Philosopher (and FtB alum) Dan Fincke has written a good, concise piece on why atheists need to don a little more sense and humility when claiming Jesus didn’t exist. In his article On Atheists Attempting to Disprove the Existence of the Historical Jesus, Fincke makes a sound case for two basic points: (1) amateurs should not be voicing certitude in a matter still being debated by experts (historicity agnosticism is far more defensible and makes far more sense for amateurs on the sidelines) and (2) criticizing Christianity with a lead of “Jesus didn’t even exist” is strategically ill conceived–it’s bad strategy on many levels, it only makes atheists look illogical, and (counter-intuitively) it can actually make Christians more certain of their faith.
I think his piece is a must-read. I’ll only briefly comment on some of its key arguments here.
I quite agree with (1) and (2). I’ve made both points myself over the years. But Fincke lays out the reasoning well. He concludes, for example, that until “secular historians…at least become widely divided over” the matter of historicity (emphasis on widely and the minimal benchmark of divided), atheists who are not themselves experts in the field should not be “advocating for one side or the other routinely and prominently.” (There is a growing division, BTW, but it’s not yet wide…although I know other historians who privately confess they are willing to concede agnosticism about historicity but who won’t admit it in public, so the division is wider than we know–but until more go public, we can’t know how wide.) Meanwhile, Fincke explains, “we should either be agnostic on the issue,” as Fincke is, or “defer to historical consensus,” or, “if we really find [e.g.] Carrier’s arguments compelling” then we should “still be cautious and qualified in our declarations, acknowledging that we are agreeing with a minority view (and one that even Carrier seems far from certain about).”
In aid of that last parenthetical, I can announce one spoiler: in my book On the Historicity of Jesus (at the publisher now and expected this February, if their production timeline goes to plan) I conclude that, using probability estimates as far against my conclusion as are at all reasonably possible (probabilities I believe are wildly too generous), there could be as much as a 1 in 3 chance that Jesus existed. When using what I think are more realistic estimates of the requisite probabilities (estimates I believe are closer to the truth), those chances drop to around 1 in 12,000.
Note that the first estimate leaves a respectable probability that Jesus existed–it’s merely more likely that he didn’t, not anywhere near certain. And that may well be correct, if my biases are strong and thus my a fortiori estimates (estimates against myself) more accurate. But even if we embrace the other end of my margin of error, we are still not looking at certainty. 1 in 12,000 sounds like certainty, but it’s actually nowhere near. Just ask yourself: would you get into a car that had a 1 in 12,000 chance of exploding right then? If your answer is yes, then you are bad at math.
Supernatural miracles, and disembodied minds, and blood magic, have odds of millions or billions or even trillions or quadrillions to one against. So why would you hang your case against Christianity on a mere 1 in 12,000? You can make a far better case against that religion by granting historicity and then showing the odds against it are trillions to one. The additional reduction in the probability that Christianity is true that is added by calculating-in the possibility Jesus didn’t exist is relatively so minuscule it’s honestly not worth troubling yourself over (the more so as no Christian will accept estimates that get you to 1 in 12,000 without first having already given up their faith…so the most you can hope for is to get them to that measly 1 in 3, and even that won’t be likely, and it’s weak tea anyway).
As Fincke says, “the notion of a godman who performed miracles and rose from the dead is preposterous.” You don’t need to sandbag your own case for that conclusion by adding onto it the controversial and still largely untested possibility that Jesus didn’t exist. That makes you an easy mark for straw man arguments. But worse, it activates an innate human cognitive bias in any Christian you might be trying to persuade: if a conclusion is defended with a weak argument and a strong argument, anyone biased against that conclusion will assume you only had a weak argument (the science of this is discussed in Long & Tarico’s chapters in The Christian Delusion). The brain assumes, intuitively, that if one argument is dubious, then the other one must be, too, even if in fact it hasn’t actually thought of a single honest reason it should be. That’s how brains work. It’s fucked up. But still. You have to work with the brains you are actually trying to persuade, not the imaginary perfectly rational brains you wish evolution had given us.
So please. Learn from science. Dump the strategy of arguing that Christianity (or the New Testament, or this or that teaching, or anything whatever) is false “because Jesus didn’t exist.”
Fincke elaborates on this point, in ways you seriously need to consider. He’s right: first, “atheists should be properly cautious, disciplined, patient, and deferent to scholarship before committing strongly to beliefs one way or the other about the historical Jesus,” and second, “there are overwhelmingly clear strategic reasons not to get into fights about [this] issue with Christians.” He explains that last point even better than I do, and with more reasons and examples. Go take a look.