Saturday, June 30, 2007

J. P. Holding and Malina's Commentary on the Synoptics

This is a continuation of my series evaluating J. P. Holding's use of scholarly sources. This post will be looking at his use of Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh's Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels.

First, it's worth explaining the format of the book, which is different than the majority of non-fiction books. Rather than giving a topic-by-topic treatment the most subject, bringing in passages from relevant texts when they fit the topic, the bulk of the book is dedicated to analyzing the Biblical text a few verses at a time. However, they also include "reading scenarios," short sections describing some aspect of the ancient world which is useful to know about for understanding many different parts of the Biblical text. In the 1992 edition, these are interspersed throughout the text at the points where they are most relevant, and notes refer readers to them at points of secondary relevance. In the 2003 edition, they are all put in a separate section at the end of the book, and readers are in all cases referred to them by notes.

Its worth noting the differences between the two editions, because Holding makes a minor fuss about the discrepancy in page numbering between his 1992 edition and Carrier's 2003 edition. Then he says that the corresponding passage in the 1992 edition doesn't say what Carrier says the 2003 edition says. As someone with access to both editions, I can say that when Carrier directly quotes the 2003 edition he is accurately representing it. I can't find even a small mistake in his transcript.

Let's back up, though, and look at Holding's original use of the book: the main instance in dispute was in section 16 of his original article, regarding the difficulty of breaking family ties in the ancient world. Holding produces two main quotes. First, from p. 92:
Given the sharp social stratification prevalent in antiquity, persons engaging in inappropriate social relations risked being cut off from networks on which their positions depended. In traditional societies this was taken with deadly seriousness. Alienation from family or clan could literally be a matter of life and death, especially for the elite, who would risk everything by the wrong kind of association with the wrong kind of people. Since the inclusive Christian communities demanded just this kind of association across kinship status lines, the situation depicted here [Matt. 10:34-36] is realistic indeed. The alienation would even spread beyond the family of origin to the larger kinship network formed by marriage...
Then, from p. 244:
Such a departure from the family was something morally impossible in a society where the kinship unit was the focal social institution.
In the first case, Holding ignores the fact that the authors refer their readers to the "surrogate family" reading scenario, on p. 100 of the 1992 edition, which is almost identical to the 2003 version Carrier quoted:
The household or family provided the early Christian movement with one of its basic images of Christian social identity and cohesion. In antiquity, the extended family meant everything... Loss of connection to the family meant the loss of these vital networks as well as loss of connection to the land. But a surrogate family, what anthropologists call a fictive kin group, could serve the same functions as a family of origin. The Christian community acting as a surrogate family is for Matthew the locus of the good news. The surrogate family quickly transcended the normal categories of birth, social status, education, wealth, and power, although it did not readily dismiss categories of gender and race. Matthew's followers of Jesus are "brothers"... For those already detached from their families of origin (e.g. noninheriting sons who go to the city), the surrogate family becomes a place of refuge. For the well-connected, particularly among the city elite, giving up one's family of origin was a decision that could cost dearly...
Note that in the context of the 1992 edition as a whole this is not just true of Matthew's gospel, pp. 335-336 contain a parallel passage for the gospel of Luke.

Here's Holding's substantial response:
...nothing at all is said to the effect that this was "why" Christianity found a following. There is absolutely no causative statement to this effect, period. The closest we get to this is a statement that for those "detached from their biological families," a surrogate family "becomes a place of refuge" but this is not said in specific reference to Christianity being able to fill this bill.
As Holding himself has pointed out, the main point of the book wasn't to explain why Christianity succeeded. What's relevant here is whether it suggests Christianity would have been attractive or unattractive, and the authors clearly take the position that it would have been attractive to some people. True, it was unattractive to others, but this is irrelevant because it was only some people that became Christians in the early centuries of the religion's existence. The rest is at best literalistic technicality, clearly Malina and Rohrbaugh think Christianity was an attractive surrogate family to some people.

The situation with the second quote is even worse. In the original article he implies it's generally applicable, and in his reply to Carrier he makes a big deal about the fact that it contains the word "impossible," and implies that this is a general impossibility--though if we do read the quote in the general, literalistic sense Holding reads it, would would have to conclude that no-one would have ever converted to Christianity, period. However, Holding is taking the quote out of context. The passage being discussed is Mark 10:35-45, and is discussed under the heading "Warnings about Riches Preventing Loyalty to Jesus' New Surrogate Family." Here's a larger quote that includes Holding's:
Jesus puts two demands before the "greedy" young man: to sell what he owns and to follow Jesus. The demand to sell what one possesses, if taken literally, is the demand to part with what was the dearest of all possible possessions to a Mediterranean: the family home and land. That these are precisely what is meant is clear from the turn of discussion in vv. 23-31. Thus to follow Jesus means to leave or break away from the kinship unit (v. 29), a sacrifice beyond measure. Such a departure from the family was something morally impossible in a society where the kinship unit was the focal social institution... The young man understandably though regrettably rejects both [God and Jesus' group], "for he had many possessions" (v. 22).
Rather than bring in the "surrogate family" paradigm here, Malina and Rohrbaugh bring in ancient concepts of "Rich, Poor, and Limited Good," which included the idea that "'rich' people were automatically considered thieves or heirs of thieves." Based on all this, including the already quoted sections on surrogate family, it's clear that the "impossibility" applies only to the rich and well-connected, people who didn't join Jesus' group and were distrusted by the sort of people who did join the group.

In the end, this is another instance of the same, tedious pattern of behavior on Holding's part that I've already noted in previous posts. However, since the section of Holding's rebuttal I'm dealing with here contains a lot of complaining about Carrier disagreeing with other scholars, and simultaneous insistance by Holding that he shouldn't have to totally agree with his sources, let me be clear what the problem is. The problem is not that Holding disagrees with some scholars. The problem is that he cites what parts of their writings he thinks can help him, ignores closely related parts that hurt him, and then vigorously denies he's differing with them when confronted. It's something that provides reason to pause whenever he tries to cite scholars in his favor.

Saturday Laughs

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HT: A Whore in the Temple of Reason

Remaking the Star Wars prequels with Tim Curry

I'm serious. But this will take some explanation.

First, I wasn't one of the people whose primary gripe with the Star Wars prequels was Jar Jar. Rather, I was peeved by the bad acting in the middle of what was supposed to be a dramatic transformation--from Anakin to Vader on the personal level and from Republic to Empire on the political level. Much of the bad acting came from Hayden Christensen, but the worst of it was from Ian McDiarmid (Palpatine). The basic problem was that he used the same acting style for the prequels that he did in Jedi. Unfortunately, they were different roles: In Jedi he was recognized by everyone who saw him as evil incarnate, but in the prequels he was supposed to be the great deceiver. Yet he used the same "write evil across my forehead" approach to both roles. When, in Revenge of the Sith, Anakin finally exclaims "You're the Sith lord!" all I could think was "You mean you didn't notice the sinister tone in his voice ten years ago?"

Anyone interested in an amazing contrast to the portrayal of Palpatine should check out Tim Curry's performance as Dr. Frank N. Furter in Rocky Horror Picture Show. It's a character oozing in kitsch, a bizarre gender-bending crossbreed of Dracula and Dr. Frankenstein, but underneath is a villain far deeper than most movie villains. The nature of the performance didn't sink in the first time I saw the movie. I'm not sure that it had sunken in by the sixth. That may have had something to do with the fact that every time I've seen it, the theater has been full of screaming fans. It took a friend, Oliver, pointing it out: "Curry's performance was brilliant. Dr. Frank N. Furter is a monster, but Tim Curry makes you love him."

Oliver was right--to the point that up until that moment, I hadn't even seen Frank as a monster. Yet in the course of the movie, he kills a former delivery boy/lover (Eddie, played by Meatloaf) largely because he's tired of him and he's stealing Frank N. Furter's spotlight. Then he seduces both halves of a young couple that had come to his castle looking for a phone. Then he tricks them, along with Eddie's uncle, into eating meat from Eddie's corpse. Yet at the end, you feel worse when Frank N. Furter is killed than when Eddie is killed. That, I think, is the epitome of a charismatic villain.

I know that the Star Wars prequels aren't really going to be remade--least of all with Curry as Palpatine. Yet it's what would happen in an ideal world.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Internet Infidels debates

Via Jim Lippard, the first installment of a series of debates between philosophy big-shots is now online. Keith Augustine had alluded to the project in discussion of one of my own Infidels projects, but I didn't know the details until now. Among other things, this thing was five years in the making, i.e. nearly half of the Secular Web's life. The first debate is as much philosophy of mind as philosophy of religion, which I expect to be especially interesting. Hopefully I'll find time to comment soon, though I'm not sure whether that will really happen.

Last night's presidential debates

Last night, I got home in time for the last half or so of the Democratic presidential debate. I didn't stay seated to watch it for the entire half, though: the candidates struck me as insufferably bland, with the exception of the nutty former Alaskan senator who wanted to scrap the income tax for a national sales tax--and he said that in response to a quote from Warren Buffet saying commenting that the rich pay a smaller proportion of their income in taxes than the middle class do (because of the low capital gains tax). It made me want to not vote for any of them.

On the other hand, I recently had the pleasure of watching Elizabeth Edwards put Ann Coulter in her place. The Edwards campaign is right to exploit the incident--I like the idea of having politicians who can stand up to scumballs like Coulter, and First Ladies do end up being political figures to some extent. Actually, I wish they were doing a better job of exploiting it, the write up is totally lame, obviously the work of an underpaid staffer. Check out Jon Swift's take if you want a really good write-up.

New Hitchens piece

Am I a Dwarf or a Horseman, published at Sam Harris' place.

Quote of the Time Being

I am a libertarian and an atheist... I've learned a few things over the years. like, real libertarians are crazy. Every time I get involved with my local libertarian organization, I run away screaming.


I've just been informed that my review of Al Gore's book The Assault on Reason will be appearing in the SecWeb Kiosk some time in the first week of July. In general I liked it, in spite of a few flaws, I'm inclined to put it at four stars (but tempted to give it five, since I am rooting for this book, for reasons that will be explained in the review).

Also, On July 13th, I'll be going on The Debate Hour to discuss atheist tactics with Hemant Mehta. It's already listed on the Freethought Media page.

Links to both will be posted once they happen, but you might want to look out for them.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

New book: Christ's Ventriloquist


I've been sent an e-mail by Eric Zuesse, who is trying to sell a book titled Christ's Ventriloquist: How St. Paul Engineered the Hoax that Shaped Our World. I decided I'd be willing to pass the word along, even though I have significant reservations about the book.

First, what's good:

1) He's right that Galatians is an important document in early Christian history. If only we had more documents like it.

2) He's right that Paul's Christianity was probably different from that of Jesus, James, and Peter. This is true even though we don't have any of their writings. The question would be easier to answer definitively if we had a counterpart to Galatians written by Peter or James, but we don't--the letters attributed to them in the New Testament are probably inauthentic.


1) Though I haven't seen the whole book, it appears to exaggerate the ideological unity of the New Testament, which does not represent a single person's viewpoint. The Synoptic/Johnnine and Romans/James gaps in particular are wide.

2) Any book that calls Paul the founder of Christianity ends up ignoring the fact that Christianity has constantly evolved over its history. The changes introduced by Constantine, Augustine, medieval Popes, and the Protestant reformers compete with Paul's work in terms of importance. Again, ideological unity is exaggerated.

3) The aggressive disregard for scholarship in interpreting ancient documents is inexcusable. Knowledge of the language and historical context of a document can make valuable contributions to serious analysis. No historian does history though rigid application of courtroom procedures to their documents, those procedures were designed for a different task.

That's my take anyway. For what it's worth, I do think I would support the work if I were a SecWeb editor considering it for non-commercial publication, simply in the name of getting new viewpoints out. Check it out, though; you may reach a different conclusion. Note that I make know judgement as to what I'd do if I was a publisher, since publishers' decisions must be driven mainly by economic considerations.

UPDATE: Here's how the author responded to this post in private e-mail:
"Though I haven't seen the whole book, it appears to exaggerate the ideological unity of the New Testament, which does not represent a single person's viewpoint."

That's an outrageous comment: I didn't say anywhere "the ideological unity of the New Testament." Nor did I say that the NT "represents a single person's viewpoint." I said, to the contrary, that any truthful history of the origins of Christianity must explain the contradictions within the NT. You're criticizing my book and you haven't even read my book. I am attaching it so that you can find out how ridiculous your comment is; I'm hoping that, on your website, you'll apologise for having criticized a work you hadn't even read and which you gravely misrepresented.

Your other two criticisms are equally based on ignorance. Look at your three comments; read the work that you've criticized in those three comments; and then compare the work versus what you said about it; and ask yourself "Should Chris Hallquist apologise to Eric Zuesse for those three comments?"

Please apologise on your website for having criticized this work which you hadn't even read. If you have any personal integrity, you'll do that.
Let me emphasize that my comments above were based on my reading of the condensed proposal. In particular, I said he was exaggerating the ideological unity of the New Testament based on this passage:
What is known today as Christianity started with Paul, and was then developed by his followers, who wrote the canonical Gospels and the rest of the New Testament. The religion of the New Testament has nothing to do with the religion of the historical Jesus: The NT was written and assembled to fulfill Paul's Roman agenda, not Jesus' Jewish one... Paul turned Jesus into his corpse dummy, and thus became the voice of "Christ."
Zuesse cannot deny having said this. In my view it attributes too much of the New Testament to one strain of early Christianiy. Just because he disagrees with me doesn't mean I lack integrity for thinking so. Therefore, I see no reason to apologize. Nor will I read the whole book, because I have limited time in my life and I especially don't have time to waste on such insufferable egomaniacs as Zuesse.

Teaching ID => belief in evolution

This is cool: college students read books for and against Intelligent design, and come out believing more strongly in evolution.

I'll be doing this

Blog Against Theocracy

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Blog meme

From Butch Baily:

* We have to post these rules before we give you the facts.

* Players start with eight random facts/habits about themselves.

* People who are tagged need to write their own blog about their eight things and post these rules.

* At the end of your blog post, you need to choose eight people to get tagged and list their names.

* Don’t forget to leave them a comment telling them they’re tagged, and to read your blog.

Here it goes:

1) I have over 150 books on my bookshelf, catagorized according to the Library of Congress system.

2) I'm trying to teach myself Greek.

3) Also on my bookself is a dirty, six-inch tall stuffed animal I found laying on the edge of a garbage can

4) When I turned twenty, I put up a notice on Facebook that said "Chris is no longer a teenager. Took long enough."

5) In reality, I haven't quite come to grips with that fact.

6) My room is such a mess I have difficulty finding things.

7) I realize that (6) isn't much of a revelation for a twenty-year old male.

8) By the end of next month, I plan to have query letters sent to a number of publishing houses for a book I've written (or am mostly finished writing).

Okay, now, people to tag:



The Ebon Muse

Jon Swift

Brent Rassmussen (nope, beaten to it)

Ed Brayton

Brian Flemming

Katie Kish

John Loftus

Moral Sense Test

Via Andrew, I discovered and took a moral sense test being done by some psychologists at Harvard. In the interest of not interfering with the results of anyone who wants to do it, I'll put my discussion as hidden text.

It still sucks to be an atheist

Even in allegedly liberal circles.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The importance of language

I suspect that what really humans apart from other animals is language. True, some other species do show a capacity for a crude form of it, but it's never anything like human language, or used to the same great extent. Language allows us to do a great many things that a mere incremental increase in brain size never could. It allows groups to be organized by verbal instruction, discussion, agreement, rather than just by instinct. It allows powerful sharing of information about immediate surroundings. Even more importantly than those two things, it provides a way for knowledge to accumulate over generations.

These things seem commonsensical, but there is a less obvious way that language seems to help us: it gives us an efficient way to deal with a world that is far to complex for our brains to fully comprehend. It lays the groundwork for mathematics, whose usage almost always involves converting reality into linguistic symbols before we apply its tools. Mathematics in turn allows for many scientific ideas, especially ones in modern physics, which would be impossible to comprehend without abstraction. On a more every-day level, it is very convenient to be able to refer to a complex system of millions of individual human agents with a short linguistic marker such as "New York," "Iraq," or "The European Union." Such simplifying markers can allow us to lose sight of the full nature of the things we are discussing, but it would be impossible to think on the scale we do without occasionally breezing past the details.

If the above is right, there is a very interesting philosophical question that comes up: what does it mean for a sentence that is in fact a gross simplification to be true? We use such sentences all the time and almost always think of them as just true or false, but that seems to ignore the imprefect nature of their representations. I'm not suggesting for a moment that truth is just a linguistic construct; of course I think that's absurd, but it would be worth trying to refine our ideas about truth to reflect the imprefect nature of language.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Of search engines

Try using more than one.

Bill Richardson fundraising push

I'm signed up to get e-mails from Bill Richardson's presidential campaign, one thing I've decided to pass along: they're making a fundraising push for June 30th, the quarter deadline, on the theory that solid fundraising could establish him as a first-tier candidate. I had intially decided not to send him money because I'm a poor college student, but the e-mail indicated they'd be happy with even a $25 contribution, so I sent one in.

I don't really have anything to say on this race that I haven't said before, but let me re-cap: the Republicans in this race have unacceptable policy positions. On the Democratic side, Hilary is too reliant on her husband's name, and Obama is too reliant on media buzz. I realize Obama earned it to some extent with his 2004 convention speech, and in this day of manufactured images its nice to have a guy who can write a good speech, but his inexperience bothers me. This is especially true after eight years of Bush, a paradigm of an inexperienced incompetent who made it to the presidency on cheap name recognition.

Richardson, for me, is the perfect anti-Bush: congressman, governor, ambassador, and cabinet secretary. So donate if you can, or at least pass the word around. Consider sending these videos to friends.


Sunday, June 24, 2007

Carnival of the Godless 69

I'd like to give everyone a warm welcome to my blog and to the 69th Carnival of the Godless--the sort of welcome that ignores the obvious jokes. (So okay, I couldn't resist that little bit of jokage. I didn't plan for it to be this way, I swear.)

I hope everyone here pokes around this blog. Maybe you haven't read it in awhile since I announced I was going on hiatus. The hiatus wasn't quite what I expected it to be; but it meant less time wasted with little posts and more time spent on serious projects like the debunking of J. P. Holding that you can see in the post immediately preceding this one.

We've got a great line up for this carnival. To tell the truth, I often have trouble finding the time to read all the entries in a carnival, but I was forced to for this one, and I'm glad I did--it makes me realize I've probably missed some good material in the others that I've merely skimmed throuhg. So give 'em all a read, you won't be disappointed.

Before I get to the blog posts, however, let me throw in a quick plug for Russell Glasser's counter-apologetics wiki, IronChariots. Blog posts get attention for a week, but this project stands to be a lasting resource for people starting to question religion. It's still something of a work in progress, but I'd ask everybody to consider contributing to it--the more people do, the more useful it will become, and the more attention it will get.

Anyway, on to the carnival.

Skeptico has sent in a nice fisking of an anti-Hitchens piece titled Adopting Secular Religions (Or Not). This may be unintentional, but not only does it take down its immediate target, it has relevance for recent debates about humanism and what atheists should stand for, which makes it espeically worth reading. A similar piece is to be found at A Load of Bright, which finds reason to think the author hasn't read the books he's critiquing.

On the other side of some of the issues Skeptico raised--on the question of the nature of modern atheism--we have a blog post which talks of belief in god vs. belief in a book, by The Skeptical Alchemist.

Richard Chapell of Philosophy, et cetera has given us a nice shorty, though when the theme is old, brevity lets you deliver your punch without boring repetition, which Richard does.

No More Mr. Nice Guy!'s contribution has a title that says it all: That's Mormonic!

Mark Rayner has given us another one of his humor pieces, which links wine to the apocalypse. By all means, click on the real news story at the bottom--you'll find that the absurdity in the humor piece isn't really all that exaggerated.

A fellow reader, Plonka, who happens to be from Australia, asked me whether prayer circles really happen here. That's fron Vjack's entry; pretty well sums up the whole thing.

Michael Behe's latest book has already taken its share of debunkings, but a remarkably lucid addition to that list was sent in by Mike Haubrich. He draws on examples from his own personal ancestry and blog readership, illustrating the flaws in Behe's argument far more vividly than a merely technical critique.

Russell Blackford of The Metamagician and the Hellfire Club (a blog of which I was utterly unware) has sent in a post on the future of religion. This is a blog I need to poke around, see what I've been missing.

For our penultimate entry, I have One Fewer God's debunking of an old creationist canard. An old theme, but worth reairing from time to time.

I'll end with a piece which I didn't know whether to include or not. It's sent in by self-described "reasonable conservative" *cough* Jon Swift and beats up on, of all people, Mr. Wizard:
Don Herbert, who used science to try to "explain" the universe to millions of young people on television as "Mr. Wizard," was by all accounts a kind and genial man. But his gentle disposition masked a sinister and devious plan: To turn the young people of America away from God.

"Over the years, Don has been personally responsible for more people going into the sciences than any other single person in this country," George Tressel, a National Science Foundation official, is quoted as saying in an obituary.
Bizarre, but I looked at the carnival rules and they don't strictly prohibit linking it. So read the whole thing, you should get a kick out of it.

That's it for this carnival, the next edition is at Hemant's place. See you then.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

J. P. Holding's use of DeSilva

The following is a continuation of my series analyzing J. P. Holding's scholarship.

Today, I turn to Holding's use of David deSilva's book Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity. The book is published by InterVarsity Press, and while the previous books contain marks of skepticism, deSilva implicitly assumes that the core historical claims of Christianity are true. One would think that if any scholar provides genuine support for Holding's claims, it would be deSilva. Alas, this was not the case.

Surviving in a hostile environment

Holding accurately quotes a number of passages from deSilva which suggest Christianity had a serious problem in the form of hostility from non-Christians. As it goes, this is accurate. But he ignores what deSilva says about how Christians delt with this problem: mainly by isolating themselves, telling themselves that only the opinion of other Christians mattered:
group members need to be very clear about who constitutes their "court of reputation," that body of significant others whose "opinion" about what is honorable and shameful, and whose evaluation of the individual, really matters. Their eyes need to be directed toward one another, toward their leaders, and, very frequently, toward beings beyond the visible sphere (for example, God or the honored members of the group who have moved to another realm after death) as they look for approval--and thus directed away from those people who do not share the group's values and whose negative estimation of the group threatens to erode individual commitment... Adherents to a minority group (such as the church or synagogue) must believe that, even though the majority of people around them have a different set of contrary values, the majority is really the deviant body since it doesn't live in line with the cosmic order (p. 40).

Like the leaders of other minority cultures in the first century, New Testament authors were also careful continually to point the members of the Christian group away from the opinion that non-Christians might form of them toward the opinion of those who would reflect the values of the group and reinforce the individual's commitment to establish his or her honor and self-respect in terms of those group values(p. 55).

Because the unbelievers will use the power of shaming to impose their values on the believers, and to call them back to a way of life that supports and perpetuates the values of the non-Christian culture, it is imperative that the believers' sense of worth be detached from the opinion of unbelievers (P. 61).
This is a taste; deSilva develops it all in great detail, with numerous citations of this phenomenon from the New Testament. Note the mention of "the synagogue" and "other minorty cultures"--the tactics deSilva describes weren't just for Christians. When describing the problems Christians face, deSilva explicitly alludes to not only Jews but also Greek philosophical schools:
The same behavior that one group would hold up and reward as honorable, another group could censure and insult as disgraceful, and vice versa... It was difficult to keep the ideals of Stoicism foremost in one's mind when the majority of people paid little heed to those ideals, scoffed at philosophy and acclaimed those who were rich in external goods (like wealth or crowds of followers or positions of power) rather than in virtue (p. 37).

In the literary remains of these groups (e.g., the works of Seneca, Ben Sira, or Paul), we find the guiding voices of minority cultures motivating their audiences to pursue or leave off particular courses of action based on the affirmation of demonstration that such a course would result either in honor or disgrace. If the course of action promoted by the group leader does not seem to lead to honor as the broader cultures defines it, that leader will frequently offer some defense or explanation for his claim that the course leads to honor where honor lasts forever or "really counts" (p. 41)
On top of all this, when deSilva discusses the crucifixion, which Holding claims as a stumbling block that could only be supernaturally overcome, deSilva says, point blank, "The death of Jesus was in every respect, then, an honorable death, despite the vehicle by which it was effected." At least, Christian writers were careful to present it in this way. Holding deals with this to an extent in his original article when he says "Christianity, of course, argued in reply that Jesus' death was an honorable act of sacrifice for the good of others -- but that sort of logic only works if you are already convinced by other means!" When taken in the sense that "other means" must be solid empirical evidence of a miracle, the statement is at best unsupported by any evidence, in deSilva or elsewhere. Moreover, its demolished by the fact that there were other groups who resisted majority pressure without the aid of miracles, a fact that deSilva makes clear.

All of this also means Holding is ignoring what deSilva says when he attacks Carrier for postulating significant diversity in the ancient world--on the contrary, deSilva shows that there could exist subcultures in ancient society with values radically opposed to the mainsream.

I could say a little more, but it's late, I have a Carnival to assemble, so I'll leave my readers with a repeat of my last closing:
Holding mines legitimate scholars for ideas that he can use in his mystery mongering, and either ignores or waves away their explanations for the phenomena under discussion. Once again, I repeat: Holding is not to be trusted.

Symbolism doesn't rule out literalism

Among those who try to deflect criticism of the Bible (or other holy texts) with metaphorical interpretations are those who have enough sophistication to use close reading of the text and knowledge of the historical context to point to a specific symbolic interpretation. Superfically, this looks like a good style of argument: if there's good, independent reason to read a text symbolically, in a way that really sheds light on the original meaning, then it can't be taken literally right?

Wrong. As logical as it sounds, there are clear counter-examples to the operating assumption here. For example, in the 1950's there was a woman named Dorothy Martin who claimed to receive revelation from space aliens (see my paper here). Among the revelations was a claim that the lost continents of Atlantis and Mu destroyed eachother in a war with advanced weapons of extraordinary power. Given that Martin's cult sprung up in the early days of the cold war, it seems tempting to say that her modern myth was really about the U.S. and the Soviet Union. On some level it was. However, as best I can tell she really believed the story, or at least meant for her followers to believe it. In other words, she meant the story to be taken literally. That, in spite of the obvious symbolism.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The irrationality of American politics

Not exactly a state secret, but there's been a recent attempt to describe it more precisely. Money quote:
The world is a complex place. Most people are inevitably ignorant about most things, which is why shows like "Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader?" are funny... Many political scientists think this does not matter because of a phenomenon called the "miracle of aggregation" or, more poetically, the "wisdom of crowds". If ignorant voters vote randomly, the candidate who wins a majority of well-informed voters will win... Caplan says that politics is different because ignorant voters do not vote randomly.

Instead, he identifies four biases that prompt voters systematically to demand policies that make them worse off. First, people do not understand how the pursuit of private profits often yields public benefits: they have an anti-market bias. Second, they underestimate the benefits of interactions with foreigners: they have an anti-foreign bias. Third, they equate prosperity with employment rather than production: Mr Caplan calls this the "make-work bias". Finally, they tend to think economic conditions are worse than they are, a bias towards pessimism.

Rushdie-related insanity

Irony for my own personal archives


I recently found an article titled confessions of a lonely atheist which included this tidbit:
When I sent out a casual and nonscientific poll of my own to a wide cast of acquaintances, friends and colleagues, I was surprised, but not really, to learn that maybe 60 percent claimed a belief in a God of some sort, including people I would have bet were unregenerate skeptics. Others just shrugged. They don't think about this stuff. It doesn't matter to them...

Rare were the respondents who considered atheism to be a significant part of their self-identities. Most called themselves "passive" atheists and said they had stopped doing battle with the big questions of life and death, meaning and eternity, pretty much when they stopped using Clearasil.
I fully support those who don't make atheism a big part of their identity, but I find it a little stunning to see the strong indifference to big questions, not just God but "life and death, meaning and eternity"--it's treated as an adolescent phase. It feels just plain weird to me. I must admit, though, that I don't have any clear basis for assuming how most people I know think about these things, because I don't normally ask them.

I suppose, however, that the people who spend four and a half hours a day watching TV don't do so because they are curious about the world and have lots of things they want to learn.

Monday, June 18, 2007

CFI conference

That's where I was this weekend. I was thinking of doing a write-up, but CFI already has an excellent one. I have little to add, except that it was a major geek-out experience for me: I got to see all kinds of people who I had heard a lot about but never seen before, including Barbara Forrest (star witness in the Dover case) and Paul Kurtz himself. In Kurtz's case, I slipped in to his office when he was working on his computer just to shake his hand. Oh, and Taner Edis looks a lot geekier in person than he does in photographs.

EDIT: Oh, and Katie, the blog looks great. Am I reading your sidebar correctly that your brother did it? I may try to hire him if I ever feel the need to upgrade this site...

Brainless slogan watch

Eeek! "It’s a great example of expressing the positive sides of atheism without denigrating religion." That's what Hemant Mehta said on his blog yesterday of a newspaper column by a young atheist.

Let's think about this for a moment. If atheism has positive aspects, this means either:

1) Disbelief in god(s) is generally positive
2) Atheism means more than disbelief in god(s).

(2) is of dubious consistency with accepted usage, and strikes me as a bad definitional move because it plays into the hands of hack critics of atheism who say, "atheist X said Y, therefore atheism is Y." Yet (1) seems to imply that belief in God is generally bad. Sentiment sounds nice, but it doesn't make any sense.

On top of all this, it's an iffy characterization of the original piece: "Religion very well may have positive aspects, but we cannot excuse its evils in the name of a few good acts." The good in religion pales in comparison to the bad, and the word here is "religion," not "fundamentalism" or some such. This avoids denigrating religion only in a very narrow sense. And Hemant actually quotes that line as one of his favorites.


Thursday, June 14, 2007

J. P. Holding and Rodney Stark

Continuing My series on J. P. Holding


The story with Rodney Stark's work is a little more complicated than the story with Malina and Neyrey. First of all, Stark isn't a specialist in the New Testament or even in Roman history, but rather a sociologist whose work draws on the study of modern religious groups.

Holding makes two claims about Stark's work in his original essay:

1) "the critic is confounded by the fact that -- as has been observed by Stark and Meeks -- Christianity as a movement was top-heavy in the social status area"

2) "Rodney Stark has shown in The Rise of Christianity why the movement continued to grow once it got a foothold, but this does not address how it managed to get a foothold in the first place. So how did it happen?"

Carrier also uses Stark in a way that does not directly challenge Holding's use of his work when he looks at the question How Successful Was Christianity? At the same time, Carrier says Stark got things wrong without arguing this in detail; he takes for granted that ancient historians have already sorted out what Stark got right and wrong. I haven't been able to check Carrier's sources on this point, but I did read the William Harris anthology and the Keith Hopkins article, and what Carrier says seems to check out. Note that Holding's response to this section consists of nothing but a link to a TheologyWeb thread. I looked and the first couple pages and couldn't find anything to take even half-seriously. Maybe there's something requiring a response on page 32 of the discussion, but until someone bring it to my attention, I'm not going to worry much about defending Carrier's conclusions here.

A sketch of Stark's thesis

The essence of Stark's book, The Rise of Christianity, is that Christianity grew at a steady rate of about 40% per decade (comparable to high-growth modern groups) from a few thousand people in the first century to a significant fraction of the Roman Empire in Constantine's day, at which point Constantine facilliated the raising of the figure to %100 (note that this eventually involved violence). The growth rate Stark postulates is not unprecedented, but it is still quite strong, and he spends most of the book explaining this. Here's a chapter-by-chapter sketch:

Chapter 1: In addition to estimating the numbers, suggests social networks were important to Christianity's growth.

Chapter 2: Christianity appealed to upper and middle class persons, who were more susceptible to strange religions for a number of reasons. For example, they would have been more aware of the weaknesses in existing religions.

Chapter 3: Suggests that the non-Palestinian Jewish groups provided an important instance of the social networks alluded to in chapter 1, and that evangelism of Jews was even more important to Christianity's growth than is now realized.

Chapter 4: Argues plagues provided an opportunity for Christianity to grow. By simply providing food and water to eachother during outbreaks instead of fleeing to the country side as pagans did, Christians would reduce their mortality rate and increase their relative numbers, in addition to attracting pagan converts.

Chapter 5: Argues that Christianity's sexual norms both increased fertility and attracted female converts (in a world where women can be forced to have potentially lethal abortions by male relatives, women will welcome a ban on abortion).

Chapters 6 and 7: Talks about the importance of cities for early Christianity. Emphasizes that they were unpleasant places, and that the despair would provide a nice contrast for Christianity's message.

Chapter 8: Argues that the demands that Christianity placed on members helped it by keeping out free-rides and making the religion seem more credible. Martyrs exemplified this. The decision of martyrs was not totally irrational, typically persecutions focused on leaders who knew they would be immortalized in death.

Chapter 9: Explains how Christianity's exclusivism gave it an advantage in the excessively pluralistic pagan setting.

Chapter 10: "A Brief Reflection on Virtue." Unsurprisingly brief, does some summary work, emphasizes that Christianity benifited from the nature of its doctrines.

Because this sketch is brief and I'm relying to a significant extent on memory, there's considerable imprecision here. Nothing hinges on most of these details, where one of these points is important, I'll be more precise below.


Importantly, Holding doesn't dispute that Stark's explanations are good ones, he just says Stark has left unexplained how Christianity got going. So first question: is that true?

Short answer: no.

Longer answer: Stark gives no reason to think so, and drops many hints he thinks his ideas apply to all of Christianity's history.

Full answer: On page 3, Stark poses a rhetorical question: "Did Christianity grow so rapidly that mass conversions must have taken place—-as Acts attests and every historian from Eusebius to Ramsay MacMullen has believed?" This suggests he will be dealing with all of early Christian history. Then on page 5, he argues Acts is wrong: "according to Acts 21:20, by the sixth decade of the first century there were 'many thousands of Jews' in Jerusalem who now believed. These are not statistics. Had there been that many converts in Jerusalem, it would have een the first Christian city, since there probably were no more than twenty thousand inhabitants at this time."

Midway through Chapter 6, on evangelism of the Jews, he opens a section on "Networks" by saying, "Let us put ourselves in the position of the evangelists: here we are in Jerusalem in the year 50... (p. 61)" How would you go about getting converts? Go to Hellenized Jews: "In all the major centers of the empire were substantial settlements of diasporan Jews who were accustomed to receiving teachers from Jerusalem. Moreover, the missionaries were likely to have family and friendship connections within at least some of the diasporan communities (p. 62)." This shows that early Christians could have gotten a foothold in many major cities with nothing more than the Palestinian Jewish-Christians they had in 50 A. D. This is even more problematic than the first passage. If Holding is to claim he's using Stark honestly, he must say that it is these original Jewish-Christians that were the inexplicable foothold he was refering to. Yet this is hardly plausible, since that group would have been dominated by pre-crucifixion followers of Jesus, and Holding gives no indication that his argument is of the "how did Christianity survive the crucifixion" sort. Maybe Holding thinks it was vitally important for them to gain the several hundred converts they (maybe) gained in between 30 A. D. and 50 A. D., yet these can be explained with only a slight extention of Stark's social-networking thesis.

The essence of the problem here: Stark claims to be able to provide an account of Christianity's growth without ever referencing miracles, and rather than deal with him, Holding engages in a bunch of handwaving, saying Stark left the earliest part of Christianity's growth unexplained, without any argument or basis in what Stark actually said. It would have been more honest to simply ignore Stark.

Just to throw in one more kicker: When discussing the role of plauges in Christianity's growth, Stark suggests that the religion's (naturalistic) exploitation of the circumstances might have been attributed to the supernatural: "As Kee has so powerfully reminded us, miracle was intrinsic to religious credibility in the Greco-Roman world.. Why then should we not accept that 'miracles' were being done in New Testament times too, and that people expected them as proof of religious authority?... Against this background, consider that a much superior Christian survival rate hardly could seem other than miraculous… and who was to day that it was the soup they so patiently spooned to the helpless that healed them, rather than the prayers the Christians offered on their behalf? (p. 90)" Note the scare quotes around "miracle": Stark is talking about things we have no clear reason to think of as real divine interventions events. Though he doesn't argue the matter in detail, there is no real question that religious figures can convince others that they have healing powers without doing any real healing. I see no need to argue this myself, since Holding's writings already contain disparging references to modern Christian healers; I can rest my case by pointing out that this is another instance where Stark argues he can explain even the earliest parts of Christianity's story.

Class issues

First, let's see if we can sort out who's right on the facts of this issue (as opposed to the explanations for the facts). Stark claims that Christianity did well among the middle and upper classes for two main reasons. One, an appeal to authority: "Since Judge first challenged the proletarian view of the early church, a consensus has developed among New Testament historians that Christianity was based in the middle and upper classes (p. 31)." On the contrary, Keith Hopkins, an actual historian cited by Carrier, says, "It seems generally agreed that Christianity did not initially attract converts from among the ruling strata of senators, knights and town-councillors, or not in significant numbers, at least until the third century." He expresses some ambivalence about this view, but seems to ultimately think it probable, since he later introduces an argument with the clause, "if our argument is granted that almost no Christians, in the first two centuries c.e., were recruited from the ruling elite of senators, knights and town-councillors..." So Stark is mistaken about the scholarly consensus.

It's the nature of Stark's second argument, however, that's really problematic for Holding:
pp. 37-38: Here it is sufficient to point out that as weaknesses appear in conventional faiths, some people will recognize and respond to these weaknesses sooner than others... Religious skepticism is most prevalent among the more privileged.

But skepticism does not entail a general immunity to the essential supernaturalism of all religions… Moreover, people who report their original religious background as 'none' are extremely overrepresented in the ranks of converts to new religious movements...

But can it really be true that it is the priviledged who are most likely to embrace new religious movements? This is precisely what we ought to expect when we realize that conversion to a new religion involves being interested in new culture—indeed, in being capable of mastering new culture.
What Holding needs is hard evidence that Christianity appealed to the upper classes, and no naturalistic explanation. What he in fact has with Stark is an argument that it makes perfect sense for Christianity to have done well among the upper classes. Holding is inventing a mystery here.

When this is put together with Holding's use of Maline and Neyrey, we begin to see a pattern: Holdine mines legitimate scholars for ideas that he can use in his mystery mongering, and either ignores or waves away their explanations for the phenomena under discussion. Once again, I repeat: Holding is not to be trusted.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

CotG 68 and annoucement

The 68th edition of the Carnival of the Godless is up at Action Skeptics. My pick of the carnival: Even when it's wrong by Greta Christina.

I will be hosting the next carnival in two weeks time. Hopefully there will be some interesting submissions.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Atheism is not, and ought not be, a cohesive movement, part II

Some time ago, I wrote a post called atheism is not, and ought not be, a cohesive movement. Then, earlier in the month, I saw a post on Hemant's blog titled Newsweek Reports on Atheist "Controversy," which made me want to do a follow up. Some of what was going to say got said in yesterday's post.

Oooh... where to start. It's worth getting a few reference points. One label which a great many atheists would accept is "humanist." I've had issues with some of the accounts of humanism I've read; see here and here for examples of typical attempts to articualte what humanism is. My issues are partially a matter of instinctive recoil, but I think there's an important reason they ring discordant: they try to give a good amount of detail without being dogmatic, and the result is a vague mush, far vaguer than what one sees coming out of most idea-based organizations. On the other hand, I think it is possible to give a decent rough statement of what most people who gravitate towards the label "humanism" believe. Once, at an event put on by the Secular Student Alliance, a PR guy from the American Humanist Association suggested, for use when you need a quick talking-point, "science, reason, and compassion." Solid, and attentive readers of Sam Harris et. al. realize that they criticize religion precisely because they see it as a threat to religion.

That brings me back to an idea I floated way back in February, the idea of principly refering to people like Harris as religion critics. At the same time, I'm led to appreciate Paul Kurtz's suggestion that we focus on skeptic of religious claims. That's a term that can fit people who are relatively quiet but implies a somewhat active attitude toward avoiding error.

Finally, it should be obvious that various subgroups of are never going to be perfectly aligned with eachother. On a practical level, just consider the world of difference between followers of Ayn Rand and followers of Karl Marx. On a somewhat deeper level, does anybody expect all the various subgroups of theists (from Anglicans to Wahhabis) to align with eachother? Of course not.

With that groundwork, this part of the Newsweek article is exposed as silly without further comment:
...what’s happening in the “atheist, humanist, freethinkers” community is more like what happens to any ideological or political group as it matures: the hard-liners knock heads with the folks who want to just get along, and the cracks are beginning to show.
Now consider this quote from Greg Epstein from the Washington Post:
“At times they’ve made statements that sound really problematic, and when Sam Harris says science must destroy religion, to me that sounds dangerously close to fundamentalism,” Epstein said in an interview after the meeting. “What we need now is a voice that says, ‘That is not all there is to atheism.’ ”
Hemant notes that Epstein is not helping things by continuing to use the f-word, but I think there's actually a bigger problem: Epstein implies there should be more to atheism than what Harris is doing, but really atheism involves considerably less. Harris falls under the category of religion critic/humanist/etc. Hemant is partially on track when he says "Still, his point was clear. There need to be atheists who can communicate more powerfully about what we do believe in rather than what we don’t believe in," though it really perpetuates a distorted view of what recent religion critics have done that can be demolished by a glance at the subtitle of The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. Catch that last word? If that's not enough, at the very least its hard not to notice that Harris' defense of reason is quite impassioned.

Unfortunately, Hemant once again steps in it at the very end: "

Every time there is media coverage, we need to be speaking about what atheism has to offer, not just what religion gets wrong." The only thing atheism has to offer is not making the mistakes made by religion. To claim otherwise is to introduce a lot of needless confusion into public discourse.

Linguistic tragedy of the commons

Some time ago, I was randomly browsing Wikipedia and came across the term euphamism treadmill, the idea that euphemisms lose their status as effective euphamisms over time. The article links to an analogous idea, the dysphem treadmill. A similar phenomenon can be seen in the evolution of forceful metaphors into cliches. Its been shown that over time, cliches can get so distanced from their origin that people become unsure of what they mean. One study, if I remember correctly, showed how most people have no idea that "pushing the envelope" originally was an aeronautics terms, and some think it has something to do with passing someone an envelope full of money as a bribe.

Why does this happen? One explanation (which I cannot back up with a shred of empirical data) is that its a manifestation of the tragedy of the commons: where each individual has everything to gain from using a resource as an individual, but when everyone uses a resource, it becomes depleted and everybody suffers. In the case of words and phrases, it may be that each individual sees that they have everything to gain from borrowing a particularly effective metaphor or turn of phrase, even if its mildly inappropriate to the situation, and this results in repeated debasing of the linguistic currency. Probably some commentor on language somewhere has already proposed this, though it is not obvious. Orwell's Politics and the English Language seems to argue almost the opposite, that cliches are about mindless, not clusterfucked attempts at forcefullness. I think that Orwell, as insightful as he could be, missed something here.

Or did he?

(That's a hint to fill the comments thread.)

Lie of many

Today at the, I ran into a girl I knew from the dorms this last year. She was doing internet (WiFi, little to no access a the place she was subletting) and thus had her laptop out. I noticed a sticker: "Subculture of One" it said. I felt it was my duty to point out to here that there were probably hundreds of other people with that same sticker. Then she pointed out it was for a website. But even the website, ignoring its fanbase, is the farthest thing from representing a subculture of one; it's devoted to webcomics which, while not obviously unoriginal, are definitely part of an identifiable genre.

And of course the website's title itself was play on the "Army of One" slogan, which is definitely in the running for the silliest piece of military propaganda in the history of military propaganda (and that's a very competitive field).

Is it a profound commentary on the hyper-individualistic nature of our society that we need to feel the need to tell such absurd lies? Or is it just serendipitous fodder for cheap jokes?

Drunk driving, nuclear missiles, etc.

John Wilins has a brilliant post worth reprinting in full:

A 26 year old woman is convicted of twice driving while on probation for having done so drunk earlier. She is an adult who knew very well what the consequences of her actions would be, for her. Fortunately, she didn't kill or maim anyone. She is sentenced to a 45 day stay in a minimum security prison. This would be a pretty minor jail term in most cases.

Instead it becomes world news, the woman is released home, and then an outraged prosecutor asks the judge, who is equally outraged, to enforce the prison term. And the American inequality before the law of the rich and famous is highlighted for all to see.

Meanwhile, in other news, the Russian president threatens to aim nuclear missiles at Europe because of American developments of missile defences, the G8 meeting proposes a defence of biodiversity, and the space shuttle blasts off with new parts for the space station. But it is so important that we learn about this woman, who committed a stupid criminal act deliberately, expecting that daddy's money would get her out of it.
He doesn't provide any links, so I'm not quite sure who the young woman is. I think I heard a reference to this story in passing somewhere--I think her name was Rome or Madrid or Berlin or something. I could look it up on Google, but I honestly don't care.

J. P. Holding-related links

This last week I've been sent a number of good links on J. P. Holding, though I've been slow in getting them up. Here they are:

First, an anti-Holding website. One of the two sections of the site must be reached by clicking on the "Exposed!" link at the bottom of the main one, and contains a fairly comprehensive index of J. P. Holding critiques on the web. It's a lot of material and I can't vouch for all of it, but I did find this post on Holding's sloppy use of computer tools amusing.

Ed Babinski also sent me some links that mentioned Holding drawn from a collection of stories of ex-Christians.

First, for the set up, a story called I await hell, which the editor wasn't sure whether to include. The author appears to believe, based on a verse in Hebrews, that he (or she) is irredemably damned. The author insists advises people to read Tektonics (Holding's site), sure that no one who's read it will ever leave the faith.

Now, this that in mind, go knock yourselves out with Never thought I would be telling this story and Not wanting to be a hypocrite.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Fine tuning and alternate physics

At first glance, the fine tuning argument looks so impressive. Proponents throw around lots of big numbers (see, for example, William Lane Craig's debates), and insist the big numbers show that life couldn't exist without a designer. However, when I think carefully about the argument, I begin to wonder what in the world they're saying.

First of all, it doesn't seem that they're claiming that we have some direct scientific evidence that if atheism were true, the cosmological constants would have been assigned at random, and if theism were true, we would get the cosmological constants we have. I don't even know what scientific evidence for that claim would look like. Rather, the claim appears to be that the cosmological constants could have been otherwise, so without some explanation, we can assign them a probability as if we knew empirically that they were assigned at random, even though we don't know that, and if God existed, it's just obvious that he'd want to create a universe like the one we see.

Both halves of this second framing of the argument run into trouble, however, when we consider the possibility of alternate physics. To understand this, we first need a reminder of what the cosmological constants are. One example is the G in the equation Fg = G*M1*M2/d^2, where Fg is the force of gravity between two bodies M1 and M2 at distance d from each other. The last three terms are insufficient to tell you the force. With only them, your units would be kg^2/m^2, not Newtons. The G converts the ratio into a force, and its magnitude could, theoretically, have been different.

Now the problem: not only does the range of possible universes include ones with different constants, it includes ones with different laws. The laws might not even take the same mathematical form as known laws. They might, for example, be like the laws that Aristotle postulated. And the real kicker is that the laws could have been such that life did not require a fine mix of constants. God, if he exists, might have created a universe like that, so the cosmological constants aren't necessary. Such a universe is also possible under atheism. The question of why life depends on a fine mix of physical constants may be one that arouses our curiosity, but it has no relevance to God.

Of course, you can still argue for the existence of God based on the existence of life and throw away the bit about the constants. I won't take the time to evaluate such an argument here. I will say, though, that if this is the approach you take, then the impressive-sounding numbers that Craig et. al. invoke are fallacious red herrings.

At least, that's what appears to be the case. As I said, I have trouble figuring out what fine-tuners actually mean to say. Have I missed something?

Pseudoscience is boring

I noticed that Orac has already gotten up his link to the most recent skeptic's circle. I'm linking because its a cause that, in general, I support. However, I feel a little leary about doing it, simply because I've stopped reading the posts. As other skeptics have said before me, pseudoscience largely consists of the same nonsense recycled endlessly. Even if it were true, it wouldn't be half as exciting as the discoveries of real science. Though this deviation from the circle's normal fare is pretty cool.

Habeas Corups Restoration Act

Sully is urging people to support it. Knowing that my e-mail would only be read by a staffer, I kept it short:
Please support Senators Leahy and Specter's Habeas Corpus Restoration Act (S. 185). It will be a major factor in decideding whether to vote for you in the next election.

Hitchens demolishes opponent

Yes, I've suddenly found myself agreeing with Little Green Footballs. Proof that Hitchens is a fine writer and speaker, and the only problem with his book was organization. Also, I just realized Hedges, the opponent is the author of a book that had been on my shopping list. That saved me $16.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The Bible and anthropology

The Scienceblogs blog Evolving Thoughts is doing some interesting posts that look at Genesis from a scientific history perspective. The most recent one is on the Fal.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Reply to Holding.

J. P. Holding has put up a brief response to one part of the critiques I've been writing of him, while ignoring the rest. Specifically, all he responded to was responding to this post.

I want to be quick to offer a mea culpa here: my main point in the post was that the notions of evidence you see in, say, William Paley didn't exist pre-Enlightenment. In making the point, I was somewhat careless in my characterization of the ancient apologists. I never meant to deny anything Holding's Harvard Divinity School correspondent says about them, though perhaps my post can be read that way.

That said, Holding is missing the point of my post. My point was that Holding's "The Impossible Faith" seems to assume that ancient people would have had a modern persons' notion of evidence, and that this is false. I talked about the history of apologetics because it seemed to me a clear way of showing this. My point was not that this reflects badly on the apologists, as Holding seems to think, but that it undermines the thesis he has advanced.

Also false, with the exception of the final clause, is Holding's claim that "he is now trying to 'rebut' my use of the Context Group by re-repeating material by Carrier that I have already refuted, and whining about the way I do it without answering my claims or arguments and not dealing with the bulk of what I say." I haven't answered the bulk of what he says because my critique is an ongoing project. However, it should be obvious to anyone who has actually read what I wrote that I'm commenting on the dispute with Carrier, asking who's right on points of dispute. I suppose when I'm forced to spend time explaining what Carrier actually said, rather than what Holding imagines he said, it gets a little tedious, but that's hardly a point in Holding's favor.

(Speaking of reading what I wrote, I just noticed Holding doesn't link to it. Hmmm... Bye, bye, Tektonics link!)

Quote of the Time Being

I, for instance, would not be in the least
surprised if all of a sudden, A PROPOS of nothing, in the midst of general
prosperity a gentleman with an ignoble, or rather with a reactionary and
ironical, countenance were to arise and, putting his arms akimbo, say to
us all: "I say, gentleman, hadn't we better kick over the whole show and
scatter rationalism to the winds, simply to send these logarithms to the
devil, and to enable us to live once more at our own sweet foolish will!"
That again would not matter, but what is annoying is that he would be
sure to find followers--such is the nature of man.
-Dostoevsky, Notes from the Underground

Monday, June 04, 2007

Dreams, psychology, and inescapable (?) reason.

Last night was a night of particularly strange dreaming for me. As best I can remember, I was trapped in a "Groundhog's Day" (the movie) type cycle, only it was set on some experimental settlement of some sort which seemed to have a vauge Sci-fi element. I seem to remember a barn-like building which I thought of as a ship hangar. Weirdness. I don't remember enough details to make a coherent story. I'm not sure whether this is because it's hard to remember dreams, rather, I suspect its because most dreams aren't nearly as elaborate as we want to think they are. The my situation shifted dramatically, and I thought to ask myself whether I was still dreaming. After thinking about it for a moment, I decided my present stream of experiences were too vivid to be a dream. As it happened, those experiences involved crawling uphill on a sidewalk, on my stomach, and looking back on it the landscape wasn't really that elaborate or vivid.

Why does all this matter? It's because when we talk about Cartesian dream scenarios, we tend to forget that in dreams, our ability to reason is severely curcumscribed. If it weren't, almost every dream would involve quick and easy realizations that we're dreaming, but not all dreams work that way. The dream hypothesis--as well as the hypothesis of a powerful being that can induce dream-like states--is a threat not only to our sense data, it's a threat to our ability to reason about the world. And my experiences last night show that we have at least one instance of a human being's reasoning powers failing him when he was trying to show it was reasonable to think he wasn't dreaming. I didn't think I was absolutely certain I wasn't dreaming; I just thought in ordinary terms that I wasn't, just as I do now. And my reasoning, in retrospect, looks absurd.

Now leap, temporarily, to another subject. One attractive defense of the use of reason, or at a slightly more basic level our cognitive faculties, is that we can't help but do so. Any argument that calls into question our cognitive faculties will depend on them, and therefore be self-defeating, right? Or, there are times when, greatly disturbed by the difficulty of basic philosophical problems, I've contemplated abandoning concern for truth and devote myself to studying the psychology of persuasion, learning to manipulate people's beliefs as well as possible. It's not something that makes me feel good to think about, but I've contemplated it. The problem is that to study psychology presupposes a lot about truth, our ability to know things, etc. As tempting as it is to run in the face of intellectual difficulties, a retreat into the psychology of belief makes no sense.

This looks like an airtight argument for continuing the search for truth and trusting our basic cognitive faculties in doing so. Yet, as was just explained, it clear that they can go wrong, and can go wrong in basic, indeed shocking, ways. This obviously means they aren't infallible, but, even worse, it seems as if on some level, we don't have any idea whether they're reliable at all. It seems a self-defeating speculation. But it also seems an undeniable possibility.

PC 48

The 48th edition of the Philosopher's Carnival is up at common sense philosophy.

Psychology of politics

Interesting science, even if the social implications are troubling when you think about them took much.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Quote of the Time Being

After all, who is this I that has looked in vain for a self, according to Hume?
-Daniel Dennett, Consciousness Explained

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Tekton on Trial

As long as I'm spending my time doing fact-checking on Holding, I thought I'd bring to my reader's attention another blog dedicated to analyzing his work, Matthew Green's Tekton on Trial. I like what he said in his first month's review:
I feel that some readers may be wondering why I even bother with folks like Robert Turkel. After all, many of us have encountered spin-doctors, and spin-doctors of Turkel's stripe are known to act egotistical, nasty, and in ethically questionable ways. Is Turkel really worth taking that seriously?? I don't feel that Turkel himself is worth taking seriously, but rather his influence is worth taking seriously. I have seen enough of Turkel's writings to conclude that Turkel isn't even half the intellect he would like people to think that he is and I have seen enough flawed arguments and silly blunders on his part to conclude that my earlier judgement of him as a "scholar wanna-be" was fully merited. My problem is that Turkel is growing in terms of popularity. A few high profile names in Christian circles have endorsed him such as Lee Strobel, author of The Case for Christ and The Case for Faith. Turkel has been endorsed by the "exatheist" A.S.A. Jones, and New Testament scholar Mike Licona, if I recall correctly. These are not small and insignificant names. These are indications that Turkel's popularity is rising and his influence needs to be countered. Nothing I write is directed at Turkel as if I actually take him seriously. My writings are directed at readers who might take him seriously as I once did. If I can convince just one reader who may be a fan of Tekton Ministries that Turkel's apologetics are not what they're cracked up to be- I will consider my time on here well spent.
My thoughts exactly.

Pascal's Wager paper

This is a paper I wrote in Spring 2007 for my Philosophy 501--Philosophy of Religion class. It involves a revision of my previous position on the wager; I used to think it was an impossible bet because we can't chose our beliefs. Here I take a different tack.

Download "Pascal's Wager as a Problem for Decision Theory"
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Friday, June 01, 2007

I regret not speaking out on Iraq before it happened

Just responding to Brian Flemming's call.

Holding's use of Malina and Neyrey, part 2

The second part of this post.

They really say that. Really

Carrier's original critique of Holding included a section titled What do Malina and Neyrey really say? Holding's response accuses Carrier of all manner of illicit tactics. Among other things, Holding complains that Carrier was trying to pass off his own analysis, unsupported by the experts, as being shared by the experts. In response, Carrier e-mailed Malina and Malina confirmed that everything he wrote in the disputed paragraph was correct.

In the course of reading both sides of the exchange, I noticed a fairly small part of the book, pp. 212-218, got cited a lot by both sides. Before reading it, I wasn't in the least prepared for how devestating it would be to Holding's case. What Holding says in the original article is, "Changes in persons (such as Paul's conversion) were abnormal." What Malina and Neyrey say is much more precise and less helpful to Holding's case. Pp. 212-218 turn out to be the very last pages of the book, which come on the tail of lots of talk about how collectivistic (as opposed to individualistic) people of Jesus' time were. Here's the key parts
At one time Paul was a devoted adherent of a Pharisaic ideology with its program of Israelite in-group exclusivity (motto: "no mixtures," Acts 8:3; 9:1). Yet he ended up as equally devoted to the advancement of a Messianic ideology focused on the inclusivity of all "in Messiah Jesus" (motto: "mixtures do not count"--"there is neither Judean nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus," Gal. 3:28). Paul ascribes his acceptance of and dedication to the latter program to a personal experience of Jesus as raised by God (Gal. 1:15-1:16). Now what can be more individualistic than a divinely ordained, direct, personal experience of Jesus raised as Lord (as in Acs 9:2-22)? After that experience, the apostle portrays himself as a prophet, called from his mother's womb like the prophets of old, to make known God's will. Again, what can be more individualistic than consciousness of a divinely ordained birth of a single individual for a unique task at the divine direction? Do not the biblical writings clearly indicated that all of Israel's prophets were individualists? Does not prophetic awareness trace back to a singular, idiosyncratic, and unique person fully conscious of his uniqueness? Do not these events point to Paul as a true individualist, with Jesus as his "personal Lord and Savior," as a result of truly individualist, divinely ordained ecstatic experiences? And would not Paul's self-understanding as divinely called prophet and divinely directed "convert" simply nullify all that we have said about Paul as a collectivist, group-oriented person?...
So far, very Holding-esque. However, in a way very reminiscent of what we see in the disputes between scientists and anti-evolutionists, where the cranks declare a miracle the experts go on to provide a real explanation:
...How can group-oriented persons end up sounding so individualistic?

The purpose of what follows is to explain why these persons sound like individualists to us...

The Biblical record is peopled by collectivist personages. Bible readers, therefore, must learn to appreciate the prophetic role as a collectivist cultural role. Now from the point of view of defined selves, what is distinctive about prophets is their willingness to have their private self dissociated from their in-group self. That means that they will readily blurt out both to the in-group and in public what they really think, just as a child does. When a child loudly exclaims how fat his or her mother's friend is, that might be embarrassing to the mother and the mother's friend. But for a child to speak "the truth" is considered both childish and childlike. This holds in collectivist cultures as well.

But in collectivist cultures, as we have noted, adults tend to conform their private self and its judgements with the in-group self. While people in these societies are socialized to suppress their private self in favor of an in-group-shaped self presented to the public, the prophet allows private and public self controlling position. For the prophet does not submerge his privately defined self and its private experience in favor of telling others what they want to hear. He does not conform his privately defined self with his in-group-defined self. Rather, the prophet publicly tells a message derived from private experience, thus conforming the private with the in-group.

What the prophet's defined self has to say is ascribed to personal, individual, ecstatic experience, but it is the private self nontheless. Prophets can always behave like adults and keep their private thoughts to themselves. But their experience of God, their prophetic experience, takes place in an altered state of consciousness, an experience that socially entitles and impels them to speak freely and publicly. Hence, prophets must make their private self coincide with the public prophetic self because they belief that the burden of their message is rooted in a divinely caused private expewrience with a public objective, the experience of "revelation." The same is true of experiences involving dreams, visions, and stars, for example. In collectivist contexts, prophets (and magi and astrologers), thanks to their altered sates of consciousness, seem to fall into individualist interludes in their normally collectivist lives, interludes characterized by altered states of consciousness.
They continue on in this vein for another three paragraphs, but I think readers get the point. They manage to give an entirely sociological explanation for, what at first glance, appears to be a major anomaly. They don't quite rule out the possibility that the prophet's experiences could be genuine, but even if the experiences were, they would still be private, unverifiable, and unacompanied by the sort of irrefutable evidence that Holding takes to be the required explanation for all such anomalies. This comes in a heavily paraphrased form in Carrier's response to Holding, but given Holding's accusation that Carrier was "prostituting" their work, I think its important to give readers a chance to read a significant portion of what they wrote so as to be able to see for themselves.

Holding's rebuttal to this part of Carrier's critique includes the bizzare claim that "Carrier ends up admitting that yes, "divine backing" was essential to the Christian solution to popular social problems -- the very argument I have made, which he claims to be refuting." This shows the importance of the varaint readings of Holding's argument. He shifts around, apparently taking for granted that with Christianity, claims of divine backing meant evidence of divine backing, while also taking for granted that other religions could claim divine backing without evidence.

The last point about this section is that Holding wrongly downplays the explanatory element in Malina and Neyrey's book when he says, "Not ONE of these books I have used is in any sense about 'explaining the origin and growth of the church.' They are in fact all explanatory books, concerned to inform readers of contexts which assist in interpreting the text." They may not be written with the sole question of explain the origin of Christianity, but as was just shown, they (or at least this book, I haven't got to the others yet) do spend some time giving explanations of some features of Christianity's birth, and their explanations do not require anything really supernatural.

Yes, you can keep a secret

The last key claim of Holding's for which Malina and Neyrey's book is relevant is point thirteen, which is, quote, "You can't keep a secret!" In his response to this section, Carrier refers his readers back to his citations of Malina and Neyrey on section 10. Here, Carrier has already provided the necessary quotes, so I don't need to quote extensively to show he's right. Deception was possible. Holding says nothing to refute this. Therefore, at the very least, Carrier is right to chastize him for hyperbole.

Nevertheless, Holding claims in his response that deception would have been difficult because people were looking out for it. To this end, Holding quotes the following from Malina and Neyrey:
...not only sought to influence other selves; they sought to protect themselves from the influence of other selves. To this end they equally thought long and hard about ways of discerning, judging, evaluating another self, without any probing or conversation, withiout learning anything empirically or psychologically about what the other self was like.
From the fact that the methods didn't involve genuine evidence or psychology, it sould be clear that these weren't super-reliable methods. Let's pile on, though, and add what Holding doesn't quote:
p. xiii: From the documents that have come down to us, we can see that the ancients would quite readily agree that you can indeed tell a book by its cover. So too can you tell another preson by the way she or he looks and moves.
They spend a lot of time explaining two specific methods of doing this: stereotyping and physiognomy (determining a person's character by specific physical features). They also say:
pp. 75-76: Cicero's own practice amply indicates that emphasis here ought to be on dishonoring or shaming the opposition by demonstrating the opponent's lack of honor, lack of dignity, lack of sense of shame. The point is that the merits of the arguments or the case are of little consequence.
This is not a society of ideal bull-detectors.

In responding to Carrier, Holding really can't do much more than call him paranoid and say what he's proposing is a conspiracy theory. However, we do know that people lie, and indeed that sometimes groups of people work together on lying to other groups. Holding is simply exploiting a linguistic trick; years of "CIA killed JFK" and "moon landing hoax" claims have caused many people to think of "conspiracy" as meaning "implausible conspiracy." It doesn't follow that all conspiracies are implausible.

I think this is all more damaging to Holding's case than he would admit. On the second reading of Holding's argument, early Christians could have gotten by with making unfounded, bogus claims so long as no one was able to check them out. He hasn't done this very well.