Just Another Kind of Gullibility

Just Another Kind of Gullibility December 6, 2014

Conspiracy believers are the ultimate motivated skeptics

“Conspiracy believers are the ultimate motivated skeptics. Their curse is that they apply this selective scrutiny not to the left or right, but to the mainstream. They tell themselves that they’re the ones who see the lies, and the rest of us are sheep. But believing that everybody’s lying is just another kind of gullibility.”

— William Saletan, in the article “Conspiracy Theorists Aren’t Really Skeptics”

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  • John MacDonald

    If miracles don’t happen, which they don’t, then the miracle stories in
    the New Testament about Jesus are all lies (just like the miracle
    stories about Apollonius of Tyana, Muhammad, and Joseph Smith are all
    lies too). There is nothing hyper-critical about that. It’s just
    common sense.

    • David Evans

      Extinction-level asteroid impacts don’t happen on Earth, either. No human has ever reported one.

      So can we stop worrying about them?

      • John MacDonald

        C.S.Lewis says Jesus was either a “lunatic, liar, or lord.” I believe that he was a liar.

        • C.S. Lewis was full it.

          Long before Lewis was writing, NT scholarship had reached a level at which many (or most) true scholars recognized that the gospels are mythologized versions of the life of Jesus, and that scholarship could only guess at what the historical Jesus actually said. Certainly, by Lewis’s day, NT scholars were aware that the gospel of John presented a higher Christology than the synoptic gospels, and scholars were already suggesting that the historical Jesus may never have considered himself “God”.

          It’s the claim that Jesus was “God”, that Lewis is addressing with his “lunatic, liar, or Lord” trilemma; but the NT scholarship of even Lewis’s day, suggested that Jesus might never have called himself “God” (only the later writers of the gospel of John).

          This means that Lewis was either atrociously ignorant of NT scholarship (which, from other Lewis writings, we know is not true), or it means that Lewis himself was a liar. He knew he was not presenting all the options.

          My take? I don’t know if Jesus was a liar. But C.S. Lewis was a liar.

          • Dan

            He presented what he believed to be the three options. The other options were rejected outright and did not have to be considered (that Jesus never considered himself God).

          • But anyone aware of historical critical scholarship knows that what he rejected outright is the most historically probable scenario.

          • Dan

            Yes from the secular position, but I do not believe he was writing from such a position, but rather from a dogmatic position.

          • If by secular you mean that history, like the natural sciences, has no religious affiliation and requires none for acceptance of its conclusions, then sure. But most Christians recognize that areas of inquiry such as history cannot be ignored, and ought no to be rejected, on dogmatic grounds, as that does nothing to help one’s religious perspective.

          • Why would he include silly options such as Jesus being a lunatic or a liar from hell, but “reject outright” the much more likely option that Jesus didn’t consider himself to be God?

            More to the point, he never told his readers that he was rejecting options outright. Why did he lie, and tell his readers that they must choose between only three options, two of which he characterized as ludicrous, never telling them what many of his fellow scholars believed to be a fourth and more likely option?

          • Dan

            Because by mentioning that option he is giving credence to that option which he evidently did not want to do.

          • So rather than give credence to a reasonable option that he didn’t like, he lied and said that the ONLY other options were ridiculous options (liar and lunatic).

            Even if you’re right, it doesn’t make him any less a liar.

    • The problem with calling them “lies” is that a lie is a false statement made with a deliberate intent to deceive. When you call someone a “liar” you are impugning their honesty, their morality. I think it’s pretty clear that the vast majority of people who have passed on religious miracles stories throughout history have done so sincerely believing the stories themselves.

      I think the better approach to disabusing people of the belief in miracles is to equate their beliefs to other ancient mythologies (as you did in your parenthetical). Telling someone that they believe in magic or mythology may cause a bit of frustration and denial. But if you call a sincere believer a “liar”, then you are the one who is “lying” (whether the miracles are true or not); so you will have lost credibility and made them angry for nothing.

      • John MacDonald

        The original people who came up with the miracle stories were liars.

        • Maybe a combination of lies and stretching the truth. I’ve watched sincere people experiencing “miracles of healing” in pentecostal churches. It’s usually something hard to diagnose, like pains and aches, or the possibility of a disease. But everyone involved in the service believes that they are “caught up in the spirit” and will sincerely believe that a miracle is happening. People leave the service and spread stories about what happened, and as the stories are told they “grow” incrementally until someone who is “healed” of an ache, was healed of a wound or a hurt limb, then suddenly a lame man walked. It’s amazing what people can believe and even “elaborate” when they want to believe.

          And the first century was certainly a credulous time. Miracles were not something to be skeptical of in the first century. Most everyone was religious in some way, whether it was about the Olympians, the Zoroastrians, Jesus, or other religious figures. Most everyone believed in miracles, and they didn’t even question the miracles of other religions as most Christians do today. The Romans were quite eager to welcome any god or religion into the Roman state, so long as the followers submitted to Roman rule.

          And when you call Christian miracles “lies” today, few Christians would understand you to be referring to 1st century liars. They would understand you to be calling themselves liars.

          • John MacDonald

            I agree. It was a combination of lies and stretching the truth – like in the miracle of Jesus multiplying the loaves and fishes to feed the multitude. That never happened because miracles don’t happen. Jesus never raised the dead because miracles don’t happen. The first Christians lied about Jesus being resurrected because miracles don’t happen.

            The first Christians lied and made the whole thing up to sell a new religion because they believed it would eventually bring about a better world. They were willing to die for this cause.

            That’s my opinion anyway.

          • It’s quite likely that the first Christians believed that Jesus rose from the dead “spiritually”, not physically, and believed it because of the sort of emotional, frenzied “spiritual” experiences that some Christians still have today. A spiritual resurrection grew into a physical resurrection story over time.

          • I think this really misrepresents the processes whereby people tend to become persuaded of things that were not the case. Sometimes stories simply grow with the retelling with no one conscious of deliberately introducing falsehood. And it also seems not to do justice to the fact that early Christiaity, when it began, was not an attempt to create a new religion, much less “sell” one.

          • John MacDonald

            Some of the first Christians had the mission to sell the lies about Jesus to the Jews, and others had the mission to sell the lies about Jesus to the Gentiles

          • Evidence, please.

          • John MacDonald

            Matthew 28:16-20 New International Version (NIV)

            The Great Commission

            16 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

            You have to understand, Dr. McGrath, as a secular person I am trying to make sense of the miracle stories in the bible. I don’t, for instance, believe Jesus multiplied the loaves and the fishes to feed the multitude. So the most natural explanation for me is that the story is a lie.

          • In the case of the feeding story, the eucharistic elements, combined with echoes of the story of the manna in the wilderness, lead many to conclude that that was once a symbolic story that became literalized. It isn’t clear how or by whom, but it is certainly the sort of thing that could happen without any one link in the chain deliberately altering or deceiving. The story about Jesus being adjured by a Roman demon begging not to be expelled from the land is another good example, since it is clearly political satire. One wonders whether in any instance it may be a story of Jesus’, which began as a parable, that became literalized.

            I’m sure there was some willful invention – but anyone writing a “history” in the ancient world had to do that, and so people who believed in miracles might well invent stories with miracles, without feeling that what they invented was less appropriate than Thucydides’ speeches.

          • John MacDonald

            Take a different miracle, then: The story of Jesus walking on the water (Matthew 14:22-36; Mark 6:45-56; John 6:16-21).

            If a secular person doesn’t believe in miracles, what can this secular person conclude except that the story of Jesus walking on the water is a lie?

            Is it not reasonable for a secular person to conclude, from his or her point of view, that the miracle stories in the bible are virtually all lies unless they have deeper metaphorical or allegorical meaning?

            I am asking what it makes sense for a secular person who does not believe in miracles to conclude about the miracle stories in the bible. Clearly a secular person would see such miracle stories as “false.” But in what sense should “false” be used here if not “lies and deception?”

          • I think I would want to know more about the origin of the story than I am currently able to before describing it as a “lie.” If it is a story which began with Jesus walking alongside the sea, and the preposition was misunderstood and the meaning of the story changed, would that make it a “lie” and if so, who is the liar? If you want to characterize most people, ancient and modern, as “gullible,” that would seem fairer. But I am less judgmental towards ancient people who had few means of fact checking anything, and more prone to call people liars who today pass on false information which, even though it did not originate with them, they had the possibility of fact-checking.

          • John MacDonald

            In the case of Jesus walking on water, I think if the preposition was honestly misunderstood, then there would be no sense in which it would be a lie.

            From the point of view of secular epistemology, I think if the story originated with someone who was trying to say Jesus actually walked on water, I think I would have to call that story teller a liar. But as you say, there’s no way to tell whether the story actually originated in a lie, because there will always be alternative explanations.

            My main interest here is trying to pinpoint what it is that the secular people are doing when they are denying miracle stories in the bible. The secular person is saying the miracle story is “false,” but I think what they mean is that the miracle story is a lie, because the secular person believes that miracles don’t happen, and in the bible miracle stories are being passed off as history.

          • It’s all a big confidence game. Bible tells me so.
            • Hebrews 11:1 Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.
            • Ephesians 3:12 confidence through faith
            • 1 Timothy 3:13 increased confidence in their faith

          • How often do you plan to copy-and-paste this same tired and unenlightening play-on-words on James’ blog?

          • It’s not a play on words.

          • Of course it is. You’re connecting three separate biblical uses of the word “confidence” with the phrase “confidence game” which is a modern attempt to defraud.

            You might as well have said, “Shakespeare’s plays were nothing but a confidence game.”

            * All’s Well That Ends Well: “Upon thy certainty and confidence/What darest thou venture?”
            * Julius Caesar: “Your wisdom is consumed in confidence.”
            * The Tempest: “A confidence sans bound.”

          • Can One Tell the Difference Between Religion and a Con Game?
            Surprising similarities between prophets and confidence tricksters
            Published on July 30, 2013 by Nigel Barber, Ph.D.

          • That’s a reasonable comment – one that can be engaged with – as opposed to a trite copy/paste from an earlier post. I’ll take a look at the link.

          • Engage. Kirk out.

          • Interesting. He looks into two specific religions with obvious intentional fakery at work in the founding: Mormonism and Indian gurus. That he is limiting this suggestion to only some major religions is clear in this quote:

            “Members of fake religions, such as the Kumare members, cannot tell the difference between the fake and established religions.”

            So presumably, to the author, there is such a thing as an “established religion” as opposed to a “fake religion”. My guess is that part of the difference would be actual evidence that a specific person like Joseph Smith or Sri Kumari is purposefully committing a fraud.

          • What religions aren’t based on obvious intentional “supernatural” fakery?

          • You should ask Nigel Barber, the researcher you linked to earlier – here he is again:


            Though he thinks religion will disappear, he cites several reasons that it has survived until now.

        • Neko

          Nonsense. People believed in miracles. They still do.

  • ‘Tis true. It’s bizarre many conspiracy theorists condemn modern medicine as corrupt and ineffective and then recommend treatments even more ineffective and created by even more corrupt individuals.