Religious Studies and Christian Agendas

Religious Studies and Christian Agendas January 23, 2013

In a blog post on the Religious Studies Project website, Raphael Lataster, a postgraduate student at the University of Sydney, has suggested that there is a Christian agenda behind even the supposedly secular study of religion. And he makes that claim because of his own experience of wanting to research mythicism at university.

From what little one can learn online about Lataster, he is someone who previously subscribed to the Aramaic primacy view of the New Testament. And so he is hopefully aware that one can find certain arguments persuasive, and yet eventually come to critically examine them and find them wanting. Whether the same will turn out to be true with respect to Jesus mythicism remains to be seen.

Be that as it may, Lataster's blog post points out that there are Christians involved not only in the theological articulation of their own tradition, but in religious studies.

My initial reaction is that this is not news.

What makes history, or science, or politics, or religious studies secular is not that the person engaging in it has no stance on relevant issues or no vested interest in the conclusions. People regularly have a vested interest in the outcomes of their work, and it can skew the results. That can be the case when someone engages in the study of religion and has a heartfelt desire to see their own tradition turn out to be unique, and it can be the case when someone hopes to find that there are no genetic or anatomical differences of significance between people from different parts of the world or ethnic backgrounds. What distinguishes secular study from ideologically-driven apologetics is that any results are offered to the wider scholarly community to be fact-checked, analysed, and evaluated, with the potential that our claims will be overturned. And what distinguishes secular study is not that those who work in a particular academic field have no biases, but that the tools seek to compensate for them, and do not require a particular bias in order to use them. And it is these two features, when combined, that contributes to the strength of scholarly study in the range of disciplines and fields that we investigate.

Lataster's own successful undertaking of a Masters of Arts by research with the title “Jesus scepticism: An examination of the arguments for various ‘Jesus as a myth’ theories” demonstrates that, whatever reluctance some may have expressed about his topic, it is possible to study this question. Indeed, many of us have emphasized that, if those who are skeptics about the existence of a historical Jesus of Nazareth are to be taken seriously, they need to do precisely this. But as with anyone who proposes research on a topic that has thus far been the purview of cranks and crackpots with no relevant credentials, and whose publications have been self-published books and web sites rather than scholarship, academics will offer cautions. So too we will offer cautions to students who think that they have insights which will prove that almost everyone who studied a topic before them was wrong, emphasizing that in fact, most of the time, it will turn out that they are wrong and not the prevailing consensus. Not always, but much more often than not. I can't help but wonder whether Lataster mistook such legitimate academic concerns for concerns that were founded in religious assumptions and biases. I also cannot help but wonder whether Lataster assumes that, because he is an atheist, he is above being driven by ideological motivations that could skew his conclusions.

If so, the good news is that the secular study of history, and of religion, is well poised to evaluate whatever results he may produce. I look forward to reading them, if and when when chooses to publish them.


"Thanks for finding all the little nuances, some I recognized and some I didn't."

Doctor Who: Orphan 55
"Like most ancient authors, that wasn't an exclusive concern. I think that Matthew knew, for ..."

Mythicism, Isnads, and Pseudepigrapha
"I confess I didn't see the reveal coming but as soon as it arrived I ..."

Doctor Who: Orphan 55

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

TRENDING AT PATHEOS Progressive Christian
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Claude

    Now that the mythicists have a martyr in Thomas L. Brodie their position that religious studies is a captive discipline will likely become even more intractable. It’s a scandal when scholars are fired for arriving at controversial conclusions. On the other hand, Fr. Brodie’s employer is the Roman Catholic Church, an institution that cracked down on nuns for prioritizing service to the poor over the Vatican’s culture war against abortion and gay marriage. How then would we expect the RCC to tolerate a priest who not only proposes Jesus mythicism, but, if I understand correctly, Paul mythicism as well!
    However, in a comment at The New Oxonian “Ian” made me realize that I had underestimated the influence of patronage on religious studies:

    That we’re here is partly the fault of academic biblical studies. It has not, and does not strongly enough distance itself from confession.

  • Brettongarcia

    Great topic!

  • Claude

    Brettongarcia, you have admirable restraint.

    You could have said, “I told you so!”

  • Brettongarcia

    Claude and James:

    The all-too-common assertion that committed
    Christians can be objective scholars when it comes to Christianity,
    is simply, logically, false.

    involves typically, avowing “faith” and belief in God and Jesus,
    week after week. In your typical weekly church services and prayers,
    Christians typically affirm that they “believe in” God the
    Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; other common prayers affirm that our
    religion is a “faith.” Yet “faith” in dictionary
    definition,means in part, “firm belief in something for which there
    is no proof” (Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate, 11th ed.).

    So two points
    need to be made here: 1) there are in a sense no “non-confessional”
    Christian scholars of religion; if they did not make a commitment to
    “faith” in their place of employment, they almost certainly made
    that commitment in their church, over and over. While 2) a
    commitment to “faith” in turn, is logically fatal to objectivity.
    With your weekly avowals of “faith,” you have explicitly
    committed to believing, having faith in Christianity – even without,
    any objective evidence.

    In effect,
    almost all Christian “scholars”
    have made an confessional oath, or acknowledgment, week after week ,
    in their churches. That they will not be scholarly or objective, on
    this subject. But rather, they will “believe in”
    it – without objective evidence.

    One might
    respond that 1) a given “Christian scholar “ might go back on the
    promises he made in church; but in that case, the scholars is a
    hypocrite. He is not really “faith”ful. He has made an oath
    over and over, that he is not keeping. Or 2) say, he does honor it.
    In which case his pretense of being an objective scholar regarding
    Christianity, is hypocritical and false; he has made a prior
    commitment or explicit bias. To support believe in Jesus say, even
    over and above and in spite of, all material evidence. Which would
    greatly interfere with – and indeed cancel – his objectivity.

    therefore, the situation of a “Christian scholar” of
    Christianity, is untenable. The whole notion of being a “Christian
    scholar” who is objective on the matter of Christianity, is an
    oxymoron; a logical SELFCONTRADICTION. To be Christian is to avow
    “faith” in Jesus; but that very “faith” cancels any pretense
    of scholarly objectivity. Since faith by definition, means a
    commitment to believing in something without objective evidence. Any
    “faith” statement, logically, announced a huge bias, right away:
    either it 1) confesses lack of objective evidence, and/or in any case
    it 2) announces a deep unconcern for any such evidence.

    therefore? There is no such thing as a good, honest, Christian
    scholar of Christianity. The very concept is an oxymoron, or a logical

    • BrettonGarcia, you need to start actually reading the things people write. I have mentioned time and time again that, for significant numbers of educated Christians, influenced by thinkers like Tillich, the notion of simply accepting things on “faith” is abhorrent, and there is strong opposition to that current of popular Christianity which understands faith in that way.

      And this very post is about the fact that there are Christians who hope their religion will come through investigation looking impressive, and atheists who really hope Christianity will end up looking like some dumb idea which a charlatan concocted and passed off on gullible people. Any desired outcome can skew results. And so the question is whether the scholarly checks and balances work, or whether scholarship in all the fields in which people have vested interests are impossible.

      But that is not the key question. The key question is why you keep making the same assertions no matter what anyone writes in response to you, and why you tend to pepper them with insanely random question marks. Unless you are willing to allow your claims to be revised in light of evidence and shaped by evidence, then aren’t you merely illustrating the problem I am talking about?

      • Brettongarcia

        Any bias can skew results.  The problem is:  determining who has bias.  Are you really asserting contemporary religious scholars have few or none?  Such perfection would be unknown in all of History, and would be unhistorical in that sense.  We are all products of History, and our (always limited) times.

        You seem to typically imply that you, as a practicing Christian scholar, have uniquely, few perspectival biases; whereas Mythicists have many.  But those who have bias typically don’t see it, or acknowledge it.  No more than perhaps a fish really notices water:  because that’s his total environment.  It’s a given.

        Possibly SOME Christians, even Christian scholars, do not speak of “faith” in a way that does not include any element of believing without proof.  No doubt MANY would agree with the dictionary definition however.  And that is the problem with your definition and assertions.

        Are you saying you never, repeated a prayer that used “faith” in the way most dictionaries and congregational dogmas use it?  Or that such dogmas never had any influence on you, or the students whose patronage (or FTE’s; “fulltime equivalents”) supports your program?

        You seem to speak as if you and nearly all religious scholars are above such things; but why do you continue to make unsupportable generalizations that favor your own perspective? 

        Specifically among other things?  We know from a look at real History, that the idea of “History” as established by “Criteria,” among Religious Studies scholars even, and non-confessionalists (if any?), is unsupportable.  You yourself have not yet been able to cite any use of Criteria outside of religious studies. While there are more and more criticisms of the Criteria.  By say Drs. Le Donne and Keith it now seems, among many others.

        • What makes criticism of the criteria of authenticity by two scholars who are Christians seem acceptable to you, but the widespread use of the criteria by scholars of a variety of backgrounds problematic? The articulation of them under the heading “criteria of authenticity” may be distinctive of historical Jesus research, but the principles – that people are unlikely to invent material that is embarrassing to a figure they admire, that something found in multiple early sources is more likely to be authentic – are all widely used in the study of history. And to the extent that there are challenges to the older positivistic approach by scholars like LeDonne, they reflect a change that is taking place throughout the domain of historical study in the academy.

          • Brettongarcia

            1) I’m not sure Le Donne is Christian; he may have been Jewish.  2) Not sure about Keith either; he may be agnostic.   Possibly it is minority status in fact, that often gives such people unique and valuable perspectives on society.  As recent Historiography agrees.  In this respect, atheists have much to offer.

            3) Clearly in any case, in their work – and many others we are seeing in academy – an academy which you often cite as unchallengeable Authority it would seem – the academy is moving in a direction opposite to that which you constantly imply, is eternally fixed truth.  Suggesting that as-yet minority opinion, outside the “consensus,” can have significance.  And is indeed even now leveraging significant changes in the “consensus.”

            So your own constant citations of consensus and overwhelming majority opinion in our discipline, are all but meaningless.  Just as your assumptions of no historical bias in your own views, is profoundly a-historical.   If history teaches anything in fact?  It is that history marches on; and one accepted opinion after another – even academic opinions – are overthrown.  Era after era; time after time.

            The Criterion of Embarrassment specifically,  I have addressed with you, on your blog, before.  It is only very, very marginally useful, and only with crippling caveats; as Goodacre and others  began to suggest.  To assert that a given, perhaps historical account,  must be true and historical, because it does not match then- or current expectations, is overall, extremely unreliable, and is used only in cases where no really good historical evidence is actually attainable.   (If you have examples of its use by the way? Feel free to cite them here.  In fact, I hereby request that).

            The Criterion in any case is unreliable.  So for example?   There was a false rumor of a government coup in Turkey in the 1960’s; one which the Turkish government allowed to be reported, even though it was not true, and was a sort of embarrassment to the government.  Did this embarrassment, mean that the account was historically true?  It did not.

            It’s possible to come up with thousands of these examples; people tell and even make up untrue stories, even when the stories are unflattering to them.    A child who threw a rock and broke a window, might claim that he was running from a bully, who threw the rock.  Such a story makes the child look like a coward, in some eyes; but that did not prevent the invention of an embarrassing story.

            The Criterion of Embarrassment is also under attack recently  from scholars in your field for another reason:  because it is hard to determine just exactly what might have been embarrassing to ancient peoples.  Was the crucifixion for example, really embarrassing to the Church?  Perhaps after all, they wanted and expected, a “Martyr”; a dying hero, especially. There were precedents in especially Hellenistic Jewish culture; like 2 Mac  7.14-37, for example. Offering up their lives to save their country by moral example; and with hope of resurrection moreover.

          • I know them both personally. Why are you so determined to rewrite reality to fit your preconceived biases?

          • Brettongarcia

            Casual association with someone, does not trump all other observations on a given person:  do you think it does?  Do you know everything about these two scholars?  Why do you insist in effect that your personal experience trumps all? 

            This is yet another flawed assumption on your part; that no doubt reflects a flawed historiography; objections to which you have not answered here yet, by the way.

            Do you really personally know the religous affiliation of LeDonne?  LeDonne for example was a resident of a local Hillel House….

            Again and again, you invoke your Authority, and the authority of scholarly consensus.  But when when we look at your actual arguments in closer detail, we are reminded that the “Argument From Authority” after all, is a notorious logical fallacy. 

            Why are you basing yourself on a reality, a History, so obviously limited in what it sees?

          • I mean I actually know these people, and you are trying as hard as you can to misrepresent them.

            Anthony about his stay at Hillel House on the UC Davis campus:

        • arcseconds

          We can’t trust Christians like McGrath, because they’re biased in favour of traditional christianity, even if they say they reject it.

           We can’t trust atheists like  Dawkins because they are baised against religion and thus against the existence of Christ. 

          We can’t trust agnostics like Ehrman because although he’s given up the dogma he likes Christianity too much. 

          We can’t trust Carrier because he wants to prove his genius and upset the applecart.

          We can’t trust Hoffman because he’s an uppity Oxford chap who wants to lord it over us with his sophistication and his Latin.

          We can’t trust any professional academic because they want to advance their career and sell books.

          We can’t trust anyone with a website, because they’re shameless self-promoters.

          We can’t trust you because you’re only concerned with some sorts of bias and not others — you’ve got a bias bias.

          We can’t trust anyone we don’t know, because they probably have biases we don’t know about.

          We can’t trust anything ever written by someone with a bias, because even if they think they’re being honest their biases will be secretly using their mysterious mind-control powers to infect us  (best not read anything, just to be safe).

          Looks like we’re helpless in the face of the ever-present, all-powerful biases!

          • Claude

            hahaha that was great.

            When in doubt, choose the best prose stylist.

    • Finally
      therefore? There is no such thing as a good, honest, Christian
      scholar of Christianity. The very concept is an oxymoron, or a logical 

      So, the only people who can be serious scholars of Christianity are those who have rejected all claims of christian faith?

      No bias there, at all. 

      • Brettongarcia

        Mind addressing my “faith” comment? 

        • I’d be happy to. Which one? The comment to which I replied had several different comments related to faith. 

          For the record, I don’t think pure objectivity exists in scholarship. A confession Christian is going to have a bias when it  comes to biblical scholarship / religious studies generally. An atheist is going to have a bias when it comes to biblical scholarship / religious studies generally.

          I don’t dispute the notion that confession Christians have bias. You’re correct. Of course they do. But so do non-Christians, potentially in the exactly opposite direction as a Christian would.

          Your point seems to be that all scholarship from a Christian on items that have anything to do with Christianity is thus null and void (or perhaps even more forcefully, an actual impossibility). 

          I think that’s nonsense, because I accept that everyone is biased, Christian, atheist, Hindu, all or none of the above!

          The correction to bias isn’t to pursue some fictitious ideal of complete objectivity (because that doesn’t actually exist when it  comes to us as human beings). The correction, as James has pointed out, is the public scrutiny that occurs by others with differing (and ideally) opposing biases. 

          • Brettongarcia


            As a practical matter, I agree that probably everyone has a bias or two.  And I agree that as a practical matter, one way of getting past that is to consult therefore, not just a core “consensus,” but many different peoples, disciplines, and points of view.

            However?  I maintain that confessed, “faith”ful Christians, actually have a much, much higher degree of even outrageously prominent bias than most.  As proof of that, or as the reason for that, I noted that the very “faith” they profess, is rather explicitly, a rejection of all material proofs (and disproofs) of Jesus.  It is a raw assertion that Christians will believe in Jesus, NO MATTER WHAT evidence contradicts that.  Whether or not it appears people can’t walk on water; whether or NOT historical evidence can’t verify him.  “Faith” means believing, in spite of all evidence; by dictionary definition, and in countless church sermons.

            So yes it is true that no doubt, nearly all of us have some kind of bias.  But which scholars could possibly every have such a devastating, creedal, overwhelming, explicit bias, against material evidence, as those who swear to have “faith”?  I can’t imagine a credo that would be more destructive to scholarly objectivity, than this one.   Finally it is so extreme, that I hold to my assertion:  that logically, by definition, it is impossible for a “faith”ful Christian, to be an objective scholar in investigating Christianity.  By agreeing to “faith,” he has literally sworn, in effect, to ignore and devalue all evidence that is contrary to his opinion and belief. Which is exactly, precisely, and adamantly the opposite to what a real scholar should do.

            Honestly, I can’t imagine a less suitable foundation for real scholarship.

  • Claude

    Whoa there, Brettongarcia. I was referring specifically to patronage of religious studies  and should have included Ian’s next sentence in the quote above:

    That we’re here is partly the fault of academic biblical studies. It has not, and does not strongly enough distance itself from confession.

    And that is because the discipline is so overwhelmingly funded by vested interests.

    The influence of vested interests is hardly exclusive to religious studies. It’s just that in the case of religious studies the relationship  involves the confessional issue. Reading Ian’s comment I remembered how skeptical I’d been when you argued that this structural conflict presents a problem.

    Your contention that there can be no honest Christian scholar of Christianity is a separate issue and is wild talk. Would you say that no American patriot can be an honest scholar of American history? Of course not.

    • Brettongarcia

      Well, actually?  It is precisely increasing doubts over the accuracy of patriotic American accounts of the settling of the West  say – and say, the slaughter of the Indians – that has become the textbook example of bias in historians.

      • Claude

        That may be true at certain times, in the case of certain historians, and in certain places (Texas, I’m looking at you…), but I think nationalist bias is generally frowned upon nowadays.

        • Brettongarcia

          Today we know about many kinds of bias; like nationalistic bias.  But my point is that History is now confirming that there are apparently always many, many  biases out there; and many of them overdetermined the way History itself was written. 

          So the larger moral of that tale, is that every historian today should always be on the lookout for bias; nationalistic – or otherwise.

          And indeed, one way to get around that, would be to talk to many different kinds of people; minorities and so forth.  To try to get many perspectives.   To see different parts of the elephant.

          Many believers in a student body seeking religion courses, might bias the funding basis for a religious department say.  And then on the basis of that, only professors who don’t offend that monied constituency or financial foundation, would be hired. So the final result is … the production of biased “scholarship.”

  • Susanburns

    Michael Heiser has M.A. and Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible and Semitic Languages.  He has also has M.A. in Ancient History. But he states that the Bible is an ancient (wonderful) record from God. He also states that “it’s important to understand that the biblical writers, though under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, followed the ordinary forms of literature that were current in their day when they wrote.” From my understanding, he contends that the Ugaritic worship of Baal and Israelite worship of YHWH is so very similar so that the “style” would be recognizable to the reader; because it is a given that OT was “inspired by God” and Epic of Gilgamesh was not.

    This may not be a problem for those people who were indoctrinated into religious doctrine but I just don’t see how his conclusions could be considered scholarly. The pre-concluded concept of one set of texts as “inspired” sounds to me like propaganda.

    • John

      Michael Heiser also believes in flying saucers.

  • Anoynymous

    BG is an idiot…but then again, I’m biased (and proud of it). ? ?? …. “faith” 

    • Brettongarcia

      The second part of your sentence is my point, exactly.  Think about it….

  • Claude

    I read what the Religious Studies Project calls the “important piece” by Raphael Lataster that Dr. McGrath links to above. No doubt it’s important to expose what Lataster describes as pressures in religion departments to avoid controversial subjects like mythicism and arrive at “‘Christian-friendly conclusions” in a field dominated by Christian studies. Still, the disconnectedness of the piece, with its asides and awkward jockeying between reportage and opinion, made me suspect that Lataster had overstated Dale Martin’s equivocation on the charge that religion studies are little more than crypto-theology.

    So I listened to the podcast (the interview with Martin begins at minute 7). Martin is emphatic that in his 30+ years of experience in the profession, religion departments are firmly situated within the humanities and distinct from divinity schools. Further, even divinity schools often prefer to adopt non-theological methodologies. Martin describes religion studies as a dynamic, interdisciplinary field fully attuned to developments in both the humanities and sciences. Lataster sophomorically accuses Martin of tu quoque when Martin points out that no academic endeavor is uninflected by ideology, and he is apparently unaware of the irony of his concluding sentence:I merely wish to share my own experiences on the matter, and to encourage scholars to leave their personal beliefs at the door, as they enter the sacred grounds of the University.

    Anyway, the interview with Martin is terrific.

  • Brettongarcia

    Here’s the problem:  I have three degrees, including a PhD, from really, actually, secular universities.   And furthermore, at least one – and arguably two – of my graduate degrees was in a History-Related discipline.  So what happened ,when from that perspective when I began to read the “secular” and “unbiased” reports by many (if not all) allegedly “objective” and “scholarly” and “secular” religion scholars?  What happened was that I was shocked at the arguments many of them regarded seriously, as purely “objective” and “scholarly,” and “historical.”  Almost none of their allegedly scholarly, secular procedures matched what I learned in secular, graduate historiography classes.  Or any other of the dozen or so graduate departments I took classes in.

    I think that many Religious Studies departments HAVE made great strides in separating themselves to the old uninformed beliefs; but they are presently only about halfway to true objectivity.

    And scholars are starting to see that:  more and more are acknowledging that the “history” we saw in most of these early scholars, their “Criteria” for example, were all-too-“special” pleadings.  Offered in the face of in fact, inadequate Historical evidence. 

    So that the past work of most Religious Studies departments was  only halfway where it ought to be; it is even now still – in spite of their own protestations – all-too ‘”faith-based” after all.

    • Your talk of objectivity makes me skeptical of your claim to have degrees in history. I suppose that if you studied the subject numerous decades ago, there might have been those who used such language. Can you kindly provide a link to an online CV which indicates what your qualifications are? Thank you!

  • Jack Collins

    HG: Would it make a difference if I pointed out that I, a congenital atheist (raised in a secular family with nary a pang of “faith”) and biblical scholar, find the consensus of mainstream HJ scholars to be convincing, and in fact have to spend much of the Christmas season explaining to my atheist pals why the mythicist “memes” they keep posting on Facebook are bunkum? I have no dog in the Jesus fight, but evidence is evidence.

  • newenglandsun

    Is this the typical way people argue for Jesus mythicism?