Atheist David Fitzgerald seeks to dispel Christian myths.
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On this episode of Skeptiko…
David Fitzgerald: Whether you’re talking about Islamic fundamentalists or Christian fundamentalists or Libertarian fundamentalists, they all have a lot of the same structures.
Alex Tsakiris: Well that’s because they’re all based on these cultish principles.
David Fitzgerald: Exactly.
Alex Tsakiris: … that’s the part that I feel like is often missing from the public discourse — it’s cultish folks. We understand how mind control works, we understand how different groups in our society are trying to manipulate other groups and some of those are in a religious kind of framework, some of them are outside of that and some of them are somewhere in between like Scientology, no one thinks Scientology is a “religion” religion, but clearly they’re pushing the same button in terms of cultish practices.
David Fitzgerald: Yes. It’s wrong, not even just because it’s correct or incorrect corresponding to reality but because of the way it defends itself, because of the way it perpetrates itself.
Alex Tsakiris: “Consciousness is an illusion” is NOT true. It’s been falsified over and over again. That’s my gripe with atheists — it’s more dogma. It’s like, “No, I can’t let go of that idea because I’ve built all this other stuff on it,”
… So the Richard Dawkins’ “biological robot” stuff, I mean that’s bullshit. It’s just not true true, you know? So that’s my rub and I don’t understand why atheists aren’t more interested in trying to wrestle that to the ground, but… they’re just like, “No, no, no, it’s true, we can’t really touch that, let’s just move onto the next topic.”
Stay with us for Skeptiko…
Welcome to Skeptiko where we explore controversial science and spirituality with leading researchers, thinkers and their critics. As you know I have been pretty hard on atheists over the years and that’s because I think in terms of the big picture questions, who are we, why are we here? The atheistic dogma that we usually hear leaves those folks on the outside looking in, without much to really contribute to those interesting questions.
But, on the other hand, I am drawn to the atheist position, in terms of these kinds of outsiders who are willing to challenge the religious existing dogma that still casts a huge shadow, not only on our culture but on the personal lives of many, many people.
So, when I heard that today’s guest David Fitzgerald, prominent atheistic biblical scholar if you will, I hate when people revolt when people say ‘biblical scholar’, he’s enough of a biblical scholar for me, but when I saw that he had a new book (Jesus: Mything in Action) I was anxious to get him on, it’s taken a couple of months in the making to make that happen and I know it kind of follows a bunch of other shows that I’ve done on Christianity, but that’s okay, that’s just the way it came out. I really enjoyed the opportunity to talk to Dave. Here is that interview.
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One more thing, while I’m sure that Dave would appreciate you buying those three volumes on Amazon, I have to mention that even if you have Kindle Unlimited, like my wife does and I kind of cypher off her account there. You can actually read those books for free. So Dave, welcome to Skeptiko, thanks so much for joining me.
David Fitzgerald: Thanks so much for having me Alex.
Alex Tsakiris: So you were chatting a minute ago, but let me set this up for listeners. Skeptiko is primarily a show about consciousness science, but that has led us into looking at spirituality and controversial spirituality and Christian apologetics, but since we’ve done a lot of that, lately what I’m hoping we can do, because I have a real live atheist activist on this show, is not only talk about your excellent books and what you bring to those books, which I think is really great, because you have kind of a unique angle and a unique way of kind of talking about this stuff, but I’m hoping we can also pull back a bit and talk about some of the bigger picture stuff surrounding atheism, and it sounds like you’re okay with that.
David Fitzgerald: Yes.
Alex Tsakiris: You reached a point that I’m sure many, many, many people reach in the kind of the, I always call it the ‘how can this be’ moment, right? So it’s like, okay, I get the data, I get that this Christian narrative just doesn’t hold up in some real… and like so many people even go to seminary who are devout Christians but then they study it and they go, “Oh my god, do you mean all these insiders really know that…?”
David Fitzgerald: Yeah.
Alex Tsakiris: But then you took it this next step, you couldn’t let it go.
David Fitzgerald: No.
Alex Tsakiris: And I can definitely relate to that, I mean that’s me, you’re like, “No wait a minute, I’m not just going to pack this in and then just go merrily with my life.”
David Fitzgerald: Yeah.
Alex Tsakiris: What does that say about you and how do you understand that?
David Fitzgerald: Well it’s funny, I blame my emergent Christianity in my informative years for a lot of things but one thing it did was, it was constantly defending about the truth and the truth off the gospel and the truth of Christianity and when you realize, “Yeah, that’s not true,” it’s like, I didn’t lose my respect for the truth…
Alex Tsakiris: Your zeal.
David Fitzgerald: My zeal for the truth but now! One of the things that drove me crazy and made me want to write the book is doing the research for it you constantly come across Christians, biblical scholars saying something that’s completely diametrically opposes Christianity and then saying, “But of course there was a real Jesus and blah, blah, blah,” and then backing away and touching the Totem pole to make sure everyone knows they’re still on board and just seeing the mental gymnastics that they would go through to try to explain away these things that are obvious signs that we’re talking about a fictional character, an allegorical character, and that the gospel writers intentionally inspected their audience to recognize that they were allegorical characters.
Alex Tsakiris: So we’ve talked about the pushback that you got from atheist, maybe let’s even explore that a little bit further because, I mean part of that is also an interesting kind of social phenomenon that, you know, we have to have an enemy, you know?
David Fitzgerald: Ah.
Alex Tsakiris: And, “You’re taking away our enemy”, you know, “I’ve built all these good arguments for the Thanksgiving table that I can use and now I have to change.”
David Fitzgerald: Yeah, I think you’re absolutely right, and I remember, going back to when I first, you know, when it occurred to me that I was questioning Jesus, that shook me up just as much as losing my religion had, 16 years before. So I get how this is a tough sell for people. I mean, here I am still talking about it, what is it, 17, 18 years later.
Alex Tsakiris: “Consciousness is an illusion” is not true, it’s been falsified over and over again. That’s my gripe with atheists is, it’s more dogma, it’s like, “No, I can’t let go of that idea because I’ve built all this other stuff on it,” and it opens up the door to… the implications of it are huge and they’re scary, in the same way that they don’t like where Sam Harris is going, and I’m not a Sam Harris fan, but Sam Harris is someone who looks into it and says, “Wow, well I really can’t put those boundaries on consciousness and therefore I have to open to there being the potential of there being some reality to more broadly spirituality,” but what we’re really talking about is some kind of hierarchy to consciousness. So the brutish life and the Richard Dawkins’ biological robot stuff, I mean that’s bullshit, it’s just not true true, you know? So that’s my rub and I don’t understand why atheists aren’t more interested in trying to wrestle that to the ground but in the same way that they see like Christians want to do, they’re just like, “No, no, no, that’s true, we can’t really touch that, let’s just move onto the next topic.”
David Fitzgerald: Well, let me just respond very briefly to that with the caveat that, like I said, atheism is just as diverse as anything else on the planet, so I don’t pretend to be speaking for all of atheism, and again, it’s not even a topic that I’m particularly into, if you will. I mean, I haven’t spent a lot of thought on the question of consciousness.
Alex Tsakiris: And that’s fair, because let me say, interject and say that’s fair because I’ve read your writings and you really don’t get into that, so I don’t want to totally come at you.
David Fitzgerald: Yeah, it’s like if we don’t get back onto historical, you know, what really happened in the first century or second century, then my usefulness to the discussion goes down. But I mean, I do have my own opinions, you know, for sure.
I don’t know, I’m certainly open to the idea of there’s more a consciousness than we think and yet at the same time I’m perfectly comfortable with the idea that whatever consciousness is it evolved naturally out of our brains, our physical mental apparatus if you will and I just don’t have a problem with that, for what it’s worth.
Alex Tsakiris: Okay.
David Fitzgerald: And spiritually, that’s a place holding for a lot of things, I’m sure, everything that goes under that big tent you don’t hold with either and maybe I’m just focusing my flashlight on the wrong corners. But when I hear people talk about things like spirituality and I get a little deeper into what they’re talking about, it seems like they’re talking about perfectly natural things, emotion things, ideas, even consciousness to me feels very natural.
Alex Tsakiris: So here’s the central issue and I won’t pound on it too much because I think you’re totally fair in saying, this isn’t something that you written extensively about or something like that, but here is the jumping off point. Consciousness is an illusion, that dogma…
David Fitzgerald: What do you mean by that and what’s your takeaway from that?
Alex Tsakiris: Well what he means by that is that your sense of you, the voice inside your head if you will, is not real, it’s something that’s created by you but it’s merely an illusion. So your sense of you being you is an illusion. So that’s kind of goofy from just a kind of, you know, you could ask a seven year old or an eight year old and they’re like, “No, I’m me, I’m really in here and I assume you are you and you’re really in there,” and anything else is just kind of a ridiculousness that isn’t even worth talking about, because there isn’t any really you and I talking.
But where it really breaks down is scientifically, we know that that’s not true because we’ve done a whole bunch of experiments looking at consciousness and the most famous is the Double-Slit experiment and does consciousness collapse the wave function? Then there’s all this stuff on mind/brain and placebo and medication and mindfulness, all that stuff comes back again and again and again to say that whatever consciousness is it’s not an illusion, but then there’s other places that that all takes you.
David Fitzgerald: Let me just jump in super-fast and say, I’m not opposed to what you’re saying, I’m not closed to what you’re saying, I just don’t have enough information to confirm or deny what you’re saying at the moment.
Alex Tsakiris: Okay, no, fair enough. I was kind of long-winded there but I’ll come to the point, is because where that leads is some really tricky parts for atheists that do kind of directly attack the underpinnings of atheism and that’s that, okay there is this consciousness, right? It’s not an illusion. So what are the limits of that consciousness? When does it begin? When does it end? Does it end at biological death? Is it, as you said, an epiphenomenon of the brain, is it just something that’s created there? Or is consciousness some kind of field that’s out there that we’re tapping into? Those are all real questions that consciousness researchers are trying to tackle and science in general is trying to tackle in a number of ways.
But one of the sets of data that you get out of that starts looking like a lot of the religious wisdom traditions, and that is that, oh there is an order to this consciousness, there does seem to be a hierarchy, there does seem to be a morality that’s kind of build into this fabric of the universe that we never imagined was there before and that’s the real rub for atheists and I think that a lot of people who are pretty smart in the atheist community kind of see that around the bend and they’re trying to cut it off before people really get there and go, “No, no, no, no, don’t go there because I know where that leads and they’re just trying to backdoor religion back in.”
All I’m doing Dave is trying to layout, that is one of the…
David Fitzgerald: Sure, sure and I was going to say, just in response to that, I don’t know if I see that happening, I definitely see all kind of fault lines in atheism that we are fighting about now and some of them, I think, are more legitimate than others. I don’t know if anyone’s really slamming the door on that and saying, “Alright, let’s not even go there.”
Alex Tsakiris: Well I’ve seen in the last ten years or so that there has been a retreat from that kind of strict scientific materialism, so let’s take advantage of having you here and follow up on that question.
David Fitzgerald: Okay.
Alex Tsakiris: What do you see are some of the trends that are emerging or moving with atheism? The other trend I see is there seems to be the whole skeptic thing has really died down and not that it isn’t there anymore but it doesn’t have the same king of oomph that it did. What are the trends within the community of folks that you talk to and call your kind of atheist colleagues?
David Fitzgerald: My tribe, if you will.
Alex Tsakiris: Your tribe, yeah.
David Fitzgerald: Well, I see a lot of the same factoring that we’re seeing just in American society in general in atheism, especially 2016 just really ripped the country apart in all kinds of ways and it ripped atheism apart as well. Politically we are more divided than we ever have been and I think the break between the people who were disgusted with the democrats and the liberal wing of politics and the people who were disgusted with the republicans and the plutocratic side of politics. Those divides just went hardcore over Bernie versus Clinton, on Trump versus everybody else and at the same time gender politics, for lack of a better term, transgender rights, homosexuality, all these… the gender… what am I trying to say here?
Alex Tsakiris: I think you said it, I think the people get the idea.
David Fitzgerald: Not the war of the sexes exactly but yeah, all these things are dividing atheism just like the…
Alex Tsakiris: Really that’s surprising to me, in what way are they divisive, because I would think that the kind of free thought, kind of vibe there, wouldn’t be trying to pick apart the people’s sexuality in the way that they express it, how does that work its way into the thing?
David Fitzgerald: What I’m seeing is that we’ve got factions, for lack of a better word, that don’t brook any kind of opposition. You have to be totally on board with us or you’re against us. We’ve got people who, you know, the men’s right activist types, we have [unclear 00:16:39] to that in the atheist community where they’re just really disrespectful to women, really disrespectful to transgender rights for instance and they’re proud of it and they see themselves as like defenders of free speech. On the other hand you’ve got the exact opposite, we’ve got the groups that are so entrenched in what we might call liberal dogma, that if you even question it, if you even say, “Well I want to get more information…”
Alex Tsakiris: You’re triggering them.
David Fitzgerald: You’re triggering them, yeah and I don’t want to take away from either side the right to speak your mind and the right for people to be treated fairly. Both those things are super important and somehow we’re still divided over them and I don’t really have an answer for that, and I don’t think those are specifically atheism problems either, it’s just we’re kind of a mirrored society.
Alex Tsakiris: How do you think the mythesist in particular, if we can focus in on that, since that’s been something that you’ve really focused on so beautifully in your books, how do you think that plays into some of these issues for the atheist community in general, because I think it’s really interesting, I think you’ve done a great service by just totally focusing in and saying, you know, “This is a lens through which we can look at these larger issues of culture and society and why we have these [unclear 00:18:10] before they can be elected, whether we believe that they’re religious or not, we want to make this kind of religious statement,” you know?
David Fitzgerald: And I want that to go away so hard.
Alex Tsakiris: But is it going to go away?
David Fitzgerald: On one hand, when I was working with the Secular Student Alliance the reports from Pew Research, from Barnard, from all these different demographic researchers, are showing that we are becoming increasingly more religious at a younger and younger age. What I mean by that is the current college age American is far less likely to be religious and those numbers just keep going up. The last I looked at it was about a 30/30 split, it was a perfect third split between openly religious, openly secular and religious but not, what’s the word.
Alex Tsakiris: Spiritual but not religious.
David Fitzgerald: Exactly and those blew my mind. That was still a couple of years ago, so it’s probably even gone up more now and what was exciting about that for me was the GOP has so much power because of the religious right, doing lip service to the religious right, that they are invested in this myth, they’re invested in this structure, this theological structure. To see that get worn away just delights me and that’s where I focus my work because a) that’s what I’m interested in and that’s b) how I can best change the world, but I’m not under any illusions that once we get rid of religion we’re not going to have tons of problems left to figure out and that’s a tough question to answer.
You also reminded me of something else when you were talking about the bigger issues of mythicism and one of the other big surprises for me, when I started getting into this whole ‘there was no Jesus’ business, I was shocked how many ex-Muslins and current Buddhists would contact me and said, “You know what, we are having these exact same arguments in our circles too.” Arguing whether Buddha was a real person and arguing whether Mohammed was a real person, and that just blew my mind to think that there wasn’t a Mohammed until they started telling me their reasons why they thought that and I thought, “Oh wow, this is something a lot like Jesus.”
Alex Tsakiris: Which is really… let’s explore that for a minute, because that’s exactly what I was trying to put my finger on is that the mythicism that the process, if you will, that you go through in your books, both Nailed and the latest Jesus Mything in Action, both of them also reveal a process, an analytical process that I think extends beyond just religious studies but certainly there’s a lot of work, a lot of fields to be ploughed in religion as well.
David Fitzgerald: Sure.
Alex Tsakiris: Do you want to speak to that, of the process and the analytics that you went through and you think are revealed through that means?
David Fitzgerald: Well, I think I mentioned in the book, I may have mentioned it in Nailed, but if you want to say anything about, you know, just let’s say Jesus for example, what he said and what he did, your first question needs to be, well what’s our sources for that? And your second question needs to be, and how reliable are these sources? And in a nutshell when you start turning that question on Mohammed on Buddha on Zoroaster on Moses on Abraham, just about every…
Alex Tsakiris: Abraham Lincoln or George Washington, I mean really?
David Fitzgerald: No but, I mean, there’s a difference though, there’s a difference because I am saying that Moses, Abraham, Zoroaster, Buddha and maybe Mohammed did not exist at all, full stop. There’s a difference between somebody like Abraham Lincoln and like the Apostle Paul, who it was a real person and yet there’s so much gloss of mythicism over them that it’s hard to know where the real person starts and stops but we know there’s a real kernel at the center of the core there is a real person. We don’t know that for Jesus, we think the opposite is true for Jesus and all these other major religious figures. So much so that it makes me wonder if people like L. Ron Hubbard and Joseph Smith are the exceptions to major religion starters, because they actually were real people.
Alex Tsakiris: I totally get your point and don’t disagree with it, but I think the parallels are more interesting when you get up to that next level and you look at who L. Ron Hubbard really was and his deep connections, thorough connections, unquestionable connections to military intelligence and is out in the desert with Parsons who is kind of the Mr. military intelligence and he’s also connecting with the Crowley through Parsons and they think he’s great and all the rest of this stuff. Undeniable and then we did an extensive show on the whole connection between scientology and some of the work that was done at Stanford Research Institute under the Stargate Program, all those guys which you don’t know about, but I mean, all those guys who were doing that psychic spying stuff, not all of them, but several of the highest level people were deep, deep into scientology. So I think at that next level up the process that you’ve gone through and the analytics that you do, and I think you said it beautifully, you know, “Who are your sources and how reliable are those sources?” is kind of step one.
David Fitzgerald: Yeah.
Alex Tsakiris: But the other thing that I see you do and do quite beautifully and I really have to pull you out on this and give you my compliments on Jesus Mything in Action, what you do is something that is kind of unique in that you turn this analysis around, because a lot of people are talking about… they’ve talked, god there’s thousands of books, I don’t know if that’s literally true, but on this topic, but you did, you turned it around, you said, “Okay, let’s look at what Christians are most likely to say in kind of a general sense.” I’m not expressing it very well, but give people a sense of some of the myths that you go through in that book and I think they’ll understand what I mean about how you kind of have a different angle of looking at some of these questions.
David Fitzgerald: Yeah, there’s kind of two parts to that, because there’s the myths that I grew up with as a Christian and then there’s the myth that those that survived that windowing effect when I became an atheist that, of course he wasn’t the son of God, but I still believed that an eye witness wrote about him.
Alex Tsakiris: Exactly,
David Fitzgerald: I still believed that we had really good evidence for him. All these presuppositions right through the Christian lens came to me through atheism. What blows me away now, having gone over a decade into this is when you read the stories for the first time, you know, without looking at the Christian presuppositions in them, when you read Mark, our first gospel, our oldest gospel, our most no frills gospel, and read it as the story of a human guy, a normal guy, who because he was so obedient to God became adopted as his son and goes through this whole process where, the first thing that happens is he goes through this testing period where he’s tested by the devil to see if he’s up to the job and at the end, where he’s at the Garden of Gethsemane, really scared about what’s going to happen, really afraid of the pain and the death he’s going to suffer, he has no idea what’s in store for him, he’s not a god, he’s still a man. When you read these stories, not only do they not make sense from a Christian standpoint, like what can the devil tempt Jesus with, you know? He’s just a godling slumming on earth, it makes no sense to be able to tempt him. When you read them and see, here’s a guy in the Garden of Gethsemane who says, “I am totally terrified, I am totally scared but not my will but yours,” and this is a flesh and blood man saying this, the pathos is so real and so beautiful in a way that’s not when you think, oh he’s just going to have a bad weekend and then go straight back to Heaven, you know?
Alex Tsakiris: It’s interesting because you kind of covered the gamut there and I want to make sure that people get one part in there that you said that almost kind of slips past and that’s that, in your second book, Jesus Mything in Action, it’s almost like you get to this level two discussion that I think is so interesting, because some of that stuff of kind of deconstructing the biblical text to me is like the level one, but the level two is so interesting from this analytic standpoint in the way that you just mentioned. So people go through this process right, and they get into Christian apologetics and they learn this versus that and then what you’ve done is distilled that down and say, “Okay, once you go through this process what you’re likely to come up with is this.” “Yeah but Jesus is still one of the most well sourced persons in history,” and you go, “Okay, you’re going to come to that point and now let’s deconstruct that,” that doesn’t really have anything to do with the bible per se, it’s this meta thing that you’ve picked on.
David Fitzgerald: I’m delighted to hear you saying this because that’s exactly what I wanted to do with this book, I wanted to break this down and show that, hey the evidence points in a completely different direction, let’s look at that first gospel and the gospel that all the others were based upon. Let’s find out who wrote these gospels, when they wrote them. There’s so many assumptions that go into, “Oh well, Jesus had 12 followers and they wrote about him and we have their books and so, la de da de da,” but when you look at how different Christianity is before those gospels were written and how different all of the four gospels are from each other and yet how clearly they are taken from the first gospel, and just cut and pasted and gone off in different directions and when you realize that this is just the tip of the iceberg, these are just the four that made the official cut into scripture, and there’s a whole world of Christian writings from the second century that are out there that never made the cut. But Christians in the second century would think that we’re not real Christians because we didn’t have all these stories about infant Jesus growing up in Smallville, before he became Superman, you know, and these different takes on Jesus and the incompatibility of each one. No one set out to write a fourth gospel, no one set out to write a second gospel. All these gospel writers were writing ‘the gospel’, meant to be the one and only gospel.
Alex Tsakiris: Corrected version.
David Fitzgerald: Yeah exactly and it is funny because they do correct mistakes that Mark makes in his gospel and then of course they go off in completely incompatible directions. But it’s fascinating to see that development. Just the evolution of any religion alone is fascinating and enough to debunk it as a purely human thing and I don’t mean that as a slam, it’s fascinating to watch where Christianity really came from and to see the conflicting ideas that were going on between early Christians and proto-Christians and all the things that followed after that, just the ways they were constantly reinventing themselves and even Christianity itself, when I get into book III, which is basically, I call it the gospel according to H.G. Wells, and do a time travel expedition through the origins of Christianity , you see them taking scriptures from the Hebrew scriptures, rebooting it to correct failed prophecies and reinterpret it to work again. You see them taking the same ones and just leap-frogging through history with them to come up with ways to make this work, these apocalyptic prophecies work and you see Christianity coming out of this effect and the influence of like Hellenized Jews like Philo of Alexandria and other religions that we don’t even think of having any bearing on Christianity, you totally see where they’re coming from.
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