Accusing Richard Carrier of bias is a shallow fallacy
My recent post on the potential ‘bias’ of Richard Carrier has created a bit of a storm. I’ve been accused of ad hominem attacks of being ‘shallow’ and proposing a fallacy.
I’m delighted for this backlash in in one way because it removes the objection of ‘bias’ against accepting the Gospels as accurate history. Some people say that we shouldn’t accept the Gospels as history because the writers were biased, e.g. Richard Dawkins in the God Delusion writing about the New Testament authors asks, ‘Were they unbiased observers, or did they have an agenda that coloured their writing?’ (p.92)
After the backlash I received I on my Carrier post, I would then use exactly the same arguments to suggest that this is a shallow ad hominem fallacy. Dawkins thus has no basis for making this accusation.
Similarly Lawrence Krauss once wrote in response to his first debate with William Lane Craig that,
‘Craig argued that most New Testament scholars believe in the resurrection. Even if this were true,[…] this of course is simply proof that New Testament scholars have an a priori faith that guides them.’
Effectively he is accusing the scholars of bias – and hence this bias invalidates their opinion. Krauss has misrepresented what Craig actually said, but the responses to my article on Carrier’s potential bias demonstrate that Krauss’ objection to accepting the opinion of New Testament scholars is also demolished. To criticise me for saying that Carrier is potentially biased removes this objection.
Hence the accusation of bias against Richard Carrier is a shallow fallacy – as is accusing New Testament writers and scholars of bias.
As I have reflected further on this topic, I did want to clarify and expand on a couple of points.
1. Carrier may be right about Jesus. His professional arguments for Jesus stand and fall on their merits, as do all arguments made for a particular proposition. Yet we do need to acknowledge that he does have reasons other than his scholarly research to conclude the way he does. Now these other potential ‘biases’ do not for a second invalidate his arguments (which contrasts with Krauss’ opinion above who dismisses the conclusions of scholars because of their ‘a priori faith’). However the extent to which these personal influences affect his conclusions is difficult (it not impossible) to determine. Only Carrier himself can ultimately admit the extent to which his personal beliefs impact his professional work. Although, as I’ll say in the next point, even this can be tricky to determine.
2. We are complex and all carry cognitive biases. Now these cognitive biases shouldn’t affect our academic work should they? But I think we’re more complex than that and sometimes our moral prejudices do impact our professional conclusions. Now of course we will all respond and say that they don’t, but I think we’d be a little naive to suggest that we can adjudicate a situation whilst completely removing all cognitive bias. Is anyone completely neutral? Can we determine when we’re selecting certain pieces of information? This is the nature of cognitive bias – I think we have to acknowledge that we can and are susceptible to this.
3. Many people reject the Christian message on ‘moral’ grounds. Hugh Ross writes in the back of his book The Creator and the Cosmos that after presenting the message of his book to four physics professors he asked their response. Ross asked if it was rational to believe in Jesus and one said ‘yes it was, but he wasn’t yet ready to be that rational’ Now whether or not it’s rational to believe in Jesus is another topic, the point I’m making is that recognising that it was rational to believe in Jesus, the physics professors outlined other reasons to reject him. One confessed that he was unwilling to give up sexual immorality. This particular physics professor’s morality affected his view of Jesus.
I knew of another story of a woman who walked away from the faith and said it was all fairy tales after she had engaged in extra-marital sex. So there is a sense in which we must be aware that the moral domain can and does impact our assessment of the Christian message.
4. [updated] Carrier’s academic views are extremely contrary to to the prevailing opinion of academic scholarship. Carrier’s Jesus myth views are rejected by virtually all academic scholars. Even skeptic Bart Ehrman is highly critical of Carrier’s work. Now, I’m not trying to diminish the soundness of Carrier’s academic work solely because of his personal life. Yet it is interesting that he is about the only academic promoting the Jesus myth view in the weight of overwhelming consensus to the opposite. We can assess his arguments, but given that they are so unconvincing to the majority of the academy, we must ask why does he come to that view?
Similar arguments could be made for why we reject Young Earth Creationism. YEC is rejected because of the weakness of their arguments and their lack of acceptance by the scientific community. But also they are rejected because they are based on ‘irrational religious dogma’ i.e. the proponents are biased. This is exactly what Bryan Frances wrote in Disagreement [a new text on understanding Disagreement]. He writes on pages 96-97 that one reason he believes in evolution is because in almost all cases in which someone disputes evolution they are doing so because they are being heavily influenced by ‘irrational religious dogma’. Interestingly Frances here seems to be saying that one reason to reject those who disbelieve the consensus are for reasons other than the arguments themselves. i.e. they are biased. Could a similar case be made for rejecting Carrier’s views? I’m not saying it must, but it can’t be dismissed.
So of course Richard Carrier’s academic work must stand and fall on its merit – to accuse him of bias would be a shallow fallacy, as would rejecting the works of the New Testament authors and scholars because of their “biases”. Yet we must be wary of the various biases that do affect us us all, we are never completely neutral and must all be aware that there are times that, ‘what the heart loves, the will chooses, and the mind justifies.’
Note: Point 4 was not in the original post and Point 1 has been modified and clarified.