What do Jesus, Ghandi, Churchill, Montgomery, Dickens, and Cleopatra have in common? Comparative Mythicism!

[Note: I originally posted this on the Cadre in 2008; it seems relevant to repost now, as an explanation for why I'm not especially worried about 2 in 5 people in Great Britain thinking Jesus is non-historical. Original title: The Cultural Triumph of Scepticism (or, why the Jesus Myth theory will probably gain steam in Europe)]

Keeping in mind this is from the London Daily Mail (via Fox News), and I haven't got a clue how the survey was conducted, but still -- if an estimated 25% of British citizens age 20 and younger don't believe Winston Churchill existed, then Christianity is most certainly doomed in Europe. But not for any reasonable reason.

The same report also indicates significant numbers of the same respondents thought Ghandi, Cleopatra, Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery and Charles Dickens (among others), had been invented for books and movies. (Though one might give a pass on Dickens if respondents believed this was an author pseudonym and so were responding in that light.)

Jesus Myth proponents, on the other hand, might be tempted to take solace in the fact that significant numbers of people in the same survey thought Sherlock Holmes, Eleanor Rigby, the Three Musketeers, Robinson Crusoe and Biggles the Pilot (beats me, don't ask {American shrug}) were real people. But the list shows a peculiar ambiguity: it includes many people who either certainly or probably did exist but whose exploits were incorrectly attributed to someone else (such as Dick Turpin) or inflated by storytellers later; or includes characters that (for all anyone knows, especially given some knowledge about their creators) might easily be supposed to have been based on real persons (the Mona Lisa, Eleanor Rigby.) In other words, respondents wouldn't necessarily be technically wrong on some of those answers, and could be forgiven for erring on the side of charity on some of the others. Similarly, some of the historical characters (the Duke of Wellington, Cleopatra) may have become so romanced that people could naturally suppose them to be fictional now.

But this is a rather different category from the scepticism, mixed with galactic levels of ignorance, that is prepared to consider Churchill and Montgomery (of all people) fictional characters. Does anyone think that that kind of sceptical incredulity won't be a prime source for rejecting Jesus' existence? More importantly, who exactly was it who trained those young people to so totally disregard the existence of people for whom we have literally mountains of evidence dating to within living eyewitness of their lives!?

Clearly, similar levels of evidence for Jesus' existence WOULD NOT NECESSARILY MAKE MUCH DIFFERENCE to a significant number of young British: if they can accept Monty and Churchill to be fictional, they'd be just as ready to accept a similarly attested Jesus (wasn't he a Buddhist like that other foreign fictional religious leader Ghandi??) to be fictional, too. Or, if the similar mountain of evidence wasn't as publicly and easily available, they would be just as ready to believe Jesus fictional despite teachers who did have access to that mountain of evidence telling them otherwise.

This, of course, says nothing against any mythicist arguments. It only reveals that mythicism, as a large-scale movement, is likely to be a result of hilarious levels of unreason and ignorance, in total disregard for any actual evidence, regardless of how extensive the evidence is, and regardless of expert beliefs about the implications of even mountains of evidence. Consequently if, in the future someday, Europe leads the world first in large numbers of people accepting some kind of Jesus Mythicism, I'm going to keep in mind that it absolutely would not matter how much historical evidence there was or how good the arguments are about what evidence there is: for whatever cultural reasons, Europe is primed to be incorrigibly stupid about historical topics. If they won't listen to (literally listen to and watch audio/video records of) Monty and Churchill, neither will they listen about a man rising from the dead.

(Hat-tip: www.wargamer.com, which I love to frequent for various reasons, and where one of the admins, LongBlade, in reporting this survey via Fox News, made use of a highly amusing 'emoticon' showing a sheep sipping Kool-Aid. Which I thought our sceptical readers might find amusing for reasons of their own.)



Jason Pratt said…
Note: in the years since I first wrote this, wargamer.com has I think gone under (and then recently raised again!) so not surprisingly that link goes to a default page on the new site.

Now that I check, the daily mail news page is "gone", too. Alas, for time flying. Perhaps it's in an archive folder somewhere instead of the "live" folder. Still, when I heard the poll from Joe this weekend, that article was the first thing I thought about -- but I decided to wait to re-date it until after Joe had mentioned it first.

Anonymous said…
The Daily Mail is so disreputable that Wikipedia will no longer accept it as a source for their articles, so I would treat this with a pinch of salt.

I think the problem Jesus has is that a lot of people just do not care, and imagine Jesus is as made up as Santa Claus. No amount of railing on here will change that, because those people will never come to a blog like this.
Jason Pratt said…
After lunch it occurred to me I should explain, to be safe, that I'm overstating the problem for comic effect. I don't think 25% of Britons 20 and under are (or I should say, were at the time -- who knows how many now) denying the historical existence of Winston Churchill in defiant rejection of the mountain of historical evidence in favor of his existence. The problem is obviously one of an ignorant mood combined with a failure (for whatever reasons) to educate on even basic recent history of their own nation, creating a sort of loose feeling that Winston and Monty and Ghandi and Dickens are fictional characters.

But that loose sort of ignorant feeling in regard to persons of their own nationality with mountains of recent evidence, is naturally going to translate over to popular thrusts about Jesus being a fictional character, too, combined with various other purely cultural factors (like feeling like it's culturally daring to do such and such). The polls can even be infected by mere trolls, who think it's funny to answer that way.

My point is that when historical ignorance about famous people who incontrovertibly existed, is this endemic, then similar endemic disbelief in someone from ancient history (like Cleopatra) whose existence takes some serious work to establish, isn't significant. It's only annoying.

Jason Pratt said…
Anon (who posted while I was typing): heh, well that's somewhat reassuring about the Daily Mail!

Agreed, also, that no amount of railing on this (or really any) blog will change a basic lack of caring about the topic, thus not ignorance stemming from a lack of caring either.

Jason Pratt said…
(And neither will any amount of careful historical work.)
the survey I saw was not done by the daily mail. I think we are seeing the dawn of idiocy, The historian know Jesus existed, Those are not Jesus mythers in the sense of being ideological atheists they are just stupid.In a few years people will b e saying why go to college or read book?s learning is stupid.
Survey I saw was commissioned by C of E and done by reputable grou equidistant of Barana in UK.
Anonymous said…
Joe, I think your survey could be representative. I have difficulty believing people do not believe Churchill existed, but I can see that of Jesus, just because "don't care" is the major religion in the UK.

yes that's what I hear, how did it come to that?
im-skeptical said…
My point is that when historical ignorance about famous people who incontrovertibly existed, is this endemic, then similar endemic disbelief in someone from ancient history (like Cleopatra) whose existence takes some serious work to establish, isn't significant. It's only annoying.

The ignorance goes both ways. It also includes credulous people who believe that fictional characters are real. There are supposed characters in history (like Jesus) whose existence has not been established beyond doubt, despite much serious effort to affirm it.
according to every historian I know (I am an historian) Jesus existence is a fact. Jesus mythers are idiots,Look every atheist says "there is no reason to believe im Your God." You have to have positive reason to believe stuff, actual reason not lack of reasons for it but actual reasons, yet when it comes to Jesus myth well all we need is just the inability to prove it and that takes away its factual nature.
you nknow about burden oh proof. T?he one who does not have BOP has presumption.? You must overturn presumption that is essentially BOP.

Jesus has presumption because established, Doesn't matter why or how you still must give a reason to show why we should doubt.
Jason Pratt said…
Skep: {{The ignorance goes both ways. It also includes credulous people who believe that fictional characters are real.}}

It's a good thing I mentioned that in some detail, too, as part of the poll, and then distinguished between the different implications, hm?

But while I'm at it, let me be even more fair! -- the vast majority of us on (I expect) a strong majority of topics about which we aren't specialists, have beliefs with ludicrously poor grounds if examined, even if our beliefs happen to be correct. And that applies to general beliefs that any historical person existed, naturally moreso that any ancient historical person existed, thus specifically also to general beliefs that Jesus of Nazareth existed.

Which of course is a factor that Mythicists (as well as somewhat less sceptical sceptics) exploit. But it's a real factor, so I can't disagree with the strategy of exploiting it.

Jason Pratt said…
(For that matter, even specialists on topics can have ludicrously poor grounds for their beliefs on those topics. Christian specialists, pro or con, aren't immune to that problem either.)

im-skeptical said…
... Which of course is a factor that Mythicists (as well as somewhat less sceptical sceptics) exploit. But it's a real factor, so I can't disagree with the strategy of exploiting it.

The primary reason your article cited for false beliefs about the existence various historical or fictional characters is lack of education. I agree completely with that. But Jesus is different. People believe the gospel stories - regardless of their education - mainly for ideological reasons. For the past two millennia, most of the scholars who studied the matter were Christians with a prior commitment to belief. It is no surprise, then, that they conclude that Jesus is real. More recently, however, scholars who are well-educated but lack this ideological commitment, are finding reason to doubt those stories, based on a careful examination of the evidence. It isn't lack of education - it's lack of ideology that makes the difference.
Jason Pratt said…
I think you aren't paying enough sceptical attention to the Jesus Myth movement if you think these "scholars who are well-educated" lack ideology when it comes to Christian ideology. In my experience they tend to have a pretty anti-Christian ideology.

Also, there still aren't all that many "scholars who are well educated" who are Mythicists. There are lots of well-educated scholars (often with flagrant anti-Christian ideology, they aren't specially immune from those effects either) who are finding reasons (they think) to doubt various parts of various stories. Mythicists, as I've often pointed out, tend to put alllllllllllllllllll the scepticism together, trying to be synthetic about it. I don't blame them for that strategy either, even if I don't agree with their arguments in pieces or in synthesis.

But then, you didn't really quote me in context. I wasn't saying that Mythicists are exploiting a lack of education. I said they were exploiting the fact that outside our specializations we all often have grounds for belief about facts which on examination would be ludicrously poor, and which would necessarily be more spotty when applied to the existence of any ancient persons. Which I then followed up on by acknowledging that even specialists on topics, including Christian specialists, aren't immune to having ludicrously poor grounds for our beliefs.

But yeah since you mention it, I'm on the internet a lot, where ignorance flourishes rabidly and reason goes to die: I see the Mythicists taking lots of advantage of arrogantly defiant ignorance, too. I do blame them for that, but it's admittedly a good strategy for inflating numbers.

While I'm at it: I see Christians and representatives of many various ideologies taking advantage of boosting numbers that way, too. I blame them when that happens, too -- but it's admittedly a good strategy for inflating numbers, I can't deny that.

I don't blame Mythicists for exploiting a common lack of good grounding for non-specialist ideas, or from specialists, which often (by comparison to other topics) isn't very available for ancient persons of any kind. Not in principle -- if they're treating normal problems like abnormal ones which therefore mean something proportionately important, and making that mistake willfully to promote their ideologies, I do blame them for that; but in principle going after weak grounds to replace them with stronger grounds (even if in another direction if those are the better grounds) is just part of the normal procedure for learning and teaching better knowledge. I can't condemn that.

(I blame them when they replace the naturally weak grounds with a dog's breakfast of trash from umpty-dozen incoherent sceptical sources, and promoting that as a synthesis. {g} But that's a disagreement about quality and a willful disdain of it.)

im-skeptical said…
I wasn't saying that Mythicists are exploiting a lack of education.
- That's not what I was saying either. But I will say that religious institutions do. By teaching that faith trumps reason. Oh, yes, that's exactly what they teach. For example, this is from the Catechism of the Catholic Church (159 Faith and Science): "faith is above reason". And this understanding is what informs your "specialist" scholars. Their goal was never to learn the truth. It was always to affirm their faith.

What the new scholars have done that your religious "specialists" have never done is to examine the evidence with a critical eye. It doesn't matter how extensive you think the evidence is, if you are predisposed to believe whatever your ideology demands. It only takes someone who isn't steeped in the ideology to see the evidence objectively. Now, there is room for discussion and disagreement about what the facts of historical analysis tell us. That is, unless you ask those who would never agree to follow where the evidence leads if it goes against their faith, but insist that anyone who doubts is just consumed by "anti-Christian ideology", and automatically reject their scholarship on their own purely ideological grounds.
Jason Pratt said…
With a death in my brother's family this morning, which for various reasons will also make the family business more busy for me specifically (and the spring construction schedule seems to be picking up as well, so magnifying that), I probably won't have time or energy to post for some days or even a few weeks.

Guests and fellow Cadrists are welcome to continue in the comments as you think best, of course. I have appreciated the recent discussions so far, and once things calm down I may catch up on them again (although by then I may not try to restart any conversations).


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