Pics or it Didn’t Happen

Pics or it Didn’t Happen May 8, 2016

Jerry Coyne recently shared this image:

pics or it didn't happen

To the image itself, one could simply respond with this:

Jesus nail hole

But Coyne added enough of a disclaimer to indicate that he recognized there was a problem-  albeit an inadequate and problematic disclaimer that itself conveys the impression that he didn’t fully grasp the issues. He wrote:

Of course “pics” here means “reliable evidence,” as of course there was no photography when most religions arose. But just think how many words theologians have written to circumvent this criticism!

Coyne has shown again and again over the years that he has failed to grasp basic distinctions between historical and theological issues and approaches. And to be fair, many religious people don’t grasp them either. But Coyne’s inability to grasp the difference between whether there is historical evidence for a particular human being, and whether there is any kind of evidence at all for certain kinds of miracle claims, is reflected well in the problematic challenge in the image Coyne shared.

And in our era of Photoshop, “pics” is simply not a synonym for, or a good symbol for, “reliable evidence.”



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  • arcseconds

    You appear to be interpreting this as an example of Coyne being a sceptic about the historical Jesus, but is that actually warranted? He doesn’t specify what claims religion makes that he doubts and requires ‘pics’ for, and the comments seem to be virtually entirely about creationism. The general point that appropriate evidence is required before accepting a claim is one you agree with.

    By the by, my understanding of ‘pics or it didn’t happen’ is that it’s a demand for exciting and possibly embarrassing pictures of one’s friend, for entertainment/vicarious living/bonding purposes. It’s a (jocular) threat: I want to see pictures of you on the roller-coaster so I can laugh at them with you, and if you don’t provide, I’m going to pretend you’re lying and just stayed in your hotel room all the time you were in Florida. It’s not a demand for evidence for a claim one actually doubts. Of course it’s a bit of lighthearted fun for the most part, but fun aside it’s not quite the right example.

    • The Eh’theist

      Thank you for helping me to clarify my sometimes mixed reaction to posts on this topic. Often discussions here focus on how the historical Jesus is different from the Jesus of the Gospels and how the historical Jesus is an academic discipline that is distinct from theology, especially the sort of theology that presupposes the Gospels as an accurate source record of events. So the line is often made clear between the two.

      In the case of this post it was blurred and “religion” was made to do double duty for theological and historical activity. This led to the suggestion that it was inappropriate to challenge religion because of the historical component.

      This seems wrong. In those areas where “religion” aligns itself to the evidence provided by the historical academic discipline, it has in effect “pics” to share for its claims. In the cases where it departs from the historical evidence that has been identified to follow theological speculation, there the demand for “pics” is still valid (and typically unfulfilled).

      So in either circumstance “religion” has not been the source of the evidence, and thus is in a position to be questioned as to the claims it makes. As Metzger pointed out clearly, much of the progress made in the historical field has come at the expense of disproving commonly accepted religious belief and teaching, often with “religion” enthusiastically opposing this progress.

      It also impacts the discussion on the argument against mythicism. Either historical study is independent of religion, and thus a good source of information to consider the question of Jesus, or it is a component of “religion”, and open to the question of bias regarding its claims about Jesus. Blurring and refocusing the lines when it’s convenient exacerbates the problem.

      • arcseconds

        You’re welcome, although I don’t understand how I’ve clarified things for you!

        And I’m wondering whether you’ve misinterpreted me?

        I’m vaguely supportive of this post of Coyne’s, and I think McGrath and you and most of the regulars actually agree (as your comment indeed makes clear) that religion does need ‘pics’ (i.e. evidence) for the claims it makes (certainly for empirical claims, and presumably theological claims still need support at least in terms of a philosophical argument). I don’t think it matters particularly whether or not religion is ‘holding the camera’, as it were.

        It’s not phrased in a nuance way, but on the other hand, it’s somewhat facetious and slightly silly, enjoining us as it does to envisage religion and science leaving jibeish notes for one another (which in turn seems to suggest that they actually know one another quite well, and are possibly friends? Who demands pics of strangers or enemies? Maybe they live together, but the relationship is not going the best and has taking a passive-aggressive tone… ).

        And the commenters focus particularly on creationism, and of course we’d agree with them on matter. It’s not very precise to suggest “religion” claims the earth is 6000 years old, but it’s hardly false: it is a claim made solely on a religious basis, by appeal to a holy text, and a text that is holy to the world’s largest religion, what’s more. There are significant numbers of adherents of that religion who don’t claim the earth is a few thousand years old and created in six days, but there are also significant numbers of adherents who do.

        Moreover, even among non-YEC Christians and adherents of other religions there’s no shortage of people who believe empirical claims unsupported by empirical evidence because of their adherence to their religion. I think it’s not unfair to say that religions do make empirical claims, these claims are believed by their adherents, and these claims rather frequently don’t have adequate evidence for them and are often false.

        It would be a mistake to think this generalization is universal, and we might think Coyne tends to make this mistake (along with others, like thinking of religion as a kind of monolithic entity, usually with presumptions drawn from familiarity with Christianity), but it’s surely important to distinguish between what he has actually said on the one hand and what we think it says about his underlying beliefs and attitudes on the other.

        • The Eh’theist

          The insight was reminding that we typically make a distinction between the academic study of the Bible on this site and the religious use of it. From there my mind made the connection that when I’ve been less enthused with a particular post along these lines, it’s been because our host has blurred the religious/academic frontier rather than keeping it in the typical sharp contrast.

          The *new* interesting thing you’ve given me to think about with this comment is the possible differing perceptions and their impact on the potential veracity of a statement. You’ve suggested that Coyne may be generalizing in his sharing of the image, and this has its limitations. I would concur with that assessment if it is true, but I hadn’t thought of it in that way prior to reading this.

          Not in a conscious way, but when reading the statement I was tending to think of “religion” as a “class” (per object-oriented programming) with various believers/sects/etc as instances of the class, each possessing an attribute of “religious claim”.

          So for me, you’d have a “Creationist” with a religious claim about a 6000YO earth, and that would be an instance of religion where the claim needed evidence. You’d also have the “Mormon” with a religious claim about golden plates. “Evangelical” with a claim about plenary inspiration, etc. The would need related evidence as well.

          So for me all of those instances would demonstrate the saying, but I’d never be thinking that any of the particular religious claims was in any way universal. It’s neat to realize that the conceptual model potentially has a similar impact on the truth of the statement as the actual words would.

  • Coyne has shown again and again over the years that he has failed to grasp basic distinctions between historical and theological issues and approaches.

    I’m not sure what distinction you’re making. Science needs a huge amount of verifiable evidence, but this is only history, so we just need so-so evidence? The supernatural claims of Christianity need a mountain of evidence, regardless of what domain you imagine that to be in.

    I don’t see how theology enters into it. History and science seem to be the relevant disciplines. When you point to theology, I wonder if you’re making the Courtier’s Reply.

    Coyne’s inability to grasp the difference between whether there is historical evidence for a particular human being, and whether there is any kind of evidence at all for certain kinds of miracle claims

    Are you trying to reduce this to Jesus Mythicism? No, the interesting issue is the evidence for the supernatural claims.

    • Scott Paeth

      “The Courtier’s Reply”: What people who don’t know how logic works think a logical fallacy is.

      • No, Scott, I’ve never seen Bob characterize the Courtier’s Reply in this way. And I have seen ample evidence that Bob Seidensticker understands precisely how logic works.

        • Scott Paeth

          Then he shouldn’t invoke the Courtier’s reply, as a response to anything, since it’s has absolutely no value as a response in argument, and pretends to be a logical fallacy when it isn’t one.

          By pretending to be an accusation of a logical fallacy, it actually has the effect of foreclosing conversation about precisely the topic at hand. At the end of the day, it is itself a form of question-begging, and its invocation is an informal fallacy disguised as a response to an informal fallacy.

          • Sorry, Scott, but he can invoke the Courtier’s Reply as often as he likes, regardless of your opinion of it’s value.

          • Scott Paeth

            Sure he can. He just can’t pretend it means anything. He might as well invoke the principle of argle bargel.

          • The Courtier’s Reply is a parody, one that is both cogent and applicable, notwithstanding your brainless and contentless assertions to the contrary.

          • Scott Paeth

            Ah! It’s a PARODY! Well someone should definitely tell the people who keep quoting it as though it were the real thing. You really might as well call it the Argle Bargle reply.

          • Are you even attempting to make a sensible retort? What on earth do you mean by “the real thing”. I have never seen it referenced by any one who didn’t understand exactly what the Courtier’s Reply was – a parody of those who attack credentials instead of arguments. Those who imagine you can’t argue against poltergeist unless you are paranormal scientist.

          • Scott Paeth

            I did make a sensible retort: I pointed out that the Courtier’s reply fails as a description of a logical fallacy, that is itself a form of logical fallacy, and you replied that it is a parody. So I replied that, if it’s a parody, many people who invoke it, including its originator, don’t seem to be aware of it (and what use would a parody of a description of a logical fallacy be in an argument anyway, except precisely to evade the argument). Thus, once more, the point that it is simply so much nonsense, ergo, argle bargle.

          • Actually, no, you made a contentless assertion about the Courtier’s Reply. A fairly banal one at that.

            But who knows? Maybe “argle bargle” will catch on? Perhaps you should try barking more often in mixed company.

          • Scott Paeth

            See, the fact that you find it contentless suggests to me that you have difficulty detecting content when you see it. But then, that’s not really my problem. Thought it does a good job of demonstrating my point: You don’t know what you’re talking about, and can’t engage in a reasonable conversation on the subject. When you have your ignorance pointed out to you, you attempt to argue that the other persons lack of ignorance is actually THEIR disadvantage. It’s really Orwellian: “Ignorance is Strength.”

          • Ah the irony. this is such a good description your own initial response to Bob.

          • Scott Paeth

            Uh, again, I’m increasingly doubting your basic literacy. What’s beyond doubt however is that your trolling is increasingly a waste of my time. How about you make a constructive argument or move on?

          • Speaking of trolling, Scott, I have now shown that you lied about having read the studies I cited more closely than I have. I have clearly shown that you were not only completely mistaken about what the studies demonstrated (you stated the exact opposite of their findings), you missed the basic argument and context of the studies, while disdainfully accusing me of not reading them.

            Discussions may get testy and provocative at times, but a minimal requirement is that they are conducted with a degree of honesty. It is a waste of time to argue with a liar.

            You are a liar.

          • Scott Paeth

            I suppose if it comforts you to believe that you’ve shown something that you actually haven’t, and believe you’ve proven something that you haven’t proven, then who am I to deny you that comfort. Though it’s actually a pretty good metaphor of the whole neo-atheist ideology.

            And I will say this as well: It’s easy to call someone a liar from the anonymity of the internet. I’ll say again what I’ve said several times before: You. Don’t. Know. What. You’re. Talking. About. It’s a brilliant demonstration of the enforced ignorance that neo-athesits thrive on. They assume that they know so much about a subject about which they are total ignoramuses. So, call me a liar all you want. If you’d devoted even a scintilla of brainpower actually paying attention to what I’ve argued, instead if petulant baby trolling, maybe you would have learned something. But then, learning something is antithetical to being a neo-atheist.

          • Scott, I am going to dispense with sarcasm at this point. Not because I think occasional sarcasm is a bad thing, but because I think it is only obscuring what is being said in this instance.

            You accused me of not having read the reports that I cited and of reading them incorrectly. That is dishonest.

            I can assure you that I have read them; and you cannot assert that I have misrepresented the authors: Helena De Cruz and Draper and Nichols. I have most certainly conveyed conclusions that they made themselves: De Cruz on the Prosblogion site about a survey to be published, and Paul Draper and Ryan Nichols in a paper in The Monist – Diagnosing Bias in Philosophy of Religion. Though I linked to a blog post about this paper; I have read the original as well.

            It is fine to disagree with these authors yourself, and we certainly could have that discussion. But your accusation (originally with no context whatsover) that I had not read them or misread them was not only wrong, it was dishonest. And without any indication that you were disagreeing with the conclusions of the studies yourself, you used your credentials as an academic (“google me”) to imply not that the studies were wrong, but that I was somehow reading them wrong.

            I am not a troll, Scott. I have a great deal of respect for James McGrath and I comment here frequently. And I do think that if you honestly read back through our thread comments, you will see that, with the possible exception of your recent addition about a Daily Nous comment, the content of your comments to me have consisted almost entirely of sarcasm and dismissal. I won’t deny sarcasm on my part as well.

          • Scott Paeth

            I don’t disagree with the authors, except insofar as I don’t think they’ve properly considered the implications of what the studies actually show. My major reaction to the studies is that I don’t care much about them one way or another. You brought them up to attack philosophy of religion as a legitimate sub discipline within philosophy. This is your hobby horse we’ve been riding, and it certainly does nothing to advance the larger conversation. Apart from that, I’ve nothing to add beyond what I’ve already said.

            As for my comments to you consisting entirely of sarcasm, if you had at any point demonstrated yourself interested in an actual discussion of the philosophical dimensions of the question of religion, instead of simply snarking at religious people for being religious, I’d be much more inclined to treat you seriously. So the ball is in your court int that regard. If you want to have a serious discussion, be serious.

          • You began this thread with your inane “argle bargle” comment to bob.

            “Be serious”. Seriously?

            I have yet to see you actually “discuss the philosophical dimensions of the question of religion” on this thread.

            And when have I snarked at religious people for being religious? This is what I mean about honesty – you toss out these false accusations with such vehemence. Are you blind to your own trollish and dishonest behavior?

      • You must’ve been paying attention in class when I wasn’t! Tell us how the Courtier’s Reply is properly applied and how pointing to theology as a discipline to support one’s position isn’t making the Courtier’s Reply.

        Let me make clear that I’m happy to accept the consensus view of theologians about specifics of religion–how the Trinity is viewed or defended by various denominations, which doctrines are accepted and which are heresies, and so on. It’s anything beyond that–going beyond religion–where I question theology’s relevance.

        • Scott Paeth

          “Tell us how the Courtiers Reply is properly applied” — It’s not. It’s a pseudo response that serves no purpose be to avoid a legitimate critique.

          I’m not sure, regarding your second paragraph, how that has anything to do with what is meant by the Courtier’s Reply. It has nothing to do with the question of whether any specialist in a field is qualified to speak on a different field. It has to do with whether a specialist in their field is justified in critiquing someone lacking that specialization for saying things that demonstrate a transparent ignorance of that field. It amounts to saying “I am not required to develop knowledge of this field, because this field is not worth knowing, which is of course, precisely the point being argued by the specialist. That is why it amounts to a species of question-begging.

          • “Tell us how the Courtiers Reply is properly applied” — It’s not. It’s a pseudo response that serves no purpose be to avoid a legitimate critique.

            There is indeed some avoidance of legitimate critique, but that’s what the Courtier’s Reply is aimed at highlighting.

            You give a critique of my position, and I say, “Pfff! Don’t bother me until you’ve fully understood Esoteric Topics 17, 33, and 59! Only then might you have a chance to understand what we’re talking about, sonny.” I would be then giving the Courtier’s Reply. I would be setting up roadblocks to avoid critique.

            It amounts to saying “I am not required to develop knowledge of this field, because this field is not worth knowing, which is of course, precisely the point being argued by the specialist. That is why it amounts to a species of question-begging.

            I am not required to develop knowledge of the field of theology when the issue is a scientific or historical one. I am not saying that theology is not worth knowing, just that it is irrelevant for this non-theological field.

          • Scott Paeth

            “You give a critique of my position, and I say, “Pfff! Don’t bother me until you’ve fully understood Esoteric Topics 17, 33, and 59! Only then might you have a chance to understand what we’re talking about, sonny.” I would be then giving the Courtier’s Reply. I would be setting up roadblocks to avoid critique.”

            If Esoteric Topics 17, 33, and 59 were actually germane to understanding and critiquing the position in question, then insisting you familiarize yourself with them is not a avoidance of critique, it’s essential to the argument. And if you insist that even bothering to know those topics is beside the point, then you’re engaging in question-begging.

            “I am not required to develop knowledge of the field of theology when the issue is a scientific or historical one.” If that’s the point, then the courtier’s reply is beside the point, since that would not be an example of the courtier’s reply.

          • Nick Gotts

            Do you use the same argument, and assert the same requirement that the sceptic understand all the esoteric ins-and-outs the believers argue about among themselves before dismissing it, when the “field” in question is astrology, numerology, homeopathy or ufology? If not, why not?

          • Scott Paeth

            Well, I would say this: If I were making a critique of, say astrology, and an astrology proponent replied on a *germane point* that I needed to learn something about a particular aspect of astrology that I had specifically, and inaccurately, addressed, then I would be obliged to learn it so that I could address and critique it accurately.

            But most of the time, when it comes to those issues, the critiques are fairly cognizant of the literature. For example, when I’m arguing against anti-vaxxers, I’m utilizing critiques that are a) aware of and b) effectively refute, the central claims of the anti-vax position.

          • Lark62

            Astrology is nonsense. Pseudoscience. There is no fact, esoteric or otherwise that would turn pseudoscience into science

            Some things are facts and don’t need to be refought in every discussion.

          • Scott Paeth

            If astrology* is nonsense, it’s nonsense *for particular reasons* (e.g., it has no predictive value, does not accomplish what it claims to, etc.). If I set out to demonstrate that astronomy is nonsense by laying out those reasons, then a believer in astronomy is entitled to reply by noting that I have overlooked something that is germain to my conclusions (e.g., “but you’re neglecting this 2007 Harvard study that shows that astronomy has high predictive value”). And if such a study existed, I’d be obligated to attend to it in my analysis.

            But of course, part of the issue is that critics of religion treat it as though its some form of faulty science (like astronomy), and that’s not what it is. To understand the kind of arguments that take place in theology, you need to compare it to philosophy, as a method of grappling with and understanding one’s place in the world in answering moral and metaphysical questions (or at least proposing possible answers).

            Of course, if one points this out, and notes that comparing it to astrology is simply further question begging, one gets accused of the “Courtier’s Reply,” as, once more, a means of shutting down the discussing precisely at the point that it is most significant (which is, of course, precisely the reason for the desire to shut it down at that point.

            *typo corrected.

          • Lark62

            Astronomy isn’t nonsense. It is the knowledge we have about things outside this planet. (You may have swapped the terms astology and astronomy in your comment.)

            As for astrology, we know that the stars we see in the sky are located billions of light years away from us and each other. The idea that the apparent locations of various stars at the time of our birth governs our destiny is ludicrous, superstitious twaddle. If someone produces a study that shows astrology is true, they are trying to scam somebody.

          • Scott Paeth

            Yes, I did swap terms, thanks for catching the typo. I’ll go back and correct it. And as for astrology, you’ve made precisely my point for me. Thanks.

          • Nick Gotts

            To understand the kind of arguments that take place in theology, you need to compare it to philosophy

            So, how about that comparison? What does theology do that philosophy cannot? What is the point of maintaining it as a separate discipline?

            An astrologer could make exactly the same claims for astrology as you do for theology:

            a method of grappling with and understanding one’s place in the world in answering moral and metaphysical questions (or at least proposing possible answers)

            – following the same retreat from specific factual claims as some theology has made over the past century or so. Indeed, I believe some do, saying that astrology assists self-examination and self-insight. However, the great majority of astrologers through history have made the factual claim that planetary positions at specific times directly influence human affairs, and one does not need to understand the details of astrological belief-systems to justifiably dismiss such claims, unless and until good evidence for them is produced.

            Similarly, theologians through history have made the factual claim that “God” refers to a reality outside human minds, and many still do. Without good reason to believe this claim (and there is none – if there was even one good argument for it, surely educated theists would universally propound it), most of theology is empty vapouring, just as astrology is in the absence of any good argument for the claim that the positions of the planets have an intimate connection with human affairs. In fact, even theologians who prefer not to commit themselves to clear claims about the reality of God beyond human minds tend to make unjustified claims about human psychology and sociology – e.g. Paul Tillich, whose Dynamics of Faith I read recently, claims that everyone has faith, and that a secular morality will inevitably crumble over time.

          • Scott Paeth

            See, this is precisely where I begin to get frustrated with the seemingly crude scientism of folks like Coyne and others. The statement “God exists” is a statement like the statement “other minds exist.” It is a statement about the nature of reality which is subject to analysis, but the various proofs that have been offered, and their refutations, are along the lines of an ongoing discussion, not an establishment of the “fact” of a thing.

            And here, once more, is why the Courtier’s reply is so much bunk. If I say to you “The statement ‘God exists’ is a different kind of statement than the statement ‘Leprechauns exist,’ and the best way to understand the difference is to read Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae, supplemented with Anselm’s version of the Ontological Argument,” and you reply “I don’t need to know how theologians have ACTUALLY attempted to analyze the meaning of the statement ‘God exists,’ since my own {mistaken} belief about that clearly demonstrates it’s absurd,” and then accuse me of making the Courtier’s reply, then it’s evident that you just don’t want to grapple with an argument better than the argument you mistakenly believe me to be making. It’s, I suppose, admirable commitment to a straw man, but not conducive to pressing the conversation forward.

            You mention Tillich, who makes some interesting contributions on this point, though I’m not sure you’ve really understood what he’s after in “Dynamics of Faith.” I’d suggest reading Niebuhr’s “Radical Monotheism and Western Culture,” which makes a similar argument (in my estimation) better, but then you’d probably accuse me of making the Courtier’s reply.

          • Scott Paeth

            Oh, and to the question what is the point of making a separate discipline: The answer to that would be that philosophy of religion asks certain questions in a particular way, and theology asks similar questions in a distinct way. In particular, theology is concerned with the question of how the kind of metaphysical and epistemological issues addressed in philosophy are relevant to specific doctrinal claims which are distinct from philosophy (e.g., Philosophy can analyze the question of whether God exists, but the question of whether God is triune is an issue of theology).

          • Of course, the unspoken, but laughable reality is that the “field of specialization” in question here is Christian theology; alongside the silly notion that one cannot argue the existence of a deity without becoming a theologian.

            As humorous as the Courtier’s Reply is, I still prefer the simpler illustration that one needn’t become an expert in leprechaunology to dismiss the existence if leprechauns.

          • Scott Paeth

            Actually, the “field in question” here is also philosophy of religion, which it is entirely possible to comprehend without becoming a theologian.

            And your leprechaunology example is a demonstration of why the whole thing is question begging, since whether theology is comparable is precisely the point at issue, and the point that the invocation of such things is intended to evade.

          • Scott Paeth

            And, here again: Your very words demonstrate that you don’t know what you’re talking about, and you apparently see that as a strength. So, accuse me of the Courtier’s reply if you must, but really all I can say to you is: You don’t know anything about the subject. Go learn something.

          • Fascinating.

            No response to the studies I cited. No counter-studies or errors in data gathering, or disparagement of the academics involved in these studies. Just a puerile attempt at dismissal. How old are you?

          • Scott Paeth

            I don’t think there’s any need to respond to your link-dump. But I will note that you clearly haven’t read all of those reports, since you completely miss the fact that the analysis of theism among philosophers of religion actually suggests that there is a significant rate of conversation, both to and from theism, among philosophers of religion (with the rate of conversion tending more toward atheists converting to theism, rather than vice versa).

            And are you really attempting to bring my age into it? Google me.

          • I’m not really interested in googling you. Whatever your credentials, you apparently have problems with basic reading comprehension. The studies show the opposite – that the direction of belief revision tends from theism to atheism:

            “An interesting theme that emerged was philosophical training and engagement led to belief revision. The direction of this revision was most frequently in the direction from theism to atheism, in line with recent work in cognitive science of religion that indicates that analytic reasoning and active reflection discourage religious belief.”

            “These numbers show that there was an overall shift toward atheism/agnosticism of 3.7% if we compare both directions of belief-revision: the direction of belief-revision was most frequently in the direction of atheism/agnosticism.

            This supports the view that the theists to atheists/agnostics ratio is even higher before exposure to philosophy of religion and confirms the impression we got from considering philosophers’ motivations for doing philosophy of religion: most philosophers of religion were already theists when they started, so there is a strong selection bias at work.”

          • Scott Paeth

            No, of course you’re not interested in googling me, because again, that would involve you acquiring knowledge of something you’re talking about. And as we all know, suggesting to someone that they acquire knowledge of what they’re talking about is resorting to the Courtier’s Reply.

            And again, you’re not reading the studies correctly. Sorry. Maybe if you actually learned about the field … Ah, but no.

          • Scott, it speaks volumes that your prospectus for gaining knowledge is “google me”. Can you say “narcissist”?

            And bless your heart , just read the direct quotations I’ve handed you! They say, in no uncertain terms, the exact opposite of what you suggested – that the studies show more philosophers of religion revise their beliefs toward atheism than toward theism. Here’s another:

            “Moreover, there are more philosophers of religion updating their beliefs toward atheism and agnosticism than toward theism. This seems to weaken the hypothesis that although there is a strong selection bias, expert knowledge favouring theism is still reflected in the fact that philosophers of religion convert more often to theism than to atheism/agnosticism while acquiring expertise in the field. The numbers show that the ratio of theists to atheists/agnostics declines with exposure to philosophy of religion.”

            Just try basic reading!

          • Scott Paeth

            Again, I don’t find this argument to have much relevance, but again, you are missing the the point: You argued that philosophy of religion had a selection bias in favor theists (as compared to philosophers as a whole). In the first instance, my reaction is “so what?” I suspect more philosophers of science are scientists than non-philosophers of science. And YET AGAIN, what you’ve quoted proves my point! The problem of reading comprehension is yours, not mine.

            So, have you got ANYTHING interesting to say? Because this is massively boring to me. Please quit being boring.

          • No, Scott – my God, you’re just proving that you’ve read none of these studies! In the first place your statement

            “the rate of conversion tending more toward atheists converting to theism, rather than vice versa”

            was demonstrably false. Any acknowledgement on your part? No, just denial and an insistence that I “missed” your point.

            Yes, the studies do point out that there is a much higher percentage of theists engaged in philosophy of religion than are engaged in other fields of philosophy. The question then becomes, were they theists before they became philosophers of religion (selection bias) or did they become theists because of their philosophy of religion.

            The study first shows that, overwhelmingly, the philosophers of religion who were theists, were theists before they became philosophers of religion. Conclusion: selection bias. Your comparison to the philosophy of science is obviously irrelevant. No one expects philosophers of science to gain a disbelief in science.

            The study then shows that more philosophers of religion become atheists after taking up the field than the reverse.

            If you deign to accept what the studies actually say, I’m sure that you’ll follow with “so what”, “irrelevant” – but how about simply admitting that you were wrong. You patronizingly insisted that I hadn’t read the studies, then you claimed that their conclusions were the opposite of what they actually said.

            You now say that I “argued that philosophy of religion had a selection bias in favor [of] theists” – Scott, that is the argument of the studies! Which, despite your faux display of disdain, you have clearly not read, while accusing me of the same!

            Are you such an insufferable narcissist that you can’t admit a mistake?

          • Scott Paeth

            No, you’ve misread the studies. Consider the argument in the comments on th Daily Nous article, which I think does a pretty good mopping up job on this argument:

            “Assume that changes to atheism/agnosticism are always from theism. The raw number of theists who change their beliefs toward atheism (18) is larger than the raw number of atheists/agnostics who change their beliefs toward theism (12). But we should expect the raw number of theists converting to be larger than the raw number of atheists/agnostics converting simply because there are so many more theists in the initial pool. When you look at how many atheists/agnostics there are and how many change their beliefs versus how many theists there are and how many change their beliefs, you see that the conversion rate is much higher from atheism/agnosticism to theism than from theism to atheism/agnosticism. (I’m not terribly *surprised* by this because I agree that there is a strong selection effect … I just don’t think the numbers confirm that there is a selection effect or, really, show anything interesting about the power of arguments in philosophy of religion.)

            Again, assume that every conversion to agnosticism/atheism was conversion from theism. In the sample of 151, there were (as far as I can tell from the write-up at Prosblogion — I actually found this especially unclear, given that 18% of respondents were supposed to have given answers that didn’t really fall on the theism-atheism continuum) 92 theists, 32 atheists/agnostics, and 27 uncategorized. Working backwards based on the belief change numbers, that pool started out looking like 98 theists and 26 atheists/agnostics. So it’s true that the ratio changed toward atheism/agnosticism. However, the rate of change within each pool strongly favored theism: 18/98 (18.4%) converted from theism to atheism/agnosticism while 12/26 (46.2%) converted in the other direction.”

            The comments on Daily Nous are usually an exception to the internet dictum that you should never read the comment section, since the people who participate in that forum are philosophers, and interested in using the comments to carry on a philosophical argument. You could learn a thing or two.

          • You may certainly argue the conclusions of the studies; and you may cite a blog comment to refute the conclusions of the studies. The commenter’s assessment is a bit inconclusive, given that he is estimating round numbers from estimated percentages de Cruz provided in a comments section of her own blog – percentages that Cruz now says are off.

            But you are now using this blog comment to defend having accused me:

            “you clearly haven’t read all of those reports” and “you’re not reading the studies correctly” (I’m leaving out the added sarcasm).

            I correctly conveyed the conclusions of the authors of the two studies: Helena de Cruz and Draper and Nichols. You didn’t say (until now) that you disagreed with the authors with some basis in blog comments to support your disagreement. You simply accused me of not having read them and reading them incorrectly (with the obvious implication that I was somehow missing the intent of the authors).

            Your accusations were dishonest.

          • Scott Paeth

            I’m sorry if you haven’t found my comments to have dealt in sufficient detail with a topic that I find to be irrelevant. As I’ve said, I think that you’ve misconstrued the implications of the studies, as I’ve mentioned. But I don’t really care that much, because it doesn’t matter much to me whether or not there is selection bias in the philosophy of religion. Regardless, I think I’ve said about all I need to on the subject. I stand by my contention that you’re not correctly reading those studies. But that’s OK, because as you note, the actual implications of the study aren’t properly examined by the authors.

          • What I have said about those studies is nothing more than one can read in direct quotation from the studies themselves, as I have shown by including those quotations.

            You were dishonest.

            You can hardly back out of the dishonesty of your accusations by claiming that I “misconstrued” the studies. I quoted them directly on major points the authors wished to make. It’s possible that you made a mistake in understanding the intent of the authors yourself, and were not dishonest in initially accusing me of misreading them. But you have had plenty of time by now to read the direct quotations I have provided, and you have clearly had time to look up the comments on on one of the blogs I referenced. So being mistaken is no longer an option. Persisting in this false claim that I have misread them is simply stubborn dishonesty.

            I confess, when I took you up on your suggestion of “googling” you, I was surprised to find that you are an academic. Your behavior on this thread has looked more like that of the fundamentalist commenters that commonly plague James’ blog with insults and false accusations of ignorance, devoid of rational argument or useful citations of any kind.

          • Scott Paeth

            OK, I’ve asked you to be serious, and you’ve apparently decided you don’t want to be.

            Nothing that you wrote gave me any indication that you had read those studies, since you didn’t take away the obvious implication (that they actually show a greater rate of conversation to rather than away from theism), though again, apparently the authors didn’t notice that implication either, so you can be forgiven. So fine, I’ll amend what I said before: You read the studies, you just didn’t think about them. I was not dishonest. I was honestly reporting the impression you left. Take it or leave it.

            Now, do you want to have a serious conversation, or do you want to continue your petulant little tantrum, because I’ve no interest in continuing to humor your fit of pique.

          • I am being perfectly serious, however you wish to characterize me.

            This “obvious implication” is the response of a single blog comment on unconfirmed data from a single section of only one of the studies. You are suggesting that when you demeaned my reading ability far up in this thread – providing no real context – you were trying to say that my take-away from these studies shouldn’t have been the conclusions of the writers themselves, but the conclusion of a single blog commenter on one of the blogs reporting the study?

            I truly enjoy interacting with James McGrath on this blog. He is thoughtful, rarely dismissive. He tries to see the intent of your comment and answer it with breadth and helpful references. He will even change his mind or alter the course of the conversation, when someone else makes a useful point.

          • Scott Paeth

            No, I was suggesting that you were not demonstrating you were particularly adept at reading what I wrote. Again, this whole thing is a side-show, but you’ve become obsessed with it.

            We were having a very different conversation, about the validity of the Courtier’s Reply, which is a subject I actually do find interesting as a philosophical question. The fact that you’ve decided to waste significant time on this distraction is precisely why I referred to you as trolling.

            And I’m sure, if you had at any stage made a useful point, I would have considered changing my mind. You’ve yet to that.

          • Now you are contradicting yourself. One comment earlier:

            “Nothing that you wrote gave me any indication that you had read those studies”

            This last comment:

            “I was suggesting that you were not demonstrating you were particularly adept at reading what I wrote”

            Which is it? What the studies stated or what you wrote? i think it was pretty clear in your initial comments that you were criticizing my reading of the studies.

            I’m sorry that you don’t like the turn of conversation. It came about because of your reference to philosophy of religion followed by my reference to these recent studies of the field. I understand (now) that you don’t find the studies convincing and believe that their own data may contradict their conclusions, but that’s not what you said initially.

            If you had responded to me by saying, “yes, I’ve read these studies but I find their conclusions incorrect for these reasons”, I might not have agreed, but I would at least have found you to be reasonable.

            Instead, you tossed out this demeaning response:

            “And, here again: Your very words demonstrate that you don’t know what you’re talking about, and you apparently see that as a strength. So, accuse me of the Courtier’s reply if you must, but really all I can say to you is: You don’t know anything about the subject. Go learn something.”

            It took several more demeaning comments for you to actually note that you were expecting me to read into the studies a conclusion that the authors did not write. One that you had gleaned from a blog comment.

            I admit I can lean into sarcasm as much as the next guy. But you repeatedly throw out insults and accusations of ignorance without context. And when you accuse me of misreading the studies – that is dishonest.

            Incidentally, if you don’t see the relationship between this thread about your online behavior, and the Courtier’s Reply – you are missing something obvious.

          • Scott Paeth

            OK, it’s pretty clear to me now that you’re only interested in trolling, and I’m not particularly interested in being trolled. If you ever decide to talk about something seriously, rather than nursing your hurt feelings, let me know. Meanwhile, sayonara.

          • My feelings are not hurt, Scott, and i don’t mind a bit of sarcasm. I think it’s clear that I’m being perfectly reasonable here.

            But I do expect, at a minimum, that online conversations maintain a basic level of honesty. The real test of trolling is the honesty of the commenter.

            In fact, I think this lies at the heart of the Courtier’s Reply. The implication of the Courtier’s Reply is not that challengers to theism must read and study esoteric theology (though many challengers to theism are quite well read in theology).

            The implication of the Courtier’s Reply is that defenders of theism often throw out appeals to their theological credentials in lieu of actual arguments. Rather then dealing with the arguments of challengers, they simply demean the challenger’s intelligence on the subject matter. Something you have actively been doing to me on this thread.

          • Scott Paeth

            I think I’ve been quite honest, but I’d qualify your remark: The real mark of a troll is their commitment to derailing the conversation, and in this respect, you’ve been a spectacular troll. Please do let me know when you’re ready for a serious conversation.

          • How was it honest to claim I had not read the studies I cited? You clearly know nothing about me, but you have called me ignorant repeatedly. That is how you derail a conversation, by accusing your opponent of ignorance rather than engaging the argument.

            And speaking of “derailing the conversation” are you seriously suggesting that your “argle bargle” comments were a serious engagement of Bob’s comment? Your comments on this thread can be far more easily characterized as trolling than mine.

            Though you clearly don’t want to engage the topic, this is directly related to the Courtier’s Reply.

          • John MacDonald

            I personally find it exciting to be able to dialogue with Dr. McGrath on this blog – like when he “Vote up’s” you!

          • Scott Paeth

            A brief follow up from the comment on the Daily Nous thread, which again, I think fairly effectively refutes your claim: “But if it *were* such an estimate, then if the initial pool entering philosophy of religion were balanced on the question of theism versus atheism/agnosticism — 75 theists and 75 atheists/agnostics, say — then after exposure to the arguments, the numbers would look like 96 theists and 54 atheists/agnostics. So, if the estimate of the conversion rate were a good one, the fact that the overall ratio moves towards atheism/agnosticism in the actual case would only reflect the fact that in the actual case the initial pool so strongly tilts towards theism.”

          • Scott Paeth

            Sure, I can say narcissist, I say it whenever your name comes up. It’s actually a common trait among neo-atheists.

          • Alright. I’m certainly not above sarcasm in my comments, but I am going to stop using it in this thread. It has obscured what is really being said.

          • Incidentally, I do not consider myself a “neo-atheist” or a “new atheist”, though the term “atheist” could apply to me. Most of my friends and colleagues here in Dallas are Christians, and when we go out to the theatre together, or have cook-outs on the fourth of July, or play the odd game of racket ball, I don’t spend my time criticizing their religion or attempting to de-convert them.

    • John MacDonald

      Carrier points out that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. For instance, if I told you I own a Ford car, you could accept that claim on little evidence because it would not be unusual for a person to own a Ford car. However, if I told you I owned an interstellar vehicle, you would need very persuasive evidence: you would probably need to see the vehicle and see it work. In religion, you should need extraordinarily persuasive evidence to believe Jesus rose from the dead (Christians don’t adhere to these rules of evidence). It may be that there exists no such evidence that could support such a claim about Jesus. That doesn’t mean Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, just that there can be no epistemological ground for a belief that he did.

  • ButILikeCaves

    Western European Jesus is my Second Favorite Jesus…
    Behind Scandinavian Jesus.

  • Coyne has shown again and again over the years that he has failed to
    grasp basic distinctions between historical and theological issues and

    Then what is the theological approach for determining whether a particular religion is correct, or whether a particular miracle claim is true?

    • I don’t think theology has a way of determining either of those. But history can tell you both whether a particular historical claim is correct, and if a religion is making a claim about a matter of history, then historical tools can tell you whether that claim a religion is making is correct. And it can do so without need photographic evidence.

      • It doesn’t sound like you disagree much with Coyne then, since he did generalise to “reliable evidence” and noted the obvious problem with asking for photographic evidence predating the invention of photography. I don’t see a significant difference between using “historical tools” to assess a religious historical claim, and using “reliable evidence” to assess that claim.

        • Then I take it you are unfamiliar with Coyne’s support on repeated occasion for fringe and pseudoscholarly views that cast historical methods and evidence by the wayside?

          • Far less pervasive than pseudoscholarly attempts to historically prove biblical miracles. Just compare Richard Carrier’s books sales with those of apologetic pseudoscholars like Lee Strobel or Mike Licona.

            Worse, look at the number of actual religious academics who engage in such pseudoscholarship: William Lane Craig, Gary Habermas, John Lennox, N.T. Wright …

            Every time you bring this up, James, I think you’re ignoring the far bigger problem.

          • John MacDonald

            I think it depends how you frame the question. Consider the resurrection of Jesus. Craig et al start with the universally accepted facts that there was an empty tomb, post death apperances of Jesus, and the difficulty of naturalistic explanations to account for this, and argue that it is reasonable to conclude a miracle may have occurred. Carrier makes the more general point, correct to my mind, that if we would never accept the miracle reports in the work of a historian like Herodotus (Herodotus reports a temple magically defending itself, resurrected fish, etc.), there is no reason to accept them in the New Testament writing.

          • John MacDonald

            The people of that time were just gullible and superstitious.

          • You’re referring to the “minimal facts” approach of Craig, Habermas, and others. The problem is that these “facts” are, indeed, NOT “universally accepted facts” in any way, shape, or form.

            Habermas claims that a meta-study he performed shows that in a majority of articles about the empty tomb, the scholars believe in it. The trouble is, he has never published his sources in this study and his percentages keep shifting. Furthermore, Craig and other apologists keep saying that Habermas shows that most NT scholars accept the empty tomb; but this is patently false. Even if we accept Habermas’ unpublished sources, he has only claimed to count “articles” about the empty tomb. So the only scholars he has counted are those that have written articles about the empty tomb (a tiny subset of all NT scholars). Even further “NT scholars” could mean a range of academics, and Habermas probably includes the enormous number of theologians who write about the empty tomb, not to determine it’s credibility, but with an a priori belief in the story, based on faith, not fact.

            In short the claim that the empty tomb is a “fact” is completely bogus; and should be obvious considering that all the empty tomb stories we have are written late, contradict each other, and Paul seems unaware of them.

            The post-death appearances of Jesus as “universally accepted fact”?! Don’t even get me started …

            None of this could be lost on Craig, Habermas, and all the other apologists who tout the “minimal facts”, which leads me to give it a different name: I call it the “minimal lies approach”.

          • John MacDonald

            I disagree with Craig’s idea that we can be sure of multiple attestation on these issues (The Crucifixion, The Empty Tomb, and The Post-Death Appearances). Paul said “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures… and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also (1 Cor 15:3-8).” If Mark read Paul, and John read at least one of the synoptics, then there may only be one source (Paul) for all of this.

          • Add to that the obvious verbatim copying of texts between Mark Matthew and Luke. Certainly, there are multiple nonindependent storytellers, but multiple independent witnesses? That’s a joke.

          • John MacDonald

            I’m wary of the way New Testament scholars liberally posit multiple sources to explain innovations from authors. For instance, Ehrman explains the material unique to Matthew by imagining there was an “M” source that Matthew had access to. In this case, I would say Matthew’s gospel shows itself to be a Judaizing of the gentile gospel of Mark, so there is no reason to think Matthew has an independent source here, let alone that it can be traced back to the historical Jesus. Something similar might be applicable to “Q.” Burton Mack argues for a stratified Q, Q 1 being the earliest. But Q 1 simply reflects sayings that have a common cynical tang, and hence do not need to come from one sage, let alone Jesus.

          • Yes, I realize that I’m parroting bad fundamentalist apologetics when I treat the gospels as “multiple independent witnesses”; but even when the concept of multiple attestation is used properly in scholarship – referring to hypothetical gospel sources – it is still an idea largely dependent on widely varying theories about gospel sources. It’s not a criterion that provides particularly strong evidence.

          • John MacDonald

            The assumption of the academy seems to be that positing an early source is the preferred model over the position that the Gospel writer with material unique to him was just inventing stuff.

          • I can understand the assumption with both Matthew and Luke borrowing material from Mark, and sharing material that can’t be found in Mark. There already exists clear indications of at least three cases of extensive source borrowing (Matthew from Mark, Luke from Mark, and Matthew from Luke or the reverse).

            It’s just that any further hypotheses can only be conjecture (without further manuscript evidence), so that the value of “multiple attestation” is dubious at best.

          • John MacDonald

            Yes, Luke and Matthew borrowed from Mark. Most scholars posit a “Q” source that was shared by Matthew and Luke (for the material common to them that we don’t find in Mark), although some maintain that Luke borrowed from Matthew (Goodacre and Carrier argue this latter position). Where I raise my eyebrow is when scholars like Ehrman go one step further and posit a myriad of sources every time a gospel author has material unique to them. Ehrman might be right about this, but I don’t think there is any reason to think so. The gospel writers may just have been inventing the material that was unique to them: We have ample evidence with the apocryphal gospels about Jesus and the forged pseudo-Pauline epistles that the writers of that period were more than willing to invent material to suit their purposes, so it is perfectly reasonable to think that this was going on in the canonical Gospels as well.

          • John MacDonald

            In response to Ehrman’s new book about memory, I would say a meta-question we should ask before we try to determine whether a pericope reported in a gospel is an instance of clear vs. distorted memory, is if we can determine whether a particular pericope in the Gospels is (I) an instance of historical memory (clear or distorted), or (II) if the Gospel writer was just inventing non historical material for his own purposes? The apocryphal works about Jesus and the forged pseudo Pauline epistles demonstrate conclusively that the writers of that time were more than willing to invent unhistorical material that never happened to suit their theological purposes, so there is no reason to think the canonical Gospel writers were any different. What criteria would you use to distinguish historical from invented material?

          • John MacDonald

            I make good use of the edit feature here. lol

          • I don’t think it is an either/or. I try to address both sets of problems on this blog. If I gravitate towards one more than the other, it is probably because of the reaction that posts on that topic get.

          • I don’t see any of that in the post that you linked to. I agree that Coyne has had a tendency to give more credit to mythicist ideas than they deserve, but he doesn’t seem to have made any errors like that on this occasion.

          • I suppose one can treat this post in complete isolation from the other things that Coyne has posted. But I am not sure why one might choose to do so.

          • Perhaps because Coyne’s post is about a topic completely unrelated to mythicism?

            You criticize “Coyne’s inability to grasp the difference between whether there is historical evidence for a particular human being, and whether there is any kind of evidence at all for certain kinds of miracle claims”. But you’re the one bringing up mythicism when it has no obvious relevance to what Coyne wrote. Your entire criticism of Coyne’s post seems to be based on him being wrong about an unrelated topic.

          • On the contrary, I think there is a direct connection between the problematic approach evidenced in his pro-mythicism posts and in this more generic one.

          • Then what is the problematic approach here, and what is the direct connection between it and Coyne’s approach to mythicism? You haven’t been explicit about this so far; you’ve just pointed out that Coyne makes errors about mythicism, without saying how that relates to what he’s written here, or exactly what he’s said in this post that you think is incorrect.

            As far as I can see, Coyne’s post is saying nothing more than “religious claims should be backed up by reliable evidence”. Do you disagree with that statement? Or do you think Coyne’s post is saying something else?

          • Coyne says that claims need to be backed up with evidence, and yet engages in the sort of denialism that rejects the conclusions of historians which are backed up with evidence.

            Is it starting to make sense now?

          • In isolation, that makes sense. Unfortunately it doesn’t explain what you’ve said in all your previous comments.

            You said Coyne’s challenge was “problematic”, and that his disclaimer clarifying that “pics” should be generalised to “reliable evidence” was also “inadequate and problematic”, and that this post somehow reflected a confusion between history and theology. Then in your reply to me you said that his post contained a “problematic approach”.

            Apparently there’s nothing problematic about his approach in this post any more, because now your criticism is that he isn’t using that approach enough.

            If you’d said something like “Coyne’s approach here is fine, and he ought to use a similar approach when assessing mythicism” then that would have made sense. Instead you made it very clear that you thought his request for evidence was itself mistaken in some way.

            So which is it? Is Coyne’s approach in this post full of problems? Or is it a basically correct approach which Coyne should use more often (such as when he’s assessing mythicism)?

          • The issues I see are twofold. One is that he says that claims should be based on reliable evidence, but when it suits him he rejects claims despite he fact that they are based on reliable evidence. The other is that “religion” is not a category that delineates a specific subset of claims, e.g. allegations that something supernatural happened. One should be skeptical of such claims even if photos are provided. But claims about the life of Jesus, or Muhammad, or Joseph Smith, or L. Ron Hubbard, may be historical claims that can be settled using historical evidence, in a manner that Coyne has shown he does not accept, I suspect because he treats historical claims differently when they pertain to religion, which is again a problematic stance.

  • Doug

    Next up, my pic of the Big Bang showing it was caused by quantum fluctuation. This is followed by a timelapse sequence showing inflation as the fluctuation turns into Event One.