Do Not Be Quickly Persuaded

by Luke Muehlhauser on March 20, 2009 in Criticism of Atheists

I recently attended a lecture by Richard Carrier in Ventura, California. It was basically a preview of his upcoming book, On the Historicity of Jesus Christ. I can now safely say there is no other book for which I am more excited. Wow. This book should be a Vesuvius of scholarship.

At the beginning of the talk, Carrier took a poll of the audience: “How many of you think Jesus was probably a historical person?” About half the audience raised their hands, perhaps 50 people.

At the end of the talk, Carrier asked again: “How many of you now think Jesus was probably a historical person?” Only about 10 people raised their hands.

Both times, I raised my hand and waffled it, meaning “I dunno… maybe.”

It concerns me that so many people were convinced to reverse their position on the basis of a single, brief talk without (1) checking Carrier’s sources, (2) reading other scholars on the subject, or (3) reading rebuttals of Carrier’s points.

Mind you, this was a roomful of atheists. Critical, skeptical people, right? Not so! Nearly half of them were willing to be instantly persuaded by a single talk without checking any sources or reading any rebuttals. Many of them were totally unaware of how historical scholarship was even done. I feel like I could have made up a bunch of stuff, claimed that it was held by the majority of historians, and then persuaded half the audience to believe that Jesus was a Persian myth.

Had I been Carrier, I would not have felt pleased that I had persuaded so many people so quickly. Instead, I would have quickly scolded them: “Wait, about half of you just changed your minds on the basis of my single talk, without checking any of my sources or reading other scholarship on the issue? Do you think that’s wise? Is that how you come to the rest of your conclusions? Don’t you worry that’s a bit… gullible? I appreciate you listening to my arguments and finding them compelling, but please don’t take my word for it. You’ve got to figure this stuff out for yourself. Nobody can be trusted. I could be full of shit. You have to look into it yourself to see if I’m full of shit, or if I’m being honest.”

Which is why, I suppose, Carrier will always be a more popular speaker than I am. He knows not to do that.

Anyway, this is one of a thousand events that lead me to think atheists are not generally more rational or careful than belivers. Thus, my plea to all people is: Do not be quickly persuaded. Investigate. Challenge. Doubt.

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{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

D March 21, 2009 at 2:21 am

I checked out the Richard Carrier vs. William Lane Craig debate. Boy, Richard Carrier sucked! He just kept referring to his book that he had displayed on the podium. Come on man!

I think that Carrier is really just interested in selling his books! And it looks like some people are going to buy them. That's fine. But I think that Carrier is really not on the level, and very unprofessional. I just can't take the man seriously now.

Craig spanked him good.

Anyway, I definitely agree that atheists are just as gullible and irrational as theists.

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D March 21, 2009 at 2:25 am

Also, Carrier admits his defeat over on his blog. He's obviously trying to do some “damage control.” And then he makes another sales pitch for a “eureka” idea that he's going to put in his new book. This guy is a joke!

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anselm March 21, 2009 at 7:01 am

D,

If you are a Christian, I would ask that you be more charitable in your response to Carrier. I read his account on this blog, and he is very honest and candid in his self-evaluation, which I admire. Also, Dr. Craig's character shone through in the way he treated Carrier after the debate. As Carrier put it:

“I apologized to Craig the next morning. He was quite alright with it. In fact, we got along well. Having lunch with him the day before, then driving to the airport with him for more than an hour the day after, I found Dr. Craig quite friendly and understanding. I can say I understand him better now than I did before.”

Dr. Craig is an excellent example of how philosophical rigor can be combined with Christian kindness–as Craig says in his book, our agape love toward others is “the ultimate apologetic.”

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lukeprog March 21, 2009 at 7:41 am

One reason Carrier kept referring to his books is that the debate over the resurrection is a complicated one, involving thousands of pieces of evidence, which one cannot possibly summarize in a 2-hour debate.

I think we all know Carrier lost, and I was glad to see Carrier's honest post on his blog. Craig is one of the best debaters on any subject in the entire world, and I don't know of an atheist who I think could soundly beat him.

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Matt M March 21, 2009 at 10:31 am

Anyone who's spent more than a few minutes reading atheist blogs and forums knows that dogma and irrationality are – sadly – just as rife as in most other groups.

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Keith in Modesto March 22, 2009 at 10:04 am

I had wanted to attend that talk in Ventura, but couldn't get the time off from work I needed for traveling. Could you give a summary of what Carrier actually said?

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lukeprog March 22, 2009 at 8:56 pm

Unfortunately, I threw away my outline from the talk. The talk was recorded and a copy given to Carrier; hopefully he'll post it soon.

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UNRR March 23, 2009 at 3:56 am

This post has been linked for the HOT5 Daily 3/23/2009, at The Unreligious Right

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Jon March 23, 2009 at 2:40 pm

You know a lot of people haven't looked into Jesus mythicism all that much, so they probably just default to the consensus view. That's what I did when I initially became a skeptic. So it's not as if their historicism was necessarily based on a rigorous examination of the facts. So when they are exposed to facts that they were previously unaware of, this could cause them to quickly flip. If the basis for historicism was flimsy, and now they have a rudimentary grounding for mythicism, why not admit that you find mythicism more persuasive at the moment?

This isn't to discourage people from looking into the historical case, and of course you must be open to admitting your initial impressions after the Carrier talk were wrong. But it's OK to say that based upon what you now know at the moment (not having looked into it too much, but simply listened to some arguments just presented) you find yourself more persuaded of the mythicist case, and if you had to place a bet you'd bet on mythicism?

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lukeprog March 23, 2009 at 4:03 pm

Sure, that'd be fine. But I'd rather see people not express an opinion at all until they've looked into it at least a little. There's too much ignorant opinion clouding things up out there as it is.

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suzieq March 23, 2009 at 8:17 pm
lukeprog March 23, 2009 at 11:07 pm

Ugh.

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Chucky March 24, 2009 at 6:30 am

Thanks for an honest post, mate. I particularly liked what you said in the comments:

“But I'd rather see people not express an opinion at all until they've looked into it at least a little. There's too much ignorant opinion clouding things up out there as it is.”

This is especially true on the net!

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GregK March 24, 2009 at 6:58 am

Interesting comments here. I like the attempt to be honest and admit shortcomings. Too often “debates” are just an opportunity to say “yeah for our guy.”

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Jack March 24, 2009 at 8:24 am

I agree with your general point, atheists can definitely act irrationally. But as to the specific point of the lecture, I think you're wrong. Absent a reason to think otherwise people have no need to doubt the word of credentialed experts. Non-historians just aren't in a place where they can competently challenge those in the field on the grounds of things like methodology and academic consensus. Academics, when speaking to those outside their field, have an obligation to note disagreements among experts. And certainly if there are historians who disagree with the conclusions of another historian they should disagree publicly- and if the issue of the disagreement is of general interest then they should disagree in front of non-experts.

But in no way is the onus on the non-expert to have anything but an open mind. Have you investigated every historical fact you believe? Have you run your own experiments to demonstrate the laws of physics, biology and chemistry? Of course not, you take as true the word of the experts who tell you these historical facts and natural laws because you have good reason to trust the scientific and academic system which lead to such claims being made. Part of this trust is that the work of experts is assumed to be in good faith and that liars and charlatans are eventually found out.

Now I gather you're particularly interested in this question, so if you want to investigate Carrier's sources, more power to you. But I can't imagine why a bunch of atheists, for whom Jesus's existence isn't particularly important anyway, should be expected to repeat Carrier's work for themselves just so they can share his opinion. Now, I'm sure if you asked the audience about their degree of certainty regarding Jesus's historicity you would have found most to be less than certain. And there is definitely nothing wrong with THAT. But refusing to answer the question like you did isn't a sign of greater rationality. Your confidence in your belief might be very low but given that you've heard any amount of evidence at all (having HEARD of Jesus counts as evidence) you should be able to say which possibility is more likely.

Refusing to answer because you might be wrong isn't noble.

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GregK March 24, 2009 at 10:14 am

“people have no need to doubt the word of credentialed experts”? Really?

Can't you think of a topic you care about (maybe some environmental issue) where there's some nutty “credentialed expert” who's full of it? Would you want listeners to such an expert to take the advice you just gave?

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lukeprog March 24, 2009 at 6:26 pm

Perhaps I should have left my own answer out of it – that wasn't the point.

Of course we cannot retrace all of Carrier's research. But I don't think it's wise to jump ship on the basis of a single talk – especially a talk that endorses a view that you know is held by a tiny minority of scholars who work on the subject! There is a responsible middle in there, I suppose, but it is not represented by those who changed their minds so quickly after Carrier's talk.

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J. Nernoff III March 24, 2009 at 6:42 pm

I have a few suggestions here, without going into any historical detail. Wm Lane Craig is unique. He is virtually a robotic Christian apologetic machine with a meticulously prepared and smoothly developed presentation consisting of complex, tiered arguments, rapidly delivered in large numbers, with projected slides (points 1,2,3,1a,2a,3a…) which amount to “stacking” which make it impossible to refutation by the trapped atheist, who may be well informed on the subject, but who just hasn't got time to make his own case AND reply to each of Craig's. Moreover these debates are staged before overwhelmingly Christian audiences; no wonder Craig wins every time.

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Dave Huntsman March 25, 2009 at 3:01 pm

J. Nernoff, I completely agree.

A year ago there was another debate with Craig on the exact same subject….. only then he picked on someone who came right back and made it clear Craig was not even fit to be on the stage. I'm talking about his debate with Bart Ehrman.

Since then Craig has debated people like Richard Carrier; a well studies, very serious – and, very young and experienced- historian. You'll note in watching last year's Craig-Ehrman debate that Craig used the exact same presentation, at least at first, that he dumped on Carrier.

http://unreasonablefaith.com/2009/03/09/bart-eh…

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Jack March 25, 2009 at 7:38 pm

I mean, if the issue something important thats going to inform your actions then its always worth checking how others in the field have responded to an expert. Usually, people with bs claims aren't actually experts- they have a degree in a vaguely related field from an unheard of university, etc.

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Jack March 25, 2009 at 7:42 pm

I didn't realize Carrier's view was only held by a tiny minority. I missed it in your post if its there- at the very least I should have thought about it… I feel like its sort of obvious now that I reflect on it. Of course if one knows this that changes things entirely and you're definitely right that judgment should be withheld before examining the other side. One of my favorite questions at these sorts of lectures is “what does the other side say in response?”

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lukeprog March 25, 2009 at 7:48 pm

Yup, that's a superb question to ask, Jack.

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lukeprog March 25, 2009 at 7:50 pm

Yup, Craig is basically an Unstoppable Debate Machine, for which I greatly respect him. He is a very skilled and knowledgeable man.

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Reginald Selkirk April 10, 2009 at 1:01 pm

I don’t see the importance of the question of the historicity of Jesus. If one denies the supernatural elements, as one can expect atheists to do, then who cares if there was an actual person named “Jesus” (a very common name at the time and place) wandering around Galilee and Judea?

Do you think this would be an important question: tall tales and hyperbole aside, was there really a lumberjack named Paul Bunyan?

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lukeprog April 10, 2009 at 1:38 pm

Reginald Selkirk: I don’t see the importance of the question of the historicity of Jesus. If one denies the supernatural elements, as one can expect atheists to do, then who cares if there was an actual person named “Jesus” (a very common name at the time and place) wandering around Galilee and Judea?

Atheists that are most similar to my views do not dismiss the supernatural a priori, so the question of whether we have sufficient evidence to say anything at all about Jesus certainly effects arguments which claim we have enough evidence to show that he magically resurrected into a new body with superpowers.

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NathanielFisher May 7, 2009 at 5:27 pm

lukeprog:
One reason Carrier kept referring to his books is that the debate over the resurrection is a complicated one, involving thousands of pieces of evidence, which one cannot possibly summarize in a 2-hour debate.
I think we all know Carrier lost, and I was glad to see Carrier’s honest post on his blog. Craig is one of the best debaters on any subject in the entire world, and I don’t know of an atheist who I think could soundly beat him.

What about this debate Carrier vs Craig?http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WMxTghJQxEc

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lukeprog May 7, 2009 at 8:21 pm

That just barely qualifies as a debate. It’s so short, there’s little to say about it…

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