Sunday, January 08, 2012

Swinging for the Fences: Avalos on Violence and Religion II

Return from the Crusade,
by Karl Lessing
Hector Avalos' Fighting Words: The Origins of Religious Violence promises to cover four subjects:  (a) "Past Explanations of Violence," a review of previous theories about religion and violence; (b) Avalos' own theory, with examples from "the Abrahamic Religions;" (c) "Secularism and Violence," which I expect will attempt to explain why secular movements (the commies) are often so violent; and finally (d) "Synthesis," which promises a practical ethics and even (shudder) some "foreign policy implications."

So many interesting topics!  This should keep our critical faculties alert for another four posts or so. 

Here, I plan to lightly review the first section of the book, then describe Avalos' own theory.  We'll stop along the way to examine Avalos' "chronological snobbery," deconstruct a zany definition of violence that threatens to run wild and topple Avalos' theory, and look at contradictions in Avalos' critique of religion, when he accuses fellow scholars Glock and Stark of a sin of which he elsewhere suggests religion stands uniquely guilty. 

Finally, I'll review the eight key questions mentioned in my first post, and see how Dr. Avalos is doing so far in answering them, and in making a successful case against the alleged violence of religion. 

A. "Past Explanations of Violence"

I found this section fairly interesting and reasonably well-done.  Avalos begins with proto-theories of violence in the Bible and in Greek philosophy, then brings us (quickly) to the present.  The first important two modern theorists he deals with are two thinkers who have greatly influenced me: Rene Girard, and Rodney Stark.  Girard he proposes to rebut in more detail, later in the book.  Avalos then describes several thinkers who progressively come closer and closer to his own position, which I will describe below, though he makes it clear none quite makes it there. 

Skipping most of the early theories, which Avalos doesn't propose to defend anyway, let me comment on a few peculiar claims in this section, some of which seem to threaten the cogency of his argument. 

* Avalos defines "the Enlightenment" as "the period wherein the elite of Western civilization established, as a formidable proposition, the idea that reason and experience are the best judges of truth." (45)

Avalos seems to have a bad case of what C. S. Lewis called "chronological snobbery."  When did human beings ever deny that "reason and experience" are the way to truth?  Medieval scholars were great reasoners.  So, in their own way, could be Tibetan monks.  And what could anyone ever reason about, except for experience?  Even paleolithic sketches by ancient shamans on rocks in the South African and Australian deserts relating their out-of-body experiences involve "learning by experience." 

The Bible is full of history, which is another word for "experience."  Avalos' description of the Enlightenment seems (here) trite and ahistorical.   

* "It is not until the Enlightenment that some begin to discuss how certain religious frameworks can cause violence (e.g., Rousseau and polytheism)." (49)

This, too, is trite, and can be chocked up to chronological snobbery. 

The Bible is filled with discussions of how "certain religious frameworks cause violence."  Try reading the prophets, the gospels, and the Book of Acts from this angle -- or even the Revelation of St. John.  "And the dragon made war with the rest of her offspring" -- who does Avalos suppose the dragon's mortal forces are supposed to be, here? 

* Avalos properly criticizes Michael Shermer for following Tylor and overlooking high gods in primitive cultures. (54)  I've made this point about Dawkins and Dennett, among others, myself. 

* Avalos promises to prove in a later chapter that "some New Testament authors" advocate more intense violence does the Old Testament.  Something to look forward to! (54)

* Dr. Avalos' own theory of religious violence begins with the notion that religions "create scarce resources" that are imaginary.  He borrows from his future argument (see below) to critique Glock and Stark as follows:

By selecting texts that support 'Christian ethics' rather than other texts that may say the opposite, Glock and Stark are creating new scarce resources (eg, a canon within a canon). (79)

Here, again, Avalos may be cutting the legs out from under his own chair.  Avalos is accusing two secular scholars (Stark was an agnostic when he wrote the text Avalos is critiquing) of what he claims is a typically religious vice: "creating scarce resources" that, presumably, will cause rival scholars to throw their laptops down in a fury, like Moses with his tablets, or hurl them over the lounge chairs at one another. 

So religion is not, after all, the problem?  Offering viewpoints that fail to take all the evidence for abstract historical theories into account, is the real threat to Whirled Peas? 

What scholar, then, can be without sin?  Doesn't all scholarship involve selecting texts on which to focus, from particular angles?  Who, then, can cast the first javelin? 

And what will Avalos himself do?  Will he "create scarce resources" by emphasizing the nasty parts of the Bible and thus "creating a canon within a canon"?  Or does he plan to avoid all selection of biblical or koranic texts, and fairly analyze every single verse?  (Giving equal weight to the "nice" ones, and without privileging his own interpretation?)

That would be a sight for Eternity.    

Again, Avalos critiques a religious liberal for stressing a "particular definition of God" as the truest:

Thus constituting the legitimization of another scarce resource ('the true understanding of God.')

But what is Avalos offering in this book, if not just such another allegedly scarce resource -- "the true understanding of religion and violence?" 

How does this act escape approbrium, merely because his imaginary scarce resource involves denying God, rather than affirming him? 

One begins to get the feeling that Avalos is dealing from under the table. 

This also reminds us how many and diverse are the causes of argument, and therefore of violence.  If you smiled when I mentioned pitched battles in the faculty lounge, it's true that scholarly competition doesn't often go that far -- but then, neither does factionalism in most churches.  Avalos' own words underlines the similarity between the two that his theory requires him to disavow. 

* Regina Schwartz: "Imagining identity as an act of distinguishing and separating from others, of boundary making and line drawing, is the most frequent and fundamental act of violence we commit." (83)

This sounds like a caricature of academic doublespeak.  Drawing a line between two people is an "act of violence?"  What does Schwartz draw lines with in her faculty lounge, a flame thrower? 

And why must an English teacher write such wretched prose?  Can we call that an act of violence against our beautiful language? 

Schwartz is a woman, I am a man.  There.  Have I committed an act of violence?  Or of cognition? 

Beware, beware of academic cant, my children: it will creep in on you, and destroy your ability to think.

B.  "A New Theory of Religious Violence, Exemplified in the Abrahamic Religions"

The crux of Avalos' theory is that religions create imaginary scarce resources, which cause rivalry and fighting.  For example, why do Jews, Muslims and Christians fight over the "holy land?"  Not because the land is especially rich in mineral resources or fertile fields, or even because it is geographically strategic.  Religion has elevated, or demoted, an ordinary stretch of real estate into a prize which armies have come and gone to seize, often leaving smoking ruins and bodies in their wake.

Avalos identifies four such scarce resources: (1) holy texts; (2) sacred space, like Israel, the temple, the Vatican, etc.  (3) "group privileging," such as a high priesthood or Brahmins, and  (4) "salvation."   

In regard to this latter, Avalos lets fall the following comment, the patronizing and un-self-critical character of which only a near-lethal dose of chronological snobbery can explain:

As we shall show, Christianity is characterized by the belief that at least a priming act of violence, the torture and death of Christ, is necessary for salvation. (110)

Does Hector Avalos really propose to prove that Christianity emphasizes the cross of Jesus Christ? 

After two thousand years, our secret is finally out!  I guess "hiding the secret in plain sight," in the heart of every gospel, in half the great art of the Middle Ages, hanging in chains from out necks, and on top of every single church in Christendom, didn't work, after all! 

That bit of sarcasm does not, of course, undermine Avalos' theory, which seems internally consistent, on first read.  We'll see how well he defends it in the coming chapters.  Part of that defense must lie in answering the key questions I asked in my last blog.  Let's see what Avalos has accomplished on that score, through Chapter Five.

C. Does Avalos answer my questions?

In part 1, I jotted down eight questions that occurred to me while reading the first few pages.  How well has Avalos answered them, so far? 

1. What does Avalos mean by "religion?"  I pointed out, in my first blog, that Avalos' definition is self-serving and at odds with the facts.  For one thing, Christians do not, in fact, believe that God is "unverifiable," but claim He has demonstrated His reality in many ways.  To overlook this obvious fact, when the New Testament talks relentlessly about probatively convincing "signs," is as big a blunder as to overlook the crosses on all the churches in Christendom. 

On page 103, Dr. Avalos finally attempts to defend his definition.  It looks like this is all we're going to get, so I'd better quote most of what he says:

Believers often use the term 'supernatural' to signify something that is beyond nature.  In actuality, the term is meaningless, as we cannot know what something beyond nature would be.  If we define 'natural' as that which is detectable by one or more of the five senses and / or logic, then the supernatural must be unknown or unknowable.  If we could detect it, it would be natural, not supernatural.   If it is not natural, then it is nothing more than a concept whose reality cannot be verified . . .

Since religion is based on belief in the existence of supernatural beings, it follows that religion is working from unverifiable premises or conclusions when it speaks of the supernatural.  That is to say, we cannot verify the existence of anything supernatural.  Thus, religious beliefs cannot be subject to public scrutiny, even if they often claim to be based on empirical evidence. 

That's it? 

Avalos seems to want to win the whole enchilada by definition -- like St. Anselm, one swing, and the ball leaves the park.  Only he has no idea where the ball is. 

Doesn't it beg the question to define the supernatural as "something that is not detectable by one of the senses and / or logic?"

It is a Catholic dogma that natural reason can demonstrate the existence of God.  Avalos simply waves Catholic philosophers aside here -- let's just ignore Thomas Aquinas and 800 years of Thomist thought, OK?  He also waves aside all reports of miracles.  For some reason, which he does not give, he asks us to simply assume that God is incapable of causing effects in the natural world, which by hypothesis he created, and which Christian theology says he upholds. 

On what grounds?   

The only answer given, is the sound of crickets with laryngitis. 

Does it really follow that if God is supernatural, he cannot possibly have any way of revealing Himself to beings in the natural world that he made?

So at the heart of Avalos' thesis, remains a profound and stunning emptiness, which gains nothing but obscurity from its curtness.  If Avalos has a coherent defense of his definition, he ought to have long since given it, by this point. 

2. What does Avalos mean by "violence?" 

We now learn that things like "drawing lines" between people and making scholarly arguments may also be "violent" in Avalos' eyes, somehow -- though he commits these atrocities himself, throughout this very book.  (We learned in the preface that the religious and non-religious do not even share the same "mode of life and thought" -- a claim that draws quite a line between people, right there.) 

So perhaps all Dr. Avalos means by calling them "violent," is that religions have originated a lot of logical distinctions and scholarly articles? 

3. Can Avalos show empirically that what he calls "religion" actually results in more violence than would occur without it?

Dr. Avalos offers little indication in the first 100 pages of the book that he will attempt any such proof -- though perhaps that's the point of the last section of the book.  We'll see.

4. Will Dr. Avalos even attempt to do this, or merely offer a series of post-hoc attempts to relate actual instances of violence, to their supposed religious roots?

I have already seen suggestions that he will indeed start with actual instances of violence, then rationalize them to their supposed theological roots. 

5.  Will Avalos discuss the many cases in which religions caused violence to stop, or justice to win over injustice?

He has not really addressed this issue yet. 

6.  How will he account for the violence of atheistic societies?

This will, apparently, be the main topic of Part III. 

7.  Does Avalos assume that "violence" is the only or main ill to avoid?

If asked, I get the sense that he would probably say "no."  But there is little attempt to balance the evil of violence with possible moral goods that might be hard to obtain in its absense, so far.  (For instance: societies that emphasize conformity, like Japan, tend to have low rates of violence.  But they may also lose something in creativity, sponteneity, and freedom, as well as be subject to occasional government coercion towards mass violence.) 

8.  Might there be a relationship between the breakdown of a society's "sacred canopy," and the decay of a civilization?

Nothing has been suggested on the possible downside of alleged secular pacifism, yet.

Continue to Part III and the Crusades here. 


Dr H said...

You think Hector might wander over here and comment on your review, or is he still P-Oed with you? :)

David B Marshall said...

I'd be surprised if he does here. He hasn't even responded to critics on Amazon (where we argued before) on this book, plus it's been out for several years. But it sure would be interesting, after the Full Monty, if he would respond to the critique as a whole. Maybe not as much audience for it, but of substantive interest.