Support Camp Quest West!

Camp Quest West is pretty cool (as all Camp Quests around the country are). I’ve seen it first hand. And it’s precisely the kind of socializing event the atheist movement needs more of, to replace the few remotely useful things religion attempts to do, and build community with new upcoming kids and teens in the movement. I’ve run educational (skeptical!) games and seminars at Camp Quest West a few times in the past (in the mountains north of Sacramento, California), and my brother-in-law often works as a counselor there. I’ve seen kids of all ages come and go and enjoy the hell out of it. It’s all just like Christian summer camp: life in cabins and mess halls, walks in the forest, playing in a lake, archery, stargazing, arts and crafts, classes on neat stuff (like science and history), except CQ maintains a consistent theme of teaching skepticism, humanism, critical thinking, and knowledge of science and history as well as diverse religions and philosophies, all in a fun way.

It’s expensive to run a camp. You need safety personnel, responsible guides and counselors, food and supplies, insurance and grounds fees, vehicles, and what have you. But all of that makes for a great experience, safe and educational, and a retreat from urban and suburban zones to get some experience with the natural wilderness, which is often underappreciated, and underexperienced, especially by today’s youth. Many parents can afford to cover the cost. But many can’t, and CQW has a fund to help some parents cover that cost so they can send their kids to a summer camp that isn’t all religiony.

If you can help them hit their goal, or even exceed it, even if just donating $50 or something, please check out their special donation page (in my honor, as a CQ alum who has helped support them in the past), which tells you more about what Camp Quest West does, and how to donate (the link at top will show you even more). Every $585 they receive will fund one child (ages 8-17, and 15-17 year olds now get special training and responsibilities as cabin leaders, which looks good on resumes and college aps, and is valuable experience in its own right). They are a 501(c)(3) organization, so your donation is not only supporting the future of freethought but it may be tax-deductible, same as any charitable donation. I don’t get any kickback or anything. Just the glory, if I bring a lot of donations in. (Or the embarrassment if I don’t!) So give a little for our future atheists!

Let’s Read Natalie Reed

Natalie Reed is a new member of the FtB team and she blogs about transgender and transsexual issues, and other things in her wheelhouse (like, say, Dr. Who). I try to read my fellow bloggers when I get a chance (most often at best I can only skim, and often I can’t even keep up at that, but I try), and I must say Natalie Reed is one of my favorites here. She’s smart, well-informed, writes very well, and has already taught me a great deal (check out her blog, Sincerely, Natalie Reed, and all its archives here, already full of gems). So I’m shocked to see John Loftus has gone off the handle and is treating her very strangely, ignoring everything she actually says and attacking her for things she didn’t say, and then getting petty and childish in the process, basically accusing her of being an unqualified “diversity hire.”

Which is strange. That’s like accusing someone of being hired to represent Mexico of being a “diversity hire” because they were hired to represent Mexico. Huh? And wouldn’t actually being Mexican qualify you to represent Mexicans? I mean, that’s nearly the top qualification there. Reed is a transsexual woman. She is also superbly informed on that issue, has a tremendous body of experience many atheists don’t (with issues such as drug addiction), and is a very good writer (In fact, IMO, the best in this subject). She is thus very qualified, and very much wanted and welcome here; indeed, needed here, as the transsexual and transgender community almost never has any distinct voice or representatives in atheist congregations and events. So, WTF, John?

Our own Daniel Finke has already done a superb job of explaining the situation and why Loftus is way off the rails here, and I could not top him if I tried, so I well recommend you read his post on this: On the Qualifications of our Alleged “Diversity Hire”, Natalie Reed. I’ll only add a repeat here of my comment there:

I fully agree with your assessment here, Daniel.

Natalie Reed is an excellent writer. Her blogs are often thorough, thoughtful, informed, and well-researched, are a delight to read, and do not waste words (some people complain they are sometimes long, but that’s not padding or verbosity, it’s precision and completeness). She’s impressed me. And already taught me a great deal. She also does fill a vacant niche (and that is why we got her): a representative speaking for and to atheists about transsexual and gender issues. It’s not like John Loftus was doing that (or that he would be qualified to even if he did). And frankly, I can’t think of anyone better for the job than Natalie. And isn’t the best one at it precisely who we should have here?

As for Loftus himself, he has not been comporting himself well in this case. Lately he has given ample grounds for you to conclude as you do; he’s been far more off the handle than I’ve ever seen him. I do hope he recognizes and addresses this perception and behavior problem.

Whatever you think of John Loftus (his behavior in the comments thread to Natalie’s well-thought post Target Audiences and Playing Nice is appalling, and I’m ashamed to see that), I think you should all check out Natalie’s blog from time to time. Truly. We could all benefit from reading Natalie Reed.

Why The Week Rocks

I hate magazines and never read them. Except all the magazines that I read.

I say that only because the magazines I read would be considered (by many avid magazine readers) as weird. This includes trade mags that most of you would find terribly dull but that keep me up to speed on things in my field (Historically Speaking often touches on questions of historical method across historical disciplines, as well as forums on hot debates in those fields; Isis is the definitive review periodical for books in the history of science, one of those things that other fields of history annoyingly don’t have; and so on). But it also includes periodicals I think everyone should read–including Skeptic and Skeptical Inquirer, but even more importantly (IMO), Science News and The Week. Something really awesome in that last got me to blogging today, which I’ll be getting at presently; but let me digress a bit on SN first.

Science News is a must because all other media do not report science correctly. Not only do they miss 99% of the important stories in scientific and technological progress. But the 1% they do report on, they get entirely wrong, almost all the time. Compare a science story in a mainstream source, with the coverage of the same discovery in Science News, and you’ll often be so appalled you will never get your science news from anywhere else again. Plus you get all those other stories you should be hearing. Isn’t the state of scientific progress across all fields one of the most important things to keep up with? As a citizen, and as a philosopher, it’s absolutely essential. Plus, you know, all those other reasons (e.g., in case you didn’t get the memo, ascience is hella cool).

But the biggest benefit is that if you read Science News for years (or, as in my case, decades), you learn tons and tons of shit about science you never would have otherwise, from field-specific knowledge and terminology, to all kinds of “consilience” stuff, like realizing the connections between everyday materials science and basic physics, or between biology and psychology, or what it really takes for cybernetics to work, or AI, or computer models of the Big Bang, and so on (also, if I don’t understand something in it, like a word or concept, I google around until I do, and being spurred to do that weekly has been a huge benefit to my intellectual development and understanding). Plus SN reminds you that religion doesn’t ever do this. That is, produce enough real advances in human knowledge every week to fill an entire magazine consistently for going on nearly a century now (and you know it won’t cease). The more you read Science News, the more religion looks decisively lame.

But my favorite magazine of all is the weekly The Week. I tried my hand at news weeklies before, and they all suck devil dicks. (That’s slang for wicked awful. Alright, yes, I just made it up. And yes, I should have said greasy devil dicks, in homage to Brian Flemming’s infamous question to me in The God Who Wasn’t There). For a classic example of my profound annoyance at U.S. News & World Report, for example, see my thrashing of it on the subject of love science in Sense and Goodness without God III.10.3, pp. 197-202. (And, hey, that combines my point above about shitty mainstream science news reporting, too! Two birds.) But The Week is different. So different. Radically different. Unparalleled, that kind of different. Better even than Brill’s Content (for those few who ever knew what that was, which I would love to see someone bring back again, at least in concept).

What is The Week? Basically, it’s like a 40-page weekly for-profit RSS feed for worldwide print media. You get one every week (it comes to your doorstep in paper, unless you get the electronic version), and it summarizes all the big stories in newspapers in the U.S. and abroad. It’s the “and abroad” part that’s especially cool. But even the U.S. part is something, because they summarize stories by summarizing sometimes several articles across several periodicals of different political bent, and they do it in half a page or even a quarter of a page or less, plus a ton of quick story summaries of a single paragraph taken from state and municipal papers across the nation and the world. And it’s brilliantly written, when you consider what they are doing here. So you don’t have to read tens of thousands of words to get the gist of what was said across the country on diverse topics by people from diverse perspectives–and in foreign newspapers even. Curious what Nigerian newspapers are saying about the U.S. presidential debates? Or about their own internal politics? What about what Iranian newspapers are saying about the assassinations of their own nuclear scientists? Or what Chinese newspapers are saying about the shift in focus of U.S. military policy to the Pacific (in case you didn’t notice that, BTW; it’s not like U.S. media cover shit we actually want to know). Then read The Week.

The effect of avidly reading The Week is the same as Science News, only it’s history-in-the-making, and world politics and cultures, that you are learning about. All kinds of stuff about, that you would never have learned otherwise. And in the same ways, e.g., you might google something talked about in an article to learn more about it; and multiply that by thousands of items a year, and the benefit to broadening your mind is priceless. And so on. Case in point (and this is what inspired me to write this blog today): Feb. 10 issue (I’m behind a bit; tends to happen), page 14, “Best Columns: International” feature, bottom fifth of the page, “Turkey.” It summarizes an article in the Turkish newspaper Hürriyet by Mustafa Akyol.

I’ll just quote it outright (with some stuff snipped for space):

Newt Gingrich professes to revere modern Turkey’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk…He has frequently written about Atatürk and held him up as a model statesman, to the point where the Atatürk Society of America gave Gingrich an award in 2006 in “commemoration of his contribution to publicizing Atatürk’s legacy.” But does the Republican presidential hopeful really understand that legacy? Atatürk was “the greatest and the strictest secularist” in our entire region…[creating] a state free of religious interference, even banning religious garb in the workplace. In the U.S., Gingrich considers secularism “a nightmare” and an abomination. “A country that has been, since 1963, relentlessly in the courts driving God out of public life shouldn’t be surprised at all the problems we have,” Gingrich says … and [he says] “anti-religious bigotry” is responsible for a decline in American morals. So how can Gingrich hold up as a hero the “militantly secular founder of a European one-party state?” The answer can only be that he favors secularism not for Christians but for Muslims, as a bulwark against what he sees as “creeping sharia.” The “obvious double standard” puts the lie to Gingrich’s claims of being an intellectual.

Ouch. But, yeah. “You are correct, sir!”

Now, I actually knew a lot already about the history of Turkey and its atheist national hero Mustafa Kemal Atatürk; but suppose you didn’t…you would have learned something cool here, plus you might have googled to learn more, and really learned something cool here. So think of what you might learn from other columns, week in and week out. Right above this article, for instance, is an article from Russia about the epidemic of teen suicide there and its relation to horrific flaws in the Russian healthcare system; above that, a panoply of columns from India are summarized regarding the Golden Temple flap (you may be surprised by what Indians are actually saying about that).

And case in point…I didn’t know any of this about Newt Gingrich! I mean, I knew he was a racist douchebag. But just when you thought you’d plumbed the depths of his hypocrisy… Comedian David Cross once quipped about how it pisses him off that he has to read “other countries’ fucking newspapers” to learn about shit happening in his own country. Well, touché, David. Touché.

Subscribe to The Week, people.

(And incredibly, they did not pay me to say that!)

The Richard Carrier Project

For a couple of years now a colleague of mine (Ben Schuldt, aka War on Error) has been building a site that collects every significant critique of my work online or in print. There is so much of this now that I haven’t had the time even to keep track of it all much less answer any of it. But with all or most of it cataloged in one place, and blogging now a regular pastime across the world, perhaps others who have that time can undertake the task for me. So I sponsored a simple wiki site to help Ben get all this up and running, and he says it’s pretty much ready to go.

As Ben has time he keeps adding to it, but now that it’s “live,” feel free to tell him about things he missed. He’ll get them in there. We are not cataloging forum posts, or comments in threads, or tweets, or Facebook posts, or any random rigmorole like that, however; only full-on blogs and articles (and of course anything in print). Ben also sometimes doesn’t agree with me himself, and he has posted and cataloged his critiques as well, and welcomes responses to those just as much as any of the other stuff. Ideally we’d like it to have good replies (even if those replies amount to me correcting myself, since one of the aims of the project is to catch my errors; because we all make them, and I’m keen on rooting mine out).

The site he has built is called the Richard Carrier Project. You can hop on over there and read the mission statement, and explore further if you like. It has some useful extras. For example, he keeps a running catalog there of all the audio and video of me there is to be found online (and certainly if you know of anything available that’s not there, send him the link). There is also an amusing Roast page that is full of all the awful things people have said about me (some worse than others). :-)

If you are keen to, there are two ways you can contribute to this project…

1. Independent Response

You can answer anything that’s cataloged in it on your own blog or website, submit the link to Ben, and if it’s good enough your answer will get in the catalog as a response. What is “good enough”? Well, there is a Project Directives page that gives you some of the requirements we (mostly Ben) have set. But overall, we would only count as being an appropriate response to catalog at the site something that does one or more of the following:

  1. Treats what I have actually said, compares it with what the critic said (especially the stuff they curiously left out), and sets the reader straight on the issue (e.g., how far are they missing my point or ignoring details of my case).
  2. Deals with any claim that I erred as to the facts and assesses who is right on that score.
  3. Deals with any claim that a conclusion of mine doesn’t follow from my premises (e.g., a formal or informal fallacy) and assesses who is right on that score.
  4. Deals with any argument I don’t address, but that a critic claims refutes my conclusion, analyzing that argument for logical validity, and the truth of its premises.

Also, we will not approve any response that lies or makes obvious errors of fact or logic or obviously misses the critic’s point (and that includes egregious fallacies like ad hominem, since we want well-argued, non-fallacious responses that stand up on fact-checking; but that doesn’t mean you have to be polite, just right). Responses don’t have to be comprehensive. You can focus on only one or a few things in a critique. Ideally we’d love a full response, but we can also construct one by adding several together. We also love responses that improve on my work, for instance explaining a point better, or providing a more rigorous or less ambiguous analysis of something, or supplying supporting facts I missed, or anything else.

2. Joining the Team

If you really impress us, and ask to help, we might invite you to become an editor of the project, which will give you more ability to carry some of the load for Ben, add critiques to the catalog, and build responses of your own within the catalog. What is “really impress us”? Obviously this is an issue of trust (since you would be given passwords to the site), so you would have to be an established presence online, enough that we can confirm you are sane, educated, honest, reasonable, responsible, on the right side of most issues, and not a pill to work with. It can be very hard to verify that for most people, so please don’t get put out if you aren’t recruited. Most won’t be. It doesn’t mean we think you aren’t that sort of person; it just means we have no means of confirming that you are.

Finally, a brief disclaimer: The very reason for the site is that I have no time for this stuff, which is why Ben took it upon himself to do it. Which means I do not necessarily approve of everything on it; because I don’t have time even to peruse most of it. I trust Ben’s judgment and have no qualms about leaving him to it. But as I haven’t carefully vetted it all, who knows what I might take issue with. In other words, don’t assume this site represents my views on anything. It’s more a collaborative fan project than my own work. But we will try our best to keep it at least in the right ballpark. So if you see anything on it representing me that you think is way off base, feel free to make your case to Ben (except when it’s some other critic who is way off base; then, just blog about it and submit that link to Ben as a potential response to catalog).

Proving History!

My new book is finally done and available for pre-order at Amazon: titled Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus. Yes, that’s the one (or one of the two) that everyone has been asking me about. It’s been years in the making, and in the waiting, but we completed its academic peer review, I made all requested revisions, proofed the galleys, finished the index, and it’s all ready to go, at the printer’s being typeset now. It’s being published by Prometheus Books, my first sole-author title with them.


This all started long, long ago, four years in fact, when my wife and I were buried under student loan debt and I offered myself up to complete any hard core project my fans wanted in exchange for as many donations as I could get to fund my work. They all unanimously said “historicity of Jesus” and came up with twenty thousand dollars. Which cleared our debt and really saved us financially. It was a huge boon and I am extremely grateful for everyone who made that happen. And I’ve been tirelessly working to make good on the project ever since. I wanted the result to be superb and unassailable, nothing half-assed, but thoroughly researched.

Then I discovered that the field of New Testament studies was so monumentally fucked the task wasn’t as straightforward as I had hoped. Very basic things that all scholars pretend have been resolved (producing standard answers constantly repeated as “the consensus” when really it’s just everyone citing each other like robbing Peter to pay Paul), really haven’t been, like when the New Testament books were written (I blogged about one long rabbit hole I got lost in on that question, as just an example of countlessly many, in my Ignatian Vexation). And the relevant literature, so much of it tantalizingly pertinent, is vast beyond reckoning, over forty years of valuable papers and books, leading to discoveries I never expected (for example, real evidence of a pre-Christian expectation of a Dying Messiah). I’ve personally collected and read over 500 articles and 50 books for this project, and skimmed or read over ten times that number at the UC Berkeley and Graduate Theological Union libraries or via JSTOR and other access nodes.

The end result was that I realized this was going to have to be two books: one resolving the problem of method (because the biggest thing I discovered is that every expert who is a specialist in methodology has concluded, one and all, that the methods now used in Jesus studies are also totally fucked), the other applying my reformed method to the question. That second book will be On the Historicity of Jesus Christ, and it is near completion (spoiler: I conclude he most probably didn’t exist, but that it requires a very deep and detailed examination of the evidence to realize that). The first book became Proving History, which I finished last year and has been going through the usually long production and peer review process at the publisher, and is now on track for a late April release. Yes, there will be e-versions as well as print.

What’s It About?

The promo copy prepared by Prometheus Books is really very good, and describes the book quite well. Basically, it aims at two particular objectives, and one broader objective: (1) to show why the methods used to study Jesus are illogical or inapplicable, and to replace them with a method that is neither; (2) to show why, once we use the correct method, every conclusion reached about Jesus so far is not defensible on any previously championed argument (requiring a total, field-wide do-over); and (3) to use these particular examples to make a general point about the entire field of history: that all valid historical argument is and must be Bayesian, and any methods or arguments that are not, are not logically valid or sound.

Historians will want to read the book even if they aren’t interested in Jesus, because it all applies equally to whatever they study, too. Philosophers will want to read the book, because it makes a groundbreaking contribution to the logic and epistemology of history. Fans of Bayes’ Theorem, and anyone who wants to finally find out what that is and why everyone is getting into it all of a sudden (but has found everything written about it so far to be unintelligible or uninformative), will want to read the book because I designed it as a textbook for people in the humanities and not scientists or ivory tower mathematicians. And Jesus scholars (in fact anyone interested in Jesus or the origins of Christianity) will want to read the book…well, for obvious reasons.

To learn more about all this, John Loftus interviewed me about the book just recently and produced a really good article about it on his blog: An Interview with Richard Carrier about His Book “Proving History”. Loftus was one of the few lucky reviewers who received an early pre-publication draft from Prometheus–which contained the text as it was before it was peer reviewed; in response to that peer review it underwent a lot of improvements and corrections, though nothing fundamental. For those who want a primer on what the hell this “Bayes’ Theorem” thingy is, check out my Skepticon talk from last year: Bayes’ Theorem: Lust for Glory!

Common Questions

Since I am applying a mathematical theorem to the logic of historical argument, it’s often asked what my qualifications are in mathematics, since my primary field (my Ph.D.) is ancient intellectual history (philosophy, religion, and science), and my secondary field (self-taught but professionally published) is philosophy. The answer is, I had the book formally peer reviewed by a professor of mathematics, and consulted with a few other professors of mathematics during its development. I also, of course, researched the hell out of Bayes’ Theorem for this book. My more general qualifications are some 20 or so college semester credits in mathematics and mathematical and engineering sciences, and a career background in electronics and the history of science. But the peer review and consults were more important.

Another common question is how “out of the mainstream” my conclusions are. Actually, in this book, they are fully in the mainstream, with the exception of the groundbreaking idea of structuring the logic of historical argument on a foundation of Bayes’ Theorem, which is in many ways a natural progression of what’s already been going on in expanding the applications of that theorem. I’m just the first expert in the humanities to come along who also loves math and knows enough about it to introduce it there. But the rest of the book’s conclusions simply reaffirm what countless insider specialists have already been saying (and I name and cite plenty of them to prove that), and using Bayes’ Theorem to show why they’re right.

Finally, it is often asked if this book argues that Jesus didn’t exist. No. It is necessary to build that case one piece at a time rather than trying to prove everything at once. This book takes no position on that question, but merely shows how the methods used to argue for his existence are illogical and therefore the question must be examined anew, with new methods, methods that are valid. But lest you think that’s the same thing as proving Jesus didn’t exist, you should know that that would be the fallacy fallacy, the fallacious assumption that if an argument for x is fallacious, that therefore x is false. If the same facts are examined correctly, as for example with my new method, we may yet vindicate the conclusion that Jesus existed. So what the correct conclusion is requires that new look, and that is what I accomplish in my next book.

Final Word to My Benefactors

Earlier this week I sent out an email to everyone who donated $250 or more to fund my research grant, which was overseen by Atheists United. Per my contract with you all, anyone in that golden category has earned free copies of Proving History, and I need to work out where to send them, among other details. But many of those email addresses have bounced, no longer active. So if you are in that donor category, and did not receive my email, then please email me at once ( so I can update my contact info and see to it that you get your copies of the book when it comes out in a few months. Even if you don’t want your free copies, please contact me anyway, so I at least know not to keep looking for you.

Sexism, Racism, and the Golden Rule

Our own Ian Cromwell (the one and only Crommunist) posted today on the Schroedinger’s Rapist metaphor and the pushback against it that uses racism as an example (if you don’t know the back story, Daniel Finke provides). Ian’s thesis is this:

I’ve frequently heard people object to the Schroedinger’s Rapist argument as sexist, with anti-black racism used as a counter-example. I reject this comparison because it neglects two important factors: 1) that the issue under discussion is about whether or not we want women to feel more comfortable; and 2) that black people often make similar behavioural adjustments to accommodate the racism of their white friends. I share some personal stories to illustrate this.

He invited my comment and I realized I was just writing a blog post of my own. So here goes!

(To all of my readers, the following assumes you’ve read his post.)

Ian, awesome. I agree with most everything you say. I’d only offer some qualifications that come from comparing my experience and attitude to yours. You can tell me if I’m on track with this or not. (Though much of this in fact confirms your point.)

I think we should still account for the fact that there’s a difference between reasonable and unreasonable reactions.

I believe it would be wrong of you to adjust your behavior because of that crazy street-crossing lady, because not all people are like that. If I have to jog to get somewhere on time, I jog. You shouldn’t be deprived of that option because of your skin color. Were a hooded black man jogging up behind me, I would not be any more concerned than I would be were it a white man, nor would I dash away. And that’s saying something, as I’ve not only been attacked by black men, I was attacked for being white. So if anything you might think I’d have a legitimate reason to flee from jogging black men. But I’m not an idiot. I don’t assume all black men are racists or violent. And one dude jogging does not fall into any threatening reference class I know.

Likewise (regarding your door-to-door example), I chat with black men who show up at my door unusually frequently (I say unusually only because I live in a very diverse neighborhood and most people don’t). Again, people not talking to you is simply irrational behavior. You might have to end-round it (by wearing a suit, or developing a more disarming opening line and smile) for the practical reason that you need their cooperation and there really isn’t anything you can do about their being a racist idiot. But, IMO, you don’t have to like it. And when you don’t need their cooperation, you don’t owe them anything. Their fear and discomfort is their own damn fault. (But again, that’s just IMO.)

On the other hand, as I have myself been menaced by groups of black men for being white (complete with anti-white racial slurs and attacks with hurled bottles; I live on the edge of a rough town), I will cross the street to avoid a group of black men dressed like gangbangers, but not a group of black men dressed in suits or jogging clothes or even dressed in “hip hop” kit but with backpacks (as the sort of guys who would menace me would not be so dorky as to carry backbacks; those are clearly school kids). My reasoning is not “those guys must be dangerous” but “if I avoid those guys, my risk of being menaced declines considerably.” And that conclusion is based on actual, personal experience. (Which is also neighborhood specific; I have no such worries walking about in Harlem where I effectively lived for many years.)

It’s also not based solely on their being black (obviously it is partly: in this town [Richmond, California] there are some black people who will attack you for being white, whereas no white people tend to attack you for being white), but on their wearing gear that identifies them with the culture that dangerous men boast being a part of. And yet, only some people in that culture are dangerous. Thus, my avoiding them does not entail I assume they are dangerous, but only that I am reducing my risk in the event that they are. I don’t see that as racism. It looks more like common sense to me. (Which, as you note, is exactly a woman’s point: any random man could be Schroedinger’s Rapist–that doesn’t mean 50/50, but still a non-negligible risk that has to be managed.)

Accordingly, a bunch of black guys who see me do that in this town should know there are guys who actually do look like them who would give me shit, and thus acknowledge that it’s not unreasonable of me to avoid finding out. They might even telegraph a heightened friendliness to reassure me that they aren’t those guys. And that would be entirely reasonable, too.

This kind of adjustment doesn’t necessarily have to do with race, either. Even though I am white, I would have enough presence of mind to know I shouldn’t walk into a business wearing a ski mask, even if I was wearing it just to keep warm; and I wouldn’t joke about carrying a bomb within earshot of airport security; and I engage all manner of adjustments to my behavior to ensure my presence in some context is not misinterpreted. As you point out, that’s just good sense.

Like you, I’ve been attentive to what clothes I was wearing, for example, and adjusted to compensate, e.g. when I’m thrashed from construction work and covered in mud and grunge and dirt and wearing “second hand” clothes (because those are the ones I don’t care about getting ruined), and I walk into a shop to get a coke, I make an effort (by whatever means, from body language to conversation to facial expressions) to telegraph that I’m an orderly, intelligent man with money, and not a crazy homeless guy keen on pinching something.

And like you, I have often scared the hell out of people by walking up on them too quickly, so I also shuffle my feet now so someone ahead of me is aware. And even then (and this has happened a couple times just in the last year) I sometimes get fearful, worried looks as I pass. And I’m a white dude. (Which perhaps means you shouldn’t assume it’s always about your being black; evidently some behaviors worry people regardless.)

The point is, some kinds of reactions are simply unreasonable and do not need to be accommodated (unless for practical reasons they have to). But some kinds of reactions are reasonable and should be accommodated (and we should actually feel good about accommodating them). This applies in the male-female dynamic just as much as any other. I do make an effort to make women around me feel comfortable, and I don’t see this as some sort of reverse gender bias or affirmative action, but as simply what a good guest and/or host does: make those around him feel comfortable. We do the same thing when we avoid political arguments at family gatherings.

On the other hand, there are people whose company I don’t want, if they don’t like the way I naturally am. For example, I will avoid swearing in certain contexts (e.g. a formal lecture; when I’m a guest in a conservative’s house; etc.), but I’m not going to hang out at a party where I can’t swear. I’d rather be elsewhere. Conversely, if it’s my party, and you don’t like swearing, you belong elsewhere. And that’s your responsibility. By extension, any women who might have unreasonable expectations shouldn’t mingle with men who don’t meet them. But not all expectations are unreasonable.

How do you tell the difference? Empathy and the Golden Rule: (a) first understand what difference it makes to be a woman [e.g. by a huge margin, women are far more likely to be raped or sexually assaulted than men, and they live with that fact, we don’t] and (b) then ask if you were them, how would you want to be treated? (Or, “how would that behavior then look to you?” or “what would that remark then sound like to you?” or “what would reassure me that I’m going to be comfortable here?” etc.).

Another example of (a), BTW, is the fact that men tend not to have much actual experience receiving unwanted advances; whereas women tend to get that shit a lot, to the point of getting fed up by it as much as any man would who had the same experience. When guys say “but all advances from women are welcome!” that only confirms to me they are naively inexperienced. Would you want persistent advances from your best friend’s wife? Or women you find unattractive? What about daily menacing come-ons from gay men? I have been hit on or flirted with by gay men a good amount (and not just because my wife used to work in the theatre) and I don’t mind it, it’s even flattering, but this is because they were always polite about it, genuine gentlemen; but imagine if they weren’t? Or they just wouldn’t lay off? Or literally everywhere you went yet another dude came on to you? It would get tiring after a while. Why, gosh, you might even give up going to group events where that keeps happening.

Hence, Ian, I think your overall point is spot on.

Herod the Procurator

Herod the Great (you know, that guy in the Bible who killed all those babies, but didn’t really) was a procurator. (WTF is a procurator? Don’t worry, I’ll get to that.) In fact, Herod wasn’t just any procurator. He was the chief procurator of the entire Roman province of Syria. Holy crap! That’s amazing! Er…or totally, fantastically irrelevant and boring. One or the other, I’m sure. (Right?)


The Backstory…

Who cares? Hardly anyone really. Why am I writing about this? Well, to be honest, because I had to at some point, and now is as good a time as any (more on that later). But kind of, also, because it’s really interesting to ancient history geeks. And, strangely, Christian apologists. Why? Because they can argue from “Herod was the procurator of Syria” to “Luke and Matthew don’t contradict each other on the year of Christ’s birth, contrary to what all you mean atheist harpies keep saying.” Yeah. It takes some twists and turns. But they make a good effort to get from A to B. Strangely, this point also connects to the debate over the existence of Jesus. No shit. Lotta twists and cul-de-sacs, but A gets to B on that one, too.

Even given that context (“Ooo! Christian apologetics? Now it’s getting interesting!”), this is one of the most jaw-droppingly uninteresting bits of trivia you’ve probably come across on FtB in months. Or ever. I mean, there are mighty battles being fought elsewhere here over very important issues. Sexism, slander, dumbassery, political murder, bad science, the Republican primaries, soda mice. (Among all of which you will learn that a new spell has been added to the Harry Potter lexicon: wave your wand and utter the words Rebecca Watson and a hoard of nitwitted sexist trolls are summoned; unfortunately they immediately attack the spellcaster so it’s kind of a shit spell really.)

But here’s the backstory. For my Master of Philosophy at Columbia University (aka M.Phil., a graduate degree between M.A. and Ph.D., sort of like what everyone else calls ABD) I completed a thesis in preparation for working up a prospectus for my dissertation. That thesis was never published, mainly because, though it is more thorough and meticulous than anything on its topic, someone I’d never heard of beat me to publication with their own paper arguing the same thesis (albeit a lot less comprehensively and in a more wishy washy way, but nevertheless, journals won’t publish my work now because “it’s already been done,” as one editor directly told me). It’s a mind-numbingly boring thesis. But I worked really hard on it and I’m sure someone will find it useful someday. So I updated it (even citing and incorporating that other paper, as well as all the revisions asked for by my peer reviewers) and published it on my website for anyone crazy enough to read it: Herod the Procurator: Was Herod the Great a Roman Governor of Syria? (PDF)

It does have one interesting vibe to it. If you read it all through (you have to be kind of a little crazy to do that, but that can be in a good way; why, hey, it’s “only” 36 pages long), one thing you will learn, especially if you are not a professional historian, is how incredibly complicated doing history really is, and why expertise and training is so important for it. My thesis details all the actual steps that are involved in coming to a conclusion on any question (even one so seemingly simple as “Was Herod the Great really the procurator of Roman Syria?”), showing you all the sorts of things you have to know about and research, the process of reasoning and analysis you have to go through, and all that jazz. Usually you just see the end result, maybe a paragraph summary, and don’t see all the messy, crazy shit that went on to produce that paragraph. Now you get to see Oz working the controls. Batshit crazy controls.

You’ll also learn (especially if you read the most boring part) how translations, even by total bona fide experts, can screw up the original meaning of a text, and how beholden laymen are to what are really often very subjective translations hiding all manner of assumptions and agendas of the translator. Not just the Bible has this problem; all ancient books do. You’ll also learn a bit about how determining what the original text said from existing manuscripts is no simple matter, either. And you’ll learn some stuff about various languages, Roman provincial administration, and how Herod the Great and Emperor Augustus were such party buds I’d bet a sawbuck they high-fived over a shared a hooker or two. (Not literally, of course; sure, everyone knows double-teaming hookers was invented in 1891 B.C., but the high-five is a 20th century invention; so, whatever the ancient Roman equivalent was. Yeah, I’d risk a tenner on that. Stranger shit has supposedly happened. Story is, emperor-to-be Titus banged two hookers over an open Torah scroll on the sacred sacrificial altar of the Jewish Temple just to flip the bird at the nutty superstitious Jews he’d just wasted several years of his life putting down a rebellion of. I remember the first thing I thought when I read that, “I hope those girls were paid well.” Probably. Everyone says Titus was a real mensch. Anyway…)


So Back to the Christian Thing…

Okay, quick summary:

Matthew says Jesus was born a year or so before Herod the Great died, which was 4 B.C.; Luke says Jesus was born when the Roman senator Quirinius became governor of Syria and conducted the first ever Roman census of Judea, which was 6 A.D.; the contradiction (a ten year miss, even) proves the New Testament is, uhem, errant (oh, and BTW, notice that neither says it was 1 A.D.; and in fact that date is entirely impossible on either of their accounts…oops); “Oh, shit!” Christians say to themselves (probably not out loud, because that might anger their storm god); Christian apologists scramble for some way to fix this fiasco; they come up with a wild pile of bullshit; if you rummage around in that shit pile (like I did), you’ll find this gem:

“Well, see, Quirinius must have been governor of Syria twice somehow (even though no one ever was a governor of the same province twice and we have zero evidence Quirinius was or even could have been), and there must have been some other, earlier census of Judea, conducted by Herod (even though that is illogical and impossible on every known fact of the matter), and since the evidence says other guys were governing Syria at the time, not only was Quirinius twice governor, but he must have been co-governor with someone else (even though no such thing as a co-governorship of a province existed in the Roman administrative system and in fact it would have been illogical and absurd).”

When mean atheists like me point out the parenthetical points (put in italics above), Christians scramble for damage control, generally by making shit up or pretending at being historians, doing some embarrassingly incompetent amateur hatchet job with “facts” they tweeze out of modern translations of ancient books (unlike Muslims, who everywhere insist on Arabic fluency and thus actually know how to read their scripture, most Christians never actually learn Greek and generally couldn’t give a shit what the actual words in their inspired scriptures are) and/or antiquated, long-superseded scholarship (because when Christians can’t find what they want in up-to-date scholarship they dig around for something written in the 19th century, back in those golden days before that Darwin dickwad ruined everything; because surely any history done then must be superior and more reliable than any done now…and they’re, like, totally right).

Case in point: Josephus (and an occasional stone inscription) repeatedly says there were two governors of Syria. So there! Except he doesn’t (nor do any inscriptions). Ah, those pesky translations. You see, what Josephus (and every other source from then) says is that every Syrian governor had a lieutenant, and they often hung out and did shit together. “But that’s the same thing, right?” Uh, no. Because ancient Roman society didn’t work like our modern American “classless” society. Technically we do have classes (lower, middle, and upper) demarcated by access to wealth, but in classical times classes were official matters of law, and one couldn’t cross from one to the other just by getting rich. You had to be officially recognized as of that class; and it took some hoodow to make that happen. And in the meantime, your career options were limited by what class you were in.


Intro to Roman Social History

It breaks down like this: the unwashed masses (actually, the Roman masses were often very well washed) were just “ordinary people” and couldn’t hold any significant political or military office (didn’t even qualify; couldn’t even buy their way in…unless they bought their way into a higher social order); next in rank were the equestrians (literally “horsemen,” so sometimes called “knights”; the term originally designated someone rich enough to buy and keep a horse, although that was an antiquated notion by then…even the poorest Roman equestrian could buy and keep a small shitload of horses), who (unlike those below them) qualified for appointed administrative positions and could serve as something like NCOs in the military (or perhaps more analogously, low ranking officers, depending on what point of comparison you start with), but couldn’t run for elected office and couldn’t be a staff officer…unless they were at least 30 years old and met the multi-million-dollar entry requirement for the next class: the senators. To enter the senatorial class you had to prove you had millions of dollars in property and then (to be elligible to hold any office) you had to get elected to the entry-level position of quaestor (“treasurer”; yep, the bottom-ranking gig even then), which got you permanently into the Roman Senate, and from there you could run for higher offices (but always by ranks, i.e. you couldn’t skip straight to Lord of All I Survey, you had to serve as quaestor, then praetor, then consul, and your social rank would always be based on how high you’d gotten, e.g. a consular senator outranked a praetorian senator, big time). Of course, kids of senators were automatically of the senatorial class, although they still had to get elected (or, if we set aside the Doublespeak, given the real nature of politics under the emperors, appointed) to a quaestorship to enter the Senate itself (and yes, that meant daughters could be of senatorial rank, but sadly, as they could never hold any office, they never became Senators).

Okay. So? Well, because of the Roman constitution at the time, no one could govern a province who was not a consular senator. This is because the provinces were officially governed by the emperor (who had consular rank) or the senatorial consuls, and “governors” were just their stand-ins, but in an official government capacity, which meant they had to be of the same rank. Thus a praetorian senator was not of sufficient rank to govern a province and thus could not act in any other governor’s stead. You had to appoint a senator who had served as a consul at some prior time and thus achieved consular rank. (There were a handful of weird provinces, called senatorial provinces, that didn’t precisely fall under this rule, but Syria wasn’t one of them so they’re irrelevant for our purposes; one of the constitutionally relevant differences, BTW, was that senatorial provinces usually never had legions in them.)

Notice that not even lower ranking senators could govern a province, much less lowly equestrians, who couldn’t even hold a real political office at all, much less govern a province. They weren’t even senators. It would have been scandalously offensive (and indeed risked outright assassination or civil war) if an emperor were to openly flout the constitution and insult every upper class senatorial man in the empire by appointing a lowly equestrian to govern a province (case in point: Caligula is said to have almost appointed his horse, and they promptly killed him…and tried to damn his memory–literally: the senate proposed [and may have eventually passed] an official decree of damnatio memoriae; yeah, they had those). And certainly such a remarkable curiosity would make every history book of the time, as the weirdest thing to happen since someone discovered water could be turned into a white powder. Conversely, no senator (much less of mighty consular rank) would disgrace himself or his whole family’s honor by ever deigning to lower himself to work in an equestrian post. That would be more unbelievable than a U.S. President becoming a fry cook at McDonald’s.

Now, governors of imperial provinces, who were always consular senators, and officially were high-ranking military officers, commanders of legions, obviously had a whole chain of command working under them, of lower ranking senatorial line and staff officers, as well as equestrian field officers and NCOs and bureaucrats. Thus, a governor could divide up his provincial command and appoint lower ranking officers to take care of business there, principally taking charge of any troops and enforcing the law. These were typically equestrians (because Roman paranoia prevented entrusting major provincial and troop commands to senators, who might have ambitions; whereas equestrians were generally locked in their low status and thus no threat, and in fact for that reason typically more loyal). These officers were called “prefects,” literally “guys placed in front,” in other words “dudes in charge.” Prefects were always equestrians; senatorial officers had other ranks (namely, quaestor or praetor).

Now that you have all that background (and notice how there is no way a layman is likely to know any of this; there’s a reason you need a Ph.D. to draw correct conclusions about the ancient world), you can get the punchline: Whenever we see mentions of governors and their lieutenants (as in Josephus, for example), it’s always a consular senator and his equestrian prefect. Men who are not even of the same social class. You might already see where this is going. Quirinius is well established to have been a consular senator as of 12 B.C. We know all the consular governors of Syria from 12 to 3 B.C. He therefore cannot have been any of their “lieutenants,” because those lieutenants were always prefects of the equestrian class, and he was way the hell higher ranking than an equestrian, in fact he held the highest possible social rank in the whole Roman empire: a consular senator. So much for the co-governor idea.


Intro to Christian Logic

Okay. Now that you are as bored as you possibly can be, it gets even more boring. Enter Herod the Procurator. The Christian’s logic goes like this (and I’ve had versions of this argument sent to me in email over the years by a half dozen D-list Christian apologists). Pontius Pilate was the “governor” of Judea. Pontius Pilate was a procurator. Therefore a “procurator” is a “governor.” Herod the Great was the Procurator of Syria. Therefore, Herod the Great (a foreigner) was the “governor” of Syria. Therefore the Romans played fast and loose with their constitution when it came to provincial government. Therefore they could well have had double governors or something. In fact when Herod was “governor” of Syria, we know another consular senator was governor of Syria, so bingo, there we have it, there were two governors of Syria!

This is all so fucked up it makes me want to cry. Okay. First. Judea was not a province. Thus Pilate was not “the [provincial] governor” of Judea. The governor of Syria was. Judea was then a district of the Roman province of Syria. Pilate was just the prefect assigned to govern that district. By the governor of Syria. And as you’d expect, Pilate was of equestrian rank. Thus no argument can proceed by analogy from the government of Judea to the government of Syria. Second. A procurator is not a prefect. To identify Pilate as “governor of Judea” is to identify him as a prefect, not a procurator. A procurator is not an administrative or military office. It’s a private occupation. It means “business manager” (literally, “one given care of stuff,” e.g. an agent, a manager, etc.). Thus in no sense does procurator ever mean “governor.” Thus in no sense at all was Herod the Great ever “the governor of Syria.” So, no playing fast and loose here. The Romans stuck to their constitution, or as near as could pass as plausible (in an Orwellian sense, if one examines how the emperors invented the entire office of emperor without actually, literally changing the constitution, which never mentioned any such office per se, by cleverly exploiting various loopholes in that constitution, but that’s a whole other story, not relevant here).

So despite trying to rescue the big gaping historical error in the Gospels, the attempt to get from “Herod the Great was Procurator of Syria” to “the Bible is inerrant” is built on a pile of the hack mistakes of presumptuous Christian apologists who don’t know their Roman social history for shit. What does any of this long boring digression have to do with my thesis paper on Herod the Procurator? Well, among other things (like analyzing the evidence for Herod being a procurator of Syria at all), I document in it all the evidence and scholarship laying out the distinction between prefects and procurators. Which has another use, for those following the “did Jesus really exist?” debate…


So Was Pontius Pilate a Prefect or a Procurator?

A prominent defender of the thesis that Jesus is a mythical person (more now in the agnostic camp, but still) is G.A. Wells. And one argument he made, against the authenticity of a passage attesting to the existence of Jesus in the Roman historian Tacitus (writing around 117 A.D.), is that Tacitus there calls Pilate a “procurator” when in fact we know, from logic (given the above) and an actual stone inscription cut at Pilate’s own direction, that Pilate was a prefect, not a procurator, which isn’t even a government office. “Surely” Tacitus would not make that mistake (so the passage is a forgery) or “surely” Tacitus would not make that mistake if he was working from government documents (so he must be relying on an unreliable source, like a Gospel-reading Christian informant). Therefore the information is bogus. Therefore (given various other conclusions) Jesus didn’t exist. Now, like many an unsound argument, the primary conclusion is true (Tacitus is almost certainly relying on a Gospel-reading Christian informant, and not any kind of government records), but the argument for it is not.

Tacitus almost certainly got this information from his good friend Pliny the Younger, who would have gotten it from his strong-arm interrogation of a Christian deaconess in 110 A.D. (when Tacitus and Pliny were governing adjacent provinces in what is now Turkey, and carrying on a regular correspondence in which Tacitus evinces asking Pliny for information to include in the history books he was then writing). And she would certainly have gotten the information from the Gospels, many of which were being read in the churches of the time. So yes, Tacitus is in fact giving us useless evidence, since it is not independent of the Gospels (that’s why his account contains nothing not in them, yet that would have been in an official government record, like Jesus’ full name and crime). But Wells’ argument to that same conclusion is incorrect, due to another oddity about the ancient Roman system that non-experts don’t know about (and that even many experts don’t know about, not having specifically studied the matter of imperial administration and economics).

In actual fact, Pilate was both a prefect and a procurator. An imperial procurator, to be precise. In fact this was true of all the prefects of Judea, and many other regional prefects, such as the prefect of Egypt who governed that whole province directly for the emperor (Egypt never had a senatorial governor, its governorship was always officially held by the emperor himself, who never shared it, because Egypt was the breadbasket of the empire at the time and thus any senator allowed to govern it would be tempted to do the obvious…and they wouldn’t have that uppity, smartypants Cleopatra gumming up their game, either). It was actually commonplace for prefects to also be procurators. Why? Well, I explain in my thesis (for those who only care about this topic, you can skip directly to the section on “The Procurator in the Time of Augustus,” starting on page 29, but also hyperlinked in the table of contents on page 2 of Was Herod the Great a Roman Governor of Syria?).

Procurators were private agents. So, for example, if you were some rich guy and owned lands in several provinces, you obviously couldn’t personally oversee their management, so you would hire someone as your procurator to go act as landlord for you. Pretty much any business, or property, or account of money that you had somewhere needed someone to manage it on your behalf. That someone was a procurator. The wealthy elite had armies of them in their employ. And the emperor was the wealthiest man in the Western hemisphere. Another little known fact is that the emperors often compelled their vanquished opponents to sign treaties not with the Roman people (SPQR) but with the emperor himself and his private family estate. Annual tribute was then owed not to the Roman government, but directly to the Roman emperor’s family estate. And in such cases lands seized were not the public property of Rome, but the private property of the emperor, taken as spoils (or as bribes, or simply bought outright, and just as often inherited, from people wanting to get their surviving family on the emperor’s good side). This meant the emperor had tons of lands he needed to manage privately (not officially as a Roman statesman) and tons of cash that had to be collected every year and held in his name and managed at a profit, or delivered to him across regions and seas. And that meant the emperor had to employ thousands of procurators to act as his business managers for all this.

Well, who would make the best procurator? Or rather, the best chief procurator, who would look over and keep in line all the other procurators who were actually managing the individual landholdings, and collections, and stashes of banked cash? Why, who best to hire for that job than the chief of police? The very guy who governs the district and has charge of the courts and the law and cohorts of infantry and cavalry to enforce his will. Brilliant, eh? And so it was. Every prefect of Judea was also the emperor’s privately hired business manager, who ensured all the imperial procurators in their district behaved and did their jobs, and everyone who owed the emperor money (or had the temerity to sue him) was dealt with. In our modern democracy this would be perfectly appalling. It would be obvious corruption if the President hired the Secretary of the Interior to manage all of his private lands, and the Secretary of Commerce to run all of his private companies and businesses, and hired Superior Court Judges to manage the very private estates they passed judgments on in court (imagine suing someone and finding out that the judge deciding the case is the property manager of the very estate you are suing!). But the Roman empire had no such moral notions, and no laws on the books against it. To them it was just convenient.

But there were complaints. Although not necessarily of the kind you’d expect. One of the persistent drums Tacitus beats throughout his entire Annals is that it was shocking (why, just shocking!) that lowly equestrians were being given the official powers of senators. As business managers, procurators were only ever equestrians, or often even commoners or slaves; no senator would disgrace himself by taking such a servile job (again, imagine the President of the United States taking a job as a “common” real estate agent). But Tacitus was annoyed even by the idea of prefects running things. Procurators were just an even bigger insult. Since an imperial procurator was the legal agent of the emperor, he literally had power of attorney to represent the emperor in court and contracts. Which meant that in practice, lowly procurators could tell mighty consular senators what for. It’s not like a senatorial governor is going to cross the emperor. Thus procurators often wielded in effect imperial scale power. And that pissed off consular senators like Tacitus. His Annals is full of morality tales illustrating how so really disastrous and awful this was.

Which gets us back to that passage in the Annals where Tacitus says Christ was executed by Pontius Pilate “the procurator.” Tacitus was a consular senator who had held many imperial provincial governorships and nearly every other office in the land. He knew full well that Pilate was a prefect. He would not have had to check any records to know that. He also knew full well that Pilate, like all district prefects, was the private business manager of the emperor, a lowly money collector and landlord, a filthy procurator. He clearly chose to call Pilate a procurator and not a prefect in this passage as a double insult: on the one hand, his aim was to paint the Christians as pathetically as possible, and having their leader executed by a petty business manager was about as low as you could get (and Tacitus would never turn down a good juicy snipe like that); and on the other hand, he was always keen to remind the reader of his persistent protest against granting equestrians real powers, and thus calling Pilate here a procurator does that, by reminding the reader that the chief of police who executes criminals in Judea is a “fucking business manager” (“and what the hell is he doing with judicial powers?”). The fact that Pilate was also a prefect and thus had real constitutional authority is the sort of honest detail that would screw up Tacitus’ point. So he doesn’t take the trouble to mention it.

Okay. Right. Here we are now. Anyone who has actually read this blog post all the way to this point (I commend you, sir and/or ma’am!) will now be able to guess the conclusion of my thesis: Herod the Great was appointed by his good buddy Augustus to be his principal business manager in Syria. Wow. Amazing, right? That conclusion is going to haunt you for days. Life changing stuff. Just simply life changing. And so that you will have it with you always, I have now posted my old M.Phil. thesis on Herod the Syrian procurator, which has sections on all this stuff (so if you want to cite evidence and scholarship at anyone in defense of these points, like about Pilate being both procurator and prefect, that’s the paper for you), and other stuff besides (as I babbled on about in the earlier half of this blog).

Enjoy. Or not. Anyway, it’s there now if you need it.


“Best Schools” Interview

A new interview of mine just went online. But you’ve got to hear the long boring story first. (Unless you don’t give a shit, then just go on to read the interview: The BestSchools Richard Carrier Interview).

Recently a new “top fifty atheists in the world” list hit the web (similar to a previous list of the “top 25 most influential atheists” from a similar, online-education-marketing website). I was on both lists. The earlier one I disregarded outright as I had never heard of the website promoting it and I had no idea what worth it had. The second one I wasn’t much more keen on, for much the same reason, except that whoever composed it clearly was better informed about the atheist movement. They included more women and minorities and foreigners (though many have complained still too few), but more importantly, some well-known figures to us whom outsiders tend to ignore (like Greydon Square or Greta Christina). The list doesn’t always make consistent sense, and there are people on it I’m sure who should not be, but it was interesting to me for apparently having been compiled by someone who has been paying attention.

Curiosity was apparently more widely aroused this time and several atheist inquirers (who commented on Jerry Coyne’s blog on this) concluded some things that I think were a bit hasty:

1. That the new list, posted at (a marketing website steering prospective students to online colleges), was generated by “James Barham, wacky ID advocate.” I don’t know about wacky, but he is not a Christian, nor an ID-advocate per se; he acknowledged to me that the website he is writing for leans that way (likewise, the Institute for the Study of Nature he is a fellow of claims to be theism-leaning but not exclusively), but he is on sworn record as affirming he lost his faith in Christianity long ago and is now a naturalist; he is presently a doctoral student in philosophy at Notre Dame (or possibly has his Ph.D. by now, as claimed on TheBestSchools “about” page last I checked), with an M.A. from Harvard, so he’s no crank, and his writings seem to be advocating for the adoption of emergent teleology within naturalism, and not ID as such. He only voices some common cause with the ID movement (he favors teaching the controversy on natural selection as cause, but not on evolution as fact). I suppose he could be trojan horsing, but I’m not a telepath. More likely he’s an interesting outlier in the debate, and thus not someone you can peg as easily as Dembski or Ham. At any rate, as I see it, he’s just wrong, not wacky.

2. That “according to WHOIS, The Best Schools is owned by a young philosophy professor at the Univ of Kentucky named Wayne Downs.” That’s in essence true (at least as of today); I also verified his identity at the U. Kentucky website, but it currently lists him as a graduate student teaching assistant and his own cv confirms he is a doctoral student, not a professor. He has a B.A. in pastoral ministries and an M.Div. from Baylor, so definitely a conservative religious foundation, but he also has an M.A. in philosophy from Texas A&M and is getting a Ph.D. at U. Kentucky (or already has one, if the UK website and his cv are out of date), so he is not a crank either. He did co-author a book on the Christian history of creationism with Dembski, but it’s just an anthology of patristics. He is currently (according to his own cv) “Research Assistant to Dr. William A. Dembski” at the “Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary,” but it’s hard to draw concrete conclusions from that (I myself could easily employ a Christian research assistant if he was good enough). Downs might be an Evangelical or a conservative, but TheBestSchools seems like it’s just built to earn him some advertising money (which I don’t frown on, since we do that here at FtB).

3. That “The article was only written for ‘Link Baiting’ purposes, meaning that the owner of the website just wants to get a higher google ranking by getting more links to his site.” Isn’t that what everyone does? It’s called marketing. Calling it “link baiting” is just pointlessly derogatory. Clearly Downs wants to draw people to his website so he can earn ad revenue through his college marketing tools, and he does this by employing bloggers to develop posts that people want to read, so they will go there, and then possibly explore his promotional links and click through the ads that he has his website set up to deliver. Um, that’s basically a description of FtB. Yes, we exist primarily to deliver content, and take ad revenue as a bonus. But I doubt Downs takes his site’s content any less seriously–which is why so much of it is slanted toward his interests. In fact most major blog sites exist to make money “and” deliver content. Like, say, The Huffington Post. Or The New York Times, which arguably only really exists to make money through ad placement. Even its print version exists solely for that purpose. It thus puts articles in it that people want to read in order to get those people to look at the ads folded in with them. That’s not “link baiting.” It’s enterprise. So I don’t hold it against anyone who wants to create content of interest to atheists to market products to atheists. Even if they are Christians. As long as its honest, professional, and interesting. In other words, the same standards I’d expect of The Huffington Post or The New York Times. Or FtB for that matter.

4. That “it’s a scam site. It scams rational thinkers into assuming the site is legitimate for its seriousness, and then plonks in other articles, hoping that those articles will be treated with the same sense of seriousness.” That doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Why would anyone think “rational thinkers” would be fooled? Are we seriously imagining that Downs is trying to convert atheists to Christianity by luring them in with interesting blogs about atheism, hoping atheists will then wander around and read interviews and news items about religious conservatives and suddenly experience an epiphany of Jesus? I’ve met some idiots for Christ who might think that would work, but none of them have graduate degrees from major universities…or really even legitimate college degrees at all. In fact Barham told me they were keen on creating more diversity at the site so it wouldn’t be all one-sided. Some atheists see that as a dirty trick. I see it as inclusive marketing. It’s kind of funny to see someone attacked for aiming to generate more diversity at their site, and then attacked for being all one-sided and not allowing more diversity at their site. Honestly, what would you rather? A site that was all aimed at conservative evangelical Christians, or a site that represented multiple views? Trying to draw in a broader demographic is not a “scam.” It’s just good business. In fact, it’s rather American.

5. That “almost all of [the bios] have some snide remark at the end” with “cynicism and mockery.” I don’t quite see that. I see a conservative POV. Otherwise I didn’t notice anything that was dishonest or untrue. Granted, I didn’t fact check it all, but the list fairly links to all our actual PR sites and books and works and thus is not trying to misrepresent us. Indeed, if anything they are promoting us. If I were to run the differential math on this, as a result of their being this open about plugging people into our world, odds are this site is now going to deconvert more Christians than it will convert atheists to Christianity. For example, the only “odd” thing about the bio Barham gave me (I am assuming he was the sole author) is that it mentions my advocacy for the theory that Jesus never really existed–but that’s hardly a secret. Yes, perhaps a (possibly) conservative Barham included that item because he thought it was wacky. But he didn’t mock me for it nor was he snide about it. He just stated the fact of it. Likewise, for Greta Christina he tacks on at the end that “she also publishes pornographic fiction.” Well, yes. She does. That’s not cynicism or mockery. It’s just the way conservatives honestly see us. Indeed, this author could have been snide or mocking about these details. What I find remarkable is that he wasn’t. This looks like honest, indeed respectful reporting to me. Conservative-minded, sure. But so what?

6. That the site advocates “for the benefits of an online education (you know, where students need not actually learn stuff)” and “their Degree Finder widget doesn’t include biology, physics, chemistry etc. No point in needlessly troubling those creationist minds.” Though both facts are true (the site does advocate for various kinds of online education, and its widget doesn’t have biology, physics, or chemistry in it), the inference being made from these facts is not logical. ID advocate Michael Behe is a biochemist. And I can’t fathom why creationists would be afraid of physics or chemistry. The widget also lacks other majors that can’t possibly have anything to do with imagined creationist phobias (are they morbidly afraid of anthropology, oceanography and astronomy?). Rather, when you look at what the widget does include, it’s obviously slanted toward career-ready degrees. Hence, no physics, but “engineering” and “engineering management,” degrees that can hardly be pursued without studying physics. Likewise, no biology, but tons of health science degrees, from “gerontology” to “radiology” and “nursing,” none of which can be pursued without studying biology. This also fits the site’s focus on online degree granting institutions, like the University of Phoenix, which specialize in career-ready degrees and not general sciences. The site is clearly geared toward people who need an affordable way to get a better job (“career success” as the site itself says). An ambiguous degree in biology is not going to appeal.

However, there are valid criticisms to make of the site.

It’s certainly a little conservative and Christian slanted (although perhaps not so much as critics have made it seem, but it definitely is coming from that corner of the ring; just peruse some of the articles to get an idea). But it’s not like conservatives don’t get to have their own websites. And if you think about it, “top” lists of atheists generated by conservatives should be more telling, as such lists catalog the people they regard as their greatest threat. More of an issue perhaps is the fact that isn’t really promoting “the best schools” per se but the best cheap schools (or, shall we say, “affordable” schools) and is primarily promoting schools who would appear to be paid advertisers, and that these are predominately D-list schools, usually online schools. It looks like you will never be directed to apply to any mainstream state university through the site’s widget, although such schools do get promoted in some of the site’s articles (e.g. its article on the “top ten most affordable law schools” has some good recommendations and does not appear biased towards the site’s advertisers). So they aren’t engaging in dishonest reporting. This is therefore not a “scam” site. Its widget is a bit dodgy, but no more so than GoogleAds would be. It’s clearly just promoting for-profit online education.

For example, using its “Degree Finder” widget you’ll get recommended such places as DeVry University (a for-profit company which has numerous physical campuses and an online education program, but does have a reputation for being something like the McDonald’s of college education) or Liberty University (a full on, totally bonkers, “yes, they teach young earth creationism in biology class” Evangelical school) or University of Phoenix (a primarily online for-profit college that’s kind of like the Denny’s of college education…you know, a step up from McDonald’s). UOP has gotten into trouble lately over its somewhat shady slant towards profits over quality (see the NYT article and a Harvard Extension blog thereon, and UOP’s official reply, and the analysis of what is passed off as an independent blogger…writing for an e-school site in Poland for some reason…but what one might suspect is a hired PR puppet of UOP). What about Liberty U? I don’t think the occasional presence of LU here is a pro-Christian plant. More likely it’s just one of those for-profit schools that’s also advertising through the same widget. Because LU is pushing a big online program now.

So, that’s all the back story. After posting their “top fifty atheists” blog to draw traffic (again, no evil in that) Barham asked me personally if I’d do an interview for the site. I could say anything I wanted (within common decency). Nothing would be edited out. He also approached many others on the list. As for myself, I said sure, since by then I knew it was a Christian site, but I’d done questionnaires for Christian sites before (including one inspired by the “top 25 atheists” list generated similarly to this one, at a site using exactly the same widget–the WHOIS for that site seems locked up by denial-of-service attacks so I can’t discover who owns it). I have no problem with that, as long as they are honest about how they represent what I say, and don’t ask stupid questions. Barham’s questionnaire was well-written and his questions thoughtful and interesting. And true to his word, he published my full reply, even improving its punctuation and correcting typos. The end result is something definitely of interest to Christians, atheists, and prospective college students alike. Now you can read for yourself The BestSchools Richard Carrier Interview. It talks about my background and life story, why I am skeptical of a historical Jesus, why I’m a naturalist and how I deal with certain questions about that, my debate with W.L. Craig, the future of atheism as a movement, and what advice I’d give to prospective college students.

I see this as a mutually beneficial arrangement. He gets traffic and diversifies his target demographic for his product marketing, and I get to promote my work, and my views on philosophy and education, and on atheism as a movement in general. Just try to imagine this happening in an Islamic country and you’ll think twice about being overly cynical about such a transaction.

Comments Crazy!

Happy new year everyone!

Today I’m going to blog a boring administrative thing. But later this week I’ll put up something a little more interesting.

With my move now to Freethought Blogs the number of comments my entries are generating within a week has shot up fivefold or more. Which is great, except that it means I have to revisit the way I handle comments. There are now so many of them coming so quickly, it’s overwhelming me. As I announced in my inaugural post, “I will be experimenting with different methods of handling comments (active moderation, etc.) until I know what works best here,” and I’ve come to a conclusion I don’t like but have to implement. I’ve changed the settings so that all comments go to moderation. On the one hand this means I am committing myself to being much more Johnny-on-the-spot moderating comments so they don’t languish for weeks as many still are (I’ll be spending the rest of this week getting through all those, now that I’ve finished the paid work that has taken me away from blogging these last two weeks). But on the other hand this means everyone will have to wait at least a day or two before their comments appear (and just so you know, I don’t usually work weekends; I reserve those to spend time with my wife, since we don’t have much time together during the week, so “day or two” means business days).

This makes it a lot easier for me to keep up with checking comments, and in their actual order no less, but above all it’s just more fair to new posters, who right now have to wait for their posts to log while established posters blow past them posting comments galore. I don’t like that. So to put everyone on equal footing, now everyone waits, and their comments get posted in the actual order they are submitted.

If your comments aren’t up within a week, then they didn’t get approved. There are two possible reasons for that: you violated the rules I set out in my inaugural post (and many commentators have been doing that, some so consistently it’s really astonishing), or you got flagged as spam by my robot. On my old blog I got so little actual spam I was able to weed through the spam folder and rescue mis-flagged posts, but now I am getting hundreds of spam comments a week (!), which makes it impossible for me to even check that folder anymore (although I did one check recently and it does indeed appear to be all spam, but I still couldn’t check everything so I can’t be 100% sure). Which means if your comment gets ditched by my antispambot I’ll never know it. If you honestly can’t think of any reason why your comment would run afoul of my posting rules, then feel free to email me, explain the sitch, and tell me what email address you used to post your comment with, so I can go in to the spam folder and see if you got in there by accident (or otherwise tell you what happened). I will likely clear the spam folder every thirty days, though, so keep that in mind.

Last but not least, the huge number of approved comments is already so large that I know I won’t be able to respond to them all anymore. I used to reply to everyone. But on some posts I have gotten as many as 160 posts, and even after vetting out violators, in one case there is nearly 100 (many still waiting moderation). I just can’t handle that much traffic. So I will allow comments to post even if I never respond to them. And I might respond only to a few.

So I would be most pleased if informed and passionate people who have the time bulldog for me and respond to everything that warrants a response. That would ensure every comment gets answered, by division of labor. That doesn’t excuse you from still conforming to my rules, though. Even people on my side should follow my lead as much as possible. Basically, stick to facts and logic, cut to the chase, and don’t be pointlessly abusive, but educational and informative, and just call out errors, or acknowledge points worth adding to or qualifying my original post. I may weigh in from time to time. But good commentators can save me a lot of time and make my blog better.