One of the more horrible things I can imagine is listening to a debate between Sam Harris and Ben Shapiro, two awful people. It happened. In my vast wisdom, I have simply refused to listen to it. Apparently, they swapped historical arguments back and forth, though, and someone with historical training felt obligated to listen, and ripped them both apart for their ignorance of history.
Contrary to Harris’ silly “bridges” analogy, all of these early scientific thinkers came from a tradition that saw “the Book of Nature” as complimentary to “the Book of Scripture” (i.e. the Bible). This tradition stretched back to the earliest Christian thinkers. This is why Galileo (who was not particularly devout) could quote Tertullian (who was not especially scientifically-minded) as saying “We conclude that God is known first through Nature, and then again, more particularly, by doctrine; by Nature in His works, and by doctrine in His revealed word.” (Adversus Marcionem, I.18). The two elements were intricately and essentially interlinked.
But Harris knows nothing of all this. Just as Harris knows nothing of the causes of the fall of the Roman Empire. Or the place of science in the Islamic world. Or the complexities and nuances of the Galileo Affair. Or medieval universities. Or … anything much about history. And this is why, as with Sagan or Hawking or Tyson or Dawkins, when a scientist speaks about their field of science, they are worth listening to. But when they opine about history they usually have little idea what they are talking about, and that is even if they are not labouring under Harris’ clear ideological biases. His near total ignorance coupled with those crippling biases means what he has to say on these and most other historical subjects is mostly complete garbage.
Well, but, Harris has negligible understanding of science, so there’s not much he has the qualifications to talk about, and Ben Shapiro has even less, so what else can they do but babble ignorantly on topics in which they have no expertise? History is just one among many subjects they can only mangle. But hey, Travis Pangburn will charge $500/head to people who want to listen to them. By libertarian standards of truth, they must be right.
Seriously, though, Tim O’Neill is making an important point. Most of us have expertise in something, but we should be careful about assuming our knowledge of one thing means we have knowledge of all things. Some epistemic humility is always warranted. I’ve inflicted this quote from Augustine on my students many times:
Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking non-sense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of the faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? Reckless and incompetent expounders of holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although “they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion.”
I’ve noticed two kinds of Christians: those who insist that the Bible is absolutely true, and therefore evidence that contradicts it must be reinterpreted to conform, and those who recognize that the Bible is not a full description of the world, and therefore if evidence is found that contradicts it, their understanding of the Bible must be reinterpreted. Personally, I detest both, the first for obvious reasons and the second because they’ve ‘mended’ a flawed document to the point where it’s ridiculously threadbare, but at least one can have a rational discussion with the latter.
I had to dig further into this guy’s writings, and came across his criticisms of the Jesus mythicists, in particular his rebuttal to the “argument from silence”, which claims that Jesus should have been mentioned in many historical sources if he had existed, but he isn’t, so he didn’t. Most telling was his listing of the feeble number of brief mentions of the eruption of Mt Vesuvius in classical records — if the Romans didn’t leave us many documents of this colossal disaster in their backyard, why should we expect them to have mentioned some minor Jewish preacher off in some provincial backwater? He also points out how rare it was for any writings to have survived from 2000 years ago, which lit up a lightbulb floating above my head.
This is exactly the same as the common creationist argument that if evolution were true, we ought to be neck deep in tyrannosaur and stegosaur and diplodocid bones, and because the fossil record is so spotty and incomplete, evolution is false. Never mind that taphonomy shows that finding the bones of a dead animal surviving for even a decade is rare and requires unusual conditions.
OK, I have no problem accepting O’Neill’s argument. But now I’m left with confusion; I’ve never delved deeply into the mythicist literature, and now I don’t understand what the “historical Jesus” means. I don’t believe in the existence of a water-walking, fig-tree-killing, fish-cloning resurrection man who died and came back to life and then whooshed up into the sky. My version of Jesus mythicism is that he was, at best, a radical Jewish preacher who was executed and then inspired decades of fan-fiction that got built up into the New Testament.
O’Neill’s explanation for the absence of Jesus in contemporary documents is in part that he was a minor figure in a small, out-of-the-way region who was understandably ignored by the authorities of the time, and lists alternative explanations for the silence about him.
Fitzgerald finds it significant that Gallio did not mention “this amazing Jesus character” to his brother and concludes this means Jesus did not exist. He does not bother to consider alternatives, such as (i) Jesus existed but was not so “amazing” as Fitzgerald keeps assuming he has to have been if he existed, (ii) Jesus existed but a learned Roman official did not regard people like him as very interesting or important, (iii) Jesus existed and Gallio did mention him to his brother but Seneca did not regard people like him as very interesting or important or even (iv) the whole Gallio-Paul trial scene is a piece of fiction reported or even created by the writer of Acts to emphasise Paul’s credibility. Fitzgerald skips over all these quite plausible alternatives and leaps gymnastically straight to the conclusion Jesus did not exist.
Now I have to recalibrate. What does “Jesus mythicist” mean? Apparently, rejecting the idea of the Son of God wandering about Galilee, and thinking that many of the tales that sprang up around him were confabulations, does not make one a Jesus mythicist. I also don’t know what the “historical Jesus” means. If I die, and a hundred years later the actual events of my life are forgotten and all that survives are legends of my astonishing sexual prowess and my ability to breathe underwater, what does the “historical PZ” refer to? Does it matter if my birth certificate is unearthed (and framed and mounted in a shrine, of course)? Would people point to it and gasp that it proves the stories were all true <swoon>?
Jeez, I’m glad I’m not a historian. What a mess they have to deal with.