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Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Why the hectoring, Dr. Avalos?

(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:

American Christianity.
American Law.
American schools.
Medieval philosophy.
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 Inquisition.
Martin Luther.
Blaise Pascal.
Nazi ideology.
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."

http://commonsenseatheism.com/?p=392

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."

http://debunkingchristianity.blogspot.com/2008/01/dr-william-lane-craig-responds-to-dr.html

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.

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

From Hiawatha ("Dr. H")

" . . . I read through the first section of your response, and I agree that what I've seen of Avalos so far is permeated with a sort of academic chauvinism that I find distasteful. On the other hand, I've seen Christian apologists do that as well. But you're right that it's hypocritical of him to dwell on that point if he going to be doing it himself.

He also seems to be very angry -- personally angry.

I sometimes feel a sort of social anger with religion and some of the social ills which, to me, it is apparent it has fostered. But I don't really feel a -personal- anger, anger of being directly, personally damaged in some way, which is kind of what I get from Avalos in some of his screeds.

I think I can understand it, in the same way that I can understand the anger of certain Muslims that prompts them to launch attacks on the US, but I don't feel it myself. Avalos apparently does feel it; I sympathize with his pain, but believe that he needs to learn how to set it aside in his scholarly pursuits. Taking a sort of "Klingon attitude' -- that every professional opponent is automatically a personal enemy -- doesn't seem likely to lead to good scholarship.

My $0.02 -- I've never met the man; a face-to-face chat might be enlightening.

Anonymous said...

"Dr. H" continued:

Your example of the debate over Aramaic terms is, I think illustrative of a point which is, I think, quite important, but which tends to get sloughed off to the sidelines, or subsumed by other issues:

There is a distinct disconnect between what, for want of better terms,I will call "scholarly Christianity" and "popular Christianity."[1] My general research instincts lead me to read as deeply as I can intosubjects of interest to me and to seek primary sources wherever possible. Religion is a subject which has fascinated me for a long time, and thanksto my research attitude, I am at least passingly familiar with many of the sources you cite, and have in many cases actually read them myself. At the very least, I usually recognize the names of the scholars you cite, and in some cases I've gone and read new works as a result of some of our debates.

I daresay this is probably not true for your average Christian walking down Main Street on Sunday morning after church services. And it is almost certainly not true for significant numbers of Americans who classify themselves as "evangelical," "fundamentalist," "born again," or -- Godand/or Dawkins help us -- "Biblical inerrantists".

On your recommendation several years back I waded through N.T. Wright's "Jesus and the victory of God," and the other two volumes in the series(has a fourth been released...?) For turgid prose, Satre has nothing on Wright, except that Wright's sentences are usually (a tiny bit) shorter. I cannot imagine most of my Christian (or atheist) friends having thepatience to wade through these tomes, and most of them lack sufficiently broad backgrounds to understand much of what is there if they wereinclinded to make the attempt.

Well, on one level, there's nothing wrong with that. Most people whotalk about philosophy haven't read Being and Nothingness; most people who talk about literature haven't made it through War and Peace; and most people who talk about relativity have never read a single one of Einstein's relatively short papers on the subject. C'est la vie.

On the other hand, this makes for some heated and often pointless argumentswhen one side is going on about a point of dogma or bahavior as understoodby Joe Christian and his 600,000 bretheren, and the other side is arguing from a perspective of Mr. Academic Theologian, D.Th., S.T.L., J.C.D., Ph.D.and his 12 international associates. This disconnect is apparent on both theist and atheist sides of many debates, as is the fact that most participants seem to be unaware of it, most of the time.

Anonymous said...

"Dr. H" continues . . .

The most obvious example of this is stereotyping: knee-jerk atheists who approach every discussion as if all Christians were red-neck young earthcreationists; knee-jerk Christians who assume all atheists are ammoral dialectical materialists. But it manifests in more subtle forms as well. When someone points toChristian -- I'll be politic and call them 'gaffes maladroites' -- such as the Inquisition or the Crusades in an online discussion, 99% of the time they seem to have in mind the events as viewed by the average Christian in the street. The average Crusader was not an academictheologian, leared in languages and the letters of Church Doctrine. Hemost likely wasn't even literate. The average servant of the Inquisition wasn't steeped in the Aristotelian philosophers and Aquinas; he probablyhadn't heard of either. When people start responding with quoted from obscure medeival history texts, or an historical perspective only possible 500 years after the event, it's hard to imagine much real communication going on -- in either direction. When people bring up various problems of the influences of Christianity that pervade American culture, for example, they are usally not thinking of theodicity or whether papal infallibilty applies only ex cathedra. They are concerned with whether the Bible-thimping Baptists in Kentucky fell it's their God-given duty to beat up on queers because their Bible tells then that homosexuality is an abomination. They are not so interested in, or even cognizant of the arguments as towhether the passages in Josephus that mention Jesus are original or were inserted at a later date. They are more concerned with whether loud-mouthed self-righteous preachers like Pat Robertson, who see every American misfortune as a directed divine punishment, might motivate a YEC president to prod tensions in the Middle East so as to speed the Final Conflict he believes is predicted in Revelation.

Often the onlycome back is some version of the "No true Scotsman" fallacy.

This has ramifications for the discussion of whether Christianity promoted or discouraged slavery.

Not so much in your personal debatewith Avalos, but certainly in the context of the larger audience that might be expected to read either his or your books. On the one hand one can find some "leading Christian thinkers" who did oppose, or at least question the institution of slavery as far back as the 16th century. On the other hand, it is undeniable that plenty of 19th Bible-belt preachers and tent revivalists repeatedly pointed to the Bible as justification forcontinuing slavery in the south, and later on, as late as the early 20thcentury, as justification for Jim Crow laws.

The fact is that what Christian intellectuals might be writing treatiseson, and what the good Christians running the southern plantations were doing could be, and frequently were two very different things. The Southern Baptist Convention was -founded- on the belief that the Bible sanctions slavery and that it was therefore permissible for Christians to own slaves. Up to 1865 the bulk of the populace in the South was listening to the revivalists, and not to the 16th century theologians.

When the "scholarly" and "populist" arguments are brought into the samediscussion without bothering to recognize the distinction, one frequentlygets the surreal impression of two parties using the same words, each incompletely different ways, and going through all the motions of communicating with very little actual communication taking place. It can be like watching an Edward Albee play.

I see a lot of this sort of discussion going on in the Amazon fora. And as I say, it is my no means limited to the theists. A self-proclaimed grandmother and I are even now in the process of disgruntling a number of atheists in the Atheist forum for their careless use of language.

David B Marshall said...

Thanks, Dr. H, for your balanced and thoughtful comments. I didn't quite catch how Klingons came in, never having worked with one at the office -- were they a slave-owning society, or is that just Federation propaganda?

I generally agree with your point. Certainly the Christian record on slavery (like the record of almost every collective group of humanity on almost every moral issue) is very mixed. Probably a lot of that can be resolved into "scholarly" and "academic." Perhaps what that means is, though themselves ambiguous at times, the freedom-trending texts of the NT influence those who read them more directly and profoundly than people who get them 2nd, 3rd and
4th hand.

It wouldn't be fair to correlate the "good guys" and the "bad guys" with "scholars" and "uneducated oafs," though. One of the great revivalists of the 19th Century was the highly educated Charles Finney, who preached against slavery, as did the even more influential revivalist John Wesley. Some Christian leaders got one issue dead on -- say, slavery -- and dropped the ball on another -- say, witch-hunting.

Wright isn't always so verbose. He has some short books, too. I have to admit I enjoy his long books, not because I'm incapable of being warn out by wordy expositions, but because there's enough wit in them to tide me over, and maybe because his meandering journeys take him across a park I often play in.

Dr. Hector Avalos said...

I have posted some responses on the original thread
to my essay.

Dr H said...

Hello David,

We've got to stop meeting like this... people will talk. :)

I see my comments made a bit of a rough transition from e-mail to blog format, picking up a few more typos than I remember in the originals, but c'est la vie.

Concerning Klingons, I was refering to the attitude that "every professional opponent is necessarily also a personal enemy." I have observed this behavior in both theists and atheists in on-line discussions, and it tends to lead to a kind of crash-and-burn, take-no-prisoners debating style which, while sometimes entertaining, is usually not very productive.

---------------------------------
DM: Perhaps what that means is, though themselves ambiguous at times, the freedom-trending texts of the NT influence those who read them more directly and profoundly than people who get them 2nd, 3rd and 4th hand.
----------------------------------

Maybe so, but I lean more towrads the notion that the fact that the NT -is- frequently so ambiguous, and that the Bible per se is so full of blatant contradiction, it therefore lends itself to pretty much whatever interpretation the /preacher du jour/ wants to lay on it. Or the reader du jour, for that matter. There is a long history of the Bible being used to reinforce pre-existing prejudices.

-----------------------------------
DM: It wouldn't be fair to correlate the "good guys" and the "bad guys" with "scholars" and "uneducated oafs," though.
-----------------------------------

That wasn't my intent. This goes back, really, to our on-going debate over "what is a Christian." What I am trying to convey is that, recognizing that Christianity -can- be roughly divided into "scholarly" and "popular culture" camps, the two camps are, nonetheless, both composed of Christians.
Any defense (or critique) of Christianity, therefore, has to take account of both groups, because Christianity, per se, consists of both of them. It is therefore as erroneous to say that Christianity eliminated slavery as it is to say that Christianity caused slavery. Depending on which camp one is pitching one's revival tent in, and at what point in history, Christianity has both promoted and discouraged slavery.

This speaks a bit to another long-standing dispute you and I have had, concerning the history of the United States. You have sometimes accused me of promulgating only the negative aspects of that history and ignoring the positive aspects. My counter has always been that the positive aspects are almost exclusively what has been taught in our schools for most of our history, and I therefore assume that most people are at least passingly familiar with them. Most people are not, however, familiear with many of the negative aspects, as these have tended to be supressed, and require a bit more work to get to.

When one perceives that a given situation is being almost exclusively presented from one point of view, placing a lot of stress on an alternative point of view, in an attempt to achieve some sort of balance is, I think, not so unreasonable or difficult to understand.

This surely applies to discussions of Christianity in contemporary America, as much as it does to discussions of history or politics.


[Not quite sure how the ID-tags are working on this blog, so I'll include my ID with the text, just in case.]

--
Dr H

Dr H said...

[Part 2 of 2?]
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DM: It wouldn't be fair to correlate the "good guys" and the "bad guys" with "scholars" and "uneducated oafs," though.
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That wasn't my intent. This goes back, really, to our on-going debate over "what is a Christian." What I am trying to convey is that, recognizing that Christianity -can- be roughly divided into "scholarly" and "popular culture" camps, the two camps are, nonetheless, both composed of Christians.
Any defense (or critique) of Christianity, therefore, has to take account of both groups, because Christianity, per se, consists of both of them. It is therefore as erroneous to say that Christianity eliminated slavery as it is to say that Christianity caused slavery. Depending on which camp one is pitching one's revival tent in, and at what point in history, Christianity has both promoted and discouraged slavery.

This speaks a bit to another long-standing dispute you and I have had, concerning the history of the United States. You have sometimes accused me of promulgating only the negative aspects of that history and ignoring the positive aspects. My counter has always been that the positive aspects are almost exclusively what has been taught in our schools for most of our history, and and I therefore assume that most people are at least passingly familiar with them. Most people are not, however, familiear with many of the negative aspects, as these have tended to be supressed, and require a bit more work to get to.

When one perceives that a given situation is being almost exclusively presented from one point of view, placing a lot of stress on an alternative point of view, in an attempts to achieve some sort of balance is, I think, not so unreasonable or difficult to understand.

This surely applies to discussions of Christianity in contemporary America, as much as it does to discussions of history or politics.


[Not quite sure how the ID-tags are working on this blog, so I'll include my ID with the text, just in case.]

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Dr H

Nick said...

David. I agree with your criticisms of the research of the New Atheists. I wrote this months ago on the topic.

http://deeperwaters.wordpress.com/2010/12/20/the-shoddy-research-of-the-new-atheists/

David B Marshall said...

Thank, Nick. Good stuff. In some ways you actually exagerrate the quality of their scholarship -- Dawkins cites Pascal, but obviously hasn't read him.

To give Avalos his due, he does at least base his arguments on research -- even if extremely one-sided.

Nick said...

David. As a Thomist, it's patently obvious to me that Dawkins has not read Aquinas. His attempts to deal with the five ways are ludicrous, especially since he makes the fifth way intelligent design, something Aquinas did not have in mind as it is understood today. Furthermore, he would have the answer to his Boeing 747 argument if he had read the chapter on simplicity, the very next chapter.

Their books get worse. In "The Moral Landscape" Harris only interacts with Francis Collins in what Michael Ruse calls a 15 page rant. I kept wanting to tell Harris to switch to decaf in it. In his bibliography, he mentions polkinghorne and N.T. Wright, but only because Collins recommends reading them. He doesn't interact with them. (Strange that Collins can't refer to experts outside his field, but the new atheists can freely refer to Bart Ehrman and Dan Barker.)

David B Marshall said...

I was just looking at Harris' book a few days ago, and thinking about buying it. But when it comes to morality, I prefer to talk about historical facts, rather than philosophical theory. So many books to debunk, so little time; one has to find niche.

I'd love to see your review of the book, though. What do you mean when you call yourself a Thomist? Is that a private philosophical position or -- I forget what kind of work you do. What would you say to the contention (recently made to me by an atheist philosophy prof from Canada) that Aquinas was a fideist, or at least emphasized "faith" (in atheist sense) over reason?

Nick said...

Hi David. Glad to answer the questions.

To begin with, my review of Harris can be found on J.P. Holding's Ticker blog. All of them should be found here:

http://tektonticker.blogspot.com/search/label/Sam%20Harris

Meanwhile, my work is really just a part-time cashier now due to my being laid off from the bad economy. Keep in mind that was three months before my wedding. (To which our first anniversary is Sunday)

I am a student at Southern Evangelical Seminary working on my Master's in Philosophy. Of interest also is that my wife and I are both diagnosed with Asperger's. We have our own ministry we're working on making a 501c3 now called "Deeper Waters." It's an apologetic ministry that plans a special emphasis on helping the disabled community. My writings can be found at http://deeperwaters.wordpress.com as well as some guest material for CARM and J.P. Holding.

Aquinas as a fideist? That's rich. Especially since Aquinas gives reasons for his belief in God. Now it is true that Aquinas did believe some things had to be accepted on authority, but so what? He has reasons to trust that authority, no matter how bad some might think those reasons are. If this atheist had given some examples, it would have been nice.

(Keep in mind also I despise the atheist description of faith)

Does that help any?