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.