I’m not just interested in teaching history; I am also interested in debunking bad history. It’s something I’ve been conscious of for a long time.. and not because I’m simply petty or confrontational or a know-it-all; it’s because bad history matters.
History is powerful. It’s one of those things on which people base their outlooks, ethics, beliefs and general understandings of the world. It influences choices. It sways people in debates. So when you start throwing around bad information, there are consequences.
There’s also the simple fact that bad history makes people look ignorant at best and outright fraudulent at worst.
History and Religion
When bad history crosses with religion (or other ideology), things get increasingly ugly. People get defensive because an opponent is challenging personal beliefs rather than impersonal facts. And, to be clear, I’m not describing differences in belief as bad history. When I say bad history, I’m talking about claimed facts that are provably wrong.
Every time I try to debunk the myth of a pagan Christmas, including the fallacy that the story of Jesus mirrors the stories of Mithras or Horus, or insist there is nothing to suggest that rabbits and eggs are associated with the ancient goddess Eostre, I get blowback, sometimes in epic proportions, because I’m challenging the notion that Christianity is one gigantic fraud, which has become a foundational belief in the minds of many such people. That doesn’t change the fact that Horus didn’t have 12 disciples, Christmas trees are not mentioned in the Bible, and we know almost nothing of Eostre.
Importance of Words
There’s plenty of less dramatic yet still influential errors. Many years ago, I came across a Wicca site (I have no recollection which one) that, at the time, I found quite solid overall. However, it claimed witchcraft was a Celtic term meaning “wise, good people”. There are several versions of this oft-used claim, but I had never seen any evidence of its truth. I hoped this person might be able to explain it to me, so I emailed her. She answered as follows:
my information is correct. im not dumb and if you dont like my information i dont know what to tell you. ive researched everything ive put on that site and if i knew or felt it was the wrong information, i would not put it up. wicca is my religion and i take it very seriously. i would never put false information on a website that teaches who we are.
Well, that’s a wee bit defensive isn’t it? I wrote her back trying to re-explain my situation, that I was simply seeking information, not intending to offer a challenge. She didn’t reply. She never answered my question either.
Considering the grammar of her response, I’m guessing her website was actually stitched together from other sources. In a recent attempt to find the site in question, I googled “”witchcraft” was a Celtic term meaning “wise, good people”.” What I immediately got, besides my own page on this matter, was a half dozen carbon copies of the same info, including the sentence:
As defined by the Oxford English Dictionary “Witchcraft” is a Celtic (pronounced Kell-tick) word meaning the wise, good people.
Unfortunately, the online Oxford Dictionary doesn’t give etymologies, and I don’t own an OED for reference, but I highly doubt it says such a thing because witchcraft is of Anglo-Saxon origin, not Celtic.
And, yet, this statement is pasted all over the internet by people who have never looked the word up in any dictionary.
Why am I being picky, besides the simple “it’s wrong” argument?
Because there are implications to saying the word witch was once a compliment. When you’re talking among people who identify as witches, this concept of the word helps shift their entire perception of their own history. It encourages the notion of the ancient witch-cult, which brings with it even more misinformative baggage.
How to Evaluate a Claim
Consider facts before passing them on. It’s so easy today to copy and paste, and even easier to retweet or Facebook share. It certainly isn’t always easy to identify erroneous claims.For starters, you have to be suspicious enough to start researching it. That’s easier for me than for most because I know more of the context surrounding these claims. However, here are some points to consider:
- Is the fact being offered to support a specific position, particularly a negative one? If the fact is framed in something like “Christianity is a sham because…”, that raises my suspicions. The more judgmental the statement, the more wary you should be. If it’s calling the opposing point stupid, that’s not a mature argument, and immature arguments generally gather info in immature ways.
- What are the specifics? Every time someone tells me the Christian trinity is based on “the pagan trinity,” I ask which pagan culture they mean, because there is no single “pagan religion.” Rarely do I even get an answer. If I do, it most often references the Egyptian family of Horus, Isis and Osiris, at which point I have to say that’s not a trinity, merely a group of three deities with family ties.
- Where is the information coming from? Talk is cheap. Are you getting this information from a professor, a book, or the internet? If the internet, which site? There’s plenty of good and respected sites out there, but there’s also lots of nonsense. If a book, which one? Who’s the author? Is he an academic? Does your source have footnotes? Does it state how we know the claim is true?
- Does it make sense? Sometimes I read something and it just doesn’t sound right. That doesn’t mean every fact I am suspicious of is wrong. It does mean I go out and look for more info before passing it along to someone else.