Embarrassed by Mythicism/Antievolutionism

Embarrassed by Mythicism/Antievolutionism March 10, 2015

Have you ever wondered why the two New Testament scholars to write books directly tackling mythicist claims are Bart Ehrman and Maurice Casey, both of whom happen to be atheists?

I don’t think it is a coincidence.

As atheists, Ehrman and Casey have the most to be embarrassed about when fellow atheists uncritically embrace views that scholars in the relevant fields find unpersuasive.

It is the same reason that there have been far more books written by Christian biologists which try to persuade Christians to accept evolution, than there have been books by biologists who are atheists written with that aim. In that case, it is their credibility as Christians that is on the line when Christians show themselves to be ignorant and gullible in relation to science.

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

TRENDING AT PATHEOS Progressive Christian
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • I don’t think that they’re embarrassed, it’s just that, as atheists, they see it as one of the more likely hypotheses that should still be rejected, while Christians don’t even have non-historicity on the radar, and, thus, don’t feel the need rebutting something so ridiculous. Note, however, that most criticism of homeopathy does not come from alt-medders.

    • Kris Rhodes

      Yeah this kind of psychological speculation about a scholar’s motives seems best carried out maybe decades later when the scholar him/herself is a proper object of scholarly study. 😉

  • Josh Magda

    I think I remember Ehrman describing himself as an agnostic.

    BTW, your collage of book covers is a nice demonstration of process theology’s disproportionate fealty to science, when contrasted to other lines of evidence and tools in humanity’s epistemological toolbox… though of course it has always claimed otherwise. 😉

    We all have biases. If “nonordinary” experiences were truly on an equal footing epistemically with the experimental method of science, our book covers would look very different.

  • I think your hypothesis is quite reasonable. It doesn’t make either of their books any less disappointing though.

  • KTPC

    I think this is the sort of comparison that doesn’t help to quell Mythicists, it just makes them more bold. I am sure some of them will reblog this, a bunch of them will comment on how foolish they think NT scholars are and how they aren’t real historians, but mere theologians. They only feel emboldened by this sort of thing. I think that Historicists need to, even if they really feel Mythicist theories are worthy of contempt, adopt an extreme version of the principle of charity toward them, which means not calling them cranks even if you think they are. Also, I think it would be wise not to bring up the issue of academic accreditation at all, even if its a valid point – it just makes them more convinced of their own views, because they see Historicists as part of the powerful cabal only they have the courage to oppose. The best way to address them, if at all, is to be “as wise as serpents and innocent as doves” – no matter how abrasive they are, always be about five or six times more charitable with them than you would be with a normal debate partner.

    I want to, in particular, draw attention to an interesting parallel – Sabermetrics http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sabermetrics. Basically, it is a way of examining baseball in a way that many thought and still think is ridiculous, and indeed, many veteran sports writers still find it ridiculous. For example, Sabermetrics proposes that a pitcher has basically no control over balls in play (because he’s not fielding them), so the only thing you can count to determine his ability is Walks, Home Runs given up, Strikeouts, and Hit Batsman. Basically, Sabermetrics says that if a pitcher gives up a double, that’s not on him, something many see as preposterous (I am actually simplifying this greatly, but I think this issue is one of the more straightforward cases where Sabermetrics makes counterintuitive predictions). Now, to relate this to the current issue – Bill James, the founder of Sabermetrics, had no background in baseball or mathematics and was a total amateur putting out his yearly Almanac beginning in the 80’s stating which players he thought were over or underrated based on his principles. As the internet caught on, his principles reached a larger and larger audience, and in particular, they were used by a certain manager of smaller market team, Billy Beane, to seemingly perform much better than you would expect. Gradually, more and more influential sports writers took up Sabermetrics, and I would say at this point in time, the Sabermetric-minded people are gradually winning the war of imposing their way of thinking onto baseball, both the way it is reported and the way teams manage themselves. But the issue is that the predictiveness of Sabermetric claims has not been proven, and many are questioned by academic statisticians – but just look at how Sabermetricians view academic criteria – http://blog.philbirnbaum.com/2012/04/academic-rigor.html. Pretty familiar, right? The difference is, unlike the Mythicists, these guys won the day, or are winning it. It could happen here as well, especially given the growing rabidness of the New Atheist movement. This is why you can’t afford to brush them off in the way I think this post is doing.

  • Jim West

    Just for the sake of accuracy, Ehrman and Casey are agnostics, not atheists. You can ask Bart for yourself of course but since Maurice has died you can’t ask him directly. But you can ask those who knew him and they will tell you the same thing that I am telling you- Maurice was a self described agnostic (he said it himself).

    There’s a difference between atheists and agnostics. Atheists are sure there is no God and agnostics aren’t sure one way or the other. They ‘don’t know’ and so they aren’t dogmatic for or against.

    To describe Ehrman and Casey as atheists might seem a minor point but it really isn’t at all.

    • Nick G

      Atheists are sure there is no God

      A common misconception. Very few atheists would say this. Most would say either that they believe there are no gods, or that they don’t believe in any gods.

      • James

        Good point. Agnosticism is a position on knowledge, atheism is a position on belief. When one doesn’t think it’s possible to know if any deity exists, then it tends to follow that one doesn’t believe in the existence of any deity either. One either acts as though there is a god (even if one has doubts), i.e. a theist, or one does not (even if one is not certain), i.e. an atheist. Agnosticism is commonly – and incorrectly – presented as a mid-point between theism and atheism. One either accepts an unfalsifiable concept such as God as likely true or likely false – if the later, then one is an atheist. Being friendly and open minded about it, such as Ehrman, versus being a firebrand like Dawkins, is similar to the differences between James McGrath and Franklin Graham.

      • Caravelle

        Depends on what we mean by “sure”. If we mean “100% certainty”, which is what’s usually meant in this context, then I agree that very few atheists would say this. But if we mean “sure” in its colloquial sense of “very confident” then I think quite a lot of atheists would say that. I have no clue what the percentages are, but many public atheists have this position, while I’ve never heard anyone espouse the “100% certainty” one.

    • maryhelena

      Bart Ehrman says he is both an agnostic and an atheist. He gives his definition of both terms in the video linked to below.


  • Ian

    I agree, by and large. After more than a decade arguing against creationism, it really felt like a kick in the gut to see the atheist community so easily adopt the same stance with respect to history.

    The same kind of conspiracy-theorising, direct-to-the-faithful-publishing, response-by-pedantry approach.

    It was a shock to me to see how little self-awareness there was among the Coynes of the world. Who, regardless of whether they happen to be swayed one way or another by what they read, cannot seem to see that they are falling into the same patterns of behavior and rhetoric that they opposed in others. Or if they can see, it appears to give them no cause for greater self-criticism.

    I concluded that the internet atheist community has a self-identity so strongly based on being “correct amid a hegemony of stupid” that it was almost impossible for many of its members to honestly evaluate their own biases. At that point I figured that community wasn’t for me.

  • James

    As an atheist and a former history major, I find mysticism somewhat embarrassing as well. The mythicists do raise a valid point that the historical record for Jesus is miniscule, and they do point out correctly that fundamentalists grossly overplay the importance of Jesus being a “historical figure” (for example, the far better documented historicity of Muhammad is hardly accepted as good evidence for Islam by Christians – and for good reason). What the mythicists forget, though, is there is no requirement for any given record to be unbiased, directly contemporary nor an eyewitness account for it to be considered “historical.” If we dismissed all allegedly biased, hearsay, non-contemporaneous records as “non-historical,” then we’d know nothing at all about the past.

    As Ehrman points out, the Biblical record is full of things the early disciples found embarrassing, which points highly towards Jesus being a real person. The story also grew in the telling, which likewise points toward Jesus having been a real person. That said, supernatural events are dismissed out-of-hand by historians, the supernatural is something history cannot address in much the same fashion that science does not address unfalsifiable questions of the supernatural. And when the same treatment is applied to Jesus that we apply to Caesar, for example, then there’s not much left of the story. But again, the mythicists vastly overplay their hand, damaging their credibility in the process. The early critics of Christianity, for example Celsus, claimed Jesus was a charlatan, not a myth; i.e. the earliest critical historical records in existence support the position of Jesus being a historical figure.

    • Erp

      Agreed as another atheist with a BA in history.