A Correction and Rebuttal

Two scholars I have criticized lately have responded to my critiques and this fact is important enough for a brief note here. The first is Dr. Ralph Kenna, whom I took to task in various ways in Bad Science Proves Demigods Exist! Though his rebuttal largely skews reality and does not adequately defend the bad science in his paper–as I demonstrate in my response–he rightly criticizes me on two points: my opening line was misleadingly facetious, and I misrepresented one of their arguments.

I apologized and made corrections to the article. Those consisted of one line at the end of the first paragraph, which now reads:

To be fair, they only claim to have evidence “the societies” and “some of the events” in them are true, not the entire stories as wrote. But really they don’t.

And a rewrite of one paragraph later in the article, which now reads (new material in bold):

Certainly Beowulf is based on real historical persons and contexts (Wikipedia has a nice summary), but Beowulf himself is by all accounts a fictional character inserted among them, to play out a supernatural drama that obviously has no basis in history (no monster was terrorizing the lands that required finding a special young warrior named Beowulf to gather a band of men to hunt it down). This is actually admitted by Kenna and Mac Carron, so I should not take them to task for that (as I did in the original draft of this critique). But the general fact of it illustrates that any character could be similarly inserted, possibly thereby undetected. This tale appears to be a Nordic (and possibly Christian-influenced) adaptation of Virgil’s Aeneid. Like the Aeneid, if in Beowulf any ancillary (non-central) character was invented to fill out the story, would Kenna and Mac Carron’s method be able to detect it? I don’t see how. We can only confirm the historicity of its characters by other, more traditional methods; and by that method, we have.

That last sentence not being a correction but just a restatement of my original overall point, transitioning to the next paragraph.

Lester Grabbe likewise responded to my criticism of him in my review of Is This Not the Carpenter?, his chapter being the only one I found so terrible I had to take it substantially to task. His rebuttal was wholly inept, and my response reconfirms that everything I said in this case was correct. No corrections warranted.

Groovy Documentary Atheism

Let me convince you to help fund a movie. This is the year for positive, uplifting atheist documentaries. (Well, actually, next year. They are being made now. They’ll probably be out then.) Two are already nearly in the can, The Scarlett Letter and Coming Out in America. Letter (directed by John Jennings) focuses on atheist leaders (not solely, but largely) and explores their lives and philosophy and the growing movement of organized atheism in America and what’s driving it (as you’ll see in the trailer, I was interviewed and will likely be among those featured in it). Out (directed by Christophe Fauchère) focuses on the goals and challenges of atheists “coming out” as atheists and dealing with the backlash from friends, family, coworkers, and community, and why more and more atheists are doing it, especially in colleges and high schools. Two great documentaries I am definitely looking forward to.

But there is another that might get made, if the filmmaker can raise the money to do it. And I think if you can help, you definitely should. It’s Hug an Atheist, and it sets itself apart from those other two films in ways that make it yet another film I really want to see, if only we can find enough financial supporters to make it possible. It will be directed by Sylvia Broeckx, a cool Belgian girl living in the UK, and that is unique feature number one: she comes from a background of European culture that simply sees nothing like the hostility to atheism we do over here, and she has become increasingly appalled by it (her trailer exemplifies what I mean, as does her accompanying mission statement). She will be able to give us a nuanced compare-and-contrast point of view between how it is and how it could be, informed by her foreign background and point of view.

But unique feature number two is even more important: [Read more…]

Bad Science Proves Demigods Exist!

Scientists prove Beowulf and the Iliad are true stories! Not. Sometimes scientists can be so clueless, you just want to pat them on the head and go “Aw, that’s so sad.” To get up to speed on this new silliness, check out John Bohannon’s article for Science Now: Is Mythology Like Facebook?, which summarizes this scientific paper: Ralph Kenna and Pádraig Mac Carron, “Universal Properties of Mythological Networks,” Europhysics Letters 99.2 (July 2012) #28002. To be fair, they only claim to have evidence “the societies” and “some of the events” in them are true, not the entire stories as wrote. But really they don’t.

Kenna and Mac Carron mapped out the social networks in three myths (Beowulf, the Iliad, and the Táin, a lesser-known Irish epic) and tested those networks for the properties of real networks. Then they used as “controls” four works of modern fiction (Les Misérables, Shakespeare’s Richard III, The Fellowship of the Ring, and the first book in the Harry Potter series). (If you are noticing a fatal flaw here already, you get ten bonus points. Fifty points if you already notice more than one fatal flaw.)

Facebook is a real network that’s been well-studied this way (hence the title of Bohannon’s article). And real networks have certain properties. As Bohannon explains: [Read more…]

Musical Aesthetics

It’s been two years since I updated my blogging on music, but alas it’s finally time to get up to speed! I promised I’d get around to it in my inaugural post here last year, where I listed my best and favorite blogs from my previous blogspot (which I still maintain, frozen in time), all except my blogging on music, which I said I’d get to later. Well, here it is. The latest in musical science, philosophy, and likes. I’ll brief the “boring” stuff (philosophy and science) and then get into my latest musical playlist and how it confirms my previously-blogged theory that we live in a “postmusical age” (a phrase that doesn’t mean what you think). Ready? Here we go… [Read more…]

Ehrman on Historicity Recap

This is a summary of the current state of the debate after the mini blog war between myself and Bart Ehrman over his latest book, Did Jesus Exist?, which attempted to argue against various scholars (both legitimate and crank) who have concluded, or at least suspect, that Jesus never really existed, but was an invention in myth, like Moses or King Arthur or Ned Ludd. Some of this exchange involved other people, or were tangential to Ehrman’s book. But I will give a state-of-play for everything.

In one case I have concluded I was too harsh. But in every other case my criticisms have stood without valid rebuttal. Most were simply ignored (and thus no rebuttal was even attempted). For others, attempts to rebut them have only generated increasingly ridiculous errors of facts and logic to waggle our head at. Which in the end has only made historicists look just like the hack mythicists they rightly critique. This is not the way to argue for the historicity of Jesus. [Read more…]

Three New Videos

The three best new videos of me of late are: (1) my talk at the Madison Freethought Festival: So…if Jesus Didn’t Exist, Where Did He Come from Then? (you can also view a PDF of the slideshow, lacking the animations); (2) my talk the year before for Wichita Rapture Day: You’re All Gonna Die!! How the Jews Kept Failing to Predict Doomsday and Caused Christianity Instead (you can also view a PDF of the slideshow, lacking the animations); and (3) my interview for WorldviewNaturalism.com (on how I came to naturalism and what it means for moral theory and the scientific advancement of moral knowledge). That latter site has several other interesting new resources, including interviews with several others and an extensive online catalog of debates.

My Madison talk is essentially a brief précis of what I believe to be the most defensible Jesus myth theory and why it probably better explains the origins of Christianity than traditional theories do. Obviously it’s not a proof against all objections, just a quick first glance at what it is and how a defense of it would most likely proceed. My Rapture Day talk, by contrast, operates on the assumption of historicity (sticking to my methodological position that we should assume historicity until a significant segment of the expert community is on board with any alternative, while treating the Jesus myth theory as only a hypothesis, still in need of proper review). However, its analysis would apply equally to a Jesus myth model (with suitable adaptation). I just don’t discuss that there.

Proving History in San Francisco

I will be giving a talk summarizing and taking questions on my new book Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus in San Francisco on Saturday this 28th of July (2012), from roughly 4:30 to 7pm, in the banquet room at Schroeder’s, a popular German dining establishment downtown (240 Front St.). I will be selling and signing copies of Proving History, and possibly a few other titles. I will briefly explain what Bayes’ Theorem is (in terms anyone can understand), why it’s important to doing history, how it already underlies all sound historical methods (even when we don’t know it), and how I use it to fix the broken methods still used to study the historical Jesus. Then I’ll field questions. (This event is sponsored by the San Francisco Atheists. You can RSVP, if you want, through their meetup page.)

Is This Not the Carpenter?

A new book questioning the historicity of Jesus has just come out, with academic contributors of some esteem: Is This Not the Carpenter? The Question of the Historicity of the Figure of Jesus (a publication of the Copenhagen International Seminar: Equinox, 2012), edited by Thomas Thompson and Thomas Verenna. Neither Thompson nor Verenna are deniers of historicity, but historicity agnostics. They believe the question of the historicity of Jesus needs to be seriously examined and not dismissed as an exercise only for cranks. They also agree that historicity is more questionable than is usually claimed. This is a review of that book.

[Read more…]

Charity Legend Update

Last month I blogged about the huge drive to make history with atheist charity (This Is Atheist Charity). Well the ante has been upped. Time to get in the game. Right now. Here’s the urgent message from the home front:

To further incentivize people to join local teams there are Registration Week promotions going on. Registration Week goes from July 7th through the 14th. We won’t make our goal of raising $1,000,000 unless we get a lot more walkers; we need more people to join our teams! If everyone rallies together, we can do this.

An anonymous donor will give $1 to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society for every new walker registered during Registration Week [see This Is Atheist Charity for links and details on how to do that, or just go straight to the Foundation Beyond Belief’s page on it]. If we meet our goal of 5,000 new walkers, LLS will receive another $10,000, thanks to matching by the Stiefel family!

In addition, every person who is signed up for a team by July 14th will have their name put in for a drawing to win a Kindle Fire. This includes people who have already registered for a team prior to Registration Week.

There is also a promotion just for team captains! The team captain who gets the most number of new members signed up to their team during the Registration Week a $50 American Express gift card!

So…can you not walk? Are you not biped? Shall we not hear you roar?

On Sexual Harassment Policies

Ron Lindsay of CFI (a lawyer and legal scholar) has composed a brief, solid primer on why sexual harassment policies are necessary and how they actually work, in the context of CFI’s new policy adopted for conferences and events. See CFI’s New Policy on Hostile Conduct. It is illuminating because of his legal expertise and the fact that he dispels many of the false assumptions about what sexual harassment policies do. He also discusses the merits of different policy elements and why CFI accepts some and rejects others, a good example of what I have been talking about: see On Sexual Harassment on that point, and the whole backstory on why I’m talking about this and what I think about it. Here I want to collect my thoughts on how venues could and should improve any policies they now have or will adopt in future. If you agree, and see a policy that could be improved, feel free to refer the organization in question here.

Defining and Delimiting Harassment

It is well worth reading the policy CFI adopted, and its smart use of definitions, which I highly recommend other venues adopt. Most particularly: [Read more…]