Sunday, January 29, 2012

Postscript: Answer to 8 Questions on Avalos and Violence

I have been taking what readers may think a very long time to review Hector Avalos' book, Fighting Words: The Origins of Religious Violence mainly because I find the subject important and interesting.  Avalos is well-informed and clever, even if one is often tempted to make that "too clever by half."  He is also an adversary, and in some ways a worthy one -- he offers arguments one can get one's teeth into, backed up by actual historical facts.  At the same time, he also butchers some texts -- both in the Bible, and Medieval sources for the Crusades, in particular -- to a greater extent than one would think permissible for a serious scholar. 

I have not tried, in these posts, to defend "religion" in general, or always even "the Christian record."  It might sound sanctimonious to say, "I have just been trying to get at the truth."  I recognize my biases.  But historical truth, wherever it lies, really is the goal -- and whatever insight into "what works" and "what is true" the mere facts of history can provide.  As a Christian who rejects most of Avalos' assumptions, and has developed his own arguments on many of these subjects, of course I am as much a protagonist in this dispute as Avalos. 

In this post, I conclude my review of Fighting Words by returning to the eight questions I wrote down, while reading the first few pages of the book, and seeing how Avalos has answered them, or failed to do so: 

1. What does Avalos mean by "religion?"

This turns out to be the key question in evaluating Dr. Avalos' critique of the "Abrahamic religions." (I put the term in quotes, because I am skeptical about that way of classifying beliefs -- I think Christianity bares more in common with Taoism or Buddhism, than with Islam, in some ways.) Avalos assumes that religion is unverifiable. He offers only the briefest and most unsatisfying of arguments for this key assumption, and rests everything on it. Yet it flies in the face of almost all Christian thought.

Why does Avalos insist on the fact that "religion" cannot be supported by evidence? Because he is not ready to argue that most immoral violence is caused by religion, or even that there is more such violence with religion than there would be without it. He gives this impression, by his relentless and one-sided cataloguing of evils allegedly (and often actually) caused by religion. But he is smart enough to step back from the brink and make neither wreckless assertion, no doubt aware that he cannot back either one up.

So instead, Avalos merely asserts that religious violence is less moral than other kinds, because the "scarce resources" it promises do not (he assumes) really exist.

But he offers no real argument for that.

So all in all, Avalos' long, detailed argument sometimes seems rather unreal.  Beginning with wrong or unsupported premises, it cannot reach its promised conclusions, and if it does, they may not be important. 

2. What does Avalos mean by "violence?"

The unstated premise of Avalos' argument seems to be that "violence" is something bad. He does, in fact, disavow that premise -- he recognizes that sometimes violence is justifiable. Yet when he says no early Christian writer comes out plainly against violence under all circumstances, the impression given is that this is somehow a fault -- rather than that, as is more likely, early Christians were reasonable thinkers, and recognized (as Avalos seems to) that sometimes, a failure to do violence may itself be immoral.

So why does Avalos make violence the standard at all, if he is not a pacifist? This confusion of thinking runs through (as with a sword, fatally) the entire book.

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

Dr. Avalos never even brings up the question, as far as I could find, let alone attempts to answer it. But I doubt one can successfully critique any one religion (let alone all of them) on the grounds of "violence," even if restricted to "unjustified violence," without seeing whether, over all, religion increases or decreases the amount of such violence in the world.

You may think this is an easy question to answer. "Crusades!" I hear ten thousand New Atheists echo in chorus. "100 Years War! Witch Burnings! Luther and Hitler!"

We react that way partly because of the nature of history, and partly because we have been brainwashed to do so.

History records what happened, not what did not happen. If a religious fanatic starts a war, we remember her war, and curse religion. If, instead, she prevents a war from occurring, we forget that which did not happen.

Everyone knows that Christians burnt witches. Not many people know that pre-Christian Europeans also killed those found guilty of black magic, and that the early church banned such executions, and thus saved innocent (how many?) lives.  (Modern missionaries have also aided those accused of witchcraft -- I have met some who did that work myself.) 

Skeptics talk a lot recently about evil "pastors" in Nigeria who torture and kill children as witches. They seem to have never heard of the tens of thousands who were saved from similiar persecution, when missionaries first arrived in Nigeria.

Christians have, I believe, prevented many wars. We are not told about those wars, because too many of our teachers are, like Dr. Avalos, do not tell us the whole truth, or even look for it.

Has faith caused more extra wars, more extra unjustified violence, or prevented it?

It would be very hard to answer this question. Avalos does not even raise it. He also never mentions violence that Christians prevented from happening, and that, I think, ruins his chance of making any serious argument against religion in this book. 

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?

He does none of the former, and some of the latter, though less than I feared.

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

On page 368, he does actually finally get to this other side of the ledger:

At first sight, one of the most persuasive arguments for the value of religion in bringing peace to the world is a long list of conflicts whose resolution (Walter) Wink attributes to non-violent religious activity. Examples include the Solidarity movement in Poland, Martin Luther King's struggles for civil rights in America, and Ghandi's ouster of the British in India . . . Indeed, we do not claim that religious beliefs cannot result in acts that benefit human beings.

Avalos argues, in response, that "It is not ethical or moral to bring good based on myth or premises that cannot be verified." The example he gives, is telling a child to clean her room so Santa will give her presents.

I never told my children that, because (a) I don't believe in Santa, and didn't want my children to believe in falsehoods, and (b) it was their responsibility to clean their rooms. There is nothing wrong with giving them added incentive, either in the form of carrots or sticks, along with teaching them responsibility.

But I believe in God. So why would it be immoral for me to say, "Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand?" Or like the monk in the Roman coliseum, who stopped the gladiator games and was torn to pieces?

No belief can be verified absolutely, not even the existence of a reality external to our own minds. Nor can any other reason for making peace be fully verified. But I believe in God because I think he has verified his existence to me.

Any act of love based on religion is immoral. (369)

This seems weird and fanatical to me. I don't know what else to say about it.  Avalos sounds here more like one of the most ideology-ridden protagonists of the Wars of Religion, than a calm rational human being.  Jesus said "Give a cup of water in the name of the Lord!"  Avalos dashes the cup to the ground and cries, "Blasphemy!  There is no Lord!" 

Chill out.

Avalos also argues that religion was responsible for much of the evil that reformers solved. Obviously that was not the case, when it comes to Solidarity and the overthrow of communism. Nor does it seem likely to be the case with slavery, as Avalos argues. People enslaved have their neighbors for economic reasons for millennia, though they justified enslaving them ideologically.  Again, this just seems fanatical:

Having generally endorsed slavery for some 1900 of the last 2000 years, Christianity can claim little credit for abolishing someething that it could have abolished almost two millennia years earlier.  In fact, it is because the Bible was considered an authority that the aboltion of slavery was retarded in the first place. (370)

Notice how Avalos moves the goal posts as far as he think he can get away with in his direction, here.  In fact, Christianity had no power to "abolish" anything during its first 300 years, at least.  And in fact, William Wilberforce's pious crusade against slavery bore great fruit 200, not 100, years ago.  And in fact, many great Christians fought against slavery all through those "two millennia years." 

As for Avalos' bold claim in the final sentence, he has not supported it, and it seems highly unlikely.  One fact reveals how unlikely the claim is: more people were enslaved in the post-Christian communist bloc in 60 years, than probably in all the centuries of the horrible Transatlantic Slave Trade.

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

This is the subject of Part III, my last post.  The short answer?  He is not as tendentius and dismissive as I feared, but his discussion is too narrowly focus on Stalin, and on the most direct forms of causation. 

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

He denies this, but also fails to suggest any real balance.

When Avalos does bring up other values, his discussion is often equally fanatical:

Even violence is sometimes regarded with aesthetic delight by scholars.  For example, Susan Niditch speaks of a 'bardic' tradition describing war as follows: 'The bardic tradition, so called because of the beautiful traditional-style narration in which much of the material is preserved, presents a view of war that glorifies warriorrs, their courage, daring, leadership, in skill.  She includes as part of this 'bardic' tradition the story of the beheading of a man (David and Goliath) and other acts of murder and mayhem.

In actuality, there is nothing that can be objectively defined as beautiful in scripture.  Beauty is a value judgement . . .

Yes, well so is peace.  But that didn't stop you just now from dismissing heroic literature because you don't like what happened to Goliath after he lost the battle to a boy. 

Obviously there is much of great beauty in the Bible.  The fact that we are human beings whose hearts warms to beauty, even if we can't "prove" it by the scientific method, hardly makes that beauty less poignant, to those willing to see it. 

Apparently Avalos now wants us to dismiss Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, and Tolstoy, because the beauty of their descriptions is subjective, while the violence they described, and often seemed to glory in (even Tolstoy) is bloody, like the history of courage itself.  Or does Avalos dislike David and Goliath merely because it is in the Bible?  Either way, this wreaks of fanaticism, and a too-narrow and unbalanced conception of the good. 

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

Avalos does not attempt to balance his discussion by addressing this question, either.  But his easy dismissal of the "courage, daring, leadership and skill" of warriors like King David, could not, I think, bode well for any civilization that embraced that contempt, as Western Europe seems to be doing. 

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