The Last Line of Defense?

Caravaggio - Sacrifice of Isaac (Wikipedia)

Caravaggio – Sacrifice of Isaac (Wikipedia)

Up until the last couple years, I have prided myself on not allowing my worldviews to sway discussion in the classroom. To oversimplify a bit—and speaking primarily of the humanistic disciplines—I thought the university was divided between “activist” professors, those who can’t help but betray their investment in the issues they discuss, energizing some students and alienating others, and “neutral” professors, those who keep their views hidden so as not to abuse their power and give a balanced presentation on all issues discussed. I was ambivalent about the first model, but I aspired to be the second model, perhaps because of humility, perhaps because of timidity.

I was reminded of how conflicted I now am about the latter model in when reading an article on religion and violence by Hector Avalos. Avalos is a professor of Religious Studies at the University of Iowa. He’s also a former Pentecostal preacher and an outspoken critic of religion. He is something of an enigma in being a professor of religion who is openly critical of not only his former tradition, but religion in general. He’s written a book calling for the end of his own discipline of Biblical Studies because it attempts to perpetuate as a living text a book that he argues is fundamentally incompatible with the modern world. There are certainly others within Religious Studies that are critical of some religion, but not many like Avalos. I’d like to hear about his deconversion some day.

But back to the article, which is entitled “Religion and Scarcity: A New Theory for the Role of Religion in Violence,” a chapter in the Oxford Handbook of Religion and Violence. The article is a riff on his 2005 book Fighting Words: The Origins of Religious Violence. The point of the article—and the earlier book I presume, though I haven’t read it yet—is that violence is caused by a scarcity of resources, real or imagined, and religion is particularly dangerous because the source of justification for the scarce resources it centers around are intangible, and thus unverifiable in any way. For example, because of the belief that a supernatural being, God, condemns homosexuality, many Christians believe that traditional values (i.e., their values) are under attack with the increase of same sex relationships, and it is consequently their duty to correct the situation, with violence if need be. Sacred space is another example Avalos gives. All the monotheistic traditions want a piece of the action in Jerusalem because each is under the impression that its God has imbued the land with sacred significance for them. One does not need to know much history to know how much violence this belief has caused.

After citing examples of scarcity, Avalos gives a critique of the ethics of religious violence with the following syllogism:

  1. What exists is worth more than what does not exist.
  2. Life exists.
  3. Therefore, life is worth more than what does not exist.

Although I wouldn’t say I disagree, there are certainly more convincing ways to delegitimize religious violence, including the historical examples above. His point, however, is that this violence is taking place on the basis of empirically unverifiable claims. Not land or oil or wealth—although these all can be implicated as well—but faith.

What I appreciated was the candidness with which he made his conclusion. Given the immorality of religious violence, there are two conclusions, Avalos contends. One would be to modify religion so that it does not manufacture scarcities, and the other would be to remove religion completely. The latter would not remove all violence, but would remove one source of purely immoral violence. He doesn’t make a strong case for the first option, partly because I don’t think there’s a strong one to be made. Postmodern Christianity is certainly fighting for this approach, and from an individual perspective, I understand it. It’s one I tried to pursue for some time and have some lingering sympathies for. However, I think that this approach only hides the symbolic violence that religion can still contribute to in other spheres. I’d call this the Pontius Pilate approach. I’ll wash my hands of the whole thing, and if people happen to get hurt, it’s not my fault.

The second approach, the one Avalos spends more space discussing, is to rid the world of religion. How so? With education. By exposing religious thinking to the same process of rational thought and empirical evidence that governs other spheres of inquiry. He ends with the following: “Even if it can never be achieved, the most ethical mission of academic religious studies may be to help humanity move beyond religious thinking.”

I cannot vouch for the ethos of other religion scholars, but this is definitely not how I learned to teach religion. The religious studies scholar’s role in the twenty-first century seems to be to defend religion. This role seems to have been accelerated after 9/11, when many Americans had little difficulty believing that Islam existed only for violent ends. (Indeed, many still do.) Religion scholars have perpetually mounted a concerted defense of religion, usually by denouncing acts of violence as not religious in their very nature or making some sort of separation between good and bad religion. I wrote about that in the case of the Boston Marathon bombing last year. While the intention of many was likely good, attempting to halt the proliferation of violence upon violence, it seems to have furthered the role of the religion scholar as the defender of religion. One doesn’t need to defend religion on its own merit in order to denounce violence against those who are religious, and it has produced some unthinking scholarship.

It is abundantly clear that religious traditions have had and do have intimate associations with violence, in physical, symbolic, and systemic forms. I suppose the charitable question would be the following: If, as any sincere religious believer would have to think, eliminating religion is not the best option, and assuming one wants to minimize violence, how can one remove the violence and keep the religion? (Hint: the answer is not to dissociate violent acts done in the name of religion from religion. That just offloads the problem.) I think this second approach may actually be the more difficult one.

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