Ehrman’s Dubious Replies (Round Two)

As promised Friday, here I shall reply to Ehrman’s longest reply to me to date (in Fuller Reply to Richard Carrier, mostly responding to my critique of his book). I won’t rehash the points I already addressed in my previous response (see Round One). Here I’ll just cut to the chase:


Was Pilate a Procurator?

Ehrman finally does what he should have done originally (take note of this trend: it confirms the entire point of my original critique), and asks an expert. But what he didn’t do was read the scholarship I pointed him to (my article, which references the most definitive literature on the point: in fact it is rather important to this whole debate and my subsequent remarks here that we read my paper’s section on what a procurator was in the time of Jesus).

The view that Claudius changed the title of Judaean governors from prefect to procurator has long since been refuted (most conclusively by the work of Fergus Millar; contrary to what Ehrman’s quotation might seem to suggest, the PIR his colleague translates the Latin of on this point is a modern source, not an ancient one, and thus represents an outdated scholarly assumption and not what anyone in antiquity actually said). For example, Herod the Great was appointed procurator of Syria, before Claudius was even born, and even Cicero attests the practice of prefects being simultaneously appointed procurators. The surviving evidence extensively confirms no province or district was ever governed by a procurator who was not also a prefect, at least to the end of the second century (as Millar and others document).

In the paper I linked to above I extensively document all of this, including the sources and scholarship establishing that (a) many prefects were simultaneously also procurators, well before Claudius, and that this was especially the case for major provincial prefects (as we know most conclusively for the prefect of Egypt, neighboring Judea, and I also list evidence the same was true of Pilate), and that (b) this has been known to modern specialists in Roman imperial administration for at least forty years.

In fact, procurator is not a government office, but a private one (it means business agent), and prefects were often simultaneously appointed imperial procurators so they could handle the private affairs of the emperor using the legal apparatus of state power (precisely through holding the prefecture). I discuss this at length, and reference the scholarship on it, in the article that I summarize on my blog (and link to above), to which I directed readers in my critical review of Ehrman. I would ask that Ehrman have his informant read that piece (the specific link I provide above; he only need read the relevant section of the academic article, which that link will take him to directly), and then relay what they say in reply. Notice what happens.


Did Ehrman Overlook Tacitus Scholarship?

When discussing his failure to mention that the mythicists had some scholarly support for their questioning of the passage on Christ in Tacitus, Ehrman misrepresents my argument in various ways. For example, he says:

Carrier says this is “crap,” “sloppy work,” and “irresponsible,” and indicates that if I had simply checked into the matter, I would see that I’m completely wrong.

First, I did not say he was completely wrong. In fact I said very much the opposite. Here is what I actually wrote (emphasis now added):

That the overall consensus of scholarship, myself included, sides with Ehrman on the conclusion is true (I am sure the passage is authentic and has not been relevantly altered), but that does not change the fact that readers are being seriously misled by Ehrman’s characterization of the matter. For him to claim that mythicists “just made this up” because it was convenient for them is false. But more alarming to me is the fact that this demonstrates that he didn’t even check. And again, if he didn’t check this, what else didn’t he check? This kind of sloppy work, the failure to check his facts, to do any basic research we should expect of a scholar, and consequently to misrepresent his opponents and their position, and misinform the public about the debate, is the same kind of crap we get from the bad mythicists.

Notice. I did not say he was completely wrong, but that he was mostly right, and was only misleading readers by giving the impression that mythicists were on their own here. I also did not mean that this particular incident makes the book crap. To the contrary, if it were only a few cases like this I would barely make an issue of it. Rather, as you can see from the quote above I was saying this kind of thing, repeated throughout the book, is the same crap Ehrman himself calls out mythicists for. In other words, I am saying it is the number of cases like this that made his work sloppy. Not just this instance. Because just one instance wouldn’t (nor even two).

I ended every section of my review with similar remarks, explaining why I was presenting each example as one instance of a pervading trend. In fact earlier on I said:

[O]ne or two mistakes like this would be excusable. We all make them. And we can’t all know everything. But my point is that this is an example of a pervasive number of similar errors throughout the book…

Ehrman now makes it seem like I was saying just this one Tacitus oversight makes his work “sloppy” and the same “crap” he convicts the bad mythicists of (and yet he, too, made his point about them by just selecting a few examples, just as I did). That was not my point at all. My point was the same as his: we find so many things like this, that we must dismiss their work as unreliable. Ehrman mischaracterizes my argument in order to avoid it, turning it instead into just a few nitpicks, which if that were an acceptable defense, he would have to accept it from the mythicists he dismisses, too.

On the charge of irresponsibility, this is what I actually said (emphases now added):

This is important, because part of Ehrman’s argument is that mythicists are defying all established scholarship in suggesting this is an interpolation, so the fact that there is a lot of established scholarship supporting them undermines Ehrman’s argument and makes him look irresponsible.

In other words, his argument depends on there being no scholarly basis for the mythicists’ doubt of the passage. This is why his new defense doesn’t address my point. Ehrman says now, “my point is that I was not trying to make a statement about the history of Tacitus scholarship; I was stating what scholars today think.” This I would credit as a fair statement (assuming, again, that he checked), but it’s not what he says in the book (nor does he now mention whether Benario’s subsequent surveys document anyone rebutting the scholarship he summarized on this passage before; just because the topic didn’t come up in later years doesn’t mean it has been universally rejected, or even rebutted, a fallacious kind of inference that typifies Ehrman’s continual shortcomings in logic). In fact, if all Ehrman meant were that no current Tacitus expert doubts the passage, then his book’s argument doesn’t hold up. He would have to change that argument to make this new premise work.

It must also be noted that Ehrman still doesn’t admit that he tars the competence of mythicists when he tells his readers (and regardless of what he meant, what his readers will take him to mean is the issue: because it is that that I have to constantly correct and therefore makes the book bad) that no competent expert would ever agree with them and that they are the only ones coming up with these ideas. But if serious qualified experts had the same notions, that seriously alters the entire impression of the matter. It’s not a crazy idea coming out of left field anymore. It’s just wrong. And the difference is huge. This should be particularly clear to someone who acts like such criticisms are personal attacks and unfair. Ehrman made his opponents look crazier and less competent than they are. That is much more of an unfair personal attack than what Ehrman is putting up with from me (since unlike him, I am accurately representing what he said). That he doesn’t even see this plank in his own eye while complaining about the splinter in ours is ironic coming from an expert on Jesus.

But more importantly, this change in the point (from “no scholar says” to “no scholar today says”) also significantly changes how Ehrman must argue: now he can’t say the mythicists are making this up and have no scholarly support, but he must argue instead that though there are published scholarly arguments for their conclusion, they have been rejected, which requires him to show that they have been (that no one has since published on it, pro or con, does not mean the issue is dead or that no living scholar is at least agnostic on the issue), or else that they have been because of x, y, and z (whatever the arguments are that lead scholars not to be convinced by the previous work challenging the passage; which would require Ehrman to actually find out what those are–in other words, it would require him to do his job).

It is for these reasons that this book sucks. Ehrman has to make excuses for repeatedly saying misleading things, and for not having checked to confirm the things he claims. I am not convinced Ehrman even knows why most scholars are convinced the Tacitus passage is authentic. But I wouldn’t care about that. All he had to say was that few scholars accept the notion that the passage is inauthentic in any way. That would be a fair enough point. Instead he gave the impression that no expert would ever think that, that only mythicists came up with it. And again, do not mistake this for a one-off goof. This is typical of how Ehrman treats the mythicists; I only gave representative examples of each kind of error. And that was my review’s central point.

Of course, a thorough investigation would require more, such as actually examining the reasons for and against accepting the passage and arriving at a conclusion therefrom. Ehrman might have legitimately avoided that labor by saying what I would say (and do say), that I welcome anyone making that case in a new peer reviewed article, but until then I have to side with the broadest contemporary consensus of experts where I myself see no good reason to reject it. This would at least be honest. Instead he made it look like mythicists have no support from published scholarship and are the only ones thinking these things. And it’s that that is the problem.


Are There Dying and Rising Gods?

Ehrman argues:

It is true that Osiris “comes back” to earth to work with his son Horus … Literally, he came “from Hades.” But this is not a resurrection of his body. His body is still dead. He himself is down in Hades, and can come back up to make an appearance on earth on occasion. This is not like Jesus coming back from the dead, in his body; it is like Samuel in the story of the Witch of Endor, where King Saul brings his shade back to the world of the living temporarily (1 Samuel 28). How do we know Osiris is not raised physically? His body is still a corpse, in a tomb.

Of course the same is most likely true of Jesus (as I and several scholars have argued: see my Empty Tomb FAQ; even conservative scholar N.T. Wright has suggested the possibility), and obviously this is in fact how Jesus was originally believed to have appeared (in visions, not a walking reanimated corpse), so there is no clear difference from the Osiris case even as Ehrman describes it.

But even granting the difference, this is precisely the kind of distinction that isn’t relevant to the point: Osiris is a dead god who still “lives again” and visits and converses with the living. Like all the gods that do this, they do it in their divine resurrection bodies, which have replaced their flesh and blood corpses. This is explicitly stated in the sources for many gods, such as Hercules (see Empty Tomb, p. 137); and many Jews believed the same thing about their own resurrection (and Paul appears to say exactly that in 1 Cor. 15:35-49, declaring that the body that dies is not the body that rises; Josephus describes a similar body-exchange theory as apparently a common view of resurrection among Jews, and we have many examples of both Jews and Christians advocating it: see Empty Tomb, pp. 109-13, 136-37). This is not like the “witch of endor,” precisely because these are gods, and gods have divine bodies. That’s what makes them gods (and not just impotent spirits). The Jewish view of resurrection was essentially the same view, only extended to humans, who would all become like gods. (A view that actually came from the Zoroastrians, and thus is not uniquely Jewish: see Not the Impossible Faith, chapter 3.)

Insofar as even the first Christians, or certainly later ones, believed Jesus rose from the dead in the same body that died, that would be an element of syncretism with the Jewish belief in corpse reanimation (held by many but not all Jews), or even an adaptation of other pagan views of gods that experience the same kind of resurrection (most clearly, Zalmoxis and Inanna, and perhaps Inanna’s consort Tammuz, i.e. Adonis, since as her consort in the same myth, his celebrated resurrection is not likely to have substantially differed from hers, we just don’t have the portion of the text that describes it, only external references to it being part of the same cult’s myth). Even if the later Christian idea did not come from these pagan same-body resurrection myths, a pagan body-exchange resurrection (returning to earth after their deaths in an immortal glorious resurrection body, as Romulus does, for example) combined with a literalist Jewish resurrection still gets you the version of dying-and-rising god that we meet with, for example, in the Gospel of John. But that’s still just a variant of the same mytheme: a god who dies and is then celebrated as having risen again, in a more glorious body than they once had. That’s why Osiris is said to have returned to life and been recreated, the exact terms for resurrection, as even Ehrman admits Plutarch freely uses to describe what happened to him.

On all of this take note: Ehrman says his views are the standard in the field, but in defense of the claim he still only names one advocate (Smith). In the link above, in support of my view, I name eight. And in my chapter on resurrection bodies in The Empty Tomb I cite more, including abundant primary evidence. So you decide who to follow on this point.


Did Ehrman Fail to Mention that Some Sources Attest a Christian Belief That Jesus Died a Century Before Pilate?

Yes, he did. Ehrman doesn’t deny this. He simply claims that when he said “the view of all of our sources that deal with the matter at all” (on p. 251) he didn’t mean all of our sources that deal with the matter at all. (See a trend here?) Even if we believe Ehrman “knew” that all those sources existed and date Jesus as they do, and he just chose not to mention them (even though they are directly pertinent to the hypothesis Wells was arguing), because he was “only” referring to the sources he had previously enumerated (even though the Talmudic passages were one of those sources–see pp. 66-68–so his excuse doesn’t even hold up on his own internal logic), even granting all that (which I find hard to do), he still mislead his readers into thinking no such sources exist, and that Wells was just pulling this idea right out of nowhere. Which kind of thing happens repeatedly throughout his book. And that still makes his book an unreliable failure.

Ehrman also (again) deploys an argument in his reply that should have been in the book: that he discounts those sources on this point because they are late; which is in itself a fallacy, since late sources can preserve early tradition, and therefore you have to make an argument for why this is not occurring in this case. Indeed, that this was the belief of what appears to be (a) a pre-Pauline sect of Christianity (the Nazoreans still being Torah observant and having a name similar to what Christians were sometimes called in Paul’s time, if we are to trust Acts 24:5) and (b) the only sect of Christianity apparently known to the Babylonian Jews, argues against this being some recent novelty. Even the late existence of such a tradition is hard to explain on Ehrman’s theory of Jesus’ historicity (how could such a tradition have arisen?), and thus requires explanation, it can’t just be ignored. Ehrman would prefer to ignore it. Possibly he would even prefer you not to know of it.


Did Ehrman Tell Everyone the Romans Kept No Records That Would Have Been Relevant to Studying Jesus?

Yes. Once again, he even attempts to stand by this one, although contradicting himself…at one point saying he meant only that we shouldn’t expect such records to survive (precisely what I said he should have said in the book, but didn’t), and at another point saying that he does indeed deny “any indication that there ever were Roman records of anything” in Palestine. But his arguments here are an embarrassment of fallacies.

Ehrman now says that (at least in Egypt) such records existed and were kept (something he definitely does not tell his readers in his book), but “most of these are not in fact records of Roman officials, but made by indigenous Egyptian writers / scribes.” This is twice fallacious (even setting aside his strange assumption that “indigenous Egyptians” could not be Roman officials or in their employ): first, “most” is not “all” (so his point is moot…formally, we call this a non sequitur); second, what he doesn’t tell you is that even the private records are frequently the personal copies of government records (e.g. the tax receipts I once translated would be a private citizen’s copy of the very same receipt that would enter the government archives). Thus, the fact that we have only the copies, albeit made under official circumstances, often at the same time as the originals, is again moot to the point as to whether the government kept such records. Indeed, that private citizens sought and kept copies of state records precisely proves my point that Christians could have done this, too…had they wanted to, which requires explaining why they didn’t.

Ehrman then says he only meant that Romans kept no such records in Palestine. He doesn’t actually provide any evidence to back this claim, of course, and it’s obviously absurd, the kind of implausible armchair assertion I expect from Christian apologists. Obviously Romans kept the same records in every province that they kept in any.

There might not have been a record of Jesus’ birth at the time of his birth (that would depend on where he was really born and whether, instead, any state or local Jewish administration kept such records, e.g. Josephus implies having records of his own ancestry), but if he or his family ever paid Roman taxes, there would be records of that, and if his family was ever the subject of any Roman census at any time while Jesus was alive, there would be a record of that, and along with it a record of his birth, age, and family relations (Tertullian claimed such records existed, although he is unlikely to have really checked). And certainly, there would have been a record of Jesus’ trial, of Pilate’s ruling, of the execution, and any recorded witness affidavits. There would also be ancillary records, e.g., other trial records or official correspondence (akin to the letter of Claudius Lysias) discussing Christians and their tussles with the Jews or attempts to get them prosecuted in Roman courts, which would certainly have to mention the historical Jesus and information about him.

All we can say is what I myself said, that (as Ehrman correctly phrases it now, but not in his book) we have no reason to expect such records to survive. Although that requires admitting that no early Christians ever had any interest in preserving or using them.

In short, everything I said originally remains the case. Ehrman has no actual rebuttal.


Did Ehrman Libel Doherty?

Yes. Ehrman tries to completely reinterpret what he said on this point, but in this case the direct quotation of Ehrman I provided in my review conclusively rules out his entire attempt to claim to have said something else, so no further reply is needed from me. Just compare my quotation of Ehrman, with what Ehrman now wants you to think that meant, and no reasonable person will conclude with Ehrman on this one: Ehrman wrote “he fails to point out that not a single one of these scholars agrees with his overarching thesis” and now claims that that sentence meant “I am not denying that Doherty sometimes acknowledges that scholars disagree with him.” You do the math on that.

Ehrman’s comment about Doherty’s use of Morna Hooker in particular has already been rebutted by Godfrey  and Doherty, and I would add that reading what Doherty actually wrote in context, it’s obvious he in no way implied Hooker said Jesus became flesh in outer space; he quotes her on a different point altogether (that Jesus became what we are so that we may share in what he now is; a statement, by the way, I doubt Ehrman has any disagreement with). But even despite that, picking isolated quotations like this is moot anyway, because Ehrman stated a blanket generalization that Doherty never says something that in fact he frequently says–even explicitly about the whole issue of whether any scholar he cites agrees with his overall thesis (his introduction is quite clear about this, and covers all cases). Ehrman simply lies about this–or, again, is such a godawful writer he accidentally said the exact opposite of what he meant to say, and thus completely misrepresents Doherty and misinforms the reader.


Did Ehrman Screw Up His Citation of Pliny?

Here Ehrman agrees with everything I said and insists it was just a typo and he knew everything I said already (that he was referring to two completely separate letters, and he should in each case have said “a” letter in “book” 10 that contains all of Pliny’s Trajan correspondence and not have called both letters “letter” 10, and that neither letter connects the two contexts, only modern scholars do). But he still failed to say any of this to his readers (thus even his excuse does not rescue the book from the charge of misinforming the public and therefore being unreliable).

More importantly, I do not believe he’s telling the truth here. Because the wording in the book does not look even remotely like he knew that two different letters were being discussed, or that their connection was a scholarly inference and not something directly revealed in the context of “the letter” he twice references. I’ll just quote the relevant section in full [skipping only incidental material] and leave this one for you to decide (emphasis added):

…Pliny is best known for a series of letters that he wrote later in life to the Roman emperor, Trajan, seeking advice for governing his province. In particular, letter number 10 from the year 112 CE is important, as it is the one place in which Pliny appears to mention the existence of Jesus. The letter is not about Jesus himself; it is dealing with a political problem. In Pliny’s province a law had been passed making it illegal for people to gather together in social groups… The law applied to every social group, including fire brigades….and so villages were burning.

In his letter 10 to the emperor Pliny discusses the fire problem, and in that context he mentions another group that was illegally gathering together. As it turns out, it was the local community of Christians.

So you tell me. Is Ehrman now lying about what he actually thought when writing the above?



In the end Ehrman ducks behind the “it was just a pop book, you shouldn’t expect it to be all accurate and the like” defense. This requires no reply. The reader can judge for themselves whether that excuse only makes the whole matter worse. (Can you imagine him accepting that excuse from any of the mythicists he attacks?) He also tries to play the victim card and claim I violated my own principle of interpretive charity. But in fact I did not. I gave him the benefit of a doubt everywhere an innocent explanation was conceivable, exactly as my principle requires (for example, I assumed that when he wrote “Justin of Tiberius” for Justus of Tiberias on p. 50 that that was a mere typo). But my principle also states (exactly as he himself quotes it) that when no such interpretation is plausible, we ought to point that out, so the author can correct their error. Which is exactly what I did.

Thus, his attempt to twist a rule of interpretive charity into a monstrous absurdity doesn’t cut it, and only exposes how poor a grasp he has of logical reasoning. Authors don’t get to say the exact opposite of what they meant and then claim it is our responsibility to telepathically know that that is what happened. Authors don’t get to say things that clearly indicate they badly mishandled their sources, and then claim we are always to assume they never do that. Authors don’t get to say things that clearly indicate they didn’t check their facts, and then claim we are always to assume they nevertheless did. Indeed, as his own quote of me says, if you cannot reconcile a contradiction or error in my work, you should call me on it so I can correct myself. Well, I called him on it.

Ehrman’s Dubious Replies (Round One)

Bart Ehrman has finally composed an extensive response to my critical review of his book. But before that came out, he composed two briefer responses, one to my review of his Huffington Post article and another to my subsequent review of his book. He also briefly punted to another blogger, R.J. Hoffman. In this post I’ll address those latter items. Next I’ll reply to the longer piece (I’ve nearly finished my reply to that, but as I’m now at the  Madison Freethought Festival with tons of amazing speakers and excellent liquor, I won’t be able to proof that and post until Sunday evening).

The strangest thing about those latter items is not the alarming-enough fact that they ignore nearly every substantive point in what they are responding to, and focus each on only a single issue, and that one of the least importance (the Hoffmann piece likewise doesn’t address anything I actually said). That is strange. But stranger still is that they do not look entirely honest to me. But I’ll just present the evidence and you can decide.


The Deflection Tactic

Ehrman does appear to want to hide the substantive errors and mistakes and fallacies I document, and one strategy he uses to do that is to deflect it all by reframing the debate as being about personal attacks and my being mean to him (when he was so nice to me). This of course has nothing to do with what really matters and just serves the purpose of trying to convince people that all my substantive points about his scholarship are really just personal attacks and since personal attacks are fallacious (being the fallacy of ad hominem), all my points can be dismissed as fallacious. Which may be the first time I’ve ever seen an actual ad hominem fallacy used to rebut a non-existent ad hominem fallacy. He attacks me personally, by claiming I attacked him personally, which I didn’t, and has the gall to then say (correctly) that personal attacks can be ignored as fallacious. Yeah.  Think about that for a minute.

As Dan Finke (Camels with Hammers) observes in “Ehrman Evades Carrier’s Criticisms,” “Ehrman is misrepresenting Carrier’s criticisms as merely personal in nature,” when in fact they were all professional in nature. I pointed out failures of wording, failures of fact, and failures of logic, and showed why these all entail his book cannot be trusted, that his research and writing of it was sloppy and careless, that it fails at its every professed aim, and that he (professionally) doesn’t know what he’s doing here–ironically, considering how much hay he tries to make over the point that the rest of us can’t know what we’re doing because we have the wrong degrees (see the very next point on the Thompson Affair: making hay of this is practically the whole point of that post).


The Thompson Affair

In “Richard Carrier on The Huffington Post Article (1)” (I can no longer find an active link) Ehrman accuses me of being outraged by his daring to defend historicity, which is silly (it’s not like I was surprised he was going to, or that I haven’t read such defenses before from scholars no less prestigious; to the contrary I was, as I said, happily anticipating a really good defense of historicity). This I suppose cures his cognitive dissonance by allowing him to pretend I wasn’t outraged by what I actually said I was outraged by, which was his factual errors and gross misstatements, and how these ensure his article can only seriously misinform the public, the one thing a scholar should aim never to do and should care most about correcting. That he won’t even own up to his errors says more than my article did about our ability to trust him on this issue.

But the main thrust of his piece is an extended chastisement for suggesting Thompson was a New Testament scholar. Let me quote to you Ehrman’s exact words (and those of you who read my article might already notice something odd about this; emphasis added):

Me: “there is not a single mythicist who teaches New Testament or Early Christianity or even Classics at any accredited institution of higher learning in the Western world.” Carrier: Ehrman’s claim “is false: mythicist Thomas Thompson meets every one of Ehrman’s criteria.”
 So on a very simple level, one might just ask: is it true that Thomas Thompson teaches NT or Early Christianity at an accredited institution? Well, no, he does not. He is an expert on the Hebrew Bible. His books are on the Pentateuch, the history of Israel in the Bronze Age, the alleged lives of the Jewish patriarchs. Now, I suppose someone from outside the field of NT or Early Christian studies might mistake someone with those kinds of expertise as being qualified to address, authoritatively, something having to do with early Christianity. But no one actually in the field would make that kind of mistake. Carrier too, of course, is not trained in these fields and is an outsider to them, so possibly that is why he doesn’t understand the difference.

Okay. Get his point? Now, read the sentence he quotes from me…the full sentence, including the half he mysteriously left out (I have marked it in bold; I provide the rest to show the context, which was more than just this sentence):

[M]ythicist Thomas Thompson meets every one of Ehrman’s criteria–excepting only one thing, he is an expert in Judaism rather than Christianity specifically. And I know Ehrman knows of him. So did he just “forget” when he says he knows of no one who meets his criteria? Or is he being hyper-hyper specific and not allowing even professors of Jewish studies to have a respectable opinion in this matter?

So Ehrman writes an entire article attacking me for not knowing a difference that in fact I explicitly stated in my article and thus clearly fully understood; and Ehrman predicates this attack on a quotation of me that conveniently omits the very material that proves his point moot, or at least misdirected.

Perhaps he has deliberately misquoted me, to make me appear to not know something that in fact I actually stated. My alternative hypothesis is that he misspoke and (yet again) really meant to say that I did indeed recognize and concede this diffence and had instead asked Ehrman for why we should dismiss everything Thompson says on such an account, to which this article is Ehrman’s answer to that question. But then he repeats his misrepresentation of my credentials, suggesting I don’t know the period in question, or the languages, or the documents or the literature on early Christianity. Which is all false. I am adequately trained in all of these. And it is disingenuous of Ehrman to assume Thompson is not, simply because he has a different specialty than Ehrman.

Indeed, contrary to Ehrman’s claim, every historian in my field that I know publishes on all manner of diverse subjects. The idea that (to use Ehrman’s own example) hyper-specializing in “Herodotus” disqualifies you from being competent to research and publish on other authors or subjects is ridiculous, and easily refuted by perusing the teaching subjects and cv’s of prominent historians like W.V. Harris, Erich Gruen, Alan Cameron, or, to pick actual specialists in Herodotean studies, Donald Lateiner or James Romm. Romm, for example, is a specialist in Herodotus and Arrian (among much else), authors 600 years apart, one Greek, one Roman. According to Ehrman, we should ignore Romm’s work on Arrian as being out of his field. Which would be news to Arrian specialists, who all value Romm’s work. When my dissertation advisor, William Harris, wanted to publish a book on Roman anger, he did not say to himself “I have never published on that before, or taught it before, and did not specialize in it when I got my degrees, therefore I am not competent to research and publish on this subject so I should just shut up then.” No, he applied his skills, degrees, and background knowledge to the task of thoroughly researching the subject and publishing a major authoritative work on it. That’s what ancient historians do.

What is alarming is that Ehrman doesn’t know that. For him to claim I don’t “know” that it’s the other way around is just appallingly rich: he is simply proving my point for me, that he really doesn’t know what he’s talking about, and prefers instead to disparage almost all modern scholarship in my field because it is produced by people who don’t specifically teach those subjects and have not gotten hyper-specific degrees in them. His depiction and denunciation of nearly the whole of historical academia is simply absurd. All in his desperate attempt to justify the fact that he misleads his readers and misrepresents his opponents, all in defense of a dogma that he is certain cannot possibly be false, therefore he doesn’t need to take us seriously (despite pretending to). If Romm can do good work in both Herodotus and Arrian, Thompson can (in principle) do good work in both OT and NT studies (the study of the OT does, after all, involve knowledge of second temple Judaism, the very context in which Christianity arose).

Never mind, of course, that all this looks like one big evasion: choosing to respond to my rebuttal to his HuffPo article by addressing this and only this point, which wasn’t even a major point I raised but merely a single aside in my remarks about Ehrman’s chilling remarks against academic freedom (the issue of that section, how his remarks can threaten academic freedom, he completely ignores). What is most galling about this is that my article demonstrates that it is Ehrman who hasn’t done the work necessary to be qualified to discuss this question competently, and unlike Ehrman I did not base this conclusion on what degree he has (I think his degrees should be fully sufficient to make him competent to research and write authoritatively on this), but on the actual evidence of his incompetence. In other words, he has the qualifications, he just didn’t use them. His book is carelessly and irresponsibly and illogically written. But instead of addressing my evidence and arguments proving that, Ehrman keeps harping on the matter of what degrees people have, making distinctions that do not carry his point, and now making claims about the publishing practices of historians that aren’t even true.

Whether he is honest and well meaning or not, he’s just digging his grave deeper with this kind of reply. It is making him really look like he doesn’t know what he is talking about, can’t reason logically, avoids every substantive issue possible, and isn’t keen to accurately represent what his opponents have said. At least he redeemed himself by publishing a subsequent fuller reply to my review of his book; but still nothing in reply to my critique of his article,* which far more people will read, and thus whose mistakes and misstatements will do far more damage to public understanding of the facts and issues.


The Priapus Affair

In his second reply he addressed one single point in my review. And here I believe there is reason to suspect he is lying about the Priapus statue. In my review of his book I called him out for saying (certainly very clearly implying) that Murdock “made up” the statue at the Vatican that she presents a drawing of and says is a symbol of Peter. He clearly did not call the Vatican about it or research the claim at all. Because if he had, he would have said what any responsible scholar would have said, which is that yes, the statue she depicts is real and the drawing she provides is reasonably accurate, but her argument that it symbolizes Peter is not credible. It’s just a pagan statue of the god Priapus.

Now in his reply on this point, in “Acharya S, Richard Carrier, and a Cocky Peter (Or: “A Cock and Bull Story”),” he claims I misread him, that he never denied the statue existed nor implied that Murdock made it up. Now let’s look at what he actually wrote in the book. You be the judge:

[Acharya says] “‘Peter’ is not only ‘the rock’ but also ‘the cock’, or penis, as the word is used as slang to this day.” Here Acharya shows (her own?) hand drawing of a man with a rooster head but with a large erect penis instead of a nose, with this description: “bronze sculpture hidden in the Vatican treasure of the Cock, symbol of St. Peter” (295). There is no penis-nosed statue of Peter the cock in the Vatican or anywhere else except in books like this, which love to make things up.

That’s the sum total of what he says about this. It is quite evident to me that when he wrote this, he doubted the drawing came from any source, and believed (and here implies to the reader) that she just made it up. There is no such statue. That is what he is saying. But you can judge that for yourself. Certainly, the one thing this paragraph doesn’t say is that the statue she references does exist, is (or at one time was) at the Vatican, and looks essentially just as her drawing depicts it. It also does not say that she is merely wrong to interpret this statue as being of Peter. To the contrary, all it says is that there is no such statue, she made this up. Which is false. And betrays his failure to even check.

But he now claims he did check. Sort of–he says he saw her citations and assumed there were priapic statues; he did not actually say he checked her sources, or contacted the Vatican. Some commentators on his site have also tried claiming the statue was never at the Vatican, but their misinformation and mishandling of the sources is thoroughly exposed in an extensive comment by an observer at Murdock’s site. The object may have been moved (as I implied was possible in my original review), but Ehrman said it didn’t exist anywhere, so its location is moot. And I should add, this is precisely the kind of source analysis that Ehrman should already have worked through and be able to discuss informedly, yet in comments there he said the original commentator’s findings were “very interesting” and “very hard to get around” (and he likewise mistakenly affirms they are correct in his subsequent post), indicating he didn’t in fact do any of this research and isn’t familiar with the source materials on the statue.

Of course he now claims that he never said the statue didn’t exist. He only said a statue of Peter didn’t exist. That’s right. He parses his words hyper-literally to argue that he said the exact opposite of what he said. You see, when he said the statue didn’t exist, that it was made up, he meant a statue of Peter, and since the statue that Murdock references and presents a drawing of isn’t a statue “of Peter,” the statue doesn’t exist. Get it? This is an amusing case of faux metaphysical deepness being used as an excuse to read a sentence as saying a statue simultaneously does and doesn’t exist, depending on what one calls it. Even if that is really what he was doing when he wrote the book, this is just a variant of a masked-man fallacy (“The statue exists. She says it is a statue of Peter. No statues of Peter exist. Therefore the statue doesn’t exist.”).

It’s bad enough that, even if this is true and he really meant to say the opposite of what he appears to say, he obviously wrote it so badly he not only sucks as a writer but can’t even tell that he sucks as a writer (indeed only after repeated goading in comments did he confess that “maybe I should have phrased it differently”). But trying to use the “I suck as a writer” defense against the much worse crime of careless scholarship requires him to claim the masked man fallacy isn’t a fallacy but a perfectly reasonable way to argue. Which only convicts him (yet again) of not understanding how logic works.

Before I get to the punchline, I really must emphasize this point: even granting his excuse, the fact that the wording is completely misleading and will misinform the public still confirms my point in citing this example, that we can’t trust his book. If he so badly miswrote here that he meant the opposite of what he said, then how many other sentences in this book are as badly written and mean the opposite of what they say? Indeed, that he had to be repeatedly goaded before even admitting that this sentence does that, means he is not even capable of detecting when a sentence he has written says the opposite of what he meant. That entails we should trust his book even less. Because whatever filter is supposed to prevent him making these kind of mistakes is clearly not working in his brain.

As Kim Rottman says, an observer of this whole affair:

The issue is what the average reader of Ehrman’s book is going to think he means. Ehrman’s statement may be strictly true but I sincerely doubt that a lay person reading that sentence is going to take it to mean something like “there is such a statue but it’s not a statue of Peter.” They’re going to think he means there is no such statue. Period. They’re probably also never going to see Ehrman’s rebuttal of Carrier’s review and thus never know he corrected himself. … Then he acts like this is representative of all the examples Carrier gave; as if the rest can also be explained away as poor wording and that none of them were anything that’s relevant to his overall argument. This response wasn’t successful at all. If anything, he’s dug himself in deeper.

Indeed. Ehrman is basically saying “I was never wrong. I’m just such a phenomenally lousy writer that things I wrote appear to say what they don’t, and everyone who reads this book will often be misled in result.” Others have noted the problem entailed by his repeatedly careless and irresponsible wording of things, which can completely mislead lay readers of his book. Ophelia Benson (Butterflies & Wheels), for example, found many problems with the way Ehrman’s choice of words misleads, as well as his questionable logic (see: What Ehrman Actually Says, The Unseen, A Small Town Guy).

But I fear it may be worse than that. Because I don’t actually believe him when he says he didn’t mean to say the statue didn’t exist. I suspect that is a post-hoc rationalization that he cooked up in an attempt to save face, after his careless and irresponsible scholarship on this matter was exposed. I suspect this not only because his excuse is implausible on its face (read his original paragraph again, and ask yourself how likely it is that someone who wanted to say “the statue she depicts does exist, but it’s not a statue of Peter” would say instead what he did), and not only because he still doesn’t claim to have researched her sources or contacted the Vatican (in other words, to do what he should have done), but also because, as several people have since pointed out to me, he said in a podcast (before my review and before Murdock herself exposed him on this) that the statue did not in any sense exist.

That’s right. On Homebrewed Christianity, April 3 (2012), “Bart Ehrman on Jesus’ Existence, Apocalypticism & Holy Week,” timestamp 20:30-21:10: at this point in that podcast, Ehrman says Acharya talks about Peter the cock and shows a drawing of a statue with a penis for a nose and claims this is in the Vatican museum, at which Ehrman declares, with laughter, “It’s just made up! There is no such s[tatue]… It’s just completely made up” (emphasis mine). In context it is certainly clear he is saying there is no such statue of any kind, that her drawing is not of any actual object. (Note that I put the word “statue” in partial brackets because he speaks so quickly he didn’t complete the word but started saying what is obviously the word “statue”; he doesn’t pause to correct himself, though, he just quickly segues to the next phrase in animated conversation.)

Now, I must leave it to you to decide what’s going on here. From both his own wording in the book and this podcast, it certainly seems that Ehrman had no idea the statue actually existed, until Murdock and I hammered him on it. Notably, I had emailed him about this weeks before my review, asking what his response to Murdock was, because I was concerned it didn’t look good. I had not yet read his book, so I didn’t know the whole thing would be a travesty of these kinds of errors. Ehrman never answered me (even though he has in the past). Only after my review did he come out with the explanation that he meant to say the statue existed but wasn’t connected to Peter. And on that point I suspect he is lying.

I can give more leeway to a podcast interview, where we often forget to say things or say things incorrectly, and we don’t get to re-read and revise to improve accuracy and clarity (though this excuse doesn’t hold for a book). But here this does not look like an accidental omission or a slip of the tongue. He really does appear to think (at the time of that podcast) that the statue was completely made up, and that certainly appears to be what he says. Did he really also “mean to say” in that podcast that the statue wasn’t “completely” made up, that in fact it existed, but that Murdock was only wrong about what it symbolized? In other words, did he once again say, as if by accident, exactly the opposite of what he meant? You tell me.

[P.S. After publishing this post, it occurred to me to mention as well, that in fact he gives no argument at all in his book for why Murdock is wrong to conclude this is a statue of Peter. His only argument is that the statue doesn’t exist. Which only makes sense as a rebuttal if indeed he meant the statue wholly did not exist. Otherwise, why is she wrong to conclude it symbolizes Peter? Ehrman doesn’t say. This seems to me strong evidence that he is now lying about what he really thought and meant when writing the book. Because surely he would give a reason why she is wrong. So what reason did he give?]


The Hoffmann Madness

While still composing his fuller reply to me, Ehrman punted to R.J. Hoffmann. Ehrman evidently doesn’t know that in my opinion Hoffmann has gone insane. I’ve documented the evidence of this before. Hoffmann has a history of lying about me, for example once claiming I am in the financial employ of his enemies and was paid to attack him (arguably an outright libel). Hoffmann also has a history of reversing his opinions without explanation. He praised and loved my work before, but now says the very same work sucks. With no acknowledgment of having changed his mind or why.

Quoting myself from my previous blog on the Hoffmann matter:

It’s strangely amusing (and exactly how he started behaving once I started criticizing him–he never acted this way toward me before) that he now slags off my chapter as vacuous and irrelevant when in fact he invited me to deliver that very talk at the conference, read it in advance of the talk, and it received a standing ovation at the conference, with nary an objection from him. Quite the contrary: his response was to say “I think personally you should be the conscience or historiographer in chief!” (email of 10 Dec. 2008) and “It would be to my liking if you would take the lead-role in the historiography area…in my opinion we need someone with fresh ideas who can keep them honest about the kind of history they (often) are doing” (email of 18 Dec. 2008). (The conference was held the weekend of December 5.) He never said a negative word until now.

Hoffmann also once insisted Jesus didn’t exist. In a podcast of 2007, talking to D.J. Groethe about the Jesus Project (on Point of Inquiry), Hoffmann said “I happen to believe that Jesus of Nazareth did not exist–I happen to believe that” (timestamp 22:44; see also his remarks at timestamp 14:13-16:15). Now he insists such a notion is absurd and no respectable scholar could believe it (which evidently means he wasn’t a respectable scholar five years ago). He also in that podcast defended the dying and rising god mytheme: “gods and sons of gods populating the world, dying, rising, saving the world, which we’ve known about now for the better part of 200 years…it’s not new” but is established scholarship (timestamp 4:20).

In the post Ehrman punts to, Hoffmann tells another lie about me, a really weird one in fact: “He [i.e. me] is about to re-publish (he had vanity published it already) his ‘research’ on this subject with Prometheus Books.” I can’t fathom what book he means, as there are only two he could mean: one (On the Historicity of Jesus Christ) that hasn’t even been completed and won’t be published until next year (I have never published a book arguing Jesus didn’t exist; that will be my first one), which does not consist of material I have published before but is almost entirely new research; and Proving History, which was scheduled for late April release but dropped early and is available now.

If he means the first of these, he would be lying about its contents, since he has no way of knowing what those contents are, or that they duplicate anything I’ve published before (and since I haven’t published on the historicity of Jesus before, that would be impossible). If he means the second of these, then he is really shooting himself in the face here. Do you know what the “vanity press” was that previously published my work before I published it with Prometheus? Prometheus. That’s right. And you know what book that was? Sources of the Jesus Tradition. Do you know who edited that book, and selected the chapters to include in it? R.J. Hoffmann.

Yep. That’s right. Do the math on that. That chapter was also, incidentally, a paper I delivered at an academic conference organized by R.J. Hoffmann and to which I was invited by R.J. Hoffmann.

It’s shit like this that convinces me Hoffmann is off his rocker. Ehrman might want to steer clear of him in future.


Rhetoric as a Means to Avoid Argument

In his article on the Priapus case, Ehrman says things like this:

One of the things Carrier laments is that I don’t deal with the various mythicists all at length – even (this is a special point he presses) those who cannot be taken seriously (he names Freke and Gandy). My view is that there is no reason to take seriously people who cannot be taken seriously: a few indications of general incompetence is good enough.

First, note that about his scant treatment of bad mythicists I actually said “That alone I could live with (although I would have rather he not addressed them at all if he wasn’t going to address them competently).” Notice how the paragraph above assumes I didn’t say this, and fails to address what I actually said (that if he was going to just dismiss them so briefly, he should have done so competently or not at all).

But then notice how he asserts a principle in his own defense (“a few indications of general incompetence is good enough” reason to dismiss an entire book as unworthy of further attention) which is precisely the principle I applied to his book (I found more than a few indications of general incompetence). Which leads me to wonder: does he regard his treatment of them as an inappropriate personal attack that they didn’t deserve? Or as simply a demonstration that the books he examined are incompetently researched and incompetently written, a perfectly valid thing to point out and say, and exactly what I did (but that he in his response attacks me for doing).

But even more alarming than his misrepresenting what I said, avoiding answering what I did say, and applying a double standard in his own defense, is the rhetorical trick he just pulled here. Did you notice it? Let me walk you through it. He says “One of the things Carrier laments is that I don’t deal with the various mythicists all at length,” and then adds an aside that I “even” say so regarding the bad mythicists (although, as we just saw, that is not exactly what I took him to task for). Then he gives a defense for not addressing the bad mythicists (beyond cursorily). And then…he moves on. Wait a minute. Where is his defense for failing to properly address the good mythicists?

Here is what I said, regarding the good mythicists:

He treats our arguments only selectively, never comprehensively, and I never once saw him actually engage directly with any single mythicist case for their theory of Christian origins–as in, describing the theory correctly, listing the evidence its proponent offers for each element, and then evaluating that evidence and the logical connection between it and their conclusion. You won’t find this done once, anywhere in this book, for any author.

On his failure to do that, Ehrman has nothing to say. But the one failure of this book I said I could live with, that he defends. Really.

Is this where historicity is going? Is this how we are to be treated? And Ehrman has the gall to say we are the ones behaving inappropriately?


Closing Nonsense

Ehrman ends his defense of the Priapus debacle with some rather astonishing remarks. First, he says:

Let me say, in addition, that this comment of mine was made very much in passing.  No major point was being made, other than that Acharya S was not a scholar who could be trusted (in part because she is not a scholar) in the context of eleven rather egregious mistakes that I picked out, more or less at random, in her book. Carrier does not object to any of the other ten. Which means that he appears to be on board with all eleven. That means that his cavil has no effect on my overall argument at this point.

First of all, dismissing this as a remark in passing that didn’t make a major point is extremely disingenuous. It is not a passing remark but an integral piece of evidence he produces to argue a conclusion so significant it justifies him dismissing the rest of Acharya’s work. That is not only a major point, it’s the major point of his entire treatment of her. Secondly, I explicitly said I was only producing examples, not comprehensively vetting every statement he made, so for him to conclude I agree with everything else he said about Acharya is obviously fallacious reasoning, and again demonstrates he doesn’t know how logic works.

I actually found two other misleading statements among his list of evidence of Acharya’s incompetence. I do agree with his conclusion (I do not think her work can be trusted on this subject, as I also conclude now of Ehrman’s work on this same subject), but I am already well known for saying that, and that wasn’t the issue I was raising in my review. Rather, my point was that, if he was going to treat the bad mythicists at all, we needed a book that did a competent job demonstrating the unreliability of work like this. And he did not give us one.

Since he brings it up, let me list the other problems I found here (written in the margins of my copy of his book, p. 24):

(1) Ehrman’s statement that there weren’t “many councils” to decide the NT canon is, read literally, false. There were in fact several councils ruling on the canon, and indeed the canon was never truly settled until the 16th century. Someone who tutored under Metzger, who extensively documented these facts, should know that. I can only assume he meant to say that the canon proposed by Athanasius in 367 (in a letter, not a council ruling) was repeatedly affirmed by every subsequent council convened to decide on the canon (although the fact that they had to keep meeting to do that means there were repeated attempts to change it). Acharya’s own characterization of the matter might also be accused of being misleading. But Ehrman’s wording is going to seriously mislead and misinform the public even more, not only as to the actual history of the canon, but also as to Acharya’s knowledge of the facts.

(2) Ehrman correctly says the Acts of Pilate was never canonized, but this conceals from the reader the fact (which could be what Acharya’s argument was actually premising) that it was by many regarded as authoritative. Tertullian, for instance, cites it as authoritatively establishing facts about Jesus, which is late second century, and thus relevant to the matter of how well Christians could be trusted at the time to really tell the difference between reliable and unreliable source materials when aggregating their canon. Thus here Ehrman doesn’t say anything that’s literally false, but his statement does mislead the reader on the most relevant point Acharya may have actually been making.

Note also that these are just details I detected right away. His other remarks against her are true as stated, but I did not actually check in each case whether he accurately represented what she said. From my experience here and with the whole book, I cannot implicitly trust that he has. Which only further illustrates the overall point of my review.

Ehrman concludes with this:

Carrier appears to want to show that he is very much a better historian than I am. This is a repeated theme throughout his scathing critique. I, frankly, did not realize that this was supposed to be a contest between the two of us, and am not interested in the question of who wins. My interest in the book is to discuss whether Jesus existed. I give mounds of evidence to show why he did, and to show why mythicists’ views are almost certainly wrong. The majority of Carrier’s ”errors in fact” are this kind of cavil, in which he sees trees (often incorrectly) while missing the forest.

Notice the rhetorical trick here: “the majority” of my points are a list of errors, therefore I missed the point of all the evidence he presented. Go read my review. You will notice I made a particular point of addressing the latter by demonstrating the doomed fallacies in his methodology. So in fact I did not miss the forest. I deal with the trees in part one, the forrest in part two, all in the same post. He says nothing about that. You decide who then to trust on this issue.

It is also amusing that he uses the quantity of my examples of his mistakes as an argument to dismiss them as taking up too much of my article, when in fact I am sure he would have accused me of having too few examples if I’d given fewer. In other words, I made a general point about the unreliability of the book and gave a large enough number of examples to make sure the point was solidly proved. And he then charges this as a failing in my review. Once again demonstrating that he doesn’t know how logic works.

He also returns to the ad hominem deflection here, by alleging I am making this into a pointless contest over who is the better scholar. Yet he is the one who made it about that. As we saw in his article about the Thompson affair (and as I showed regarding his HuffPo piece), he attacked my credentials and argued that he is qualified to discuss this issue and I am not (likewise Thompson and others). For him to now say he is not interested in this comparison is massively disingenuous. It’s his comparison, which he has pressed several times, and it was that that forced me to respond by pointing out that the facts seem to point to the reverse. For him to claim I am the one who brought this comparison up is simply absurd. All I did was take his own argument and defend it properly: instead of making fallacious and irrelevant points about the hyper-specifics of what degrees we have (as he did), I tested the comparison he himself started by actually looking at the quality of our work on this subject. A comparison in which he came out very badly.

I do not see this as a competition between us as to who is the better scholar, but as simply a matter of who to trust: someone who presents carefully researched, carefully worded, carefully reasoned work on this subject, with a minimum of mistakes (because as I’ve said, I make them, too), or someone who doesn’t.

[For my reply to his “fuller response” see Round Two.]

* After I wrote this, he responded in April of 2014 to one trivial item, and that disastrously.

Ehrman on Jesus: A Failure of Facts and Logic

Having completed and fully annotated Ehrman’s new book Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth (Harper 2012), I can officially say it is filled with factual errors, logical fallacies, and badly worded arguments. Moreover, it completely fails at its one explicit task: to effectively critique the arguments for Jesus being a mythical person. Lousy with errors and failing even at the one useful thing it could have done, this is not a book I can recommend.


Overall Impressions

I was certain this would be a great book, the very best in its category. And I said this, publicly, many times in anticipation of it. It’s actually the worst. It’s almost as bad, in fact, as The Jesus Mysteries by Freke & Gandy (and I did not hyperlink that title because I absolutely do not want you to buy it: it will disease your mind with rampant unsourced falsehoods and completely miseducate you about the ancient world and ancient religion). I was eagerly hoping for a book I could recommend as the best case for historicity (but alas, that title stays with the inadequate but nevertheless competent, if not always correct, treatment in Van Voorst’s Jesus Outside the New Testament and Theissen & Merz’s The Historical Jesus). I was also expecting it to be a good go-to rebuttal to the plethora of bad mythicism out there, so I could just refer people to this book every time they ask me why (for example) Freke & Gandy suck.

But I cannot recommend books that are so full of errors that they will badly mislead and miseducate the reader, and that commit so many mistakes that I have to substantially and extensively correct them. Did Jesus Exist? ultimately misinforms more than it informs, and that actually makes it worse than bad. Like the worst of mythicist literature, you will come away after reading it with more false information in your head than true, and that makes my job as a historian harder, because now I have to fix everything he screwed up. This is why I don’t recommend anyone ever read bad mythicist literature, because it will only fill your head with nonsense that I will have to work harder to correct. Ehrman’s book ironically does much the same thing. Therefore, it officially sucks.

[Read more…]

Busy Bee

Starting this weekend I begin a crazy schedule in which I have appearances or travel-related events every weekend until June and in some cases I am away from home for a week or more at a time (a couple of these events I haven’t even blogged yet, but will in the coming month), and in nearly every case I travel the Friday and Monday framing each weekend. In addition to this I have a number of other obligations to meet, personal and work related. The result of which is that I will be uncommonly scarce on my blog for a month and a half, posting maybe as little as once a week, and I will often have to take more than a day or two to approve comments (I commonly take weekends off already, but because of travel and all the work I have to do I will be short on time even during the work week). And email I will hardly be able to look at at all (for urgent matters, contact me by texting only). I will be back to normal in June. But in the meantime, I want you to know what’s up. This is particularly important because tomorrow I will be posting my review of Bart Ehrman’s new book Did Jesus Exist?, but then immediately I’ll be in transit with back-to-back engagements until Saturday afternoon, so comments on tomorrow’s post won’t even get my eye until then. So please be patient. And stick around for what’s to come!

Sexy Sex Sex!! (for Cash on the Barrel!)

A debate is flourishing on FtB over the morality of pornography and prostitution, and it illustrates some principles of political and moral philosophy that I think are important to disseminate more widely than just among the privileged West, and illustrates how easily the strange realities of the Western democratic world aren’t readily understood or even imagined by those who come from outside of it. It also touches on the philosophy of aesthetics, the metaphysics of human sexuality, and political epistemology. In other words, it spans anyone’s entire worldview, all five Aristotelian categories: semantics/epistemology, physics/metaphysics, ethics, aesthetics, and politics. Which those who have read my Sense and Goodness without God will recognize completes the description of any worldview (and I use them there to describe what I believe to be the most credible and coherent atheist worldview).

The Backstory

International freethought heroine Taslima Nasrin has recently joined us at Freethought Blogs, an important voice for the half of the world most of us never know, or know as much about, a hard-core frontliner in our movement who has faced serious oppression and danger (I suspect she’s the only one of us who has had actual mass death marches calling for her murder; plus numerous actual fatwas, which in the West we would call having a contract put out on you). Imagine being an exile from your own country because thousands of people there want to kill you–for no other crime than simply saying women should be treated nice. Her command of English is not perfect, but she writes passionately, and has interesting experience and perspective. (And though American readers might find her self-comparison with Salman Rushdie a bit boastful and self-aggrandizing, it’s hard to find fault with her facts in the matter; except in matters of opinion, perhaps, e.g. I’m unaware of the evidence that “women have complained that Rushdie doesn’t consider them anything more than sex objects” [my emphasis], especially since I don’t exactly trust gossip or tabloid reporting about his relationships, but he does seem to be a bit of an unreliable hound in that department.)

Taslima has blogged avidly since she started this month (at No Country for Women), and among her posts was Sex Slavery Must Be Abolished, in which she railed not just against actual sex slavery, but all forms of sex work (and then responded to critics of it in Do Women Really ‘Choose’ to Be Prostitutes). For example, she repeats the Old School Feminist adage that all “prostitution is sexual exploitation” (which must mean “engineering is intellectual exploitation” and “janitorial work is domestic exploitation” and…well, you can already see this kind of thinking just doesn’t make much sense) and that all hookers are “forced to enter prostitution” by the need to make money (which must mean my wife was forced into accounting by the need to make money, therefore she is a business slave, and therefore accounting is “not an acceptable job for women,” and we should outlaw accountancy). All this kind of logic is fallacious because it enshrines sex as somehow sacred and different from other human behaviors, which is a distinctively religious thing to do. Which makes it peculiar for an atheist to be caught back up in that superstitious thinking as if it’s somehow correct (and not just correct, but beyond dispute).

Greta Christina (another fellow feminist and Freethought Blogger, and avid advocate for sex workers and a sex positive worldview) took justifiable umbrage and wrote Prostitution Is Not Slavery, which hits every point I just did and more, and backing her up is Natalie Reed’s But Seriously, Prostitution Is Not Sex Slavery, and both of those posts together are awesome reads. You can also see a roundup and observation of this exchange by Chris Hallquist. Crommunist also weighed in with Swedish Sex Models!!! (the title, like mine, is a joke, even though his topic actually is Swedish sex models…as sex workers), in which he links to several other informative blog posts on the subject of legalizing sex work. And though not directly responding to that exchange, another fellow feminist Freethought Blogger, Stephanie Zvan, posted Talbot’s Awkward Commentary, which is relevant not least because it references that peculiarly Western event called the Sexual Revolution, which changed our society’s attitudes toward sex and sexuality, in such a fundamental and pervasive way that it seems Taslima Nasrin has not yet acclimatized to it, having been born and raised in a world that was never transformed by it.

Morality and Legality of Prostitution

I needn’t rehash the whole debate over why legalizing prostitution is the correct thing to do, or why there is nothing intrinsically immoral about it. In fact it is morally and politically imperative, in all the same ways we legalize the food service industry, which has all the same concerns of disease vectoring and labor exploitation and abuse (including the problem of actual human traficking and slavery). We have no trouble distinguishing illegal and immoral from legal and moral labor agreements and practices in the food service industry, so we would have no greater difficulty doing the same in the sex industry (and the U.S. porn industry, which I will get to shortly, illustrates that).

The notion that sex is somehow relevantly “different” from producing food, transporting food, making food, serving food, cleaning up food, is a religious concept. It has no objective validity absent religious myths and superstitions. I can abuse, mistreat, enslave, exploit a food service worker. That in no way means food service work is inherently degrading or in any way wrong or shameful, or even undesirable (I know many who love the work…as long as they find employers and customers and coworkers who treat them decently, which is the moral reality of all work and employment whatever). It obviously also makes no sense to declare food service work illegal for any of these reasons (men like to eat laboriously prepared food and be waited on hand and foot and not have to clean up after…and they will pay women to do this…and no one is outraged by that). Ditto, sex work.

Sex differs in some respects from food service work, certainly. But not as much as you think, and not in any way that really matters. It’s not inherently more dangerous, for example. There are serious, even lethal, accidents in the food service industry, too (not just workplace dangers, but criminal ones as well: many a food service worker has been beaten, raped or murdered by armed robbers). We didn’t solve that problem by banning the industry. We solved it by improving (and continuing to improve) all aspects of safety and legal protection. We could do the same in the sex industry–and in fact, we can only do that by legalizing it.

On the other hand, sex work is more intimate, more personal, and more violating than food work. But so are other industries. Sex involves being penetrated, but many professional athletes intimately and abusively touch each other, too; we pay surgeons to grab our balls, finger our anus, cut open our chests, and shove things up our every orifice; people pay professionals to pierce and tattoo them; cops and soldiers get paid to take a bullet now and again. Sex is very intimate and personal, but often so is professional writing and acting and dancing, interviewing people for oral histories or news reports, giving and receiving a massage, or speaking to a therapist. Indeed, that latter is arguably more intimate and personal than hired sex work. Think about it. Paying someone to listen at length to your most personal thoughts and darkest secrets, and being paid to listen to strangers’ most personal thoughts and darkest secrets. That’s exposing the real you, the deepest and truest form of nudity and vulnerability and penetration. Compared to that, sex is a mere dance.

The best philosophical treatise ever written on this subject is Martha Nussbaum’s “Whether from Reason or Prejudice: Taking Money for Bodily Services,” which you can find in her excellent collection Sex and Social Justice, pp. 276-98, or in its original form in the Journal of Legal Studies 27.2 (1998): 693-724. This is required reading on the subject. She thoroughly dispatches every objection, and addresses, directly, several major feminist authors on the subject. If you want to be informed on this topic, you should start there. And yet, as a practicing Jew (and thus a religious believer, not an atheist), Nussbaum personally regards prostitution as immoral and degrading. Which illustrates the importance of distinguishing between seeking to persuade someone to find other employment, and seeking to use the armed force of the state to compel them to. Drugs being the model example: excessive drinking or doing blow may be immoral or not good for you, but outlawing them creates an even more unjust society and exacerbates every evil rather than mitigating any. Thus the moral question is distinct from the political one.

Even so, I do not agree with Nussbaum that sexwork is degrading or immoral. For those who enjoy sex work, cleaning toilets is often far more degrading and exploitative. Yet everyone agrees that’s a legal and necessary occupation. And in my view, cleaning toilets for an income is only degrading if you aren’t being paid well for it or are otherwise badly treated by your employer, and it’s only immoral to employ someone to clean your toilet if you aren’t paying them well for it or are otherwise badly treating them. Prostitution is no different. Likewise working in porn. It’s easier to see why religion blinds even Nussbaum to the reality of this if we imagined an alien society in which all the religious taboos and myths associated with sex were attached instead to playing tennis. These aliens would say that being paid to play tennis with a stranger is dangerous and degrading, that it exploits the poor, that it’s shameful for anyone to play tennis for money, that tennis play should only ever occur between intimate loving couples. We would immediately recognize that that alien belief is ridiculous.

But making a blanket cultural declaration like that is not the same thing as heeding individual relationship dynamics. If playing tennis is something you and your wife have agreed to treat as a special thing you do only with each other, and you make that fact meaningful to you, then your playing tennis with another woman would be an insult to your wife. But that’s only because of your particular relationship. It’s not an objective cultural fact that this will be true for everyone. Polyamorous couples, for example, have no such agreement, nor desire one. Likewise the nonmarried who are honest and clear with their partners how short term their relationship may be and whom they may in future play tennis with. And so, too, anyone who decided to play tennis for money. Either because they like it, or prefer it to other work, or because they need an income, or all of the above. To declare them a shameful, exploited, tennis slut would just be bizarre. To try and use the government to force them not to do it would be even more bizarre. It would make no intelligible sense outside an irrational system of religious mythology.

For a good, thorough scientific demonstration of that fact, see Darrel Ray’s Sex & God: How Religion Distorts Sexuality. If you want to understand the true ethics of sex, you need to understand the metaphysics of sex (what sex and sexuality really is), and to understand that you need to understand the science of sex. Ray’s book covers it all.

In short, Taslima doesn’t yet realize that we see sex differently, and that women’s liberation has advanced so far in the West that they actually can choose any job they like (which is why, as I’ll point out, no one here is “forced” into the porn industry), and the few who fall through the cracks of our privilege and prosperity (e.g. women who turn tricks for money because they actually are forced into sex slavery or because it’s the only way they can sustain an illegal drug habit) do so precisely because we have driven the industry underground and criminalized it. Imagine if we criminalized food service, and the horrors and abuses that would then occur in the inevitable “black market” food industry. It’s not hard to, because we did it once: with alcohol (Prohibition); and we’re doing it again (with the War on Drugs). Look what happened. Contrast the alcohol industry under Prohibition, with that industry today. Compare, from one period to the other, the conditions and dangers of those laboring in it. As for that work, so for sex work.


Taslima then argued against pornography (Let’s Eroticize Equality), which is essentially a form of legalized prostitution. Again, her main point we all agree with (just as actual sex slavery is certainly an evil we ought to outlaw, eroticizing equality is also an awesome recommendation for improving the aesthetic experience of pornography). But the rest, not so much. She repeats Old School Feminist mantras such as that pornography is “an industry of woman-hating dehumanization,” when in fact a rising portion of the U.S. and Canadian porn industry is run by women, and reflects women’s interests and decisions more than ever before (and I agree this trend needs to continue), and women consumers are a significant part of the video porn market (about a quarter share in fact), while the relative proportion of what could properly be called “dehumanizing” porn is starting to shrink.

Which is why I wonder if perhaps Taslima does not know this because she is not as immersed in our culture as we are. She sees the porn industry through the lens of a selectively biased literature, and perhaps from experience with the market and industry as it exists (insofar as it exists) in countries like India or Iran, which have not developed progressive sexuality and women’s liberation as the West has done (the way men treat women on the streets of Egypt, for example, is simply unthinkable here–that’s how far we’ve come, and how far behind they are). Conversely, we see porn and prostitution from the perspective of a highly progressed and very privileged Western democratic society, where women’s power and influence is increasingly pervasive, as is women’s liberation (sexually and intellectually, and economically), and where sex is increasingly seen in the context of women having the free choice to do what they want. How a legally recognized prostitute or porn star is treated here, what the actual opportunities and options she has, is a product of Western wealth and justice, and nothing at all like how a prostitute or porn star would be treated in, say, India’s society and courts of law. The difference has nothing to do with sex or prostitution. It has everything to do with American culture being fifty years more morally advanced than India’s.

Lest someone take umbrage at that suggestion, the fact that Indians keep trying to kill Taslima while Americans don’t is proof enough of the difference. Imagine if Taslima also became a famous porn star…do you think Indians would treat her better after that? When Americans look at nations like India, they see a past that we left behind more than half a century ago (see A Billion Indians and Millions of Injustices). This does not mean America is a paragon of moral virtue. We have a great deal to fix in ourselves, and most other Western democracies are far ahead of us on almost every matter of moral and social justice (and even they are not paragons of moral virtue). But bringing them into it just makes India look even more backward by comparison (much less Bangladesh). Even where we seem comparable is misleading. For example, the murder rates in India and the U.S. are more or less on par, but it hardly needs pointing out that this is in large part due to the fact that most potential murder victims get the hell out of the country (case in point: Taslima Nasrin) or cower to the social pressure to not speak up against injustice or even in defense of one’s own rights, precisely out of fear of being murdered for it. This is one of the reasons why we cannot cite a low murder rate in Iran, for example, as an endorsement of Iranian society.

This is a very significant point, because it means there is a real problem in other countries that don’t materially support women’s rights or any sound concepts of a just society. Prostitutes there have it bad. But not because they are prostitutes, but because their societies are morally backward. It would be easy to conflate (albeit fallaciously) the exploitation of women in those countries with the legalization of prostitution, with the result that our Western advocacy of the morality and legalization of prostitution looks perverse. But that advocacy is based on living within a moral and social infrastructure in which the exploitative and unjust elements of any industry (like prostitution) have a real chance of being suppressed, redressed, and abrogated. We, in other words, are ready to move on. The result is attitudes about sex and commerce that look inconceivable in cultures mired in social and moral oppression. But once you realize the way forward is not outlawing prostitution but improving the moral and social infrastructure of the society that abuses its prostitutes, you’ll see that our view of things is not wrong, it’s just the future you need to work toward.

This cultural difference would explain, for example, why Taslima assumes all porn “is implicated in violence against women” and “pornography leads to an increase in sexual violence against women through fostering rape myths” (and then claims studies prove this, when in fact I am not aware of any that do). This of course cannot be true, since porn is far more widely available and consumed in the U.S. yet sexist and abusive treatment of women is vastly greater in countries like Egypt where porn is supposedly not (certainly, even if it’s all going on “on the sly,” Egyptian men can’t be consuming more porn than American men). And rates of rape and other violence against women in the U.S. have not substantially changed over 35 years (e.g. rapes nearly doubled around 1990 relative to 1975 and 2010 but have steadily declined ever since, right back to the 1975 level), even though in precisely that period the porn industry consistently exploded in production, use, and availability–in fact, most significantly after 1990, with the advent of internet porn, which would sooner suggest that increased porn availability causes the decrease of violence against women; but even rejecting that conclusion, no argument can be made that porn increases violence against women. The standard confounding factor is that men who will rape or sexually abuse women will obviously consume porn. As with any correlation fallacy: it’s the rapist’s mind that causes a rapist’s porn consumption, not the porn consumption that causes a rapist’s mind. Which means the fact that India and Egypt treat women so badly is not caused by porn. That is entirely the wrong target to attack.

I can’t say for sure, but inexperience with Western culture might also explain Taslima’s assertion that “most female performers are coerced into pornography,” because that hasn’t been true in the U.S. or Canada for a very long time. The salient point should be that we ought indeed to oppose, morally and legally, coercing women into pornography–as we ought to do for all forms of labor coercion, such as being coerced to work in a factory or as a maid or, and this is far more common, coerced into being an uneducated stay-at-home baby-producing housekeeper. In other words, it’s not pornography that’s the problem. It’s coercion. Be against that. But being against pornography is like being against manufacturing, housekeeping, or homemaking.

There might, however, be another issue here, not one of cultural misinformation, but one of relying on bad sources that resonate with you emotionally but that you don’t actually fact-check, or reacting to things you see happening in porn without first trying to understand it.

In the first instance, I see that Taslima relies a lot on Old School Feminism (which we sent packing years ago; we’re in Third Wave Feminism now), and that old guard often engaged in argument by assertion and ignorantly fallacious rhetoric. As when Taslima paraphrases Gloria Steinem’s argument that porn is bad and erotica good because [here quoting Steinem herself] “porne, in its root, means female slave, and eros obviously means love and has some idea of free choice and mutual pleasure,” which even if true (it’s not) would only have been true 2000 years ago, in a completely different language, spoken before English even existed. So why, then, mention it?

And if you are really going to push a non sequitur like that, at least try to get the facts right. In reality, ancient porneia just meant prostitution, which even in antiquity was not solely an occupation of slaves (it only usually was), and in fact the word was frequently used simply to mean unchastity, i.e. free women having consensual sex for no material gain but the satisfaction of their own desire (and its root, pornê does not likely derive from the mismatched verb pernêmi as has been suggested–though even if it did, that would not necessarily be a reference to slavery but simply selling sex–but more likely comes from pornos, which meant boy lover, not female slave–the connecting element was the assumption of anal and oral sex, which was frequently practiced by female prostitutes as a simple form of birth control). And eros did not mean love in Steinem’s intended sense, but sexual desire, which did not entail choice or mutual affection (but could involve either). Indeed, a man could pay a pornê for sex precisely because of his eros for her. The Greeks had other words for love in its nonsexual aspects.

The Porn-Erotica Divide

That citation of Steinem (who was clearly no Classicist and more into her own rhetoric than actual cultural understanding) relates to Taslima’s acceptance of erotica, which she says is acceptable and good, and which she demarcates from porn using Diana Russell (another Old School feminist, one of the most radical even, and practically a poster child for what Third Wave feminists have rejected):

Pornography: Material that combines sex and/or the exposure of genitals with abuse or degradation in a manner that appears to endorse, condone, or encourage such behavior.

Erotica: Sexually suggestive or arousing material that is free of sexism, racism, and homophobia, and respectful of all human beings and animals portrayed.

In the English language as everywhere spoken, porn is either of those things. To demarcate “porn” as, in effect, “erotica + endorsement of sexism/abuse,” is simply to speak a different language than everyone else. And I do not accept semantic games like that. As I have defended before (Sense and Goodness without God II.2.1.4, pp. 33-35), we need to use words as they are actually used and understood. We can correct errors and inconsistencies and make distinctions. But we can’t try to foist an alien language on people.

Greta Christina has also tackled this subject of what really demarcates porn from erotica (Porn or Erotica?) and she came to a different conclusion, based on how the terms are actually used in English-speaking countries, particularly to market content (in other words, based on how people actually used the words):

Porn is sexually explicit art that has, as its primary intent, the sexual arousal of the audience, and in which any other artistic/ political/ cultural intent is secondary or incidental.

Erotica is sexually explicit art that has, as its primary intent, some artistic/ political/ cultural goal other than the sexual arousal of the audience, and in which this sexual arousal is secondary or incidental.

She ultimately finds that this demarcation is largely artificial, but this is indeed how the words are used. If, for example, you peruse books and videos labeled “erotica” and books and videos labeled “porn,” you’ll see her demarcation play out. I would only add the qualifier that I also find “erotica” used to mean what Greta defines as porn, but without specifically showing or mentioning any of the good parts (for example, a movie made solely to arouse, but that never actually quite shows any penetration or even a fully naked body, gets classed as erotica and not porn).

Getting the semantics right is important, not only to avoid fallacies of equivocation but also for the simple reason that we need to know how the language works to understand our language-saturated world and discourse. “Porn” simply does not mean “that which endorses abuse and degradation.” Where I live, there are specific stores you can go to that specialize in carrying little to no material that does that, yet what they do sell is still all classified as porn. And even anywhere else, if I peruse the “porn” aisle at a video store, I won’t find that it all endorses “abuse or degradation.” And it’s not as if there are two aisles, one marked “normal porn” and the other “endorsements of abuse and degradation.” There might be an S&M section, and things of that nature, but that’s not the same thing.

Which leads me to another issue of cultural divide: if you have not grown up immersed in cosmopolitan Western culture, you might not know about the normalization and acceptance of S&M and other forms of kink. And if you don’t know about it, you might react to seeing it in completely the wrong way. Certainly, if I was a rural kid from Idaho and walked into a magazine store and browsed a kink mag, I might be horrified at the way people (often, but not always, women) are being tormented on its pages, and conclude this is endorsing the brutal torture of women. But it’s not. And it never has. Nor has it caused any escalation in such things. Greta again wrote a very good piece on this, herself a woman into kinky porn: Porn, Social Criticism, and the Marginalization of Kink. And she has explored (in Why Porn Matters) how in fact porn has improved social understanding of women and sexuality, and made the lives of individuals better by eliminating the previous culturally-enforced assumption that their fantasies, whatever they are, must be perverse and wrong. These two articles will educate any reader on how different a sex positive Western culture is, compared to what one might encounter or hear in, say, Bangladesh.

In the first of those Greta explains, and illustrates, that kink, which often does appear to normalize sexism and abuse, is actually a sexual fetish many women, even feminists, find erotic, and even enjoy participating in. However, she does not explain how we’re to tell that “women being dominated and humiliated and slapped around” isn’t promoting the dehumanization of women, even though she clearly does believe you can have “women being dominated and humiliated and slapped around” that doesn’t. Someone not already familiar with a lot of our sex culture might be left confused by this. How can you dominate and humiliate a woman and not be dehumanizing her? It sounds like a patent contradiction. I think it would be helpful if Greta answered this question in more detail, perhaps in a future post, especially one aimed at readers who might really have zero experience with this [she has since done something nearly along those lines: see On Writing Kinky Porn in Rape Culture].

Particularly since this is not only an East-West thing, but a cultural divide that exists even within our own country, as many people do not have a close familiarity with our various sexual subcultures or with sex workers or even open communication with porn consumers. Thus, for example, Sunsara Taylor, for Black Skeptics here at Freethought Blogs, also took a stand against porn: protesting Women-Hating Pornographers (see also the brief discussion of concerns for International Women’s Day). She, too, sees kink and sexist fantasy play the same way that Greta considers to be uninformed. In the latter post it’s claimed that, for example, “ejaculation in a woman’s face is standard” (and, it is implied, intrinsically dehumanizing), although that has been commonplace for some thirty years now; in fact, long ago I watched some porn reels from the 30s and 40s and it was happening then, too. But some of the other points raised in that post might reflect genuine trends, and some of them might even be bad.

But the solution, of course, is to change the way porn gets made, to influence the consumers to be more reflective about what they buy (as we’ve successfully done in respect to environmentalism), and inspire the artists to be more thoughtful and creative (as we’ve been doing in respect to film and television). For example, Greta and many others have long criticized the fact that “action movies commonly perpetuate some very common sexist tropes: e.g., weak helpless women who need rescuing by strong male heroes,” and as a result we have seen gradual improvements in that over the last thirty years (Joss Whedon‘s opus, and its market success, is not the only evidence of it). The solution was not “ban action movies” because they promote sexist assumptions about the world. As for action movies, so for porn.

Artistic Criticism Requires Understanding

However, to push for change, you still have to be an informed critic who actually understands the material. Otherwise you will just come across as an ignorant outsider, and that will give you no sway with anyone who can actually make real changes happen. It’s like someone who heard about roller derby, then concluding it’s harmful to women and exploitative, but after understanding current rollergirl culture they realize it’s viewed by everyone involved in it as empowering, and was recently revived by women for that reason (as my wife once said to me, “The way men get Fight Club, women get Roller Derby,” although I should mention Jen also loves Fight Club). Like an outsider who doesn’t get roller derby, the assumption that facial cumshots are inherently “degrading” is precisely the kind of thing that reflects being out of touch with the industry, the artists in it, and what consumers actually think about it. You need to be in touch with all three of those first. And when you are, you may end up seeing things differently.

We also must accept two key realities about the aesthetics of any art or performance:

First, just because a fantasy is depicted, does not mean it is being endorsed or encouraged. This should be obvious from all other fantasy video media: the heroic depiction of the fictional serial killer Hannibal Lecter (particularly in the film Hannibal) is certainly not telling the audience to kill and eat people; action movies are not endorsing dangerous car chases and public gunfights; Dirty Harry is not supposed to inspire us to go on vigilante killing sprees. And, you may notice, it didn’t. Nor did Hannibal cause a rise in cannibalism. Nor have action films caused an epidemic of gunfights and car chases. Fantasy has to be recognized and understood for what it is. Heroes in films get to do things we fantasize about but never do. Like shoot drug lords in the head. Or have lots of beautiful sexual partners. Or sleep with your husband’s secretary. Or get spanked until we cry. Or ejaculate on someone’s face. (As my sonar supervisor’s gun-toting wife once cheerfully said to me in my Coast Guard days, “That dear brave girl takes it in the eye, so I don’t have to!”)

Second, what a scene looks to be saying is not necessarily what it is saying. Art is complex, even when it’s not trying to be. I remember someone I knew back in middle school who idolized a character in the film Apocalypse Now: Lt. Colonel Kilgore (played by Robert Duvall, who utters the famous line, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning”). He modeled himself after him, dressed like him, talked like him, spoke of him reverently as a kick-ass soldier, his ideal hero. The disturbing thing about that (for those who haven’t seen the movie) is that Kilgore is a grotesque character, he is meant to horrify the viewer. He was specifically written as a metaphor for exactly the kind of stiff-backed war-idolizing lunatic who causes and perpetuates unjust wars like that in Vietnam, men who are never touched by any sense of danger or loss, who puff their chest with exaggerated superiority, who utter such absurd racist patriotisms as “Charlie don’t surf!” This kid didn’t get the joke. He was inspired by that movie to become the very thing it was criticizing.

In no way can we blame the director or the actor or the movie for that. Anyone who failed to get the point they were making is clearly at fault (or their parents were, for not educating them on the matter). We can’t call for Apocalypse Now to be banned because occasionally some idiot doesn’t get it and is inspired by it to become a dangerous asshole. In fact the Kilgore scene is a brilliant work of art, powerful and poignant in all the things it was trying to say. The solution here is to teach and inspire people to think more reflectively about the art they consume, so that they grasp and benefit from the meaning and nuance being conveyed by it. (I say more about my theory of art in Sense and Goodness without God VI.3, pp. 361-66.)

Porn is an art form like any other. Like ordinary film and television, most of it is crap by any artistic standard. But it’s still art. And some of it is much better than most. In fact, aesthetically, I think porn could be far better than almost all of it is, that there is a real need for serious humanist artists to get in the business and change the way porn gets staged and filmed. But even among what exists, there is a difference to be seen between the best of it and the worst of it, and there are still the same artistic principles demanded in how you reflect on and understand what you see. And that’s the viewer’s responsibility. Just as it is when watching Apocalypse Now.

Example. In porn now there is in fact a rising trend (although I suspect it’s a passing fad) toward “throat gagging” (in the 90s it was anal sex; and from what I saw, in the 30s it was banging nuns and seeing semen spill out of things). I don’t enjoy this, even to watch it. It’s not my thing. But one particularly avid performer of it is Sasha Grey, one of the most successful and empowered women in the industry, an outspoken feminist and sex worker advocate. I’ve seen and read interviews with her and it’s clear she enjoys the act of throat gagging and doesn’t do it because she’s forced to or just because she’s paid to, that it turns her on, and that in fact she regards it as an expression of her liberty and power. By body language and spoken word, she calls the shots in every scene. Many women in the industry don’t like it, and don’t do it, and their right not to is generally respected and in fact defensible in court. But if you aren’t watching for the nuances of how Grey behaves in a scene and controls it, if you don’t realize that she considers it sexually exciting and comes to no harm from it, you might get the wrong impression about what’s happening in front of the camera. Just like you might get the wrong impression about Kilgore.

If any man tries this act on a woman who doesn’t like it, because he likes it and doesn’t care what his partner feels, then what we have is another Kilgore admirer. No different than a wife beater or sweat shop operator–yet in neither case do we ban marriages or factories. We criticize the idiot who doesn’t care about his fellow human beings. Sasha Grey is not evil. He is. And she is not responsible for what he does. Just as Robert Duvall is not responsible for the occasional chest-pumping Kilgore-loving military asshole.

There is a way forward here, and generally protesting or banning porn, or any other kind of prostitution or sexual commerce, simply isn’t it.

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!

Jesus Myth on

The Jesus myth vs. history debate just got covered on for Easter Sunday. The article, by John Blake, is “The Jesus Debate: Man vs. Myth.” Blake interviewed me and several others on both sides of the issue, and put together a sort of okay article reflecting common views on both sides, although it’s a bit of a rush job, since there is no back and forth (assertions on each side go unanswered by the other, even when they are ridiculous,  or clearly talk past the point supposedly being answered, as if rebutting a different argument entirely).

It’s sort of a “this is what the debate looks like to us reporters” account, balanced and neutral in perspective, but not in-depth enough to actually eliminate misconceptions on either side. As a result, I’m not sure it’s very informative. I had more questions by the end of it than understanding. The howlers from the defenders of historicity look a bit disturbing, for example (did Craig Evans actually argue that Jesus must have existed because the Gospels say he cried once? Or that only Jesus could invent parables? Either would be laughably absurd, but that is how he is quoted). And I and Price are mixed in with Freke as if we all agree or have the same credentials.

Had I known, for instance, that Freke cited to Blake the Orpheus Stone as evidence and claims it depicts Osiris (!), I could have informed Blake of all that’s wrong with this claim. First, it depicts “Orpheus the Bacchic” (i.e. not Osiris, nor even Bacchus, but Orpheus, who on the amulet is said to be a worshiper of Bacchus, i.e. an initiate in the Bacchic mysteries). Second, it’s authenticity has been questioned–although invalidly, in my opinion, nevertheless it bears mentioning (e.g. see James Hannam’s summary of the situation in The Jesus Mysteries Orpheus Amulet; note the case made for inauthenticity is refuted by the fact that there is no cross or crucifixion depicted: it’s a ship’s anchor, to which Orpheus is tied, imagery so bizarre I cannot imagine anyone thinking to forge it, and the inscription “Orpheus the Bacchic” is attested on several other objects, and it’s unlikely all of them are forgeries). But more importantly, as even Freke admits in Blake’s article, it’s dated to the third century. Although that date is largely conjectural, one cannot make much of an argument that Christianity borrowed the crucifixion idea from whatever story this amulet is depicting, not least because Jesus wasn’t tied to an anchor and drowned.

These kinds of complexities make it difficult for reporters to weigh in on this debate, I know. But we might get more thorough investigative reporting in the future.

Appearing in Temecula (California)

I am going to be on an interfaith panel talking about “Who Is Jesus? Did He Exist? Did He Rise from the Dead?” at the Rancho Community Church in Temecula, California (31300 Rancho Community Way), on Sunday, May 27 (2012), from 7pm to 9pm. I will represent the doubters-of-all, but joining me will be an Imam and a Rabbi and a Christian pastor working on his doctorate. Child care will be available for parents who want to attend. I believe it’s free, but donations might be asked (and I’d give something for their expenses, since they are going out of their way to bring other faith perspectives into their church and that’s cool).

It might devolve into a debate, it might just be a conversation, I don’t know, but it should be an interesting discussion either way. The sponsor is the Antioch Church community, which usually gives church services or events like this Sunday nights. They seem to be a kind of progressive Christian mission (albeit on the conservative side, reminds me a little of Saved), and this “debate” caps a series they’ve been running on questions about Jesus and faith (check out their Facebook page on this event). They might stump a bit for Jesus at the event, but I’m sure you can handle it.

Appearing in Oregon

The Jefferson Center of Ashland, Oregon, is sponsoring a trip for me there in early May (2012). I’ll be in the area for over a week. The main event is my lecture on “How the First Christians Claimed to Know What They Know (and Why That Matters Now),” which will touch on both philosophy (epistemology) and ancient history. That is scheduled for Thursday May 10 from 7 to 9pm, which includes Q&A and selling and signing my books (including my new book Proving History), in the Meese Room (3rd floor) of Hannon Library at Southern Oregon University (campus address: 1250 Siskiyou Boulevard, in Ashland, Oregon 97520). I believe it will be free to all. I will also be interviewed on an affiliated public radio show (The Jefferson Exchange on JPR) on Wednesday, May 9 (2012), from 9 to 10am, followed by a fundraiser luncheon (which I believe is already booked, but if you want in and you are keen on supporting the JeffC with a generous donation, it couldn’t hurt to contact them and at least ask about it). I might also be giving a special lecture for the philosophy department at OSU, but that hasn’t been confirmed, and won’t be open to the public. If you have any kind of godless meetup group in the area, feel free to contact me about the possibility of stopping by that week (if I can fit it into my schedule).

Freethought Blogs Loses a Hero

Iran has done the unthinkable. It bought off an atheist leader with sex. As announced on his blog today, Al Stefanelli, Georgia State Director for American Atheists, and fellow blogger here at FtB (A Voice of Reason), is leaving us. Because the Iranian parliament negotiated a deal to supply him with 29 Persian hookers. They had originally offered 72 virgins, but in our private backchannel, when I asked him why it ended up 29 hookers, Al told me (and I’m not making this up):

I did the math and realized, in my state of health, I could only handle 29, tops. And I didn’t want virgins. Yeah, the Iranian negotiators had a hard time understanding this, and I tried explaining to them. They thought for a while it must be a translation thing. But no, I wanted really sexually experienced women, not women who don’t know what they’re doing. And I didn’t want sex slaves, either. I wanted women working a fair trade contract for services that they freely negotiated. I mean, I’m only abandoning my activism for atheism, not feminism. They couldn’t understand why a man wouldn’t want virgins. They kept going on about it. In the end, I think they thought they were getting a great deal by letting me take a bunch of dirty sinners off their hands. But they still insisted on keeping the “swollen breasts” thing in the contract. Yeah, that was part of their original offer. They were weirdly persistent about it.

Apparently, the Iranian parliament has concocted a plan to buy off all the atheist leaders they can by offering them paradise, or “Janah,” as defined in the Koran. Supposedly the way would then be clear for Islam to convert the world. (Although when Al asked them how they planned to buy off women atheist leaders, they seemed confused by the idea.)

There were various parts to the deal they concluded with Al, including a garden, a bunch of ironwork, lifetime access to a free messenger service, a thousand bottles of non-alcoholic wine, free medical care, three fancy robes, some jewelry and perfume, a personal chef, a couch inlaid with gold and gems, a top-of-the-line refrigerator, a scented fountain, a packet of ginger root, a white horse and an albino camel, and a small tree. The key provision, though, was the offer of 72 virgins “with swollen breasts” (literally, it’s in the contract; I couldn’t believe it, so I had an Arabic specialist check it, after Al sent me a fax of the signed contract, because none of us here at FtB believed this was for real).

But the deal is done. Beginning May 1, Al has agreed to never represent or speak about atheism again. He will return to journalism, focusing on fluff pieces about lost kittens, and tending his garden. And, apparently, his 29 fair-labor sex workers.

How could this have happened? And who will be next? With such a tempting offer, and an unlimited secret slush fund (now held by the untouchable Nicaraguan drug cartels in alliance with the Iranian Secret Police, a fund established for Iran three decades ago by Oliver North at the behest of Ronald Reagan), we could be losing a lot of atheist heroes in the coming months. This may be a dark year for organized atheism.

Saddened, I looked into this, and discovered how this came about. It all started when one of the members of the Iranian parliament met a girl at a party. She told him she had abandoned Islam because “Al Stefanelli’s blog” told her to, and that he had corrupted her with the dark teachings of Western philosophy, making her cling to such immoral things as walking quickly in public and wearing stockings. After a half an hour of being sick over the toilet at the news of this, the parliamentarian called an emergency meeting of something called (the translation from the Arabic is a bit rough) the Ronald Reagan Committee for Aiming the Stinger Missiles He Sold Us and Converting the World to the Beautiful Teachings of the Holy Prophet Peace Be Upon Him. They concocted the plan then and there. The rest is history.

I asked Al how his dear wife of 21 years could possibly have agreed to this, and he says she was actually kind of jazzed about the idea, since with 29 women to hang out with she’d have more fun and a lot less work to do. And she really wants to ride the albino camel. No, Al assured me that is not a euphemism for something. She has always loved camels, and albino ones are apparently the best. But he really only swung it by arranging an adjunct deal to hire Hugh Jackman as her paramour for three months each year for the next nineteen years so their gains would be equal, which Al worked out by trading Hugh five hundred bottles of the non-alcoholic wine. I thought that seemed inequitable, but I asked my wife about it, and she said, “29 buxom Persian hookers for 1 Hugh Jackman? Yep. That’s about right.”

Anyway, if you don’t believe me, just read Al’s own blog post today (I’m Outa Here, Bitches!), where he spells out the whole sordid deal.

He will be missed.