Minor Corrections to Crossley’s Jesus in an Age of Neoliberalism

When Proving History came out, I had cited in it James Crossley’s well-known book Jesus in an Age of Terror as among several astute books criticizing the ideological biases of Jesus scholars–producing Jesuses that conveniently were just exactly what each scholar would have wanted, supporting contemporary political and religious opinions conveniently too well to be historically credible accounts of antiquity. As the abstract for Age of Terror summarizes it:

While owing much also to [a biased] Orientalist tradition, [the modern Arab-Israeli conflict] too is strongly echoed in scholarship of Christian origins where, for all the emphasis on the Jewishness of Jesus and the first Christians, it is extremely common to find Jesus or the first Christians being better than Judaism or overriding key symbols of Judaism as constructed by scholarship, done, ironically, by frequent ignoring of relevant Jewish texts. The end results of contemporary scholarship are not dramatically different from the results of the anti-Jewish and antisemitic scholarship of much of the twentieth century.

Ouch.

But I was not yet aware that Crossley had produced essentially a sequel (as it came out at the same time as Proving History): Jesus in an Age of Neoliberalism. This time his study…

…ranges across diverse topics: the dubious periodisation of the quest for the historical Jesus [based on the brilliant analysis of Bermejo-Rubio; I concur--ed.]; [the rising phenomenon of] ‘biblioblogging'; Jesus the ‘Great Man’ and western individualism; image-conscious Jesus scholarship; the ‘Jewishness’ of Jesus and the multicultural Other; evangelical and ‘mythical’ Jesuses; and the contradictions between personal beliefs and dominant ideological trends in the construction of historical Jesuses.

It was recently pointed out to me that this mention of ‘mythical’ Jesuses included some references to the recent debate over the historicity of Jesus, and even named me. But even besides that, this title would have made a perfect addition to my references on this topic in Proving History. So I bought it and have been skimming it for its utility.

In the process I caught a minor error that I should correct on the record for the benefit of posterity: Crossley cites my report on the Jesus Project conference in January of 2009 (Amherst Conference), and misreports something I said there, which in result misreports MacDonald’s position as well. I also find a problematic eliding of minority and female voices in the same chapter that is too commonly done when attempting to assess the New Atheism movement to go without comment. So I’ll say something on both.

Correcting the Record

Crossley writes (pp. 140-41) that “established scholar of Christian origins, Arthur Droge” argued for historicity agnosticism (according to my conference report), and that I had “added that this was more-or-less the conclusion maintained by another established scholar of Christian origins, Dennis MacDonald.” At which Crossley remarks, “While I have no reason to doubt the accuracy of Carrier’s reports (and I stress this), the emphasis in MacDonald’s article in [the resulting book, Sources of the Jesus Tradition, based on the conference] seems a little different,” because there MacDonald instead emphasizes that he believes in the historicity of Jesus. So perhaps (Crossley allows but does not assert) I had “unintentionally misrepresented these scholars.”

The error here is unfortunately Crossley’s. I actually explicitly wrote in that conference report that MacDonald maintains and even defends historicity. I only said he regards the Gospels as useless for recovering a historical Jesus. Those are not incompatible views, though it seems as though Crossley has confused them. MacDonald is certainly (so far as I know) a historicist, and I did not claim otherwise, but in fact carefully affirmed it. So there can’t be any possibility of my having misrepresented him. Nor likewise Droge, incidentally, as his views are on the published record, in his own words, so Crossley or his readers don’t have to take my word for it.

This mistake arises I think when Crossley mixes up several quotes from my article into one amalgam (p. 140). Although he responsibly does this with ellipses and otherwise doesn’t misrepresent my words, in the confusion he mistakenly attributes the last part he quotes to my comment about MacDonald, when in fact I nowhere mentioned MacDonald in connection with that, but in a different context entirely, elsewhere in the article.

Here is the sentence in my article that Crossley meant to be referring to:

And the gist of [Droge's] paper was pretty much that: that just as Ned Ludd (the apocryphal father of the Luddite movement) is likely ahistorical, and even if not, unrecoverable (and therefore, either way, only the mythical Ned Ludd can be studied now, so that’s all we should study, much the same conclusion MacDonald maintained at the conference), so, too, for Jesus.

Note that my only reference to MacDonald in this fashion was in regards that single parenthetical statement, not about Jesus being ahistorical, but being “unrecoverable” and therefore we should stop trying, and only study the myths about Jesus (a view entirely compatible with believing there nevertheless was a historical Jesus).

Earlier in that same report I wrote (emphasis, and bracketed comment, now added):

Dennis MacDonald, for instance, once acknowledged (or so I’m told) that most if not all the names of persons intimately connected to Jesus in the Gospels may be mytho-symbolic creations, and (as he more or less said at the conference [and for this I was sitting right next to him at the time--ed.]) that the Gospels as a whole are essentially literary inventions rather than histories, yet he stops short of concluding from this that Jesus didn’t exist, and even defends historicity by various arguments.

Hence I actually said the very thing Crossley thinks he is correcting my report with: that MacDonald defends historicity. I then expanded on what MacDonald said just a few paragraphs later in that same report:

Throughout the conference MacDonald emphasized that his work and others’ essentially entail the Gospels should be entirely taken off the table when attempting to get at the historical Jesus, as they are not at all useful for any historical data (almost the same conclusion reached by Burton Mack, Randel Helms, and many other mainstream scholars of recent times). In MacDonald’s view, we can only extract from the Gospels what their contents meant to their authors (their underlying meaning, and purpose for being written), and he recommends this is all we can do, and thus all we should do. I partly disagree, as there is still work to be done first (as I’ll explain below), but I think in the end he’s right.

This is the context of my later parenthetical remark about where Crossley and Droge agree. Not on ahistoricity being likely, but on the fact that the Gospels cannot be used to study the historical Jesus.

I should also add that for Droge’s agnoticism Crossley cites that as being “according to” my report, although Droge’s paper was published in the journal CESAR Review and thus is public record. So one needn’t have cited me for the point, although CESAR Review, like the Jesus Project, was defunded due to the recession (CFI lost something like half its endowment, so it canceled both projects), and it’s very difficult to get a hold of back-issues of CESAR Review now (I have a copy of the Droge issue in my own library, but had to go out of my way to procure it). That the Droge paper (among others) wasn’t included in Sources of the Jesus Tradition, which was supposed to include all the conference’s papers, is a scandal I harshly criticized. But it is available.

In summary, in Age of Neoliberalism, Crossley misreported me as saying MacDonald was a historicity agnostic, when in fact in the very piece he cites as his source I explicitly said MacDonald was a historicity defender, and that he only rejected the historical use of the Gospels (and deemed historical facts about Jesus more-or-less unrecoverable). Likewise, Crossley gives the impression that Droge’s agnosticism can only be known on my word (and thus I might be misrepresenting him), when in fact Droge’s agnosticism is in the printed record (and thus I can’t be misrepresenting him).

New Atheism Is Not a Couple of Rich White Guys

Apart from that, in that chapter (pp. 133-66) Crossley provides a usable summary of the Jesus Project and atheist Jesus scholarship more broadly, including a non-polemical, matter-of-fact take on mythicism, which he contrasts with the similarly recent rise of its opposite, a radical fundamentalist historicism (a la Bauckham). So anyone writing the history of this subject will want to consult that chapter for reference.

Its only conceptual failing is not having consulted New Atheist authors who aren’t rich white men.

Most prominently, given Crossley’s discussion of New Atheism’s take on religion and violence (pp. 154-59), he doesn’t even seem aware of, much less interact with, prominent New Atheist Hector Avalos’s treatment of religion as a cause of violence, Fighting Words: The Origins Of Religious Violence. I am certain it wasn’t intentional, but this happens far too often not to point out, because whenever the subject of “New Atheism” comes up, non-white (as well as female) voices tend to be ignored. Here is no exception. Crossley responds only to Dawkins, a privileged white man, who has no significant expertise as a historian or in the field of religious studies, while ignoring a New Atheist who actually has expertise in both, Hector Avalos, a Hispanic man who rose to his Harvard doctorate from poverty in Mexico. If one is to evaluate the New Atheist position on religion’s connection to violence, Crossley should not be reading Dawkins, but Avalos. Crossley is aware of Avalos (he gets mentioned here and there, but not his book directly on the point here covered, religious violence, which was published in 2005), but he appears mostly only as a token (although there are a few interesting exceptions).

Similarly, Crossley rightly takes to task the reactionary Islamophobia of Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris, but falsely treats that as representative of New Atheism, when in fact the bulk of the New Atheist movement has been consistently criticizing them for precisely these views. Although to notice that, one would have to read New Atheists who are not white men (or who are not rich, and thus predominately develop followings as bloggers). For example, Maryam Namazie, one of the most prominent New Atheists, although largely ignored because she’s a woman and not conventionally white. She is an Iranian expat and outspoken critic of Islam and heavily engaged in outreach to support ex-Muslims and atheists in Muslim countries, yet she took Sam Harris to task for his Islamophobia, the very thing Crossley criticizes “New Atheists” for–citing, again, Sam Harris. How can one generalize to all New Atheists from Sam Harris, but not from Maryam Namazie?

There are hundreds of voices within the New Atheism movement critical of Harris and Dawkins on this aspect of their out-of-touch elitism (as well as other aspects of their outdated worldviews, from the silly libertarianism of Harris to the quaint sexism of Dawkins). When you look at the New Atheism movement as a whole, and not just focus on a tiny handful of rich white guys, you get a very different picture than the one Crossley draws conclusions from in this chapter. [But to be fair, Crossley may have written before this became most easily apparent (his book came out the same year as Namazie's critique; only its paperback edition a year later).]

However, Crossley is correct in one respect: the “rich white guy” wing of New Atheism (both them and their admirers–most commonly white guys who wish they were rich) is a thing, and does trend toward the attributes Crossley discerns, including the relative de-emphasizing of social justice concerns and obsession with religion and fear of the other (which all may have the causes Crossley hypothesizes). And they have dominated the conversation. But by the numbers, most New Atheists now are demographically diverse 21st-century liberals who are more concerned to return social justice to the forefront (just attend any convention held by the Secular Student Alliance to see what I mean), while still not abandoning a take-no-prisoners critique of the evils of religion.

Female and minority voices in New Atheism are numerous, and can only be ignored by actually ignoring them (a point on which this paper is now crucial reading). There are several prominent women and black New Atheists, for example, who are some of the most popular speakers at atheist conventions in the US and Canada. If you can’t name five off the top of your head, then you don’t know the New Atheism movement well enough to write about it. Please take heed. I offer this as advice to anyone who intends to write about “New Atheism” as a thing. Despite all its merits otherwise, I don’t want to see chapters like this anymore. It makes me sad.

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  1. Crossley doesn’t mention Atheism Plus, which is a massive movement with huge support.

    This is a bad lapse on his part.

    And, suprisingly, despite his coverage of priviliged white men, Crossley also ommitted the name of PZ Myers.

    But still, nobody can be expected to cover everything.

    • Crossley’s book was originally released in 2012, and thus was probably written in 2011. Atheism Plus did not exist yet as a named entity. So he can’t have been expected to mention it.

      To be fair, the article I cite by Namazie was also released in 2012. So it may have been harder to discover her views (you’d have to have been observing the movement or written to ask her about it; which would require knowing about her). Harris had also not said his worst things until 2012 (thus most of the criticism of it came out then, from all parties). So I’ve added a note to reference this point.

      PZ (and indeed myself) would be included by my remark that non-rich white guys in New Atheism tend to have followings as bloggers rather than big-profit publishing company authors (although many of us were published–Sense and Goodness even came out before The God Delusion, and just a year after End of Faith, which I hadn’t yet read; I just didn’t have a big-money publishing contract–Harris came from money, and a media family, so a major publishing contract was an easy get for him; Dawkins likewise leveraged a long and lucrative academic and publishing career to get his Delusion published). So I think that’s why people overlook us (although Crossley does not entirely, e.g. he is aware of the role of The Secular Web, for example). They don’t realize that the movement is predominately driven online now, and therefore the big names online are at least as important as movement leaders (in the sense of fueling the agenda of what gets argued and discussed and how often), and even constitute the majority of conference speakers, and that that is where most of the push-back against the reactionary politics of Harris and the out-of-touch gaffes of Dawkins can be seen (just as during the Enlightenment, the place to look for this stuff was in pamphleteering; today, that’s the internet). But Namazie, for example (likewise many other women and minorities I could name) were very public players in the movement in real-space, more so even than PZ.

  2. I am in Italy. How do I get the article of Droge about Ned Ludd and Jesus? I’ll find it in OHJ?

    thanks,

    Giuseppe

    • In Italy, you may be out of luck. Unless you have access to a library that is a member of WCAT. In which case you can get a scan of the article through Interlibrary Loan (the journal is in WorldCat here and here under different titles; the article you want is A.J. Droge, ‘Jesus and Ned Lud[d]: What’s in a Name?’, CAESAR: A Journal for the Critical Study of Religion and Human Values 3 [2009], pp. 23-25).

  3. I think your second criticism smacks a bit of wishful thinking. I too wish that Dawkins, Hitchens and (to a lesser extent) Harris were not the most famous representatives of ‘New Atheism’. But they are. Book sales, name recognition etc are inarguable. I criticise these authors constantly myself for the same reasons you mention, but I think we must acknowledge that ‘we’ simply have not been successful enough in appealing to the masses. Dawkin’s ‘God Delusion’ definitely has its flaws, but it has not become intensely popular due to some white male conspiracy, but because it has important qualities that other atheists should learn to emulate.

    Now you could argue that Crossley despite this should have mentioned some other less-influential authors. However, I think you are then demanding that Crossley should be an activist, rather than a recorder of the world such as it is. And in that case, I disagree with such demands. I think they are misguided, futile and even counter-productive, because people who make such demands tend to be cranks and making such demands will make people label you as one. No one is impressed by theoretical communists who lament the fact that people only associate communism with Stalin and Mao, and not with their favourite but unknown and uninfluential theorist.

    • Note that most people in the world have no idea who Dawkins is. And that his book sales preceded everyone in the atheism movement discovering his troubling behavior on twitter (and his support of outrageous racists like Pat Condell and his attacking feminists). Since then, from what I have seen at conventions and meetings across three countries, I can confirm he has far more critics than uncritical fans, and that the movement is growing considerably among women and minorities, many of whom (and their books and blogs) are well known within the movement, not even remotely obscure. All you have to do is the most rudimentary looking around to find them.

      My concern about his book (and more so any future attempts at writing about New Atheism) is that it ignores important and influential voices within New Atheism and thus falsely generalizes to us all. The Avalos case is most relevant to your comment: Avalos is as good a writer as Dawkins and has all the merits you would credit to the God Delusion. Avalos is also the only New Atheist with real expertise in the subject (of religious violence) and is not obscure, but literally the most famous and prestigious biblical historian we have (a fact indeed well known to Crossley). Yet when Crossley wanted to criticize New Atheist views on religious violence, he went only to Dawkins, and overlooked the far more correct, expert, and valuable Avalos. Thus we all got smeared with Dawkins’ inexpert, badly worded and vaguely theorized equations of religion and violence, when in fact that is a straw man of the New Atheism movement: our best defense of the correlation comes from Avalos, and many of us know it.

      That we don’t all know it is our problem: we need to stop focusing on white men and ignoring our other experts and leaders. But as a historian and philosopher writing about New Atheism it is Crossley’s job (as anyone’s who takes the same role) to write about New Atheism as a whole and not simply assume all New Atheists agree with Dawkins or that Dawkins represents the best and most expert views and arguments New Atheists have published on any matter (like the relation between religion and violence; but whatever it may be). That is not “being an activist.” It’s being a good historian.

      …and a good philosopher: because one ought not to straw man New Atheists (any more than you should straw man anyone); yet reading only Dawkins does precisely that. Instead, one should research who has the most relevant expertise (in the subject you plan to critique) and has made the best case for it.

      It’s time to stop using “Dawkins is more popular” as a reason to ignore everyone else, indeed ignoring the majority of New Atheism as a movement.

      That’s not how historians or philosophers should approach the subject.

  4. “Similarly, Crossley rightly takes to task the reactionary Islamophobia of Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris, but falsely treats that as representative of New Atheism, when in fact the bulk of the New Atheist movement has been consistently criticizing them for precisely these views.”

    I read Hitchens book “God is not great” ; and noticed that he had no in-depth study of Quran/Islam/Muhammad and generalized things from his experience with Christianity and had a biased view of Quran/Islam/Muhammad.

    In the entire book Hitchens could not quote even a single verse from Quran in support of his views about Quran/Islam/Muhammad; though the title of he book suggests that his intention was to wrote the book against Islam.

    I appreciate Atheists approach of being reason-oriented and hence drawing the attentions of the Revealed Religions for reformation of the peripheral, mythical and superstitious creeds. They could go into the process of reformation while keeping the core teachings intact.

    Thanks and regards