Did All Greeks Deny Human Equality? A response to Avalos' claim that I dissed the ancients.
In his latest sallies in our on-going dispute over slavery, Hector Avalos seems to have mellowed a bit, if I'm not deluding myself. Perhaps he recognizes now that he is not going to win this debate purely on the beauty of fine footnotes. Or perhaps he is satisfied with having savaged me on a popular web site, where any response (if posted) is likely to be lost in the thicket of miscellaneous post-script.
It is a bit rich, though, of Avalos to describe my first response as a "personal attack." It was in part a defense against Avalos' personal attacks, as anyone who reads them will, I think, see was necessary.
True, I also criticized Avalos. I think my critique was judicious: Avalos is an intelligent, accomplished scholar and talented teacher. He is also grossly unfair towards Christianity and those who believe it. He is often remarkably sloppy in how he represents other scholars and historical facts. His arguments are undermined by logic that strikes me as atrocious.
The main purpose of that article, though, was neither to defend myself, nor dismiss Dr. Avalos, but to put his attacks on me, other Christian scholars, and the Christian record, in proper contexts. This needed to be done, because Avalos left way too much context out: our history, the nature of the books I was responding to, the nature of The Christian Delusion, indeed the nature of man and human exploitation.
Dr. Avalos owed it to me, but even more to his readers, to put his arguments into their proper contexts -- an even more important aspect of good scholarship, perhaps, than accurately listing publishing dates of books cites.
That was my main point. In his responses, however, Avalos not only neglects it, but is again grossly negligent with context.
I'll respond to his first post here (reproduced in the previous blog, also on the "Debunking Christianity" website) then to his other posts later.
(1) First, it is untrue that I have "no personal knowledge whatsoever" about the Craig-Avalos debate, and just "repeat material found on the internet."
In fact, I watched the thing. I cited Craig and Gonzalez on it, in part because I found their analysis on the money.
Nor am I sure it is fair to describe comments by the principals in Avalos' prior disputes merely as "material found on the internet." This description is literally true -- I found Gonzalez' comments in my "In-Box" after sending him an e-mail asking about his experiences with Avalos, for instance -- but rather misleading.
(2) Why should I care if Dr. Craig mistakenly described Dr. Avalos' position at Iowa State University? For the record, having watched a few of Craig's debates, it seems to me he usually goes out of his way in them to properly credit debate partners for their accomplishments. (Unlike, say, Bart Ehrman, who seemed to think he could win his debate by disparaging Craig's academic associations.) But that has little to do with our debate, or even with Craig's evaluation of Dr. Avalos' methods.
(3) Avalos admits he mistakenly added the word "the" to a quotation from me about how common it was in the ancient world to dismiss the humanity of other people. He avers that his error did not much change the meaning of my original comment, however, and that the original was still misleading somehow.
Here again, context makes a big difference. Here are the three paragraphs to the citation in question (which I'll put in bold):
"Jesus Frees Slaves
"The outlawing of the slave trade was a huge milestone in history. Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens all pin their criticism of the Bible on its failure to condemn this institution. For Harris, this is inexplicable. Isn't it obvious that a slave is a human being who suffers and enjoys like all of us? Every reasonable person understands that treating people 'like farm equipment' is 'patently evil.' Harris argues, 'It is remarkably easy for a person to arrive at this epiphany.' Yet it had to be spread 'at the point of a bayonet' in the pious American South.
"Only a historically sheltered child of the West and the product of a politically correct public school system could achieve such breathtaking and uncritical naivite.
"Slavery was obviously not wrong to Aristotle. The equality of humanity was denied by by Greeks, Gnostics, Indians (Asian and American), Africans, Chinese, and countless smaller tribes . . . " (The Truth Behind the New Atheism, 144)
I am, clearly, arguing that the teachings of Jesus led to the liberation of slaves. I am also arguing against Harris' naive and anachronistic view that since slaves are obviously human, it is "remarkably easy" for civilizations to arrive at the "epiphany" that slavery is "patently evil."
I return to both points again in the next paragraph, on page 145, which begins, "No great civilization arrived at the 'epiphany' Harris thinks so obvious until the rise of Christian Europe."
To support this point, that civilizations do not spontanteously recognize the evil of slavery, it is not necessary that I show that no one other than Christians ever decried it. Indeed, in that following paragraph, I point out that "a few voices" in India were raised against caste, but "the system shook them off." Analogously, as evidence warrants, I have no problem granting that such voices might perhaps have also been heard against slavery -- few and far between though they seem to have been.
All I need to support my argument is to show is that Harris' 21st Century Bay Area perspective was not the norm in the pre-modern world. Does Avalos really want to ally himself with Harris on this point? I offer examples from Greece, Islam, India, and the European Enlightenment to show that slavery and / or human inequality were often taken for granted.
The sentence Avalos objects to claims that "the equality of humanity" was denied by "Greeks, Gnostics, Indians," etc. The function of this sentence is not to show that no non-Christian ever spoke out against inequality -- I admit in the next paragraph that some Indians (at least) did. Its function, rather, is to show that what Harris describes as "remarkably easy" -- our modern dislike of unpaid exploitation -- in fact came with great difficulty, and a lot of leafing of Scripture.
That the sentence should be read as referring to individuals should be clear from sentences immediately before and after it, in which I give examples of influential people who denied what Harris saw as self-evident: Aristotle, Hume, Voltaire, Ernst Haeckel.
True, I might have made THAT sentence more clear by adding the word "many:" "The equality of humanity was denied by MANY Greeks . . . " My books are not sacred scripture, and one wants to keep even determined opponents from misunderstanding what one writes, if at all possible. But in context -- again -- it is hard to read this page as meaning ALL Greeks, Gnostics, Indians, etc, denied the equality of humanity -- which I neither believe to be the case, nor wish others to believe.
Avalos' other remarks are mostly focused on the meat of the issue, and it should be possible to answer them in a single, later post.
(Pirates of Caribbean photo copyright Disney 2003)