Atheists and the Jesus Myth

A recent Twitter poll by philosopher Stephen Law asked atheists about their belief in the existence of God. The results were interesting.

Only 30% could say with any level of certainty that Jesus existed. Not whether he was the messiah or the Son of God but that he existed.

This is not representative of the scholarly attitude to the question. I would suggest that the number of historians and biblical scholars (including Christians, Jews, Muslims, atheists and agnostics) who say that Jesus existed is around 99%. Probably a little higher.

Questioning the existence of Jesus is pretty much on the same level as questioning whether the Earth is round.

So why would so many atheists doubt whether Jesus existed? It is interesting to note that Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, while not identifying as Jesus mythicists, have questioned the evidence for a historical Jesus.

I can only think of two reasons that atheists would doubt the existence of Jesus (neither one having to do with the quality of the evidence).

  1. Some atheists take such an anti-religion view and especially anti-Christian view that it is attractive to say that Jesus never existed. “Christians are so stupid to believe that God exists, that stupidity might as well extend to belief in Jesus.” Questioning the existence of Jesus becomes a part of the rhetoric that is used to ruffle Christians.
  2. Perhaps some atheists have embraced such a posture of skepticism that it is just as natural to question the existence of Jesus as it is to question the existence of God. If they have found alternative explanations for the scientific or philosophical evidence for God, then there must be alternative explanations for the historical evidence for Jesus.

Beyond this, I can not understand why so many atheists question the existence. It is not because they have looked at the current state of historical Jesus scholarship.

If you are an atheist and have an explanation for the results of this poll, I would love to hear from you.

I do know that as a former atheist, if I was still in that camp, I would be skeptical of a skepticism of the existence of Jesus and of what that means for the existence of God.

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1 thought on “Atheists and the Jesus Myth”

  1. Well, since you asked, I’ll have a shot at it! I’m an atheist who does believe Jesus existed, but, as this is a subject that interests me, I’ve read quite a bit of stuff that’s been written by Jesus Mythers on the topic.

    I think your second explanation is a huge part of it; once you believe ‘Christianity is wrong about the existence of this being who’s of crucial importance to them’ and ‘Christianity is wrong about a lot of stuff about this other being who’s of crucial importance to them’, it is a fairly reasonable logical step from there to ‘Christianity is probably also wrong about the existence of this other being’.

    But I think there are two other linked points worth bearing in mind as well: Firstly, the level of evidence for Jesus’s existence is not even close to the level of evidence we have for the earth being round. There’s enough evidence that I’m happy to conclude he existed, but you’re vastly overstating it, and you’re not by a long shot the only person I’ve seen do so. This sort of hyperbole only ends up hurting your argument.

    And, following on from that; the level of general knowledge about the evidence for Jesus’s existence is also very low. I think this is the biggest factor.

    A primary school child can tell you that it’s ridiculous to believe the earth is flat when it’s actually been seen from space to be round and we have the photos. How many adults – even educated adults – could tell you what the historical references are to Jesus, or what their strengths and weaknesses are in terms of proving that Jesus existed, or which points in Paul’s letters or the gospels seem to point towards historicity rather than mythicism? This is simply the kind of stuff that most people don’t know unless they’ve really looked into it.

    Also, there are a lot of superficially plausible-sounding reasons to be on the mythicist side of the debate. I mean, it’s true that Paul never met Jesus and seems to have known very little about any sort of historical Jesus. It’s true that the gospels are heavily biased sources whose authors could have made things up. It’s true that Josephus’s work contains later Christian interpolations that have thrown doubt on how much of his writing about Jesus actually did originate from him. It’s true that Tacitus almost certainly wouldn’t have had any kind of official written source for what he wrote about Jesus. And, yes, I know the answers to all of those points from the historicist perspective… but how many other people are going to?

    From an atheist perspective, there’s very little reliable information out there on the historical side. What all this means is that, if you’ve only read a little bit about the subject, there’s a high chance that that little bit is a plausible-sounding pro-mythicism case.

    So, what your average atheist knows about the topic is likely to boil down to either:
    • Sure, the Christians think Jesus existed. But then, they also believe a lot of other stuff I don’t believe, so that’s not much of a reference.
    • Hey, I just found this article on the Internet about reasons to believe Jesus didn’t exist, and it sounds pretty convincing!

    And that’s why I’m not surprised that so many atheists are either in the ‘don’t know’ or ‘Jesus never existed’ camp.

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