Tim O’Neill – Blog Author
I am an atheist, sceptic and rationalist who is a subscribing member of the Atheist Foundation of Australia and a former state president of the Australian Skeptics. I have contributed to many atheism and scepticism fora over the years and have a posting record as a rationalist that goes back to at least 1992. I have a Bachelors Degree with Honours in English and History and a research Masters Degree from the University of Tasmania, with a specialisation in historicist analysis of medieval literature.
As a rationalist, I believe strongly that people should do all they can to put emotion, wishful thinking and ideology aside when examining any subject and that they should acquaint themselves as thoroughly as possible with the relevant scholarship and take account of any consensus of experts in any field before taking a position. Which is why I began this blog in October 2015. After over ten years of seeing supposed “rationalists”, most of them with no background in or even knowledge of history, using patent pseudo history as the basis for arguments against and attacks on religion, I felt someone needed to start correcting the popular misconceptions about history which are rife among many vocal atheist activists. I also felt there needed to be some push-back by a fellow unbeliever against several fringe theories and hopelessly outdated ideas which have no credibility among professional scholars and specialists, but which seem to be accepted almost without question by many or even most anti-theistic atheists. “History for Atheists” has grown out of these convictions. In the years since I began this blog I have won a number of fans and supporters, but also gained a few detractors and hecklers. That’s the nature of the rough and tumble of the internet. If this is your first visit here I would ask you to try to put assumptions, a priori positions, and emotional preferences to one side and look objectively at the evidence and arguments I present. If we preach objectivity and dispassionate, well-informed rational analysis to others, we need to be prepared to practice these things ourselves. And remember that it’s usually only by discovering we have been mistaken about something that we can learn something new.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
“Are you really an atheist?”
“Are you a historian?”
No. At least, not in anything but the broadest sense of the word. I do have training in the historical method, I have studied historiography and I have read widely in the work of leading professional historians in ancient and medieval history, the history of science and the history of Christianity and its theology. But I am not presenting original research of my own here or putting my own re-interpretive spin on any historical topic. Instead, I’m drawing on over 35 years of reading on a range of topics relevant to the history of western religion and seek to curate summaries of current expert scholarly positions on those subjects. It’s the qualifications and expertise of the historians and scholars I cite and whose work I draw on that are relevant here.
“Why are you attacking atheists on this blog?”
I’m correcting some atheists, particularly anti-theistic activists, who often use arguments based on flawed, over-simplified, outdated, misinterpreted or plain erroneous ideas about history in their critiques of religion. I also criticise others who subscribe to fringe theories and crackpot ideas because of their anti-religious biases. And I critique a couple of actual historians who let their prejudices about religion warp their analysis; in one case to the point where his output is next to worthless. I regularly criticise all kinds of other people who allow a combination of ideology, prejudice and/or ignorance to distort their ideas about history, including Holocaust deniers, fundamentalist Christians, Catholic apologists and New Agers. But this blog is focused on distortions of history by atheists.
“Why don’t you expose distortions of history by Christians as well?”
Because there are plenty of blogs, books and online fora that do that quite well. Unfortunately, I don’t know of any other online resources by an atheist which does the same for atheist pseudo history. Given how much online atheists talk about fact-checking, objectivity, self-criticism and welcoming correction, that is very strange but it’s the case nonetheless.
“Why do you use the term ‘New Atheist’?”
Because it’s shorter and simpler than “anti-theistic atheist activist” or some other similarly cumbersome but more exact phrase. Not all atheists are anti-theistic (on the whole, I’m not) and not all are activists. I tend to find that it is the anti-theistic activists who are most likely to accept anti-religious pseudo history uncritically, to use it in their arguments and to reject any correction of it as “apologism” or “revisionism”. They are who I’m referring to by the shorthand term “New Atheists”.
“You made a claim but didn’t cite a source or a scholar to support it. How do I know you’re right?”
I try to cite and quote sources where I feel it’s important to do so. This is usually when I am referring to or noting a particular primary source or a specific book or scholarly article. Often I am summarising a broad scholarly consensus on a given topic and so there is no way I could cite a single source to support what I’m saying. And blog posts are not well-suited to the kind of detailed footnotes found in academic texts which give an lengthy overview of monographs and articles relevant to the summarised point that has been made. When appropriate I try to give a list of books and articles for further reading, especially if there are introductory overviews or comprehensive scholarly treatments for the topic in question. Otherwise I am very open for readers to query any given point in the comments section and I will happily suggest reading for them in reply.
“How can you be an ‘atheist’ if you don’t accept Jesus Mythicism/the Conflict Thesis/insert-fringe-or-debunked-pseudo-history-here?”
Because atheism is simply being without a belief in any God or gods and nothing more. Those other things may be, unfortunately, held by many atheists. But they are not part of being an atheist. To claim otherwise is an example of the “‘No True Scotsman’ Fallacy“.
Will you debate [Insert Jesus Mythicist here]?
No. Debate formats lend themselves to some kinds of topic – mainly broad philosophical or political issues that are based on opinion. This is why they can be interesting on questions like “should speech always be free” or “are criminals born or made – discuss”. They do not lend themselves to complex questions based on the analysis of many points of data and the assessment of interpretations of those data. So while “Is evolution true?” or “Did a historical Jesus exist?” may sound like good debate topics, they are not ones that can be analysed in sufficient detail in a structured debate format; unless the debate were to go on for many days or perhaps even weeks. This means that most debates on this kind of topic are reduced to exercises in rhetoric and massive generalisation and tend to favour those who can craft the most crowd-friendly rhetorical summaries rather than who is right. I’m told I’m a pretty good public speaker and can summarise complex material in an entertaining way, but – to me – simply doing that doesn’t do a topic like the existence of a historical Jesus sufficient justice. So I have no interest in the idea of a public debate on this subject.
“Why are you sometimes rude or sarcastic on this blog?”
Because it’s my blog and so I’ll post on it my way. I sometimes find the endless repetition of the same pseudo historical myths in atheist circles frustrating and so I deal with that in my own manner – usually with some wry good humour and irony that can come across to some (mainly Americans of the irony-deficient variety and/or the people I’m criticising) as “rude”. I make no apologies about that, though if I am being harsh I do at least try to also be funny. In responding to comments I have a general policy of being civil to anyone the first two times they post, but after that I give back what I get. Civil comments, even if critical, generally get polite responses. Trolls and idiots don’t.
“Are you going to post on insert-subject-here?”
If it’s New Atheist pseudo history, probably. If it isn’t, then no. There are plenty of topics out there that I could discuss, but unless they are (i) related to history and (ii) related to something being said or written by an atheist, they are not relevant here.
Why don’t you write a book/When are you writing a book/How is your book coming along?
Thanks to encouragement from some of this blog’s readers, I am writing the longer articles here, especially those in the blog’s “Great Myths” series, with a view to re-working them into chapters in a book on New Atheist bad history. There are still several very large topics that I need to cover in that series as well as other egregious examples of New Atheists bungling and mangling history I need to address before I can even think about turning to writing the first draft of any book. And I have a time consuming day job, a busy social life and a number of other hobbies. So let’s just say that, at the moment, the writing of any book is happening here on this blog.
“Have you read the Bible and do you want to accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour?”
Yes. And no, thank you. I know the Bible very well thanks, probably better than you. As a result, I have no interest in converting to your alleged “Christ”.
“You are a fake atheist/crypto-Christian/”accommodationist”/paid Vatican operative/great big poopyhead.”
That’s not a question.
Tim O’Neill – Last modified 28.10.17