Iowa State Religious Studies professor Hector Avalos is a prime exemplar of this fundamentally lazy drive to turn substantive discussions into personal attacks. In most of his debates, at least those I have observed, Avalos turns eagerly from facts and interpretation, to the lamentable credentials of his opponents: their poor linguistic skills, inferior education or teaching positions, their alleged failure to read as much and as deeply as himself. Another of Avalos' favorite tricks is to micro-focus on some extremely petty point, or point within a point, and over-awe his fans with an irrelevant display of erudition on that point, wildly at tangent to any relevant issue. For example, when I cited numerous scholars who recognize a surprising awareness of God in cultures around the world, Avalos latched on to just one -- Emile Durkheim -- and then spent many pages critiquing, not my general thesis, nor even Durkheim's general observation about God in Australia, but on just one of the 20 or so sources Durkheim quoted. His discussion of that one source, on which he wielded all his scholarly apparatus, was obscure to the nth degree and of almost no relevance to my thesis -- but proved impressive as all get-out to his fans.
Some time ago, a young classicist who appears to be a protege of Avalos, Matthew Ferguson, wrote a comparison between the gospels and the Contest of Hesiod and Homer. I described in detail how incredible that comparison was. Ferguson responded, and then I responded here and again here (first dealing with a bizarre misreading that cast me in a rather evil light.)
Avalos then launched yet another attack on me at John Loftus' Debunking Christianity website. I answered briefly, being crunched for time, and I think pretty politely, given the usual turn to personal attack on his part. Avalos said nothing in response to all the facts I listed. He was out for blood, not truth. Ferguson and I have admittedly been a little peckish -- especially Ferguson, whose thin skin is a poor complement to his argumentative style -- and like Ferguson, Avalos seemed only to recognize my generally lighter pecks as worthy of notice.
The gang at Deconstructing Christianity then chimed in with insults, which I ignored to my own loss, since some of them prove (now I have read them) highly amusing. (Especially given the original complaint about Christian scholarship!)
Why am I bringing this up (or reading those insults) now? Because in a Facebook thread that Loftus began a couple days ago, on how intellectually dishonest, lazy, or weak evangelical Christians are, he tagged Avalos and myself, along with a bunch of other scholars he thought might be interested in the topic, like Hector Avalos, Ed Babinski, Dan Barker, Richard Carrier, Jaco Gericke, Richard Miller, Paul Tobin, Phil Torres, etc.
Then that thread turned from substance to personal attacks, as well. Avalos, of course, led the charge, by linking his article attacking me.
Before I rebut Hector Avalos' specious and, I will argue, fundamentally lazy knocks against my scholarship, though, let us linger over some of the criticisms Loftus' pals at Debunking Christianity launched in the same thread.
What all these sallies reveal, I think, is that it is not Christianity which is intellectually bankrupt, but the New Atheism. Those who have facts, argue facts. Those who have reason, argue reason. Those who have slime, argue . . . Well, let's observe with wonder what they come up with.
I plan to add links later -- no time for them today. -- DM
A. Deconstructing Christianity Deconstructs David Marshall
(a) "David Marshall strikes me as being somewhat sociopathic, like the sort of individual who thinks he might be the only self-aware, thinking being on the planet, and that possibly all other members of even his own species are just some form of two-legged bovine, vast herds inferior beings who exist to be corralled and milked by the superior ones. He thinks that anything he says should be accepted by everyone else simply because of this superiority. Despite the fact that his reasoning is consistently laughably poor, his self-aggrandizing claims are laughably far from credible, and his scholarship skills are laughably sub-par, it appears as though he holds himself to be perhaps the solitary beacon of intellect in the Virgo Supercluster. Possibly, the reason for David Marshall's indolence is the result of a mistaken impression that he has no intellectual competition to contend with. He just isn't aware that this competition has left him eating dust. He might work harder if this reality had ever dawned upon him."
I like the Science Fiction angle of our first contestant. And I do admit to milking the New Atheism for laughs, at least, so perhaps this critic is onto something. There is, certainly, a plausibly bovine element to a lot of the criticism I encounter on sites like DC.
The substance of the complaint here though seems to be that I think I'm smarter than anyone else, but am really pretty dumb. I make this mistake either through want of exposure to my superiors, or (presumably) sheer blind arrogance.
The first hypothesis won't work, since I've read scads of books by clever atheists, and was personally mentored by clever folks, too -- for instance, the atheist head of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Washington, who almost two decades later, remains enthusiastic about my work, a friend whom I have never , ever visualized as a cow. (He spoke with my students by Skype last year -- which, for the record, we never ask livestock to do). The head of the History Department at the same school was another mentor. Plus there are all those recommendations from leading scholars at Oxford, Marquette, Duke, Yale, Penn State -- the "doesn't get out much, legend in his own mind" hypothesis can hardly survive the sorts of blurbs my books have won.
Do I feel contempt for the intelligence of others? On the contrary, one of my main themes in Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus, and Grandma Marshall Could, is the wisdom of ordinary readers of the gospels, often scorned by the "wise." (Who, yes, I do think, and have often showed -- Ferguson stands in excellent company -- make fools of themselves, when they attack the New Testament. See, also my recent analysese here of two of Bart Ehrman's arguments - just scroll down a few months.)
So this criticism is directed at precisely the wrong person. In my work, I defend ordinary readers against their presumpuous, and often mistaken, scholarly critics.
No, OCMS is not a "church."
I studied at OCMS partly at the prompting of the respected New Testament scholar, Ward Gasque, and am glad I did. OCMS is a wonderful institution at which hundreds of scholars from around the world, many of them quite brilliant, study an astonishing variety of subjects (philosophy, economics, history, world religions, development, etc) under professors, often from leading institutions including Oxford. No, OCMS doesn't "ride the coattails of Oxford University:" OCMS is careful to emphasize that it has no formal institutional relationship with Oxford. But there are many informal relationships, and it's a wonderful place to study.
"His Master's is from University of Washington, but it's in International Studies, which doesn't qualify him to speak on the things he does. I don't consider that he's qualified to speak on International Studies either as he seems to be a racist."
My MA was completed in a single year (a bit fast, true); I've been studying religion, and "the things I speak on" for 35 years. The MA merely shows that I know what I'm doing. And the UW International Studies Department is highly competitive, especially in China Studies.
Thanks! This appears worse than even I envisioned.
Avalos pretends, again, that Stark is my only authority, or that any of my major arguments depend exclusively on him. He also assumes that a scholar who disagrees with him is automatically obliged to read all his books. Again, the difference between the two of us is that I have probably read much more of Avalos than he has of me, but I don't pretend to have read it all, whereas by implication, at least, he does seem to make such a pretense.
Because a day without irrelevant personal speculations to distract the gullible from genuine issues, is like a day without sunshine.
In the summer of 2012, Marshall invited me to debate him publicly. I asked him to provide his academic credentials, which is a standard procedure at my university to publicize any future potential events. I later also planned another essay on a different issue, and I wanted to ensure that I was representing his credentials correctly. As it is, I was looking for more well-known figures to debate at that time, and I had medical issues to manage, as well.
In any case, Marshall initially was reluctant to provide these items:
-The type of doctorate (e.g., Ph.D., Ed.D., Th.D., etc.) he earned.
-The department and institution where he earned them.
-The title or subject of his doctoral dissertation
Avalos fails to explain WHY I felt "reluctant." This is after he had published a hit piece of his signature brand against me on DC. Here is what I told him:
It occurred to me that I'd be happy to help you with any background information you need, if your critique is above-the-board and, as you say, substantive. But I would feel a little peculiar helping you gather information for another ad hominem hit piece, and would not want to encourage that even by helping you get background facts right. This is less because I feel personally injured by such attacks (I have a pretty thick skin), but because it would not seem quite fitting to encourage them.
I don't feel any of my work is any more ad hominem than yours has been. In any case, I simply wish to ensure that I represent your educational background correctly, just as I did for Dr. Campbell in the very post to which you responded. Dr. Campbell has since written me a nice note saying that he appreciated my essay, even if he disagrees. He didn't seem to have a problem with me simply stating his educational background for our readers.
I am assuming that there is nothing secret about your doctorate, and so I am not sure why you would be reluctant to divulge such basic information.
If you have a link where this background is given, then that will be fine as well, but I am trying to go to the most primary source I can find rather than depend on websites that may not be accurate.
I have my basic educational background narrated on several sites, and I have no problem with you saying what my basic degrees and institutions are. So, that would at least be a level playing field there even if we may disagree on other issues.
To which I answered:
Dr. Campbell, of course, does not have the same history with you as I do -- or indeed, the other Christian scholars you refer to in that article, with whom apparently (by your own account) you have not managed to develop amicable relations.
But I'll hope again for the best.
My BA was on "The Chinese and Russian languages and Marxism," with the Senior Thesis (required for that kind of BA) advisor being the historian, Donald Treadgold.
My MA was in China Studies, focusing (in the two MA papers) on the history and anthropology of certain Chinese religions, with Kent Guy (Qing historian) and Stevan Harrell (anthropologist of Chinese religions) being the advisors.
My PhD was from the University of Wales (also, conveniently, UW or UoW), and proposed a new Christian model of religions, in the Chinese context. I analyzed the concept of "fulfillment" in the New Testament, especially Matthew and Acts, retold the story of Chinese fulfillment thinking from the Tang Dynasty on, focusing on the contemporary Chinese philosopher / reformer Yuan Zhiming, studied several key concepts he raised as developed in the Chinese Classics, and then applied the results to arguing for a particular model of religions, in dialogue with John Hick, Leslie Newbigin, and Gavin D'Costa, among others. D'Costa, a Catholic theologian of religions at Bristol University, served as External Examiner for my oral defense.
Clearly, my concern was warranted. Here Avalos is, indeed trying to use our personal communication as a weapon against me. So here's what we both actually said. (I can, of course, add Avalos' initial query, if that is in question.)
He eventually stated that his “PhD was from the University of Wales (also, conveniently, UW or UoW), and proposed a new Christian model of religions, in the Chinese context.”
"Eventually" here meaning, "on the second response."
But, in those personal communications, he did not provide the year of that degree or where I could obtain a copy of that dissertation. He did provide other information about his topic and his advisors. In any case, he may have a legitimate PhD in his area, but it is not biblical studies.
Neither has Avalos send me any such information.
Any good scholar should know how difficult it is to acquire expertise. If Marshall undertook actual research in Chinese studies, then why would he think he can gain such expertise in biblical studies without knowing the languages of the primary sources? . . .
And if Dr. Avalos were less "indolent," why did he not simply ASK me whether, and how much, Greek I read, before presuming? (Not, again, that it makes a feather's weight of difference to the actual issues.)
I skip some minor criticisms, since this post is getting extremely long, and my back is getting sore. I may return to them in the future, if need be, and time allows.
Let us move on, now, to Avalos' finale:
David Marshall is not a biblical scholar. He does not have sufficient knowledge of the original languages to evaluate the primary sources independently. That alone disqualifies him. None of his work shows any breadth or depth in the scholarship of classical or biblical literature.
Avalos shows no evidence that he is either intellectually or emotionally prepared to issue such an evaluation. He has probably read very little of my writing, and certainly not my dissertation. We began debating in the first place when I challenged some of his poor arguments in one of Loftus' anthologies, and he showed from the beginning that he was emotionally-invested and very far from objective. (Though, to give him credit, Avalos is very good at a certain kind of biased argumentation: his critiques may be houses of cards, but they are ornate, many-stories houses of cards, and one has to blow several times to bring them all down.)
It is not that Marshall can never achieve this sort of competence. Rather, I am affirming that he does not possess it now, and he should devote his time and effort to acquiring that competence rather than to writings that will only expose that incompetence when relevant experts such as Matthew Ferguson and academic biblical scholars and classicists read it.
Ferguson's attempt to refute my arguments are entirely unavailing, and Avalos has made no such attempt. Instead, he repeats ad nauseum his assumption that I don't read Greek, and that somehow that proves fatal (how exactly?) to my arguments.
I'm sorry, but that is a lazy way of arguing. Ornate though the shape of the cards may assume, they are not concrete, rebar, steel, fir, and walnut.
My charge of indolence is not just a trivial scoring point. Indolence and lack of scholarly due diligence are fundamental to the entire way in which Marshall operates. Like many others I can name, he wants the authority to speak on a subject before he has done the real work to earn that authority.
One may ask why real experts devote any time to Marshall’s writings or comments. The answer is that Christian apologetics is primarily an authority-based system. Therefore, to undermine Christian apologetics it is necessary to expose the lack of credentials and expertise by apologists.
Hector Avalos is an intelligent and well-read man. He cannot admit the same of me, though, because to do so would be to drop this weapon of personal invective, and force him to try to actually deal with my arguments. And that would be a lot more work.
Here is one of the reasons the New Atheism has failed. While accusing me of "indolence," Avalos here is actually making excuse for his own intellectual laziness, for taking the shortcut of ad hominem rather than engaging my actual arguments. In fact, in all this long post, Avaloso doesn't so much as mention The Contest of Hesiod and Homer, still less engage any of the dozens of reasons to discount it as a valid analogy to the gospels.
Here is how Avalos justifies the actual indolence of the New Atheism. He wants to win arguments about the true nature of the gospels, and whether any parallels have been found, without engaging them! Even without reading them. Still less without considering their possible truth.
Avalos' ad hominal argument against me and against others I have seen him engage is, in the end, a lazy man's way to truth. "This person is not sufficiently credentialed, not enough of an expert -- he doesn't read Latin, or his Greek is not as good as my man's -- so (let me tell you, because I am a credentialed authority) his argument can be dismissed."
The irony, again, is that while I appeal to the evidence, Avalos is directly and clearly making an appeal to authority. Yet he has the timerity to accuse Christians of "authority-based system."
And he is teaching this philosophy of laziness and personal attack to his disciples.
Second, Marshall does represent the way many believers think and reason. Therefore, refuting Marshall’s arguments is, in effect, refuting the arguments of thousands or millions of others who use similar ones.
No one has made arguments much like mine, as those who have actually read them often recognize.
I usually challenge such pseudo-scholarship on a case-by-case basis. There are just too many Marshalls in the world for one person to refute them all.
There are never enough Marshalls. :- )
Finally, here's my initial (as you can see, polite) response to Avalos' attack on DC. I saw it and posted it late, so of course one of the denizens there accused me of all manner of evil motives in doing so:
C. David Marshall: Sorry, Hector, I don't have time to deal with this in detail right now. I have a debate coming up tonight, school is beginning, and I'm working on the book that deals (in appreciative delight) with Matthew Ferguson's absurd attempts to find parallels to the gospels among obscure hagiographical literature (among more mainstream, but equally futile skeptical attempts to come to grips with the gospels), beside all of that.
It doesn't appear, anyway, that you even try to defend the positions that Ferguson takes. I describe dozens of characteristics that favor the historicity of the gospels, that do not apply to the parallels Ferguson makes, such as the Contest of Hesiod and Homer. If you think my "indolent" failure to read that text in Greek makes a difference to any of those points, go ahead, make my day, and explain any significant actual errors on my part. (And please, no more misdirections like you did when you invested so much sweat and tears into tearing down one out of twenty or so citations that Emile Durkheim gave, just one of my own many examples of a High God around the world. So much sound and fury, signifying nothing. It may work on DC, but don't expect that to cut it in the real world.)
Meanwhile, most of your long post is, again, little more than an exercise in ad hominem. Of all the things to accuse me, the accusation of "indolence" will strike anyone who knows me as the most amusing. I have now read and systematically analyzed every single Gnostic text, every single Greek novel, many Greek plays, a number of epics and hagiographies, to test the parallels your fellow skeptics continually throw up in mounting desperation. That's lazy? Again, to my knowledge, none of these arguments has been seriously challenged on linguistic grounds -- that's just a red herring, an exercise in indolent debating tactics, if you will.
The truth is, atheism is stuck. It has been stuck for a century, when it comes to dealing with the gospels. C. S. Lewis was dead on target, in Fernseed and Elephants, and Ferguson's futile attempts to find parallels to the gospels (also those of Ehrman, whose lame analogy to Baal Shem Tov I deconstructed a few weeks ago at Christ the Tao, and Richard Carrier, to name a few), only confirm what Lewis said about the "restless fertility of bewilderment."
I demonstrate the fertility by describing dozens of qualities that demonstrate the gospels' historicity. You respond with the same old "indolent" ad hom. Another day, another dollar.
As for poor exegesis, let anyone read my critiques of your writings on Christ the Tao, and wonder that you dare raise the issue, anymore. I have demonstrated such sloppiness and sleight of hand in your own work, that if I were you, I'd keep away from exegetical issues for a few years. But again, what I care about are facts and reason, addressed to serious matters. If my analysis of your arguments, or of Ferguson's, are wrong on substance, why does DC act like a stirred hornets' nest and buzz all around with personal attacks, rather than refuting my arguments? Not that your stingers really sting -- mostly you seem to be trying to sting someone else whom you conflate with yours truly.
I don't expect many here to profit by it (I'm not going to waste my time interacting with my "fans" here this time), but I've described the weaknesses of your own version of printed scholarship in some detail at Christ the Tao, over the years. (Including your grotesque misrepresentation of the gospels, Acts, and the early Crusading texts -- which indolent though I am, I had read years previously, and so recognized your misrepresentations.) Given that none of my arguments depend on technical points of the Greek language, and none of Ferguson's overly rhetorical and personal replies (inasmuch as I have had time to read them yet) seem to even attempt to claim otherwise (but I'll look again for any such points when time permits), your usual point about language seems as mute as the same point repeated by Ferguson. The problems with his, and your, own arguments translate easily into English, and are on an altogether grander scale. I am happy to leave those conversations where they wound up, and let fair-minded readers judge between our arguments. I do not expect, for instance, that your claim that "Jesus commands hate," and that that is as fair a reading of the biblical data as its opposite, "Jesus commands love," has gotten or will get much traction among sober readers who read the gospels in any language. (I found that argument a useful foil in my last book, however. And yes, I have long since read the passages in the original -- which helps not one whit to save your hypothesis.) Indeed, one Irish atheist who visits my blog thought your thesis, in this case, "unbalanced, ungenerous, and even unhinged." So lots of luck with that project.
"Biblical scholar" wouldn't really be my first choice in self-identity, as a matter of fact. You should probably just admit you don't know where to place me. (Hint: "apologist" would be a fairer description of John Loftus than of myself.) I admittedly come to New Testament studies as a (well-read and obviously far from indolent) outsider. But I believe in the cross-pollenization of disciplines, so make no apology for bringing my own insights and set of skills to the table. Time will tell which of our perspectives is ultimately found more persuasive, but that verdict will not be made at DC: in the meanwhile, until my full argument is complete and published, I have little objection to your expressing as much self-confidence, or disparagement of my work, as you like. I understand. Old wounds sometimes take a deal of licking before they fully heal.