Tough Being a Bigot These Days

Don’t get me wrong, I am not talking about our current atmosphere of normalizing bigots from the White House on down.  I am speaking here philosophically, what can your modern bigot really believe in?

Even a modicum of science shows that there are no “races” among human beings, but only one “race,” human.  Once again, don’t misunderstand, I know that bigots are really big on the Black vs White thing, but once you get beyond that, bigots must be confused these days.

You really have to wonder how many of those Neo-Nazis and Neo-KKKers in Charlottesville and elsewhere even know the history of their bigotry.

Steve Bannon must know that it was not that long ago that Irish Catholics were not considered  were not considered “white.”  At the same time, Catholics were considered “UnAmerican” because of their religion.  The idea was that because their loyalty was directed toward the Pope that they were incapable of participating in a liberal democracy.  Sound familiar?

And don’t even get me started on whatever the hell “Aryan” might be.

After the Irish, during the early part of the 20th Century, southern and eastern Europeans were not considered “white.”  These two paragraphs sum up the situation pretty well:

Between 1880 and 1910, almost fifteen million immigrants entered the United States, a number which dwarfed immigration figures for previous periods. Unlike earlier nineteenth century immigration, which consisted primarily of immigrants from Northern Europe, the bulk of the new arrivals hailed mainly from Southern and Eastern Europe. These included more than two and half million Italians and approximately two million Jews from Russia and Eastern Europe, as well as many Poles, Hungarians, Austrians, Greeks, and others.

The new immigrants’ ethnic, cultural, and religious differences from both earlier immigrants and the native-born population led to widespread assertions that they were unfit for either labor or American citizenship. A growing chorus of voices sought legislative restrictions on immigration. Often the most vocal proponents of such restrictions were labor groups (many of whose members were descended from previous generations of Irish and German immigrants), who feared competition from so-called “pauper labor.”

To add fuel to the fire, new developed “intelligence” tests were widely used to test soldiers for the armed forces in World War I.  The main developer of the test, Lewis Terman, believed (early in his career) that…

The tests have told the truth. These boys are ineducable beyond the merest rudiments of training. No amount of school instruction will ever make them intelligent voters or capable citizens. . . . They represent the level of intelligence, which is very, very common among Spanish-Indian and Mexican families of the Southwest and also among Negroes. Their dullness seems to be racial, or at least inherent in the family stocks from which they come.

 Again, sound familiar?  In my own cultural upbringing we were still telling Italian and Polish jokes in the 1960s that reflected Terman’s view that such people were culturally and genetically doomed to idiocy.    But now, racist Richard Spencer’s wife is (apparently) of Eastern European descent, not to mention Trump’s (latest) wife as well.
Again and again, racists have taken up the cudgel that says that some group or another can’t ever be smart enough, dedicated enough or whatever enough to be as good as the “leading” group.  Humans, being infinitely adaptable prove this trope wrong over and over again.
Which leaves racists in trouble again and again.  Does “white” include Asians, who just happen to out perform many “whites” academically?  Are Greeks and Italians now “white?”  What the heck “race” are Jews and/or Israelis?  Are the people who come from the modern Caucacsus  region “white” (that is to say, Caucasian)?  Even if they are Muslim?
Seems like it is pretty damned hard to know who to be racist against thse days.
Some racist types try to get around this by not referring to race specifically, but rather “culture” or “heritage.”  So they will refer the superiority of say, “European Judeo-Christian” culture.  And yet, this idea of such a “culture” doesn’t extend to Mexico, even though “For three centuries Mexico was part of the Spanish Empire, whose legacy is a country with a Spanish-speaking, Catholic and largely Western culture.”
Which leads me to wonder if the problem in Mexico is that the Spanish were not quite as thorough in their extermination of the native peoples, like the “superior” Europeans were north of the border.
And again, for some racists, those of “Judeo-Christian” heritage doesn’t actually include Jewish people.  For other racists, coming from “Western Civilization” doesn’t actually include modern Italian and Greeks — WTF??
The “cultural” idea also breaks down because “culture” is obviously behavioral to a large extent.  People can adopt new cultures or ignore old one.  Richard Spencer says he is an atheist, but also claims to be a “cultural Christian.”  WTF does that even mean?  So, he can reject large chunks of his “culture” but still claim membership in it?  But other people can’t adopt that culture and have actual membership in it?
Confused?  I know I am!
Near as I can tell the racist types decide who is in what camp on a case by case basis, which is, of course antithetical to the idea of racism.  Which is not to say that racists are somehow admirable in modern society, only that they don’t seem bright enough to even figure out what they are really about.
Other than just hating other people, of course.

Islam, Pishlam

In both the atheism community and the wider culture there is a stream of thought that Islam is the worst existential threat to Western Civilization, since, well, ever.

While this video is representative of the genre, it is not the best, or even the most over the top, there is probably someone more shrill on Fox news at this very moment, but he does pretty much hit the high points and happened to be in my feed the other day.

For me, the most hilarious part of the video is when he says that Islam is more dangerous to the West than the Nazis or the Communists.  This is completely laughable.  ISIS is certainly reprehensible, but as powerful and dangerous as Nazi Germany?  As scary as the Soviet Union with its nuclear arsenal?  Get real please.

Don’t get me wrong, ideas can certainly be dangerous, but ultimately it isn’t really ideas that kill people.  Murderous regimes have come about under all kinds of guises and ideologies.  People have killed in the name of Jesus, Mohammed, Odin; for communism, socialism and capitalism.  I sometimes wonder if the desire to kill comes first and the ideology comes later as cover or explanation for what people wanted to do in the first place.  As of yet, Islam has not captured the full power of modern industrial state to carry out some program of world conquest, like the Nazis did in Germany.

Nazism is certainly a dangerous idea, but without the power of a state behind it you get Charlottesville, not the Holocaust.  Islam is not going to “destroy the West” any time soon.

I would agree that Islam is more on the radar right now, but I don’t think there is something unique about the religion that creates terrorists.  When you look around at the world at the moment the areas of the world that have failed states or people with extreme grievances fall into areas with Muslim populations.  Whatever religion Pakistan, Afghanistan and Lebanon harbored would be a problem in today’s world.

In the same way, I disagree very strongly with Sam Harris (and others like him) that say that Islam poses some kind of unique threat to the world.

There are billions of Muslims in the world and most of them are like most of the Christians in the world, in that religion is but a small part of the make up of their lives.  They spend most of their time just trying to feed their families with and occasional nod toward the mosque.

Are Muslims getting more conservative, literal and public with their religion?  Yes, I think they are.  Even here in small town Wisconsin I have seen women wearing headscarves.

But the exact same thing can be said about Christians as well, large numbers seem to be getting more conservative, literal and public with their religious observances as well.  For the last 50 years they have been trying to force their religious views into public policy on abortion, contraception and gay rights.

I am also pretty sick and tired of the “Islam, religion of peace my ass” memes that go around.  Again billions of Muslims go about their business not being a threat to anyone.  I am no expert on the Koran, but I really do find it hard believe that it has any more violent or stupid laws or incidents than the Bible does.  And even if it does, most Muslims in most countries ignore that stuff just as easily as most Christians ignore the need to be stoning people for various “offenses.”

Some of the Islamic Alarmists point to the fact that Muslims will probably outnumber Christians in the next 50 years or so.  OMG they are converting the world!  Well, actually no.  Being that Muslim countries tend to be poor (and Asian, believe it or not) they are simply out reproducing Christians at the moment.  Oh and the largest populations of Muslims are going to be in Indonesia and India.  Countries we worry about all the time, right?

Now, it is certainly understandable that Fox news is going to continue to demonize and overhype the Muslim threat to “Western Civilization.”  That’s what they do.

I wish though, that actual smart people, like Sam Harris, would get off the idea that Islam poses some kind of unique threat.  It doesn’t.  It is the same as pretty much any other religion.  The really ironic thing is that conservative Christians and Muslims agree much more than they disagree.

Both oppose evolution, reproductive rights, women’s rights and secularism.  Both feel that they understand exactly what is in the mind of god and that it is their duty to impose the “will of god” on everyone through a theocratic government.

All of that is dangerous and needs to be opposed, no matter which god or “holy book” is behind it.

Beyond Belief

I have had several streams which have brought me back to this subject/idea which I have written about before.

The idea is simple, as a person who studies psychology, I am pretty sure that there is no way to actually know what is going on inside a person’s brain.  If I can’t know if we both see the same color red, there is certainly no way I can know how you actually feel about something.  Specifically, there is no way I know whether or not someone really believes in god.

Recently on Reddit, someone asked whether Hitler was a “Christian.”  The answer at some level was “yes,” as he was born and raised in the Catholic church.  But throughout his life he expressed all kinds of opinions about the church.  What did he really believe?  I contend we will really never know.

It is also clear to me that the same question can be asked today of people like Joel Osteen and Newt Gingrich.  Do they really believe?  It is easy for the cynic to say that they are simply using religion to further their political and financial goals (which is also probably true), but they might really believe what they say as well, I don’t think we can ever know.

The other stream that lead me to think along these lines again is the last few episodes of the Thinking Atheist podcast, Seth is sounding a bit like I have been feeling over the last six months — burned out and losing a bit of hope.  Seth’s recent episodes have got me thinking about atheism and our movement.

Oddly, the atheism movement has its ideologues, people who think that agnosticism is wishy-washy atheism, and that, in fact, accepting atheism means accepting an entire skeptical worldview.  As an atheist (to hear some say it) I am also supposed to not believe in ghosts, UFOs and Bigfoot as well.  That somehow atheism relates to the acceptance of the effectiveness of vaccines as well.

For myself, I am moving away from an “anti-theism” position to much more of a “anti-coercive-religion” position.  This might take a bit of explaining, I suppose, so I will use my children as an example.

After my divorce, my ex plunged deeply back into her Catholicism.  During the divorce she accused me of “browbeating” her to join me in my lack of religion (by letting her go to church while I stayed home and made breakfast, apparently) so she doubled down after we split.  She continues to raise the kids in the church, which I can’t do much about.

Now that they are entering adulthood, I find myself not really caring what my kids “believe.”  If they want to believe in god, UFOs or Bigfoot, that is OK.  I just don’t want them going off the deep end.  It is one thing to think you just might see Bigfoot someday, it is quite another to move to Saskatchewan into a remote cabin to dedicate your life to getting a picture.

I hope very fervently they will leave the corrupt and evil Catholic church.  Do I care if they say “Thank god” when something good happens.  Not really.  Do I care whether they meditate or pray?  Not really.  Whether they offer “thoughts” or “prayers” in tough times?  Not really.

Of course I would prefer if they used critical thinking skills and made decisions based on evidence.  But I understand that no one does that all the time and a few irrational beliefs are a part of our humanity.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand that beliefs and attitudes affect our eventual behavior.  I know there has to be a middle ground between the slippery slope argument that any belief in god eventually leads to the Inquisition and the very real idea that allowing for a belief in god also allows for the belief that the Bible is really the word of god which allows for the belief that homosexuals must be killed.

It is my opinion that we don’t necessarily need to go back to the belief to prevent the slippery slope.  If my kids tell me they think Bigfoot is real, OK, maybe he is out there somewhere.  If they tell me that Bigfoot is emptying their birdfeeder, then I am going to need some kind of evidence.

Which brings me back to agnosticism, which actually I find to be a viable philosophical position.  Is there a god?  Maybe.  I see no evidence there is, but there is also no evidence to alien civilizations, but they might exist.

Philosophically, I can concede the existence of god without really changing anything.  For example William Lane Craig likes to use the Kalam Argument to “prove” god exists.  I think it does no such thing, but even if I concede that it does, I see no way to get from “Something supernatural created the universe” to “Everything in the bible is true and Jesus died for our sins.”  And apparently Craig doesn’t either as he just leaps over the gap with no further explanation.

I see it as perfectly possible to be against any and all religions — whether or not a god exists.  In fact sometimes I find the logic of “Do you really think that I god who created all this would say the silly things people have put in his mouth?” to be a fairly persuasive argument.  Really?  The creator of the infinite universe is offended and upset how some people have sex?  Makes no sense.

I also find that this position is helpful from a political standpoint.  Many religionists are actually in agreement with us that secular government is the way to go.  We need all the allies we can get in these times.

For me, anti-theism is not an immediate or even long term goal.  Being against religious people and organizations that want to impose the “will of god” on other people is now my goal.  I don’t think for a minute that atheism is necessary to want “freedom from religion.”


A Painful Admission

It is painful for me to admit, but I lost heart.  Totally lost heart.  It wasn’t so much that I knew the incoming administration would be bad (and the reality has been worse than the anticipation), but rather that the country had been duped and worse, was OK with being duped.

Watching the entire country make a disastrous decision based on bad information is a really hard thing for a teacher of critical thinking to live through.  Even worse was that many of my actual students were in agreement with the country’s decision.  It continues to amaze me how many of my students, both male and female, are Trumpian in outlook.  It saddens me deeply.

I lost heart so much that I just couldn’t write.  Words seemed hollow and useless.  I thought lots of words, but none of them seemed useful to actually put on “paper.”

This is a halting restart of my writing…more to follow.

Encouragement most welcome.

Critically Ventilating

As those of you who have read my scribblings in the past might know, I teach Critical Thinking as an adjunct instructor at a public college.  With your kind indulgence, I am going to vent a bit about some of the issues that I have with the teaching of this class, partially as venting and partially as an indication of what can go wrong in the ed biz (as Tom Lehrer once put it).

First let me say that I am a great believer and supporter of education, in terms of learning new things and general self improvement.  However, I have had more than a few problems with the educational system.  And now is one of those times.

Teaching critical thinking is one of those interesting things in that you are looking for an attitude change as much or more than the acquisition of facts or skills.  I have looked many times and have been assured that it is possible to assess the changes in a person, what, criticalness of thinking, but as of yet, I have not found an instrument that actually does that.  So, assessment is a bit of an issue.  Sure, I would love for students to come up to me at the end of the semester and say, “You know, I think maybe Trump is a liar,” or “Creationism now seems nuts to me” or even, “This class made me decide I’m an atheist.”  But I am not holding my breath for any of that, and I certainly can not give grades based on that criteria.

My first semester or two, I had to figure things out on my own, and I think I did OK with that.  Recently the college has decided that all instructors should follow the same course outline and all use the same assessments.

Had they invited me to the meetings where the course outlines were decided I would have told them that I think it all sucks.  The textbook is much too heavy on deductive argumentation (a full chapter on Venn Diagrams, another on logical truth tables, out of twelve chapters).  The book barely mentions cognitive biases, statistical concepts such as correlation and nothing at all about Bayesian reasoning.  So, I am not a fan.

The assignments are even worse, in my estimation.  For each chapter there is a quiz.  Each quiz consists of an average of about seven (yes, 7) multiple choice or true/false questions.  Students are to take 10 of the 12 quizzes.  Each chapter has a discussion board question which allows free form answers, but students only have to do six of the twelve chapters (yes, you read that right as well, 50%).  Finally there are four “papers,” three of which amount to expressing opinions.  Here are the four assignments: 1. asks the students to say what they would do in a legal case (and justify their reasoning); 2. Write a personal goal statement and plan; 3. Make a major decision using a decision matrix; 4. Write a position paper on a controversial topic.

In a meeting last year, I suggested getting rid of the tests and having more projects (I previously used oral presentations and debates) and people freaked out.  This year I have been informed that students should be allowed unlimited attempts at the quizzes and that they can work together on them and treat them as “learning exercises.”  But the scores still count toward their grades — and no other assessments have been added.

I now have no way to differentiate the students, the quizzes were a bit of a crap shoot, now everyone should get them all right, bulletin board posts tend to be good and they are informal, so most people get full points, three of the papers are just expressing opinions, and most people do terrible on the position paper because they are not good at academic style writing.  So, do I give everyone an A or a C?

I feel like they have made a class that is supposed to impart one of the most meaningful “soft skills” of the 21st century is now pretty meaningless.  I am deeply disturbed by this development.

And don’t worry about my future as a result of my public airing of this, I am already “fired” by my college.

This past summer the college decided that all instructors have to have a Masters degree.  At first they said that they would pay half the cost to help those of us who are lacking, but then decided the funding would only go to a chosen few.  I still have no idea how they chose the few.

But this is where I have a real problem with educational system.  I have 30 graduate class hours from a Masters program.  For lots of different reasons I did not write a thesis and therefore did not get a degree.

I have looked at getting my degree and pretty much no college I have contacted will give me credit for my previous graduate work (too old!!).  When I look at their programs (all online, no graduate school here!) I basically take 30 hours of classes to get my Masters — no thesis requirement!  Which is exactly what I have now.  So, basically it will cost me $20K to retake the courses I already have to do a job that I have been doing for the last seven years, with no guarantee on their part that will be given future class assignments.

To add some insult to injury, my background is in psychology and I do often teach psych classes, but for the past several years, I more often teach critical thinking now, so if I got a Masters in Psych, I STILL would not have a Masters in what I am teaching.

Again, although I love the idea of education and self improvement, the idea of certification chasing (paper with little or no real meaning) is abhorrent to me.  I have been told that since I have the required number of graduate classes in psychology I can continue teaching if I get a Masters in ANYTHING.  That strikes me as completely insane.

Thanks for letting me vent, feel free to fire away in the comments.


What is Critical Thinking?

Of course every election season has me asking the above question, especially this one, but that is not why I am asking.

Several years ago I was asked to teach Critical Thinking at my college and I agreed to do so.  The textbook I was given looks at the subject from a philosophical standpoint.  It starts with “What is an argument” and includes things like Venn Diagrams, Truth Tables and several chapters on formal and informal logical fallacies.

The book touches on (very obliquely) Bayesian and other statistical reasoning which I expand on quite a bit.  It also touches (very obliquely, again) on some of the modern work in cognitive biases, which, again, I do expand on.

My question to all of you is: Is there other areas of Critical Thinking that you feel are important?

What have been your most important lessons in Critical Thinking?

What do you wish you knew about Critical Thinking?

Any and all responses would be most helpful to me and my students!


Price vs Ehrman Debate Fallout

I continue to ponder what went down at the Price-Ehrman debate, so the fallout mentioned here is my own personal fallout.  I doubt there is much impact in the wider world.  Unless we find out that Ehrman used an unsecured web server to write his blog posts on.

I went into the debate as a leaning mythicist.  I came out as a “Don’t Careicist.”  I have to say that when you think about the Jesus that Ehrman put forth, a fully human, non-miraculous guy, this really leaves us with the same sort of questions that we should have had before and almost all of them relate to sociological questions of how, assuming there is no God, religions form.

Actually, even if there was a God, we would still have the same problems about knowing how religions form.  Let’s just say for a moment that Jesus really did walk out of the grave in Jerusalem just as described in the Gospels.  There is still the huge issue of how you convince people of this.  Only a couple of witnesses and the story was not exactly air tight, does the story spread faster even if it true?  I am not sure it does.  It seems to me that there are questions that need to be answered whether or Jesus existed.  And for me, at least, none of them revolve around the exact meaning of some Greek term in the Bible.

Question 1:  If Jesus existed why is the first story about him from so far away?  As Ehrman shouted several times during the debate: “Mark was NOT A JEW!”  Why is a Syrian (?) writing the story in Greek so many miles from Jerusalem?  Jesus had that little impact there?  In the same way, where are the accounts of the other Apostles?  Dude walks out of the grave and NO ONE puts pen to paper?  This sort of thing needs to be explained if you take the historicist position.

Question 2: Where did all those early churches in the Eastern Mediterranean come from and how did they all have the same ideas about Jesus?  According to Ehrman Paul was persecuting these Christians just two years after Jesus “died.”  How did word get out so fast?  And how did it formalize so rapidly?  Both historicists and mythicists have to grapple with this one.

Question 3: Who the heck was Paul really?  And what did he really do and say?  None of the “traditional” answers to this seem very satisfying to me.  Here is a guy where half of the works published under his name are “traditionally” considered forgeries, but of course the other half are absolutely genuine.  Not sure why more people don’t have a problem with that.  If we ignore Acts, we get a picture of Paul’s activities, but adding Acts back in muddies the picture with many contradictions, starting with the “traditional” idea that Luke was riding around with Paul, but still feels free to contradict him.  Paul doesn’t seem to have started any churches, but seems to feel free to tell them what to do and think.  How is that?  Paul seems to have only talked to Jesus mystically, but is held in higher regard than the guys who supposedly hung around with Jesus (like the missing Apostles).  How does Paul get to be a leader in a church which he doesn’t seem to have founded.  Where did he get his ideas anyway?  Ehrman says that we can be sure that Paul was real and important because so many wanted to forge in his name, which seems like a very odd kind of verification.  Both mythicists and historicists have a huge problem with Paul, I think.

Question 4:  Where did the New Testament come from?  The consensus view on this is very dissatisfying to me.  It’s fine that we ditched the view that they were written by companions of the Apostles, but what is left is pretty much a mess.  No original manuscripts, not even ones close to the time they were supposedly written.  But even more disturbing, for a religion that claims to be based on the Truth with a capital “T” is the apparent lack of concern that early Christians seemed to have had for the texts themselves.  Just go ahead and rewrite them for a new audience.  Given what seems to have happened in the 4th Century, I don’t think we will ever have a good look at the development of the New Testament, but it certainly matters for how the religion developed.  And none of that hinges of Jesus’s reality.

Personally, I think while parsing ancient Greek is certainly worthwhile looking for clues, that reasoning by analogy would also be useful at this point.

I feel that the history of the Mormon church is very germane to what might have happened in early Christianity.  Of course there are tremendous differences, to be sure, but similarities as well.

Mormonism came about at the time of the “Great Revival” in the United States, an upwelling of religious sentiment.  A small group of people started making supernatural claims and attracted a group of followers.  These claims lead to direct attacks on the believers which may have strengthened their beliefs.  There was then a time of extreme flux where the founding documents and claims underwent revision and reinterpretation.  A formal structure emerged which was then used to gain new adherents, which in turn grew the formalized structure and so on.

In the investigation this path of development it is frankly irrelevant as to whether Joseph Smith was a grifter or visionary.  I think we would also agree that “reality” of the supernatural claims is also irrelevant.  Whether Moroni existed or not, later Mormons got the same evidence.  That is to say, even if Maroni was real, the only thing that later Mormons would have is Smith’s writings.  The writings obviously exist and that is all the evidence people seemed to need.  Same with Jesus, really.

Richard Carrier touched on some of these issues in his book, Not the Impossible Faith, but that book was, unfortunately penultimate to the historicity question.  I now think that historicity is a distraction, a red herring.  Irrelevant.

The real question is why do churches start?  How do they win out in the marketplace of ideas?  What is the psychology and sociology involved?

Agnostics and atheists are the only ones who can really attempt to answer these kinds of questions.  Religionists have their answer built in, “The supernatural claims are true and God guides our church.”  Which, if true, either means there are hundreds of gods or that God wants hundreds of churches.

For me, I am starting with the assumption that churches are something like corporations.  A new idea starts them and then a structure evolves around them.  That process is what I think is worth studying.  Whether or not Jesus really gave the Sermon on the Mount and whether or not it was a rehash or a radical idea really doesn’t matter that much to me any more.


The Great Debate 2

Richard Carrier has done a complete academic analysis of the (not so) “Great Ehrman-Price Debate.”  Here is my not so academic impressions of what happened.


Dr. Ehrman started off with pretty much exactly the same line of reasoning that Justin Bass, a Christian apologist started with in his debate with Richard Carrier — Jesus is pretty much the best documented Jewish figure in ancient history.  The only person, Ehrman went on to say, that we have more information about is Josephus.  He said several times that we know way more about Jesus than we do Caiphas.

Now, I am no expert in ancient texts, but I do know that Josephus talks about Caiphas, who came before and after him, who he was related to and describes how the office of high priest works.  Outside of the Bible, no one, not even Josephus, mentions Jesus.

Ehrman continued to treat the New Testament as history.  He said that there are a number of sources found in the gospels, such as the oral sources behind Mark, the new information provided by Matthew and Luke, the Q source and of course John.  He also considers Paul to be a primary source.  To the extent that these can be shown to be independent sources, Ehrman certainly has a point.  That is an awful lot of people who wanted Jesus to be remembered.

I am not convinced and I know that many others are not convinced that these are in fact independent writings from independent sources.  Other than appealing to concensus and authority, Ehrman offered no more evidence than did Dr. Bass to show the independence and reliability of the Gospels.  Along the way, he committed a logical fallacy, saying the Gospels (and also the epistles of Paul) were written soon after Jesus’s death.  Begging the question?  I think so.

Ehrman also takes the apologist position that Paul refers to a historical Jesus.  In his writings, Dr. Price cites the reference to James as “the brother of the Lord” as the most troubling reference in Paul for the mythicist position.  But Ehrman not only sees a brother in Paul, but also a mother, the last supper, the crucifixion and burial.  He sees all this even though Paul never mentions Mary, Pontius Pilate, any disciples other than Peter and so on.  I did not find Dr. Ehrman’s opening statement convincing on any level.

Dr. Price read his opening statement.  Having read quite a bit of his work, I was familiar with his position.  A friend of mine who attended with me, who is not familiar with this area said she had no idea what he was talking about.

My interpretation of Dr. Price’s position (and I may be missing the point entirely) is that Christianity evolved out of a number of cultural threads that were in the air.  These threads gathered themselves together in the culture, became a movement.  In the second and third centuries some people tried to formalize and organize the movement.  In the fourth century, it was tapped as the state religion, the formalizers won out and finished crafting the Christianity that we know today.

As I understand this process, it doesn’t seem to matter to Dr. Price whether or not Jesus is historical as the result doesn’t reflect whoever Jesus was and what ever he might have taught.  Oddly enough, the same could be said of Dr. Ehrman, but for reasons that are unclear to me, he fights that tooth and nail.

It was pretty clear to me that Dr. Ehrman came to WIN THE DEBATE.  He continued in this mode, even when it became crystal clear that Dr. Price was not there to debate anything.  At most Price thought it was a discussion.   But Ehrman kept trying to score debate points with obvious rhetorical moves and aggressive questions long after Price made it clear that he was doing something else.

The biggest question I was left with after the evening was not, “Was Jesus a historical figure?”  But rather, “What the hell is up with Bart Ehrman?”

Ehrman declares himself atheist/agnostic, but his whole reasoning for the historicity of Jesus comes right out of Christian apologetics.  “Multiple oral and written sources for the Gospels that reflect the Aramaic language….”  Same argument that I heard in Catholic High School.  Seems to be a lot of holes in it, but Ehrman sticks right to it.  Why?

Even more perplexing is Ehrman’s argument that while Jesus is certainly a historical figure, he didn’t do most of things the Gospels ascribe to him.  Like Jefferson, Ehrman wants to strip off all of the supernatural stuff.  No walking on water; no loaves and fishes; no Lazarus; and certainly no resurrection on Easter Sunday.  Ehrman speculated that Jesus was left on the cross for a week or two and then his remains were scattered in a mass grave.  Appearances to his followers were delusions.

And yet he said that Jesus is one of the most influential figures in world history.  For what exactly?  If you strip the Gospels of all of that, what are you left with?  Some Old Testament midrash; some Rabbi Hillell and some other Pharisee teachings; maybe some apocalyptic teachings, but overall not much new.  So how does this make Jesus so influential?  I think it would be like giving Martin Luther King credit for the entire human/civil rights movement that came out of the 19th century.  Yes, he certainly played his part, but you can’t give him credit for all of it.  Was this Jesus?  If so, interesting, but certainly not the most influential person in Western Civilization.  Why is this so important to Ehrman?

And even as he rates Jesus as the most influential person ever, Ehrman seems to gloss over what, to me, are huge problems figuring out how the early church developed.

According to the Gospels, at least 12 guys hung on Jesus’s every word and hundreds more were devotees.  Thousands more heard at least part of his message.  And yet, almost none of these people show up as church leaders.  The Apostles (for the most part) vanish into legend.  The leaders in the Jerusalem Church are Paul and James (who the Gospels don’t mention.)  Out of all those people, only a couple took up the cudgel?  I may be wrong about this, but it looks to me that Jerusalem was not actually the epicenter of the early church, many more things seemed to be happening in Northern Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean.  I guess that is why they needed the “can’t be a prophet in your own hometown” story in the Gospel.  And then there is Paul.

I’ll let someone like Richard Carrier take up the argument of what Paul meant when he said things like “rulers of this age” and “brother of the Lord.”  But two things, which are not at all in dispute, have always stuck out to me about Paul and his teachings.

The first is that he says, more than once, that he gets his teachings straight from the mouth of Jesus (or the Lord, or whatever.)  No one claims Paul met Jesus in person.  Paul himself says he had a vision.  Paul gets the teachings of the most influential person in all of history not from Peter, not from a book, but inside his own head.  If that is not bad enough, Paul then brings up the second problem.  Paul himself says that his knowledge of Jesus is equal to Peter’s.  WTF??  Peter who was there at the trial?  Peter who went in the empty tomb?  Peter the rock?  How could anyone argue that they knew as much (or more!) about Jesus than Peter, if Jesus was a real person and Peter hung with him?  Paul argues just this, and this does not disturb Ehrman in the least — why?

Dr. Price has an easy explanation for Paul’s stand.  Since Jesus was an idea in the culture, both Paul and Peter could make of it what they could — and could plausibly claim priority.  King did not create the human rights movement, but he certainly could claim leadership and authenticity within it.  Just like both Peter and Paul.

I still do not understand why is is so incredibly important to Dr. Ehrman that Jesus exists.  It seems to me that the existence question is not the interesting one.  The interesting question is how did we get from here to there?

Joseph Smith clearly existed.  How did we get from what appears to be a 19th century grifter to an enormous cathedral in Salt Lake City.  If Jesus existed, as Ehrman describes him, he seems even slightly less interesting than Smith.  How did we get from a few people believing to the organizers and sanitizers of the second century to the useful church that Romans made official in the fourth?  Those seem to be the most interesting questions to me.

But Ehrman keeps insisting that Jesus is the reason.  And the only reason.  Why?  It really is intriguing to me.

He certainly goes out of his way to label mythicists as being kooks and conspiracy theorists.  Even when he was trying to be nice to the hosts of the event, he misstated their position.  He labeled the Milwaukee Mythicists as Jesus mythicists, when that is not true.  The position of the group is that ALL religions grew out of ancient myths.  Buddah, Moses, Mohammed, even if they actually existed created their “religions” out of mythology.  It is the mythology, the culture, that makes the religion, not the “founder.”  Actually a position very similar to that of Dr. Price.

So, for me Dr. Price while confusing on the details, seemed coherent to me on the philosophy.  Christianity grew out of a cultural upwelling sometime around the first century, combing elements of Judiasm, Hellenism and who knows what else.

Ehrman stamps his feet and screams, “No! It was Jesus!  Only Jesus!”  A boring, human, platitude spouting Jesus.  It seems that there is actually a fair amount of common ground between Ehrman and the mythicists, but he will have none of it.

For an agnostic, Dr. Ehrman seems completely hooked on Jesus.

I still don’t know why.  Maybe some day he will actually tell us.



The Big Debate is Past

No, I don’t mean the one between Hillary and Trumpenstein, but rather the great debate on the historicity of Jesus.  The much anticipated debate between Bart Ehrman and Robert Price went down Friday in Milwaukee, courtesy of the Milwaukee Mythicists.

This debate was much anticipated because it featured two guys who normally argue for “our side,” the atheist position, generally against Christian apologists.  But here they were arguing variations of the atheist position in front of an overwhelmingly secular audience.  Even given that, I have to say that more than a few sparks flew and I have to say that I changed my opinions over the course of the evening.

Since the point of such events should be to move the needle in people’s opinions and mine did move a bit, I am going to deal with this first and in future posts do more of a review of the debate itself.  It may take several posts, as it was actually a long evening.  I do also have to say that I was “working” during the debate.  I volunteered to take photographs of the event, so during the whole time I was not just sitting, taking notes and that.  I waking around the room looking for things to snap.  So my impressions may be hazy in places.

Now, where was I before and where am I now?

Prior to the debate I was leaning pretty heavily to the mythicist position.  I had read the Christ Puzzle by Earl Doherty and found it convincing.  I have also looked at Richard Carrier’s follow-up to that and also found that the information there made sense.  Finally I have also read quite a bit of Dr. Price’s work as well.  I have also read many books by Dr. Ehrman and frankly they just added to my leaning toward mythicism.

So, what was said, and what convinced me?

Dr. Ehrman spoke first and started (and pretty much ended) with the notion that Jesus is the “best attested” first century Jew in history, other than perhaps Josephus.  Personally, I find this argument weak.  Most of the evidence that Ehrman presented related to Biblical texts, which he ranks much more strongly as actual history.  Although I disagree with him, obviously he is much more well versed (pardon the pun!) so I can’t really make a case there.  The most interesting thing to come out of Ehrman’s presentation (and Price’s rebuttal) is that Ehrman sees a “minimal” Jesus.  That is to say, one completely stripped of any supernatural element.  A Jesus that did not have a virgin birth, did not walk on water, feed 5,000, raise the dead or walk out of the tomb himself.  Even with that, Ehrman believes that there was a real live preacher and teacher that inspired the writings about him and the Christian church to form in his wake.

Price’s contention is that Christianity, like many social movements, grew out of a number of cultural currents coming together.  Price sees such elements as the Hellenization of Jewish thought, combining with the popularity of mystery religions, with a dash of Zorasterianism and Gnosticism coming together to create a new religion.  Price then theorizes that “Jesus” was just the mythological persona that evolved out of these currents.  As I see Price’s view, Christianity was just something that was “in the air” in the first and second centuries and it coalesced into the structured religion we now know sometime in the third and fourth centuries.

For me, the “Great Debate” came down to how you might feel about the “Great Man” theory of history.

When you read most history books, you see a succession of great actors on the world stage: Napolean, Washington, Martin Luther.  Leaders of movements and armies.

But many historians point out that most of the time these “leaders” end up at the front of cultural movements that were roiling for some time and those leaders are people who come to be the face of the movement.  Which is not to say that they did nothing or were not true leaders, but rather are sort of a shorthand way to refer to something that was “in the air” at the time.

For example the roots of the civil rights movement in the US has roots that run back at least to the 1920s and even further back.  World War II accelerated the movement, and by the late 1950’s it had reached full flower.  Martin Luther King did not start the movement, was not the sole leader of the movement, but eventually became it’s public face, at least in part because of his charisma as a speaker.  I am pretty sure that there are more than a few high school history books that present the highlights of King’s career as “the civil rights movement.”  In reality, we know that there were hundreds, if not thousands of leaders who helped organize civil rights events.  We also know that civil rights was a movement whose time had come, combining the new media (television) with a renewed sense of social justice following World War II.  If not King, someone would have risen to the front of the movement.

So, here is where I stand on the historicity of Jesus:  He is irrelevant.

Ehrman argues in favor of a fully human person: Jesus.  As Price brought up again and again, this is not who (or what) Christians worship.  They do not worship a clever social justice spouting rabbi.  They worship a guy who walked out of a tomb and opened the doors to heaven.  Both Price and Ehrman agree that there is no such guy.

Ehrman never came up with (to my hearing) a coherent picture of who the historical Jesus really is.  Did he bring together all the threads of religious thought that now represent Christianity?  Did his resistance against the Romans inspire people such as Peter and Paul to do so?  Or did Peter and Paul elevate some random preacher when they pulled together the treads in the air?

It is pretty clear that Jesus himself never pushed the movement that far forward.  I always find it interesting that early Christianity doesn’t seem to emanate from Jerusalem.  It seems to spring up in the near east, Turkey Thrace.  Ehrman said (essentially) that Paul was persecuting Christians almost immediately after Jesus’s death.  Where did they come from?  Ehrman never said.  So, if Jesus didn’t push the movement into Tarsus, who did?  Jesus never got outside of Palestine.

Price would say that Christianity was able to spread like that because it did not depend on a human founder, per se, but rather it brought together a number of elements, literally in the air.  People could bring their visions and interpretations of “Jesus” to the mystery dinners.  The idea spread and eventually, a story was put together around the idea.

I still tend to agree with Price, but I can now also accommodate Ehrman as well.  So maybe there was a historical Jesus.

I just wish someone would explain to me what he actually did then.  Ehrman certainly did not accomplish that during the “Great Debate.”

Maybe we need another one now!