Sunday, January 29, 2012

Postscript: Answer to 8 Questions on Avalos and Violence

I have been taking what readers may think a very long time to review Hector Avalos' book, Fighting Words: The Origins of Religious Violence mainly because I find the subject important and interesting.  Avalos is well-informed and clever, even if one is often tempted to make that "too clever by half."  He is also an adversary, and in some ways a worthy one -- he offers arguments one can get one's teeth into, backed up by actual historical facts.  At the same time, he also butchers some texts -- both in the Bible, and Medieval sources for the Crusades, in particular -- to a greater extent than one would think permissible for a serious scholar. 

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Hitler, Stalin, and secular violence: Avalos on Religion & Violence V

An important part of any argument consists of anticipating and rebutting potential counter-punches.   Dr. Avalos therefore dedicates Part 3 of Fighting Words: The Origins of Religious Violence, to answering the objection, "But haven't secularist ideologies been even more violent?"

Good question: we do, after all, live in the Age of Barbed Wire.  At the beginning of the 20th Century, G. K. Chesterton warned that slavery was a "very human" expedient, and would therefore likely be tried again.  It was, in a big way: tens of millions of Europeans and Asians were enslaved, and almost as many murdered, over the following decades by the great secular religions of Nazism and Marxism-Leninism, for thought-crime, race-crime, owning two cows when one was permissible, or praying to God in Heaven, instead of to demogods in the Kremlin.    

In this post, I'll respond to Avalos' attempt to deal with all this post-Christian "secular" violence.   

Sunday, January 15, 2012

"Jesus Command Hate!" (Origins of Religious Violence IV)

Let's skip Dr. Avalos' deconstruction of the Old Testament, and move to what for Christians is the heart of the matter: his attempt to argue that Jesus was at best ambiguous about violence, perhaps even more ruthless than the Yahweh-worshiping savages Avalos has raked over the coals (figurately, of course) in previous chapters.

A blow-by-blow rebuttal of key or particularly pernicious claims Avalos makes, will give readers a flavor of his argument, and why it is dead wrong.  In the final part of this post, focusing on a section called "Jesus Commands Hate!" (Avalos' own words!), we will look at the big picture, which as we will see (and most readers doubtless recognize long before that) Avalos grossly neglects or obfuscates. 

Can we know Jesus?

Dr. Avalos begins with common skeptical doubts about the historical Jesus:

The problem is compounded by the nature of our source materials . . . P52, which dates from the second century . . . contains only a few verses from John 18 . . . Thus, we cannot verify that any or all of the words found in those third and fourth-century manuscripts actually represent what Jesus said.  In fact, passages such as Mark 16:9-20 and I John 5:7, which were regarded as original portions of the New Testament just a few centuries ago, are no longer held to be such. (176)

This scews a lot of big issues in an overly skeptical direction.  P52 dates to the EARLY 2nd Century.  It is highly unusual to find extant ancient sources that close to the events they record.  Even fuller NT manuscripts from the 3rd and 4th centuries are unusually early, compared to the norm.  Also, Avalos neglects to mention that huge amounts of the NT can be found in quotations by Christians and non-Christians from fairly early in the 2nd Century: 170 Synoptic cites mid-century in Justin Martyr alone.   

Plus, the foreign and late character of the end of Mark is obvious.  The fact that it sticks out so plainly shows why it is unlikely that much else was interpolated by late scribes, as Avalos seems to suggest.  The rest of Mark SOUNDS like Mark, as most of John sounds like John.  That may sound simplistic or subjective, but one shouldn't ignore such obvious facts, which I discuss in considerable detail in Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus. 

Is the New Testament "ambivalent" towards "violence?"

This chapter will show how Christianity, beginning with the New Testament authors, has an ambivalent stance toward violence.  Some passages indeed enjoin peaceful responses, but we shall show that even these responses can be interpreted as tactical, meaning that they are intended for utilitarian purposes. (177)

This thesis sentence seems to set the reader up for a lot of fudging. 

Every text is "ambivalent," in many ways.  That's a favorite scholarly canard, which can mean roughly, "You think you know this book you've been reading all your life?  Hah!  I will now justify my tax-payer funded education by showing that what you suppose to be its point, in your naive, literalistic reading, is only one of many I can tease out with the scalpels of scholarly exegesis!"

Same with the words "can be interpreted."  They flash a warning light at the cautious reader, which with my tax-payer-funded education has helped teach me to read:


And indeed, the humbug shows up right away:

At the same time, we see non-Christians using violence to counter assaults by Christians on sacred space.  One example is the story of the arrest of Stephen, who was later stoned to death.  Note the role of sacred space and scripture in outlining the reason's for Stephen's execution: 'They set up false witnesses who said, "This man never stops saying things against this holy place and the law."' (Acts 6:13)

How, in this story, did Christians "assault" sacred space? 

Actually, they didn't.  It's true the victim (Stephen) was found guilty of arguing with religious leaders.  He was also vaguely accused of speaking with hostility, whatever that means, about the temple.  (Perhaps his accusers were echoing the literalistic and suspicious spin the Pharisees had given Jesus' words, "Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up."  As we will see, 1st Century Pharisees were not the last intellectuals to interpret Jesus' often highly metaphorical language in a woodenly cynical manner.) 

Avalos jumps to the following conclusion:

In sum, already in the NT we have instances of violence related to the acquisition or maintanance of sacred spaces . . . The New Testament already shows us a basic paradigm for violence . . .  (181)

Is this what Avalos means by "can be interpreted?"  

There is not the slightest hint here that Jesus' first followers used violence against anyone, or condoned using violence.  This is like accusing Martin Luther King of "being involved in a violent altercation on the road to Selma."  Literally that's true, but it's misleading to the point of perversity.  To be clear: Stephen was the victim of violence, but is not recorded as commiting any. 

Skipping Avalos' discussion of the Crusades, which I covered in my last post, on pages 187-8 he tries to give examples of "violence resulting from inscripturation."  He plainly would like to find at least one such act of violence in the New Testament.  This is what he comes up with:

Clues to conflict resulting from inscripturation can be found within the NT itself.  Note, for example, Acts 19:19: 'A number of those who practiced magic collected their books and burned them publicly; when the value of these books was calculated, it was found to come to fifty thousand silver coins.'  The premise of such burning is that the so-called magic books did not contain God's word, and joining Christianity meant destroying rival scriptures. 

Again, this is shockingly shoddy, I am tempted to say wilfully dishonest, exegesis.

First of all, there is no violence here, as Avalos has defined it, so why is he even talking about the passage?  Some people changed religions, and got rid of some books they didn't want any more.  This wasn't Nuremburg: the books were their own property.  There were no burn bans on, no temperature inversion with low-hanging, sulfuric smog over the Aegean Sea, and one had a right to get rid of one's own property in a manner of one's choosing. 

Secondly, there is no suggestion that these books are "rival scriptures."  Luke begins by telling us the converts practiced magic.  A book of magic is not usually or necessarily a scripture.  The Greek term used here, περίεργος, which one can almost translate "peripheral works," implies that the contents are petty or trivial, which hardly sounds like the works of Plato or even Homer. 

Third, there is no hint, anywhere in the NT that I am aware of, that Christians ever destroyed books, even their own, simply because they "did not contain God's Word."  Paul was not averse to quoting pagan authors, which he had done only two chapters previously, without a hint that reading them was somehow wrong. 

And fourth, Avalos scoffs at the word "magic."  I explain, in Jesus and the Religions of Man, how Christian miracles and magic differ.  It is evident the early Christians 
recognize the difference, even if Dr. Avalos does not.   

How do Christians treat outsiders?

Indeed, the dissolution of ethnocentricism in New Testament Christianity is quite superficial: Christianity has actually substituted a different type of group privilege. (190)

This can be a valid complaint. Sometimes Christians do treat outsiders a lot like Jews once treated Gentiles. This is unfortunate, but hardly novel: we are by nature animals of the pack.

But at least in theory, there is a definite advance, here, which Avalos has missed. To paraphrase Martin Luther King, whose birthday it is tomorrow, the Gospel judges us on the content of our character and our relationship to God, not on the "color of our skin" -- or gender, nationality, or class. I see that as progress.

Who will be Saved?

Atheists often seem to think that the Christian doctrine that some will be saved, is morally indefensible, while their own doctrine, that we are all food for worms, is unassailable.  And I can see their point, if the harsher images of hell in the NT are taken literally. 

But it seems hypocritical to me, for atheists to criticize Christians for preferring our faith over religions we see as less true (though not devoid of truth), even while they dismiss all religions as more or less entirely nuts.  Avalos engages in this a bit, on page 198:

Thus, William E. Phipps, who welcomes a more ecumenical attitude among Catholics toward Muslims and Jews, goes on to devalue New Age movements as follows: 'Much of what is called New Age spirituality, with its attention to self-deification, horoscopes, crystal gazing, seances and other irrational magic, is just a current phase of Old Age superstition that is global in scope.'

This assumes, of course, that the Eucharist, salvation, and prayer to the Christian god do not constitute equally unverifiable 'superstitions.'  In short, even this more 'inclusive' theology simply results in the maintenance of the scarce resource called 'salvation' as presumably New Age techniques would not be considered salvific.

Of course Dr. Avalos doesn't think these New Age techniques are "salvific," either.  So what is he complaining about?  His theology makes salvation not just a scarce resource, but a non-existent one. 

Here again, too, we have the implicit assumption that faith in God is unverifiable.  Probably Phipps does not agree.  I certainly don't.  So Avalos attempts to erase the distinction between Christianity and the New Age based on the "scarce resource" of his own non-inclusive "canon within a canon" interpretation of why religious people believe.  But why should we accept that?  His theology is certainly less inclusive that that of Mr. Phipps. 

A final, Girardian aside, before the main point

Contrary to Girard's theory, the belief in sacrifice can create new rationales for violence rather than result in the final overthrow of mimetic or scapegoating violence. (205) 

Those who have read Rene Girard will find this a strange sentence.  Girard knows quite well that belief in sacrifice creates "new rationales for violence:" this has been one of his chief themes, since Dr. Avalos was in grade school. 

But I won't delay the reader by explaining the complexities of Girard's actual theory (his books do that, also see articles by or on Girard in First Things), since we have now arrived at Avalos' bizarre attack on Jesus.   

"Jesus Commands Hate"

Those are the words of Avalos' subtitle, on 216.  He goes on:

Arbitrary selectivity and interpolation is the main reason that the New Testament is so often viewed as preaching only or essentially love.  However, the existence of violence in Christianity cannot be explained unless it is also recognized that Jesus also preached 'hate.'

Let's begin with Avalos' background assumption, here.  Is it really true that if, over the past two millennia, many Christians have committed violent acts, as obviously they have, that can only be explained by showing that Jesus preached hatred? 

Or, while we're at it, if Buddhists have often committed violent acts (as they also have), then the Buddha must also have preached hatred?   And Confucius and Lao Zi must  also have been hate-mongers?  Because there is no other POSSIBLE explanation for murder or cruelty in a vast religious tradition, than that the founder of that tradition encouraged it?

I can think of one other explanation: people like to fight.  We cut one another off in traffic.  We point middle fingers.  We covet.  We commit adultery, and blame other people for our faults.  We gang up on the weak, take our frustrations out on those lower down on the totem pole, form factions, cliques, Hatfields and McCoys, Crips and Bloods.

The gospels themselves teach us to expect this kind of behavior -- even from Christians!  Jesus had to rebuke his own disciples, when they wanted to call down fire on an unrepetent village.  "You do not know what spirit you belong to." 

In short, given human nature and the history of our race, this is a very strange assumption to make. 

How about the claim that it is "arbitrary" to suggest that the New Testament emphasizes love? 

This, too, is absurd.  The NIV concordance gives about 400 references to "love" in the New Testament, and 14 to "hate."  The latter including "no one ever hated his own body," "hate wickedness," "blessed are you when men hate you on account of me," and "do good to those who hate you" -- such vile, pernicious stuff!

The "love" passages include some of the most magnificent passages in human literature. 

I am tempted, at this point, to just dismiss Dr. Avalos as a fool, and have done with it. His method here is like finding an odd spelling by William Shakespeare (they are easy to find), and declaring,

"One might say Mr. Shakespeare was very good at English, the conventional view.  One could just as well note that he made a lot of simple spelling mistakes.  It would involve an arbitrary privileging of a 'canon within a canon' to choose the former description."

There is also the fact, even bigger than words, that Jesus saved lives, and did not take them. He fed the hungry. He healed the sick, spoke kindly to the poor, saved the wretched, and protected women.

And, of course, Jesus died for the sins of the world, praying, "Father, forgive them (the murderers, the "out-group"), for they don't know what they are doing."

But now Avalos swings his heavy gun around -- the one and sole use of "hate" by Jesus that might, conceivably, justify his claim:

Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.  Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.

Avalos grasps this text like a dusty old prospector who has found a ruby of great value after a lifetime of tunneling through mines.  He spends four long pages defending his allegedly straight-forward and honest interpretation:

The text seems as clear an expresion of hate as any text found anywhere . . .  

He argues against disassembling scholars who don't think Jesus "really meant" what he said.  Christians must hate their parents!  What else is there to say? 

There is a great circularity at work in saying that Jesus cannot mean hate in Luke 14:26 because he preaches 'love' elsewhere.  But we can reverse this rationale and argue that Jesus probably did not mean 'love' literally elsewhere because he clearly meant 'hate' in Luke 14:26. (218)

I find myself more irritated at the mind-numbing stupidity of this argument, as at the wilfull blindness it displays.

An honest person cannot, in fact, do as Avalos suggests, here.  One cannot interpret hundreds of calls to love, by one single, and obviously rhetorical, call to "hate."  That would break every scholarly norm of exegesis. 

One can and should interpret the exception by the norm.  One might, for instance, reasonably interpret the word "love" as it appears in Hitler's Mein Kampf -- "This probing into books and newspapers and studying the teachings of Social Democracy reawakened my love for my own people" -- by the man's whole wretched life. 

For mature readers, words emphatically do NOT always take their most conventional meanings.  There are such things as sarcasm, hyperbole, irony, satire, figures of speech, and caricature. 

One of the most obvious things about Jesus, besides his genuine love, as obvious as Hitler's hate, was the fact that he often used attention-grabbing figures of speech.  Kenneth Leong, a Zen Buddhist, wrote a book describing Jesus as a brilliant Zen Master, using language like koans, to arrest attention, and cause his hearers to think more deeply. 
"Cut your right eye."  "Drink my blood."  "Get behind me, Satan!"  "Vipers!"  "Take up your cross." 'Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up!" 
Why did Jesus use figurative and dramatic language?  For those too dense to allow a genius to speak like a genius, Jesus explained one reason for that, too: "So that hearing, they will not understand . . . "
Is it really likely that Jesus was telling his hearers to "hate their own lives?" The parallelism he uses here points to the fact, which I think illiterate Palestinian peasants must have picked up on even if Harvard-educated scholars don't  ("illiterate" not being a synonym for "dense"), that Jesus didn't really want his disciples to hate their parents, anymore than he wanted them to commit suicide.  He clearly meant "hate" in some sense akin to "Don't listen only to Dad or Mom, when their will stands in gross conflict with the love or clear calling of God on your life."  
Perhaps Jesus wanted his disciples to remember this saying, and put it in paradoxical form so they could recall it.  Perhaps, like a Zen koan, he wanted them to dwell on it, worry it, and tease the meaning out of its strangeness, in light of his example of a love that could not be manipulated. 
If Avalos really thinks Jesus meant "hate," he is terribly obtuse.  If he is only pretending to think that, as seems more likely, then he is being disingenuous.  
And that is the only such passage Avalos can find.  That is the foundation on which he builds his anti-Gospel.  Most cults find better proof texts in the gospels for their heresies than that. 
In sum, Christianity, if it is meant to be a religion based on the New Testament, does not endorse a love open to all.  Love was still primarily meant for other Christians.  Christianity simply substituted creedal adherance for genealogical identity as basis for receiving love . . . No New Testament or early Christian writer can be found who believes in complete nonviolence, and all can be seen to believe in a sort of deferred violence. (228)
The assumption here seems to be that, to be moral, Scripture SHOULD endorse "complete nonviolence."  Yet elsewhere, Avalos makes it clear that he is not a pacifist: he even seems to support blowing up Mecca, if push comes to shove.  So why is Avalos demanding a morality he himself does not believe in?  Or is he playing a game with readers, wording his critique in such a way that it looks like a moral critique of Christianity, but is really no such thing, even by his own premises? 
Anyway, the best responses to this last paragraph, and perhaps to Avalos' entire assault on the Christian tradition, can be found in the New Testament itself: 
Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do! (Luke 23:34) 

Lord, do not hold this sin against them!  (Acts 7: 59)  

Next: Hitler, Stalin, and secular violence. 

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Hector Avalos does violence to the Crusades.

Urban II preaching
the Crusade.
One of the most impressive qualities of Dr. Avalos' Fighting Words is the number and breadth of sources he cites.  One cannot accuse him of not doing his homework: at the end of some chapters, you find more than a hundred citations, and he has obviously been reading in a bunch of languages, as well. 

But this breadth of citation also means that most readers will not have read most of the sources.  Avalos touches on a vast sweep of history here, from ancient Israel to the modern world.  So if one gets the impression that Avalos is misrepresenting his sources, this will seriously undermine one's trust in the book as a whole.   

Some of Avalos' sources I have read.  I find some of his Scriptural citations dicy, and even more his representation of Scripture as a whole.  But let's save that discussion for a later post, and focus here on how Dr. Avalos abuses the Crusades. 

The Crusades are covered on pages 181-186, then again on 261.  Avalos' argument reaches its climactic conclusion in the following formula on 186 (Avalos is fond of such formulas):

Belief that Jerusalem is sacred space

+ Belief that this sacred space belongs to Christians, not non-Christians

+ Promise of transcendent rewards

= Violence in order to regain Jerusalem.

The pages that precede this formula neatly support each of these points.  Avalos depicts Pope Urban II's original call for a Crusade as being based firmly on these four points. 

Here is how Avalos begins his discussion of Urban's famous sermon. The following quotation is also useful because it names the sources on which Avalos (and the rest of us) rely for that sermon:

Some of the clearest examples of the relationship between violence and sacred space may be found in the First Crusade and the propaganda meant to incite Christians to join it.  The speech delivered by Urban II at Clermont has not been directly preserved, but we do have various accounts of it from supposed witnesses or recorders.  These include the versions of Fulcher of Chartres (1101), Robert the Monk (1107), the anonymously written Gesta Francorum (deeds of the Franks), Balderic of Dol (1108-10), and Guibert of Nogent (ca 1109) . . .

According to Mayer's chronology, Fulcher of Chartres is closer to the actual event of the speech.  Urban's motivation for this Crusade is clear in the following: 'Therefore, on this matter deserving prayer, not I, but the Lord, beseech you as Christ's heralds to publish this edict everywhere and to persuade people of whatever rank, knights and foot-soldiers, rich and poor, to aid promptly to those Christians and to destroy this vile race from our lands. 

After this last line, Avalos says nothing more of "aiding Christians."  The rest of his discussion focuses on seizing "sacred space" from the Turks, with no hint of any appeal to justice or compassion.  In Avalos' telling, the war is all about getting back Jerusalem, "consecrated because of the birth, preaching, and death of Jesus Christ." 

After putting recovery of "sacred space" front and center in explaining the First Crusade, Avalos spends some time discussing the "promise of transcendant rewards," the heavenly pay-back the Pope and other leaders promised those who went on crusades. 

But in all this, Avalos grossly misrepresents the historical records he cites. 

Here is how Fulcher actually describes the beginning of Urban's appeal to carry out the first crusade:

Hastening to the way, you must help your brothers living in the Orient, who need your aid for which they have already cried out many times.

For, as most of you have been told, the Turks, a race of Persians, who have penetrated within the boundaries of Romania even to the Mediterranean to that point which they call the Arm of Saint George, in occupying more and more of the lands of the Christians, have overcome them, already victims of seven battles, and have killed and captured them, have overthrown churches, and have laid waste God's kingdom . . .

Concerning this affair, I, with suppliant prayer -- not I, but the Lord -- exhort you . . . persuade all of whatever class . . . to strive to help expel that wicked race from our Christian lands before it is too late.

This puts Urban's speech in a different light!  In this account, the pope did NOT concentrate exclusively on Jerusalem at all, but referred to widespread imperialist jihad against Christians in Eastern Europe.

The other accounts of Urban's speech, aside from the Gesta version which is short and mentions neither geopolitics, nor the crimes of the Turks, nor Jerusalem, agree in stressing the following points, usually in this order: 

(1) The Turks had invaded and conquered "Christian lands."  This was plain historical fact: indeed, Christendom had shrunk by about half over the past 400 years, due to jihadist expansion.  (And much of the Middle East was, indeed, "occupied territory:" Christians were probably still a majority in many areas; a large, oppressed minority in others.)  Turkish attacks on Byzantine presented a renewal of what must have seemed, and indeed was, an existential threat to Europe. 

(2) It was the duty of Europeans to come to the aid of their fellow Christians, as the Byzantine emperor had requested. 

(3) Pilgrims headed to the Holy Land were being systematically despoiled, robbed, tortured, raped, and killed, one source says by the thousands, by Muslim occupiers. 

(4) According to Robert, Baldric, and Guibert, Urban emphasized the horror which the Turks visited on non-combatants:

We have heard, most beloved brethren, and you have heard what we cannot recount without deep sorrow -- how, with great hurt and dire sufferings our Christian brothers, members in Christ, are scourged, oppressed, and injured in Jerusalem, in Antioch, and the other cities of the East . . .

Robert describes various sadistic tortures inflicted by the Turks in vivid, bloody detail, which I will spare readers of this blog, adding:

What shall I say of the abominable rape of the women? . . . The kingdom of the Greeks is now dismembered by them and deprived of territory so vast in extent that it cannot be traversed in a march of two months . . .

(5) It is only AFTER detailing these horrors, that Urban begins to speak of the sanctity of Jerusalem, which in some accounts he does in some detail.  (The one exception is Guibert's version, in which Urban begins with Jerusalem, then goes on to the atrocities of the Turks.)

(6) Urban does, indeed, also talk about spiritual rewards for the crusades, also (in at least one account) some end-times scenarios. 

So the actual formula should be as follows:

Fact that Islam had conquered half of Christendom, including much of Europe, by this time.

+ F act that the Turks had recently conquered much of the Middle East, including much of the remaining Byzantine Empire. 

+  Fact that the Turks seemed an existential threat to surviving Christendom. 

+  Fact that the conquest and occupation had been and remained both bloody and cruel.

+  Fact that unarmed pilgrims to the Holy Land were being abused by the occupiers.

+  Fact that most occupants of the area were still Christians and Jews. 

+ Fact that these territories were of special importance to Christians. 

+ Promises of earthly trial, and

+ Heavenly rewards and Apocalypse Now. 

=  Call to the Crusades. 

Now why didn't Dr. Avalos say all that? 

Obviously, because telling the full story would carry the advantage of being historical truth, but the disadvantage of ruining his story.  The full story makes the Crusaders too reasonable for the argument which Avalos seeks to superimpose upon that story. 

Is this what Avalos means by creating a "canon within a canon?"  Has he made historical truth a "scarce resource" by forgetting these snippets of information -- "Oh, yes, the young man I described being beaten up by the old lady in the park did, actually, rob and beat her first . . . I didn't think those earlier details were germane to discussion of the violence her umbrella subsequently visited on him!"

Avalos "forgets" to tell us that much of the Middle East was, in fact, still occupied largely by Christians.  He says nothing about 400 years of Muslim "crusading" that had conquered half of Christendom, including large segments of Europe.  (Muslim raiders had even sacked Rome a few decades before.)  He neglects to mention the stress Urban laid, according to some reports, on supporting an ally that had lost much of its lands already to Turkish invaders.  He says nothing about the robbing of pilgrims.  Nor does he mention the tortures and murders that apparently weighed so heavily on Urban's mind. 

Avalos gives the impression that Urban woke up one morning, turned over in bed, and said to himself:

"By Gum!  We haven't murdered enough innocent civillians lately!  How about if we launch a Crusade to get back Jerusalem?  Always wanted to go there and walk in Jesus' footsteps.  I know: I'll promise a slice of heaven for every infidel our chaps kill!  This will be a great warm-up exercise for the coming Armageddon!" 

So the question arises: in the face of such gross misrepresentation of important historical facts, can we trust anything Avalos quotes from sources we haven't read?

I'm afraid the answer must be "no."  We cannot, apparently, trust any citations in this book without checking the originals for ourselves.  Where the original is not available, we must suspend judgement.  It is not, apparently, safe to cite Hector Avalos on the content of an historical text.   

Avalos does, it is true, later slip the fact that:

To be sure, many of the Crusades also involved political and economic motives, especially among the elite leaders.

But he does not mention moral motives, nor does he let his readers know that "sacred space" appears in most accounts of Urban only after a long discussion of actual invasions, threats, and attrocities that sound even today a lot like grounding for a "just cause." 

Avalos later also gives the false impression that the Crusaders killed everyone in Jerusalem.  In fact, many appear to have been spared.  He gullibly (or disengenuously) takes the report that the blood of the slaughtered went up to the bridles of horses at face value -- which is not physically possible -- and ascribes this great slaughter, not to the rules of war at the time (as Stark argues), but implying, for no valid historical reasons, that the Crusaders were following the model of Saul's slaughter of the Amalekites. 

The Crusades were, no doubt, violent, and some of those who went on them might be war criminals, by our standards. (As, no doubt, Dresden or Nagasaki might seem evil to the inquisitors, let alone to a Medieval like St. Francis of Assissi.) Both Crusaders and their enemies conducted war in a pretty normal manner for the time, as Rodney Stark shows in God's Battalions.  And Avalos grossly misrepresents the motives for which the Crusaders fought.
"Remember the coral reefs of Pearl Harbor!"
credit: Jon Loach
It may be that some Americans were especially angry at the Japanese for bombing so lovely a lagoon as Pearl Harbour on December 7, 1941.  But it would be absurd to ascribe Dresden or Nagasaki purely to affrontery by crazed environmentalists over damage to the coral reefs of Oahu, and ignore little details like Japanese and German attacks on people.  Avalos' attempt to explain the Crusades as a stupid tither over sacred places, is no more plausible.

Next: Does Jesus command hatred?

Temperature Inversion!

Snoqualmie Falls
during an autumn flood
I plan to post another violent attack on Hector Avalos' Fighting Words: The Origins of Religious Violence later today.  But let's take a break and delve briefly into one of our favorite branches of science: weird weather. 

Last night I drove my son to his high school a few miles to the east to play trombone at a basketball game, and then home a few hours later, and noticed two peculiar phenomena. 

First, the road around Snoqualmie Falls was wet, and "rain" (I thought at first) was pelting the roadway -- even though the stars were out.  The wind didn't seem to be blowing that hard, nor is the river particularly high, but it seemed the wind was strong enough, and moving in just the right direction, to lift spray from the falls and pelt it onto the road. 

Secondly, why was it so much warmer at John's school than at home?   His school is -- checking Google Earth -- 425 feet above sea level.  Our house is 110 feet above sea level.  We drive UP along the falls to get to the school, and usually the temperature decreases.  They usually get much more snow there. 

This morning, driving John to school again, I noticed the same two phenomena were still in play.  The air is still as a whisper in Fall City.  There is no fog: the pumkin-colored moon shines through a layer of high overcast.  Driving past the falls, where there seems to be some wind, the temperature climbed as high as 39 degrees.  Coming back, I paid closer attention: 35 at the school, a couple miles on, then 38 at the falls, then down the hill, and sharply down in temperature: in two miles, 31, by Fall City, 27 degrees. 

No cosmic points to make here, and no scientific explanation on offer.  I just want to salute a bit of freakish weather, on a clear winter morning, when all the world seems at peace, but invisible forces battle in the heavenlies. 

The only thing I can figure, is that warm upper-layer air strikes Snoqualmie Falls, because it's a bit more exposed, and a little higher.  (Though the passes, at 3000 and 4000 feet, are both 16 degrees, so it must be a narrow band of warm air.)  We're getting what the radio warns will be "air stagnation," though without fog, this morning -- perhaps the upper-layer wind blows that away. 

Anyway, a freak of nature should be noted.v Normally the temperature would drop one or two degrees going up the hill: instead, within a few miles, it increased 11-12 degrees Fahrenheit, and the phenomena remained in place from last night to this morning.  I've never before seen so much temperature inversion in so short a distance.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The confidence of Keith Parsons against miracles.

The eminent atheist philosopher, Dr. Keith Parsons, recently defended Hume's critique of miracles.

I think Dr. Parsons is wrong on both his main assumptions: (1) the prior probability of the resurrection is, I think, pretty high, and (2) the evidence given in the NT for that event is remarkably strong. I don't see how these two points could be adequately explained in less than a book, though: I will not try to do it here.

I was, though, intrigued by these comments:

"How low can I reasonably put my priors for the occurrence of an event that I regard as physically impossible, like resurrecting a dead body? Well, pretty much as low as I like. If I want to put it at one in a million, I can put it at one in a million. Show that I can’t. Prove that this would be unreasonable. If you can’t (and you can’t), then that is the burden of proof you have to meet: one in a million."

Does this mean Dr. Parsons is that confident that his honesty and clarity of thought are superior to those of intelligent believers who have thoroughly examined the evidence for miracles, or who have experienced them themselves, critically examined those experiences, and come to the conclusion they were real? Or who have examined the evidence for God in general, and concluded that it is solid? He thinks there is a less than one in a million chance that they have observed accurately or thought more clearly, than that his own view of the universe could be wrong?

I wonder if one could justify such self-confidence on any objective grounds? Beginning, perhaps, with a theory of evolution that would bless one man with such vast cognitive superiority over his fellows, in a single generation?

I hope this doesn't sound too sarcastic; I am serious about the question.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Swinging for the Fences: Avalos on Violence and Religion II

Return from the Crusade,
by Karl Lessing
Hector Avalos' Fighting Words: The Origins of Religious Violence promises to cover four subjects:  (a) "Past Explanations of Violence," a review of previous theories about religion and violence; (b) Avalos' own theory, with examples from "the Abrahamic Religions;" (c) "Secularism and Violence," which I expect will attempt to explain why secular movements (the commies) are often so violent; and finally (d) "Synthesis," which promises a practical ethics and even (shudder) some "foreign policy implications."

So many interesting topics!  This should keep our critical faculties alert for another four posts or so. 

Here, I plan to lightly review the first section of the book, then describe Avalos' own theory.  We'll stop along the way to examine Avalos' "chronological snobbery," deconstruct a zany definition of violence that threatens to run wild and topple Avalos' theory, and look at contradictions in Avalos' critique of religion, when he accuses fellow scholars Glock and Stark of a sin of which he elsewhere suggests religion stands uniquely guilty. 

Finally, I'll review the eight key questions mentioned in my first post, and see how Dr. Avalos is doing so far in answering them, and in making a successful case against the alleged violence of religion. 

A. "Past Explanations of Violence"

I found this section fairly interesting and reasonably well-done.  Avalos begins with proto-theories of violence in the Bible and in Greek philosophy, then brings us (quickly) to the present.  The first important two modern theorists he deals with are two thinkers who have greatly influenced me: Rene Girard, and Rodney Stark.  Girard he proposes to rebut in more detail, later in the book.  Avalos then describes several thinkers who progressively come closer and closer to his own position, which I will describe below, though he makes it clear none quite makes it there. 

Skipping most of the early theories, which Avalos doesn't propose to defend anyway, let me comment on a few peculiar claims in this section, some of which seem to threaten the cogency of his argument. 

* Avalos defines "the Enlightenment" as "the period wherein the elite of Western civilization established, as a formidable proposition, the idea that reason and experience are the best judges of truth." (45)

Avalos seems to have a bad case of what C. S. Lewis called "chronological snobbery."  When did human beings ever deny that "reason and experience" are the way to truth?  Medieval scholars were great reasoners.  So, in their own way, could be Tibetan monks.  And what could anyone ever reason about, except for experience?  Even paleolithic sketches by ancient shamans on rocks in the South African and Australian deserts relating their out-of-body experiences involve "learning by experience." 

The Bible is full of history, which is another word for "experience."  Avalos' description of the Enlightenment seems (here) trite and ahistorical.   

* "It is not until the Enlightenment that some begin to discuss how certain religious frameworks can cause violence (e.g., Rousseau and polytheism)." (49)

This, too, is trite, and can be chocked up to chronological snobbery. 

The Bible is filled with discussions of how "certain religious frameworks cause violence."  Try reading the prophets, the gospels, and the Book of Acts from this angle -- or even the Revelation of St. John.  "And the dragon made war with the rest of her offspring" -- who does Avalos suppose the dragon's mortal forces are supposed to be, here? 

* Avalos properly criticizes Michael Shermer for following Tylor and overlooking high gods in primitive cultures. (54)  I've made this point about Dawkins and Dennett, among others, myself. 

* Avalos promises to prove in a later chapter that "some New Testament authors" advocate more intense violence does the Old Testament.  Something to look forward to! (54)

* Dr. Avalos' own theory of religious violence begins with the notion that religions "create scarce resources" that are imaginary.  He borrows from his future argument (see below) to critique Glock and Stark as follows:

By selecting texts that support 'Christian ethics' rather than other texts that may say the opposite, Glock and Stark are creating new scarce resources (eg, a canon within a canon). (79)

Here, again, Avalos may be cutting the legs out from under his own chair.  Avalos is accusing two secular scholars (Stark was an agnostic when he wrote the text Avalos is critiquing) of what he claims is a typically religious vice: "creating scarce resources" that, presumably, will cause rival scholars to throw their laptops down in a fury, like Moses with his tablets, or hurl them over the lounge chairs at one another. 

So religion is not, after all, the problem?  Offering viewpoints that fail to take all the evidence for abstract historical theories into account, is the real threat to Whirled Peas? 

What scholar, then, can be without sin?  Doesn't all scholarship involve selecting texts on which to focus, from particular angles?  Who, then, can cast the first javelin? 

And what will Avalos himself do?  Will he "create scarce resources" by emphasizing the nasty parts of the Bible and thus "creating a canon within a canon"?  Or does he plan to avoid all selection of biblical or koranic texts, and fairly analyze every single verse?  (Giving equal weight to the "nice" ones, and without privileging his own interpretation?)

That would be a sight for Eternity.    

Again, Avalos critiques a religious liberal for stressing a "particular definition of God" as the truest:

Thus constituting the legitimization of another scarce resource ('the true understanding of God.')

But what is Avalos offering in this book, if not just such another allegedly scarce resource -- "the true understanding of religion and violence?" 

How does this act escape approbrium, merely because his imaginary scarce resource involves denying God, rather than affirming him? 

One begins to get the feeling that Avalos is dealing from under the table. 

This also reminds us how many and diverse are the causes of argument, and therefore of violence.  If you smiled when I mentioned pitched battles in the faculty lounge, it's true that scholarly competition doesn't often go that far -- but then, neither does factionalism in most churches.  Avalos' own words underlines the similarity between the two that his theory requires him to disavow. 

* Regina Schwartz: "Imagining identity as an act of distinguishing and separating from others, of boundary making and line drawing, is the most frequent and fundamental act of violence we commit." (83)

This sounds like a caricature of academic doublespeak.  Drawing a line between two people is an "act of violence?"  What does Schwartz draw lines with in her faculty lounge, a flame thrower? 

And why must an English teacher write such wretched prose?  Can we call that an act of violence against our beautiful language? 

Schwartz is a woman, I am a man.  There.  Have I committed an act of violence?  Or of cognition? 

Beware, beware of academic cant, my children: it will creep in on you, and destroy your ability to think.

B.  "A New Theory of Religious Violence, Exemplified in the Abrahamic Religions"

The crux of Avalos' theory is that religions create imaginary scarce resources, which cause rivalry and fighting.  For example, why do Jews, Muslims and Christians fight over the "holy land?"  Not because the land is especially rich in mineral resources or fertile fields, or even because it is geographically strategic.  Religion has elevated, or demoted, an ordinary stretch of real estate into a prize which armies have come and gone to seize, often leaving smoking ruins and bodies in their wake.

Avalos identifies four such scarce resources: (1) holy texts; (2) sacred space, like Israel, the temple, the Vatican, etc.  (3) "group privileging," such as a high priesthood or Brahmins, and  (4) "salvation."   

In regard to this latter, Avalos lets fall the following comment, the patronizing and un-self-critical character of which only a near-lethal dose of chronological snobbery can explain:

As we shall show, Christianity is characterized by the belief that at least a priming act of violence, the torture and death of Christ, is necessary for salvation. (110)

Does Hector Avalos really propose to prove that Christianity emphasizes the cross of Jesus Christ? 

After two thousand years, our secret is finally out!  I guess "hiding the secret in plain sight," in the heart of every gospel, in half the great art of the Middle Ages, hanging in chains from out necks, and on top of every single church in Christendom, didn't work, after all! 

That bit of sarcasm does not, of course, undermine Avalos' theory, which seems internally consistent, on first read.  We'll see how well he defends it in the coming chapters.  Part of that defense must lie in answering the key questions I asked in my last blog.  Let's see what Avalos has accomplished on that score, through Chapter Five.

C. Does Avalos answer my questions?

In part 1, I jotted down eight questions that occurred to me while reading the first few pages.  How well has Avalos answered them, so far? 

1. What does Avalos mean by "religion?"  I pointed out, in my first blog, that Avalos' definition is self-serving and at odds with the facts.  For one thing, Christians do not, in fact, believe that God is "unverifiable," but claim He has demonstrated His reality in many ways.  To overlook this obvious fact, when the New Testament talks relentlessly about probatively convincing "signs," is as big a blunder as to overlook the crosses on all the churches in Christendom. 

On page 103, Dr. Avalos finally attempts to defend his definition.  It looks like this is all we're going to get, so I'd better quote most of what he says:

Believers often use the term 'supernatural' to signify something that is beyond nature.  In actuality, the term is meaningless, as we cannot know what something beyond nature would be.  If we define 'natural' as that which is detectable by one or more of the five senses and / or logic, then the supernatural must be unknown or unknowable.  If we could detect it, it would be natural, not supernatural.   If it is not natural, then it is nothing more than a concept whose reality cannot be verified . . .

Since religion is based on belief in the existence of supernatural beings, it follows that religion is working from unverifiable premises or conclusions when it speaks of the supernatural.  That is to say, we cannot verify the existence of anything supernatural.  Thus, religious beliefs cannot be subject to public scrutiny, even if they often claim to be based on empirical evidence. 

That's it? 

Avalos seems to want to win the whole enchilada by definition -- like St. Anselm, one swing, and the ball leaves the park.  Only he has no idea where the ball is. 

Doesn't it beg the question to define the supernatural as "something that is not detectable by one of the senses and / or logic?"

It is a Catholic dogma that natural reason can demonstrate the existence of God.  Avalos simply waves Catholic philosophers aside here -- let's just ignore Thomas Aquinas and 800 years of Thomist thought, OK?  He also waves aside all reports of miracles.  For some reason, which he does not give, he asks us to simply assume that God is incapable of causing effects in the natural world, which by hypothesis he created, and which Christian theology says he upholds. 

On what grounds?   

The only answer given, is the sound of crickets with laryngitis. 

Does it really follow that if God is supernatural, he cannot possibly have any way of revealing Himself to beings in the natural world that he made?

So at the heart of Avalos' thesis, remains a profound and stunning emptiness, which gains nothing but obscurity from its curtness.  If Avalos has a coherent defense of his definition, he ought to have long since given it, by this point. 

2. What does Avalos mean by "violence?" 

We now learn that things like "drawing lines" between people and making scholarly arguments may also be "violent" in Avalos' eyes, somehow -- though he commits these atrocities himself, throughout this very book.  (We learned in the preface that the religious and non-religious do not even share the same "mode of life and thought" -- a claim that draws quite a line between people, right there.) 

So perhaps all Dr. Avalos means by calling them "violent," is that religions have originated a lot of logical distinctions and scholarly articles? 

3. Can Avalos show empirically that what he calls "religion" actually results in more violence than would occur without it?

Dr. Avalos offers little indication in the first 100 pages of the book that he will attempt any such proof -- though perhaps that's the point of the last section of the book.  We'll see.

4. Will Dr. Avalos even attempt to do this, or merely offer a series of post-hoc attempts to relate actual instances of violence, to their supposed religious roots?

I have already seen suggestions that he will indeed start with actual instances of violence, then rationalize them to their supposed theological roots. 

5.  Will Avalos discuss the many cases in which religions caused violence to stop, or justice to win over injustice?

He has not really addressed this issue yet. 

6.  How will he account for the violence of atheistic societies?

This will, apparently, be the main topic of Part III. 

7.  Does Avalos assume that "violence" is the only or main ill to avoid?

If asked, I get the sense that he would probably say "no."  But there is little attempt to balance the evil of violence with possible moral goods that might be hard to obtain in its absense, so far.  (For instance: societies that emphasize conformity, like Japan, tend to have low rates of violence.  But they may also lose something in creativity, sponteneity, and freedom, as well as be subject to occasional government coercion towards mass violence.) 

8.  Might there be a relationship between the breakdown of a society's "sacred canopy," and the decay of a civilization?

Nothing has been suggested on the possible downside of alleged secular pacifism, yet.

Continue to Part III and the Crusades here. 

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Hector Avalos on Violence and Religion, Part I

Hector Avalos is an atheist who teaches religious studies (of course!) at Iowa State University.  He is not, let us be clear, a fan of religion in general, or of Christianity in particular.  In previous blogs, I have jousted with him over his claim that Christianity was to blame for the Holocaust, over his critiques of my claims about slavery in The Truth Behind the New Atheism, and over biblical interpretation, among other issues. 

The tone of these debates was not always very friendly.  No matter.  This is an important subject, and Avalos is an intelligent man, with a great deal of learning.  In reading and reviewing Fighting Words: The Origins of Religious Violence, I will try to be fair, though I certainly come to the book with partial (but not complete) skepticism.   

The theoretical apparatus and deliberation with which Avalos begins this book is impressive. As in his other writings, Avalos makes it clear that he thinks fellow scholars have missed the big picture simply by not reading widely enough, and that he is prepared to take up the slack. He has read widely, in many languages.  Avalos makes the extent of his ambition clear in the introduction: both religious theories of violence, and academic theories, have failed, and Avalos proposes to supplant them with a new and better theory of how "religion" cruelly harms the world by vastly inflating the amount of unnecessary violence that occurs in it. 

I am skeptical, not so much about ANY cheerful or gloomy assessments, but about the whole enterprise -- whether it even makes sense to reify what Avalos calls "religion" in the first place.  I think Avalos' task is like trying to hold a downspout full of water in your hands -- in the end, your hands will be wet enough to say water flowed through them, but most of the water will have seaped into the ground and disappeared, long since. 

And so, I predict, the facts will largely, but not entirely, elude Avalos' analysis.

In this post, I focus on the book's introduction.  Here, Dr. Avalos he announces his intent to show that religion causes violence because it "creates new scarce resources."  This is true not just of one religion, and not just of "fundamentalism," but of religion in general, liberalism as well as jihadist Islam, the New Testament maybe even more than the Old. 

Several preliminary questions arose for me while reading the first few pages. 

*What does Avalos mean by "religion?" 

*What does he mean by "violence?"

* Can he show empirically that what he calls "religion" actually results in more violence than would occur without it?  In other words, is there some control population to compare with the "religious," so that we even know there is a phenomena in need of explanation? 

* Will Dr. Avalos even attempt to do this?  Or will he, instead, merely offer a series of post-hoc attempts to relate actual instances of violence, to their supposed religious roots? 

* Will Avalos discuss the many cases in which religions caused violence to stop, or justice to win over injustice?  Or will we only look at one half of the equation, in this book? 

* How will he account for the violence of atheistic societies?  Will he attempt to "explain away" communist violence, and then represent, say, Sweden, as the normal non-religious society? 

* Does he assume that "violence" is the only or main ill to avoid?  Or will he try to balance "violence" against other ills, or goods to be won?  (For instance, many aboriginal tribes seem to endure a high level of violence, but also seem more outgoing and sociable than more staid, hands-off neighboring groups.) 

* Could there be a relationship between the breakdown of a society's "sacred canopy," and the decay of a civilization?  Maybe societies need a certain level of violence to survive?  Or will Avalos take the Swedish point of view for granted? 

Fortunately, Dr. Avalos recognizes the need to define key terms, and answers the first question just a few pages into his introduction.  He defines religion as follows:

"A mode of life and thought that presupposes the existence of, and relationship with, unverifiable forces and / or beings."

Avalos quickly makes it clear that this definition will be crucial to the argument that follows.  Here, if I am not mistaken, I see the foundations of that argument already shaking:

(a) Definitions of religion tend to fall into two categories: (a) those that make belief in supernatural beings essential, as this one does, and (b) psychological or sociological definitions, like Paul Tillich's "ultimate concern." (When people talk about communism as a religion, they usually assume such a broad definition.)

As a secular humanist, of course Avalos wants to define religion in such a way that he can slam "religion" without his own position taking collateral damage. This is why he has to define religion in relation to supernatural beings.

But socially, many secular ideologies seem to act like religions. We'll see if he can explain, say, communism away, without engaging in special pleading. ("But communism is really a secular religion, because Joseph Stalin went to a seminary!")

(b) Avalos supposes that belief in the supernatural involves a special "mode of life and thought."  Yet surely on evolutionary grounds, human beings all partake in a mode of life and thought that is far more similar than different.  If atheists really are so different from the rest of humanity, such
radical bipolarity would seem an odd result for evolution to accomplish.  This appears psychologically naive. 

(c)  The word "presuppose" assumes that religious people believe a priori, rather than in response to evidence.

Yet this is obviously untrue for many believers.  Paul believed because he met Jesus on the road to Damascus -- he didn't "presuppose" the deity of Christ.  A legal scholar I know in England converted to Christianity from Islam after he heard the audible voice of God.  I maintain belief in Christianity over more than 30 years of researching and weighing the evidence.   

(d) But the biggest "leap" Avalos takes in his definition, is to say that religion involves faith in "unverifiable" beings or forces.  What is "unverifiable" supposed to mean?  Avalos does not explain, yet this word presupposes immensely difficult issues of epistemology. 

Didn't the sight and sound of Jesus speaking to him, and then his blindness as a result, verify the spiritual reality of Jesus to St. Paul? 

Doesn't the word "sign" in the Bible point to the fact that the whole point of the gospels is to verify Christian theology, to show how Jesus verified his Messiah-hood, to show that God has verified his call to Israel and the world by raising Jesus from the dead?

As I have argued (see my anthology "Faith and Reason" at, historically, Christian thinkers have almost always argued that Christian theism is in fact verifiable -- that the facts support Christian truth.

Avalos seems here to simply defy or ignore almost all of Christian history and thought about the matter, and for that matter the rational arguments that followers of Mohammed and other teachers make. 

And this looks like a key assumption for Avalos.  He makes it clear already, that much of what he says in the rest of the book will depend on this definition of religion, in particular on the allegedly unverifiable character of religious claims. 

Of course, Avalos probably believes, or claims to believe, that religious claims cannot be supported by good evidence.  But you can't just assume something like that, basing a 300 page book on premises that most people deny, without even acknowledging the difficulty!   

If Avalos chooses a stringent criteria for verification, one might argue that precious little in this world is "verifiable."  Most of what we believe is based on much less than logical or mathematical certainty.  And even math and logic depend on our minds, which skeptics often inform us are terribly prone to error. 

Maybe Avalos will try to prove that religion can never be verifiable, later in the book -- though it is hard to see how one could fit an adequate refutation of, say, Pascal, William Lane Craig or Gary Habermas, into a single chapter or book.  And he doesn't seem to have dedicated any chapters to defending this immense assumption.  So while the house looks like it might rise several stories tall, with elegant pillars and fine wooden carvings and tasteful bonsai trees out front, the foundations appear to be resting on sand. 

No doubt these issues will come up later in the book, and we will have to return to them.  A few other points worth note from the introduction:

* "We define violence as the act of modifying and / or inflicting pain upon the human body in order to express or impose power differentials." 

This also seems an odd definition, though maybe not as potentially devastating as Dr. Avalos' defintion of religion. 

If a man shoots an intruder to protect his property, that is not "violence," because his goal is self-protection, and he is not thinking about power?  (The imposition of power differentials being a means, not an end?)  Or a rapist, if he sincerely wants sexual pleasure?  Or even if the Greeks conquered Troy to get back a woman, that was not violence if their motives were pure? 

I don't think it's a good idea to allow psychology to play such a large role in defining a physical act. 

* Avalos discusses historical causation relatively well. 

* "If any scholars come to believe, on the basis of their academic research, that religion or specific religious traditions are harmful to humanity, then it follows that it is their obligation to counteract those beliefs.  Of course, this means a nonviolent and dialogic approach, given the current pluralistic politics." (26)

I want to agree, but I'm a little puzzled, here.  Why must we assume one must only counteract harmful traditions non-violently?  Does this mean a scholar must not serve in Afghanistan, say by violently opposing armies that seek to institutionalize abuse of women? 

Why?  "Given the current pluralistic politics?"  And if conditions change, secular humanists should use violence?  Under what conditions or principles?

* "The best way to deal with religious violence is to undermine religion itself." (28)

Perhaps, assuming that (a) religion is a thing that can be "undermined" in general; (b) religious violence is greater than violence without religion; (c) religion does not prevent worse things than violence (despair?  boredom? communist jihad?) 

* "One has to confront violence in each religion in a frank manner.  I believe I do it evenhandedly.  As a secular humanism, I do not favor one religion over another, as I hold all of them to be equally based on unverifiable grounds." (29)

Here we learn why Avalos must define religion as he does.  Being innocent of a religion in the sense in which he has defined it, he is in a privileged position to act as Judge, Jury, and Executioner of that of which he himself suffers no taint. 

* He then admits, however, that "all worldviews" are "hegemonic," including pluralism -- a point John Hick would do well to note. 

* "Religious violence is always ethically reprehensible, while the same cannot be said of non-religious violence."

This seems a little unfair.  So if, based on reflection and prayer, and appealing to deep theological beliefs, Dietrich Bonhoeffer decides to join the conspiracy to kill Adolf Hitler, his fellow-conspirators may be innocent, because of their secular motives, but Bonhoeffer alone must stand guilty? 

We are not far into the book, but already profound problems have appeared that seem to undermine Avalos' thesis.  We will see what he builds on this foundation, and whether some of his later structures serve, among other things, to help buttress the shaky foundations below, and firm the loose sands on which everything looks to be built.

Continue on to Part II here.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Atheism in China: Is it Doomed?

The debate over religion in the West is dominated by Christians, on the one side, and atheists or secularists, on the other, with some input from New Agers.  Atheist values are often conflated with those of secular humanism, the dominent atheist "religion" in the democratic world.  Secularists also often glibly take a triumphalist posture: "Christianity is dying," they say, pointing to slight downward trends in church-going or faith in God in America, and a larger slides in Europe.  (Seldom, however, recalling how often Christianity has ebbed and flowed in the West before.)

What is often forgotten is that most atheists over the past century have not been secular humanists, but Marxists and communists.  This may even have been true in Western countries, in some of which (such as Italy and France) communist parties polled 20 or 30% of the electorate during the 1970s. 

Today, about two thirds of the people in China deny holding any religious beliefs.  This means that MOST "unbelievers" in the world probably live in China, including most atheists. 

Over three weeks in October through December, I surveyed about 124 Mainland Chinese intellectuals.  (Most in Mainland China, but including 19 near the University of Washington in Seattle.)  I learned many interesting things.  What I would like to share in this post is what I learned about the precarious position of atheism in modern China.

More than 70 respondents were college students at a major university in northern China.  About a dozen other college students answered my survey in other cities.  Most of the other respondents had graduated from college, in some cases with MA or Phd degrees.  Some were themselves college teachers, including in an Institute of Marxist Studies.

I was curious to see what undergraduates and graduates would say, first about Marxism, then about atheism.  Here are some results: 

* 23 out of 81 undergraduates who answered the survey as a whole defined their faith as "Marxism."  The most popular alternatives were (collectively) "unsure" (15), "other" (9), and "agnosticism" (6), for 30 total votes, various forms of Buddhism (8), Confucianism (8), Lao-Zhuang thought (5), Daoist religion (4), Christian (3), and Islam (1 -- a Uighur from the Northwest).  So about 42% of those who defined their faith, chose Marxism. 

* Asked what they thought about God, the most common answer was that He does not exist (47), followed by the Pantheistic belief that He is in all things (12), "Other" (12; in practice this often means something like "God is a belief in the heart," monolatry (4), monotheism (4), and polytheism (3).  So of those who gave a clear answer, about 67% opted for atheism.

* Among older intellectuals who had already graduated from college, only 7 self-identified as Marxists.  The Agnostic (6)/ Unsure (9) / Other (1) block in this case more than doubled the number of Marxists (16), followed by Confucianists (6), Buddhists (5), Christians (5), Lao-Zhuang thinkers (3), Daoist religion (2), and 1 Muslim.  So only about 24% of graduates who identified with a belief system, chose Marxism. 
*The drop-off was even stronger when it comes to atheism.  11 chose an atheist answer, 6 "don't know," 7 theism (including 3 non-Christians), 6 polytheism, 6 pantheism, and 2 monolatry.  Again discounting the uncommitted, 31% opted for atheism. 

So the percent of intellectuals who denied that God exists, seemed to be more than cut in half, after graduation. 

This is admittedly a small poll, and skewed geographically and by other variables.  For one thing, I found that Christian students at the university where I conducted this survey were being suppressed.  We cannot automatically assume a larger survey of Chinese intellectuals would follow these figures too closely. 

From prior experience surveying Chinese intellectuals, however, I believe this at least roughly reflects the general trend. 

One of the Christian graduates, from Mao Zedong's home county, told me she had only become a Christian after graduation.  This seems to be a fairly common pattern, evidently not just to Christianity, but to greater openness towards religious beliefs. 

Should Christians in America panic because some of our young people lose their faith when they go to college?  Does this spell doom for the Christian faith, as many skeptics fervently hope? 

Should atheists in China likewise panic at the flight from atheism after graduation? 

Here I return to my core conviction about the future: God alone knows what will happen next.  Perhaps in both countries, a secularist college education will seem at first to "catch," but will ultimately prove ephemeral, as graduates move out into the "real world" and seek to make their ways in it.