Tim O’Neill is an Atheist Who is Impatient with Atheists

As a Christian who is often impatient with Christians and a Catholic who is often impatient with Catholics, I can empathize.

O’Neill is an honest atheist who is weary of the laziness of dishonest atheists like Richard Dawkins. The trouble with celebrity, like the trouble with money and power, is that it cocoons you from consequences and surrounds you with sychophants who relieve you of the trouble of having to check your work. Your every ipsi dixit becomes the Inspired Word of Dawkins (or Trump or whoever) and your horde of worshippers become so invested in defending you from attacks or criticism by the Unwashed that you start to believe you own press releases and stop bothering to find out if you know what you are talking about. This is particularly true when you have, through long practice, persuaded yourself that the people you are arguing against are so utterly contemptible that you don’t have to know what they say or think, since they are fools.

O’Neill is atheist who, while not a believer in God or the Christian faith, is interested in historical accuracy and, not being cocooned by the adoration of fanboi, understands that getting wrong the ideas of, y’know, the vast majority of human beings who have ever lived, as well as some of the most important formational thinkers in the history of the world is a short road to saying a lot of stupid, ignorant stuff. So he is forced to spend a lot of time taking New Atheist types to task because they make atheists look dumb and, as an atheist with a sense of honor, that irks him.

Again, as a Catholic, humiliated by the godawful lies, ignorance, selfishness, and folly of the MAGA cult of “prolife” Qatholics, I empathize. There is nothing more appalling than watching something you believe and care about be sullied by tribalists who prefer Maintaining Unit Cohesion over telling the truth. So I appreciate O’Neill’s commitment to clarity and accuracy over the lazy tribalism of Dawkins and his adorers.

O’Neill has fun in a recent essay on Dawkins Outgrowing God: A Beginner’s Guide. His issue, of course, is not Dawkins’ atheism, with which he agrees. It’s with his sloppy and ignorant treatment of history, about which Dawkins has little interest except as a source of urban legends with which he can beat his whipping boy, the Christian tradition. In the first portion of the essay, O’Neill takes apart Dawkins’ cartoonish account of Constantine and the Council of Nicaea, which is barely a step up from Dan Brown’s rubbish history in The Da Vinci Code:


Constantine and Nicaea

Dawkins does not get off to a very spectacular start when, in the book’s opening argument about the great variety of gods, he confidently informs his readers that the modern dominance of variations of Yahweh among all the gods worshipped in history is easily explained:

It’s a historical accident – the adoption of Christianity as the Roman Empire’s official religion by the Emperor Constantine in AD 312 – that led to Yahweh’s being worshipped around the world today.

The idea that it was Constantine who made Christianity the official religion of the Empire is a persistent myth and one derived from a long and largely Protestant theological tradition. Early Protestantism saw itself as returning to the original form of Christianity and reviving the true form of the early faith that had been warped by the Catholic Church over the centuries. This led to the adoption of a version of Church history that traced the rise of Catholicism to a devil’s bargain the Church made with the wicked Constantine. In return for an end to persecution and access to political power, the Church allowed itself to be subsumed into the Roman Empire’s apparatus by a scheming emperor and so lost its previous purity and integrity.

This is a distortion of history. Constantine’s conversion gives every indication of being sincere, even if the sophistication of his Christian belief was initially very low. Far from giving him some great political advantage, his conversion to a minority sect made up mainly of the lower classes did not endear him to the substantially pagan Senatorial and equestrian classes, which were the core of political power in the Empire. It was the loyalty to him of the Army and his ability to ruthlessly eliminate rivals that secured him ultimate power, but this was despite his strange new religion, not because of it. And as Christianity slowly but exponentially increased its numbers in the Empire, it increasingly conformed to the society in which it grew, with its outsider and radical status gradually declining. Christianity was already becoming a Roman imperial faith and Constantine’s adoption of it was as much a reflection of this as a catalyst for its acceleration.

But in the Protestant tradition Constantine is the villain of the story of how the Church lost its way and the myth that he made Christianity the official religion of the Empire, shackling the faith to the Whore of Babylon, is persistent as a result. In fact, Constantine was clearly aware that his new religion was not popular among some key political factions and trod lightly around the matter. His policy extended the previous edict of Galerius of 311, which gave Christianity a reprieve from persecution in return for prayers “to their God for our safety, for that of the republic, and for their own, that the commonwealth may continue uninjured on every side”. In 313, Constantine and his then co-emperor Licinius revived this edict in opposition to the renewed persecution of Christians of the rival emperor in the east, Maximinus Daia, and so ordered the release of Christians who had been imprisoned or enslaved and the return of confiscated Christian property. Constantine and Licinius extended this religious liberty to all cults and sects, not just Christianity.

Once he became sole emperor in 324 his policy of general religious toleration became firmly established. He certainly favoured and acted as a generous patron of Christianity, but he did not impose it on the Empire. Obviously the adoption of Christianity by Constantine and almost all of his successors had an impact on the growth of the once marginal sect, but Christianity was already growing exponentially and is likely to have dominated the Empire demographically by the end of the fourth century anyway. The slow transition from the largely pagan Empire he inherited to the point where Christianity was the dominant and majority faith occurred over the next one or two generations and Christianity was not declared to be the sole official public religion until the Edict of Thessalonica, jointly issued by Theodosius I, Gratian, and Valentinian II on 27 February 380. This was 43 years after Constantine died.

But Dawkins is so enamoured with this erroneous idea that he repeats it twice more in the book. The fact that Dawkins could get something so basic wrong in this book’s opening pages is an indication of his laziness when it comes to history. He clearly did not bother to check this “fact” that he repeats several times – less than a second on Google would have informed him it was wrong. Like many anti-theist polemicists, if a historical idea he has heard somewhere suits his argument, it will do. No checking necessary. So much for a steely rationalist adherence to “facts”.

So it is no surprise that the sloppy work continues with another myth about Constantine: the claim he created the canon of the Bible at the Council of Nicea:

The canon was largely fixed in AD 325 by a conference of church leaders called the Council of Nicaea, set up by the Roman Emperor Constantine – the one whose conversion led to Europe becoming Christian. He made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire.

Dawkins loves this myth so much that he repeats it no less than seven times in his short book. But, again, it is total nonsense. Not only was the canon not “largely” set at Nicaea, it was not even discussed at that council. As I have detailed here before (see The Great Myths 4: Constantine, Nicea and the Bible) this myth can be traced to a quip by Voltaire and has been perpetuated in popular culture ever since. The idea that the Bible was actually selected by a committee presided over by a scheming emperor and that many texts were excluded from it on the whim of Constantine is too delicious for some to resist. It is one of the various “facts” that are not facts presented as “history” to millions of unsuspecting readers in The Da Vinci Code (2003), but we should expect Dawkins, as one of our “greatest thinkers and writers”, to do his homework a little better than the lowbrow airport novelist, Dan Brown.

In fact, the process of the canon’s development was all but complete long before Constantine was even born and he had pretty much nothing to do with it. Not only was it not even discussed at the Council of Nicaea, but the first time it was discussed in any council at all was at the local synod at Hippo in 393 AD; that is 56 years after Constantine died. It was not discussed by a full ecumenical council until the Council of Trent in 1546: a whole 1209 years after Constantine’s death. Dawkins has bungled basic history again. 


For some fun reading on Constantine from a born storyteller, I recommend my friend Rod Bennett’s excellent little book The Apostasy That Wasn’t: The Extraordinary Story of the Unbreakable Early Church. The funny thing about Constantine is how utterly malleable a figure he is in the minds of post-moderns. For Fundamentalist Christians, he is the Pagan Emperor who corrupted Pure Biblical Christianity and turned the Church into a pagan cult of Mary-worshipping, Eucharist-eating paganized pagans of paganism. For Fundamentalist Atheists, he is the guy who transformed a human rabbi, or just a legendary figure, into God and give us what Fundamentalist Christians call “Pure Biblical Christianity”. In fact, of course, he was a convert from paganism who accepted the teaching of a Church that predated him by three centuries, read that teaching through his own personal lens (as all converts do) and (above all) was concerned to keep peace in his dominions and not let a dangerous theological quarrel wreck his Empire. He was not especially concerned about how the Church decided the Arian heresy so much as they bloody well do it. Once the Council arrived at its version of the Creed and the Catholic bishops carried the day he did not, contrary to legend, run around imposing the Faith by fire and sword. Indeed, like many people of his time, he delayed his baptism till the end of his life and, when he did receive it, he did so at the hands of an Arian.

The Imperial Court, for 40 years after Constantine, was mostly dominated by Arians or semi-Arians because it seemed to people trying to run an Empire that this was the sensible compromise position. The actual faith of the Church seemed too extreme. Finally, forty years after the Council, Caesar decided the whole Christian thing was a pain and tried to revive paganism. But Julian’s Make Rome Pagan Again campaign was a bust and he died with an Empire that was ready to immediately revert to Christianity. (Back around 2005, I thought it would be fun to write an essay about how “It’s been 40 years since the Council and everything has gone to rack and ruin. The Council was a mistake and the Pope is a failure and we need to go back to Traditional Catholicism!”–and then date it 363 AD. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

But I digress. What interests me most about O’Neill’s autopsy of Dawkins’ book is this:


Like a Virgin

After making a clumsy mess of how the canon came to be and why some books were chose over others, Dawkins makes a similar hash of criticising the reliability of the gospels. Someone who actually took the time to understand this issue could easily make the point Dawkins is trying to make – “you cannot take the gospels as documentary histories” – and do so with careful reference to critical scholarship. But Dawkins seems incapable of anything above the level of sneering internet atheist tropes.

He begins:

The long gap between Jesus’s death and the gospels being written gives us one reason to doubt that they are a reliable guide to history. Another is that they contradict each other.

This is a reasonable start and he proceeds by noting well-known contradictions in the list of the names of the twelve disciples or in the genealogies in gMatt and gLuke’ infancy narratives. A better guide could have used this to get his young readers to think about how these contradictions could have arisen, what they tell us about the transition from oral traditions to literary ones and whether the gospel writers were intending to write what we think of as history at all. But Dawkins does not seem to know about any of this and certainly does not care. His bald analysis does not rise much above “contradictions = wrong!”

His analysis of how prophecies shape the gospel narratives is similarly ham-fisted.

Yet another problem with taking the gospels as historical truth is their obsession with fulfilling Old Testament prophecies. Especially Matthew. You get the feeling Matthew was quite capable of inventing an incident and writing it into his gospel, simply in order to make a prophecy come true. The most glaring example is his invention of the legend that Mary was a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus.

That gMatt is full of elements which seem wholly derived from Jewish scriptures seen as Messianic prophecies or pressed into service as such by the writer is pretty clear. But to Dawkins, this simply means the gMatt writer is just making things up “without a hint of shame”. He does not contemplate that, perhaps, both the gospel writer and his audience knew exactly what he was doing and that these elements were not meant to be read literally as historical.

That aside, Dawkins’ bold claim that the idea of the Virgin Birth is “[Matthew’s] invention” ignores the fact that the story of Mary’s virginity is also told independently in gLuke. So clearly it predated both these gospels and was not “invented” by the gMatt writer. Dawkins also has a internet atheist’s weak grasp of how Jewish exegesis works. He notes that gMatt refers to Isaiah 7:14 as a prophecy of Jesus’ birth to a virgin, but he then argues:

Matthew totally misunderstood the prophecy. …. it’s clear from the Book of Isaiah itself – though apparently not to Matthew – that Isaiah was talking not about the distant future, but about the immediate future in his own time. He was talking to the king, Ahaz, about a particular young woman in their presence, who was pregnant even as he spoke.

In fact, the writer of gMatt would have been very aware of the context of the Isaiah text he uses. What Dawkins does not seem to understand is that exegesis of this kind involves taking a text out of its context and highlighting a second meaning for it. So, for the gMatt author, Isaiah 7:14 had one meaning in its context, but a second and different meaning on its own. Of course, the point could still be made that much of the use of this exegesis in the gospels means at least some of the episodes it supports are of dubious historicity, but Dawkins does not seem to know anything much about the subject or too care to learn.

So he bumbles on with another piece of stock village atheist fare:

The word Matthew quoted as ‘virgin’ was almah in Isaiah’s Hebrew. Almah can mean virgin; but it can also mean ‘young woman’ – rather like the English word ‘maiden’, which has both meanings. When Isaiah’s Hebrew was translated into Greek in the version of the Old Testament called the Septuagint, which Matthew would have read, almah became parthenos – which really does mean ‘virgin’. A simple translation error spawned the entire worldwide myth of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the Roman Catholic cult of Mary as a kind of goddess, the ‘Queen of Heaven’.

So it is all just a “simple translation error”! Unfortunately this neat story does not quite work. The translators of the Septuagint were not exactly morons and were very careful to reflect the Hebrew they were translating as closely as they could, though translating from a Semitic language (Hebrew) into an Indo-European one (Greek) was often tricky. Παρθένος (parthenos) certainly meant virgin, but was often applied to any young woman of marriageable age (since they were meant to be virgins). So this was actually a perfectly acceptable word to translate the Hebrew almah.

Exactly how the concept of Mary giving birth as a virgin arose is not clear. It may be that it did come from reading the Greek version of Isaiah 7:14 very literally, so long as that text was already seen as a Messianic prophecy. Judaism had a long tradition of prophets or other holy men who were conceived miraculously by someone who, strictly speaking, should not have been able to conceive, so the infancy stories of Isaac, Samuel and Samson all involve a mother who was either known to be infertile or who was already past menopause. The story of Jesus’ miraculous conception falls into this tradition, though in this case its a virgin who miraculously conceives. So did this prophetic tradition attach itself to Jesus first, with Isaiah 7:14 pressed into service to support it later, or was it the other way around? It is impossible to tell. But Dawkins’ “gotcha” story is not going to help his audience even begin to ask this kind of question, because he simply does not know what he is talking about.


This is something I actually know about, having written a book on the matter called Making Senses Out of Scripture: Reading the Bible as the First Christians Did. And yes, it is cringeworthy when an expert on the life cycle of the wasp decides to hold forth on how biblical authors are 2000 years stupider than he is.

Here’s the deal: Belief in the Virgin Birth does not originate with a “translation error”. Indeed, it does not originate with the text of Isaiah 7:14 at all.

How does it originate?

More on that tomorrow.


8 Responses

  1. I’ve enjoyed Tim O’Neill’s blog for a while. My only quibble with it is that he doesn’t post often enough, which is forgivable since his articles are so long. History was one of my majors in college and I was always bothered how some of the more vocal atheists I have encountered seem to view history the way some fundamentalist Christians view science – that only a small crackpot minority are legitimate and the rest have an agenda.

    1. Best be wary of those who possess the bare minimum of doubt and the maximum of finger wagging. This is true for all convictions.

    1. I have, as you shall see, a professional interest in O’Neill’s takedown of Dawkins’ ignorant ipsi dixits on early Christian readings of the Old Testament. I don’t particularly care about atheist infighting per se.

  2. There is another problem with people like Dawkins. He is a brilliant biologist. Unfortunately he and his fans also think that he is a brilliant thinker; he is not.
    Thought experiment: reverse roles. Imagine a historian who writes a book on evolution theory without consulting evolutionary biologists and reliable sources. Then imagine the reaction of Dawkins.
    Disclaimer: I’m a hardcore atheist too. Neither am I per se interested in atheist (or christian, for that matter) infighting; I’m interested in fighting pseudoscientific crap, whether it’s jesus mythology or creationism. The two have much in common.

  3. As a guy with no small amount of misotheistic tendencies, I loved reading O’Neil’s blog ever since I found it via your old Halloween post about cats and the Black Plague. It’s really opened my mind to just how radically different history is from science as a discipline and I really wish the so-called ‘Free Thinkers’ I’ve seen on Facebook would stop putting STEM knowledge like its got the answers to everything.

    Don’t get me wrong, science and math have been great for improving the human condition. On the other hand, I’ve had mathematicians and scientists disappoint me as much as religious leaders whenever they try to answer something that is CLEARLY out of their element. I’ve seen kids who’ve aced their chemistry exams but couldn’t be counted on to put the Trojan War and the Battle of Thermopylae in chronological order to save their nerdy life. I’ve seen juvenile mathletes bluster and fumble when they failed to win the lotto because they thought their ‘probability was high.’ Honestly, there’s a reason why we should be consulting experts based only on their respective fields and nothing outside it!

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