31 August 2011

Pearls Before Swine

With, of course, one or two possible exceptions, I’ve long thought the finest cartoon I’ve ever seen on the internet is XKCD’s classic ‘Duty Calls’ gag. It’s just far too true, and I found myself living it yesterday and earlier today.

Notes to self: Don’t do this. Don’t feed the trolls. Don’t argue with people who are incapable of taking new information on board. Don’t try to teach pigs to sing: it wastes your time and leaves you feeling dirty, while the pigs are left grunting in the muck at the end, still incapable of singing, and probably rather put out too.

So yes, what happened?

Well, as you’ll probably know, the rather minor amendment to UK abortion law that Nadine Dorries and Frank Fields are proposing has led to an awful lot of shouting. Pro-life people have made vastly exaggerated claims for what the amendment might achieve, and Pro-choice ones have been screaming about a sinister Pro-life conspiracy. The reality is that the proposal is very minor, and even if it passes, which it probably won’t, it’s unlikely to make a huge amount of difference.

UK abortion law is not, in principal, particularly liberal; in the main it theoretically only allows for abortion when two doctors sincerely believe that the continuation of a pregnancy would pose a risk to the health of a woman or her existing children. In practice, however, its application has become so loose that the UK effectively has abortion on demand up to a foetal age of 24 weeks, at which point the foetus magically becomes a person. Or something. Anyway, so many British people now widely regard abortion as a basic right that when the Lancet saw fit to comment on the many millions of females being aborted in China, it did so on the simple utilitarian grounds that its unwise to have a society in which for every 100 boys who are born, fewer than 85 girls see daylight.

Yes, that’s the Lancet’s line: it’s not sinful to kill millions of human beings because they’re female. It’s not evil to do so. It’s not immoral to do so. It’s not wrong to do so. It’s just imprudent.

When people fight, it's usually because they're trying to protect what they love...
... rather than because they're trying to destroy what they hate.

To say this is a highly polarised debate is putting it mildly, and I don’t think the situation’s helped by so many people on both sides shouting at each other, unwilling to concede the fact that their opponents are acting from good motives.

The Pro-choice crowd sincerely believe that a woman should have control over her own body, and that she shouldn’t be compelled to bring to term any child within her: they see it as a straightforward matter of women’s rights, and of privacy, as who is anyone else to tell a woman what she should do with her own body? This, I think, makes perfect sense, as long as you’re absolutely certain that the child within her isn’t a human being.

The Pro-life crowd, on the other hand -- and I count myself among them, naturally enough -- tend either to believe that the child in the womb is a human being, or that it might be one, and that it’s wrong to kill something which might be human. Sometimes they have religious reasons for this and sometimes they don't, but what they tend to have in common is a shared belief that one wouldn’t set a house on fire if one thought there was even a possibility that there might be someone inside. In the main, contrary to what a lot of Pro-choice people say, Pro-life people are not out to limit or destroy women’s rights; they just don’t believe that women’s rights trump the universal human right to life. Putting it another way, they don’t think it’s possible for anybody to have a right to choose anything, unless that person is first able to exercise their right to life.

As far as I can see, the discussion isn’t primarily about the rights of the mother. It’s really about two more fundamental things.
  • The first is whether human foetuses, embryos, blastocysts, and zygotes are indeed human. Not whether they’re persons, because personhood is obviously a subjective quality, and not whether they can feel pain, as otherwise it’d be okay to kill anybody as long as one first took steps to ensure that they’d not suffer; just whether or not they’re human. 
  • The second is whether human life is somehow more special than, say, bovine or algal life. 
I happen to think that the second question goes without saying, which is why I was more bothered by the fact that almost 3,000 human beings were killed in America in the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks than I was by 10,000,000 cattle and sheep having been culled in Britain during the 2001 Foot and Mouth Disease Outbreak. Granted, I appreciate that I may feel this way just because I am human, but I strongly suspect that we’re the only animals that can have this discussion.

Certainly, my housemates’ cat seems to have no interest in the topic.

Credit where it's due: to His Grace, for a change
Anyway, in the huge war of words that broke out over the topic, two bloggers struck me as being particularly reasonable. One was the pseudonymous Cranmer, whose blog I usually think is worth reading, but with whom I almost always disagree, often profoundly, and who I think I probably wouldn’t like at all in person. Writing on the topic, he noted how ironic and peculiar it was that all the most vocal and prominent objections to the Dorries-Field proposal were directed at Nadine Dorries, with Frank Field’s involvement being wholly sidelined:
‘But it is to be observed that these proposed amendments to the Health Bill also have the support of Labour’s Frank Field MP. He is backing the change, and explains: “I’m anxious that taxpayers’ money is used so that people can have a choice – we are paying for independent counselling and that’s what should be provided.”

But Messrs Harris, Green and Bryant ignore him, and all aim for the woman. It is a despicable Lib-Lab strategy to attack the easy target, because Frank Field is male and enormously respected on all sides of the House. His Grace asked Chris Bryant last night why he was focusing on the fairer sex, but reply came there none. Their attack is sexist; a reaction against conservative feminism which seeks nothing but the right to education. Shame on them.

All across Europe, there is legislation requiring informed consent, and these countries have significantly lower abortion rates. In the UK, there is no requirement in law for women to be informed about the abortion procedure or the alternatives. If you want evidence of the present ‘conveyer belt’ approach to abortion, read this report in the Telegraph, and then thank God there are people like Nadine Dorries and Frank Field in Parliament with the conviction to confront this systematic state slaughter of our children. Oh, and they're both Anglican, by the way.’
He’s absolutely right, and should be commended for having pointed this out. It’s not even that opponents of the Dorries-Field amendment are engaging in ad hominem attacks. They’re engaging in an ad feminem one.

And then there's Blondpidge
The other blogger who’s done impressive work on this topic has been Caroline Farrow, who unlike Cranmer and like me is a Catholic, and therefore, apparently, incapable of thinking for herself.

Or so you would think to judge from the deluge of abuse she’s been subjected to on Twitter over recent days, with a pack of brutes haranguing her in the presumed misconception that R.C. stands for ‘remote-controlled’. I won’t repeat what’s been said to her, other than that at one stage she seemed to have been engaged in simultaneous debates on whether Jesus actually existed, on whether Jesus’ ideas were more important Jesus himself, on whether Catholic teaching allows Catholics to support abortion, on Ireland’s maternal death rate, and on God killing babies in Africa. The language that’s been used towards her has been -- aside from anatomically problematic -- viciously offensive, to a degree that's prompted at least one person to consider giving up on Twitter altogether.

Why has this happened? Well, Caroline initially wrote a blog post in which she sensibly opined that the proposed amendment was unlikely to change things to any significant degree. Contrary to the rhetoric from the loudest voices in the abortion debate, the amendment does not propose a major shake-up to UK abortion law. It merely proposes that if any person considering an abortion decides they would like counselling while thinking the matter over, then there should be a legal obligation on the counsellor, whoever it might be, to be financially independent of the abortion provider. That’s all. As things stand, with counselling provided by Britain’s major abortion providers – though ultimately funded by the taxpayer – the counsellors are by definition subject to a conflict of interest, in that the abortion providers are only paid for abortions which take place, rather than ones which women choose not to have.

As she straightforwardly put it:
‘Before pro-lifers and pro-choicers get over-excited, a little word to the wise. Sorry to disappoint you all, but nothing has changed. The abortion laws and/or access to abortion is not being altered and neither is the time-limit. Mandatory counselling is not being introduced. All that is being suggested is that if a woman requests counselling prior to an abortion, then the counselling should not be provided by someone with a vested financial interest in the outcome of the counselling, but an independent provider. That.is.all.’
Somewhere along the way, in the aftermath of that, and while watching a decidedly disingenuous interview with Evan Harris, who was launching ad feminem attacks at Nadine Dorries and illogically trying to maintain that absence of evidence is identical to evidence of absence, she tweeted a description of Harris as ‘the smiling face of evil’. This, frankly, was an error, and one for which she subsequently apologised, with Harris eventually accepting her apology. Her point was that she regarded abortion as an objectively evil act – not that those who have abortions or indeed who provide them are themselves evil – and that by seeming to defend abortion in the way he was doing, Harris was in fact acting as an apologist for evil.

There’s a separate debate about Harris was defending as a good thing abortion or access to abortion, and about whether there’s any meaningful distinction between the two positions. That’s for another day.

Anyway, in the aftermath of that ill-judged – if theologically and philosophically precise – tweet, the swarm roused, and online nastiness became the order of the day.

Sometimes it's hard to let egregious error go unchallenged...
And eventually I got involved, intruding with uncharacteristic gallantry into a debate about whether or not Jesus historically existed, with one fellow ridiculing Caroline, saying that, ‘There is no contemporary evidence to suggest JC even existed as a human being, whilst there is lots of evidence to suggest that he was/is nothing more than a fictional character.’

Caroline, who’d previously taken the somewhat shakier approach of contrasting what we know of Jesus Christ with what we know of Julius Caesar, and thoroughly fed up with this nonsense, pointed out that there’s a far better historical case for Jesus’ existence than for that of, say, Carthage’s most famous son.

‘Actually, there is lots of contemporary evidence that Hannibal existed,’ sneered her ignorant gadfly, ironically adding, ‘Your grasp of history seems to be lacking. There are Roman writings at the time about Hannibal. Difficult for archeological evidence seeing as the Romans completely wiped Carthage off of the face of the earth as a warning to other states that may challenge them. Contemporary evidence from the Greek historian Silenus, & also from Sosylus of Lacedaemon who wrote a seven volume history...’

‘Years after his death & that is fragmentary,’ retorted Caroline, correctly. ‘Earliest full account is a patriotic one 200 years later. Now goodbye.’

‘You've read this from forums about trying to prove Jesus was real. It's the same old argument that "people believe in Hannibal despite there not being a vast weight of contemporary evidence, so then why not Jesus?" - Well there are huge differences. Not least that there are no claims that Hannibal was anything more than a mortal man and a great general. Not the son of a god.’

I'd like to teach the pigs to sing...
Now, annoyed at how this fellow was already starting to shift his ground from the actual discussion -- whether Jesus had existed, not whether he was divine – in the face of Caroline showing that she had a better handle on the question of Jesus’ historicity than he did, and disgusted at his swaggeringly erroneous claims about our sources for Hannibal's exploits, I weighed in.

‘Earliest complete accounts are those of Livy and Cornelius Nepos, c200 years after invasion,’ I said. ‘No archaeological evidence of even one camp, siege, or battle in Italy despite fifteen-year occupation. No numismatic evidence either despite his father and brother-in-law having minted coins in Spain.'

‘Wrong,’ said the Ignoramus, ‘As well as the sources mentioned, there are also the contemporary writings of Polybius. However, it is only correct to examine the evidence, & even be sceptical about aspects of it. As any good historian should. This in turn also applies to the argument of the existence of Jesus (either as a man or a son of a god) and let's face it, the evidence is poor to say the least.’

I was a bit reassured that he seemed to be willing to stay with the topic of Jesus’ basic historical existence, so felt it might not be a complete waste of time to carry on, by pointing out the partial nature of our earliest source*, who was rather less a contemporary of Hannibal than, well, Paul was of Jesus. ‘None of the sources you mentioned exist now,’ I pointed out. ‘They've all been lost since Antiquity. Polybius started writing his history in the mid-160s and was still writing it in the mid-140s, and most of it is lost. Only the first five of his 40 books are intact, the rest existing to a greater or lesser degree in fragmentary form. Putting it bluntly, the ONLY intact part of Polybius about Hannibal deals with events prior to 216BC and was written more than fifty years afterwards. And for what it's worth, he's a really good source.’

‘You Iffy [sic] have missed that you're actually proving my point for me. I'm not saying that Hannibal did exist as described,’ the Cretin countered, while nonetheless not disputing Hannibal’s basic historicity, ‘I'm well aware of the murky history & political advantages of creating such a monster for a man such as Cato (whose records were later to be accepted by some as fact). Only that the history of these historical figures is sketchy at best. Especially that of Jesus (back to the crux, finally). The evidence for his so called existence, as either a man or a son of (a) god, both being very poor.’

‘No, not especially that of Jesus,’ I insisted. ‘Evidence of Jesus is better than for most people in Antiquity.’

Well, The conversation got longer and longer, and more and more convoluted, and at times I got very condescending, infuriated as I was by this fellow’s flaunting of historical factoids and flouting of historical reality and the historical method. It wasn’t among my better moments.

‘Did you really just suggest that no credible historian refutes that Jesus (a man) existed?’, he continued, somewhere along the way. ‘Given the whole Hannibal chat that went on...? There are numerous writings which dispute Jesus having existed as a man. There is no contemporary evidence (we've been over this). And even if a man called Jesus did exist & was crucified by Pilot [sic], then there is nothing to suggest he was in any way the man we have come to *accept* as Jesus. It could have merely been Jesus Smith who lived down the other end of the street.’

Back in the sty...
And that was all yesterday. Today, in my folly, I returned to the fray, vainly hoping to make this fellow see sense. I wasn’t trying to maintain that Jesus was God, or that his miracles were real, or that every single detail in the Gospels can be taken as historically accurate. I was just trying to make the case that the basic structural facts of Jesus’ public life are as historically sound as pretty much anything we know about the ancient world.

‘Ok then, so what is this indisputable evidence that JC did exist in ancient history?’ he asked. ‘Seeing as the earliest written works referring to him were written years after his death, & the gospels which do speak of him all have differing accounts of his lineage, birth, life, etc... All written of course with a pretty obvious agenda.’

I thought it best to direct him to this very old blog post of mine, adopted from my old blog. It deliberately keeps miracles, prophecies, and the whole issue of divinity off the table, simply showing why I believe that the historical evidence is very solid that during the reign of Tiberius an itinerant Jewish preacher by the name of Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem under the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate.

Before my antagonist read it, he wanted to know whether I was a creationist. I had to press him several times before he would explain why he wanted to know this, with him eventually saying that he felt it was important to know how literally I take my religion. This despite the fact that creationism isn’t in any sense doctrinal in Catholicism, and how you can, if you so wish, look back at Augustine more than 1,600 years ago explaining that there’s no need to read the Genesis creation accounts as being historically literal. And there's the fact that even were I a creationist, I’m still not sure what bearing it would have had on the argument.

And, of course, he wanted to know whether I’m religious, or a Christian in any sense. I am, I said. I wasn’t always, and indeed I was once an ardent atheist, but historical training and a phenomenal amount of reading and thinking compelled me to change my mind.

A Casebook Bigot
Having dismissed what I’d written, both on the historicity of Jesus and on the impact of Constantine on Christianity, as biased by my religious views, he sneered at the idea that I was ever other than a crypto-theist. ‘For such a *learned* man,’ he opined, ‘I doubt that you were ever a staunch atheist. One cannot look beyond the sheer ridiculousness of religion, all religions, and the evidence, both historical & scientific against such religions.’

And there you see what is, pretty much, the definition of bigotry: not the belief that you are right, but the belief that there is no conceivable way that you could be wrong, or that views contrary to your own could honestly be held by any sane person equipped with intelligence, integrity, and information. At this point I really should have patted this bigoted oaf on the head and walked away, but instead I basically went nuts and started pulling rank in the pettiest of ways. It really wasn’t a good moment, and I am rather embarrassed about it.

‘The fact remains,’ said the vociferous buffoon, ‘despite you looking to attack me & change the subject, that you believe in the super-natural.’

My belief in God had never been the subject of the debate, and so I pointed out that I had never sought to change the subject, linking to the original posts where I’d intervened, saying that I had only ever been arguing that the basic historical evidence for the existence of Jesus was something that’s as demonstrable as anything in ancient history. If anyone had tried to change the subject, it had been himself.

‘The point being,’ he said, shamelessly ignoring how I’d shown him as being guilty of that very thing of which he’d accused me, ‘the only evidence you have given are the gospels, which I'm sorry but cannot be taken as accurately reliable historical sources. The fact that you state that you are a Catholic, albeit one who picks & chooses the specific parts of his religion in which to believe, shows that despite your self-confessed credentials, your bias shall always lean towards trying to prove in the affirmative.’

‘If you make fantastical claims,’ he added, ‘you'd better have some bloody good proof.’

‘My claim is that a man existed,' I said, thinking that wasn't a particularly fantastical claim. ‘That's all I've been arguing for. Miracles etc are a separate debate.’

And then we were off again, with him saying, ‘And it is in your interests to try & prove the man existed. Again, with the only real evidence you have put forward being the gospels. Those bastardised, plagiarised, contradictionry [sic] gospels...’

It wasn’t long after that that I gave up, and I think the other fellow’s done so too. What’s annoying me most about the discussion at this stage is the complete failure to engage with the main aspects of my blog post on the historicity of Jesus. It was most certainly was not the case, despite my antagonist having said so twice, that the only real evidence I had put forward had been the Gospels.

It's worth applying Occam's Razor to this...
The Gospels do have historical value, and they really weren’t written that long after the Crucifixion; even if they were written around 70 AD, and I think they predate that by five to fifteen years, that’d still mean they were no further removed from the Crucifixion than we are from Watergate and the end of the Vietnam War.

More importantly, though, the key structural facts of Jesus’ public life are all referred to in Paul’s letters, the earliest of which was written, in all probability, within sixteen to eighteen years of the Crucifixion. To put that into context, remember the mid-nineties? John Major was Prime Minister, John Bruton was Taoiseach, Bill Clinton was President, Boris Yeltsin was drunk, Toy Story was in the cinema, Brian Cox was playing keyboard in a not particularly good band, and a rash of young Manchester United players were starting to replace the stalwarts of an English team that had failed to qualify for the World Cup. The Pauline letters – not the Gospels -- are the earliest documentary testimony we have to Jesus’ existence. Any attempt to discuss the matter of Jesus’ historicity without engaging with this fact must be recognised as ignorant, foolish, or dishonest.

What’s more, Paul’s letters are addressed to people who are already aware of the basic facts of Jesus’ life, and evidently more besides. Indeed, it’s clear from the letters that lots of people had been aware of these basic facts since at least the mid-thirties, when Paul was persecuting Christians. This introduces the second important set of data that points to Jesus having existed, this being the wide-ranging testimony to the existence of the Church, this Church clearly dating back to the immediate aftermath of the Crucifixion. It’s disingenuous to claim to be engaging with the question of Jesus’ existence if you’re not willing and able to argue a plausible alternative case, allowing for all the evidence, for where the Church came from.

Finally you have the fact of people other than Christians testifying to the existence of the Church during its early history, these including such opponents of Christianity as: Josephus, a Jewish aristocrat and rebel leader who became a historian in Rome; Tacitus, a Roman senator and historian; Suetonius, a Roman imperial official who served as director of the imperial archives and as secretary to the emperor; Pliny the Younger, a Roman governor; Trajan, a Roman emperor; and Celsus, a Greek philosopher who wrote the earliest known polemic against Christianity.

Not one of these seems to have disputed for one moment that Jesus was a Jew who had been crucified in Jerusalem under Pontius Pilate during the reign of Tiberius, and whose followers took to worshipping him as a god. Given how at least some of these would have had access to records of executions enacted in the name of Rome, I think it’s safe to say that had Jesus not existed, it would have been very easy for his existence to have been contested. And yet as far as we can see, that never happened.

Any attempt to argue that Jesus didn't exist has to explain away documents about him written within twenty years of the Crucifixion for an audience that was clearly familiar with his story, the existence of a Christian Church from the mid-thirties onwards under the leadership of people who were willing to die for things they claimed to have witnessed, and the fact that none of the opponents of this Church ever seems to have argued that Jesus had indeed been a real person.

I'm not saying that Jesus was God. I believe that too, of course, but that's a separate debate. I'm just saying, here, that he was Man. Nobody in Antiquity ever seems to have challenged this. It's only modern fools who do that.

* For the record, we have enough of Polybius' Histories to fill six volumes of the Loeb series of Classical texts. He talks about a lot of stuff -- wars in Greece and a whole series of Roman wars around the Mediterranean. What he says about Hannibal is scattered through the first four volumes of the series. The intact book III, in volume two of the set, takes Hannibal as far as his greatest victory, that being at Cannae. Beyond that, however, the text starts to fall apart, such that whereas volumes one and two of the set contain two full books on the Histories each, volume three contains a full book and three fragmentary books, and volume four -- the Hannibalic content of which takes us as far as Hannibal's defeat at Zama -- contains seven fragmentary books.

Polybius seems to have started writing in the mid-160s BC, about seventeen years after Hannibal's death in obscurity in Bithynia on the shores of the Black Sea. This, curiously enough,  is pretty much exactly the same length of time that transpired between the Crucifixion of Jesus and Paul's First Letter to the Thessalonians.


Courtney said...

Perhaps you`ve already listened to them, but I thought these links to a radio interview might cheer you up.

Its between Bart Ehrman (who is an atheist Biblical scholar as you may know) and an atheist broadcaster who goes by the name "Infidel Guy"..

I suspect you may have some sympathy for Bart Ehrman after your recent experience.



Part 2


Anonymous said...

John 15.20

Londonistar said...

Oh wow you run a blog. Duly bookmarked!

Rebel Saint said...

Thanks for that brilliant write up. I was party to the twitter spat and briefly joined in but very quickly discerned the direction it was going.

Judging by your surprise at the direction the whole thing took, I'm guessing you haven't witnessed or engaged in internet 'debates' for quite as long as I have!

I've developed a near perfect system now for dealing such situations, based on Proverbs 26:4-5 (incidentally, don't let the atheist in on those verses ... irrefutable evidence that God mustn't exist!!!!)

Within a couple of responses you can quickly establish which line to follow - the verse 4 line or the verse 5 line. If they are asking questions because they are interested in the answers (i.e they're not rhetorical questions) then the person isn't a fool and can be engaged in reasonable debate. All the others are there to simply provoke.

Sometimes I choose to have sport with them (usually the ones who go on about how poor your spelling is, and who keep SHOUTING "where's the EVIDENCE" or "what's your QUALIFICATIONS").

But if they are malevolent & vindictive (sadly, the majority it would seem ... particularly the sodomites in my experience) then it's best to follow the advice of proverbs 32:1, "Don't feed the trolls"

No-one's going to change their mind because of information they've learned in an online "debate" ... they aren't and we aren't. It doesn't matter how much "evidence" either side provides, we know that both positions are actually positions of faith. Reason alone will not change the mind of someone who already believes. We overcome by the blood of the lamb and the word of our testimony.

[And thanks for those youtube links courtney ... a hilarious illustration of the point]