Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Internet Infidels

Recently I registered to post on the discussion board of the Internet Infidels, also known as the Secular Web. I have not posted there much more than I have at other sites, but I have found the place fascinating. Strangely, I have found the amateur skeptics at Internet Infidels to be more knowledgeable, and harder to debunk, than the well-known champions of mythicism. Even Earl Doherty, the best of the formal mythicist authors, is easier to catch in a mistake or an inconsistency than are some of the skeptics who post on the IIDB (as the discussion board of the Internet Infidels is known). If you have some knowledge of modern Biblical scholarship, there is rarely anything so easy as reading a famous mythicist and finding flaws in the argument; debating at the Secular Web is harder.

There are many reasons for this. First, you get replies at the IIDB. Your antagonists are there to push back. Also, the skeptics on the discussion boards are finely honed debaters; they debate all the time. Some debating skill lights the path to knowledge; a lot of it is just the art of rhetoric (though I do give the Secular Web credit for discouraging outright mudslinging). Furthermore, skeptics outnumber traditional theists on the boards. All things being equal, one person simply will not produce as many arguments as a group of two or more will, and is likely sooner to tire or grow discouraged; he's also likelier to actually lose an argument along the way, since he will likely fail to produce his own best responses unless he focuses on one challenger and ignores the rest. Even then, a visitor will take some time getting to know the culture of the place, so it will be likely that he will communicate ineffectively.

I think all these factors would be telling even for someone who chose to take on a whole board of Holocaust deniers or Moon Hoaxers; even such open-and-shut cases can be very difficult to navigate for someone with a traditional view, and Michael Shermer has described in his book, Denying History, the ways that a Holocaust denier can typically make a Holocaust believer look very bad. There is an art to shredding someone's arguments, throwing the person off balance, and generally making them look weak (an appearance which deepens, unfortunately, when those who have the better arguments concede their mistakes, as they can afford to do). Worse, in these places where debaters tend to be all men, you might ended up looking emotionally flustered, or actually becoming flustered. It happens all the time when traditionalist views are being questioned -- though I have seen heavy emotionalism on both sides.

But there is still another reason, which I think is central. The formal authors of mythicism have put their arguments on the table, which allows you readily to oppose them. This is less true of their disciples, who tend to push authors and worldviews more than they produce original ideas. Of course, skeptics at the Secular Web do come out with positions. But often you'll just find people who have a lot of skeptical questions. They inquire about ideas, or embrace them; and occasionally they backtrack reasonably. At other times they steadfastly stick to their ideas, with or without evidence, but always by employing all the arts of debate. In other words, they will say that they have the better ideas and that yours are wrong; they will complain that their position is misrepresented; they will highlight evidence in their favor and not engage the rest. Such is the nature of debate, on both sides, and I hope the debates continue; they're valuable.

But I think everyone would agree that there's a distinction between debates and scholarship. At the Secular Web, a lot is made of the genuinely positive link between free inquiry and discussion on the one hand and knowledge on the other. The link is highlighted so often that you could come away with the impression that debates and science are practically synonymous. This is not true, and actually quite far from the truth: debates are too similar to law trials. We are speaking of a contest of persuasion, even intellectual bullying. Debates are not exactly the place to let the mind wander freely to ask questions, make connections, and build paradigms. True scholarship entails making mistakes and admitting them, but this is precisely a very hard thing to do in the debating arena; they're trying to kill you there. Debate and discussion, if healthy, help the process of learning, building, revising, and teaching; they are not synonymous with that process. Learning requires the desire to listen and study rather than to kill or debunk; and it requires disciplined training.

Most mythicists lack training, so when they do attempt to take positions, even an amateur like me can find it easy to debunk them. However, G.A. Wells and Earl Doherty, the two most respected "giants" of latter-day mythicism, are masters at revising their arguments with qualifiers and removing pointed statements. And this means that to some extent, the little respect they've won is well earned: they've listened to criticisms and modified their work. But I have found both Doherty and Wells to be modifying mainly their language (I am referring to Wells' work while he was a mythicist). They have crafted their statements in such a way as to avoid getting caught in outright errors, while retaining the substance of their charge. As Roger Pearse put it in a recent debate at IIDB:

One of the problems I have with Doherty's book is that, when you look for a short statement of some particular proposition he advances, it is not to be found. So one is obliged to summarise his position, in order to discuss it. Having done this, I have found that some of his disciples do then assert that he is being misrepresented. This is tedious for everyone.

A few posts back I described how Doherty's language makes a strong impression without offering falsifiable statements -- how he uses qualifiers to focus on some of the data but not all of it, then speaks about the problems in the selected portion of the data as if they were weighty enough to indict the whole.

This is generally the problem at the Secular Web, too: the skeptics there see problems everywhere in the data, and they see no way to resolve the problems except to be a skeptic. For a trained scientist, skepticism is a tool, or a method; for those at the Secular Web, it is the answer. If something about the data is unclear to their untrained eyes, then no answer will suffice: the only answer is that the former answers are invalid, and that the truths of the old world are false. Those who live at the Secular Web seem often to be diligent students of the Bible, and I admit that this surprised me; but they are not learned in a thorough (discplined) way; they know what they know, and they can bring it to bear hard on traditional answers; but they don't know what they don't know; and they do not know how to accept, modify or construct from scratch a model of positive knowledge. They push technically negative models: they say that such and such did not happen in history, that the only events behind Christianity took place in the minds of the believers -- a place where the proposition of the theorists cannot be tested, unfortunately. Human minds can be said to have been thinking thoughts in almost any specific pattern that someone chooses to devise. Skeptics and mythicists rarely propose material events taking place unless those events can be detected in a trustworthy manner, and this is a laudable attitude on their part; but then they go speculating hugely about what occurred in human minds in such and such a historical pattern.

I hope this is clear: I don't mean that skeptics simply and reasonably observe the fertitility of the religious imagination; I mean that they try to prove that nothing but imagination took place. The whole culture involves proving negatives.

Carl Sagan said it was necessary to have equal parts skepticism and imagination. He said that if you're only skeptical, no new ideas will get through to you; and that if you have only imagination, you won't be able to tell the good ideas from the bad ones. I have always regarded mythicism as an astoundingly bad idea, and I have lumped mythicists in with UFO advocates and the like; but I've changed my mind about this, largely from what I've seen at the Secular Web. Most strands of mythicism -- and I do not speak of the garrish propositions of someone like Acharya S -- belong to the skeptical tradition. Mythicists are skeptics. They propose rejecting new ideas.

How can I say that, when they adopt Doherty's new thesis and congratulate themselves for exploring an exciting new idea that opens up new horizons? Well, technically Doherty's thesis is a new idea; but it's an idea about how a whole lot of other ideas are false. It is not a new idea in the sense that Sagan might have meant when talking about Biblical studies: a new proposition with positive descriptions of who Jesus Christ was, when and how he lived, what his impact was. There are many such propositions out there, and fundamentalists as well as skeptics tend to reject them, which is just as well as far as I'm concerned, given the wild speculations in the field of Biblical studies. But most of these latter ideas, about Jesus being a Cynic philosopher or a political revolutionary or the like, retain much of the old Christian values; in fact each one of the latter models just tends to embrace a subset of Christian values, while challenging other subsets. Doherty's model challenges everything: his model says that a fictionalizing process produced all of Christianity, and that Christianity sets itself on a bed of fiction while calling itself fact. The charge is so radical that freethinkers, skeptics and mythicists naturally regard Doherty's idea with excitement. It is this excitement, I think, which makes them be what they would not ordinarily be -- imaginative, speculative, lax, even credulous. But Doherty's thesis is not, in the main, a positive idea or proposition.

I have no doubt, of course, that his thesis gives some people a sense of freedom from ideas which they have experienced as stifling. But the skeptics in question regard those other ideas as merely old ones; any new modification of the history of Christianity, though it may be built upon new methods and knowledge (as all new historical models must be), gets blasted down as "more of the same." They simply tag the name of "apologetics" upon all new scholarship that modifies or revises, and does not reject, outdated models. The discipline called "history," as I implied above, is building-and-revision; but many skeptics do not accept revision; what they want is revision that allows rejection. It's rejection of new ideas that their skepticism desires, and if revision allows that, then they accept it.

Even as I write this it seems to have a touch of outlandishness. After all, we all think of those who reject new ideas as dogmatists and traditionalists. Surely skeptics are different creatures. Well, I'm not the first to compare skeptics with fundamentalists; they have their own sort of fundamentalism, though I would concede that actually calling them fundamentalists is liable to confuse rather than illuminate the issue. All I mean to highlight is the kind of hard, close-minded skepticism that Sagan was in a position to know about; he may very well have seen such a tendency in himself (sitting next to his great imaginative powers). Science has its own close-mindedness, and not just to new biblical scholarship: just look at the resistance among the scientific community to all kinds of ideas. Every field of science is characterized by two or more positions who often do not work together or even hear each other very well. One of my favorite books, The Big Splat, describes the deep and longstanding resistance offered by the scientific community to the ideas that the basins on the moon could be impact craters, that the moon itself might be due to a giant impact on the Earth, and that life on our planet could be largely defined by a history of impacts. I would wager that models of knowledge from Newton to Darwin and Einstein also had their scientist detractors.

I am aware that theists are capable of accepting only those products of historical revision -- only those new ideas -- that confirm the products of religious imagination. Theological fundamentalism is often characterized by this attitude. Opposite the fundamentalists, but appearing as a strange mirror, are the wholesale skeptics.

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