Selective Skepticism

By James F. McGrath
Associate Professor of Religion
Butler University, Indianapolis
October 2013

If you aren’t a scholar but want to pretend to be one, what does it take to get your claims some serious media attention? Apparently all it takes is getting someone famous, Richard Dawkins, to mention your claims.

Of course, that ought to be a hard thing to accomplish, one would think. Richard Dawkins, after all, is world famous for his skepticism, is he not?

But the truth is that we all tend to be less skeptical when we encounter claims that we would want to be true. And presumably that is what happened when Richard Dawkins came across the claim by Joseph Atwill that Jesus was invented by the Romans. He saw, he liked, he retweeted – with no skeptical questions asked. Apparently he didn’t bother to visit Atwill’s Amazon page, which indicates that his “expertise” in Biblical studies consists of his having read books on the subject. And media outlets that have mentioned the story often show a similar lack of critical inquiry and fact-checking.

Atwill’s claims are silly nonsense – so ridiculous that even Richard Carrier, who is himself rather a fringe figure in the domain of history, regards Atwill as the sort of figure who, through association, gives him a bad name!

And for that reason, I think that what’s interesting about this case is not what Atwill claims. It is just more bunk pseudoscholarship of a sort that has been around for as long as people have been writing down their thoughts on subjects in which they have no expertise. No, what’s truly interesting is how a press release which calls someone who has no qualifications, no teaching appointment, no relevant expertise of any kind a “scholar” can be accepted uncritically and retweeted by someone whose public activity has been aimed at getting people to be more discerning, to think more critically.

Conspiracy theories and denialism of various sorts seem to be on the increase in our time. The only way to combat them effectively is to teach the only genuine form of skepticism: one that examines one’s own hunches and assumptions as rigorously – and perhaps even more so – than those of others.

Comments (5)

Excellent comments, James. And the difficulty for those like us who do engage in public scholarship (e.g. through blogs and sites like this) is that we have a choice: (a) engage critically with the silly claims; (b) ignore the silly claims. The danger with (a) is that we can appear to give the nonsense credibility by dignifying it with a response, but the problem with (b) is that there are some who think that unless we respond, we cannot respond. The likes of Dawkins retweeting this nonsense absolutely beggars belief.

#1 - Mark Goodacre - 10/12/2013 - 21:30

Bit of a daft insinuation about Richard Carrier, don't you think?

#2 - Sean - 10/13/2013 - 20:26

I've always thought that the 'nullum librum tam malum' principle - no book so bad that no part of it can be read with profit - is one of the great humane statements. Perhaps Atwill provides an exception to this principle. But if a book is to be subject to a critique at least one example should be given of its argument and of why it is mistaken or worse than mistaken. Scholars should not just pull rank on people who question them.
As to the points at issue I think that if (if; I express no opinion here) we take seriously the idea that the well-known character of Jesus is essentially fictional then we need to be open logically to the question of who promoted this fiction and in that event to be prepared for surprising answers to a question with which scholarship is not used to dealing. The role in the whole story of pro-Roman Jews by contrast with their anti-Roman counterparts deserves a bit more attention, it seems to me.

#3 - Martin - 10/15/2013 - 20:06

Martin, Thomas Verenna's and Richard Carrier's blogs deal with the issues you've raised perfectly.

#4 - Sean - 10/16/2013 - 02:51

Reference to other sources not mentioned by McGrath doesn't really rationalise McGrath's argument.
We know about the ideas that a) the character of Jesus 'as we know it' is essentially fictional and b)the story as know it is an attempt to put Roman power in a good, Jewish power in a bad light. The second is almost commonplace, though not universally accepted, the first raises interesting questions. Atwill is, as far as I can see, conjoining the two, perhaps with additional romantic elements such as active participation by Roman intelligence agencies or suchlike. But basically he's just putting these two ideas together and we can't logically treat the two elements separately as sophisticated and interesting and the two together as hopelessly inept and amateurish.
I would have thought that any suggestion that the Jesus story is distorted by Roman sentiment has to explain why the relationship between the Roman government and the proto-Christians seems on the face of it to be so bad, much worse than one would think if the Christian narrative was indeed a carefully constructed antidote to anti-Roman Judaism.

#5 - Martin - 10/16/2013 - 20:08

Add new comment

This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.