Are Creationists and Mythicists Similar? You Be The Judge

I was going to screenshot a Facebook discussion that illustrated the similarity between the two groups, anti-science creationists and anti-history mythicists. But in the end, I decided to just share this comment I made there, which I hope boils down the indistingishable character of some of their claims and arguments at their most basic level, in a nutshell.

Creationists or mythicists? You judge…

“There is no evidence”
– What about this…or this…or this…?
“That doesn’t count, could mean X, Y, or Z.”
(slightly later)
“There is no evidence.”
“All the academics working in universities around the world in this field are like flat-earthers. REAL scholars (of whom there are only a small handful, shunned and excluded from mainstream universities because of the conspiracy to promote an ideology through them) conclude what I conclude.”
“The vast majority of learned individuals once thought the world was flat – therefore I am justified in rejecting what the vast majority of experts in a given field conclude today.”

The conversation then turned to the question of which is more irrational, mythicist denial of the historicity of Jesus, or Christian belief in the resurrection of Jesus. It is an ironic question, given how Bayes’ Theorem has been used to make the case for both. I said that in my view, denying that which we have adequate evidence for is more irrational – and more morally reprehensible – than believing that for which we do not have adequate evidence. Would you agree? I suspect that most who disagree with conservative Christians about both the resurrection and young-earth creationism will find the latter far more objectionable than the former. In my opinion, merely believing the improbable is not as irrational as disbelieving the probable.

A little later in the conversation, someone actually claimed that mythicists are the only ones who have written lengthy treatments of the subject!!! Here is what they wrote to me:

In response, I can only laugh and point to the Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus:

If you’re not familiar with it, then I’ll let you click through and see how many pages it is. But of course, at any rate, the fact that Richard Carrier is verbose and capable of writing 600-page blog posts says nothing about whether he is correct or not.

I decided that the conversation was not a productive use of my time and extracted myself. And so we’ll see whether, just like creationists, the mythicists I was engaging with will claim that getting the last word on Facebook means they “won.”

Finally, I should mention that Jerry Coyne continues to illustrate that someone who is perfectly capable of recognizing pseudoscholarship in their own field may be downright gullible as well as illogical when venturing into another discipline.

Stay in touch! Like Religion Prof on Facebook:
  • Phil Ledgerwood

    I had someone the other day suggest that the reason most historians don’t own up to the fact that there is no evidence for a historical Jesus is because they’re afraid of the repercussions. This is also a YEC argument as to why more scientists don’t publicly contest evolution.

  • James F. McGrath

    I am happy that the Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus came down slightly in price since I blogged about it after it was announced some years ago…

  • GalapagosPete

    What’s funny is that even the existence of Jesus was verified, it would be irrelevant. There could very well have been a person or persons who were the basis for the Christ character. However, there is little dispute if any that Muhammad was a real person, and none about Joseph Smith. Obviously, this supports the claims of the miraculous origins of Islam or Mormonism.

    Similarly, even if we found Jesus’ birth certificate it would not support the miracle claims in the bible.

    • James F. McGrath

      I think you have mistaken the issue. Mythicism is a denial of the existence of the historical figure of Jesus – i.e. the real historical figure who was crucified, whose followers thought he was the descendant of the line of David who would restore the kingdom, and whose predictions to that effect as recorded in our early sources did not materialize. Why would you think that this discussion has anything whatsoever to do with miracle claims?

  • arcseconds

    Rational belief surely comes in degrees, that is to say there’s some things we’re very sure of, some things we think are likely to be true on balance, other things we think are fairly likely but less probable than not, other things we think are highly unlikely, other things we think are practically impossible, etc. No competent historian is going to dispute that. So we are all Bayesians to that extent.

    I’m inclined to think that Bayesian epistemology does capture at least a large subset of rational empirical reasoning. Already its probabilistic nature seems a good fit, and it does allow us to make sense of many principles we think are sound, e.g. ‘extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence’. And it’s fared better than many of its predecessors, e.g. Popper’s notion of theories never being proven but only disproven doesn’t seem to have any practical relevance, as we do treat successful theories as though they are true, or very nearly so (and saying they’re not proven but ‘corroborated’ by testing doesn’t improve matters).

    It also has an explanation as to why it is rational to conform your actions to the axioms of probability and the probability theory derived from them (including Bayes’s Theorem, which is straightforwardly derived from the axioms): if you don’t, then it will seem to you to be wise to invest in activities that will result in you probably losing out (or, in some cases, certainly losing out).

    So I kind of agree with the statement of your interlocutor, that rational beliefs are probable beliefs.

    However, I think your intuition can be to some extent explicated in Bayesian terms.

    Agents with different priors don’t respond to evidence in the same way. It can be proven that their probabilities will converge over time if they get the same evidence (so long as the priors aren’t 1 or 0) but this can take a while (a very long time if the priors are really divergent, although hopefully historians aren’t typically starting from such massively different standpoints). So different probability distributions for different agents on the same evidence is quite possible, and these distributions are equally rational in the sense that two ideally rational agents end up with those distributions when given the same evidence.

    With something that’s been proven, however, what that means in Bayesian terms is presumably that if they start off with priors reasonably close to one another (within the expected range of results of a really good high-school education, maybe? when do we think people become rational? Please don’t say ‘never’…) the evidence is enough to get them to converge to some high probability for the thesis already, no matter the exact starting point. If you don’t accept the ‘proven’ result you either had bizarre priors and your posteriors haven’t converged to everyone else’s yet, or you’re irrational. If you’re not even moving a bit towards accepting the proven result, that rules out the ‘rational but with a weird starting point’ case, leaving us with the ‘irrational’ option

    (as an example of bizarre priors, a Bayesian agent could be something close to a sceptic in the classical sense of never accepting any thesis, if they had priors equally distributed across a large range of possibilities, and ‘likelihoods’ (their responsiveness to evidence) of a very reluctant sort. Such an agent would be moved by evidence towards the truth, but just extremely slowly. )

    With something that hasn’t been proven, the evidence is not enough to get even agents with fairly similar starting points to converge, so there will be array of equally-rational probability distributions. We could say they believe the option that they give the greatest probability to, in which case it is indeed perfectly rational in Bayesian terms to believe something that hasn’t been proven.

    Although we should probably insist that to believe some proposition A entails not just that the probability you give A is higher than any competitor, but the probability also has to be quite high, certainly over 0.5 (you surely can’t be said to believe something if you think it’s more likely to be false than true, even if it’s the most likely of a number of possible options) and I would think significantly higher than that, even: 0.9 or higher maybe.

    And in a realistic example, it’s hard to see how one agent could wind up with a probability that high without other agents with similar priors also winding up with a similarly high probability, in which case we’re back in the ‘proven’ case. It would require a pretty odd set of evidence, one that appeals in a particular way to the small differences in priors.

    So my guess would be that in most realistic cases it is still irrational to believe something that hasn’t been proven. But strongly suspecting something, even while others strongly suspect something else, might not be a problem.

    However, you weren’t saying that it was rational, just less irrational than not believing a proven something. If we accept the difference between an irrational probability distribution and the closest rational probability distribution (or the rational distribution that results from the same priors) then we can see that this is plausible in many cases: the ‘proven’ case has say most of the probability density around the thesis that is proven, and nearly 0 everywhere else, for all rational distributions (again accepting that our agents are starting from fairly similar positions). So the difference between the rational distribution and the irrational one would be nearly 1.

    But with something that hasn’t been proven, there will be several options with significant probability, and perhaps several different rational assignments. The irrational agent who believes (gives probability close to 1) one of the unproven but not yet ruled out options might be pretty close to a rational agent who strongly suspects (probability of 0.8 or something maybe) that option.

    So for example, an Earth that’s less than 10,000 years old is pretty much ruled out by the evidence, the probability density is virtually all located in the billions of years, mostly around 4.5 I suppose (I don’t know how likely that is to change, so maybe it’s smeared out a bit in the billions of years range (perhaps radical scientists think it could be out by a billion years or be significantly older than that? I don’t know) but it definitely doesn’t have significant probability below a billion). The probability around 10,000 or thereabouts isn’t exactly 0, as it isn’t actually a logical impossibility, but it’s very small and represents really way-out possibilities like us being systematically deceived by super-aliens.

    So someone who’s quite certain it’s 6000 years old would have a probability distribution peak of nearly 1 where all rational distributions have nearly 0, so a difference of nearly 1.

    Whereas someone who is sure Jesus was taller than average for men of his day isn’t in such a bad position. As far as I know (correct me if I’m wrong) there are no indications of Jesus’s height in the texts we have. That probably means he’s unlikely to have been either extremely tall or extremely short (as it’s the sort of thing that would be mentioned), but doesn’t give us any guidance as to what side of the average he might lie on. Given our ignorance (and knowing heights are roughly normally distributed) we might suggest the biggest rational probability to be 0.6 for ‘taller than average’ (such a person might give quite a lot of weight to the argument that influential people are often taller than average). Here the differences in probability is about 0.4.

    (it might actually be better to use the ratio as the measure of irrationality, as so many things have to be different from how we’re pretty sure they are for the earth to be less than 10,000 years old, whereas not much has to be different for Jesus to be taller than average, and the differences of 1 and 0.4 don’t seem to capture that at all. But it’s impossible to quantify the ratio of ‘nearly 0’ to ‘nearly 1’. )

    So there you go.

    (This would be a lot easier to explain with diagrams.)

    • James F. McGrath

      Thanks for translating the point into Bayesian terms, to make it potentially more persuasive for mythicists! :-)

      • arcseconds

        You contention that it was less irrational made intuitive sense to me, but the statement from your interlocutor seemed right, too, from a Bayesian perspective, and initially I thought I had better stick to my Bayesian guns… we probably shouldn’t prefer ‘sounds right’ to a rational argument grounded in probability theory.

        Not that they really gave an argument, of course. I do wonder how much ‘internet Bayesians’ actually know about the subject. I’m by no means an expert, although I have a bit of formal background in the area.

        I wonder, for example, whether they’ve thought about the fact that classically Bayesian epistemology has little to say about the initial prior probabilities. They could, in principle, be anything. But internet Bayesians usually talk as if there there are clear and disjoint sets of irrational and rational beliefs.

        (Of course, there have been some attempts to fill in an account of what rational priors might be, although I don’t know what they are.)

        Anyway, I thought about it for a bit. One upshot of the thinking is that not all belief in the absence of convincing proof benefits from the form of ‘less irrationality’ I’ve handwaved at: it’s least irrational when you believe quite firmly in what some rational agent already strongly suspects, and in other cases could do as badly as disbelieving something that’s been proven. Just because we don’t know exactly how the pyramids were constructed doesn’t make ‘aliens did it’ much more rational than thinking aliens built the Eiffel tower. But I suppose this is obvious enough.

      • arcseconds

        By the way, I hope you actually did tell your interlocutor about the Handbook, right?

        I would like to think that mythicists’ stalwart promotion of rationality as a value, perhaps even as the master value, would mean that they would actually have some openness to criticism, (even though my actual experience of talking to mythicists usually suggests otherwise) and I would also like to think that being caught out making a statement like this on no real basis which is easily disproven would start someone with some inclination towards self-criticism to start thinking about why they were so certain of something that they weren’t really in a position to be certain about…

  • Nick G

    I basically agree with your comparison of creationists and mythicists – although I think the evidence against the latter, while strong, is still far weaker than the evidence against the former (not that we could reasonably expect the evidence for the existence of an obscure person 2,000 years ago to be much stronger than it is).

    I said that in my view, denying that which we have adequate evidence for
    is more irrational – and more morally reprehensible – than believing
    that for which we do not have adequate evidence. Would you agree?

    But we have vast amounts of evidence – backed up by thermodynamic theory – that once dead, people do not return to life. If it is irrational and reprehensible to deny that for which we have adequate evidence – and I agree with you that it is – it is therefore highly irrational and reprehensible to believe in the resurrection.

  • Zachary Bower

    This is such a flawed argument that I felt compelled to comment on a 2 month old post to tell people not to use it:

    “Creationists or [round earthers]? You judge…
    “There is no evidence”
    – What about this…or this…or this…?
    “That doesn’t count, could mean X, Y, or Z.”
    (slightly later)
    “There is no evidence.”

    Do you see what I’m driving at? This formula is so vague that it could describe any position of skepticism on anything. Someone countering a 9/11 Truther is likely to talk like this. Or arguing with a Nessie believer. So on & so forth. In fact, this is what an “evolutionist” sounds like to creationists.

    “You’re talking like a Creationist” only makes sense when the person is using invalid arguments, but in fact, a lot of people use arguments that WOULD make sense if only their claims were actually true. Just because you think someone’s premises are untrue, that doesn’t mean the logic itself is invalid.

    If you’re using an argument like this, even if you’re right, it’s no small wonder you’re not convincing people.

    • James F. McGrath

      Obviously if this were the only, the main, or even a major argument against mythicism, then your criticisms would be very much on target. But given that the issues with mythicism are substantive, it doesn’t seem that observing its similarities in form with other forms of pseudoscholarship is problematic. It contributes to the overall case, I think.

      • Zachary Bower

        I’ve encountered the above mentioned argument a lot, but also it’s far from the only reason I think the proposed similarity is tenuous. Creationism is motivated by religious dogma that presupposes the “inerrant truth” of a holy book & defines anything that contradicts it as wrong–not just as a default hypothesis, but as the ONLY possible conclusion. What similar ulterior motive would mandate the nonexistence of Jesus? Creationists are also usually indoctrinated, in fact even warned against seeking an education, because not only is it impossible they’re wrong, but they’ll be “brainwashed.” Related, they often go well beyond simply asserting that “evolutionists” are biased, claiming instead a concerted, malicious conspiracy. Is any of that true of “mythicism”? Further, creationists don’t merely disagree with the conclusions, they outright make up provably false things about the nature of the evidence, such as “mutations can’t add to the genome.” When “mythicists” say “there’s no evidence,” do they mean they dispute the very existence of the things you’re citing, or are they saying, “none of this definitively rules out other conclusions, so it can’t be called evidence of your claim”?

        At least from what I’ve seen, I don’t think creationism & “mythicism” much resemble each other at all. The one major point that they both seem to share is a rejection of scholarly consensus on a subject, but it’s not the mere fact that creationists disagree with consensus that makes them wrong. The evidence makes them wrong, which is why I stick to that when arguing against them, & rarely appeal to consensus. Consensus is, at best, an indirect measure of the evidence, but in broadest terms, they’re not wrong when they object that sometimes the consensus can be due to politics & other social biases. “Scientific racism” isn’t really that old of a concept.

        As for the nature of those respective consensuses, I don’t really think even the most confident historian could honestly say that the evidence for Jesus is on par with the sheer volume of genetic, experimental, observational, & paleontological evidence demonstrating the fact of evolution. Which raises the question, sure they disagree with you, but even if you think they’re wrong, is it really SO unreasonable as to be compared to creationism? Or, for that matter, flat earthism, trutherism, etc.?

        • James F. McGrath

          Well, the two points I would make in response is that, if mythicists mean something different than creationists and other denialists do, then they really should not use the same phrase as the others do. Wouldn’t you agree?

          I don’t think that 9/11 Trutherism, Evolution Denial, and Flat Earthism are quite the same, in terms of how much counterevidence each has to deny. That is part of my point – if all one has to do to convince oneself that one is being rational is to show that one is not as bad as some other group that goes to a further extreme, then one opens the door to a lot of bunk. That is why I think that denialisms should be approached in terms of their approach and their rejection of mainstream academic consensus conclusions.

          • Zachary Bower

            No, I would not agree, because Creationists neither invented nor own the phrase “there’s no evidence.”

            You can do that if you want, but I not only think that doesn’t work because it unnecessarily assumes that people can’t be wrong for good reasons, but I imagine it has the opposite effect. When’s the last time you were basically called foolish for not agreeing with something with little explanation for why you should & thought to yourself, “Oh man, he’s totally right”?

          • James F. McGrath

            But this has not been offered with little explanation, or as a standalone argument. You can find a round-up of the highlights and key points in multiple years’ worth of blogging about mythicism here:

            I realize that as a newcomer to a subject, or to a blog, one may not get the full perspective on what has been said. But that too is something that connects mythicism with creationism, and that was my biggest objection to the claim that “there is no evidence.” The supporters of both kinds of pseudoscholarship will barge into an ongoing discussion and pretend not only that extensive evidence had not been discussed there, but also ignoring all the books and article published on the subject by academics over the many decades (if not much longer) prior to that.