Saturday, October 24, 2015

Why "History for Atheists"?

An Apologia for (Yet) Another Blog

Does the world need yet another blog?  Perhaps not, but it seems I do.  Back in 2009 I began Armarium Magnum, focused on history book reviews; mostly of books on ancient and medieval history.  Occasionally I've strayed from that theme into broader articles on history generally and, in particular, on my pet hate - ideologically-driven pseudo history.  I tend to be an equal opportunity curmudgeon when it comes to people distorting history to suit a biased agenda.  I'm just as happy to kick an evangelical Christian for tying evidence into Gordian knots to keep the infancy narratives in the gospels of Matthew and Luke from contradicting history and each other as I am to tackle a Holocaust denier.  But in the last decade or so I've became increasingly aware of and bothered by a particular brand of biased pseudo history: what I call New Atheist Bad History.

This varies from lazy repetitions of popular misconceptions, like perpetuating the myth that the medieval Church taught that the earth was flat, to full blown conglomerations of elaborate fringe theory, like the cluster of fervid and contrived pseudo history that is the Jesus Myth hypothesis.  But the list of historical ideas the New Atheists and their online acolytes get wildly wrong is long.  Amongst other things, many of them believe:


  • That Christianity caused the "Dark Ages" by systematically destroying almost all ancient Greco-Roman learning, 
  • That Christians burned down the Great Library of Alexandria and that Hypatia of Alexandria was murdered because of a Christian hatred of science
  • That Constantine was a crypto-pagan who adopted Christianity as a cynical political ploy (and personally created the Bible)
  • That scientists were oppressed during the Middle Ages and science stagnated completely until "the Renaissance"
  • That "the Inquisition" was a kind of Europe-wide medieval Gestapo and that the medieval Church was an all-powerful totalitarian theocracy
  •  That Giordano Bruno was a wise and brave astronomer and cosmologist who was burned at the stake because the Church hated science
  • That the Galileo Affair was a straightforward case of religion ignoring evidence and trying to suppress scientific advancement
  • That Pope Pius XII was a friend and ally of the Nazis who turned a blind eye to the Holocaust and helped Nazis escape justice

And much more besides.  On Armarium Magnum I have occasionally written book reviews that touch on some of these myths, such as my critique of Charles Freeman's overtly polemical The Closing of the Western Mind or my praise of James Hannam's corrections of myths about medieval science in his excellent God's Philosophers.  A couple of times I veered from reviewing books to tackling examples of these myths in other media, such as my articles on the pseudo history in Alejandro Amenabar's 2009 film Agora (here, here and here) or the distortions in the first episode of the Neil De Grasse Tyson's Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey and its warped depiction of Giordano Bruno, the Catholic Church and early science.  I used the amateurish Nailed: Ten Christian Myths That Show Jesus Never Existed at All by David Fitzgerald to highlight the weakness, bias and general incompetence of many of the Jesus Myth arguments, and then responded to the author's reply to go into these arguments in more detail, tackling Fitzgerald's mentor - the notorious pseudo historian Richard Carrier - in the process.  And I reposted an introduction to the problems with the Jesus Myth hypothesis that I had written on Quora.

Over the last few years I've found that these reviews and articles have been, by far, the most popular, linked to and reposted of all the posts on Armarium Magnum.  Encouragement from Quora members regarding similar material there and feedback from the merry band of pedants at the Reddit /r/badhistory community has made it clear that there is both an appetite and a clear need for some level-headed, carefully researched and objective fact checking and debunking of New Atheist Bad History.

So I will be maintaining Armarium Magnum (rather neglected in the last year due to the demands of a new job and the fact I've been reading far more modern literature than history lately) and will cross post reviews from that blog to this one if they are relevant to New Atheist Bad History (NABH).  But this blog will be a repository of analysis of New Atheist history mangling; both online and in print.  Many articles will be point by point rebuttals of examples of  NABH found in the wild, others will be short notices of minor examples and some will be detailed historical discussions and debunking of NABH-style myths.

And Yes, I Am an Atheist Myself

Let's get this out of the way now - I am an atheist.  I have been an atheist for my entire adult life, I am a former state president of the Australian Skeptics and a card-carrying, paid up, subscribing member of the Atheist Foundation of Australia.  I have an online history as an atheist in posts on Usenet groups of yore such as sci.sekptic and alt.atheism that dates all the way back to 1992 and have been an active member of many atheist fora including the old Richard Dawkins forums and of Rational Skepticism.  I can state categorically that I have no belief in any God or gods, which is - as we keep having to explain to believers - all that being an atheist entails.

I feel the need to make this clear because many people of the New Atheist variety get highly confused by an atheist who criticises NABH.  While they are as keen as I am to note that being an atheist does not involve subscribing to any particular world view on matters other than the existence of God or gods, requires no other philosophical positions at all and does not entail any particular political, ideological or social ideologies or ideas, many of them find it hard to grasp that I can reject and debunk their NABH fantasies and still be "a real atheist".  So, for some (all too many, I'm afraid), there is a creeping or substantial suspicion that I must not really be an atheist at all.  The No True Scotsman fallacy reigns supreme here, unfortunately.

When looking at Google search strings that have led people to Armarium Magnum I'm always amused to find ones that read "Tim O'Neill + fake atheist" or "Tim O'Neill + really a Christian".  Esteemed "agnostic" (technically atheist actually, but anyway ...) New Testament scholar Bart D. Ehrman has encountered the same phenomenon. In recent years in particular he reports being questioned on his unbelief and having many atheists express amazement that, despite being an unbeliever, he accepts that a historical Jesus existed.  And reading New Atheist books and blogs and observing online most atheist communities shows that there is a pervasive idea that being a "real atheist" requires far more than a lack of belief in God or gods.  To many, it requires a commitment to a grab bag of other positions, many of which are wildly pseudo historical and which have been adopted and accepted usually without the slightest rational and objective analysis of the evidence.

So I often get questioned as to why I take the time to debunk NABH and my status as a "real atheist" is questioned regularly as well.  I bother with these topics for two very simple reasons. Firstly, I love history, including the history of religions, especially Christianity.  I'm a humanist in the true sense of the word and, as the motto from Terence goes "Humani nil a me alienum puto" ( I am human and nothing that is human is alien to me).  Secondly, as a rationalist, I like to take rationalism seriously.  So I go where the evidence takes me on history as with everything else.  However much an idea may appeal to me emotionally, if the historical evidence doesn't support it, I can't accept it.  Many New Atheists don't seem capable of putting their emotions aside and looking at the evidence.

Why is New Atheist History so Flawed?

By "New Atheism" I'm referring to the current strand of actively anti-religious activist atheism embodied by Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett and Harris and propagated by activists like P.Z. Myers, Jerry Coyne and Richard Carrier. There are outliers on the fringe of this movement  - Neil Degrasse Tyson - who are perhaps not New Atheists per se, but who are sometimes referred to them on matters historical.  So why do these people's followers seem to get their history so badly wrong so regularly?

The first problem seems to be, in most cases (Carrier being the virtually lone exception) no training in historical analysis past high school level.  Most of these people (and a majority of their followers and fans) come from a STEM background, which means few have done any historical study since their teens.  They seem to work from a layman's popular conception of history which, as anyone who has actually studied history knows, is substantially crap.  Thus they accept popular factoids about the medieval belief in a flat earth or the dumbed down popular conception of the Galileo Affair without question.

The second problem is bias.  Despite loud claims to be rational, objective and focused on evidence, when it comes to history the New Atheists seem happy to accept any interpretation that puts religion in the worst possible light without question.  And their followers don't simply do this but also resist and reject any correction to their pseudo historical fairy tales as "revisionism" or "apologism".  Confirmation bias is a powerful force and hard for even objective historians to resist.  The New Atheist acolytes seem to have no inclination to do even try.

This leads them into some very weird positions for people who claim to be rationalists.  Ideas that historians rejected long ago, such as the "Conflict Thesis" regarding the historical relationship between science and religion, are accepted without question by many New Atheists.  Hoary theories and pseudo historical ideas dating back to Gibbon and Voltaire are embraced as truths.  Old time Protestant anti-Catholic canards about the Papacy and the Bible, ironically, live and thrive.  And crackpot fringe theories about Jesus are embraced while the scholarly consensus is derided.  These "rationalists" behave very much like the Creationists and fundamentalists they scorn.

The Plan for this Blog

As mentioned above, I will be cross-posting the occasional Armarium Magnum review here, if it is relevant to NABH.  I will also re-post some of my answers from Quora and will probably put up notices of relevant posts from some of my favourite history blogs (eg Thony Christie's excellent Renaissance Mathematicus).  But on the whole posts here will be debunkings and critiques of examples of NABH, both from the leading New Atheists and from their followers around the web.  Enjoy.