Thursday, 1 November 2012

Guest Post, Recovering Agnostic: Have I Got News For You...

Savile is on the right.
Guest Post by Recovering Agnostic

Godless Poutine's Note: Being Canadian, I was completely unaware of Jimmy Savile or the ghastly sexual abuse he is alleged to have carried out during his lifetime which is covered to a certain extent in this post.  My heart and thoughts go out to the many victims that have come forward at this time.

Some sites linked to in this post do contain mature subjects and language.

I was recently sent a transcript from a recording of Have I Got News For You, a British satirical news quiz show. It was first published some years ago, in 1999, and involves repeated accusations of a subtle and not-so-subtle nature about Sir Jimmy Savile's sexual activities. Not surprisingly, this transcript had started doing the rounds again after recent well-substantiated allegations were broadcast by ITV.

Just a few years after the supposed events, I know people who were convinced that some of this exchange had actually been broadcast, and people have even claimed to have been present at the recording. There's just one small problem - it never happened. The whole transcript was an obvious and well-attested hoax. But people continue to believe it.

It would be easy to dismiss this as a product of internet hysteria, but there's a very similar and even more famous case that predates the world-wide web by decades. The details of the story vary, but the common elements are that a woman appearing on Groucho Marx's show You Bet Your Life revealed that she had a large number of children, with the number varying from 10 to more than 20. There's a greater consensus about what followed:

Groucho: Why do you have so many children?

Woman: Because I love my husband.

Groucho: I love my cigar, but I take it out of my mouth once in a while.

It's a great quote, one that still gets attributed to Groucho in collections of humorous quips, but again, it never happened. There's no footage of this exchange, Groucho repeatedly denied it (despite the fact that he would have loved to have said it), and no one associated with the show had any recollection of it. There are even convincing explanations of how the story came about. But like a zombie, it refuses to die, and again, people are adamant that they really heard it broadcast.

So why am I so bothered about this, apart from a pedantic interest in debunking popular myths? Because it tells us something very interesting and revealing about how people remember things, and how reliable our memories are. We can even be mistaken about things we believe we witnessed, even very soon after the alleged events.

As you might have guessed by now, my real target is Jesus' resurrection and the foundation of the church. Even the most generous estimates put the writing of the first gospel a full generation after Jesus' death, so on what basis should we uncritically accept what they say as an accurate account of what truly happened?

We shouldn't. The only reason anyone would accept an account so distant from what it claims to describe without further corroboration is that it supports their prior beliefs. In other words, as Christians often say themselves without realising the implications, you have to be prepared to believe in the story before it makes sense.

At this point, the Christian apologists will no doubt be rallying their usual battery of arguments, so let's deal with a few of the more common and predictable ones.

Why would anyone die for something they know to be false? - They didn't know it to be false - that's the whole point about false memories. But their recollection will be unreliable, just as the recollection of people who "remember" things that never happened is unreliable. And the more we hear and discuss stories, the more we form an image of them in our heads, and the more likely we are to believe that we really saw them.

The evangelists would surely have an accurate memory of such extraordinary events - Begs the question, but let's go with it. They'd almost certainly have vivid memories, but not accurate - quite the reverse. Extreme events make us very sure of our version of what happened, but our memories of such events are consistently poor, even immediately afterwards.

There were Christian martyrs almost immediately after Jesus' death - Maybe so, although the only evidence we have for this is in the Bible, written long after the purported events, and hardly an objective or impartial source. But as above, memories can be surprisingly inaccurate even straight after the events described.

Haven't you only demonstrated that recollection can be wrong, not that these accounts are wrong? - Yes, indeed. But for the gospels to be accurate, we'd have to believe that a man died and came back to life because he was God, which had never happened before or since. The alternative is that they were mistaken, just as any number of clear and unambiguous memories have been mistaken. I think the balance of probabilities massively favours the latter, but in any case, these accounts clearly demonstrate nothing and require genuine corroboration.

I'm not saying that these accounts are definitely wrong, and in fact, I'd love them to be true. It would be lovely to think that some other guy died to give me access to eternal paradise after I die. But I'd like lots of things to be true - unfortunately, reality doesn't conform to my wishes. The question is whether there's any good reason to believe them to be true. On the available evidence, you'd have to say there isn't.

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  1. I agree the Jesus myth does not meet the burden of proof, but you mentioned it never happened before or since. So what? Lots of events occur that have never occurred before. I have never read your article before and probably never again, but it did happen. It is within the bounds of reason that it did happen, that is where a myth departs from truth.

  2. But many, many people have read blogs, many, many people have written blogs, and there's no controversy about the existence of blogs. If there was any disagreement, however, the number of times something similar has been observed or reported would be a very significant data point.

    If you tell me that you just saw a rabbit, I have no reason to doubt your word. You may be telling the truth or you may not (although I'm not sure what your motive might be for lying about something so mundane), but there's nothing about the claim itself that raises any cause for doubt.

    But if you tell me that you saw a rabbit with a lion's head and a kangaroo's tail, the fact that no one has ever recorded an animal that looks anything like this provides a prima facie reason to doubt your claim. Again, it may be that you've seen a rare example of a previously unknown species, but all things being equal, I'll want more evidence than if you just say you saw a rabbit.

    Which is just a different way if saying that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.


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