We talked about the work of Dr. Richard Carrier, who was the second speaker at Darwin On The Palouse 2016. We centered on two particular aspects of Dr. Carrier’s work: his investigation of the historicity of Jesus, and his defense of “naturalism” as a worldview.

Carrier suggests that there was no historical Jesus, and that the Jesus described in the New Testament was in fact a mythological character who represented the convergence of certain lines of apocalyptic and messianic Jewish thought around the time of his alleged life. We asked, does it matter if Jesus truly, historically existed? Or, more broadly, how much does it matter that scriptures represent factual historical truth? We ended up considering three particular viewpoints on the issue:

  • Answers In Genesis, an organization of Young-Earth Creationist Christians, argues that, yes, there absolutely was a historical Jesus, and the acknowledgment of that fact is central to Christian faith. It is essential to them that a man Jesus literally lived, died, and was resurrected. It is equally essential that the Bible is completely true in every sense – spiritual, cosmological, and historical.
  • In the 90s, a group of theologians came together to investigate a peculiar question: What did Jesus really say? This group called itself “The Jesus Seminar,” and set about to critically determine which parts of the biographies of Jesus can be considered historically accurate, and which parts are more likely additions or embellishments by the authors. The Jesus Seminar states that Jesus was a historical person, but indicates that much of what Jesus allegedly did and said is legendary fiction.
  • Dr. Thomas Murphy is a Mormon anthropologist who, in 2003, wrote a dissertation in which he critically examined the historical claims of the Book Of Mormon. He concluded that the Book Of Mormon is a 19th century document rather than a collection of American Hebrew writings from about 500 BCE to 500 CE, as Joseph Smith claimed. He was nearly excommunicated from the Church Of Mormon on the grounds of apostasy, but successfully fought back. He is still a practicing Mormon.

Each of these approaches indicate very different views on our question. To Answers In Genesis (AIG), it is extremely important; to Dr. Murphy, it’s not very important at all. At the end of Dr. Murphy’s dissertation, there is a concluding section in which Murphy discusses his faith and his experience of near-excommunication. Dr. Murphy encourages his fellow Mormons to rely on spiritual experience rather than historical facticity as the basis for faith. AIG, in contrast, finds it essential to uphold and affirm that the historical claims of the Bible are entirely accurate.

The Jesus Seminar has a sort of middle view, in which the spiritual importance of Jesus’s ministry is upheld, but the text of the Bible is subject to critical scrutiny. They acknowledge that parts of the Bible were written by people with ideological objectives, and so they set about to separate the historically true parts from the additions. To the members of the Jesus Seminar, it is not so important that the Bible is entirely accurate; what is important is to dig into the text and uncover the life and message of Jesus as it historically was.

Dr. Carrier also advocates for naturalism as a worldview. We didn’t go into exactly how Carrier articulates or defend his view, but we did talk about what it means for something to be a “religion” or a “worldview.” Dr. Carrier would certainly not say that naturalism is a “religion,” but how can we define religion in a way that leaves out naturalism? We could define religion by its “supernatural claims.” But then, it seems like a tautology to say that naturalism is not a religion because it doesn’t make any super-natural claims. Does naturalism perhaps make demonstrable claims or predictions of some sort? It is reminiscent of how one can discredit an idea by adding “-ism” to it: we’re familiar with “darwinism,” “evolutionism,” and “scien-tism” as terms used to make non-religious (in our opinion) ideas sound like faith credos.

We thought about drawing a distinction between “confidence” and “faith.” We wouldn’t say we have “faith in science;” rather, we’d say that we have “confidence in scientific methodology.” An interesting resource on how we might view evolution is a video series titled “A Glorious Accident,” hosted by Wym Kayser. Dan Dennet and Stephen Jay Gould offer different views on evolution and humanity’s place in the universe.