Why Does Jesus Never Do Anything Wrong?

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by Neil Godfrey

41zpIKZfb-L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Hector Avalos, biblical scholar and author of The End of Biblical Studies, has written a new book critical of New Testament ethics, The Bad Jesus. He describes this new work as

the first systematic New Atheist challenge to New Testament ethics by a biblical scholar. 

What is meant by a “New Atheist”? In Avalos’s words:

Insofar as I believe that theism is itself unethical and has the potential to destroy our planet, I identify myself with what is called ‘the New Atheism’. For my purposes, the New Atheism describes a post September 11, 2001 (9/11) phenomenon, which viewed that event as illustrative of the potential of religion to bring global war and even the destruction of our ecosphere. . . . The New Atheism features a more vocal and anti-theist stance (rather than just passively atheist stance) as embodied in the writings of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. (pp. 13-14)

Ouch. That makes me wonder if my own passive atheism is a mark of irresponsibility. But I have my own carefully considered reasons for not identifying with this trio. Blaming religion per se, I think, misses the real historical culprit: the self-serving and destructive institutional powers that religion serves to smokescreen from view. Consequently New Atheists can sometimes unwittingly become mouthpieces in support of those powers.

Leaving that crucial point to one side for now, let’s continue . . . .

Although not as well known as these writers, there also has emerged a group of biblical scholars who, while not necessarily describing themselves as ‘New Atheists’, do openly identify themselves as atheist, secular or agnostic (e.g. Kenneth Atkinson, Robert Cargill, Richard Carrier, Bart Ehrman, James Linville and Gerd Lüdemann.) . . . 

The New Atheism emphasizes the immorality of religious thinking itself. It challenges the ethics of Christianity and the Bible, in particular. (p. 14)

I have addressed aspects of Avalos’s thinking in this regard in other posts.

Why is Jesus bad?

First point to make here is that Avalos is not addressing any particular model of “the historical Jesus”.

My argument here is not that any supposed historical Jesus was good or bad. My subject matter is the portraits in the New Testament of a man called Jesus. . . . My project aims to explore how modern New Testament ethicists attempt to sanitize and protect those portraits, regardless of how historical they may be. Whether Jesus said or did anything in the Gospels is not as important as the fact that those portrayals have become normative for modern Christians. (pp. 12-13, bolding mine in all quotations)

Some readers here are interested in the question of whether or not there ever was a historical Jesus. Avalos explains that

For the record, I am an agnostic when it comes to the historical Jesus. (p. 11)

Identifying the earliest tradition of any particular saying or act of Jesus does nothing to establish whether Jesus himself said or did any such thing. Arguing that no one would make up some of the stories of Jesus we read about in the Gospels fail simply because we lack a complete picture of Judaism at the time. These are reasons Avalos gives for holding his fire on the “historicity of Jesus” question. Those, and the fact that

the very existence of … radically different possible portraits of Jesus is evidence that there is something inherently wrong with the methodology of most historical Jesus research. (p. 12)

So Avalos is dealing with “the Jesus figure” of the Gospels, Christianity and any culture significantly indebted to Christianity.

And here’s the rub. I’m sure many readers of this blog have noticed it before so it’s about time a qualified biblical scholar spelled out the details:

If one reads almost any treatise on Christian ethics written by academic biblical scholars, one finds something extremely peculiar: Jesus never does anything wrong. (p. 1)

Okay, Avalos concedes the rare exceptions here. I found it quite amusing that one biblical scholar, Joseph Hoffmann, relished insisting that “the historical Jesus” according to his reconstruction sure as houses did not “love everybody” — just like Hoffmann himself boasts his own cantankerous anger against the bulk of the world.

Of course if Jesus were indeed a historical man then we have every reason to expect to find a figure as flawed as any other historical person who has ever lived. But Jesus is generally preserved as an exemplar of virtue.

If we were to apply normal rational criteria to this observation we would be perplexed. After all, Jesus in the Gospels himself asks why anyone should call him “good” (Mark 10:18). The Gospels even tell us that Jesus had a reputation for being a “glutton, a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Matthew 11:19). Some scholars who concede Jesus was not perfect nonetheless manage to turn his blemishes (e.g. his violence in the temple; his demeaning attitude towards non-Jews) either into salvific virtues or cultural asides that can be safely ignored in any ultimate assessment for today.

Such treatment of Jesus can be well understood as the desire of most biblical scholars to either maintain their view of Jesus as somehow divine or at least as a pioneer in teaching humanity for all time the way to the divine.

My copy of The Bad Jesus has only recently arrived and I’m not likely to be able to complete my reading of it for some weeks. Given my other reading priorities I’m unfortunately not likely to cover every aspect of it. However, here from the publisher’s site is a table of the books contents:

1. Introduction
   Basic Elements of the Argument

2. The Unloving Jesus: What’s New Is Old
   Loving the Enemy in the Ancient Near East
   Love Can Entail Violence
   The Golden Rule: Love as Tactical
   The Parochialism of New Testament Ethics

3. The Hateful Jesus: Luke 14.26
   Jesus Commands Hate
   Expressing Preference
   Hate as a Motive for Divorce
   The Statistics of Hate and Love
   The Semantic Logic of Love and Hate

4. The Violent Jesus
   Matthew 10.34-37: Jesus’ Violent Purpose
   Matthew 5.38-42: Don’t Victimize Me, Please
   Matthew. 26.48-56: Non-Interference with Planned Violence
   John 2.15: Whipping up Pacifism
   Acts 9: Jesus Assaults Saul

5. The Suicidal Jesus: The Violent Atonement
   Jesus as a Willing Sacrificial Victim
   Mark 10.45: Self-Sacrifice as a Ransom
   Sacrifice as Service: Transformation or Denial?
   2 Corinthians 5.18: Anselm Unrefuted
   René Girard: Sacrificing Apologetics

6. The Imperialist Jesus: We’re All God’s Slaves
   Rethinking ‘Anti-Imperialism’
   Selective Anti-Imperialism
   The Benign Rhetoric of Imperialism
   Christ as Emperor
   The Kingdom of God as an Empire

7. The Anti-Jewish Jesus: Socio-Rhetorical Criticism as Apologetics
   Abuse Me, Please: Luke T. Johnson’s Apologetics
   When is Anti-Judaism not Anti-Judaism?
   When Did Christian Anti-Judaism Begin?

8. The Uneconomic Jesus as Enemy of the Poor
   Jesus as Radical Egalitarian
   The Fragrance of Poverty
   Sermon on the Mount of Debts and Merits

9. The Misogynistic Jesus: Christian Feminism as Male Ancestor Worship
   Mark 7//Matthew 15: The Misogynistic Jesus
   Mark 10//Matthew 19: Divorcing Equality
   The Womanless Twelve Apostles
   The Last Supper: Guess Who’s Not Coming to Dinner
   The Egalitarian Golden Age under Jesus

10. The Anti-Disabled Jesus: Less than Fully Human
   Disability Studies
   John 5 and 9: Redeeming Jesus
   The Ethics of Punctuation
   Paralyzed by Sin

11. The Magically Anti-Medical Jesus
   Miracles, Not Magic?
   The Naturalistic Jesus
   Psychosomatic Ethics

12. The Eco-Hostile Jesus
   Mark 5: Animal Rights and Deviled Ham
   Luke 22 and Matthew 8: Sacrificing Animal Rights
   Matthew 21: Fig-uratively Speaking
   Mark 13: Eschatological Eco-Destruction

13. The Anti-Biblical Jesus: Missed Interpretations
   Mel and Jesus: The Hypocrisy of New Testament Ethics
   Mark 2:23-28: Jesus as Biblically Illiterate
   Matthew 19: Jesus Adds his Own Twist on Divorce
   Isaiah 6:9-10: Integrating Extrabiblical Materials

14. Conclusion
   The Ethics of New Testament Ethics

It looks like a great reference work for anyone questioning the place of Christian ethics, or any biblically-based ethics, in our society today.



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43 thoughts on “Why Does Jesus Never Do Anything Wrong?”

  1. Am I the only person who thinks that Sheffield Phoenix Press needs to hire better jacket design artists? Whenever I see a book published by them, it reminds me of a cheap self-published book by a hack scholar, or something from one of those print-on-demand publishers like Lulu.com. The books Avalos has published with Prometheus have all looked much more professional.

    1. I would too. In thinking about it it seems that if one could create a list of criteria that would make a belief (or perhaps the behavior stemming from a belief) unethical, and then show how most theists groups meet most but not all of the criteria, then one would have basis for that assertion.

      1. What I find ironic about Avalos’ assertion is that Plato, the father of rationalist thought whose philosophy is the bedrock of New Atheist thought, can properly be viewed as an inspiration for (if not the architect of) the founding documents of what became the religion we call Judaism today. (The Primary History can properly be viewed as the constitution of Biblical Israel.)

        Rationalism does not guarantee an ethical outcome and can be as authoritarian as fundamentalism of any stripe. See Plato’s Republic.

  2. I probably qualify as a New Atheist, since I already didn’t like religion before 9/11. I was *in* the military during 9/11 so that made me more strident than I was before.

    On the other hand, reading a bunch of cognitive science and sociology made me realize that there isn’t some rational little homunculus inside of us that is being ‘corrupted’ by all these evolved heuristics and biases layered over it that lead to religion and superstitious belief… but that we *are* biases and heuristics. Full stop.

    Religion isn’t some anomalous special case of this, just the most obviously wrong. The same sort of tribal defensive tactics, ingroup/outgroup dynamics, strategic equivocations (whether deliberate or unconscious), and especially authoritarianism when one believes not only that they’re in the moral right but that the other tribe is evil, occur in different extremes any time humans gather under a single banner.

    So I might have eased up a bit on religious belief, but that’s only because I’ve become increasingly critical of every other normative/ethical ideology. Yes, I might also agree that theism is unethical, but that’s because pretty much any ethical system we come up with will have instances of unethical consequences.

    1. “So I might have eased up a bit on religious belief, but that’s only because I’ve become increasingly critical of every other normative/ethical ideology.”

      Is theism necessarily a normative ideology? Put another way, is theism necessarily monotheism?

      Sure, Abrahamic religions may be classified as normative ideologies, but I don’t think that we can say that is true of all religion/theism throughout human history.

      I think Avalos’ remarks are really focused on the Abrahamic religions, and he probably should have been specific, if that is what he meant.

  3. If we allow “old atheists” a voice, Bertrand Russell gave prominent attention to similar topics in his classic 1927 lecture, “Why I Am Not a Christian.” There we find sub-sections titled: “The Character of Christ,” “Defects in Christ’s Teaching,” and “The Moral Problem” (with Jesus and Hell).

  4. Evaluation of the ethics attributed to Jesus in the NT documents (in so far as they are neither contradictory nor contextually misunderstood) requires a justification of the criteria of disapproval. Nietzsche and Rand would have different criteria from Lenin, Mussolini, Gandhi, Vermes, Scruton, or the “Progressive Christian Network” of PC non-theists, &c.

    1. I have not read the NT with an eye towards the ethics taught, but it struck me while reading the Torah at the same time I was reading Aristotle that the ethics taught by Moses’ example were essentially those expressed by Aristotle.

  5. “the New Atheism describes a post September 11, 2001 (9/11) phenomenon, which viewed that event as illustrative of the potential of religion to bring global war and even the destruction of our ecosphere.”
    —is that irony? If anything—the naked greed for resources and power of “Secular Modernity” brought about destruction—New Atheists are the mouthpieces of these elite power structures deflecting blame by scapegoating “religions”—whatever they mean by that term….

    To look at the character of Jesus Christ(pbuh) and formulating ethics from it is an interesting but perhaps very “protestant” way of looking at the formation of ethics?

    Generally—in premodern times, ethics and morality were formed in the context of a paradigm (world-view/cosmology) This paradigm spells out what it means to be “human” its purpose, function (in context of its metaphysics) etc…On this framework, principles of ethics and morality were understood and from this, “law” was justified….
    So, if one is seriously looking at Western Christian ethics—then one would have to look at Canon law and Catechisms of the Catholic Church.
    If one wanted to look at Judaism, then one would look not just at the Mizvot but Halakha (Jewish law)
    (..and Islam also has its own methodology of arriving at ethics and law….as do many “religions” of the East)

    In the modern context—the paradigm(world-view) is that of the “individual reason”/human reason….and in this paradigm the understanding/definition of the term “human” comes from science. Ethics and morality are also divorced from the formation of “secular law”….precisely because ethics/morality could come from “religion”—therefore “secular law” had to come from reason alone….

    The culture most significantly indebted to (Western) Christianity is the Modern West–and as such, any commentary on it is also a commentary on the Modern West….

    1. Anon on: Obviously you are a Catholic apologist, typically full of contradictions.

      Among other things: 1) amazingly you ascribe humanism to Catholic laws, though they usually stressed the divine, over the human. Then 2) you blame the often humanist secular world. For 3) the evils of pollution. Ignoring the roll of Catholic overpopulation.

      Your other statements are similarly indefensible, and obviously defensive, or defective.

        1. Rationalism is not always authoritarian. Especially when it finally moderates into a less trenchant and more forgiving humanism.

          And neither of these useful approaches, the underpinnings of atheism, really came from the Church. Both were evident before the Church. In say, Greek thought.

          So the Church, good or bad, was not in either case the historical origin of all things, including law, and reason, and humanism.’

          1. I agree
            What I meant was that the “Modern” paradigm(world view) is based on a “narrative” and this narrative originates and develops in tension with “the Church” (Mostly the Catholic Church which was very powerful at the time)
            So a paradigm based on reason, individuality, science…is used (instead of other paradigms) to build narratives that clarify the purpose of the human, society, government…etc for organizing our structures (in particular, our power structures)

            It is in this paradigm that the “West” behaves the way it does…the excuses, justifications, and modes of thinking for “its” policies, laws etc…..

            In “Premodern” times—such paradigms and narratives were made/provided by religions (or the priests/kings that defined the religion) It is within this narrative or world view that ethical principles are hung/framed….

            to give an example….
            embryonic stem cell research—
            All moral systems agree that killing human beings is wrong—but who and how do we decide what is or is not “human”?
            according to the Catholic Church (according to my inadequate understanding) humans have a “soul” and this soul is present (?) during conception making these cells “human”….
            According to our Modern/Scientific paradigm—cells are not “human” they are cells just like any other therefore there are no ethical/moral concerns….

            (The Christian “paradigm” is not universal for all religions—so different paradigms will come up with different answers to this ethical/moral dilemma)

            1. Arguably, true “rationality” is not inflexible, or say Eurocentric. But sees things in their proportionate importance; the “ratio” of their usefulness, relative to other proposed solutions and methods.

    2. Anon — I agree with your point about the New Atheist largely misguided focus in response to 9/11 but I have a different understanding concerning the origin of “Western” ethics. Human ethics have not been “formed” by any historical documentations. What you are referring to are codifications of certain ethical systems, not the origins of the ethical values themselves.

      All human cultures have common ethical standards and they are not all that very different, ultimately, from the ethics found among other social animals. Murder and stealing are wrong. Of course there are always grey areas where cultural variations are found — e.g. murdering criminals is accepted by many but not by all societies. Some ethical values are known to be wrong but nonetheless not penalized if violated discreetly — some types of stealing comes to mind again, also adultery. Respect for the authority who ultimately enforces these rules is also an ethical value found among other social animals.

      I am stressing the (limited) overlap between human and other animal ethical behaviours to argue the biological/evolutionary character and origin of ethical values. Reciprocity appears to be at the heart of these ethical and justice systems. They are what enable social systems to function — in all social species.

      Humans are more complex because of language and heightened self-consciousness and create more elaborate trappings to their social systems — clothing and fashions, diverse rules of etiquette, religious rules and sacred spaces, and various codifications of laws that reflect dominant concerns and interests at various points of social evolution and history.

      But behind all of those diverse systems and throughout different ages we find people are essentially “the same” by virtue of their fundamentally common human nature — a nature that includes certain common ethical values as much as it includes the same fundamentally common genetic makeup.

      1. I agree with your points also…

        Yes, I was referring to the codifications—that is, if one is to study ethical/moral systems (and their pros/cons) a study of such systems will give more insights than the study of one particular “Character” who may or may not be historical…..

        Nevertheless, it is still a good start. It may also be a simpler way to begin to look at ethics and morality…and may lead to more sophisticated discussions eventually……..

  6. People often enough seem to value more highly unverifiable scarce resources than material ones — which is why Avalos considers religious violence as more immoral than other types of violence.

    Mount Fuji is awesome but it’s a long way from my books so the above quote of mine from an earlier post on another Avalos book is the closest I can get to recalling Hector Avalos’s reason for thinking of theism as unethical. Justifying unverifiable causes over verifiable interests is immoral.

    Unable to elaborate here from a clunky iPad in chilly mountain air.

  7. Were the “ethics” of Jesus not largely a demand for inner spiritual obedience to the “Two Commandments” as a prelude to the apocalyptic inauguration of his “Father’s Kingdom”, plus a recruitment drive for a select band of fellow ascetic mendicants to assist him with the “signs” through exorcisms and teachings, rather than permanent guidelines from a compassionate pacifist for secular politics, revolutionary or reactionary, 1,982 years later? That’s if he existed at all, of course.

    1. Avalon obviously disagrees. So do I. That’s the interpretation of liberal Christianity that excludes the harsh reality of many passages for various ad hoc reasons. See also Avalon’s take on Shalom .

      The unconditional love of God is enjoined in the Bible under threat of death. That love also means unconditional obedience to the words of the Bible. Fortunately most Christians reject the biblical demands but they nonetheless still embrace their own version of God and love for no better reasons than the fundamentalists embrace theirs.

      Belief systems that are unverifiable are unjustifiable — especially if those beliefs have the potential to influence behaviours.

      1. The “Bible” is self-evidently not a single textbook. It is just a selection of texts written separately over many centuries made, after considerable dispute, by the church authorities centuries after Jesus, who left no known writings of his own. Nothing in that collection that refers to “itself” as an unconditional authority or “sole rule of faith and morality”, not even 2 Timothy 3.16. Ethical statements in this ancient collection are inconsistent and often uncertain, for various different reasons, which is one explanation for innumerable denominations and sects. Do we accept Calvin on predestination or Luther on faith, or Ellen G. White on Sunday, or Judge Rutherford on 1914, or none of them? Even if there is “a God”, the “Bible” is not his “inerrant word”. Not to say “it” doesn’t contain a some broadly sensible rules, such as commandments against murder and theft, if not especially for 21st century US homophobes that they “should not covet their neighbor’s ass”.

        1. Yeh. And even the “broadly sensible rules” (e.g. murder is wrong despite the exceptions for enemies etc) are found among all human cultures so when the Bible is “relevant” it is in fact redundant.

  8. I’ve become less enamoured with certain aspects of the New Atheists over time, but I think Avalos’s critique of religion (through his exegesis of foundational texts) very acute and impressive. Bad Jesus is an excellent book. Jesus’s ethics do seem to get an easy ride from even nonreligious people, who find it easier to vent their ire onto someone like Paul, who, as the narrative goes, ruined Jesus’s refined view of morality by dumping a load of bad theology on it. These people never seem to notice that when it comes to something like hell, perhaps the very worst aspect of Christianity as morality goes, Paul is rather silent, yet Jesus has much to say on the matter, often describing what awaits those who won’t accept his teachings in the most revolting and frightful manner.

    Of course, one can abstract some good things that Jesus said, but as so often it relies on cherry-picking parts that truly “represent” the authentic words of Jesus and arbitrarily ignoring what doesn’t fit this preconceived notion. It’s a circular process, and that’s what Avalos consistently shows. It’s like liberation theologians using the Old Testament prophets to highlight the oppression of the world’s poor and disadvantaged. The prophets do indeed demonstrate a concern for these things, but they were also bellicose religious fanatics who utterly despised religious viewpoints other than their own and would if it was in their power like nothing more than to impose Yahwehism on all surrounding cultures. In no way are they anti-imperialist; they simply want to impose their own imperialist hegemony, ie, Yahweh’s total rule, on everyone, whether they like it or not. Jesus’s own preference for the coming Kingdom of God works on precisely the same principles: God will rule supreme over everything and everyone, and those who don’t accept this are in trouble.

    1. Pick and mix, the method of some theologians and some politicians. What about the following picks in themselves: Love your enemies, turn the other cheek, blessed are the peacemakers, give all to the poor, and who is your neighbor? Lenin, Lennon, or just a Great Big Lemon?

  9. I would say after little consideration, that in theocratic states atheistic criticism does not serve to support the powers that are. Altho such an argument works for non -theocratic states. Eg USA.

  10. “People often enough seem to value more highly unverifiable scarce resources than material ones — which is why Avalos considers religious violence as more immoral than other types of violence.”

    “Belief systems that are unverifiable are unjustifiable — especially if those beliefs have the potential to influence behaviors.”

    Interesting “justification” for accepting non-religious violence. So…if one method of “justification” is better than the other—then that evil is more ok? Would that mean that Christians going about colonizing and killing others for the purpose of stealing wealth and exploiting resources is not ok because it is done in the name of “Christianity”—but it is more ok when it is done in the name of “Civilizing Mission”?

    So a bunch of “New Atheists” or whatever, arbitrarily decide that since their justifications are grounded in reason or materialism or science or some such—these justifications are “superior” to other justifications—and their “followers” agree with this without giving much critical thought—only that it “sounds good” and then proceed to advocate for evil….this is all fine because religious ideology is not influencing behavior–only non-religious ideology is….

    This type of ethical/moral thinking is very problematic—because at its core—it is built on a premise that one group of people are “superior” to another group of people—In other words—it is simply taking the Christian paradigm and reversing it.

    IMO, there may be another way of understanding how we justify evil….whether it be a religious justification or non-religious….Human beings are highly creative—this creativity helps us to solve problems that we face and helps us adapt to new situations—but this creativity has a downside to it—we also use it to abuse our intelligence and reason to justify evil. This means that ALL justifications must be evaluated critically because they all spring from the same source.

    1. Not at all. No. No one is saying that violence for “verifiable” causes is okay or “more okay” than violence for some other reason. You are injecting something entirely unwarranted into the brief synopsis of the argument when you say that.

      If I commit violence to protect my children from certain harm then one can say I have a “verifiable justification” for my violence — to protect my children against certain harm. Substitute “my children” for “my home”, “my wife”, etc. Those are verifiable justifications. They are tangible and real. I am violent if it is necessary to protect those I love from certain harm or death.

      But to engage in violent acts for religious or ideological causes that are not verifiable realities such as my love for my family and home, such violence is inexcusable. The violence I commit to save my family from serious harm/death is not “more okay” than any other type of violence. It is only a necessity as a last resort.

    2. To clarify: Avalos explains religious violence as a result of scarcity of resources. Other forms of violence are widely acknowledged as being the consequence of the scarcities of material/tangible/very real resources — e.g. land being the most obvious one. Wars for land and scarce natural resources are not “more okay” than wars over, say, scarce resources created by religious ideas (e.g. salvation for the next world). Wars over very real scarce resources need to be prevented; alternative means for dispute resolution must be found. But it is even more outrageous that some wars or acts of violence have been the result of disputes over resources like salvation (available only to those who worship the correct god, etc) — that is, over resources that are not verifiable as “real” resources (as are land resources).

      1. Thanks for the clarification and correction—I misunderstood the nuance…..
        (The idea of defining religion narrowly as “salvation” is interesting but perhaps too Christian?….)

        I still find the argument somewhat questionable—if an underlying mission is about scarce material resources—but justified by “religion”/religious language/ideology…or by a more honest justification that “we are better than they and therefore deserve “more” than they”….is there really a difference?…For example, some scholars feel the Crusades were religious–others site politics, economics etc saying there were multiple motivations….how does one “verify” the intentions behind a justification other than trusting the statement of intention made by the one committing the violence? The American government says it is “protecting the nation”(national security) by its war on terror….It creates a narrative of fear using various methods such as entrapment, allowing Islamophobia, arming various “groups” etc…………What is tangible and real…what is illusion?

        In Eastern religions such as Buddhism—there is a notion that people must fight for “Dharma” The term is often mistranslated as “religion” in the West but actually means “Law”—that is ethico-moral principles upon which (good) human conduct (laws and rules) are based. Islam has a similar concept called “deen” which similarly refers (broadly) to ethical/moral principles of justice….(the opposite of which is oppression and injustice). Values such as Justice, Ethics, Equality (equal worth of humanity) Freedom…are all abstracts…so is it that easy to draw a line between which evil is “acceptable” or not?….

        “The violence I commit to save my family from serious harm/death is not “more okay” than any other type of violence. It is only a necessity as a last resort.”—-I think you make an important point here, and perhaps this should be the starting point from where we build further ideas on this issue….?…..

        1. My recollection is that Avalos argues that the religious element in the mix of motivations is let off too lightly by critics.

          Yes, wars that are fought over scarce resources generally have their crass motivations smoke-screened by appeals to more “noble” religious (or other ideological) motivations.

          But fighting to preserve one’s freedom is not necessarily fighting for an abstraction. The word itself can refer to very real and verifiable conditions of existence. Freedom is itself a genuinely verifiable resource.

          On the other hand, the existence of deities is not a “verifiable” reality but a question of faith. To kill for one’s freedom is at least understandable because the resource being fought for is real enough for all to see. To kill for a deity and the things a deity says are sacred is another situation entirely.

          1. Kill for a deity—I agree that such justification is unacceptable—but not because of verifiability or lack of….(I also think killing for artificially constructed geographical boundaries (identity based on nationalism/patriotism) is not enough justification—even though national boundaries are “verifiable”…)

            My dissatisfaction is that constructing principles of justification on the basis of “verifiability” (or that it is understandable) is too vague and shallow…..


            The American declaration of Independence states that it bases itself on the rights given by “Nature’s God”.

            “When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

            We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

            It seems that here “Nature’s God/Natural Law” = life, liberty, equality…happiness…and such values. Is this struggle for independence less valid because the conception of “Deity” here was equivalent to/representative of the values they were struggling for?…..

            or consider this…..

            Eugenics, a term developed by Francis Galton to promote the “quality” of humans. One might say that the use/abuse of science made this claim “verifiable” at the time…does that make it “justifiable”?….. more “understandable”?……

            In thinking about justifications for harm…we need to be far more rigorous and restrictive than just “verifiability”?…….

            At any rate—any contributions leading to robust discussion on ethics/morality will be beneficial to humanity whether it is about good ethics or bad “ethics”…..

            1. I think we’re losing sight of the point. Avalos’s argument is as follows:

              If any acts of violence caused by actual scarcities are judged as immoral, then acts of violence caused by resources that are not actually scarce should be judged as even more immoral. . . . [A]ny act of violence predicated on the acquisition or loss of a nonexistent entity is always immoral and needless because bodily well-being or life is being traded for a nonexistent gain. (Loc 259 Kindle)

              Bodily well-being, for example, is something that is real and verifiable. Just because different cultures attribute it to some god does not change the fact that it is considered a universal good throughout all human cultures. It is real, verifiable, quite apart from cultural associations different peoples link to it.

              I grew up thanking God at every meal for the food on my table. I no longer thank God for my food but it is just as real and verifiable now as it was before.

              If I were to fight for my food for no other reason than I needed it to survive then my reasons would be more justifiable (and less hypocritical) than some hypothetical person who fought for the food they also needed to survive simply because (according to their religious claims) they believed it to be a sacred gift from God and the act of eating it was always a sacrament.

              I would probably join myself with that hypothetical person’s fight for food but not because I agreed with his hypocritical or unverifiable reasons for claiming to need the food.

            2. As an aside here we might compare certain historical struggles in the Middle East. Authoritarian governments by the latter half of the twentieth century had largely wiped out the secular leadership of movements seeking basic human rights for the mainstream populations.

              The very real and verifiable conditions of deprivations of basic human well-being continued, however, and a new leadership emerged to take up the needs for justice and well-being. Since the secular movements had been largely liquidated the new leadership was religious in nature and the fundamental (verifiable) needs were expressed through and as part of a larger religious (unverifiable) agenda.

              One might argue that this has led to the causes, the verifiable needs, being further from peaceful resolution than ever before.

              1. “Sacredness” as a notion is too vague and thus extremely easy to abuse—it is wise to beware of this danger….

                I think ethics and morality should be understood not as justifications—but rather as restrictions on excess of human behaviors….That may be basically what I find uncomfortable about these formulations of ethics and morality and the basis of which “justifications for evil” are better or worse….

                Your points bring out very interesting nuances of the issues…in particular, about the middle east…(on the other hand, the dynamics of power vacuums and power plays cannot be discarded either. Religions/ideologies have been abused in power dynamics) Nevertheless, the use/abuse of sacredness as an ethical/moral value is a dimension that does need further exploration and thought….

        2. (The idea of defining religion narrowly as “salvation” is interesting but perhaps too Christian?….)

          In some ways islam is also a salvific religion, wouldn’t you say?

  11. You may be interested careful perusal of these extracts (selected without ellipses) from “Not in God’s Name” (June 2015) by Dr Jonathan Sachs, the former Chief Rabbi in Britain and Professor of Philosophy.

    “Today, Jews, Christians and Muslims must stand together, in defence of humanity, the sanctity of life, religious freedom and the honour of God himself. We must put the same long-term planning into strengthening religious freedom as was put into the spread of religious extremism. Radical Islam was a movement fuelled by Western petrodollars, used by oil-producing countries to fund networks of schools, madrassahs, university professorship and departments, dedicated to Wahhabi or Salafist interpretations of Islam, thus marginalising the more open, gracious, intellectual and mystical tendencies in Islam that were in the past the source of its greatness.
    “We need to recover the absolute values that make Abrahamic monotheism the humanising force that it has been at its best: the sanctity of life, individual dignity, justice and compassion, conflict resolution, respectful listening to the other side, forgiving past injuries, and building a future in which the world can all live together in peace.
    “We need to insist on the simplest moral principle of Tit-for-Tat. As John Locke said, ‘It is unreasonable that any should have a free liberty of their religion who do not acknowledge that nobody ought to persecute another because he dissents.’
    “[But] the great attempts to escape from identity – into either universalism or individualism – have always failed, whether religious or secular. Sooner or later the tribes return, fully armed and breathing fire. The only adequate alternative is to say that God [as in Genesis] has made two covenants, one in our common humanity, the other in our specific identity.
    “There are passages in the sacred scriptures which, interpreted literally, can lead to hatred, cruelty and war. But Judaism, Christianity and Islam all contain interpretive traditions that have read them in the larger context of co-existence, and can do so today. No soul was ever saved by hate. No truth was ever proved by violence.
    The crimes of religion involve making God in our image instead of letting him remake us in his.
    “Terror is the epitome of idolatry, to kill those with whom you disagree, the way of Cain. Terrorists eventually turn against their own people. The deliberate targeting of the innocent is an evil means to an evil end, sacrilege against the God of Abraham. Altruistic evil is still evil, and not all the piety in the world can purify it.
    “We are all children of Abraham. God is calling us, Jew, Christian and Muslim, to let go of hate, and live as brothers and sisters, true to our [own] faith and a blessing to others, honouring God’s name by honouring his image, humankind.”

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