The Richard Carrier Project FAQ
Frequently Asked QuestionsIntro:
It should be obvious if you have any conception of the scope of this project that Richard Carrier has no problem with people disagreeing with him with the utmost derision. He expects it and obviously he is well prepared for it. There are hundreds of catalog entries which could easily be seen as a gallery of how wrong he is or as a testament to his commitment to straight-forward, ongoing, responsible interaction on many difficult topics that are vastly important to a great many people.
As project manager, I’ve assembled a list of pop-level questions that I think are representative of the most common misconceptions that Christians tend to walk away with if they are only somewhat familiar with Carrier’s work. As such, these are not the most flattering questions to answer and do not really properly categorize him as a person or as a culture warrior on the secular humanist side of the religion-centric culture wars. This FAQ starts with the knee jerk reactions and lazy caricatures and clarifies from the standpoint of someone who is very familiar with his work. I do think it is at least worth the attempt to set the record straight even if ideologically hostile audiences remain unsympathetic and find creative ways to maintain their no-true-Carrier impressions, their Christian prejudices, and general self-justifications.
Oh noes! Someone blew something out of proportion on the internets!
1. Why is Richard Carrier so arrogant?
Confidence is often mistaken for arrogance (see the "Roast" page for many choice quotes). When that confidence is antithetical to a different ideology, that intensifies the probability of misapprehension. When the subject matter in question is particularly contentious and especially complicated covering so many different areas of knowledge and long standing arguments and requiring all sorts of background knowledge that is not immediately evident to parties who are not on the same page, this also intensifies the effect. Christians typically are looking at any atheist through the eyes of their worldview which paints non-believers by default as arrogant sinners in rebellion against their god anyway, so it doesn’t take much to set off those alarms. Lastly, Carrier is just as human as everyone else, but he is correctable and does freely make public apologies on occasion when appropriate.
Carrier is professional in his work, but doesn’t hesitate to return insult and injury in many of his online squabbles. I don’t see how we can blame him more for this and excuse the hostility of those he is in confrontation with. Anyone on any side of the fence who has spent many years online arguing with ideologically hostile audiences is going to lose empathy for the other side. If we grant room for the one side, we have to grant it to the other and not let everything fall on “which side is ultimately right” about whatever given factual issue. Being correct doesn’t justify just any behavior, but we can all allow each other to be human and not let every subjective pejorative characterization fall on just the side we happen to disagree with in principle.
2. Isn’t Richard Carrier a hypocrite for defending a fringe, anti-consensus view on the historicity of Jesus?
Christians can be mildly tolerant of your average level of skepticism, but seem to get especially bent out of shape when a skeptic goes a step further and claims that Jesus probably didn't even exist as a historical figure in any sense (for example, see here, here, here, and here). Add to that the tension of Christianity being constantly harassed for departing from mainstream intellectualism while having a skeptic do the same while still pointing the finger at Christians and all of the sudden this seems to make them especially embittered.
However, taking a step back from that high tension zone, Christians forget that on balance Carrier is only defending one fringe view against the grain of an academic or scientific consensus. If most mainstream Christians are honest they will be able to list the plethora of fringe views they know they have (which technically makes them look like the "cranks," if we have to go there). No matter how “out there” mythicism may be, the theory that Jesus rose from the dead, had magic powers, or that the Bible is inerrant is many light years further beyond the threshold of acceptance by mainstream scholarship. Even from a secular standpoint, Carrier believes that one heavily mythologized historical figure is a bit more mythologized than the current consensus is comfortable with. Mundane things are just as easy to make up as fantastic things. I own a vacuum cleaner. Actually I don't (though my roomate does). See how easy that was? Totally plausible claim, yet completely false. Mythicism even at face value isn't really that far off from the mainstream in comparison, even if Carrier's forthcoming meta-argument is incorrect. So complain all you want about hypocrisy, but the instant shades of gray are introduced into the black and white thinking, all of the sudden it is very clear who is more off base.
Further there is the way one goes about it defending a fringe position that is really important (and often easily overlooked). When the Intelligent Design movement infamously bypasses peer review and goes directly to popular audiences and legislation, that looks bad and is irresponsible. Carrier continually says in many different forums that it is his job as a professional historian to change the minds of the consensus of historians with better arguments. Also he says that it is reasonable and appropriate for non-historians to withhold judgment until he does his job. In other words, listen in, but keep things in perspective. The crime is not disagreeing with the consensus since the consensus is not always right. The crime is being a perpetual criminal in terms of working on respectful and professional terms with that consensus rather than ignoring it, or making a habit of complaining about some conspiracy to stifle the truth. Carrier has many critical things to say against bad mythicism presentations like the movie Zeitgeist and also many criticisms in general of mythicist arguments. So if you have in mind the "obviously bad arguments for mythicism" he likely agrees with you on those points. His two volume work on the historicity of Jesus will be (and already has been to an extent) peer reviewed by qualified mathematicians and qualified historians and he believes it is only the beginning of a possibly decades long conversation to attempt to pull the vastly muddled realm of Jesus studies together.
See also: Did Jesus Exist? Earl Doherty and the Argument to Ahistoricity (2002), Richard Carrier - How Not to Argue The Mythicist Position Episode | The Infidel Guy Show, and CPBD 083: Richard Carrier – Historical Method and Jesus of Nazareth
3. Why does Richard Carrier claim that the apostle Paul in the Bible believes that Jesus rose from the dead in spiritual form?
He doesn’t, though this is a very common impression Christians walk away with from a superficial look at Carrier’s arguments on the topic. He argues that Paul probably believed in a two-body doctrine. One body was flesh and blood and the other new body was also a physical body that was built from awesome heavenly materials. Feel free to disagree from there, but also get Carrier’s actual argument correct. See also: Spiritual Body FAQ
4. Why does Richard Carrier think he can psychoanalyze the apostle Paul to know that he was likely going to have a guilt-induced hallucination of the risen Jesus?

He doesn’t. Presenting a plausible naturalistic alternative does not deserve the title “mind-reader” no matter how well that plays to Christian audiences. Proposing a psychological cause is no different than proposing a supernatural cause of the exact same evidence: it is a hypothesis we propose in order to explain that evidence. The difference is that a psychological cause rests on a great deal of established background knowledge regarding actual human psychology, whereas we have nothing like that for supernatural causes. The question thus becomes: do both theories explain all the evidence, and if so, which theory requires fewer ad hoc assumptions to do that. And a theory that rests on known scientific facts about how human beings think and behave requires fewer ad hoc assumptions. Where you go from there depends on whether you believe in following reasonable arguments.
5. Why should the Christian god listen to Richard Carrier’s opinion about whether or not to appear to everyone?

Carrier often makes a philosophical point in historical debates that rubs many Christians the wrong way. Their sensibilities range somewhere from implausible appeals to mystery to the incoherent narrative that atheists are literally judging a god they don’t even believe exists. However, in the middle of those extremes we find the “problem of divine hiddeness,” the “argument from unbelief,” and the “argument from religious confusion” that serious Christian thinkers have to step up to. If we are evaluating different worldviews, as Christians every other day of the week will expect us to do, so that nonbelievers, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists are seriously considering the merits and superiority of the Christian worldview, we have to have some kind of criteria to go by that is actually convincing. The critiques of other religions, if only evaluated from the standards of a particular religion, merely beg the question in favor of the arbitrarily preferred religion. “Islam is wrong because Christianity is right,” is not a fair way to judge Islam any more than the reverse scenario is fair. Failing to step up to these epistemic obligations with their typical infinitely plastic excuses is a matter of irresponsible defensiveness that Christians would immediately recognize for what it is, if ever thrown their way from a contrary perspective.
Consider what happens when we take the excuses seriously. If the Christian god’s ways are infinitely above our ways and if we are in no position to judge this god, then how can an apologist consistently argue in favor of the Christian religion? If human judgment is going to be thrown under the bus in principle, we have to throw all human judgment under the bus. Every apologetic defense that appeals to literally anything that sounds “reasonable” should be thrown in the same bargain bin with every human opinion that criticizes the Christian worldview. Not just the opinions of people that Christians disagree with.
Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? Obviously we have to make some kind of judgment call based on what we currently know. This takes us back to Carrier’s opinion. Carrier believes that good moral agents prioritize communication. It is not difficult in the least to find abundant support for that standard in every day life as moral agents who are concerned about the well being of those around us. We know we have to communicate effectively on a regular basis and that failure to do so results in a great deal of unnecessary suffering. If the Christian god is to be considered good in some meaningful way, and desires all humans to be saved from the fires of hell, it only makes sense that people would be reasonably informed of the terms of this salvation regardless of whether they choose to take the Christian god up on the relationship or not. When that expectation is not met, this naturally detracts from the credibility of the story.
There are plenty of other worldviews out there to evaluate and they aren’t deserving of every implausible benefit of the doubt. Christians are free to criticize the merits of Carrier’s opinion and offer up their own defenses, but far too often Christians default to the excuse that Carrier just shouldn’t have an opinion at all, as though they are going to be able to consistently defend that. The unwitting implication is that Carrier should be as credulous as they are and accept whatever terms are thrown at him from any position as though we should be uncritically trusting of the standards of con artists and infomericials.
6. Why does Richard Carrier advocate such a bad argument like “blue monkeys are not flying out of my butt is evidence that those blue monkeys don’t exist”?
David Wood, Frank Walton, Jime, and fanofcraig (and again) have popularized this complaint as though (as Carrier put it in his original response to Wood):
Such an absurd conclusion should have clued him off right away that I meant by "such creatures" not just blue monkeys but "blue monkeys flying out my butt," a conclusion that is not only sensible and correct, but obviously the conclusion intended by the context.
Trivial misrepresentations are trivial. See Carrier's discussion of this point (including the above point specifically) in **The Deceptions of David Wood**.
7. Didn’t Richard Carrier admit that he lost the debate with William Lane Craig?
Yes, but he did much better in his debates with Mike Licona and even some Christians agree. Time limits in formal debates prevent complete discourse, so not all debates represent the truth of a position, but the ability to make more claims in the time given than one's opponent has time to refute. See also: Craig Debate Wrap
8. Didn’t Tim McGrew show that Richard Carrier doesn’t know what he’s talking about in regards to Bayes’ theorem?
It seems Tim was only miffed that his wife was put down and went all out nit-picky on Carrier’s reference material on Bayes’ theorem as though there are not basic errors in standard math textbooks. That hardly proves anything when you are trying too hard to find problems. This is especially irrelevant given that Carrier had already had his book critiqued by other qualified mathematicians. Being offended is not an argument any more the confirmation bias and self-justification are.
So what does Tim McGrew have to say about this? Notice the extremes he goes to as though they are even appropriate in any event:
  • Anyone, even a complete mathematical dunce, can have his work cleaned up to some extent by competent people coming along and correcting his errors. The question is whether this person should, in propria persona, put himself forward as competent to criticize the mathematics in peer-reviewed professional work and to offer tutorials on Bayes's Theorem to others.

In propria persona, eh? But, as we will see, this involves calling Carrier not just grossly unqualified, but also a liar. In the comments of his blog, Carrier says:
  • I do not have a mathematics degree. But I do have college training in the field (in electronics engineering, calculus, statistics, and others). I have also worked in a mathematics profession (sonar) and published a mathematics paper in a peer reviewed journal (Biology and Philosophy). So I'm not out of my element.

  • But since I am not doing anything original in mathematics (Bayes' Theorem is already established, and nothing I'm doing with it is complex) my qualifications don't matter as long as mathematics peers approve the work (hence that is what I will require be done). I have already had a few mathematics Ph.D.'s read the manuscript, and have made some revisions in light of their remarks, which have so far met their expectations.

So...if Carrier has successfully met the expectations of someone on McGrew's level of qualifications, then what is McGrew's excuse? Here's my hypothesis: McGrew was reacting to this (what Carrier offhandedly said in an interview):
  • I didn’t want to bother citing the McGrews’ article. It’s such a crappy article. [...] And it has all these fancy calculations and stuff that make it look very impressive. It seems to me like it is hoodwinking the public in a way. So anyway, but my chapter does address it.

And yet, that was based on this misunderstanding (later explained by Carrier who apologized and corrected himself):

  • And you do explain the absence of prior probability calculations (I said you "hinted" at it, which is inaccurate hyperbole). What I should have said was that this explanation is too opaque to lay readers and most don't understand this caveat. Which is why I keep having people come up to me saying your article gives a Bayesian proof that the resurrection occurred or that Lydia McGrew "proved" the resurrection accounts are true (which even you would agree is not an accurate description of what your article does). I was reacting to those claims, not yours. I shouldn't have assumed this was your design, but only an accidental effect.

In other words the McGrew experts and the "non-expert" Carrier actually agreed on the relevant facts of their article. So from whence does Tim McGrew's attack come from then? See the book, Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me)? ;)
See also: Is Richard Carrier wrong about Bayes' theorem? for a condensed tour of the three mistakes that Tim McGrew haughtily pointed out (two of which appear to be quite superficial nitpicks only).
9. Didn’t Richard Carrier slander Antony Flew as old and senile in order to explain away Flew’s conversion to Christianity?
Flew only converted to deism. I’m not sure that Carrier is actually right on the psychological situation with Flew as I find many of the Christian responses to his articles convincing enough. Carrier’s portrayal is still plausible though. Ultimately it doesn’t really matter whether any one individual converts or not.
10. What do you get out of doing so much work on The Richard Carrier Project?internet_wrong_challenge.jpg
I tend not only to agree with Carrier’s conclusions in the vast majority of instances (though you can find some of my disagreements on this site as well), but I also agree with the logical construction of his arguments and his methodology for going about sorting these things out. Carrier is also very keen on doing all the technical work that needs to be done while keeping an eye on the non-expert and making philosophy something that is actually practically useful. He thinks comprehensively and I certainly do as well. So if there was any atheist I was going to follow almost completely in the footsteps of (like literally almost every footstep), this is a great project. One of the problems I’ve always had is that I would be fairly good at doing a great many different kinds of things. Heading up this project focuses my efforts on something that is well known and well-established already. I learn from Carrier’s mistakes and can character model who I want to be in the next decade in such culture wars while not necessarily having to engage with irritable opposition constantly. It’s a nice tour of a wide variety of interesting philosophical issues and I learn a lot from the effort. Some people play World of Warcraft. And I organize The Richard Carrier Project wiki in my free time.