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Via Andrew Sullivan, I just read a month-old post by Jerry Coyne about a fight between two academics over the question of the historical existence of Jesus. Coyne comments:

I have been a bit baffled about why this matter evokes such strong feelings, especially among atheists. Since we all admit that there’s no evidence that Jesus was the son of God, did miracles, was resurrected or born of a virgin, and died for our sins, does it really matter so much if he’s based on a historical person? Why does this evoke such strong feelings, and such acrimonious arguments, from atheists?

Perhaps some of our concern comes from this: if we can show that there’s no historical Jesus, then the myth of Christianity tumbles down. That is, it’s no so much about convincing ourselves about the non-historicity of Jesus as convincing Christians.

Regardless of anything else, I don’t think Coyne’s argument holds water. Surely there can’t be too many atheists foolish enough to think they’re likely to convince their Christian friends that Jesus didn’t exist, no matter what the evidence is or isn’t? That would require a pretty severe detachment from reality.

But why even go there? I wasn’t aware that this question evokes strong feeling among nonbelievers in the first place. Sure, it evokes strong feelings among academics who study this question. Academics always have strong feelings about the stuff they study. Beyond that, practically any historical question will generate a small band of obsessives who consider it the most important issue ever. I imagine Coyne is keenly plugged into the chat rooms and listservs that host the small band of obsessives on the Jesus question.

But more generally? I’ve seen no evidence that nonbelievers really care all that much. Did Jesus exist? I’d guess so, just on the grounds that it’s more likely for a story like this to be exaggerated after repeated retellings than it is to be made up out of whole cloth. But I don’t really care all that much, and I pretty strongly suspect this isn’t just ennui on my part. Most of us non-religious types probably don’t even think about this stuff much, let alone have strong feelings about it. The ones who do may make a lot of noise, but that doesn’t mean there’s really all that many of them.

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