Thursday, September 20, 2012

On Acharya S

[The review of The Christ Conspiracy has now been completed. There is a summary, as well as a two-part synopsis (part 1, part 2)]

I have been reading a lot by D.M. Murdock recently. Her books moved me to start this blog.

I do hope many of her fans will read my posts on her books - the first series of posts I have planned out is basically an in-depth review of her books The Christ Conspiracy, Christ in Egypt and The Suns of God.

I am not the first to do this, but I have found a bit of an omission in the reviews and criticisms I've read: most are written by theologians. This, per se, is not really a problem, but it has some effects that may be problematic:

  • Her fans may see theology and especially academical theology and its representatives as a conservative, hostile bunch of ivory-tower residents that want to keep outsiders out, and who often are inclined to side with Christian orthodoxy. To some extent, this is even a true objection. 
  • Murdock makes several claims that are not of a theological nature. She especially likes to use claims that are of a linguistic nature (see also chapter 16) (but also see the quality of the linguistics in her sources, e.g. Barbara Walker, Drummond). I do not expect theologians to know when her use of linguistics is shoddy or misleading. Considering she claims to be a Greek scholar, it is interesting how ignorant she is of linguistic methodology and of how language actually works. It seems she subscribes to some kind of very anglo-centric view where the English names of things somehow say something essential about the thing (see "God's spell" as an informative example). As if English is a magic lens into the underlying reality behind every concept, and that other languages somehow imperfectly reflect essences.
  • Her reasoning also often fails at being logical. Now, as a computer science student, logic is kind of a central tool I end up using quite regularly, and I understand a fair bit of this illustrious topic. Some of her flawed reasoning may not be as readily obvious to someone more into subjects such as theology. I am not saying that theologians are necessarily illogical, but some illogical things may on occasion pass them by (and sometimes members of their ranks concoct fairly illogical reasoning as well). However, in the interest of completeness, I have decided to include flawed reasoning wherever I see it, even though others have pointed out the same flawed reasoning.
  • My interest in pragmatics and linguistics in general has made me aware of how she phrases things. Her phrasing sounds like casting aspersions both left and right a lot of the time, and at times she includes statements that do not really support her specific thesis, but to the credulous reader are further proof of a conspiracy to hide the facts.
Now, as a non-theologian, I am not very well-versed on Church history, and it is in fact a topic I don't care that much about. To some extent, I will check sources regarding her claims, especially ones that are so egregious that even I can spot them. Chances are, though, that I will fail to spot mistaken claims she makes in regard to church history.

I will criticize nested quotes as well, as her writing uses such considerable amounts of long quotations that it at times reads like a "best of" record of secondary and tertiary sources. She seldom actually engages with the texts, never pointing out flaws or mistakes in them. This far, in my reading, I've only come across one instance of engaging with a text instead of accepting it wholesale: she pointed out that the author of the relevant source was a believing Christian, and therefore possibly a bit too uncritical (irony of ironies). Other than such instances, she takes every source at face value - not really a thing one can do in a book she wants to claim to be comparable to PhD theses:  "as concerns my credentials and continuing education, I would like to consider my books Suns of God and Christ in Egypt in particular a PhD thesis in the subjects of comparative religion and astrotheology."[1]

Sources are seldom taken to task for bad methodology or tendentious claims, and for that reason I will investigate some of her sources with a skeptical mindset as well. On the other hand, she also uses the time-tested method of quote-mining, which means some of her sources only say what she claims once the context has been removed. Since I have not been able to get my hands on all her sources, and time, alas, is a finite resource, I have not been able to check every quote for quote-mining. Archive.org helps a bit - many of her sources are public domain now, and some have been scanned by Google, Microsoft and so on, and are available there. 

She generally prefers old sources - a thing I do understand, given what she wants to say, but not given that she wants to be scholarly. She has to realize that methodology has developed since the time when these sources were written, that old claims have been debunked, that what scholars in the 1880s to 1930s thought is not current - several of her sources predate that time as well, especially Higgins who is a prominent source throughout The Christ Conspiracy. Sources from those times subscribed to ideas of how religion evolves that misconstrued evidence to show how Christianity was the apex of religious evolution. Her sources by and large did not buy into that model, but built their own opposite model that had just as mistaken assumptions - they posited religion as an increasingly corrupted version of an ancient perfect lore. Both models misunderstand evolution, and both are basically terribly unimaginative approaches - the devolutionary model basically turns the evolutionary model on its head, instead of coming up with any actually tenable explanation. Her sources were seldom peer-reviewed in their time, either, and thus are rife with speculation and bad reasoning. (For an example of such sources Godfrey Higgins comes to mind. An in-depth, but still incomplete look at his works, see 1, 2, 3. Another example of rather shoddy sources she uses is Karl Anderson, a 19th century astrologer. A third and fourth example are the brothers Churchward.)

A more modern source whose reliability is questionable, but whose work is referred to throughout The Christ Conspiracy is Barbara Walker, who often misunderstands what her sources claim, and uses similarly unreliable sources for her research.

As academia has worked on these things methodology has been refined and mistaken interpretations of old evidence have been debunked. Alas, Murdock does not care to keep up with sound methodology.

There is one type of fallacious claim she likes making again and again, even in contexts where they are red herrings. These are fallacies of an etymological nature, and therefore, I've decided to gather an overview of the types of mistakes she makes in one separate postThere also is one chapter brim-ful with this kind of mistake. I fear many readers of her books may be very confused as to how etymology works, what it means for a word to have a certain etymology, or how etymologies are researched. I will go into some detail on that particular topic in separate posts. 

Alas, her sources too tend to make the same kind of mistakes, and thus, I will deal with mistaken claims in the quoted works simultaneously with mistakes in her own book. In fact, it seems she has been rather clever when it comes to this: very seldom she makes a factual claim that is (verifiably) wrong. Very often, she lets others make them for her!

Although I do not subscribe entirely to the sentiment she quotes from Wheless, it bears repeating:
"... If the Gospel tales were true, why should God need pious lies to give them credit? Lies and forgeries are only needed to bolster up falsehood: "Nothing stands in need of lying but a lie"". [2, 3]
The amount of falsehoods used to prop up her claims should be taken as an indication as to the veracity of her claims. Alternatively, we realize that the number of falsehood used to prop up something does not necessarily make it false - it is trivial to make up a falsehood with which to prop up a truth.

Now, I am no Christian. Nor have I been for over ten years. I dislike many - possibly even most - explicitly Christian beliefs. However, I do not believe fabrication is a thing we should take to when trying to debunk Christianity. This, alas, is what D.M Murdock participates in - intentionally or not. As a person with some kind of integrity, I feel I have to point out and debunk the false claims made in her books, and make Christianity's opponents less likely to be misled by her. Just because an argument against something sounds persuasive, the argument is not necessarily correct. Christianity can be wrong without her arguments. In fact, I am convinced Christianity is wrong without believing particularly many of Murdock's claims, and I am certain that we can argue against Christianity from a stronger position if we refrain from using her false claims, as well as other false claims.

I write this, in part, because I know how frustrating it is to face someone whose view of the world is - to say it kindly - fanciful, in part because with sources like her, atheists arguing against Christians will deservedly lose whatever debates they get themselves into if their Christian opponents are even reasonably well educated. 

When some claim of hers almost gets it right and can be corrected - and in its corrected form can be used against Christianity (or is a reasonable fact for other reasons), I will point this out. I will also point out what bits she does get right in fields about which I dare to make such comments.

POSTSCRIPT: On December 26, 2015, D.M. Murdock passed away after having battled cancer for a while. Although I have written critically of her works and claims, I held no grudge against her as a person, and am saddened that she had to face such a terrible and early end. Her works improved throughout her career, and had she seen a full lifespan, she could even have produced works of lasting value.

[1] D.M. Murdock, http://www.truthbeknown.com/credentials.html (retrieved 9.20.2012)
[2] D.M Murdock, The Christ Conspiracy The Greatest Story Every Sold, chapter 3. The Holy Forgery Mill
[3] Wheless, Forgery in Christianity, p. 109

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