Tag Archives: Hector Avalos

THE SECOND WAVE OF THE NEW ATHEISM: A Manifesto for Secular Scriptural Scholarship ​and Religious Studies

The following is copied with permission from THE SECOND WAVE OF THE NEW ATHEISM

This Manifesto was initiated in the summer of 2015 by Hector Avalos and André Gagné.

Please contact the authors if you wish to add your signature.

Hector Avalos
Iowa State University
Ames, Iowa

André Gagné
Concordia University
Montreal, Canada


The New Atheism is a name given to a movement represented by Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens, all of whom wrote best-selling books that were highly critical of religion.[1]

Although the New Atheism does not eschew the classical arguments against the existence of God, its focus is primarily on the immorality and harmful consequences of religious thinking itself. For some, the New Atheism is not merely atheistic, but also anti-theistic.[2]

Another main feature of the New Atheism is a secular apocalyptic outlook born out of the events of September 11, 2001. A secular apocalyptic outlook refers to the view that religion has the potential to destroy humanity and our entire biosphere.

However, many secular and religious critics of the New Atheism have charged the New Atheism with a number of flaws. One is a lack of expertise in scriptural and religious studies that has led Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens to make pronouncements that are rightly viewed as simplistic or inaccurate in some cases.

This situation has led to the perception that the New Atheism has no experts in scriptural and religious studies that could challenge religious counterparts with as much or more expertise. Others have conflated all New Atheists as followers of a neoliberal or capitalist ideology. Still others note that all the representatives of the New Atheism are white males.

Accordingly, there is a need to identify a Second Wave of the New Atheism. Such a need was discussed briefly in Hector Avalos, The Bad Jesus: The Ethics of New Testament Ethics (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2015), but it received no elaboration.[3]

The First Wave focused on the problems that religious thinking can cause. Since religion was the focus of the First Wave, then a Second Wave seeks to rethink how self-identified atheist scholars of religion and scripture approach the issues that the First Wave raised.

The recent uprising of terror attacks across the globe from groups like ISIL, Boko Haram, Al-Shabab, and others, is also one of the reasons why scholars of religion and scriptural studies who identify with a Second Wave of New Atheists should speak out against the catastrophic effects of religious violence and ideology.

The authors of this statement, Hector Avalos and André Gagné, thought it useful to identify the main characteristics of what can be called a Second Wave of the New Atheism. Our hope is that other secular scholars who have similar ideas might join us or help us to clarify the nature and purpose of scriptural scholarship and the study of religion as it relates to current global events in the coming decades.


Insofar as we believe that religious belief has the potential to incite actions that could ultimately lead to the destruction of our planet, we identify ourselves with what is called “the New Atheism.” We affirm that a Second Wave of the New Atheism exists insofar as that descriptor encompasses self-identified atheist scriptural scholars or scholars of religion who:

  • Are academically trained experts in the study of religion and sacred scriptures (e.g., the Bible, Quran, and any other text deemed sacred on religious grounds);
  • Regard activism as a fundamental orientation of all scholarship insofar they agree with Noam Chomsky’s view that “[i]t is the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and to expose lies”;[4]
  • Uphold and defend freedom of expression;
  • Question the notion that religious thinking is itself good or ethical;
  • Acknowledge that human ethics need not depend on religion;
  • Welcome as wide a diversity of scholars as possible in terms of ethnic self- identification, gender, or sexual orientation;
  • Recognize that most of biblical scholarship is still largely part of an ecclesial-academic complex that renders it very distinct from other areas of the humanities and social sciences, especially insofar as it seeks to protect and preserve religion as a valuable feature of human existence;
  • Aim to expose the bibliolatry that still lies at the core of biblical studies insofar as most biblical scholars believe the Bible should be a vital part of modern cultures or bears superior ethical values;
  • Advocate the discontinuation of the use of any sacred scripture as a moral authority in the modern world;
  • Acknowledge that the traditional scriptural canons are an artificial theological construct, and encourages scriptural scholarship to study all texts considered authoritative or sacred by ancient religions;
  • Call attention to the ethical advances or positive features of texts in the ancient Near East that have not received due attention;
  • Seek to make scriptural and religious studies relevant by encouraging scholars of sacred scriptures and religions to engage in public discussions and/or use cyber-media to educate the public about issues such as the role of religion in violence and the use of sacred scriptures to oppose gay rights, contraception, gender equality, and other social and human rights issues that should be adjudicated on non-religious grounds;
  • Encourage secular scholars of religion and sacred scriptures to help establish policies that are based on reason and democratic values instead of religion; they should be the guardians of a strict separation between religion and state;
  • View cooperation with scientists as a necessary strategy to challenge those who use sacred scriptures to deny the existence of evolution or anthropogenic climate change, among other general scientific conclusions;
  • Work to ensure that professional organizations of scriptural and religious studies, such as the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Academy of Religion, insist on methodological naturalism, and not theological methodologies, in their basic approach to all research presented at its meetings, as is the case with all other areas of the humanities and social sciences;
  • Affirm that religious obscurantism can only be countered through education;
  • Insist on critical education that focuses on a historical and social understanding and development of religion; that is, teaching and education that is fact-based instead of faith-based; people should know ABOUT religions and religious texts, not in the sense of maintaining the value of any religious tradition, but to develop critical thinking about religions;
  • Regard the study of the Bible, the Quran, and other sacred scriptures as important in understanding western history and       modern culture, but without seeking to retain their moral authority.

Scholars who share these views may not identify themselves as any sort of New Atheists or as part of any Second Wave of the New Atheism. Indeed, some of the following signatories do not necessarily apply those labels to themselves. When the co-authors say that “a Second Wave of the New Atheism exists…” they are affirming the existence of people who already think this way, but may not have identified as such explicitly up to now.

However, we invite all scholars who share these views to join us in expressing, or putting into practice, any or all of the ideas and goals that we have outlined here.


Marc-André Argentino, PhD student, Department of Religion, Concordia University (Montreal, Quebec, Canada)

Kenneth Atkinson, Professor of History. University of Northern Iowa Department of History, University of Northern, Iowa, (Cedar Falls, Iowa, USA)

Hector Avalos, Professor of Religious Studies, Iowa State University (Ames, Iowa, USA)

Carol Delaney, Associate Professor, Emerita, Cultural and Social Anthropology, Stanford University (Stanford, California, USA)

Matthew Ferguson, PhD student, Department of Classics, University of California at Irvine (USA)

André Gagné, Associate Professor, Departments of Religion and Theological Studies, Concordia University (Montreal, Quebec, Canada)

Karen Garst, PhD, University of Wisconsin, Wisconsin (USA)

Daniel Gullotta, Graduate student, Yale Divinity School (New Haven, CT, USA)

Jaco Gericke, Associate research professor in the subject group Theology and Philosophy, School of Basic Sciences, Faculty of Humanities, North-West University (Vaal Campus, South Africa)

James Linville, Faculty, Department of Religious Studies, University of Lethbridge (Lethbridge, Canada).

David Madison, PhD in Biblical Studies, Boston University (USA)

Ivan Miroshnikov, Graduate student, Department of Biblical Studies, University of Helsinki (Helsinki, Finland)

Emmanuel Pradeilhes, MA in Biblical Studies, Faculté de théologie et de sciences des religions, Université de Montréal (Montreal, Quebec, Canada)

Jennifer Tacci, Graduate student, Department of Theological Studies, Concordia University (Montreal, Quebec, Canada)


* This Manifesto was first published on The Bible and Interpretation website on January 7, 2016

[1] According to Victor Stenger (The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason [Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2009], p. ii), who describes himself as a New Atheist, the New Atheism was motivated primarily by 9/11 and began with “a series of six best-selling books that took a harder line against religion than had been the custom among secularists.” Harris (The End of Faith, p. 323) states that he “began writing this book on September 12, 2001,” which clearly shows the link between 9/11 and the rise of the New Atheism. On the New Atheism among ethnic minorities, see Hector Avalos, ‘The Hidden Enlightenment: Humanism among US Latinos’, Essays in the Philosophy of Humanism 20 (2012), pp. 3-14.

[2] When speaking of the atrocities in the Bible, Christopher Hitchens stated “…it helps make the case for ‘anti-theism.’ By this I mean the view that we ought to be glad that none of the religious myths has any truth to it, or in it” (god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything [New York: Hachette, 2007], p. 102).

[3] Jaco Gericke (“A Fourth Paradigm?: Some Thoughts on Atheism in Old Testament Scholarship,” Old Testament Essays 25/3 [2012]: 518-533) speaks of the emergence of a Fourth Paradigm in Old Testament scholarship that is essentially atheistic. This Manifesto extends to all scriptural and religious studies, not just the Old Testament.

[4] Noam Chomsky, “The Responsibility of Intellectuals,” in The Chomsky Reader, edited by James Peck (New York: Pantheon Books, 1987), p. 60.



Hector Avalos Responds to Robert Myles’ Review of The Bad Jesus

The following response by Dr Hector Avalos to Dr Robert Myles‘ review of The Bad Jesus was originally posted on Debunking Christianity and is reposted here with permission.

Dr Robert Myles and The Bad Jesus:  An Androcentric Defense of Family/Household Abandonment?

By Dr. Hector Avalos

Dr. Robert Myles of the University of Auckland (New Zealand) has reviewed The Bad Jesus in two parts available here and here.

He is the first biblical scholar to perform such a review of The Bad Jesus on the blogosphere. I was especially interested in his comments because he specializes in New Testament and Christian origins, as well as in Marxism and critical theory.

cov266Myles is also the author of The Homeless Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2014), which treats a few of the subjects I do.

That book offers many provocative observations, and I recommend it to anyone interested in issues of poverty and homelessness in the Bible. His book came to my attention too far into the editing process of my book, and I did not include it in my discussions. I did read it by the time I wrote this post.

Although Myles’ review raises some interesting questions, it ultimately does not represent my arguments very accurately or address them very effectively.  I will demonstrate that his review actually is, in part, an androcentric defense of the abandonment of families by Jesus’ disciples. I will address the objections he raises against my methodology and my discussion of Jesus’ view of abandoning families, especially in the case of the men he called to be his disciples in Mark 1:16-20 because that is one main example Myles chose from my book.


41zpIKZfb-L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_To understand how Myles misrepresents or misunderstands the purpose and method of my book, it may be useful to begin with the introductory summary of  the book that I provided on pages 8-9 of The Bad Jesus:

  1. Biblical scholarship is still primarily a religionist apologetic enterprise despite claims to be engaging in historico-critical and descriptive scholarship.
  1. A more specific Christian orientation is clearly revealed in the manner in which the ethics of Jesus are predominantly viewed as benign and paradigmatic, even among supposedly secular academic scholars.
  1. However, many of the fundamental ethical principles announced or practiced by Jesus actually would be antithetical to those we otherwise describe as ‘acceptable’ or ‘good’ by some of the most widely accepted standards of ethics today.
  1. Accordingly, such a predominantly benign view of Jesus’ ethics signals a continuing acceptance of Jesus as divine or as morally supra-human, and not as the flawed human being who should be the real subject of historico-critical study.

Myles diverts his attention from my stated purposes to a critique of neoconservative or capitalists ideologies. Such critiques of neoconservatism or modern capitalism may be sound, but they are not the most relevant to my argument about how Jesus is treated in New Testament ethics. According to Myles:

Methodologically, Avalos’ book is weak, which is unfortunate as I think the broader argument has a lot of merit. Avalos self-identifies as a a [sic] New Atheist. This perspective holds that theism is generally destructive and unethical. It is embodied for example in the writings of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens. What Avalos doesn’t explore is how this movement has also tended to form strong associations with a neoconservative political ideology, perhaps expressed most triumphantly by the late Christopher Hitchens. In and of itself this might not appear overly relevant, but its importance will become obvious shortly.

There are two problems with this criticism. First, Myles left out that I identified myself with a “Second Wave” of New Atheism on p. 15 of The Bad Jesus:

So, perhaps, one can view atheist biblical scholars as ‘Second Wave New Atheists’ to contrast with the non-biblical scholars that dominated the first wave. Readers should view the present work as the first systematic New Atheist challenge to New Testament ethics by a biblical scholar.

Indeed, I explicitly named Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris as being part of that First Wave from which I was differentiating myself.

Any ideological critiques he launches against Dawkins, Harris, or Hitchens may not apply to the Second Wave, and don’t apply to me.

My agreement with the New Atheism was qualified as follows: “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” (p. 13). Myles’ review erroneously assumes that I identify with the New Atheism insofar as every other ideological or capitalist feature he identifies.

read more »

De-Sacralizing Jesus

41zpIKZfb-L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Recently we looked at Tom Holland’s interest in “de-radicalising Muhammad” and today part one of an online interview with Hector Avalos has appeared in which he discusses his new book The Bad Jesus in which he exposes the “low-down” on Jesus. Just as Holland argues for the importance of promoting an understanding of what can and cannot be known about Muhammad, Avalos argues that the Christian bias of New Testament scholars has driven them to put a superior ethical spin on acts and sayings of Jesus that are in fact antithetical to today’s ethical norms.

Avalos explains that The Bad Jesus is actually a sequel to The End of Biblical Studies.

Biblical studies is still part of an ecclesiastical academic complex, very biased toward the Christian viewpoint in particular, and religionist throughout. Biblical scholars are there to promote the value of the Bible because in part it is self-serving. It furthers their own profession to be biblical scholars. And if the Bible has no value then what use is there for Biblical studies. . . 

A religionist, “in particular Christian orientation”, permeates the field of Biblical studies and Avalos observes that the subfield of Christian ethics is the most biased of all. The ethical superiority of the purported founder of Christianity is the lodestone of the scholars involved. In Avalos’s mind the reason for this is that most scholars continue even today to view Jesus through the lens of Chalcedon and Nicea. Though they claim to be studying the historical Jesus they nonetheless still see Jesus as divine.

This should not be a controversial statement to anyone who has read a wide range of historical Jesus studies. Even “liberal Christian” scholars have made little effort to hide their belief that Jesus is alive today and that they regularly commune in some manner with him.

An interesting biographical detail we learn is what led Hector Avalos to undertake formal studies in the Bible after becoming an atheist. read more »

What Did Love Mean to Jesus? Pt 2, or How Can Love Be COMMANDED? (Avalos and The Bad Jesus)

Assyrian king's treaty commanding love from his vassal.

Assyrian king’s treaty commanding love from his vassal.

I am overviewing only one chapter in The Bad Jesus: The Ethics of New Testament Ethics. There is much more to Hector Avalos’s critique. Some of the points I touch on here are elaborated more fully in subsequent chapters. (I am looking forward to catching up with those subsequent chapters though I probably won’t be able to post on them individually. See my earlier post for a list of the topics covered. Note that Avalos’s chapter 3 concerning Jesus’ command to hate has been raised in part in earlier publications and touched on in my 2010 post The Dark Side of Jesus: His call to hate one’s family to be his disciple: note also the more extensive depth in which this theme is tackled in the contents of The Bad Jesus.)

The most striking point for me about Avalos’s analysis of the concept of love as found in the Bible is his explanation of how it pertains more to an antiquated master-slave/lord-vassal relationship (or to use Thomas L. Thompson’s metaphor, a Mafia Godfather family relationship).

Far from being mutual or self-less, agape [=love]may describe behavior that entails violence, not to mention other hierarchical behaviors. Part of the reason for the change [towards the realization of this lord-vassal context of love] is that previous scholars had been too eager to divorce the New Testament use of agape from corresponding words and concepts in the Hebrew Bible. After all, Christianity was often thought to be bringing something radically new.

The word ‘love’ often designates the attitude and set of behaviors that a Lord expects from his vassal in the ancient Near East. (p. 39, my bolding in all quotations)

Avalos gives us a glimpse of an ancient Assyrian “treaty” (seventh century BCE) with a subject king:

(You swear) that you will love Ashurbanipal, the crown prince, son of Esarhaddon, king of Assyria, your lord as (you do) yourselves. (See Wiseman, “The Vassal Treaties of Esarhaddon”)

The full treaties are of interest beyond the snippets quoted by Avalos. Notice below how the obligations they contain sound so very much like both the directives of the Bible’s “loving God” as well as “ideal love” in our sense of the word — if only they were not part of the master-slave “contract”:

You will not seek any other king or any other lord . . .

(You swear) that you . . . will die (for your lord). You will seek to do for him that which is good. That you will not do to him (anything which) is not good. . . .

(You swear) that you will love Ashurbanipal, the crown prince, son of Esarhaddon, king of Assyria, your lord as (you do) yourselves. That . . . you will not slander his brothers, his mother’s sons. That you will not speak anything that is not good about them . . .

Avalos asks readers to compare these sorts of sentiments with others we find attributed to Jesus. Disciples are to love God more than themselves, to die for Him, to have no other loyalties apart from their devotion to their Lord — to the extent of hating all prior loyalties such as parents — and, of course, to speak no evil. And curses are pronounced upon those who disobey just as they were threatened against the Assyrian vassals.

A very influential 1963 article by William Moran, “The Ancient Near Eastern Background of the Love of God in Deuteronomy” (CBQ 25.1 1963 pp. 77-87) is important for Avalos’s argument. I quote sections from that article directly:

Love in Deuteronomy is a love that can be commanded. It is also a love intimately related to fear and reverence. Above all, it is a love which must be expressed in loyalty, in service, and in unqualified obedience to the demands of the Law. For to love God is, in answer to a unique claim (6:4), to be loyal to him (11:1, 22; 30:20), to walk in his ways (10:12.; 11:22; 19:9; 30:16), to keep his commandments (10:12; 11:1,22; 19:9), to do them (11:22; 19:9), to heed them or his voice (11:13; 30:16), to serve him (10:12.; 11:1,13). It is, in brief, a love defined by and pledged in the covenant — a covenantal love.

Moran pointed towards implications this has for the teachings of Jesus in the gospels:

If . . . the old sovereign-vassal terminology of love is as relevant as we think it is, then what a history lies behind the Christian test of true agape — “If you love me, keep my commandments”!

read more »

What Did Love Mean to Jesus? Pt 1 (Hector Avalos’s The Bad Jesus)

“What is love?” asked the older Sunday school student.

The professor replied, “Baby don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me no more.

Alas, the student did not get the joke. The professor tried to turn the tables with another song lyric: “I want to know what love is. I want you to show me.

This [divinatory] use of the scriptures fed into rabbinic halakhic hermeneutics . . . . [I]t was established by the rabbis (a) that scripture was a self-explaining system, and (b) that its statement of the law was incomplete. Hence by means of a system of deductive and inferential rules, the implicit meaning of the scriptural system could be made explicit, and the entire will of God be made known. In an analogous way, the diviners of Babylon had for centuries compiled copious lists of signs and their meanings, based, apparently, on experience. If rabbinic exegesis, then, was in a sense mantic, it shared with the ancient omen-lists of Babylon a quasi-scientific character, though one based not on collections of recorded cases but a set of exegetical rules. (From P.R. Davies’ On the Origins of Judaism, p.52, cited by D. Boyarim in his RBL review. See also P.R. Davies, In Search of Ancient Israel, p.146f)

Being the Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature the professor ceased playing with rock song lyrics and required the answer to come from 1 Corinthians 13. This segued into what was sometimes a mantic or divinatory reading of the passage. Thus to render this ancient passage relevant to modern and personal interests there were times when they interpreted it the way ancient priests read meaning from the entrails of a sacrificed sheep or the way astrologers have always interpreted the heavenly lights. Apply the rule that scripture is a self-explaining system and see what meanings emerge when the word “love” is treated as a cipher for God, or for oneself. (The semantic game itself is flawed, however, because 1 Corinthians does not “define” the word for “love” per se; rather, it offers a series of things love “does” or how it is expressed.)

A more reliable way to understand what the Bible means by “love” is to take Professor Hector Avalos‘s approach in the opening chapter of The Bad Jesus: The Ethics of New Testament Ethics and examine the way the word is used in the biblical literature as well as in the literature of the wider cultural context (Near Eastern, Greco-Roman) of those scriptural texts.

Though Avalos’s focus is on the figure of Jesus his discussion embraces the wider context of the cultural and literary heritage as it comes together in the words attributed to Christianity’s beloved Son of God. Avalos expresses some dismay that so many biblical scholars (and not only Christian ones) routinely attribute to Jesus an ethic of love that was astonishingly advanced for his day. If these scholars were as well informed about the wider world of ideas from which the Bible emerged as they are about the Bible itself they could scarcely make such claims, Avalos argues.

Take Jesus’ teaching to love one’s neighbour as oneself. Many of us know that this is not really original but is really a citation of Leviticus 19:18. Jesus was quoting the Old Testament. Avalos reminds readers that “your neighbour” in the Leviticus passage

is actually best understood as ‘your fellow Israelite’.

For the details he refers to Harry Orlinsky’s essay, “Nationalism-Universalism and Internationalism in Ancient Israel” in Translating and Understanding the Old Testament; Essays in Honor of Herbert Gordon May (1970), and to John Meier’s fourth volume in his Marginal Jew series, Law and Love (2009).

Indeed, Lev. 19:18 does not obligate universal love, but, in fact, is premised on privileging love for fellow Israelites over love for non-Israelites. (p. 33)

Attempts to reinterpret the passage to make it conform to ideals of universal brotherhood are without “sound linguistic parallels” and “supporting documentation” — and are entirely speculative.


Epictetus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Not that the ancient world was bereft of the concept of “unconditional universal humanity”. The moral teaching of early Christianity was “conditioned by adherence to a particular religion.” To find “modern” ideas of the universality of human kinship one must turn to the predominant philosophy in the Roman world, Stoicism. (The link is to Wikipedia’s notes on the social philosophy of Stoicism.) Avalos cites various scholars including the following (although I have quoted my own selections from them):

In short, Stoic theory is decidedly universalistic in its scope and makes no ethical differentiation between particular groups of people. (Runar M. Thorsteinsson, Roman Christianity and Roman Stoicism: A Comparative Study of Ancient Morality, p. 192)

Thorsteinsson certainly grants that various moral teachings in the New Testament epistles enjoin a peaceful disposition towards society at large,

However, a closer examination of the texts shows . . . there is a fundamental division between those within and those outside the Christ-believing community. (p. 205. The reference here is specifically to 1 Peter and the epistle of Romans.)

Love for enemies — it’s so BC

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Why Does Jesus Never Do Anything Wrong?

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”. read more »

Muslim Violence: Understanding Religion and Humanity

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”.

After reading Fighting Words: The Origins of Religious Violence by Hector Avalos I have been trying to think through the question afresh. A response by Hector Avalos to one of my posts is pertinent. In response to a crude interpretation of my own Avalos replied as follows. The caps are Avalos’s and the bolding and is mine: read more »

Fighting Words: How Religion Causes Violence

FightingWordsI 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)

Let’s explain. It was a new concept for me, too.

read more »

Biblioblogging, Politics & the Core Function of Biblical Studies


Crossley as Che Guevara Jesus. See image at end of post

This is part 3 of my review of Jesus in an Age of Neoliberalism: Quests, Scholarship and Ideology by James G. Crossley. (Once again I invite Professor Crossley to alert me to anything he sees in these posts that he believes is a misrepresentation of his views.)

In the previous post we saw how James Crossley uses chapter 2 to convey a general idea of the concepts scholars of “postmodernism” associate with postmodernity, postmodernism and related political and economic developments. This is essentially to set the “broad contextual basis”, Crossley explains, “for analysing some of the ways in which Jesus has been constructed in scholarship and beyond in recent decades.”

Crossley’s own political polemic dominates his discussion. His concluding paragraph begins:

Many people now look back in disbelief over the past decade, and the roles of Bush and Blair in particular. But now we have Obama, the great liberal figure of our time. . . .

And continues . . .

Yet, beneath the high rhetoric, Obama rarely deviated from standard American positions on the Middle East in recent years and provided minimum detail. And, in the heart of an anti-democratic police state with an unfortunate human rights record . . .

And concludes . . .

as he stood shoulder to shoulder with Mubarak, an issue which is apparently best forgotten now that the Western media could no longer avoid showing Mubarak for what he is.

No reference to biblical scholarship. As I pointed out previously, in major respects I sympathize with Crossley’s political views but I was led to read a book expecting an explanation of how political and related trends influenced Jesus scholarship; rather, one senses that Crossley is hoping to politically (re)educate his scholarly peers.

The Wrong, the Defeated and the Exception

So we come to chapter 3 which is about Biblioblogging.

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The Biblical Roots of Nazi Racism

fightingwordsNot 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)

Cover of "The End of Biblical Studies"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

Plattdüütsch: Ernst Haeckel nadem he ut Italie...

Ernst Haeckel (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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)

Jörg Lanz von Liebenfels & Theozoology read more »

Shalom As Hegemony

fightingwordsI 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.)

Take Job 22:21

Agree with God, and be at peace.

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Biblical Scholars, Symbolic Violence, and the Modern Version of an Ancient Myth

This post continues my series on Philippe Wajdenbaum’s doctoral thesis adapted for publication as Argonauts of the Desert: Structural Analysis of the Hebrew Bible. For the previous post see Collapse of the Documentary Hypothesis (1) & Comparing the Bible with Classical Greek Literature. I begin here with my concluding lines from that post:

We will find very accurate parallels [between the Bible and Plato’s political dialogues] that make that hypothesis [that the Bible is based on those and other Greek classical texts] certain. Therefore one must ask why such a comparative study with Plato has not been done before. (p. 28)

Wajdenbaum says the answer is simple:

The Bible could not resist such an analysis [comparing the Bible with classical Greek literature] as it demonstrates how almost every biblical narrative finds accurate parallels with Greek myths. If believers of Jewish and Christian faiths were aware of this, then the Bible could lose its credibility. Biblical scholarship has done all it could to maintain the Bible as a sacred text that is still relevant to modern society, as Hector Avalos argues. (p. 29)

How can such ancient texts continue to hold such an authoritative status for so many today? Wajdenbaum believes that one significant reason is that “the Bible has not yet been the object of a consistent and genuinely scientific analysis.” (p. 30)

Of course there has been a long tradition of scholarly analysis of the Bible, but that’s not necessarily the same thing. In an earlier post in this series I showed how Wajdenbaum argues that biblical criticism has generally been the construction of a variant of the Bible’s myth. Following Claude Lévi-Strauss, he argues that any retelling of a myth is itself a variant of the myth, and in rationalising the Bible’s story and self-witness of divine inspiration scholars have, in fact, only created alternative versions of those myths.

Here Wajdenbaum brings in Pierre Bourdieu:

“Symbolic violence is the self-interested capacity to ensure that the arbitrariness of the social order is either ignored, or posited as natural, thereby justifying the legitimacy of existing social structures.” – Wikipedia

Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has explained how university scholars use symbolic violence to ensure their authority in their field. By presenting themselves as a legitimate institution, university scholars impose an arbitrary knowledge that is recognised by the masses as legitimate.

But this intellectual domination is not completely passive; it comes from the demands of society. As both Avalos and Bourdieu . . . have put it, the media industry — the press, movies and television — plays an important role in the continuation of either the sacred character of the Bible or symbolic violence. read more »

John Loftus (Debunking Christianity) “is done”

I’m probably the last person to find out about this but for anyone else who is a tail-ender John Loftus of the Debunking Christianity blog has called it quits. He writes in his last post:

I have no more desire to engage Christians. They are deluded, all of them. I have never been more convinced of this than I am now. I have better things to do. I spent 39+ years of my adult life on a delusion. If I add the years of my childhood that’s almost my entire life. Yet this is the only life I will ever have. It’s time to move on, or at a minimum take a very long hiatus. I just finished what may be my last book, on The Outsider Test for Faith, to be published by Prometheus Books early next year. How many times do I need to kick the dead horse of Christianity? I don’t think I need to say anything more. If what I have written isn’t good enough then nothing is good enough for some Christians. What I intend to do is turn this blog over to a few qualified people. I’ll still be a part of it and I suppose I’ll post something from time to time. But I see no reason to waste large chunks of my time on this delusion anymore.

And adds for clarification the following comment:

Thanks for everyone’s comments, especially the encouraging ones.

What I said may be harder to do than I think. I’ve been blogging every day for over six years. I’ll be around, just cutting drastically back for a while. It’s definitely been a love-hate relationship. read more »

Correcting some of James McGrath’s misunderstandings

Added more detail to my "advice" a the end of post: 21:11 pm -- 4 hours after original post.

I have left some corrections to Dr James McGrath’s recent post Overview of Part One of Earl Doherty’s Jesus: Neither God Nor Man (with Baloney Detection) on his site, and repeat them here along with a few other points. (A short response by Doherty is also found here on McGrath’s blog.) I conclude with some advice that McGrath has openly requested.

McGrath’s first point that needs several corrections is this:

3. Have the claims been verified by another source?

Neil Godfrey appeals frequently to a seemingly favorable statement by Stevan Davies, but elsewhere in the same discussion forum Davies indicates that he had not read Doherty’s book and describes it as equally nonsense viz-a-viz the dominant scholarly paradigm. And so the favorable statement is about what Davies had been told about Doherty’s stance, not about the actual articulation of it in detail in his book. While Doherty should not be blamed for what one of his supporters has done, this still serves as a cautionary reminder that quotes in favor of a fringe view sometimes are not what they initially appear to be. read more »