Monday, November 09, 2015

Seduced by Kitsch Versions of History

Stories of apocalypse and romance lurk in the human imagination. 

A fascinating post by IDist V J Torley has appeared on the ID web site "Uncommon Descent". It concerns atheist historian Tim O'Neil. O'Neil is rather worried about the historical naivety of some fellow atheists who are tempted to enthusiastically embrace historical theories that have popular appeal but which actually run counter to the work of the mainstream historians of academia.  I can do no better than quote the extract that Torley himself quotes from  O' Neil. Viz:

Scientists and “Rationalists” Getting the Historical Jesus Completely Wrong
Does the world need yet another blog?  Perhaps not, but it seems I do.  Back in 2009 I beganArmarium 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:
[The above links to O’Neill’s articles were inserted by me – VJT.]
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.
So I often get questioned as to why I take the time to debunk NABH [New Atheist Bad History – VJT] 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.

The fact is we all connect with heart warming archetypes such as the heroic stand against evil, ignorance and oppression. Sometimes it is a pleasant surprise when we occasionally find such stereotypes in real history such as Edith Cavell and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  It is no surprise that these stereotypes thickly inhabit our fiction and reading about them gives us a feel-good sensation. Trouble is, there is a temptation to read straightforward plots of good vs. evil into histories that are actually far more complex and more in line with the shades of grey and the internal conflicts with sin which we all experience (see Romans 7). It is therefore no surprise to find at a closer look many a real history cuts across simple story book interpolations. In particular, O'Neil is anxious to critique some atheistic oversimplifications which depict Christian history as black vs. white scenarios where Christianity is always portrayed as being on the side of backwardness, ignorance and oppression. Need I say that life is very unlikely to be that simple or that in harmony with our taste for kitsch and romantic story lines. Historical reality is much more muddled and grey.

O'Neil singles out evangelical atheists Larry Moran and Jerry Coyne in their all too ready acceptance of historical renditions which feed their biases. Atheists who line themselves up for nice stories giving them a heart warming feeling of self-endorsement are simply displaying a very human response; in fact it is very reminiscent of what the religious fundamentalists also do; namely, wrap feel-good narratives around the gritty and muddy realities of true life

So I can't be too hard on Moran and Coyne: As a Christian I keep tabs on Christian communities where imaginative just-so stories and clinquant gimcrack are very real temptations. At worst this leads to endless conspiracy narratives and apocryphal stories which do the rounds in Christian circles. So, I  think I might have an inkling of how O'Neil feels about being let down.

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