Sam Harris the Powerful Philosopher

Sam Harris the Powerful Philosopher October 11, 2015

I was unaware of Existential Comics’ unofficial comic section until someone drew the gem below to my attention, which rather mercilessly satirizes the New Atheists who simply ridicule religious thought where more serious critics in the past have recognized worthy adversaries even when they adamantly disagreed with them:


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  • Some mythicist could easily draw you in a similar position. Would still be just as stupid.

    • John MacDonald

      I think a funny one would be a bunch of mythicists at a party ignoring James, Jesus brother..

      • John MacDonald

        James, Jesus’ brother could be like an annoying little brother.

      • I think it’d be more like uncomfortable glances and meandering explanations.

        And it doesn’t say “brother of Jesus”. And Carrier actually does have a response to the Josephus text. Make of it what you will.

        • John MacDonald

          There are so many “portraits” of Jesus, such as Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet, charismatic healer, Cynic philosopher, Jewish Messiah and prophet of social change. Each of these portraits explain the agreed upon evidence, and try to explain away the evidence that is apparently recalcitrant to their particular portrait. The “mythic” portrait of Jesus is just another one of these. The problem is that the agreed upon evidence is so scant that we are basically guessing when we try to extrapolate “the big picture” from the agreed upon evidence.

          • That’s a good way of putting it.

          • jekylldoc

            One gestalt switches to another if you just visualize a link slightly differently.

          • John MacDonald

            What we need is a “HISTORICAL JESUSses AUDIT” lol

      • ncovington89

        That’s not the cartoon I’m going to draw. Mine is going to have historicists ignoring Romans 8:29, where Paul says Christ is the firstborn among many brethren so by implication every Christian was “the Lord’s brother.”

        • Cecil Bagpuss

          It implies a collective brotherhood. It does not imply that each Christian would be known individually as a brother of the Lord. Timothy was Paul’s brother, in a spiritual sense, but another Christian would not say that he had recently met Timothy, “the brother of Paul”, unless there was some particular link between the two.

          It should also be noted that Paul could have used the term “brother of the Lord” in a way that would unambiguously demonstrate a spiritual meaning but didn’t. He didn’t say that we are all brothers of the Lord or talk about someone becoming a brother of the Lord, for example.

          Even if we speculate that the early believers thought of themselves as in some sense “brothers of the Lord”, we need to think about how the phrase might have been used. Is it the sort of thing that could be dropped into an appositional construction? I hardly think so.

          The phrase “son of God” provides a useful analogy because Paul does actually say that we are all sons of God. But Paul would surely not have said that he met James, “the son of God”, even though he presumably thought that James was a son of God.

          • ncovington89

            “Brother of the Lord” instead of “Brother of Jesus” already indicates spiritual meaning. And yes, Romans 8:29 does imply they were all brothers of the lord. And yes, there are reasons for Paul to specifically designate James a mere “brother of the lord” (read: a Christian of ordinary rank): to distinguish him from the James mentioned in the next verse: James the Apostle.

          • Just as saying “the Queen’s sister Margaret” rather than “Elizabeth’s sister Margaret” “indicates spiritual meaning”?

          • ncovington89

            Don’t be a silly billy. You need to read Galatians 1:19 with some context. The historical context is that Paul thought every baptized Christian was a brother of the Lord, and the fact that word Lord is used points more towards the phrase being used in the spiritual sense that it does in the biological sense (which, I hasten to add, we have no evidence of anyone who was definitely a biological brother of Jesus being called ‘the brother of the Lord” and therefore no reason to hypothesize that there were such people active in the early church to begin with, whereas we do know for dead sure that there were symbolic brothers). Which is the reason your “queen’s sister” analogy breaks down: because in that particular case we don’t have nonliteral uses of that phrase regularly applied to nonrelatives. James, your every response just confirms mythicism is true, because if it is, I could easily predict that all responses to it would be awful, as they have been. In all seriousness, though, I think you could potentially make a good case against mythicism (especially if it is wrong) but the only way to do that is to really study the case for it, consider it thoroughly, and only THEN make your reply.

          • Mark

            Romans 8 puts the first born of many brethren on a level with whatever it is that you and I will be after the resurrection. It is thus a transparently historicist text.

          • Creationists also find the replies of defenders of mainstream science predictable and disappointing, and claim this confirms their viewpoint. You will have to do better than that.

          • ncovington89

            Is zat all ha got?

          • Mark

            Another typical, mechanical response of an internet meme-repetition device.

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            Do you think it’s clever to be disrespectful to a scholar who takes the trouble to engage with the public? If you do then it could be that you are suffering from some condition that impairs your ability to interact socially. You may need to consult someone about this.

          • John MacDonald

            I personally think it’s wonderful that Dr. McGrath is providing this forum. It’s like being back in university.

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            I agree completely, John.

          • ncovington89

            I don’t suffer from any conditions (not diagnosed, anyway) though some have suggested to me that I have parallelomania. I think they just found a pattern in the noise.

          • John MacDonald

            I’m sorry to hear that. Parallelomania is the most academically taboo of the manias.

          • ncovington89

            This cartoon will make you laugh, if you haven’t seen it:

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            “Brother of the Lord” instead of “Brother of Jesus” already indicates spiritual meaning.

            No. Human beings with an exalted status still have biological brothers. On the other hand, celestial beings tend not to have human brothers.

            And yes, Romans 8:29 does imply they were all brothers of the lord.

            That doesn’t address the point that I made.

            And yes, there are reasons for Paul to specifically designate James a mere “brother of the lord” (read: a Christian of ordinary rank): to distinguish him from the James mentioned in the next verse: James the Apostle.

            I see that you are following Carrier’s argument. Unfortunately, Carrier hasn’t yet worked out whether all Christians were known as brothers of the Lord, or whether it was a select group.

          • Do you think mythicists genuinely do not understand, or merely pretend not to understand, that all Christians being Jesus’ brothers is simply more evidence that “James the Lord’s brother” indicated a natural relationship to Jesus? It would make no sense to refer to James as “James the Christian” as though this singled him out among Christians, since Jacob was a common name and we have references to other Jacobs in the early Christian movement. What remains is the fact that, even in a movement which refers to all as metaphorical brothers, there are still ordinary sibling relationships. It isn’t hard to understand, and so my suspicion is that what we are dealing with is not genuine incomprehension but something else.

          • That’s the same way I feel when you act as though no one has ever responded to this point. Simon the Zealot could single out a specific individual even if there were other Simons who were zealous. It is a matter of convention.

          • You are helping to make my point. Do you genuinely not understand that “Simon the zealot” would not distinguish him in the context of a group in which everyone was considered a zealot? Do you genuinely not understand how nicknames work, or are you pretending because of your dogmatic commitment to rejeting mainstream scholarship in favor of obscurantism?

          • Every member of a group might be considered just, but one specific person may still be known as James the Just. By the same token, even if every member of a group was considered zealous or a zealot, one particular person can be known as Simon the Zealot. All that matters is that the other Simons be known by some other nickname, e.g., Simon the Rock. That may not be the only way nicknames work, but it is certainly one way that they can work.

          • arcseconds

            Well, they may. It seems rather unlikely, though, and it still demands an explanation.

            The early Christians didn’t, as far as I know, call themselves ‘The Just’ by way of a group identification. So already while they may well think of themselves as all being just people, ‘The Just’ is still unambiguously available as a moniker. If they did call themselves ‘The Just’, ‘James the Just’ would suggest ‘James the member of our sect called the Just’, which makes it less likely as a nickname.

            It still might make sense to have ‘The Just’ as a nickname even within a group known as ‘The Just’, but that could be because he’s particularly well known for his justice. It’s easy to see how a group that prides themselves on justice and calling themselves ‘The Just’ might still regard people within their ranks as being more and less just.

            But how can someone be more of a brother of the Lord than other brothers of the Lord? ‘Brother’ doesn’t so readily admit of degrees, especially when it’s not the biological relationship that’s being spoken of.

            Also note this explanation means that ‘The Just’ in ‘James the Just’ means something different than it does in the hypothetical name of the group ‘The Just’. It comes about from the fact that he is even more just than the average member of ‘The Just’, so it doesn’t mean ‘James the member of the group The Just’ but rather ‘James the one that is amongst The Just notably just’ or something like that.

            Similarly, it is of course possible to come up with explanations as to why among the brothers James is particularly known as ‘the brother of the Lord’.

            And that’s what we’re asking for here: why is James singled out as being the brother of the Lord?

            That seems to demand an explanation. The notion that he is the biological brother requires the least artifice.

            (Would members of Led Zepplin call John Paul Jones ‘Led Zepplin John’ to distinguish him from John Botham? Well, maybe, but there would, one would think, be some story behind this. Like maybe he joined first, or was more enthusiastic about Led Zepplin, or came up with the name, or something.

            And as historians, we’d be prompted to ask what the story is. That may not be available to us, of course, but we would not just assume it’s an arbitrary naming convention.

            And that’s the real difference here, isn’t it? You’re not interested in actually considering how people acquire nicknames, or assessing the relative likelihoods of different theories as to what ‘the brother of the Lord’ means in this context. You just assert anyone can be named any arbitrary thing at all, end of story, you get to stay back on your armchair with your arms firmly crossed. )

          • arcseconds

            Also, ‘Simon the Zealot’ is not really a good example. It’s disputed what ‘zelotes’ means in his case, but if it does mean ‘one who is a member of the group known as the Zealots’, it works exactly as we’ve been saying: it distinguishes him among the followers of Jesus (from, say, Simon Peter) because not all followers of Jesus were Zealots.

            Could you come up with an example that is actually analogous, where among a group known as ‘The Ys’, one of their member is known as ‘X the Y’?

          • ncovington89

            I guess your copy of “on the historicity of Jesus” has pages 587 – 592 stuck together, because the argument you just made is thoroughly answered there.

          • You seem to have the same problem Carrier himself does, of thinking that having written something long on a topic means the same thing as “thoroughly answered.” Or perhaps you are just hoping that by mentioning page numbers in Carrier’s book, you can pretend that we have not been discussing on this blog precisely what some of the reasons are for not finding Carrier’s treatment there compelling.

          • ncovington89

            I was hoping you would actually engage the refutation of your position, instead of repeating the same bullshit claim over and over. Guess not.

          • Again, if by “refutation” you mean “a response, even if inadequate and unpersuasive,” then your statement might work, although it isn’t saying much. But you have been around here long enough to know that there is nothing that you have said here that has not been said and answered before. You have also been around here long enough to know that I do not allow profanity on my blog, because it sends the level of discourse southward into typical mythicist territory. And so I think perhaps it is time to bid you adieu. I hope that at some point you find your way back to an appreciation of mainstream scholarship. But I gather that allowing you to spend time here engaging in mere polemics without substance (unless one considers parallelomania “substance”) is merely entrenching you in your commitment to pseudoscholarship and apologetics, and allowing that to continue is in no one’s best interest. Since you (rather ironically) pointed out that the full-fledged mythicist case requires more length and detail than blog comments are suited for, perhaps you might be ready to spend some time actually reading books and articles which make the case for the position of mainstream scholarship?

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            James, I share your exasperation. We seem to be dealing with either complete incomprehension or wilful obfuscation. Since I have been through all of this with Vinny recently, I think I shall have to pass on the opportunity to take another ride on the merry-go-round.

            I notice that Mr Covington has replied to my comment. I shall address one point here, since I don’t think he is worthy of further engagement. Carrier thinks that all Christians were brothers of the Lord, but even though they were all brothers of the Lord, only some of them were actually called brothers of the Lord. Since his thinking on this is so muddled, there is hardly an argument that stands in need of refutation.

          • arcseconds

            At the very least, as I have attempted to put to Vinny below, ‘James the X’ as a nickname amongst Xs, requires some sort of explanation.

            When ‘X’ is ‘brother of the Lord’, biological (or some other sort of familial) brotherhood is a plausible explanation.

            (and correct me if I’m wrong, but we don’t actually have any evidence that ‘brothers of the Lord’ was used for arbitrary early followers of Jesus, right? So that in itself is an assumption.)

            I’ve always been fond of the saying “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” I don’t think anyone’s deliberately lying about this, and of course no-one’s being paid money to avoid the obvious (well, I suppose you could make the case for Carrier), but rather understanding it moves them in a direction they find quite undesirable…

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            (and correct me if I’m wrong, but we don’t actually have any evidence
            that ‘brothers of the Lord’ was used for arbitrary early followers of
            Jesus, right? So that in itself is an assumption.)

            This is an important point. It is one thing to say that early Christians thought of themselves as brothers of the Lord – and we don’t even have evidence of that – but quite another to say that “brother of the Lord” was a term that identified Christians. We know that they did think of themselves as sons of God, but they didn’t call each other “son of God”.

          • I am curious about this idea of questions that “demand explanations.” Just what does that mean? How is that demand communicated?

            The reason that James is singled out is because James is a common name and people needed some way of identifying which James is being discussed. Peter did not need to be singled out in Galatians 1:19 because there was only one Peter.

            This leads to the source of the phrases that are used to single people out. Sometimes it is done with specific information about the person as in James the son of Alphaeus. Sometimes it is done with a word that might be generally true of many people who had the same name as in James the Just or Joseph the Worker or Glinda the Good. Sometimes it is done with an arbitrary word that has nothing to do with the personal characteristics such as James the Greater and James the Lesser.

            I am curious about how particular people acquire particular nicknames, but I don’t think any particular nickname “demands” an explanation, and even if it did, I don’t think that would provide us with any evidence of what actually happened. Eusebius said that James was known as “the Just” because of his great piety, but I don’t think we can know whether that isn’t just a post hoc explanation. St Joseph the Worker is called “the Worker” because he was believed to be a carpenter, not because there is any evidence that he worked any harder than any other St. Joseph. Herman Mehta seems to be a friendly guy, but he is “the Friendly Atheist” by his own choice. I think that if we could assign relative probabilities to the possible ways that James came to be known as “the brother of the Lord,” we would have to conclude that there is some non-trivial probability that it was as a result of something other than being the biological brother of Jesus.

          • If “there is some non-trivial probability” that does not, even if correct, justify treating it as though it were of equal or greater probability to the biological option. At least, not without the explanation that is metaphoricall “demanded” by the very fact that you are positing something that is, at best, neither obvious nor straightforward. It is the norms of deductive reasoning that are the basis for this “demand.”

          • If it is correct, then we are justified in asking what the corroboration is for either view.

          • And assessing the likelihood of either view in relation to one another, in light of the evidence.

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            It is a mistake to try to use the communal brotherhood of the early Christians as a springboard for explaining Gal. 1:19. In a communal brotherhood, Paul, Timothy and Apollos will call each other “brother”. However, Apollos will not tell anyone that he recently met Timothy, “the brother of Paul”. Apollos could not say that, if Timothy was Paul’s brother in the same sense in which Apollos himself was Paul’s brother.

            What you seem to be suggesting is that Apollos could say that, if somehow the brotherliness between Timothy and Paul was of the same type but was somehow magnified. This is a remarkably strange way of looking at things. If Apollos had said that, the obvious interpretation would be that the brotherly relationship between Timothy and Paul was of a different type altogether, not of the same type but somehow magnified.

          • I’m sorry Cecil, but you are wrong.

            Even if Timothy is a brother to Paul in the exact same sense that Apollos is, it could still be a useful way to distinguish one Timothy from another. One way it could happen is for Paul to introduce Timothy as “his brother” when they first arrive in a community of believers. Even if every other Timothy in the community is a spiritual brother to Paul, it could be a handy way to distinguish that particular Timothy. In that case, it is simply a matter of usage and convention. Moreover, a person could use “the brother of Paul” as a designation without knowing what the original reason for the designation had been, e.g., you don’t need to know how he got the name “James the Just” to know which James he is.

            If you want to argue the most likely reason for any particular person getting any particular designation, you can do so; however, that is another step removed from the question of why a person might use a designation.

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            You could also say that in a room full of people wearing red shirts, you might choose to identify a particular person as the one wearing a red shirt.

            I don’t think that biblical scholars need to be too concerned about hypotheses which people can simply dream up. If someone wants to argue that there is an alternative interpretation for Gal. 1:19, let it be on the basis of actual evidence. If the early Christians were known as “brothers of the Lord”, where is the evidence?

            Where does Paul say that we are all brothers of the Lord? Where does he talk of someone becoming a brother of the Lord? And why stop at evidence from Paul’s letters? Surely there must have been evidence from other sources. Presumably, the term must have been sufficiently widespread for it to be understood. If the term was used in the way that mythicists suggest, it is strange that the custom stopped so suddenly. When did the term “Christian” take over from “brother of the Lord”?

            Perhaps we have another example of a Carrierian conspiracy. The use of the term was widespread but all evidence of it was later removed.

          • arcseconds

            I am curious about this idea of questions that “demand explanations.” Just what does that mean? How is that demand communicated?

            I’m curious to know what this question means. Are you unfamiliar with the phrase ‘this demands an explanation’? Or maybe with metaphors in general? What are you thinking is doing the communicating and making the demand here?

            Or maybe you don’t see any need to offer explanations for your hypotheses? That would explain rather a lot, i suppose. It does seem to be the case that your main interest is proposing all sorts of hypotheses, without bothering to work out how they could come about or how likely they might be. It’s much easier to do history that way! And it ties in nicely with your lack of interest in coming to even provisional conclusions, or even statements of relative probability.

            But for someone who doesn’t want to explain anything, you’ve done a pretty good job at coming up with these explanations for people’s nicknames! See, they aren’t just some random assemblages of words where explanations have no place. ‘Why is Mehta known as ‘the friendly atheist’?’ is a sensible question, and it has a sensible answer: he chose it. We can go even further than that, actually, and with tolerable assurity say that he thinks of himself as friendly and wants to promote himself to others as being friendly.

            Of course, we sometimes won’t be in a position to know or even guess at the explanation. But fortunately, we’re not in that position with ‘James the brother of the Lord’! We have a perfectly natural and highly probable explanation for this. Why would we let our ignorance of the origin of some nicknames worry us when we have an explanation for this one?

            If I saw a reference to a ‘James, the friendly atheist’, and only knew that James was a real person living in the 21st century, I would have no trouble whatsoever concluding that he probably is a friendly atheist, or at least, more friendly than some other atheist James. That seems by far and away the most likely story for that epithet.

            But it sounds like you’d be going ‘nup, dunno, could be ironic and he’s an unfriendly Christian, could be an insult among conservative Christian and he’s actually a liberal Christian, maybe a hacker hacked the website and inserted ‘friendly atheist’, he could be a buddhist who only ever discourses on grinding crystal surfaces for all I know, how do we even know he’s not just made up, or this isn’t the title of an artist’s collective or a band or something?’

            All of those are possibilities, of course, and all are considerably more probable than James being an alien, but how do you get by in this life when you refuse to draw even provisional, probabilistic conclusions unless all options except one can be conclusively ruled out? I can’t even think how you could manage to buy groceries if you were to apply this kind of scepticism consistently.

          • Paul E.

            I agree with pretty much everything you say here, arcseconds, but as someone who also appreciates and values Vinny’s comments (even if I disagree with them most of the time), let me give a hypothesis as to where he’s coming from – he and I both suffer from the handicap of being educated in the legal profession, so maybe I have some insight.

            I think Vinny is primarily interested in burdens being satisfied when making various levels of claims about differing types of conclusions. In other words, for any claim, “conclusion,” etc., however characterized, I think he is concerned about whether the proper corresponding burden, whatever that may be, has been satisfied. Here is how legal thinking plays into it: in common law courts, Litigant A has various burdens, e.g., allegations, production, proof, etc., and those burdens must be satisfied before proceeding to the next stage and finally to conclusion (which also will have a particularized burden). In the face of Litigant A attempting to carry a particular burden, there is Litigant B attempting to show the burden has not been carried. One possible method of doing this at certain stages is for Litigant B to present varying hypotheses of explanations of whatever may be considered evidence at that particular stage – a method which has either no burden or a very low burden. If, through this process (and others, of course) Litigant A is found not to have carried his burden, at whatever stage, then the case is over. You simply walk away. There is no final analysis of what explanation of evidence is the best or most probable, or whatever.

            I think Vinny is advocating for a form of this kind of process to be applied to areas of history he considers to have very small amounts of evidence available. As I’ve stated here before, I have some sympathy for this view, probably largely because it feels normative to me given my profession. I think it probably doesn’t work for most forms of history (in which I only have a B.A., so I’m by no means an expert), and I vehemently disagree with its application to the “Lord’s brother” question. Nevertheless, in the back and forth that is scholarly inquiry and discussion, an ever-present awareness of what types of burdens must be carried I think always needs to be at least implicit in the analysis.

          • arcseconds

            I have wondered whether Vinny’s legal training had something to do with the way he argues. I was thinking maybe he’d decided to cast himself as the counsel for the defense (the burden of proof being on the prosecution) and therefore his job is to raise every possible doubt about the matter in the minds of the jury. Of course, the defense counsel doesn’t need to assess the relative probabilities (as far as I know… I just watch courtroom dramas on TV, so probably I’ve all sorts of false beliefs about how this is supposed to work), that’s up to the jury. Which seems to be similar to what you’re saying.

            This does seem to be a reasonable match for his behaviour.

            But even in the situation you’re describing, B can raise any contrary hypothesis they like, but the decision as to whether A has carried the burden would be done on the basis at least in part on the relative probabilities, no? If B’s hypotheses are all unlikely and contrived, then they don’t present a sufficient challenge to A’s case. A may still have to get over a certain threshold in their own right, of course (balance of probabilities, beyond reasonable doubt).

            Also, it’s not as if legal cases aren’t sometimes decided on small amounts of evidence. People are sometimes convicted on the basis of circumstantial evidence, after all.

            Anyway, I’m not sure whether taking on this role where you don’t feel you need to account for how likely your alternatives are is really appropriate in a scholastic setting. I would have thought that if we’re all trying to be historians we should all be prepared to give an honest assessment of how likely the scenarios are that we’re proposing, which entails saying how they could come about. And it certainly seems convenient for Vinny to relieve himself of the trouble of making this kind of argument, and remaining blissfully uncommitted to anything.

            But even if we are wearing these kinds of hats, and I’m counsel for the prosecution, or something, then surely it’s appropriate for me to point out that my learned colleague is proposing rather unlikey scenarios in an effort to unseat the prosecution’s case, and the jury should not give them much weight.

            I have been thinking that it might be worth me getting a bit more familiar with how these levels of proof work in law courts. I do have some sympathy with the idea that historians are not careful enough about considering the probability of the case they’re putting forward in general, or leastways don’t communicate this clearly to the reader. The historicity of the temple incident is surely much more dubious than the crucifixion, for example (even if it’s still more likely than not) and speculation on details of the historical event therefore more dubious than that, and speculating on Jesus’s motives more dubious still, and incorporating these motives into an overall psycho-theological profile of Jesus again more dubious. It seems to me at this point we’re now firmly into the ‘plausible story’ camp rather than the ‘most probable theory camp’.

            And I’m getting a bit disenchanted with direct application of Bayesian apparatus (not that I was ever more than cautiously optimistic about it being a tool for greater clarity). Whereas law does seem to have a kind of quasi-formalized treatment of probability already.

            At any rate, everyone’s watched legal dramas, so the concepts are a bit more accessible than Bayesian epistemology.

            So we can ask perhaps what level of proof does the piece of textual evidence of Paul saying he met ‘James the brother of the Lord’ meet when used as evidence for the existence of Jesus.

            And surely the answer to that is that it at least clears the balance of probabilities. The alternatives seem significantly less probable than the probability that Paul both wrote this, and meant the normal sort of familial relationship (and failing that, some kind of relationship involving two human beings is still more likely).

            Does it get beyond reasonable doubt? There could be some argument here. But while an interpolation is a possibility, and therefore a doubt, is it a reasonable one?

            Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I submit that it is not, and you should tender a verdict of guilty (of existence).

            (Although I would be interested to know what the legal perspective would be here. It seems to me to be similar to proposing the police planted the evidence, or the death threat was forged, or something. Which of course they may be, but unless there’s actually some evidence that these things transpired, I think the perspective would be that they are doubts but not reasonable ones, would it not?)

          • Paul E.

            This is a great post. There’s so much in here, let me pick out one thing as to James the Lord’s brother.

            There is a concept in law known as a presumption. Generally, if a litigant shows (let’s not try to define what that means) Fact A and Fact B, then Fact C is presumed. (An example would be that if you can show you put a properly stamped and addressed letter in the mail, its receipt will be presumed. ) That presumption is then, in most circumstances, subject to rebuttal.

            I think that kind of structure may work well for an issue like James the Lord’s brother. Via the text (and ignoring foundation and hearsay issues), you can show there is Fact A: a guy named James, who Fact B: was known as the Lord’s brother. Perhaps ( and I stress _perhaps_; I can see Vinny saying, well, maybe that would work if the language was “Jesus’ brother” but shouldn’t arise for “Lord’s brother” or something like that) this should raise a presumption that this means a biological relationship. The issue now becomes 1) what types and levels of evidence would be required to rebut the presumption, and 2) is the presumption itself a form of evidence that remains vital and allowably persuasive in the face of possibly rebutting evidence? In that context, the bandying about of alternative possible factual scenarios (i.e., the “well, isn’t it possible…” questions, e.g. “Well, you know sometimes the Post Office makes mistakes, so isn’t it _possible_ Litigant B didn’t get the letter?”) is not sufficient. There must be proper _evidence_ that rebuts the presumed fact.

            Maybe that kind of structure could help clarify the analysis and hone the evidentiary issues a bit more, and prevent the kind of freewheeling, “well, anything’s possible” kinds of arguments. Not sure…

          • ncovington89

            “Human beings with an exalted status still have
            biological brothers.”

            You here ignore my point: you said that there was no implication of nonliteralism in the text, I pointed out that there was. Reread my comment if you have any trouble understanding that.

            “Unfortunately, Carrier hasn’t yet worked whether all Christians were known as brothers of the Lord.”

            His view is “all” which he clearly states in his book. If you haven’t even read that, what are you doing debating the subject? It’s like creationists who want to debate evolution but haven’t read any literature arguing for evolution. It’s tedious to converse with them, so I say read at least that, then we can continue the convo.

          • Mark

            The question isn’t whether a ‘spiritual’ meaning of ‘brother’ might be at issue in Galatians, but whether *mythicism* and Celestial Christ-ism can make sense of the passage. In general calling someone ‘brother’/’sister’/’comrade’ unites individuals as somehow equal in some respect and as subordinate to a ‘father’ or community. The Romans passage makes resurrected people a community under the imagined fatherhood of God, with Christ as the ‘first born’. – Which makes Christ primus inter pares with your resurrected grandmother, and thus would seem to entail historicism. Similarly, any interpretation of the James passage has to find the community and form of equality that James and the Lord share. This can be biological, if you like; in which case we have historicity. -Or it can be ‘spiritual’ in which case, if mythicism is true, James is a Celestial Brother of The Celestial Christ, mysteriously present, presumably in the temple precincts, in Jerusalem. It would be like calling him ‘brother of God’

            Nothing is more common than esprit-de-corps uses of ‘brother/sister/comrade’ to express equality; it would be an option for the interpretation of Galatians passage even if there were no other uses of ‘brother’ in Paul and elsewhere. Unfortunately no *mythicist* interpretation of Paul can make sense of it.

          • ncovington89

            All wrong: being a symbolic brother of a celestial Christ would not make one celestial, anymore than being a symbolic son of God (a celestial being also) would make one celestial.

          • Mark

            Right, that’s exactly the mistake you keep making. The esprit de corps uses of ‘brother’ all entail equality on the part of the brothers.

          • Mark

            That is, all uses of ‘brother’, whether biological, “spiritual”, poetic, etc. have two components, horizontal and vertical. That is, every use of brother/sister also has a corresponding ‘vertical’ use of son/daughter and of father/mother. The alignment along the horizontal is thought of as arising from a common dependence along the vertical. It is indeed obvious, as you just said, that in non-biological uses the father/mother pole can be occupied by God, a celestial angel, or whatever, just as it can be occupied by a nation, a military division or a revolutionary party. But the ‘brothers’ are all still flesh and blood human beings, and no number of examples that place the paternity pole in the celestial realm can make me (flesh and blood) a ‘brother’ with a god. Mythicism is as much incompatible with a ‘spiritual’ reading of ‘brother’ in the James passage as with a ‘biological’ reading.

          • ncovington89

            A symbolic relationship can hold good with a heavenly or earthly figure, and Christ being, in some sense ‘brothers’ with earthly people doesn’t mean he’s equal in every nitpicking way. I think that would be taking the verse overly literally. Christ is certainly similar in many respects to Christians, but he is not precisely the same. Christ would have entered a body of flesh like Christians but not gone down to live on earth as they do, he would have been tempted directly by the devil while in the firmament but not tempted in more mundane ways that Christians are.

          • Mark

            “A symbolic relationship can hold good with a heavenly or earthly figure, …”

            — Right, but we are talking about “brother”, not “symbolic relationships” in general. You just keep repeating the same mistake, which is to think that if “brother” is interpreted in a non-biological sense, the imagination can be given carte blanche. But in fact, biological and non-biological uses all exhibit the same structure. Yes, if ‘son of’ and ‘child of’ and ‘father of’ are given non-biological readings, then the parent pole can be abstract, ideal, divine, heavenly etc. Paul and his hearers, are put into a formal equality by reference to their common subjection to the one he calls Lord; they can thus coherently call each other ‘brother’. The expression ‘brother of the Lord’ immediately contradicts this conception of brotherhood and suggests we must find another. Again, it is not a matter of sharing properties, but of symmetrical subordinate positions in a community; this is the common formal element.

          • ncovington89

            Also, a resurrection can happen in the celestial realm as easily as it can on earth. Plutarch’s On Isis and Osiris makes clear that Osiris was beloved resurrected in this way. Not to mention that Christ was the logos and thus the righteous would imitate him, and share in his own fate eventually (evidence of this can be seen not just in Christian writings and the surrounding culture like Philo).

          • Mark

            We are interpreting the uses of ‘brother’ in Romans and Galatians, I thought. What reason is there for thinking that the resurrection in question in Romans, is not the standard pharisaical resurrection, which is definitely of flesh and blood. The resurrected people must be like e.g. the people killed in the Maccabean struggle against the Greeks – i.e. regular flesh and blood that comes back together. The Romans passage suggests that in the case of ‘Christ’ we find the first case of this, which contradicts mythicism. Mentioning Osiris is pure free association. We are interpreting Paul so ‘logoi’ and Philonic associations are again irrelevant.

          • ncovington89

            I think the resurrection is one of flesh and blood, albeit of heavenly being who had entered into a body of flesh and blood just beneath the firmament. And I have to disagree with you re: Philo and Osiris, the abundant and highly specific parallels with them and Jesus suggest common cultural influence. For Philo, see here:

            As far as Osiris, the work by Plutarch is recommended.

          • This is the problem. No interest in plausible historical reconstruction, being content just to cite a parallel which seems less relevant than a wealth of material that you conveniently ignore, but which would not let you draw the conclusion you have set out to in advance. This is then repeated ad nauseam in every discussion.

          • ncovington89

            But that’s the whole thing you’re not getting: there’s not just *a* parallel. Moreover, making a strong mythicist case takes dozens of pages and tons of citations. But James, this is a blog comment, the best I can do is point to some supporting evidence and hope that the readers think this is serious enough to actually read price, carrier, etc for themselves. Last but not least, there is nothing implausible about reading one first century Greek text in light of another, especially when there is similarity in content, topic, and viewpoint/underlying belief, like Plutarch does. The “set in advance comment” applies to you and you only. You can’t seriously suggest that you read carriers book with an open ear. You also can’t honestly compare mythicism to creationists: mythicists have published at least 3 peer reviewed books through reputable publishers in the past few years about mythicism specifically (Brodie’s, verennas, carriers) and there are reputable scholars (Tom dykstra, Arthur droge) are agnostic. If you had any lick of humility or recognition of your own fallibility as a scholar you would drop the arrogance and realize this for what it is:mythicism becoming a scholarly position, even if only a very small one. That makes it a lot different from creationism, because how many creationist have published books or papers ABOUT creationism AND published through mainstream academic channels in the last ten years? None I know of. And there are probably a lot more creationist believing biologists than there are mythicist leaning NT scholars, purely because of more religious bias

          • I have never disputed that this view is held by a couple of scholars, independent scholars, and students. It is certainly true that in the humanities one can publish things in a way that one cannot in the natural sciences which are ideologically-driven in ways that will make them unpersuasive to most academics. There have been Christian theological approaches to Jesus, Islamic approaches, Marxist, mythicist, deconstructionist, queer theory, and a range of others. The issue is that you are pretending that somehow among the many minor contributions in this area, mythicism nonetheless is destined to be the one that should and will transform the field of historical Jesus studies. Having achieved the status of something that is fringe within the academy, you are claiming that mythicism has achieved its goal. Well, if the goal was to be on the fringe of the academy, then congratulations are indeed in order. But mythicism has not yet shown itself to be either persuasive enough or interesting enough to be worth paying more attention to than countless other views that are also in the academy but quite marginal or quirky. And so if instead the aim of mythicism is to change the consensus then there is a lot more work to be done by mythicists. And quite a number of them probably need to learn that going around the internet insulting the scholars they want to persuade is not the best use of their time, if that is what their aim is.

          • Mark

            Osiris is irrelevant; we are talking about the familiar late 2nd temple fantasy of general resurrection, which was triggered by too much reading of Ezekiel 37, Daniel 12 etc etc. Only a drug addict would bring Osiris into the interpretation of Daniel 12

            There is no evidence whatsoever that Paul is under the influence of Philo, whose corpus is so immense and so allegorical that anything whatseover can be ‘proved’ by citing a Philonic parallel. His works are only referred to by Christians much later. By the way, not many of the texts you quote are actually by Paul, the mid 1st c. Jew. Why would you even bother mentioning Hebrews in a discussion of Paul? You might as well quote Thomas Aquinas. It is free association. The Philo-Christianity parallels you retail are standard meme-reproduction. Josephus mentions Philo, so he can’t have been an isolated case, but he is not mentioned by Christian authors until the 3rd c. when we are emphatically in another world than Paul’s fevered Jerusalem.

          • Mark

            Would it be rational to bring Osiris influence into the reading of Daniel 12, Ezekiel 37 and the like? If not, how can it be rational to bring Osiris into a reading of Romans 8, which is clearly saying, “It’s happening, Christ is the first”.

          • ncovington89

            Btw, I think may I see now how you’re interpreting it: you’re thinking that Paul means Christ is the firstborn out of a collection of people (=among many) that he personally associated with. If so, I think the last bit is reading too much into the text. We could just as easily read it as Christ is the first person/being to be “born” and that others (who are not necessarily the same as Christ or even part of some earthly collective of people that once included Christ) will later be “born.” Incidentally, the relationship these people have to Christ is spelled out in that very verse: “**For those God foreknew** he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.” Philo could have said as much about pious Jews and the logos. That is the kind of relationship that is in mind here. As to Osiris, you must study these texts and see that this indeed relevant. I’ve pointed you to some resources, but I don’t spoon feed anybody.

          • Mark

            Yes, but any Jewish messianist knows that /any/ king of Israel is addressed as the son of God, see e.g. Psalm 2 – it’s just another messianic title like ‘king’, ‘anointed’, ‘root of Jesse’ etc. ad inf. It isn’t even a particularly pretentious epithet and we don’t need middle Platonism to explain it, just 1st c. Jerusalem.

          • John MacDonald

            Understanding the King of Israel as the “son of God,” we read in the Hebrew bible, for instance:

            (1) “I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name; and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me (2 Sam. 7:12-14).”

            (2) In Psalm 89, in which the psalmist indicates that David was anointed by God (that is, literally anointed with oil as a sign of God’s special favor; v. 20), he is said to be God’s “firstborn, the highest of the kings of earth (v.27).”

            (3)God says to the king: “You are my son; today I have begotten you (Psalm 2, v. 7)

          • ncovington89

            I grant that “son of God” is an ambiguous title in-and-of-itself, but I believe Paul definitely thought of Jesus as being made prior to humanity and indeed, creating human beings (1 Corinthians 8:6, for example). And the logos concept, found in a wide variety of philosophical schools (stoicism and Platonism) and many versions of this were far-flung across the Roman Empire both before and after the war. But the missing information that you need here is a fuller immersion in both Philo and Greco-Roman thought. Which by the way, is being increasingly recognized as an important piece of the early Christian story, as evidenced by M. David Litwa (Iesous Deus) and Richard Miller (The Empty Tomb and Other Translation Fables in Antiquity, Journal for the Society of Biblical Literature).

          • Mark

            We were discussing the interpretation of Paul, not the undated, anonymous and palpably later works of Mark and Luke – both quite possibly gentile christian productions by people unacquainted with the temple of Jerusalem. Miller’s de-Palestinianizing remarks about Mark have zero bearing on the interpretation of Paul. No amount of Litwa’s (considerable) wit about gentile enthusiasm for humanized divinities in the Infancy Narrative of Thomas (from some time deep in the second century) can possibly have any bearing on the interpretation of the authentic letters of Paul; these spring from the ‘burned-over district’ of Jerusalem in the period leading up to the destruction of the Temple. They are the one of very few windows into the thought-world of the twilight period of the 2nd temple; running them together with random later phenomena of gentile christianity is not an exciting new research program, but the dead hand of the past and out-and-out anachronism.

          • ncovington89

            Well, I reckon much of Miller’s work does not directly have bearing on Paul, though I think there is good evidence that Mark was a Paulinist Christian. But no matter. Litwa is a different story: his comparisons of Greek heroes like Romulus receiving a new name after ascension to heaven (like Jesus: Philippians 2, Revelation 3). And my point about the logos still stands: our only sources for that belief are Philo (a syncretizing Jew) and the Greco-Roman culture. And Jesus clearly is the logos, a large number of very specific and unusual traits that Philo and the Greco-Romans ascribed to the logos are also ascribed to Jesus in the Paulines, like my blog post documents.

          • Mark

            Philippians 2 has a determinate explanation from the ‘facts’ of the case as Paul understands them. That free association brings the mind to Romulus is not historical comprehension.

            (Miller by the way is quite clear that his claims about Mark’s resurrection would distinguish it /completely/ from Paul; who emphatically does think of the resurrection of Jesus as (the beginning of) the general resurrection of the flesh in the pharisaical, hyper-second-temple sense.The truer you make Miller’s account of Mark, the more remote and irrelevant he becomes to the interpretion of Paul, which, again, is the question under discussion.)

            Revelation 3 is not by Paul. On this logos crap, try a scholar, any scholar, who actually knows one or two semitic languages, e.g. Boyarin ‘Gospel of the Memra’ for someone who is at least a good writer whether or not that particular argument is plausible. (About the John gospel, I wouldn’t myself hazard any opinion of any kind.) The antecedents for logos/memra/word mysticism go to the first sentences of the Hebrew bible. Name mysticism, doublings up of God, God’s name, “God’s name”, God’s word, which ‘goes before him’ to say nothing of personified Wisdoms etc etc etc ad inf are the most insanely totally Hebrew-Aramaic-Jewish phenomenon imaginable. To ransack the philosophical schools when you have a flood of specifically Jewish material to explain what Paul is saying is disturbing frankly, but in any case it is a dead research program.

            Your blog post mentions three or four apparently authentic passages in Paul mixing them indifferently with Hebrews and everthing else that was grouped with it in the 3rd and 4th century. Not a very rational procedure. None of the texts needs any specifically Philonic explanation. By the way, creation is not mentioned in 1 Cor 8:6. The passage is a complicated play on pronouns and cases, and ‘ta panta’ can be read in any number of ways, e.g. “it’s all from and for God and through the lord Jesus” can mean anything at all. The only message is that Paul has a somewhat ‘high’ messiah-theory.

          • ncovington89

            What is ‘the determinate explanation’ of which you speak?
            This is not ‘free association’ this is a comparison of two figures from the same time and general culture who share an enormous number of peculiar similarities. I don’t like having to keep explaining that.It goes without saying that Revelation 3 isn’t written by Paul, the reason I cited that was to show some independent first century evidence of this mytheme attached to the Jesus figure.
            Evidently You STILL did not read the list of parallels between Philo and the New Testament Jesus, so you aren’t getting the point I’m making. I don’t need to spend any longer arguing with someone who has no time to listen.

          • Mark

            The point was that the Paul – Philo connection was based on basically nothing in Paul; I mentioned Revelation because you keep referring to your B- blog post/ mid-term essay — which is not about Paul — as if it were about Paul. The “New Testament Jesus” is not object of historical enquiry, but a complicated phenomenon of canonization in a later epoch, another world. Paul by contrast is a definite 2nd temple figure who is falsified by any connection with what came to be called “Christianity”. To bury him in your theory of an imaginary “New Testament Jesus” is to reject history. Mythicism is the claim that Paul is not a typical representative of the religion of the Jerusalem of the late 2nd temple period. There is no basis for this belief except centuries of Christian preaching and anti-semitism.

          • ncovington89

            “There is no basis for this belief except centuries of Christian preaching and anti-semitism.”
            This is just childish mudslinging. Thanks for losing the argument so magnificently, but I think you don’t have to embarrass yourself like this in the future. Plenty of information was cited in the Pauline letters, though the evidence I cite was not exclusively from them, so if you’re interested in Paul look at the stuff I cite in Romans and the Corinthian letters — not elsewhere in the new testament (are you this thick?!?!)
            Mudslinging, evasion, reading things into passages that just ain’t there, and ignoring evidence. You’ll grow up to be a Mcgrath one day ; )

          • The antisemitic roots of mythicism, as an expression of the desire to turn Jesus from a historical Jew into a Gentile deity, is not news. If mythicists want to accept that Christian faith as an ideology is not fundamentally antithetical to doing serious scholarship, then fine. But it is not mudslinging to point out the ideological roots in Christian antisemitism of a viewpoint whose adherents complain about the Christian ideological connections of the viewpoint they oppose.

            That mythicism moved from there into the writings of Communist bloc authors as a tool to be wielded against religious adherents, and now is popular among internet atheists who seem to have no idea about the history of use to which the views they hold have been put, is mildly amusing. When an internet atheist apologist then objects to these things being pointed out, it becomes even more entertaining, and says a lot, as it might even remind one of how apologists for another ideological stance tend to react to mention of the history of their ideas.

          • ncovington89

            I call somebody out on mudslinging, and you’re eager to join in. No, it isn’t based on any antisemitism. But either way, mud slinging is not a sufficient answer to anything, any scholar outside the pretentious field of New Testament studies knows they have to answer a position with evidence, not mud. Until you learn that, you can forget about me ever just taking your word for it on anything. I’m also now considering you an ideologue, not a scholar.

          • Mark

            Wait, do you think there was ‘mudslinging’ because you think someone called you a Christian preacher?

          • It is not mudslinging to point out the ideological roots of a standpoint. That you engage in denialism about the history of your denialism is interesting in a meta sort of way. And since you have indicated that you are not open to discussion of the ideological roots of your own standpoint, while consider that it is appropriate to accuse those who try to point them out of being mere ideologues, I think this interaction has gone as far as it usefully can.

            For what it’s worth, I have never asked you or anyone else to take my word on anything. What I have always consistently encouraged people to do is to inform themselves about, understand, and embrace the consensus or overwhelming majority view of the experts in a given field when those experts are in agreement about a point, since the evidence for that point must be very strong indeed, and it is consistently the case that, when someone thinks the consensus of historians, scientists, doctors, or any other experts is mere fluff, they themselves have always failed to inform themselves about, or have failed to grasp, the reasons for the agreement. Scholars and other experts can be wrong, but when we agree about something, that we are all wrong becomes significantly less likely. I hope one day you will understand this point, and I am very disappointed that you have not grasped it thus far, despite having spent a significant amount of time here.

          • Mark

            The ‘argument’ was about the possibilities for interpretation of “brother of the Lord” in Galatians 1:19. Two other passages – which could hardly be more familiar to me and everyone on this site, though you are just now suggesting that we or I mustn’t have read them – were mentioned in the discussion.

            The focus passage is a document of late 2nd temple sectarianism, and describes Paul’s return to the city of the temple itself to meet fellow sectaries who adhere to it.

            Your solution to the problem of the meaning of the expression ‘brother of the Lord’ in this 1st c. Jewish document, is to engage in monotonous repetition of claims that something about Osiris, and something about what you call “Greco-Roman thought”, and something about Philo of Alexandria, hold the key to the interpretation of this passage. You combine this with similarly monotonous reference to the the important secondary source (ncovington, “Some blogpost,” 2014), which shows no evidence of having read more of the immense Philonic corpus than Carrier quotes and no evidence of any knowledge of second temple sectarianism whatsoever.

            Then, when people lose patience with this fatuous, mind-numbing monomania, you accuse them of mudslinging and ‘just not getting it’.

          • Gakusei Don

            ncovington89: // Also, a resurrection can happen in the celestial realm as easily as it can on earth. Plutarch’s On Isis and Osiris makes clear that Osiris was beloved resurrected in this way.

            Hi Nick, I looked into claims by Doherty of Plutarch presenting a celestial incarnation and death of Osiris a few years ago, and couldn’t find anything. My analysis, with specific references to Plutarch, is here:

            I also looked at Dr Carrier’s claims in OHJ. Similarly to Doherty, he states on page 172 that Plutarch “says Osiris actually incarnates and actually dies” in “outer space”. But AFAICT Plutarch writes nothing of the sort. If you can find the specific passages that support yours or Carrier’s reading, I’d be interested to discuss this in further detail on your blog.

          • ncovington89

            Sure, leave a comment on my blog and I should be able to get back to you Wednesday. By then I should be able to work in some time to look over that particular article.

          • Gakusei Don

            Thanks Nick! I’ve put a comment in your blog post here, as I think it is related to the topic:

          • John MacDonald

            Derrida points out that texts are often more ambiguous then we realize, and so are open to multiple interpretation, each camp convinced of their position, and that the other camps are wrong. Maybe the James passage is explainable both from a historicist and a mythicist point of view because the text is ambiguous on this point.

          • arcseconds

            Was Derrida primarily interested in the most likely historical circumstances that led to a text being a particular way? I don’t think so.

          • John MacDonald

            You have to consider many things, such as theory of interpretation, along with trying to discern the historical circumstances. Mythicists have a completely different account of historical circumstances from historicists, so you would need some sort of criteria or method for determining whether the mythicist’s or historicist’s account of the historical circumstances is the better one. Try to avoid the infinite regress.

          • arcseconds

            We seem to be back to your perplexities over people having different opinions again.

            I don’t understand why you find this so difficult. Just because one person says one thing and another person says another doesn’t mean we’re somehow in a perspectival quagmire where there is no truth just competing interpretations.

            And referencing Derrida doesn’t make it so, either.

  • John MacDonald

    Sam Harris’ moral philosophy zombie: utilitarianism reanimated for the 21st century.

    • Zombie jokes are only funny when referencing things that are actually dead. Utilitarianism not only isn’t dead, it’s alive and kicking in contemporary philosophy. Utilitarianism is still one of the most influential moral theories around.

    • Cecil Bagpuss

      It is possible that the notion of God is a natural by-product of the evolutionary process which created our moral sense. The challenge for any evolutionary theory of morality is to explain how evolution would favour behaviour that benefits those who are not biologically related to the individual. Reciprocal altruism seems to be an important factor. It makes sense to do something which will benefit someone else, if you can expect to receive some favour from the person whom you have helped in future.

      The problem with a system of reciprocal altruism is that it can easily be undermined by cheating. You receive a favour from someone else on the basis that the favour will be repaid, but when it is your turn to provide a favour you decide not to bother. The key to preventing cheating is reputation. If you are known as the kind of person who fails to repay his debts, other people in the community will refuse to enter into a relationship with you that could be mutually beneficial.

      Therefore, if you want to succeed in a community in which reputation is crucial, you need a strong sense of how other people will judge you. In order to do that, you need to be able to imagine what other people will think of you, even if you don’t know whether your behaviour will ever be discovered. You have to imagine that there is an all-seeing eye which monitors your behaviour. Initially, the all-seeing eye is just a proxy for the person who might discover what you have done, but eventually it takes on a life of its own. The all-seeing is God.

      As creatures whose moral sense has evolved in this way, we cannot escape the idea of God.

      • John MacDonald

        Why would it take on a life of its own?

      • John MacDonald

        You have presented a genealogy of the concept of God. Others may present different ones. If only there were criteria to choose between competing genealogies.

  • ncovington89

    I believe Harris had an explanation for the ought is problem, though it has been a while since I read his book. In a nutshell “ought” just means what you “must” do in order to cause the least amount of harm (or to satisfy the golden rule, if your ethics are like mine instead of Harris’). Long story short, I think we can show that all human beings want to aspire to the golden rule based on values they hold outside the ethical domain, so morality can be broken down, explained, and an ought reduced to an is. But, that’s another story.

    • jekylldoc

      I haven’t read Harris’ defense of (in principle) deriving moral results from facts, but I was astonished when I first heard he had proposed such a thing. The problem is that it involves weighing competing principles, and there is no way to reduce that to a formula.

      You simply cannot weigh 10 points worth of parental autonomy against 15 points worth of benefit to the child and derive the result that parents have to subordinate their own autonomy to the benefit of the children, for example. Maybe if it was 400 on one scale against 4 on the other we would be willing to make such a judgment, but not because it is morally correct but simply because we could not imagine a person weighing them up differently in good faith.

      Harris’ proposal is fundamentally authoritarian, and I am even more astonished that he could not see it.

      • ncovington89

        I don’t think we should reduce it to a formula. I differ with Harris on utilitarianism, I think Golden Rule Ethics is the best way to go, and so for me the question is “What action fits the Golden Rule (or ‘what action best fits the Golden Rule’) and the answer to that, I think, is what I ‘must’ do to satisfy my desire to be moral.

        • John MacDonald

          Since it is of the essence of a philosopher to make distinctions, what in your mind make an act “immoral?” Is there any distinction between “bad,” “immoral,” and “evil?”

        • jekylldoc

          ncovington –

          As you might be able to tell from my post above, I am not totally opposed to working out the implications of all the “is-es” that really matter, and yes, it will affect which “ought” we choose. But morality is fundamentally personal – as soon as you start setting up enforcement it is something else, because doing the right thing to avoid punishment is not particularly a moral choice.

          Recognizing that we are in the business of advising, rather than legislating, it is relatively easy to see that different people may weigh up the competing principles differently. And that is okay, at least up to the point where legislating needs to begin, to protect people from other people.

          Hoping to derive morality like a math theorem very much misses the point.

    • John MacDonald

      From your point of view, how do we make the move from characterizing an act as “subjectively offensive,” to characterizing it as “objectively wrong?”

      • John MacDonald

        And how do we go beyond “acting friendly” to “acting moral?” Is there a distinction between “friendly” and “moral?”

        • John MacDonald

          Is “being moral” just akin to “being a good friend?”

      • ncovington89

        Well, I think a certain core of subjective values are shared the world over, so we can say what actions fit the shared core principles of mankind. So my morals aren’t exactly “objective” they are more like “trans-subjective.” Also, though people often have different moral opinions, I don’t think these are insoluable. My view is that moral differences are the result of mistaken beliefs OR arise when people act on different moral “rules of thumb” (i.e. the rule of thumb “I should be fair” sometimes conflicts with the rule of thumb “I should minimize suffering for other people”). I think those kinds of disagreements call for a careful assessment of those two rules of thumb, because it might be that one rule of thumb is more important than other according to logical necessity or a deeper moral principle.

        • John MacDonald

          So under your model, why have some cultures not thought cannibalism was wrong, or why was it great entertainment in ancient Rome to watch Christians be fed to the lions in the Arena? What about child sacrifice?

          • ncovington89

            I think to answer that you’d have to ask a lot of detailed questions to people in those cultures to get the full perspective. But to speculate, I know that in Nazi Germany Jews were considered inferior (which is a false belief). I suspect some Nazis acted out of sheer bloodthirst, because they liked having power over other people. Those people are guilty of inconsistency in their beliefs: they don’t believe that it is okay for a Jewish person to torture them, so they should equally agree that it is wrong for them to torture a Jewish person. Just my two cents. A much more intellectually full defense of the Golden Rule can be found in “Good and Real.”

          • John MacDonald

            It is possible to judge other cultures from the point of view of the prejudices of our own culture, but I don’t think there are objective moral laws that can be used in doing this. We may find it, for instance, morally offensive that the ancient Romans fed the Christians to the lions for sport. But that’s just our point of view. The ancient Romans were fine with it. As Palpatine says in Star Wars episode 3, “Good (and evil) are a point of view.”

          • jekylldoc


            “that’s just our point of view” is a cop-out. There are better and worse points of view, and any violation of the Golden Rule is demonstrably wrong. It may take centuries to realize it, if money is at stake, but that doesn’t change the fact that it is wrong.

          • Nick G

            That’s an assertion, not an argument, let alone a demonstration.

          • John MacDonald

            The question is on what “basis” do we have “the right” to take a “holier than thou attitude” and “pass judgement” on that which we find “offensive?”

          • jekylldoc

            Your two cents is exactly right, here (IMHO, of course). Violations of the Golden Rule are objectively wrong.

    • arcseconds

      You don’t resolve the is/ought distinction by putting things in scare quotes.

      • ncovington89

        Gotcha, that explains why I didn’t! ; )

        • arcseconds

          Maybe you could explain what they mean, then?

          How does

          (1) “ought” just means what you “must” do in order to cause the least amount of harm

          differ from

          (2) ought just means what you must do in order to cause the least amount of harm


          I suppose looking at it now, the first set of quotes might be indicating ‘ought’ is being mentioned, rather than used, but the second set around ‘must’ still look like scare quotes.

          (2) just looks like it has the usual status of any normative claim: there’s no sign of being proposed by an ethical naturalist, and certainly absolutely nothing indicating it’s even an attempt at a summary of an account that collapses the is/ought distinction.

  • Michael Wilson

    I think I’m going to post on some mythicist blogs how great the Dallas Cowboys are.

  • Michael Wilson

    Personally I like most of the anti religion crusaders, but the anti religion crusade us a bit juvenile

  • Sam


  • arcseconds

    It’s interesting that a number of commenters are interpreting this comic as defending religion or attacking atheism, and I think your introduction is priming people to do this, James, with the mention of the new atheists ridiculing religion.

    But surely the critique here has little enough to do with religion or atheism, but is rather criticising Harris for ignoring the philosophical tradition while cheerfully proposing solutions to philosophical problems.

    Hume is not known as a religious apologist, after all.

    I’m not sure that mecha-Hume’s hint to look at Kant helps much. If we make the appropriate translations into Kantian framing, Kant holds to the is/ought distinction as much as Hume does: moral obligations cannot be derived from synthetic a posteriori judgements of speculative reason alone.

  • Gary

    I find it most amusing that people are arguing over the use of “brother of the Lord”. The more things change, the more things stay the same. They were doing something similar around the second century. First Revelation of James, and Second Revelation of James (with 1st and 2nd, not indicating actual chronological order).

    1st Rev of James: “I have already given you a sign of these things, my brother James. For not without reason have I called you my brother, though you are not physically my brother.”

    2nd Revelation of James: “This is the discourse that James the Just delivered in Jerusalem and Mareim wrote down…..”
    (James Describes an Appearance of the Risen Christ)
    “Hello, my brother; brother, hello.
    As I raised my head to look at him, mother said to me, ‘Don’t be afraid, my son, because he said to you, “My brother.” You were both nourished with the same milk. That is why he says to me, “My mother.” He is not a stranger to us, he is your stepbrother.”

    Then, probably the most interesting phrase (James Tells What Jesus Said Regarding Two Fathers)

    “I tell you, listen and understand.
    For many, when they hear, will be fainthearted,
    But you, understand in the way I can tell you.

    Your father is not my Father,
    But my Father has become a father to you.”

    “Like this virgin…” So clearly the Mother is Mary…

    Doesn’t prove anything, but pretty neat, anyway.
    You guys are in the same boat as the guys writing in the 2nd century.

    • It is not at all the same. These Gnostic texts, and the proto-orthodox, and whoever was responsible for the development of the doctrine of Mary, none of them were asking abut the historical evidence using historical-critical methods of inquiry, to answer a historical question in the modern sense.

      • Gary

        Yes, but neither was Paul. The only difference between the Gnostic texts and Paul’s authentic texts, from a historical standpoint, was that a bunch of Bishop’s canonized them. (Ok, some of the gnostic texts had crazy creation themes…but Paul had visions too. If one is crazy, the other is boarderline crazy too…maybe). But historical….more the author’s opinions at the current moment in time, not necessarily fact. My point is only that people were having the same thoughts that conflicted in the 2nd century. One thought that James was the brother of Jesus. One thought that it was spiritual. Now whether either one was historically correct, is unknown. BTW, I personally think James was the biological brother of Jesus. But clearly 1st and 2nd James differed in opinion. And Paul didn’t use historical methods. Historical methods may have proved Paul wrote the text, but doesn’t prove that he was correct. My opinion on Paul -the guy needed to be more direct. He would have made a wonderful used car salesman.

        • You seem not to understand what I am talking about. Paul did not investigate whether James existed as a historical question, using ancient or modern methods. He had met him, and mentions the fact, in connection with dispute about his own views raised by emissaries from the Jerusalem church who also knew James. Paul is our primary source material. What dreams he had, and how he interpreted them as a first century religious person, is irrelevant to that.

          • Gary

            But Paul met Jesus too…in a vision. You seemed to miss my point. Authors, whether Paul or Gnostic, had different opinions. I personally do not take Paul’s writings as a documentary. If the question was settled, you would not have over 100 comments on the subject.

          • People have dreams about real life individuals quite often, not only about people who never existed. I do not know what you mean by “documentary” but there are instances where we have good reason to conclude that the people Paul wrote about and to were people who actually lived.

            Whether a matter is settled in the minds of those with expertise does not correspond consistently to small numbers of comments in online forums.

          • arcseconds

            All that’s required for 100 comments on a subject is one person to stubbornly defend a fringe viewpoint.

            Is this sufficient to bring something into question in a way that is at all substantive and worth taking seriously, in your view?

          • Gary

            Come on, Man. I was trying to make a point. You guys are way too serious.

          • Gary

            Point being people now, or in the 2nd century, had different opinions.

          • Mark

            The procedure you are employing has the advantage of giving you carte blanche for the interpretation of Paul. “I met James the brother of the Lord, in Jerusalem” could mean “My soul rose to the heavenly Jerusalem where I conversed with James (= Gabriel), brother of (= fellow archangel of) the Lord (= Michael)”

            In other words, the concept of evidence can be thrown out, and the imagination can take its place. Soon enough Osiris will make an appearance.

            Gnostic writers belong to a completely different historical epoch from the letters of Paul, which precede the destruction of the temple. Bringing them into the discussion of Paul is exactly as rational as bringing Rosicrucianism into the discussion.

          • Gary

            Wait a minute. I’m not getting sucked into this rhubarb! Everyone has carte Blanche interpretations of Paul, whether 100 years after Jesus (2nd century, which isn’t that long after Paul, both Canon, and Gnostic), or 2015, with you guys. I just made what I thought was an interesting comparison. If the bible was the word of God, both He, and Paul, need to be clearer in their Word, since they seem to have made nebulous statements that no one can come to a common interpretation of…dangling participle be damned! 🙂 no debate for me. I am a follower of Ehrman, and he says that James is the brother (biological) of Jesus; as oppose to James McGrath being the brother (spiritual) of Jesus. “Ehrman says it, I believe it, it’s true” (that is, with a higher probability than 0.5.)

          • So basically you were treating as a joke what deserves to be a serious discussion? I realize that you pretty much only make jokes here, almost always related to Gnosticism. Perhaps you ought to try actually engaging in serious conversation from time to time?

          • Gary

            I thought it was an interesting fact. Personally, if my comments are not liked, I will say goodbye. Adios.

          • Gary

            And by the way….this is a blog, not your classroom. I don’t appreciate classroom discipline.

          • It was me expressing my own viewpoint on my own blog. If this were a classroom, constantly making jokes and rarely saying anything substantive would have been addressed earlier and very differently. Your ongoing presence here would be welcome, but if you find even the suggestion that you should not always joke about everything, and should sometimes at the very least not joke when the topic of a blog post is one intended for serious discussion, then perhaps you would not be happy here, which is a pity. But if you change your mind, you will be welcome here, as in the past.

          • Gary

            And I’d hardly call Gnostic writers being in a different historical epoch than Paul. Or Paul’s redactors, who also shaped Paul’s current theology.

          • Jim

            Hey Gary, I’m on your side especially after that Mark slammed the practice of, what was it called again – sounded something like Rokucrucianism. Well I use one of those venerable Roku thingies a lot for streaming.

            As you allude to, the first complete copies of the Pauline
            letters date to around 150 plus years after the fact. And as you mention, the idea of Jesus and biological siblings seems to have been a discussion topic among some of the 2nd-3rd century Christians. It would seem like at face value the phrase “brother of the Lord” would tilt towards biological and this phrase somehow survived proto-orthodox editing. On the other hand, proto-orthodoxy was trying to defend Jesus as both God and man, so maybe utilized the phrase and coupled it with a cousins/step brothers defense? So who knows for sure (least of all me) what might have happened with the written material during this period prior to it being considered sacred scripture and not to be tampered with.

            BTW do you (or anyone else here) know the attestation
            status of Gal 1:19 among the Tertullian/Justin Martyr/ Irenaeus/reconstructions of Marcion’s Apostolikon/etc. writings? Ty in advance for any input on this.

          • Gary

            I only know what I read. I’ll check my Ehrman and Pagel books. But I doubt if I’ll find anything specific.

          • Mark

            The procedure you are employing – here declaring the work of scholarship in isolating the authentic letters of Paul to be for nought – has the advantage of giving you carte blanche for the interpretation of ancient history generally. Basically every text we possess from this period, sacred or secular, is a result of ecclesiastical selection, or, what comes to the same, Byzantine selection. Have a field day inserting Osiris where you please.

            Marcion’s Apostolikon is remarkable for the high quality of what appears to have been its content. He includes Colossians and what is supposed to be Ephesians, but these are frequently affirmed authentic too. He shows signs, that is, of critical scholarship, which is surprising in a 2nd century preacher. (I take it though, that the verdict of the scholars on authentic Paul is not independent of views about the contents of the Apostolikon.)

            Obviously the letters esteemed as authentic may at any point contain destructive redaction. Our topic, though, was just the ‘James the brother of the Lord’ passage, which is only of interest where someone expresses doubt in the ‘existence of a historical Jesus’. It is obvious that someone with a sufficiently strong mythicist faith has the option of following your procedure and declaring all of the known ‘Pauline’ epistles to be the work of, say, … Eusebius … or maybe the ecclesiastical fraud ‘Flavius Josephus’ … or maybe something like what the da Vinci code says…

          • Jim

            I was anticipating that my inclusion of Gal 1:19 in my comment implied a link to this topic. Gary’s comment noted the early orthodox (Catholic) argument of Jesus not having biological brothers but rather step brothers/cousins.

            This argument seems to have overlapped with the period of gnostic controversies, and I was essentially asking if there had been any recorded attempts by church fathers to use this Galatians verse (either pro or con) specifically for this issue. And also whether attestation of this verse was present/absent among the 2nd-3rd century heresiologists.

            [Udo Schnelle has mentioned in his history of NT writings book that the literary integrity of Galatians is undisputed, but that was in 1994.]

            And I do plan to use any info to support insertion of Osiris everywhere I can. After all, it is a cool name 🙂