Interview with Richard Carrier

Question 1: Greetings Dr Carrier, since one of your professional specialties is Christian history, I thought I would start this interview off with a bang (albeit not a very 'big' one). On the whole, do you believe Christianity has been a force for good or bad since its 'conception'?

On the whole, bad. Its evils dwarf what little good it occasionally has managed to do--and all the good it has done would have been done anyway in its absence, so it is rather perverse for Christianity to take credit. Pagans and even the atheists of antiquity believed in charity and humanism and all the good things we strive for, too. So when we take that away, all we have as the unique contribution of Christianity are the evils it has beset upon us. And those are so awful they far outweigh even those goods had we not discounted them.

Christianity calcified and entrenched a lot of the worst traits of humankind for two thousand years, and we are still hobbled by its evils today. Among religions from its same place and time of origin, far better would have been the dominance of pagan philosophical theism, since that always emphasized evidence and rationality over scripture, tradition and clergy as sources of authority, and was very flexible and open to change, very devoted to the betterment of humanity without the impairments of superstition, so even when it got things wrong, it had all the tools and a real prospect of eventually getting them right. Christianity had none of this. It was intrinsically oppressive from the start, and thus when it gained real political power, it became the worst fascist institution in history until the 20th century, actively opposing, even to the death, many basic human freedoms. It was also locked in a dungeon of backwards superstitious thinking (and in many corners of the world, still is today), obsessed with angels and demons and witches. It was also anti-empirical, anti-progress, and anti-curiosity. Yet placing empiricism first in authority, and praising and valuing progress and curiosity, were fundamental values essential to scientific, political, industrial, and economic advancement--those three values were innate to the most dominant pagan philosophies, which Christianity actively denounced or even crushed when it had the power to.

Consequently, we are about 1500 years less advanced in all those domains than we would be today had pagan philosophy won out over Christianity. Had Christianity not existed to seize power when it did (and assuming no horrid analog arose in its place to do so), we would be living now in a world 1500 years more technologically and scientifically advanced--and 1500 years more politically and socially advanced. We would not be struggling in every domain of our lives with the wreckage of inhuman attitudes about sexuality or social justice or liberty, inhuman attitudes entrenched in our culture and thus our psyches solely because of Christianity. All the battles we are fighting today, against the abuse of the poor, against war mongering, against hostility to sexual freedom and enjoyment, against oppression of women and gays, would have been resolved centuries ago, in favor of human liberty. Christianity has been holding us back. It holds us back still.

Question 2: Do you believe that Jesus of Nazareth existed, and is there any empirical evidence to support or refute this claim?

That Jesus existed I think is unlikely. We don't have anything conclusive, though. Se we can't be completely sure. It's still a possibility, although if he did exist, we cannot recover him from the Gospels, which have so thoroughly mythologized him that it's impossible to reliably extract any truth. In fact, all the evidence for Jesus is in an extraordinarily poor state: very scanty, and all of it meddled with. In my book On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt (Sheffield-Phoenix 2014, to be released before this summer) I lay out all the best evidence there is, pro and con, and what may be wrong with it.

Overall, the evidence for a historical Jesus crumbles upon inspection, while the evidence against starts to look more convincing. The earliest documents, the authentic letters of Paul, show no definite knowledge of Jesus having visited earth recently, and contain many passages implying he hadn't. The Gospels are complete fictions, and Acts almost entirely so. And nothing else in the NT attests to a historical Jesus that was definitely written in the first century. In fact, the forged letter of 2 Peter fabricated a testimony to a historical Jesus to combat fellow Christians who were denying it. Now why would you need to do that if he really existed? It's a serious question. There is no definite answer. But it still raises the pall of suspicion higher. Outside the NT all the evidence for Jesus is either definitely fabricated or under a very strong suspicion of such, or else just repeats (and sometimes elaborates, often ridiculously) what was claimed in the Gospels (and thus cannot corroborate them). And all of it dates after the first century (even the passages in Josephus--as I have demonstrated under peer review, they were added more than a century later). And that's it. That's all there is. We have some clues in second century Christian writings that Jesus was originally conceived as a cosmic entity and not an earthly man. So the question is, was that actually the case? I think the preponderance of evidence says yes.

This does not mean everything claimed in favor of the "Jesus myth" hypothesis is valid or sound. A lot of false claims and bad arguments have been used to try and reach the conclusion he didn't exist. One of the main purposes of my book coming out this year is to exclude all that and just focus on what has merit, factually and logically. And I found that when one does that, the case for a historical Jesus remains extremely weak. And this is coming from someone who holds a Ph.D. in ancient history, from an Ivy League school, and has published peer reviewed academic studies on the subject, not just in journals, but now my book (Sheffield-Phoenix is the publishing house of the University of Sheffield). Even my prequel, Proving History: Bayes's Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus, on the shoddy methods used by Jesus scholars to try and defend his historicity, and how to fix them, published by Prometheus Books in 2012, underwent formal academic peer review. So this is not coming from some amateur--a common criticism of Jesus myth proponents. In fact, several professors in the field are starting to agree agnosticism about Jesus' historicity is more warranted than has been claimed.

We may be looking at a turning of the tide, comparable to what happened when the historicity of the Old Testament patriarchs was denied, a view attacked as fringe and crackpot then (back in the '70s), but now is the mainstream view in the field of biblical studies (outside the circuit of fundamentalists). It's well worth reading what I've written about all this before.

Question 3: I recently postulated with Pastor Doug Wilson that theist belief is built on a foundation of upbringing and social constraints, to which he responded: 'so is atheism.'- paraphrase. How would you respond to this? Do you believe that the principles of a religion passed down through generations can be compared to a 'belief' in atheism?

Of course, that analogy could only possibly hold for families who raise their children as atheists in predominantly atheist cultures. It obviously wouldn't hold for people who grew up religiously devout but later decided on their own that their religion was false and there was no good evidence for a god, and thus became atheists. Nor would it hold for people growing up in a community or culture immersed in religion, religious assumptions, and pressures to be religious (like much of the United States). The latter can be fierce, especially in social circles and communities where atheists are denigrated, belittled, discriminated against, or treated as inferior or second class citizens (or in some countries and historical periods, beaten, jailed, or killed). It is generally acknowledged that "coming out" as an atheist has such negative repercussions that until recently most atheists didn't publicly admit to their atheism but pretended to be religious (and even most out atheists still won't volunteer it in many situations, for fear of how they will be treated). That does not sound like a belief "built on a foundation of upbringing and social constraints." To the contrary, it sounds like a belief built in defiance of them.

But there are converse examples, like people raised atheist or in overtly atheist cultures who convert to a religion. In which case, what we would want to compare are what convinces people to go one way or another. When we examine the reasons people convert to a religion, it almost always appears to be a product of their desire to enter that religious community and benefit from its resources (to enjoy their society, charity, opportunities for power or influence, and so on). Until recently, that wasn't even an option for atheists. And even now, when a sliver of that exists, it pales in comparison to the benefits one can exploit by joining a religious community. In reality, throughout history and still even today, people convert to atheism almost always because of intellectual reasons: they question their faith, examine the evidence, find it wanting, and can no longer believe. That is almost never the case for religious converts, who usually tell stories of being moved by emotional and personal and social reasons, not an intellectual examination of the evidence. For example, a religious believer almost never seriously studies with equal effort all the available religions and compares them before choosing. They just jump in the moment they have an emotional attraction to one. And then declare all other religions false--none of which they have yet even seriously examined.

This is corroborated by demographic data, which show that what religion one believes in is far more correlated with the accident of where you live, or what community you were raised in or happen by accident to live in (even what churches you just by chance happen to be nearer), than with availability of information. Whereas atheism, by contrast, is everywhere, without any church actively promoting it--indeed, it is almost always independently arrived at. Atheist evangelism is far weaker and less resourced than for any other religion, yet we find people coming to atheism all over the world, and except for current or past atheist regimes, its distribution is most correlated with access to information and religious liberty. Even to the smaller extent that atheism does correlate with where you live--in countries that are predominantly religious (like the U.S.)--it does so because access to information increases (in some circles you hear, or indeed are allowed to hear, more atheist arguments, and to see what atheists actually are really like, and so on), likewise their access to liberty (less judgmental environments and environments more accepting of atheists make it easier for someone to admit their doubts and investigate them and live openly as an atheist). When you increase access to liberty and information, everywhere, you see a decline in religious belief. Religion is thus far more a force of culture and upbringing than atheism is. Especially in countries like America, which serve as proving grounds for the general point: atheism should not be on the rise in the U.S., because it goes against the entire dominant culture there, yet it is growing. Fast. Notably, its rise correlates with access to the internet. Access, in other words, to information.

Essential reading on this point is John Loftus's book The Outsider Test for Faith. No religious person should dare try to argue atheism is demographically just like religion without having first read that book and payed real attention to what it says.

Question 4: I will give you the floor to finish on a statement of your choosing. Thank you very much.

Despite the stalwart beliefs of its defenders, intellectually, theism is now dead. Theism is now to philosophy what "creation science" is to science. And as I said in a recent speech of mine ("Is Philosophy Stupid?"), "some philosophers are willing to admit this, including one of the most renowned atheist philosophers of religion this decade. He gave up on it, and called it out," declaring (among much else that is just as scathing):

I found the [philosophical] arguments [in aid of religion] so execrably awful and pointless that they bored and disgusted me. I now regard "the case for theism" as a fraud and I can no longer take it seriously enough to present it to a class as a respectable philosophical position--no more than I could present intelligent design as a legitimate biological theory. I do not mean to charge that the people making that case are frauds who aim to fool us with claims they know to be empty. No, theistic philosophers and apologists are almost painfully earnest and honest. I just cannot take their arguments seriously any more, and if you cannot take something seriously, you should not try to devote serious academic attention to it.

-- Keith Parsons, "Goodbye to All That," Secular Outpost.

He's right. What we combat is not a reasonable alternative. What we combat is a delusion. A delusion held so fiercely, attacking it can induce protest, rage, oppression, even violence, in the believer's desperate attempt to stop their ears from being genuinely confronted with the truth. In reality, theism only serves a moral agenda now. No one believes in god with any fervor without using it to anchor forceful beliefs about how society should conform to the theist's will. That is theism's only real purpose: a vehicle by which to rationalize and justify all of one's prejudices and presumptions, which are too dear to them to abandon--but the only rationale for holding them anymore is offered by this or that religion, so to religion they must go. The rest of us simply abandon our prejudices and presumptions.

This danger is not limited to theistic religions, however. Atheism can become as toxic and delusional, as we've seen in its more extreme forms, from communism to dogmatic libertarianism. In such a construct it becomes an ideology, a litany of unquestionable dogmas, serving the same purpose God does in every theist's belief system: a means by which to avoid facing the truth, and continue insisting your most precious prejudices and presumptions are always true no matter how much evidence accumulates against them. The supernatural is replaced by pseudo-natural forces and imaginary natural laws, but the dogmatism, the mythology, the delusionality is all there.

I think this has little bearing on the question of the historicity of Jesus. There secular opposition to the idea of his non-existence is born of many motives, all usually more mundane. Most atheists, even experts, don't actually have very strong feelings in the matter, and just roll with what they think is the predominant view, a method that if strictly adhered to would prevent any belief from ever changing, any error from ever being discovered and admitted to. Because the latter always starts with one voice against all. And then only becomes the predominant view after the best (and not the worst) case disseminates throughout the population and slowly grows convincing. It took the expert community ten to twenty years to finally admit the patriarchs were mythical. It may take longer for Jesus. But the battle against the prejudice-preserving ideologies that actually drive our politics and communities and international relations, to great and real harm, is far more serious and should not be abandoned. It deserves our greatest attention and energies. And as harmful ideologies do not consist solely of those with a god in them, it is not enough to merely combat belief in God. God is not actually the problem. It's just the pedestal on which the most popular ideologies stand. But not all of them. So we should be just as vigilant against godless ideologies as any.

There should be only one ideology: that which is based on the actual evidence of the world, and a willingness to revise it in light of what that evidence turns out to be, and motivated by a genuine concern for your fellow human beings--and not by a desire to preserve our prejudices. It's my hope those of us who have escaped the stranglehold of superstition can all work together to make that the reality. Because that, and that alone, will finally make the world a better place.

Not all delusions are equally dangerous, of course. There are friendlier delusions, more tolerant theologies and ideologies. I can get along with many a theist or dogmatist because of that. But these still enable those worse. And they are not themselves free of harm, and are still to be criticized for that. For a good survey of the dangers of even liberal and tolerant religions (and any comparable nonrational or non-evidence-based ideologies), just see chapters four through seven of Greta Christina's book Why Are You Atheists So Angry.

I would like to invite our readers to go and view Richard Carriers website He is a very intelligent, passionate man and I would recommend his blog and books personally.


Wed 29th January