Religion and Violence

Dr. Avalos is a professor of Religious Studies at Iowa State University and the author of several books about religion. He is a former Pentecostal preacher and child evangelist. He has a Doctor of Philosophy in Hebrew Bible and Near Eastern Studies from Harvard University, a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School, and a Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology from the University of Arizona. Avalos is an internationally recognized opponent of neo-creationism and the intelligent design movement, and is frequently linked to Guillermo Gonzalez, an astrophysicist and proponent of intelligent design who was denied tenure at Iowa State University in 2007.

Dr. Avalos is a professor of Religious Studies at Iowa State University and the author of several books about religion. He is a former Pentecostal preacher and child evangelist. He has a Doctor of Philosophy in Hebrew Bible and Near Eastern Studies from Harvard University, a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School, and a Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology from the University of Arizona. Avalos is an internationally recognized opponent of neo-creationism and the intelligent design movement, and is frequently linked to Guillermo Gonzalez, an astrophysicist and proponent of intelligent design who was denied tenure at Iowa State University in 2007.

This post is a continuation of my learnings from the 2013 American Atheists Convention. The next speaker I will discuss is Hector Avalos, and his ideas on how religion can be a cause of violence.

I always brace a bit when the subject of religion and violence come up, as I have from time to time heard some hyperbolic statements about how all wars are caused by religion. Such statements are not true historically or in any other way, and Dr. Avalos made it clear that he was not proposing that all violence is caused by religion or that religion does always leads to violence.

With that being said, Hector rejects up front the claims of the moderately and liberally religious that the violent fanatics are not following a true form of their religion, on the basis that this is merely a faith-based claim and not grounded in any evidence. You could make just as valid a case to say that the more violent version of the religion is the true form, and that the peaceful members are hertics and hypocrites. It is a wonderful thing for religious believers to be peaceful, but this in and of itself does not prove that it is the ideas of the religion lead to their peaceful behavior.

The core idea of Hector’s talk is that when religious ideas cause violence, it is because they have created a scarce resource. Things like water, oil, and diamonds are normally what people think of as resources over which wars may be fought; however, the scarce resources created by religion are usually much more ethereal then any of those items. Here is a short list.

  • Salvation
  • Sacred Space/Land
  • Group privilege
  • Access to God’s will.

As an example of how violence can be caused around “access to God’s will,” read Deuteronomy 18:20.

But a prophet who presumes to speak in my name anything I [God] have not commanded, or a prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, is to be put to death.”

One has to wonder how would anyone else, not themselves being privy to what God might have spoken to this person, would know which prophets are true and which were lying. And of course anyone speaking in the name of one of those other gods was automatically out. And notice that the penalty against such people who spoke for God without proper authorization was the ultimate in violent acts. They will be put to death.

Dr. Avalos also cited a similar text from the Koran.

For an example of how sacred land can be a scarce resource over which the religious wage battle, one only needs to look at the current and ongoing situation in Israel/Palestine. The fact that rival religious groups hold sacred claims to the same land, on which they are therefore unwilling to compromise because the claims are sacred, is clear enough to demonstrate that religion can cause and perpetuate violence over such a scarce resource.

Salvation, at least as taught in non-Universalist Christian churches, is a scarce resource as it is considered vitally important to a person’s temporal and eternal well-being and is not evenly distributed. Christian teachings (which vary depending on the sect) teach that one must do and believe certain things in order to obtain it. One kind of example of violence brought on by belief in non-universal salvation can be seen in the behavior of certain parents who abuse or abandon their non-believing children. And not even necessarily because the parents don’t love their kids, but due to the idea that if the kids do not believe the parent’s religion they are in danger of eternal damnation if drastic and harsh measures are not taken by the parents. Even in less drastic situations, differences in opinion about religious claims can lead to tremendous amounts to hurt and anger. If it were not for such uncompromising and “sacred” claims about the ethereal and unknown, much suffering could be avoided.

In response to the ways religions can and do cause violence, Dr. Avalos recommends that we totally repudiate and reject any and all scriptures that advise or excuse violence, and not try to reinterpret them as the moderate and liberal religious do. For the record, I think he is right.

From The Thinking Atheist: The Phone Call

This conversation, in who knows how may houses across America? How many grown sons and daughters get guilt and shame from their parents just for coming to their own conclusions about religion? How many families divided over differences of opinions on the invisible and unknowable?  For deciding that what they were taught about an invisible divine being makes no sense? For being atheists? It’s all too familiar, and breaks my heart.

Out at the Y

I had a conversation with my personal trainer that touched on religion. It wasn’t intentional on my part, though I figure it probably had something to do with the fact that I was wearing my Kentucky Freethought Convention t-shirt. I had thrown the shirt into my bag for the previous Monday, but then didn’t go to the Y on Monday. So, that just happened to be the shirt I had in my bag when I went to my appointment Wednesday. I had a feeling in the back of my head that it might get a reaction, but I decided that was something I was fine with. I’m so used to being an out atheist I don’t even worry about getting outed much anymore.

And really there wasn’t an issue with the shirt. He did inquire about what it said (Kentucky Freethought Convention on front, listing of freethought and atheist groups in Kentucky on the back.) He made no comments about my shirt directly. (And just for context, we banter and talk about all kinds of different stuff during the sessions so this discussion was nothing really out of the ordinary.)

Near the end of the workout when I was finishing up with ten minutes on the stationary bike, he put it on the “Random Hills” program, making a comment that although the program is called “random hills” it’s always the same hills every time. And I’d read not long ago about how people see patterns in randomness and are really bad at telling randomness from non-randomness, so I couldn’t resist commenting on that fact (yes, I was letting my geek flag fly). People see patterns in randomness and think those patterns are there on purpose, while if you show them a non-random array of dots they will think it is random because they can’t find patterns. And somehow from that we got into talking about “how did they build the pyramids” and about the existence or not of aliens and the size of space and about when and how humans first became conscious. I can only speculate that evolution came into the conversation because my shirt shows an image of Darwin on the

2001: A Space Odyssey (comics)

2001: A Space Odyssey (comics) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

front. My trainer mentioned that he thought the original spark of consciousness would be like in *2001 A Space Odyssey* where the ape suddenly became aware of itself. I pointed out that it was not just *a* moment, but a progression of many, many changes over time–a gradual blending of one species into another. He seemed shocked to hear that I think other animals have at least some consciousness and that there is not a strict, total divide between humans and other species. And then he made some comment about his god and asked how I thought Intelligent Design worked into all of this? I said I don’t think it does, and pretty much just left it at that.

I just never know what kind of conversations I am going to get into next. I wonder if any of this will come up in future sessions? I wouldn’t mind, because I really enjoyed this experience and I love having these kind of conversations. One thing is sure, even though the word “atheist” never came up in conversation, I am definitely out at the Y now.

Afterlife Video by The Thinking Atheist

Apologies for the lack of new content as of late. For the past couple of months I’ve put most of my website and blogging energies into the sites for Louisville Atheists and Freethinkers and the Kentucky Secular Society.

In the meantime, until I get a new blog post cooked up, here is a touching video from the Thinking Atheist about the idea of an afterlife and about what gives meaning and purpose to life. Enjoy :)

 

Don’t Question Me!

“Stop questioning me!”

“What do you mean by ‘questioning’?”

“STOP IT!”

I don’t know how my times I was warned against questioning growing up. The first time I heard the word, I didn’t even know what was meant by “questioning,” so naturally I questioned further to get more information. As you can imagine, that conversation did not go well. I don’t recall any time in my upbringing where questioning was extolled as a good and positive thing, except occasionally in a movie. It seems to me that there was an unspoken assumption that to “question” someone was to impune their integrity and to imply that you don’t really trust them or their judgement.  “Questioning” was the thing that TV lawyers did to the opposing witnesses to try to extract the truth that the witness was clearly trying to hide. And if you are questioning an idea, it means you must be rejecting it.

Communication between humans is complicated, really complicated. One would think that merely transferring an idea from the head of one person into the head of another person should be a relatively simple task, but in reality is is fraught with danger. We all know this, because miscommunication happens all the time. Sometime there is noise in the area that prevents the receiver of the message from hearing clearly. Sometimes the receiver of the communication doesn’t hear the message because of noise and distractions inside their mind. Or the sender of the message might have unknowingly chosen poor words or mumbled their statement.

When it comes to questioning, problems with miscommunication occur when the receiver is not sure of, or is suspicious of, the intentions of the sender. Is the sender asking a rhetorical question, or do they really want an answer? Are they sincerely requesting information, or are they trying to catch me in ignorance and make me look the fool? Are they casting doubt on my integrity? It’s not that the receiver necessarily goes though this checklist consciously. It’s mostly happens that the questioner has brought into doubt one of the receiver’s unquestioned assumptions, and the immediate visceral response to the questioner is to take offense. How DARE they ask that!

It’s an issue with communication that all skeptics have to deal with. It is, I think, at the root of why skeptics are often branded as cold and heartless cynics. Supposedly many people’s unquestioned assumptions bring them happiness, so how dare you go and question them! But does it really lead to a happy and more fulfilled life to never have your assumptions brought into question? Maybe, if this unquestioned idea in your head has absolutely nothing at all to do with how you live your daily life. But most assumptions that people really care about are not like this.

Here are a few examples of a assumptions that all human beings have made at some point in their lives.

  • My memories are accurate and complete.
  • I know what I saw.
  • Anyone who hallucinates is insane.

If you really want to offend someone, just question their eye-witness testimony. No one in the world likes to think that the way that they remember an event might be flawed, but both experience and modern brain science tells us that our memory is not even close to a flawless recording of what we have seen and heard. Whenever we remember something, we actually reconstruct a story in our minds that emphasizes certain details, leaves others out completely, and is strongly influenced by our preexisting biases. It is unnerving and incredibly humbling to realize that maybe, just maybe, that event did not happen just the way I remember it.

Sometimes we need to question ourselves and seek out evidence that things really did happen the way I remember, or find out what  actually happened if they didn’t. And, importantly, to remember that when someone questions your story they may not actually be accusing you of lying but only trying to get at the root of what really happened.

Questioning, Offense, and Atheists

The issues of questioning and offense can be particularly vexing for atheists who would like to try to engage in dialogue with religious people. For instance, if a religious friend or family member says something like “God spoke to me this morning and confirmed that my beliefs are true” it’s usually a forgone conclusion that the person will get offended if you ask them things like “How do you know it was God?” or “What about all the people in the world of other religions report having the same experiences?” There’s just something about religious testimony that strongly discourages any sort of digging for more information. I’ve played out a scenario in my head to figure out what I would do or say if I got on an airplane and some little old lady sat in the seat beside me and asked me if I would like to hear what God has done in their life. Awkward…I could see myself asking back if they would get offended if I questioned their story. One of the things that worries me with trying to talk with religious people is that the conversation will either become one-way with them preaching to me and me just mutely nodding or with me questioning what they said and them yelling or stomping away angrily. Or they might not like my “tone.” Or they might be a level headed person who can take questioning coolly, but you never know when you first meet someone. Is it even worth the risk to try and engage the religious in conversation when they try to “witness” to you?

Reasonable Living and Intentional Community

Why do people go to church?

Of course, since my background is Christian I will write in “church” terms, but the same applies to the people who meet together in any type of religion, whether Nazarene, Catholic, Mormon or Hindu or Muslim or anything else. The same principles apply regardless of the specific beliefs.

We’ve all heard many times over that humans are social beings. We need each other and we need some sort of rule set and cultural framework to structure our lives. We like to “hang out” with people who think the way we do, for better or worse. It has been my observation that churches and other such organizations exist not out of the commands or needs of any God or gods but rather to fit the needs for human beings for belonging and social structure. After all, what do a large part of church activities have to do with theology? What do basketball courts, walking tracks and youth trips to amusement parks have to do with religion? They are attractions, side benefits to membership (or potential membership) that are used to draw people in with the hopes that they will join and stay and buy into the theology.

Unfortunately, the community benefits of churches and religious organizations come at a serious cost to those who do not buy into the theological baggage that comes with it. Constant messages saying that you are a sinner, that you should believe. The idea that you are incomplete and sick and doomed to failure unless you can believe something no matter how absurd and impossible. Being around people who tell you these things, implicitly or explicitly, can wear one down incredibly even if you are certain you are right. And the believers in a church environment usually don’t get it. Even if they sincerely love and accept you as an atheist, their insistence that “God loves you anyway” and “you are still welcome here” amounts to nothing more than a massive (and massively absurd) guilt trip. It’s not that we think we are too dirty and “sinful” to be accepted by your God. It’s that we really don’t think your God is real at all.

So what is a community-craving atheist to do? Some people are thick-skinned and nonconformist enough to put up with the negative messages about non-belief from the religious with no problem. But the rest us need the sort of community that churches and religious organizations have monopolized for so long.

In order to meet this need, one of the more recent offerings of the Louisville Atheists and Freethinkers group is a weekly Sunday morning small group meeting called Reasonable Living. It was founded and is lead by a former Baptist minister, and we (half-jokingly) refer to the meetings as our “secular Sunday School.” We have been meeting for the past few months, and on some weeks we have almost outgrown our meeting area. In the meetings, the topics of discussion are ideas like how do we balance societal responsibility with personal responsibility, what is the role of an individual in society, how we deal with life and death issues. Studies have usually been modeled around a book, and for the past several weeks we have been studying “Living without God: New Directions for Atheists, Agnostics, Secularists, and the Undecided.” It’s a great opportunity to discuss some interesting topics and sharpen your own thinking. If you are in the Louisville area and are interested in discussing the secular life, come and join us!

(Cross-posted at LouisvilleAtheists.com)