New Atheists quite rightly denounce Fundamentalist Christians for promoting junk science, but whilst they like to parade themselves as ‘champions of reason and skepticism’ to the point of cliché, this is not always the case. As part of their crusade to undermine the basis of Christianity they often promote fringe theories regarding the origins of the bible which have long been abandoned by the mainstream (and for good reason), often (I highly suspect) not because the evidence supports this conclusion but rather because the theories support their worldview.
Perhaps the most common fringe historical theory promoted by New Atheists is the idea that Jesus never existed, an idea frowned upon by almost all Historians and Biblical Scholars (even by atheist scholar Bart Ehrman). This often is combined with the quite frankly groundless notion that the story of Jesus is copied from older pagan gods, common examples being Mithras (who’s cult is in fact believed to have formed after Christianity), Krishna (whose worship in India is unlikely to have influenced Jews in Palestine and Horus (whose “parallels” with the story of Jesus are often entirely invented). Atheist Youtuber Jaclyn Glenn has promoted this idea like its historical fact (in reality she is truly just parroting claims she has heard from poorly researched secondary sources). Ben Stanhope has thoroughly debunked Jaclyn’s claims. To give prominent Jesus mythicist Richard Carrier credit where it is due, he has rejected some of these quite frankly absurd claims regarding a pagan origin for Jesus.
Another junk historical theory often promoted by New a Atheists is Panbabylonism, the claim that stories in the Old Testament are often shamelessly plagiarised from Mesopotamian sources. At first glance this may seem obvious, when Biblical stories are compared to older Mesopotamian myths, but closer examination reveals that it is much more complex than New Atheists, with a very basic understanding of the subject matter realise. ‘Early’ (emphasis here) Assyriologists widely embraced Panbabylonism, but it has now been mostly abandoned (and for good reason, as we shall see), though still promoted as historical fact by New Atheists and Ancient Astronaut theorists. New Atheist Author Michael Sherlock here and here claims that it is a ‘painful “fact”’ that the Jews gained Genesis 1 from their captives during the Babylonian exile, without having a clue as to what he is speaking about (though thinking he does). The sources he uses are mostly from before there was evidence to the contrary, which is important, because most modern day scholars of Akkadian and Sumerian DO NOT hold this view any more, and for proper research reveals that the reasons for this are clear. The discovery and decipherment of Ugaritic, a language very similar to Biblical Hebrew revealed that Genesis 1 has parallels with myths and legends all across the ancient near east, not just Babylon. So whilst almost all historians agree the two stories share a genetic relation, this is more likely to be a case of common origin than simple plagiarism. (As I have stated before, I believe the closest parallels with Genesis 1 are in fact with Egyptian creation myths) I would go as far to say that the poor and outdated quality of most of his sources, combined with his clear anti-religious views shows that Sherlock is clearly attempting to push this notion in order to fufill an agenda.
It is worth noting that the book of Genesis consistently polemically addresses the pagan myths of other religions (for example by calling the sun and moon ‘lights’ in order to remove polytheistic associations), so the parallels between Genesis 1 and other Near Eastern stories are not necessarily lethal to the Bible, only a literalist interpretation of it. Other times the book of Genesis will deliberately use pagan stories as a framework in order to contrast between the nature of God and that of pagan deities. For example in the story of Noah’s Flood (often cited as an example of ‘plagiarism’) God sends the flood for a benevolent and just reason (due to the wickedness of man), in contrast, in the Mesopotamian Atrahasis flood myth, the god’s send the flood for a malevolent reason (due to a lack of sleep).
I doubt that the New Atheists will learn from their mistakes, but one thing remains certain, the ones who rally the most against Pseudoscience and Pseudo-history have no issue with promoting the latter when it suits their agenda.
Dr Michael Heiser has written some great articles regarding modern day Panbabylonism. As he points out, the origins of Panbabylonism are heavily antisemitic (though he does not view modern day Panbabylonists as being antisemites, and neither do I). You can find them here:http://www.sitchiniswrong.com/Genesis/Genesis.htm