Carrier Responds To Me On Whether To Argue About Historical Jesus

In a piece called “Fincke Is Right, Arguing Jesus Didn’t Exist Should Not Be a Strategy”, Richard Carrier agrees with my thesis and my arguments in my post from Saturday. In that post I said that atheists who are laypeople with respect to history should wait for the consensus among history scholars to change before even thinking of centralizing challenges to a historical Jesus existed in our public statements and arguments. Even as Carrier is prepping a book that will argue against the historical Jesus, he agrees that the average atheist should not jump the gun and attack the current historical opinion or, especially, strategically choose to make a big deal out of the historicity of Jesus when there are so much better and more conclusive arguments against Christianity available.

In response to my remark that “if we really find [e.g.] Carrier’s arguments compelling [then we should] still be cautious and qualified in our declarations, acknowledging that we are agreeing with a minority view (and one that even Carrier seems far from certain about)”, Richard adds the following support:


In aid of that last parenthetical, I can announce one spoiler: in my book On the Historicity of Jesus(at the publisher now and expected this February, if their production timeline goes to plan) I conclude that, using probability estimates as far against my conclusion as are at all reasonably possible (probabilities I believe are wildly too generous), there could be as much as a 1 in 3 chance that Jesus existed. When using what I think are more realistic estimates of the requisite probabilities (estimates I believe are closer to the truth), those chances drop to around 1 in 12,000.

Note that the first estimate leaves a respectable probability that Jesus existed–it’s merely more likely that he didn’t, not anywhere near certain. And that may well be correct, if my biases are strong and thus my a fortiori estimates (estimates against myself) more accurate. But even if we embrace theother end of my margin of error, we are still not looking at certainty. 1 in 12,000 sounds like certainty, but it’s actually nowhere near. Just ask yourself: would you get into a car that had a 1 in 12,000 chance of exploding right then? If your answer is yes, then you are bad at math.

Supernatural miracles, and disembodied minds, and blood magic, have odds of millions or billions or even trillions or quadrillions to one against. So why would you hang your case against Christianity on a mere 1 in 12,000? You can make a far better case against that religion by granting historicity andthen showing the odds against it are trillions to one. The additional reduction in the probability that Christianity is true that is added by calculating-in the possibility Jesus didn’t exist is relatively so minuscule it’s honestly not worth troubling yourself over.

He then cites psychological research, brought to bear by Valerie Tarico and Jason Long in The Christian Delusion, that if people receive both a weak and a strong argument for a proposition that they are biased against they’ll assume that both are weak as soon as they intuit the one is weak. So, he concurs with me that we should stick to our most devastating and conclusive cases against Christianity rather than focus on the historicity argument. He concludes with this advice, “So please. Learn from science. Dump the strategy of arguing that Christianity (or the New Testament, or this or that teaching, or anything whatever) is false ‘because Jesus didn’t exist.’”

Your Thoughts?




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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.