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Nov 02 2011

Theologians don’t get to slither out from under the rules of nature

Keith Ward sounds just like Ken Ham. It’s remarkable. You see, Ken Ham has this schtick in which he basically denies all of history: you weren’t there (the only valid evidence is eyewitness evidence captured through your biological senses), and because history isn’t repeatable, its study isn’t a real science, isn’t empirically verifiable, and is subject to whims and fads and therefore lacks any substantial objective core. Ken Ham says this kind of nonsense because he believes in a great elaborate line of historical bullshit, and wants to pretend that his illusions are on an equal footing with the evidence-based history.

Keith Ward is doing the same thing.

A huge number of factual claims are not scientifically testable. Many historical and autobiographical claims, for instance, are not repeatable, not publicly observable now or in future, and are not subsumable under any general law. We know that rational answers to many historical questions depend on general philosophical views, moral views, personal experience and judgment. There are no history laboratories. Much history, like much religion, is evidence-based, but the evidence is not scientifically tractable.

I keep trying to get this message across: the creationists (Ward is definitely not a fundamentalist/literalist sort, however) aren’t just out to corrupt biology, they stomp all over every scholarly discipline with great contempt. I agree that not every thing in the universe is scientifically verifiable or repeatable, but this cavalier attitude towards history is reprehensible. Yes, there are history laboratories: there are historians who do archaeology, chemistry, biology, astronomy and all kinds of hard sciences to confirm and test historical claims. The provenance and authenticity of documents is a major historical interest.

A discrete historical event may not be repeatable, but it is amenable to confirmation and validation. The source information can be independently verified. Multiple approaches can be taken to test a claim. Did Caesar invade Gaul? It only happened once, you don’t get to repeat the invasion, and no one alive was there, after all. But we can look at the archaeology of France, we can see the linguistic evidence, we’ve got documents from the time, and every time someone digs up a Roman cache from the first century BCE we are getting more information on the event.

I do consider it scientifically tractable. Evidence-based, empirical study and logical analysis are right there at the heart of the discipline of history.

But you know why Ward is doing this, right? It’s so he can claim Jesus, as a historical figure, is totally exempt from scientific examination.

Claims that the cosmos is created do not “trespass onto” scientific territory. They are factual claims in which scientific investigators are not, as such, interested. Scientific facts are, of course, relevant to many religious claims. But not all facts are scientific facts – the claim that I was in Oxford last night, unseen by anyone, will occur in no scientific paper, but it is a hard fact. So it is with the miracles of Jesus, with the creation of the cosmos and with its end.

So, if I claimed that Keith Ward was hatched from a rotten turtle’s egg incubated in a dung heap, that would not be trespassing onto scientific territory? Because it happened in the past and no one directly witnessed it, my claim gets to stand unchallenged and unquestioned? I should think if I made a remarkable claim in defiance of a standard scientific observation — that humans are birthed in a standard mammalian way, and that Keith Ward is a mammal — I think I should certainly deserve an argument on scientific grounds against my assertion.

On his trivial claim that he was in Oxford, unobserved, I’d say it could be turned into question amenable to rational inquiry and verification. Is there evidence that is compatible with him being in Oxford at that time? Did he leave any traces, credit card receipts, was he spotted on a traffic camera, were there witnesses he didn’t see? Even if there actually is a complete absence of evidence and nothing we can directly test, we can at least whether the claim is compatible with what we know.

A better comparison with the miracles of Jesus would be for Keith Ward to claim he’d been on Mars last night. Can we evaluate that scientifically? Sure can. If he’s going to argue that, he’d better have a collection of Mars rocks, a spacesuit, and a rocketship in his back yard.

Again, I’m not claiming that everything has to be demonstrable as a scientific fact. A poem is not subject to a scientific determination of its truth. But the existence of a poem does not flout the nature of the universe, and doesn’t call into question the validity of physics, while Ward is blithely swapping in mundane experience as proof of extravagantly unlikely, ridiculous claims like the “miracles of Jesus”. Not only is it a very weak argument, it’s dishonest. It’s like saying you can’t disprove I had a drink of water this morning, therefore you you can’t disprove that my glass of water had cosmic consciousness and taught me how to fly.

Also, as long as you’re insisting on saying very silly things, could you at least have the courtesy to avoid using your ignorance to spit all over the entirely respectable and rational discipline of history?

(Also on Sb)

86 comments

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  1. 1
    jennyxyzzy

    Wait, you know how to fly PZ?

  2. 2
    Carlie

    Blargh.

    So I guess no crimes that don’t have eyewitness testimony can ever be solved, then.

    I’ll shill for ENSIweb, which is a great trove of classroom activities showing the nature of science and evolution. Many of them address this issue head-on.

  3. 3
    Daniel R

    The difference between Ken Ham and Keith Ward, though, is that Ham is a scam artist, while Ward is a professor: apparently he was previously Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford University, amazingly.

    The general level of disbelief in the comments that anyone who achieved such a high academic post could have written such a facile argument was gratifying, though.

  4. 4
    auditorydamage

    By that standard, Xenu really did fly thetans into volcanoes 66 million years ago, force them to watch wrestling and speak with psychiatrists, and then used nuclear weapons to cause eruptions. It’s also a fact that you can only find out the full story, and gain mega-woo powers, for the low, low price of $36 000* if you order now. Hey, it’s just as valid as that gibberish Ward spewed.

    ‘Course, people who *really* want to know the truth praise Bob – eternal salvation or *triple* your money back!

    * subject to the quotas and budgetary needs of the local org’s director.

  5. 5
    Glen Davidson

    Did Caesar invade Gaul? It only happened once, you don’t get to repeat the invasion, and no one alive was there, after all. But we can look at the archaeology of France, we can see the linguistic evidence, we’ve got documents from the time, and every time someone digs up a Roman cache from the first century BCE we are getting more information on the event.

    Sure, but did George Washington chop down an apple tree? Did St. Nicholas pay the dowry for a couple of sisters, or whatever the story is?

    The problem for Ward, though, is that while many “historical events” are neither verifiable nor falsifiable, we typically evaluate their plausibility according to science. So if the Dakota tribe tells of a magic shaman who rose from the dead (I certainly don’t know that they do, entirely hypothetical), that is beyond absolute falsification, we just find it to be entirely implausible.

    Same with Jesus rising from the dead.

    Glen Davidson

  6. 6
    Ophelia Benson

    the claim that I was in Oxford last night, unseen by anyone, will occur in no scientific paper, but it is a hard fact. So it is with the miracles of Jesus.

    I love that “So it is” – really? Let me play.

    The claim that I was in Seattle last night, unseen by anyone, will occur in no scientific paper, but it is a hard fact. So it is with the transformation of a pumpkin into a carriage.

    The claim that I was in Seattle last night, unseen by anyone, will occur in no scientific paper, but it is a hard fact. So it is with the invasion of the body-snatchers in California in 1952.

    The claim that I was in Seattle last night, unseen by anyone, will occur in no scientific paper, but it is a hard fact. So it is with the child witches of Nigeria.

    Etc.

  7. 7
    Avo, also nigelTheBold

    Keith Ward:

    Much history, like much religion, is evidence-based, but the evidence is not scientifically tractable.

    Wait, what?

    Let’s ignore the “not scientifically tractable” bit for just a moment. I’m more interested in the implied assertion, “history and religion have equal evidence.”

    He must’ve found a blow-out sale at Fallacy City (“We specialize in fallacies, so you don’t have to”), a buy-one-get-one-free sort of deal. “Yeah, I’ll take a bare assertion. Oh, and throw in a false equivalency, since it’s free.”

    I’ve been waiting for evidence for the validity of religion for years. All I ever get is equivocation, sophistry, question-begging, and an uptick in indigestion. I didn’t know Mr. Ward had evidence. Evidence as strong as those for historical events, like the US civil war, the re-discovery of America, and the black death.

    Why, what have I been missing?

  8. 8
    commanderadama

    Not to mention the fact that a historical claim such as “X happened” is different from a claim such as “if X happens, then Y is the result.” The latter welcomes repetition because we are stating a premise that claims to yield a specific result. The former doesn’t need repeating, or testing. It doesn’t predict anything.

  9. 9
    Janine Is Still An Asshole, OM,

    It is not fair to expect theologians to confined to the material world when their concerns lie outside the material world.

  10. 10
    marko

    Wait, you know how to fly PZ?

    Of course, it is entirely true until you prove otherwise. Please bear in mind that he uses magic to fly, so the laws of physics can’t be used in your disproof.

  11. 11
    Glen Davidson

    Sure, but did George Washington chop down an apple tree?

    Or cherry tree. Whichever.

    Glen Davidson

  12. 12
    jacobfromlost

    You say the earth is a sphere? Fine. All you have to do is create another spherical earth to demonstrate it to me. Also, other people need to be able to create their own spherical earths to satisfy reproducibility. What, you say? That’s not what reproducibility means? Well, then, I’m going to have to ask you to create an entire universe to demonstrate your point, one in which it is possible for me to be wrong.

    Therefore the earth is flat.

  13. 13
    Avo, also nigelTheBold

    The apologists are coming up with weaker and weaker arguments. Maybe that’s a good sign. If this were a movie, religion would be in the middle of a scenery-chewing, minutes-long death scene.

  14. 14
    gelderg

    Hey Ken Ham! How do you know the Bible is true? You weren’t there!!!

  15. 15
    nowimnothing

    I always like to bring up death penalty cases when these kinds of silly arguments come up. Getting them to admit that they will rely on the same type of evidence for deciding whether someone will be executed for a crime but not for evolution is especially satisfying.

  16. 16
    Beatrice, an amateur cynic looking for a happy thought

    So … When we talk about things like dinosaurs and Ham asks if you’ve been there, you can now say that you have. No one has seen you, of course, but Ward says that your claim has to be accepted anyway. Because it’s a hard fact. Because you say so.
    Hm, if you put Ham and Ward together, will they end up in a never ending circular argument, therefore never bothering serious people again?

  17. 17
    Ogvorbis: Still failing at being human.

    Back when I had a working blog (and I hope to again) I ran into this line of thinking multiple times. The bizarre thing is, though, the fundogelicals try to have it both ways.

    If someone came on and started arguing that there was shitloads of historical evidence for the existence of a first-century rabble-rousing rabbi who could do miracles, I would, of course, call them on it. An this was followed by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, along with the blankety-blank Josephus insertion. And, if my or (more commonly) the fellow commenter’s comments got too close to reality, they would change their tune and start arguing out of the magical faith side. And vice-versa. And then they’d start arguing about the historical evidence for the existence of Christianity as if that proved the existence of Christ. Like trying to nail jello to a tree.

    If our only evidence of the American Revolution was four stories, all from the same basic set of folklore, first put to paper in a language other than English, self-contradicting, and recorded in the mid-nineteenth century, along with a jarringly discontinuous phrase tossed into a history book written around 1860 (which only appears in the newer copies, not the older extant ones), we, as historians, would be hard pressed to know that the American Revolution had even happened were it not for the archaeological evidence.

    I think Christians get their noses out of joint that the most important ‘event’ in the history of the entire world was drowned out by one asthmatic cricket.

  18. 18
    Christophe Thill

    If Mr Ward was suspected of having committed a crime last night in Oxford, the matter of his being or not being present in that city would be an important one, and it would be investigated. and the methods use for establishing the truth would be closely related to those used in scientific (and historical) research : gathering data, criticizing sources, comparing versions, collecting material evidence, etc.

  19. 19
    Marius Rowell

    We all naturally go to a Professor of Theology for answers to our biology questions, of course – and for logic in his answers too, no doubt. A, therefore B does not prove that C, therefore D is also true, and even a theologian should know that much about logic.

    The real question – was he in Oxford, MS or Oxford, England remains un-answered though. If he was in Oxford, England there will be video evidence of the fact, plus airline tickets, immigration officials as witnesses, etc.

  20. 20
    'Tis Himself, OM

    nigelTheBold #7

    He must’ve found a blow-out sale at Fallacy City (“We specialize in fallacies, so you don’t have to”), a buy-one-get-one-free sort of deal. “Yeah, I’ll take a bare assertion. Oh, and throw in a false equivalency, since it’s free.”

    Ward is treating us to some “sophisticated theology.” It’s so sophisticated that it appears fallacious to the uninitiated, i.e., everyone but Ward.

  21. 21
    Peptron

    According to him, I am a Highlander. I don’t remember my birth, therefore am an immortal.

  22. 22
    raven

    No one saw jesus being crucified. It happened long ago and anyone who might have is long dead.

    We also don’t have any eyewitness accounts.

    If jesus actually existed (questionable), there would have been thousands or tens of thousands of people who saw him, eyewitnesses. They weren’t convinced he was a god man at all. Today, we call those people the Jews.

    This is telling, the dog that didn’t bark.

    Even a lot of fundies used to not like that, “Were you there” trick. No one was there for the magic Garden disaster, the Big Boat event, Exodus, Moses, Abraham, or god jesus slumming on earth either.

  23. 23
    Anthony K

    Another victory for Sophisticated Theology™, the reason all True Believers™ believe!

  24. 24
    Ogvorbis: Still failing at being human.

    …it would be investigated. and the methods use for establishing the truth would be closely related to those used in scientific (and historical) research : gathering data, criticizing sources, comparing versions, collecting material evidence, etc.

    Optimism is so nice to see. Knowing a man currently going through the court system, I find your optimism (here in the USA) refreshing. Naive, but refreshing.

  25. 25
    Elf M. Sternberg

    That’s so curiously backward. I read through Stephen Meyers Signature in the Cell, and in the last chapter he argues for the exact opposite: that if the study of history is meaningful, even if it can’t be reproduced, then so is “cdesign proponentsism.” Meyers argues that intelligent design may not be happening now (how convenient, that every experiment going forward looks like naturalism in action!), but that by studying Behe’s Black Boxes we can determine meaningful inflection points where “the designer” did its thing. If we don’t allow cdesign proponentsists to do that, Meyers argues, we shouldn’t allow historians to make similar claims about historical incidents.

    Ward is arguing that Meyers’s thesis is a non-starter, and we have to throw out the validity of history (as well as any attempt by intelligent design to claim legitimacy) in order to support the existence of Jesus.

    Now, who are you going to trust: Ward, Meyers, or your own lying eyes?

  26. 26
    Monado, FCD

    The website talkorigins.org has a lovely analogy, “Was there a War of 1812?”, giving all the standard creationist arguments as to why we shouldn’t believe in history because we weren’t there, etc. It’s from 2004.

  27. 27
    Tony B

    That was beautiful, on a par with any “hitchslap”, infact i’ll go further, that was more like a Myersdonkey-punch.

  28. 28
    raven

    A discrete historical event may not be repeatable, but it is amenable to confirmation and validation.

    If jesus/god existed, he should have his own TV show, website, and radio program. These are tasks within the abilities of a third grader.

    He could also show up every once in a while and do something tangible in the real world. My cat does this.

    At the very least, they should have left behind a concise instruction manual written in understandable prose. Instead we got a kludgy mess like the bible.

  29. 29
    PZ Myers

    That Ophelia, skulking about Seattle, doing miracles. Someone ought to put out a Benson trap and catch her in the act.

  30. 30
    Ken Browning

    People argue like this because they are either clueless or clued-in but choosing to pretend for the moment that probability theory is not the highly robust mechanism that it actually is.

  31. 31
    raven

    Some historical claims are subject to verification by archaeology. People leave evidence behind just by existing.

    We know the Jamestown, Virginia settlement happened because we found it and are digging it up. The archaeology follows the history quite closely.

    The bible hasn’t fared very well. The Garden and Big Boat event are just mythology. The Exodus never happened. The Jews were just Canaanites who never genocided the other Canaanites and stole their land, women, and stuff. David and Solomon were at best, minor chieftains.

  32. 32
    Lagerbaer

    Not all methods of science apply to all fields equally, and hilarity ensues if people think otherwise. I had a defender of homeopathy argue that the effectiveness of parachutes isn’t tested in double-blind studies either and therefore homeopathy shouldn’t be expected to be tested that way…

  33. 33
    Gunboat Diplomat

    Its worth bearing in mind that although this equivalence of history and religion is nonsense because history is based on evidence rather than sky-fairy wishful thinking, history as a discipline is NOT a scientific one.

    Specifically, although the gathering of evidence for there a particular historical event, person or trend can and usually is scientific, the interpretation of the evidence is very much open to debate and different.

    And the interpretation of the evidence is where the real meat is in history – why did things happen in one way and not another? This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t treat it as a science as much as you can but by its nature its limited.

  34. 34
    Dan L.

    If history is not amenable to scientific investigation, then neither are cosmology, astronomy, or paleontology, and evolutionary biology, all of which are predominately historical sciences — the events of the distant past are inferred from evidence gathered more recently.

    Good luck to the theists who want to argue that astronomy isn’t a scientific discipline.

  35. 35
    mizzmazz

    Heh, this reminds me of my mother (many years ago) arguing that we don’t need new history books, because all that stuff happened long ago, and we know everything we need to know. We’re always learning new things about the past. Why anyone would want to come to a screeching halt like Ham and Ward is beyond me…oh yeah, I don’t want to wallow in lies.

  36. 36
    Ibis3, Let's burn some bridges

    Thanks, PZ. As an historian by training (though not by profession), I find it disappointing to see how often the discipline is dismissed as a lower class of study and non-scientific by sceptics and atheists (especially those with a scientific background), and how its perversion by religious apologists is often ignored. The history of religion and the preposterous historical claims of religious scriptures combined, provide just as credible evidence that the whole religion thing is bullshit as does the theory of evolution or the Big Bang.

    We know that rational answers to many historical questions depend on general philosophical views, moral views, personal experience and judgment. There are no history laboratories.

    It sounds to me like he’s trying to equivocate between what we can determine based on evidence are historical facts, what we hypothesize based on evidence are historical causes, and how we interpret the evidence of historical events to illustrate human nature etc. Historians will necessarily use philosophy, moral views, and personal experience to a greater degree in the third situation, but we try to reduce as much as possible their role in the first and second–both with respect to ourselves and to the sources we work from. We use both laboratories and peer review. We corroborate our findings with those of other disciplines.

    This is the opposite of the religious mind-set. They view texts as eternal and infallible, extracted from their historical context and impervious to analysis. They don’t weigh the evidence against anything *but* their own opinions and dogma (I am loathe to use the word philosophy, because they are not lovers of wisdom & knowledge).

    Anyway, I’d like to see this guy in a court room trying out these stupid notions: “My alibi is as scientifically untractable as are the miracles of Jesus.” Alrighty then.

  37. 37
    Ogvorbis: Still failing at being human.

    We know that rational answers to many historical questions depend on general philosophical views, moral views, personal experience and judgment. There are no history laboratories.

    Damn. Just came to me.

    We do, as historians, have the ability to view past historical writings through the lense of historiography — the study of the study of history — which puts the philosophical and moral views into focus by studying when the history was written and the backgrounds of those who wrote it. Which can be very informative when one deals with the winners writing history to justify what they did.

  38. 38
    pelamun

    We do, as historians, have the ability to view past historical writings through the lense of historiography — the study of the study of history — which puts the philosophical and moral views into focus by studying when the history was written and the backgrounds of those who wrote it. Which can be very informative when one deals with the winners writing history to justify what they did.

    Which may be the main way one has to do history of the Classics. Though archeological studies in the Mediterranean might have been more reliable than those in China…

  39. 39
    Anthony K

    Someone ought to put out a Benson trap and catch her in the act.

    I looked at the trap, PZ. [Tries not to cross the streams.]

  40. 40
    pelamun

    (the problem with archaeology in China is that it is being misused to prove preposterous nationalist claims, aiming to construct a Chinese nation from 6,000 years ago)

  41. 41
    Worldtraveller

    So, does this qualify as some more of that there sophistimicated theology? Cuz, that’s some serious weaksauce, that is.

  42. 42
    Avo, also nigelTheBold

    Lagerbaer:

    I had a defender of homeopathy argue that the effectiveness of parachutes isn’t tested in double-blind studies either and therefore homeopathy shouldn’t be expected to be tested that way…

    Ah. An homeopath who doesn’t understand statistics. Why am I not surprised?

    So what were they suggesting? We should tests homeopaths the same way we test parachutes?

    I’m all for that.

  43. 43
    Ibis3, Let's burn some bridges

    @ Gunboat Diplomat

    Every field of science is limited. Just as in every other science, we try to mitigate those limitations using the tools we do have and that we can employ. Historical interpretation is not something that is pulled out of one’s ass and gussied up with a bow. It is based on evidence and debated over by those who know about as much of the subject as you do. It is changed when new evidence presents itself or when a new researcher comes along with a better explanation that incorporates more data. This is no different from physics or biology in principle and methodology.

  44. 44
    Draken

    Did Caesar invade Gaul? Yes, but not all of Gaul. One village…

  45. 45
    Kevin

    He’s getting a royal reaming in the comments over there.

    We’re getting smarter, and they’re not.

  46. 46
    D. Everett F.

    It seems that Ward misunderstands the topic of his discussion. As he sees it, “[w]e need to ask if particular religious and scientific claims conflict, or whether they are mutually supportive or not.” The question of interest, he later claims, “is not whether religion is compatible with science, but whether there are important factual questions – and some important non-factual questions, too, such as moral ones – with which the physical sciences do not usually deal.” Thus, he posits a distinction between “scientific” and “non-scientific” facts, in which the former are universal claims that can be repeatable, while the latter are specific events that cannot; and distinguishes between kinds of facts which are of interest to natural sciences and those which are not.

    But this isn’t really the interesting question behind the conflict between religion and science. As I see it, the real question is whether the methodologies of science and “religious inquiry” are both acceptable methods for delivering good reasons to believe the facts that they purport to examine. So what if scientific practices can’t yield a judgment on whether “the cosmos exists because it is created by a God with a purpose.” By what method, exactly, are we to find compelling reasons to believe this claim?

  47. 47
    feralboy12

    I had a defender of homeopathy argue that the effectiveness of parachutes isn’t tested in double-blind studies either and therefore homeopathy shouldn’t be expected to be tested that way…

    Let’s see…we’re on a crippled airplane and there is only one parachute. Would this person be OK with letting me use it? I’m the one who is willing to risk this unproven, untested contraption. Perhaps the homeopath would like to use homeopathic principles to get to safety?
    Like causes like…gravity causes falling…
    By the time the homeopath figures out how to dilute gravity, I’ll be safely on the ground.

  48. 48
    COE4514

    I read this idiotic article a few days ago and I’m glad you put some sense to it! Man was it ever hard to read without my brain exploding from the sheer stupidity of his arguments!

  49. 49
    Hazuki

    Unfortunately for the good theologian, enough specific and foundational claims of the Abrahamic mythos have been tested–and falsified–that it is no longer warranted to believe any of it except possibly some very rarefied, liberal forms of Christianity or Judaism.

    Carrier is doing tremendous work in this arena, as one example. And one trend I noticed, which cements Jesus’ status as a false prophet (I believe there was such a person, contra Price and the mythicists) is the trend across certain books of the NT. 1 Corinthians (early epistle and most likely genuinely Pauline) has a very enthusiastic declaration that time is short, to the point that he insists “the dead will by no means prevent [go before] the living” to Heaven.

    Read next through 1 and 2 Thessalonians (disputed authorship IIRC) and 2 Peter (definitely pseudepigraphical) though, and you see a change over time. Corresponding to the ages of each text, the authors become less and less sure than Paul was in 1 Cor. until by 2 Peter whoever wrote it explicitly states that “Where is he, then?” type questions are becoming a problem.

    Now, contrast with Mat. 10:23 (“…shall not have finished going through the cities of Israel…”) and all the declarations that time is short, no man knoweth the hour, the hour approacheth as a thief in the night, and so on from Jesus. Oops. If one took these out of context and in vacuum (as it seems almost all theologians do), one could bafflegab on about a spiritual as opposed to physical end of the world…but not when you cross-catalog the texts and understand their history.

    It bothers me that these people are this dishonest. Why does God need to be defended at all, and why does he accept liars and intellectual cowards like this to do it?

  50. 50
    rad_pumpkin

    So…nobody gets to question the stupid shit I say, because…I said it? Is that really the argument here? I said it, and while there’s no repeatable and/or verifiable evidence, it’s still true because I said so. Cool, from now on all of you guys get to address me as The Emperor of Mankind. We’ll begin building our glorious Imperium soon. What? As long as you can’t prove me wrong, it’s true! Now shut up before I sic the inquisition on your heretic ass…

    Or to give another (and NSFW) example of stupid shit that’s apparently factual by theologian logic I found earlier: /b is full of perfectly normal people

  51. 51
    Stonyground

    The issue of the New Testament is really relevant here. If history really as flawed as he suggests then how is the NT exempt from this criticism? of course we know that it is claimed on no evidence whatsoever to be divinely inspired by the Holy Spirit or whatever but the historical evidence for Mr. Jesus is really really piss poor.

    The earliest documents, the Epistles, contain hardly any biographical details of the guy’s life apart from the fact that he died a sacrificial death and was “raised up”. These beliefs have much in common with pre-Christian religions and it is uncertain what the term raised up actually meant. After these documents comes an anonymous story, no-one knows who wrote it or why, we don’t even know whether the author intended it to be taken as factual or as fiction. Two more versions of this story then appeared, the authors copied it out and added the contents of a book of sayings, seemingly at random. The fourth version may or may not be based on any of the other three, but if it is claimed to be an independant account the problem is that it is entirely different from the other three.

    Not only are the miraclulous aspects of these tales rather unlikely, they are also mostly copied from similar religions that existed earlier.

    If anyone claims that the Jesus story must have been true in order to become a major world religion, I suggest that they study the history of Mormonism.

  52. 52
    lazybird

    Claims that the cosmos is created do not “trespass onto” scientific territory.

    Well, not anymore. I believe that particular horse was beaten to death a few hundred years ago.

  53. 53
    Sastra

    Claims that the cosmos is created do not “trespass onto” scientific territory. They are factual claims in which scientific investigators are not, as such, interested.

    Scientific investigators would be very interested indeed if there was good evidence for such factual claims. The fact that such evidence does not exist doesn’t, as such, indicate that the Creative Acts of God are not in scientific territory. Consider what would happen if there were suddenly strong, clear, convincing evidence of divine origin (or miracles.) Theologians would not wave it all away with a dismissive sneer because religious ‘facts’ do not trespass onto scientific territory. Instead, they’d say “See? See? Told you so! We were right all along!”

    the claim that I was in Oxford last night, unseen by anyone, will occur in no scientific paper, but it is a hard fact. So it is with the miracles of Jesus.

    Ah, more sophisticated apologetics.

  54. 54
    RFW

    A book I’ve referred to in a previous comment on another Pharyngula blog entry, The Historical Figure of Jesus by E. P. Sanders, discusses inter alia how historians handle flaky documentation like the New Testament in an attempt to separate the wheat of truth from the chaff of falsehood.

    One of his points that’s stuck in my mind is his explanation that where a historical document is glowing with positivism about the subject, it’s suspect, but where it reports negative things, it’s more likely to be true.

    IOW, historians, who by definition are dealing with unverifiable reports, nonetheless pay close attention to separating propaganda from truth.

    I think that since I’ve referred twice now to this book in comments here on Pharyngula, that I’ll recommend strongly that Pharyngulites avail themselves of a copy and read it carefully. At the very least, it’s one devil of a lot more even handed than the credulous nonsense spewed forth by ignorant bibblical literalists. It may give you hope that even in the contentious field of “the truth of the bibble”, there are rational people.

  55. 55
    djfav

    I can play this game too.

    Scientific facts are, of course, relevant to many religious claims. But not all facts are scientific facts – the claim that I was in Oxford last night, unseen by anyone, will occur in no scientific paper, but it is a hard fact. So it is with the rape of a little girl by Glenn Beck in 1991.

  56. 56
    Anticipator

    Professor,

    I just wanted to tell you I came across your speech to the Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne from last year. I was unfamiliar with you before. It was absolutely wonderful. Keep up the good work.

  57. 57
    hotshoe

    Draken says:

    Did Caesar invade Gaul? Yes, but not all of Gaul. One village…

    Tee hee.

    Loved it !

  58. 58
    tbp1

    Does my heart good to see that the commentary is running about 99-1 against Mr. Ward.

  59. 59
    Stonyground

    sorry, I forgot to ask. Is the Oxford referred to here in England? I’m asking because the US has a habit of naming places after English towns. You should know that the UK, the birthplace of George Orwell, is the world’s capitol of CCTV cameras. If this guy hung out for one second in Oxford, England there would be video footage of the event.

  60. 60
    Ibis3, Let's burn some bridges

    where a historical document is glowing with positivism about the subject, it’s suspect, but where it reports negative things, it’s more likely to be true.

    To clarify, when a document is unabashedly glowing *or* disparaging, we treat it with more caution. If it contains a mixture of positive and negative opinion, or seems to neither praise nor condemn but to relate positive and negative events indiscriminately or describes less value-laden facts (such as household financial accounts or census data), it’s more likely to be closer to an objective account.*

    But since all documents or primary sources were written down by humans, and humans have philosophies, political and social objectives, and unexamined biases, we evaluate the sources with those things in mind. We also try to be aware of our own biases and objectives and are assisted in that endeavour by peer review.


    *Note that panegyrics and censures are also evidence in themselves, even if we can’t necessarily rely on them for accurate reportage.

  61. 61
    MetzO'Magic

    17. Father Ogvorbis:

    I think Christians get their noses out of joint that the most important ‘event’ in the history of the entire world was drowned out by one asthmatic cricket.

    It is a historical fact that that very same cricket was also blind in one eye, and missing a foreleg. I was there.

  62. 62
    Ibis3, Let's burn some bridges

    To clarify my clarification: even given all of that, yes, the panegyric is more likely to contain false or exaggerated information than the censure.

  63. 63
    CJO

    A book I’ve referred to in a previous comment on another Pharyngula blog entry, The Historical Figure of Jesus by E. P. Sanders, discusses inter alia how historians handle flaky documentation like the New Testament in an attempt to separate the wheat of truth from the chaff of falsehood.

    Very few historians, per se, work in NT studies. Sanders’ education is in theology and text criticism, like most of his colleagues in the NT studies guild. He calls himself a “secularized Protestant” and he claims to don a historian’s hat when he writes on the historical Jesus, but the fact remains he is a confessing Christian and so cannot take as objective an approach to his subject as a historian ought.

    One of his points that’s stuck in my mind is his explanation that where a historical document is glowing with positivism about the subject, it’s suspect, but where it reports negative things, it’s more likely to be true.

    The problem with Sanders’ treatment, and, in my view, all mainstream considerations of the historical value of the portrait of Jesus found in the NT, is that they begin with the assumption of historicity. This is often an un-argued appeal to plausibility, adducing a “hermeneutic of charity” as the proper starting point. This is not to say they take the claims of the NT at face value, but their meta-analysis presupposes without warrant that the intent of the gospels was, at least in part, to convey some reliable historical information; that whether what the authors report is true or not, they believed (some of) it to be true. It’s a classic case of avoiding the null hypothesis by mining the results of form and redaction criticism, which can make more or less solid judgements about which texts are earlier and how the later ones developed, and then turning around and conflating authenticity in this sense with historical accuracy without ever asking whether the texts are concerned with historical fact at all or how we might know whether we’re wrong about that.

    A case in point regarding positive versus negative treatment of a subject: the baptism of Jesus in the Synoptics. Mark, the earliest text, tells us that John the Baptizer was baptizing in the Jordan “for the forgiveness of sins.” Jesus arrives on the scene and John promptly baptizes him. Using Sanders’ approach, this is likely to be a historical kernel because of the treatment this episode receives in later and dependent texts. Matthew and Luke betray discomfort with the idea that Jesus would participate in a ritual for the expiation of sin because, for them, Jesus was perfect and thus without sin. But, the argument goes, they were constrained by the brute fact of the episode’s factual historicity and thus dared not simply excise the passage. It was part of the record, and so had to be included, albeit with whatever redactional spin the authors could apply to remove the implication that Jesus sought forgiveness.

    The problems here should be obvious. Mark’s text betrays no embarrassment whatsoever over the episode. The author uses the baptism as a springboard for Jesus’ public ministry, and it functions as a legitimization scene, in which the heavens part revealing a dove, and the voice of God is heard to proclaim Jesus God’s beloved son. Literary intent is sufficient to explain the episode in Mark, and if later theological developments made it problematic, that does not provide warrant to consider it historical in the absence of a strong argument that the text of Mark is not a literary fiction, a symbolic narrative concerned overwhelmingly with theology and not history. If that view of the text is correct, then the authors of Matthew and Luke were not constrained by historical fact at all, but by the fact that Mark was the only story they knew of about Jesus’ baptism, and by their own, possibly mistaken, belief that Mark is concerned with biographical and historical fact.

  64. 64
    Kel

    I sometimes think that theists treat the gospels as the work of investigative journalists. That people were gathering eyewitness statements, checking evidences, then reporting back that it truly was the Son of God.

    Then I remember that’s probably giving too much credit. “Jesus did magic stuff, really really really magic, and you sceptics can’t prove otherwise!” might be a more accurate assessment.

    Remember, Keith Ward is one of those sophisticated theologians who use New Atheists ignore…

  65. 65
    A4thinker

    As I posted on the Guardian article containing this:

    “The claim that he was in Oxford last night isn’t an extraordinary claim. The claim that Jesus died and rose again is. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. “It’s true because I read it in a book” isn’t extraordinary evidence.”

  66. 66
    Solid Muldoon

    I banged Eartha Kitt in an airplane restroom. Hey, were you there? Then shut up.

  67. 67
    Kel

    *us new atheists, not use.

    This is what happens when I don’t get coffee in the morning…

  68. 68
    Carlie

    Solid Muldoon – oh yeah? Toss the dice and see if you say that again.

  69. 69
    irritable

    All over the common law world today, juries are being empanelled to decide questions of fact in criminal and civil cases.

    Each juror is normally reminded, ad nauseaum, that evidence (information of various types) may be direct (like a photograph, tape recording, letter or recounted observation) or indirect (an observable state of affairs consistent with the existence of the relevant fact). They’re also instructed about the effect of circumstantial evidence (a collection of direct and indirect facts which collectively, consistently imply the occurrence of a fact).

    They are reminded that the reliability of evidence is affected by factors, including its source, its antiquity and various types of human observational frailty.

    They are reminded that there are degrees of certainty about the existence of a fact: – “balance of probabilities” (roughly, better than 50% likely to have occurred) and in criminal matters “beyond reasonable doubt” (almost certainly happened).

    This is the way many extremely important questions are compulsorily decided in society. Every day.

    It’s an ancient, familiar, practical method of fact finding.

    It shares many features with the scientific method and proper historical method.

    Ward, like many second-rate religious academics (is that an oxymoron) pretends that “science” is a process of fact finding which does not involve any of these pragmatic, common sense elements.

    His crooked argument equivocates over multiple usages of the word – “scientific”.

    To suit his argument, he pretends that no fact is “scientifically proved” unless mathematical certainty is demonstrated. That’s just puerile when considering many classes of facts. In fact, science, history and law don’t require that mathematical certainty be established. Nor should they.

    It’s an encouraging development that intellectual frauds like Ward are now being called on their BS all over the internet.

  70. 70
    It'spiningforthefyords

    Read the article.

    Literally caught myself holding my nose after the first paragraph.

    This man is a stupidly lying twit of the first order.

  71. 71
    feralboy12

    I banged Eartha Kitt in an airplane restroom. Hey, were you there? Then shut up.

    No, you didn’t. She was with me that day. Of course, she was dressed in her Catwoman costume, so I can’t prove it was really her, but I’m sure it was because I feel it in my heart.

  72. 72
    scifi

    @CJO

    Yep.

    I get fed up with religionists quoting Sanders as if he had produced ‘empirical’ evidence of the Christ’s existence.

    As you so eloquently put it, claiming historicity *a priori* does not help his cause. Neither does his personal education history (a quick search will reveal a singularly biased lien to his choice of institutions).

    It’s also strange that he quotes many a historian born AFTER the alleged death of the alleged christ as if their commentary held up the supposition, despite these ancient historians themselves relying on hearsay.

  73. 73
    cm's changeable moniker (quaint, if not charming)

    @Anticipator, if you liked that, you’re liable to love this:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=115DdMmp2B

    and:

  74. 74
    cm's changeable moniker (quaint, if not charming)

    Oh, hai, embed. Oh well … at least it’s, um, appropriate.

  75. 75
    Sam Salerno

    It never ceases to amaze me that in the same breathe creationists claim we weren’t there, they spew out their 6000 year ago god crap as if they were there. How can they not see this?

  76. 76
    Kel

    How can they not see this?

    Because God was there. Don’t you listen to the sophisticated theology of Ken Ham? God was there, God saw it all, God wrote it down in the bible, and who are you to question God’s word?

    ;)

  77. 77
    Monado, FCD

    Tony B., talkorigins.org is well worth browsing. That lovely letter was a runner-up for letter of the month.

  78. 78
    Craigore

    Boy this guy’s view of scientific research is narrow. What, does he expect any and all scientifically objective researchers to be adourned in lab coats with beakers and microscopes? It’s just like the IDiots who proclaim the Big Bang and Evolution cannot be tested by recreating them in their entirety under laboratory conditions, and therefore could not be scientific. But I guess that’s what you get from pompous pseudo academics (I’m looking at you William Lame Craig) who spend all their time studying theology and sophistry – err – philosophy and avoid doing any research into rational studies. Ofcourse this equivocation of evidence based and science compatable Historical study with Religion (based not on evidence, but on dogma and arguments from authority)greatly unnerves me as an anthropology major whom derives a great deal of insight from historical documentation into socio-cultural trends which have predictive utility about the future of the human condition (anthropology also has many of the same limitations of History, but like history we supplement with findings from other sciences including physics, chemistry, biology, archeology, etc). Science is knowledge, and knowledge is something that can be established even outside a laboratory (concordance and consistency being key words in this pursuit). As an aspiring socio-cultural anthropolgoist I am met with demands for scientific rigor, honest inquiry, and logical consistency before my work can be met with approval from peers in my field, even if it is an open ended research study and not a precise laboratory experiment that I am pursuing. I am still far from being at liberty to conclude whatever I want (based on evidence or none), so in my honest opinion fuck this guy – we are not so alike you and I.

  79. 79
    ConcernedJoe

    @ #66 Solid: I had a wonderful night in 1943 with Lena Horne. It was the opening of “Stormy Weather” in NYC. We managed to sneak away from her fans afterward and we spent an idyllic several hours in the Park. Her place or mine was the burning question on my mind; I soon found out likewise on hers. In the morning I looked over the skyline as the Sun rose.. her place had a view that was magical. I was risen ..she called and I was assumed into Heaven for what I hoped eternity.

    Of this is true because I said it is true – and I should know – I was there!

  80. 80
    ConcernedJoe

    On a less fantastic note:

    I cannot see how any prestigious educational institution can have a Theology Department without snickering themselves to death. A useless appendage from the past is all they are.

    History – UNlike Theology – is a discipline devoted to methodological skepticism in the most rigorous and scientific sense. Of course the means and methods of the practice are often different – but so are they different between Physics and Biology – or any two subjects within the scientific umbrella of endeavors that must be methodologically skeptical.

    This Ward is an embarrassment.His argument so lame.

  81. 81
    tushcloots

    the claim that I was in Oxford last night, unseen by anyone, will occur in no scientific paper, but it is a hard fact.

    The claim that I, tushcloots, was in Oxford last night, unseen by anyone, watching Keith Ward sneak into a dark alley with an ewe, will occur in no scientific paper, but it is a hard fact. It may, however appear in a tabloid paper.

    The editor may well ask, did anyone see you watching Keith and the ewe, and I may well say, “what if they did, but nobody saw them see me watching the ewe and its boyfriend?
    “In fact, I may well ask if you, mister editor, saw the one seeing him seeing me watching Keith Ward and ewe, if you’re going to go that route, eh? Neither Keith Ward, nor the ewe, will be able to disprove what I saw, unseen by anyone, in that alley in Oxford.
    “In all truth, I didn’t even not see Keith ward dress the ewe in lingerie after they went into the alley, but no one saw them not doing that so it remains a fact that, none-the-less, will appear in no scientific paper! Not even Keith Ward and his fiance ewe will argue against that.

  82. 82
    Kel

    Caricature version of scientism: any fact not found through the scientific process must be discarded.

    Realistic version of scientism: one should proportions their belief to the evidence.

    It’s amazing how many people argue that if they just show scientism as too narrow then they can put whatever nonsense through they want.

  83. 83
    Draken

    I was in the middle of reading the comments on the Guardian, when they turned them off. Great.

  84. 84
    tushcloots

    LOL, just came across this:
    http://www.qwantz.com/index.php?comic=2077

  85. 85
    abb3w

    Hm. It’s fairly common for to magisterial separatists to try a “science deals with how, religion deals with why” separation, or occasionally “science deals with is-questions, religion deals with ought-questions” (though neither is all that accurate). This appears to be an attempt to further subdivide is-questions into “is-now-questions” and “was-then-questions” to claim the latter is outside the scope of science proper, establishing an artificial distinction between “operational science” and “(historical/origins) science”.

    This is not new bullshit; rather, it is one of the core boluses of bullshit Answers In Genesis has used for years now.

  86. 86
    Alan

    @kel – regarding your comment #64, it’s probably worth noting that 2000 years ago “god” did everything so it would be normal to attribute one more unknown to the invisible deity. Even today, when one live person is pulled from the smoking wreckage of a plane crash, some nut will use the term “miracle” to describe it.

    In addition, it may also be worth noting that no-one really knows what happened to Gadhaffi in his final moments, when everyone was recording the scene on their phones. Not only that but you can see the sheer hysteria of the moment on those same videos which is how things happen in those parts of the world.

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