Is the Secular Exclusion of Divine Explanations for History as Biased as Supernaturalistic Historiography?
Posted by NT Wrong on September 13, 2008
Sometimes Christians object that it is just as biased to reject ‘supernaturalistic’ explanations for the life of Jesus as it is to allow such explanations in one’s historiography.
A recent example comes from Jim West — that is, the prolific biblioblogger of that name, not the author of a recent travel-book on queer underground culture in Beijing. We understand they are different people.
Anyway, Jim West, the biblioblogger, recently said this:
“Is not the a priori exclusion of the possibility of divine activity in the human sphere just as prejudiced a viewpoint as that of the evangelical who insists that there is only one explanation for the Church; ie, divine activity?”
The context of Jim West’s rhetorical question is a response to James Crossley’s portion of a soon-to-be-released co-authored book on Jesus, the resurrection, and the origins of the early church, How Did Christianity Begin?
As phrased, Jim West’s point is undoubtedly true. If one excludes certain historical reconstructions from consideration on a priori grounds, then, that is undoubtedly as biased as any other a priori exclusion of possible explanations. It would be like a historian of Haitian colonisation consciously refusing to consider local Haitian viewpoints, but only considering the viewpoints of the colonisers. Such an approach would be obviously prejudiced and untrustworthy. And that’s why no good historian proceeds in such a fashion. In fact, what Jim West has described is not a credible scholarly method of historiography.
But those historians who reject supernaturalistic explanations don’t simply apply a priori reasoning. This is why Jim West’s criticism — a criticism, the tu quoque criticism, which is a very common apologetic criticism — is simply inapplicable. The basis for rejecting ‘supernaturalistic’ explanations is not in fact out-of-court and a priori — it is an attempt to arrive at the best explanation of the available facts. Having reviewed a large body of historical data from many places and many times, historians have consistently concluded that the better explanations involve a complex of social-historical factors. The best explanation of the victory of the Britons over the Romans involves the declining power of the Romans, not the supernatural powers of ‘Arthur’ or ‘Merlin’. The best explanation of the rise of Hitler involves certain social and political reasons between the two World Wars together with certain ideological developments of the time — and such an explanation is sufficient, so that any talk of an ‘evil power’ is nonsense. Time and again, historical investigations provide sufficient explanations in terms of mundane quotidian explanations, making otiose any additional ‘supernaturalistic’ explanations.
So, the old chestnut, ‘you’re biased too, because you reject supernaturalistic explanations out of court, on a priori grounds’ is demonstrably untrue. The rejection of supernaturalistic explanations in historiography is the result of a long build-up of explanations for the human and natural world that have rendered supernaturalistic explanations redundant. In other words, there is nothing ‘a priori’ (deductive) in the method at all. The method is abductive; establishing which types of explanations best and most economically fit the facts.
Ordinary mundane socio-political factors provide sufficient historical explanations for British history (without positing a magical Merlin), for Judean history (without positing a god who directs history), for the origin of the early Islamic empire (without positing an Allah who directs history), for the rise of the United States (without positing some ‘Manifest Destiny’), etc, etc. Sure, true believers will always be able to claim that the history in which they have a vested interest is unique in a way that fundamentally distinguishes it from all other reality. But in doing so, they have to counter the weight of historical and scientific explanation. Now, that is real ‘bias’.
Update: I just spotted James Crossley’s reply to Scot McKnight, which is on a similar parallel to this post, but is much more entertaining.
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