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Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Avalos attacks TACT (and me, and, yes, Christianity)

Beginning in 2000, in Jesus and the Religions of Man, I have offered an argument for God that we might call the Theistic Argument from Cultural Transcendence (TACT). 

The Altar of Heaven in Beijing, where the emperor came to
worship "Huang Tian Shangdi," a strong theistic term used
in the Classics. (My photo, 1984.)
The gist of the argument is that (a) if an understanding of God transcends a particular culture, it is much more likely to be true than if it does not.  (b) The idea of God does, in fact, transcend the Abrahamic tradition from which monotheism is often said to have arisen.  It can, in fact, be found in many highly scattered and diverse cultures, where it must have arisen independently.  (c) Therefore God is much more likely to be real than religious ideas that are limitted to one particular culture, or flow out from one localized source. 

One of my arguments was that even some well-known atheists admit the first premise of this argument -- when they think it will hurt Christianity.  I cited Emile Durkheim in paricular, who admits that a concept of God closely resembling the Christian concept can be widely found in Australia, even though on another page, he uses the first premise of TACT to argue against religion.   Several years later, in The Truth Behind the New Atheism, I cited Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, who also argued against religion based on the first premise of TACT. 

This February, William Lane Craig having monopolized so many other good arguments for theism, I thought I'd take this one out for a spin in public debate with Richard Carrier. 

In the heat of the moment, Richard Carrier didn't offer much of a response to TACT, which was the second argument in my opening statement.  Now Iowa State Religious Studies professor Hector Avalos has posted an article rebutting my argument.  Avalos, who has studied anthropology and finds mine grossly defective, if not dishonest, is prepared to show where TACT falls flat, and where I fail miserably as a scholar. 

Almost everywhere, it seems!  I rely on Emile Durkheim for my facts, but misrepresent Durkheim, either because I have not bothered to read him for myself, or (though he kindly favors the former hypothesis) to deceive my audience.  Anyway, Durkheim was wrong!  In fact, God cannot be found in the aboriginal culture I rely on to make my point.  A zealous, lazy missionary (not unlike myself, though Avalos doesn't explicitly draw out that implication) garbled the local language, and ascribed God-like qualities to a being that really does not much resemble God.  Furthermore, high gods were found only in a particular region in Australia, and bound about with all kinds of anthropomorphic characteristics.  Contrary to my claims, Durkheim didn't believe God was universal, even in Australia.  And even if God were univeral, that wouldn't mean anything at all.  Or in Avalos' initial summary:

A. Durkheim did not claim that all cultures believe in a Supreme being.
B. Durkheim did not even claim that all Australian cultures believed in a Supreme Being.
C. Durkheim’s interpretations were challenged from the beginning, and are now widely rejected.
D. Christianization or misinterpretation of native terminology remains a viable explanation for the reports quoted by Durkheim that show any belief in a“Supreme God.”
E. Multiple cultures, or even all cultures, having similar concepts of God does not demonstrate the perception of some transcendent reality.

Therefore (let's all sing in chorus), "Marshall lacks the necessary languages, reading, and scholarly equipment to comment on issues outside of his field," which is a toned-down version of the old "indolent, incompetent hack,"™ which Avalos works up to when he really gets going. 

I'm glad, actually, that Avalos has challenged my argument. It is no great failure if Richard Carrier didn't happen to be ready to show why this rather rare argument was wrong in a few minutes on stage, not (apparently) having prepared for it (though it is in several of my books).  But given a few months, surely so illustrious, linguistically-competent (apparently he speaks even the languages of obscure Outback tribes?), and widely-read Haaa-vaaad grad as Hector Avalos should be able to reduce TACT to dust.  And if he can't overthrow those few words I spoke in its defense on stage, maybe there's something to TACT, after all. 

There is so much wrong with Dr. Avalos' critique of my argument, that it looks like I'll have to take off both my socks to count them all.  Nor are these superficial errors: the first problem with Avalos' alone is fatal.

Having debunked Avalos' critique, I think TACT does need to be explained more clearly, and why it has force.  That will take a second post. 

So let's wade in.


(1) My argument is what, again? 

The fatal problem with Avalos' critique is that he mistates and misunderstands TACT.  Avalos represents me as claiming the following:

Marshall’s general apologetic strategy is to prove that all cultures have a concept of a Supreme Being.  Presumably, this would demonstrate that there must be some transcendent reality that all cultures are authentically perceiving. (Emphasis added.)

But that is not what I claim!  First of all, I almost never use the word "prove" for arguments like these -- that's too lofty a goal for all but the most purely deductive arguments. 

More importantly, I emphatically do not claim that "all" cultures share a concept of a Supreme Being.  Avalos ought to know this, he quoted my exact words:

"A God that transcends particular cultures . . . "

I repeat this at the end of that part of my opening argument:

It turns out God DOES transcend Hebrew or American culture. He clearly is NOT the product of one society, or even one kind of society.

Does it not following, using Dawkins, Durkheim's, and even Richard's argument, that if God DOES transcend any one culture, he is NOT the product of human imagination?

I worded this carefully, repeating myself three times, here, precisely to avoid the error Avalos accuses me of.  (And to exploit TACTful New Atheist arguments against God, a fact Avalos mostly ignores.)  I neither claim nor think nor wish to make other people believe that a clear notion of God can be found in every single culture.  Nor does my argument take that as a premise.   

If that were what I thought, or wanted my readers to think, why would I have gone out of the way to ask Alvin Plantinga, in Faith Seeking Understanding printed several months prior to our debate and available for sale on a table outside the auditoreum, this question?

What would you say about a culture, say, the Tibetan culture, that has no very strong concept of God? (FSU, 207)

And why would I have written last year in my doctoral thesis (citing two other theorists whom Avalos mentions in his article)?

Recognition of a God who transcends culture and convention seems to work for China.  This does not fully overcome the objection that a theocentric theory of religion is narrow.  Working from more extensive empirical data than Chesterton, even Lang and Schmidt admitted that many cultures lack a clear and normative idea of a supreme God. (363) 

Furthermore, the Christian Scriptures themselves offer a more ambiguous picture, which were I to deny, would arguably render my position unorthodox.  More on that later. 

So clearly, I neither believe, claim, nor wish  to make my audience believe that every single culture has a crystal-clear notion of God.  Nor was that a premise in my argument. 


(2) Where did the New Atheists go? 

Dr. Avalos neglects to clearly point out to his readers that my argument comes in response to an argument commonly made by New Atheists themselves, accepting one premise of that common argument, and challenging the other:

There's a very popular argument among New Atheists that God is the construct of a particular culture and therefore he is nothing more than an artifact. Richard Dawkins says, "Not surprisingly, since it is founded on local traditions of private revelation rather than evidence, the God Hypothesis comes in many versions. Historians of religion recognize a progression from primitive tribal animisms, through polytheisms . . . to monotheisms . . . " (GD, 32)

I also cite Carrier and Durkheim.  Then I summarize the Gnu argument:

So here's the argument: If God existed, he would transcend the creation of any given culture. But God does NOT transcend the creation of any given culture: he arose maybe during the reign of King Josiah in the Old Testament, and then radiated out to form Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

How many times does one need to repeat an argument, in positive and negative forms,t o make it clear to Hector Avalos? 

I argue that God is NOT the construct of particular culture, or the product of evolution.  Therefore, given the premises of this argument, there is some reason to believe (I do not claim the argument is anything like a proof, and mention other good arguments for God in the preface to my opening talk) that God transcends culture and is real. 


(3) What did I claim about Durkheim's views? 

Nor did I claim that Emile Durkheim said that God is universal.  In fact, I cited Durkheim precisely because his prejudices are against the transcendence of God.  As I quoted him in the very same opening statement:

Emile Durkheim, the founder of sociology in some ways, said that religious beliefs have "varied infinitely."  This shows that none "expresses (truth) adequately." 

The logic of TACT, however, seemed clear to Durkheim, at least when it seemed to tell for his own atheistic position.  That is one reason I cited him, out of many sources I could have cited (at least one even more hostile to theism than Durkheim).  That, and the fact which Avalos acknowledges, that Durkheim is so important. 


(4) So does my alleged misrepresentation of Durkheim make me unscrupulous or unread?

“In the first place, there are great religions from which the idea of gods and spirits is absent or plays only a secondary and inconspicuous role. This is the case in Buddhism” (The Elementary Forms, p. 28).

French:“En premier lieu, il existe de grandes religions d'où l'idée de dieux et d'esprits est absente, oh, tout au moins, elle ne joue qu'un rôle secondaire et effacé. C'est le cas du bouddhisme” (French edition p. 37).

So, apparently Marshall did not read Durkheim’s book at all. It looks as if he followed his old custom of cherry-picking some quote he found to support his position, and then did not bother to read any further.

And if he did read Durkheim’s book, then he very clearly is unscrupulous in his representation of that thinker.

Apparently Avalos did not read my argument at all.  It looks as if he was cherry-picking . . . or is very unscrupulous in his representation of this thinker.

Nah.  The man is just sloppy, and over-eager.  

By the way, Durkheim is a little off, here.  Buddhism as actually practiced involves lots of gods, playing vastly important roles.  (Though often called Buddhas or bodhisattvas -- practically they serve most of the same functions for ordinary believers.)   


(5) Was Durkheim my "principle" source? 

Émile Durkheim
Avalos thinks so:

For his anthropological evidence, Marshall principally cites the claims of Émile Durkheim (1858-1917), the putative father of modern sociology, on the religion of Australian aborigines.

Actually, I also refer to the Chinese concept of God, which is in my own primary field: 

The word for God in ancient China is Shang Di from the Shang Dynasty, and then Tian in the Zhou Dynasty. I won't give you all the characteristics of God for want of time, but he also conforms to the same pattern.

 And since Avalos quotes the chapter in my book Jesus and the Religions of Man (2000) on this subject, he ought to know that there I also cite a variety of original sources, scholars, and popularizers (the book is meant to be popular, and I wish it were!): Don Richardson, giving examples from around the world, an unnamed anthropologist in China, my Marxist Dai teacher, tribal informants I met in Taiwan and North America, Larue Percy, Plato, Clement, Augustine, Daniel Kikawa, Gandhi, the Bhagavad Gita, the Rig Veda, anthropologist David Lewis, Johann de Plano Canpine, Olivera Petrovich, and John Mbiti.

That was 13 years ago.  I was just getting warmed up: the list is much longer, today. 


(6) What about anthropomorphic qualities of "God?" 

In an oral debate, one must be concise.  To be complete, of course TACT should not just cite many sources, but also describe the full ambiguity of the Christian tradition.  Yes, there is a transcendent awareness of God, according to St. Paul in Athens and in Romans 1-2, and to Justin, Augustine, Calvin, Chesterton, and others.  But there is also sin, idolatry, and denial, as St. Paul clearly points out, and as the anthropological record also documents.  I talk about these complications in Jesus and the Religions of Man, which Avalos cites, and which was also available on the table outside the auditoreum. 

These complications may, in the TACTful view, explain some of the "anthropomorphisms" that Avalos (and, yes, Durkheim) point to. 

In fact, one could argue that Carrier's challenge was, for this reason, too simple.  Carrier wrote,  "Were the Christian God genuinely communicating with us, his communications would be consistent across all times and regions." (43) (Carrier, Why I am not a Christian, 43) But from the Christian point of view, that is naive.  Yes, God does make people aware of Him across the world: but we also deny that truth in ungodliness, worship and praise the created object, rather than the Creator, who is forever praised.

So were we to find a simple pattern of clear monotheism everywhere, it could be argued that that would undermine Christianity.  What we actually do find, fits the biblical prediction much more closely, I think.   


(7)  How widespread did Durkheim think God was in Australia?  

Avalos argues:

Not surprisingly, I found that Marshall blatantly misrepresented Durkheim. In addition, his discussion of Durkheim shows that he is poorly read in the anthropological debates surrounding the nature of the religion of Australian aborigines.

In particular, I will show that:

A. Durkheim did not claim that all cultures believe in a Supreme being.
B. Durkheim did not even claim that all Australian cultures believed in a Supreme Being.
C. Durkheim’s interpretations were challenged from the beginning, and are now widely rejected.
D. Christianization or misinterpretation of native terminology remains a viable explanation for the reports quoted by Durkheim that show any belief in a“Supreme God.”
E. Multiple cultures, or even all cultures, having similar concepts of God does not demonstrate the perception of some transcendent reality.

But I did not claim the converse of (A) or (B)!  Again, I first cited Durkheim saying directly that religious ideas are probably not true, because they do not transcend cultures!  I am citing Durkheim as a hostile witness against his own position -- one of the most effective forms of argumentation, and a great shortcut when words are at a premium. 

Granted, my wording might be interpreted to mean that "all" Australian tribes believe in the Supreme God.  And perhaps that was careless of me.  But I don't think it needs to be taken that way, and some slack should be cut for simplicity in a debate.  Durkheim himself generalizes in a similar manner. 


(8) Were Durkheim's interpretations wrong? 

Avalos argues for (C) and (D) in a peculiar way.  Most of Avalos' long argument, and almost all the ethnographic details, swirls around one Australian word, and the name of one Western missionary: 

However, Durkheim did claim that a belief in a Supreme Being could be found in a group of Australian aborigines called the Arunta, and also known as the Aranda or the Arrernte.
The Arunta Aborigines
This group of people, which bears many subgroups, centered around the town of Alice Springs in the Northern Territory of Australia.

Insofar as the Arunta were concerned, Durkheim sided with Strehlow, and not with Spencer and Gillen. In fact, in the passage just prior to the extract quoted by Marshall, Durkheim says (Elementary Forms, p. 289):

“Finally, in contrast to Spencer and Gillen, who claim not to have observed a belief in a god proper among the Arunta, Strehlow assures us that this people, as well as the Loritja, recognize a true‘good god’ with the name Altjira.”

So, Marshall’s extract actually describes the beliefs of the Arunta (and Loritja), and not those of every group in Australia.

Avalos then writes about a missionary named Carl Strehlow at length, and the name Strehlow used for "God," Altjira.  He argues that Strehlow came a generation late to the Australian Outback, by which time the locals had been "Christianized."  (As if converting were something that had been done to them, not something they chose to do.  And as if they could not remember what they had believed a few decades earlier.)  Also, the man was biased in favor of the Christian idea of a universal God, and so unreliable. 

After talking about Strehlow for a long time, Avalos introduced the word used by the Arunta for God after they were "Christianized," Altjira.  He argued that the word did not really mean the same as God, and could be more of a pantheistic concept, or bare some other meaning.   

The greatest part of Avalos' long article was taken up with these two arguments.  (Concluding with more attacks on my scholarship, and on the allegedly coercive and proto-Nazi nature of the mission to which Strehlow belonged -- more on these later.) 

But focusing on one man, and one single word, grossly misrepresents Durkheim's argument. 

Durkheim by no means focuses on Strehlow, or on this one name for God, Altjira.  In fact, they are minor characters in Durkheim's argument. 

By a quick count, Durkheim cites at least some 16 sources to show that the High God was a common belief throughout "a very wide geographical area." (Elementary Forms, 289)  Furthermore, he mentions ten distinct tribal names for God, along with other variations on those forms. 

Furthermore, when he does mention the name Aljira, mostly in a footnote, Durkheim describes the controversy, and does not come down strongly on either side.  So it's more than a little peculiar that Avalos chooses to focus all his time and energy on one admittedly disputed title, and just ignore all the other names for the Aussie God.  In fact, Avalos entitles one long section of his article:

"One Word: Altjira"

Which he follows by saying:

At the very center of the debates is the meaning of one Arunta word: Altjira. This is the word that Carl Strehlow had interpreted as the Supreme Being. However, Spencer and Gillen disagreed, and thought it referred to some mythical past or “Dreamtime” epoch.

An enormous amount of work has been expended to decide the issue, but to this day it is difficult to know what that word meant in pre-colonial times.

And that is followed by almost 1700 words of discussion of that one word -- even though it was just one of a dozen or so names Durkheim mentioned. 

In fact, of 50-60 footnotes over these pages in Elementary Forms, only one mentions Aljira.  And in that footnote, Durkheim offers a variety of views on the word, along with his own ideas. 

All in all, this argument has the look of a magician's trick.  We begin with a large number of ethnographic reports from around the world that I give in two books and one debate to support TACT.  Avalos focuses (even though reading the others as well) on just one of the two bodies of evidence I mention in that brief oral argument.  He then focuses again, on one out of a dozen or so specific and mostly quite distinct names for God given in that one source, ignores all the rest, and claims that the argument comes down to "one word."

It most emphatically does not. 


(9) Was Strehlow really such a zealot for the High God? 

Avalos describes Strehlow as partisan and liable to unreliably read God into the ethnographic data.  But in that one footnote, Durkheim actually suggests that he may underplay the theistic character of Antjiro, based on another (admittedly uncertain) report. 


(10) Was I hiding information? 

Marshall is quoting pages 288-292 of the English edition of The Elementary Forms by Karen Fields published in 1995. One need only check Fields’ translation to see that Marshall’s ellipses hide a lot of pertinent information.
I have no problem with using ellipses per se, but I do have a problem when the information left out can undermine the very thesis that Marshall dismisses—namely, that Christianization was responsible for the reports of a Supreme Being among these aborigines.

One can't, of course, quote five pages of text from another book, or deal with every complication. 

As noted above, I believe the larger model of Christian anthropology I hold to predicts the actual ambiguities to be found in world religions. 
Items left out, seemingly systematically so, were those that would show how much Jesus parallels other gods or those that show biblical parallels indicative of Christianization. Otherwise, parallels between Jesus and other gods is something that Marshall spends much of his time trying to deny or minimize.

For example, here are some other “characteristics of this personage” omitted by Marshall in his extract from Fields’ edition:

-“After having lived on earth for a time, he lifted himself or was carried into the sky.”

Compare the story of Jesus’ascension in Luke 24 and Acts 1 . . .

Apparently Avalos thinks I do, or should, feel embarrassed if some tribes that know about God sometimes tell anthropomorphic legends about him, or if one can find parallels in myths to the life of Jesus. 

This does not, in fact, much embarrass me.  Nor does it ruin TACT.  This is, again, what the Bible predicts.  Awareness of God is real, but often corrupted.  In fact I wrote one of my MA research papers on Hong Xiuquan, who envisioned God as an old man with a beard and two physical sons, one Chinese (himself).  In America, the Mormons saw God in a similiar way.  St. Paul predicts such corruptions, both in Acts and Romans, so they should come as no great surprise. 

As for parallels to Jesus, early Christians encountered such myths in Greco-Roman tradition.  I describe the relationship between those myths and the obviously historical gospels in Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus, and Grandma Marshall Could.  They don't embarrass me in the slightest: in fact, I like some of them, and also devote a whole chapter to one in my China book.  But there is only so much room in a chapter on another topic.  Or in a blog post. 
(11)  So I am wrong about TACTS, therefore everything else, too? 

David Marshall claimed in his debate with Richard Carrier that There are also good reasons to believe -- good evidences -- that Christianity is true. Let me give three, briefly. (1) Miracles. (2) Anthropology, a God that transcends particular cultures. (3) New Testament criticism -- the person of Jesus.”

Given the examination of the primary sources on this issue, we can conclude that his second reason should now be banished forever from that list, and the other ones should have been banished long ago.

Now there's a gross non sequitur, or rather three of them.

In fact, as we have seen, Avalos did not examine the primary sources on this issue.  He cherry-picked one of Durkheim's fourteen or so sources, and admittedly one of the more ambiguous, at that.  He ignored all the other sources I gave in Jesus and the Religions of Man, still less those I have given elsewhere -- scholarly and popular, first hand and derivative, Christian and atheist. 

Plus he misread my argument.  Along with Durkheim's arguments. 

Still less does this attempted rebuttal in any way affect my other two arguments, even if there were anything to it.  This is just petulant, ineffectual bombast. 


(12)  Cherry-pickers anonymous?

Durkheim did not think that all cultures believe in a Supreme Being. Marshall shows again why he is regarded as a lackadaisical researcher who simply cherry-picks quotes without bothering to read thoroughly the authors he is quoting. He stops when he thinks he found something that supports his views.

Here's a mirror, Hector.  Borrow it for a week, if it helps.   


(13) Marshall shows that he is poorly educated in almost any subject outside of the fields in which he received training.

This is something of a tautology.  Of course I am poorly educated outside of fields in which I have received training, since "education" is a form of "training!"  

I'm not a scholar of Australian religions, true.  But neither is Avalos.  And I seem to have read Durkheim more carefully than Avalos.  Nor do I yet see any reason to reject the many sources Durkheim cites in coming to this conclusion, against his own admitted inclinations.  


(14) Are Christian missionaries genocidal imperialists? 

This is not a subject that I touch on in any way, but I am not surprised to find Avalos making this point in response: 

We must also not forget that there is a real cultural tragedy behind this entire debate about aboriginal religion. For it was Christian missionaries who not only tried to impose their religious concepts upon these native peoples, but it was also they who helped to destroy their culture.
Indeed, the general history of Christianity is one of destruction of native peoples and their religion. Wherever Christianity spread, indigenous cultural destruction followed, whether it be in the Americas, in Africa, or in Australia.

Of course, these missionaries thought they were substituting something “better”and more precious, which simply reflects the racism and ethnocentricity associated with these missionaries.

Strehlow, for one, had a racist disdain for native religions, and he used coercive measure to ensure the destruction of native culture with the excuse that he was“civilizing” them.
It is no wonder that the Hermannsburg mission, to which Strehlow belonged, later had a very ambivalent relationship to the Nazi regime, as has been discussed in Georg Gremels, ed., Die Hermanssburg Mission und das “Dritte Reich”: Zwischen faschistischer Verführung und lutherische Beharrlichkeit (Münster: Lit Verlag, 2005) = The Hermannsburg Mission and the Third Reich: Between Fascist Seduction and Lutheran Perseverance.

Since Avalos gives such scanty evidence in support of this attack, let me simply state my opinion with an equally sweeping assertion:

No social movement has done more to liberate humanity that Christian missions: to liberate women, educate, improve health, reduce languages to writing, protect tribes against exploitation, and spread the freedoms that are the basis for civil society and democracy. 

Racism was, of course, the norm in the late 19th Century, and as Richard Weikart has shown (I know Avalos will hate this citation), it fed off of Social Darwinism.  But pious Christian missionaries were far less likely to be infected, I think, than ordinary Europeans, still less traders and imperial soldiers.  It is irrational to identify racism with a distaste for local religions. If that were so, is Avalos himself a racist for disliking Hispanic Catholicism and American evangelicalism? 

Avalos also commits his abiding sin of anachronism here, by trying to drag Nazism into a discussion of late 19th Century missions policy, whatever its faults may have been. 

(16)  For years now, I have been saying that Marshall lacks the necessary languages, reading, and scholarly equipment to comment on issues outside of his field.

I don’t make this charge lightly. I make it on the basis of having examined his work quite thoroughly.

In the end, of course, such lack of diligence will only hurt Marshall’s cause, especially if there are enough scholars willing to unravel the superficial nonsense that passes for serious scholarship.

For years, now, Avalos has been having his head handed to him, as again in this thread.  I welcome visitors to read the entire series.  (Click on the "Hector Avalos"  label below to read more.)  Personally, I've enjoyed rebutting Avalos' many bad arguments, because by them the truth is rendered clearer, and I hope you are enjoying the series, as well.

Obviously, again, everyone lacks the languages and reading to comment outside their own fields -- since language and reading are part of what make something one's field.  I don't think Avalos speaks the Outback languages, any more than I do.  No one can possibly know all the languages that general anthropological theories of necessity must touch on.  I know a few, as many I think as Avalos, and those I know tend I think to be more relevant to looking for "God" in "pagan" cultures. 

But Avalos' attempts to play "gotcha" by micro-focusing on the most obscure technicalities  in a broad debate, will I think only fool fools.  One can always play that game, and I dare say I have found errors in Avalos' arguments that make any of mine pale by comparison. 

Next post: a defense of TACT

2 comments:

Derek said...

At least he gave you cause to unpack and give fuller context to your argument, which I find fascinating by the way.

David B Marshall said...

Thanks, Derek. It's a work in progress. Next post I'll deal with Avalos' attack on the first premise, and other criticism of it that comes up.