This is one of Carrier's better debates. I think he did an excellent job. It was a long one though, clocking in at 3 hours, and there were over 23 questions asked from the audience by my count, mostly directed at Carrier. This debate is up there with his performances with Mike Licona and was interactive enough to tease out his views properly on the topic in relation to common Christian incredulity. It was also interesting listening to a Christian apologist gush all over the Jesus character in the NT while trying to maintain the pretenses of making an argument. On the other hand, it does seem that Carrier may want to work on his atheist "bedside manner," since most of his Christian audience seemed to spend most of their time being perpetually offended by their own continued misunderstandings of his positions.
The actual video should be available eventually, but here is the audio on youtube:
The actual video should be available eventually, but here is the audio on youtube:
I think Carrier speaks well for himself for the most part, but I would like to throw my two cents in where some issues Jacoby brought up were left under-addressed and give some of my own commentary. Be sure and check out the organizer of the event's review (Cameron English), "Debate review: Jacoby vs. Carrier" and also AIGBusted's review, "Re: Carrier-Jacoby Debate."
Jesus is so amazing, ZOMG!
- I had a project planned eons ago which was going to be a "Red Letters Commentary" on everything the Jesus character says in the gospels which would have been a great reference piece for this debate. Christians often enough profess to be amazed at Jesus' teachings and I wanted to have a series of posts I could point to that would show with thick doses of common sense that, "No, you've just been culturally primed to accept anything Jesus says regardless of actual merit." It would be a tantalizing opportunity to be able to read the words of an actual god incarnate, but I'm not about to pretend to be blown away if in fact I'm not. It takes too many excuses and arbitrary filters to make Jesus seem somewhat passable, and by that point you no longer have a positive case. Just a defensive one.
- There are many stupid or questionable things that Jesus says in the gospels. Just as one example, Jesus is accused of performing miracles by the power of Satan. Jesus asks rhetorically, "How can Satan drive out Satan?" It's called a ruse. Duh. If Satan wanted someone to buy evil teachings, he might have a fellow demon inhabit someone and then cast that demon friend out to "prove" that only not-Satan would teach these evil things. One would have to be completely oblivious to the con artists of the world to think what Jesus was saying is particularly clever (Carrier has similar things to say about this instance and Jesus as a not-so-great philosopher generally). Which leads us to...
- To perceive Jesus as sinless, one would have to beg the question on all the moral issues that he brings up. Advocating eternal punishments for finite crimes strikes many of us as pure evil. Telling people to hate their families, to cut off limbs and pluck out eyes, that lust is a thought crime, calling divorce and remarriage a sin, validating all the morality of the Old Testament, and advocating a number of other morally extreme teachings isn't exactly "blameless" in my book. It's rather demonic.
- As far as sinful actions and inactions go, Jesus condemns cities that he says would have repented if only he'd shown them magic tricks. He confronts people with information that they'll be judged more harshly for afterward, knowing they were going to reject it. He commands that all of his followers do similarly knowing that they will be making it worse for most people by telling them about a message that will condemn them given the overall trend will be to reject that message. Is this supposed to be all praiseworthy activity?
- Further, how in the world would we know Jesus wasn't thinking impure thoughts? How many historical figures' sins are actually necessarily recorded by history? How many religious figures are portrayed as more blameless than they actually were by their devoted followers? To see Jacoby ignore common sense and assert what is clearly just a reaction to doctrine and not the actual texts is baffling.
- As a challenge to Christian apologists who want us to believe there is something to Jesus' words beyond their own cognitive biases (or that skeptics are subject to their own anti-Jesus cognitive biases) I would propose that they fund a scientific study that would be a double blind sayings contest. Jesus' words would be removed from their Christian context and pit against many other sayings from many other philosophers and influential religious figures. Then you'd have lots of demographics of people rate how they feel about the passages to see who is really the most challenging, gracious, transforming, and really really remarkable of them all. If I'm not mistaken, something like this was done for the Koran, since it claims that its texts are extra special, but Muslims couldn't tell the passages apart from other passages. Muslims obviously inappropriately think the Koran is amazing, Mormons think the Book of Mormon is amazing, Taoists think the Tao Te Ching is amazing, and Evangelicals think the NT is amazing. As I've noted, I see many reasons to be unimpressed by the character Jesus in the gospels. If Evangelicals really want to sell us on something they want us to believe is something more than just a culturally primed arbitrary response to under-deserving texts (as is obvious in all these other cases), they'll need to do something like this scientific double blind sayings study to see if people are naturally impressed with Jesus on his actual merits. Otherwise, Jesus doesn't seem to have said anything any 1st century apocalyptic prophet couldn't have said on a good day.
- It is a bit curious that Jesus, according to Jacoby, is so infinite that he "can't be fit in a box" as well as so ignorant that we can't tell him from an ordinary human of the 1st century (who doesn't know local geography, cosmology, germ theory, or when exactly the end of the world will be). I'm still trying to figure out the "infinite" part of Jesus.
- If having some good comebacks that have been compiled after the fact by devoted writers is a good litmus test for divinity, I'm going to have to say that I'm now officially worshiping Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert (and ignoring that their writers had anything to do with it, of course).
Should we believe in the Bible with or without miracles?
- This is misdirection on Jacoby's part. The issue is that we live in a modern world where miracle claims are common and good evidence for them is not. In conjunction with that, people making stuff up, or believing things based on bad evidence is well evidenced. So the Bible should have miracles in addition to our modern world having miracles. For example, the Bible would be a lot more credible if only Christian evangelists could heal amputees in the modern world.
Jacoby argues the early church didn't feel free to make stuff up, because they had issues that the gospels didn't conveniently address.
- So...because it's not comprehensive they couldn't make up the painfully transparent polemics against unorthodox doctrines of the day? Might there not be other reasons why not every single issue isn't put into the mouth of Jesus? All it means is that they may not have felt completely at liberty to add whatever they wanted. It depends on the mechanisms of the broad category of "making stuff up." What if they were getting their content via dreams, visions, or feelings and subjectively it just so happened that not all issues were addressed through that filter? The psychology of mysticism is not necessarily an efficient process.
- Carrier, in email says: "We actually *don't know* what the big issues were in the latter half of the first century, and have only vague information about the early second century. It's also assuming a monolithic top-down church with a consistent agenda, when in fact it was hundreds of diverse communities and sects with different interests from each other, and the Gospels just represent four of those communities (just as other Gospels, e.g. Thomas, represent yet others; and for most, we have no Gospel at all to tell us what their concerns were). [...] the authors of the Gospels had specific goals they were trying to accomplish; they were not writing "church manuals" to address every issue whatever. They only cover the biggest and most common issues (e.g. dealing with intra-family tension, creating symbolic models for baptism, creating evidence of Jesus' divinity and resurrection), and in most cases are responding to each other rather than arguments outside the Gospels. Finally, no non-fundamentalist scholar agrees with Jacoby. They all concur that sayings are being fabricated (especially in John, to argue against and for specific issues John's authors deemed important; but also in Matthew, whom everyone recognizes is trying to write an anti-Mark, and his main goal is to support the Torah-observant Jewish Christianity, and has put words in Jesus' mouth to that effect; likewise Luke, who is inventing things to whitewash the conflict between Matthew and Mark). For example, Gregory Riley, Resurrection Reconsidered: Thomas and John in Controversy (1995) and David Sim, The Gospel of Matthew and Christian Judaism: The History and Social Setting of the Matthean Community (1998) and Boris Repschinski, The Controversy Stories in the Gospel of Matthew: Their Redaction, Form and Relevance for the Relationship between the Matthean Community and Formative Judaism (2000), and Richard Pervo, The Mystery of Acts (2008). Those show how real scholars treat the evidence, including the fact that each author had specific agendas, to which other issues took a backseat for them, being not their specific interest or important enough to them to squeeze in."
We learn from Jacoby that the ancient Jews were monolithic in their beliefs as well as diverse in a whatever-serves-Christian apologetics kind of way.
- Or rather, it seems Jacoby is exercising a "no true Jew" fallacy where all the good and faithful Jews would never entertain unethical pagan beliefs (though the discussion wasn't about ethics) and would never be influenced by pagan culture. We'll have to call these Super Jews, since no one in the history of cultural influences has ever managed to be completely uninfluenced by surrounding culture.
- Or, just as there are fights over who is the true "orthodox" Christians today where each of these groups perceives themselves as being true to their roots in the only proper way, there's no reason to think that the ancient Jews wouldn't have had their own version of those kinds of disputes. Jews are just as human as the rest of us and their perception of pagan religious concepts may not have been an "all or nothing" assault on Judaism. Or at least, not every single self-respecting orthodox Jew would see those concepts in the same light. They might reason any number of things. Since they wouldn't likely perceive paganism as a naturalistic phenomena, they could have pulled something valuable from whatever spiritual insights that complimented or elucidated their understanding of Judaism.
- Far too often it seems Christians have conditioned themselves to not be able think in hypothetical "normal" terms on this issue even though we are all aware of how mundane human behavior plays out. The skeptics aren't saying anything extraordinary about human behavior that isn't necessarily guided by some Holy Spirit keeping a target group on ideological track. In the long history of disagreeing with each other, people diverge from whatever you think that official group is without it necessarily having to do with their own sins.
Were the disciples immediately ready to make stuff up about the resurrection?
- Jacoby admits that legends can spring up quickly (like overnight), but he says that this doesn't apply to Christian origins since Jesus' disciples were completely demoralized by his death. However, this argument simply trusts the source material too much. It is as though someone later writing the story isn’t going to try to dramatically punch it for posterity. They'd exaggerate the highs as well as the lows to try to tell what they feel would be a more emotionally credible tale.
- And especially if the disciples were making stuff up in order to have a flashier story that appeals to the masses to propel a more modest divine moral message they still really did believe in, they would have just fabricated the part about them not expecting a resurrection as well. It is possible to alter more than one thing as it turns out. The history of religion is peppered with plenty of pious fraud, I'm sure.
Why didn't the appearances of Jesus merely confirm that Jesus was dead like visions of people who have been killed normally do?
- Um...maybe because Jesus' body was accidentally misplaced and so the tomb was found empty leaving a strong impression on superstitious minds that subconsciously wanted to find a way to repent of their cowardice and redeem themselves? Maybe because Jesus was delusional, really thought he was divine, and had already planted the suggestion that he was really going to rise? Honestly, that all visions are the same and have the same monolithic impact on every group of people ever is just stupid.
Is Carrier exercising "parallelomania?" to explain away the uniqueness of Jesus?
- This is the stock apologetic response to any application of “parallels” regardless of what is actually argued. "I’m subjectively not convinced, therefore you must be seeing parallels everywhere they aren’t.” "Meanwhile, pay no attention to all the ridiculously biased things I’ve said propping up Jesus." I get really tired of this accusation like just mining all the differences somehow negates all the obvious similarities. You have Christians explaining away all the parallels just as much as you have them implausibly accommodating them as though Yahweh meant to do that. It doesn't have to be precisely Star Wars or the Matrix to show the obvious impact on so many movies after each of them was made.
Carrier may need to work on his atheist "bedside manner."
- Carrier could profit from prepping his audience and padding his usage of the term "schizotypal." It was very clear from the reactions of Jacoby and the predominantly Christian audience throughout the debate that they all felt like Carrier was slandering them with something like "you are all crazy." Of course, that's not what Carrier ever said (and this actually reflects a form of ableism on the part of the Christians), he wasn't even referring to modern Christians, and he clarified more than sufficiently several times, but that didn't stop the many carred train of Christian offense. The fact is we all live in a world where there are actually schizotypal cults and inferring that an ancient religion may have been started by one (based on the kinds of things they say they were doing) is meant to be a description of reality. Not an insult.
- Also Carrier's very clinical response to the miracle claim of the boy who was dragged by a truck and torn up quite a bit and then was apparently okay a week later seemed to strike people in the audience and Jacoby as very cold and insensitive. Obviously Carrier was just being obvious and telling them how he'd investigate. It could have used some empathetic padding though.
- There also seems to be that collective Christian audience emotion that builds up in Carrier debates that could be diffused ahead of time that centers around anything Carrier says about his own salvation and willingness to believe on the kind of evidence he thinks is reasonable. It's quite humorous and predictable (and demonstrated by relief based cheers and applause when Carrier's opponent says something against it that they've been dying to hear), but it seems like perhaps he could find a way to pop that bubble ahead of time so that Christians aren't fixating on it while he's talking about other things.
What about Jacoby's accusation of Carrier's skeptical prejudice against the early Christian visions and revelations?
- If credulity is a virtue, then skepticism must be a prejudice, right? Rather than continuing to call Carrier "prejudiced" (3 times in the debate, I think), it would have been more appropriate for Jacoby to reiterate his own arguments that were meant to show that these visions were likely the real deal.
- I would have said this to Jacoby up front: The visions in the NT, from our epistemic vantage point, are indistinguishable from arbitrary hallucinations mistaken as the real thing that are ubiquitous in religion and humanity in general and I will be speaking as though this is a given, based on our modern understanding of what we know is possible, until sufficient evidence is presented that it was more than that. Carrier did indeed explain this, but he also kept using definitive language that the Christians were clearly fixating on as though his word use was supposed to be his argument rather than the actual argument he presented more than once.
Is Carrier a hypocrite for not diagnosing himself as delusional for having an encounter with a demon?
- This is the same ableism stuff as pointed out above as though you are a bad person for having a hallucination. This is about explanatory power, not insults! And "schizotypal" is not an insult!
- As I pointed out to Christian apologist J. P. Holding (and apologist Steve Hays made the same accusation of anti-supernatural bias in "This Joyful Eastertide"), in my post "Leaning Tower of Preterism" the Christian worldview does not tell you what is just a sleep paralysis hallucination and what is the real deal. As a Christian I was open to the demonic interpretation of my vicious sleep paralysis hallucinations that threw me around the room and crushed me in mid-air, and threw me back down into my bed. But I also knew it could just be a powerful dream (it's not like there were bruises when I woke up). Maybe Jacoby, Holding, and Hays have a secret decoder ring for that kind of thing, but Carrier and I do not. Even Jacoby admitted at one point that Christians can be at times a bit superstitious.
Jacoby says that Carrier's philosophy is too narrow-minded to come to the correct conclusions and that Christianity is about relationship, not science.
- The problem is that the relationship is also about truth claims that are difficult to appraise with the standards of evidence typical of believers of many different religions and sects and denominations in those religions. If I want to know that my special religious feelings actually mean what I think they mean, I have to be honest about everyone else's religious feelings as well and not exercise special pleading about my own. I'd need better evidence and that takes us into the world of all the sophisticated forms of argument and evidence that takes place between believers and other believers as well as non-believers. This isn't just to convince others since you'd necessarily need to know the answer to these questions yourself.
- Also, if I want to know that my prayers are being answered rather than me being deceived by coincidence, confirmation bias, and having a horrible statistics processing brain, I have to turn to something like the scientific studies which are aimed at greatly reducing those kinds of factors. For Christians to assert that they don't need that kind of rigor is to be intellectually irresponsible.
- I do agree though that humans shouldn't have to be masters of the epistemic universe in order to have reasonable beliefs about gods, however, it is very clear from the mass confusion of the religious world that such levels of rigor are required. When you have two or more mutually exclusive arbitrary explanations for something, you have to raise your standards and look for better evidence and argument to discern which is correct. The fact humans are put in this position actually argues against Christianity as it is quite an inhumane predicament for a shepherding god to put all of us in.
Q and A
Though these are numbered by the question, I may be commenting on any random thing said during that particular period.
Is Mr. Sermon-on-the-Mount really coming back for revenge on Judgment Day?
- Um...yes, this is the Jesus-is-a-nice-guy myth for Christians and atheists who have only read the Sermon on the Mount and neglected everything else the guy supposedly said. The turning the other cheek and forgiving your neighbor stuff is all good fun in this life, but Judgment day is supposed to be about catching up on all the justice that fell through the cracks. If sending the bad people to eternal suffering isn't revenge, I'd hate to see what Jesus thinks revenge would look like. Two eternities perhaps? Carrier had no reason to back down on his comments.
David Fitzgerald! Moving on...
Question 3: Does Jesus not know about germs when he says washing your hands doesn't matter?
- Jacoby insists that the context is a religious one and hence Jesus is just making a religious argument. However the fact that Jesus thinks there's only a religious issue at stake with washing hands is the very same problem. Even washing your hands with just water is better than doing nothing.
- Religious and disease related cleanliness laws seem to be freely conflated on any other occasion so the omission is a bit glaring.
- As my good friend Daniel Calvert once pointed out a long time ago, why doesn't the OT have the simple phrase, "Boil drinking water," randomly listed in Leviticus between stoning gay people and banning multi-fabrics? Sanitation is like a huge problem in the world today and always has been.
- Apologists will exploit any accidental religious prescription that seems to have some benefit as though this shows Yahweh knows things the Jews don't, but this episode clearly pops that bubble for that perspective in the very least.
- It's interesting that Jacoby seems perfectly okay with this being yet another example of Jesus' human limitations. Normally when Jesus is limited, one could argue that knowing the details of cosmology (like that the earth isn't flat) doesn't really impact anyone, but this example here is an instance where it actually does matter quite a bit.
- Also, this:
Near the end, Jacoby goes off on a "science can't prove science is valid" tangent as though science isn't ultimately based on human experience and as though that means that any old axiom is legit just because someone calls it an axiom. I covered a lot of these issues extensively in my review of chapter 2 and chapter 4 of "The Christian Delusion." I'm just glad Jacoby didn't derail the entire debate with them as is the custom of other apologists.
Jacoby wants to say there's not enough evidence to prove cultural diffusion is responsible for a lot of the Christian memes, though cultural diffusion is an ordinary claim about human ideas and requires minimal evidence which was actually provided. On the other hand, demonstrating that Jesus was god and had magic powers requires a great deal of evidence. Me thinks Jacoby is exercising dishonest epistemic scales.
Jacoby says that the spiritual world is real, that there is "true evil" in the world, and that demons are real. Maybe he could have like proved that or something to support his case that Jesus isn't just the god of Christian mythology?
Jacoby claims that apocalyptic literature (like Jesus' claim that angels would gather souls from all over the world for Judgement day before his current generation passes away and obviously nothing like this happened at the destruction of Jerusalem) shouldn't be taken any more literally than the stars falling from the sky should be taken literally. Of course, that begs the question of whether the authors of the Bible thought the stars were just little lights pasted up on the hard dome on top of a flat earth. See my series on the primitive cosmology of the Bible.
Question 12: lulz, I love it how this lady forgives Carrier for insulting her. Carrier should forgive her for her lack of comprehension.
Question 15: I'm pretty sure this woman said something about "Bees!" (in relation to accusations of hallucinations and 1970's acid trips).
And then she exercises the success fallacy as though she is completely oblivious to every other long term successful religious movement currently alive in the world. **facepalm**
Question 17: I disagree with Carrier’s answer to questioner 17 a little bit in that it would be feasible for a creator god to design us with the need for a divine relational purpose that we could approve of upon hearing it. Obviously our ability to assign meaning is independent of that in actuality. Lots of people are assigning meaning to their lives successfully in ways that mainstream Christianity would not consider divinely approved in a direct sense. So in reality there’s compatibility with hypothetical divine purpose, but it's obviously not a necessity.
Question 18: This is actually the same as question 5 on the criteria for sorting hallucination from genuine vision. Christians are so good at having convenient lapses of imagination when it comes to distinguishing good evidence of the supernatural from bad evidence of it. Compare the levels of evidence here between this clip of That Mitchell and Webb Look where the joke is that alternative medicine has been defined into reality every hilarious step of the way and this cancelled pilot of Ronald Moore’s 17th Precinct where real pagan magic has been incorporated into everyday life because it's obviously real. Get it? Got it? Good.
Question 20: I don't know what Bible Jacoby is reading when he says that compared to other obvious mythology the gospels are giving us "just the facts." To me the gospels read like 1st century Jewish comic books.
Question 21: We have our token atheist skeptic who rolls out some random Bible contradictions. Jacoby, amazingly, responds to each one without even as much disgust as I would have had. I could disagree with his answers, but they are a bit off topic.
Carrier closes with basically Loftus' outsider test for faith that's an appeal to consistent standards of evidence, which is good.
Jacoby says several things, but I only want to comment on one of them.
- In order to justify such weak standards of evidence for establishing that his god is communicating to us all, Jacoby says that sometimes his wife gives him a subtle cue that he just has to figure out and that this is just the way relationships are. But what’s the number one principle of good relationships? Good, solid communication, right? It's not primarily carried on the back of secretive, hinty, mystical nonsense. The only reason the subtle stuff works in real life is because the overt stuff has been well established in those relationships. And if the overt stuff had been well established in the god relationship, we wouldn't even have Jacoby trying to justify what he thinks is the subtle stuff would we?
So that's it. It was an interesting and long debate, with several laugh out loud moments for me at the Christian expense. I'm sure Carrier will perfect his game further for future engagements.