Tuesday, July 24, 2012
Discussions on The Christian Delusion: 21, Final Discussion
The Book as a Whole
One of the failures of The Christian Delusion is to provide a final summary or some sort of wrap-up of what had been said and accomplished in the volume. It was essentially left as a collection of essays, with a common theme of lack of belief in God, instead of a completed project. In the “Introduction,” Mr. Loftus does summarize the points he thinks were made in various chapters of the book. So it is time to see what he thinks he did and decide how well he did it.
I have had difficulty from the start with what the title “The Christian Delusion” is supposed to mean, and even more with the phrase “Why faith fails.” Since he references it immediately, Mr. Loftus took his title as a take off from Richard Dawkins book, The God Delusion. I suppose by imitation he hopes to be as successful. However, one must have some meaning to even a book title. I do not consider the meaning to be clearly spelled out. What I infer, though it is not explicitly said, is that Chrisitanity is a” mistaken notion, a false or mistaken belief about something.”[i] Mr. Loftus explicitly rejects the psychiatric interpretation of delusion (though I think he wants the subconscious connection to exist) and states that he believes people are brainwashed by their culture to believe and don’t know they have been brainwashed. Apparently he thinks that he and his cohorts can undo that brainwashing.
Mr. Loftus then says, “The phrase ‘faith fails’ in the subtitle suggests that religious faith does not stand up to rigorous scrutiny.”[ii] Perhaps it doesn’t to Mr. Loftus. But one must ask, from what perspective? To Mr. Loftus as an outsider, subjecting it to scrutiny, it may not pass some set of criteria he has established. However, to a believer, faith may work just fine in the manner in which it is used. As for Mr. Loftus’ wish that believers subject their faith to the same level of skepticism they use on other faiths, the outcome will depend on what the faith rests upon, not necessarily some sort of failure or loss of faith. In this book and Mr. Loftus’ approach we see the ghosts of his and several of his co-authors’ former belief, a fundamentalist one, and the impact that thinking had upon it. He apparently thinks all Christianity is the same. It is no wonder he is dismayed that the result of attacks on Christianity is a “re-invention.” He was unable to do that and so cannot understand how it happens. It takes a huge effort and usually the work of multiple theologians to accomplish.
So let us now turn to the rest of the book. The book is organized into five parts, each of which appears to be the anti-thesis of some Christian belief statement. When one makes the matching Christian statement they all seem to have a fundamentalist flavor to them, though most Christians ascribe to a version of them. They are with their anti-theses:
Part 1: Why Faith Fails—Faith never fails, or true faith cannot fail;
Part 2: Why the Bible is not God’s Word—The Bible is the Word of God;
Part 3: Why the Christian God is not Perfectly Good—God is Perfectly Good;
Part 4: Why Jesus is not the Risen Son of God—Jesus is the Resurrected Son of God;
Part 5: Why Society does not Depend on Christian Faith—This is a Christian Society.
Part 1: Why Faith Fails
In the “Introduction” Mr. Loftus claims that “[Dr.] Eller argues that there is no such thing as Christianity. There are only local Christianities,…”[iii], but says nothing to show this as a failure of faith. Just as Dr. Eller appeared to me to ignore the individual in his analysis, so does Mr. Loftus. Both seem to adhere to the idea that if belief were valid there would be only one monolithic belief not the multiplicity of beliefs we see in Christianity today. Dr. Eller hoped that seeing multiplicity of beliefs would lead believers to reject all belief. As best as I can fathom, in the real world, the response is either condemnation of different belief or tolerance. It is never rejection of belief itself.
Mr. Loftus then says that Dr. “Tarico argues that the sense of certainty that faith gives believers is psychological malaise.”[iv] My discussion of the paragraph in which this is stated says that it was not particularly well-supported. But it must be asked, “If certainty is a malaise, then what about the certainty expressed by all these authors that there is no God?” Throughout the book, the reflexive nature of many of the arguments appears to be conveniently ignored. The paper by Dr. Tarico was one of the two best papers in the entire volume. Its conclusions were actually much more subtle and nuanced than Mr. Loftus would have us believe. Dr. Tarico did not come down on an actual right or wrong pronouncement about belief, and her statements on certainty were more guilt by association with the certitude of some psychiatric states than a value judgment on it.
Mr. Loftus considers Dr. Long to have shown that people are often irrational and gullible. We don’t need an essay for that. What he fails to state is how that leads to some sort of failure of faith. Dr. Long’s paper equates Christianity to the least rational version, the Biblical inerrantists, and then uses Balaam’s Ass as the icon to represent it. In order to do that, he has to assume that all Christian’s take the story of Balaam’s Ass as literally true. There was much I disagreed with in this essay, and in fact I consider it one of the low points in the entire book. Only Hector Avalos and Richard Carrier come close in their illogic and vitriol.
Finally we arrive at Mr. Loftus’ OTF or Outsider Test for Faith. In his revisitation of it, since it was first presented in his 2008 book, Why I Became and Atheist, Mr. Loftus defends it against criticism that has arisen. He again restates that he considers the test “devastating to believers who think Christianity, or any other so-called revealed religion, is true.”[v] As I point out in the first paragraphs of my discussion, his logic is faulty from the beginning, and continues to be faulty throughout the essay. Victor Reppert, a Christian philosopher, makes the most telling criticisms on the OTF, and in my review I find Loftus’ responses wanting. The most favorable position that I can take on the OTF is that it is simply the application of normal skepticism to religious belief. Anyone, who is both a believer and reasonably intelligent, has already done this in their teens and early twenties. The outcome is not guaranteed, despite Mr. Loftus’ belief to the contrary. Those who ground their faith in more than the Bible stories from childhood will most likely come out of the questioning with a stronger faith.
In summary, despite the excellent paper by Dr. Tarico, Part 1 does not demonstrate why faith fails.
Part 2: Why the Bible is not God’s Word
Only if the Bible is taken in the plenary inerrant sense does this section have any meaning. The section starts with one of the two best essays in the book, the one by Edward Babinski on “The Cosmology of the Bible.” Loftus simply points out that Babinski details the flat-earth, three-tiered cosmology. Babinski does much more that makes the essay so valuable—he surveys the all the cosmologies of the Middle East around the time the Bible cosmology was written. It is a shame that Mr. Babinski’s conclusions did not follow from his presentation. Only those who accept plenary inerrancy need be concerned that this cosmology is much like the others of the time, or that it runs completely counter to the current modern scientific cosmology.
Loftus then summarizes the essay by Paul Tobin as showing the Bible is inconsistent, “not supported by archeology, contains fairy tales, failed prophecies, and many forgeries.”[vi] This is, of course, the most pejorative terms he can find to use to describe what modern scholarship has found. Again, it is of concern only to those who want plenary inerrancy. Modern liberal Christians accept these findings and still find meaning in the Bible, just not literal meaning. Again, Loftus and Tobin are using the phrase “Word of God” as if it means literal dictated words.
Finally in this section we have Mr. Loftus’ second essay, this time presuming to tell God that He did a lousy job of communication since the words that worked for first century Palestine and before don’t seem to work for modern twentieth century America, and yet fails to think that there is no way much of twentieth century America can be made meaningful to first century Palestine. Of all the essays in the book, this was the most pointless.
In summary, Loftus fails to consider that the “Word of God” may not have to literally mean words dictated or stated by God, but words that convey the ideas He wants to be conveyed. In this latter sense, the Bible can well be the word of God, and generally that is the way most Christians take it.
Part 3: Why the Christian God is not Perfectly Good
In this section Loftus and Hector Avalos attempt in two short essays to deal with a question that philosophers and theologians have been struggling with for centuries—the existence of evil when God is believed to be perfectly good and benevolent. Dr. Avalos’ attempt uses a proxy from the evangelical camp as his stalking horse. He attacks Paul Copan’s attempts to justify the slaughter of tribes during the conquest of Judea and Galilee by the Israelites. Along the way Dr. Avalos tries to make it appear that atheists have as strong an ethical system as Judaism and Christianity. All he does is prove his lack of credentials as a philosopher. Avalos ends up arguing against a position that doesn’t even exist in mainline Christianity today—that the stories are literally true and that they are still normative.
Mr. Loftus takes the position that if God is truly omni-benevolent, He would not allow non-human but sentient (whatever that is taken to mean) animals to suffer. He does indeed hit directly on a problem in the way God is usually conceived. He also is buying into the meaning of benevolence that most people use, the prevention of suffering. But this position does not disprove the existence of God, only the illogic of our representations of Him. After all, Judaism does not consider God to be omni-benevolent. As I have written in my discussion of this essay and elsewhere, I don’t necessarily think God is omni-potent. Loftus’ focus on suffering allows him to make a lot of rhetorical hay, and by focusing on sentient animals, he avoids the issues of sin and free-will. However, in the process he elevates animals to the same meritorious position as humans. Considering some of his comments on his own behavior, he apparently does hold such a position himself. I don’t think it really sheds any new light on the issue of theodicy.
Part 4: Why Jesus is not the Risen Son of God
In this section, Mr. Loftus and his co-authors want to show that “what Christians believe about Jesus is not the case…”[vii] Specifically, they are talking about the belief in the divinity of Jesus, that he was the Son of God in the same sense that we are the sons and daughters of our fathers, and that he was resurrected from the dead. The divinity of Jesus has been challenging philosophers and theologians from the beginning of Christianity. Eventually, one must make a choice to either believe in it or not. I and many others who call themselves Christians have chosen not to believe it Jesus’ divinity and it does not undermine our beliefs. The resurrection is actually a much more challenging problem, because it had such profound impact on Jesus followers, it cannot be dismissed as fantasy.
The implications of the title of the section are that evidence will be given to show that Jesus was neither divine nor resurrected. Dr. Price tries to attack Jesus’ divinity indirectly through an attack on an evangelistic apologetic work by Eddy and Boyd. Attacking inerrancy is a cheap and easy way. But in effect all he has done is shoot the messenger, not disprove the premise. I would have been far more impressed if Dr. Price had tackled the Patristic Fathers or any of the subsequent theologians and philosophers.
Dr. Carrier’s essay against the resurrection does not provide evidence against it in the usual sense. He essentially attempts to equate the resurrection to the reanimation of a corpse, which it decidedly was not, and apparently attempts to discredit the empty tomb. Thus, he can use his imagination to accuse the followers of hallucinations or other such phenomena. The entire essay ignores the scholarship in the historical Jesus for the last two hundred years, and projects his own novel interpretations on the scriptures. This is not a reasoned discussion of Jesus’ resurrection, but a bombast-laden diatribe against a reanimated corpse, that does not deal with the resurrection in any of the senses understood by mainstream theologians.
Mr. Loftus provides a rather good, though highly rhetorical, discussion of Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet. However, he fails to show how missing the timing of the coming apocalypse is destructive to Christianity or Christian belief, he simply states that it is.
Whether or not Jesus was the direct off-spring of God and whether or not he was resurrected in some form, this section fails to show what its title claims.
Part 5: Why Society does not Depend on Christian Faith
Based on what Mr. Loftus says occurred in the three chapters of this section, all of them answer false questions that have been created as easily destroyed straw men. Loftus says Dr. Eller shows that morality arose without God and one cannot argue from morality to the existence of God. To my knowledge no one has made that argument. The opposite is often argued, from God to morality. Avalos refutation of the claim that atheism was the cause of the atrocities of Hitler, is a red herring. Only one author in my knowledge has made that argument and it is Denish D’Sousa, whom Avalos tackles but very badly. Neither of them come out looking good at the end of my discussion. Finally, there is the claim “that Christianity is not to be credited with the rise of science.”[viii] There is also the claim that Greek science was flourishing long before Christianity arose. One could take the simple route and point out that Greek science was finally lost with the fall of Roman civilization, and that science as we know it, despite apologists for Islam, arose from the Renaissance, which arose in Christian Europe. However, the picture is much more complicated than that when one reads the historians of science. Dr. Carrier shows a remarkable ignorance of his own field.
Dr. Eller’s foray into ethics fails miserably as a philosophical discussion. It is an excellent example of someone outside their field of competence. Dr. Eller is an anthropologist, and for some reason, he does not seem satisfied with studying man and his institutions, but wants to “explain” them in ways that are definitely non-anthropological. Dr. Eller does not even use the normal meanings for such things as religion and morality, based upon my reading of the philosophical and religious literature. He claimed in his title that Christianity does not provide a basis for morality. He was actually trying to show that religion in general does not provide a basis for morality, and the philosophers I have read acknowledge that it does indeed provide such, though it may be argued that the values of that morality can be different for other bases.
In taking on Dinesh D’Sousa, Dr. Avalos is trying to ignore the massive deaths under the atheistic regimes of Stalin and Mao, not to mention Pol Pot, and pin the Holocaust on Christianity, via Hitler’s “Positive Christianity,” which was not Christian but pagan, and via on-going anti-semitism. Since D’Sousa made poor arguments to start with, he made an easy target for Avalos, but also this means that Avalos’ result is rhetorical not logical.
Dr. Carrier’s essay, as I point out in my discussion of it, is simply an embarrassment to his PhD, in first century Greek and Roman science.
So all in all, this section does not even directly address the need or lack of it in society for Christianity. It also avoids the historical issue that the United States and, for that matter Western Europe, came from a Christian background. The historical dependency is there and cannot be expunged. What is arguable and never addressed is whether there is a continuing need for Christianity. This section was not a discussion of the relationship of society and Christianity but simply a tar-brush on Christianity. The two most passionately anti-Christian writers in the book both contributed to this section, and their emotions certainly over-rode any logic.
I find that none of the sections of the book provide a coherent argument for their stated titles, nor do I find the Mr. Loftus overall has provided a coherent argument that Christianity is a delusion, or that there is a failure in faith.
Some final words
An error that all the authors appear to share in common with Fundamentalists is the idea that the Bible is to be read at face value of the words. When fully parsed, all the arguments against Biblical passages or knowledge is based on an absolute literal reading of the words of scripture. This is a dependence on Biblical inerrancy by the very people that would have the Bible be invalid.
One of the things that struck me the most about this book is that the editor wrote four of the essays, and one of the contributors provided what was supposed to be a peer review. We find no acknowledgements of people not involved in the production of the text as reviewers. The publisher apparently specializes in books that promote the secularization of society under the guise of skeptical inquiry. One of the titles advertised on their webpage is yet another book on the supposed incompatibility of science and religion. All of this adds up to a bias towards accepting what was written uncritically.
It is fascinating that in his comments to post 15, that Mr. Loftus did not consider my deconstructions sufficiently deep to bother to reply to. If he thinks he and his fellow authors have written a book that is beyond attack, then they suffer from their own version of delusion. We could turn the position around and ask, Suppose someone such as Edward Feser considers their work so shallow as to be unworthy of his attacks? Dr. Feser, a Thomist philosopher, has very profoundly attacked the big names in militant atheism with his book, The Last Superstition. From correspondence with Dr. Feser, I know he is fully aware of Loftus and his work, yet Dr. Feser does not concern himself with Loftus or his colleagues.
One thing that is missing from this book is any discussion of the central issues of redemption and salvation. It is the belief in Jesus as a redeemer that drives much of the success of Christianity. Our authors don’t come anywhere near these issues. As one who does not believe in salvation by Jesus blood, I could, at least on the surface present an argument against this, which I won’t. That they haven’t done so, tells me that they are perfectly happy to simply stand outside and throw stones, but not go inside and get involved in a real fight. In essence they are intellectual cowards.
One of the most fascinating things about this book as a whole is its intellectual immaturity. It is an expanded version of my thinking fifty years ago. The authors have taken superficial arguments that continually float around the undergraduate atmosphere and seem to think they have created the final answer to Christianity. In their ignorance they forget all the writing by some very deep philosophers and theologians that has been going on since the Enlightenment, and before. None of their arguments are new. All have been stated in a much more rigorous manner. It is not that there are no valid arguments on the side of atheism, it is simply that they have not made them. As one of my philosopher friends has pointed out, the evidence for and against the existence of God is approximately equal. One can debate and discuss it in great depth and in the process arrive at new insights into life and its meaning. However, the belief in God is a choice.
Let me restate what I said in the first post of this series:
“The second choice is to believe or not believe in God. Make no mistake, this is a choice about a fundamental belief. It is not possible to prove or disprove the existence of God, and all the supposed “proofs” and justifications are simply rationalizations after the fact. “
This entire book is a justification for the choice the authors have made. Where their justifications resonate with the doubts and issues of readers they will appear convincing, unless the reader is particularly critical of any argument. Where their justifications don’t, there will be a rejection. What I have tried to do in this series of posts, is to subject their positions to the same critical stance to which they would have me subject my own beliefs—something I have been doing for fifty years and continue to do.
[i] Loftus, John W., “Introduction”, in Loftus, John W, ed., The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails, Prometheus Books, New York (2010), p. 20
Labels: The Christian Delusion
Monday, July 23, 2012
Discussions on The Christian Delusion: 20, Focus on the Bible
Focus on the Bible
This digression from the discussion of The Christian Delusion is in response to a comment on post 10 of this series. Daniel Wilson wrote:
“These assumptions[i] I make are the very problem. These assumptions are taken directly from the Bible itself as best as I can interpret. Have I interpreted it wrong? Possibly, but its not by my trying to twist it to be something that it does not claim. It is truly what I think it is saying and if I am making that horrible mistake then chances are the ministers and priests through the years have done the same. Lets take the verse that my assumption is based on.
2 Timothy 3:16 All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.
I understand that my assumptions may be a misinterpretation of the above verse but if I can not even decipher a simple concept as inerrant or not, or God’s word or not, then how can the bible be of any value what so ever objectively. Okay maybe it has some good lessens that could be used in life scenarios if it passes the sniff test but to use it for anything more rigid then that, such as moral code for right and wrong, is pointless and based on assumption.
It seems to me that if you believe the statement you made about assumptions then would you agree that the Bible should not be used in an objective manner as most ministers do but rather in a way likened to Aesop’s fables. How should I read the Bible if I cannot assume anything about it? and if I can assume something by it I would really like to know what that is.”
Labels: The Christian Delusion
Thursday, July 19, 2012
Thursday, July 12, 2012
Discussions on The Christian Delusion: 19, Chapter 15
Previous members of this series are here: 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12,13,14,15,16,17,18
Christianity Was Not Responsible for Modern Science by Richard Carrier, PhD[i]
The most difficult thing in reading Dr. Carrier’s writing is dealing with the over-the-top vitriolic rhetoric. Apparently he wants to write in the same way as Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins, but he does not have their command of the English language which makes their work at least stylistically enjoyable. Reading Dr. Carrier is like listening to a hammer constantly hit an anvil. In and around his factual discussions is this constant ad hominum attack on Christian writers, accusing them of ignorance, delusion, and deliberate misinterpretation. Based on my reading of his previous essay in this book, he would do well to look to himself in that regard.
Dr. Carrier’s area of specialty appears to be science in and around the early Greek and Roman civilizations. Yet, he does exactly what he says his chosen opponents do, journeys outside his time period, and proceeds to discuss the history of science and religion from his period of specialty to the present. In doing so, he uses a standard ploy of all the militant atheists, attacking a ridiculously weak representative of the position and then acting as if he has defeated the entire proposition.
After making a number of derogatory accusations concerning an overstated case for religion supporting or even being responsible for modern science, Dr. Carrier then takes on as his opponent the Roman Catholic priest, Father Stanley Jaki,[ii] as represented by Rodney Stark. He admits that Stark has already been criticized, but that since he, Carrier, is a self-styled expert in ancient science (with an additional claim to be an expert in Christianity of that time—one that I countered in the discussion of the previous essay.) that his criticism is needed.
The constant underlying refrain throughout this essay is that belief that Christianity was necessary for science to develop is a delusion. He constantly refers to the position he is countering as a delusion, as if somehow repeating it often will make it so. This may be considered good rhetoric, but it is lousy scholarship. So are the sweeping generalizations with which he commences his writing: “false in every conceivable detail,” “egregiously false,” “must either be embarrassingly incompetent, perversely dishonest, or wildly deluded.”[iii] This of course carries the unstated assumption that no one has rebutted these claims of Hutchison and Schmidt with which he begins his essay.
To me it is most ironic that he actually states, “Of course, we’ve all seen the conservative political tactic of repeating a lie so often, in so many places, with such confidence, and from so many sources, that everyone begins to believe it.” The technique is not reserved for political conservatives—I could almost accuse him of it with his claim for delusion. I would also say that the number of sources that make the claim he is countering are not many. He has tried to create a great intellectual crisis where none exists. As I will note below, the professional historians have already dealt with this whole question quite effectively in the 1980’s and 1990’s.
It is not worth dealing with the essay in detail. The entire Jaki-Stark position that he is discussing is not considered important historically. Dr. Carrier gives a considerable wealth of detail concerning the status of early science. My own impression is that he is presenting it in an overly positive light for purposes of his discussion. He appears to be wanting to create the idea that the church suppressed science, yet in his conclusions, he back-pedals from his rhetoric with respect to the effects of Christianity on scientific progress. It turns out it did not suppress it so much as not encourage it.
An important cultural environmental issue that Dr. Carrier does not take into consideration is that the means by which science was pursued and advanced, universities and extensive publication, did not exist prior to the invention of the printing press. (McGrath and the historians comment on this in their books).
Two quotes from historians that have specialized in the relationship of science and Christianity provide a much better perspective:
[i]Carrier, Richard, “Christianity Was Not Responsible for Modern Science” in Loftus, John W, ed., The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails, Prometheus Books, New York (2010) p. 396
[ii] Lindberg and Numbers in their introduction say, “All too often those who have argued that Christianity gave birth to modern science—most notably the Protestant historian Reijer Hooykaas and the Catholic priest-scientist Stanley L. Jaki—have sacrificed careful history for scarcely concealed apologetics., Lindberg, David C., and Numbers, Ronald L, eds., God & Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter between Christianity and Science, University of California Press (1986), p. 5
[iii] Ibid, p. 397
[iv] Brooke, John Hedley, Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives, Cambridge University Press, New York (1991), p. 5
[v] Lindberg, David C., and Numbers, Ronald L, eds., God & Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter between Christianity and Science, University of California Press (1986), p. 10, quoting Donald Kagan, “The Changing World of World Histories,” New York Times Book Review, 11 Nov. 1984, p. 1, 41-42
[vi] Carrier, Op. cit., p. 413
Labels: The Christian Delusion
Tuesday, July 10, 2012
Discussions on The Christian Delusion: 18, Chapter 14
Previous members of this series are here: 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12,13,14,15,16,17
Atheism Was Not the Cause of the Holocaust by Hector Avalos, PhD[i]
A common defense by Christians against the charges of genocide or killing in the name of religion, is to point out that atheism is the cause of the Holocaust and the communist purges of Stalin and Mao Tse-Tung. The counter defense of atheists is to show that the Holocaust had religious roots and to ignore the communist purges. Dr. Avelos follows this same pattern, focusing on the Holocaust, and dismissing the Stalin purges as having implicated the church, and claiming that the translation from Chinese is too difficult to provide reliable information, so it will be ignored. The strategy that Dr. Avalos appears to be using is to take one single author that attributes the massive loss of life under three atheist regimes solely to atheism (at least according to Dr. Avalos), counter all his arguments as he, Avalos, interprets them, along the way pin the responsibility on religious belief, and thereby absolve atheism of the guilt.
Dr. Avalos takes as his adversary, Dinesh D’Sousa and his book What’s so Great about Christianity. He claims that D’Sousa is trying to excuse or at least ameliorate the guilt of Christian killing by saying that atheists have killed even more. Actually this is quite true, with the total of people killed by Hitler, Stalin, and Mao being on the order of 100 million[ii]. However, from other reading of Christian writers countering atheist attacks[iii], the point is not that Christianity hasn’t done evil, but that atheism is not the peaceful, wonderful thing its proponents portray. The recitation of the deaths under atheism is a counter to Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins and their like, who try to claim that the disappearance of religion would lead to a better world.
However, we need to concern ourselves with the horrendous illogic in Dr. Avalos’ essay. Dr. Avalos claims that he has discussed the fallacies of viewing Stalinist violence just in terms of atheism. This must have been an easy task, since as far as I know, no responsible Christian writer considers atheism alone to be the cause of the Stalinist purges. D’Souza makes the case that atheism is an inherent part of the Communist culture both in the Soviet Union and China, and was explicitly pursued, with the removal of all religion a stated goal. Thus by D’Souza’s reasoning, atheism is indeed partly responsible for millions of deaths. However, according to Avalos, D’Souza “does not provide a single document or statement by Stalin that shows that he was collectivizing or killing for atheist reasons.”[iv] In this case, D’Souza does not have to provide such a document, unless Dr. Avalos wishes to disavow the logic Daniel Dennett uses in Breaking the Spell. D’Souza shows that by the same logic that shows Christianity or Islam responsible for deaths, one can show atheism responsible for deaths.[v]
He then tries to equate the collectivism of the Stalinist era with the primitive communalism of early Christianity by mis-reading Acts 5:1-11. First of all the communalism of Acts was voluntary vs. the compulsory collectivism of Stalin. Second of all, the couple was not killed that he refers to; the man died, possibly from shame at violating his own oath to share. By falsely claiming that the couple were killed, Avalos then makes the claim that church ownership of property was worth more than the life of the congregants. He then makes the alternative claim on his false reading that they could have just been expelled. However, if one reads what is actually there in Acts 5:1-11, the man simply dies, as does his wife. There can be many different interpretations of this text, but one in which the couple is actively killed does not seem possible from the words that are there. Who did the killing? Where is the pronouncement of judgment? One of the characteristics of the Bible is that all judgment is announced. It is conceivable that their honor, which was lost by their breaking of their oaths, was worth more to them than their lives, in which case their death was their own doing. In this case the Dr. Avalos applies a double standard: when it is to his advantage, the Bible is to be read literally with no interpretation of the words, but in this case, where the words do not support his statements literally, he adds additional meaning that is not stated.
Dr. Avalos then makes the following statement: “Since communism is advocated by some biblical authors, then Maoist and Stalinist deaths cannot simply be attributed to atheism, as enforcing collectivization can be deadly in both atheist or Christian forms.”[vi] To be correct about it, no biblical author advocates communism. They extol voluntary communal living, but that is a far cry from the complete statist system of communism. In fact, Christianity avoids the secular rule that would be necessary if it were a communist system. As for “enforcing collectivization,” that comes from a completely erroneous reading of the story in Acts. Additionally, the story itself is open to many legitimate questions concerning its completeness. To anyone used to reading scripture as stories, it is missing considerable information and commentary. The dependence of Dr. Avalos’ argument on it is weak at best. It is also an error to claim that the single story in Acts is completely representative of all of first century Christianity. Any complete reading of the New Testament will show that such is not the case.
Dr. Avalos then attempts to dismiss the question of Chinese deaths due to Communism. He first accuses D’Souza of not being competent to evaluate the original Chinese writings and gives himself a cop-out on the same grounds. This is simply an attempt to sweep the most murderous regime in history under the rug. Avalos says that D’Souza cannot evaluate the claims without knowing Chinese. Does Dr. Avalos know all the languages of the original papers that are evaluated in the literature that he uses? I doubt it. D’Souza quotes his source[vii] and the number of 70 million deaths is supported independently by McGrath’s cite from The Black Book of Communism.[viii] Demanding quotes directly from Chinese documents that attribute deaths to atheism is a far more stringent burden of proof than atheist accept for their own claims. It is an attempt to say that unproven is the same as disproven.
Avalos then makes the following assertions:
1. Hitler’s Holocaust is the “tragic consequence of a long history of Christian anti-Judaism and racism.”
2. “Nazism follows principles of killing people for their ethnicity or religion enunciated in the Bible.”
3. D’Souza’s claims rely on poor research techniques and a superficial knowledge of Christian anti-Judaism.[ix]
Additionally he accuses D’Souza of poor scholarship and superficial knowledge of Christian anti-semitism.
Dr. Avalos is on a course to blame religion for mass murder regardless of the evidence or reason, and in particular the attempted extermination of the Jews by Nazi Germany. To start, he quotes the United Nations Convention against Genocide to support his contention that there is no ethical difference between killing a religious group or killing an ethical group. Then he claims that D’Souza tries to mitigate religious violence by claiming that some acts attributed to religious violence are really cases of ethnic and racial violence.[x] It is immediately obvious that Dr. Avalos does not provide documentation to the contrary of D’Souza, so immediately it becomes “he said….he said.” If D’Souza is correct, that ethnicity, race, and politics are the real culprits behind killing that atheist attribute to religion, then the atheists have to back down. In my readings to date, neither side does a particularly good job of supporting their point of view.
Dr. Avalos then chides D’Souza on not explaining why warring ethnic groups hate each other, and goes on to say that religious differences can create or make worse the differences. He then quotes the biblical traditions of Abraham founding a people to support his claim. That is one instance and it is based on a tradition that is more mythical than real. He then claims that the differences between Christians and Jews came about due to religion. In this case he has history on his side, but he cannot generalize from two cases to claim that religion and ethnicity cannot be divorced. The examples that D’Souza discusses are far more wide-ranging that the two Avalos mentions.
It is a mis-representation of D’Souza to make the claim that D’Souza focuses on numbers more than on the ethical principles. D’Souza was comparing numbers not to dispute the ethics of murder but to point out that the number of murders committed in the name of Christianity was about 200,000 over the time of five centuries vs. tens of millions in a few decades by Nazi and Communist regimes. The purpose was not to assuage the guilt of Christians, but to point out that atheism and some atheist believers are not the peaceful people that the Evangelical Atheists would have us believe. Avalos would have us believe that in all cases of Christians killing others that the numbers were lower only because there were fewer available victims. Actually, when one looks at the Inquisition as an example, compared to the number tried, many fewer were actually executed.[xi] This casts doubt on the universality of his supposition.
Avalos wants to counter D’Souza’s contention that the Nazis were anti-religious and in fact were a continuation of Christian persecution of Jews. He selects a history of anti-Jewish statements from Luther and from medieval times to support his thesis. However, he fails to mention anything other than two quotes from historians from modern times. Luther’s statements on Judaism have long been repudiated by the Lutheran Church. Dr. Avalos would do well to look at more modern history, especially that of the Western European nations that when unbound from Catholicism became much more tolerant, if not totally accepting, of Jews. Dr. Avalos examples of the persecution and killing of Jews prior to the Holocaust are all from the medieval period of European history. With respect to Nazi persecution of Jews being a continuation of Catholic persecution, the point is not well made. Dr. Avalos is on fairly solid ground claiming that it had its roots in Catholic anti-Semitism, but Hitler’s taking of economic and social persecution to the organized attempt to completely exterminate the Jews should not be held to the church as well. However, the culpability of various Christian churches in the Nazi state is complex. The Roman Catholic Church has been seen as very controversial in this regard, apparently both assisting and condemning the Nazis. Alister McGrath in his history of Protestantism points out that the Nazis were welcomed at first “by many German churchmen, partly because it offered a bulwark against the ominous state atheism sponsored by the Soviet Union, and partly because it seemed to offer a new cultural role for religion.[xii] McGrath also points out that many Christian leaders opposed any cooperation with the Nazis, and the most notable of them, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, actively fought the Nazis and was executed by them in April of 1945.
Albert Speer’s memoirs reveal that Hitler’s attitude towards the church was political, privately condemning and publically accepting it. The primary view was that it was an instrument of political utility.[xiii] It is very difficult to achieve the certainty of D’Souza that Hitler was rabidly anti-religious and therefore could be considered an atheist. He cites from Mein Kampf that Hitler considered his public pronouncements as mostly propaganda. Albert Speer confirms that Hitler did not take much of Mein Kampf as valid.[xiv] However, D’Souza cites Hitler’s Table Talk as a source of Hitler’s attitudes. I have seen elsewhere that the reliability of this work is suspect. The problem, of course, is which parts did Hitler still consider valid. D’Souza’s citation of increasing attempts to subdue the churches had less to do with religion than with political power, the churches being one major source of resistance to the politics of Nazism.
Avalos’ final attempt to lay the Holocaust on Christianity depends on accepting guilt by association or correlation as proof of causality. He makes the point that the anti-Jewish message would have resonated with an existing anti-Semitism in the people, and then asserts that most of them were Christian. This is extremely sloppy reasoning. First one cannot consider all people who call themselves Christian to be of identical belief and attitudes. Additionally, anti-Semitism, though in earlier times nurtured by the Roman Catholic Church, was more a secular cultural phenomenon by the time of modern Europe. Through their exclusivism and dedication to advancement, they often created considerable envy. Additionally culturally they had been relegated to roles of finance where people saw them exerting considerable control, or rather control they did not want to feel. Moreover, all too frequently, people’s professed religion and their attitudes and behaviors cannot be considered consonant. The association of professed Christian belief in people that exhibited anti-Semitic attitudes cannot be considered causally linked.
In his section on “Positive Christianity” Dr. Avalos tries to 1) consider anything calling itself Christian as an exemplar of Christianity, and 2) attempts to support this position with a very illogical equating of Rosenberg’s conflating of German myth and Christian concepts as being just another form of Christianity akin to the Marcionists (who were considered heretical and no longer exist), or Luther or the Anabaptists, who’s motives and methods bore no resemblance to Rosenberg in The Myth of the Twentieth Century. However, Avalos’ statement that Positive Christianity is a reinterpretation of Christianity, not an anti-Christian movement is correct.[xv] However, it the theological judgment is as important as the historical one. Especially when assessing guilt or blame.
Some further notes need to be made here as well on this topic. Albert Speer in his memoirs considers the Myth to be unreadable and quotes Hitler as saying the same.[xvi] James C. Livingston in his monumental two volume history, Modern Christian Thought, points out that two of the greatest theologians of the twentieth century, Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, actively opposed all Christian involvement with the Nazis, and formed a movement against them.[xvii] A third famous theologian, Paul Tillich, also actively opposed the Nazis. A number of Christian denominations chose to reinterpret the Gospels to be race specific and support the state. However, one cannot globally accuse Christianity of guilt for the acts of a few who chose their personally convenient interpretation to further their own political power.
The Nazi extermination of the Jews was ultimately not a religious but a racial act. People with Jewish blood even fractional, regardless of religion were sought out and sent to the concentration camps, along with Gypsies and any other undesirables. As Livingston points out, Nazi ideology was a “pagan…ideology of Aryan blood and soil.”[xviii] As Livingston points out in his discussion of the life and ideas of Karl Barth, the German churches were weakly complicit but ultimately it was Nazi ideology not Christianity that killed the Jews.
In his discussion of Positive Christianity, Avalos pounces upon the deficiencies in D’Souza’s discussion. However, there is a subtle ad hominum attack against Pius XI brought in along the way. D’Souza cites Pius XI’s condemnation of Positive Christianity as evidence that it was not a valid interpretation of Christianity. Avalos uses Pius’s political ambivalence towards the Nazis as a condemnation of his theological position. The two are separate. As I have noted above, three major German theologians condemned Nazi ideology and related ideas. Regardless of his politics or his possible anti-Semitism, Pius apparently was correct in his theology. However, even with such condemnation, D’Souza cannot completely divorce Positive Christianity from Christianity in general. D’Souza makes another misstep in trying to build a case for Hitler to be anti-religious. My reading of the Albert Speer memoir and the sections in Livingston that relate to Nazism, Hitler saw religion as a political tool and with such perspective could not be considered anti-religious. Avalos does make a valid point. that a number of Hitler’s close associates were atheists and used any statements Hitler made that could be construed as anti-religious, but Hitler himself seemed to realize he could not do away with religion, but could co-opt it.
D’Souza makes a major mistake when trying to tie Nazi ideology to Darwinism. He is correct in tying it to Nietzsche, but Avalos over-interprets D’Souza saying that D’Souza claims that Darwin is really behind Nazism. We have two people on opposite sides of sensitivity with respect to Darwin. Avalos, the scientist, will bristle and over-react to anyone blaming Darwin’s ideas for evil. D’Souza, who I suspect is not a believer in evolution, would like to find condemnations for Darwin. It is the same battle being fought between atheists and fundamentalists on a smaller scale. As Avalos points out, one does not need Darwin to propose racial elimination.
Dr. Avalos’ discussion of the racialization of Jews apparently had as its point that the Bible not Darwin was the source of the concept of Judaism as racially based. In this case, Avalos used his sources correctly.[xix] However, one should not then read a subtext that the racial persecution of the Jews, which was the motivation for the Holocaust, should be blamed on the Bible. Avalos overstates his case when saying that “Nazism is not a departure from Christian history whatsoever.”[xx] As stated, Avalos would have one believe that all of Christian history and belief has advocated racism and genocide. Much more accurate is to say that like any other doctrine, people have used Christian doctrine to justify their racism. This is not to say that they did so validly, and I have pointed to major disagreement by the foremost theologians of the twentieth century with the Nazi approach to Christianity.
Avalos conclusion is not a conclusion but a rhetorical pseudo-summation of what he sees as D’Souza’s failed arguments. It includes gratuitous ad hominum attacks, and his claim of “Christian acts of genocide” does not hold up to historical analysis. He also continues to hold modern Christianity accountable for the opinions of the medieval Roman Catholic Church and the opinions of Martin Luther, all of which were repudiated long before the Nazi’s appeared on the scene. The Nazi appropriation of Luther and Nietzsche does not mean that they are responsible for the Holocaust, anymore than if someone used Dr. Avalos writings to advocate selective murder.
Atheism may not have been the cause of the holocaust, but neither was Christianity, per se. Some Christians participated in the Nazi state, looking to it as a means to greater influence. Nazism was itself, more a pagan than a monotheistic set of beliefs. It cannot be considered to be Christian. Both Avalos and D’Souza err greatly in their assessment of the causes of the holocaust in their attempts to blame it on the other. Their two accounts resemble more modern spin doctors trying to put different faces on the facts than two scholars discussing the facts and their interpretation.
[ii] McGrath, Alister, The Twilight of Atheism, Galilee Books, Doubleday, New York (2006), p. 233
[iv] Avalos, Op. Cit., p. 369
[v] D’Souza, Dinesh, What’s So Great about Christianity, Tyndale House, Carol Stream, IL (2007), p. 220
[vi] Avalos, Op. Cit., p 369
[vii] Chang, Jung, and Jon Halliday, Mao: The Unknown Story
[viii] McGrath, Alister, Op. Cit., p 233
[ix] Avalos, Op. Cit., p. 369
[x] Ibid., p. 370
[xi] D’Souza, Op. Cit., p 211, quoting Henry Kamen, The Spanish Inquisition: A Historical Revision, Yale University Press, New Haven (1997)
[xii] McGrath, Alister,Christianity’s Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution—A History from the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-First, HarperOne, New York (2007), p 328
[xiii] Speer, Albert, Inside the Third Reich, Macmillan, New York, (1970), pp. 113-114
[xiv] Ibid., p. 146
[xv] Avalos, Op. Cit., p 378
[xvi] Speer, Op. Cit., p. 115
[xvii] Livingston, James C. and Fiorenza, Francis Schüssler, Modern Christian Thought: Vol. 2, The Twentieth Century, Fortress Press, Minneapolis (2006) (orig. 2000), pp. 99, 140
[xviii] Ibid., p. 471
[xix] I was also amazed to see that he actually quoted from a book of the Old Testament that was later than Chronicles. Almost every Evangelical Atheist I have read stops after the reign of Solomon, ignoring the remainder of Jewish history in the Bible and the Prophets and Wisdom books.
[xx] Avalos, Op. Cit., p 389
Labels: The Christian Delusion