Jerry Coyne has posted Resa Aslan’s response to claims that the Muslim religion is inherently bad. He labales Aslan as “the Great Muslim Apologist”.
Listening to the two sides of this discussion I’m pushed to try to understand why they appear not to be truly communicating with each other. I have in the past argued the same points as Aslan makes. So watching Aslan is somewhat like watching myself.
It forces me to ask what’s gong wrong here.
Listening to the two sides of this discussion I’m pushed to try to understand what is going wrong. I have in the past argued the same sorts of clearly empirical facts as Aslan presents:
1.5 billion Muslims cannot be all painted with the same brush — terrorism and violence, female genital mutilation, denying women’s rights such as not allowing them to drive — since Muslim countries like Turkey and Indonesia cannot be compared with Saudi Arabia and Somalia.
Muslim majority countries have elected seven women heads of states.
In Christian countries like Eritrea and Ethiopia we find nearly 90% and 75% prevalence of female genital mutilation.
Women participate fully in political and educational opportunities in Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Turkey, and others.
Buddhists massacre Muslims in Myanmar (Burma).
But as we see in the video arguing such facts obviously does not easily persuade. The problems are still seen as Muslim problems.
Others like Jerry only see Resa as “the Great Muslim Apologist”.
In my rush to complete the previous post I forgot to catch hold of a thought that zipped past me at the time. I am not so sure that what I understand is Hector Avalos’s rational solution to religious violence is really viable. If religious belief is part and parcel of human nature — and I understand anthropologists tell us it is, or that it is at least a universal in all human cultures — then I don’t see how attempting to persuade believers to reconceptualize their faith is going to get any traction in any significant scale. 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.
Maybe a more promising solution is to take a leaf out of the book we read by those who do work with conflict resolution in the verifiable world. One of the aims of the United Nations was to ensure there were no more scarcities of food, shelter, education and so forth.
Would not a solution to religious violence, however imperfect as the UN is imperfect, be for those who are skilled at conflict resolution and who do come to perceive religious violence as an extension of conflict over scarce resources, for such people as those to work on building something like a counterpart to the United Nations and its ancillary bodies?
The difficulty of course is that believers, by the very nature of their beliefs, will tend to see any such bodies, indeed the arguments of Avalos themselves, as inspired by Satan to destroy their faith. But that’s where the specialized skills of trained conflict resolution professionals are called for.
And/Or maybe we ought to be studying what factors have been behind the decline of public religious expressions in some of the more atheistic countries such as those pagan Scandinavians and see what lessons can be learned from those. If social reinforcements to lead people to value religion as a private matter, something kept behind closed doors, could be found, that might also be more likely to help in the long-run.
It’s easy to throw up one’s hands in despair. But before I become too committed to taking up another cause I really do think our number one issue now is human survival against the threat of environmental changes. We need to work first at preserving the human species before evolution decides its one and only experiment with intelligent life forms was a big mistake.
I have just completed reading Fighting Words: The Origins of Religious Violence by Hector Avalos. The argument is not quite what I expected but it was certainly clear and logical and has given me a new perspective on the way religion and religious conflicts function in our communities and the world at large.
Now I have been one of those atheists who does not see religion in and of itself as evil; I quite understand and to an extent sympathize with people’s attachments to their faith. There was a brief time in my past when I had an essentialist view of religion and saw its irrational and exclusivist belief systems as an evil blight on our society but I have long since tempered my outlook. Too soon, I think I can hear Hector Avalos objecting. Not that religion necessarily causes violence. Clearly it doesn’t always and there are times when religion is used for the benefit of others. But “as a mode of life and thought” Avalos argues that religion is “fundamentally prone to violence”.
Avalos begins with the axiom that it is scarcity of resources that so often lead to violence. Even the fear of imminent scarcity or the mere perception of an imagined scarcity can be enough to provoke war. Land can be a scarce resource. (We might add “oil” as another and let myself be sidetracked for a moment by referring to a recent Guardian article that has appeared on the web, Tony Blair’s Islamist obsession is a smokescreen to defend ‘blood for oil’, by Nafeez Ahmed.) Resources do not have to be tangible. A sense of security, for example, can be a scarce resource.
Hector Avalos argues that many scholars have misunderstood the nature and function of religion in conflicts by thinking of it as “essentially good” while violence associated with it is considered a perversion of its true values. Rather, Avalos argues, we need to understand that religion itself has the ability to create scarcity of resources — imaginary ones, or at least those that are unverifiable by normal methods — and it is this function that can be the trigger to violence.
The difference between scarcity caused by religious beliefs and other types of scarcities is that the former are unverifiable while the latter are clearly real to all. This is what makes religious violence morally worse than other forms of violence: religious violence is about imaginary or unverifiable resources (e.g. an offended deity) while other types of violence are seeking to exchange blood for something real (e.g. self-preservation).
Religion, as a mode of lie and thought that is premised on relationships with supernatural forces and/or beings, is fundamentally prone to violence. . . . Since there are no objective means to adjudicate unverifiable claims, conflict and violence ensue when counterclaims are made. As such, the potential for violence is part of every religious tradition. . . . (Loc. 5119)
The solution, Avalos, argues, must begin with
making believers aware of how religion can create scarce resources. (Loc. 4834)
Not only Christian apologists but even some respected academic historians argue that Christianity had nothing to do with Nazism and that the Holocaust was inspired by atheistic, non-Christian ideologies. Not so, argues Hector Avalos, in Fighting Words: The Origins of Religious Violence:
In fact, we shall argue that the Holocaust has its roots in biblical traditions that advocate genocide. (Kindle loc. 4093)
Avalos surveys the range of published viewpoints that argue Hitler and Nazism were driven by atheistic, anti-Christian and pro-evolutionary agendas but writes that
the main theoreticians [among Nazi ideologues] saw themselves as religious. (loc. 4158)
Hector Avalos is already renowned/notorious for The End of Biblical Studies. There he argued that the biblical texts are without any relevance today, or at least are no more relevant than any other writings from ancient times. Scholars who attempt to argue for the moral relevance of the Bible in today’s world, Avalos argues, do so by tendentiously re-interpreting selected passages out of their original contexts and arbitrarily downplaying passages that contradict their claims. Theoretically, Avalos reasons, one could take Hitler’s Mein Kampf and likewise focus on the good passages in it and insist they over-ride the bad ones, and that the negative passages should be interpreted symbolically and through the good sentiments we read into the better passages. No-one would attempt to justify the relevance of Mein Kampf by such a method. Yet Avalos points out that that’s the way scholars justify the relevance of the Bible in today’s world.
This post is based on another work by Avalos, Fighting Words, in which he analyses the way religious beliefs can and do contribute to violence. The full thesis is something I will address in a future post. Here I look at just one controversial point made in that book.
Avalos does not deny that Nazism drew upon scientific ideas of its day. But it can also be concluded that these scientific notions of race were extras added to ideas that had a deeper cultural heritage, in particular as they found expression in the holy book of Christianity. A modern and prominent theorist of race, Milford Wolpoff, traces modern ideas of racism right back to Platonic ideas of “essentialism“.
Ernst Haeckel (1834-1913) was perhaps the most influential of evolutionary theorists and writers at the turn of the twentieth century; his views were widely embraced with his book, The Riddle of the World (Die Welträtsel) having sold 100,000 copies before the turn of the century. Haeckel popularized the idea that different human races each evolved from different species of ape-men. Exterminations and exploitation of lesser races by superior ones was considered the inevitable consequence of Darwinism. The Nazi Party’s publications cited Haeckel frequently.
At the same time, Hitler saw racism as compatible with religion, as do many biblical authors. Even Haeckel, who is often maligned for supposedly introducing scientific grounds for genocide, saw himself as simply reexpressing biblical concepts in scientific language.
Note, for example, Haeckel’s comments on his vision of Utopia:
“The future morality, free from all religious dogma, and grounded in a clear knowledge of nature’s law, teaches us the ancient wisdom of the Golden Rule … through the words of the Gospel: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'”
As in Christian and Jewish texts, “your neighbor” originally meant a fellow member of your in-group. Thus, Haeckel’s interpretation of “neighbor,” even if exegetically flawed, was based on the same concept of insider and outsider that is present in the earlier religions.
Avalos likens the Nazis to the “scientific creationists” of their day:
So from Haeckel to Hitler, Nazis did not see themselves as opposing biblical principles so much as they thought that modern science could be used to support, purify, and update those biblical principles. Nazis were often more like the scientific creationists of today who believe their pseudoscience supports the Bible. (loc. 4290-4297)
I am currently absorbed in reading Hector Avalos’s book Fighting Words: The Origins of Religious Violence. It’s giving me a lot to think about. Avalos challenges perspectives relating to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Islamic religion that I have often posted on this blog. It is too soon to post anything revisionist but I have just finished a snippet I can share in the meantime.
Self-serving translations are mostly responsible for representing the Hebrew shalom as “peace” in many instances in the Hebrew Bible.(Kindle, location 2178)
Hector Avalos shows us that both the etymology and use of the word in the Hebrew Bible relates to imperial dominance rather than benign relationships. He cites Gillis Gerleman:
Gerleman notes that the piel intensive, with some 90 occurrences in the Hebrew Bible, is the most frequent of all the verb forms of the root. Te normal Qal (ground) form occurs 8 times, the Hiphil (causative) form about 13 times. The noun form occurs some 240 times. The overwhelming meaning, whether as a verb or as a noun, is usually “repayment,” “reward,” or “retaliation.” (citation: page 4 of Gerleman, Gillis. “Die Wurzel [šlm].” Zeitschrift für die Altestamentliche Wissenschaft 85 (1973): 1-14.)