Thursday, January 05, 2012
The tone of these debates was not always very friendly. No matter. This is an important subject, and Avalos is an intelligent man, with a great deal of learning. In reading and reviewing Fighting Words: The Origins of Religious Violence, I will try to be fair, though I certainly come to the book with partial (but not complete) skepticism.
The theoretical apparatus and deliberation with which Avalos begins this book is impressive. As in his other writings, Avalos makes it clear that he thinks fellow scholars have missed the big picture simply by not reading widely enough, and that he is prepared to take up the slack. He has read widely, in many languages. Avalos makes the extent of his ambition clear in the introduction: both religious theories of violence, and academic theories, have failed, and Avalos proposes to supplant them with a new and better theory of how "religion" cruelly harms the world by vastly inflating the amount of unnecessary violence that occurs in it.
I am skeptical, not so much about ANY cheerful or gloomy assessments, but about the whole enterprise -- whether it even makes sense to reify what Avalos calls "religion" in the first place. I think Avalos' task is like trying to hold a downspout full of water in your hands -- in the end, your hands will be wet enough to say water flowed through them, but most of the water will have seaped into the ground and disappeared, long since.
And so, I predict, the facts will largely, but not entirely, elude Avalos' analysis.
In this post, I focus on the book's introduction. Here, Dr. Avalos he announces his intent to show that religion causes violence because it "creates new scarce resources." This is true not just of one religion, and not just of "fundamentalism," but of religion in general, liberalism as well as jihadist Islam, the New Testament maybe even more than the Old.
Several preliminary questions arose for me while reading the first few pages.
*What does Avalos mean by "religion?"
*What does he mean by "violence?"
* Can he show empirically that what he calls "religion" actually results in more violence than would occur without it? In other words, is there some control population to compare with the "religious," so that we even know there is a phenomena in need of explanation?
* Will Dr. Avalos even attempt to do this? Or will he, instead, merely offer a series of post-hoc attempts to relate actual instances of violence, to their supposed religious roots?
* Will Avalos discuss the many cases in which religions caused violence to stop, or justice to win over injustice? Or will we only look at one half of the equation, in this book?
* How will he account for the violence of atheistic societies? Will he attempt to "explain away" communist violence, and then represent, say, Sweden, as the normal non-religious society?
* Does he assume that "violence" is the only or main ill to avoid? Or will he try to balance "violence" against other ills, or goods to be won? (For instance, many aboriginal tribes seem to endure a high level of violence, but also seem more outgoing and sociable than more staid, hands-off neighboring groups.)
* Could there be a relationship between the breakdown of a society's "sacred canopy," and the decay of a civilization? Maybe societies need a certain level of violence to survive? Or will Avalos take the Swedish point of view for granted?
Fortunately, Dr. Avalos recognizes the need to define key terms, and answers the first question just a few pages into his introduction. He defines religion as follows:
"A mode of life and thought that presupposes the existence of, and relationship with, unverifiable forces and / or beings."
Avalos quickly makes it clear that this definition will be crucial to the argument that follows. Here, if I am not mistaken, I see the foundations of that argument already shaking:
(a) Definitions of religion tend to fall into two categories: (a) those that make belief in supernatural beings essential, as this one does, and (b) psychological or sociological definitions, like Paul Tillich's "ultimate concern." (When people talk about communism as a religion, they usually assume such a broad definition.)
As a secular humanist, of course Avalos wants to define religion in such a way that he can slam "religion" without his own position taking collateral damage. This is why he has to define religion in relation to supernatural beings.
But socially, many secular ideologies seem to act like religions. We'll see if he can explain, say, communism away, without engaging in special pleading. ("But communism is really a secular religion, because Joseph Stalin went to a seminary!")
(b) Avalos supposes that belief in the supernatural involves a special "mode of life and thought." Yet surely on evolutionary grounds, human beings all partake in a mode of life and thought that is far more similar than different. If atheists really are so different from the rest of humanity, such
radical bipolarity would seem an odd result for evolution to accomplish. This appears psychologically naive.
(c) The word "presuppose" assumes that religious people believe a priori, rather than in response to evidence.
Yet this is obviously untrue for many believers. Paul believed because he met Jesus on the road to Damascus -- he didn't "presuppose" the deity of Christ. A legal scholar I know in England converted to Christianity from Islam after he heard the audible voice of God. I maintain belief in Christianity over more than 30 years of researching and weighing the evidence.
(d) But the biggest "leap" Avalos takes in his definition, is to say that religion involves faith in "unverifiable" beings or forces. What is "unverifiable" supposed to mean? Avalos does not explain, yet this word presupposes immensely difficult issues of epistemology.
Didn't the sight and sound of Jesus speaking to him, and then his blindness as a result, verify the spiritual reality of Jesus to St. Paul?
Doesn't the word "sign" in the Bible point to the fact that the whole point of the gospels is to verify Christian theology, to show how Jesus verified his Messiah-hood, to show that God has verified his call to Israel and the world by raising Jesus from the dead?
As I have argued (see my anthology "Faith and Reason" at christthetao.com), historically, Christian thinkers have almost always argued that Christian theism is in fact verifiable -- that the facts support Christian truth.
Avalos seems here to simply defy or ignore almost all of Christian history and thought about the matter, and for that matter the rational arguments that followers of Mohammed and other teachers make.
And this looks like a key assumption for Avalos. He makes it clear already, that much of what he says in the rest of the book will depend on this definition of religion, in particular on the allegedly unverifiable character of religious claims.
Of course, Avalos probably believes, or claims to believe, that religious claims cannot be supported by good evidence. But you can't just assume something like that, basing a 300 page book on premises that most people deny, without even acknowledging the difficulty!
If Avalos chooses a stringent criteria for verification, one might argue that precious little in this world is "verifiable." Most of what we believe is based on much less than logical or mathematical certainty. And even math and logic depend on our minds, which skeptics often inform us are terribly prone to error.
Maybe Avalos will try to prove that religion can never be verifiable, later in the book -- though it is hard to see how one could fit an adequate refutation of, say, Pascal, William Lane Craig or Gary Habermas, into a single chapter or book. And he doesn't seem to have dedicated any chapters to defending this immense assumption. So while the house looks like it might rise several stories tall, with elegant pillars and fine wooden carvings and tasteful bonsai trees out front, the foundations appear to be resting on sand.
No doubt these issues will come up later in the book, and we will have to return to them. A few other points worth note from the introduction:
* "We define violence as the act of modifying and / or inflicting pain upon the human body in order to express or impose power differentials."
This also seems an odd definition, though maybe not as potentially devastating as Dr. Avalos' defintion of religion.
If a man shoots an intruder to protect his property, that is not "violence," because his goal is self-protection, and he is not thinking about power? (The imposition of power differentials being a means, not an end?) Or a rapist, if he sincerely wants sexual pleasure? Or even if the Greeks conquered Troy to get back a woman, that was not violence if their motives were pure?
I don't think it's a good idea to allow psychology to play such a large role in defining a physical act.
* Avalos discusses historical causation relatively well.
* "If any scholars come to believe, on the basis of their academic research, that religion or specific religious traditions are harmful to humanity, then it follows that it is their obligation to counteract those beliefs. Of course, this means a nonviolent and dialogic approach, given the current pluralistic politics." (26)
I want to agree, but I'm a little puzzled, here. Why must we assume one must only counteract harmful traditions non-violently? Does this mean a scholar must not serve in Afghanistan, say by violently opposing armies that seek to institutionalize abuse of women?
Why? "Given the current pluralistic politics?" And if conditions change, secular humanists should use violence? Under what conditions or principles?
* "The best way to deal with religious violence is to undermine religion itself." (28)
Perhaps, assuming that (a) religion is a thing that can be "undermined" in general; (b) religious violence is greater than violence without religion; (c) religion does not prevent worse things than violence (despair? boredom? communist jihad?)
* "One has to confront violence in each religion in a frank manner. I believe I do it evenhandedly. As a secular humanism, I do not favor one religion over another, as I hold all of them to be equally based on unverifiable grounds." (29)
Here we learn why Avalos must define religion as he does. Being innocent of a religion in the sense in which he has defined it, he is in a privileged position to act as Judge, Jury, and Executioner of that of which he himself suffers no taint.
* He then admits, however, that "all worldviews" are "hegemonic," including pluralism -- a point John Hick would do well to note.
* "Religious violence is always ethically reprehensible, while the same cannot be said of non-religious violence."
This seems a little unfair. So if, based on reflection and prayer, and appealing to deep theological beliefs, Dietrich Bonhoeffer decides to join the conspiracy to kill Adolf Hitler, his fellow-conspirators may be innocent, because of their secular motives, but Bonhoeffer alone must stand guilty?
We are not far into the book, but already profound problems have appeared that seem to undermine Avalos' thesis. We will see what he builds on this foundation, and whether some of his later structures serve, among other things, to help buttress the shaky foundations below, and firm the loose sands on which everything looks to be built.
Continue on to Part II here.