(I) “Why the hectoring, Dr. Avalos?” A Response to Hector Avalos’ criticisms of The Truth Behind the New Atheism, I.
Hector Avalos, Professor of Religious Studies at Iowa State University, recently wrote an angry attack on me focusing on four pages of my book, The Truth Behind the New Atheism. The article was published on John Loftus' "Debunking Christianity" web site under the title, "A Slave to Incompetence: The Truth Behind David Marshall's Research on Slavery:"
My response will come in three parts: (I) “Why the hectoring, Dr. Avalos?” will explain the motivation behind Dr. Avalos’ attacks, set them in context, and show them for the humbug that they are; (II) “Slave to cherry-picked footnotes: some problems with Avalos on religion and human bondage.” This post does not fully rebut Avalos’ argument on Christianity and slavery – best wait till his book comes out and more time becomes available for that – but raises a series of substantive questions about his arguments, responds to specific criticisms, and shows a bit more about how Christianity undermined slavery from early on. III. “(Ab) Uses of History: Carrier vs. Avalos on Christianity and the Holocaust.” I am also writing a more in-depth response to Avalos’ attempt in The Christian Delusion to blame Christianity for the Holocaust, which will also demonstrate the weaknesses and mutual incoherence of the take on historical causation propounded by Richard Carrier and Hector Avalos, respectively.
I. Why the hectoring, Dr. Avalos?One of the most popular ways to fool an audience is to omit context:
"Greg hit me!"
"Gregory, did you hit Tom?"
"Yes, but . . . "
"Go directly to your room!"
It later emerges that Tom dropped a landscaping block on Greg's toes first.
In his critique, Dr. Avalos plays a series of six similar tricks that are meant to confuse readers unaware of the several contexts (involving Avalos and I, the “New Atheism,” and Christian history) of his attack. Six questions demonstrate the essential humbug of Avalos' article, and set the issues he raises into more reasonable contexts:
(1) Why did Avalos spend so much time and effort attacking four pages of a low-profile book by an alleged "indolent, incompetent hack?"Avalos does not directly explain his personal motivation for the barrage. His ad hominal edge, revealed in characterizations of me as a "hack writer," "slave to incompetence," "indolent researcher," "cut and paste artist," "not well-read," "lazy person's apologist," "as deep an indictment of intellectual integrity as one can find," and endless other such digs, only deepens the mystery. If I am that bad a writer – nor famous or rich, let me add – why expend so much energy and wrath responding? For all we can tell from what he says, Avalos picked up my book at random, found questionable statements in it, and felt compelled by the scholarly good angel on his right shoulder, and objective love of truth, to correct the record.
The truth is quite different, and Avalos' failure to tell it casts doubt on his own integrity.
A few months ago, I posted a review of The Christian Delusion, edited by John Loftus and featuring chapters by Dr. Avalos, among others, on Amazon.com. I praised some chapters, but sharply criticized Avalos' chapter "Atheism Was Not the Cause of the Holocaust," which sought to blame Christianity for the Holocaust instead. Avalos responded, and we debated heatedly for a few weeks. That debate is I think still visible on the Amazon site for The Christian Delusion, and also on my web site, christthetao.com.
My criticisms of Avalos' argument seemed to withstand his (often ad hom, from the beginning) responses easily enough. Feel free to read the debate for yourself and disagree, if you like. But even if you're inclined to Avalos' views of things, you have to ask yourself . . .
(2) Why didn't Avalos mention the fact that we had a "history?" That would be the normal, above-board thing to do. There are even standard terms trotted out on such occasions: "Disclaimer," "For the record." As in, "Disclaimer: Marshall trashed my essay in Christian Delusion, then rebutted my defenses. I warned I'd avenge myself!"
Why do you suppose Dr. Avalos didn't offer some (suitably less campy) version of this? Why didn't he breath a word about our earlier debate?
Is it not likely because he knew, at some level, that his defense proved ineffectual?
(3) Why it is OK for Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens to write general attacks on Christianity spanning many topics about which they know next to nothing (making many errors along the way, as I show), but it is wrong for Christians who know far more about some of those topics (like myself, but presumably Dinesh D’Souza or John Lennox as well) to respond?
Consider Richard Dawkin's The God Delusion. In that book, the Oxford zoologist pontificates on the following subjects, among others:
The intellectual history of Soviet communism.
The Old Testament.
The New Testament.
Life on other planets.
The influence of Roman Catholicism on sex abuse.
The 20th Century history of India.
The psychological effect of slavery on blacks in the American South before the Civil War.
The political sociology of Israeli children.
Asian holy men and the 2004 tsunami.
One of Avalos' chief criticisms of me, which he makes in this article, and repeatedly during our debate, and is indeed a standard debating trick for him, is that I don't read Latin, and therefore am not qualified to say anything about the history of slavery. I couldn’t understand the primary texts of Medieval Europe, even if I wanted to. He insinuates elsewhere that I’m not a real scholar because I don’t (he seems to imagine) read any language but English. He also argues that Dinesh D'Souza doesn't know Russian, and therefore is not qualified to argue about Soviet communism. In the past, he tried to embarrass New Testament scholar Rubel Shelley by putting a text on the screen during a debate and demanding that he identify the particular text. His debate with William Lane Craig devolved (on his side) into obscure pedantry over the proper interpretation of Aramaic terms few if any spectators knew. (Craig’s general critique of Avalos’ tactics is devastating.)
But the relevant question here is, does Richard Dawkins read Latin, Hebrew, Koine Greek, Russian, Chinese and whatever Asian language the holy man spoke in?
Avalos does not ask this question, let alone answer it. He probably knows that Dawkins does NOT know all the primary languages from which his varied claims derive, neither has he read many primary sources. Nor does Dawkins have any special expertise in many of the topics he holds forth on.
The same is true of other leading atheists: Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Victor Stenger, Carl Sagan, Bertrand Russell, Christopher Hitchens. All make many arguments outside the bounds of their own specialties, and often involving primary languages they do not I think know.
Does the fact that they make arguments about these topics mean the New Atheists are not "real scholars?" Or does this argument only work for Christians?
And what are Christians supposed to do in response to The God Delusion? Wait until some thousand-year old polymath who has studied every language and every discipline touched on in these books takes up pen and paper to refute Dawkins and his friends?
Until Avalos rebukes all the most famous "New Atheists," and a lot of old ones, too, more adamantly than he has me (actually, I have done research in Russian, modern Chinese, classical Chinese, and Koine Greek, all of which fortified me for topics covered in Truth Behind the New Atheism), his critique is naught but humbug and hypocrisy.
(4) What do citations reveal about the New Atheists and their critics?Accusing me of “indolence,” Avalos writes: “The goal of hack writing is to publish something quickly and with little effort and so these books are often very thin bibliographically. Such a hack writer is David Marshall . . . “
In response, I invite any reader to pick up copies of Truth Behind the New Atheism and God Delusion, and turn, respectively, to pages 221-236 of the former, and 388-399 of the latter, and see where the “indolence” lies.
Note first that the main text in Dawkins' book is almost twice as long as my text. Dawkins offers 156 citations. I give 429. That's almost 3 times as many, in a book about 60% as long -- more than 4 times as many per page.
Next look at the sources Dawkins and I respectively cite. Here is a sample:
Dawkins: "Jerry Coyne's reply to Ruse appeared in the August 2006 issue of Playboy" . . . "Madeleine Bunting, Guardian" . . . "Dennett (1995)" . . . "New York Times" . . . "Leading Scientists Still Reject God," Nature . . . Free Inquiry. . . Daniel Dennett Interview in Der Spiegel (English edition). . . www.lulu.com . . . www.godthemovie.com . . . J. Horgan, “The Templeton Foundation: a skeptic’s tale . . .”
What becomes clear from skimming Dawkins' citations is that (a) He appears to cite nothing that is not in English; (b) He almost always cites friendly sources; and (c) mostly but not all from newspapers and web sites of low scholarly wattage.
By contrast, from the first 3 pages of my notes: "Tomoko Masuzawa, The Invention of World Religions . . . Richard Dawkins . . . Alan Orr . . . James Boswell, Life of Johnson . . . Hubert Yockey, Information Theory, Evolution, and the Origin of Life . . . Nicholas Wolterstoff, Divine Discourse . . . Michael Shermer . . . Blaise Pascal . . . Francis Bacon . . . Carl Sagan . . . Joseph Needham . . . Rodney Stark . . . Bertrand Russell . . . Huston Smith . . . Edward Wilson . . . Steven Hawking . . . Charles Darwin . . . C. S. Lewis . . . Francis Collins . . . Sam Harris . . . "
What a scan of our respective bibliographic citations should show any honest reader is that, by contrast to my main target, Richard Dawkins (whose authenticity as a scholar in his own field I NEVER question), my citations are (b) a mixture of friendly and hostile sources, including a lot of atheists; and (c) nearly all from works by indisputably reputable scholars writing on topics in which they are experts.
I only cite books in English, not because those are the only ones I read, but because this is a popular book, and those are the only ones I expect the majority of readers to find useful.
On this score, too, Dr. Avalos' critique is pure humbug. In general, my citations are far more and better those of Dawkins, to whom I am responding. Obviously, in answering so wide-ranging an attack on Christianity as The God Delusion, it is sometimes necessary to cover issues on which I am not personally an expert. In doing so, it is legitimate to cite credentialed and especially eminent scholars who ARE experts in those topics.
"But that’s why The Christian Delusion is so much better!" I almost hear John Loftus saying. "I assigned each topic to a scholar with specific expertise in each field. That way, they can read all the necessary languages and thoroughly research every topic, with no need for second-hand readings or translations. That's what you should have done, instead of trying to be a one-man band!"
Which leads to our next question . . .
(5) So why does The Christian Delusion in fact contain sweeping claims about the world based on second-hand (and sometimes highly dubious) scholarship?
I’ll limit myself to just two juicy examples that I found very quickly; no doubt many more could be cited:
(a) On page 30, in "The Cultures of Christianity," anthropologist David Eller makes the following claim about unspecified "native" peoples of the Americas:
"Precontact gender relations were so critical and such an anathema to missionization because native women 'had considerable power, authority, and prestige in Amerindian tribal life.' Although there was a sexual division of labor, Indian cultures lacked the moral vocabulary to conceive of women as 'bad' or 'evil.'"
Bracket for a moment the absurd assumption that Jesuits (or Christians generally) saw women as "evil." (See chapter 8 of my The Truth About Jesus and the 'Lost Gospels' for an effectual rebuttal, also "The Sexual Revolution" in Jesus and the Religions of Man, for how Christianity has liberated women.)
More relevantly, how does Dr. Eller know what he says about "native women” and the “moral vocabulary of Indian cultures” is true? Is he fluent in all "native" languages (his comment is appears borderless) of North and South America? Has he done in-depth personal research on each and every tribe in the Western Hemisphere?
No doubt that sounds silly. Eller ought to have made the boundaries of his claim clear. But to be charitable, from context, he is probably talking about Mesoamerica. So does Eller speak all the languages of Central America?
Apparently not. He gives a footnote to justify his claim: Michael Welton, in an article from Adult Education Quarterly. Dr. Welton, it turns out, is an historian of education. His skill in mesoamerican languages also remains obscure; from his CV it appears he lives in Vancouver Island, so one might think he has had contact with Coast Salish.
(b) On page 103, from John Loftus, "The Outsider Test for Faith Revisited":
"In fact, most Christian thinkers from Tertullian to Luther to William Lane Craig have all disparaged reason in favor of faith."
Who does Loftus mean by "most Christian thinkers?" Has he read Tertullian in Latin? Why did he chose Tertullian, instead of more important early Christian thinkers like Clement, Augustine, or one of the Gregories, as his sole ancient example? Why did he pick the relatively non-intellectual Luther, instead of Anselm, Aquinas, Calvin, Erasmus, Mateo Ricci or John Locke, as his sole Medieval example? The answer is obvious: Tertullian and Luther give famous and colorful quotes on the subject (“faith must trample reason underfoot;” “reason is the devil’s whore”) that seem at first glance to support Loftus’ point, and are therefore cherry-picked by EVERY skeptic who doesn’t know anything about the subject (Dawkins offers the same two examples!), but wants to prove Christianity “disparages” reason.
Probably Loftus is not even right about either man. (On Tertullian, see Alister McGrath, Dawkin’s God, 99-101. On Luther, see Chris Marlin-Warfield, http://www.faithfullyliberal.com/?p=879). Even if he nailed those two, it would do little to prove his generalization.
But again the more pertinent question here is, has John Loftus read 50.0001 % or more of Christian thinkers in their original languages? (Say, in Greek, German, French, Russian (Church Slavonic!), Polish, Portuguese, Spanish, and Chinese?) Or again, do Avalos' standards only apply to Christian scholars?
A couple years ago, I posted an anthology of what thirty leading Christian thinkers down through the centuries (plus a Vatican Council) have said about the subject, in an article called “Faith and Reason” at christthetao.com. That anthology (though in English) does I think well disprove the point Loftus is making. Christian thinkers do NOT generally “disparage reason,” and Loftus seems to misunderstand what we Christians mean by “faith,” which is not at all the repudiation of it.
But here, too, the most salient point is that the editor of Christian Delusion clearly does not hold to Hector Avalos’ standards.
My last question begins to wind back to the purported subject of Avalos’ critique, slavery and religion, which I plan to address in the next article:
(6) Who better supports their claims about Christianity and slavery, the New Atheists, or your humble “indolent, poorly read, incompetent hack writer?”
Let's see. Richard Dawkins on slavery, p. 169, no citations, bald (and false) generalizations. Page 265, no citations, bald (and false) assertions. Page 271, no citations, more bald (and false) assertions.
Sam Harris on slavery, Letter to a Christian Nation, pages 18-19, again, not a single citation, and barely a credible comment.
Myself, on slavery, The Truth Behind the New Atheism, 144-148. Sources:
Hugh Thomas: Thomas gained a First Class in Part I of the History Tripos in 1952 and was President of the Union (Cambridge) in 1953. His 1961 book The Spanish Civil War won the Somerset Maugham Award for 1962. From 1966 to 1975 Thomas was Professor of History at the University of Reading. He was Chairman of the Centre for Policy Studies in London from 1979 to 1991. (Wikipedia)
Rodney Stark, generally considered one of world's leading sociologists of religion, did graduate work at UC-Berkeley, taught at University of Washington for 32 years, and is now co-director of the Institute for Study of Religion at Baylor.
Bernard Lewis, Cleveland E. Dodge Professor Emeritus of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University. Lewis specializes in the history of Islam and the interaction between Islam and the West, and is especially famous in academic circles for his works on the history of the Ottoman Empire. Lewis is regarded as one of the West's leading scholars of that region. (Wikipedia)
Richard Fletcher was Professor of History at the University of York and one of the outstanding talents in English and Spanish medieval scholarship. (Wikipedia)
Donald De Marco, Professor of Philosophy at St. Jerome's College.
Benjamin Wiker, lecturer in science and theology at Franciscan University.
John Wesley, founder, Methodist Church, graduate, Christ Church College, Oxford.
Donna Hughes, Eleanor M and Oscar M Carlson Endowed Chair, Professor of Women's Studies, University of Rhode Island.
I also refer vaguely to "a room full of very serious historians within minutes of Dawkins' office" (meeting, as I recall, at Merton or Corpus Christi College, Oxford) who seemed to take it for granted that the Gospel was a primary motive force behind abolition.
What a difficult choice! Who is more properly called "ill-read" and / or "indolent," skeptics who make assertions about slavery but fail to cite a single source, or a Christian who answers them by citing between seven and thirty (depending how you count) well-informed scholars? Does Dr. Avalos prefer bald assertion to citing eminent scholars who have researched the topic?
Were I to write a scholarly monograph on the origins of the abolition movement, Avalos' criticism would make sense. In this context, it is pure (calculated, this being a habit with Avalos) humbug.
The Truth Behind the New Atheism, while several steps up from Dawkins' The God Delusion, as I think is clear from the discussion to this point, is still a POPULAR work.
It HAS to be popular. No one could respond in an interesting way to the wide-ranging New Atheists without going into at least some fields in which he or she is not an expert.
These six points show Avalos' personal criticisms for the dubiously-motivated sham that they are.
While Avalos makes a show of distinguishing my allegedly poor scholarship from that of real Christian scholars, in fact this sort of ad hominem seems to be, pardon the Latin, the normal modus operandi for the good professor. To set Avalos’ comments into yet another proper context, here are comments from four observers to that effect, two atheists and two Christians, beginning with Avalos himself:
Hector Avalos, on a previous debate partner, William Lane Craig: "Dr. Craig is not regarded as much of a scholar outside of his narrow circle of apologists. His function is more to comfort believers than to convert those non-believers who actually know the primary sources well."
(Note that one often hears the opposite from scholars who are atheists but less addicted to ad hominem.)
Luke Muehlhauser, self-described “outspoken advocate of reason, freethought, science, and atheism,” and host of the popular "Common Sense Atheist" web site, on the same debate:
"Avalos comes out swinging, citing very specific parts of Craig’s work and trying to put Craig in uneasy situations. Craig responds calmly and confidently, and reminds the audience that almost nothing Avalos has said (1) builds a case against the Resurrection, nor (2) rebuts the arguments Craig gave in this debate. Avalos focuses on a linguistic disagreement with Craig – but of course nobody in the audience can tell who is right, and it wasn’t even part of Craig’s case in the debate.
"Also, Avalos is kind of a %#*& at certain times, which doesn’t help him. His language attacks Craig more than Craig’s arguments. After Craig gives his final speech, Avalos jumps in on Craig’s applause and says, without any humor, “I very much appreciate your applause for me, thank you.” Smooth, Avalos."
William Lane Craig: "Dr. Avalos is less interested in the argument than in impugning the integrity of his opponent. Such extraordinary ad hominem attacks by Dr. Avalos are unseemly and highly unprofessional and serve, I'm afraid, only to sully his own reputation."
Guillermo Gonzalez, former Iowa State astronomer and previous target of Avalos’ attacks, who also attended the Craig-Avalos debate: "Hector uses whatever tactics he can to criticize Christians, even if that means ad hominem and misrepresentation . . .
"Hector was at the forefront of the firestorm that erupted at ISU against me starting a few months after my ID book was published. I don’t know if “honorable” or “dishonorable” are words I would use to describe his behavior, but I would call it unacademic, intolerant and unprecedented (at least in my experience). I think, however, that Hector’s actions and views have been so extreme that he has relatively few (but very vocal!) followers." (personal communication)
Such habits do not, of course, show that Dr. Avalos is wrong about Christianity and slavery. That will be, in part, the burden of my next paper.