C Peterson has furnished us with some good quotes over the months, but I particularly like what he is saying here:
I’m a very skeptical person. I fact check everything that seems even a tiny bit off. I’m the guy at my (progressive) political club who challenges all the stories that people have which come from popular left-leaning sources. So if I heard that story about the 1930 census, I’d check it. I have the intellectual skills and motivation to do so. I have the tools at my disposal to do so. But in today’s world, I imagine a great many people (particularly people who are willing to believe in things like talking serpents and great floods) would simply accept the story as fact if it came from a source they trusted.
But we’re not talking about today. We’re talking about 2000 years ago. Before the tools of critical thinking had been developed. Before they were taught. When the majority of people (and certainly the target audience for proto-Christianity) was hugely credulous, had no knowledge of natural law, believed in deities, spirits, ghosts, and demons. Believed countless stories of magic. Took at face value the words of their priests and leaders. And then there’s the story itself. The census is unimportant. It’s just peripheral information, placed there to enrich the story. It’s not the point of the story. So even today, as Jonathan notes, unless our attention is specifically drawn to the silliness of the idea, we’re likely to just take it as given without much thought. Critical thinkers with good research tools. Because it’s below the radar until it isn’t.
I literally only started properly questioning the census and the claims thereabouts when I was 35 or so.
I’m glad you brought this up. I was thinking the same thing yesterday in considering my comments here. This reveals a certain type of intellectual failure we can all easily fall into. When we’re bombarded with information, we focus on the salient issues and just accept the trivial side stuff. And the story of the census is a trivial part of the nativity story. Sure, it serves a minor narrative purpose, but it’s not at all the point. So we just breeze over it mentally while looking at the meat of the story. It’s only when we choose to analyze that story line by line that something like the census rises above the noise floor and we actually address it critically. So even those of us who don’t believe the Bible is very historical, who don’t believe in the nativity story… we can still go a long time reading it, not believing it, but not giving the logic of the census component any thought at all. Just accepting it.
FWIW, as we’ve discussed “injecting” false memories into people’s brains, that’s one way to do it. Offer a story with irrelevant little falsehoods mixed in with big claims that people are forced to consider, and a few days later people will remember the little things as “facts” even if they rejected the major points. Of course, in the case of the Bible there was no intent to utilize this sophisticated mechanism, but we can see that it operates even without design.
This is something I commented on in a related post (the point of which was missed by the usual suspects). How much peripheral stuff in these stories do we miss if we’re not trained historians specializing in biblical times (and without religious bias)?
I have never believed in a god. But when I was young, I accepted much of the story of Jesus as generally true from a historical standpoint. Why not? I never thought about the census, because it was not really key to the story. A simple fact in passing, easily taken at face value. As I read more and more good history an d historical analysis, I increasingly came to understand that the Jesus of the Bible almost certainly didn’t exist, except perhaps as an inspiration for the stories, which were obviously made up, out of a combination of old myths and new material intended to justify OT prophecy. But even once I accepted the story as fiction, stuff like the census didn’t rise to my attention. I only read about that a few years ago. And again, once you are forced to think about it, it’s obviously nonsense (and we can see how it is used as a mechanism to explain something else).
It makes me wonder how many other things that are just passed off casually are just as false, but don’t trigger my BS detector because of the much larger pile of BS they’re basically submerged in.