The Heisenberg Messenger

There is a recent article that seems to have gone viral over the net. In it, the author announces that his upcoming book will allegedly substantiate that the figure of Jesus Christ was none other than a Roman conspiracy. Specifically that much of his identity and was little more than a fabrication of the Roman ruling class in order to subdue the Jewish dissidents. While I will visit the substance of this issue in brief, I will only do so to attend to a broader subject that this necessarily provokes. Usually I tend to accept that a repost is not necessarily an endorsement of content, however in this instance I saw a large number of those reposts contain positively validating messages. While I accept this is largely an anecdotal evidentiary point, I think how pervasive the issue is does not disqualify the need to revisit these issues.

Propagators of information should acquire some critical disposition to the content we reflect back to and upon our networks. [The] simple act of stating our position in response to content is the first step in separating the message from the messenger.

My main concern with the article was less to do with the content, and more to do with the rapidity that Atwill’s claim managed to take hold on popular imagination, almost in complete defiance of any valid scepticism. It is to this issue that I wish to address more significantly, because I think it speaks to the way we are absorbing and regurgitating stories via social media without any significant critical thought.

Thus, this issue provides an object lesson that necessitates a review of critical thought and our engagement with digital content. Effectively, I hope to cover some ground on being critical in the age of social media, particularly with regards to how and when we present content and the vicarious authority we lend it. It is one thing to find the article itself interesting and intriguing, but it is another to laud its content without critical reflection. I suspect that in many instances, this stands as a symbol for a desire to critique religion’s disproportionate influence on mainstream society, but done in a lazy way.

It was my observation that far too many people happily vaunted the claim on face value because it aligned with their world view or what they would like to see be truth. This is a traditional case of confirmation bias, where we accept claims presented to us because they confirm our disposition. Admittedly, much of what I will speak about is scarcely new, but considering a significant number of the people I saw posting are people with levels of university education, they should be exemplars of scepticism rather than victims of a media cycle. Education, particularly higher education, is (as a friend of mine put it) vaccination against shallow thought.

The Historicity of Jesus

This discussion refers back to questions of the historicity of Jesus, which has a number of subtle historical traps that may catch people not invested into historical studies. This is because there is a popular understanding of this figure compounded by depiction through religious doctrine; notwithstanding the validity and substance of any historical and archaeological evidence that speaks to his existence. Rather than weigh in on this issue at length, as I am neither an expert nor wishing to focus on that issue itself, these matters have been debated with great alacrity by Robert M. Price, Bart Ehrman, and Richard Carrier, all of whom have debated prominent Christian apologists.

For now, it is sufficient that I demonstrate that in making claims as to the existence of a figure that is known as Jesus, we are really attempting to position ourselves against or alongside a number of distinct claims. From a purely historical point of view, these include whether there was an actual historical Jesus, what we can know of him from evidence, whether he was actually some manner of moral philosopher, what historical acts can be attributed to him, how much of his attested philosophy and religious ideology can be verified as originating from him, and lastly how much of his attested cultural impact can actually be attributed to him.

The historian would likely stop at these points, where the theologian would being to ask questions about whether he was of divine nature and so forth. From an historical point of inquiry, one need not necessarily dismiss supernatural claims off hand, for these claims are attendant and significant in the popular understanding of this figure. They must be weighed according to some rational method. If we consider the stories of Jesus’ miraculous acts as a type of story, then we begin to ask whether there was any kernel of truth to their legend, and how much of their story has been magnified or mythologised by subsequent interpretations and iterations.

Atwill’s Claims of Conspiracy

[E]ven if there was a conspiracy, the odds that the conspirators produced a written confession and the confession survived until the present day (when few manuscripts from that period have) and has only just now been discovered… multiple the improbabilities out, and a Secret Mark-style forgery is more likely.

Atwill’s claims are nothing short of extraordinary. It makes an allegation that one of the most thoroughly studied historical figures was the direct intentional fabrication of a contemporaneous group of elites. While some have suggested that this claim is no more extraordinary than the claim than his depiction in the bible, this kind of misses the point.

Technically, if I was presented with a dilemma of Roman conspiracy vs. literal biblical account, Occam’s Razor would favour the conspiracy. This is simply because the claim of ancient conspiracy is a less extraordinary claim than the claim of miraculous powers. However, this is not the dilemma that is actually being presented, because the claims of miraculous powers are not actually juxtaposed against the claims of conspiracy. It is actually a two-part claim: it firstly refutes the existence of an historical Jesus (either entirely or partially) at least as far as the biblical account is concerned; and then goes on to propose that the biblical account was an intentional act of deception, which achieved wide-spread popularity.

Chris Hallquist provides a succinct response to why we must be sceptical of these claims, in outlining that even taking into account biblical bias amongst theological scholars, that there is nevertheless something of an academic consensus that Jesus probably existed. Moreover, those that doubt his existence do not posit a claim of conspiracy of the type that Atwill claims. He rounds off his rebuttal thusly:

[E]ven if there was a conspiracy, the odds that the conspirators produced a written confession and the confession survived until the present day (when few manuscripts from that period have) and has only just now been discovered… multiple the improbabilities out, and a Secret Mark-style forgery is more likely.

When we view the claim this way, it is much easier to see why this is actually an extraordinary claim. It would require unprecedented historical evidence, of a kind that is elusive and unlikely in its own right. As an immediate step in encountering this extraordinary claim, one of the first questions that we should be asking is who is making this claim, and whether they have any expertise to do so. In the instance of Atwill, a basic background check would reveal that he has made claims like this before, and that they have been responded to with significant criticism. Atwill seems to have no notable academic qualifications, and is not attached to a university. All this paints a picture of someone making a radical claim that is not only divorced from an academic consensus, but without any significant grounding in the field itself. This further multiplies the aforementioned improbabilities cited by Hallquist.

NB: The above is not to suggest that universities are the only persons qualified to speak on subjects, but as institutions they remain our best at ensuring that those who lay claim to academic-levels of expertise are justified in that claim. They are useful shortcuts for us in assessing someone’s ability to make claims.

Critical Social Media

It is at this point, that I now return to the question of our engagement on social media. Social media is not an environment that readily lends itself to the type of critical engagement that we might accept in academic circles. Many of these issues are magnified by the nature of social media, where we tend to inhabit echo chambers.

Most of the major social media platforms have inbuilt mechanisms that allow us to filter out information that does not resonate with our view point, and elevates ideas that do resonate instead. This creates a reinforcing social sphere that reflects back to us positions that vindicate our own expectations without credible challenge. As more and more people transfer their consumption of digital knowledge from traditional media platforms onto the loosely collaborative fora of the internet, we are increasingly exposed to a new type of media circus, one with little accountability for content, its veracity, or its framing of message.

Part of this reflects a growing fallacy regarding internet behaviour, which imputes the existence of a digital native: people whose lives have been surrounded with online engagement to the point that they natively inhabit its virtual spaces. However, there is a growing body of evidence that shows that we are observing the emergence of a generation of people who intuitively use media, but lack more than a superficial understanding of its medium. Similarly, there is similar evidence that shows that while a growing number of students know how to source content for their academic writings, they do not know how to vet that content for veracity properly, or if they do simply fail to do so.

I am beginning to come to the position that we have some manner of obligation in the content that we share and re-share.

It is for these reasons that I am beginning to come to the position that we have some manner of obligation in the content that we share and re-share; particularly for those who are not merely consumers of digital content, but creators and professors of the same (I use the word profess here to mean: to make a claim of knowledge). As our media platforms become increasingly synonymous with individual presenters, our society begins to lose meaningful distinction between the message and the messenger. Our very personalities frame and contextualise any content, and as we acquire public voice, we lend veracity to the things we present. For these reasons, it is in our interests to separate those ideas that we would simply share for consideration, and those we would profess or propagate.

While I would be loath to propose some kind of artificial checklist of actions to take I think it is meritorious to consider the idea of a digital ‘professor’. Propagators of information should acquire some critical disposition to the content we reflect back to and upon our networks. Increasingly, I have come to sign any content that I am merely presenting with the statement “presented without comment” (or PWC on twitter) to signify that I am not authenticating or acknowledging its positions. I think this simple act of stating our position in response to content is the first step in separating the message from the messenger.

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One thought on “The Heisenberg Messenger

  1. Good comment. I couldn’t find anything original or persuasive in Atwell’s arguments. The comparisons with Dan Browns’ novels are telling. This kind of broad brush “It could have happened, therefore it did” conspiracy mongering is good for advancing bank balances, but not scholarship.

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