Richard Carrier is an atheist who is in the camp of the Jesus Mythicists, or the belief that Jesus never existed. This is a topic I’ve addressed in a previous blog Did Jesus Exist?.
Interestingly, the opening paragraph of Richard Carrier’s Wikipedia page ends with:
He is a prominent advocate of the theory that Jesus did not exist, which he has argued in a number of his works. However, Carrier’s methodology and conclusions in this field have proven controversial and unconvincing, and he and his theories are often identified as “fringe”.
The Reception and Criticism section on his Wikipedia page only highlights the criticism and is still worthy of a blog unto itself at 1,307 words, including:
…most contemporary scholarship has been critical of Carrier’s methodology and conclusions. Both classicists and biblical scholars agree that there is a historical basis for a person called Jesus of Nazareth
And a quote from one scholar who says that Carrier is ignorant “of the field of New Testament studies and early Christianity.”
Still, Carrier is popular among atheists. I have a dear friend who agrees with his conclusions.
It’s in light of all of this that Tim McGrew in a Facebook group recently re-shared a blog post by Dr. Glenn Andrew Peoples written in April 2012, which itself was inspired by an article that Tim wrote called “Does Richard Carrier Exist? A Bayesian Analysis.”
Tim’s original article is available in a document found on apologeticsinthechurch.com, which I’ve quoted from (emphasis mine):
This is a whimsical little piece that I wrote at the request of a CAA member. The original version contained some hyperlinks that didn’t port over here.
The initial odds that Richard Carrier exists are — let’s be generous — a hundred to one in favor of the proposition.
Part of the definition of Richard Carrier is that he is supposed to be a scholar with a Ph. D. in History. He is also supposed to be relatively young, which makes him one of, say, 3,000 or so History Ph. D.s to have been minted in the past five years. These factors will become important as we proceed.
Now we throw some of the other factors into the mix. Richard Carrier (if he exists) is a Jesus mythicist, someone who disbelieves in the existence of Jesus of Nazareth as a real person in space and time. Of the 3,000 or so History Ph. D.s minted in the last five years, and bracketing Carrier for the moment so as not to beg any questions, how many are mythicists? It’s a pretty safe bet that the number is close to zero. Let’s be generous, however, and suppose that there are 30, all of them devout mythicists (though in secret, for fear of damaging their careers). But — and this is the point we must dwell on — if the internet atheist community wanted to create a superhero who could defeat the Christians by his superior credentials, would we not expect them to invest him with a doctorate in History and, at the same time, have him endorse, nay, vindicate, the mythicist position? Surely this is not very improbable, say, even odds (for the mythicist position is very well represented online). And that the internet atheists should invent such a character, though it might seem a bit far fetched, is not really that unlikely, since all of history amply documents the human response to the felt need for superheroes. (Vide not only Egyptian and Greek mythology but also the Edda and The Avengers, due to be released in a couple of weeks.) Upon the whole, it seems safe to say that the probability of the invention of such a character is at least .1. At a conservative estimate, the likelihood ratio
P(Historian-myther-hero|Richard Carrier is not a real person)/P(Historian-myther-hero|Richard Carrier is a real person)
is therefore .1/(30/3,000), or 10 to 1.
But Richard Carrier is also supposed to be a “world renowned philosopher and historian” (according to the blurb on Why I am not a Christian). Problems now begin to crowd more thickly around the definition. How many History Ph. D.s are philosophers at all? Surely not very many. How many are world renowned philosophers, even though they have just obtained the Ph. D.? The percentages are vanishing; the probability cannot sensibly be estimated at greater than 0.0001. But this would be a very useful accomplishment to add to the credentials of a historian-myther-hero, if he were an invented character. Let us suppose the probability to be merely 0.1 (though it should probably be higher), and we get the likelihood ratio:
P(World-renowned philosopher|Richard Carrier is not a real person & Historian-myther-hero)/P(World-renowned philosopher|Richard Carrier is a real person & Historian-myther-hero)
= 0.1/0.0001, or 1000 to 1.
We can go further. This world-renowned philosopher-historian-myther-hero is also a mathematician. Given historians’ well-known disdain for mathematical methods, the probability of this if Carrier is a real person is low, though perhaps not so drastically low as it would be if our hero were not also a philosopher, since perhaps as many as ten percent of all philosophers can and do use mathematical methods from time to time. Call the conditional probability of this detail, given the reality of Carrier and all of the other factors considered thus far, 0.05. But the mythic Carrier would only be enhanced by adding mathematical abilities to his other powers; it is at least even money that, if he is entirely mythical, this additional qualification would be tacked onto his resume. However, so as not to overestimate the probability, let us reduce the estimate to:
P(Mathematician||Richard Carrier is not a real person & Historian-myther-hero & World-renowned philosopher)/P(Mathematician|Richard Carrier is a real person & Historian-myther-hero & World-renowned philosopher)
= 0.2/0.05, or 4 to 1.
Putting these factors together, we have to weigh odds of 100 to 1 for Carrier’s reality against the combination of other factors, which tip the scales at 40,000 to 1 against. These considerations alone leave us with odds of 400 to 1 against, or a probability just a bit in excess of .9975 that Richard Carrier is not a real person.
We might go on in this vein for quite some time, noting further incongruities in the Carrier myth. How many trained historians would misread Plutarch’s “On Isis and Osiris” 19.358b as declaring Osiris’s physical resurrection from the dead here on earth? How many mathematicians would bungle basic probability calculations? How many philosophers, world-renowned or otherwise, would endorse the position that the laws of logic “obviously” derive from the laws of physics? Yet such blunders are what we might well expect to crop up as the community feigning Carrier’s existence attempted to demonstrate his expertise in one field after another.
So the calculation given above seriously underestimates the probabilities in the case. Almost certainly, by strict Bayesian reasoning, Richard Carrier does not exist.
And yet, I venture to predict that the vast majority of Carrier-believers will pay no attention whatsoever to Bayesian reasoning when it is applied rigorously to conclusions that they hold sacred.
Which brings us to the original article that Tim re-shared recently. Dr. People quotes the same article above (with his own emphasis bolded), followed by 6 more quotes from the comments of others (source unknown). These quotes include:
- an explanation that “perhaps Tim was being much too “generous” in his assessment of prior probability”
- a quote from a David, who comments on his lack of experience with those who say they have met Carrier in person.
- followed by a quote from a Sam:
It explains why so many people talk about Richard Carrier as if he existed. Talking about him, and convincing other people of his existence, strengthens their faith. That’s how cognitive dissonance works. Such is their desire to convince others that they even write pseudonymous books in his name.
- A comment quote from Tim McGrew, who seems to be have been involved in the discussion, where he briefly uses hallucination and other psychological explanations to explain those who claimed to have seen Richard Carrier
- Another comment by a David, where he uses the Argument from Silence from contemporary world historians to explain how Richard Carrier most likely does not exist.
- And a final quote from a Sam to explain “Carrianity” (as Dr. People calls it):
What really matters is the ‘Carrier of faith’ regardless of what we think about the ‘Carrier of history’.
The comments on Dr. People’s article (59 of them) are lively and worth reading. Skeptics try to defend Richard Carrier and debunk Christianity. Dr. People, Tim McGrew, and several others engage them.
One commenter, Joel, writes:
Furthermore, ikons of Richard Carrier look vaguely like the Karate Kid, who was a popular mythic figure of Generation X children. Richard carrier alleged age is around that of Generation X. With such clear similarities, it is obvious that the Richard Carrier Myth began as a copy cat of the Karate Kidd.
And another commenter, BOBMO, later adds:
As we all know, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and, based on Tim McGrew’s analysis, the existence of Richard Carrier certainly qualifies as an extraordinary claim. Have you, then, verified that the video and written testimony attributed to Dr. Carrier actually meets this reasonably high standard?
Until you meet him in person (and verify that the experience is not a group hallucination, which we all know is much more probable than his existence, since any explanation is more probable than his existence), isn’t it rational to hold to the default position, that of A-Carrierism?
From Tim’s original article to Dr. People’s article to the comments, this is parody with a message, as many of these are taking typical skeptic arguments and applying them to Richard Carrier himself.