The Problem With Mythers

The Mythers have a problem – the community of mainstream scholars is not impressed by their arguments and claims.  The problem is made worse in that the Mythers have been peddling their case for over a century now.  So it’s not exactly as if the Mythers have some novel arguments to offer to stir things up.

This puts the Mythers in a terribly awkward position.  If the case for the historicity of Jesus is so completely without evidence, while the case for Mytherism is so powerful and strong, why is it that the community of mainstream scholars, with different backgrounds and outlooks, almost universally rejects Mytherism?

The Mythers have an answer.  Mainstream scholars are attacked as ones who reject Mytherism purely for psychological reasons.  If the scholars don’t agree with you, attack and discredit them.  As Myther Jerry Coyne explains on his blog:

This puts me outside the bailiwick of modern scholarship, but I still claim that those scholars, like Bart Ehrman, who claim that mythicists are dead wrong, are themselves operating from psychological motives rather than from empirical evidence. They are, as Price mentions in this video, adherents to the “Stuck in the Middle with You” brand of scholarship, believing only those in the center with critical but conservative views, while placing both fundamentists like William Lane Craig and mythicists on the outside. In other words, these scholars, even though there’s no evidence for a historical Jesus, adhere to that view because it makes them look reasonable.

 What’s more, multiple layers of psychological motivation must be at play, for Coyne also informs us:

in the end agree with Carrier that mythicism appears to be rejected by Biblical scholars for mere psychological reasons. Christianity is a bedrock of Western society, so even if we doubt the divinity of Jesus, can’t we just make everyone happy by agreeing that the New Testament is based on a real person? What do we have to lose?

 James McGrath also quotes Carrier citing yet another reason:

“I know professors who won’t publicly admit they think we have a point, out of fear for their career.”

I’m sure if the Mythers sat in their armchairs long enough, they could dream up a few more psychological motivations to add to the mix.

The problem for Coyne, Price, and Carrier is that this approach cuts both ways.  If we are to go down this road, then we must address the following question:

Who is more likely to be operating from psychological motives?  A global community of scholars with diverse backgrounds and outlooks?  Or a tiny, fringe group of atheist activists? 

Take Richard Carrier for example.  If there was ever a juicy, low-hanging piece of fruit, Carrier-Motivated-By-Psychological-Reasons would have to qualify.  This is a man, after all, who has defined his whole life around being King of the Mythers.  What’s the psychological probability of him ever admitting Mytherism is washed up?

While it would be too easy to psychologize the Mythers, instead focus on the intellectually inconsistency that emerges once we acknowledge one simple little fact – there is no evidence the global community of scholars rejects Mytherism for purely psychological reasons.  None.  These are clearly ad hoc rationalizations invented by and embraced by one tiny group of people – the Mythers.  So the Mythers want us to reject the historicity of Jesus because there is no evidence Jesus ever existed (when there is), yet they also want us to embrace the notion that a global community of scholars rejects Mytherism for purely psychological reasons, when there is no evidence this is true.  I guess this is a case of whatever it takes to help the Myther cause.

What’s more, I can’t help but notice just how lame these psychological explanations are.  If we are to seriously propose psychological motivations for people in academia, let me explain how it would more likely play out.

The mythers insist there is no evidence for the historicity of Jesus and the case for Mytherism is very strong.   If this was true, the majority of scholars would be able to recognize this.  And they would recognize this.  Now, here’s how the psychology would play out.  A sizable portion of the scholarly community would realize that it was only a matter of time before Mytherism became the consensus view in academia.  The case for historicity was just too weak and the case for Mytherism was just too strong.  From here, a significant fraction would view this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to become one of the world’s leading scholars, someone whose work would be mentioned in every textbook written in the future.  How?  By becoming the scholar who turned Mytherism into the academic consensus.  For if Mytherism, because of its mighty power, is destined to become the mainstream academic position,  the psychology of scholars would force them compete to become the one who played the lead role in unfolding such destiny.  In other words, scholars don’t worry about being viewed as “reasonable,” feel no need to defend  Christianity as “a bedrock of Western society,”   nor “fear for their careers.”  Scholars are psychologically motivated to be remembered as a leader, or at least a productive contributor, in their field.

That the global community of scholars has long rejected Mytherism tells us something significant – they simply do not think the case for historicity is that weak and they do not think the case for Mytherism is strong.  What the mythers don’t seem to get is that if there was even a modest element of strength to their position, the psychological motivations of scholars would grab it and run with it.

So what’s so wrong with Mytherism?  Now, I’m certainly no scholar on this topic.  But my guess is that scholars see what I see.  Namely, Mytherism has too many similarities with conspiracy theories.  How so?  If you think about it, the typical conspiracy theory generally has two features.  First, the conventional explanation and list of evidence to support that explanation are subjected to extreme, hyper-skepticism.  The conspiracy theorist combs through the evidence for the traditional explanation in full-blown “debunking” mode, often obsessing over the topic.    Mountains are made out of molehills where the slightest inconsistency, the least discrepancy, the smallest anomaly, is amplified and treated as extremely important.  Our inability to fully and exhaustively account for something is viewed as vindication for the conspiracy theorist.  But then once the conspiracy theorist has bull-dozed the conventional viewpoint with massive amounts of hyper-skepticism, when it’s time for the conspiracy theory to come up with its alternative explanation, the second feature emerges – suddenly the need for hyper-skepticism is abandoned.  In fact, skepticism itself is abandoned.  Now we are asked to imagine, to entertain a speculation, no matter how weird it is.

What the conspiracy theorist/myther does is engage in extreme, intensive disconfirmation bias.  But once focus turns to their alternative explanation, skepticism is discouraged, the bar is reset and set very low, and confirmation bias is encouraged.  And my guess is that scholars instinctively sense this game is being played, for the hallmark of good scholarship is an even-handed application of skepticism.  When conspiracy theorists and mythers set the bar extremely high for others, and extremely low for themselves, it becomes clear they have an agenda.  And it doesn’t help the myther cause that its leading proponents do indeed have an agenda – militant atheism.

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9 Responses to The Problem With Mythers

  1. mechanar says:

    So if scholars are under threat to lose their job if they criticize christianity or religious faith in general why is it then that so many new atheist are still employed?

  2. Michael says:

    So if scholars are under threat to lose their job if they criticize christianity or religious faith in general why is it then that so many new atheist are still employed?

    Not only employed, but preaching. Here’s Jerry Coyne:

    The Big Event yesterday was my two-hour session with the 120 students in Peter Boghossian’s “Pseudoscience” class at Portland State. I lectured for an hour, and then there was a question-and-answer session. The students had some good questions. Peter also teaches an “Atheism” class and a separate “New Atheism” class, both of which are wildly popular: they have to turn students away. That’s a good sign, and most of the students are either nonbelievers, doubters, or simply want to learn more about the nature of modern nonbelief.

  3. Gottfried says:

    The wonderful thing about mytherism is that it’s actually a multilayered conspiracy theory: you need one conspiracy theory to explain how and why the early Christians made up this character called Jesus (arguably the most extraordinary character in all of world literature), and another conspiracy theory to explain why modern scholars, many of whom are clearly no friends of Christianity, almost universally regard your theory as crackpot.

    That said, I expect mytherism will continue to grow in popularity. To a certain mindset, the idea that Jesus never even existed is just incredibly satisfying. I won’t be surprised if we even see a few minor scholars with credentials jump on the bandwagon. Anyone who thinks that the rise of mytherism will be slowed by, say, the minor factor that it’s transparent lunacy, hasn’t been paying attention to current trends in Western culture.

  4. SteveK says:

    “The conspiracy theorist combs through the evidence for the traditional explanation in full-blown “debunking” mode, often obsessing over the topic. Mountains are made out of molehills where the slightest inconsistency, the least discrepancy, the smallest anomaly, is amplified and treated as extremely important. Our inability to fully and exhaustively account for something is viewed as vindication for the conspiracy theorist. ”

    Like the Myther, there’s also the Denier. This person insists that the only reasonable answer is “we don’t know”. The Denier says if you believe and have faith then you are going beyond the evidence – because “we don’t know” is the only reasonable answer. If you cite scholars and their reasoning for saying they know such-and-such, they cite skeptical scholars and their reasoning – so again “we don’t know”.

    It’s comical.

  5. Bilbo says:

    With the growth of Mythicism, I would expect there to be a growth of anti-Mythicism literature, just as the growth of ID created a growth of anti-ID literature. So far, there have been two recent anti-Mythicist books: Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist? and Maurice Casey’s Jesus: Arguments and Evidence or Mythicist Myths?. I don’t think either of them addressed Richard Carrier’s arguments. So there is still a niche waiting to be filled by some scholar.

  6. Dhay says:

    I recently posted two responses in other threads which are relevant to assessing Richard Carrier’s recent arguments for Jesus Mythicism using — or arguably misusing — Bayes’ Theorem:

    https://shadowtolight.wordpress.com/2013/02/18/quiz-time/#comment-12038
    https://shadowtolight.wordpress.com/2012/04/26/the-aristotle-of-mytherism/#comment-12058

  7. Kevin says:

    “With the growth of Mythicism, I would expect there to be a growth of anti-Mythicism literature”

    Unless the movement isn’t growing at all outside the New Atheist crowd, and they don’t warrant any attention.

  8. Dhay says:

    Jerry Coyne > This puts me outside the bailiwick of modern scholarship, but I still claim that those scholars, like Bart Ehrman, who claim that mythicists are dead wrong, are themselves operating from psychological motives rather than from empirical evidence. They are, as Price mentions in this video, adherents to the “Stuck in the Middle with You” brand of scholarship, believing only those in the center with critical but conservative views, while placing both fundamentists like William Lane Craig and mythicists on the outside. In other words, these scholars, even though there’s no evidence for a historical Jesus, adhere to that view because it makes them look reasonable.

    Coyne really hates the centre ground, doesn’t he. Never mind that one would expect to get a Bell Curve, if a suitable metric could be found, with the majority fairly close to the centre, and a mere few like Coyne at one extreme or the other. Coyne has railed against the centre ground of accomodationists™ and faitheists™, and now he rails against against modern scholars.

    If Coyne had his way we would all be extremists, either New Atheists or Biblical-literalist fundamentalists. Well, Bell Curves and life don’t work like that, so Coyne is going to have to pass up on his easily targeted desired binary opposition and accept — he won’t, though — that his real opposition is the wide range of views which together form the middle ground, that majority middle of the Bell Curve.

    https://shadowtolight.wordpress.com/2016/02/03/new-atheist-activist-admits-atheist-fundamentalists-exist/#comment-12059
    *

    > “I know professors who won’t publicly admit they think we have a point, out of fear for their career.”

    I observe that if Coyne had had his way, Francis Collins and other scientists wouldn’t now dare disagree with him, out of fear for their careers.

    *

    James McGrath has now published a blog post entitled “Consensus is Part of the Scholarly Method”, which in turn links to …

    An article in Real Clear Science highlighted that consensus-building is part of the scientific method. Alex Bezerow writes …

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/2016/04/consensus-is-part-of-the-scholarly-method.html

    Poor Coyne: not only unscholarly, and he knows it — “This puts me outside the bailiwick of modern scholarship” — (while still, I judge, in denial), but unscientific, too.

  9. Dhay says:

    Here’s an article by a Pritchard Barrier, entitled “Jesus Mythicist Proves Own Nonexistence”:

    PB: Right? So, getting into the texts themselves, things really started getting crazy. In some of my later work, I attempt to use Bayesian calculations to show that characters like Jesus never existed. But the number of errors and faulty assumptions was so great that if I had actually existed and been as great as I claimed to have been, these mistakes wouldn’t have existed.

    https://fauxpologetics.wordpress.com/2016/01/27/jesus-mythicist-proves-own-nonexistence/

    That Pritchard Barrier sure knows his subject.

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