Offering Classes on Historical Method and the Historicity of Jesus

I am still teaching the science and philosophy of free will this June (that class starts next week; you can register here). But now my courses for July and August are also open for early registration (and there is a limit on how many students I take on per class, so they might fill up; I will offer them again next year).

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For July (and this in preparation for August) I will be teaching a course on historical methods: Thinking Like a Historian: Historical Methods, Practice and Theory (details and registration here). Description:

Cover of Richard Carrier's book Proving History. Illuminated stained glass Jesus in darkened room as peered at through a cross cut-out in an iron cathedral door. Title and author name below.Learn how to question and investigate claims about history. Study not only the logic of historical reasoning and argument, but also a lot of the practical tips and tricks real historians employ to test and check claims. Learn the particular skills of skeptical and critical thinking about history. Primary topics: Best practices among historians; historical methods as modes of reasoning (both criteria-based and Bayesian); examples of flawed reasoning and bad arguments in peer reviewed history journals and monographs (and how to spot them as a layperson); and what to do to critically examine a claim using both immediate heuristics and procedures for more labor-intensive inquiry.

The required course text we will be working through chapter by chapter is Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus, but I will be providing additional readings and discussion across several fields and subjects in history (the focus won’t be wholly or even mostly on Jesus; that will just be a working example).

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For August (and this will benefit from having taken the preceding course in July) I will be teaching a course on the historicity of Jesus: Questioning or Defending the Historicity of Jesus (details and registration here). Description:

Cover of Richard Carrier's book On the Historicity of Jesus. Medieval icon image of Jesus holding a codex, on a plain brown background, title above in white text, author below in white text.This course discusses the best arguments for and against the historical existence of Jesus (as the putative founder of Christianity), and we will proceed step-by-step through ways to approach them and evaluate them. Working from the first peer reviewed academic book arguing Jesus might not have existed, taught by the author himself, you will learn how to distinguish good arguments from bad, and about the background and context of the origins of Christianity as a whole. This is the best opportunity to ask Dr. Carrier, who holds a PhD in ancient history from Columbia University, all your questions about his controversial research and the historical(?) figure of Jesus. Main issues to cover: understanding the complex background to the origins of Christianity (unit 1, OHJ chs. 4, 5, & 7); comparing the competing theories of how and why Christianity began (unit 2, OHJ chs. 1, 2, & 3); understanding the Gospels and Acts as mythology and whether historical facts about Jesus can be extracted from them (unit 3, OHJ chs. 6, 9, & 10); and exploring the arguments for and against evidence for a historical Jesus in the authentic Epistles of Paul and literature outside the New Testament (unit 4, OHJ chs. 8, 11, & 12).

The required course text we will be working through chapter by chapter is On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt, although I will be providing additional readings (such as from defenders of historicity). That is expected to be available by the end of June, and you might want to order it as soon as that, so as to be assured of having it in time for the course (I will announce on this blog as soon as the book can be ordered or pre-ordered). Unfortunately there will not be an electronic copy in time for August, but I have an option for the visually impaired (so if you can’t read a print book, just write to me once you register, to inquire about an alternative).

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I should note that technically mine is not “the first peer reviewed academic book arguing Jesus might not have existed” if you include Thomas Brodie’s recent book from the same press, Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus: Memoir of a Discovery, although that is actually a memoir of how he came to that conclusion, and not an organized argument for it (e.g. he does little to address defenses of historicity or offer an alternative theory of the origin of Christianity). See my review.

 

Ottawa Historicity Debate: A Commentary

Video of my debate with Zeba Crook (an atheist professor of New Testament studies) on whether Jesus historically existed is now available online as Jesus of Nazareth: Man or Myth? A Discussion with Zeba Crook and Richard Carrier (produced by AtheismTV). I announced and discussed that here. But now you can watch the debate itself. The AV quality is not very good, but it’s manageable. As I note in the video, there was no way to respond to every point made, for want of time. Indeed, by the time I got to state my first rebuttal, I had to answer thirty minutes of Dr. Crook in just ten minutes. But I think both sides got to state their best case, and left the debate where further discussion is needed but at least moved beyond a lot of the usual sidetracking nonsense.

I shall place here below, and expand, what notes I had jotted down as the debate went on but didn’t have time to get to at the podium, including some comments on Dr. Crook’s final closing, which left loose ends unfinished, since he only at that point had any opportunity to respond to my rebuttal (at which point, he had five minutes to answer my ten, putting him at the disadvantage). Those notes I wrote in my own kind of abbreviated shorthand, but here I just spell them out in full sentences, with connecting sentences and whatnot (so don’t imagine I wrote all those words as-is during the debate; I captured those ideas in a much more abbreviated notation). Some of those notes will repeat what I said in rebuttals, some will expand on them, and some will be things I didn’t have time to talk about.

Certainly ask questions in comments here about anything you didn’t find resolved in the debate, or any arguments Crook made that you think I overlooked or didn’t adequately address (especially things that came up in Q&A, since I didn’t write notes then). But please first read the commentary below. It may already answer your question. In which case I’ll just tell you to read it.

Preliminaries

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Appearing in Sacramento Area…with David Fitzgerald!

Next week I will be in a double header with David Fitzgerald discussing different aspects of the historicity of Jesus. The event is Thursday night, May 29 (2014), at UC Davis (in the Sacramento area, California), brought to you by the Agnostic & Atheist Student Association. We will also be selling our books and taking Q&A.

I am writing this from the jungles of Costa Rica, on an iPad, so with considerable difficulty the best I can do is just link you to the event’s Facebook page where you can get all the details: The Historicity of Jesus with Richard Carrier and David Fitzgerald. Please help them out and RSVP there if you will be going.

It will be entertaining!

Join My June Course! On the Science and Philosophy of Free Will

This June begins my online course on the science and philosophy of free will, from a naturalist (atheist) and secular perspective. Please spread the word and let people know, anyone you think might be interested. It will be useful to anyone wanting to understand the concept and science better, and even more so anyone who has use for more understanding of free will as a real-world applied concept in legal practice, medical ethics, the penal system, political policy, personal relations, and beyond. And especially if you want to know what’s wrong with common treatments of the subject (as for example by Sam Harris, whose book on it will be the course text, mostly to analyze its mistakes, as a useful way of understanding the subject better).

You can learn all about the course and register here. But this is the gist:

Description: We will study the intersection between science and philosophy in defining and understanding free will, with the aim of learning the latest science on the nature and existence of free will and how to critically approach philosophical uses of it. Students will not only learn about the relevant elements of brain science, but also how to identify common philosophical fallacies in reasoning about free will, and the real-world application of the analysis of free will in diverse fields, from law to medical ethics.

Course topics: The varieties of free will and the differences among them; identifying causes and the role of personal identity in making decisions (and what the latest brain science has to say about both); the nature and purpose of assigning responsibility to personal agents (in law, ethics, and daily life); the difference between determinism and fatalism, and the importance of addressing both personal and genetic-environmental causes of decisions when thinking about social, political, legal, and moral systems.

Schedule: June 1 to June 30 (2014). Specific reading and discussion goals are set for every week, completing four units in four weeks, but within that framework you can participate in every element on your own time. There are no live events to be missed. One book by Sam Harris is required reading (see below). Everything else about the course is provided inside the classroom website. Course lectures, academic papers, links to websites, and forums for discussions with the instructor and students are included in the Moodle website classroom. Visit the class anytime to contribute your posts and receive [my] replies in discussion forums. There is nothing “live” you can miss – log in and participate anytime day or night, 24/7, throughout the month.

Required Course Text: Sam Harris, Free Will (2012). Students must purchase their own copy (print or electronic) before course begins. Additional readings will be provided electronically at no cost to students.

There are also a bunch of other courses offered by other experts you may have interest in June. Check out the current list here. And this will continue, month by month. So I recommend everyone who might ever be interested, should any future course cover a topic you are keen to learn more about, to follow PSA (Partners for Secular Activism) on twitter and facebook.

On the Historicity of Jesus: What Would You Look Up?

Here’s a request to those keen to see my next book: since I am nearing completion of my subject index for On the Historicity of Jesus (the scripture index is long since finished and submitted), and the publisher wants to release it in June (at that link you can also see the book’s description and a detailed table of contents), it occurred to me that it couldn’t hurt to ask everyone who is interested: what would you look up in the index to such a book? Don’t worry whether I’ve already thought of it. If you are keen to, just list anything in comments here that you would expect, or hope, or want, or need to be there. And if you know anyone interested in this book, let them know to come here and weigh in if they want to.

For the purposes of this post only, all I want in comments are words and names you’d like to see in the index (or attempts to describe such, if you aren’t sure how something would be indexed). No other questions or commentary, please. I have plenty of other posts on the subject where those can be submitted. Thanks!

On Evaluating Arguments from Consensus

I have often been asked how we should evaluate arguments from consensus. That’s where someone says “the consensus of experts is that P, therefore we should agree P is true.” On the one hand, this looks like an Argument from Authority, a recognized fallacy. On the other hand, we commonly think it should add weight to a conclusion that the relevant experts endorse it. Science itself is based on this assumption. As is religion, lest a religionist think they can defeat science by rejecting all appeals to authority–because such a tack would defeat all religion as well, even your own judgment, since if all appeals to authority are invalid, so is every appeal to yourself as an authority (on your religion, or even on your own life and experience).

And yet, it is often enough the case that a consensus of experts is wrong (as proved even by the fact that the scientific consensus has frequently changed, as has the consensus in any other domain of expertise, from history to motorboat repair). And our brains are cognitively biased to over-trust those we accept as authorities (the Asch effect), putting us at significant risk of false belief if we are not sufficiently critical of our relying on an expert. It’s only more complicated when we have warring experts and have to choose between them, even though we are not experts ourselves.

So what do we do?

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First in the Family Scholarship Fund

Last year I blogged about the amazing First in the Family Humanist Scholarship Initiative launched by Black Skeptics of LA to help send minority atheists to college. If you missed that (or need to refresh your memory), check out my article on that, Help Minority Atheists to College. To learn more about the evolution of the initiative, and to donate for the fund this year, see their new IndieGogo page. I really hope you donate, because it will make up for my not being able to this year. We are saving money to survive sending Jen back to school for a career change, so the belt is going to be tight for us for a while and we need every penny to get by. So I’m saddened I can’t help this cause this year. But maybe I can inspire enough people to!

Secular Organizations Can Get Free Course Admission

Are you part of a secular, atheist, humanist, or other organization? Or know someone who is? Let that org’s leadership know that before this July they can get a deal for access to any course this year we are gradually building to teach online at SecularActivism.org. “An organization, large or small, gets a certificate for one of its leaders to take a free course during 2014, if 30 members join the email list before July 1st. Just mention the organization name when asked how you heard about us.” They just need to contact John Shook to inquire.

Go to SecularActivism.org to see the current course offerings. Many more will be developed and taught before the end of the year (possibly dozens). For example, besides my Naturalism 101 course that I’m teaching now, I will also be teaching courses this year on the science and philosophy of free will, on historical methods (theory and practice), on the historicity of Jesus, and more (I’m considering offering courses on ancient science, economics, and technology, on Bayes’ Theorem and counter-apologetics, and others; feel free to make requests in comments here for courses you’d take if I taught them). And I am not the only instructor on board. We are contracting more and more teachers of skill or renown, to teach far more diverse offerings.