Dawkins vs. Denialism

Dawkins vs. Denialism March 7, 2013

Michael Bird shared this Mitchell and Webb video about an imagined conversation between Richard Dawkins and his publisher.

It actually gets at a really good point, which connects with an issue I often blog about, namely the embracing of Jesus-mythicism and other such fringe ideas among atheists.

There is something enjoyable in denying what others affirm, and in believing oneself smarter than the majority of people who affirm whatever it is. And so I suspect that the love of denial, rather than the love of truth, is at least part of the explanation of why so many are happy to deny not merely what religious believers say, but what mainstream secular historians do too.

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  • Nick Gotts

    Of course what Dawkins actually did – and very successfully – was go back to writing about evolutionary biology. And he’s not a mythicist. And there are plenty of people who say TGD led them to atheism – so the “preaching to the converted” claim is wrong. But hey, why let a few inconvenient facts get in the way of a good sneer?

    • I thought the sneer was in the direction of the publisher, not Dawkins.

      • SoWhat78

        James, even though it’s not a scientific issue, I think the view of the Bible as inerrant is a form of denialism. I think it’s beyond obvious to anyone who is not an evangelical/fundamentalist Christian that there are errors in the Bible. The view that there is not one error, contradiction etc. in the bible is simply denying reality. What do you think? Am I right?

        • Yes, Biblical inerrancy certainly fits the profile of denialism!

      • Nick Gotts

        Nonsense: Dawkins is a known figure, his publisher is not, and the sketch (which lacked the saving virtue of being, you know, funny) showed him going along with the publisher. I’m far from uncritical of Dawkins, on issues including those biological topics he argued over with Steven J. Gould, feminism, his reference to “the Jewish lobby”, and his unduly favourable view of Jesus, but the sketch, and your use of it, are not just a cheap shot, but one that misses the mark.

        • Dawkins is a known figure, his publisher is not

          Actually, the publisher is a recurrent character on That Mitchell and Webb Look, the show that the clip is taken from. He’s usually the butt of the joke, so I think you may have missed where the humour is targeted.

          • Nick Gotts

            Thanks, I wasn’t aware of that. But it’s clear both are being guyed, as Dawkins goes along with the publisher (see below).

        • This comment seems strange to me. Yes, of course Dawkins is a known figure. But he resists, and is dismayed by, his publisher’s suggestions for a next book and his publisher’s stance on why his views are popular. And so the video seems to me to be poking fun at the reasons why some people like Dawkins’ book, much more so than it is poking fun at Dawkins himself.

          • Nick Gotts

            Watch it again. He does at first, but then he goes along with it,
            suggesting, for example, writing a book denying that you can get the TV
            remote to work a bit longer by rolling the batteries around in it,
            Wimpys (a chain of burger restaurants), free lunches… In any case, how
            do you get to the sketch poking fun at TGD’s readers? How do you, or anyone else, know why they read or like it?
            I think what you’ve done here is to pick a sketch you find funny (I
            accept that’s a matter of opinion), but which has no relevance to the
            poke you wanted to take at atheists.

          • Again, if you read my post, you will see that I was not poking fun at atheists in general, but atheists who are Jesus-mythicists. It is the irony of believing oneself less gullible than the vast mass of human beings about the existence of a theistic God, and smarter and better informed than those who reject modern science, and then buying into claims that historians agree in not finding at all credible or persuasive.

          • Nick Gotts

            Fair enough. There are certainly plenty of atheists (especially white male heterosexual cisgender ones) who completely fail to be critical about their own privilege; and contrarianism is a trait I recognise in myself.

          • arcseconds

            He goes along with it for a little while on some pretty silly issues, but then it’s back to being sensible while the publisher tries to get him to publish a book on denying climate change.

            I think the bit where he’s suggesting that the pizzas have got smaller or whatever is just a bit of pure silliness — the humour comes from the idea Dawkins would be as concerned about pizza as he is about religion. But you could also read it as Dawkins playing along because he thinks the publisher is joking.

            There might be a bit of a soft jab at Dawkins’s earnestness and his mannerisms, but I think you’d have to be pretty sensitive to see this as Dawkins bashing.

  • susanburns

    This is the most elitist post I have read on this blog. Not only are Mythicists in denial of “truth”, they don’t even believe their own theories!

  • Steven Carr

    I see McGrath is now using fictional stories to discredit mythicists.

    If only he could produce evidence that Judas, Thomas, Mary Magdalene, Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus, Lazarus etc etc existed, instead of having to rely on TV sketch shows as sources of information.

    • As you can see from Steven Carr’s comment, mythicists are a strange bunch. If there is a video with a fictional publisher and a depiction of Richard Dawkins that is not historically factual, is that evidence that Richard Dawkins is not a historical figure? Why is it so difficult for mythicists to use reason, logic, and evidence in an appropriate manner? This continues to baffle me.

    • N

      I am an atheist (gnu atheist, atheism+). Not having studied the issue, I provisionally accept the consensus view that there was some such person as Jesus (yes, I know there are knowledgeable individuals who disagree with the consensus, but the same is true with regard to evolution, anthropogenic climate change, and the HIV-AIDS connection). But why should the issue be considered so important by some atheists? It would be of minor historical interest if there was any realistic chance of showing that there was no such person (as far as I can see, there isn’t), as it would tell us something about the beginnings of religions; but study of more recent and better-documented examples is likely to be more productive.

      • Nick Gotts

        This was my comment, which I didn’t intend to be anonymous – I made an error in inputting my name.

  • William J E Dempsey

    Dr. James McGrath:

    So in your definition, Charles Darwin was a denialist; silly, rebellious Darwin went against the massive consensus of all the Historians and Theologians of his day.

    Silly Darwin! If only he had faced and accepted what ALL the scholarly authorities and doctors were telling him.

    • Nick Gotts

      You would be wise to learn a little more about Darwin, and the history of science in general. Ideas about evolution had been around since the late 18th century – there were even anticipations of ideas about natural selection – and Darwin drew massively on the geological work of Lyell, Sedgwick, Buckland and others, the paleontological work of Cuvier, Owen etc. (these had already demonstrated the reality of an old earth, of extinction, and of radical changes in life over time), the taxonomic expertise of people such as John Gould, a creationist who told him that the birds he’d collected in the Galapagos and assigned to different families on the basis of their most obvious features, were all finches… Even before publishing the Origin he had himself established a considerable reputation as a geologist and taxonomist, and was part of an extensive international network of scientific correspondence. As is demonstrated by the event that finally prodded him into publication – the letter from Alfred Russel Wallace – the scientific world was “pre-adapted” to his central idea. Thomas Henry Huxley is reported to have said: “How extremely stupid not to have thought of that.” None of this is to take away from Darwin: unlike anyone else, he gathered and systematized an enormous body of evidence for both evolution itself and natural selection, saw the immense implications of the latter concept, and put it all together in a book that was both rigorous and readable. But he was absolutely not a lone outsider, overturning a massive consensus.

      Broad acceptance of the reality of evolution in the scientific world was rapid; that of natural selection as the main mechanism wasn’t, but there were good reasons for that: if heredity worked the way Darwin thought it did, blending the features of the parents, natural selection couldn’t have been that main mechanism because it would have had too little variation to work on. Only when the basics of heredity came to be understood in the early 20th century was the importance of natural selection generally accepted.

      • William J E Dempsey

        Thank you for your additional information. Though in my own partial defense: note that I referred explicitly to Dawin’s reception not by Biologists, but “Theologians and Historians.”
        IN any case: you yourself note that even Biologists did not really anticipate, and they opposed, a critical aspect of his theory; in their failure to accept Natural Selection.

        I wonder if our cooperative, pluralistic historical imagination today, wants to see scientific and all controversy, smoothed over too much; we want to think we were always right, and never opposed the right idea. Yet earlier, Darwin’s idea was presented as heavily opposed by Theologians and Historians; even in Biology, it contrasted with say Lamarkian theories of life.

        In addition to Darwin, I next nominate Copernicus as yet another Denialist. Another foolish person, who foolishly opposed the scholarly theologians’ consensus of his time, in clear denial of the “facts” as then known.

        • BrettonGarcia, I grow weary of your writing nonsense. Denialism is not the exploration of new models, much less the pursuing of ways to account for new data and observations. It is the insistence on the accuracy and superiority of models that do not fit the evidence.

          Whether theologians disagree with something that is not theology, historians disagree with something at isn’t history, or scientists disagree with something that isn’t science is irrelevant.

          It is frustrating that you have been commenting on this blog for more than a year and yet you seem not to have learned anything about any of the topics normally discussed here. How do you manage to keep new information and perspectives from getting through to you?

          • William J E Dempsey

            Dr. James McGrath:

            Disciplinary divisions are not as pronounced as you make them out to be here for once, unfortunately. You are a theologian, and yet you cite historical “facts” or consensus in support of your Historical Jesus position; you are violating your own rule. (And your own earlier acceptances of interdisciplinarity).

            Especially unfortunately, all too many historicans accept theologians’ view of say biblical history. So that History is influenced by theology. And its alleged “facts.”

            So first: 1): what another discipline says, often effects another. In particular, 2) it is unfortunate that the ideas of a “discipline” like theology – your field – and its quasi “facts” and merely wistful methodology, have infected History. Just as they often attacked Biology, and Darwin, and tried to stop them, with their “fACTS.”.

            So what do should we call “facts”? The major point of my Darwin example, is to note that often there can be – and historically were, in teh case of Darwin – valid theories that are rejected as “denialism”; theories that seem to counter “facts” as defined especially, by Theology. Yet “facts” defined by theology, are totally unreliable. Darwin’s theories were rejected as Denial of God and his Truth – and the “facts” of hightly subjective faith-based believers/fanatics.

            Conclusion: the “facts” are often defined by many different fields; and especially they are often misdefined, especially by those in the field of religion. But if a given theory is rejected, and especially on the basis of “facts” as defined by faith-based thinkers, that does not mean that the theory is not true. The “facts” of religion, theology, were once thought to be that we can pray, and walk reliably on water.
            Clearly religious “facts” especially are not reliable. Though it now appears that unfortunately, fantastic and unrealistic ideas from Theologians on the historicality of Jesus, have been accepted by far too many people who should know better; even in academe. While those who do not accept these “facts,” are being anathematized, calumnied, as “denialists.”
            By the way? The origina studies of Denial, including the famous study by Festinger, found that religious groups were the most obvious examples of psychological Denial. Clearly religious thinkers are now accusing others of precisely, the very sin they are most guilty of themselves. A clear example of what Freud called “projection.”


          • In what sense am I a “theologian”?

          • William J E Dempsey

            I’m using the word “theologian” advisedly; to raise the most important issue I see with your blog(s), and your general orientation on many issues.

            Your blogs have been very good about noting how say, Fundamentalist beliefs, “facts,” have been used to attack – and in some cases weaken – the presentation of science, and especially of Evolution, in our schools.

            However? You seem to feel that the adverse effects of religious – “theological” – beliefs, have been limited mostly or even solely, to specifically “fundamentalist” Christianity. As it has been affecting/infecting/attacking, Science, Evolution, and an objective methodology. However, my own background orientation, in perhaps all my posts on this blog, has been to suggest that this particularly well known adverse influence from Fundamentalism, as regards Evolution, is a useful, paradigmatic case; one that serves as a suggestion as to how almost ANY Christian, theological, or “faith-based” orientation – even from allegedly “liberal” Christianity – will often have similar, chilling effects on scientific efforts. And on efforts at objectivity in the social sciences, and in History.

            I believe the general “faith” orientation, has had far wider adverse influence than just the well known efforts of Fundamentalists against evolution; that example is just the tip of the iceberg. When we look into the strange quasi-logic of Historical Jesus studies – like the now-controversial Criterion of Embarrassment – it seems increasingly clear that the faith orientation in general, has been far more widely detrimental than anyone thought; undercutting our best efforts to outline an objective Historical methodology.

            And especially? The faith orientation in general has undercut efforts to objectively examine critical issues like the matter of the historical existence of Jesus. A question that our believers regard as far more settled – thanks to traditional dogma and theology I suggest – than a strictly objective historical approach would indicate.
            It might be thought that our modern “Biblical Critic” or “Religious Studies” scholar has escaped from the biasing effects of Theology; and yet however, I’m suggesting they have not. And I have been attempting to prove that, by closely examining problems with key “historical” criteria; like the Criterion of Embarassment. And problems with a “faith-based” orientation in general.

          • Your ramblings and bizarrely random punctuation make attempts to interact with you difficult. But until you adequately address why all secular historians who have published on the subject are persuaded that there was a historical Jesus, you are just going to keep repeating the same things and we are not going to get anywhere.

          • William J E Dempsey

            Initially, when the basic “Criteria”-based methodology of Historical Jesus studies was developed, many secular Historians objected. Eventually however, it was discovered that asserting that Jesus minimally existed perhaps, but was not really the “Christ,” turned out to be a useful position, politically speaking. Since it created a useful compromise position between a still largely believing population, and critical scholarship.

            Rather than giving in though, Historians should have remembered all the difficulty they had with the religious lobby earlier; they should have remembered the many times that Creationists had attacked and tried to destroy secular History and Geological history too. Based on all that, secular Historians should have held to their initial suspicions regarding the new religious lobby, and the new Historical Jesus crowd.

          • OK, I grow weary of your revisionist history. Provide a source demonstrating secular historians objecting to the Criteria of Authenticity when they were proposed.

          • William J E Dempsey

            I’d like to make SOME compromise with the informality of a blog! I regard blogs like this one, as a sort of intermediary, half-academic workpage. For working notes and informal discussion, prior to serious editing and publication – and footnotes.

            For now, about all that was easy to access online for me in a quick search, is this general overview. Though it seems to have lots of potentially relevant footnotes:


            Interesting material seems to start in Porter’s book, around p. 73.

            Probably the new book by LeDonne and Keith has lots of academic references too, to later – and perhaps earlier – objections to the Criteria.


            Surely you yourself can easily guess, from current scholarly objections to the Criteria, that there were always objections, from the start. Surely a Science Fiction fan should be capable of a little imaginative extrapolation, and reasonable surmise.

            Granted this is not quite enough for now, for full academic documentation or a published article.
            But I’m growing weary, myself.

          • Reasonable surmise is when someone knows a field or topic well and can make a reasonable deduction from the evidence available.

            Mythicists do not have that familiarity with the fields about which they hold such strong views, and so the things they surmise tend not to reflect reality.

            But in this case, you made a claim about what is the case, and you have admitted that it is pure invention – science fiction of the completely implausible sort. And I appreciate the honesty, even if it took unnecessarily long for you to reach this point.

          • William J E Dempsey

            Actually, the problem is that Historicists have presupposed that they are dealing with solid, unspeculative History. The problem is that they have not ever adequately, studied Mythography; mythogony and mythogenesis. So they don’t really see it, when the Jesus tales clearly parallel one myth after another; they see that as mere “parallelomania.” Though this is in fact, the standard method in Mythography. See Roland Barthes’ books, to get an idea just how imaginative mythography can be.

            The real problem is that, in spite of their own protestations, religious scholars are afraid of seeing Jesus as myth – and never really consider it. They are woefully unfamiliar with the principles of the analysis of myths; which, like reading or writing Science Fiction, does indeed require a little imagination. But about which finally, something serious can be said.
            In Mythography, we acknowledge some subjectivity by the way; we are in a field close to Literary criticism. Where historical facts lacking, we confess the lack of facts; but try to be as objective as few facts allow. Yet some useful conclusions sometimes come out of it.
            If only Historicists would confess the complete lack of real historical facts supporting Jesus, they would at last be honest. And then they might see the value and relevance of alternative methodologies and fields, like Mythography. But to even suggest that jesus is a “myth,” and to take a mythography of Christianity seriously, is of course, something that a believer has trouble facing.
            The faithful believer of course, would greatly prefer that at least part of Jesus is really, really real. Though Mythography suggests that overwhelmingly, the stories of Jesus conform amazingly, to one recognizable myth after another. But to see that, you have to study … myths. And mythography. Much, much more than most religious deparements do today.
            For historicists to fail to see those parallels, or to reject them as “parallelomania,” is cling to “faith”; and to merely fail to see. Or it is to simply fail to understand and accept, standard mythographical concepts.

          • When you either have evidence for your claim about secular historians’ objections to the criteria of authenticity when they were first proposed, or when you are willing to admit that you simply invented that and it bears no correspondence to real events, we can interact again. Until then, I will simply respond to your comments by linking here to the evidence of your dishonesty, as I have done with dishonest creationists in the past.

          • Layman

            In logic and in law: failure to supply information, because it is much too work for a simple blog, is not the same as “lying.” And your implication that it is, is simple calumny or libel.

          • It is not a case of failing to provide evidence, but of rewriting history and being unable to provide evidence because the claim is false. I am tempted to ban those who engage in such tactics repeatedly, but I so hate to do anything that interferes with open discussion. It is much better to point out the dishonesty – repeatedly, if necessary – than to force perpetual liars to leave.

          • And changing your user name, when your IP address is the same, does not add to your credibility, Bretton Garcia. That behavior I associate with trolls. And so I think you are done here.

        • Nick Gotts

          I admit I did miss your reference to “theologians”, but even they weren’t as unanimous as you suppose: see for example James R. Moore’s The Post-Darwinian
          Controversies: A Study of the Protestant Struggle to Come to Terms with Darwin in Great Britain and America, 1870-1900
          As for the non-acceptance of natural selection as the main mechanism of evolution, as I said, there were good reasons for this (although there were also bad ones, both religious and otherwise, e.g because it denies any inherent progressiveness to evolution). Later editions of the Origin tone down the stress on natural selection in favour of what are now often called “Lamarckian” ideas, presumably because Darwin recognised at least some validity in the criticisms.