Richard Dawkins, abortion, disability, and human suffering

Most of the people who pay attention to Richard Dawkins probably remember exactly which tweetstorm I’m referring to, but, for anyone who doesn’t, here’s the quick version:

Some years back, when a woman made a passing comment in a Twitter discussion that she didn’t know what she’d do if she found she was pregnant with a fetus with Down’s syndrome, Dawkins responded with the bald statement “Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice.” Faced with a storm of outrage in response, he followed this up with a ‘sorry if you were offended’ post in which he explained that his beliefs on the matter were based on his ‘desire to increase the sum of happiness and reduce suffering’ and that thus giving birth to a baby with Down’s Syndrome rather than having an abortion ‘might actually be immoral from the point of view of the child’s own welfare’.

This was, as I say, several years ago, but was brought up again a few weeks ago in a radio interview in which the host (after stating that he himself had a child with Down’s Syndrome) asked him about this view. (Hemant Mehta on the Friendly Atheist blog at Patheos has a transcript of this part of the interview, for anyone who wants to check out what Dawkins said without listening to the whole thing.) Dawkins has dialled it back at least somewhat; if he learned nothing else from the previous brouhaha, he does at least seem to have learned the practical wisdom of trying to avoid getting too inflammatory on the subject. However, from what he says here, it’s clear he still holds the general view of thinking that it’s advisable – the exact phrase he used was ‘wise and sensible’ – to abort a fetus diagnosed with a disability rather than continue the pregnancy.

In case anyone reading this isn’t clear on why people have objected so vehemently to this viewpoint: To reach this belief, it’s necessary to be working from the assumption that disability is likely to impact a person’s life so adversely that it will prevent them from ever having as good a quality of life as a non-disabled person. This is an inaccurate and horribly ablist belief that, in itself, impacts adversely on the lives of disabled people by contributing to myths about disability and by sending an unfortunate message about which lives are or aren’t worth living. I have every sympathy for anyone who’s felt the need to choose abortion for themselves when faced with this situation – we live in a society where support for disabled people and their carers is sadly lacking – but treating abortion as some sort of advisable optimum solution to a diagnosis of fetal Down’s Syndrome or other disabilities is reprehensibly ablist.

That’s the obvious reason, and the one that reactions focused on at the time this happened. However, when Mehta’s post brought this up in my mind again, I realised there was also a second problem with Dawkins’ approach that got somewhat obscured by the extent to which he’d offended everyone with the first problem. I thought it was worth mentioning now: Dawkin’s formulation of ‘abortion advisable here because that’ll reduce suffering’ also completely ignores the experience of the person who would have to go through with the abortion.

Now, there is a huge range of possible reactions to having had an abortion, and I do not wish anyone to misread this post as some kind of claim about the supposed miseries of abortion; there are plenty of people out there whose main reaction post-abortion was ‘Thank goodness for that’. However, that isn’t really representative of the experience of people who have abortions for a diagnosis of fetal disability. Abortions for fetal disability are usually on pregnancies that were otherwise wanted. On top of that, they are, on the whole, carried out later in pregnancy than the average abortion; most abortions are done in the first trimester, but, because of the need to reach particular gestational stages before tests for disability can be performed, most abortions for disability are done in the second trimester, and on rare occasions even in the third. This makes them significantly harder both physically and emotionally.

The result of these factors is that abortions carried out for disability are typically, overall, some of the most difficult and distressing abortion experiences; in short, they cause suffering. Now, obviously, there are many times when people faced with this choice decide abortion is going to cause less suffering than continuing the pregnancy, and that is a choice that I believe should remain available for any individual in this situation. But ‘aborting a disabled fetus causes less suffering than continuing the pregnancy’ is absolutely not a blanket one-size-fits-all rule, because there are so many times when the reverse is true.

What all this means is that when Dawkins assumed abortion was the more moral choice because it would reduce levels of human suffering, he was not only making offensively ablist assumptions about disability equating to suffering; he was also showing utter disregard for the suffering that this would cause for pregnant people in this situation. It’s not that he actually wants them to suffer; he doesn’t. It’s that, when he weighs up what he believes to be the different degrees of suffering, it doesn’t even occur to him to include the feelings of the pregnant person in there. That factor simply isn’t on his radar.

Dawkins is, in fact, providing a sterling example of the Dunning-Kruger effect; the effect of having so little knowledge about a situation or issue that you don’t actually recognise your ignorance. He’s saying what seems right and reasonable to him, because he genuinely does not realise that disabilities such as Down’s don’t have the degree of negative impact on life that he’s picturing, or that abortion for disability is as hard to go through as it is. But, unfortunately, he hasn’t realised that when you don’t know much about an issue, it’s a good idea to avoid making categorical pronouncements about it, and also a good idea to listen to people who know more about it if they’re trying to set you right. And he hasn’t realised the importance of listening to people about their own lives and experiences. Which is a terrible shame, because that certainly is a wise, sensible, and moral thing to do.


You guys are AWESOME


You know that fundraiser I mentioned? (The one for paying off our legal debts from the SLAPP suit?)

Well, this month you guys have surpassed yourselves with generosity and awesomeness. At last count, donations from this month’s fundraiser add up to a whopping…

Thank you! We are massively grateful, and are starting to feel we can look forward to the time (still some ways off, but getting closer…) when we actually have all debts settled and can use these fundraisers to raise money for worthy causes (other than getting ourselves out of debt, I mean).
You guys are the absolute best. I hope you’re all having wonderful and fulfilling weekends, and that good things continue to happen for you.
P.S. We’re having an on-line thank you party live on YouTube tomorrow, at 15.30 ET/12.30 PT/20.30 BST (if you go to that link, you can add your own time zone to find out what time it’ll be for you if none of the above fit). Here’s the link to the YouTube channel:

Feel free to come and join in in the comments! All non-trolls welcome!

Fundraising, book reviews, and motherhood

Again, I’m writing a post for our regular fundraiser (for those who don’t know, the brief version of the backstory is that we’re paying off debts incurred in a SLAPP lawsuit). If you’re able to donate and feel moved to do so, we’d be very grateful for anything you can pay. This is a particularly good month to donate, as one of our bloggers has promised to match all amounts donated up to $1000; so, this month, anything you can donate will count for double!

As you might recall, our last fundraiser had a Valentine’s Day theme (combined with a Darwin theme, but that’s by-the-by), and I had the idea of writing a book review post on the theme of romances that promote healthy relationships/progressive social justice views. I liked doing this so much that I decided I’d make this sort of themed book review post a regular thing for future fundraisers, and so, since the theme this time around is ‘motherhood’ in honour of the US Mothers’ Day, I started thinking of books that related to both social justice and motherhood. This was, I have to say, a bit more difficult. I had no problem at all coming up with ideas for novels that explore the theme of motherhood; I just had a harder time thinking of ones that are obviously relevant to social justice themes. (I’m probably missing some obvious ones; any suggestions?) So, this time around I’m reviewing non-fiction books on the subject that I found worth reading. Let’s go!

First up is Candace Brathwaite’s I Am Not Your Baby Mother, an account of Brathwaite’s experience of new motherhood as a black woman in a world of racial stereotypes.

51015009. sx318 sy475

Brathwaite’s race affected her experiences in ways ranging from a dilemma over whether to choose names reflecting her children’s ethnic heritage (when she knew that having too obviously ‘black’ a name on a CV would close many doors to her child in future) to, starkly, her chances of surviving childbirth. This last is not just an abstract statistic for Brathwaite; after the birth of her first child, she almost died from post-partum sepsis after the health care professionals who reviewed her repeatedly dismissed her increasingly severe symptoms. Five years later, a report showed that post-partum deaths in the UK were five times more common amongst black women than amongst those of any other race; a horrifying statistic in which Brathwaite is still struggling to raise widespread interest.

One thing Brathwaite became aware of was the lack of positive media images of black mothers or black families. (It wasn’t until her first child was five years old that Brathwaite saw a picture of a black woman on the cover of a parenting magazine.) Eventually, this realisation led her to set up Make Motherhood Diverse, a site for mothers who didn’t fit the media narrative to post their photos and stories of what motherhood looked like for them. Not just black mothers, either, as Brathwaite rapidly realised; mothers of other races, gay mothers, disabled mothers, mothers of disabled children, fat mothers, mothers with tattoos or piercings, mothers who adopted, mothers who lost their children… the site is for anyone who doesn’t see their experience reflected often enough in mainstream media and wants a place to make their own face seen and their story known.

Despite the seriousness of the subjects discussed, Brathwaite presents them in a way that’s eminently readable and sometimes downright funny. As a white, middle-class, comfortably-off woman with some very different experiences of mothering in the UK, I found her book an important eye-opener and well worth a read.

The second book is one I read some years ago and hadn’t thought about in a while, until I started thinking of what books I’d read that cover the theme of both parenting and social justice issues; Raising Ryland, by Hilary Whittington and Kristine Gasbarre, is a mother’s story of parenting a transgender child.


Hilary Whittington hardly knew anything about transgender issues and, when the child she’d thought of as a daughter repeatedly insisted ‘she’ was a boy and became distressed at all attempts to make ‘her’ present as female, Whittington felt stymied and lost. However… she’d already faced one parenting challenge she’d never expected to face, when she discovered Ryland had been born profoundly deaf and there was a decision to be made (and an insurance company to fight) about cochlear implant surgery. That experience had crystallised her conviction that, as a mother, she needed to be on her child’s side for when the going got tough. When she realised her child was transgender and read more about what that meant, she also realised that her job here was to listen to her child’s needs, and that one of those needs was to be seen as the boy that Ryland really was on the inside. The result – also made into a documentary – is a beautiful true story of allyship at its best; of a child who was supported for who he really was and of the parents who gave him this support and worked to do all they could to get the community to give him that support as well.

A few notes on assorted points that struck me:

Firstly, there’s the issue there always is for parents writing about their child, which is the question of whether they will, in years to come, see this as an invasion of privacy that they don’t like. The book was written with great respect for the person Ryland is, and I think he will most likely be happy with it as he grows older; I hope so, anyway. I don’t think there’s an easy answer to that one, given that issues like this are important to write about and other children and families in this situation are better off when people like the Whittingtons do tell their stories.

Secondly, it’s worth noting that the book doesn’t go into non-binary gender issues at all. I don’t think this is particularly a flaw, as it’s meant as the story of one specific child and his family’s experience rather than as a definitive guide to all things transgender, but a) if that is what you want to explore then this isn’t the book for it and b) this brings me to my third point, which is that the book really could have done with a section with resources for people who need further information. (There are a couple mentioned in the body of the book, in the text of a beautiful letter that the Whittingtons sent to all their family and friends to explain the situation and reproduce verbatim here. However, it would have been very good to have a separate section listing these where they could easily be found, and I think the lack of this is a flaw in the book; I hope this is changed in any updated editions.)

And fourthly… it’s a side issue, but, my goodness, gender stereotyping in children’s clothing seems to be a problem in San Diego! Maybe it’s just the particular group of friends and family that the Whittingtons knew, but apparently it’s considered a major problem for a girl to leave the house unless she’s wearing a feminine-looking dress and bows in her hair, and don’t even think about wanting to wear Star Wars underwear. While this was ultimately irrelevant in Ryland’s case since he actually was a trans boy, I feel sorry for any cis girls growing up there who don’t like pink sparkles or prefer to slob around in casual shorts.

Anyway… on to the final book I’m reviewing for this post, which is Suzanne Barston’s Bottled Up: How the Way We Feed Babies Has Come to Define Motherhood, and Why It Shouldn’t.




After her own experience of struggling mightily with breastfeeding and having to switch to formula, Barston started delving into the tangled politics behind lactivism, the conflicts between feminism and an all-too-frequent approach of pushing breast as best for all babies, and the ways in which research studies of variable quality have been cherry-picked and oversold to give an exaggerated picture of the extent to which breastfeeding is beneficial. The result was first the Fearless Formula Feeder blog and Facebook group to support other people who used formula, and then this detailed and highly researched book exploring all those issues as well as the individual experiences of people forced into formula feeding through choice or circumstance.

I picked this book for this review for two reasons. One is that I wanted something to represent the sceptic values of FTB as well as the social justice values (believe me, the issue of scientific findings being exaggerated/cherry-picked/misrepresented to support an agenda is a significant problem in the mothering world). The other is that this was a blast from the past for me; I remember Suzanne well from my past blogging incarnation, when we used to follow and comment on each other’s blogs.

I have to make a confession here; I was, at one time, far, far too unquestioning in swallowing the propaganda about the vital importance of breastfeeding and the supposed inferiority of formula feeding. So, when I heard about Suzanne’s site and went to check it out, it was with the full intention of arguing with her over all the errors I assumed she was making. Instead, I found posts so thoughtful and well-thought-out that I realised she actually had really good points and that I needed to stop, read, and learn. And thus it was that my views changed and I was saved from being an obnoxious lactivist. (Well, I would have at least striven to be a polite lactivist, but you get what I mean.)

So, if anyone here is interested in the problems with the way breastfeeding is pushed and promoted in our society and the difficulties this can cause for mothers (which I suppose now that I write it might not be a topic that many people here are interested in, but if you are…), then I can definitely recommend Suzanne’s book.

I hope some readers have found something here that takes their fancy, and I hope you check out the posts written by some of the highly talented bloggers on here. And finally, Happy Mothers’ Day to all mothers in the USA; may you be supported in your choices and contented in your mothering.


I have a hard time believing I’ve now been on FTB for an entire five years, but… the calendar doesn’t lie. It’s once again Pi Day (1), my blogoversary, and on looking back I see it was five whole years today since I got the e-mail from PZ telling me my application was successful, frantically tried to think up an OK-sounding blog name, and made my first post.

I do not wish to dwell overly on all that has happened in those five years, as a depressing proportion of it has been negative (for the world and for me personally). I extend a very cautious optimism regarding the next five, but we’ll have to wait and see. However, being a member of FTB has definitely been a major positive for me during those years. Happy anniversary to all those who joined on the same day as me, and may we all have much happy blogging yet ahead.


(1) I am pleased to report that I did, in fact, eat pie. This had nothing to do with it being Pi Day – it was just that our Sunday dinner currently consists of pie – but it was a serendipitous happening and I am glad about it.

Book reviews: children’s/YA series

This is a post I was initially inspired to make by World Book Day, an international day of celebration of books/reading founded by UNESCO for the purpose of encouraging children to love books. Just before the day, I realised I could mark it on my blog; why not write reviews of series that my 13-year-old daughter and I have loved sharing? I didn’t get the post finished in time for the day itself, but I wanted to go ahead with writing it anyway. So, here are reviews of two multi-series that we’ve both loved… and that also carry some great messages for children.

Rick Riordan: the Percy Jackson world

Currently stands at: three sequential five-book series, two spin-off series of three books each dealing with different pantheons, one crossover series of novellas, and so many spin-off novels and novellas I’ve completely lost count.

This infamous multiseries starts with a simple premise: What if all of Greek mythology were actually true… including the part about gods having affairs with humans and conceiving demigod children? What would life be like for those children, growing up with powers and quests and monsters to fight? Riordan’s explorations of this are the kind of wonderful, readable books that combine great plots, humour, (just skim through the chapter titles in a Percy Jackson or Magnus Chase book to see what you’re in for) and warmth and poignancy. They look at what it’s like to grow up thinking of yourself as a loser and then find out you’re anything but, and at what heroism and bravery mean. All with superpowers and snark.

I have a caveat here; The first five-book series is not only (as you would probably expect) not quite as well written as the later books, it’s also for the most part pretty much structured as ‘White male hero solves everything and repeatedly saves the day, white female love interest gets to be Hermione Granger so that somebody can provide all the useful info, most other people get minor supporting roles’. I still loved the series, but be aware of that problem. (Ana Mardoll’s post on The Curse Of The Smart Girl is well worth a read.)

(Oh, and I just looked back at the beginning; there’s an ablist term on about the second page. Forgot that one.)

However… I don’t know whether Riordan realised this for himself or whether someone else pointed it out to him and he listened, but, either way, it’s something he improves on enormously in subsequent series. In the next five-book story arc, he brings in five new protagonists, two of whom are girls and four of whom are from ethnic minorities on their human side (Hispanic, Native American, Black and Chinese). Annabeth (the Hermione Granger character from the first book) gets a much bigger role as well. Percy’s still one of the protagonists, but his role has been scaled back a lot; in fact, he’s not in the first book at all (other than being the ‘Lost Hero’ of the title), and one of the themes from the later books in the series is that he has to learn to step back and let other people do things sometimes. Oh, and there’s a character from the first series who turns out to be gay and who has a happy relationship on the horizon by the time the series ends, with more gay/bi characters in the next series (including the third series’ protagonist). On top of that, we also get the Kane Chronicles in which the co-protagonists are a biracial brother and sister, and the Magnus Chase books in which we get a Moslem Valkyrie, a biracial einherji, a genderfluid einherji, and a disabled elf (who’s deaf and has had to deal with his family’s ablism). So, on top of all the other great things about these books, they’ve also ended up showing good diversity.


Tui Sutherland: Wings of Fire series

Currently stands at: two complete sequential five-book series, four out of five published books in a third series, a prequel, a spin-off novel, and four novellas looking at the backstories of some of the minor characters.

The ‘Wings of Fire’ series is set in a fantasy world where the characters are dragons. (Humans exist; the dragons call them ‘scavengers’ and think of them pretty much the way we think of mice, although they do come into the plotline in some key ways. The spin-off novel I mentioned above tells the parallel stories of the humans encountered during the first series, and the most recent book has linked up the two.) There is some adorable worldbuilding, with multiple different dragon tribes who have different abilities. In some places this leads to a trope known as Fantastic Racism (‘fantastic’, for those who don’t know the trope, referring here to the fantasy setting rather than being a compliment); overall, the message is about overcoming differences and working together.

Each of the main books tells the story through the eyes of a different character (with the prologue and epilogue in each case being from the viewpoint of yet other characters, used to flesh out the plot further), and thus each book has an individual character development arc as well as contributing to the overall plot arc. This makes it a great series on multiple levels; not only hugely readable with gripping plots, but with some good character development and great messages as well. It also means we get multiple female as well as male protagonists; in fact, there’s a slight preponderance of female protagonists overall. There’s also one protagonist in a gay relationship and we see a couple of same-gender crushes, all treated as completely normal by the characters. And, again, we get bucketloads of humour and snark and warmth.

I have one reservation to mention. In both of the last two books, we’ve seen a relationship (a romance in one, a friendship in the other) in which the protagonist is regularly angry and quite verbally aggressive towards the other person, who reacts by laughing it off and not being bothered by it. In the second case in particular, the other person sticks around for quite a lot of this, and the tactic eventually works; the protagonist softens. That’s… kind of problematic, given how often emotional abuse in relationships can start out like this, and I’d rather this kind of dynamic wasn’t painted as NBD. I did have a chat with my daughter about it and she does recognise that it’s not a good idea to put up with this kind of behaviour in practice, or to feel obliged to manage it. So, if you have or know children who are reading this series, it’s worth being aware of.

Other than the reservations I’ve raised, both these multiseries are majorly awesome. If you know tweens or teens with a possible interest in fantasy, these make perfect presents; and if you like YA fantasy yourself, absolutely give these a go.

‘Walking Disaster’ review, Chapter 14

This is a chapter-by-chapter review of problematic romance novel ‘Walking Disaster’ by Jamie McGuire. Posts in the series will all be linked back to the initial post, here. ‘Walking Disaster’ is a companion novel to ‘Beautiful Disaster’, which was being snark-reviewed by the magnificent Jenny Trout until she rage-quit over McGuire’s behaviour.

Content warnings

  • Homophobic slur
  • Violence
  • Animal neglect

Chapter 14: Oz (wait, didn’t we already have a chapter called ‘Oz’? With a better author I’d assume this was innovativeness; after all, there’s no compelling reason why we should be hidebound by unnecessary traditions of having one chapter title per chapter. With McGuire, I’m fairly sure it’s just that she didn’t bother to keep track.)

[Read more…]

‘Deciphering The Gospels Proves Jesus Never Existed’ review: Chapter Two, Part Two

‘Deciphering the Gospels’, by R. G. Price, argues the case for Jesus mythicism, which is the view that Jesus never really existed on earth but was a mythical figure in the same way as Hercules or Dionysus. (The author is not the same person as Robert Price, also a Jesus mythicist author.) I’m an atheist who holds the opposing (and mainstream) view that Jesus did exist, as a normal, non-divine, human being. I’m therefore reviewing Price’s book to discuss his arguments and my reasons for disagreeing.

The first post in this book review is here. All subsequent posts will be linked at the end of that post as they go up.

In the previous post, I discussed the examples Price gives of teachings or approaches he believes Mark to have derived from Paul. In this one, I’ll discuss some of Price’s other statements in the chapter, followed by a general look at the story so far.

While we have seen that many of the scenes in the Gospel called Mark are based on literary allusions to the Hebrew scriptures, the Jesus character himself is based on Paul. It is clear from analysis of the Gospel called Mark that the writer of that story had read the letters of Paul and used them as inspiration for the character and teachings of Jesus.

My first thought when I read that was ‘Well, why not just write the allegory about Paul?’ According to Price’s theory, Mark was trying to write an entirely fictional account purely for allegorical purposes. If he wanted to fictionalise a person based on Paul’s life, seems like the obvious thing would be to write a fictional version of Paul, rather than of Jesus. Price has stated in a comment on here that it was to give Mark’s message the greater authority of coming from Jesus; but in that case, why portray Jesus as a flesh-and-blood person at all? According to Price’s theory, Mark and the audience for whom he was writing believed Jesus to be a spiritual heavenly being, who would surely have had more authority than an ordinary flesh-and-blood being; why this whole business of rewriting him as a human, rather than just portraying him as visiting Earth to make his announcements? I still can’t see how Mark’s motives, under Price’s theory, add up in a plausible or coherent way.

On further consideration, I realised there was a bigger problem; how would Mark have read this many of Paul’s letters in the first place? We’re used to having them collected handily together as part of the New Testament, but that wouldn’t happen until long after the time Mark wrote his gospel. At the time Mark was writing, the individual letters would have been in the possession of the widely scattered communities to which Paul had sent them. The passages that Price identifies as those on which Mark supposedly based parts of his gospel include extracts from letters originally sent to Rome, Corinth, Philippi, and Galatia. I’ve checked a map of Paul’s journeys to get an idea of how far apart these places actually were; my rough estimate is that a journey taking in all of them would be upwards of a thousand miles. In those days, that would have been a massive undertaking, complicated further by the difficulties of locating each community. It’s not impossible that someone could have made that mammoth journey in order to read each of Paul’s letters, but it does seem pretty unlikely. So, while I’m quite happy with the idea that Mark was influenced by Pauline teaching and by some of his writing, I don’t think Price’s argument about the extent to which Mark had supposedly read Paul’s writing really holds up.

By the way, I didn’t realise this until I’d already made notes on which of Price’s examples I did or didn’t agree with. When I did realise the problem with Price’s claim here, I thought I’d better go back and look at the four examples for which I agreed that Price was probably correct about Pauline derivation; after all, if it turned out that they were from letters sent to different communities then I’d have some contradictory conclusions and I’d have to rethink. What I actually found, however, was that all four examples were based on passages from 1 Corinthians. So, there we go; we do have evidence (hardly watertight, but fairly good) that, whoever Mark actually was, he read at least that letter, and thus was associated at some point with the Corinthians community. I’m guessing that probably at least someone in the field of biblical scholarship has noticed this before, but it was new information for me and I found it interesting.

Thus, if Mark’s Jesus is based on the writings of Paul, then Mark’s Jesus has no relationship to any real person whatsoever, because according to Paul himself, Paul’s “knowledge” of Jesus came from no one. [quote of Galatians 1:11 – 17]

That doesn’t logically follow. It’s perfectly possible that Mark could have used Paul as one of multiple sources for information, basing parts of his gospel on Paul’s letters and part on other sources. (In fact, this is what Price is also claiming happened, as he believes Mark also drew on the Jewish scriptures.) If Mark’s Jesus could be shown to be based entirely on Paul’s letters then that would be a different matter, but that isn’t what Price is trying to claim. Since Paul and his followers believed that Paul had also seen Jesus and received direct communication from him (they believed this had happened via supernatural apparition post-resurrection, but this was completely real from their viewpoint), I see no reason why Mark wouldn’t have drawn on information from both Paul and people who knew Jesus during his lifetime.

By the way, that Galatians passage always strikes me as a pretty ironic one for mythicists to quote. The mythical arguments that I’ve read (including Price’s) all put huge emphasis on Paul’s lack of interest in Jesus’s earthly life and his belief that Jesus was some kind of pre-existent heavenly being. But, since we know from Paul’s own words that he was not preaching the theology of the previously-existing group of Jesus-followers, why should his beliefs about whether or not Jesus led an earthly life be relevant evidence as to whether Jesus actually did lead an earthly life? Paul’s beliefs about Jesus seem to have been highly tangential to reality.

Most of the rest of the chapter is devoted to Price’s examples, so I’ll now skip ahead to the last paragraph of the chapter. Here, Price speculates on Mark’s motive for writing his gospel. Now, this is quite an important point for any mythicist theory, since mythicism has to explain how, within less than a century, we could plausibly get from ‘Jesus was a purely spiritual heavenly being’ to ‘Jesus was born on Earth; here are multiple detailed stories about his earthly life’. Here’s what Price gives us:

Paul’s message was one of harmony between Jews and Gentiles. This message was apparently in conflict with the message of James and other members of the Jesus cult, and with the Jewish leadership. I think the writer of Mark was a follower of Paul, who saw in the outcome of the war proof that Paul had been right. I think the writer’s view was, “See, if they had listened to Paul none of this would have happened”, or perhaps, “This was destined to happen, in accordance with Paul’s gospel.” It was the defeat of the Jews and the destruction of the temple that precipitated the need to defend Paul’s vision.

Now, Price might be able to make this work as a plausible theory, but he’s got some problems to overcome.

Firstly, it’s based on some unsubstantiated premises: that ‘harmony between Jews and Gentiles’ was a major message of Paul’s, that this was an issue on which he clashed significantly with the Jerusalem church, and that Mark’s gospel also clearly presents this point. Unfortunately, Price doesn’t make the case for any of these premises. (I have a niggling feeling that the problem might be Price having interpreted the initial disagreement over whether Gentiles joining the movement had to follow Jewish law as a ‘harmony’ issue. If so, then in the first place that’s not actually what ‘harmony’ means, and in the second it seems to be a moot point, since Paul was assuring his followers that that little disagreement had been sorted out in his favour.)

Secondly, there’s the question of why an author whose primary motive was defending Paul’s message against the church would fall short of giving us any kind of clearcut message on the one subject on which Paul certainly did have a significant, and as far as we know unresolved, clash with the church; the question of whether Jewish law had been rendered obsolete. While a discussion of Mark’s approach to this question would take too long to go into in detail here, he at no point shows Jesus making a clear statement on the issue (even though he could quite easily have put Paul’s views into Jesus’s mouth), and, in the many arguments Jesus is portrayed as having with Pharisees, Jesus is in fact in each case taking a position completely in line with established Jewish law. All this makes sense if Mark wanted to gloss over the differences between Paul’s views and the church’s, but is at least somewhat odd if his purpose was to tell the church how wrong they’d been to disagree with Paul; in that case it would seem more likely that the differences would be highlighted rather than glossed over, with gMark’s Jesus making clear statements on the matter.

All of these might well be surmountable problems; I don’t think they’re fundamental flaws in the theory, and there might well be good answers I haven’t thought of. However, this is an area of his theory that Price definitely needs to develop a bit further.


Conclusion: The theory so far

This completes the second chapter, which means we’ve also completed the part of the book that deals with Price’s views on the gospel of Mark. By this point, according to Price, we’re supposed to have been provided with ‘overwhelming concrete evidence that the Gospel of Mark is an entirely fictional work’, which in turn is the cornerstone for his whole theory. So, I’ll pause for just a moment here to take stock.

I agree with Price on some points (something that I think is worth mentioning here, because it gets rather lost in the disagreements). I agree with Price that there is a lot more going on in Mark’s writing than just some sort of simple record of what he’d heard about Jesus; I agree that multiple parts of his gospel allude to/are based on the Jewish scriptures; and I agree that his theology was in large part Pauline in nature and that this comes through in the way he presents Jesus’s story and teachings. I think that a convincing argument can be made for all of these points.

The problem I find with Price’s theories is that he takes these ideas much too far; he is, as the saying has it, making too much stew from one oyster. Firstly, his criteria for what he’ll categorise as an example of derivation from a scriptural or Pauline source are so vague that he’s categorising far too many scenes as being ‘clearly’ or ‘obviously’ due to derivation on Mark’s part, even where the arguments for this being the case are in fact extremely weak. Secondly, he’s concluding that, because Mark is using Jesus’s story as a symbolic way of getting his messages across, this must make the entire story fictional.

In fact, even if Price’s arguments about the extent of Mark’s derivation from other sources did stand up, it still wouldn’t follow that Mark had invented the earthly life of Jesus in its entirety. For one thing, there’s no logic to that claim; it is perfectly possible for an author to use a story based on a real person as a device for symbolically making a particular point (for example, ‘L’Alouette’, one of the plays I studied for French A-level, does exactly this with regard to Joan of Arc). And, for another thing, we actually see that Mark was prepared to do this with a historical character, because he does this with John the Baptist. He writes about him in ways that, as Price pointed out in Chapter 1, are fairly clearly symbolic (presenting him as an Elijah-figure), yet we know that John the Baptist existed, because there’s a long passage about him in Josephus’s work. So there’s not even a question over whether Mark would write about a real figure with a real earthly life in a symbolised way; we know he would, because he did. And so we can’t conclude that Mark’s use of Jesus’s story as a vehicle for symbolic messages means that Mark had no knowledge of an earthly Jesus.

It’s fair to say that gMark is too mythologised and slanted to give us particularly reliable information about the details of Jesus’s life, and also fair to say that, if we only had gMark and no other evidence, then we simply wouldn’t be able to tell whether Mark was writing about a real character or a fictional one. But Price has unfortunately fallen far short of his claim to have given us ‘overwhelming concrete evidence’ that the book is entirely fictional.

‘Deciphering The Gospels Proves Jesus Never Existed’ review: Chapter Two, Part One

‘Deciphering the Gospels’, by R. G. Price, argues the case for Jesus mythicism, which is the view that Jesus never really existed on earth but was a mythical figure in the same way as Hercules or Dionysus. (The author is not the same person as Robert Price, also a Jesus mythicist author.) I’m an atheist who holds the opposing (and mainstream) view that Jesus did exist, as a normal, non-divine, human being. I’m therefore reviewing Price’s book to discuss his arguments and my reasons for disagreeing.

The first post in this book review is here. All subsequent posts will be linked at the end of that post as they go up.

[Read more…]

Darwintine: Romance reviews. (And a little fundraising.)

Well, hello, all; it’s that time of the month again. Yup, the time when we wow you with the talents of assorted FTBers, partly just because we can but also partly because we’re hoping some of you might be persuaded to donate to our ongoing (and, thanks to you, reasonably successful) efforts to pay off the SLAPP lawsuit from a few years ago, which you can read all about here (long version; previous link is the short version).

This month, as you might have noticed, the theme is ‘Darwintine’.

(Picture courtesy of Iris.) We’re blending Darwin’s birthday with Valentine’s Day and providing contributions related to evolution, love, or both. Thus, several of the bloggers are collaborating on a story chain with the title ‘Natural Selection‘, several are writing fiction for the prompt ‘The Descent of Man’, and I believe that our very own published poet, Megan Rahm, is going to be providing a reading of some of her erotic poetry. I don’t have that level of talent myself, but please do go and enjoy the work of those who do!

However, I have thought of one appropriate contribution that I can make to the spirit of the day and the blogging platform. You know I’ve been putting all this time into picking apart a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad romance novel? Well, today, just for once, I’m going to do the exact opposite. I’m going to review a couple of romance series that I really love, and that promote healthy views of relationships and progressive views on social justice issues. And, if you have your own recommendations, please chime in in the comments; I would love to make this a yearly thing and have more to review by next year.

First up: the ‘By The Numbers‘ series (serieses?) by Abigail Barnette, who is none other than Jenny Trout writing under a pen name. (Yup; that’s the Jenny Trout whose partial snarkreview of ‘Beautiful Disaster’ is what got me into snarkreviewing ‘Walking Disaster’.) ‘By The Numbers’, which most of the readers probably think of as ‘the Ian-and-Penny series’ (or is that just me?), is a spin-off double-series from Jenny’s Sophie Scaife series.

Quick bit of backstory for anyone interested: This all started as Jenny’s reaction to her snarkreviewing of the notoriously appalling ‘Fifty Shades’ series; a couple of books into the nightmare of dysfunction and abuse that is the three book series, she realised that, if she set out to write a romance in the exact opposite way, she’d end up with a feminist romance. She gave it a shot, and ended up with first a novel and then with what ended up being a six-book series about a woman who falls into a BDSM relationship with a billionaire and ends up marrying him; all from a feminist, sex-positive, pro-LGB viewpoint, with lots of issues being explored. It’s a good series but it’s not actually the one I’m talking about here, although by all means check it out.

The one I’m actually talking about, ‘By The Numbers’, is a spin-off about two minor characters in the initial series, who start a relationship after Sophie matchmakes them. There are some problems from the start, of course: Ian’s a cynical recent divorcé not sure he’s ready to get back into dating again, Penny’s had some rough experiences that have left her confidence badly shaken, and, on top of all that, there is the smaaaaalllll matter of an age gap of over thirty years. But… despite all of that, it quickly turns out that Ian’s respect and thoughtfulness are just what Penny needs, Penny’s bubbly enthusiasm is just what Ian needs, and, when you add in that they’re mad attracted to each other and love being together, well, this might not be the most obvious relationship but it’s one with a real future. And, because they’re both willing to talk and to listen and (with some hiccups) to deal with the problems that arise, they manage to make it together.

Here’s what I love most about it, although I realise this isn’t for everyone: it’s one of those series written from both points of view. Each book is written twice, once from each viewpoint. (Jenny deliberately wrote them this way from the start and published each pair together, rather than one being a spin-off from the other.) Now, I don’t know about you guys, but I love reading stories from both viewpoints like this. And Jenny does it beautifully; the contrast between the two sets of reactions is sometimes hilarious, sometimes poignant, sometimes enlightening, and always worth reading.

A bonus is that they’re also trans-positive books (not a major theme, but there’s this thread running through of ‘trans people exist and that’s cool’, which I think was nicely done).

I love the characters and these books; they’re one of the series I keep coming back to and reading over and over when I want something to relax with. I don’t know whether Jenny still has fourth books planned in the series, and she might not – although that was what she originally planned, the third books do have a pretty clear happy ending – but I do hope so.

Aaaaand now for something completely different… C. L. Lynch’s Stella Blunt series. (‘Chemistry’ and ‘History’ with ‘Biology’ still upcoming. Spoilers in the descriptions at that link, by the way, especially for the second book.)

This, again, is a series that got written as a result of the author looking at a terrible problematic romance series and deciding to write the exact opposite. Clearly that’s a winning formula. In this case, the particular romance series that inspired this author to write a romance as different as inhumanly possible was ‘Twilight’. This series also starts out with a teenage girl having to move across the country and hating it even before she meets the guy in her science class who’s acting weirdly, adores her, and happens to have a really unusual secret. Oh, and with a brief initial flash-forward in which our heroine is facing imminent death. And that, dear readers, is where the similarities end… well, except for when they occasionally get brought in again for the deliberate purpose of snarking ‘Twilight’. For one thing, when Stella faces imminent death she starts wielding a chainsaw.

On the slight off-chance that I’m not the only person in the world who doesn’t realise the plot twist in ‘Chemistry’ in advance, I won’t spoil it for you; read the books and find out for yourselves. What I will tell you is that these books have snark, interesting comments about other books, a fat heroine with a fat-positive approach, the most adorkable cinnamon-roll love interest, incredibly cool parents, a call-out of ablism (though that’s not till the second book), a really positive gay/interracial relationship, scenes that quite literally had me laughing out loud (which is not something I do easily), suspense, and some brilliant plotting. What more can anyone ask for (other than, of course, the third book in the series to get published already, HINT HINT C.L. Lynch)?

And there you go. My recommendations for this Valentine’s Day. If you’ve read them already or if you read them on my recommendation, please let me know what you think; and if you have others you want to recommend, as I said, please do so! I’m well aware that both of the series(es?) I just recommended do feature white cishet couples, so if anyone knows of great romances involving more diversity, or great romances by more diverse authors, I would definitely appreciate that. Meanwhile, I wish a happy and love-filled day to you all.

Meet some FreeThoughtBloggers! Including me!

I’m late getting this post up (this all happened a week or more ago), but, as part of our Winterfest celebrations, PZ Myers did video interviews with some of us about the kind of things we blog about, to give readers a chance to see the bloggers behind the writing. I’m one of them, which might or might not be of interest to you. (Mostly I just ramble.)

The interviews, and the Winterfest details, can currently be found here. I think that page will probably be archived when we get the next fundraiser up, so here are the links to the individual YouTube videos:

Megan Rahm (From The Ashes Of Faith)

Me (this blog, obviously)

Giliell (one of the bloggers on Affinity)

William Brinkman (The Bolingbrook Babbler)

Tammy Walker (Freethinking Ahead)

This has actually been interesting for me as well; we don’t often see one another’s faces, so that was the first time I’d been able to put a face to a name for Megan, Giliell, or Tammy (William shows up on our weekly online get-together now and again). Anyway, feel free to check them out; and, as always, we’d be very happy if anyone can spare a bit of cash for our ongoing efforts to pay off the mountain of legal fees accumulated during our experience of a SLAPP lawsuit. Thank you to all you good people who have contributed, are contributing, or will contribute!