Radical & Moderate Enlightenments: Revolution & Reaction, Science & Religion

Biblical historicism and anthropogenic global warming, these are two of the most important issues. They clearly portray the two sides of religion and science, belief vs fact.

I don’t want to get complicated with this post as it would be easy to do so, or at least I don’t want to waste the space explaining the detailed background (something I’ve done many times already). Trying to explain the history, demographics, and psychology behind it all is complex. For my present purposes, I simply want to use these examples to show a trend.

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I’ve observed many trends in recent years. The trends in biblical studies and climatology interest me because they are so symbolic. Their symbolism allows for a deeper trend to be seen, a trend that I perceive as including or causally related to these many diverse trends.

Over the years, I’ve become aware of how the general public has become increasingly supportive of liberal views, especially what in the past had been considered liberal or even radically leftwing: drug legalization or decriminalization, health care reform with public option or single payer, better government regulation, decreasing inequality, etc.  Oddly, the majority of Americans support these liberal positions even as they label themselves as ‘conservatives’.

So, liberalism has become the new conservatism, by which I mean it is the new public opinion status quo and it is the conservative inclination to defend the status quo. As the old guard of reactionary conservatives dies off and as the younger moderate conservatives come to defend the former liberalism (specifically 20th century liberalism), this will free up the liberal-minded to take on new liberal positions which will be partly defined by the direction in which the leftwing leads.

Nonetheless, the shift isn’t clear. It’s not about liberals defeating conservatives. What is going on is more profound. The very notions of liberalism and conservatism are shifting.

No one can know where to the shift will ultimately lead. If anything, the shift is best understood in terms of something like Spiral Dynamics. Liberals defend science and conservatives defend religion, but not necessarily for intrinsic reasons. Rather, it’s the historical circumstance that puts these two political movements in defense of these two social institutions.

* * * *

Two events got me thinking. First, I was having one of my standard debates about climatology science with a conservative. Second, I was looking at biblical studies books from these past few years. The first is irrelevant other than giving my thinking context for the second.

The book that really got me thinking is a book I haven’t even read, but I did read several very in-depth Amazon.com reviews and the author is someone I’m very familiar with through his other work. The book in question is Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth and the author is Bart D. Ehrman. Even some of the reviewers who agreed with the author’s conclusion didn’t agree with his way of defending it, instead some even thought he had fallen into the traps of apologetics that Ehrman had previously criticized.

Most interestingly, some reviewers noted that it seemed Ehrman was on the defense. This is a new event in biblical studies. Belief in a historical Jesus has been the academic consensus, given that most biblical studies academics are believers and those who aren’t believers are typically former believers. Biblical studies is the only academic field that is so dependent on belief, as both a starting and ending point. The field itself and many if not most academics in it began with apologetics, Ehrman included.

Another academic that began with apologetics is Robert M. Price. Like Ehrman, Price went from believing apologist to non-believing scholar, the apologetics having led to the academic study which in turn led to doubt. The difference between Ehrman and Price is that the former couldn’t let go of the last remnant of biblical literalism (i.e., belief in a historical Jesus) and the latter could let it go. Price, although often a fence-sitter holding no allegiance to a single theory, has gone even further in recent years. He once held to the historical position until he looked at the mythicist position in detail, but Ehrman apparently has refused to look at it in detail and prefers to protect his beliefs by dismissing out of hand anything that would challenge it. The irony in this is immense considering Ehrman is one of the most well known enemies of apologetics.

Anyway, none of that is my concern here. All that interested me is how it has become clear that the table has turned. Mythicists are no longer on the defense and instead historicists are. The arguments and criticisms presented by mythicists has become an insurmountable challenge, as demonstrated by the increasing number of mythicist scholars – besides Robert M. Price, there is: G.A. Wells, Alvar Ellegard, Richard Carrier, Earl Doherty, D.M. Murdock, etc. Add to this the Gnosticism scholars and the disagreement with academic consensus keeps growing.

* * * *

Consensus is an interesting thing in academia.

As I pointed out, biblical studies is the only academic field so fully dominated by believers. The contrast with climatology is immense. Conservatives agree with the biblical studies consensus despite the lack of evidence and conservatives disagree with the climatology consensus despite the surplus of evidence. Their criticisms of science are inconsistent and self-serving. They aren’t being anti-intellectual out of principle (as Richard Hofstadter pointed out, no one is ever anti-intellectual about all issues). Conservatives simply realize that in certain cases the facts contradict their beliefs and so they pragmatically prioritize the latter, even as giving lip-service to the former.

Belief and fact are two very different worldviews. We have lived in a world, despite all the changes, that has remained held in check by ancient beliefs. However, we are finally coming to a point when those ancient beliefs are being challenged.

This is tremendous. Even many non-believers have been unwilling or undesirous of challenging the belief in a historical Jesus. Almost everyone wants a historical Jesus, just as long as it is their preferred version – for example: God born in human form to save mankind, travelling philosopher, enlightened wisdom teacher, failed apocalyptic preacher, political revolutionary, etc. To challenge this belief is to challenge a core assumption of all western civilization.

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There is one historical detail I will add as my concluding thought. I add it partly for the simple reason that it comes from another book I’m reading: Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650-1750 by Jonathan Israel. As I said, I want to avoid the complexity to the extent I can, but I feel compelled to give a brief view of it.

There was no single Enlightenment (the reason for why there is no single classical liberalism, i.e., liberalism prior to the 20th century; also, why there still is no single liberalism; and, furthermore, why there is no single conservatism). Radical Enlightenment, according to Israel, began in the 17th century with Spinoza; and the proponents of the Radical Enlightenment (such as Paine) led to the reformist progressive liberals and paved the way for socialism. The moderate Enlightenment was a reaction to the radical Enlightenment and led to what Corey Robin calls ‘reactionary conservatism’.

I bring this up to clarify a point. We all are children of the Enlightenment, liberals and conservatives alike. This relates to Hofstadter’s observation that no one is absolutely and consistently anti-intellectual, at least not any modern post-Enlightenment person. The point that is clarified by Israel’s book is that the moderate Enlightenment proponents were wary of reason even as they respected it. They wanted the positive results of reason, but they also wanted to make sure reason was subjugated to religious belief, to hierarchical authority, and to social order. They didn’t want to destroy the aristocracy, just re-create it so that it would be less oppressive and more meritocratic. Both sides argued for reason, although one side argued more radically.

As such, we are still fighting the battle between the radial Enlightenment and the moderate Enlightenment. Should faith be subjugated to reason? Or should reason be subjugated to faith? Should we follow reason as far as it will go? Or should we withhold reason when it gets too close to what we deem fundamental?

For the first time in American history, the radical Enlightenment may be getting a foothold in public opinion and hence in mainstream society. Religion has never been weaker and science has never been stronger.

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If my observations are correct, this will be an earth-shaking shift and American society will never be the same again. Most people don’t notice the changes, not even most experts in their respective fields. That is the nature of such changes. They go below the radar for they can’t be understood within the present context. It’s a paradigm shift. The ideas planted centuries ago may be finally coming to fruition or at least experiencing a major growth spurt.

Of course, this doesn’t mean the proposed shift will make those on the left happy. It’s not to say that it will make anyone happy. We will all be challenged by it. The precise results can’t be predicted.

Re: Helping the Historicists Get it Right: What is Mythicism?

A link to a blog by Thomas Verenna and my discussion with him from the comments section:

Helping the Historicists Get it Right: What is Mythicism?

Benjamin Steele Says:
April 6, 2009 at 2:46 pm “More recent mythicist arguments deal with exegesis, Gospel genre (if the Gospels weren’t written for the purpose of “telling what happened” but rather “telling a good story” there clearly is reason to doubt the historicity of Jesus Christ), intertextuality (the models used by the authors of the Gospels to create narrative—and how much of the Gospel can be traced back to models), Jewish socio-cultural studies in the Hellenistic and Roman periods (did the Jews of the original “Christian” sect expect a historical savior or a spiritual one?), religious-meme change (how quickly did religious trends change and how much could they have changed over that period of time—for example, euhemerizing a legendary figure of Jesus into a historical setting), and proto-Christian origins (was there a “Christianity” before the first-century CE and where did it originate?) . Clearly April would be correct if the mythicist position was reliant only on pagan myth parallels. It’s a good thing then that modern mythicists generally do not rely on pagan parallels whatsoever.”

I agree with you about mythicism not being reliant only on pagan myth parallels. On the other hand, I disagree with how you seem to be rather critical of those who point out those parallels such as Acharya. It isn’t a matter of either/or thinking. I’m not a defender of Acharya, but I am an interested party who seeks out all viewpoints. I’ve read a variety of mythicist theorists and I think all of them have something useful to add.

Anyways, Acharya doesn’t simply rely on pagan parallels. If you dismiss Acharya based on this assumption, then you are falling into the same trap as the historicist scholars. She goes out of her way to consider the subject from multiple perspectives. There is no need to try to smash Acharya’s head down in your attempt to climb the scholarly ladder of peer respectability. In case you didn’t know, both Doherty and Price have given positive reviews of Acharya’s work.

Tom Verenna Says:
April 6, 2009 at 3:58 pm I agree with you about mythicism not being reliant only on pagan myth parallels. On the other hand, I disagree with how you seem to be rather critical of those who point out those parallels such as Acharya. It isn’t a matter of either/or thinking. I’m not a defender of Acharya, but I am an interested party who seeks out all viewpoints. I’ve read a variety of mythicist theorists and I think all of them have something useful to add.

Please don’t take this the wrong way, but that’s a rather naive opinion. Not all scholars have something useful to add. Some have nothing useful. Some have a lot to offer while others have a mix of useful and unhelpful points that, overall, make their contributions mediocre at best. Acharya S does not have anything useful to add (in my opinion–others are welcome to disagree). I’ll give my reasons for thinking this below.

Anyways, Acharya doesn’t simply rely on pagan parallels. If you dismiss Acharya based on this assumption, then you are falling into the same trap as the historicist scholars. She goes out of her way to consider the subject from multiple perspectives. There is no need to try to smash Acharya’s head down in your attempt to climb the scholarly ladder of peer respectability. In case you didn’t know, both Doherty and Price have given positive reviews of Acharya’s work.

My problem with Acharya S is more than just pagan parallels. She uses grossly outdated source material. Here are a few examples:

http://www.zeitgeistmovie.com/sources.htm

Gerald Massey, John Remsburg, Albert Churchward, Edward Carpenter, Franz Cumont, and so on. None of these individuals lived past the middle of the twentieth century. Their scholarship is so dated that using them can only hurt her points, not help make them. This is the underlying problem with Acharya S; she does not adequately research modern credible sources–only dated sources. If only dated sources can be used to make her points, then she needs to reevaluate her points. To give you an analogy of how horrific it is to use dated sources in academia, it would be akin to using a science book from the nineteenth century to back up a new model for the theory of relativity–without using anything that Albert Einstein, or any contemporary era physicist, had written. Her whole astrotheology perspective which she promotes comes from these sources–comes from parallelism that is dated and useless–and thus her usefulness is nil. That may be a hard criticism, but its one she should take to heart and consider.

Despite what you may have read or think you know, my criticisms of Acharya S have nothing to do with me “climbing the scholarly ladder”. It has everything to do with individuals such as yourself, who are trying to do honest research into the question of mythicism, who get sidetracked by this garbage–passed off as academia (of which it is not). The fact that you think she has something useful to say at all is evidence that you’ve bought into her deception. But how can you know, as a layman, what is credible and what isn’t? You have to have done an extreme amount of research to fact-check her claims to know she is full of it. If you haven’t done the research because you think she is an authority (I’m not claiming I am, either, by the way), then you’re the person I’m trying to reach. It is because serious intellectuals like you want to be educated that I come down hard on her–you need to know that what she has to say is severely flawed.

I’m not saying I’m perfect, but I don’t use sources that are from the 1880’s. Unlike Acharya S, I change my opinions to fit the facts (she is stubborn about changing her opinion and has not retracted anything she has been wrong about, not that I’ve seen or read anyway). I want my readers to be able to fact-check me and be able to raise contentions with what I write if they need to. Acharya S, on the other hand, has a group of fanboy cronies who she sends out from her message board to attack any dissenter. Often times these cronies spam other message boards and blogs with more garbage in a trollish and annoying fashion. I wouldn’t hold Acharya S responsible for her fan base, but she sends them out.

Now I’m not attacking Acharya S personally. I don’t know her personally. I can only judge her material. And I’m not the only one. While Bob Price and Earl Doherty speak of her kindly (which is their right), Richard Carrier and others have been outspoken about her inaccuracy. So just because two scholars speak favorably does not mean the whole community of experts agree. And while I respect Earl Doherty a great deal, I am dismayed that he uses her for source material and, unfortunately, he is also guilty of using dated material as well. (Doherty is far better at using modern sources for his material than Acharya S is, however, and overall Doherty’s work is substantially more credible)

To be clear: I would, in fact, be quite interested if Acharya S dropped her pseudonym (as I did) and start using her real name, started revising her theories to conform to existing, relevant, current data, and published academically or, at least, had a group of scholars review her work and offer suggestions (which she should consider, at least). I would read that book and, if it were credible, I would even promote it. But as of yet, that is a future I do not see her ever attaining. Not because she can’t, but because she has no desire to.

Benjamin Steele Says:
April 6, 2009 at 5:11 pm You can call my opinion naive if it makes you happy. By my comment, I didn’t mean one should be undiscerning about what one reads. I was just implying that all perspectives should be considered in order to grasp a more comprehensive understanding.

If your main source of info about Acharya is from Zeitgeist, then that explains a lot. She only consulted on that project once it had already begun, and she didn’t agree with all of the details.

BTW she wrote a supplement that can be obtained as an e-book that was intended to supply more supporting evidence for the Zeitgeist claims, and she then wrote a nearly 600 page book to flesh it out (Christ In Egypt). Also, she does now go by her real name (D.M. Murdock) which is the name on her recent book.

In Christ In Egypt, she attempted to synthesize all of the scholarly work that has been done so far that relates to the connections between Horus nd Jesus. She references works never published in English before and works never published at all before (such as the academic journals of a German scholar). She probably references Egyptologists more than any other type of scholar, but she does reference other contemporary mythicists (G.A. Wells, Earl Doherty, Robert M. Price, and Richard Carrier).

In particular, she has a whole section where she describes a disagreement with Carrier about the Luxor inscriptions. I’m sure Carrier claims she is inaccurate, and Acharya claims he is inaccurate (http://www.stellarhousepublishing.com/luxor.html). If you want to see a neutral viewpoint (by someone they both respect), check out Doherty because he discusses this disagreement on his site. I noticed that Carrier considers Doherty’s The Jesus Puzzle to be the best presentation of the mythicist position.

She intentionally uses a wide range of scholars from older to newer, from Christian to non-Christian, from academia to the Catholic Encycopedia, etc. She does this so people like you have no basis to simply dismiss her claims. Anyways, before criticizing older scholarship, I’d recommend you read this article by Robert M. Price:

http://www.atheistalliance.org/jhc/Pricejhc.htm

How can I, as a layman, know what is credible or not? I guess I do it like anybody else who seriously studies a subject. I read a wide variety of authors, and I debate the issues with other informed individuals.

As for her being stubborn about her opinion, I don’t specifically know what your talking about. If you could detail your allegation, I would gladly research it for myself. As for her defenders, I always advise looking at the argument and the evidence rather than the person presenting it. Too often mythicists get dismissed by mainstream scholars who haven’t read their work, but it is even more shameful when other mythicists do this as well.

The last issue you bring up, I can’t speak for her. But, as I said, her theories do take into acount “existing, relevant, current data”. I don’t know if she plans on publishing academically and I don’t know what scholars may or may not have reviewed her work. I do know that Price wrote a foreword to her book Who Was Jesus?, but I can’t say if he reviewed it. One of Acharya’s sources is Massey and he is often dismissed even though his work was reviewed by some of the best scholars of the time (http://www.stellarhousepublishing.com/who-is-gerald-massey.html).

Benjamin Steele Says:
April 7, 2009 at 1:35 pm

In case that wasn’t adequate, I’ll give a some of the modern Egyptologists she references: Rudolf Anthes, Jan Assman, Hellmut Brunner, Claas J. Bleeker, Bob Brier, Henri Frankfort, Alan H. Gardiner, John Gwyn Griffiths, Erik Hornung, Barry Kemp, Barbara Lesko, Bojana Mojsov, Siegfried Morenz, William Murnane, Margaret A. Murray, Donald B. Redford, Herman te Velde, Claude Traunecker, Reginald E. Witt, and Louis V. Zabkar.

I’ve noticed many mythicists use Hornung as a reference. Another interesting scholar (from an earlier time) is Wallis Budge. Acharya/Murdock along with other mythicists reference him. I was having a discussion with an apologetic NT scholar recently, and I noticed in a peer-reviewed article by him that he had also referenced Budge.