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Nov 11 2013

Lataster on Mythicism and Theism: A Request for My Readers

Cover of Raphael Lataster's new book There Was No Jesus, There Is No God. Cover art looks like an artist's rendering of blue spacedust and a black hole sucking everything in.I have a request for all my readers. There is a new book summarizing a case that Jesus might not have existed, which has received some positive reviews (from the Arizona Atheist and John Loftus; also reader reviews at Amazon), and some predictably negative ones (from the nefarious Christian apologist J.P. Holding, whose promised Part 2 does not seem to have materialized yet, and an even longer harangue by Nick Peters).

The book I’m talking about was published by a doctoral student in religious studies, Raphael Lataster (more on the soon-to-be Dr. Lataster here), and entitled There Was No Jesus, There Is No God: A Scholarly Examination of the Scientific, Historical, and Philosophical Evidence & Arguments for Monotheism, based on his master’s thesis. The finished book you can buy for a very reasonable price [print] [kindle]. I have not had (and likely won’t have) the time to thoroughly vet the book, much less check it against the copious Christian apologetical attacks on it (by Holding and Peters, linked above). I did read enough to note that there were some problems with it, but I’m curious to know if those were the only ones, and if anyone else would notice them (so I won’t mention them now).

The book actually is in two parts, despite being quite a short read. The second part summarizes a case against traditional arguments for theism generally (not the historicity of Jesus specifically), and some of the approaches there are novel. And humorous. So even if you aren’t interested in the historicity debate, you might be interested in Lataster’s approach to debunking theism and theistic apologetics more generally. Moreover, in both parts he adapts my work to argue from a Bayesian perspective, which may interest yet more readers keen to test that out.

So I’d like as many of my readers as seem inclined to read either or both parts of Lataster’s book and comment here on what they think, positive or negative. Though if negative, please give Lataster a hand by being specific so he has a chance to revise the work for a second edition, which I know he is interested in doing. This is basically my way of crowdsourcing an opinion and assessment of this book, since I haven’t the time to study it thoroughly myself. I’d especially love it if anyone compared their reading of Lataster’s book with its Christian critics, as linked above (quite a task, as their critiques are very long, and possibly tedious and frustrating, if history serves, so I’ll be especially impressed by anyone who voluntarily endures that and reports back here on their findings). Are the Christians being fair? Or are they doing a hatchet job? Specific examples of either would be helpful to Lataster.

Note: I am about to head out for Skepticon, where I’ll be AFK much of the time, so comments that post here might not go live until middle of next week. But rest assured they will be appreciated, and will post eventually (as long as they are polite and on topic).

7 comments

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  1. 1
    Gabriel McDonald

    I really enjoyed part 1 of his book, which was about the problems with the historical methods used by biblical historians and scholars. He lays out the methods, explains why they are unreliable, and points out that bible scholars wouldn’t dream of of applying these methods to other religious. Part 2 goes through some of the classical arguments for god. This is brief, but uses some colorful language and makes points I hadn’t heard before. Lataster does a good job throughout the book of getting to the point, and expressing himself clearly and persuasively. His language is often both precise and eloquent.

    That being said, he sometimes interjects with some uncharacteristically sloppy language that interferes with the tone of the book, and unfortunately makes it harder to take those sections seriously. On page 146 (Kindle version) he is talking about people whose concept of god takes ambiguity to extremes, such as people who say “God is love”, and “that tree over there, that’s God!” Lataster says “Of course, that is not exclusive at all, as it could be an alternative god, or could simply be what it looks like. A tree. With a squirrel on it. Hangin’ a dump. No Consuela, it’s not the ‘holy mother’, it’s a piece of toast.” This part left me wondering what exactly he was driving at.

    I would give it a healthy 4/5 stars–very good, but definitely some room for improvement. I think content-wise, Lataster is spot on (for the most part), but the changing tone/character of the book was tough. I definitely look forward to reading his future work.

  2. 2
    John Gough

    Yes, I read it, in the Kindle edition. I have read most of the recent literature on the topic, so I was interested to see if there was anything new here. I found it interesting: part one is a fairly complete summary of the arguments mythicist case. Part two is, likewise, an easy read. Both parts have an original twist to the arguments that goes beyond the prior sources.

    If I had any problem with the arguments it was that the invoking of Bayesian reasoning smacked of an appeal to authority, rather than a coherent explanation of how the theory applied to the establishment of the claim under discussion. Nevertheless, 4/5 stars from me.

    Like the Gabriel McDonald, above, I found the tone switches a little disconcerting at times. Perhaps I have spend too much of my life reading dreary academic tomes and am insufficiently mentally agile. Nevertheless, I enjoyed it, and am happy that a mainstream university in my adopted country tolerates such well-argued heresy.

    I look forward to reading the follow-on PhD thesis.

  3. 3
    Chad Spurling

    Dr. Carrier I have a question. I am working my way through ” a history of the warfare between science and christendom” by Andrew Dickson White. He talks about all the erroneous beleifs about physical things that folks like Tertullian and Augustine had. Is there any place thay catalogs any of these early beleifs of how the physical world works that are clearly wrong today, and, possibly, can attribute these beliefs to the individuals?

    1. 3.1
      Richard Carrier

      Not such as you have in mind. It would be an enormous task to figure out which specific thinkers thought which specific things. There are books about whole schools of thought (e.g. “Stoic beliefs”) but even those over-generalize, and there isn’t anything that attempts this for “Christians” (Which Christians? When? You can see the problem). Overall, science education in antiquity was poor for anyone not a scientist, so most laymen, even elites, but especially elites who didn’t get the best educations or bother to check their facts before they pontificate about philosophy (like Tertullian, who is ignorant of even rudimentary brain science of his own day–or Lactantius, who clearly never took a course in astronomy or read a book on it, yet had firm opinions on the subject that anyone better educated of his time knew had been soundly refuted centuries before–a problem with Christian “intellectuals” that Augustine would complain about a century later), had stupid beliefs that actually didn’t line up with the beliefs of people of the same era who knew what they were talking about. This is similar to today–look at the often shocking ignorance of basic science among creationists (even in Congress, people with law degrees, even medical degrees) and you’ll understand why looking at the stupid things Christian intellectuals believed in antiquity won’t tell you about what properly educated intellectuals of the time believed, any more then than today.

  4. 4
    nontheology

    Richard and others… we just had Raphael on our podcast to talk about his new book. It gives a decent overview of the book and some of his related perspectives. Check it out if you want a decent primer:

    http://nontheology.com/2013/11/16/episode-37-raphael-lataster/

  5. 5
    Gary

    Hi Richard. Welcome BTK following Skepticon. Found Lataster’s book substandard. Lacked depth. Hoped for better, perhaps like your review of Ehrman’s book. Hoping for something more cutting edge as in this quote from biologist Ernst Mayr: http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/mayr/mayr_print.html -”I have heard there’s a field called evolutionary epistemology. They use a very simple Darwinian formula that can really be stated in a single sentence. If you have a lot of variation, more than you can cope with, only the most successful will remain. That is how things happen. In epistemology and countless other fields. Variation and elimination.” What seems logical, significant and straightforward are addressing opacity and the unknowns from the perspective of mitigating ontological confirmation bias. Isn’t Bayesianism supposed to help? No attempt from Lataster, paraphrasing from chap 6 in PH, to create trust in an information-sharing dialogue with a logical Bayesian theist. No authentic attempt to check beliefs for logical inconsistencies by checking and balancing them against “rationally justified disagreement among well-informed parties” from across the ontological divide.

    Prof Tim McGrew or some other logical epistemic theist might approach BT from a vastly different ontology. It makes sense to me to confront the following in re to the applicability of BT. Is it even possible for a theist to defend to a non theist belief in the historicity of Jesus Christ as being both justified and true? How would you personally trust the logical method of Bayesianism enough to “check your belief system for logical inconsistencies and correcting them”? You trust yourself, the negotiation process and your ontological adversary enough to genuinely question? How would you negotiate probabilities in practice? Is it a logical axiom to presuppose a rational foundation for ontological confirmation bias? Is it a logical possibility to work with a Bayesian theist if you presuppose all theists are the opposite of “reasonable and objective”? Or can you identify a Bayesian theist you personally would trust to be open to negotiation, well informed, reasonable, objective and with whom you would author an academic and peer reviewed paper for a professional journal? Given the ontological divide, is it even possible for a logical theist and a logical atheist to “share the same relevant expert knowledge” – justified true belief – and work together to ascertain physical and epistemic probabilities re a historical Jesus or the existence of a numinous non object?

    There seems to be highly problematic variation and elimination in beliefs (evolutionary epistemology) inherent in human nature, such as what constitutes justified belief in the context of a cult of blood? How does fate and contingency factor into trusting logic? Perhaps these problems are not insurmountable. I think that your honest quest for truth in the spirit of megalopsychos and your sharp logic and your research makes you worthy to attempt such a work. Others seem to be sadly lacking.

    1. 5.1
      Richard Carrier

      Can you be more specific about how a theist reader of Lataster’s book would estimate some probability differently than he does, thereby weakening the force of an argument he makes that relies on a theist agreeing with a certain probability estimate?

      Because if there are no instances of that, I don’t see the relevance of your objection to his book.

      (Or are you saying he should defend the validity of logic itself? Which seems an unreasonable objection, so I have charitably assumed that isn’t what you meant.)

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