Interview with Dr. Richard C. Carrier

By: Enki, November 5th, 2009

Richard Carrier Richard Carrier is a world-recognized atheist philosopher, teacher, and historian. He holds a Ph.D in Greco-Roman intellectual history from Columbia University. He is best-known as the author of Sense and Goodness without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism, and for his writings in the Secular Web (also known as the Internet Infidel) where he stayed the editor-in-chief for several years (now emeritus). He is a major contributor to The Empty Tomb and was also featured in the documentary film: The God Who Wasn't There. Dr. Carrier has published many articles in books, magazines and journals and made many appearances across the US and on national television defending sound historical methods and the ethical worldview of secular naturalism.

I have contacted Dr. Carrier and asked him about Metaphysical Naturalism, Christianity, atheism in the Middle East, his political opinions, and personal life.

1- First, let me start by thanking you again for your time. Looking at the various definitions of 'nature' or 'natural' that Keith Augustine has discussed in his thesis "A Defense of Naturalism", I would love to hear your version of the definition.


I discuss this very thoroughly, with entertaining examples, here: Defining the Supernatural I also have a forthcoming paper in Free Inquiry on the very issue of defining naturalism (perhaps next year, it's been languishing in their queue for years already, title "On Defining Naturalism as a Worldview," by last report will appear in the April/May issue of 2010, but it's been bumped before and may again).


2- One of atheism's strengths is being the default position in which it's not a claim but rather a response to a claim. Do you think this strength might get weakened as metaphysical naturalism is not only an assertion about what exists but it goes beyond that to a worldview?


I see it as entirely the other way around: mere atheism is the weaker position.


First, you can't go through life without a complete worldview, so in actual fact you have one whether you know it or not (unless you are insane, although often even then), so if you try to go around like a mere atheist, you are de facto going around with a completely unexamined, ill-tested, un-thought-out worldview, which you might not even be aware of even though you rely on it daily. On the one hand, Christians can take advantage of this fact. If they have thought their worldview through better than you have, they can easily expose the failures of yours, which leads to a serious weakness in mere atheism (as I'll explain in a moment). On the other hand, it's just dumb. You shouldn't be going around with a completely unexamined, ill- tested, un-thought-out worldview. Even if there were no religions. Thus, I say, stop doing that and start examining, testing, and thinking out your worldview, instead of pretending you don't have one.


I think the fear is that having a worldview commitment is equated with dogmatism and certainty, which is a fallacy. You can have a tentative worldview, with various components in various stages of uncertainty, and often revise your worldview without embarrassment (scientists do it all the time), even rest from time to time on unresolved sets of options at some points, but you still must have (and do have, whether you know it or not) some idea of the hierarchy of probabilities and possibilities. Even if one element of your worldview is highly uncertain, you are epistemically obligated to make sure it's still the most probable element of all known alternatives. Likewise, if you are unsure between, say, three different ways to answer a question, and so go around assuming any one of them may be correct, you are still epistemically obligated to make sure these options are not only the most probable of all known options but that they are equally probable to each other, otherwise you should be leaning in the direction of the most probable one, to some degree at least. If you do not do this, you will succumb to the folly of assuming all possible answers to a question are equally probable, which is not only nuts, it's a fallacy Christians routinely exploit.


Second, the modern Christian apologetic amounts to this: we have better explanations of all the so-far scientifically unexplained phenomena of the world than you do, therefore it is irrational not to see our worldview as presently the most probably correct. Taking a position of mere atheism is not only of no use against that apologetic, it's actually immediately defeated by it. There is only one way to validly respond to it. You have to prove the central premise false: they do not have better explanations of all the so- far scientifically unexplained phenomena of the world than we do. You can do this by agnostically articulating several equally good explanations, but at some point that just becomes pedantic and naive, because if you really did it competently, you'd realize even those "equally good" explanations, all of them, are defeated by an explanation that is in fact better. Thus, agnosticism is defeated by naturalism. Therefore it is agnosticism (and equivalently weak atheism) that is the weaker argument, not the other way around. And just as naturalism defeats agnosticism, it also a fortiori defeats Christianity by using their own apologetic against them: no, sir, in point of fact we have better explanations of all the so-far scientifically unexplained phenomena of the world than you do, therefore it is irrational not to see our worldview as presently the most probably correct.


I think the common mistake is to assume that claiming this is equivalent to declaring dogmatic certainty in naturalism. But that's the same fallacy I pointed out above. Saying naturalism is the most probably correct worldview on present evidence (and IMO, it is so by a large margin, no other competitor even comes close, a fact that isn't always obvious to those not well informed of the actual facts) merely means it is more probable than alternatives, not that it is itself decisively or undeniably certain. "More probable" does not mean "100%," or even "80%." It just means more. If the next most probable worldview is 20% probable, naturalism need only be 55% likely to be vastly more credible. I'm just making up numbers. But you see my point. Showing that we have better explanations for each peculiar fact is enough to refute Christianity. We need not assert that those explanations are therefore true, only that of all explanations so far conceived, those are far more likely to be correct than any others. That may change tomorrow as new information comes, showing some other explanation even more credible still. But right now, we ought to believe what the evidence makes most likely. And once you realize that naturalism has a better explanation of everything than Christianity, you'll realize it has a better explanation of everything than any other worldview. Which leads to only one rational conclusion: we all should be naturalists. At least for now. Maybe future evidence will change our minds, but we have to go on what we know now. Leave the future for later.


3- In a presentation you gave at The Free-thought Association of Michigan in 2007, you said about the necessity of metaphysics "...we should do our best to fill in the blanks in the way that makes the more sense". How do you respond to those who, based on this, might claim that metaphysical naturalism is nothing more than a replacement of "God did it" by "Nature did it" that is, an atheist equivalent of the "god of the gaps"?


First, we don't fill the gaps with any dogmatic tradition, we are flexible and fully allow the gap might be filled some other way and we might even discover it tomorrow. If so, the naturalist will revise accordingly. Thus the history of naturalism is a history of revised and improved gap-filling, constantly changing with new evidence. That it changes with evidence, and in ways that make increasingly good sense and gain greater and greater certainty, is what makes naturalism as a "theology" entirely different from theology itself, which makes no discernible progress and rarely even heeds evidence much less changes in the wake of it, and when it does change in response to evidence, the new version is never any more certain or well established than the one that came before. So just compare the two histories and it's pretty obvious we have the goods and they don't.


Second, we don't fill the gaps with what we want to be there. We fill the gaps with what prior evidence tells us most likely is there. In other words, we are not engaging in a "god-of-the-gaps" argument because we are engaging instead in a proper inference from empirically established prior probabilities. When we say the gaps are filled with natural facts, we are saying this because that's how every past gap has been filled, without fail, thousands of times over centuries. Science has shown no other result. Take the theory of mind, for example. Nearly every gap there had been in 1800 has since been filled with scientifically proven natural facts, even in ways never before imagined. Cognitive science is at the top of its game and still making rapid progress. Now, when we look at the few remaining gaps, honestly, what are the odds that this horse is suddenly going to lose those races, when it has won every other race before this one, and no competing horse has ever won even a single race? Prior probability is clearly heavily on the side of natural facts. The same cannot be said of God.


And that's the difference between rational metaphysics and "god of the gaps" argumentation. The latter almost always relies on a repeated fallacy of possibiliter ergo probabiliter, "possibly, therefore probably." If any possible explanation can be conceived, the theist then simply assumes that that explanation is then probable. That's wholly invalid and irrational. We go with what is genuinely, demonstrably the most probable. And that just happens to be naturalism.


4- Let me now move to the history of Christianity, I always find it interesting that some life events of Jesus and the Egyptian god 'Horus' resemble each other. Do you think that followers of Jesus might have integrated into his biography the legends of Horus?


No. And I suspect you may be a victim of that awful pseudodocumentary Zeitgeist (or what I suspect may be its source, Tom Harpur's book The Pagan Christ). If so, then almost everything you've heard is false or undemonstrated.


First, the whole notion confuses Horus with Osiris. There are no ancient texts about Horus that parallel Jesus at all, except perhaps in some aspects of their nativities, but even then only in the most distant and indirect and thus wholly uninteresting ways. We have more parallels between Osiris and Jesus, and I've discussed some of them. But they are not very important overall and hard to interpret. For example: Osiris parallel


Second, there are far more direct and interesting parallels between Jesus and Romulus, for example, that are far more relevant as Romulus was the founder of the Roman empire that Christianity was contrasting itself to, and Romulus' story was annually celebrated with ceremonies and plays, so it's immediately obvious why Christians would transvalue the Romulus story and where they would be getting their information. It's wholly inexplicable why they would use Horus for this, or where they would be getting their information about him. Osiris at least makes some sense, as the key resurrected savior in one of Christianity's strongest competitors: the mysteries of Isis. But even then, it's hard to explain why they would pick that savior, rather than, say, Hercules, or Castor, or Asclepius, or what have you. Parallelomania is a fallacy one must avoid. You have to be very careful about how you interpret apparent parallels, and how you intend to explain them. You're theory must make sense of the whole body of evidence, and in context. There has to be a reason for those parallels to be there (if they are), and why those and not others (just as there has to be a reason for the differences, of which there are many).


That said, I actually agree that Jesus' story was constructed from mythic archetypes of the time. That he conforms to one common archetype from birth to death, an archetype repeated a dozen times in other gods, is beyond dispute (though many still try to dispute it). My next book On the Historicity of Jesus Christ will not only prove which links are definitely there, and offer a good explanation why, but it will also demonstrate by what method you can ever be sure of this at all (rather than believing just any theory you can make fit the evidence). Mythicism's fatal defect is a lack of sound method. That's why there are dozens of contradictory Jesus myth theories, each passionately advocated as completely certain, which only goes to demonstrate how wrong those advocates must be. Like religionists, they just don't realize the proliferation of successful alternatives is precisely what makes their alternative almost certainly wrong. If there are ten equally defensible theories, the odds that yours is the right one is actually a dismal 1 in 10. Not good odds. But to be fair, the exact same problem has befallen historicity as well. There are dozens of contradictory theories of the historical Jesus, too, each just as passionately advocated as certain. Thus, mainstream Jesus studies is as methodologically bankrupt as Jesus myth studies. That needs to change. I suspect any sound reform will vindicate the myth side of the equation, but that remains to be seen. And even then, I suspect all Jesus myth advocates will be disappointed to discover their pet theory is actually not the correct one after all, nor even rationally defensible to begin with.


Anyway, that's what my next book aims to start resolving.


5- As a historian, do you consider Marx's view of history a valid one?


No. It's a completely unempirical, factually challenged, armchair speculation that barely even counts as internally coherent, much less scientifically confirmed. But to be fair, the same is true of Marx's 20th century nemesis Ayn Rand, and her equally armchair, factually challenged, unempirical anti-Marxist worldview of Objectivism. Nevertheless, we'd all be better off in her broken world than his, as the unforeseen consequences are on balance far more disastrous in his case.


6- Atheists in the Middle East are living under the siege of Islamic fundamentalists. They can only "breathe" through internet. What guidance would you like to give them?


Keep that oxygen flowing. But ultimately, the only way to win that culture war is to end poverty and corruption in the Middle East. Once Middle Eastern communities have plentiful jobs and a strong tax base funding a socially responsive government, they will gradually lose interest in religion. This is exactly what happened in Europe, and is happening now in America.


Until then, you just have to pretend to believe, merely to keep your head (literally). You can respond to fundamentalism in all its immanent guises the same way resistance movements responded to Nazi occupation: behind the scenes, in secret, develop networks of communication and mutual solutions to the moral dilemmas of pretending to be the way the extremists want you to be (lest they kill you). Help each other out. Give each other aid and comfort. Just not in public. Or you can respond the way liberal Christians came to dominate much of Europe: vigorously using public expressions of faith, theologically astute arguments, and the Koran to subvert the specific designs of the extremists. If they want to stone a woman for adultery, prove to them that this is against the will of Allah. If they want to shoot a cartoonist for disrespecting Mohammed, prove that this is not the will of Allah, that in fact Muhammed is so morally great he cannot possibly be injured by something so trivial, and that it actually does harm to the Muslim world to deliver such a massively cruel and disproportionate response to such a vacuous crime. And so on.


If there is anything better to be done, I'm as much in need of hearing it as anyone.


I must add that you have to create ways for other doubters to find any secret antiestablishment networks you develop or plug into, so your resistance movement can grow, and doubters don't feel like they are all alone and without any support. The internet can be key here, hence my advice to keep that oxygen flowing.


7- As the author of "Sense & Goodness without God", what do you think the best way to bring up a child of atheist parents in a conservative society? I'm struggling to find the least devil because on one hand, I don't want him to be known among the other kids in school as: "that dumb Nazi communist atheist who worships Darwin and hates God", but on the other hand, I don't want him/her to become a religious freak.


We have to tailor our plans to our environment. In extremely hostile environments, my top recommendation is simply to leave. If you don't like how Nazis run things, don't live with Nazis. That's often not an option, though, in which case the only reasonable plan may be subversion: just pretend to be like them, and teach your children to do the same and why it is morally wrong that they are forcing them to do this, but that by doing it they can avoid this oppression while still remaining free and independent and not slaves to vile peer pressure. Just don't join in the oppression. Help (even if only in secret) and do not harm those who become targets of their attacks. And likewise, you can heed all the advice I just mentioned earlier about how to deal with the equivalent of fascist occupation. As the environment gets less hostile you can start carving out your own public resistance: come out as atheists, don't pretend anything any more, and let your kids face the oppression, but give them full aid and support, advise them to find allies who will join them in protesting against the evils of their wider society, and their circle of friends can in the end protect each other. Eventually, if you build a large enough niche, they won't be able to touch you, or less so at any rate. In any case, work out good strategies, and arm your kids with good tools. Not just reason and facts. Maybe some aikido would come in handy, too. I've heard stories.


But I would first go to others who have navigated the same maze before you and learn from them. There are now several websites and articles devoted to the needs and concerns of godless families, and I think even some books. Search them out. And if you find none, create them.


Of course, I must add, in response to both of the previous questions, that one always has the option of armed resistance, leading to organized violent revolution. But if you choose that path, you have to commit to all that that entails: you will probably die, your children will probably die, and it is only after many deaths like yours that any such movement is likely to have any effect. Thus it's probably not a good idea. If you do go that route, you had better heed some basic strategic advice: be sure you kill ten times as many of them, as they kill of you. You will only be victorious if you maintain at least a 5:1 kill ratio, and 10:1 is ideal. Maintain that ratio of losses and you will prevail. But only if you are willing to die in the process, and many thousands are ready to replace you on the war front when you do, so the war continues to conclusion. After all, that's why they kill you: to scare the rest like you from continuing to resist. So unless there are thousands of you willing to die to end that terrorism, those terrorists will shut down any armed resistance, thus rendering all your deaths useless. Hence passive subversion is probably the best strategy--unless you have enough who are willing to do what the American revolutionaries did: die, in large numbers, to advance the cause of freedom for all. Passive resistance will take a great deal longer, but might achieve the same end.


8- I know, thanks to you, that metaphysical naturalism stuck its nose in everything even the way we vote. If you were elected president of the United States, what would you do? What changes would you make to the U.S. foreign policy?


I pretty much lay out my political platform in Sense and Goodness without God. What I'd do, is pretty much what's in there. But as I note there, what we want to do rarely aligns with what we can do. I'm a political pragmatist. I believe we should do what's achievable. Anything else is self-defeating. Thus, I would be willing to make compromises. Some things I would never compromise on, but many others I'd be willing. Thus, what I would do would depend largely on what political forces were opposing me most effectively at the time, and those winds shift constantly.


As far as the specific question of foreign policy: First, I would wage wars far more smartly than we've done of late. We've been doing it half-assed, arrogantly, and badly planned. Just one example: assume the Iraq war was legitimate (it was not and I would never have fought it--I would have deployed that level of resources into Afghanistan from day one, rather than sending an idle force there and devoting hundreds of billions of war capital to a completely irrelevant front instead, but for the sake of argument, just assume Iraq had been a justified war, although all that I am about to say I would have done the same in Afghanistan). First, I would not put the nation on a war footing as if everyone back home could pretend we're at peace. I would have sent twice the troop levels, and initiated the same rationing and social organization throughout the U.S. that we deployed in WWII. In other words, every American citizen would be sacrificing and contributing to the war effort. If the American people refused to do this, that would be proof enough the war was unjust--for if the war were just, they would agree to sacrifice for it until victory. The entire war would have turned out differently, with that many boots on the ground, with that much organized reinforcement at home. Second, once we had secured the country, I would have immediately initiated (and would already have planned this well ahead) a massive equivalent to the Berlin airlift, supplying medicine, food, and other necessities to every Iraqi, right away, and I would have poured as much of the entire army's effort as possible into rebuilding the country as rapidly as possible (new roads, hospitals, power plants, water facilities, everything). Third, and most controversially, I would have required Iraq, as a term of her treaty of surrender, to take as their constitution, our constitution, for a period of ten years (after which they could begin amending it any way they want, as that constitution already provides for, thus molding their country exactly to their liking).


Second, I wouldn't wage so many wars to begin with.


Third, I would work toward ending all domestic agricultural subsidies, so regions like Africa would be able to market their agricultural goods in the U.S., which would soon end poverty in Africa (everyone knows this, just no one is willing to admit it who has any power in Washington).


Fourth, I would end political cover for American corporations abroad (particularly oil companies). I would insist that they distribute a substantial portion of their profits to building and maintaining local infrastructure (much as Qatar does). I would consider this a matter of national security, not merely justice: by sharing this wealth to improve the lives of the people whose resources and labor they are benefitting from, America's reputation would substantially improve, American values would rise in popularity and spread, and the withering and humiliating economic conditions that fuel fundamentalist ranks would die away, and with them the fundamentalists themselves. That is the only way we can win the war on terror. And so I would.


That's enough examples to give you an idea. But in each case, and in every other, as I explain in Sense and Goodness without God, I would base my policies on well-researched facts. Thus, I would first be sure to get correct information about what's amiss, and what really works, and what really doesn't. Ideology would not trump policy. If the facts and science proved that any of the above ideas were wrong, and that they should be revised or replaced with different policies, I would do the latter.


9- Can you tell us more about your personal life? What do you do for fun? Where do you hang out? What turns you on/off?


Well, you can hit "about" on my website (www.richardcarrier.info) and explore many things there, and also click "about" in the right-margin alphabetical index to my blog (www.richardcarrier.blogspot.com) and skim or read through what comes up. Also, on my blog, click and explore the index entries for "music" and "humor," as there you will get a good idea of what I'm like. And of course read my blog profile. But you can also explore my favorite fiction and my favorite films and TV. I also tell a brief accounting of my life story in early chapters of Sense and Goodness without God.


What can I add to all that?

My favorite pastime is spending time with my wife making fun of bad movies and good TV. My next favorite pastime is drinking good liquor at a swell party filled with happy, smart, and sane but strange people. Perhaps next after that is target shooting. I'm a crack shot with an automatic (pistol and rifle). I also cook. And of course think and write.


I hang out mostly at home. I like the quiet life, and I like making my home a sanctuary that I enjoy being in and working in. I rarely prefer hanging anywhere else. But as a practical matter I also hang out a lot at local university and seminary libraries, doing never- ending research for all my writing projects (and personal interests, too). And I do enjoy traveling to visit friends and family when I can.


What turns me on? Taking that literally, then smart, beautiful, funny women, of course. But taking it figuratively, quite simply, compassion, honesty, courage, sanity, and reasonableness, excellence in any skill or field of knowledge, and any rational, quirky, independent mind, are the top things that turn me on, along with all the material effects on the world from people who are any or all of these things. What turns me off? The opposite. Literally, women who are unattractive, never develop their minds (or even scoff at people who do), or have little or no sense of humor. But figuratively, people who are insane, irrational, mean, dishonest, cowardly, or unreasonable, or who value or seek excellence in nothing, or who anxiously conform to some perceived or actual standard around them rather than developing their own individual thoughts, tastes, quirks, and interests. And, of course, all the material effects on the world from people who are any or all of these things.


Maybe that all sounds dull or overly intellectual. But it's the honest truth. Which is not to say that I talk about any of this at parties (unless you ask). In more immediate life, my turn ons are simply laughing, joking around, drinking good liquor or wine, eating good food, and hugging and kissing my wife (and, of course, what that often leads to), but also soaking up the sanity of a vista of lush greenery and trees, and petting a purring cat, and turn offs are awful smells, unclean kitchens, obsessively straight roads, identically built houses, loud and annoying dogs, and the depressing absence of trees and greenery. And that's just the short list.


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Dr. Carrier, thank you again for your time.