Paul Kurtz: December 21, 1925 – October 20, 2012

Like my relationship with my own father, my relationship with Paul Kurtz was complicated. My feelings about his death are equally complex. On the one hand, clichés must be spoken: Paul was one of the great secular leaders of the last century, and devoted more time and energy to the life-stance he called secular humanism—a humanism without gods—than almost anyone in the contemporary humanist world.  His living monument, the Center for Inquiry (and its component organizations, the Council for Secular Humanism and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry) will no doubt feel his loss intensely.

At the same time, truth must be told:  at the end of his life, the secular vision is unfulfilled–through no fault of his own–and many of the ideas he espoused have been reformed or rejected by a simpler and more callous approach to secular humanism than Paul ever could have imagined.

It is, as they say of irreplaceable figures, unlikely that anyone will take his place.  Paul himself was keenly aware of this: as he grew older he was very much concerned that the lessons he had taught had not been fully learned  by his younger colleagues and proteges.  For thirty years, I was privileged to be one of those.  It is fortunate that another of his young colleagues, Nathan Bupp, has published in the last year a thoughtful collection of some of Kurtz’s most significant writings, a garland from the forty books that Paul wrote over his long career as a teacher, lecturer, activist, and theoretician.  They show a mind consistent in objectives and sensitive to application.  If secularism had a “great communicator”–someone who could make philosophy appealing to ordinary readers and listeners–it was Paul Kurtz.  My guess is that in terms of others discovering the importance of his thought, his best days are ahead of him.

With death, wars end, hatchets are buried and clouds resolve into clear images of the future. I personally hope that this will happen at the CFI. One thing that can be said without contradiction about Paul: he lived for the future, and lived passionately with the optimistic and “exuberant” belief that the world can be made a better place through human effort. His entire humanist vision was rooted in that belief. When he underwent valve replacement surgery at Cleveland Hospital in 2007, he confidently looked forward to another decade of engagement with the causes and challenges that most engaged him.

When he wasn’t campaigning for reason and science, he liked hearing jokes, telling jokes, and chuckling over collections of Woody Allen monologues. He loved music.  He couldn’t sing.

Paul Kurtz was never really comfortable with the “new atheist” doctrines that began to appear in the early twenty-first century. While cordial to everyone, he deplored direct frontal assaults on religion as being out of keeping with the “humanist” side of his philosophy. Authentic humanism, he believed, must be radically secular. It should expel the gods and eschew dogma and supernaturalism. It should embrace science, reason, and ethical praxis—a combination he named eupraxsophy, a recipe for the good life.

For Paul, this was not a new idea but a “stirring” that could be detected in the great philosophers going back to Plato and Aristotle. Virtue is as virtue does. Happiness is its consequence.

Some of his critics thought that Paul was too philosophical. Others, that he treated religion too politely. His final departure from the Center for Inquiry came from the organization’s decision to get tough on religion and sponsor cartoon and blasphemy contests—a contravention of the gentler approach to religion that he advocated.

He liked to boast that in the ecumenical spirit after Vatican II, he had attended two Vatican meetings as part of the Catholic Church’s colloquium on the Church’s relationship with unbelievers—a colloquium that indirectly and eventually resulted in the Vatican’s concordat on science and faith, endorsed by two of Paul’s heroes, Carl Sagan and Stephen Jay Gould. He had a special admiration for French Cardinal Paul Jean Poupard who headed the colloquium—and indeed, for smart people in general, theists or atheists. When I asked him once why he did not admire Billy Graham for the same reason he answered with a wry grin, “Because Billy Graham isn’t very smart.”

But Paul himself could be tough on religion: Beginning in the 1980’s he set out to subject religious truth claims to tests in the interest of exposing the flim flam of television evangelists and the religious right. From opposing Ronald Reagan’s “Year of the Bible” to the born-again George W. Bush’s “faith based initiatives,” he believed that religion had no place in national politics and that its abuse could only be corrected by exposing its hypocrisy. In 1982 he founded the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion to work in tandem with his Council for Secular Humanism as a quasi-scholarly watchdog commission. CSER was defunded by CFI in 2010, shortly after Paul Kurtz resigned from CFI.

But the difference between new atheism and Paul’s vision is crucial. First and foremost, Paul believed in education, in getting the word out to ordinary people. Like John Dewey, he believed that the liberal arts and sciences were transformative. He was not the kind of man who would divide audiences into brights and dims: for Paul, everyone who had the will to listen and learn was potentially bright and inherently humanistic in their aspirations. In literally hundreds of conferences and seminars and through the work of on-site meetings and the aegis of Prometheus Books (which he founded), he replicated the energy of the old tent revivals. In fact, some of his earliest editing work included anthologies of the puritan philosophers in American history, including the “father” of the Great Awakening Jonathan Edwards. Edwards’s goal was to deliver the saints from the devil and sin. Paul’s mission was to deliver them from religious hypocrisy.

His gospel was a gospel of freedom from superstition, a gospel of freedom through learning.

He was a professor until the end.

Lying for the Lord: The Mormon Missionary Rides High

Once more….

The New Oxonian


In case you need to hear it again. Mitt Romney will not raise taxes on the middle class, will not increase the deficit, will create 12,000,000 new jobs in the first three months, will protect small businesses, and will save Medicare and Social Security as we know it, while giving future “seniors” more choice about health care options. Everything’s comin’ up roses, and you heard it from his milk-drinking, alcohol-free, tobacco-eschewing lips.

A lot has been made about Romney’s lies, and his commitment to post-truth politics. But they are not really lies–at least not the sort of whoppers that Ben Franklin alluded to in Poor Richard’s when he said the truth stands on two legs, a lie on one.

In the image-is-everything world we live in, propagating your version of the reality you want the world to see is the real goal…

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On Not Quite Believing in God

A New Oxonian pebble from 2010: Reposted 14th October 2012.

Baruch Spinoza

We seem to be witnessing the rapid development of atheist orthodoxy.

I say that as someone who has fallen prey to zingers used about the heretics in the fourth century Empire: According to my disgruntled atheist readers, I am confused, angry, unsettled, provocative, hurtful and creating division, which in Greek is what heresy means.

No one has come right out and said what this might imply: that the New Atheists having written their four sacred books (a canon?) are not subject to correction. I haven’t been told that there is nothing further to study, or that the word of revelation came down in 2005 with the publication of The God Delusion. I have been told (several times) that I am mixing humanism and skepticism and doubt into the batch, when the batch, as in Moses’ day, just calls for batch. Or no batch. I have been reminded (and reminded) that atheism is nothing more than the simple profession of the belief that there is no God, or any gods. Credo non est deus.

When the first heretics were “proclaimed” (as opposed to pilloried by various disgruntled individual bishops) in 325–when the Council of Nicaea “defined” God as a trinity–a particular heretic named Arius was in the Church’s crosshairs. He believed that Jesus was the son of God, in an ordinary sense, if you can imagine it, and not eternal. The growing cadre of right-minded bishops, including his own boss, a man called Athanasius, was committed to the popular intellectual view that everything God was, Jesus was, so Jesus had to be eternal too.

Was Jesus always a son, Arius asked. Yes always, they replied. Was God always a father? Yes, always, they said: God does not change. Then what, asked Arius, is the meaning of terms like father and son?You are irredeemable and anathema to us, they replied. And they wrote their creed and gave the West a god who lasted, more or less, for 1500 years.

To this day, the only bit of the Nicene creed Christians won’t find in their prayer books is the last clause: But those who say: ‘There was a time when he was not;’ and ‘He was not before he was made;’ and ‘He was made out of nothing,’ or ‘He is of another substance’ or ‘essence,’ or ‘The Son of God is created,’ or ‘changeable,’ or ‘alterable’—they are condemned to the fire by the holy catholic and apostolic Church.” It would spoil the family atmosphere to end the prayer on a rancorous note.

I have always felt that the more you know about the history of ideas, the less likely you are to be a true believer. Studying science can have the same effect, but not directly (since science does not deal with religious questions directly) and usually (for obvious reasons) in relation to questions like cosmology rather than questions about historical evolution.

But that “challenge” kept me interested in history and to a lesser degree in philosophy, rather than causing me to throw my hands up and say “What’s the point?” I did not become an historian in order to vindicate any sort of belief, religious or political. But by becoming a historian I learned to recognize that all ideas, including God, have histories, and that the ideas of god in their historical context leave almost no room for philosophical discussions, however framed, about his existence. In fact, even having taught philosophy of religion routinely for two decades, I find the philosophical discussion almost as dull and flat as the scientistic hubris of the new atheists and their disciples.

When I took up a position as a professor of religious studies in Ann Arbor in the 1980′s, students in the large-enrollment lectures immediately spotted me as a skeptic. When I touched on biblical subjects, bright-eyed students from western Michigan would often bring Bibles and try to trip me up on details. I would always say the same thing, after a few volleys: “We are not here to test your fidelity to the teaching of your church nor my fidelity to any greater cause. We’re here to study history. God can take it.” I wish I had a better message after twenty-eight years, but I don’t.

There are two chief problems with orthodoxy–any orthodoxy. Once it establishes itself, it kills its dissenters–if not physically, then by other means. It got Arius (not before he’d done commendable damage however); it got Hus, it got Galileo, and it might’ve gotten Descartes if he hadn’t been very clever in the Discourse on Method by creating a hypothetical pope-free universe.

Scientific orthodoxies had fared no better until the modern era, the advantage of modernity being that science learned the humility of error before it began to be right. It did not promote itself as timeless truth but as correctable knowledge. It would be remarkable if science, in its approach to religion, did not follow the same process, and I’m happy to say that in most cases it does.

For all the confusion about the new atheism attributed to me in the past few months, it seems to me that atheism is not science. It is an opinion (though I’d grant it higher status), grounded in history, to which some of the sciences, along with many other subjects, have something to contribute.

Almost everyone knows not only that the non-existence of God is not a “scientific outcome” but that it is not a philosophical outcome either. So, if it’s true that at its simplest, atheism is a position about God, and nothing else, then atheism will at least need to say why it is significant to hold such a position.

It can’t be significant just because atheists say so, so it must derive its significance from other ideas that attach to the belief in god, ideas that nonbelievers find objectionable and worth rejecting. The gods of Lucretius can’t be objectionable because like John Wisdom’s god they are not only invisible but indiscernible. Consequently, atheism can not simply be about the nonexistence of God; it must be about the implications of that belief for believers.

Some of those beliefs matter more than others. For example, the belief that God created the world. In terms of the number of people who believe this and the vigor with which they are willing to defend that belief, this has to be the most important idea attached to belief in God.

Atheists who care to argue their case philosophically, will maintain that evidence of an alternative physical mode of creation defeats demonstrations of the existence of God. In fact, however, the evidence is a disproof of explanations put forward in a creation myth; and that disproof comes from history long before it comes from philosophy and science. The evidence is nonetheless poignant. But it takes the question of God’s existence into fairly complex argumentation.

Atheists might also argue that belief in the goodness of God is contradicted by the existence of natural and moral evil (theodicy) or that belief in his benevolence and intelligence (design, teleology) is disproved by the fact that this is not the best of all possible universes. These quibbles are great fun in a classroom because they get people talking, thinking and arguing. But as you can see, we have already come a long way from the bare proposition that atheism is just about not believing in God–full stop, unless you have endowed that opinion with some authority outside the reasoning process you needed to get you there. That’s what fundamentalists do.

This recognition is unavoidable because you cannot disbelieve in something to which no attributes have been attached–unless like St Anselm you think that existence is a necessary predicate of divine (“necessary”) being. But that’s another story.

Frankly, some atheists are like instant oatmeal: quickly cooked and ready for consumption.  No stove–no mental anguish, soul searching, philosophical dilemmas or affronts to ordinary morality–has cooked them.  They are quick and, to belabor a term, EZ. When I use the term EZ atheists, I mean those atheists who short-cut propositions and adopt positions based on a less than careful examination of the positions they hold, or hold them based on authority rather than on strictly rational groundsan atheist who holds a belief to be irrefragably true only because she or he has faith that it is true or a very important senior atheist, an atheist bishop, say, says so.

Most atheists, of course, do not establish their positions that way, e.g., Williams Hasker’s “The Case of the Intellectually Sophisticated Theist” (1986) and Michael Martin’s “Critique of Religious Experience” (1990) or the famous discussion between Basil Mitchell (a theist) and Antony Flew (an atheist) called “The Falsification Debate” (1955) provide important indicators about how the existence of God can be defeated propositionally. No atheist who now swims in shallow water should feel overwhelmed by reading these classic pieces.  But something tells me, most haven’t.

Recent articles by Jacques Berlinerblau and Michael Ruse have raised the broad concern that the effects of the “New atheism” might actually be harmful. Why? Because it creates a class of followers who (like the early Christians) are less persuaded by argument than by the certainty of their position. It produces hundreds of disciples who see atheism as a self-authenticating philosophy, circumstantially supported by bits of science, and who, when challenged resort to arguments against their critics rather than arguments in favour of their position.  They point to the wonders of science, the horrors of the Bible, the political overreaching of religious activists.  They also point to a mythical history of prejudice and persecution against atheists that, they may honestly believe, locates them in a civil rights struggle: to be an atheist is like being gay, black, a woman, an abused child.

Atheist Pride is just around the corner–no sorry: I’ve just seen the t-shirt.

A common criticism of the new atheists is that their journey to unbelief did not provide them with the tools necessary for such defense, or that they have found polemical tactics against their critics more effective than standard argumentation: thus, a critic is uninformed or a closet believer. Criticism becomes “rant,” diatribe, hot air; critics are “arrogant” and elitist, or prone to over-intellectualize positions that are really quite simple: Up or down on the God thing?

Points of contention become “confusion,” “divisive”; motives are reduced to spite and jealousy rather than an honest concern for fair discussion–epithets that were used freely against people like Arius and Hus, especially in religious disputes but rarely in modern philosophical discussion. The intensity with which the EZ atheist position is held might be seen as a mark of its fragility, comparable to strategies we see in Christian apologetics.

A year ago, my position on this issue was less resolute: I would have said then that new atheism is just a shortcut to conclusions that older atheists reached by a variety of means, from having been Jesuits to having been disappointed in their church, or education, to reading too much, or staying awake during my lectures. (Even I want some small credit for changing minds).

It is a fact that few people become atheists either in foxholes or philosophy class. But having seen the minor outcry against criticism of the New Atheist position by their adherents, I have come to the conclusion that Ruse and Berlinerblau are right: the new atheism is a danger to American intellectual life, to the serious study of important questions, and to the atheist tradition itself.

I have reasons for saying this. Mostly, they have nothing to do with the canonical status of a few books and speakers who draw, like Jesus, multitudes of hungry listeners. At this level, emotion comes into play, celebrity and authority come into play. Perhaps even faith comes into play. The bright scarlet A of proud atheism as a symbol of nonbelief and denial becomes an icon in its own right: The not-the-cross and not-the-crescent. And again, as we reach beyond not believing into symbolism and the authority of speakers who can deliver you from the dark superstitions of religion, without having to die on a cross, we have come a long way from simply not believing. That is what Professors Ruse and Berlinerblau have been saying.

But the real disaster of the new atheism is one I am experiencing as a college teacher. Almost three decades back I faced opposition from students who denied that history had anything to teach them about their strong emotional commitment to a belief system or faith. Today I am often confronted with students who feel just the same way–except they are atheists, or rather many of them have adopted the name and the logo.

I say “atheist” with the same flatness that I might say, “evangelical,” but I know what it means pedgaogically when I say it. It is a diagnosis not of some intellectual malfunction, but a description of an attitude or perspective that might make historical learning more challenging than in needs to be. It means that the person has brought with her to the classroom a set of beliefs that need Socratic overhaul.

An atheism that has been inhaled at lectures given by significant thinkers is heady stuff. Its closest analogy is “getting saved,” and sometimes disciples of the New Atheists talk a language strangely like that of born agains. I hear the phrase “life changing experience” frequently from people who have been awakened at a Dawkins lecture, or even through watching videos on YouTube. It would be senseless to deny that the benefit is real. And it is futile to deny that leaving students in a state of incomplete transformation, without the resources to pursue unbelief–or its implications for a good and virtuous life beyond the purely selfish act of not believing–makes the task of education a bit harder for those of us left behind, in a non-apocalyptic sort of way.

I suspect this is pure fogeyism, but life-changing gurus have minimal responsibility after they have healed the blind.  –Jesus didn’t do post-surgical care.

I could site dozens of examples of the challenges the new atheist position presents. Two from recent Facebook posts will do. In response to a Huffington Post blog by a certain Rabbi Adam Jacobs on March 24, one respondent wrote, “Thanks Rabbi. I think I will be good without god and eat a bacon cheeseburger and think of you cowering in fear of the cosmic sky fairy…” and another, “This crazy Rabbi is completely right. Atheism does imply a moral vacuum, whether we like it or not. But that doesn’t mean that we can just accept the manifestly false premises of religion just because it would create a cozy set of moral fictions for us, which is what the author seems to be saying.”

The cosmic sky fairy, a variation presumably on Bobby Henderson’s (pretty amusing) Flying Spaghetti Monster, doesn’t strike me as blasphemy. Almost nothing does. But it strikes me as trivial. A student who can dismiss a serious article about the relationship of science, morality and religion, asked, let’s say, to read Aquinas in a first year seminar would be at a serious disadvantage. A worshiper of Richard Dawkins who can’t deal with Aquinas because he is “religious” is not better than an evangelical Christian who won’t read it because he was “Catholic.” That is where we are.

The second comment suggests that atheism is “de-moralizing,” in the sense that it eliminates one of the conventional grounds for thinking morality exists. The writer doesn’t find this troubling as an atheist, because he see the post-Kantian discussion of morality as high-sounding but fruitless chatter: “There is no higher justification for any moral imperative beyond ‘because I think/feel it’s better.’” –I actually happen to agree with him. But I can’t begin a conversation at the conclusion. His honesty about the question is pinned to a view of atheism that, frankly, I cannot understand.

The essence of EZ atheism is this trivialization of questions that it regards as secondary to the entertainment value of being a non-believer, a status that some will defend simply through polemic or ridicule of anything “serious,” anything assumed to be “high culture” or too bookish.

I am not questioning the robustness of the movement, its popularity, or the sincerity of the followers. I am not trying to make new atheism rocket science or classical philology. I have never suggested it belongs to the academy and not to the village, because I know that nothing renders a worldview ineffective quite so thoroughly as keeping it locked in a university lecture hall.

The idea that there is no God, if it were left to me, would be discussed in public schools and from the pulpit. But it won’t be. For all the wrong reasons. When Harvard four years ago attempted to introduce a course in the critical study of religion into its core curriculum, its most distinguished professor of psychology, who happens also to be an atheist, lobbied (successfully) against it because it was to be taught as a “religion” course. Almost no one except a few humanists saw that atheism lost a great battle in that victory. And it lost it, I hate to say, because the professor responsible sensationalised the issue as “bringing the study of religion into the Yard” rather than keeping it safely sequestered in the Divinity School.

I want to suggest that the trivialization of culture (which includes religion and religious ideas), especially in America where trivial pursuits reign, is not especially helpful. And as I have said pretty often, that part of this trivialization is the use of slogans, billboards, out campaigns and fishing expeditions to put market share ahead of figuring things out.

Truth to tell, there is nothing to suggest that these campaigns have resulted in racheting up numbers, increasing public understanding of unbelief, or advancing a coherent political agenda. They have however potentially harmed atheism with tactics that simplify religious ideas to an alarming level (all the better to splay them) and by confirming in the minds of many “potential Brights” (Dennett) that their suspicions of atheism were well founded. Adherents of the New Atheists need to make a distinction between success as a corollary of profits to the authors and the benefit to the movement or, to be very old fashioned, the ideals of an atheist worldview.

After a long time as a teacher, I am surprised to find myself writing about this. I have often found myself thinking, “If only half my students were atheists. Then we could get somewhere. We could say what we like, just the way we like it. We could follow the evidence where it takes us–no more sidestepping ‘awkward issues’ so as not to injure religious feelings.”

If only it were that easy: I may spend the remainder of my time in the academy imploring the sky fairy to smile on my efforts and deliver me from orthodoxy of all kinds.

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An Introduction to Probability Theory and Why Bayes’s Theorem is Unhelpful in History

October 12, 2012

The following is a post written by Ian on his blog “Irreducible Complexity” reposted here with his permission

This post follows from the previous review of Richard Carrier’s “Proving History”, which attempts to use Bayes’s Theorem to prove Jesus didn’t exist. In my review I point out a selection of the mathematical problems with that book, even though I quite enjoyed it. This post is designed to explain what Bayes’s Theorem actually does, and show why it isn’t particularly useful outside of specific domains. It is a journey through basic probability theory, for folks who aren’t into math (though I’ll assume high-school math). It is designed to be simple, and therefore is rather long. I will update it and clarify it from time to time.

Let’s think about the birth of Christianity. How did it happen? We don’t know, which is to say there are a lot of different things that could have happened. Let’s use an illustration to picture this.

Complex diagram, eh? I want this rectangle to represent all possible histories: everything that could have happened. In math we call this rectangle the ‘universe‘, but meant metaphorically: the universe of possibilities. In the rectangle each point is one particular history. So there is one point which is the actual history, the one-true-past (OTP in the diagram below), but we don’t know which it is. In fact, we can surely agree we’ve no hope of ever finding it, right? To some extent there will always be things in history that are uncertain.

When we talk about something happening in history, we aren’t narrowing down history to a point. If we consider the claim “Jesus was the illegitimate child of a Roman soldier”, there are a range of possible histories involving such a Jesus. Even if we knew 100% that were true, there would be a whole range of different histories including that fact.

Napolean moved his knife in a particular way during his meal on January 1st 1820, but he could have moved that knife in any way, or been without a knife, and the things we want to say about him wouldn’t change. His actual knife manipulation is part of the one-true-past, but totally irrelevant for Napoleonic history1.

So any claim about history represents a whole set of possible histories. We draw such sets as circles. And if you’re a child of the new math, you’ll recognize the above as a Venn diagram. But I want to stress what the diagram actually means, so try to forget most of your Venn diagram math for a while.

At this point we can talk about what a probability is.

There are essentially an infinite number of possible histories (the question of whether it is literally infinite is one for the philosophy of physics, but even if finite, it would be so large as to be practically infinite for the purpose of our task). So each specific history would be infinitely unlikely. We can’t possibly say anything useful about how likely any specific point is, we can’t talk about the probability of a particular history.

So again we turn to our sets. Each set has some likelihood of the one-true-past lying somewhere inside it. How likely is it that Jesus was born in Bethlehem? That’s another way of asking how likely it is that the one-true-past lies in the set of possible histories that we would label “Jesus Born in Bethlehem”. The individual possibilities in the set don’t have a meaningful likelihood, but our historical claims encompass many possibilities, and as a whole those claims do have meaningful likelihood. In other words, when we talk about how likely something was to have happened, we are always talking about a sets of possibilities that match our claim.

We can represent the likelihood on the diagram by drawing the set bigger or smaller. If we have two sets, one drawn double the size of the other, then the one-true-past is twice as likely to be in the one that is drawn larger.

So now we can define what a probability is for a historical claim. A probability is a ratio of the likelihood of a set, relative to the whole universe of possibilities. Or, in terms of the diagram, what fraction of the rectangle is taken up by the set of possibilities matching our claim?

If we can somehow turn likelihood into a number, (i.e. let’s say that the likelihood of a set S is a nmber written L(S)) and if the universe is represented by the set U, probability can be mathematically defined as:

But where do these ‘likelihood’ numbers come from? That’s a good question, and one that turns out to be very hard to give an answer for that works in all cases. But for our purpose, just think of them as a place-holder for any of a whole range of different things we could use to calculate a probability. For example: if we were to calculate the probability of rolling 6 on a die, the likelihood numbers would be the number of sides: the likelihood of rolling a 6 would be 1 side, the likelihood of rolling anything would be 6 sides, so the probability of rolling a six is 1/6. If we’re interested in the probability of a scanner diagnosing a disease, the likelihoods would be the numbers of scans: on top would be the number of successful scans, the number on the bottom would be the total number of scans. We use the abstraction as a way of saying “it doesn’t much matter what these things are, as long as they behave in a particular way, the result is a probability”.

Now we’ve got to probabilities, we’ve used these ‘likelihoods’ as a ladder, and we can move on. We only really worry about how the probability is calculated when we have to calculate one, and then we do need to figure out what goes on the top and bottom of the division.

Another diagram.

In this diagram we have two sets. These are two claims, or two sets of possible histories. The sets may overlap in any combination. If no possible history could match both claims (e.g. “Jesus was born in Bethlehem” and “Jesus was born in Nazereth”), then the two circles wouldn’t touch [kudos if you are thinking “maybe there are ways both could be kind-of true” – that’s some math for another day]. Or it might be that the claims are concentric (“Jesus was born in Bethlehem”, “Jesus was born”), any possibility in one set, will always be in another. Or they may, as in this case, overlap (“Jesus was born in Nazereth”, “Jesus was born illegitimately”).

I’ve been giving examples of sets of historical claims, but there is another type of set that is important: the set of possible histories matching something that we know happened. Of all the possible histories, how many of them produce a New Testament record that is similar to the one we know?

This might seem odd. Why does our universe include things we know aren’t true? Why are there possibilities which lead to us never having a New Testament? Why are there histories where we have a surviving comprehensive set of writings by Jesus? Can’t we just reject those outright? The unhelpful answer is that we need them for the math to work. As we’ll see, Bayes’s Theorem requires us to deal with the probability that history turned out the way it did. I’ll give an example later of this kind of counter-factual reasoning.

So we have these two kinds of set. One kind which are historical claims, and the other which represent known facts. The latter are often called Evidence, abbreviated E, the former are Hypotheses, or H. So let’s draw another diagram.

where H∩E means the intersection of sets H and E – the set of possible histories where we both see the evidence and where our hypothesis is true (you can read the mathematical symbol ∩ as “and”).

Here is the basic historical problem. We have a universe of possible histories. Some of those histories could have given rise to the evidence we know, some might incorporate our hypothesis. We know the one true past lies in E, but we want to know how likely it is to be in the overlap, rather than the bit of E outside H. In other words, how likely is it that the Hypothesis true, given the Evidence we know?

Above, I said that probability is how likely a set is, relative to the whole universe. This is a simplification we have to revisit now. Probability is actually how likely one sets is, relative to some other set that completely encompasses it (a superset in math terms).

We’re not actually interested in how likely our Hypothesis is, relative to all histories that could possibly have been. We’re only interested in how likely our hypothesis is, given our evidence: given that the one-true-past is in E.

So the set we’re interested in is the overlap where we have the evidence and the hypothesis is true. And the superset we want to compare it to is E, because we know the one-true-past is in there (or at least we are willing to assume it is). This is what is known as a conditional probability. It says how likely is H, given that we know or assume E is true: we write it as P(H|E) (read as “the probability of H, given E”). And from the diagram it should be clear the answer is:

It is the ratio of the size of the overlap, relative to the size of the whole of E. This is the same as our previous definition of probability, only before we were comparing it to the whole universe U, now we’re comparing it to just the part of U where E is true2.

We could write all probabilities as conditional probabilities, because ultimately any probability is relative to something. We could write P(S|U) to say that we’re interested in the probability of S relative to the universe. We could, but it would be pointless, because that is what P(S) means. Put another way, P(S) is just a conveniently simplified way of writing P(S|U).

So what is a conditional probability doing? It is zooming in, so we’re no longer talking about probabilities relative to the whole universe of possibilities (most of which we know aren’t true anyway), we’re now zooming in, to probabilities relative to things we know are true, or we’re willing to assume are true. Conditional probabilities throw away the rest of the universe of possibilities and just focus on one area: for P(H|E), we zoom into the set E, and treat E as if it were the universe of possibilities. We’re throwing away all those counter-factuals, and concentrating on just the bits that match the evidence.

The equation for conditional probability is simple, but in many cases it is hard to find P(H∩E), so we can manipulate it a little, to remove P(H∩E) and replace it with something simpler to calculate.

Bayes’s Theorem is one of many such manipulations. We can use some basic high school math to derive it:

Step-by-step math explanation: The first line is just the formula for conditional probability again. If we multiply both sides by P(E) (and therefore move it from one side of the equation to the other) we get the first two parts on the second line. We then assume that P(H∩E) = P(E∩H) (in other words, the size of the overlap in our diagram is the same regardless of which order we write the two sets), which means that we can get the fourth term on the second line just by changing over E and H in the first term. Line three repeats these two terms on one line without the P(H∩E) and P(E∩H) in the middle. We then divide by P(E) again to get line four, which gives us an equation for P(H|E) again.

What is Bayes’s Theorem doing? Notice the denominator is the same as for conditional probability P(E), so what Bayes’s Theorem is doing is giving us a way to calculate P(H∩E) differently. It is saying that we can calculate P(H∩E) by looking at the proportion of H taken up by H∩E, multiplied by the total probability of H. If I want to find the amount of water in a cup, I could say “its half the cup, the cup holds half a pint, so I have one half times half a pint, which is a quarter of a pint”. That’s the same logic here. The numerator of Bayes’s theorem is just another way to calculate P(H∩E).

So what is Bayes’s Theorem for? It let’s us get to the value we’re interested in — P(H|E) — if we happen to know, or can calculate, the other three quantities: the probability of each set, P(H) and P(E) (relative to the universe of possibilities), and the probability of seeing the evidence if the hypothesis were true P(E|H). Notice that, unlike the previous formula, we’ve now got three things to find in order to use the equation. And either way, we still need to calculate the probability of the evidence, P(E).

Bayes’s Theorem can also be useful if we could calculate P(H∩E), but with much lower accuracy than we can calculate P(H) and P(E|H). Then we’d expect our result from Bayes’s Theorem to be a more accurate value for P(H|E). If, on the other hand we could measure P(H∩E), or we had a different way to calculate that, we wouldn’t need Bayes’s Theorem.

Bayes’s Theorem is not a magic bullet, it is just one way of calculating P(H|E). In particular it is the simplest formula for reversing the condition, if you know P(E|H), you use Bayes’s Theorem to give you P(H|E)3.

So the obvious question is: if we want to know P(H|E), what shall we use to calculate it? Either of the two formulae above need us to calculate P(E), in the universe of possible histories, how likely are we to have ended up with the evidence we have? Can we calculate that?

And here things start to get tricky. I’ve never seen any credible way of doing so. What would it mean to find the probability of the New Testament, say?

Even once we’ve done that, we’d only be justified in using Bayes’s Theorem if our calculations for P(H) and P(E|H) are much more accurate than we could manage for P(H∩E). Is that true?

I’m not sure I can imagine a way of calculating either P(H∩E) or P(E|H) for a historical event. How would we credibly calculate the probability of the New Testament, given the Historical Jesus? Or the probably of having both New Testament and Historical Jesus in some universe of possibilities? If you want to use this math, you need to justify how on earth you can put numbers on these quantities. And, as we’ll see when we talk about how these formulae magnify errors, you’ll need to do more than just guess.

But what of Carrier’s (and William Lane Craig’s) favoured version of Bayes’s Theorem? It is is derived from the normal version by observing:

in other words, the set E is just made up of the bit that overlaps with H and the bit that doesn’t (~H means “not in H”), so because

(which was the rearrangement of the conditional probability formula we used on line two of our derivation of Bayes’s Theorem), we can write Bayes’s Theorem as

Does that help?

I can’t see how. This is just a further manipulation. The bottom of this equation is still just P(E), we’ve just come up with a different way to calculate it, one involving more terms4. We’d be justified in doing so, only if these terms were obviously easier to calculate, or could be calculated with significantly lower error than P(E).

If these terms are estimates, then we’re just using more estimates that we haven’t justified. We’re still having to calculate P(E|H), and now P(E|~H) too. I cannot conceive of a way to do this that isn’t just unredeemable guesswork. And it is telling nobody I’ve seen advocate Bayes’s Theorem in history has actually worked through such a process with anything but estimates.

This is bad news, and it might seem that Bayes’s Theorem could never be any useful for anything. But there are cases when we do have the right data.

Let’s imagine that we’re trying a suspect for murder. The suspect has a DNA match at the scene (the Evidence). Our hypothesis is that the DNA came from the suspect. What is P(H|E) – the probability that the DNA is the suspect’s, given that it is a match? This is a historical question, right? We’re asked to find what happened in history, given the evidence before us. We can use Bayes here, because we can get all the different terms.

P(E|H) is simple – what is the probability our test would give a match, given the DNA was the suspect’s? This is the accuracy of the test, and is probably known. P(E) is the probability that we’d get a match regardless. We can use a figure for the probability that two random people would have matching DNA. P(H) is the probability that our suspect is the murderer, in the absence of evidence. This is the probability that any random person is the murderer (if we had no evidence, we’d have no reason to suspect any particular person). So the three terms we need can be convincingly provided, measured, and their errors calculated. And, crucially, these three terms are much easier to calculate, with lower errors, than if we used the P(H∩E) form. What could we measure to find the probability that the suspect is the murderer and their DNA matched? Probably nothing – Bayes’s Theorem really is the best tool to find the conditional probability we’re interested in.

While we’re thinking about this example, I want to return briefly to what I said about counter-factual reasoning. Remember I said that Bayes’s Theorem needs us to work with a universe of possibilities where things we know are true, might not be true? The trial example shows this. We are calculating the probability that the suspect’s DNA would match the sample at the crime scene – but this is counter-factual, because we know it did (otherwise we’d not be doing the calculation). We’re calculating the probability that the DNA would match, assuming the suspect were the murderer, but again, this is counter-factual, because the DNA did match, and we’re trying to figure out whether they are the murderer. This example shows that the universe of possibilities we must consider has to be bigger than the things we know are true. We have to work with counter-factuals, to get the right values.

So Bayes’s Theorem is useful when we have the right inputs. Is it useful in history? I don’t think so. What is the P(E) if the E we’re interested in is the New Testament? Or Jospehus? I simply don’t see how you can give a number that is rooted in anything but a random guess. I’ve not seen it argued with any kind of rational basis.

So ultimately we end up with this situation. Bayes’s Theorem is used in these kind of historical debates to feed in random guesses and pretend the output is meaningful. I hope if you’ve been patient enough to follow along, you’ll see that Bayes’s Theorem has a very specific meaning, and that when seen in the cold light of day for what it is actually doing, the idea that it can be numerically applied to general questions in history is obviously ludicrous.

But, you might say, in Carrier’s book he pretty much admits that numerical values are unreliable, and suggests that we can make broad estimates, erring on the side of caution and do what he calls an a fortiori argument – if a result comes from putting in unrealistically conservative estimates, then that result can only get stronger if we make the estimates more accurate. This isn’t true, unfortunately, but for that, we’ll have to delve into the way these formulas impact errors in the estimates. We can calculate the accuracy of the output, given the accuracy of each input, and it isn’t very helpful for a fortiori reasoning. That is a topic for another part.

As is the little teaser from earlier, where I mentioned that, in subjective historical work, sets that seem not to overlap can be imagined to overlap in some situations. This is another problem for historical use of probability theory, but to do it justice we’ll need to talk about philosophical vagueness and how we deal with that in mathematics.

Whether I get to those other posts or not, the summary is that both of them significantly reduce the accuracy of the conclusions that you can reach with these formula, if your inputs are uncertain. It doesn’t take much uncertainty on the input before you loose any plausibility for your output.

1 Of course, we can hypothesize some historical question for which it might not be irrelevant. Perhaps we’re interested in whether he was sick that day, or whether he was suffering a degenerating condition that left his hands compromised. Still, the point stands, even those claims still encompass a set of histories, they don’t refer to a single point.

2 Our definition of probability involved L(S) values, what happened to them? Why are we now dividing probabilities? Remember that a Likelihood, L(S), could be any number that represented how likely something was. So something twice as likely had double the L(S) value. I used examples like number of scans or number of sides of a die, but probability values also meet those criteria, so they can also be used as L(S) values. The opposite isn’t true, not every Likelihood value is a probability (e.g. we could have 2,000 scans, which would be a valid L(S) value, but 2,000 is not a valid probability).

3 Though Bayes’s Theorem is often quoted as being a way to reverse the condition P(H|E) from P(E|H), it does still rely on P(E) and P(H). You can do further algebraic manipulations to find these quantities, one of which we’ll see later to calculate P(E). Here the nomenclature is a bit complex. Though Bayes’s Theorem is a simple algebraic manipulation of conditional probability, further manipulation doesn’t necessarily mean a formula is no longer a statement of Bayes’s Theorem. The presence of P(E|H) in the numerator is normally good enough for folks to call it Bayes’s Theorem, even if the P(E) and P(H) terms are replaced by more complex calculations.

4 You’ll notice, however, that P(E|H)P(H) is on both the top and the bottom of the fraction now. So it may seem that we’re using the same estimate twice, cutting down the number of things to find. This is only partially helpful, though. If I write a follow up post on errors and accuracy, I’ll show why I think that errors on top and bottom can pull in different directions.

Lying for the Lord: The Mormon Missionary Rides High


In case you need to hear it again. Mitt Romney will not raise taxes on the middle class, will not increase the deficit, will create 12,000,000 new jobs in the first three months, will protect small businesses, and will save Medicare and Social Security as we know it, while giving future “seniors” more choice about health care options. Everything’s comin’ up roses, and you heard it from his milk-drinking, alcohol-free, tobacco-eschewing lips.

A lot has been made about Romney’s lies, and his commitment to post-truth politics. But they are not really lies–at least not the sort of whoppers that Ben Franklin alluded to in Poor Richard’s when he said the truth stands on two legs, a lie on one.

In the image-is-everything world we live in, propagating your version of the reality you want the world to see is the real goal. Mitt Romney is good at it. But he is not good at it because he a a good lawyer, or a good businessman, or a good guy.

He is a good at is because he is a Mormon–and not just a Mormon but a really good Mormon. And really good Mormons are the best liars in the world.

In the recent debate, Mr Obama, a man still occasionally in touch with this weird and rare thing called truth, had a hard time understanding the scene unfolding adjacent to him.

He seemed to be a man reading for a part in the wrong play, using the wrong script–one that corresponded to a different plotline. If at times he seemed to be thinking, “I can’t believe this guy” what he was hoping is that no one else would believe this guy. But many did and many will. Meanwhile, Romney basked in the artificial light of the artificial scene with the artifical trees and shrubs and buildings that the President stumbled into. All that was missing was Jim Reeves singing “Welcome to My World” in the background. Obama was a guest in Mitt Romney’s head for an hour and a half.

Contrary to what the media said, this was not a weak performance by a man—the President–who needed to get in there and throw a few punches and challenge Romney’s “facts”. It was a scene out of Mars Attacks. It was the devil messing with Eve’s head, Satan in jeering voice taunting Job. In fact,Obama looked more Job- than Solomon-like, a man afflicted and confused.

No one expected the enemy to take this form. At one point, in reply to Romney’s third asseveration that he was not advocatng a three trillion dollar tax break and that the President’s statements were “simply inaccurate,” (“I don’t know where you’re getting this stuff”) Mr Obama simply looked disappointed and mildly shook his graying head. How many at that point wanted someone to say pointedly “I’m getting it from you, Governor–it’s what you’ve been saying for eighteen months.” Except we all know what Romney would have said, in that Jon Lovitz/Tommy Flannagan style he had adopted: “No I didn’t. You’re making that up, too.” Post-truthfulness, to be effective, must be pathologically coherent.

Accordingly it was Mitt Romney’s reality that won, and there was no room in that reality for challenge. In the myth Romney cunningly spun, lies became pillars in an unassailable argument. The response to that myth–the only appropriate one, and hence one this President could not make–would be “You’re full of shit, and everything you have said is shit. If people want to vote for shit, they will vote for you.” Short of that, nothing would have worked. But something tells me, that might have.

Peter, James, and John ordain Joseph Smith

Do we know any other area of life where factual challenges do not prevail over evidence and eyesight?

Of course we do. Religion. This debate was won by theological sleight of hand—by “the evidence of things not seen,” otherwise known as faith. The old Yiddish joke about a jewel thief caught in the act by a cop (“Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?”) also works if you change the culprit to a philandering husband. And it works if you make the perpetrator a contemporary Mormon politician. The Mormon tradition of “Lying for the Lord” has received a little attention (though not enough) recently, especially in an interview with Brigham Young’s descendant, Sue Emmet, in The Daily Beast. Mitt Romney may be the best of the breed in knowing how the game ius played and when to play it.

Although Christanity has had two thousand years to get its duplicitous act together and has more or less accepted standard distinctions between truth and falsehood, except in doctrinal matters, religion scholars know that religious minorities often have to survive by practicing duplicity in the interest of the higher cause: propagating their version of the truth.

They do this to make their converts (think: voters) believe that what they are signing onto is better than what they’ve got, if necessary by telling them that while their brief and mortal lives stink, their eternal one will be a bed of roses–a little like the lives of the 1% here on earth.

Celsus, an early critic of Christanity, sneers at the way Christians prey on unsuspecting “yokels,” then fade, hide or deny when their preachers are confronted by skeptical onlookers. In Islam, various sectarians, including the Druze of Lebanon and Syria, were famous liars—a reputation that put their militias at the service of the highest bidder during the long Lebanese civil war. The Alawites of Syria, like the ancient gnostics before them and other heterodox cults, spread in just the same way. Once upon a time, it variously benefited and hurt Christians to be confused with Jews. When it benefited them to be different and join ranks with pagan anti-Semitism, they joined ranks and took over the Empire and began acting like pagans. That’s the way religious lying works. You just have to have a cool head, a few zingers in your quiver, and know whom to appease and whom oppose.

Being sneaky and learning to lie has benefited every endangered sect since the Reformation, ranging from the Dunkards to the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Moonies. The point is to get your foot in the door. Once you do that, you can get your ideas into your victim’s head.

But Mormons are the champions of all champion liars. Lying has made them not just survivors but rich and prosperous survivors.

Unlike some less mendacious groups, the Mormons were founded by a renowned snake oil salesman and accomplished untruth teller. Joseph Smith is the prototype, though with less carnage to his direct credit, for such successors as David Koresh and Jim Jones, of (respectively) Waco and Jonestown fame—religious leaders who begin on the tracks and then derail their congregants with promises of beachfront property in the Kingdom and a divine bank account that never goes overdraft.

Mormons are not just used car salesmen: they may have invented used car salesmen. If you don’t believe me, just replay any speech Mitt Romney has made in the last ten years, and you will see in his healthy glow the snake oil that his religion has been selling for 175 years. It takes us right back to the famous father of fork-tongued evangelists who once boasted that he had “become all things to all all men so that [he] could save all.” Translated from the Greek it means, Do what it takes.

Lying comes naturally to Romney, the young Mormon missionary to France, the young Mormon draft-averter, the Mormon bishop, the Mormon philanthropist. It has been a feature of his religion since its deranged founder set the Guinness record for religious lies.

Beginning in 1846, after their violent expulsion from Nauvoo, Illinois Mormon missionaries attempted to depict themselves in England as victims of persecution. The tales were engineered by Brigham Young himself and his closest associates, who then tried to win converts for the Utah trek by depicting the Salt Lake Valley as a veritable paradise. After the British Mormon John Edward Taylor became chief propagandist for the cult around 1852, and after failing to attract large numbers of takers with a “land grant” Ponzi-scheme that was designed to take the “saints” all the way to California, he lured them with this:

The way is now prepared; the roads, bridges, and
ferry-boats made; there are stopping places also on the way where they can rest, obtain vegetables and corn, and, when they arrive at the far end, instead
of finding a wild waste, they will meet with friends, provisions and a home, so that all that will be requisite for them to do will be to find sufficient teams
to draw their families, and to take along with them a few woollen or cotton goods, or other articles of merchandise which will be light, and which the
brethren will require until they can manufacture for themselves.

“How many a poor Englishman,” worried the Millennial Star Newspaper of the day, “ toiling over the plains in the next succeeding years, and, arriving in arid Utah to find himself in the clutches of an organization from which he could not escape, had reason to curse the man who drew this picture!”

One of the constant themes of women and men who have left the Mormon church has been the noble tradition of “lying for the Lord,” a habit that goes back to Joseph Smith himself and the peculiarities of his “discovery”
of the golden tablets (“being composed of thin metallic pages engraved on both sides and bound with three D-shaped rings”) that constituted the latterday revelation of the saints.

Smith’s reformed Egyptian letters: do not correspond to any ancient script or language

“The LDS church” says Ken Clark, a former Mormon bishop, “consistently describes in sermons and paintings, the visitation of an angel named Moroni to Joseph Smith on September 21, 1823. Moroni is pictured floating above Joseph or next to his bed, alone in his bedroom. The pictures do not portray Joseph’s five brothers who slept in the same room with him. A restored Smith house is used for LDS tours showing the small room and only two beds for six brothers. Nothing resembling the actual sleeping arrangement is hinted at in the church’s official literature and pictorial recreations of the scene.”

Following this initial deception, Mormonism entered into a long history of post-truthfulness—the sort of thing that runs deep in Romney DNA. The Kinderhook Plates Hoax (fake metal plates that Smith pronounced ancient Egyptian); the lie that Joseph Smith wrote the History of the Church, when it was not recorded until decades after his death; the great Rocky Mountain Prophecy, invented to convince believers that the Salt Lake Valley was the place ordained for them by God as a promised land; even the “name change” of the angel responsible for the revelation to Smith—from Nephi to Moroni, a change which would be analogous to saying that, on second thought, Jesus’ name was really Schlomo.

Some Mormon historians have labeled the phenomenon of Mormon lying and duplicity “theocratic ethics.” According to D. Michael Quinn, Smith lied to “protect himself or the church, which was an extension of himself. ” And Dan Vogel (Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet) describes Smith’s viewpoint even more succinctly: he was a pious deceiver.

Smith used deception if in his mind it resulted in a good outcome. Smith had Moroni, an ancient American prophet and custodian of the gold plates declare, “And whatsoever thing persuadeth men to do good is of me; for good cometh of none save it be of
me. ( Moroni 4:11-12). Translation: if deception was necessary to do good, or bring a soul to Christ, then it was worth it, as long as God approves. Smith
believed he knew when God approved of lying.

It’s odd to me that none of the political commentators have chosen—as far as I can tell—to dwell on the “Lying for the Lord” aspect of Mormon culture: its disregard for telling the truth in stressful situations, and its penchant for making up new truths as circumstances warrant. No wonder Paul Ryan, with his rather different Catholic approach to reality, looks bewildered and confused as Romney plows on, unhampered by the constraints of fact and detail. He is just doing his religious duty, surreptitiously as his religion requires him to do it.

Is this because the candidate himself, as a true Mormon, has succeeded in keeping the reverence for deceit below the radar–doing in effect what every good Mormon leader since Joseph Smith, Brigham Young and Joseph Taylor has been doing for 175 years?

When Mitt Romney says he is not calling for 3 trillion dollars in tax cuts, not asking for austerity, not aiming to curtail entitlement programs, are we really just looking at a twenty-first century cultist’s version of the promises made by nineteenth century Mormon propagandists to reluctant converts who—when they arrived in Utah—discovered not the garden of Eden but a desert?

Mormonsim has been called the “uniquely American religion.” Mitt Romney, if he is elected, will be the first uniquely American Mormon president. As voters consider their choices, they need to know that Mormonism is and always has been a duplicitous, deceitful and lying cult whose movers and shakers were accustomed to living in a post-truth era long before there was a postmodern justification for it. Whenever things got tough–as they were for Mitt Romney before his debate with Barack Obama–there was always the fallback position: a new truth, a new reality, a new made-to-order revelation. People who like truth may regard Mormon ethics as a little slippery.

But if you like that kind of thing, as the President might say, Mitt is your man.

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