Raphael Lataster or How “scholarship” reached a new low

I was spending my weekly hours catching up to date on fields that have the least to do with my own, and became rather irritated. It’s bad enough when scientists who are trained in the application of statistical methods to research designs are systematically misinformed, provided with minimal exposure to the logic and mathematics underlying the computational tools they use, and produce “statistically significant” findings that are basically worthless. It’s worse when scholars in fields like history butcher statistical and mathematical methods scientists use (or misuse) whilst eschewing superior methods for their purposes (used in their fields).

I’ve criticized Dr. Richard Carrier before, but at least he had the wherewithal to butcher his main approach after having tried (unsuccessfully) to understand Bayesian inference and Bayesian analysis. Moreover, he spent years reading the historical Jesus literature during and after obtaining a doctorate in ancient history. So even though I have almost no respect for the results, they nonetheless reveal a marvelous intellect and a discerning mind led astray by the seductive desire to throw around technical terms from mathematics and science (not to mention years and years interacting mostly with non-academics or in non-academic settings; FYI- those debates about god, religion, evolution, climate change, and so on between experts in front of an audience of laypersons aren’t academic, as academics attend conferences and symposiums where a presenter usually takes questions by peers).

God-awful uses of “Bayes’ Theorem” to prove god exists or that miracles happen or that it is highly improbable that Jesus existed are bad enough. There are misuses of Bayesianism in an otherwise decent study, misuses in works that contain other fallacies, and misuses in scholarship that is just plain bad. Then there’s Raphael Lataster’s There was no Jesus: There was no God. Carrier’s presentation of Bayes’ Theorem and its applications in various publications are riddled with errors of various types, but at least they are his own. Also, his book on the historical Jesus was not only three times larger than Lataster’s, but was prefaced by another book devoted solely to the application of Bayes’ Theorem to historiography. Lataster, in less than 200 pages, apparently thinks he has said anything meaningful about either of his claims by an incredibly superficial treatment of a tiny number of sources he mostly just rips off from. He, apparently, couldn’t be troubled to even ATTEMPT to learn what Bayesian inference/analysis consists of, but rather copies Carrier’s idiomatic version instead. He mentions Our Knowledge of the Past, in which Aviezer Tucker promotes Bayesianism, but doesn’t come close enough to Tucker’s approach to do anything other than render questionable the idea that he actually READ the cited book. Tucker’s position has been critiqued elsewhere, as has Sober’s (Sober has also promoted the use of Bayes’ Theorem in various works, which Lataster fails to refer to despite multiple citations in Tucker’s book). I was actually a fan of Tucker’s approach until I tried incorporating it into historical analyses (one of my majors was classical languages, and as I was on my way to graduate studies in complex systems I wanted to apply the methods from machine learning and statistics I knew then to primary source material). When my graduate work demanded most of my efforts be spent on mathematics, physics, neuroscience, etc., I couldn’t spend as much time keeping up to date on topics I was interested in outside the sciences, but even had I quit entirely I would still be able to have increasingly realize the flaws of Tucker’s approach. Indeed, I was the one who informed Carrier about Tucker’s book (at least according to him; it could be he was simply being kind when he thanked me for alerting him). Tucker, Sober, Salmon, Kosso, Day, and others have promoted using Bayesian logic as  a tool for historical research. However, they all limit their application to a more general approach without any actual math or to cases in which one can actually use Bayesian models. This is nothing new, despite the picture Lataster paints. Biblical scholars have been employing statistical analyses and criticizing their misuses since the 30s at least, in e.g.,

Grayston, K., & Herdan, G. (1959). The authorship of the Pastorals in the light of statistical linguistics. New Testament Studies, 6(01), 1-15.

Kraft, R. A. (1995). The Use of Computers in New Testament Textual Criticism. In B. D. Ehrman & M. W. Holmes (Eds.) The Text of the New Testament in Contemporary Research- Essays on the Status Quaestionis (Studies & Documents Vol. 46) (pp. 268-82.). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. [This paper was dropped from the second edition “in view of the impossibility of any print resource keeping up with the rapid pace of development and change in this field, a task better suited to electronic resources.”]

Toivonen, J. Visa, A. Vesanen, T., Black, B., & Vanharanta, H. (2001). Machine Learning and Data Mining in Pattern Recognition (2nd International Workshop, MLDM Proceedings). Springer.

Alviar, J. J. (2008). Recent advances in computational linguistics and their application to Biblical studies. New Testament Studies, 54(1), 139.)

Of course, this is a tiny portion of an incredibly small sample, yet it is still more than Lataster manages, despite criticizing Biblical scholars for lacking critical thinking skills (nor do we find any indication he is even aware of interdisciplinary research used in NT and early Christian studies which incorporate cognitive linguistics, cognitive psychology, anthropology, etc., still less historians like Michael Grant or Donald Atkenson who have written books on the historical Jesus and aren’t biblical scholars). Instead of managing to demonstrate even an elementary familiarity with the relevant literature, his bibliography is filled with citations of websites like PBS’ or USA Today’s, Audio CDs, movies, and popular literature (the ratio between non-academic sources and academic is appalling). This is a doctoral researcher who couldn’t manage the kind of literature review I did for my senior thesis for my classical languages major (among other undergraduate papers). This isn’t a reflection of anything special or noteworthy about my work, it’s a demonstration of how utterly without merit Lataster’s attempt at “a scholarly examination of the scientific, historical, [or] philosophical evidence & arguments for monotheism” is.

In the 19th century alone, over 60,000 books were published on the historical Jesus. If Lataster actually DID read Tucker’s book, he’d know that modern historical (and linguistic) methods were developed largely by biblical scholars, and if he merely scanned the bibliographies of the works he cites he’d know how pathetic his attempt at addressing the literature is. But this is nothing compared to his claims to have presented anything remotely resembling anything approaching a scholarly argument regarding the existence of god. Philosophical literature on this pre-dates Jesus by centuries, was and is produced by non-Christian cultures, and was the central concern of the Western intellectual tradition for the vast majority of its existence. Yet Lataster seems to think that, after failing to do more than badly regurgitate pieces of others’ works on the historical Jesus he can do the same with the monotheism and theology. Even if we write off intellectuals like Aquinas, Newton, Leibniz, Kant, etc., we still find plenty in the 20th century who should not be lightly written off (or, in Lataster’s case, written off without knowledge of content and/or existence.). For example, the greatest logician who ever lived (Kurt Gödel) not only developed his own proof for god’s existence but believed that, contrary to the proof he himself produced, a complete and consistent axiomatic foundation for all arithmetic (and therefore formal logic and most mathematics) existed for god.

Even worse, Lataster doesn’t even manage to represent the brilliant atheists who have not only provided devastating critiques of religion and monotheism but contributed to Western thought and beyond in doing so.

I spend too much of my time disappointed in the ability of today’s researchers in multiple sciences to understand the computational methods they use or the logic underlying their experimental paradigms. Such issues have made me cynical, pessimistic, and deeply troubled. I have Lataster to thank for one thing: making me realize just how much worse scholarship can be and how poorly informed and incapable of critical thinking academics can be.

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