Sep 09

Historical Method: Are skeptics committed to a double standard?

This is my first post in a planned series on the Historical Method. I will discuss general topics and areas of tension between conservative biblical scholars and skeptics. This series will include discussions of authorship, dating, and general reliability. My focus in this first post is the question of whether either group—the skeptic or the theist—is committed to a double standard regarding ancient texts.


I am Beowulf!


Skeptics about the Bible are often accused of holding a double standard. The theist will bring up stories about Julius Caesar or Socrates, and then claim that we believe these stories on evidence as good as or worse than the Bible[i]. I find this accusation incredibly ironic.


I can’t speak for every skeptic, of course, but let me (briefly) spell out my own view of ancient documents and see if you agree. There are a variety of methods historians use to assign some estimate of probability for historicity to a text. Thanks to Bart Ehrman, the general public is now familiar with some of these—multiple attestation, fitting the historical context, dissimilarity, potential for embarrassment, to name a few[ii]. I was taught by one of Ehrman’s former graduate students and one of the editors of his New Testament textbook, so his ideas are very much instilled in my approach to the texts of the Bible. Even so, these are not my primary line of defense from separating out that which is nearly certainly nonsense. These are of secondary concern to a more fundamental rubric. That is because I have a distinct advantage over ancient authors—I know more about the world.


My first alarm that a text contains non-historical information is when that text presents something that contradicts modern science. I don’t mean something like string theory that is seriously questioned—I mean really basic stuff. You may not think about it much, but you do it too. Christians, Muslims, Jews, atheists, and people who in general consider themselves reasonable take this automatic approach to rejecting information from the past (in most cases). Imagine someone presents you with this brief story, allegedly written in 45 B.C.E.:


As the great hero Phaedrus sped into battle, he willed from within himself a great power. At once, his chariot came aloft and grew wings as if it were a great bird. Flames spewed forth from the mouth of his horse, consuming every enemy below and sparing his allies.


What is your first reaction? Is it to seek out multiple attestations? No, I don’t think so. I’m willing to bet you dismiss this story out of hand (and you should because I just made it up). Now to the more interesting question: Why do you dismiss it out of hand? The story is simply unbelievable because it contains magical elements. Is this a pre-existing bias against the supernatural? Yes, of course it is! And it is a justified bias based on every bit of actual evidence we have. The prior probability of something like this is so ridiculously low that we are completely justified in rejecting the magical elements on those grounds alone. Maybe there are historical bits still in the story, but no one is seriously going to grant that his chariot grew wings.


This is not something just atheists do; rather, everyone with a reasonable approach to history does this. But the religious do believe their own magical claims. Is it seriously because you have thoroughly rebutted and rejected the evidence for all other religious claims? No, I highly doubt that. I suspect your reasoning was more like what I described. You would dismiss something simply on the grounds that it contained magic…except in your own case. That means you are actually the one with the double standard.


[i] There are so many things we could say to contrast the sources for Caesar, etc. but I want to focus on the issue at hand and that discussion would take us off track.

[ii] If you’re interested in further discussion of the historical method and tools for discerning historicity, please read Richard Carrier’s excellent treatment of it in this paper.


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  1. Terrey

    Cognitive dissonance amongst the religious such as this is not just incredibly common, but possibly the foundational problem with addressing the veracity of religious claims.

    Overall, this sums up nicely the fact that no matter how valid or confirmed the evidence you present to a person suffering from CTI (Critical Thought Impairment), they will reject the veracity of not just your evidence, but the type of evidence you present, even if their own foundational beliefs are based upon the exact type of evidence you presented.

    I just finished a debate that I finally ended by merely pointing out my opponent’s own professed cognitive dissonance in which he had stated that Atheists could not rationally present the answer: “Scientists don’t know yet”, while this same person argued that an Agnostic Theist was able to present that they don’t know that god exists, but presents that there is at least some evidence for it.

    I think in the end, it’s best to point out the logical contradiction, and merely refuse to accept further argument until they equivocate exactly how your evidence is different, for the sake of the audience. Hopefully this approach will trigger reassessment, but at the very least, the audience may get to see the logic of the opponent crumble, and therefore, potentially reject all of his previous claims based on this sort of thinking.

  2. Ryan

    I do love a talk about cognitive biases, but here’s another important point: the nature of each text is different. The Bible tells me how to live my life as well as the eternal consequences of not believing it. Whether I accept it or not has, at least theoretically, profound importance to my life. In comparison: to what extent would your life change if we learned that Socrates never existed? It is irrelevant to most people and mostly irrelevant to everyone else. That is no excuse, of course, for lax standards in typical historical analysis, but it does place a mighty burden on texts like the Bible. I think that many theists recognize this on some level, which partly explains why they are so quick to employ Pascal’s wager.

  3. Mike

    This discussion reminded me of a story that I don’t think I’ve shared on this blog before.

    I was in a New Testament class specifically on parable study and would have called myself an agnostic at the time. My professor (http://charleshedrick.com/) asked the class on the first day, “How many of you believe in unicorns?” No one raised their hand. Then he said, “What if I told you unicorns are mentioned in the Bible?” and asked the question again. Everyone but me changed their answer.

    They knew it was wrong instinctively, but then turned back when they saw it could affect their beliefs.

  4. Lee

    I have, frankly, gotten quite tired of hearing religious folk talk about my naturalist “bias”, my “metaphysical naturalism” which is impeding my being open minded, and outright silly dismissals of Hume’s excellent work on miracles. At the end of the day, what they all seem to be saying is: “Forget everything you know about how things normally work, THEN look at the bible. Isn’t it convincing?” Of course, they want you to recall all(most of) the important empirical work in science when it comes to the arguments FOR god, but in the interest of historicity anything (biblical) goes.

    Double-standard doesn’t even do it justice: it’s question-begging as an art form, special pleading paired with the smug satisfaction of the village idiot. I would feel sorry for them, at times I actually do, but then I remember what capitulation entails:

    “All right, now that we all agree God exists, everyone line up and take a bag of stones. You too, Timmy, there you go young fella. Now, aim for the rainbows, the microscopes, and the brown people. All together now, IN THE NAME OF GOD”


  1. Historical Method Series: Tell me what is probable. | Foxhole Atheism

    […] is my second post in a series on the historical method. In my first post, I rejected the claim that skeptics are committed to a double standard for having a bias against […]

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