Oh, dear. John West of the Disco Institute is in a furious snit because, after refusing to grant tenure to Guillermo Gonzalez, Iowa State University did promote Hector Avalos, of the Religious Studies department, to full professor. You can just tell that West is spitting mad that Iowa would dare to keep Avalos around, and thinks it a grave injustice that one scholar would be accepted, while their pet astronomer gets the axe. So now they’re going to do a hatchet job on Avalos.
Never mind that the two are in completely different departments, with very different standards. Never mind that the tenure review committee judged that Gonzalez’s work did not reach the standard that their department expected, while Avalos’s department obviously felt quite differently about his. Never mind that Avalos seems to have written four books in the last four years. Why should Avalos’s appointment be regarded with horror?
Because he’s a secular humanist who opposes religion.
That’s pretty much it. West’s tirade consists entirely of quotes delivered with breathless incredulity, showing that Avalos has an uncharitable view of modern religious thought. You know, I’m a pretty harsh critic of religion myself, but you won’t find me protesting the appointment or promotion of a professor because of their religious beliefs — you might find me sneering at those beliefs, but that’s quite a different thing from saying that so-and-so should not be promoted or should be fired because they are, say, Catholic. Yet Disco doesn’t seem to have any qualms about rousing the mob to attack an unrelated promotion case in order to distract attention from the failings of their little protege. And really, that’s all this is: blatant demagoguery calculated to anger blind Christian faith-heads who don’t want atheists to have any position at all in our universities (by the way, while West calls Avalos an atheist, I haven’t seen any evidence that he is; he could be a deist, for all I know.)
We acknowledge that some Jewish, Christian, and Muslim theologians accept, especially in more recent times, that some of their theologies are violent. But they do not seem able to surrender general religious traditions that are no more well grounded than the religiously violent ones. In fact, until the Abrahamic religions overthrow the master-slave model in which they were born, we see little progress to be made. Since all religious beliefs are ultimately unverifiable, the greatest scarce resource of all is verifiability. And one way to remedy or minimize unverifiability in any decision-making process, especially that leading to violence, is to eliminate religion from human life altogether.
Why, what a delightful suggestion! We are in agreement, Dr Avalos. I would dearly love to see that happen, and I may just have to buy that book.
West is also giddy with ineffectual rage because Dr Avalos compares the Bible to Mein Kampf. It’s actually a reasonable argument, deliberately chosen to make his argument clear. Here’s what he says, at some length.
Even if we do not eliminate religion from human life, an argument can be made to eliminate any scripture that contains religious violence from religious life. A zero-tolerance argument means the rejection of any scripture that contains any religious violence in any portion. Thus, even if religion is retained, we can remove such scripture as a whole genre of religious experience.
We begin our zero-tolerance argument with Mein Kampf, a book that is held to be the paradigm of evil in modern society. Imagine that a new religious group were to call themselves the Hitlerian Church, and that the main text would be Mein Kampf. Certainly, the name “Hitlerian” by itself would arouse anger and suspeicion. The reason, of course, is that Hitler is righly held responsible for the murder of millions of people.
So the question can be posed: Would one act of genocide advocated in Mein Kampf be enough to repudiate the name “Hitlerian” from our church? What if the acts of genocide were on a smaller scale? Let us suppose Hitler had advocated killing only a few hundred people, just as Muhummad is said to have done at Qurayza. Would we still repudiate the label? I would guess that most people in our society would rightly repudiate the Hitlerian Church label even if we were to somehow prove that Hitler actually ordered a few killings, while the rest could be attributed to out-of-control operatives at the local and lower levels.
But suppose now that someone argued that there were some good things within Mein Kampf. Hitler, after all, said he stood for family values. He said he was following God’s wishes. He said he loved his fellow community members. I would speculate that most people would still not be convinced that we should keep any part of Mein Kampf, even if there were “good” chapters. The genocide committed under Hitler is so heinous that it would outweigh any supposed good in Mein Kampf.
In sum, just as we should reject all of Mein Kampf because of its racist and genocidal policies, we should reject the Bible for any genocidal policies it ever endorse. We should reject other scriptures if they also ever advocate any sort of violence. In fact, Mein Kampf does not contain a single explicit command for genocide equivalent to those found in the Hebrew Bible. Yes, Mein Kampf describes the Jews as an evil to be expelled from Germany, but nowhere in Mein Kampf is there anything as explicit as the policy of killing Canaanites in Deuteronomy 7 and 20 or 1 Samuel 15. Thus, if all of Mein Kampf is to be rejected simply for its implied genocidal policies, we should certainly reject all of the Bible for some of its explicit and blatant genocidal policies.
So maybe we should slice out those bits of the Bible that are evil and offensive? Avalos doesn’t favor that, either.
Indeed, any reappropriation of biblical texts is vacuous, for it does not explain why we are investing so much effort in maintaining a book that we can do without. Societies existed before the Bible, so there is no logical reason why they cannot exist without it. Maintaining the Bible is another form of “essentialist” thinking. My analogies with Hitler and Mein Kampf are deliberate here, for I see very little difference in the techniques used by biblical scholars and theologians to maintain the relevance of a text that we otherwise believe meant something completely different or violent in its original context.
In a controversial conclusion, Avalos argues that our world is best served by leaving the Bible as a relic of an ancient civilization instead of the “living” document most religionist scholars believe it should be. He urges his colleagues to concentrate on educating the broader society to recognize the irrelevance and even violent effects of the Bible in modern life.
Now I think these are wonderful ideas, and I am fully in agreement with Avalos’s conclusions, as I’ve read them so far. Of course, since I’m not religious studies scholar who was reviewing Avalos’s promotion file, am not a colleague in his department, and actually don’t have a good grounding in the academic context of his writings, my opinion doesn’t matter. West may disagree with his conclusions, but since he also doesn’t meet those criteria, his opinion doesn’t matter. All that counts is that his colleagues regard him as a productive and interesting scholar and want to reward him for his work.
And all that matters in the Gonzalez case is that his colleagues did not think that of him.