- Borden Painter Responds
Richard Carrier ignores the issues, evidence, and conclusions presented in my article. He asserts twice that I accuse “all” New Atheists of faulty history. I use the word “all” once: “They all champion ‘evidence-based reasoning,’ but the evidence they cite from the past and the conclusions they draw from it lack credibility, at least by the standards of professional historians.” I begin with Harris, Dawkins, and Hitchens and work from there, aiming to include as many examples as possible that show a consistent pattern of sloppy historical thinking. But Carrier changes the subject, finding me guilty of not having read widely enough, by which he means I did not read two chapters in The Christian Delusion. I can assure Carrier that I have read beyond the citations that I thought would fit into a brief article.
I have now read those two chapters. Hector Avalos writes on the Holocaust in a negative review of the book What’s So Great About Christianity (Regnery, 2007) by Dinesh D’Souza—a political polemicist not a historian, whose political and historical opinions I do not share. Avalos illustrates my contention that New Atheists favor binary, either/or history: if Hitler was not an atheist, argues Avalos, he must fall into the religious camp. Historians do not consider Hitler an atheist, and they also know the history of German anti-Semitism, including Luther’s. What Avalos omits is any attention to how [End Page 34] historians have sought to understand what Hitler and the Nazis added to this legacy that led to the Holocaust. He might begin reading more widely on the subject with Richard J. Evans’s The Third Reich in Power (Penguin, 2005), chapter 3, “Converting the Soul.” I do not consider Avalos’s effort “proper research.”
Carrier offers rich and interesting insights into science and rational thought in antiquity, his area of specialization, but his overall effort illustrates my critique of New Atheist historiography. He makes no distinction, for example, between the Byzantine East and the Latin West since they were both Christian, but every textbook presents the differences in the political, economic, religious, and cultural history of the two. Carrier asks: “Why did the Scientific Revolution never happen in the Byzantine Empire, despite being just as Christian, and in every respect more successful?” Carrier has little or nothing to say about such topics as medieval intellectual history, the Italian Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation in the West, or the Turkish conquest of the Byzantine Empire in the East. He triumphantly concludes that if Christianity had not put “the progress of science on hold for a thousand years, the Scientific Revolution might have occurred a thousand years ago, and our science and technology would be a thousand years more advanced” (414). Such counterfactual speculation may be interesting, but it sounds like Harris’s hyperbolic assertion—cited in my essay—that, absent Christianity, we might have had democracy and the Internet by 1600.
Carrier concludes that he and Avalos “get the same results [other New Atheists] do (only, perhaps, worded more carefully and allowing for nuances).” That is no surprise. What a surprise it would be to find some disagreement and debate among them on such important historical topics as the Holocaust and the Scientific Revolution, as is common among professional historians.
My article and my more extended manuscript intend not to defend the history of religion or of Christianity, but to defend the integrity of history as a discipline. I make the case that New Atheist historiography “contains serious shortcomings that place it outside the mainstream of historical discourse as currently practiced in the academy.” Sadly, Carrier has chosen not to debate the issues I raise.
I do apologize for referring twice to Victor Stenger as “Peter.” Otherwise I stand by the substance of my article. [End Page 35]