Atheists and the historical method
Strange Notions, a website devoted to respectful dialogue and debate between Catholics and atheists, has re-posted an interesting piece by atheist blogger Tim O’Neill, entitled “Why History isn’t Scientific (And Why it Can Still Tell Us About the Past)." O’Neill has a background in ancient and medieval history, and is the creator of a website called History vs. The Da Vinci Code. While O’Neill is an atheist, one of his main projects seems to be remedying what he describes as a norm of “historical illiteracy” among atheists.
O’Neill’s post is in part a response to atheists who claim that Jesus never existed as a historical person, but even more so it is directed to atheists who wonder whether history is a legitimate means of knowledge at all, at least regarding anything that happened as long ago as two millennia. While acknowledging that it is not a hard science, O’Neill explains the historical method in order to defend history as a legitimate academic discipline. He concludes with some examples of some common mistakes atheists make in the area of history, particularly regarding the historical Jesus and the medieval Church. All in all, it is a piece worth reading.
But the key thing to understand here is that the historian is not working toward an absolute statement about what definitely happened in the past, since that is generally impossible except on trivial points (e.g., there is no doubt that Adolf Hitler was born on April 20, 1889). A historian instead works to present what is called “the argument to the best explanation.” In other words, the argument that best accounts for the largest amount of relevant evidence with the least number of suppositions. This means that the Principle of Parsimony, also known as Occam's Razor, is a key tool in historical analysis; historians always favor the most parsimonious interpretation that takes account of the most available evidence.
Which finally brings us back to the existence of Jesus. It is far more parsimonious to conclude that Christianity's figure of “Jesus Christ” evolved out of the ideas of the followers of a historical Jewish preacher, since all of our earliest information tells us that this “Jesus Christ” was a historical Jewish preacher who had been executed circa 30 CE. People have tried to propose alternative origins for the figure of “Jesus Christ,” positing an earlier Jewish sect that believed in a purely celestial figure who became “historicized” into an earthly, historical Jesus later. But there is no evidence of any such proto-Christian sect and no reason such a sect would exist and then vanish without leaving any trace in the historical record. This is why historians find these “Jesus Myth” hypotheses uncompelling – they are not the most parsimonious way of looking at the evidence and require us to imagine ad hoc, “what if” style suppositions to keep them from collapsing.
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