Carrier’s Personal Story

by Luke Muehlhauser on March 15, 2009 in Reviews

I’m blogging my way through Sense and Goodness Without God, Richard Carrier’s handy worldview-in-a-box for atheists. (See the post index for all sections.) Last time, I discussed section I.1 What This Is. Today, I discuss section I.2 How I Got Here.

Normally I skim-read the “personal story” section of atheism books, because they are boring. Not so with Carrier’s.

Carrier grew up a liberal Christian. Christianity was a kind of social club, and he was never told that unbelievers went to hell. All good people went to heaven. The Bible was a handy book of moral lessons, not a history book.

Even as a young boy, Carrier started reading encyclopedias. Compared to these, the Bible was boring, vague, bizarre, and uninformed. “Its message was obsessed with strange moral rules than no one around me ever followed.” Everyone said this book was the Good News, “but God forbid should any passage ever clearly explain just which news that was supposed to be.”

So, Carrier became a seeker of truth. Hypocrisy and contradiction abounded in the world, and the Book that was supposed to have all the answers was really just “a preachy fable: no logical arguments, no demonstrations of evidence, just assertions, and vague ones at that… How useless.”

Then, Carrier stumbled on… the Tao Te Ching. Carrier was entranced. “What it said was so simple, so true, so wise, so elegantly and concisely put, I knew this was the answer… from that day I declared my faith in Taoism, my first real religion.”

Most people are probably familiar with the Bible, which has brief moments of clarity (in Proverbs, for example), but for the most part is bizarre, irrelevant, vague, uninformed, or unintelligible. Contrast that with the Tao Te Ching:

Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom. Mastering others is strength; mastering yourself is true power. If you realize that you have enough, you are truly rich.

Do not conquer the world with force, for force only causes resistance. Thorns spring up when an army passes. Years of misery follow a great victory. Do only what needs to be done without using violence.

In dwelling, live close to the ground. In thinking, keep to the simple. In conflict, be fair and generous. In governing, don’t try to control. In work, do what you enjoy. In family life, be completely present.

How good it would be if the world lived by such clear and simple precepts, instead of arbitrary and prejudiced Christian precepts!

Carrier writes:

I still cherish the memory of seeing a picture of three holy men traveling a road together, all laughing with each other. One was a Buddhist, another a Taoist, and the third a Confucian. This image is a regular motif in China. There, the three religions, despite being so doctrinally and intellectually at odds, get along peacefully, even happily… What better proof is there of the goodness and truth of a creed that it inspires such jovial tolerance? Instead of holy wars, condemnations and combative debates, these religions interact in dialogues… They live comfortably with doubt and uncertainty, even thriving on it. They condemn no one to an eternal hell, and require no belief: they simply tell it like it is, take it or leave it.

As a happy Taoist, Carrier had several mystical visions. But later, as he kept reading the sciences, he realized that everything he experienced through Taoism had a natural explanation. And more and more, he found things in the Tao Te Ching he disagreed with.

Finally, Carrier decided he should revisit the Bible.

I figured now, with my greater understanding and maturity, I might receive more from it than I did as a child…

In all I can say that the Old Testament disgusted me, while the New Testament disappointed me… no divinely inspired text would be so long and rambling and hard to understand. Wise men speak clearly, brilliantly… The Bible spans over a thousand pages of tiny, multi-columned text, and yet says nowhere near as much, certainly nothing as well, as the Tao Te Ching does in a mere eighty-one stanzas.

Carrier also talks about the shocking immorality of the Bible, which I discuss elsewhere. Then:

When I finished the last page… I declared aloud: “Yep, I’m an atheist.”

After that, Carrier studied philosophy, history, science, and other subjects for several decades. At age 39, he just completed a Ph.D. in Ancient History at Columbia University. He has written many articles and books, mostly about philosophy and ancient history, and is now one of the foremost defenders of naturalism (which entails atheism).

Next up, I’ll blog about section II.1 Philosophy: What It Is and Why You Should Care.

Previous post:

Next post:

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

dan March 16, 2009 at 3:51 am

it is great to read another person summarize and paraphrase something you’ve already read, especially when that person writes clearly and has a high level of understanding. it helps a person absorb the piece of writing more fully. i will definitely be paying close attention to this series of posts.

and great choice of book.


DW March 16, 2009 at 8:43 am

luke, i recently bought and am currently reading Sense and Goodness without God-something i’ve been planning on for a couple years, but finally decided to do since you are posting about it. i already share a similar worldview as carrier (i’ve been a fan since i first saw him interviewed in ‘The god who wasn’t there’), but am finding this book to be an incredibly enlightening read. Considering how his philosophy is almost entirely self-contained within the book, beginning with the experience-based reasoning behind his propositions and ranking of the various methods of knowing, etc., I find his philosophy incredibly compelling, and, i can’t imagine any tack that someone could take to assail his arguments. Do you know if any refutations of carrier’s book have been attempted? or are there any perceived weaknesses that you are aware of?


Anselm March 16, 2009 at 4:12 pm

Carrier will be debating William Lane Craig this week (I believe it is the first time they have debated). The subject is the resurrection of Jesus, but even that limited topic should be useful is revealing how his thinking stacks up against Craig.


lukeprog March 16, 2009 at 6:18 pm


Carrier’s worldview, as with any worldview, is FAR from unassailable. For example, consider his basic epistemology, which is heavily influenced by logical positivism – which was so badly attacked in the 1960s that is hardly survived. Indeed, it seems to have been superseded by an epistemological framework known as “scientific realism.” I’ll talk a bit about that when I get to those sections of his book.

ALL parts of the book are badly open to attack, mostly because he covers so many topics that he doesn’t have time to defend any one of them. I think the most vulnerable parts are his basic epistemology, his moral philosophy, and of course his political philosophy.

The point of the book is to present Carrier’s worldview and why he thinks it works. In my view, it is not at all a thorough defense of anything, despite the subtitle.


DW March 17, 2009 at 7:26 am

thanks luke. perhaps i'm naive to find it as persuasive as i do, or just too biased to see the flaws because i tend to agree with so much of the book. i am a fan of philosophy but not very well-read.

and thanks for the heads-up on the debate, anselm. I've been looking forward to this one for a while. i'm hoping craig will have a bit more of a challenge than usual, but we'll see.


lukeprog March 17, 2009 at 7:35 am

One of the first things I do when I read a perspective is to look up criticism of that view online. I highly recommend this. Google makes it easy, though in this case Carrier doesn't name his epistemic stance so if you weren't already familiar with the major epistemic approaches of the 20th century it would be hard to identify the named components of Carrier's view.

One thing that's so satisfying (an emotion often mistaken for “persuasive”) about Carrier's book is that it's an entire, coherent worldview in a single, short book. It's the perfect book for someone who has just left religion and wonders, “Okay, now what do I believe?” And that's why I'm blogging it!

Thanks for your comments so far.


Leave a Comment