how anyone could find the overwhelming (and often devastating) influence of Christianity on this world not of significance. It all more or less hinges on the interpretation of “greatest”, and I’m with you 100% if by “greatest” he meant anything positive, since there’s nothing “great” about Christianity. But the impact, both historically and culturally, of Christianity is vast and almost all-encompassing (in the sense that there is little that has not been influenced), which can’t be said for the other things you named (again, historically and culutrally – that some of these things greatly impact our current day lives is beyond disagreement).

    3. Richard Carrier

      I think the things I named were more vast and almost all-encompassing–not only since most of the world has adopted them but not Christianity, and been transformed by them, but not by Christianity; but also because most of what you mean by “Christianity” is not Christian (subtract all the things that were already true or equivalently realized in respect to religion, philosophy, cultural behaviors, beliefs, attitudes, art, anything, and you have only a handful of things left, whose influence is not all that impressive really, or if so, only in a trivial or revolting way).

      By analogy, one could say that the impact, both historically and culturally, of the English language is vast and almost all-encompassing, but why is that significant? Had it been German that won out as the dominant global language of science and engineering and diplomacy and entertainment and trade, very little of significance would be different. There just isn’t anything about English that is significantly special. Hence it would be absurd to say English was “in terms of its historical and cultural significance, arguably the greatest invention in the history of Western civilization.”

  14. 14
    Alex Grigg (@SatansParakeet)

    It kind of depends on how you’re defining “greatest,” doesn’t it? If we’re going for most useful or helpful then your choices are all pretty clearly better, but if you’re going for the most insidious, mind bending nonsense that has managed to have the widest impact on political and cultural life then I might argue that Ehrman has a valid point.

    1. 14.1
      Richard Carrier

      Well, sure. But I seriously doubt that’s what he meant. :-)

  15. 15
    bbgunn

    “The ultimate emergence of the Christian religion represents a human invention–in terms of its historical and cultural significance, arguably the greatest invention in the history of Western civilization.”

    Replace ‘invention’ with ‘con game’ and it loses much of its hyperbolic quality.

  16. 16
    Woo_Monster, Sniffer of Starfarts

    The Snuggie was a more useful invention.

  17. 17
    Matt Gerrans

    I guess the word “greatest” can be taken in the sense of “large effect” rather than “good effect,” but I still agree that most of the other things you list are more important inventions. It might be that the invention of Christianity has had a larger effect (as in a retarding effect) on humanity than many of those others. This is kind of like saying Hitler was a great leader; in this case, by “great” we don’t mean “wonderful,” we just mean he had a large effect on world events, which is true. I think the main reason this is hyperbole is that if not for Christianity, Europeans would have just had some other religion. It is pretty hard to guess how things would be different in that case (setting aside the unsubstantiated claims of people like Rodney Stark).

    We should chide Mr. Ehrman a bit for this, but forgive him the excess, since he was probably just trying to blunt the blow (of the book overall) for Christian readers. After all, we all make mistakes. Even you, Richard, have committed the nearly unforgivable transgression of using the appallingly trite phrase “at the end of the day” right here. If you repent now, you will be forgiven! :)

  18. 18
    proudfootz

    I like that Ehrman is willing to concede religion is a human invention, and it is certainly of dramatic historical and cultural importance (in that sense ‘great’) – but certainly not ‘great’ in the sense of being laudable.

    Likewise the invention of ‘warfare’ is of great significance but not the sort of thing we should feel proud of.

    1. 18.1
      Richard Carrier

      (And warfare is probably not a Western invention, either. In fact, it might not even be a human invention. Even apart from the fact of ant colony warfare, if religion and afterlife beliefs and ritual burial and carpentry and even fire were all invented by pre-human hominids, and they were, warfare might have been as well.)

  19. 19
    Dave B.

    Bart doesn’t really believe that. He just got through taking a dump on Christianity and Biblical Inerrancy, and he was just softening the blow. I’m sure of it. This reminds me of one of the first books I ever read about the Bible (Don’t know much about the Bible- Kenneth Davis). Davis gets through spending the entire book pointing out problems and contradictions in the various books of the Bible, but in his final words he seems to come out in favor of Christianity. Same thing here IMO.

    1. 19.1
      Richard Carrier

      Hence Dr. Pander Hyperbole.

  20. 20
    Matthew Ferguson

    Hey Richard, “greatest” can take on multiple meanings here. Things like science, democracy, vaccines, etc. could be deemed “great” in terms of their utilitarian value (i.e. capacity to further human happiness and well being). The criteria for greatness that Bart listed are “historical and cultural significance.” By this criteria, I could say that Nazism was certainly “great,” in terms of having a large historical and cultural impact, without arguing that it was a “good” impact (sort of like Ollivander in the first Harry Potter movie). Good or bad, one could argue about whether there has been no greater cultural and historical event in Western civilization than the invention of Christianity (I think there have probably been many), but I don’t think that Bart was arguing in that line that Christianity was the greatest thing to save the universe. Even still, I agree that the line is exaggerated (though a lot of book endings do that for dramatic effect). Most people in Western civilization are culturally Christian, but they couldn’t say a damned thing about the Bible, Jesus’ teachings, theology, or anything much pertaining to the specifics of Christianity. Maybe Christianity has been most influential in dominating European aesthetics (can’t go into a single room in Italy without seeing a Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus), though Christianity borrowed a lot of its artistic themes from the Pagans anyways. I agree that Jesus Interrupted was one of Bart’s greatest books. I particularly enjoyed Erhman’s exegesis of each Gospel and how he pointed out that one must tamper with and change the message of each if they wish to create a “Super Gospel” like many apologists do in their attempts at harmonization.

  21. 21
    moarscienceplz

    Feel free to post your own list of “arguably the greatest inventions in the history of Western civilization [that are damn well more important than Christianity]”

    Toilet paper
    Frozen Margaritas
    Soy sauce packets
    Venti-sized coffee

    1. 21.1
      Richard Carrier

      Oh, shit. Toilet paper! Definitely. That actually rates before shoes–and those are the two things I’d most want to be sure I had if stranded on a deserted island (everything else I could make). So, yeah. That.

      (Oh, and pun intended.)

  22. 22
    Daryl

    I generally like Bart and his books, but this seems like he’s throwing a bone to his Christian readers just after severely undermining their cherished belief of the bible being flawless in all its claims. ‘There, there, it’s not all literally true, but it’s still jolly important, and Jesus had some really splendid things to say also, even if he wasn’t the second member of the Trinity.’

    It’s a kind of liberal apologetic for Christianity, delivered by someone who isn’t actually a Christian. Such a thing should be absurd, but it really isn’t; Michael Ruse and Karen Armstrong do pretty much the same thing in other fields..

    1. 22.1
      Richard Carrier

      As several others have suggested in this thread, too. I do agree that might be the backstory. But it doesn’t change the pandering or the hyperbole of it. Or the misleading effect of it. Pandering hyperbole does not educate. It de-educates. A teacher should not want to do that.

  23. 23
    Enopoletus Harding

    There is a problem with the comments here: when comments are more than a dozen or so lines long, the “Post Comment” box becomes invisible.

    1. 23.1
      Richard Carrier

      I don’t see that effect. (I’m using Firefox on Mac.) But I’ll report it to our tech guy.

    2. 23.2
      Kilian Hekhuis

      There’s actually a tech guy? He isn’t reachable by e-mail or the like, is he? I experience many problems with this site, and I’ve been unable to find anyone to contact.

    3. 23.3
      LykeX

      I have the same problem. It’s as if the post composition box is in a frame of its own, but it doesn’t let you scroll down, so if you type too much, you end up scrolling the submit button off the screen.

      Temporary workaround: Highlight the text box and press the tab key. That should let you submit.

      For the tech guy, here’s a few screen grabs:
      short post – http://a.pictureupload.us/576917831510b37206e35f.jpg
      long post – http://a.pictureupload.us/343473666510b37234452f.jpg

      I hope this illustrates the problem. I should note that I’m using an older version of Firefox (3.6), so maybe that has something to do with it?

    4. Richard Carrier

      I’ve forwarded that to our tech people, too. Thank you. I’m sure that will be helpful.

  24. 24
    Vicki

    “Greatest” is not the same as “oldest”—though if age is your criterion I note that writing, democracy, geometry, and libraries are all older than Christianity, and writing is world-changing in ways that we may overlook only because everyone we know has grown up in the world shaped by the written word.

  25. 25
    GrzeTor

    Computers + appropraite algorithms and stuff + networking of these to make them a coherent whole. A single home computer has bigger explicit computational power than the entire humanity. And a large computer company like Google can have about million of these in their computer cloud. Classic computers are generally superior to humans in things they do, but limited to a fixed set of functions, though (the set of functions) rapidly growing in size. Right now it includes things like playing chess, optmizing circuits, making business decisions (ephemistically called Decision Support Systems, rather than Decision Making Systems) and even winning political campaigns – meet the first tranhuman cyborg presidential candidate Barrack “Narhwal” Obama:

    http://communities-dominate.blogs.com/brands/2012/11/orca-meets-narwhal-how-the-obama-ground-game-crushed-romney-a-look-behind-the-math.html

    http://communities-dominate.blogs.com/brands/2012/12/the-definitive-article-on-numbers-and-performance-of-narwhal-vs-orca-obama-vs-romney-datamining-and-.html

    As for the recent invention, we are quickly approaching the age where a full brain replacement with universal, thus a full humans replacement is possible, so that the civilization can finally get rid of biological (human) bottleneck, and high costs associated with keeping it and move forward really fast (so I am “civilizationist”?). Current pioneer in the field is Numeta with Jeff Hawkins.

    1. 25.1
      Richard Carrier

      A single home computer has bigger explicit computational power than the entire humanity.

      I’m curious what statistics you are comparing here. What do you mean by “explicit computational power” and how can a desktop have more of it than even a single human brain, much less all human brains combined?

      As for the recent invention, we are quickly approaching the age where a full brain replacement with universal, thus a full humans replacement is possible

      Depends on what you mean by “soon.” Within fifty to a hundred years, sure; sooner, less certain.

    2. 25.2
      GrzeTor

      Explicit computations – it means we ask the subject to do do some particular computations like multiplying two numbers etc. and getting a correct result.

      For a human it may take something like a secod to dozen seconds to compute it. Counting – for easy computations – a second per opertation per human (an extremaly optimistic estimate, as some can’t count, some some do mistakes and need corrections) you get to at max. 7 billion operations per second.

      A home computer would typically have a processor with 2 cores (4-8 cores for better models), clocked at something like 3GHz (Giga means a BILLION clocks per second – a major source of power for computers). Each core has a Floating Point vector unit that can do 2 instructions per second, and each vector instruction can calculate 2 64-bit floating point computations or 4 32-bit floating point computations – I count the former, as more precise, used in science, the latter useful for games.

      So:

      3GHz * 2 cores * 2 vector instructions/(second * core) * 2 Floating Point operations / vector instruction = 24 billions floating point instructions per second (Gigaflops).

      In a sense you may argue that for a typical home computer processor humanity still may win, as programmers rarely are able to utilize full processing power of it, with typical program getting 1 or less instruction per second etc.

      But this is just a beginning – not only you can have something like 4 or 8 cores in a processor for better models, 4GHz clocks, but also every home computer also have a Graphics Processing Unit, that is even faster, though much less universal overall than a classic processor for which the previous computation was done.

      GPU is good for matrix and vector computations, that is stuff done in physics calculations and simulations, not good for conditionals and loops (if/then stuff) and random data access frequently used in businessess software). It’s because it’s build as a mostly big bunch of arithmetic-logic units (eg. 2048 for the graphics card I mention later) glued together, with not much support and optimization logic. Conventional processors on the other hand are mostly support and optimization (cache memory, out of order execution of instructions, branch prediction, data access prediction and prefetch), plus a small number of transistors for actual computations.

      The last generation of Graphic Processor Units are programmable, atlhough it’s difficult to do it, so many companies just don’t. The raw numbers for a GPUs are just crazy: for example AMD 7970 can do 1024 Gigaflops for 64-bit numbers.

      So now a single home computer wins unequivocaly, even counting potential inefficiencies of software.

      What it results in is task that humans can’t do. The link about Obama campaign “Nahrwal” system I’ve provided included tasks like individually tracking each potential voter (millions), doing summary analysis of this data, predicting outcome, then making plans eg. asigning individual tasks to 300 thousands volunteers. No human could do this.

      This is also imporant in science. Sheer volume of experiments requires computers to process them. Large Hadron Collider itself produces 15 petabytes of data per year itself. And it’s not only about raw data. There are examples of “proofs by exhaustion” in which a proof is reduced to thousands of finite configurations or cases to be checked individually – typically by a computer.
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proof_by_exhaustion

      In a sense such comparison of EXPLICIT computations is unfair to the brain, as the brain does mostly hidden, self-directed, self-controlled computations, rather than ones externally provided to it. Doing explicit computations from external sources in fact requires special teaching, while hidden computations are inborn. At around 86 billion neurons (17 billion in the neurocortex) firing at aroud 100Hz a brain does do a lot of operations. You should also include synapses forming connections as operations – I don’t know the maximum rate at which they are able to form connection, but the total number is quite high – around hundreds of trillions.

      But notice – my post was partially about civilization. It’s not that much useful to the civilization to do hidden computations. It’s either a following of orders, or explicit contributions that count. A home computer can follow orders with the speed I mentioned and can output contributions at let’s say a broadband Internet connection speed, eg. 10Mbit/sec. Compare this to 140 words/minute a brain outputs. What’s more the connection to the world of computers is infintely scalable – it’s a financial not a technological issue that we don’t have faster network speeds. With brains the output is fixed. Basically a brain is a separated, egocentric entity, while any computer can become integral part of a big system. A solution much better for civilization than a large number of egocentric processing units. Explicit computations are important!

      The types of entities that you can link computers into are: clusters, clouds, distibuted computing systems, peer-too-peer exchange networks. What is important is that they are acting as a single entity, despite being physically build from multiple separate computers. It’s possible because of fast network or interconneciton speeds between the computers, as well as very smart synchronization software that resolves issues like data access conflicts, and a very smart scheuduling software that distributes work optimally. All three features that humas lack, thus not beign able to form a true single entity from a group of units.

  26. 26
    Enopoletus Harding

    Sure. Here is my list of Western inventions more important than Christianity:
    1. The telegraph and telephone.
    2. The Internet.
    3. Penicillin.
    4. Vaccines
    6. The steam engine.
    7. Plastics
    I have also listed the errors in The Bible Unearthed at my WordPress blog (Against Jebel al-Lawz). They’re annoying, and the book is futile at convincing hardened fundamentalists, but the main points of the book still stand. The Patriarchs are not historical figures, Israel did not come out from Egypt, the United Monarchy was likely a ceramic mirage, and Hazael, not Shoshenq I, caused the destructions toward the end of the Iron IIa. Also, Israel Finkelstein is not the mainstream. He makes the mainstream conform to his own views by the evidence he provides. Hardly anyone questioned the Megiddo VA-Solomon link before 1996.

    1. 26.1
      Richard Carrier

      Could you provide the link to the specific blog post you mention?

      It might inspire me to do something similar for Jesus Interrupted. I don’t imagine I caught all the mistakes in it, but my marginal notes catch many (I didn’t see an appalling amount; every work will have a few).

    2. 26.2
      ACN

      I’d be interested in reading both your blog post, Enopoletus, and a piece by you on the subject, Richard.

      I recently picked up a copy of “Jesus Interrupted”, and it would fun and informative to have commentary to read along with it!

  27. 27
    alandeon2

    It seems that the first thing that came to mind was also in the mind of John here. Playing devil’s advocate a secondary meaning of “greatest” instantly came to mind. I was also thinking that “greatest” could also mean “biggest”, not necarily “best”

    My first thought was also about the H-bomb. I imagined two people standing on a cliff overlooking the end of the world describing the H-bomb as the apparent “greatest” invention of man, even though it just destroyed the world.

    I didn’t take “arguably the greatest invention in the history of Western civilization.” to automatically mean the “best” invention for the benefit of man, only the “biggest” world changing invention of man.

    I didn’t take “

  28. 28
    Nat Love

    The corporation. If we’re going on raw influence, the corporate form has had way more impact on the world than Christianity.

    1. 28.1
      Richard Carrier

      Good one.

    2. 28.2
      GrzeTor

      You may classify Catholic Church and it’s offshots (Knights Templars etc.) as the first de-facto large international corporations. So the de-facto invention of a corporation might be unintentionaly and Catholic.

      What evolved in the West was a certain environment, not only legal, but also on a practical and experience level, that allows corporations to fluorish, and actually direct some of them towards doing usefull projects.

    3. Richard Carrier

      The Catholic Church is no more a corporation than the Roman imperial landholding bureau. Properly speaking, a corporation is a body of owners who each hold a share in an enterprise, giving them rights, by proportion of shares, to profits and decisions, and variations on this theme (or even more basically, any body of people, other than a polity, who act corporately through a representative). I don’t know when this was first invented, but it was already a legal concept in ancient Rome and in Greek city-states before that, and thus is definitely pre-Christian. Roman law had many different recognized forms of joint enterprise that were similar to the modern corporation (Wikipedia dates these laws to Justinian, but what they mean is the source-text, the Digest of Justinian, which actually is just an anthology of much earlier source texts and thus the laws themselves long predate Justinian). It’s unclear to me whether our system of laws is any better than theirs. At most, ours might claim some sort of efficiency, although not in any sense the Romans themselves would not have adopted eventually anyway.

  29. 29
    F [is for failure to emerge]

    I would look at it that way (the biggest, not the best), but I don’t know what Ehrrman was thinking, either.

    Has anyone here ever encountered the series of books Great Books of the Western World? Many certainly are great books. Great books of utter crap. But well-constructed, complex, and sometimes enduring utter crap. But they all had influence, directly or indirectly. (There are two synoptic books Great Ideas which lay out plinly for all to see some of the great but completely ridiculous ideas – although I suspect the publishers thought they were all great in the sense of “good”. Also a series of yearly Great Ideas for the contemporary era, which are probably full or really bad ideas indeed.)

    “Great” is kind of like “genius”, in that it doesn’t really mean what people think it means, so you’re never sure how it is being used. (Although you can generally suspect them as being used in the modern and wrong popular sense. I certainly use “great” that way, in it’s colloquial meaning.)

  30. 30
    F [is for failure to emerge]

    Can one really consider this a Western invention at all? (Which root Christianity really wasn’t, either.)

    1. 30.1
      Richard Carrier

      Technically everything from the Indus valley west is counted as “Western civilization” in most texts. That sounds weird today when we have the middle category of “The Middle East” as a contradistinction from “the West,” but that’s a post-medieval development. The Byzantine Empire, as also Alexander’s Empire, are Western civilizations. Which only existed in what we now call the Middle East. Where Indian civilization falls (east or west?) is fuzzier to me, but the literature seems to lump it in as west. Then it’s China et al. that are “eastern civilization.” So, personally, India can be liminal/disputable, but Mesopotamia is unmistakably always identified as Western civilization in the literature (indeed as the origin of it, although that unfairly slights Egypt, IMO).

  31. 31
    John Haigh

    Richard, Is there a thread on your blog suitable for general comments?
    Huff Post had a good basic article on skepticism today by Michael Shermer.
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-shermer/what-is-skepticism-anyway_b_2581917.html

    1. 31.1
      Richard Carrier

      No, I don’t do lounges and Thunderdomes like PZ. You’ll have to find somewhere else to discuss things I haven’t blogged about. Sorry.

  32. 32
    johnwolforth

    I generally agree with you, BUT. I don’t think comparing Christianity to things is what he meant, or even things like curing polio. I think he means as a system of control and influence. So “greatest” is still a bad choice of words, but compare it to Democracy, which we’re still working out, or capitalism which has some oppression built in . Yes Christianity is full of infighting and constant squabbling, but it managed to control education, trade and the how rulers are anointed for longer than anything I know of. And although it has lost much of that power, it still is around. It has adapted itself to a reality that St. Paul or Constantine could not have predicted.

  33. 33
    Bill Amos

    Dr. Carrier, I know this is off topic. But in your oppinion, when a nation moves from a republic to an empire, does it hasten it’s downfall? I have a friend that likes to say that the U.S. is the modern day Rome. I don’t find that sentiment comforting being that Rome fell, and left a great period of darkness following behinf it. In your oppinion is th U.S. a moderen day empire, and do you think we will become a fallen Rome?

    1. 33.1
      Richard Carrier

      It’s certainly off topic here. But it does pertain to my previous blog post Are We Doomed?. Per my comments policy, discussions of my past blogs not on FtB belongs in my inaugural post at FtB. So I have replied there.

  34. 34
    watchingpaintdryblog

    I am intrigued by your definition of Western civilization, opposed only to Eastern (China/India) apparently. Western civilization has always seemed to me to be one which emerged in Europe from the fall of Classical civilization from around CE600, and now encompasing the Americas and European Colonies of settlement. The other offshoot being Islamic civilization, emerging from the Levantine part of the Classical world. The Byzantine Empire can be regarded either as a separate civilization, or a remnant of the Classical. I would also count Mesopotamia, along with others, as a separate civilization, arguably ending with “mene mene tekel u-pharsin” (not literally of course). Indeed where would Meso and Southern American civilizations fit into the scheme.

    1. 34.1
      Richard Carrier

      You aren’t going back far enough. Look at any standard university sequence “Western Civ I” and “Western Civ II.” The former starts with Mesopotamia and treats the Middle East until Greece and Rome become relevant and then, after that, Europe. Usually India is left out. I’ve seen some textbooks lump India with the West and others with the East. Though yes, the pre-Columbian American civilizations are a third category altogether, often unjustly skipped over.

  35. 35
    Giuseppe

    Hi, Dr. Carrier,
    in this recent paper
    Sabrina Inowlocki: “Did Josephus Ascribe the Fall of Jerusalem to the Murder of James, Brother of Jesus?”, Revue des études juives 170 (2011): 21–49.
    Inowlocki claims that Hegesippus is not the author of the link James-Jerusalem but instead was Josephus himself. This is not exactly true, since Eusebius (Ecclesiastical History 2.23.3-18) resumes when Hegesippus recounts the death of James, and concludes by saying ” And immediately Vespasian besieged them.” This shows a clear cause-and-effect relationship between the death of James and the fall of Jerusalem, testified earlier by imaginative Hegesippus, and then certainly NOT by Josephus..
    Is it correct?
    Best regards,
    Giuseppe

    1. 35.1
      Richard Carrier

      I’ll look up that article and see what she says. But I’m skeptical she can make a valid case. As to your own thinking, I say as much myself (and add internal evidence in support of it) in my article.

  36. 36
    Douglas Mcfarland

    The written word, Printing Press, Internet

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite="" class=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

%d bloggers like this: